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Rocking wildly, the escape pod detached itself from the Harrakin ship K'Thok Mogrivar, "The Eaters of the Dead," and fell away from the mighty Harrakin armada. The pod window briefly showed the other ships in the armada, locked in a violent orbital civil war. The projected Harrakin invasion of Earth had been stalled as the gigantic warships fired at and destroyed one another.
The K'Thok Mogrivar had not been injured at all; its three commanding officers were riding the bucking escape pod to Earth because they could no longer wait for the invasion to start. "Do you think it will work?" said Cundus, the nervous Orange who served as the captain's steward and valet. "The Greens won't frown on us for desertion?"
"Of course not," said Obrigan, the captain, barely hiding his contempt for the question. "Destroying the city of Washington will erase our race's only prior defeat at human hands. And killing any Harrakilli we find will only increase our standing." The Harrakilli were humans with super-powers, deliverers of the defeat at Washington; Obrigan despised them. "We shall be heroes. Perhaps our children will even get to breed with Greens. Right, Trolja?"
Obrigan looked to his chief lieutentant for support. Trolja was a skilled telepath, and a Violet like him; he had come to depend heavily on her support. But sometimes, even he was disturbed by her silent manners. "We shall slay anyone we meet," Trolja said quietly.
Obrigan was almost grateful when Cundus whined again. "But... we're breaking orders, taking huge risks..."
"Hah!" Obrigan clapped Cundus on the shoulder, slamming him up against the far side of the pod. "Think like a winner, you oaf! Think like these crafty humans! If there is one thing that cannot fail... it's a daring scheme."
The Baltimore/Washington Parkway, -- three-thirty in the morning.
For over two years now, Neil Benson's famous sister and grandfather had been telling stories about the Paint Crew; sometimes it seemed like they talked more about those felons-in-training than their real family. About how they were the toughest, least moral of the super- powered teens at Omega House. How a criminal recruited them for his gang, and grandpa Harvey stopped him after a horribly botched heist. How the Paint Crew kids -- ten, currently -- still proved recalcitrant. How Anne finally reached some of them by giving them a chance to act as heroes and fight the Fix's possessed Harrakin thralls last year.
Now that one sign of hope was turning out to be the Paint Crew's undoing. They were rushing to battle invading Harrakin warriors -- all by themselves. When the Emergency Broadcast System had said a Harrakin ship was dropping into the area, the Paint Crew "borrowed" three Omega House cars and drove off to meet it. Neil had promised Anne he wouldn't let them go, but he couldn't stop them. Somehow, he'd ended up riding along with them instead. Neil cynically wondered if he was stuck in the next Paint Crew story. He didn't think he'd like the ending.
Neil rode with three of the Paint Crew ringleaders: Carlos del Rio drove, Scott Dunleavy navigated from the front passenger seat, and John Potts sat beside Neil in the back. John leaned forward, so his head was between Carlos and Scott. "I still think this is a lousy idea."
"We know," they said in unison.
"No, no, don't just brush me off. I've been thinking about this a lot, and guys, I don't think we can stand up to the Harrakin. It's a crazy idea."
"This from the guy who's always coming up with crazy bank heists," Scott said.
"Right," John said, "so if I always like those dumb ideas, how much dumber is this one?" John wrinkled his face in thought for a moment, and said, "That didn't come out right. But you get the point."
"No," Carlos said quietly, "I don't. But I do know all the real Omegas are gone, in New York or somewhere. We're the only ones who can stop the Harrakin." He stared out the front windshield, not at the road but at what lay down it.
John saw that Carlos was off in his own space, and turned to Scott. "You can't be that into this, right? You know this is ridiculous."
Scott's shaggy, longish hair couldn't conceal his disillusioned eyes. "Of course I do."
"Then why the hell are you going along with him? You know we're no heroes."
"We haven't been," Scott said. "Maybe we could be."
"Maybe we could die," John said. "So why should I stick my neck out?"
"Stick your neck out because you need to do something with your life," Carlos said. "And you've had no success as a criminal."
"Fuck," Scott said, "'criminal' is too kind a term. You bullied Omega House kids for lunch money... and got caught."
"Fuck you, Dunleavy!" The scream made everyone jump. "Who the fuck are you? You're no better than me! Show me some fucking respect!"
"You need to earn respect," Carlos said. Neil was noticing that all of the Paint Crew listened to Carlos silently and without hesitation. He spoke quietly, but with such conviction that even Neil was starting to think he was right. "We're earning respect tonight, by doing the right thing. Benson's family, Frank White, the rest of them... they won't look at us the same after this. If you really want respect so bad, Pottsie, you'll stand with us."
Neil felt he could speak up, but knew he had to tread carefully. If Potts perceived Neil was some instrument of his grandfather's authority, he would reject anything Neil said -- and that would make everyone in favor of fighting. Neil had learned that the hard way back at Omega House; this might be his last chance. "Anne and my grandfather already respect you," Neil said. "They think you've paid your dues..."
"Bullshit," Potts said. Neil's heart sank as the wrong argument flared up. "They want to keep us under lock and key, and you're their stooge while they're gone."
"You don't know a damn thing about me, kid--"
"'Kid'? You're barely older than me--"
"But I am not like them and I am not their stooge."
"Then why are you here?" Potts said, smirking. "We didn't ask you to come along."
"And I didn't want to. But I promised my sister I'd keep you alive, and if I can't stop you from making this suicide run, at least I can ride shotgun on it. So I may have to let you punks fight invincible aliens, I may even have to fight them with you, but damn it Potts, I do not have to take any more of your shit!"
Potts actually recoiled across the seat, sliding up against his door. The others fell into an uncomfortable silence.
The monotony of the road wasn't broken until Scott spoke up and said, "I do have one serious problem with all this." He threw up his arms in puzzlement. "Who invades Baltimore?"
