Chapter 5: Ashes

As soon as we were on the ground, we made our way to the safe house. This was a lot of back and forth, but it had to be done to keep the Sandman secret. I hopped onto one of the motorcycles parked in the garage, and Lake looked at me awkwardly. It struck me that he probably wouldn’t have any sort of driver’s licence, and that presented a problem for him. Having to ride behind me on the bike would be awkward, but I couldn’t drive a car. We stood in silence for a little while, before Lake jumped onto the bike behind me, and we finally sped out of the garage, and onto the open road.

Unsurprisingly, we drew a lot of attention in our suits as we rode down the highway, and I could see little kids turning wide-eyed attention to us as we passed, and teenagers trying to snap a photo or take a quick video as we flew ahead of them. I think Lake waved at a few people, but I was so focused on the road that I couldn’t really tell. After being in a crash, I was a little nervous to drive. I took a sharp turn onto the city exit, and we continued to speed past many unsettled and confused passengers, and as we got into the business center of the city, things got worse. Traffic slowed down, and we were stuck at a snail’s pace, starting and stopping at every red light we came across, and boy, the pedestrians noticed. Every time we stopped, we attracted a massive crowd on the sidewalk, who’d stop, take a few pictures, and try and figure out if we were for real or not. People had seen my costume before, but Atlantis was new to them, and was likely the major draw. As we got closer to a suitable place to park, things continued to escalate, as people would stop in the middle of crossings just to snap another picture. This was going to give the technophobes something to talk about.

I rounded another corner, pulling off of the main street and into a back alley, where Atlantis and I had someone waiting for us to take the bike. We stepped back out into the main street, and we had attention come back onto us instantly. We were backed up to the corner of an intersection, surrounded by a group of people with seemingly never-ending questions.
“You can take this one, Atlantis,” I pushed him out into the crowd, and went to watch from the roadside.

He managed to answer the big question of whether or not we were real in a few seconds, when he pulled a morphing ball of water out of his tank, and started twisting it in his hands. It was like clay to him, soft and malleable. He could move it with his mind, sure, but like the rest of us, he preferred to use his hands to bring a tangibility to his power. I took a seat on the bench, and observed how he carried himself in his situation. We were surrounded by people, all of which would normally be visiting one of the cafes or restaurants lining the street on their lunch break, and they were now standing around him, trying to discern who he was. The peace in this part of the city was a far cry from the shopping district, our destination, and it was calming to take it in before we would have to head out.

The peace was shattered by a loud honking, and the worried cries coming from across the road. I leapt to my feet, and ran towards the source of the noise. A truck was barreling down the road, and a young boy was stood in its path, un-moving. I ran towards him as fast as I could, my feet pounding against the concrete as I ran. The pulsing light on my chest accelerated as fast as I did, and I had to manually dim it to keep it from hurting anyone’s eyes. I heard something crack as my foot slammed into the ground, but I paid no attention to it as the truck closed in on the child. I had to make it to him in less than a second to save his life.

I pulled the kid up off of the ground, and spun to keep him safe as I fell to the ground on the other side of the road. I slid on my back, and held the kid close to my chest until I stopped. The kid looked to be about six when he pushed himself up off my chest, and a woman who looked like his sister ran over to grab him. I sat up, looking at yet another crowd that had gathered around me. The truck stopped further down the road, but no-one was paying any attention to that anymore. I was the focal point of the entire street’s attention. I looked up at the kid’s sister. I knew her.
“This is quite the crowd,” I said as I stood up. I patted myself down, making sure nothing that had been attached to my suit had come off, and thankfully, I was fine. A few people backed away from me as they noticed the gun strapped to my thigh.
“You saved my brother’s life,” The girl said.
“I guess I did. What’s your name?” I asked the little boy.
“Tommy,” He said meekly.
“Tommy, eh? And your sister is?” He backed away from me a little. It wasn’t surprising, my suit didn’t make me look all that friendly.
“I’m Rachel,” she said, patting Tommy on the back. I knew. She’d been one of my classmates. I extended a hand to her, before realizing I didn’t have a way to introduce myself.
“And you are?” she asked, shaking my hand.
“I’m a friend,” I said, and she let go of my hand.
“That’s not much of a name,” Atlantis said from behind me.
“Can you think of something better?” I asked him, and he stopped for a second.
“Skyfire,” He said. I didn’t hate it. The clock on my helmet ticked over to five thirty, and made a little dinging noise as it did so.
“We’d better be heading out Atlantis,” I said, and we walked away.

We entered the streets where we’d been told the gang was operating, and my heart sunk. The street was scarred, the buildings that lined it were burnt husks, and shards of glass and hunks of cement were strewn across the road and footpaths. Everywhere I looked, there were vines and deadwood, the only stuff that seemed to be living in what was once an urban center was the parasites and predators. Which made it the perfect place for a gang to hide out. I’d hear about the situation in the area, gangs were making it hard for any repairs to be done, and had supposedly killed volunteer workers, but nothing could be proven. The place looked like it had been abandoned for years, and yet, it had only been a few months. This was the Ashes, alright. I walked down the street, taking in the place. I had known some of these streets like the back of my hand, and now all the landmarks I once knew had been burnt beyond recognition. If only someone had had powers back then, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened.

