Looking out the window at a downtown Paradigm City street, the sun in his eyes, Leopard said, “I think we’ve made a mistake.”
Monkey looked up from the seat opposite him, mid-mouthful of some African dish that Leopard couldn’t remember the name of. “Whaddya mean, Spots?”
The late-morning crowd of a mediocre cafe ambled around them. Monkey had wanted breakfast – breakfast that you didn’t get out of a self-heating packet — and so, with Tiger in tow, Leopard had accompanied him to a place in downtown Paradigm. Leopard nursed a cup of coffee, one of the few things on the menu that he actually recognised.
The problem was, he’d never developed a taste for it. It was foul, but he hoped it’d help take his mind off something more foul: memories of Cometary.
Tiger had settled in a booth where she could see both entrances, as well as keeping an eye on him and Monkey. The ridiculous straw hat she was wearing made her inconspicuous by drawing attention. It made her look like someone’s mother.
Only someone’s mother who had learned Spanish solely so she could ask people ‘Donde esta tu Dios ahora?’ as they bled out…
“Mm? Sorry. Nothing.” His eyes were on one of the monitors, reading the news ticker. SUPERION AND MERCURIAL TO WED… EUROPE HONORS THE TWELVE CHAMPIONS… NEO-AMERICAN FRONT CONTINUES TO EMBRACE CENTRAL AMERICAN REFUGEES… MELBOURNE PREPARES TO PROTOTYPE NEW DEFENSIVE TECHNOLOGY… GUARDIAN CORPS–
Monkey said, “Huh. Looks like Guardian Corps busted up another apocalypse cult.” His gaze had wandered away from the waitresses and towards the monitor in the far corner, catching up on the news.
Leopard shrugged. “Doesn’t mean anything. People’ve been worrying about the end of the world since Preceptor first showed up, not even getting into how mad things got when he vanished.”
“I don’t know. You ever think they might be right?”
“Why would they be? Just because things are changing doesn’t mean they’re ending, man. People believe the world’s going to end because they can’t stand the idea it’s going to go on without them. If the world’s going to end, no one’s going to predict it. Not even the Concordiat.”
“You sound pretty sure about that, Spots.”
“What can I say? Dredging through the ruins of a Transcended battlefield, it makes you think about the end of the world.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
Monkey returned his attention to his food, poking at it with his fork.
“I like how we’ve been going recently, y’know?” he said, looking up and across the table. “I think Paradigm’s going to offer us a good place to start.”
Leopard caught his eyes. Monkey was checking for his reaction.
“I was hoping we’d be beyond starting at this point,” he said evenly. They still hadn’t hit up a hardware store. Monkey kept finding excuses not to.
“Well, we didn’t count on them dropping Ironheart on us, did we? That business with Gate… One day, we’ll be the one telling him the terms, won’t we, Spots?”
Leopard sighed. “Will we?”
“Does it matter?”
“What do you mean?”
“What we’re doing. Where we’re going. Does it matter? What’s our plan? I don’t mean, like, our big goal, I mean the small things, like logistics.”
“We’ll figure it out.”
It was Monkey’s usual refrain. The specifics of figuring it out, of course, usually fell to Leopard. Just as they had for their first five days in Paradigm. The details of outfitting the hideout, of figuring out escape routes, of working out where to stash things. The boring part of the work.
“We can’t afford to just figure it out,” Leopard replied. “We have more people to take care of. That means more mouths. More mouths to feed, more mouths to keep an eye on. Loose lips and all that.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Monkey repeated.
Leopard leaned back, exhaled and lulled his eyes towards the ceiling.
“If you wanted to trust in improvisation,” he said, “then maybe you shouldn’t have taken on all the others.”
“Is this what it’s about? This topic again?”
Leopard simmered somewhere behind his eyes. He turned his head, so he was staring out the window, looking at nothing in particular. Looking at everything so that he didn’t have to look back at Monkey.
“We can’t keep doing this,” Leopard said, at last. But that was wrong, he realized. He searched for the right thing to say.
“I can’t keep doing this.”