The escape pod landed in a harbor surrounded by factories and coated in scum. The city's buildings, although lit prettily, were drab metal and stone. There were no gleaming marble monuments or valiant Harrakilli protectors anywhere.
"The Homeworld isn't all the songs said it was," Cundus meekly observed from the top of the floating pod.
"This is merely the taint of humanity," Obrigan announced. "Another reason to wrest the Homeworld from their callous hands. Come, let us greet them."
All three Harrakin had enough psychokinesis to lift themselves and fly towards a collection of lights that seemed to indicate civilization, rather than mere industry. It turned out to be a public agora on the waterfront, though the only people in it were military defenders. The Harrakin hovered above the humans, enjoying their awe and fear.
"Greetings," Obrigan said. He only spoke Harrakin; it would be up to the humans to understand him, naturally. "We have come to destroy this city as a punishment for your race's insolence. It would make things terrifically easier for us if you sent us your Harrakilli now."
None of the soldiers seemed to understand. Obrigan turned in exasperation to Trolja; she penetrated their minds more easily than she would certain Harrakin pets'. "There are no Harrakilli here," Trolja answered.
"Bother," Obrigan said. "Now we'll have to attract them."
He jumped into the soldiers, roaring with delight.
The Harrakin flew north, slaughtering any soldiers they met along the way -- and a few civilians, just for fun. Finally, they located a broad square which contained a moderately large column bearing a sculpture of a human hero. According to Trolja, the soldiers had thought of it as "the Washington Monument," the first sign they'd come to the right place. It marked a dark blot on the otherwise brilliant Harrakin history; these three braves would erase it.
Cundus still complained. He looked at the statue and said, "This 'Washington'... was he some genetic misfit? He has four legs, that huge midsection, and two heads..."
"Those are two creatures, you orange wretch," Obrigan snorted. "The lower one provides transportation for the human." A wicked smile crossed his face. "Here, I'll show you." He dug his fingers into the monument, and began systematically demolishing it.
The Paint Crew made slow progress through Baltimore at first. The roads were either choked with evacuating citizens or blocked by advancing troops. But as they got closer to Mount Vernon Place, the Harrakin's last reported position, driving became much easier. Within a mile of the battle zone, everybody who could evacuate already had... and the military were no longer around to seal the area. The only people remaining in central Baltimore were the hopeless and the dead.
The Paint Crew parked their cars on a deserted stretch of Charles Street, then walked up to Mount Vernon Place together. They looked like some demented tour group marching through the urban destruction, because everyone but Neil wore the official Paint Crew "uniform" --a softball T-shirt with the Paint Crew's name and red paint-splatter logo.
Carlos, Rich, and John plotted a strategy along the way with Suzanne Delors. Suzanne was one of the few girls in the Paint Crew, but her age, intelligence, and formidable magnetic powers made her one of the leaders. Neil Benson also pushed his way into the leaders' circle, astonished at what he was about to volunteer for.
"If you won't stop this," Neil insisted, "you at least have to let me take the brunt of the fighting." He'd recently inherited his grandfatder's strength, speed, and invulnerability, and whether he liked it or not, that made him the toughest Omega there.
Carlos clapped Neil on the shoulder with one hand -- which was unnerving, because it wasn't a real hand but a telekinetic phantom limb. "Neil, buddy, we appreciate your help, but let us plan this, okay? We've seen how this is done."
"Yeah, I heard how successful your previous exploit was."
"At least we had an exploit. This isn't stopping a bunch of feeb rioters, Neil. This is serious shit." His face became absolutely grim for one moment; then he flashed his perfect white smile again and said, "If it's any consolation, you putting your ass on the front line is the centerpiece of my plan."
The Harrakin had completely torn down the column, from the bottom up. Cundus had taken great pleasure in "surgically separating" Washington from his transport creature, genetically improving him from a misshapen man-beast to a pile of white rubble. Now they were shattering the outlying ground structures of the monument, and soon they would spiral outwards until Washington was leveled. No great loss, in their view; Washington was rather more pathetic than they'd imagined. But that was humanity for you.
The military and civilians had fled, and civic destruction was rapidly boring Obrigan. "Where are the damn Harrakilli?" he shouted.
He got his answer. Three people walked downhill into the square. The male in the center was tall, for a human, and slender. His thin nose, high cheekbones, and close-cropped sandy blond hair were no doubt the features humans expected of their heroes; and he shouted something brave and bold, though quite incomprehensible. The female to his left was covered, head to toe, in some sort of transparent crystalline sheath. The male on the blond's right was less remarkable, short and dark-haired, but his arms were slowly stretching out of their sockets. He waved stupidly at the Harrakin.
Obrigan smiled, and hissed through tightly-clenched teeth. "Harrakilli."
Then the fight for glory began.
Carlos watched as the larger male, the one in a bloodstained purple tunic, jumped up in the air. His leap carred him across the square, and he landed feet-first on Neil's chest. Neil tried to dodge out of the way, but reacted far too late. The Harrakin's feet planted him into the pavement, knocking a vaguely Neil-shaped hole in the tar. Carlos might have laughed if the situation weren't so deadly; their toughest man had just gone down in less than a second.
The alien swung his arm sharply to his side, catching Kim Sloane in her stomach. His blow didn't crack her diamond sheath -- Carlos muttered a quick thanks to God -- but the impact tossed her across the square, into the Walters Art Gallery. The male spun on his heels, ready to strike Tony Ciardi just as savagely.
Then the female, whose eyes flashed purple even more brightly than the male's, ran towards him. The shorter male (shorter being about six foot one) trailed after her. The woman shouted something indignant, and the larger male answered in kind.
