I really shouldn't have been at the picket line in the first place. I should have made the best of it, put my feet up at home, maybe gone out for a quiet drink with the rest of the lads. But no, Kurt wanted to go and demonstrate, and so along I went. Solidarity, I guess.

I mean, I was totally behind the strike. The Brockton Bay docks had made the city rich, and business was better than ever – for the fat cats that owned the shipping companies, the privileged few that could afford to buy the products we unloaded every day, the politicians that pointed to the city's wealth as a sign they were doing their jobs for once. But had any of it rolled downhill to benefit the men and women that busted their asses working to make it all possible? Hah.

No, I could see the point of reminding our white-collar bosses who was actually responsible for Brockton's economic boom. Actually coming out to the picket line? Not so sure. But I'd known Kurt since we were both in middle school, and the man could get himself in trouble even while fast asleep. He was just too much of a hothead.

I guess he'd say I was the same when I was riled. He'd be right.

It was cold – January in Brockton, the price for getting to live in Brockton the rest of the year, hah – but not so cold I couldn't walk from my apartment to Lord's Port, where I worked. Would have worked, if not for the strike. Whatever. If we'd been further north, there might have been snow, which would at least have looked pretty, but all we got was… grey. It wasn't raining, though. No-one wanted to protest in the rain. Even so, I had a cheap jacket just in case.

Mind you, every item of clothing I had was cheap.

The streets around the docks weren't pretty at the best of times, all grey utilitarian offices and warehouses. Usually they'd be pretty lively, though – men and women hard at work loading and unloading, sailors wandering around looking for the bars, stuff like that. You know, a functional dock. Today, it was almost eerie.

The only sign of life as I made my way towards Lord's Port itself was a couple of squad cars parked at the side of the road. The officers inside were keeping themselves to themselves, but they were pointedly there. I ignored them as I passed, hands in pockets. The officers didn't move, but kept watching me all the way down the street.

Outside the gates to the actual docks, there was something of a crowd. The union hardliners, their buddies, a couple of old guys who'd shown up for solidarity. I nodded to the workers standing closest to me, their breath fogging up the January air from beneath thick scarves and thicker beards. They nodded back. We didn't smile. There was a tension in the air. No-one was saying all that much, just standing around in clusters and muttering. I could see why. I hadn't done anything wrong, but just by being here I felt like I was going to get in trouble.

A hand slapped my shoulder. "Danny!"

I turned. I don't know how Kurt Foster managed to sneak up on me, but he had. Kurt was big – not just tall like I was, but huge and broad as well. He didn't work out or anything. This was just what doing a physical job ever since leaving school at sixteen did to a man.

Or at least to a man who was already big like Kurt. I only ever grew upwards, and no matter what I did I never got any larger. To add to the 'teenager during a growth spurt' look, I still had to keep myself clean-shaven or else deal with straggly fluff. At twenty-one! Kurt, on the other hand, had a beard to rival the old hands at the gate, and his hand was big enough to cover almost my entire shoulder when he squeezed it again.

"It's great to see you, buddy! I know this isn't your thing, going and interacting with people and all-" I socked his shoulder, "but I'm grateful. It's really important that the folks in charge know they can't just expect us to-"

"I know," I interrupted, "I was there when the union rep gave his speech, same as you. You don't have to- oh God, you built a sign?" Yeah, on his shoulder was a board and a length of two-by-four hastily nailed together. He showed it to me.


"Catchy," I said.

Kurt coloured. "Yeah, I was never good with the slogans and all that. Showed it to the pigs on the way in," he gestured towards the police, "and they just sat there stony-faced. At least it's honest, huh?"

"Well, it is that."

Someone had set up a drum of firewood, which was burning merrily. By unspoken agreement, we both moved closer to it to try and warm up.

"Jeez," Kurt said after a while. "I didn't expect this to be so… grim, you know? I mean, I know it's a serious issue, but I thought it'd be a bit more merry. A couple of beers, a couple of songs, a bit of life."

"Yeah, well, maybe ten years ago," I said. "Nowadays any strike action gets the attention of the fat cats and government in case it goes bad. Especially in a case like this where it's the government that's the problem."

Kurt snorted. "When isn't it?" He sighed, sending mist mingling with the smoke in mid-air, only to spiral up into the blank white afternoon sky. "The Brits really messed that up for us, huh?"

It had only been a couple of years ago. The miner's union in the UK had been striking over mine closures caused by their Prime Minster's cuts. It had been a bad situation already, but it had only gotten worse when the supervillain Scar had assassinated Margaret Thatcher. Her replacement, John Major, had reversed the cuts, and managed to get the unemployment down to only a little above what it had been before Thatcher took power – but the reputation of the trade unions took a nosedive, many who'd hailed Scar as a literal working class hero lost faith in him, and any kind of direct action got the kind of careful scrutiny you only got when a government official's own ass was on the line.

