Archive for October, 2010

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Professor McGinnis jotted down a date on the whiteboard—1970—then underneath it the current year: 2010. He turned to his Sociology and Culture class, every one of the 25 students a senior, pointing the dry erase marker at them, waving it like a wand and saying, “Who can tell me what they think is the most important change in society to occur in this period?”

Zoe caught his eyes squarely even as she raised her hand—it was a trick she had learned long ago to ensure she didn’t get overlooked. Joe McGinnis was as often flustered by her as he was elated with her answers, so he sometimes had an inclination to ignore her at first. But the main reason Zoe did it was because when she had a thought to share, she was damned if anyone else was going to go first. It often came at the cost of getting in the final word, but it was a price she was typically willing to pay.

“Yes, Ms. Dawson.”

“Very rapid advances in microchip technology over what had been created in the early ‘60s, which ushered in the widespread use of personal computers in homes in the early 1980s and led in turn to widespread high-speed access to the web later that same decade thanks to fiber-optic advances as well as memory and data processing speed breakthroughs,” Zoe said.

“Interesting approach, Zoe,” the professor said. “I would have thought…”

“…that I’d pick the answer everyone else does?” she noted. “The emergence of the first documented and confirmed transhuman in the mid-1970s? No, that’s just a freak occurrence of nature that has become a more widespread occurrence of nature over the past 30 or 40 years. It’s a major evolutionary development, sure…but it doesn’t represent a fundamental altering of the way we live and work.”

“I beg to differ,” Prof. McGinnis said. “The rise of transhumanity has had widespread and fundamental impacts on our nation and the entire world. For example, it changed the nature of crime and forced police departments to include transhuman units in addition to SWAT units. It also forced the creation of special prisons, and the need to identify and keep separate so-called ‘heroes’ who violate anti-vigilante laws from ‘villains’ who are more identifiably evil. It also sharply altered media and entertainment, from comic books to mo…”

“All of those things are simply ramped up versions of things we already had,” Zoe interrupted him. “It didn’t change anything fundamentally, not like computer and web access have. Crime, punishment and incarceration have always been in flux. Entertainment is always shifting. I mean, look at the rise and fall and re-emergence of musicals in film…”

Interrupting her himself now, the professor cut in with, “Then what about social issues? Transhuman changes seem to sharply favor those of Asian or African descent. This is rapidly leading to global socioeconomic and sociopolitical shifts of staggering implications. And here in the U.S., it’s bringing race relations issues to a boiling point in many areas as Caucasians come to fear that their hold on wealth and power isn’t just at risk—but also wondering if they are going to be rendered extinct in the next century or so. Have you considered that?”

“Certainly I have, Prof. McGinnis, but shifts in power and the rise and fall of world powers is nothing new, either. Neither are race relations issues in this country or globally. China already owned so much of our debt—does it really make a big difference that they will have more transhumans and take a lead role as a world power? Or Africa, for that matter? It’s just their turn. On the other hand, widespread access to the Internet and the ability to process, send and store massive amounts of data instantly is truly transformative. Just for starters, widespread access to e-mail for going on nearly three decades now has made the U.S. Post Office a shadow of its former self. The way people meet and interact and what they are willing to share about themselves has changed in ways that are so deep and so broad they can’t even be compared to the impact of the telephone’s invention. The way news is disseminated has changed fundamentally.”

Zoe stopped to take a breath, but held up a finger and gave the professor a stern look to indicate she wasn’t done.

“The fact that you can store a terabyte of data on your pocket PC is transformative. You can store a huge library in your pants,” she said, earning a round of chuckles from her classmates, “which is something unimaginable for thousands of years of civilization. We have the first artificial intelligence computers emerging now. Internet access has enabled people to conduct research and share ideas in minutes—sometimes seconds—instead of having to hop a bus to the nearest library, hoping the books they need are there, and spending tons of time finding them. Scientific and healthcare breakthroughs we see now coming at us at geometric rates, and the rapid changes in science and the understanding of the world, too—and this all came about from microchip technology, not transhumans.”

The professor smiled.

“But, Ms. Dawson, what about the fact that the first ‘documented’ and ‘confirmed’—both your words, by the way—transhumans were in the 1970s? That means that likely transhuman genetic effects were in play before that and were simply unseen and unrecognized. Meaning that the microchip breakthroughs you note were probably the result of transhumans who would now be classified as ‘Brains.’ Check and mate, I believe.”

Zoe smiled in turn, but it was a bitter and rueful one. “Only if you base your conclusions on unproven assumptions, professor—which you have.”

After that, others in the class began to get their comments in, and the tide was overwhelmingly in favor of the professor’s view. A few other ideas were tossed out here and there about other major changes to society and culture from other sources, but it always ended up coming back to the transhumans.

Seething with frustration and simmering with unspent anger as well, Zoe literally stomped through the first half of her journey to her dorm after class. At one point, her emotions coming to a peak, she felt the cellular shift take hold, and winced slightly at the split-second pain as her nails and hair changed composition to become harder and sharper than any knife—and as her skin became tighter and more resilient. In a flash of anger, she struck the corner of one of the oldest buildings on the New Judah campus of the University of Connecticut when no one was looking, raking four deep gouges in the bricks with her nails.

Then she calmed down, felt her body shift back to normal, and brushed the red-brown dust from her hand and the tiny hard chunks from under her fingernails. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it, and when a passing student scowled at her like she was a leper for doing so, she smiled sweetly, blew a kiss as she exhaled her smoke, and then flipped him off.

We aren’t transformative, professor, Zoe thought bitterly. People like me are just the next logical step, I guess. Or maybe just freaks. We just complicate things; we aren’t that special in the end.

* * *

Query flexed his arm, and contemplated the scars that had been with him for three days now, and would soon enough fade away. Still plenty of internal damage to heal, though, so the arm was far from fully functional. Still, looking at it, no one would know that less than a week ago, it had been slashed and shot to a bloody pulp.

He looked at the clock. 4:17 a.m. A perfectly putrid time of day when he wasn’t in proper condition to patrol, investigate, capture or punish as Query.

