Seven Days 4

Almost showtime.

Carnal checked her reflection with even more attention to detail than any of her previous appearances. This costume was absolutely gorgeous, the red of fresh blood with an abundance of golden spangles and pearly black and white beading, an elaborate top with short semi-detached sleeves trailing gauzy scarves and a complex layered skirt. She’d paid for it but asked the store to hold it for her until today—she’d known instantly that it was the one she wanted for her finale.

She’d woken up with her right leg completely healed, as though nothing had ever happened, even though she was certain there’d been enough damage that it should have taken several days of care to reach that point. Maybe it was some lingering effect of Eureka’s energy drink.

The timer on her phone beeped at her to prompt her. She silenced it, then dropped a message on a single forum thread.

«This is Carnal. I’ll be at the League Plaza in one hour. I’ll be leaving the city after that.»

Then she watched the rather gratifying reactions: some scepticism over whether it was really from her, overwhelmed quickly by the reasoning that it wasn’t worth taking the chance and missing this if it was real. It was risky: the League might notice. But she should have enough time. It was the best balance she’d been able to devise between the largest audience and the longest time before the League showed up.

She left the rolling backpack there in the hotel room. She wasn’t going to need it after this. Her small purse was enough for the bare essentials.

She had three hours left of the promised hundred and sixty-eight.

Jaz would be waiting.

Jaz had assured her that she would have no difficulty at all collecting enough musicians to meet up with them and give her live backup for the short time she’d need it, despite the risks of getting in trouble for it.

There were rumblings online about increased sightings of League members all over the city, asking questions about any local disturbances, anything suggesting Carnal’s presence. As inconvenient as it was, it gave her a certain savage pleasure that she’d inconvenienced them in return.

With any luck, they were all out searching, and the last place they’d expect her was exactly where she would be.

Voices around her washed over her on the streetcar; she couldn’t have said what any of them were discussing, whether they had noticed her and were reacting to that or talking about the newest sports match or celebrity gossip.

She stepped off a little early, stopping to eat ravenously at a street vendor’s cart. No matter how much she ate, she never really felt satisfied. Stuffed, potentially, but never really like she’d had enough. If that was how her transformation worked, well, she could live with that a little longer.

At the Plaza, she spotted Jaz, sitting in the open side doorway of a van that was showing signs of age and hard use. Nearly a dozen other people of varied ages and genders and ethnicity were around her, leaning on the van or sitting on the ground, but Jaz’s gaze went immediately to Carnal, and she smiled and said something to the others before getting up and stepping past the others to meet her.

“We’re ready to go any time you want. The League keeps the power locked down in the Plaza without proper admin approval, but when you’re working with musicians who take whatever comes up, that doesn’t matter. Not with a van and a power supply with a solar generator and an adapter. Might run out of juice if we were playing for a couple of hours, but we have lots for a quick hit-and-run.”

“Thanks,” Carnal told her. “This is really important to me.”

“Yeah, I got that impression. It’s going to be a shame if you really are leaving the city after this.”

“I honestly don’t know what I’m doing after tonight. I’ll figure that out tomorrow. I’m just hoping that I don’t mess up your life or your friends’ lives over this. It’s going to really upset the League. Tell them I used mind-control on you if you need to. They’re calling me a psychic with undefined manipulation, they should believe that. I’m not quite sure why I’m not having any effect on you anyway.”

“We talked about that. We’re all adults who can make our own choices, and none of us are popular with the powers-that-be. I only called people I knew would be good with pissing off the League. It’ll be fine.” Jaz smiled. “And hey, I can think you’re hot as hell but be more interested in getting to watch you dance to my music than in getting you into bed. I don’t think your powers are quite as simple as you think they are.”

“I… maybe they aren’t.” She wasn’t going to have time to explore them in more detail. They’d be gone in a couple of hours, give or take.

“We can set up fast, but we’ll be noticed as soon as we do. Just say the word. We checked everything over already, and we know everything’s compatible. Everyone’s warmed up and in tune and ready to go any time. We even brought our own sound guy to man the board.” She chuckled. “Although if we take too long, we’ll have no space to set up in. You’ve got people drifting in already. Lots of people who aren’t willing to miss this. What do you think? Over that way? You’ll have League HQ in the background.”

Carnal nodded. “Those round picnic tables are sturdy enough to stand on, and they aren’t huge but big enough that I can dance on one if I’m careful. It’s a tradeoff but if I’m at ground level no one’s going to be able to see me clearly.”

“Gotcha. We’ll set up with that in mind. And we have a mic you can use if you’re going to say anything to the masses, just to make sure the late ones in the back can hear you.”

“Thanks, Jaz. I seriously can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

“You can thank me by not disappearing on me completely and permanently. And maybe someday tell me where you came from. There’s a story there, behind the sexy demon look and the psychic powers. I’m not buying the crap from the religious nuts that you’re the advance scout for an invasion from Hell.”

“It’s probably less interesting than you’re expecting. But if you ever find a vending machine selling something called Eureka Energy, buy a lot of them. It won’t be there when you come back and you’ll wish it was. And take the website seriously.”

