The Gathering Storm, Part 9

Posted: December 22, 2010 in The Gathering Storm series
Tags: , , , , , ,

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

Zoe took a deep breath when she was out of the building, feeling like the Sociology discussion section had been a three-hour political debate on the verge of a brutal election instead of a simple hour-long classroom discussion. She fished around in her purse, came up with a nearly empty pack of cigarettes, and shook one out, lighting it and getting her first and long-overdue nicotine fix of the morning.

A pox on all anti-smoking roommates who claim allergies they don’t have just to make my life a little more difficult—well, on the one roommate who does that to me, anyway, Zoe cursed silently, exhaling a stream of white into the air and seeing a woman through the rapidly dispersing veil of smoke.

The same woman from her class, standing several yards away and looking at her.

She was blonde, maybe in her late 30s or early 40s—looking more like a businesswoman or someone else self-important enough to stare down a stranger while wearing clothes and shoes Zoe only wished she could afford.

Zoe brushed one long, thick loc away from her face and smoked slowly, matching the woman’s stares. There was no hostility from the blonde, but Zoe made sure to add just the tiniest hint of menace to her own brown-eyed gaze, letting the smoke punctuate the heat of her own residual anger from her classmates’ insults against her faith—as well as punctuate her defiance toward this stranger.

Finally, the cigarette burned down near the filter, with no change between them in those several minutes as they had locked gazes. Zoe dreaded that she was going to have to be on the losing end of this staring match so that she could discard her smoke in the butt receptacle nearby, but then the other woman spoke, clearly and distinctly—her voice raised just enough to reach Zoe’s ears, but low enough to be civil and polite.

“You don’t like to back down, do you?” the woman said mildly, but Zoe could catch the glint of amusement in her green eyes.

Zoe ignored her just long enough to toss out the smoldering butt, then turned back toward the woman and blew out her last lungful of smoke. “No, I don’t. Are you from the Ministry of Discussion and Debate Enforcement or something? Did I violate some Oxford debate rule or some aspect of Robert’s Rules of Order in there?”

The blonde smiled. “I don’t have the first thing to do with the university, my dear,” she answered. “I’m just an invader in your class. An intruder on campus. Or, more accurately, a recruiter. It’s too early for lunch, but I had a light breakfast hours ago, so how about I buy you some brunch and I tell you why I’m here?”

Zoe felt a twinge of nervousness. The woman seemed non-threatening on the surface, but a cloud of turmoil seemed to hang in the air, centered on her. A vague miasma of dark portents. But as the blonde had already noted, backing down wasn’t one of Zoe’s strong suits, and it wouldn’t be the first time she let curiosity lead her down a questionable path.

“Sure,” Zoe said, trying to muster a note of confidence and even mild disdain. “Dad always said to never turn down anything but my collar.”

* * *

Desperado and Blockbuster kept Cole company for more than an hour. Blockbuster continued to say nothing—though he let out more than his fair share of periodic grunts and scoffing noises—while Desperado would randomly fire off a question about Cole’s past then lapse into long minutes of silence after Cole answered it and awaited the next one.

I’m starting to think the company of rats and maybe roaches in this shithole was more a comfort than the company of these two, Cole considered.

Finally, there was a light rapping at the door, and Blockbuster admitted a woman whom Cole could only assume was the long-awaited interrogator.

“Nice of you to finally show up,” Desperado said with a mix of joviality and annoyance.

“I was needed in the Bronx last night, and it takes time to drive back to New Judah, and I needed some sleep. Or do you think you have a monopoly on my time?” she responded, blowing a huge pink bubble then sucking it back into her mouth and snapping her gum loudly before saying, “So, this is the newbie?”

“Yup,” Desperado said. “Blockbuster and I will move over there to give you room. He’s all yours.”

She set down a sizeable valise, the contents of which Cole could only guess at—and worry about, frankly, given that the title “interrogator” had been applied to her so many times. She pulled a file folder out of a smaller bag slung over her shoulder, and started perusing it.