So I guess that makes me Alan Millos right now…or is it Milo Phillips, since that’s the human face that most people see?

He was restless. How long had it been since he’d actually slept at all? Three or four years now? Even before then, increasingly sporadic sleep after the accidentally forced emergence of his transhuman powers. Not even the strongest anti-insomnia medications had done a thing for him. Anesthetics were equally useless. He’d forgotten what dreaming felt like—forgotten how it felt to drift off into slumber with his head resting on a soft and warm pillow. All because he had wanted to heal his spine—ruined that night so long ago as the victim of a hold-up. All because he had taken that drug that he himself had deemed too dangerous to bring to market. He’d gained so much in return—besides just the use of his legs again—but he’d lost so much as well.

Sleep.

And dreams.

Don’t become maudlin. Find something to do.

Got to feed the sleep-starved brain; or else I’ll fucking go insane.

Sadly, he had nothing to investigate—well, that wasn’t true, precisely. He just didn’t have any paying clients or specific pro-bono cases now that the Grimmond kidnapping had turned out to be a setup all along. What he should be investigating was why Janus had gone through all that trouble and sent a team of 18 hired killers to get rid of him.

Janus had been running a successful criminal empire out west. There wasn’t much reason to come out this far—all the way to the East Coast. The man’s network wasn’t solid enough to expand this far out—hell, he wasn’t even in a position to dominate the entire Pacific coastline yet, much less start expanding into Arizona or New Mexico or the plains states. Yet here he was, skipping all the way across the nation in one fell swoop.

Based on the interrogations of his two prisoners, along with some other probing, it seemed that Janus had essentially closed up shop in California, Tijuana and Nevada and was setting up a whole new network out here, centered either in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh or New Judah.

And since the New Judah and New York metro areas are where I spend most of my time—and he tried to have me killed, that helps me narrow it down to two choices.

What was harder for Query to figure out yet was why Janus would try to kill him specifically. He’d never had any reason to go head-to-head against any of the villain’s operations out west, so there was no grudge match in play, and Query certainly wasn’t the only hero here out east—nor even the most active. Yet as near as he could discern, no one else had been targeted but him.

It was just confusing him instead of inspiring his investigative instincts. Worse, his lack of interaction with the scene out west meant he didn’t have a good handle on Janus and what made him tick—aside from what he could glean from sketchy reports and profiles generated by others. Every time he tried to examine the angles on the situation, it gave him a headache.

Aside from the investigatory block he was suffering, the underground rap scene had been irritating him more than inspiring him for some days now, so he finally decided to compose a couple new jazz tunes. He hadn’t produced anything as part of his Nigel Roy identity in a few months, so it was a good choice. Melodies for a while, instead of rap lyrics. In fact, he hadn’t made an appearance in public as Nigel in more than six months, and that was too long. Disguising himself as a Caucasian was good for keeping up his skills with makeup and prosthetics—he hadn’t had to use those talents in a while. It would also give him a chance to go on stage and work the sax or the guitar a bit.

Can’t get rusty. Need to keep all my diverse balls in the air.

Distract myself from lack of dreams; or else be driven mad with screams.

He sighed. Maybe after getting a rough melody down, he could review some pharmaceutical journals and attend to some of his business affairs as Alan Millos, too. Sure, he couldn’t investigate or patrol right now, but there were plenty of other things to do as he lived each day 24 hours without a break.

Sometimes he wondered if four identities was enough anymore to keep him sane—enough to occupy a mind forever denied the restorative power of sleep and dreams.

* * *

The teeth, the bank executive thought. Oh, God, the teeth. Please don’t smile again.

Of course she smiled though, and the executive squeezed his eyes shut and whimpered.

“That’s rude,” the woman told him in a voice that sounded like the husky, smoky intonation of Kathleen Turner with just an added hint of razor blades scraping together. “Open your eyes and look at me when I’m talking to you. Don’t make me ask again, or I’ll take another nibble.”

Sweating and shivering at the same time, he opened his eyes to look at that face. A face that looked so normal—just your average 30-something-year-old soccer mom—except for a set of teeth than was mix of oversized canines, needle-like fangs, curving fangs, jagged molars, blade-like teeth, and more. And then she smiled wider, and he saw a second set of equally horrific dentition just grow behind those teeth, and then vanish just as quickly. The smile faded. Then she lifted a hand, presented it palm-first, and the flesh peeled open like a gash until he realized a mouth was forming there, full of tiny needle-like teeth. Then it, too, retreated.

Somehow, through it all, he managed to keep his eyes open as she had ordered. He didn’t want her to nibble anymore. The ruin of the little finger and ring finger of his left hand wasn’t something he wanted repeated.

“Wha…wha…what do you want?” he managed. “Please just tell me what you want.”

She said nothing, instead pulling out a set of pliers, pushing him to the ground—not a difficult feat, since he was already on his buttocks on the floor—and then straddled his chest. Without preamble, and ignoring his screams, she reached in with the tool and yanked out a tooth, then slipped it into a pouch on her belt. Even through the pain, he couldn’t help but notice the gruesome jewelry she wore and wondered if his tooth was destined to be a new charm on her bracelet or a sixth earring to adorn her right ear. With a giddiness born of fear and dread, he even wondered if it might end up being a belly button piercing.

Moaning with pain and the metallic tang of blood in his mouth, he moaned, “Why? Why are you doing this?”

“To get your attention, silly,” the woman said. “Now, if you don’t want me to own all of your teeth, or nibble some more, or both, you will tell me the passwords to get into the mainframe, so that I can conduct a very quiet robbery of a lot of money. Well, quiet except for those moans and whimpers you keep making.”

“But…” he began, and she waved the pliers in a lazy arc in the air, and he said, “Yes. Fine. Yes. Yes. Whatever you want.”

“Good boy,” she said.

When he’d given her what she asked, and she’d made the necessary transfers 15 minutes later, she pushed him down again, and sat on his chest, and his eyes bulged with terror. “But you said…”

“I said if you didn’t give me the passwords, I’d own all your teeth,” she said, and shook her shoulders bit to loosen up. The bank exec noticed the short cape or whatever it was hanging from her neck, gauzy and fluttering almost like two wings. “Don’t worry; I’ll only take two or three more. Tooth Fairy needs her souvenirs.”