"Did you get that?" Carlos whispered to Scott, who crouched next to him behind a parked car.
"I'm getting all of it," Scott said. He was a master of sound, able to absorb, redirect, record, and replay sonic patterns. "But damned if I know what they're saying."
Carlos looked questioningly to Mike Meade, the black teenager who knelt behind them. Mike was an empath, the closest thing the Paint Crew had to a genuine psionic. "I think Violet there said to save that one for her," Mike whispered, "and, uh, Purple Meany told her to piss off. That guy, Orange Julius, doesn't want to be left out either."
'Purple Meany' had by now lifted Tony by his neck, but he obligingly waited for the other two to catch up. Meany held Tony in front of Violet, who snapped her fist forward into his nose, striking directly at his brain.
His head instantly deformed around her fist. The fist nearly punched all the way through -- Carlos could make out Violet's knuckles through the back of Tony's taut scalp -- but Tony was too elastic. Violet's arm shot much farther forward than she intended, pulling her whole body off-balance and causing her to fall flat on her face. Tony laughed, then stretched his neck into a cord and wriggled out of Meany's grasp.
Meany started chasing him around Mount Vernon Place, but Neil suddenly sat up, grabbed the huge alien's ankles, and tripped him. And Kim charged out of the Walters, gunning straight for Violet. Carlos couldn't help a chuckle as he watched it all.
"This isn't funny," Mike whispered. "They're really pissed. They don't like looking like idiots."
"That's good info," Carlos said.
"They really want to kill them now," Mike stressed.
"And they're screaming to high heaven about it. You just keep telling Scott what he's recording, and skip the editorial."
"The editorial," Scott mouthed off, "or the obituaries?"
Neil actually managed to pull the lead Harrakin to the ground. Then, before the alien could react, Neil pounced on him. He was getting the hang of his super-speed; it was just like flicking an internal switch, and suddenly the world moved in slow motion. Neil jumped on the alien's back, and punched him in the head with all his new super-strength. He'd been winded by the alien's flying kick, but not really scratched by it. Neil might have argued with his grandfather's personality, but his powers were damned useful.
Neil barely noticed Kim Sloane running past him. Actually, "running" was too graceful a term; Kim lumbered inside her diamond armor. She'd only recently learned how to extend her elemental sheath over her entire body, and movement was still a problem. The violet woman easily flew overhead as Kim tried a tackle. Kim shot under her and through the windows of the Buttery Restaurant diner. Neil tried not to pay attention; "Buttery Restaurant" was a stupid fucking name, but he'd had some good times there. Back when Baltimore was a city and not a death-wish.
He was snapped rudely back to the fight as the big alien stood up underneath him. An invisible telekinetic force pulled Neil off the alien, and suspended him in mid-air where his strength was useless. Neil realized, with horror, that he hadn't even scratched the alien.
The alien said something terribly cruel to him, then laughed. It was a braying, throaty laugh, as hostile as everything else this man had done. While Neil hung there helplessly, the alien cocked his fist...
John Potts crept up to the car Carlos's team was ducking behind. "They're getting their asses kicked," he said. Everyone winced as Meany's punch blasted Neil far out of everyone's field of vision. "What should we do?"
"Stay with your team, man," Carlos hissed frantically. "You're supposed to follow the plan."
"The plan didn't say we'd get our asses kicked this quick." Violet was punching Kim's sheath several dozen times per second, trying to find a flaw that would crack it open; Julius was telekinetically flinging debris at Tony's pliable but not invulnerable body. "We should cut and run now."
"We gotta follow the plan." Unlike John -- but like most of the other Paint Crew kids -- he had spent a few months in the Colony, watching from a distance as Danny Anderson executed plans. Then Anderson disbanded the Colony and he was taken in by Anne Benson; soon after he and the others were given criminal training by Marty Flahagen and Emily Connor. Carlos thought he'd come up with a plan worthy of them tonight -- let the three most resilient Omegas distract the aliens, while he gathered intelligence -- but it wasn't working. They knew nothing more about the aliens, and people were starting to get hurt.
"Wait," Mike said, "I think Violet is a telepath --" Kim, no longer safe behind her sheath, screamed as some invisible attack drove her to her knees. "Oh God."
"They're not talking anymore," Scott said, his voice rising. "They're using telepathy, they're not talking anymore!"
Carlos watched in horror as Orange Julius pinned Tony's legs in his arms, then telekinetically pulled on Tony's head, trying to stretch him to the breaking point. "Send a message to John's team, Scott. We have to get out of here. Unless --"
A blond blur streaked back into Mount Vernon Place. Carlos shouted, "Scott, tell him to hit Violet!" Scott's lips moved, but Carlos heard nothing -- Scott sent the sound waves to Neil and Neil alone. Neil heard, dodged around Purple Meany, and ran up to Violet at his full speed.
He drew his fist back partway, barely even with his head. He jabbed forward, letting the arm snap limply, not following through, not tightening his hand enough to hit with the whole arm instead of just the fingers. The blow bounced off Violet's back, as harmless as the ones he'd rained on Meany; the Harrakin telepath may not even have noticed it.
Carlos sunk his head into phantom hands. "Mother of God," he wailed. "He's got Overman's powers, and he can't fucking throw a punch!"
Meany grabbed Neil and flung him into the Monument's rubble. Then, having heard the shouts, he walked slowly toward Carlos's team.
"Oh yeah," John said. "This is a Paint Crew plan."
Cracking his knuckles eagerly, Meany stepped up to the Buick Skylark that Carlos's team cowered behind. And John Potts's team kicked into action. With John off talking to Carlos, Suzanne was actually calling the shots, but they still considered themselves the Potts team. After all, they were the sneaky ones.
