Brian climbed the steps to the hideout with the rest of the Undersiders trailing behind him. On paper this looked like a great victory for the team. Lung was captured and Oni Lee had been crippled. Unfortunately circumstances were more complicated than that.
This had been the first major offensive the Undersiders had conducted and it had been a hard sell for the team. Before tonight he would have thought that hitting Lung's casino was the biggest risk he could live with. The take from that job had been excellent, but it had kicked the hornet's nest as far as the ABB was concerned. Lung was on the warpath and they'd already had to cancel two jobs because of ABB spotters that Lisa had picked out.
Taking the fight to the gang had been a dicey proposition. Alec was in favor of waiting a few weeks for things to die down. It wasn't a terrible plan, and honestly Brian probably would have gone along with it in any other circumstances. Unfortunately that just wasn't an option right now.
He was so close to getting custody of Aisha, but there were expenses that went along with that. He knew his mother was circling and looking for any excuse she could take to contest the case. A drop in income from his 'job', a delay on setting up Aisha's room in his apartment, even extra debt if he tried to use credit cards to bridge the gap, any of those could torpedo his chances of keeping his sister safe. He couldn't afford to sit back from jobs for weeks. Actually, with how vindictive Lung was known to be those weeks would likely spill into months.
Fortunately Brian wasn't alone in pushing for the attack. The boss wanted the Undersiders back in the field and Lisa was in his corner on that. Brian knew Rachel was caring for far more dogs than the three she took on jobs. Because of that her expenses well exceeded what their base salary could cover and she was both hungry for work and defensive of her share. She could not afford to sit things out until the ABB decided they weren't a priority.
They had talked Alec around eventually, but he kept voicing his doubts the whole time. Brian had a sense everyone was feeling the same way, but Alec was the only one complaining about things. Heading out that night had been a terrifying experience. No one was letting their fear show, but the dogs were picking up on it and they were agitated as the team rode out to face the ABB capes.
Brian had planned things out as well as he could with Lisa. No one in the city would have taken the odds for the Undersiders in a fight with the ABB, but he felt they at least had a chance. By striking from ambush and keeping their opponents off balance and separated they could do this. Oni Lee didn't do well in darkness and Lung was outclassed by Rachel's dogs for the first few stages of his growth. If everything went well they could get the drop on their opponents and either finish this or make them cautious enough that they wouldn't risk a confrontation.
Then the night had proven the old adage that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Two new capes in one night. It wasn't unheard of. Brockton had a larger community of fresh triggers, c-listers, and mercenary capes than anyone really gave it credit for. With Lung, Kaiser, Armsmaster, and Dauntless in the same city it was easy to overlook a guy running around in a budget costume doing work on the periphery of the scene.
Hell, until last year Brian would have met that definition himself.
It would have been unusual to just run into capes by chance but no part of this operation was subtle. The tinker had followed the sound of their fight with Oni Lee and the bug cape had found Lung's staging point. It could just as easily have been protectorate heroes as that pair of green capes.
What was unusual was how well both of them had faired against the powerhouses of the ABB. The tinker had taken over a fight that was pushing the entire team to their limits and walked out of it with only a frayed coat while Oni Lee slunk off with a broken arm. The bug cape may have been in a bad spot when they arrived but Lung had been worked over on a level that would normally take an entire team of capes to pull off. If he hadn't been drunk on venom the dogs would have had a serious fight on their hands and Brian couldn't have guaranteed all the Undersiders would have walked away from it.
In theory things went better than they could have hoped for. In practice things were a lot more complicated. Rather than the elation of a successful job the morale of the group was mixed.
Bitch was in her usual foul mood. This job had been purely defensive. It countered an imminent threat to the team, but didn't have any pay or loot. Bitch was here out of obligation and to ensure continued work. With the appearance of the two new capes the normally wary girl was on edge.
Alec was as irreverent as ever, heading straight for the couch and grabbing a controller with one hand and some leftover pizza with the other, looking to all the world like he was completely content with how the night turned out. Brian knew better, but the question of just how much of that was an act was something he was never able to nail down.
Lisa was most concerning. She had recovered from what looked like a real moment of panic and settled into her usually smartass role when dealing with the bug controller, but whatever happened with the other cape had clearly shaken her badly. She had been quiet on the way back and Lisa was never quiet unless something was going very wrong.
Alec glanced over from the couch and smirked. "What's the big deal? Tonight went great. We should have more missions where other capes do all the work for us."
"We didn't need their help." Rachel was in the kitchen getting some food for the patiently waiting Brutus, Judas, and Angelica. Brian knew what she was concerned about. Rachel felt takes were being split too many way already. She would oppose any recruitment attempts, both to protect her share and out of general distrust. The thing was the Undersiders needed new blood. They had reached the limit of what they could handle with four people. Lisa might be spooked, but Brian doubted that would matter as the boss had been pushing for recruitment. A master who could take on Lung was a seriously valuable asset. Whatever the other guy's deal was he had taken an attack that would have put down any bruiser in the empire and come out swinging.
