THINGS FALL APART
Every single time he reached for his fourth or fifth pipebomb, Leopard always began to wonder about the chain of decisions that led him to be hurling it into a window, a doorway, or a throng.
This time, it was a window.
He rolled to bring himself behind the burnt husk of a groundcar. He counted to three, waited for the silence to give way to the sound of individuals in flight, and stood tall.
He knew what they could see before them: a figure dressed in black, tight fatigues and a combat vest; a gleaming armored helmet that hid his features behind the visage of a snarling Savannah cat. His targets knew what to do when faced with a masked man in a costume. Immediately, they raised their hands, put them on their heads.
The black handgun in his hand helped, too.
Further up the street, gunfire snarled. Tiger and Rooster must have run into trouble – but that was okay, they were a diversion. Monkey trusted Leopard with the part of the operation that was actually important.
“You’ve got something I want,” Leopard said, keeping his voice even, let the helmet make it intimidating. “Money, now.”
The biggest member of the group – shaved head, tattoos curling up his arms – knew the price of business in Guatemala City, or what was left of it. When the capes come knocking, you hand over the cash. If you tried to keep it, you’d end up with your body broken, your mind shredded, or whatever else they’d do to set an example. Ever since a pair of Transcended had paid a visit to the city, the concept of law and order was a distant memory.
Not that Leopard was a cape. Not that any of the Animals were. But in a world of masked heroes, even normal people could figure out the benefit of pretending to be one. It was just good business sense.
And in the ruins of Guatemala City, business was booming.
With the money in his hand, Leopard took a step back, then another, and kept his weapon trained on the group before him. Among his many rules, Monkey had always made one thing clear: if you got sloppy, you died. Only when he was far enough away that he felt safe, did Leopard turn and break into a run.
The real capes would be coming soon, and his gun might as well be loaded with water for all the good it would do against them. The capes who had signed on with the relief effort spearheaded by the United Nations’ International Powered Security Agency were not to be trifled with. That was another of Monkey’s rules. The first rule of fighting a cape was simple: don’t.
But even after twelve months, it was unlikely they’d be able to ever restore the nation. When the long-running grudge between The Engineer and The Surveyor had finally broken into open violence, when they’d had it out at the peak of Volcan Tajumulco, the sheer titanic scale of it had broken the land and sent shockwaves throughout the region. In the end, both of the deific capes survived, skulking away to lick their wounds, but the nation had collapsed, virtually overnight.
And into that vacuum had stepped every villain who’d ever wanted to rule a disaster zone like their own personal fiefdom. More than anything else, it was why IPSA had brought in their people. It was a war zone.
Only detritus and ruins remained, once colorful facades lit by the ochre glow of a setting sun. Even now, as Leopard ran down the street, towards the sound of gunfire, grim eyes glared out at him from decrepit storefronts and boarded-up apartment buildings. A bottle shattered by his feet, thrown at him. He felt a pang of something in his chest, but his people needed the money, and taking it from who had been selling weapons and drugs, that was just the right thing to do.
Some part of Leopard’s brain chided him as he ran: correct, it said, but certainly not right.
According to Monkey, it was right, anyway.
That was the whole core idea of the Animals: take from the bad, give to themselves. It was noble, Monkey had always said, and the first step along the path of a great legend. To being real heroes. The money shoved in his pocket, that’d be another step. A small one, but a step all the same.
He just about ran into Tiger and Rooster, who were sprinting in his direction. “Run!” Tiger shouted, her voice distorted by the hardware in her helmet. “Capes!”
The familiar word turned Leopard’s glowing triumph into cold fear, and the great mass of asphalt that annihilated the car to his left crystallized it into icy terror. Through the dust, he caught a glimpse of a silver and purple figure, a halo of earth surging around them.
That was all he needed to see. Leopard turned on his heel and ran for it.
Monkey had always said something else: no capes. There was no idealism in it. They were unpredictable enemies. When you weren’t empowered, it was a bad idea to pick a fight with someone who could hurl a car with their mind, predict your moves before you even thought of them, summon thunderbolts from a clear sky – or worse.
They were unpredictable allies, too.
A great chunk of earth and asphalt blasted Leopard from his feet, caused the air to violently whoof out of his lungs. He scrambled for his pistol, fired blindly in the direction of the earth-flinging cape, saw little puffs of dirt where his bullets met only earthen shields.
The three Animals found cover behind a broken groundcar, and Leopard had the sudden, strange image of the cape just slamming a boulder into it and crushing them all underneath, but even thin cover was better than nothing. The one thing everyone knew for certain about capes and their powers was that line of sight mattered.
“Just had to argue for bombs that don’t explode!” Rooster snapped at him. Tiger balanced her rifle over the boot of the car and opened up on full-auto, driving the cape back. Even this close, the sound of gunfire did nothing to Leopard. Didn’t scare him. Didn’t even set his teeth on edge. But not so inured to it that it made him sloppy.
“They don’t know that!” Leopard retorted, reaching for the last one he had. “And where the fuck are Snake and Wolf?!”
“With the boss!”
“And where’s–” Leopard didn’t bother finishing the question. Monkey’s habit of taking after his namesake was always rather inopportune.“Tiger!”
“Cover me!” And, with that, trusting in Tiger to lay down fire, Leopard rose and charged.
Tiger’s fusillade kept the cape focused on using their earthen projectiles to defend rather than to attack. Hurl the pipebomb and nail them as they focus on the explosive. Distraction, cape or not, tended to kill.
Halfway to his enemy, things went wrong.