Suzanne grabbed the Buick Skylark in a magnetic field and pulled it, hopping and shuddering, a few inches into the air. Carlos and John noticed and pitched in with their phantom limbs and levitation powers. They all shoved, and the car flew into Meany. The impact caught him off-guard and he collapsed under the car's weight.
The rest of Potts's team pressed their advantage. Nicky Collins sprang out of his alley hiding-place and sprinted downhill into the square, spinning wildly in a tight circle. Nicky had Omega speed, but only as angular momentum from spinning himself like a top. He whirled straight into the middle of the fight.
Chuck Odell calmly walked after him, taking a long drag on a cheap cigar. He exhaled a huge cloud of billowing black smoke, which settled into Mount Vernon Place like a dank fog. Nicky spun through the smoke, and the dusty remnants of the monument, spreading thick black and white clouds until the Harrakin could no longer see.
Scott opened sound-tunnels to the others and shouted, "Everybody run!" Then he masked their departure by hitting the Harrakin with one of his stock recordings, a police siren, amplified tremendously. Taking his own advice, he and John ran.
Invisible hands stopped them. "We have to get Kim, Tony, and Benson out of there," Carlos said. Behind him, the fallen Buick Skylark was suddenly ripped in half.
Meany rose up and brandished both halves, ready to drop them on the Paint Crew -- until his head was encased in a sphere of viscous goo lobbed by Jenny "Gumball" Gilmore. Then Suzanne reunited the car halves, trapping Meany temporarily.
"Screw this," Potts said, "I'm out." He shrugged off Carlos's phantom arm, which was no stronger than a normal one, and scurried down a side street. Scott looked back apologetically at Carlos, but ran after John.
Carlos looked at Mike. There wasn't time for words, just a questioning glance and a roll of his eyes after Scott and John. Mike shook his head, answering in the negative.
They both sighed, and ran into the swirling smoke.
Neil was so dazed, he didn't even realize he was lying under a chunk of column until someone lifted it off him. He looked up and saw two figures swimming towards him through the white smoke -- Carlos and Mike. Both boys pressed T-shirts to their mouths in a vain attempt to filter out the dust. "That's one," Carlos rasped. "Hey Benson, hold this, will you?" His multiple phantom arms dumped the wobbling piece of column in Neil's hands. "Where are the others?"
"Julius is over there." Mike pointed to one patch of smoke, no different from the rest. "I can feel his joy -- I think he's happy to finally be killing somebody."
"We've gotta save Tony." An idea lit up Carlos's dark brown eyes. "Mike, tell Benson where to chuck that thing!" Mike gave directions and Neil aimed himself, holding the chunk of marble straight over his head. "No," Carlos shouted, "put your fucking back into it!"
Phantom hands slapped into Neil's knees, waist, and elbows, forcing him into an Olympic thower's stance. When Carlos and Mike were satisfied with his positioning, Neil hurled the column. It disappeared into the smoke instantly, and made a huge crashing noise, accompanied by breaking glass.
They didn't know if it hit Julius or not, but he must've let go of Tony's legs -- Tony shot into the air like a snapped rubber band, landing somewhere south of the square. "I hope he survives that," Neil said.
"Worry about us," Mike said. "Kim slipped away in the chaos and Violet is pissed." That was all the incentive they needed to follow Potts's lead, and run.
They fled south, towards the water. There had been some vague plan about meeting by the Inner Harbor in case of emergency, but this emergency was so dire, they ran purely on instinct. Carlos, Neil, and Mike assumed they were the last group out. They clung to the shadows of Charles Street, trying to escape before the Harrakin found them.
As they skulked uphill, Neil guiltily spotted the column piece. It had crashed through the window of Louis' Bookstore Cafe and crushed most of the fiction section. Neil had a bittersweet chuckle -- this battle was destroying some of the best pieces of his life outside his family. "We fucked up royally," he muttered. "All those Paint Crew stories don't even begin to do you guys justice."
Carlos, who had point, turned around. His tan skin flushed with rage. "We're not like that anymore, Benson. I didn't see your preppie ass fighting the Fix last year."
"I didn't have powers last year. Anyway, I don't *do* this stuff. I'm not Anne, okay? And I'm definitely not Harvey."
Carlos scowled. "Maybe you should be."
They had stopped dead, and might have kept arguing all night, but Mike sensed hostile emotions entering the area rapidly. He pushed Neil and Carlos into the well of a sunken window, jumping in after them. They all huddled silently as the two male Harrakin flew overhead. Meany was chanting "Harrakilli Harrakilli Harra-kiiillllliiiii..."
Once they seemed long gone, the three Omegas crept southwards again. Neil picked up the argument almost immediately. "You don't know jack shit about me," he said. "You haven't seen how Harvey lied to my family..."
Carlos was unimpressed by Neil's stilted anger and forced profanity. "I haven't seen any family in years," he replied. "Except the Paint Crew and Omega House. Now I've got your sister and grandfather looking out for me."
Neil was confused. "I thought you guys hated them..."
"Not really. Well, Potts says he does, but nobody listens to Potts." Carlos stared Neil down; Neil didn't know if he was supposed to see the passion in Carlos's eyes. "They stand up for us, no matter how bad we screw up. Your grandfather, he really stood up for us. Saved our lives, even after we tried to kill him. So he lied to your family? He also lied to the law so we wouldn't go to jail. And he *forgave* me, even though I did... a very bad thing. I owe everything I have to him." Carlos turned around and shook his head. "But not to you."
Carlos led them through the burnt ruins of an Army emplacement. Their cars were parked just south of here, and might still offer escape. But they made slow progress, having to stop and hide every time a Harrakin flew by. Violet was in sight now, poking around the nooks and crannies of the Enoch Pratt Library's Victorian facade. The Omegas hid under an overturned jeep and watched her.
"What if she's tracking us with telepathy?" Neil whispered.