Hence, the two squad cars using taxpayer money to sit and eat donuts while watching us instead of actually helping enforce justice in the city. If I was police chief – hah – I'd have gotten them to maybe go and arrest some Nazis, but that was just me.

"We have every right to be here," I reminded him. "Just… don't do anything to give them an excuse."

He snorted. "Yeah, right back at you. Wasn't it you that punched a cop that one time?"

"I… yeah, okay, I did. I was angry. They were trying to bust in our home and take my dad after our landlord called and complained!"

Kurt's brows furrowed. "Danny, what do you care if your dad gets busted? Seems to me it'd give you and your mom a bit of a break if he cooled off in a cell once in a while. You got a temper, but you never take it out on me or your mom. Your dad's just an asshole, no offence."

Well, he wasn't wrong. I squashed the stupid urge to defend my dad to my friend. He knew exactly what it was like for me growing up, and he had the right to call my father out for losing his temper with us. Hell, he'd lost his temper with Kurt once or twice, usually when he was hungover and we were both making too much noise. Still, though… "Yeah, it'd be a break. And he'd come home and drink to forget it and be twice as worse the next day. Besides, it's our house. The cops don't get to just- just barge in and think they've solved our problems and then leave. They don't help. They don't care. The only thing that's gonna help is if I keep on working and make life just a bit easier on them both, and make sure they've got friends around, people who know, to help out when things get bad. Hell, if more of the world did that we'd hardly need cops at all." I huffed out a heavy breath, then shook my head. "Sorry for the rant."

"Hey, hey, I'm right with you, buddy. You know you can always count on me, right? I got your back, and you got mine, same as always." Kurt smiled, and I smiled back.

"Thanks, Kurt. I appreciate it."

After a while someone got up on a soapbox – that was, a literal soapbox, or at least a crate of some kind – and blew a whistle to get everyone's attention. I recognised him – Fred Morgan, one of the Dockworker's Association reps. I turned to listen. I wasn't that involved with the union, but I was willing to listen to what they had to say. They had our best interests at heart, after all. That was, us as people, not just as effective workers like the companies and city did. If they could really negotiate some better conditions for us – better pay from the shipping companies, more protections and benefits guaranteed on any dockworkers' contracts – maybe I'd think about working for them directly. It was a chance to make an actual difference to people's lives. There were precious few of those around, God knew.

"Alright," Morgan was saying, "I'd like to thank everyone that cared enough to make it out here. You're the reason we do what we do, and this city wouldn't be the same without you." Scattered cheering. Kurt waved his sign.

"Now, I'm pleased to report the Stansfield Conglomerate appears to be wavering on our central demands, and where they lead others are likely to follow. If we can get Thomas Stansfield to come out in our corner on the issues we're really firm on, I think we have a good chance of getting the mayor and the rest of the corporations to listen to us, and God willing we should all be back at work on Monday." More cheers, and some excited muttering.

"Or," came a different voice from behind us, "you ingrates could stop throwing your tools out of the pram and go back to work now."

Everyone turned. When they saw who had shown up, we all froze.

Galvanate was here.

Flanked by five thugs in suits, the mob enforcer strolled towards us, stopping just a couple of metres from the edge of the crowd. Within moments, that edge was retreating, people almost falling over themselves in an effort to get away from the supervillain. Kurt and I backed up as well, until all fifty of us at the picket line were pressed up against the gates to Lord's Port.

Galvanate was dressed differently to his goons. They were all in cheap suits and heavy coats, clearly chosen to try and give them some kind of class. The saying about polishing a turd applied. Galvanate himself was dressed more casually – jeans, turtleneck jumper, brown bomber jacket. ON his face he wore a black domino mask – like he was some kind of opera character. Despite the cold, his hands were bare.

Galvanate chuckled. "Aw gee, you all that scared of little old me? Come on, you know I'm just a regular Joe like you. Won't see me flying around in my jammies or shitting lightning outta my ass. Nah, the real heroes? My buddies right here." He patted the two thugs beside him on the shoulder, and we all flinched.

We'd heard of what Galvanate could do. While he'd been telling the truth in that he had no superpowers of his own, Galvanate was still a parahuman. With a touch, he could grant anyone – anyone, even some random punk off the street who'd never heard of superpowers before – the ability to simply not be harmed by pretty much anything the police had found. Bullets bounced off their skin, knives would blunt rather than penetrate, fire left the skin unscorched. Worse, he also gave them the ability to channel electricity through their bodies, like a living dynamo. They could even shoot bolts of lightning a short distance from themselves.

