Chen felt herself stiffening everywhere as she fought impostor syndrome and tried to ready herself for a dangerous opponent. Gladiator put their plane, the Arrow, down in a nearby parkette, and rocketed off ahead of her at three fifty an hour. She would run past the bank, recon it, and make a second pass at super speed ending in a kick at the Infernal in the big, downtown Durabank branch. Since the Infernals began to post releases to the Dark Web about their appearances and attacks on corporations and violent regimes, the superheroes on PowerTrip stood to lose face and global public support if they were ever late. They were today. First time ever. Chen had done that.
Chen had been activated on PowerTrip a month after training in the winter of 2045, the year she’d started her root identity as a convenience-store owner. Quicksand was new; she was popular: a cultural icon rising. On what? Her supporting role in recent fights with the Infernals. Support. PowerTrip killed Infernals in three of the last battles thanks to Chen, the most trusted commentators on superheroes agreed. But no Infernal had died by her hand. Gladiator had bloodied her hands every fight. She’d become the team’s executioner. Chen wasn’t going to let Gladiator shoulder that moral burden alone. Thara was too good to stand alone, the only god between ordinary people and mythological monsters masquerading as superheroes. “The proven killers on PowerTrip can’t hurt most Infernals; and unblooded superheroes with overwhelming power have no will to kill,” ran a pull quote in an Economist editorial.
On the trip from New York, Chen felt her anxiety attack set in. She got up from her seat beside Gladiator to sweat and shake alone. She returned twenty minutes later, feeling worse, sweat dripping almost to a beat from her chin.
Gladiator looked up at her from the yoke of the Arrow, smiled, then her eyes widened at the sight of her. Chen sat. Gladiator hit a button on the console and rotated her chair to face Chen. Chen waited. She wanted to hide it from Thara, be normal. She felt Gladiator take her shoulder before she saw her move. It was hard to believe she could only just outrun the world’s fastest car. “Sorry! Made you jump. I’m working on getting my speed right. Still,” Thara said. Her fingers released their grip and began to stroke her shoulder. Thara had beautiful, small hands. Not dainty, but they were beautiful, even scabbed over from a recent fight. Thara. The Awesome Alien. Chen was ten and dreamed of being a superhero when Thara’s ship had touched down in Toronto.
“My people don’t accept it, either,” Thara said. Her stroking was helping. It must be the stroking. She stopped feeling so mortified. Gladiator was talking as though Chen weren’t shaking right in front of her.
“Sorry …” Chen said. Thara would never respect her now. She was an ugly, childish mess of crying, sweat, and shakes. Thara was seeing her new big gun go to pieces right before a fight. “For being … like this.”
Chen could feel what was upsetting her but fought not to see it. Knowing might make her attack worse. Just realizing that made the fear spike. Panic flirted with her for the first time in years. She doubted she could fight even as it was. She was dizzy, misjudging how far she was from everything.
“I knew when I took you,” Thara said. Chen looked up from the floor at her. Gladiator smiled. Her lips were purple. Who knew purple lips could be so beautiful? Silly on anyone over thirty, unless you had copper-coloured skin as Thara did. “I knew you were fucked up. You’re in good company,” Gladiator said. “War God always helped me relax. We’re going to help you. You’re not drowning in this. You’re not going to sink.” Thara gave her back a long, soft rub in circles. The UN lent Thara a tank to exercise with. She benched it.
“I’m going to kill one today. Thara, I’m not going to hide behind you anymore.”
“No rush,” Thara said, her hand still feeling so good. Chen felt the warmth from each of Thara’s fingers distinctly. Thara burned that hot.
Chen looked at her and blinked when Thara met her eyes. Thara blinked—deliberately, Chen saw.
“You don’t have to do that. Blink,” Chen said. Damn.
Gladiator looked bothered. Her serene, solid-green irises filled with whitecaps and began to look wild. Chen knew the look in Gladiator’s eye. Chen saw it in the mirror often.
“I’m sorry, I thought it would make you more … I’m—”
“Don’t. Don’t say you’re sorry. Not you. Not to me,” Chen said.