"Then we'd already be dead," Mike said. "I'd guess she's... toying with us." His voice hollowed out as he realized it. "I'm getting the sick feeling that this isn't a fight to them. It's a safari."
"She's beautiful," Carlos said, as if that were the next logical reply.
"Isn't she a little old for you?" Neil quipped.
Carlos shot Neil a lethal stare. "Fuck you. It was just an observation." He wriggled out from under the jeep, and crept down a nearby alleyway.
"Nice going," Mike whispered, when Carlos and Violet were both out of earshot. "You do know that the 'bad thing' Carlos did was to sleep with a thirty-year-old criminal who exploited the Paint Crew? She convinced him to attack the rest of us, and your grandfather. He was only seventeen, eighteen. Maybe sixteen."
Neil's eyes widened. "I'm sorry... I didn't know."
"Well, that's one more thing Ms. Benson and Mr. Hauptmann protected for us. You tell everyone you're rebelling against them. Well, we've done outlaw shit you can't even imagine, and we'd rather have them with us than you." Mike crawled after Carlos.
"What the hell do you want out of me?" Neil said. "I'm here, right?"
Mike frowned at him. "You're here and you're useless. We need a Hauptmann, not someone who's desperately trying not to be a Hauptmann. Hauptmanns don't let us down." He lowered his head and crawled away. "No matter how sick a family we may be."
Once they cleared the top of the hill, they found some other Paint Crew Omegas. Jenny, Nicky, and Chuck were a few blocks south on Charles, creeping towards the cars. As Carlos's group watched, Jenny and Nicky opened one car and slipped in the front seat. "Thank God," Mike said. "Let's get out of here."
Neil held him back. "Wait a second. These streets are completely silent. Without Scott to mask the sound --"
Jenny turned the ignition. The car started loudly.
The three Harrakin appeared out of nowhere. Neil was already halfway downhill, running toward the car, but the aliens overtook him. Julius kicked Neil in the back; then the laughing Harrakin swept over him and swarmed around the car. A brilliant purple glow seeped out from behind Meany's eyelids --
Neil rolled to his feet and jumped. He lunged straight at Meany, but Julius blocked him and slammed him to the pavement. The glow got brighter -- Neil tackled Chuck before he dove into the car --
Radiant purple fire streamed out of Meany's eyes, finding the car's gas tank. Jenny and Nicky had just enough time to watch in mournful acceptance. Then the car exploded, with them in it.
Carlos screamed, wordlessly and incoherently. He'd done that; he'd fired the bolt of flame; his stupid dreams of heroism got them killed. Now he really had something to make amends for.
Mike tugged on his arm. "What do we do? What do we do?"
Carlos pointed south. "We run."
Neil bolted down Charles Street, his eyes bulging wide with fear. Mike and Chuck were tucked under his arms, Carlos clung to his back, and the Harrakin were flying hot on his tail. Bolts of purple fire and telekinetically-flung debris crashed into the pavement all around him. He didn't know if the Harrakin were genuinely missing, or playing with him. Or worst of all, using him to find the others.
Neil wasn't just protecting the Paint Crew out of some stupid promise anymore. He was protecting them for the same reason his sister had extracted the promise in the first place -- they were good kids and they needed to live. What could have blinded him so much, that he didn't see it before?
Neil hit the final downhill stretch and really took off. His super- strong legs easily carried him and his passengers over wrecked vehicles and craters of purple flame. He skidded around the corner of Charles and Pratt and aimed for the Harbor; the Harrakin gained on him by smashing through the corner building.
He would never make the Harbor. He darted into a park on Pratt Street, a simple concrete plaza just a block away from the rendezvous point. Neil briefly shook the Harrakin by dodging into a huge walk- through fountain whose paths weaved around and even under cascades of falling water. He stopped in the central underpass, a stone tunnel whose outer wall was a curtain of shimmering water. "Get out of here," he said, dropping off his passengers. "I'll hold them off."
Mike said, "You'll never--"
"GO!" Neil commanded, in his best Harvey Hauptmann. And they did.
The Harrakin were drawing close. Neil took one huge step and jumped through the curtain of water, screaming.
John Potts, Scott, Suzanne, Kim, and Tony took in the Inner Harbor: brick-paved walkways, soft pools of lamplight, gently bobbing boats, and dozens of murdered soldiers. That no longer scared them as much as the possibility that they were the only Paint Crew who'd made it here.
The sudden, breathless arrival of Carlos, Mike, and Chuck almost relieved the terrible pressure. But Carlos immediately gasped, "Benson needs us." Sounds of smashing stone spilled from the other side of the Harborplace pavilion. Kim, Suzanne, and Tony started running there; John headed the other way, and Scott was pulled tautly between the two directions. Carlos held up his hands, somehow freezing them all.
"We're all going," he said. "But we're not trying this hero shit again." He smiled, but sadly. "We're going in as the Paint Crew."
Neil stood in the center of the fountain: panting, trying to see through a black eye, holding his fists up to ward off no attack in particular. Water flowed around his calves, and poured down wrecked stone walls and overhangs all around him. The sound of falling water soothed him, tempted him to stop fighting. Wasn't this the fountain he'd splashed around in after his all-night high school prom at the Hyatt? It would be a good place to fall down, let the Harrakin go, let the water rush over him, and be absolved... but something kept pulling him back.
He sloshed towards Purple Meany, who hovered haughtily over the water's surface. "C'mon," Neil slurred through swollen lips, "fight me like a man!"
"Benson." Scott's voice sounded tiny but crystal clear inside his ears. "Get out of there, head back to the Harbor. We have a plan."
"We have a plan. Now *move*." Neil considered, and jumped back just as Meany fired a bolt of purple flame. It boiled the water where Neil had stood. Then the beam and the spot of boiling water chased after him.
