Archive: Spotlight Chapter 4: Mixed Media

Finished the final section of the next chapter of Spotlight this week, so this weekend’s archive is the full chapter compilation. Cut tag at the end of the first section so we don’t take over the entire page:

Chapter 4: Mixed Media

“Mom wants to know why she hasn’t seen you wearing the shirt,” Hillary asked as soon as she answered the phone.

“I can’t,” Liam said, rolling his eyes.

“Don’t roll your eyes at me,” his sister returned.

“You can’t even see me,” he said, incredulous. “How would you know–?”

“I’m your sister,” she said.

He opened his mouth to rebut the nonsense argument, but then had the clear, instinctual knowledge that Hillary was raising her eyebrow on the other end of the line.

“I see your point.”

“So you can’t wear it why?” she repeated. “You have know idea how hard I had to work to keep her from printing ‘Ginger Pride’ on that thing.”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

Eyebrow.

“You’re right. Well, thank you. It’s very tasteful, but we aren’t allowed to wear anything in public that’s not part of the line.”

Eyebrow.

“I’m serious. I wish I weren’t. You’ll notice my favorite, worn-out, blue T is gone, too. It’s part of the merchandising contract. Not only do they design our work gear, but everything. They don’t want us ‘diluting our image’ with commercials, so they make the line our full wardrobe.”

“So you’re a walking mannequin?” Hillary said with a chuckle.

“The Spotlight brand pays for a big chunk of our operating costs,” Liam returned, though he groaned internally as he regurgitated Trent’s line. “Besides, after the designer wound up nearly killed by that lunatic, parasite thing, I thought wearing her clothes was the least I could do.”

There was a brief pause on the other end of the line, and Hillary’s tone softened as she said, “Well, that last one, at least, sounds like you. I was worried my idealist brother had been podded. How is she doing?”

“Recovering. She has to take it easy, they said, which is probably going to be hard for someone like Eva, but her assistant’s in overdrive, fueled by fear and guilt, so I think he’ll be okay to pick up the slack.”

“Good. The news hasn’t said much about her. And you still don’t know why that thing…?”

“When Stallion squishes a bug, it stays squished,” Liam said. “None of the people it was inside remember anything, unfortunately. We’ve been trying to backtrack it, but it’s been hard. Trent’s had us in full blown Image Rehabilitation mode since–”

“I have the internet,” Hillary returned with only the slightest note of a jibe.

“Have you seen the one where they remixed me attacking that little girl with a dance track?” Liam asked with a groan.

“Which one?”

“How many are there?” Liam said, then pushed on, deciding it was best if he didn’t know. “Anyway, it’s been crazy out there, lately. Trent’s pulling out all the stops trying to counteract the bad PR. Which, actually, was the whole reason I called.”

There was a knock on the door, and Crowd–Sarah–snuck in, eyes and smile wide.

“This. Place. Is. AWESOME!” she said with a squeal. She spun in place and fell into the overstuffed couch of the green room. Hair and makeup had done wonders to brighten the young woman’s features. Her hair practically shone. For a minute, Liam wondered if Sarah had generated a counter for the interview.

“I can’t believe Trent actually booked us on Josephine!

“Did she just say…?” Hillary started through the phone.

“So, yeah,” Liam said a bit sheepishly, giving Sarah his own version of his sister’s raised eyebrow. She covered her mouth with a giggle and a silent apology. “We’re on today’s show.”

“Today’s … ? You’re booked on the biggest live talk show in the world. Today. And you’re just now telling me this?” Hillary said. Her voice took on a slight echoing quality he recognized as Hillary switching to speaker. Liam bit his lip to repress his own manic grin. She’d hear it through the line.

There was another knock on the door, and a young woman wearing a headset peeked her head in.

“You’re up in five,” she said, disappearing almost as soon as she said the last word.

“Hill? I gotta go. Can you…?”

“Mass text sent. Calling Mom now,” Hillary said. “You’ll pay for this one, brother,” she finished. The line beeped as she disconnected.

Sarah hopped up, rubbing her hands on her skirt nervously. Liam smiled, sharing the nervous delight.