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Announcement: Update

Posted: October 27, 2010 in Announcements / General

Not like I have a huge readership yet at this very new blog but still, just for the record, I wanted to let you know that if you haven’t checked them in the past few days, all of the drop-down menus at the top of the page are now populated with material. Most of them, of course, for reasons that will be clear when you look at them, will be updated relatively frequently. But I just wanted to let you know that there are no missing or empty pages anymore.

I expect that part 2 of “The Gathering Storm” will be posted before the weekend, giving you not only more of a look at Query but introducing some other characters, too.

God bless the law of unintended benefits.

Every day James opened this store and had a steady flow of customers, and every day he saw a healthy profit in the cash drawer—and those were most days of the week—he was glad all the odds-makers had been wrong.

If he’d listened to people like that, he would have long ago closed this shop that his dad had given life almost 40 years ago. Cosmic Comics. RIP. Instead, it was hale and healthy.

Of course, the name had changed since then, by necessity. Once you end up with real superheroes in the world—and villains to go along with them—you can’t expect to do business as usual as a comics shop and have a name like Cosmic Comics. Still, even knowing things would have to change, he’d kept the name until dad died in 1997. Once the sadness of that loss had worn off, it was time to get serious, and rename it Shoreline Hero Shop.

Sure, the shoreline of Long Island Sound was a few miles away, and many of the folks who shopped here were more interested in the anti-heroics, but why quibble with technicalities?

Point was that damn near everyone had predicted the death of the comic book business the more that transhumans kept popping up after the 1970s. When they started putting on costumes and duking it out in the streets by the mid 1980s and the world of comic books was suddenly real life, everyone said there was no place for comic books anymore—or at least no place for shops dedicated to them.

They had been right in some ways. But wrong in so many others, James considered.

Oh, there had been some lean years when his father was keeping the rent paid by draining the savings accounts during the 1980s and early 1990s. But he had held in there, and James along with him.

Because, damn the naysayers, James sensed there was change coming. A return of the old business and the infusion of new business.

And the mid-1990s proved him right.

Comic books hadn’t died out. Their popularity went down for a while, but then surged again when people realized that the real-world heroes and villains weren’t as dramatic as they had hoped. Sure, there were plenty of impressive and dangerous powers, but no one was lifting cruise ships with a single hand. No one could fly. No one shot out bolts of high-powered energy that could melt a car. So, in the end, the biggest casualties were the titles with heroes and villains that were too close to the real ones in the news.

Batman, for example—for all his iconic history—was too much like Query, Feral, Nighthunter and High Impact to survive as a crime-fighter who could spark the imagination in a comic book or graphic novel. But titles focusing on grandiose powers or magic took over with a vengeance, and soon there were heroes and villains who were even more overblown than Superman or Galactus.

But hell, even the Batman character found new life outside the comic books. An animated sitcom-style series now in its eighth season featuring Batman characters that was every bit as witty and observant as “The Simpsons” had been, plus a dramatic live-action series that focused on Bruce Wayne’s relationships and personal challenges more than the fights with his rogue’s gallery as Batman.

Now, a buddy cop flick in the theater might just as easily feature a pair of transhumans as it might a hair-trigger baseline human detective teamed up with the sedate and serious sergeant five weeks from retirement.

But in the end, comic books had survived, and so had this shop. But it didn’t survive on comics alone, which was good, since that had always been a hit-or-miss business. Now, James could also traffic in the many magazines that covered transhumans, from the porno mags like TranshumNUDITY, Trans + Trans, Playboy’s Girls of Power and Hustler Morph Parade all the way to the gossip and news publications that followed transhuman news, exploits and interest areas, like SuperNews, TransWeek, PoweredPEOPLE, The Transhuman Enquirer, Costume & Ammo, Celebrity Crimefighters and Good::Evil.

Plus a whole set of racks of reality-show videos about transhumans, X-rated films with them, documentaries about them, and self-help books for people dealing with their newfound abilities—or those raising such a person. Authorized biographies, unauthorized biographies, memoirs, history books on transhuman issues and more.

Hell, he even had a corner devoted to martial arts supplies, for those transhuman customers who hoped they might be able to be a real hero one day.

No, business had been good for those who had stuck it out and adapted. The law of unintended benefits.

James tended to give the middle finger to the law of unintended consequences, and he’d never had that law truly punch him in the nose.

Well, at least not until 3:36 p.m. when that asshole came in.

* * *

Plenty of odd and disturbing people had patronized Shoreline Hero Shop, particularly in the past 10 years, but James figured he saw less weirdos than the average convenience store did. Some weirdos were even good for business. Underworld, a villain that the FBI and local police forces kept near the top of their watch list, had come in one day to buy up any and everything in the store that even vaguely mentioned her arch-nemesis Glory Boy. Besides dropping a bunch of cash, the statuesque woman took time to autograph a bunch of stuff in James’ shop.

She even sent him a thank-you note two weeks later, praising him for his comprehensive collection, along with a dozen autographed photos of her in nothing but her mask and a sable stole—James kept one of those and made a tidy sum selling the rest. Apparently, she had gained enough insight about Glory Boy to put him off his game in a streetfight with her, and she trounced his ass. He’d always been a hero with a huge ego and an annoying sense of self-importance, so James didn’t feel all that bad that it was in part because of the inventory at the Shoreline Hero Shop that Glory Boy was going to need braces to walk for the rest of his life.

Fanboys and fangirls, freaky deakies and trans-stalkers, heroes and villains, adults and kids, professors and high schoolers—all walks of life came through here.

So James didn’t flinch when a guy came in wearing black leggings under red satin boxing shorts, Doc Marten boots with red flames crudely painted on them—and flaking no less, a too-tight long-sleeve yellow shirt that was riding just high enough to reveal his belly button, a domino mask that had clearly been bought in a dollar store, and a cape that seemed to have been stolen from some old devil costume from a Halloween shop.