Neil ran frantically, unable to reach anything near full speed in the fountain. Meany laughed and floated after him -- then abruptly reversed direction. Violet and Julius, who were behind him, also started flying towards him. The three collided in mid-air, and stuck together in a multi- limbed ball. Before they could move, Chuck ran up to the fountain's edge and engulfed them in a cloud of smoke. With that cover, he hauled Neil out of the water and ran.
They crossed Light Street, joining the rest of the Paint Crew. Suzanne was standing at the front, concentrating intently; Neil figured she'd magnetically grabbed the Harrakin by their ostentatious clasps and circlets. Carlos stood behind her and said, "Next step, Suz. Scott, Chuck, keep them distracted."
Scott and Chuck ran across the street. While Chuck continued to envelop the Harrakin in smoke, Scott disoriented them with a chorus of gunfire and explosions sampled from his favorite action movies. (In spite of everything, they still ran towards Quentin Tarantino and John Woo.) Hopefully, the aliens would be fooled into thinking there was a much larger attack while the Paint Crew set up.
Neil watched in confusion as Tony stretched himself between two lampposts -- holding one with his hands and one with his feet. Kim activated her power, coating herself in iron. Then she rolled up into a ball, and sat in front of Tony. John Potts levitated her, negating gravity until she hovered in front of Tony's torso.
"This is where we pitch in." Carlos pointed at the cloud of smoke where the confused Harrakin flitted. "Pull back and aim." Neil finally caught on, and pulled back on Kim's iron body -- turning her and Tony into a giant human slingshot. Carlos also tugged on her with all his arms. It was surprisingly easy, since Potts had made her weightless.
They pulled until Tony's body wouldn't give any more. He clenched his distended teeth, and the lampposts bent in his grip, but the elastic teenager didn't complain.
"Cut the sound effects, Scott!" Carlos strained to keep his grip on Kim. "Chuck, let them find their way out of the smoke."
Scott and Chuck fell back, leaving the aliens to bump into each other as they flew around the cloud. The telepath was the first one out, of course. Violet soared out of the smoke, looking for the real fight.
Carlos and Neil let go.
Tony's body snapped forward, and Kim flew at Violet with incredible force. Suzanne magnetically latched onto Kim's iron shell, steering and accelerating her. Violet didn't even know what hit her.
The impact slammed Violet senseless, knocking her to the ground like a clay pigeon. Just for good measure, John and Suzanne made sure Kim hung in the air a moment longer, then fell on top of Violet. Kim punched Violet, not giving her any time to recover.
The Paint Crew cheered, and Carlos's hands provided an entire audience of applause. Even Potts sported a smile, and wrapped a friendly arm around Neil's shoulder. "Okay, Paint Crew," Carlos shouted, "don't get cocky! Next step, next step!"
As Neil watched, the rest of the Paint Crew charged the fountain. Scott and Mike ran to the very top of the multileveled walk-through, which gave them a vantage point over the whole fight. They kept in touch with Carlos through walkie-talkies taken from the dead soldiers. So far, they had good news: Meany was shouting at Julius in Harrakin, meaning Violet was no longer telepathically linking them. Scott took a deep breath and concentrated.
All the sound waves traveling from Meany's mouth to Julius's ears vanished, surviving only as a new electrical pattern in Scott's brain. Scott instantly replaced the voice with another pattern -- a pattern he'd lifted from the Mount Vernon Place fight. Just as Julius prepared to swoop down on Tony, he heard Violet shouting to "save that one for her." Or so Scott hoped.
Julius looked around. He saw Violet being pounded on by Kim, so he turned to Meany for direction. Meany shouted something -- an order to kill Tony, Mike guessed -- but Scott intercepted it. Instead, Julius heard Meany's earlier order to go piss off. It had been meant for Violet back at Mount Vernon Place, but Julius hadn't figured that out yet.
"He's hurt," Mike whispered to Scott. "Play those insults now."
"You'd better be right," Scott said. "If he was saying that shit about us..." But there was really no choice; Scott played the sounds. Every insult Meany had shouted the entire night went hurtling at Julius.
To cover it up, Chuck threw a smoke-cloud *between* the two Harrakin, and Suzanne distracted them with a hailstorm of trashcans and hubcaps. But Julius could hear the insults echoing all around him...
Mike shook his head. "He's a fucking wimp. He'll never attack Meany. Time to play some backwards Zeppelin."
That was apparently their code-phrase; it did Neil's heart good to know that high school punks still listened to Zeppelin. Scott leaned heavily on the railing and closed his eyes. Inside his head, he took all the patterns of Meany's insults -- then spiked them, cut the bass and raised the treble, spliced in a nasal wheeze he used to make fun of Frank White behind his back, and tweaked Meany until he sounded like Julius. Hopefully.
Scott bounced the insults from "Julius" off the water, so they seemed to come back up at Meany through the smoke cloud. Meany heard Julius scream his own invective back at him.
Carlos leaned so close to his walkie-talkie, he was almost eating it. "NOW!" he screamed.
Suzanne and John grabbed Julius, and flung him through the smoke cloud. While Scott turned his scream of warning into one of anger, Julius rammed straight into Meany.
Meany howled and drove his fists into Julius's head. Julius tried to explain, but Scott replaced every explanation with an insult. Soon, Julius had no choice but to fight back. The Paint Crew quietly slipped away as Julius delivered a two-handed blow to Meany's torso. The punch was so loud, it rattled the windows on all the downtown skyscrapers.
