The Gathering Storm, Part 4

Posted: November 22, 2010 in The Gathering Storm series
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It was always an interesting sensation to be both the hunter and the hunted at the same time, Query mused.

What say ye, pray ye? Oh, prey shall you pray to an indifferent god; while hunter is slaking his thirst on your blood?

Of course, this little game of hide-and-seek was more playful than most Query engaged in. He would never see this extra shadow he had attracted until she wanted him to, but he knew her by sound and sometimes smell; she would never catch him unawares. Not that she likely had hostile intent anyway.

After about 10 minutes, Query decided that the time for foreplay had come to an end—it was, he thought, the prerogative of a decent and sensitive man to engage in such things, but also to know when to bring them to a close and get to the main event.

Not as if I’ve had the chance for a sexual encounter in months, of course, he mused with some regret but not much rancor as the sexual metaphor played out in his mind, nor will this little liaison lead to any such thing. It would be too much like making time with a half-sister or a cousin to get involved with this one, and the feeling is likely mutual on her part.

“Cheshire, you can come out now,” Query said. “If this goes on too much longer, it will become a game of cat-and-mouse. And that’s unbecoming, given that I’m no rodent.”

“Well, I trust you’re not making me out to be the mouse—or a rat—in this scenario,” she answered in mock affront, letting just her head and one gently waving hand emerge from invisibility, then vanishing from sight again.

Query tracked her with his head, focused on the sounds of her steps even if she was hidden to his eyes. She was as stealthy as he was in her movements, but he had the benefit of enhanced senses. “Never, Cheshire. You’re too bold for a mouse and too refined to be a rat. I don’t even know that I’d call you a cat, frankly, despite your name. There’s something of the hound in you too many days to think of you as truly feline.”

“Oh, but I like the name Cheshire so much better than Cat-Dog, so don’t go ruining my image, Query,” she answered from atop a set of crates, resolving into full visibility now.

Or she might not be on that particular crate, Query noted. Her Luminar powers were not only advanced enough for full or selective invisibility, but also able to allow her to appear to be perhaps a couple meters from her true position.

“Are you shadowing me for practice, Cheshire, or do you really think I’m getting too old and sloppy not to notice you?”

Cheshire’s feet touched the ground with a soft thump as she hopped off the crate. Query had a split-second of disorientation as his mind adjusted to the fact that her body wasn’t where his eyes had told her it should be. As he suspected, she had been on an adjacent crate instead, her image out of phase with her true position. “I actually wanted your attention, Query—I just didn’t want to rush you. You can be so moody some nights. I’ve noticed you’ve been spending a lot of time near the docks this week.”

“Of course, I have,” he responded. “It’s all part of the rules; don’t you read the transhuman handbook, Cheshire? Villains all conveniently lurk at the docks or put their operations there, and they do all their business at night, and heroes like me show up to thwart them.”

“If only real life really were like the comic books, eh? If only it really were that simple,” she said. “Seriously, though, I’ve been working something of my own for a client—and for personal reasons, too. I think that you know about the villain cruise this weekend. I need you to stay away from it. I need you not to go after the folks who will be on that yacht. I need you to leave them alone. I need you to be someplace else, far away.”

“Goodness, could you be a bit more clear on what you want? Stop beating around the bush,” Query teased. “It’s my job to go after bad guys, you know.”

He let the statement hang there gravely, even though he was chuckling in his head. No reason to let her know that he knew about almost every one of the monthly social get-togethers of various villains in this city, most of them short cruises into Long Island Sound. He kept track of the “sin-ins” but he’d never crashed a single one of those parties and likely never would. He had his reasons for that, but there was no good reason to tell them to her, or even let her know about his hands-off approach with regard to the events. Better to see where this was going.

“Query, I may walk a fine line between the whole black-hat/white-hat thing, but I like to think of you as a friendly acquaintance, perhaps even a potential friend,” Cheshire said. “I really need you to rein in your heroic instincts this once. Please? For me?”

“I like you, Cheshire, even though there have been times I’ve wondered if I should bust you, but I don’t owe you any favors, and I owe plenty of people who will be on that cruise some payback,” he said, packing ominous conviction into his tones and hoping he wasn’t playing up his charade too much.

“No, you don’t owe me any favors, Query, but I’m willing to owe you one if you stay away from that cruise,” Cheshire said.

“That would be a big favor to owe, so I would expect a big payment in return.”

“As long as it doesn’t compromise any existing or upcoming business relationships I’m engaged in, I’m willing to owe such a debt.”

Query made a show of silently considering her offer for nearly a minute, even though her answer was what he had hoped for anyway. One never knew when calling in a favor from one of the best intelligence-gatherers around could be useful.

“All right, Cheshire, but I’m not going to be making a habit of this—it took me a long time to find out about this event, and I might never know about another one,” Query lied, smiling behind his mask.

* * *

Janus waved toward Underworld, gesturing for her to come over. She paused, fixing him with a distasteful glare as she had been doing more often than not ever since reluctantly joining his efforts, and finally stepped over.

“My dear, my dear, I must say that modern surveillance technologies are so useful, particularly when you employ people who know how to hack into them,” he said from behind a kabuki-style mask that was painted black with splatters of faux blood on one side, and violet with drops of dew—or perhaps they were meant to be tears—painted on the other. As garish as it was, the mask actually managed to complement his gray Italian suit with subtle purple pinstripes. “Take, for example, this delicious young coed who tore a small chunk out of a brick building with her fingernails at UConn–New Judah. I doubt campus security reviews the DVDs that closely or would even notice, but then again, I have so many motivated data miners in my employ.”