“I am Hellfire,” the guy said, in a tone that held some menace, but also a lot of nasally whine.

“Hi, I’m James. What can I do for you?”

“It’s what you will do for me that matters,” Hellfire said. “I locked your door on my way in, and turned your sign around to ‘closed.’ Don’t yell. Don’t scream. Just do as you’re told.”

James swore to himself silently. He hadn’t been robbed in a long time, and this would be the first time by a guy in a costume. But why did it have to be a guy in such a cheesy, slapped-together get-up?

I’m not telling anyone about a robbery this fucking embarrassing, James thought. Except to my girlfriend. No, not even her, come to think of it. She’d use it as material in her stand-up routine.

James realized the guy was carrying a box, but hadn’t yet brandished a gun or knife, and he began to wonder if this was a robbery after all. As dad had always told him about strange situations: When in doubt, ask.

“So…um, Hellfire…is this a robbery or something?”

“I’m about to become a top-tier fucking supervillain, you shithead,” the guy snapped. “I’m not gonna rob some fucking comic book shop.”

“Hero shop,” James corrected him, rubbing at his neck, putting his hands on his hips, and flapping his elbows forward and back a little as he sized the visitor up.

“I ain’t no hero,” Hellfire said.

“So you’ve told me. So, what’s in the box? Some arcane totem that’s going to eat my soul?”

“Don’t mock me, you putz,” Hellfire whined, fidgeting a bit.

“Well, you said your name is Hellfire. You’re trying to be all threatening and shit. Your robbery weapon is a box. I’m just guessing here. Working with what I have, man.”

“Goddammit!” Hellfire snapped irritably, frowning in an way that was far more petulant and hurt than fearsome. “I toldja this wasn’t a robbery. What’s in this box is what you’re gonna sell for me, to make sure my name is known far and wide before I begin my reign of terror. Oh, and, uh, you’re gonna give me 100% of the proceeds from them. I’ll, uh, be finding you at random times and places to get my take. You’d better have all of it when I do.”

“Or…?” James probed.

Pulling off one of his heavy black gloves, which was clearly from some wholesale lab supply store, Hellfire laid a slightly trembling hand on James’ countertop. James smelled burning, and when Hellfire removed his hand and put the glove back on, a black handprint, smoking slightly, could be seen in the woodgrain.

Shit, a Thermal. And strong enough to generate enough biochemical heat to give me a bunch of third-degree burns on my face and neck if I piss him off, James considered. Time to step up my game.

Hellfire opened the box.

“These are comic books. By me and about me. Thirty copies of issue #1. You’ve got a week to sell at least half of them and give me the cash, and another couple weeks to sell the rest. I’ll have issue #2 in three or four weeks for you, and I’ll have more copies of them, and I’ll want all of them sold, too. So, uh…um…get your fucking sell on. Your salesman face. Uh, whatever it takes.”

James didn’t like the idea of being extorted, paying protection money or being an indentured salesman—whatever the fuck this was. Being the guy’s butt-boy in any case. But he also didn’t like the idea of having the guy jump him some night and leave him with a bunch of burn scars. Suddenly, he was wishing this was a straight-up robbery with a gun. Now James was sweating a little, but that was pretty much par for the course at this point.

He sighed, and decided he needed to buy some time. So he slowly picked up one of the comic books and started leafing through it slowly. As he did, he said, “Seems like a steep price at $30 a copy.”

Particularly since it looks like it was drawn by an eight-year-old and lettered by a Kindergartner, James thought.

“I autographed all those,” Hellfire said, puffing out his chest, but shifting his feet back and forth. “The next batch will only be $15 each, but there’ll be three times…as many…and you’d better, uh, sell ‘em all…OK?”

“Sure, sure,” James said casually.

“Look, I’ve got places to be,” Hellfire said. “I just wanted you to know what’s what, OK? You take it from here.”

“Hold on a bit, Hellfire,” James said, laughing inwardly at the ludicrous and poorly drawn situations in the comic book, with Hellfire fending off three heroes at a time and getting hit on by big-bosomed women every fifth page—a little laughter, even silent, took his mind off thoughts of being burned. James took a deep breath, sweated some more. Blew out a long, slow sigh. “Look, you may end up being a big-time villain soon, but if I’m going to sell these, I need to know more about you. Let me read this and get a sense of who you are.”

“Can’t you do that on your time instead of mine?” Hellfire said in a whinier tone than before. “I’ve got places to be.”

“It’s Monday afternoon, Hellfire,” James said. “Where’ve you got to be? Even here in New Judah, villains hate Mondays as much as anyone. Maybe you want to work hard on a Monday, but you won’t find too many heroes to vanquish out there today. Maybe when night falls you can get lucky and take out Query or something.”

“But why…?”

“Just stick around a bit. I’m almost done here. I might have questions about you that I need to ask. You know, so I can sell your rep a bit and drive sales of your comic book,” James said, leaning forward a little. “Just be a little longer.”

“Look, this…”

“Hey, just stick around. Nothing to be nervous about, right? You’re the big, bad villain, right?”

“I…”

“So, you’ll come up on me in the deep dark of night every week or so. Creep up on me so I can give you my hard-earned money, right?”

“Well…”

“Yeah, that sounds right. Sounds really fucking unnerving. Scary. Terrifying, even,” James said, and leaned over just a little more, dropping the comic book to the counter. “Real shit your pants stuff.”

“OK now…”

“Big, bad, scary FUCK!”

Hellfire jumped a bit, stepped back.

“Fear’s a pretty powerful thing, isn’t it?”

Hellfire stepped back from the counter, almost tripped over his own feet, and bolted for the door. He scrabbled at the lock for a few seconds before he got it open, and James could see the stain of piss on the guy’s shorts. Hellfire fled down the street, and James figured he wouldn’t be able to come back near the store without anxiety, so it was probably the last he’d see of him.

James sighed, centered himself, and began to stem the flow of sweat and the excess saliva.

Shit, I hate the taste of the fear-producing pheromones—and the smell of them, too.

