Machinations - 9. Arc 1, Chapter 9
Nathan went over in the morning. Sure, he was supposed to meet up with Eric in the afternoon, but it was Eric’s day off, so he’d be there. Besides, he couldn’t wait. He’d be bouncing off the walls all day and be a nervous wreck by noon.
He made the drive to Eric’s apartment, knuckles white on the wheel the whole way. What if Eric wasn’t okay with him being a hero? Or even just having powers? Some people were incredibly weird about that, even if they weren’t at Convert levels of hatred. Convert’s face flashed before his eyes and he shoved it away. That was a whole ‘nother can of worms that he didn’t need on top of his current worm mountain.
He reached the apartment and knocked on the door. “Coming!” he heard. Eric opened the door. “Oh. You’re here early. Are you?” he checked his watch.
“Yeah, I’m early. There’s something I need to talk to you about. You and Coral.”
“Um.” Eric glanced over his shoulder. “Can it wait?
“The sooner we get it over with, the better it’ll be. And I need to tell both of you. I mean, you’ll probably tell Coral afterwards, but it’ll be more believable if Coral sees it too.”
“Mr. Zhu, are you ready for your exam?” Coral sauntered out of the bedroom, dressed in-- well, dressed might be too strong a description. It looked like a bad porn parody of a nurse’s outfit, with added fishnet stockings. There was also a pink bracelet on her arm. She froze when she saw the open door, but only for a moment. “Oh hi, Nathan,” she said, coming to the door. “Want a prostate exam?” She snapped a latex glove on with a wicked grin.
“No, thank you,” Nathan stammered. “I don’t think you’re qualified. And Raph has that covered.” He realized what he just said as the other two raised their eyebrows at him. His face burned. “I just mean that he has great insurance! Nothing like what you’re thinking!” They didn’t look convinced. He cleared his throat. “Anyway, there’s something I need to tell both of you.”
“Okay,” Coral said. “So we’re here. What is it?”
“I need you to come with me so I can tell you.”
“That doesn’t sound suspicious at all,” Coral said, glancing at Eric, who shrugged.
“Look, trust me on this. You won’t believe it if you don’t see it for yourselves.”
“Will I have to get dressed?” Coral asked.
“Um. Probably. I mean, you don’t really have to, but…”
Eric sighed. “Let’s just get this over with,” he said to Coral. That was… oddly dismissive.
Coral grumbled and grabbed a trenchcoat. “Fine. Lead the way.”
The car ride was quiet. Eric sat in the backseat by Coral. It was kind of disconcerting, since Eric was normally so chatty. He wasn’t even talking to Coral. Were they mad at him for interrupting them? Well, they probably were, but they would have to understand once they saw, right? Gah, he’d probably messed this whole thing up. At the next red light, Nathan looked back over his shoulder. Eric and Coral were mouthing things to each other. “I’m really sorry for the interruption. Trust me, though, this is really important.”
“Still don’t get why you can’t just tell us now,” Coral said.
“You’ll understand when you see it,” Nathan said. “Sorry, I know I’m being cryptic, but otherwise you’ll probably laugh at me.”
“Why would we laugh?” Coral asked. “It’s not like you’re gonna tell us you’re a superhero or anything like that.” Before Nathan could splutter out a response to that, she nodded toward the road. “Green light.”
Nathan twisted back forward, hoping neither of them could read his expression. Through the rearview, he saw an annoyed Eric mouthing something at Coral, who looked too amused to care. This was going to be awkward now.
When they were halfway there, an explosion erupted from ahead, throwing debris into the air. Nathan slammed on the brakes, as did the car ahead of him. Chunks of concrete rained down, one cracking the windshield. He craned forward, trying to see what was going on.
“The hell?” Coral said from the back.
“Stay here,” Nathan said, using every authoritative voice trick the Corps had taught him.
Traffic had ground to a halt all around them, so Nathan got out of the car. Any possible emergency sirens were being covered up by angry honking. He couldn’t see anything up ahead. Had something fallen? He looked up just in time to see something spring up into the sky and flit away into the shadow of a nearby skyscraper. That wasn’t like superpowered flight, where someone just rose into the air. Even his flight was smooth. That was more like a hummingbird’s flight, blurred wings and zooming and hovering. If he was right, those were biological wings.
Nathan pulled out his phone and switched to Yiddish so Eric, who got out alongside him, wouldn’t hear. “Ma, got a suit ready?”
