The Gathering Storm, Part 5

Posted: December 4, 2010 in The Gathering Storm series
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In the middle of a mid-March afternoon, with the sun out and hardly a cloud in the sky, the last thing Martin Osbourne—known to many associates and enemies as Marty the Hun for his take-no-prisoners, kill-or-be-killed attitude—expected to be doing was to be shivering.

Maybe the next guy I should have whacked is the meteorologist for Channel 7 New Judah NewsCenter, Marty fumed silently. The forecast was for low-70s today, and my coat’s 12 miles away at home. Fucking weathermen never get shit right.

“Get the fuckin’ boxes loaded up boys, because it’s getting’ chilly fast, and if my balls start turning blue, I’m gonna choke one’a you until you’re blue in the face,” Marty barked. “Besides, the big boss wants this shit moved, delivered and sold so he can buy himself a city councilman or a police detective. Don’t get in the way of business and civic progress, boys!”

His crew began to pick up the pace, but a few minutes later, Marty was shivering even harder. He pulled out his Droid phone, called up a weather app, and checked the local forecast.

It still called for a high of 72 degrees under mostly sunny skies.

Marty began to look around a bit, and his arm reached through the passenger-side window of his car to pull a pistol from the glove compartment.

“Boys, I think we have company,” he called out to his team, their breath leaving little puffs of white in the air as they worked, and then they dropped boxes at his warning and began to draw weapons. “Of the trans variety, and I don’t mean a chick with a dick or a tranny dude with tits.”

The ambient temperature dipped a bit more, and concerned about how much colder it might get, and how much that might affect their reflexes and concentration, Marty added, “Let’s all move away from the truck and figure out where this fucker is.”

A lithe form darted out into the open for just a moment, too quick to identify, and three pistols suddenly flew from the grips of most of Marty’s guys—and moments later, the gun from Marty’s own. Only one of the four men, Louie, still had a firearm.

Guns yanked away like magic, and temperature dropping. An Attractor and a Psi with cryokinetic powers, probably, Marty theorized—or maybe an Eco who was playing some sort of atmospheric trick. His mind tried to sort through the players he knew, but the cold made it hard to think, and worrying about being weaponless made thinking hard, too. Taking note of the fact Louie still had a gun, and figuring that the hero—or maybe mercenary’s—attractive power was geared toward metal, he pulled open one of the rear doors of his car, yanked out a good old-fashioned baseball bat, and said, “Louie, you got a resin gun, dontcha? Good man. Everyone else grab something not made of metal that you can bash a head in with, right now. Louie, you keep an eye out for our troublemaker and shoot him in his motherfuckin’ head when he pops out again.”

His? He? No, that wasn’t right, Marty realized. Metal Attractor and a Cryo-Psionic, if he was right—and a Thermal, too.

“Fuckin’ Solstice!” Marty cried out. “We got ourselves a feisty bitch, boys! You can all have a shot at her cooch after you take her down if she’s still alive. We’ll have ourselves a regular party. First one to get a hit on her gets first shot at her goods.”

One of Marty’s men, Paulie, reached for a two-by-four with a couple of rusty, bent nails sticking out of it, but before he could lay hold of it, a hand shot out and clamped on his wrist. He screamed in an agonized wail, and the woman was gone into the maze of debris and crates again. Paulie dropped to his knees, shivering all over from the cold, but also holding the heavily blistered and steaming flesh of his right wrist and hand, which was beginning to ooze in a few spots.

Oscar, who already had a weapon in hand—a police baton he kept handy, made a slow circuit of his surroundings. Solstice dropped from above, leaping down from a stack of crates, both of her hands grabbing the side of his head as she used gravity to her advantage to flip him violently as she landed, wrenching his neck painfully but, more importantly, delivering second- and third-degree burns to his face and throat before she let go.

Shit! Now I have two men screaming, Marty thought.