"Are you kidding? Did you see that first guy at work? Oni Lee's lucky to still have a hand after that hit."
"Lucky shot." She paused. "And Lisa didn't like him."
It was rare for Rachel to show any concern for the feelings of another member of the team. Brian wondered if she was actually worried for Lisa or just using it as another excuse to put off recruitment. It could easily be both. The girl was cautious enough regarding candidates everyone supported. Seeing Lisa react like she did probably raised all kinds of fears as far as the tinker cape was concerned.
"Oh yeah. Hey Lisa, what was up with that? Did you start feeling tingly when he looked at you?" Lisa stopped rubbing her temples and shot Alec a seething glare. "That's perfectly normal for a girl your age. You see, when a man and a woman…" Brian's thrown cushion hit him hard enough to knock him clean off the sofa. The idiot laid on the ground laughing to himself and Rachel looked on in disgust.
"Lisa, conference. Now." She gave a quick nod and they headed for the rooms. After a seconds hesitation she went for her own room rather than his. Another bad sign.
Lisa's room was sparse and felt more like an office than a living space. There was a filing cabinet in one corner and a laptop on her desk. Papers were strewn across the room, some unorganized, some in neat piles. The bed looked as untouched as it had when he helped her move it in here. Lisa took a seat on the edge of the mattress and peeled off her domino mask. Brian considered, then perched on the edge of the desk while facing her.
He took a breath. "I need to know what got you so freaked out back there."
Lisa seemed to consider her phrasing, then shook her head and remained quiet.
"Ok, what did you mean when you said he was reading us?" He hadn't wanted to bring this up in front of the others but the possibilities had him in a cold sweat. "Are we compromised?"
"No." Her voice was nowhere near as confident as Brian had become accustomed to. "I don't think so." He took a breath and gestured for her to elaborate. "It wasn't like what I do. It was like someone was feeding him impressions of us. And they were all accurate. Like someone who knew each of us really well was telling him how to respond."
Brian's chest tightened. "How bad is this?"
"I don't know. I've never seen anything else like this, ever. And whatever it was is unrelated to his other powers."
"Do we have to worry about him coming after us? How much does he know?"
"He barely knows anything. That's not what set me off. All he has is this emotional impression of us. Whoever gave it to him is another story."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean whoever is feeding him this impression knows all about us. Us specifically. The stuff he was getting was nuanced and specific to each of our backgrounds. His source, they know everything."
Brian let out a slow breath. "You have any idea who they are?"
She shook her head frantically. "Who, what, I have no idea if they even really exist. I'm flying blind here." He could see how much it pained her to admit that. "It could be some weird thinker power, or it could be someone connected with him, or it could be something even stranger. I can't get information on them and that frankly terrifies me."
"Is he being sent against us? Is that it?" This could be bad. They might be able to outmaneuver him, but there was nothing they had that would be able to counter that kind of toughness. Oni Lee had dropped enough explosives to level a building. Without Lisa's warning to take cover the shrapnel alone would have turned them into Swiss cheese. He was at ground zero and only ended up a little battered.
"No, it's..." She paused as if considering her words. Then a sour smile crossed her face. "That thing? The person, power, whatever. The thing that's feeding him information? It likes us."
"What?" Brian couldn't keep the shock off his face.
"Yeah. Whoever, whatever this is. It likes us. The Undersiders. It likes us as people, as a team. Even Rachel and Alec."
Brian blinked. "Alec?"
"Yeah, even knowing everything about him."
"Well, that's..." He was at a loss for words. Concerning? Comforting? What the hell was he supposed to make of this?
"Both reassuring and terrifying at the same time?"
"Sounds about right." He let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "You report any of this to the boss yet?"
She shook her head. "Standard mission complete text but no details on the new capes. Though he probably already knows a good chunk of it."
Here came the hard part. "He going to want us to make a play at recruitment?"
She nodded slowly. "Almost certainly. After we blew it with Spitfire he's been pushing heavily for it."
Which meant he wanted bigger jobs. Brian didn't have Lisa's level of contact with the man, but he could tell the direction his team was being steered. "What do you think?"
She considered. "Bug girls more likely. We give her some space from Rachel for the introduction and I'm sure I can talk her around. She's new but she's powerful. We'd be lucky to land her."
"After facing down Lung I doubt anyone would argue with that. We'll have to put it to a vote, but I can't see there being any issues." The caveat 'Except for Rachel' went unsaid. "What about the other guy?"
"After that performance there's going to be a big push to get him onboard, if just to keep him from being scooped up by the competition." Lisa's voice betrayed how she felt about that idea.
"What did you get from him? I mean beyond all that insight stuff?"