James went to re-lock the door, and left the sign turned around to “closed.” Normally, he wouldn’t be closed this early, but it would take a half-dozen fans all night to clear the air. Keeping a light haze of comfort pheromones in the air was the usual way of things, not a miasma of terror.

So, yeah, business wasn’t just good because of my good business sense, he admitted to himself, though most of it was due to skill and the example of his dad. But when you had other advantages, you use those too. Like being a Primal transhuman who can manipulate a few emotions, thanks to mom and dad’s chromosomes.

Just another example of the law of unintended benefits, James thought, as he got ready to trash the amateurish comics Hellfire had brought—then he stopped, and put them in a cabinet behind his counter instead. Shit, you never know. The guy might become famous one day.

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Milo Phillips’ fingers finished dancing across the keys on his touch-screen, as he imagined the winding down of the beat in the back of his mind that had accompanied the words he had written.

The tongue is a weapon, my words are a sword.
They sever, slice
Once, twice and thrice
Must suffice
So I banter right, and banter left
Death by verbal bat’leth

A young man paused near Milo, leaned slightly over his shoulder from the side, and looked down at the rap lyrics that he had just written on the screen of his palmtop. Annoyed and distracted, his mental reflexes kicked in even as he quietly verbalized the new lyrics, instantly retrieving the young rapper’s stage name from his memory: Slaughter Vox. Then other data flooded his thoughts. Birth name: Bourey Timothy Moore. Age: 22. Occupation: Fucking slacker. Social security number…

Milo shut off the feed of information flowing through his mind, kicking himself mentally for dwelling on pointless personal data that he had gathered about one of the semi-regulars in his musical circles. He wasn’t Query right now, so it was a waste of mental resources he could better devote to his rapping. Neither was he jazz composer Nigel Roy right now nor even in his original birth identity of Alan Millos, the scientist everyone thought paralyzed and secluded in his big house out near the edge of the county line.

Time to focus on the current identity and the current task—getting ready to go up on stage in about 30 or 40 minutes.

Slaughter Vox was still standing there, still peering over Milo’s shoulder, and now letting out a scornful little half-laugh.

Arrogant little prick, Milo thought.

Half-white, half-Cambodian, and he fancied himself as blacker than a black man—even one in his mid-40s, like Milo, whose parents had been part of the latter years of the Civil Rights Movement. Milo heard a snort of derision now from the young man as he finished softly vocalizing the lyrics a second time, and then looked up with boredom in his dark eyes, awaiting the jibe he knew must be coming.

“What ’da fuck’s a ‘bat lip’ old man?” Vox sneered.

“Bat’leth,” he answered evenly, correcting Vox. “Klingon sword. Star Trek. First seen in the Next Generation series. Nasty piece of work if you were to be on the receiving end.”

“Jeeeesus, niggah” Vox drawled in some pale imitation of a ‘street’ tonality. “Fuck. If you gonna pull a sci-fi ref to old-ass shit, try somethin’ people give a shit ‘bout, like Star Wars or classic ’Trek. Better yet, try yo’self on some Battlestar Galactica or Fringe or some other mo’ recent shit. Fuckin’ dinosaur. No place in rap fo’ clueless old men.”

Feeling a bit of his Query persona creeping in, Milo mentally reviewed the two or three best ways he could break Vox’s forearm. Then he considered that a blow to the moron’s windpipe would be a better idea, since it would spare the world the sound of his pathetic words for a while. Instead, Milo sighed, and went back to his palmtop, jotting down ideas for more lyrics.

This is no time for violence, he considered. I’m not in my Query identity, so no need for heroics. Not that hitting the idiot would be heroic, anyway, he considered. Vox isn’t even a criminal—at least not yet, or at least not that I know. He’s just a punk.

So a while later, Milo did what he did to any punk on a night like this. Instead of breaking a bone or giving out concussions, he slaughtered the young man on stage. With words.

* * *

By the next night, Milo Phillips was nowhere in evidence—nor was Nigel Roy or theoretically wheelchair-bound Alan Millos. This was another venue in another part of town. A small room in an aging commercial building that looked like a cross between an accountant’s office and a private detective’s. Too much high-end computer equipment and too clean to be called seedy; too cluttered and small to be called classy.

This was one of Query’s nights.

Shit, most nights are for Query, the man thought behind his almost featureless full-head black mask—the only adornment a red question mark occupying the space from the bottom of his nose to just above the tip of his chin. When you get down to it, Query is who I really am now.

Right on time, a key rattled in the lock and the door to the office swung open, as Carl Beacham stepped in.

“Good evening, Query,” he said. “Keeping your nose clean?”

It was a common joke to hear from Carl. Query found it reasonably amusing even after hearing it dozens of times over the past couple years, but he didn’t laugh. He simply said, as he touched the mask-covered tip of his nose, “How would you be able to tell if I were lying or not?”

Carl smiled slightly at the usual comeback, and was reminded, as always, how strange it was for Query to talk to him but never to see that question mark over his mouth move a bit. As always, he wondered if some kind of thin and hard “protective cup” lay over Query’s mouth, chin, nose  and jawline to create that unnerving effect and to disguise slightly the shape of his face—and no doubt keep his teeth from getting knocked out in hand-to-hand fights.

“So, I met with the Grimmond family tonight as planned, and sussed out some more information. The kidnappers are still holding their child and giving them all sorts of rules, ultimatums and vague demands. The police still haven’t been brought in because they’re afraid that will get the kid killed, but the family can’t seem to give me any idea of when the kidnappers plan to actually make a firm demand. It seems like they’re mostly screwing with the family now, and the father is really nervous that you won’t be able to find the kid. I don’t know. Maybe the kidnappers are trying to scare them; maybe to see if they’ll break the rules and bring in the police. Or maybe the kid is dead and they’re trying to figure out how to cash in anyway.”

“This whole case has been odd from the start,” Query noted. “I didn’t expect it to get any easier toni…”

Query sniffed. Paused. Sniffed again.

“What?” Carl asked.

“Did you make out with some woman tonight before coming here?”

“No…what?…not that it’s any of your damn business, but…”

“Did you?” Query pressed.

