Annabelle Park leaned back in her chair, absentmindedly chewing on a lump of tobacco that had long ago lost any flavour or texture. She’d gotten into the habit as a teen, when she’d had to spend a year living with her grandfather on his farm, and had never gotten out of it again, despite her dentist’s best efforts. Someday, she told herself, she’d quit, knowing full well she probably wouldn’t.
The chair squeaked as she wiggled around, trying to find the sweet spot she’d worn into the cheap fabric. The Tower may have been rich as Croesus, but you wouldn’t know it from the chairs they gave you. Dispatch was the core of most of their operations, and they wouldn’t even repair the espresso machine in the breakroom. Plus the chairs, of course.
Annie’s parents had taken her to NASA once, when she was little. For a five-year-old, the control room had been an overwhelming miasma of screens, blinking lights and beeps (although she’d realized that, considering that the room hadn’t been used in over 20 years, it was probably just a show for the kids). The Dispatch control center always reminded her of that memory. Hell, she’d always harbored a suspicion that it was intentionally designed to evoke it. Two tiered rows of desks led down towards a large screen on the front wall, arranged in a shape that was maybe a third of a full circle. Typical office vinyl flooring paired well the chairs, and less well with the oddly non-reflective walls and ceiling.
Currently, the large screen was showing a map of the city, with little blinking lights and icons positioned in various places, some with ID tags next them, some without. The dots represented all known locations of supers in the city, the icons known or suspected bases and haunts. That meant that the majority of the dots were clumped together on the Tower; she counted all of the Guardians, plus most of the Valiant and three of their indies. The snowstorm that had been covering the city for the last few days had initially caused an uptick in crime as people tried to take advantage of the slower response times, but as it had worn on the rate had slowed to a trickle as the same problems that had affected the response times started affecting them too. That meant that the Dispatch room was staffed by a skeleton crew, consisting entirely of one Annabelle Park. She didn’t live nearby, but no-one else was willing or able, and she’d been willing to come in for the sweet, sweet siren of triple-pay overtime with no supervision.
Though, she realized, she should probably at least appear to be doing something, in case someone walked in. She’d already come up with four distinct fantasies of what she was going to do with her money (and was currently pitting them against each other in an imaginary deathmatch. Very violent and all that jazz), and if she lost that she’d probably curl up into a ball and rock back and forth, muttering nonsense about jet-ski gladiators.
Forlornly, she turned her headset on and leaned forward, tapping the screen to bring up the list of currently active heroes. First on the list was Windstriker, currently on the south-side of the city, so she tapped the icon next to his name, and the call automatically rerouted to her headset. It beeped in her ear, and then the sound of sharp piping noises came streaming through.
“Dispatch?” the hero asked, obviously breathless from exertion. “What is it?”
“Routine check-in,” she replied into the mic, picking at her nose. “Anything to report?”
“What?” he asked, sounding confused. “I can’t understand a word you just said.”
Oh right. She turned and spat the wad of tobacco towards the bin she’d placed on the opposite side of the room. It hit the rim and bounced off, joining the three or four others scattered around it. She hadn’t gotten one in yet, but she wasn’t going to let something as trivial as that stop her. “Mouth was full. Anything to report?”
There was a grunt of exertion, and a noise that sounded suspiciously like an explosion. “No, nothing.” Another explosion, and a scream.
Annie leaned back again, and popped some more tobacco into her mouth. “Some people would call you out on the obvious lie there, but I don’t actually care. Don’t want to do the paperwork either. Have fun.” She ended the call, and switched over to the log, noting a little N/A in the appropriate column.
She proceeded through the rest of the list with a bare minimum of effort, and was just about to make another attempt at the tobacco basket when small indicator flashed on her screen. She leaned forward to get a better look. It was the airspace sensors, detecting an incoming object not on any approved flight path, and/or smaller than any commercial airplanes. Air Traffic Control must’ve decided this was one for the Tower to deal with. Then again, she grumbled silently to herself, they also seemed to decide that large flocks of birds were for the Tower to deal with as well pretty often.
Switching to the channel ATC had given her, she hailed the incoming object. The band opened, so this was automatically better than the last few forwards she’d gotten from them. “This is New Chicago Tower Dispatch, hailing unidentified airborne object/person. Please respond.”