“Showtime,” he said.

*****

“Take a breath, Jo,” Mishana said in that nothing’s wrong with the world except that you’re crazy voice. Which, of course, drove Josephine crazy, and Mishana knew it.

At least, the smirk on her face seemed to say that she did. It was that smile which was just innocent-looking enough for plausible deniability, though, and it had been far too long since Josephine lost the power to reach in another person’s head and pull out the truth for confirmation.

“This is a horrible idea, Mishana.”

“It’s a great idea. Look, I know we had some trouble in the past, but Trent assured me–”

“‘Trent’? You’re on a first name basis with him and … oh for the love of everything tell me you are not sleeping with him.”

Mishana chuckled a little. “You haven’t met Trent yet, have you?”

“I don’t want to meet Trent. I don’t want to do this interview,” Josephine spat back, throwing her arms in the air and setting off the bell-like jangle of all her bracelets.

“But you will,” Mishana said, taking Josephine by the shoulders and adjusting her sari. “There. Perfect.”

“You need to talk to that new make-up guy,” Josephine muttered as the studio staff got the audience riled up. “He wanted to put a red bindi on me. Did I have a secret marriage and I didn’t hear about it?”

Mishana sighed. “I’ll talk to him. But you’re on.”

The lights flared as Josephine’s theme music faded out. The tightness and frustration evaporated from view as she hopped out from backstage and swung around in front of the studio audience. She held her arms up wide to accept the riotous applause, her grin shining brightly. She hated this next part, too, but as the applause started to fall, she could see it in their eyes. Every one of them, waiting.

Swallowing down an internal sigh, Josephine put her palms together, bowed her head slightly, and called out, “Namaste!”

“Namaste!” screamed the crowd. A middle-aged woman in the third row fanned herself with her hand in excitement. All this for hello. Well, at least she only had to see it on their faces. Josephine couldn’t imagine how nauseated she’d be having to feel all of their elation like she did in the Psionica days.

“We have an amazing show for you today, lovies,” Josephine announced, moving to her mark for camera three. “It has been ages since I was a teenaged super-hero (but we aren’t saying how long, are we?)” tittering filtered through the crowd. “I was pretty lucky. I was a Spotlight member in its heyday, before, well, before Sonar happened, yes?”

The audience nodded grimly.

“I mean, it never would have occurred to me back then that someone The Stone chose would actually try to attack the very source of our powers, put all of us at risk to try to steal even more. Luckily, her teammates put a stop to that, and managed to strip her of her powers, but it was a dark day. Now, four and a half years later, Sonar’s power’s come back, and we’re just all a-twitter about it, aren’t we (and you are following me on Twitter, right lovies)?”

Another swell of applause as Josephine pointed down at the air in front of her stomach, where she knew Mishana would be flashing her Twitter handle. Then she raised her hands again, with a clatter of bracelets, and the audience went silent.

“Well, I have here today, for all you questioning souls, none other than Voice, the boy who inherited those powers, and he even brought our favorite entourage, Crowd!”

Josephine’s crowd roared as a miniature army of counter-Crowds rushed the stage through the aisles. They lined the center on both sides, variations on their main theme, and Crowd and Voice walked in through the space they created. The counter-throng remained arrayed in the aisles as the two Spotlight members took their seats on the overstuffed settee. Josephine crossed her legs in her own plush, sizable chair, adjusting the silks of her sari for best effect.

“Tell us about the secret labs!” screamed someone from the audience as Josephine opened her mouth to start the interview. She closed her mouth, eyebrows raised, and looked out to the man standing there.

“Dear heart, I promise we’ll get to audience questions soon enough,” she said patiently, though she made a mental note to ask Mishana to once again meet with security about proper audience screening. Just one look at this man’s oily hair, scruffy face, and inability to tuck in the right half of his flannel should have sent him back onto the street without a second thought.

“We’ve waited long enough!” the man screamed, and now Josephine frowned. She hated doing that on camera.

“Sir…”

“Don’t worry, Josephine, I have this,” Crowd said, bouncing up off the settee and nodding to the counter-selves nearest the man. One of them seemed quite athletic, and shifted places with the more waifish version who was actually right next to the man. Josephine smiled and the audience applauded as the well-muscled young girl took the insistent man by the wrist.