“Fuck!” Tiger snarled. “Jammed!”
This close, through the dust, Leopard caught the gaze of his opponent. The cape’s face was hidden behind a mask and a bandana but, in that moment, he could see a glimmer of recognition, of seeing a leopard ready to pounce.
Leopard hurled the pipebomb at the same time the cape launched a boulder.
The ground slipped away from his feet and then rushed up to slam into his face. And Leopard was aware of himself tumbling, of pain in his shoulder as it was wrenched the wrong way, of everything suddenly stopping, of the fact that the idea of sound began and ended at the ringing in his ears. He had to get up. Everything hurt but he had to get up before-
The cape – a man, he could see that now – kicked him over and wrenched the leopard helmet from his head. The metal edge left a gash along Leopard’s cheek, but the pain of that seemed less important than it should have, given the circumstances. Leopard knew this was very bad, for several reasons, but they slipped through his mind like eels in the dark.
“This barrio is mine,” the cape sneered, face hidden behind a half-mask emblazoned with a falling star. He said something more, Leopard caught a name – Cometary – but the rest of it was hard to pay attention to. There was something funny there, though – the cape had mispronounced barrio.
Absurd. Neither of them were from around here. Leopard wanted to laugh but it only came out as a cough, a great wracking motion that sent a surge of pain through his shoulder.
The sun went out. Above him, Cometary had created an eclipse with a boulder the size of his torso.
It narrowly missed crushing Leopard, landing by his left ear, as Tiger leaped over him, tackling Cometary down, laying into him with her fists. And then Rooster was there too, working Cometary’s torso and ribs with a series of punishing blows as Tiger held him tight.
They dropped the cape on to the broken road. Rooster laughed and kicked Cometary across the face as dust began to stir atop the asphalt. The broken cape got the message and let his powers ebb away.
Leopard sat up, got to his feet, walked over to his helmet. He coughed still, almost surprised that he didn’t bring up clouds of dust.
“He saw your face,” Tiger commented, “you think he’s IPSA?”
“Not wearing blue and silver,” Rooster said, “but that doesn’t mean much. Still a few independents around.”
To Leopard, it didn’t matter either way. The one thing that could break the Animals was if anyone knew who they were. If he was a member of the law, he’d pass the information on to his superiors. If he wasn’t, he could still talk and, in so doing, take out a rival.
And, in either case, if he knew anyone with some capability to track Leopard based on an impression or imprint…
When Leopard retrieved his handgun, it felt heavy in his hand. There was only one obvious recourse.
“Pick him up,” Leopard instructed, scooping up his helmet and setting it on his head. He hated how shaken he sounded.
When he spoke again, the helmet spoke for him: “Monkey can decide what to do with him.”
They reached their hideout just before nightfall, Leopard leading the way with Rooster hauling Cometary behind. Tiger brought up the rear; rifle carried in that too casual way that heralded violence for anyone who looked too close.
The old car yard lot at the edge of the city wasn’t much of a hideout, but the barbed wire fence and the heavy gate kept it somewhat secure – compared to many places deeper into the urban jungle, at least. On the roof, just barely visible, Leopard could make out Wolf. Their marksman, newest recruit and first point of warning if anyone else were to show up.
That meant Monkey was here.
Their leader met them just inside the old building that had once been an office. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered, muscled where Leopard was lean. He brushed his copper-red mane back behind an ear as the three approached.
“Spots! Hey!” Monkey laughed, a hooting sound that sounded too much like his namesake. He slapped a hand against Leopard’s back and guided him in. The other two decided not to follow, knew they still couldn’t, even now, and Leopard felt strangely proud of that.
“Successful run,” Leopard replied, fishing the cash from his pocket. Monkey took it, shoved it into his fatigues without looking at it.
“Listen,” Monkey said, blue eyes bright with infectious energy. “That’s great, and I’m proud of you. But you have to see this. This is trusted circle level shit, you and me only.”
That felt good. Even though their numbers had grown from the days where he and Monkey had been a pair of mercenaries, it always made Leopard feel good when his boss remembered that they had been friends first. It wasn’t a feeling he was used to, feeling appreciated.
Leaving Leopard to shut the door, Monkey settled behind the desk into the old leather chair that had surely once belonged to some KPI-obsessed manager but, when Monkey sat in it, seemed more like a throne for a King. He reached into the top drawer and pulled something from within, something in a case, as Leopard perched himself on the corner of the desk.
Monkey popped the case open, emerald light glinting from within, and slid it over to Leopard. He glanced inside and wasn’t sure if it was fear or amazement that began to boil over in his gut. He didn’t dare touch it or even think of touching it.
It wasn’t a big thing or even a dangerous thing. Not if you didn’t know what it was, or who had made it. It was small, no bigger than Leopard’s thumb, as if it were nothing more than some technological trinket that had been carved from obsidian. Leopard glanced at it, eyes wide, and gaped at Monkey’s eager expression.
“This,” Monkey said, with an outrageous smile, “is going to make us legends.”
The real reason why anyone cared about Guatemala City wasn’t the villains, the devastation, or even, Leopard knew, him and his crew.
No, the only real reason anyone cared about the ruins was because of the things The Engineer had left behind. And that thing – that small, unassuming thing that could fit entirely in the palm of Leopard’s hand – was something of unimaginable power and, therefore, unimaginable value.
If IPSA knew they had it…
And, with that thought, Leopard scowled, and gestured to Cometary through the window, still held between Rooster and Tiger.
“We’ve got a problem,” he said.