The extended silence—broken only by the quiet, vague mutterings of the two men in the corner—gave Cole plenty of time to wonder at the appearance of the woman sent to grill him. The mouthful of bubble gum alone was enough of a dichotomy when he considered the task she had been sent here for, but her attire was even more so, he thought, as she pulled off her overcoat to reveal her outfit.

She wore leggings the color of buttercream and decorated with images of tiny pink cupcakes, little yellow-and-brown wedges of cake and red-and-white peppermint candies. Her boots were knee-high and candy-apple red, made of glistening vinyl. She had on a black T-shirt with a huge yellow smiley face, over which she wore a short cotton-candy-pink translucent plastic coat. From her throat hung a trio of still-wrapped lollipops bound to a red leather cord around her neck and from her ears dangled earrings that were in the shape and color of two vanilla ice cream cones with rainbow sprinkles.

She was neither pretty nor ugly, but Cole realized she also wasn’t “plain” or “average.” Her bobbed hair was a shockingly bright shade of maroon and so unnatural-looking that Cole suspected it was a wig. Her nose was too thin to be flattering and her brown eyes set just a little too far apart above cheeks that were a hair too cherubic for her relatively thin face. Somehow, though, the entirety of it made her look cute while somehow quirky and stern at the same time.

“So, Cole,” she finally said after reviewing the file for some 10 minutes, “why don’t you tell me why you assaulted Hannah.”

“I didn’t,” he said. “I told Desperado that before. I don’t have the slightest clue who did.”

“Well, charges were never brought, but the files from your school are pretty clear on the fact that staff and students thought you were guilty. Convenient that Hannah was in a coma for so long and didn’t have any memory of who attacked her when she came to a month later. So, Cole, just tell me: Why? You don’t really expect me to think everyone was wrong.”

“Why not? People get blamed all the time for things they didn’t do,” Cole said, feeling like he should be indignant but instead finding himself approaching her question with complete serenity instead. “I didn’t do anything to Hannah. I’ve never hurt a girl—or woman. I don’t even know what I’m going to do the first time I have to fight a female thug or villain.”

“But you hurt guys, right?” she said. “Paul…”

“…dammit,” Cole said, interrupting, but his voice still calm and level. “I have the same answer I gave to Desperado. I don’t even know what you all are talking about with Paul getting hurt, and I already admit I hurt Isaac at Homecoming. Can we move on?”

“No, we can’t,” she said, looking him straight in the eyes. “Why did you assault Isaac, then? Let’s start with the person you will cop to trying to kill.”

“I didn’t try to kill him,” Cole said. “Jesus. He was never even in critical condition. I don’t even know if he got tagged as being in serious condition. He…dammit. Isaac hated me. Everyone seemed to dislike me once they started figuring I was transhuman, but most of the students at school had been treating me like crap for years even before that point. It was like I got designated the punching bag. The scapegoat. I don’t know. It was hell.”

“So you figured you’d deal out some hell yourself?”

“No. It wasn’t like that. I’d gotten a girlfriend. Someone across town that I knew through one of my cousins. She didn’t have any damn idea I was trans and I wanted to keep it that way. My first girlfriend. It wasn’t serious, but it was nice to have someone care about me. It was nice to be able to hold hands with her, get a quick kiss. Heck, we broke up before we even got to any rubbing each other through our clothes, much less sex, but it was nice while it lasted.”

“Did I ask you about your love life, Cole?” she asked. “I want to know about your assault life.”

“I’m getting to that. I told a couple people about her at school. It was stupid. I should have known by then that anyone who was kind-of-sort-of a friend wasn’t anything but an acquaintance on the way to scoring points with everyone else by getting a shot in at me,” Cole said. His stomach knotted at the memories, but his voice stayed clear and firm. “They told Isaac about her. Isaac cornered me during the Homecoming Dance and announced he was going to tell her I was a freak.”

“So you attacked him with your powers? You scarred him for life—literally.”