According to Lake, our goal here was simple. Discreetly scout out the area, and find where Streamline was gathering. This was simply a PR stunt, Walter’s intention was to make us look good, but now that I knew where we were, I had a different goal in mind. Sure, I’d still follow the plan and go back to The Sandman for reinforcements, but I wanted to gather as much information about the incident that had caused this as possible, and I would gladly abandon Lake to find that information. Hell, he’d be happy to see me leave. I pulled open the door to a nearby building, it looked like one of the houses that had been caught on the edge of the incident, and made my way inside. This’d be where we’d camp out overnight, should the need arise, and I made my way around the building, looking for anything that had survived in the flame-ravaged house. It was morbid, I’ll admit, rummaging through the remains of a family’s home to find anything useful to me, but it was something I’d have to do. There was no way we could’ve brought what we would need for a long-winded stake out without appearing even more suspicious then we already were. I quickly turned down the pulsating light on my chest, so it would be hard to see even in the dark.

I wandered into a small room during my search, and I stepped on something soft. Underneath my foot was what looked like a stuffed animal, but fire had claimed half of its face, and it was unrecognizable. It picked it up off the ground, and turned it over in my hands. Apart from the obvious damage to the face, it looked relatively fine, only a few strands of soot clinging to it here and there. I felt like shit, seeing what could have only been a child’s cherished possession here, and pondered what to do with it. I couldn’t destroy it, that would be heartless, so I checked the toy to see if there was anything on it that could identify it. Stitched into the back of the toy was a little tag, that had the handwriting of a four-year-old scrawled across it. I dropped it to the ground and ran out of the room as I read the tag, and quickly made my way out to wear Lake was sitting.

He’d propped himself up against a wall, once again toying with a ball of water, bouncing it against the ground. I could guess at what sitting in a burnt house would do to him, he could control water, after all. He looked over at me, and rolled his eyes. I had doubted there’d be much conversation between the two of us while we were down here, and I was fully prepared to go our separate ways at any time, but he seemed more relaxed then he had on the Sandman, but at the same time, more wound-up than ever. I took a seat myself, and we sat in silence for a while. I expected him to ask if I had a plan, but I had assumed he wanted to be in control of the situation, and I was waiting for him to talk. Time slowly ticked by as we sat, and I sprung lightning between my hands after a while, watching how it moved through the air, crackling and sizzling, and producing that strange scent. It was a dangerous power, after all, a bolt of lightning could produce some seriously dangerous radiation, but neither Riley or I could pull a bolt of lightning out of the sky, either through incapability or being simply unwilling. Besides, that would only be useful to kill, and that wasn’t something I planned on doing.

“So, Stickman. Plan on telling me what we’re going to do here?” Atlantis asked. From what I knew, Streamline only operated at night. That meant that the easiest plan would be to wait until sunset, and then head out to find them. If we could find a few members, say, wandering the streets, we could trail them. Hopefully, that would let us find out where they gathered, and we could listen in to a meeting. That was pretty hopeful though and the likelihood was that we would need to scour the streets day and night to find a shred of evidence of their movements. No-one could verify any rumors about them, and my run in with them on the bridge was probably the closest anyone had come to finding them since they’d sprung up in the Ashes. It wasn’t much of a plan, so I explained it to Atlantis, and waited for his input.

Surprisingly, he agreed with me. He believed that the simplest way to take Streamline down would be to find a good chunk of them, and knock them out for the cops to deal with. He seemed to know a lot about Streamline, and I was thankful for that. If I had been trying this alone, I would be going in blind.

I heard a soft rustling, and we both froze. In Atlantis’s case, this was quite literal, as the ball of water in his hand shifted into a sharpened shard of ice. I was curious as to when he’d learned to do that, but for now I was more worried about what was outside. We crawled out of the living room together, making as little sound as we possibly could, and moved into a nearby room.
“This is farther out then we’re meant to go, Lou. You sure this place’ll have some good stuff inside?” A voice said. Streamline members, at least two. I moved out of view of the front door, and Atlantis moved with me. We were in the kitchen, surrounded by knives and pots and pans, tons of potential for makeshift weaponry, and Atlantis understood that.

He crawled behind the island in the center of the kitchen, and I scrambled to follow him. The crew were in view now, three men. They had guns, of course, but one of them was carrying a baseball bat with nails hammered into the end, and another had what looked like a cleaver, the sort of knife a butcher would use. I tried to pull one of the burnt draws open as quietly as I could, but ash trickled away from the drawer as I pulled it open, and I decided against it because of the noise it would make. I could take a bullet in this suit, but I had no idea how well it would stand up to the blade of a knife, and being hit by a baseball bat would hurt like fuck, no matter what kind of protection I was wearing. Lake had the slightest advantage provided by the tank he was wearing, but that wouldn’t stand up to multiple hits. We would have to fight smart, we couldn’t end up having to limp back to Miracle without even spending a night down here, she would never let me live that down.