“What kind of question…”

“A question from me. Just because I’m called Query doesn’t mean I ask questions for the damn sake of just asking them. You should know that by now. Did you…”

“No! I danced with a woman. Mr. Grimmond met me at a nice little tavern so that I wouldn’t be seen going into his home or office by the kidnappers. When I was leaving, a pretty gal gave me the eye, and asked if I could dance. I had time to kill before coming here, so we danced a couple slow ones to the jukebox. How did you know anyway…”

“Perfume. I can smell it on you. It’s not what Patsy wears.”

“Now, you’re not gonna say something to Patsy, are you? It’s enough trouble being your attorney, investigator and go-between in these cases without having you in my relationship.”

“Stand still,” Query said brusquely, then stepped forward to frisk Carl. The man simply let it happen, realizing that arguing at this point about anything was pointless.

“You know, it’s already not that damn easy being your go-between so that you can keep your dark and mysterious vibe up and keep people away from your secret office, and now you’re frisking me. You know, I had yet another reporter call yesterday and insist that it was obvious I was Query since I do all the interviewing legwork and initial investigatory work, and I was shitty at keeping a secret identity, and I should just come clean in an interview with him. I pointed out that I was at least five inches shorter than you and at least 30 pounds heavier and he snorted something about girdles and platform shoes before I hung up on him.”

“Well, that’s why I pay you well—to deal with that bullshit so that I don’t have to,” Query said. “Not to mention that you deserve plenty of pay since someone might take a potshot or something at you someday to get to me.”

“You have such a warm and comforting nature, Query.”

“You’re welcome,” Query said. “It’s becoming clear now. This entire process has been too drawn out. The family is either under contract to fuck with us and the child is safely with friends, or their child is being held to force them to help set us up.”

“Set us up for what?” Carl asked, as Query finished frisking him.

“Nothing,” Query muttered, and it was clear he was referring to the fruitless search of Carl’s person, not answering the man’s question. “Turn out all your pockets on the desk. Now.”

“For what…”

“Now. Do it.”

Carl emptied everything from his pants pockets, suit coat and overcoat. Query sifted through everything there rapidly, picked up a shiny quarter, considered it for a moment, then said, “Get everything else you care about back in your pockets, fast. We’re about to leave.”

“What’s going on?”

“Since when have you ever carried pocket change?” Query asked.

“What do you mean? Who doesn’t?”

“You, for one. Carl, you pay for everything with plastic. I’ve observed you buying a $1.50 coffee from a gas station using a credit card or debit card on at least 20 occasions. You are cash-averse. And now there’s one lone coin in your pocket when you don’t pay in cash? The woman who danced with you slipped this into your pocket while you were copping a cheap feel.”

“Guess my dancing wasn’t very impressive. Or my flirting. Maybe I just picked it up from the ground or a table without thinking about it. Ever consider that?”

“It’s too heavy to be a real quarter, Carl. Short-range transmitter. They’ve probably had to circle around a few times in the neighborhood to get a good fix on it though—signal would be for shit, especially with the white noise and other interference I generate in the area. They wouldn’t have followed you closely by car for fear of spooking you. They’re here to kill me.”

“How long before they…wait, you said ‘they’re here.’ Shit. Already?”

“Setting up, and waiting for the rest of their team probably. Blocking any avenues of escape. I heard movement in the alley below and wondered why a vehicle was rolling down it so quietly. No doubt there are teams at the elevators and stairwells. They think I’m ignorant of all this. Not altogether foolish of them; they are good at stealth. I’m just better and more perceptive. They’ll be on us in 10 to 15 minutes probably—they know I was planning to debrief you and they’ll want to make sure they block off all the exits, so they’re not rushing. I’m figuring we should assume we only have three minutes, though, to be on the safe side.”

“So, we’re going to fight our way out? Take them by surprise?”

“Did you bring a weapon or body armor, Carl?”

“Of course not. My most dangerous weapon is a Mont Blanc pen.”

“Did you learn martial arts on the sly when I wasn’t looking? Develop superpowers, perhaps? Or do you simply want to die in a firefight?”

“So we’re gonna wait for them?”

“Nonsense,” Query said amiably, handing Carl a canvas shopping bag. “Please take my external hard drive there and carry it with you. The Chinese vase, too. It has sentimental value.”

Query snatched up a shoulder bag for himself, slid everything small and loose from the top of the desk into it, pitched the quarter into a corner, punched a few keys on his computer and then slapped a button on the side of the filing cabinet. Carl got a whiff of some terrible chemical stink from inside the cabinet and wondered how long before the acid-bath in there—or whatever it was—finished with the paper and started eating through the metal of the cabinet itself. No doubt a virus was currently trashing what little data Query actually kept on the computer’s CPU hard drive.

“Don’t worry, Carl, we have a huge advantage.”

“Really, what’s that?”

“They think I’m secure enough and complacent in my secrecy here and that I’m arrogant enough to not have expected something like this,” Query said. “Besides, they’ve already found my two ‘escape hatches.’ One of them anyway, from some noises I’ve heard down below; I have to assume they’ve found the other one, too.”

“Why is this supposed to make me comfortable and how does this give you an advantage?” Carl said. He was maintaining his composure pretty well as usual, but a little nervous tic was entering into the equation now, Query noted.

“Because, my friend, they don’t realize that I’m three times more cautious and paranoid than they think,” Query said. “Those two ‘secret’ escape routes are just for show.”

* * *

The primary assault team worked its way down the hall—three men and one woman who had killed enough people between them over their careers to populate a tiny backwater town.

They were hyper-aware of potential alarms and traps, and actually noted at least one motion detector and one laser tripwire, both of which they thwarted en route to Query’s office, which was listed as “Northeastern Market Consulting LLP,” a business theoretically co-owned by a man named Lloyd Swinton and a woman named Gloria Redfisher. When they got near the office door, they wasted no time, and opened fire on the door and outer wall with automatic weapons loaded with armor piercing rounds. When they were all clicking on empty, they dropped those weapons, pulled out fresh ones, and cautiously entered the office, expecting to find at least one dead body and perhaps one body-armored hero who was heavily wounded. Instead they got an office full of bullet holes and a filing cabinet with fumes leaking from partially corroded drawers.