“Look at that, precious ones, our very own super heroes to keep the peace.”

“I won’t be silenced!” yelled the man, and Josephine gave a quick glance behind camera one to confirm Mishana was on headset with outside security.

“Sir, I’m afraid you’ve picked quite the wrong day. I wouldn’t want to tackle with heroes like Spotlight.”

“These aren’t heroes!” he screamed. “They’re nothing but wind-up toys.” He slipped free of his tormentor’s grip, then, turning on her. With neither sound nor mess–indeed, as if he were merely pushing through air–he had his hand inside the counter-Crowd’s chest.

“And I’m pulling out the key!” he yelled as the studio audience gasped in perfect unison.

*****

Crowd could always feel what her counters did when they were separated and in the world, but it was echoes, shadows. Nothing as direct or intense as feeling it herself.

Right now, even the ghost of another’s pain made her scream and writhe.

Olympia is dying.
We’re all dying.
hurtshurtshurtsmakeitstop
Shut up you weak little shit and pull her back!

Through the screaming confusion in her head and the overwhelming echo of having someone with his hand on her heart (not yours, not yours), Crowd wrenched at the intangible tether between herself and her more athletic counter. With a soft chuff of air, the madman in the audience was bereft of his victim, though Crowd could still feel the pain of that half-substantial hand squeezing inside her chest.

“Sarah, are you all right?” She recognized Liam’s voice, nodded though it was anything but true.

Oh, god. Thank you.
Safe now, O.
runrunrun

“I just need a second,” she whispered, hoping he’d have the sense to bend her voice so she wouldn’t have to say it louder.

“Look at that! You see?” babbled the man in the audience. He held his hand up as if he’d been the one to disembody the counter. “Popped like the blow-up person she is.”

Rip his heart out.

Crowd forced herself to focus, brought her senses back to the world where the studio audience was stampeding for the exits, clogging off security’s ability to make their way in. It was she and Voice now.

She nudged the closest counters, who started to encircle her assailant, but as he lunged forward with a wicked grin, the two who should have blocked his way stumbled backwards, out of his reach.

Cowards!
Survivors!

“Let’s just … let’s just calm down, okay?” Voice said as Crowd felt a steadying grip. She looked up to see Josephine, face stoic, helping her keep her feet.

“You should find cover,” Crowd whispered to her.

“Like hell,” Josephine said, and Crowd didn’t have the energy to argue. Louder, Josephine asked, “Who are you? What do you want?”

“Look at that! The former puppet remembers her interrogation skills!” the man said, walking through the seats–literally, he passed through the bolted furniture as if it didn’t exist.

Phaser
As in
Star Trek?
He phases through things, moron!

Skittish counters tried to pen him in as the panicking audience kept pushing its way outside. As the man continued, his voice clear and distinct, Crowd realized Liam was channeling their voices so they could understand each other over the panicked screams.

“Transparent C+,” her attacker announced with a proud flourish. “Here to hack the hell out of all these lies once and for all. Information should be free, and secrets are for the taking.”

“You were talking about secret … labs, right?” Liam tried, keeping his voice steady.

“You think The Stone just showed up? They made it. They made you. They’re pulling all the strings until we’re all just soulless little minions like you are, and stop doing that!” the man said, holding his hands over his ears. “I know you’re a brainwasher. I read, you know!”

Liam held his hands forward to stave off the man’s objections, kept his mouth shut as it was clear his sub-harmonic suggestions weren’t making it through the man’s delusions.

“Cover the doors so he doesn’t see my men,” Josephine whispered to Crowd, bending down as if to check her for wounds. Crowd blinked once, then nodded.

“You’re here to soften us up. Be the nice, big distraction so we don’t notice how they’re stealing our hearts and souls and turning us all into their wage-slaves until we wake up in the morning and it’s nothing but Spotlight Drones running the whole world! But I know! I found their secrets. Made them mine! And now I’m going to expose it all. Sonar knew! That’s why they had to shut her up!”