“Of course to you. But you’re right, aren’t you? We have to stop being walking apologies for ourselves, you and me. No more apologies. To anyone.”
“Maybe sometimes,” Chen said. She regretted it. Talking back.
“Yeah. The Colonel always tried to get me off vows. And zero-sum thinking.”
“Did I just make you anxious?” Chen waited, winced when Thara began to answer.
“I’m better at pulling out of anxiety nosedives. I’ve taught myself, but the Colonel always helped. As I’m going to help you. Did you know the Colonel taught me how to use a semicolon? She loved the tool; Plagans have nothing so elegant in our writing. Faith knew just how to use it and made sure I did, too. She’s such a good writer. She was.”
“I’ve made so many notes in my stylus on Warrior Ethos,” Chen said.
Thara gave her back a pat and smiled as she turned her chair back to the yoke and re-engaged manual. “I’m taking us in now, okay? I’m going ahead first to make up time. Get my back when you can. No intel on who to expect or how many.”
Chen realized her shaking had stopped. The sweating had stopped; she felt dry. Warm and dry. Only minutes until they put down a few neighbourhoods from the Durabank. Her anxiety attack could come back any moment. She’d had one attack followed by a worse and worse before. Chen could find herself helpless, just sitting right where she was after Gladiator left her and the Arrow. If that happened, she knew what would come. She would curl up, shake, sweat, and burn in helpless terror at the thought of Gladiator dying alone while she … just hugged herself.
Chen approached the Durabank, running through a crowded street. People gasped as they recognized her costume. An inverted caret on her chest symbolized a sinkhole or crevasse. Quicksand’s insignia and brand. Her uniform was tan base with a Kevlar upper layer of brown with black boots and a black facemask.
People divided before her steady sprint and closed after her and pursued, fools that they were. She turned back on them and opened her palm. The people cheered as though she were going to exhibit her power for their entertainment. She closed her fist quickly and opened it again. The ground cracked under the crowd. Under them was quicksand, sucking them under. Cheers turned to screams from a panicking group in the centre of the crowd of hundreds and many more nearby and watching. Chen let a very shallow pool of quicksand form with a minor pull from the Earth’s core itself, the scarier of the two sensations of sinking.
“Morons! Stay the fuck back!” she screamed so hard her throat hurt. She let the ground settle and the stuck people began to free themselves with help from others.
The shouts and screams from the people quietened, thinned. The people realized they were not in the presence of a monster, only a scolding god. The people stayed rooted in place. Not in fear but in a reverence. She’d seen cameras recording in every third hand. That angry cry would be viewed by a billion people in an hour. By the rest in two. She was anxious and that meant fighting anger, confusion, and inability to focus. Rage usually followed. She’d wanted to hurt those people in the pursuing crowd. She should never have used her powers on civilians. For any reason ever.
The anxiety lit in her body like fuel. She feared to go to the bank. She couldn’t renew her sprint. She could walk but would stop and turn back every few paces. The people milled and muttered. Encouraging remarks came from nearby Bay Street pedestrians soaked to the waist in quicksand. She decided to go, started to walk, stopped, and the fear pulled her down deeper.
A streetcar-sized entrance let Chen survey the interior immediately. She entered. A demolished bank branch. A woman in her forties lay crouching behind a pile of wall that had collapsed in a pile. Gladiator lay on top of a streetcar. Red blood ran in thin long lines down the side of the chrome car and windows. Pools of blood, thinner than human blood, widened steadily. Thara was still.
Unfair. Thara was invincible. Thara was how she was coping with being a superhero.
Sitting on some debris and sucking bubble tea from a big cup a South Asian woman no older than twenty smiled. She looked up at where Gladiator lay and then turned to Chen. She smirked. “I just killed Gladiator. What do you think you can do? You’re dead. You just don’t know to lie down, do you? All right then…”
No fireworks or brimstone heralded a change. The slip of a woman in a black tank and ripped jeans was replaced by a seven-foot tall woman in a black and blue body suit whose fingers ended in long, hooked claws. Chen looked at Gladiator. Four cleaves into Gladiator’s side had gone all the way to her spine before stopping. Not even Thara could survive that kind of trauma. Chen had as good as killed her. Her big sister. Left Gladiator to fight the worst Infernal alone.