“You people are all so full of melodrama, like I turned him into a double of the Phantom of the Opera or Freddy Kreuger or Quasimodo. He recovered. He got really minor plastic surgery, almost nothing shows, and he still looks better than most guys.”

“Glad you find assault and battery of a non-trans with you using your transhuman powers such a minor thing, Cole,” she said tartly.

“I don’t. I didn’t even use my powers on him—not really,” Cole said. “I was mad, and I was ready to kick his ass, even though I knew he could wipe the floor with me. I just lunged forward, and startled him, and my powers kicked in, and he fell off the bleachers and into a bunch of boxes full of lights and other decorations and stuff that didn’t get used for the dance.”

“So he was bold enough to make your life hell, confront you alone, and then panicked when your modest-sized self starting moving in on his football-playing self?” she asked, her face pinched in way that might as well have said: Who are you trying to shit here?

“I think he was startled that I’d try to take him, but that wasn’t it,” Cole said. “I was mad, and my powers flared, and that made him get disoriented and lose his balance. Then I ran off. I’m almost positive he didn’t even know I used my powers.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah, really. I think the only reason he never told anyone I was even around when he got hurt was because first off, he’d risk people thinking he lost his nerve with me and second, he didn’t know what my powers were, so he didn’t dare accuse me of using my powers. I mean, imagine telling people that I pummeled him with Brute powers or threw him into the boxes with some Ecto tendrils, then I have to out myself and show people what my powers really were. He wasn’t an idiot. He knew if he accused me of attacking him and people found out I just had Cyber powers or was a Brain or something, he’d be a laughingstock. I’m surprised you guys managed to connect me to his injuries.”

“We didn’t, Cole. We’ve harped on the Hannah thing because people were saying you hurt her. We picked the others figuring there was a decent chance you might have had something to do with their injuries.”

“And I basically admitted to the Isaac thing, and so that’s my fault that you know.”

“Yeah. But I’m still having trouble swallowing all of this. How come people knew you were a transhuman and no one knew what you could do?”

“My mom,” Cole said bitterly. “She taught there, and she and dad already knew I had powers. One day early in sophomore year my powers flared up at school and she was there to see it happen. She took me aside and gave me a huge lecture about not letting that ever happen again because she and dad couldn’t stand the stigma of being known as parents of a transhuman. I don’t think she meant it to come out so harsh, but it was one of those Freudian slip moments, I guess. She spoke what she really felt.”

“This still doesn’t explain anything. It doesn’t sound like she would have told…”

“She didn’t out me. One of my classmates overheard the whole thing. Eavesdropping. All the other kids needed was to know was that I was transhuman. Didn’t matter what my powers were. It just gave them more justification to push me farther to the margins and treat me worse. Incidentally, before you ask, Isaac eventually did find my girlfriend and told her I was trans, and she broke up with me because of that—or maybe just because I was hiding it from her. Believe me, if I wanted to hurt Isaac, I would have done it after that stunt.”

With a suddenness that was almost physically jarring to Cole, she dropped the topic and moved on to other questions that were as far from the previous conversation as he could imagine. She asked him about family. She asked him about earliest memories. She asked about drug use. She asked about his feelings toward various ethnic groups. Whether he had ever committed any crimes, however minor. What his most shameful desire was. Who his heroes and role models might be. What the last three books were that he had read.

No sooner did he answer one question than she would ask another. Two hours or more of picking apart his life and personality—rapid-fire questions that ran from the inane to the essential; the superficial to the philosophical.

“What’s your power, Cole?” she finally asked after all of that.

“I can’t believe it’s taken you guys so long to ask,” he said, almost sounding relieved.

“What you can do isn’t that important, Cole. Sure, there are lots of useless powers and maybe we’d cut you for that. But it’s more important to know your character, Cole, especially when we’ve even let you into this apartment. It’s far removed from our central operations, but it still gives you knowledge most people don’t have. We need to know whether you’re a danger to us before we care what tricks you can do thanks to some genetic quirks. What can you do, Cole?”