“Mysterious, but I’ll remember that. Eureka Energy, huh?”

“Never met her, but probably her, yes.”

“Right. Want to get going?”

“Yes, please.” She hoped that the precision of the stated time, a hundred and sixty-eight hours, meant that it wasn’t going to wear off a couple of hours early. That would just feel like the universe playing a final sick joke on her after an extended buildup.

Jaz nodded and turned back to the other musicians. A couple of words from her brought them all to their feet. One hopped into the driver’s seat, and Jaz sat in the back doorway again; with care, the others nudging pedestrians back out of the way, they moved the van from the streetside up onto the Plaza’s decorative-brick surface proper, parking near the spot Jaz had suggested setting up. With impressive efficiency, they hauled amps, a keyboard with a stand, guitars, and a bag that turned out to have a startlingly-compact nested drum kit that the drummer needed scarcely more time for than the others did, though the cymbals had their own separate stands. Gear was plugged into cables that ran to the van, where one of the team had an intimidating-looking board of sliders and dials and switches, and then back out to the amps.

There were only actually four musicians other than Jaz. The rest, aside from their sound guy, clearly knew what they were doing as they offered extra hands—but they also made very effective security. A pair of them interrupted a particularly-ambitious YouTuber who tried accosting Carnal while she was doing some stretches on the seat of the table she intended to dance on. She only noticed that one because he got so close; she was vaguely aware that there were others trying to get close to her, and that Jaz’s friends were protecting her. It was one more thing to be grateful for, while her own thoughts looped repeatedly through both dance moves and what she wanted them to hear.

“All set,” Jaz said gently. “And we’re just shy of that hour.”

Carnal nodded. “Right. Then we’d better start before anyone still home at the League looks out the window.”

“‘Roxy Roller’?”

“Please, but it’s okay if it’s a bit extended like you did last time. And then that mic would be great. I doubt they’re going to give us time for a lot more than that.”

“Yeah, sadly.” Jaz offered a hand to help Carnal up onto the table, and hastened off to claim her guitar from one of the helpful makeshift crew. After a very brief discussion, Jaz climbed up on top of a second table that her friends had dragged closer to Carnal’s, the built-in ring of bench seats almost touching.

The crowd around them was… considerable, and still growing. She saw conventional news vans, and more portable camera setups, and phones, all pointed in her direction.

Good. They probably wouldn’t get any psychic effects, but that hadn’t stopped people from being fascinated so far. They’d hear her and it was going to be recorded and all those people who had been following her movements for the past seven days would hear why.

Jaz gave her a thumb’s up and a grin, as the drummer led into the song, and then Jaz’s fingers caressed the strings of her guitar and there was no time for thinking, only dancing.

This was probably the last time she’d ever be able to just dance, with no pain, let alone in this gloriously-responsive body that felt so good. Even being careful of the edge, she put everything she had into it, all the sheer ecstacy of movement, of the blissful union of her own skills and sensations with the music Jaz and her friends were giving her. If she could convey even a fraction of that, even if people translated it into their own deepest joys, it might help them understand.

The music wound down, and one of the helpful crew members ran over to hand her a cordless microphone. One palm cupped over it, he said, “It’s live, just talk.”

She thanked him with a smile as she crouched to accept it.

Her eyes focused suddenly on a nondescript dark-purple van parked at the side of the street. Sitting on top of it were three figures. One of them had short dark hair and was dressed in black; one had long pale hair and was dressed in white and shimmery metal. The one between was a bit shorter than either and had bright multi-coloured hair, and was wearing blue jeans and a neon-pink T-shirt with something on the front she couldn’t make out. The one in white raised a hand in a wave, and then they just… weren’t there. The van was, but there was no longer anyone sitting on it.

They’d handled Tecton and Gecko without any apparent trouble, but they were taking a chance, being this close to League HQ.

She straightened and took a deep breath.

“It matters more to me than I can tell you that so many of you have been enjoying watching me dance,” she said. The booming of the amps startled her briefly, but the sound guy made quick adjustments and her voice evened out over them, loud but clear. “Dancing has always been the core of who I am, the thing that I’ve felt the deepest passion about. How it feels to move to the music, especially to amazing live music like these folks,” she gestured to Jaz and the others. “How it feels to share that with others who are experiencing a moment of pleasure while watching. How it feels to help someone learn how to embrace that and grow and develop their own skills and joy. It’s not exactly a sexual thing but it’s very intensely sensual and physical and carnal in its own way.” A lot of voices cheered, and she smiled briefly.