The seven-foot woman smiled and strode toward her. Chen couldn’t focus. She’d just cause an earthquake if she wasn’t focused. Brute neared to within reach of her. “Ready to die?” Brute asked. Her voice was different, deeper than the South Asian girl’s. “How? Guts in a pile on Gladiator’s chest?”
Chen opened her hand wide without meaning to. Brute, some little bitch fresh out of high school, had killed the hope of the world. A fissure opened in the centre of the bank and dropped Brute down as if into an elevator shaft.
“Excuse me. Ma’am? Please don’t kill that woman. She’s just a young girl. She has so many years to change. You must be able to imprison her. Aren’t you better than those monsters?”
Anxiety had never turned into anything but a panic attack before. Now it turned to anger she couldn’t manage. She wanted to kill Brute. Kill the bank manager. Go back and find the crowd and sink them all. First Brute; she would be climbing up from the kilometre-deep fissure any moment full of confidence that she’d stood PowerTrip’s heaviest hit. What to do next took too much thought, too much time. She ran over to Gladiator, climbed onto the streetcar roof where she lay on her side, knees tucked up toward her waist. She looked asleep and peaceful. Her hand was tucked under her side. Gladiator’s eyelids trembled. She frowned and exhaled painfully.
The bank manager came out from the desks she was hiding behind. “You have to
be more than they are. Monsters in our streets and neighborhoods. Terrorists all of you.” The woman was almost sixty, fit, well dressed, African descent, clear enunciation.
Chen turned on her and the woman winced. Gladiator’s eyes opened a slit. Chen ran to her, put her hand on Thara’s side. She took her tan gloves off, touched Thara’s face. It was cool. Her skin usually heated the couch at home.
Thara spoke too quietly to hear.
“Thara, again!” Chen said.
“Kill her now and you are her. Walk your way.” Thara smiled. Chen stroked Gladiator’s eyebrow and she exhaled as though relieved or pleased. Thara didn’t think she was a hero. Just a monster fighting worse monsters. No more movies on the couch with her legs in Thara’s lap smoking weed. No more late nights snacking, letting Thara knead Chen’s calves and thighs.
From the fissure, she heard laughter. Brute had climbed free. Chen turned to face the hole.
“Now, about how you were going to be plated with Gladiator?” asked Brute.
She advanced toward Chen several steps, almost able to grasp her.
“No, leave the woman alone!” The bank manager screamed. Brute turned to her and grinned.
“I’m going to break your pelvis up like a crispy wafer, old woman! Just let me kill this PowerTrip bitch.”
A clawed hand closed around Chen’s body, but it was already done. There was another reason Chen was codenamed Quicksand. A darker aspect of her power. Chen watched Brute’s face fall, her mouth open. Brute’s hands reached for her head. “Sink,” Chen said.
Brute looked up at her, petrified. “Save me. Let me out. What do I do? What is this?” she said, tears just starting to form.
“You’re sinking. Not your body. You. You’ll keep sinking. There’s no end to the depths.”
Brute looked at her claws. She drew one across her throat. Blood sprayed onto Chen’s black boots and a brief upward spray reached her cheek.
Chen looked out the wrecked entranceway to the bank. Emergency services and lots of police surrounded it. Chen waved them in. Paramedics with a stretcher eased the bank manager onto it and prepared to lift her. The woman passed within a few feet. Their eyes met. The older woman looked like she was passing a starved lion. Chen ran up to the body of the Infernal. It was back to her normal form: that of a twenty-year-old skinny kid. Chen was only five years older.
Chen kicked it over and over. She began to cry. She stood back, focused, and the body was swallowed into a fissure that closed up behind her. Chen felt her rage subsiding and something sucking and hollow filling her. She ran out of the bank, ran hard for a park, anywhere with open spaces. Anywhere she could breathe and move.