I took a quick glance at the group rummaging through the remains of the living room we had been sat in, and noticed one of them looked familiar. It was the driver, from back on the bridge, and thankfully, he wasn’t carrying any sort of weapon, apart from the previously noted pistol, which wouldn’t stand a chance against me. While their backs were turned, I moved to the side of the archway that led into the kitchen, just out of view of the living room, and Atlantis stayed in his place. As soon as I was in a comfortable position, the crew moved into the kitchen, following their eyes as they moved through the building.

“Might be some leftover food we can use. Maybe some knives too. Chad, check for food, Nick, grab as many knives as you can find, then we’re out of here,” The driver, who I now understood to be Lou said. I crept up behind him, tapping the floor with my foot before I took a step, and being very careful not to alert the duo searching the kitchen. I stood up carefully, so that Lou’s natural movements and his body would hide me from view. When I was fully stood, I placed my hand over his mouth, hoping to knock him out before silently moving to the next guy. Two on one, or even a two on two would be winnable for us, and we’d be able to make it out of here safely, or dispose of their weapons and question them before we left. I doubted Atlantis would want to stick around for very long, so I just had to make sure no-one saw me as I grabbed the next guy.

The plan probably would have worked, if Lou didn’t decide to bite my hand. He shouted for his buddies, and they looked at where I was standing. I wiped the saliva off of my hand, and signaled for Atlantis to stay put.
“Well if it isn’t the bastard from the bridge,” Lou said, drawing his weapon. He pointed his gun at me, before a meaty hand was placed on his shoulder.
“Nick?” Lou asked, and then grinned. The big guy with the baseball bat. He looked tough, and like he’d been in a lot of fights. He had this strange tribal tattoo on his face, and swung his bat in one hand as he looked at me. Great.

Nick lunged at me, swinging his bat with one hand at my chest. The one handed swing meant he was confident in his strength, which probably also meant he didn’t know what I was wearing. The bat glanced at my chest, an attempt to use the nails stuck through it to cut me. It bounced off of me, and Nick looked annoyed at the fact that he hadn’t cut me. He swung again, trying to hit me with the bat itself, and I stepped back out of the way. He swung over and over again, moving me back out into the living room, which was much more of an open area. He ran at me, and grabbed me in both arms. He pulled me up, and squeezed me as he tried to break my arms, or push all of the air out of me. Either way, I wasn’t going to let him. I kicked at him as he crushed me, flailing my legs and smashing them into his. He grunted every so often, and tightened his grip. I kicked one final time, as his grip was making me feel week, and hit him in a rather delicate part of his body. He let me go, and roared, taking a massive overhead swing at me with the bat. I raised my hands to catch it, and when it entered my grip, I twisted it in his hands to force it out of his grip. It wasn’t working, he was a brute and far stronger than I was, so Instead I focused on preventing him from hitting me with one hand, and I took a punch at him with the other.

I planted my fist firmly in his stomach, and he groaned in pain. His grip on the bat weakened, and I pulled it out of his hands. I tossed it away from me with a little more might then I had intended, and it shattered a window as it flew out onto the street. Nick roared again, and threw a punch at me. I dodged it, and used the opportunity to place my right leg behind me, and I raised my fists in front of me. Walter was a scary kickboxing teacher, but he’d taught me pretty well in the time he’d had to do it. I took a sweeping kick at the brute’s legs, hoping to use his own weight to knock him out as he fell. He stepped over my foot, and charged at me with a fist prepped to punch me.

He didn’t get a chance to hit me, as I punched him in the face and knocked him off balance. For good measure, I planted an elbow in his back as he fell on his face. He hit the ground with enough force that I doubted he’d be getting up for a while.

The next guy who wanted to fight me was the man with a knife, who I think had been referred to as Chad. Not the scariest gangster name, but then again, neither were Nick and Lou. He came at me with his cleaver, slashing at my chest in the same way Nick had, but he was smaller, and faster. He got multiple slashes in before I had time to react, but thankfully he didn’t manage to cut through my suit. He took a step back, probably to examine my suit, and to find a weakness. Something he could cut through. It was his mistake though, as Atlantis snuck up behind him and hit him over the back of the head with a frying pan.
“Where’d you get that idea?” I asked him.
“I saw it in a movie,” He grinned, and we turned to the last guy, Lou, who had the barrel of his gun trained on Atlantis.
He can take a bullet. But can you?” He asked. Before he even had a chance to fire, a tendril of electricity leapt from my hand, and slammed into his chest. I didn’t want to test anyone else’s suit the way mine had been tested. They could do that in a controlled environment. Atlantis rubbed the back of his neck, and turned to face me.
“Those guys were looters. Just the goons,” He said. If these guys were just looters, then what kind of situation had we gotten into?
“We should probably leave before these guys wake up,” I said, and Atlantis crouched down over Lou. He walked over to me, holding a phone in his hand.
“Now we can leave,” He said, and we ran like hell.