“Yes. Where?” she asked, not wasting any time teasing him for his lack of greeting.
“8th and Main.”
There was the sound of a few keys clacking. “Done. Need me to tell Angie?”
“Yeah. Tell her it looks like Pteroids. One’s out.”
There was a moment of silence. “Isn’t that the Space Corps’s job?”
Nathan sighed. “Yeah. Must’ve got past them. Hopefully they show up soon.”
“Yes, and then I can have a word with them,” Ma said. “Seriously, letting a Pteroid ship past them? Those piddly little things? They have one job!”
“Right. I’m going to check out the ship,” Nathan said.
“Keep the line open. I’m tracking your location over it.”
“Well, that isn’t disturbing at all.”
“Only because it’s an emergency!”
“Right.” Nathan put the phone in his pocket, making sure the call was still going. He looked over at Coral and Eric, who were standing on the sidewalk, quietly talking. “I’m going to check things out,” he said, handing the keys to Eric. “If traffic starts before I get back, I want you to drive here.” He pulled out a business card for the Corps’s shell company and put it in Eric’s pocket. “I’ll be able to get it from there.”
“Why are you going toward an alien ship?” Eric asked.
Oh, right. Civilians also knew about aliens. “I just want to see what’s going on.”
“So do I,” Coral said, walking toward the ship.
“The car’s safer,” Nathan called after her.
“Well, you’re not getting in it,” Eric said, walking off after Coral.
Oh, great. Now he had to take care of them as well. Nathan shook his head and hurried off after them, dodging past people who were coming out of their cars and taking their phones out. Did none of them realize how much of a problem this was? Just because the Corps usually took care of any alien attacks didn’t mean they were harmless, and he’d seen at least one Pteroid out of the ship already.
By the time he reached them, they were already standing around the crater the ship made, Coral trying to shoo other people away and Eric examining the area. Nathan could see a woman nearby, drawing what looked like a TAKE ME WITH YOU on a piece of cardboard. Given that they enslaved humans and made them into pets, that was probably a bad thing, but what use was there in telling her that? At least they couldn’t read English, as far as he knew.
The police showed up with a blast of sirens. At least this was something they were actually good at. Nathan picked up his phone. “How long until the team gets here?” he asked.
“They’re in a meeting right now,” Ma said. “I imagine it’ll only be a few minutes if they use Hermes to get them there. Sounded like it was all hands on deck, though.”
Nathan glanced back at Coral and Eric. While Eric was writing things down in a notebook, Coral was gone. He looked around and finally spotted her by a police officer who was breaking open an overturned car’s door. Probably providing emergency aid, he guessed. “How about the suit?”
“It’s moving through the streets. Maybe five minutes.”
“Thanks.” He put the phone back in his pocket without turning it off. There was an alleyway nearby that he could use to get into the suit, though he’d still need to hide his face just in case there were cameras in there. Not that he could do much in the suit, really – the standard procedure in these cases was to keep any aliens contained until the Space Corps could toss them back out into space – but he would feel better in a suit. For that matter, he would feel better if his teammates were here. One Pteroid getting out was bad enough. Who knew what it was doing? He glanced up at the sky, but didn’t see anything out there.
A gasp from the crowd brought his vision back down to the ship. Or rather, where the ship had been. It was gone now. A moment later, it flickered back into existence. Or was it visibility? It disappeared again, then turned back on. Nathan picked up the phone. “Ma, they’ve got cloaking tech. It’s not working right now, but they’ve got it.”
“I’ll tell them,” she said.
Wait… if they had cloaking tech, then how did he know that there was only one out of the ship? He looked around, heart pounding. This was bad, really bad.
“GET DOWN!” Coral suddenly screamed, looking up at the sky just above the sky. Nathan ducked, as did most of the crowd, but some didn’t. One man was lifted off the ground, seemingly by nothing. A glass bottle went flying and hit the man, or so it seemed. Something screeched and the man dropped to the ground before he got too far away from it. Nathan looked around for the source of the bottle and saw Eric looking satisfied, grabbing another bottle from a nearby trash can.
The Pteroid became visible. It was the first time he’d ever seen one in person. The head was shaped like a pterodactyl’s and it was very avian in shape, but that was where the similarities ended. Its wings were more like a bat’s, leathery with hands on the end, but they sat differently at the shoulders. This one’s wings were beating so fast that they blurred, like a hummingbird’s. It wore a heavily-pocketed vest, with stuff that looked like tech peeking out the top. The feet looked rather disturbingly like human hands, but with a second thumb.