As he ranted, Crowd had shifted her counters to block the doors, keep his line of sight obstructed as Josephine’s security moved into place. Now, with the slightest nod from Josephine, she pulled them in, opening up the lines of fire.

No place like home.
I want to eat his kidneys.

“My security has to be ready for attacks from people in my former life,” Josephine said, letting go of Crowd, who was beginning to regain her strength. “They have anti-phase rounds. I’d surrender now.”

“Oh?” Transparent C+ returned with a mad smile. “How good’s their aim?” And with that, he disappeared from sight.

Oh! Transparency! I get it now.
I think we’re all about to get it.

*****

Liam spun about, trying to find some evidence of Transparent C+ in the room, but there was nothing. A man both invisible and intangible: what kind of traces would there even be?

“IR goggles now!” called the head of security, and Liam groaned. Of course, he’d leave a heat signature, then they could–

“No readings!” called the first man

“No readings!” the woman next to him echoed, and down the line. The head of security swore under his breath.

“I’ve got nothing,” he had to admit aloud.

“I wouldn’t say that,” came a disembodied voice, then the security chief stiffened suddenly. Liam recognized that look; Crowd’s counter had it when the man grabbed hold of her heart. Liam rushed forward with the other security techs. He had no idea what he was going to do.

Nothing, as it turned out. Before any of them could reach the man, he fell to the ground, though his heart continued to hover in the air.

“You have an early retirement!” crowed the invisible man, dropping the heart even as the anti-phase rounds shot through the air and connected with nothing. Liam spun in place again as the security techs scattered, each trying to get a bead on their target. Josephine pushed past him to check her chief’s vitals, but everyone there knew he was gone.

Liam thought he saw a drop of blood on one of the seats, but even as he scrambled for it, he knew Transparent C+ would have moved again. He didn’t have to clamber over seats to get where he was going.

“Sarah, I need your help. We need more eyes,” he bent his voice across the room to where Crowd was steadier, but still not fully solid on her feet.

“Everyone’s afraid he’ll … everyone’s afraid,” Sarah whispered.

“We all are, but we have to–” He didn’t finish as the tiny pop of air pushed a counter into existence. This one sported a pair of dark glasses. She held her hands out, feeling around for the back of a chair to gain her bearings.

“This is perfect!” Liam said, rushing to the counter’s side. “So, your other senses are, like, ten times stronger since you’ve been living in the dark for so long or something, right?”

The counter turned in Liam’s direction, frowning.

“Do you read anything other than super-hero tabloids?” she sneered under her breath, and Liam sagged in place. “I just drew the short straw, so I get to play bait.”

Two more security techs screamed as their energy packs shorted out. Smart. Phasing through the tech took out the guard and the gear all at once.

“We’re never going to find him!” Liam said.

“Not until the world knows all the dirty secrets!” came the voice, over on the left side of the audience. Liam grabbed the blind counter’s hand and pulled her toward Sarah.

Another set of screams. Last two techs down, their packs zapped.

“I’m not sure how we get out of this,” Liam muttered to Sarah as he returned to where she was on the stage.

“Seriously?” Josephine fiddling with the techno-gauntlet from her late chief as she added, “I’ve read the background research. Whose story is it you’re so obsessed with?”

“Sonar!” came the call from Transparent C+ “She knows the secrets!”

“You do know why she called herself that?” Josephine continued, moving cautiously toward the group that remained standing.

Liam could have kicked himself. “Secrets weren’t all she knew,” he muttered, closing his eyes. He snapped his fingers, then opened himself to the echogram of the room. There was Josephine. The poor, dead security chief, the unconscious guards, the chairs, the blind counter, Sarah–

There. It was hard to make out, like a smudge on a photo. A smudge that was reaching for Sarah’s chest.

“No!” Liam yelled, opening his eyes. He amplified the wave from his scream, grabbed every tiny bit of noise in the entire room and shoved its amplified sound straight at the head of the smudge his senses told him was there.

In the silence, Transparent C+ became visible again, mouth open in a scream that Liam turned right back in on him. Liam was so focused on pummeling the man with sound that he was startled by the unexpectedly swift right hook from Josephine. Using the still-functioning anti-phase tech from her dead chief’s suit, she sent the man sprawling to the ground as Liam lost hold of the audio.