Meany was knocked clear through the Legg-Mason building. He circled back around the skyscraper, divebombing and tackling Julius. They crashed through the plaza's concrete surface, breaking a water main underneath it. The two Harrakin stood in the huge crater, trying to fight in the middle of a gushing waterspout. Meany pushed through the artifical geyser, trying to find Julius and hit him, but he was unable to see. The confusion made it easy for Scott to play more insults, though now the temperamental aliens seemed to be trading plenty of real ones.
While Meany flailed in the center of the spouting water, Julius ducked around him and threw punches to his side and kidneys. Meany lashed out with a blind punch, but Julius had already danced behind him; Julius hovered up a few feet and kicked Meany in his spine. When Meany screamed in pain, the inferior Harrakin laughed. He started adding aerial flips and twirls as he buzzed around Meany, striking him dozens of times.
Then the water pressure ran out, and the waterspout died abruptly. As the water receded past Meany's face, everyone could see his bruises and his murderous scowl.
Julius turned pale, and dove at Meany. He threw two vicious punches at Meany's temples, snapping the larger Harrakin's head back and nearly toppling him.
But Meany remained standing, very slowly raised his head upright, and opened his glowing eyes. Purple fire wrapped around Julius, bringing the flyer crashing down to Earth in a halo of flame. The charred body screamed and twisted for a few moments, then stopped moving forever.
Meany wiped blood from his eyes as he crawled out of the crater, staring at Julius's body with something akin to pity. Then he spotted Violet, who had thrown Kim off when she heard Julius's death-cry. Meany limped over to her. He was badly wounded from his fight; he might not be a threat to anybody.
The Paint Crew weren't taking any chances. This bastard had killed Jenny and Nicky. They jumped him.
Obrigan caved under the Harrakilli's vicious attack. The tall blond one punched him, more forcefully than before, while the others rained down on him with metal objects and rubbery fists. Obrigan scuttled across the plaza, throwing his arms around his head for protection. Somehow, the fight wasn't so thrilling when the other side was winning.
"They've killed Cundus!" he shouted to Trolja. "Help me... help me avenge our honor!"
Trolja rose high above the plaza, massaged her head, and stared at the beaten man. She'd seen what really happened to Cundus. She didn't think there was any honor to be found here anymore.
"Wait a minute," said Mike, hanging back as the others ganged up on Meany. "I'm picking up some reluctance..."
Obrigan ranted on, no doubt delirious from the many head-blows he'd taken. He screamed about the honor of burning Washington, the honor of slaying Harrakilli, the honor of the K'Thok Mogrivar. Trolja shook her head. These Harrakilli were merely children. This was not Washington, but some nearby shadow city. And the K'Thok Mogrivar... she closed her eyes in shame. The K'Thok Mogrivar was only a garbage scow.
Mike's eyebrows hopped up. "These... these aren't the nobles at all," he said. "They're just a bunch of... losers! They wanted to make a name for themselves by beating Omegas!"
Scott burst into hysterical laughter. "And they got us,," he said. "The Omega junkyard dogs. Stupid bastards."
If Obrigan found out, he'd probably want to flee immediately. There was no profit here anymore, and his bullying had gone sour. But Trolja had a much better motivation. She'd be humiliated if this incident was discovered, and she'd face severe penalties for her disobedience. These upstart children were the only witnesses of her crime. She plunged at them, tightening her fingers into fists. "Come along, Obrigan. Time to clean up."
Most of the Paint Crew were clustered around Meany, beating him to the ground. Violet hit them like a cannonball, sending them flying. Neil and Kim were unharmed, and Tony caught several others with his elastic body, but Suzanne hit her head on a bad landing and was knocked senseless.
Violet picked up Meany by the scruff of his neck, but his limp, battered body was useless. Violet scowled at his weakness, and hefted him up over her head. "Look out," Mike shouted, feeling her cold, calculated anger. "She's really out to get us--"
Violet snapped her head around at Mike, locking him in an evil stare. Mike suddenly clutched his head and cried out. Then he curled into a sobbing, fetal ball.
The Harrakin woman hurled Meany's body, bowling over Neil. She flew over him and attacked the other Paint Crew members. Tony was her first target: a telepathic attack shut down his motor control center, reducing him to a mass of flopping limbs.
Carlos shouted, "Coordinate! Coordinate!" Kim swung at Violet, but the telepath flew up at the last instant. Carlos and Potts lobbed broken pavement and flagstones at her, but the Harrakin dodged or shrugged the blows off. Her raven hair twisted and snapped around her face, and Carlos tried very hard not to think about how much the older woman resembled Emily Connor. Violet's next mental attack took out Kim, ignoring the iron shell and overloading Kim's pain center.
Neil shoved Meany's unconscious body off of him, and took in the situation. Violet was terrorizing Carlos, John, Scott, and Chuck, who were all helpless against her. He would just have to face her alone. Neil rushed her, drawing back his right fist, shouting, "Leave those guys alone! I am Neil Benson, damn it! I AM NEIL--"
His war-cry was cut short by a fist to his face, and a psychic command telling him that the punch actually knocked him out. Neil's eyes rolled back in their sockets, and his body slowly swayed to the ground.
Trolja flew around the last four Harrakilli in a wide, slow circle, savoring the moment. She hadn't had the time or energy to kill any of them yet, but once they all fell she could snap their necks quite easily. She singled out the most defiant one, and tightened the circle.
Carlos paced outside the others, keeping himself between them and the Harrakin killer. "Get out of here, guys. She's mine."
Trolja's telepathic blast bored into his mind, dredging up all his shame and guilt. Mostly over putting his friends in this situation, over the deaths he'd caused. Trolja smiled as his mind unraveled, expecting tears at any moment.
But Carlos refused to give up, not just in spite of the guilt but *because* of it. He was determined to be better, just once, than he had been before. Instead of cracking, he lunged forward. To just within arm's reach.
Carlos's telekinetic arms enjoyed few advantages over real ones. They were no longer, no tougher, no stronger, no more flexible. But they were numerous, and they were intangible.