Monkey sighed, shook his head. “Not again. Spare me this self-indulgent melancholy, man. It’s too early in the morning.”
Leopard didn’t say anything. The words self-indulgent were enough of a wake-up slap. The near-boil behind his eyes began to cool and recede. The worst thing anyone could be in a team situation was self-indulgent.
If he felt horrible about killing Cometary, so what? It proved that he still had something of a moral center. And that made Leopard feel better, but only slightly. Somehow the idea that it was okay to kill someone if you felt bad about it afterward wasn’t completely persuasive.
“Guess I’m still waking up. Need my coffee.” Leopard raised the mug for emphasis.
And Monkey smiled, like all acrimony had vanished. “Guess you do.”
Monkey finished his meal while Leopard tried to bother with finishing his coffee. The taste hadn’t improved by cooling. Cometary was still a wraith in his brain. For a moment, he wanted to say something. Something to Monkey. Something about Cometary. Something about killing him and how he had felt – strong, weak, powerful, ashamed. About how he could defend himself but he couldn’t murder.
How he wasn’t sleeping.
How he had seen Cometary in the mirror when he woke up that morning.
But the moment passed. He watched as his friend and leader turned his eyes, now filled with a different sort of hunger, back towards the waitresses. If Monkey had a weakness – and Leopard found it hard to believe but sometimes that he did – it was women.
And, in the decade they had known each other, had worked together, had drunk together, had fought and bled together, they’d had maybe one conversation about feelings.
A dark-skinned waitress left the bill, which Leopard paid with a credit chit they’d pulled together with the last of their funds. Monkey watched her go, then, brushing his red mane back, turned his eyes towards the monolithic shape of Paradigm Tower.
“You know something, Spots?”
“A few things. What’s up?”
“I think apocalypses are only frightening if you’re afraid of progress.”
Halfway back from the restaurant, Leopard’s world exploded.
He had just been walking. One foot in front of the other, when everything went straight to hell. The building just in front of him, to his left, blasted outwards as someone – a figure dressed in blue and yellow, a costume that might’ve had a bird motif – was sent through the front window from the inside. In the smoke and dust stood a hulking shape with two wide sweeping horns atop their head.
Blue-And-Yellow was just picking himself up as another person, a hooded and caped woman who vanished and blinked forwards with every step of her charge, raced towards the horned figure. With each step, Leopard could taste ozone.
The horned figure caught the ozone woman and, laughing, hurled her right at Blue-And-Yellow. Blue-And-Yellow raised his arms, to do something, but whatever he was hoping for, it wasn’t enough. The pair crashed into a street lamp.
Monkey grabbed Leopard and threw him down.
“It’s a goddamn cape street war!” Monkey shouted. Around the horned woman, he could see other figures, dressed in drab olive fatigues and improvised masks. One of them kicked at the asphalt and the road split, breaking and tearing, scattering their more colorful opponents. Someone fell into it, screaming.
Kicker brought his hands closed, and the fissure slammed shut, taking the scream with it.
“And we’re caught in the fucking middle!” Tiger yelled.
In front of them, the horned woman stood, massive arms spread wide. “Is this all you have, Paradigm City?! Face me and die!”
And, behind them, there was no shortage of people willing to face her. All Leopard knew was that none of them were official capes. They were amateurs at worst, maybe poor empowered criminals at best. Some of them had firearms, and that was evidently enough for both sides to pull them out, and the street became filled with empowered abilities and a hail of bullets.
There was nowhere to go.
The three Animals clustered behind a groundcar, bullets pinging off the metalwork. “Just like old times,” Tiger hissed to Leopard. “What’s the plan?”
Leopard looked to Monkey, just as someone in drab green and brown came up to their car, rifle in hand, sighting in on someone in the melee. Tiger leaped up and went for his eyes, knocked him down. From there, Leopard couldn’t see what happened, but Tiger was the only one who came up, rifle in hand.
She still had that ridiculous straw hat on.
“Don’t shoot at the one with the horns!” Leopard shouted.
“Yeah, I fucking know!” Tiger snapped.
