A week after fighting for the planet's survival against the Earthbreaker, Vivian Dent was in the process of scrapping her plans and preparing to rebuild her life for what had to be the fifth or sixth time.
There were times when she truly envied Ms Miracle the stability that clearly came with her choice of profession. Whatever she did the rest of the time, if anything, and whoever she really was, she’d been based out of Memphis since she was empowered. Vivian had had to move twice. She’d relocated more often, but twice it had been necessary to stay ahead of the law; one of those times, after her prison break, most of her possessions were already missing, too.
She had enough money hidden away in one account or another to make these less of an emergency (never enough to retire, though; so much of her money was always caught up for one scheme or another, and somehow, henchmen always got paid even when the plan was a disaster), but it was still frustrating.
In this case the issue was much more simplistic; her day job had fired her for a week without attendance or contact, and with that came two major setbacks. One was that her opportunity to case the Institute had been closed - her keycard had been deleted from the system, so she couldn’t even get in - and the other was that two of her co-workers would now be a lot more confident in their suspicions.
She could still remember Tara Rollins drunkenly telling her that she thought Vivian was Macabre at the Institute’s Christmas party. Disappearing for the same week Macabre showed up on multiple news networks wasn’t going to help; that one photographer from New York had somehow managed to get himself onto the Justice Guard’s satellite, too, and when she’d got home after the whole thing was over she’d been greeted with a close-up of her own face as she tried to choke out the Earthbreaker.
She was masked, but it had only ever been enough of a disguise to stop casual observers and people who’d never met Vivian Dent.
And so one of the world’s most powerful superhumans was stuck figuring out the logistics of either moving house or switching fake identity without creating a paper trail - already harder than the last time she’d had to do this, two years previous. The internet did not make everything better, whatever her nephew kept trying to tell her.
That boy made her skin crawl, anyway. He’d fallen hard into some unpleasant beliefs on his precious internet; Ms Miracle should be glad it was her, not him, who’d awoken the family potential. It wasn’t that she held back - why would she do that? So often, she’d faced the certain knowledge that if she didn’t win through, she risked imprisonment or trial - but she had a certain respect for the “miracle woman”. Ryan, she was pretty sure, would have torn off her costume the moment there was a news copter nearby and escaped in a flash of scandal. Vivian, on the other hand, had standards.
Vivian shook her head. She was getting to herself again. The latest plan had been five months in the making, and now it was over before it began. It was time to pick a new target and relocate somewhere she could study it.
She really needed, of course, a good secret base in a hollowed-out mountain, underwater, or hanging above the earth concealed by holographic clouds and radar confusers, but those cost a lot of money, and besides, some nights you just got a craving for takeout.
…Right, she decided. I keep thinking about money. This is going to have to be something simple. This is going to have to make money. So her vengeance on Ms Miracle would have to wait even longer.
That was fine, though. It just needed doing. She had her destination booked, and if she had almost no spare money afterwards, that was something to solve once she’d got there.
After she’d loaded the truck with her gear, her costumes, the rack of gadgets and weapons she’d trialled over time, and, of course, her furniture, her clothing, jewellery, books, DVDs and sentimental souvenirs, she drove out of town and into the hills, found a secluded place to park, and took to the sky.
She flew back into town, found Tara Rollins’ home, and impaled her car on a lamppost before finally leaving.
At least she’d accomplished something before she moved out of town.
She’d been driving for the best part of two days, stopping at motels along the way. In that time she’d eaten at diners, gotten drunk in motorcycle dive bars, spent hours staring at the interstate in front of her itching for something to happen, and listened to way too much talk radio.
Almost everyone driving needs something to engage their ears in order to stay awake. Some people insist on taking a ridealong for a conversation; not really something Vivian could justify doing. Others swear by classical music, or love to listen to songs they can sing along to. Vivian, on the other hand, had always considered anger to be her strongest motivator, and talk radio was a boundless source of rage to keep her awake and driving.
She’d just about decided that the next place offering food would do for lunch even if it was another fucking Arby’s - like the last four signs she’d seen at turnoffs - because it was already a stretch to call it ‘early afternoon’, let alone lunchtime. But then the radio host introduced Sadie Simone, and Vivian had to stop herself from clenching up so she wouldn’t crush her fingerprints into the steering wheel.