“I’m a Warpsmith. That’s why Isaac fell. My powers kicked on and twisted the world a little around him, and he got disoriented,” Cole said. “I’ve knocked some things over without touching them, too, so I think I might have telekinesis, too, but I’ve never been able to figure out how to focus that power.”

“Or you could be an Attractor, Cole, if the items have been of similar material. Or maybe you’re an Ecto. Sometimes quasi-matter is invisible. You could have manifested some tendrils of quasi-matter. It’s extradimensional, and you’re a Warpsmith, so it would make sense they might go together. We can help you figure it out, and help you learn to focus better.”

She took a long drink from her water bottle, popped some fresh gum in her mouth, and within seconds was blowing a huge bubble. It popped, and she asked, “How do you feel about women, Cole? How do you treat them? Mad at them for how you got treated?”

“No. I’m fine with women. Except the ones who’ve earned my disrespect. Jeez. You’ve done enough research on me already. I’ve had girlfriends in college. I do as right by them as my budget allows, and I’m not mean to them.”

“You ever cheat on them, Cole? Ever want to?”

“No and no.”

“Enough of that, Sweet Talker,” Desperado said. “You’re not here to find a guy. Yeah, no one wants to date you, but there are plenty of non-trans guys out there who don’t know what you can do. Go after them.”

“It’s not about me. I’m getting a little tired of how guys like you have been treating some of the women in the Guardian Corps—and some of the not-quite-yet-women,” she snapped. “You all want to be all macho and play the field. Be nice to figure out what guys I can actually point them for dating to instead of pricks like you.”

“Hate the game; don’t hate the player,” Desperado said.

Cole couldn’t help but notice Blockbuster smiling at that—the only bit of amusement he’d ever seen in the man since meeting him. “I’m confused,” Cole said. “I feel like I’m on the outside of a in-joke.”

“Cole, meet Sweet Talker. An Interfacer and a Primal. Her vocal intonations and pheromones together make it damn well irresistible to speak to her honestly and spill your guts—at least if you don’t know what she’s doing. Anyone on their guard who knows her powers can clam up, though lying is still pretty hard. It’s why none of us will date her. Sucks to have a girlfriend who will ferret out all your secrets. A guy can’t be on guard all the time.”

“You shouldn’t have cheated on me, then,” she countered. “A guy who mattered wouldn’t worry about secrets because he wouldn’t have any that could hurt the relationship.”

“You were never relationship material, Sweets,” Desperado said. “Too much drama. Enjoy that I gave you my time at all.”

Sweet Talker blew another bubble and, as it popped, waved at Cole good-naturedly, though she scowled at Desperado. “Anyway, nice to meet you, Cole,” she said, and then to Desperado: “So. Yea or Nay?”

“He’s solid enough to start,” he told her, then faced Cole. “You’ll be camping out here most nights of the week, and we’ll get you into some training and have you shadow some Corps patrols just to see what happens. After a few weeks, we’ll decide if you can see one the big houses and move onto more serious training.”

Sweet Talker touched Cole lightly on the shoulder, “Not sure if you’ll like it here, Cole. You’re a long way from the kind of people you’re used to. But welcome to the club if that’s what you want. It was nice talking to you.”

“Yeah, always nice to talk to guy before he realizes he has to keep his mouth shut around you,” Blockbuster said as she headed to the door to leave.

Desperado caught Cole’s dark glance in Blockbuster’s direction, shrugged his shoulders slightly, and gave a quick and hard glance toward the door. The message was clear: If you don’t like us, you don’t need to stay.

Cole considered it for a moment, but then said, as he watched the woman in candy-themed attire step through the door: “Talk to you later, Sweet Talker.”

Desperado shook his head, laughing quietly, and Cole wondered if he was just generally amused, or laughing at him. Blockbuster had a thin grin on his lips that seemed to be the visual equivalent of Desperado’s laugh—and that gave more weight to the theory that any humor was at his expense. It didn’t matter either way, he figured. He wasn’t necessarily here to make friends but rather to learn something and make connections.