A shot rang out, and Marty held out hope, the bat shaking in his chilled hands, that Louie had nailed the woman. Instead, there was a peal of girlish laughter and then more screaming moments later as she grabbed Carter in a bear hug from behind, making a burning, blistered ruin of his armpits, biceps and chest, then vanishing again into the gloom around the loading dock.

Three men screaming, and one little bitch laughing at us, Marty fumed. “Kill the whore, Louie! Don’t you fuckin’ miss next time!”

“I won’t, chief,” Louie said. But as he turned slowly, waiting for the next sign of Solstice’s approach, a shot rang out and he stumbled back a half-step, red seeping through his shirt just above his left collarbone. He had managed to keep hold of his pistol, and tracked the apparent source of the shot, ready to pull the trigger and shoot into the gloom near the warehouse several times.

Solstice was faster, though, and a second bullet left a hole just above his belly. Louie dropped to the ground, his pistol spinning across the ground. Then she finally came into the open, wearing loose, flared khaki slacks, Doc Marten boots and a tight, dark green tank-top. Marty shivered and cursed her that the cold probably didn’t affect her at all. But he also noticed that it wasn’t as frigid as it had been, and realized she had probably expended a lot of energy to cool down such a large zone. She probably couldn’t keep it up any longer, he assumed, and she might not have any juice left for burning anyone, either.

She looked a little haggard, he thought, and he figured he could take her. He hefted the baseball bat, and looked her in the face defiantly. He saw the dark, kohl-lined Asian eyes beneath an almost buccaneer-like kerchief-style hood, trailing a braid of material down her back, with fake flowers, little pine cones and plastic snowflakes tied into it at intervals. From beneath the mask that covered her scalp, ears, eyes and nose flowed long, black straight hair shot through with a thin line of platinum blonde and a thicker streak of bright purple. Black lipstick adorning narrow lips, a stainless-steel ring piecing the flesh of a lower lip that held a sneer for Marty as she approached him slowly with a casual, dismissive pace.

“C’mon, you bitch-witch pagan trans-whore,” Marty taunted, choking up on the bat and giving it a lazy swing in an almost ‘come hither’ gesture. “Come get a piece of me if you’ve got anything left. See if you can burn my ass, you cunt!”

“Being Goth doesn’t make me automatically pagan, you shithead, or a witch,” Solstice said. “But that said, I don’t like people badmouthing witches because I’m a practicing Wiccan, you greaseball. You don’t hear me badmouthing Catholics just because of a goon like you. And just for the record, I’m not going to bother with trying to fry your greasy ass.”

She lifted one of the guns she had pulled from a member of Marty’s crew and shot the Hun in one kneecap, and then the other.

“I’m not going to go hand-to-hand with you,” she said as his own cries of pain mingled with the moans, sobs and screams of the other men. “Do I look stupid? Try that ego-busting, macho provoking crap with Feral or Nighthunter or someone else who likes the up-close, bone-crunching wet-work. Personally, I like living to fight another day and that’s why I’m a regular at the shooting range, you prick.”

She put a third bullet in Marty the Hun’s right shoulder, then a fourth in his left. She kicked him hard in the ribs with her steel-toed boots, twice, and then took the man’s own smart phone to call the police. Then she shot several holes in each of the truck’s tires.

As the temperature rapidly rose back to the 70s around five heavily wounded men, Solstice took a long ride back into the city in Marty’s own Cadillac, trying to find some decent music on a radio with nothing but presets for conservative talk radio, classical music and light rock.

* * *

“So, what have we got, here?” asked the sergeant as he walked into the convenience store.

“Clerk has some second-degree burns but mostly just a wounded ego,” one of the patrolmen answered. “Perp got away with $200 from the till and a bag full of junk food and 20-ounce sodas. Apparently, it was Hellfire again.”

“Really?” the sergeant said as he looked at the security video playback on a little monitor. “Geez! Five…well, six now…hold-ups and three different costumes. I wish the ass-hat would just pick one style.”