Now the crowd chose to run and scream away, some cars opening their doors for anyone nearby. Nathan crept closer to the alley. Eric was near the entrance, but he’d planned on telling Eric anyway, so he crouched near him. Coral, on the other hand, was checking on another person the police had pulled out of a crashed car.
The Pteroid disappeared again, just as he spotted his suit running down the sidewalk. “I see the suit,” Nathan said. “Going to head into an alley so I can get into it.” He went further in.
“Nathan?” Eric asked, following him, bottle still in hand.
“One sec,” he said. The suit walked in. “So, you remember that thing I wanted to tell you?”
Eric looked between him and the suit. “You’re dating Enmachina?”
“What? No, I--”
Before he could finish the sentence, he heard an enraged scream near the alley entrance. Coral barreled into the alley. “It’s here!” she said, trying to run around the suit. She clipped it, making both her and the suit fall over. Coral pointed up, over a dumpster.
Without hesitation, Eric threw the bottle where she’d pointed. It smashed in midair and the Pteroid shrieked once more. What…? How did Coral know it was there? Come to think of it, she’d also known it was above the crowd… Well, that didn’t matter. He hurried over, pulling Coral up and then picking the suit up. He really needed to get suited up before this got out of hand.
“Where is it?” Nathan asked, opening the suit.
“Coming for us,” Coral said. She reached out, grabbing ahold of midair and whirling around, slamming the Pteroid into the wall. A moment later, she was kicked across the alley, crashing into some trash bags.
Nathan was inside the suit by now. Finally, after so much time out of it, he was back. He sent a pulse where the Pteroid had been, but it didn’t sound like it hit anything. Great. He glanced over at Coral, who was being helped up by Eric. Before he could get her attention, though, he was picked up off the ground, arms pinned to the sides.
He kicked his legs sideways and blasted the thruster, hoping that would knock the Pteroid off-balance. It didn’t seem to help, just sending him into a wall. The Pteroid kept pulling him up.
Something wrapped around his leg. He looked down and saw the sash from Coral’s trenchcoat made into a lasso, with Coral pulling on it. Eric added his strength as well, and he turned off his boots. Enmachina came crashing down to the ground, the Pteroid following. It turned visible again and screeched at Eric and Coral.
A rope came down, wrapping around the Pteroid’s torso. At the end of the rope was a battleaxe-shaped grappling hook. “Really, Enmachina?” Grapple said with a laugh, dropping down into the alley. “You need my help with one of these guys?” She yanked the rope and it dropped to the ground, saying some gravelly words in its native language.
“I was doing fine,” Enmachina said.
“Right, and that’s why a couple civilians had to help you out. You’ve gotten rusty.” Grapple glanced at them. “Name’s Grapple, nice to meet you. You’ll need to come with us after this is done. Don’t worry, just some paperwork.”
“Hi,” Eric said, awkwardly waving.
“Hi, I’m Coral,” Coral said breathlessly, holding out a hand. Grapple shook it.
“Especially nice to meet you. Though, uh, you might want to close that up,” she said, gesturing at Coral’s trenchcoat. “Or not, if you don’t want to.”
Coral blinked away her awed expression and quickly wrapped her coat up tighter. “Sorry. Nathan has my sash.”
Grapple looked at her and then at Enmachina. “Really?”
“Let’s talk about this later,” Enmachina said, trying to pull the sash off his leg. “We got aliens to fight and Coral can see them.” He handed it back.
“Not exactly,” Coral muttered, wrapping the sash back around her. “Just that one, I think.”
“Great,” Grapple said, scooping up the Pteroid and tucking it under her arm. This provoked more muttering. “The rest of the team’s doing a sweep. Coral, can you help out?”
A shadow swept overhead. Nathan glanced up to see a caped hero flying past. “Good. Space Corps is here,” he said.
They left the alley, Grapple carrying the annoyed alien under her arm. “Got a present for you,” she called out to Captain Terrae when they landed. “Gift-wrapped and everything.”
“We did most of the work,” Nathan heard Coral grumble.
“Great,” they said, pointing a scanner at the Pteroid. “We’ll take it from here.” A few others landed: Beacon, Voice in the Night, and Solar Guardian. All of them true Flying Bricks, if he recalled, because Space Corps took everyone with that powerset. Not that they could take anyone who didn’t have flight and invulnerability, at the very least, since recruits needed to get into space and survive there, but it still left everyone else with a gap.