Sadie fucking Simone. Possibly the one human being in the world that she and Ms Miracle saw eye to eye on. The anti-superhuman crusader with the biggest voice and platform of all.
It was almost an open secret among the meta community that Sadie herself was superhuman, even if the general public had never believed any accusations to that effect. The so-called ‘golden voice’ her late husband had built his megachurch on wasn’t all vocal; some of it was psychic, but with the rare benefit that she could transmit her empathic projections over broadcasts, though less effectively. After her husband passed on, she found that only the congregation who’d attended the main church still were willing to follow her; many of the others revolted against the idea of a female preacher.
So she did what many had done before her; she went political, and her pet cause was the offensiveness of superhumanity to the natural order that placed humanity atop the mountain. She’d been involved with many strange causes, often leading to aggressive military or paramilitary activity.
The blood of many was on her hands, heroes and villains alike, but her golden voice was nothing compared to her Teflon skin; somehow, nothing ever stuck to her. In the aftermath of the messy demise of whatever hyper-aggressive cause she hitched her wagon to, she always made it out scot free. She could usually be found talking to the media about some new initiative within weeks, never quite facing the hard questions, let alone the prison sentence Miracle would have wanted for her - or the shallow grave that Vivian sometimes thought she deserved.
Many people had been confused when Macabre had been involved in Sadie’s plans, at one point. Looking back on it herself, Vivian still was. The golden voice alone didn’t seem to justify just how dedicated to Sadie she’d been for a period of three or four months, some years back. Ever since then, Vivian seemed much more able to shrug off the woman’s empathic effect, leaving behind just the ugly words themselves.
No wonder she left such a sour taste in Vivian’s mouth.
“…the fact is that the Earthbreaker would never have even threatened this planet if we didn’t have these so-called heroes,” Sadie was saying. “And the costumed criminals, too. At least they admit they’re a threat - but this is exactly the kind of threat they pose us.”
Vivian’s lips drew back in a snarl. You couldn’t call it reflex for her to grab her phone up from its resting place on the passenger seat, but it felt automatic all the same. She started punching in the number for the show, put her phone to her ear.
She drove in a controlled fury for another twenty or thirty miles, pushing the speed limit throughout, giving curt answers to the poor woman screening calls. She wasn’t really expecting to get through, but she wanted to try and, eventually, “You’re through to the Think Tank, caller. I understand you’ve got something you want to say to Sadie Simone?”
“Oh, I have plenty to say to that witch,” Vivian began with a growl. “But right now, Tony, I’ve got enough to say to you, too. There’s been enough said about the Earthbreaker every time it’s shown up. We know what it is. We know what it’s done to other worlds. And we know enough to know that it has nothing to do with the superhumans on here and everything to do with one insane nihilist who wanted to wipe out his own planet.”
Which most people had actually never bothered to get straight for themselves, admittedly. Not that Vivian ever met a double standard she didn’t want to be on the right side of.
“The fact you’re offering Saintly Sadie a platform to spout this is painful. There’s plenty of folks out there who can at least back their points up.”
“Well, now, caller,” Sadie said, cutting across Vivian’s rant with the ease of long practice and the confidence of someone who knows the full possibilities of their hypnotic voice. “You haven’t done me the courtesy of letting me back up my points, as you put it.”
“Oh, OK,” Vivian retorted, feeling stung. “Maybe before we talk about the Earthbreaker, let’s talk about your past, huh?”
The host decided to intervene. “Now, caller, I don’t think that’s really in the scope-”
“Maybe not. But why don’t we ask Sadie whether her time in Martinique really qualifies her to talk about the value of human life, huh?”
There was silence on the airwaves for a few moments. Even confident Sadie didn’t have a quick answer - and not only that, but she had to be trying to work out who was calling in. Nobody who wasn’t with her in Martinique was going to mention it. And maybe, finally, Sadie would regret getting Vivian involved.
“I think… I know who this is,” Sadie said slowly. Her voice was shaken. “Lady, you are crazy, and anything you want to say would not stand up in a court of law-”
“It’s not the law that worries you, though, is it, Saintly Sadie?” By now Vivian’s rage had started to boil away, and satisfaction was rising, the inevitable end result. “It’s me. And the others like me who you’ve screwed over. You worry we’re going to come back after you.