“Tower Dispatch, this is Stinger.” The woman’s voice was calm, but an undercurrent of panic could be heard below that. “Whatever you have, I need it right now. I cannot afford to stop moving.”
Annie sat up in her chair, suddenly alert. Something serious was happening. She quickly opened up the relevant information. “Stinger, adjust your altitude 1500 meters upwards, otherwise you’re going to end up on the wrong side of a passenger plane.”
“Believe me, Dispatch, that plane would end up on the wrong side of me,” she replied, her voice slightly wry and pained. “Acknowledged, adjusting now. If you have anyone who doesn’t squish easily, it’d be a good idea to have them waiting for me. Something’s following me, I don’t know what it is, but it very nearly took a bite out of me, and I’m tough.”
“Hm,” she said. “Okay. I’m currently getting paid triple overtime, and this is still way above my paygrade. Patching you into the director now.” She did the relevant button-pushing.
Director Cayle answered on the first tone. “Dispatch, this better be worth my time.”
“It is, sir. Here.” She patched Stinger into the call, and she reiterated what she’d said.
“Hmm,” he said after a few seconds, and he actually sounded worried, which made her worried too. “Dispatch, you made a good call. I’ll handle it from here.” The call cut out suddenly, leaving her alone once more.
She spent a few minutes trying to distract herself with the tobacco bucket, but it seemed a little shallow compared to whatever action was going on with Stinger. She could see the hero on the screen, approaching the Tower, but that wasn’t really anything like actually watching it.
She went for another shot; at this rate, she’d be spending her overtime just on tobacco. She reared back and spat, but she’d put too much behind it, and it went flying over the basket and splatted against the wall next to the door, and next to the heroes who were just walking in.
There were three of them, from the Guardians; Comet, Thrust, and some kind of wooden person she didn’t recognize, who must’ve been the new guy, Slump or something.
They all looked at the lump, as it slowly slid down the wall.
“Okay, I’ll shoot; is that normal around here?” Scrump asked, (his… her? It wasn’t clear) voice weird and hollow.
“It is when I’m here alone,” Annie said, keeping a straight face. Now, change the subject, quickly. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“Yes, actually,” Comet said. “Is there anything currently going on that we can assist with? I would like to run Stump through some procedures in a live situation.”
“Not really, no.” She spun towards her console and pulled up the maps again. “I think Windstriker was in some sort of fight earlier, but he’s probably done now. Cayle didn’t want you involved in that mess upstairs?”
The young heroes shared a glance. “What mess?” Thrust asked cautiously.
She grunted, deadpan. “I guess he really didn’t want you involved.”
“It seems that way,” Comet replied, and although her face wasn’t visible behind her helmet, it was pretty clear what it would have looked like. “Thank you, Miss Park. Enjoy your tobacco.” She spun on her heel and strode out, the others following her lead.
After a second, Stump poked their head back around the doorframe. “You know that stuff’s terrible for your teeth, right?”
She stared flatly at them.
They shrugged. “I’m just saying.”
The flight deck was one of the harder-to-access parts of the Tower, requiring multiple twists and turns that didn’t seem to actually make sense, including one sequence that involved taking four consecutive right turns in such a way that the corridors couldn’t physically fit together. Comet had long ago gotten used to it, and Thrust had never cared, but Stump seemed to be having a hard time with it. She seemed to be trying to map out the corridor in the head, making little gestures with her hands. “It’s not just me, right?” she asked. “This doesn’t make sense. The flight deck is right on the top of the tower, but we haven’t gone up once.” She paused. “We are going to the flight deck, right?”
“We are,” she confirmed. “I can’t really explain it more than that; it’s just how the Tower is. You get used to it.”
“Or you get lost, never to be seen again,” Thrust interjected, not looking up from his phone. “Happens all the time.”
Stump snorted. “Sure it does, Carlos, sure it does.” She glanced back, then leaned towards her. “It doesn’t actually happen, right?”
She allowed herself a small smile. “No, it doesn’t. Carlos is just a dick.”
He shrugged. “Guilty as charged.”
After a few more turns, and a little dip, they arrived on the flight deck, into glare that hadn’t been visible from around the corner when it really should have been. The hangar was maybe the size of a large barn, and was mostly empty, save for a few experimental hovercrafts lying here and there, products of the Tower’s resident Forge. Standing out towards the edge were a group of heroes, and Director Cayle in a rumpled three-piece suit. Snow coated the rim of the hangar, providing the source of the glare. And out in the distance, above the skyscrapers, a crimson dot was slowly but surely growing larger.