It took them two minutes to figure out that the bookcase covered a hole in the wall and that some kind of dumbwaiter had been built into that wall, leading straight to the basement. Five levels down.

That was already 14 minutes too late, and by the time a pair of two-person teams had been mobilized to the basement, all they found was a small explosive device that filled the air with high-velocity shrapnel and reduced their ranks by three.

* * *

“So, if I may ask, why didn’t the hit team think that you might escape to the sewers?” Carl asked, as they approached a dimly lit area at the end of a mildew-scented tunnel, where a ladder led upward into the barely illuminated gloom. Query motioned for him to go first.

As they progressed up the rungs, Query said, “Because this isn’t on the city plans. I didn’t pick an old area of the city for the shit of it, Carl. There are all kinds of old utility tunnels and other things that aren’t even kept track of anymore. The sewer is roughly parallel to our tunnel and 10 or 20 feet higher up. I’m sure they have the sewer covered—or booby-trapped—at both ends respective to the office building.”

When he reached the top of the ladder, Carl found that the trap door above him swung open easily. A light automatically came on in what appeared to be a small garage. A very nice five-year old Mercedes occupied most of the space.

Query followed him into the space, tossed what he was carrying into the back seat of the car, pulled out a couple of bags that were already in there, and handed a set of keys to Carl.

“Can you drive a stick?”

“Yeah.”

“Excellent. Good thing that it didn’t matter anyway, since this car is an automatic, but I’ll remember that in the future in case I leave my Porsche in one of my hidey holes. It never occurred to me to ask what you could drive when I hired you two years ago.”

“OK, Carl,” Query continued, “the GPS in the car can lead you to the Lark County safehouse I have. Uncork a bottle of merlot when you get there, thaw some steaks and grill yourself up a nice meal. Keep my shit safe, and don’t run up the cost on the pay-per-view too much with the satellite TV. If I don’t come up to meet you by 8 p.m. Sunday, you can safely assume I’m dead and carry on with your life. Keep the car as a memento if so.”

“What are you going to do?” Carl asked. “You’re not going back there, are you?”

“Of course I am, Carl. What if someone is working late in another office, hiding out after all that ruckus, and they end up dead because no one wants any witnesses?” Query said. “Besides, they who live by the sword, die by the sword. You reap what you sow. And all that jazz.”

As he shouldered his bags, Query paused, and stared off into the distance for a few moments. Though his eyes were hidden by the black mask, Carl could imagine the faraway look in them. “Though I suppose I should leave a couple of them mostly intact to answer some queries.”

* * *

The mercenary heard a soft sound and turned toward it, not realizing the man who made it had intended just that effect. Suddenly his vision was filled with a red exclamation mark that emblazoned the palm of a black leather glove, fingers splayed mere inches from his face and blocking his vision. A split-second of distraction before the other gloved hand, fingers curled into a striking position, hit him once at the base of his sternum and then in his throat.

I’ve had to use all of my tanglers already on his friends—a pity I had to use them on their faces instead of the feet or hands like I usually do; perhaps a few of them won’t asphyxiate, Query thought, as he made a final blow to the prone man to incapacitate him fully. Now that’s a nice pistol you have there, my friend. I hope you don’t mind if I keep it.

What Query lacked in expert martial arts capabilities—oh, he was far more than competent, but there were many heroes and villains, both super-powered and not, who could easily wipe the floor with him hand-to-hand, he readily acknowledged—he more than made up for in stealth. His enemies were still working their way through the building to find where he had gone or to discover if he were still hiding here, and he had dispatched a dozen of them already by ones and twos. Based on the trio of unfamiliar vans in the area that were clearly for transport and surveillance, he estimated that he had taken out more than two-thirds of their force by this point, and decided to err on the side of assuming seven more, though five seemed far more likely.

No police were going to come, clearly, Query surmised. Response rates to this neighborhood were notoriously slow, but after this much time, clearly there was either no one else in the building to hear the commotion and call the cops, or the strike team had disabled the alarms and phones and was jamming cell signals from leaving the area, too.

He had used up almost all of his silent ranged attacks, and before long, he was going to have to resort to his flechette pistol, which was quiet but far from silent, or one of three semi-automatic pistols he carried—one of them the former property of his latest victim—and those would be anything but stealthy.

Query dragged his latest victim into a maintenance closet, bound and gagged him for possible later interrogation, and then consulted the homemade app on his smart phone to identify the last-known position of another pair of his opponents.

They had disabled all of the obvious alarms and monitoring devices by now—which was precisely the reason Query had made them obvious to begin with, so that they would be too busy to find the real devices.

The pair he was tracking now were registering as having been hit with an odorless aerosolized sedative some 10 minutes earlier when they accidentally sprung one of his traps. It wasn’t enough to knock them out, but it would sharply reduce their reaction time.

He found them a few minutes later, downing one with a small bolo, then firing off a flechette from point-blank range into the ribcage of the other. Query knocked the first one out and bound and gagged him as he had the previous victim, and then held down the other, covering his mouth to keep him quiet until the damage to his heart and one lung overcame him.

Query could hear the faint sound of a voice from the earpiece of the mercenary’s communication equipment. Even with his enhanced senses, it was too hard to make out the details of what was being said, but the fact that the man wouldn’t be responding would alert them to Query’s presence if they weren’t already aware of it—and the fact that most of their team was down.

Another check-in on the smart phone told him that two of the mercenaries had recently left through the front door. Retreating to live another day, no doubt, and Query didn’t begrudge them that.

He just barely heard a van start up, and drive away.

Two more gone, then, and one to three remaining, most likely. They hadn’t passed any of his electronic checkpoints though. They were either lucky or better than the rest.

No indication that they left, and only one van has left, Query considered. This is the clean-up crew. Dedicated and likely deadlier than the rest.