Monkey was shouting into his phone, “Bring everyone! Everyone! Now! Yes, that’s fucking gunfire!”
Leopard peeked out into the street. The horned woman was fighting another giant, someone who seemed to be literally made out of asphalt. She was winning, too, as each pummelling fist or kick blasted chunks out of her opponent. When her opponent cried out, it was with a woman’s voice, and she fell back.
Into the gap leaped a woman in black and yellow, her face in skull paint, an ax in her hands. She swung high, lopping off one of the horned combatant’s horns, and then brought her ax down in a blur.
It dug deep into the horned woman’s shoulder, right through her heavy armored vest. It should’ve been a debilitating blow, if not a mortal one, but she didn’t seem even the slightest bit slowed as she grabbed the skull-faced woman and broke her left arm in two places, threw her aside like a ragdoll.
Asphalt banged her blocky fists together and resumed her attack.
The horned woman landed a straight blow to the asphalt woman’s head, shattering it into fragments. Someone cried out – “Punchline!” – as the asphalt giant toppled back and broke into pieces on the road.
“I am Taurine,” the horned woman roared out, “And you are all lambs to my slaughter! Retreat while you have the chance!”
Some of them were. Leopard could see groups scattering. Whoever this Taurine was, it seemed like her opponents didn’t have what it took to bring her down. He was sure the bullets were ricocheting off her – they sure as hell weren’t puncturing her flesh. She began barking orders and commands, just as Leopard caught sight of Snake, Rooster and Wolf, weapons in hand as they charged into the storm.
The three of them in their chrome helmets and black gear stood out as they weaved through the melee. When they couldn’t, they spat gunfire.
“Time to fucking go,” Rooster said, pulling up by their groundcar hiding spot.
For once, Leopard agreed.
They ran for it. With every footstep, Leopard felt like he wouldn’t feel the next. He’d take a bullet in the back or eat one of the dozens or so empowered abilities that were ripping through the air, splitting the road and blasting through buildings.
He looked back, stupidly, just in time to see Taurine point the way towards him and the others. “Earthbreaker, kill them!”
Earthbreaker stomped the ground again, driving another seismic chasm through the asphalt. Windows shattered in the skyscraper behind Leopard, throwing glass through the air. But he was fine. They were fine. They just had to keep–
“Leopard! Tiger! Help me!”
Leopard looked back again. It was Snake. She’d fallen, and Earthbreaker’s fissure had slammed closed on her leg. Wolf was at her side, trying to free her.
Leopard cursed and ducked back towards the pair. Behind him, Monkey called for him, “Spots!”
He kneeled down, pulled at Snake’s leg. The fissure had clamped shut, a seismic vice. Snake was pulling frantically, desperately, but it was becoming clear that the only way she’d be getting out was with a sudden amputation.
Smoke and dust filled the air, not exactly muffling the sound of car alarms and violence. Over it all came the clarion call of Great Barrier of Star Patrol, an order for every single combatant to stand down and be arrested quietly or face the use of deadly force. They were out of time.
“Goddamnit,” Leopard seethed. “Fuck!”
And then Earthbreaker was there, striding through the dust, practically right on top of Wolf. He wore a motorcycle helmet, a bull’s skull emblazoned on it. By the time Leopard was shouting a warning, he’d already raised his foot.
Earthbreaker’s heel scuffed the asphalt.
Taurine’s lieutenant seemed just as confused by it as Leopard was. Earthbreaker tried a second time, and then Wolf shot him in the chest.
Arms wrapped around Leopard from behind. Monkey. “Spots, we have to fucking go! Leave her!”
“We can’t!” Leopard snapped, but it was too little, too late — once Monkey had hauled him away, it was clear that the only thing to do was retreat.
“Don’t–!” Snake shouted, “For the love of God–!”
Through the smoke, Leopard could see Taurine engaged with someone who he would swear was spear-wielding Ned Kelly, someone in bulky power armor, and Great Barrier herself. He couldn’t tell who was winning, and that was bad enough if it was three on one.
He ran for it.
He didn’t look back.