Galvanate was why the mafia was even still relevant in a city like Brockton Bay, with its superpowered Nazi gang. Pretty much singlehandedly, he made the mob almost impossible for the police to deal with. With just invulnerability, the police could just cuff and restrain his minions. With just electricity, they could use tear gas, a water cannon, or just shoot to kill. But with invulnerability and an unbeatable advantage in close quarters? The police were powerless.

Well, those things probably didn't make nearly as much a difference as the fat stacks of cash the pigs were paid off with. Behind Galvanate's little group, I could see the squad cars. The police were showing a noticeable lack of giving a shit.

"Now see, I'm just like you guys," Galvanate continued. "I believe we all should work together and make this city a better place. Key word: fucking work. You think you're being screwed over? Let me tell ya – you ain't seen shit. You should be fucking grateful you get to work in a city as generous as this. You got work that's booming, you get fair pay, pay that was damn well good enough for you not even five years ago; hell, you're not even having to pay protection money out of your own pockets 'cause your bosses have shown some goddamn sense and paid up for your ungrateful asses! You guys got a good thing going here, so quit your whining and start making this city tick again." He took a step forward, and his thugs moved with him. One of them kicked over the drum Kurt and I had been warming our hands on earlier, and chuckled nastily.

There was muttering. Then, voice trembling, Fred Morgan spoke up.

"S-Screw you! Yeah, we're free to work! Free to break our backs every goddamn day while our bosses rake in the benefits and pass it off to the politicians and you leeches, while we never see a single dime! Well I say, fuck them, and fuck you too! We're not working until we get a decent wage, a wage that reflects the good we're doing to this city!" A cheer rose up, but it was pretty halfhearted.

Galvanate's eyes narrowed. "You don't get it, do you? This right here? This is me asking nicely. My boss, he wanted to just have me beat the crap out of you guys for having the balls to try and fuck up the natural workings of his city, but hey, you can't work if you're fucked up, right? But my patience only goes so far, Fred Morgan. How are your kids, by the way? They should be in school right now, huh?" He snapped his fingers. "Winslow High, yeah. How is the place? Man, it's been a while. Maybe I should go pay a visit to the old alma mater?"

Morgan faltered, and paled. Jeez. That wasn't exactly subtle. If Galvanate had threatened my mom like that…

The enforcer waited a moment, then shook his head. "Pussy. Now if that's all-"


Morgan held a gun in shaking hands, and turned to address us. "B-bastard!" he shouted. "You threaten my kids? This is what you get! Come on, people, they're just five guys-" and then he stopped. Slowly, he turned back to look at the completely unharmed mob enforcer, shielded by one of his goons.

Galvanate frowned. "Well, well, well. Looks like you got some balls after all. No brains whatsoever, but balls. You wanna-" He was cut off by more gunshots.

Each and every one bounced off the thug, who pushed himself in front of Galvanate. The bullets didn't seem to even tickle him. When Morgan's gun clicked empty, Galvanate stepped out from behind his lackey.

"And there we go. See, I'm not a fucking idiot, Freddie. These guys? I bet you thought they were just some random schmucks I picked up off the street, huh? Nah. I've been working with these assholes for, jeez, how long now, Barney?"

"About three years, Mr. G," the thug replied.

"Three years. There's a reason I keep them around, and it ain't because of Barney's fragrant aroma, I can tell you that." His bodyguards all laughed, including Barney. "These guys are some of the best in the business at watching my back. They keep an eye out for trouble, I make sure they can take care of that trouble. And they're very well practised at using my little gifts." He patted each them on the shoulder again, then looked out over the crowd, a sick gleam in his eye.

"Didn't I say I liked people to work together?"

With that, all but one of the thugs charged into the crowd, hemmed in by the gates and the buildings on each side. There were screams and yells as people tried to escape, to rush past. There was the sound of thunder as the thugs Galvanate had empowered let loose with short-range bolts of lightning. There were thuds as people dropped to the floor, shocked into paralysis by the living tasers that Galvanate's goons had become. There were sharper thuds as invulnerable fists hit very vulnerable flesh.

I grabbed Kurt's arm. "We have to go, now!"

He was having none of it, shaking with rage. "You bastards!" I pulled harder.