Then she closed her eyes against the memories she had to bring up for this and braced herself. This needed to be said. It was the whole point of everything. “The League stole that from me. I was collateral damage.” There was a grumbling ripple from her audience. “My back was injured while they were bringing down Arable the first time—Minotaur collapsed a building in the chase after they found Arable enhancing a community garden, not attacking anyone, just giving the locals more fresh food. Like a lot of people that day, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The League swears they try to avoid that, and that if anyone suffers from their actions, they’ll make it right. Panacea barely glanced at me while I was on a stretcher, and told me it was just bruised. Three months later I was in a hospital with a doctor telling me that my back wasn’t going to heal, the discs were damaged, and evidence suggested a traumatic injury. He couldn’t even look me in the eye while he insisted that it couldn’t be from that situation, that was impossible, it must be from a minor fender-bender I was in when I was six. No compensation. No assistance. I lost my ability to dance. I lost my dance studio, which was my life and my job. I was left to rot in poverty and in constant and increasing pain, with a deteriorating back and no future. They stole everything from me! I am not the only one! It’s easy to promise compensation if you never have to pay out because no one will ever acknowledge that they were responsible.”

She saw movement in the crowd, growing agitation, heard louder muttering. In one direction, she saw a splash of colour that was probably at least three or four League heroes, but the sheer press of people were keeping them from reaching her easily. With so many cameras, they’d hesitate about simply flinging the crowd aside, but it was probably tempting.

“They don’t care about us! They’re supported and sponsored by the people in power, and in turn they keep the people in power where they are, obscenely wealthy and in control! They call people villains for refusing to join the League. If you happen to be a super, you are given absolutely no choice, you are immediately conscripted by force into the League even if you don’t agree with what they do. How is that freedom rather than a form of slavery? How many so-called supervillains just have different values and refuse to support the status quo? How many of them think that looking out for the rest of us, or making sure we have a living planet to exist on, or that a uniform doesn’t give someone a free pass for bigotry and violence, actually matters? They’re devoting their lives to fighting for us! But we’re still calling them villains, and we’re still cheering for the League when they win a victory over the so-called villains! The League are not heroes! They’re just charismatic bullies, who have managed to charm us all into kissing the foot that steps on us! Stop worshipping them! They are not gods, they ae not better or more important than you, and they are certainly not heroic! Look at what they do, really look! They can’t hide everything! They’re hurting your family, your friends, your neighbours, your communities, even if they haven’t yet hurt you personally! Do you know anyone who was collateral damage? I bet you do! Do you know anyone who has ever gotten any form of compensation or acknowledgement from them? I bet you don’t!”

She pointed towards the flurry of motion. “They’re coming and they’re going to punish me for daring to speak up against them. They’re going to claim that it’s because I’m dangerous and can’t be left on the streets, but what do you think? They’re going to try to seize and destroy all the footage of this and claim that I’m somehow doing mind-control via video. Let them come—I have absolutely nothing left they can take away from me, the clock’s about to strike midnight, and I don’t care as long as someone’s actually hearing me! Think for yourselves! Don’t buy into the glamour and the media hype! Think! They claim they’re saving lives, but if their collateral damage is destroying lives, and the system they’re propping up is destroying even more, then how are we better off with them than we’d be without them? How many of the threats they fight are ones they created through their own actions?”

They’d nearly reached her, a tall man in a sort of vaguely-archaic cut but all in mottled camo colours, she thought that might be Yeoman, with Tecton and a skinny man in a black tuxedo and a goatee. Gecko and Minotaur and a woman she didn’t recognize, dressed in skin-tight bright-green and shiny-black motley that showed her cleavage, a glowing bow across her back, were approaching from the opposite direction, and were only a dozen yards further away.

“The League are the real villains! They’re tyrants! They’re hurting all of us, all over the world! And they are not invincible! Support your local supervillain who’s risking their life for the rest of us. Fuck the League!”

To her utter astonishment, it echoed back at her from hundreds, maybe thousands of throats.

Fuck the League!

Bodies pressed inwards, closing around the League teams trying to get to Carnal.

The musicians drew back tightly around her, instruments in hand, the drummer and keyboardist first heaving theirs up on top of Jaz’s table with help from others.

“Please don’t get hurt,” Carnal said.

Jaz just grinned at her. “Damn, girl, you aren’t going down quietly, are you?”

On the roof of a purple van, Carnal saw three figures blink back into sight. The one in black stood up and stretched upwards with both arms, hands spread. Light flashed in one hand, and then sparks flew from a transformer box high on a pole, the brilliant light briefly blinding. When Carnal’s vision cleared, she saw the young man in black on the top of the van alone, and electricity danced between his hands and the transformer and every streetlight in the Plaza, forming a crackling net that provided the only significant source of illumination. His laughter was positively manic. The other two were… not visible, or not there?

With a twist of his hand, one at a time, a quartet of League drones trying to approach from above sparked and sputtered, slamming into poles and the HQ building itself.

A dense tangle of… of vines… sprouted between the bricks of the pavement, driving roots dowwards to support themselves as they arched swiftly upwards, swelling and expanding. The broad flat leaves formed a protective canopy to deflect the raining shrapnel from the drones away from the crowd.

Other vines wound themselves into a wall around Carnal and the musicians, pushing back anyone already too close.

Carnal blinked, the green wall blurring in front of her. She was so hungry, and so tired, and there was a growing ache in her back that made her want to cry. But she’d done it, she’d made sure that someone finally said it in a way that couldn’t be swept under the rug. That was the only thing that mattered.

She barely felt Jaz catch her, and then there were other hands, and then nothing.

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