Lisa considered. "New cape. Newer trigger than bug girl. She's had her powers for months and has been building towards heading out. Getting equipment, costume, that kind of stuff. He's had his powers for maybe a week. A lot of what he was using was newer than that."
"You said he was a tinker?"
"Sort of. He made his gear, but it was really low tech stuff. It just looked nice. The way he uses his powers is probably closer to Dauntless than Armsmaster. Totem cape stuff, items as a conduit for his power. What he had works for him but not anyone else."
"So basically useless for team support?" Not that that would be enough to kill the pressure to recruit. Not with how he fared tonight.
"There was some mechanical knowledge there. You can tell from how his gear was made. Access to a decent machine shop too. But no, he's not going to be churning out ray guns for anyone."
"With what he pulled it's not like he needs to sell himself on the prospect of propping up a team."
"That was closer than it looked." Brian raised an eyebrow. "He managed a last minute boost that saved his life. There's some continuous durability, but not on the level of that many grenades."
"That what he pulled after the blast? With that weird glow?"
Lisa nodded. "Some kind of enhancement effect. He has the materials for it in those pouches." She paused to consider something, then shuddered. "Early in the fight he was considering going for one of them that would have ended things."
"What, he had something that would have put down Oni Lee?"
"Put down as in six feet down." Lisa's voice was grave. "He was trying to stay nonlethal, but he had some big guns in reserve."
That was concerning. Knowing about it was better than going in blind, but if recruitment went badly they would be facing serious firepower as well as someone they couldn't drop.
"What are we talking about here? How bad could this get."
"I don't know." She waved him off before he could respond. "I don't know because he doesn't know. He hasn't had a chance to test out that stuff. Whatever it is he knows it's dangerous, but he's not clear on the specifics."
Brian winced at that. In terms of 'how bad' that was pretty fucking bad. On the cape scene there were few things scarier than a tinker pulling out some device and saying something to the effect of 'Ok, I'm not sure what this does.'
Then again, he had held back from using them even after Oni Lee dropped an Easter basket worth of grenades on him. That was better restraint than most capes. It was a serious contrast to the bug girl throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Lung in an attempt to bring him down.
Brian had seen the effect of a brown recluse bite once. Once. That was enough for a lifetime.
Still, that was the kind of thing you very much wanted on your side if just to keep it from being directed towards you. Plus that was a significant level of firepower that was precise and tightly controlled.
Brian knew the value of intimidation. He had built his entire reputation around being the monster in the dark. A giant swarm of insects had its own power. It was the kind of thing people would react to before they were consciously aware of what their bodies were doing. Everyone knew the threat of an insect and their minds could easily scale it up. That had a lot more impact than someone who may or may not be carrying around whatever vaguely threatening thing was in his pocket.
"We'll go forward with the bug girl, take a vote once everyone's calmed down. The other guy, we'll play that as it comes."
Lisa shook her head. "The boss is going to push for him. Hard."
"I know." He needed the support to keep Aisha safe, but sometime this whole arrangement was just infuriating. "We see how things progress with the bug girl. We lock her down and maybe we'll get a bit of breathing room on the grenade sponge."
She grinned at that. "Your optimism is adorable."
He winced. "Any chance that this mystery thinker power or whatever he has going on will convince the boss we should stay hands off?"
"No." Lisa's answer was immediate and devoid of emotion. "In fact, with that kind of power if we don't manage to land him the boss will probably make a play of his own."
As much as Brian hated to admit it that seemed pretty likely. Despite working for the boss since the team was founded he still didn't have much of a sense of the man or what his long term goals were. One thing he had picked up was there were serious long term plans in the works. Whoever their boss was, he was either a thinker or playing in the same league as one. Few capes were as territorial as those with that classification.
"Can you manage this? It's going to fall to you to handle the contacts and plan the approaches. With how you were tonight..."
"I'll be alright. Mainly it just caught me off guard." She let out a sigh. "I'll contact the boss and update you when I have a better idea of where this is going."
Brian nodded. "I'll head back out, start floating the idea of recruitment. Might go better if I can ease Rachel into it."
Lisa checked her watch. "Looks like neither of us will be getting much sleep tonight."
"What's that they say, no rest for the wicked?"
That got a slight grin from Lisa but Brian could tell this was wearing her down. He didn't like this. She was right about how hard the boss would push. An unconnected tinker was too tempting a prize and that thinker effect, whatever it was, would push things over the top. They needed to find some way to at least get on good terms with him.
He could leave that to Lisa. In the meantime he gently opened the possibility of recruitment to Alec and Rachel. With Rachel he had to restate every argument they'd used for Spitfire's recruitment and then some. Alec was less than helpful in that regard, but at least wasn't trying to actively sabotage anything. By the time he'd gotten her to at least entertain the idea it was too late to even consider going back to his apartment. As he crashed in his room in the hideout he hoped Lisa was having better luck than him.
They'd need it.