Iris zoomed up to them. “We haven’t found any other aliens.”
“Not surprised. I think this is a two-person craft,” Guardian said. “Well, two crew and whoever else they decide to dump in the cargo bay.”
“I’ll check inside,” Night said, going to the door and screaming into it. “Yep, there’s another one in there.”
“Great,” Terrae said. “Then we’ll just need to do a check for any stolen stuff and then yeet them back into the void.” They paused. “Did I say that right?”
“Yes, but I have a bigger question,” Enmachina said. “How did they even get past you?”
“I don’t know,” Beacon said. “We should’ve picked them up. With the heat output of the average cloaking device, we should’ve picked them up ages before they got here.”
“Superpowers,” Coral muttered.
Enmachina turned to her. “What?”
Coral looked up, a deer in the headlights, as everyone turned to her. She sighed. “They were using superpowers, not tech. I’m guessing both of them have some sort of invisibility. You don’t have any power sensors, do you?”
The Space Corps members looked at each other. “That makes sense,” Terrae said slowly. “But how do you know?”
Coral bit her lip. Enmachina stared at her. “You can sense powers?” he asked.
“Yes,” Coral grumbled.
Enmachina glanced at Eric, who didn’t look surprised. In fact, he looked more worried than anything else. So he’d already known. Grapple cleared her throat. “We can deal with this back at HQ. For right now, we need to deal with these guys.” She held out the unhappy Pteroid.
“I think we’ve got it under control,” Terrae said, taking the Pteroid and tucking it under their arm. It grumbled harder. Enmachina had no idea what language it was speaking, but he felt extremely cussed out. “You can head back now.”
“All right,” Grapple said, holding a finger to her radio and walking a short distance away. A few moments later, Hermes popped in. “Oh, good. Can you take these two back to headquarters?” She gestured at Coral and Eric.
“Hey,” Hermes said. “Hope you don’t mind, but I gotta put my arms around you to teleport. You cool with that?”
“Sure,” Eric said.
“Same,” Coral said, leaning in. “Wait. One second.” She pulled her phone out and took a selfie. Eric had that look where he was incredulous and trying not to show it, though Hermes leaned in with a grin and a peace sign. “Think we can get one with the ship in the background?”
“That would be cool!” Hermes said. “Can you get one of me and the ship alone?”
“Hey,” Grapple said. “Angelica wants us back ASAP.”
“Fine,” Hermes grumbled, popping out with Coral and Eric.
“All right,” Grapple said to Enmachina. “Are you flying back?”
“Yeah,” Enmachina said.
“Great. Everyone else is headed back. Meet you there. And good luck with the ship,” she said to the Space Corps.
Captain Terrae saluted Grapple and headed off to the ship, along with their teammates. Grapple nodded and threw her hook out to a nearby building, swinging away. Enmachina blasted off, following her. It felt so good to fly again after being out of the field for so long. He did a loop-the-loop just because he could.
By the time he got back to headquarters and sent the emergency suit back to Ma, Coral and Eric were sitting in Angelica’s office, slapping paper packets onto a huge stack of paperwork. “Hey guys,” he said, taking off his helmet and taking a seat. “Are your hands dead yet?”
“Yes,” Eric grumbled, holding up a limp wrist.
Angelica put more paperwork in front of them. “If Nathan hadn’t gotten you clearance, you’d be signing a lot more. This is the NDA, in which you agree not to say anything about his secret identity. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go refill the printer. Oh, and Nathan, we’ve sent someone to pick up your car for you.” She left.
Eric read the contract carefully. “Doesn’t look like there’s anything terrible in here,” he said. “Basically, don’t say anything about who Nathan is, or we get fined and possibly jail time.”
Coral shrugged. “I’ll take your word for it.” She signed it. “Though how big of a fine is it? Because if it’s small enough, we could make that back with media appearances.”
“I suspect that’s why the prison sentence is there,” Eric said. “And done. Finally.”
“Same.” Coral put the paperwork on top of the stack. “So now what?”
“Come to my rooms, I guess.” Nathan waved them through the door. “So, I guess you know what I wanted to tell you this morning,” he said. “I am Enmachina. I couldn’t tell you before now because of legal stuff, but I just got approval.”
The two of them were quiet for a moment. “Hang on,” Coral said. “The only times you’re allowed to tell is either when you’re so involved with someone that it’s unavoidable, like marriage, or the civilian is in danger.”