He felt the change in air pressure before he heard any sound from the person hunting him, and the shots were ringing out before he could find cover. Two bullets hit the vest protecting his upper torso. Their impact hurt, but nothing short of an explosive round was going to get through that body armor. Another bullet ripped through his left forearm, while yet another tore out a chunk of his left bicep, leaving two trails of agony in their wake. The sleeve of his leather duster was reinforced, but far from bulletproof. His accelerated healing would stop the blood flow soon enough, but that arm would be of little practical use for a good day or two while it healed—except maybe to block any other attacks. The limb had become a casualty to be put in harm’s way, so that the other arm could do its job.

A pity that I’m a leftie, Query thought, as he pulled out one of the pistols with his off-hand and lobbed a small flash grenade with the injured one. As it went off, he rushed out from his hiding place and grabbed the gun of his adversary with his left hand. Before he could fully wrest it away, the man fired off several shots, one of which plunged through his palm. With Query cursing in pain and momentarily distracted, the mercenary struck him repeatedly. Even mostly blinded and disoriented, the unarmed merc was putting up a good fight, and Query was intensely glad he wasn’t facing the man in peak condition. He managed the beat the man away long enough to get a good shot, and shot him twice in the gut.

Then, as suddenly as the enemy was down, Query heard the man’s partner approach from the side, and managed to take cover before any bullets hit him this time. Taking out his last bolo, he came out from behind his cover and flung it at the mercernary’s weapon. He heard swearing in a feminine voice and then rushed her, batting away the pistol she was drawing. Getting his attention with the gun had the desired effect though, and with her other hand, she slashed at him with some kind of powered knife he hadn’t seen her draw.

Query used his otherwise useless left arm as a shield, the blade slashing easily through the sleeve of his coat. Every time she hit home, he not only howled with pain but mentally tallied up the additional damage. One slash. Two. Three. Probably another week added on to his recovery time, as the blade reached bone with the final slash. Then Query got his opening, and kicked in one of the woman’s kneecaps. As she stumbled, he pulled a retractable baton and used it to disarm her, then strike her across the head twice.

He retrieved his pistol from the ground—no, it was her pistol, he realized—and considered killing her or at least shooting her through the spine. He already had five other mercs trussed up in various locations, and he only needed to take two with him to question. Simply knocking this one out was too risky—she was probably the most dangerous enemy still alive or uncrippled.

But a woman and a man—one of each—that could be useful, Query thought. Each gender has its own weak points, and I need all the edge I can get to obtain answers.

He bound and gagged her, unloaded a syringe of sedative into her, and dragged her into his dumpy looking backup car—then found one of her teammates and tossed him along with her. He wondered if one last mercenary would show up, but no one did, and he smiled with as much satisfaction as he could with a seething and bloody landscape of agony where a fully functional arm was supposed to be.

When he was a few blocks from the scene of the attack, Query called the police and told them where to find the bodies—both warm and cold.

* * *

“You have come here with good news, I hope, though I wonder—because you seem to lack the corpse that would make me happy,” said the well-dressed and broad-shouldered man to whom the remaining two mercenaries had retreated. He turned his head slightly to face them, his expression unreadable, covered as it was by a full-face drama mask, half of it the iconic “comedy” image and the other being half of the “tragedy” image. His eyes seemed hard, though, and added to the severe, almost military-style cut of his hair, Janus presented an imposing image.

But still his mood was unreadable, and a report had to be made.

“Judging by the fact that our remaining two team members haven’t joined us, I presume the entire mission is wash,” one of the mercenaries admitted. “Query took out 16 of us by himself.”

“It could have been 18, had you two stayed to do your job to carry out the mission, or die trying,” Janus pointed out.

“We were ordered out of there to report back to you.”

“Do you think I wouldn’t have ascertained the results of your mission had you stayed to die or be captured? After all, Query probably has a kinder hand than I.”

“If the ranking member of the team orders us out, we go. If you have an issue with that and he’s still alive, take it up with him,” the mercenary answered.

“Orders. Obedience. Well,” Janus said. “I can’t argue against that when it’s precisely what I demand, can I? It is, after all, the only reason that you’re still alive.”

“I appreciate that,” the man answered, and his partner nodded.

“Don’t,” Janus said. “The fact I don’t plan to kill you doesn’t mean I won’t hurt you. I want to make sure I get a full and accurate debriefing, and I wish to ensure that you are telling the truth when you say you were ordered out.”

Both mercenaries tensed, and the one who had been speaking could easily visualize the cruel smile that must be under that mask. Both he and his comrade considered running, but in the end, they allowed themselves to be led away by a trio of henchmen in kabuki masks.

Besides, they wondered, how bad could a painful interrogation be if it meant they got to live?

It was a question they would ponder quite often in the weeks after Janus let them go. It was a question that one pondered for three months, actually, before he ultimately took his own life to burn the memories from his brain. The other one took a slower form of suicide, and buried the memories for years with heroin instead.

[ – To view the next chapter, click here – ]

And So It Begins…

Posted: October 23, 2010 in Announcements / General

I’ve been writing since pretty much I was able to spell. My occupation is as a journalist, and I already have two other personal blogs besides this one. The first is Holy Sh!+ by Deacon Blue, which I’ve had for quite some time now and which, despite the name, covers a whole lot more than spiritual issues, but when I do, it has a tendency to make some religious folks blush (or flush…with anger) at times. There I started a science fiction novel for which I posted serialized updates in between other postings on religion, spirituality, social issues, politics and random crap, but that novel stalled midstream in 2009, and I’m not sure when I will finish it. My second blog I still keep a secret, posting under an entirely different blogging identity, as the subject matter is rather combustibly erotic…you’ll simply have to take my word that the fiction I post there is not only pretty well-read but also highly regarded by many readers for its plots and characters as much as for the sex scenes.

This blog is a place where I will be able to write more short fiction that I can actually share broadly, and perhaps from here I can find a path toward being not just a journalistic writer (and editor), but also an author who can earn a public reputation for his fiction (and maybe get paid for it one day)…and perhaps if I find readership and success here, I will feel the urge to write and share with you fiction that is neither superheroic nor sexual in nature.

To find out more specifically about the not-so-secret origin of this “Tales of the Whethermen” blog, just click here.