“My, but you’re chatty today, aren’t you?” Underworld sneered. “Your people work so hard for you because being tortured to death isn’t as attractive as collecting the meager paychecks that your cheap ass doles out.”

“That and the subcutaneous tracking devices that allow me to keep tabs on them, of course. No slackers in my sweatshop; no, indeed. But isn’t that girl stupendous?” he pressed, pointing the paused image on the monitor.

“I’ve seen lots of transhumans, Janus. Morph, probably. Maybe a Brute or a Tank. She doesn’t do anything for me, but if you want to leer at college girls on security vids, be my guest.”

“I’m thinking I should reach out to her soon. Provide her some incentive to leave all those silly college plans behind. It’s time for a recruitment drive, anyway,” Janus said.

“And?”

“Why don’t you make some plans to find out more about her, maybe get to know her. Have a woman-to-woman talk someday in the near future,” he suggested.

“Why would I do that?”

“Aside from the fact that the more minions I have, the more likely I’ll let you slip back to obscurity one day, there is also the fact that the softer side of recruiting has its value, and you have a softer touch than I,” he noted. “It’s important to rule by fear early on, but it would be nice to have a few key people motivated by something more personal and meaningful than threats to their family.”

“So why does she get such velvet glove treatment and you put the screws to me?” Underworld asked tartly.

“She’s a college student, so she’s young and impressionable,” Janus said. “Nubile and succulent, too. You, on the other hand, are a handsome and stubborn woman, and need to be driven with a cattle prod at times—metaphorically speaking.”

“So, I’m a bitch and a cow, and she’s fresh young meat. Janus, you are a pig.”

“But a well-dressed pig.”

“A pig in an expensive suit is still just swine in the end,” Underworld said. “And the only good I see from pigs is bacon or pork chops. I’ll see what I can do to worm my way into her life and do a soft-sell of your organization, Janus.”

“Thank you, Underworld. It’s good that you’re being civil and professional about this.”

“No, Janus, I’m showing some solidarity with a fellow woman. I’m all too aware of some of your past recruitment tactics with young women,” she said, her gaze drifting to the cramped cage in one corner of the room, where Crazy Jane sat cross-legged on the floor, still in the straitjacket she had been wearing when Janus liberated her from the high-security wing of the Givens Psychiatric Detention Facility three days ago. Her eyes blazed hungry but soulless, sharp and bright and cruel against the contrast of the tattoos all over her face—a mix of sunny, gay images and grim, twisted ones.

Underworld turned away from the cage, and Janus met her eyes knowingly. “So, we understand each other, then?”

“Too well, Janus. All too well.”

* * *

“I want to thank Senator Bodswell for being on the show today—he’s a real patriot and a testament to the power of the Freedom Party to put America back on track,” Ben Glick spoke into the camera as he connected with his viewing audience in the closing moments of his show. “I know I support Freeman candidates whenever I can, and you right-thinking viewers of mine no doubt realize the importance as well.”

He paused for a moment, and adjusted his glasses, then looked gravely into the camera again.

“Before we switch over to Fox News Update, though, I want to remind you all—and please realize that I’m not advocating violence, but we are in violent times with humanity and so-called transhumans right now—you need to exercise your Second Amendment rights as Senator Bodswell mentioned today,” he added. “Use them now while you still have them, because I guarantee that the first thing our great socialist President Barack Hussein Obama and any transhumans in office or that he’s putting in positions of power are going to do is try to overturn that constitutional right. Because if you’re transhuman, what do you need guns for? You have powers. And they’ll want to make sure us traditional humans don’t have bullets if we need them. Think about that tonight, if you can sleep with that prospect in mind. Thanks for watching ‘Ben Glick’s America’ here on America’s fair and balanced news source, Fox News, and see you tomorrow.”

Moments later, as the program director indicated they were off the air, Ben’s assistant Janice came by with a fresh cup of coffee for him, and a pastry.

“Intense stuff, today, Ben,” she remarked. “You seemed really supportive of the senator’s thoughts on screening newborns for any transhuman biomarkers and sterilizing them immediately if they show any signs of being able to develop powers.”

“Of course I support that. Why wouldn’t I?” he remarked cheerfully, but there was a kind of challenge in his eyes.

“I just…I mean, you’ve always been so supportive of right-to-life efforts and reproductive rights and the need of Americans not to have their choices taken away,” Janice said as noncommittally as she could, realizing she had just stepped into treacherous waters.

“Civil rights are for humans, and I hope the Supreme Court make a ruling on that soon, Jan,” he said sagely. “The Constitution was written for humans, not transhumans. And I have to support something like sterilization of transhuman babies and transhuman adults. I’m totally against abortion, so we can’t rip the monsters out of a woman’s uterus. The only answer is to keep those creatures from breeding, and keep them from interbreeding with real people. Coffee could use a bit more cream, Jan,” he said after he took his first, slurping sip from the cup.

“Oh. Sorry. Let me just bring you a fresh one, Ben,” she said nervously, and rushed off. Once she was out of sight, she touched her belly, thinking of the tiny life forming inside her womb, which she had only confirmed the existence of a few days before, and decided tonight would be a good time to update her résumé.

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