“Might help if he’d shell out for some decent material,” the other patrolman noted, handing over an evidence bag with a fragment of Hellfire’s red cape that had snagged on a display rack nearby. “Probably keeps ripping his cheap-ass suits to shreds. Looks like he bought this cape in the costume aisle at Wal-Mart. Cheap, thin polyester or whatever the hell those crap Halloween costumes are made of.”

“What an embarrassment,” the sergeant said, shaking his head. “Give me a plain old street punk or crackhead, or give me a real villain like Speed Demon or Tooth Fairy. These wannabe, bottom-feeder trans villains just piss me off.”

* * *

Zoe launched herself up onto the balance beam into a handstand position, did a series of twists to get herself halfway down it, then dropped to her feet with perfect grace onto the beam, took a few quick steps, and leapt into the air, twisting and somersaulting—finally sticking a perfect landing three feet from the end of the beam.

“Good work, Dawson!” Coach Hathaway called out. “We’ve got final championships next month that I plan for us to win, so you’d better have that A-game from now until mid-April.”

Zoe didn’t smile at the praise. For one thing, the coach wasn’t really being all that warm in her approach anyway—but more than that, what Zoe had just done wasn’t even difficult for her.

I could run at full speed on a tightrope and do cartwheels across it without breaking a sweat, Zoe mused ruefully. Competitions hold no joy because I’m a transhuman pitted against normal folks.

Not that she would let anyone know that, of course. She carefully held back doing what she was truly capable of, lest she get kicked off the team. NCAA rules were pretty clear on excluding any Acro transhuman from gymnastic competition; she would make sure to make a sloppy landing next time just for show.

I could have been on the U.S. Olympic team, she thought, recalling the recruiters from Team USA who had approached her years ago when she first got involved in gymnastics and dance. But I couldn’t do something that high-level with any sense of good conscience. Of course, using my skills to get scholarship money for college is basic survival, so no guilt there.

Less guilt, at least, she considered. Far less.

“Sure you don’t want my A-plus game instead, Coach?” Zoe shot back.

“Now that you mention it, Dawson, bring your A-plus-plus-hyperspace-level game to the finals, or you’re off the team.”

Zoe snorted. “I’m a senior, Coach, and the season will be over by then.”

“Then I’ll hijack your diploma and keep you from graduating,” the Coach teased, though with a completely stern and deadpan delivery.

As Zoe made her way off the mat, one of the other women on the team hip-checked her a little. “Prize bitch, aren’t you?” Gloria sneered. “Break a leg, Zoe. Really, I mean it. Please break a leg. Better yet, both of them.”

Zoe felt her hairs bristle, and forced down the metabolic shift of her morphing powers, muttering “Fuck you” instead of letting the change take over and slicing and dicing the teammate who’d never forgiven Zoe for being a better gymnast.

Or kissing her boyfriend a few months ago at that Christmas party either, for that matter.

* * *

The Head of Metabolics and Genomics looked at the man on the gurney and sighed. “Dr. Hansen,” he asked, “are you sure we want to dose him so heavily? Or the others, for that matter?”

“Yes, Jacob, I’m very sure. When I work in a secret government lab and the head of the National Security Agency tells me the White House wants a dozen really impressive transhuman conversions by Thanksgiving, I tend to take that kind of seriously.”

Pausing for a moment, Jacob looked at the chart at the end of the man’s gurney, even though he already knew the numbers by heart.

“Dr. Hansen…Jack…you know Earnhardt here is 36 years old. Manifestation of transhuman powers after age 25 correlates to far higher rates of side effects—particularly psychological changes. Especially when it’s not a natural, organic manifestation. You know that as well as I do. Two of the others are also well into their 30s.”

“And all of them, regardless of age, have the most promising set of biomarkers for induced transhuman capabilities, Jacob. That’s the work we’ve agreed to do here, and none of these people here enjoy any right of refusal right now.”

Dr. Jacob Weinbaum swallowed hard, nodded, and pushed the gurney into the next room, trying to comfort himself with the not-so-soothing thought: What could possibly go wrong, right?

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