"Come on, we can't do anything, Kurt, stop being an idiot-"

He tore free and swung his sign at the closest suited enforcer. It shattered, and the weight of the blow knocked the man over. Kurt balled his fists and charged in with a bellow. He swung once, twice, and then backed off, shaking his hand. It was broken. The thug got to his feet and dusted himself off. Lightning crackled around his hand, and he reached out and grabbed Kurt's face.

I stood frozen in indecision for a second, then span with a sob and ran. I ran away.

"Fuck, Kurt, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, fuck..."

As I passed the cop cars, part of me couldn't help but look inside.

The officers were still sitting there in stony silence.

I ran all the way home, and collapsed, head in hands.

There were only a couple of deaths among the crowd of strikers that day. Fred Morgan was one, found charred and beaten to death on the spot he'd made his hopeful speech. He'd been a good man, but a stupid one. The world was new to parahumans, but pretty much everyone agreed that these 'capes' were invincible to one normal human, even with weapons to even the score. I'd heard the government was trying to put together some team or division that would focus on hunting down criminal parahumans, but they would have access to cutting-edge military hardware and special training. Fred Morgan had had nothing but his good intentions, and, as always, that wasn't nearly enough.

With the back of the strike broken, the union had retracted its demands, out of concern for the safety of all involved. We'd all had no choice but to return to work. Well, no, not quite all. Some of us were still too injured to work. Some of us would never be coming back. The atmosphere of those of us who'd been lucky enough to escape unscathed was dismal. No-one really spoke to each other, or to our bosses. We just showed up, worked our hours, and left.

Kurt was in hospital. He'd been there for two days now, and when I phoned up they'd said he was still too injured to receive visitors. I… I wasn't sure he'd even want to see me. He had to blame me for how he got injured. Fuck, the day was supposed to be about standing together, but when it really mattered I'd just ran. Fuck.

But I couldn't just leave it like that. I had to, to explain, or do something. So I'd gone to visit Kurt's parents' house, to explain what had happened to their little boy.

The Foster house was exactly as I remembered it, from a thousand visits in my childhood. Tiny, of course, a little terraced place in the middle of the maze of residential streets near the docks, but it had been almost like a second home to me growing up. Hell, I'd slept here almost more than my own house some weeks, when Dad was in a bad mood again and I just couldn't handle it any more. Foster by name, foster by nature, I guessed. The thought almost made me smile, before I remembered why I was here.

The inside of the house hadn't changed one bit either. The same furniture, the same decorations. If it had been in some rich family's house, it might have been called antique – inherited from Kurt's grandmother, and maybe from before that. Instead, it was just old. It wasn't like they were going to throw any of it away, or replace it. Seeing it was… comforting.

I accepted a cup of tea, and before I could psych myself out of it I told Kurt's mom and dad what had happened that day, and how I'd run away.

"… and I just ran," I finished. "Karen, Larry, I'm so sorry for leaving Kurt behind-"

"Oh, stop it, Daniel," said Karen Foster. "There wasn't a single thing you could have done, and Kurt doesn't blame you at all, I'm sure."

My eyes filled with tears. "But- I'm supposed to- we've always helped each other- I mean he's stuck up for me so many times and..." There was a silence, and I felt the crushing weight of their sympathy. "Kurt's in hospital and I just ran away and saved myself! That's not how a friend should act!"

"You're talking nonsense, Danny," said Kurt's dad. "The only thing that would have changed would be that you'd be right there in the hospital next to him." While his house was identical, Larry Foster looked different to how I remembered him. While growing up, he'd been the giant who'd pick me and Kurt up and spin us around, like we were toys. He'd always seemed unstoppable, invincible, and larger than life, even when I grew taller than him.

Now he just looked old, and tired, and small.

I wanted to protest that he didn't get it. That I should be right there with him, because it'd mean that I'd actually tried to keep both of us out of there. Even if it seemed futile, you didn't just… give up. Didn't just run away. Wasn't that was solidarity was all about? Wasn't standing up for yourself regardless of opposition the point of the whole worker's rights movement?

Because sure, if I'd tried to fight off the thug attacking Kurt, I'd have been beaten down too. But if ten of us had rushed him, we could have escaped. If everyone on the picket line had just organised and bullrushed their way past Galvanate, no-one would have had to die or get injured at all. One man held the power, and told us we couldn't change how things worked, and the rest of us were too scared to realise that if we stood together he had no power at all. Now didn't that sound familiar?

But I didn't say any of that, because Larry's son was in the hospital and it was my fault, and nothing I said would change that. So if he wanted to forgive me, then that was his right, no matter how much I disagreed. Instead, I nodded, and changed the subject.

"So how much is- I mean, have you heard what it'll cost yet?" No-one I knew had health insurance, but they also earned just enough that Medicaid wasn't available. Not that anyone had the time to go through the process over and over again, dealing with less and less helpful government stooges until something got done.