“Hands off the guests, troll!” Josephine yelled in the re-established sound of the studio.

Seeing as the man had been knocked cold by her punch, she probably needn’t have bothered.

*****

“Excuse me … no, really, I have to … oh for the love of…” Trent had been trying to make his way through the press of people ever since they all saw Josephine crack the maniac conspiracy nut across the jaw. All he was getting was jostled, disheveled, and mussed. Trent hated to be mussed.

He took a deep breath, shoved his designer specs into place with one well-manicured finger, then reached into the pocket to the Brioni jacket for his credentials. He only had to wag them in the air for a moment before a broad-shouldered security tech pushed his way to him.

“Right this way, sir,” the square-jawed young man offered, holding his arms wide to make a path. Trent smiled his orthodontically-perfect smile and followed along. Being Spotlight senior staff did have its privileges. That this one also provided some lovely scenery for the trek through the unclean masses was simply a pleasant bonus.

He made sure to put the tech between himself and the sheet covering the former chief’s position. The sight of blood always nauseated him. This put him in line to notice Crowd, sitting on the floor with her knees pulled to her chest, phone to her ear.

“… be fine, Glo,” he caught as he and his escort moved within earshot. “It was … it was really scary, but she’s … we’re all safe.” He didn’t miss the faint blush as she added, “thanks to Liam.”

“I can take it from here, handsome,” Trent said with a pat on the security tech’s shoulder, sending him on his way. Play later, business now. He crossed the remaining distance in a few, quick steps, pulling his tablet out of his bag and slipping Crowd’s phone from her hand in a coordinated, smooth maneuver.

“Gloria? Trent. Afraid Crowd has to go. I’ll be in touch.”

“But–” simultaneously, from the girl sitting below him and the woman in his ear. Trent hung up on the latter.

“You know better, don’t you?” Trent said, giving his best teacher stare-down as he held the phone just too far away for her to retrieve it without standing. By the time she did, Crowd’s own face was appropriately sheepish, so he let her have the phone back.

“I just thought–”

“No, dear. You didn’t, but that’s all right,” Trent corrected.

“What is wrong with you?” Trent turned to see Voice, arms crossed and incredulous.

“Very little that surgery, therapy, and an attentive trainer couldn’t correct, thankfully,” Trent returned.

“She almost died,” Voice pressed.

Oh, goody. Trent knew he shouldn’t have backed the new boy up with his first high-minded idea.

“Yes. Otherwise known as the job,” Trent said, angling himself so that both Crowd and Voice could see him. Or, rather, so Crowd could have seen him if she weren’t busy mooning over Voice. Trent cleared his throat to get her attention.

“The Spotlight Collective has been at this a lot longer than either of you,” Trent continued, swiping his tablet to pull up the appropriate contract. “They didn’t add the clause about avoiding contact with de-powered teammates on some ridiculous whim. The transition out of this life is difficult. Interacting with the self-same people who used to work alongside your powered self has served in far too many cases to make that transition nearly impossible.”

“But getting interviewed by a former Spotlighter is perfectly–?”

“Did you actually read the contract, Voice?” Trent interrupted. “Former teammates. Neither of you were on the team when Josephine served. It’s a wholly different experience. She has no specific memories of saving the day with you.” He glanced over to where Josephine was giving her statement and having her wrist checked out at the same time. “Well, not while she had psychic powers, anyway.”

He turned back to the two active Spotlighters and frowned. Clearly they were speaking. He could see their lips moving, but couldn’t hear anything. Whatever it was, however, seemed to make Crowd’s eyes light up.

Trent thought about chastising Voice for keeping secrets right in front of him, but set the thought aside for a better one. He tapped a quick note into his tablet so he wouldn’t forget to plant a blind item in tomorrow’s gossip:

Which young super-heroine has a budding romance with her teammate?

One more news cycle solidly managed. Trent gave a satisfied smile, then turned his attention to trying to track down that security tech again.

Originally published at Spotlight

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