“Or you should, but you’ve decided that the better way to spend your time is making up total bullshit about the Earthbreaker hunting superhumans. Is that really where you want your priorities to be? And have you forgotten those times you needed Ms Miracle to save you?”
“She would never have been necessary if it wasn’t for that costumed loon with a soul gun, whatever that’s supposed to be. This is my point, it-”
“Your point is you want the money and the power you get from running your mouth. But Sadie - you think you know who I am?” Vivian smiled like a shark. “Start running.”
She rang off the phone and turned her attention back to the road, for the most part. There was chaos on the radio and Sadie, spluttering in panic, cut the interview short, leaving the host to fill for time awkwardly.
It was, she told herself, probably a stupid idea, but she couldn’t be too mad that she’d gone with it. Sadie deserved worse than just a few minutes of panic.
Up ahead she saw a sign by a turn-off, and she sighed happily. After all that, there was lunch in her future, and it wasn’t even an Arby’s.
She took her time over lunch, making sure to drink plenty of coffee, and picked up some candy to snack on along the way. By the time she set out Tony’s show was off air and the next guy along was speculating on the rumour that new Justice Guard member Kongo might also be a prominent Twitch star who just turned into a magical supergorilla. Because, said one caller, this “made so much more sense”.
Vivian listened thoughtfully, but honestly, Kongo wasn’t a particular target for her. He’d been up in space with them, during the battle with Earthbreaker, and he’d been… fine, but nothing special. You could tell he was new to the big leagues - not just the big leagues but superheroics in general. He’d fought well, but he’d needed saving a few times. She’d even done it once, then slammed him up against the hull-skin of the Earthbreaker and growled “That was your one and only.”
Macabre didn’t need anyone thinking she’d gone soft, or - worse - that she might have taken a liking to one of the heroes with a slightly cuter style. But Kongo was basically fine.
She wasn’t entirely convinced the name wasn’t a problem, but it wasn’t as bad a problem if he turned out not to be an American gamer. And while she didn’t like to acknowledge it, Macabre was old enough to remember when costumes from outside the US tended to have names that felt like American stereotypes for their country. That had evened out a little over time, as either more costumes had arisen or the press had started paying attention to more of them.
Vivian stopped at a motel for the last time on the road and settled down for the night. She was pretty close now, and she figured she’d be moving boxes into her new home before lunchtime. Proper planning for the future could come afterward, when she’d had a chance to research good places to make some money.
She pulled her phone out again and decided to check the news - and couldn’t help but laugh; Sadie Simone’s lawyer had already issued a statement. Full of woolly denials without much in the way of information, it didn’t identify her, and it skirted around the events in Martinique rather than deny them. At the same time, it claimed she’d reached out to the Justice Guard for protection. Her other search turned up nothing; Tara Rollins had thought better of telling anyone who she must have suspected was responsible, and her local press had run with the story of her car being wrecked as something much lighter than a story about an angry supervillainess in town.
Vivian laughed for a good twenty seconds, made a note to herself to actually drop by Sadie’s place in a few months when all this was over and Saintly Sadie would want to be far from the heroines again, did her 500 sit-ups, 500 push-ups, and 500 burpees, and then went to bed.
Tomorrow would be the real first day of her new lease on life.
That had to be a good thing.
It was still dark when she woke up, and she didn’t feel refreshed. Jolted out of sleep by something, her first instinct was that there would be a threat in the room. She opened her eyes and sat up, confident she was a match for any likely threat she might face. After a few moments, the noise that had woken her repeated; a tap at the door.
A tap at the door of her motel room at - a quick glance at her phone told her - barely three a.m.
There weren’t many possibilities for what that could be. For a moment she wished she could dress for action, but her costumes were all in the U-Haul outside, hopefully secure enough that they hadn’t already been taken.
She slipped out from under the covers, tugged the T-shirt and loose shorts she slept in back into place, and walked to the door. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes before she opened it.
The woman on the other side of the door, dimly lit from behind by the courtyard lights, was another blonde, her long hair glowing like a halo. Like Vivian, she was taller than most. Her physique was masked by baggy sweat pants and a loose fleece jacket, not bad choices in the chill night air.