“Um, yeah,” Nathan said. “Let’s get back to my room first.”
The rest of the walk was in total silence. When he opened the door, he was startled to see his own suit standing there. It took a moment for him to remember that he’d put it there on purpose. “Do you just keep that there?” Eric asked as he entered.
“No,” Nathan said. “I put it there to show you. I had this whole plan… Anyway, come in. Raph made lemon bars.” Once they were settled in, Nathan sat across from them. “So, the reason I was able to tell you was because of a security breach last month.”
“The Convert incident?” Coral asked.
“Yeah. Though not Convert. He’s in prison. No, the problem is that Couronne saw my face, so he can recognize me out of costume. The higher-ups are concerned about whether or not they’ll go after my friends and family. And since I regularly go visit you out of costume… Well, honestly, it would be even more of a giveaway if I visited you in costume. So we thought we need to warn you about it and offer you protection.”
Both of them were silent, looking between him and each other. “I mean,” Coral said, “that seems a little out of character for them.”
“Maybe, but better safe than sorry. And at least now I don’t have to hide things from you. Though I guess that goes both ways now.” Nathan looked between Coral and Eric. “So you have the power to sense other powers? So you knew I had them?”
Coral nodded. “Though I really didn’t think you could be a hero by powering electronics. Which, I guess, was a little silly.”
Nathan blinked. “Wait. You can sense what powers someone has?”
“Oh. Not exactly. I can sense them, but I can only tell what they have if I have skin contact. I know Raph has powers, but I didn’t know what they were because I’ve never touched him. Though I guess they’re healing and body scanning, right?”
“Yeah. He’s Scope. And he gave me permission to tell you.” Nathan glanced at Eric, whose expression was unreadable.
“All right,” Coral said. “Can I look at your suit?”
“Sure,” Nathan said. “Be careful with it, though.” Coral got up and looked at it. Eric didn’t say anything, though. “So, what about you?” Nathan asked. “Any powers?”
“Well, I…” He jumped suddenly.
Nathan thought he heard a whisper over toward the suit. Coral had an arm around her and was talking a selfie. “Hey!” he said. “No touching!”
“You didn’t say no touching,” Coral grumbled, dropping the arm.
“Right,” Eric said. “I have invisibility. But it’s pretty useless.” He held out his arm and it disappeared, but his clothes stayed visible. Nathan looked up it to see a hollow tunnel of sleeve. “I mean, I guess I could walk around naked, but… no. It’s not really worth it. And invisibility is one of the powers with, well, a reputation. So I don’t tell people about it.”
Yeah, that was pretty bad, especially for men. “I completely understand,” Nathan said. The bias against powers was bad enough with his own harmless power. “So, are you upset that I never told you about the superhero thing?”
Eric was still quiet. “You know, I didn’t think I would be.”
Nathan’s heart sank. “But you are?”
“Look, I…” Eric sighed. “I just…”
He wasn’t saying…? No, he couldn’t. “Maybe you need some time,” Nathan suggested. If he had time, then he wouldn’t be thinking solely in terms of pain. Then he wouldn’t break up, would he? “Think about it for a few days and then get back to me?” He looked over at Coral, who was watching them under the suit’s arm.
“Yeah, maybe… Maybe I should do that.” Eric stood up, and so did Nathan. “Thanks for the lemon bars. I’ll have to thank Raph later.”
“Sure. Great. I guess I’ll see you later, then?”
“Yeah. Sure.” Eric nodded and headed for the door. Coral waved and the two left.
Nathan flopped down onto the couch. This was bad. Eric was clearly upset. On the other hand, Eric knew the truth. No more lies, no more hiding, not even from Angelica. If they could get through this rough patch, everything would be better, wouldn’t it? Well, things might be really awkward if he was on protection duty…
Wait. He hadn’t talked about the protections, had he? Nathan groaned. Well, they seemed competent enough. He’d need to tell Angelica about their powers, though. Granted, they hadn’t said he could tell anyone about their powers, but Angelica would need to know in order to set protections. That would be fine, wouldn’t it? She had powers herself. What harm could that do?
The next day, Coral had judo practice. As they opened the door on the way back, Eric went in first and froze, Coral bumping into him. “What…?” She peeked past him and saw a woman sitting on the couch with her wings spread.
“Hello,” Angelica said. “I think we should have a chat.”
Thank you for reading!
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