By the time the police took the Nine’s people away in a Box, it was already three in the morning. The fight had taken maybe ten minutes. Answering their questions took most of the time.
We never saw the helicopter that the leader—Cassie’s brother? What do you call someone who was cloned from the same person you were cloned from? Cassie had at least been raised by the original Captain Commando. It made sense if she thought of him as her dad, but for the guy we’d fought, Captain Commando wasn’t much more than an unwilling DNA donor.
Anyway, the Nine’s copter didn’t appear. The News 10 Choppercam did, but unless they were secretly controlled by the Nine, the Nine’s people must have scrubbed their mission.
That’s a long way of saying that by the time the police cars and deep sounds of the Boxes’ diesel engines faded, we’d relocated to the van I’d parked in the alley.
Once we’d taken turns changing back to civilian clothes behind the curtain in the back of the van, Cassie said, “We ought to talk about how we did.”
Vaughn stepped out from behind the curtain. He wore black jeans and a New Pornographers t-shirt. Putting his hair into a ponytail, he said, “We won, right? What more do we need to do?”
Cassie sat in the passenger seat, twisting around to look at Vaughn and Marcus. “We need to think about what we did right and wrong. We do this all the time.”
Sliding over the back of the seat, he said, “Not all the time. I mean really, not even half, I bet.”
Cassie made a noise somewhere between a grunt and a sigh. Whatever it was, she sounded annoyed.
“I messed up.” Marcus looked up from the floor. He hadn’t been holding his head in his hands, but his position had a little bit of that feel.
Vaughn shook his head. “No, you were the best of anybody. We’re all okay because they couldn’t take you out.”
“No,” Marcus said. “I messed up before anyone even knew about it. I shouldn’t have been out there alone, and it never occurred to me that they had paralysis guns. If they’d turned around and shot me each time I moved, I wouldn’t have been able to shift out of it. They could have taken me out any time they wanted, but they didn’t, and I led all of you guys into a trap.”
“That’s not your fault,” Cassie said. “None of us thought about it either. I never thought they were anything more than bank robbers until they started talking about D.C. We were lucky they couldn’t handle Vaughn.”
She looked over to me. “Nick, what do you think?”
I stopped typing on my League phone. “Sorry, Haley wanted to know what happened, and I’ve been telling her.”
At Cassie’s look I said, “Sorry,” again.
“That doesn’t mean I wasn’t listening though. Um… I thought we screwed up from the beginning. They literally jumped over us. If we could have attacked them then, the paralysis guns might not have mattered.”
“Right,” Cassie said. “I thought about that too.”
“The other thing that should have tipped me off,” I said, “was their technology. I don’t know how much was in the bank vault, but if it was less than twenty thousand, I bet those exoskeletons cost a lot more than that.”
“No kidding?” Vaughn shook his head.
“No kidding,” I said. “Plus Haley and I were talking about when she fought Ridgeback, and it’s really obvious in retrospect that that should have tipped us off too. What in the world is a mercenary like Ridgeback doing robbing a jewelry store in Grand Lake?”
Vaughn threw up his hands. “Ok, you win. This was a total screw up. So now what?”
I didn’t have an answer. I wasn’t going to suggest the obvious—track down the Nine to their secret base and take them in.
The Defenders hadn’t done it. There had to be a reason for that, one that was probably connected to the hero body count the Nine had racked up over the years.
“I don’t know,” Cassie said. “But we’d better come up with something because I don’t think they’re going to give up.”
* * *
Cassie didn’t say much on the way back to the dorms. If I’d been attacked by a clone of my dead father, I don’t know how talkative I’d have been.
Around 3:25am, I snuck back into my dorm room, changed into pajamas, and went back to bed.
Jeremy seemed to be asleep.
That’s what I thought at first, but when I pulled the covers up, he said, “Where’d you go? You’ve been gone for an hour.”
More than that actually, but I didn’t correct him. I had to think. He’d find out about what happened tomorrow morning, and it wouldn’t take too much to notice I’d been gone around the same time the Rocket appeared.
I needed to come up with an explanation he’d accept.
“I couldn’t sleep, and then I heard the Heroes League was fighting somebody downtown, so I went down there.”
“Seriously? Bring me along next time.”