A grimace passed over the director’s face as they approached. “How much did you hear?” he asked, not bothering with niceties.
“Enough, sir,” Comet replied, keeping her face carefully blank. “We won’t get in the way, and I think we could be of some help.”
He sighed. “Fine. Just stay back. I don’t want to have to deal with-”
He was cut off as the crimson blur shot over their heads with a boom, crashing into the back wall. Everyone instinctively ducked, too late for it to have done any good if it was going to do anything, before rushing over the collapsed figure.
Stinger turned out to be a tall, thin woman, with crimson-plated armor that looked like it was designed more for aerodynamics than strength. Which, she supposed, made sense, considering she’d just crashed into a solid steel wall at the speed of sound and had come at unscathed. The rest of the heroes surrounded her, with Director Cayle kneeling down to talk to her, and the young heroes stood on the side and watched.
“Dammmmmmn,” Stump whispered. “That’s awesome.”
“God, you’re such a schmuck, Stump,” Thrust said, but he couldn’t hide the awe from his voice.
Stinger groaned, and then winced, and Comet noticed something. Despite the fact that she’d come out of the collision without a scratch on her, two of the fingers on her left hand were missing, dribbling blood onto the ground.
Silently, she pointed to the wound. Thrust tilted his head at it, silently mouthing the words “what the fuck”.
“What the hell could do that?” Stump asked, more to herself than to the others.
That question was answered as the sudden distinctive chooming of the hangar’s autocannons roared out from behind them, and then suddenly cut off. Forge-created, they fired a range of munitions, ranging from immobilizing foam, through rubber bullets and all the way to Dragonkiller sabot rounds. Apparently, the software had made the wrong analysis of what to fire, because all ten cannons hung limply from their mounts, exposed wiring sparking behind shattered and crumpled casing.
On the edge of the hangar stood a man. He wore no clothes, and his hair was wild and tangled, hanging over a brutish face. And he was over nine feet tall and built like a silverback gorilla.
He laughed, flexing one hand, and then the other. “Cute toys you have here.”
Whatever people said about Director Cayle, no-one could deny that the man had balls made of steel. He didn’t even appear to draw; a gun appeared in his hand in the blink of an eye, and he aimed it at the man, quicker than any of the trained heroes around him. “Identify yourself,” he called across the room. Around him, various forms of energy began to glow and flicker in the hands and under the skin of the supers as they readied themselves. Stump had switched into her much less humanoid combat mode, and red energy glowed around Thrust’s hands, but Comet made no move to begin charging her ability; she’d need to get in close to use it, and that would just get her in the crossfire.
The man laughed again, a deep, booming sound that echoed off the steel walls. “Arnold Cayle, it doesn’t matter who I am. Nor does it matter who she,” gesturing at Stinger, “is, either.”
“Then why attack?”
“Attack?” The smile that crossed his face was nothing short of terrifying. “Oh, Director, this isn’t an attack.” And then his skin split apart, muscle fraying away from bone, hovering in the air. The terrible grimace on the skull matched the one that had been etched on his face not a second ago.
And then the skull exploded.
A whirling cloud of bone and flesh bore down on them, crossing the distant in what seemed like no time at all and tearing up the ground beneath it. It hit the streams of fire and ice, bullets, and bolts of energy that they threw at it, and passed through them like they weren’t even there.
It reached the director, swallowing him up in the maelstrom. But, for whatever reason, none of the shards touched him, even as they gouged slashes out of the floor below him.
“This is a warning, Director Cayle,” the man’s voice said from thin air. “Return it. Or I will dispense with warnings.”
Somehow, even in his situation, he managed to reply. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” To Comet, it actually sounded sincere.
“You will, Director Cayle. You will. And when that time comes, remember this.” Somehow, his laugh was even more unsettling without a face to attach it to. “Heed me, Director Cayle, and none of this needs to happen.” And then he was gone, the maelstrom moving so fast towards the edge that it was almost a blur.
For a second, they all stood in silence.
Then, unceremoniously, Stump leaned over to the side, retracted the branches covering her face, and vomited on the floor.
For more by Knifleman, check out Outliers.