He'd slipped them through doors and walls before. Now he tried something similar, and slipped them through Violet's skin. He wrapped two hands around her larynx and -- hoping God would forgive him for just one more murder -- he squeezed.
Carlos had thought that would end the fight. Now he discovered that Harrakin internal organs were as proportionately tough as their skin. His frail, human-strength hands couldn't kill her. Trolja screamed in intense agony, and retaliated with another mental lash. She stimulated his memory center, calling up all of his life's crimes.
As Carlos shoved more hands through Trolja -- trying to hurt her throat, lungs, heart, anything -- his life swirled before him. Fleeing his parents. Getting abandoned by the Colony. Turning to crime. Trying to kill his friends and Mr. Hauptmann. Leading Jenny and Nicky to death, his foolish dreams only adding to his crimes instead of erasing them. Carlos thought he was strangling Harvey, Suzanne, John, Scott, but he looked past the ghostly faces and saw the demented Harrakin underneath. He tightened his grip. The only face he couldn't shake off was Emily Connor's.
The others saw Carlos and Violet screaming in pain, not touching each other but chained together by invisible bonds. Scott and Chuck hurled sound and smoke at Violet, but she was beyond distraction; the boys only provided a cacophonous, hellish backdrop to the fight. John tried to shove Violet up and away, but Carlos's arms were too strong -- nothing could pry the two apart.
Trolja flayed Carlos's personality to shreds, making him relive every sin he'd ever committed, but Carlos squeezed harder and harder. There was a part of his mind she could not penetrate, a burning heart of emotions she did not understand. Dredging up old wounds didn't quench it; they only made it burn stronger. Trolja still didn't understand when Carlos looked at her and gasped, "I thought you loved me..."
Her heart strained against his grip, and imaginary fingers blocked her lungs' air flow. Trolja never even considered retreating; she was a Harrakin, and would kill this worm by any means possible.
Carlos grew more phantom limbs. He could feel dozens of them blossoming from his shoulders, grabbing the Harrakin from the inside, trying to save his friends. They were the only damn thing he didn't regret. The only thing.
The reduced oxygen to Trolja's brain was impeding her psychic attacks, so she reached forward and grabbed the boy's chest. Two could use his tricks -- her way would simply be faster, and much messier. She jabbed her fingers between his ribs and punctured his great but mortal heart.
And Carlos plunged a fist into her brain -- then unclenched it, splaying the fingers outwards. He just barely heard her scream over his own, just barely kept his eyes open through the explosion of agony to see her eyes bulge out. He teetered, supported on spectral arms, as she fell and his friends got up. And then there was nothing else to see. Nothing but blackness.
Carlos sank softly to the cracked pavement. While his friends ran to his side, the pain finally drained from his face. And blood poured out of his chest wounds, blotting out the splattered red Paint Crew logo.
Dawn slowly crept up on Baltimore, brightening the sky behind the National Aquarium and bringing the hellish night to an end. John Potts wished he could banish his memories of the night as easily.
When none of the doctors were looking, John slowly walked out of the Army infirmary tent. The Army had occupied the Harbor after the fight was over, after it was too fucking late to matter, and tended to the Paint Crew. One harried counselor tried to help the traumatized Omegas, but for the one guy who'd really needed help, there was nothing the medics could do.
John wandered across the plaza, wrapping himself in the blanket he'd been given to prevent shock. He wanted to see Carlos one last time.
Carlos hadn't been the most powerful of them, or the funniest, or the smartest. But there was no doubt that he'd been the *best*. He was the first one to repent, the first one to go straight, the first one to make the rest feel they could use their powers to help others. He was an inspiration, a leader, a hero.
And look what it got him. A shroud. John could still make out the features of Carlos's not-quite-adult body, pushing up from underneath the ratty Army tarp draped over him. Jenny and Nicky hadn't even gotten that much; there wasn't enough left of them to cover.
"Fuck you, Carlos," John whispered. His voice shook, but he held back the tears that tried to pour out. "And fuck your stupid heroism. From now on, I'm only looking out for myself."
He walked away, and didn't look back.
Neil Benson had also wandered away from the medical tent. He stared at the wrecked fountain, and briefly felt guilty that he'd helped destroy it. Baltimore had been his refuge away from D.C., away from being a Hauptmann, and he loved the city. But he had to go back home sometime.
He felt worse about the ones who weren't going home. Every damn one of the Paint Crew had been braver and stronger than him, and three still had to die. The worst shock had been waking up to learn that Carlos was dead. Even Neil had been taken in by Carlos's graceful, confident belief that all it took to win was a just cause and a noble heart.
Neil knew he wasn't cut out for that kind of life. But maybe it wouldn't hurt to learn how to use his powers better. Maybe next time he could save all the brave, foolish kids from their own best instincts.
Neil wandered too close to the barricades, and a few reporters shoved cameras and microphones in his face. As soon as they recognized him underneath all the bruises, they went crazy. "Mr. Benson," one of them asked, "is it true that you saved Baltimore?"
"How did you stop the Harrakin?"
"Are you going to become a crimefighter like your sister and grandfather now?"
"Uh, hold on..." Neil barely reined in his initial response -- after all they'd been through, who cared who *he* was anymore? He cleared his throat and composed his thoughts.
Neil glanced back at the scared teenagers huddling in the medical tent, and the body under the drab olive shroud. They'd had a dangerous dream, and paid for it. But it was what Carlos had wanted.
"*They* saved us," he told the reporters. "Carlos del Rio, and the Paint Crew." He slouched back to the tent, away from the circling cameras. "They're the heroes."
What else could he say?
Chapter 11: Counterstrike! · Chapter 13: What's Your Happiest Memory?
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