Even in the semi-darkness she seemed familiar, but it took Vivian a long moment to place her, and when she did, she tensed.
But she didn’t throw the first punch. Didn’t start the fight. Just in case that was what Ms Miracle wanted.
Why had the woman showed up out of costume?
Their breath steamed in the air. Vivian waited, silent, glowering. She was damned if she’d break the silence. None of this made sense. Why act when you couldn’t be sure you weren’t playing into the other’s hands?
“I’d appreciate it if you thought about letting me in,” Miracle said. “It’s not that I’m feeling cold but we need to talk, and I don’t think you want this stuff said in the open air.”
“I don’t suppose you just pissing off and leaving me be is an option?” Vivian offered, but she’d already fallen back a step. The heroine crossed the threshold into her room and Vivian shut the door behind her.
“Are you on a road trip?” the heroine asked.
Vivian blinked. “I don’t live in places like this, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The other blonde smiled and nodded, glancing away, and something clicked for Vivian.
“You found me from the phone call.”
Ms Miracle exhaled slowly, looking back to meet Vivian’s eye. “Yeah,” she said eventually. “Yeah, D.A.N.I.E.L. pulled enough data together to tell us where you were calling from and work out what vehicle you had to have been driving. You’re probably gonna want to replace your phone, too. I mean, I’m guessing that wasn’t a burner, because it didn’t sound like you planned it.”
“In my life, all phones are burners,” Vivian said absently. It was her turn not to meet the eye of her visitor; she was still picking over questions and curiosities. “So Sadie actually called you guys in?”
The other woman snorted with laughter. It wasn’t a sound Vivian associated with Ms Miracle, who had somehow mastered the art of seeming ladylike even when she was putting your head through a wall. “Nope. But D.A.N.I.E.L. caught her statement, and wanted to find things out. He gave it fifty-fifty you were either you or Cascade.”
“Cascade doesn’t have the nerve to pull a stunt like that.”
“Just because she hasn’t killed anyone yet doesn’t mean she’s not going to. And Sadie Simone would be an obvious choice.”
The conversation was almost one between colleagues, Vivian thought. Water cooler chat at three a.m. in the middle of her uprooting her life. It was starting to feel like-
“They don’t know you’re here, do they?” Vivian asked. “Nobody sent you after me. You just decided to come down yourself.”
“This isn’t a Justice Guard mission, if that’s what you mean.”
Which, Vivian noticed, wasn’t exactly a no. She put her hands on her hips as she looked her visitor over. “Start talking.”
“I wanted to give you an opportunity. You and me. Not the costumes. Not the masks. No cameras on us, nobody watching.
“I felt like last time we spoke, we actually saw a little of each other. And I - well, you’ve definitely had times when you’ve been richer than me, or in control of things more, but it keeps falling down on you. I’m sure my way of life is happier than yours.”
Vivian turned away from Ms Miracle. “Maybe you think so, but I wouldn’t be happy with your life. I mean, look at today. Think you might need to save Saintly Sadie again soon?”
“If you’re not going after her, no.”
“But if I did, or if she pisses someone else of enough - or even if Cascade gets sick of being overlooked - you could end up having to save her again.” She turned back to face the heroine. “You go save everyone. And you know as well as I do, some of the people you’ve saved are going to go right back to making everything worse.”
“Not everyone’s a supervillain.”
“No, that’s true,” she acknowledged. “But that doesn’t make them good people. And there’s plenty of those making shit worse for everyone. If I make life worse for you, either you picked the fight or you’re enough of a douchebag I’m comfortable with you not being around.”
Given time to reflect, Vivian would probably acknowledge that this was at least partly lies. In the heat of the moment, though, she was certain of her point, and this was certainly the rule she felt she lived by. Her worst impulses, her lapses, and murders of necessity were things she didn’t think about if she could avoid it.
Even the worst of us think they have standards.
Ms Miracle sighed. “Do you honestly believe that what I’ve done, what my team does, does nothing good for the world but keep assholes alive?”
“Of course not. You saved the world last-”
“We. We saved the world last week. I don’t think we could have without you.”
“Whatever. The point is, that sort of thing isn’t the only thing you guys have to do. Can you really see me going up to a crowd complaining that too many people get to vote and doing anything but put some of them in the ground?”