Larry's eyes studied the floor, and his hand sought his wife's. "Too much," he said.

Karen squeezed her husband's hand, and explained, "Any amount of money is worth it if it saves my boy's life. And we've spoken to the hospital and we're trying to arrange a payment plan. But… we won't be able to afford it. Even with our savings, it won't cover the hospital bill. We'd need to pay it back over years of tightening our belts even more than we have been if they let us, or at worst mortgage the house."

I sat in shock. "But you worked so hard to buy it! You shouldn't need to do that! Can't… I don't know, can't they make the scum who did this pay for it? Isn't Kurt entitled to some kind of compensation? He's the victim of assault, for God's sake!"

Larry gave a bitter laugh. "You want to try and get money out of the mafia? Danny, if we had the money to hire the army of lawyers necessary to pull that off we wouldn't be in this situation in the first place. Didn't you hear? The police filed this whole incident under 'gang activity'. There's not a judge in the entire city'd give compensation to what he's been told is a gang member who got hurt in a street brawl."

My mouth opened and closed. I thought I'd been cynical about the 'justice' system before, but… "I can't believe it. That's just..."

"Unfair, of course." Karen gave a sad smile. "But we'll muddle through somehow. We always have." She looked at her husband, then down at the floor, and there was a silence. After a moment she said, a bit too brightly, "Come on, you've barely touched your tea, Daniel! What would your mother say?"

I did as I was told, but I felt a rising heat that had nothing to do with the tea.

I barely remembered making an excuse to the Fosters and leaving. Hell, I didn't even remember the walk home, I was that angry.

Karen might have brushed it off, but I knew just how important owning their house was to them. Not just because of the money. It meant they didn't owe anything to anybody. It meant they had a place that was unquestionably theirs. It meant home.

And now that was all gone.

Because of me.

But more importantly, because the system had failed. When a man like Kurt was hurt by a criminal and his family was punished for it, the system wasn't working. Crime. Corruption. The decks being stacked worse than a Vegas card sharp, and all to keep people like Kurt's family down. It seemed like every part of the entire project – of government, of the corporations, of the criminal enterprises, and I wasn't sure if there was even a difference – was designed to keep the ruling class on top and everyone else on the bottom. Even when we were the ones who made everything tick. Even when we were all supposed to be equal in this goddamned sham of a democracy. Even though all the money Kurt needed right now was surely sitting in some fat cat's bank account, unused, a thousand times over and more.

And the most direct expression of this unfairness? Capes. If Galvanate hadn't been there, if it had just been regular unpowered thugs, there was no doubt in my mind as to the outcome. We would have stood together, would have laughed at the suggestion that we return to work. But a single parahuman had changed the game entirely. One man had been enough to tear down what fifty had tried to build. One man, who plugged himself into this broken system, and used the power he'd been given to kick down those weaker than himself.

Sure, there were heroes. Legend, Eidolon, and, well, Hero. Not every cape was a cog in the machine, at least not much more than anyone else. But then, who appointed these people? Who said they were suitable to enforce the laws of the people? An elite class taking it upon themselves to use force to enact justice: wasn't that inherently fascistic, when you got right down to it? No matter how noble their intentions, they still used force as a first, last, and only means to maintain the status quo.

It. Wasn't. Right.

Now, I'm familiar with rage. I try to stay calm most of the time, because I've seen what happens when a man doesn't keep a lid on himself, but I'd inherited my dad's anger issues just as surely as I'd inherited my mom's build.

This was something entirely different. Not red-hot and explosive, but bone-deep and ugly. This anger had no target. No-one to lash out and punch, because what I needed to punch was the entire world. It didn't burn, it twisted inside me like a snake.

And unlike when I usually lost my temper, I didn't stop thinking. In fact, I felt myself thinking clearer than ever before, as I entered my apartment in a sort of trance.

Why should we let capes have all the power all the time? Really, why? Wouldn't it be better if we could just… switch their powers off whenever they weren't actively being used to support the causes that were worth fighting for? Or hell, just permanently. I wasn't fussed.

The world didn't need capes to save it. We'd broken free from the idea of the divine right of kings, from slavery, from all kinds of discrimination. We weren't nearly there yet, but the groundwork had been laid just by people doing what people did, and not because someone had used their own personal power to make it so. When you looked at it that way, the fact that the existence of capes put the focus entirely on one small group of separate individuals to change the world was the worst thing about it.

Something needed to be done. And I had an idea that just might make it possible.

I grabbed a pen and paper and started scribbling.