As Jaclyn finished, Vaughn frowned. Unless I missed my guess, he wanted to say something and couldn’t because he was in the middle of the same crowd I was. Without a Xiniti brain implant, it’d be as obvious as taking a call on a cell phone.
“Hey,” he said to Arete, “can we have a second? You’re asking us to hide something really big. We’re going to need to talk amongst ourselves for a second—which includes talking to people who aren’t here and are just watching.”
Arete gave him a big smile, “That’s not a problem. It’s a big decision. You’re trying to do the right thing. We all get that. If it helps, try to think of it this way. We all want to do the right thing. We’re not asking you to hide it. Everyone knows what happened. We’re just asking you not to push it as far as you can. Major Justice is a good man with a long record of doing the right thing. We don’t want to lose everything he can contribute.”
Flashing a smile in return, Vaughn said, “I get it. That’s a bunch of excellent points that we need to discuss. If you let us move over here a second, we’ll do it.”
Sean muttered to Vaughn, “Are you guys really going to think about it? They caused a crap ton of damage and you don’t even know if you’re done yet.”
“Yeah,” Vaughn waved us off to the right to stand next to one of the chunks of road that Strongman had stuck into the ground in front of the fence. “You too, Justice Fist.”
Jody, Dayton, and Sean looked at each other, but followed the rest of us over to the side of the road. While I wasn’t sure that I wanted Sean to be in on the discussion, I knew I didn’t want to leave him alone with everyone else when he seemed to have decided that he was on our side on the off-chance that he might pick a fight.
Also, I had a bad feeling about Arete. I had no evidence for it, but I thought he might be one of the Dominators.
The guy was our age, hadn’t been in Stapledon even though the government was recruiting hard for the program. Also, his verified powers were better than human agility, endurance, and strength—the same powers that Julie, Kals, and all of the Human Ascendancy’s “motivator” ruling class had in addition to being able to control people with their voices.
Sure, Arete also claimed to be able to invent things, but there was a reason that I hadn’t been impressed with the things he’d created. I could make all of them. They were standard equipment for superheroes—grappling hook guns, armored costumes, unusual grenades…
He didn’t need to be able to invent anything. All he needed to do was own something Rook invented, claim he’d invented it, and be believed.
Could I prove it? No. There were plenty of superheroes who’d never been part of Stapledon out there—more now with power juice and the power impregnator out in the wild.
Still, we didn’t need to risk having Sean’s brain and loyalties rearranged.
We stood away from the crowd—Vaughn, Amy, Izzy, Cassie, Jaclyn and I—plus Justice Fist. Much like Major Justice’s task force, we stood there for a moment. I don’t know about the others, but I didn’t know where to start.
Saving us the trouble of figuring it out, Vaughn glanced over at Arete and said, “I think we’ve got to give them a chance.”
Sean stared at him, “Why? They created this mess and attacked you guys for trumped up reasons. Major Justice wants to get you. If it’s not today, it’s tomorrow.”
Vaughn glanced over at the crowd which was watching us or trying not to watch us, “Yeah, but tomorrow we’ll still have everything we collected and we won’t be tired. Today someone might decide that they’ve got nothing to lose and go all out.”
Sean cocked his head, “Like they’d try to kill you?”
“The Nine and the Dominators,” Cassie said. “We don’t know who they’ve got, but they have people. The question is who and how many. We don’t want any surprises right now.”
“What,” Jody’s jaw dropped into a half-smile, “you think the Nine are behind this? Are you sure you’re that important?”
Jaclyn crossed her arms over her chest, “Yes.”
She might not have been trying to be intimidating, but Jody’s smile faltered.
Over the comm, Kals said, “I’ve been watching. I don’t know who Arete is, but I think he’s from the Ascendancy and he’s a motivator.”
I replied through my implant, “I guessed he was a motivator, but I’d assumed he was from Earth.”
She let out a breath, “From the way he stands, he was trained to fight like we were.”
I glanced over at Arete, thinking back to the Ascendancy’s motivators that I’d fought on Hideaway. Some had Abominator weapons. I didn’t need that right now.
What drew my attention to him, I couldn’t say, but I used my HUD to zoom in on Major Justice. I couldn’t see much of his face through his helmet, but I could see that his eyes were darting around and that he was clenching and unclenching his right hand.
Remembering what Daniel had told me about cumulative damage from regular mental manipulation, I wondered what a breakdown caused by vocal manipulation of the mind looked like.