Another sigh from the heroine. “I guess that’d take a lot to make you do.”
“More than your little team could do for me. Not all that keen on taking orders from a computer, either.”
“So the only way you’d end up in the Justice Guard is if you had a complete change of personality,” Ms Miracle said, and nodded to herself as if that had settled something.
Vivian’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a weird way to put it,” she said.
“Yeah.” Ms Miracle shook her head. “Sorry. It’s been a crazy week.” She turned toward the door.
“Wait, that’s it?” Vivian demanded.
Ms Miracle turned back. “What do you mean?”
“I thought this was building up to some kind of ultimatum.”
“What am I going to do, though?” Vivian was surprised to hear the frustration in the other woman’s voice. “I’ve fought you so many times other heroes think of you as my problem. I’ve won almost every time, and when I haven’t, my friends have come through. Your way of doing things is just a constant struggle that doesn’t pay off, and you could be so much more, you could have an easier, better, happier life. But you just keep going back to it.”
“You gonna kill me, then? Finally?”
“I… do you have a death wish? Is that what all this is about? Have all those people had their lives wrecked because you wouldn’t go get some fucking therapy?” Ms Miracle looked utterly unbelieving.
Vivian shook her head. “Nope. I’d rather keep living and keep doing things my way. That’s all.”
The other woman closed her eyes, took a deep breath. Vivian was pretty sure she was counting to ten to keep herself calm. She nearly asked just that, but she was pretty sure if she did it would have been a fight, then, and she wasn’t sure that at the end of it she’d be driving out of there.
She had to remind herself that the end goal was still her new home. It couldn’t be the wounding of her enemy.
Ms Miracle opened her eyes again. “Alright,” she said softly. “I just… this was an opportunity I had to take. A chance to talk to you without our shields up. Without our masks. I couldn’t do this behind the mask.”
Vivian nodded. On that, at least, she understood completely. “Yeah,” she said. “Me either.”
The heroine made her way to the door. “There’s a lot I can’t do without the costume,” she said. “But there’s a lot of stuff I can’t do when I’m wearing it, either. You know?”
For the first time Vivian actually briefly considered the idea that there was no trap to any of this. That this hadn’t been more highfalutin accidentally condescending grand gestures of the type that made her hate Miracle so much.
“Probably better than anyone else,” she agreed. “We probably have the same lists, even, just with a few bits moved around.”
Ms Miracle laughed, a strangely bitter laugh. “Yeah,” she said. “You probably feel better about lying in costume.”
There was something about the way she said it which put Vivian on guard. “Probably…”
The heroine opened the door, and a warn flow of green light filled the room, pouring from some figure at the door directly toward Vivian. Her eyes widened in shock and it took her a few moments to work out what was happening. Vivian was already tired, having not had a full night’s rest, but suddenly she was sleepy too, the adrenaline spike she’d had when she recognised her visitor was somehow gone and-
-holy fuck this was some kind of mind controller.
She snarled and, too fast for the man hurling his powerful gaze at her to react to, she surged forward. It might have been enough if the heroine hadn’t been waiting for her; she moved from holding the door wide open smoothly, catching Vivian with an arm around the waist to slow her down as Ms Miracle slipped behind her and reached up with her free hand to snag Vivian by a fistful of hair.
Ms Miracle kicked her feet out from under her and shifted her grip from around the waist to just under the jaw, forcing Vivian’s head up to continue gazing into the glowing green power. She tried to close her eyes but she couldn’t. Power pulsed into her, pouring into her as she knelt and struggled to catch up, to get a solution to the situation.
Vivian drove backward with an elbow but it didn’t carry the kind of strength a blow from Macabre should have; her movements weren’t sluggish exactly but she could already feel her pace ebbing away, as if somehow the lack of mental focus could do that.
This didn’t make any sense, a voice in the back of her head insisted, she definitely came here on hero business, so why is she teamed up with someone like this?
And then she remembered the words which had worried her earlier.
“The only way you’d end up in the Justice Guard is if you had a complete change of personality.”
A glimpse of a possible future opened up in a mind already drowning in the effects of this asshole’s powers, and she felt chills run down her spine.
Sweet Jesus, don’t let that be her goal. That’d be humiliating… wouldn’t it?