“I’m going to go tell my roommates some tall tales and figure out how to smuggle out a bag full of clothes and stuff to bring here,” Cole said firmly, with just a trace of insolence. “When do you need me here?”

Desperado paused, looked him up and down, seeming surprised at Cole’s shift in demeanor and eagerness to start. “Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and every other Sunday, beginning with the upcoming one. Be here by 8 p.m. and don’t go back to your place before 6 a.m. on your off days. Stock up on antiseptics, bandages and aspirin.”

Cole simply nodded and walked out without another word. He didn’t ask where they were or how to get back to his part of the city. He wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction, even though they had brought him here blindly. He’d find his way soon enough, and then find his way back.

* * *

The blonde woman, who had yet to offer Zoe a name, had picked a very expensive place to dine. Figuring she’d take advantage of the ability to get some decent caffeine, Zoe ordered a regular coffee with room for cream and then a Turkish coffee. She poured the latter into the former when the drinks arrived, as the blonde woman sipped at her cappuccino.

Zoe took a quick gulp of her over-caffeinated and over-sweet coffee concoction, and decided to break the silence. “So, you said you’re a recruiter? U.S. Olympic gymnast team? If so, they must be paying you guys a lot better these days. You have nice clothes.”

“Thank you,” the woman said. “I try to stay in style.”

“Well, my answer is the same as it was seven or eight years ago,” Zoe said. “I have…political and philosophical issues with the Olympics thing. Still not interested.”

“Are you sure you’re not just afraid someone might find out your secret, since the Olympic Committee is so much more thorough than the NCAA?”

Zoe froze in mid-sip, then slowly took another drink and set her cup down. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I’m not with the Olympic team, Zoe. I’m not even with the NCAA. I don’t really like sports unless they’re the kind that involve a fit man with a broad chest and tight abs on a big, soft bed.” The woman reached up and pulled her hair away—a blonde wig—revealing longer, darker tresses beneath. “So much better. Since we’re in a booth in the corner, I think we can dispense with this until we leave.”

Though she was feeling very nervous now, Zoe carefully sipped her drink again, hoping that it would make her appear unruffled. “Should I recognize you or something? I’m not into celebrities that much.”

“Oh, no reason for you to recognize me, Zoe. I know you have issues with connecting to your fellow transhumans and don’t really follow the exploits of the more famous ones. But some of the men on campus and in here in particular might have recognized me, so I figured better safe than sorry. After all, my website is still very active and the FBI still circulates my picture.”

Her casual knowledge of the hero and villain community began to slowly fall into place, and Zoe said, with a little hitch in her voice: “You’re Underworld?”

“Yes, my dear. Oh, here comes the waiter. Let’s order before we continue.”

“Not sure I’m hungry anymore.”

“Order. And eat. I’m spending good money and if you draw unwanted attention to me I won’t be happy.” Underworld said it all with a good-natured smile, but Zoe heard the tone of mild threat underneath.

She ordered food that she didn’t want, and tried to figure out how she was going to calm her stomach down before it arrived.

“So,” Underworld said once the waiter was gone, “I guess you weren’t expecting this.”

“I’m still not sure what ‘this’ is yet. What are you recruiting for?”

“Who, my dear, not what. I’m recruiting for Janus, who has developed quite an interest in you and your powers,” Underworld said.

“I’m not into that kind of thing. I just want to graduate and get a good job.”

“I don’t think disappearing into the crowd of humanity is going to work, Zoe. When Janus decides he wants something, he tends to refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

“So you’re not recruiting me,” Zoe said, feeling her hand shake a little as it lifted the cup of dark and sweet brew to her lips. “You’re drafting me.”

Underworld paused, sipped her own coffee, and licked her dark red, glistening lips. She sighed lightly, and then leaned forward. “Zoe, I’m warning you. And telling you what’s what.”

“Huh?”

“Zoe, I am all too familiar with how Janus’ interest in female transhumans usually manifests, and Crazy Jane is a good example of what happens when things don’t go so well for the woman,” Underworld said. “Things often don’t go well.”

“I don’t want to be part of that kind of life. I don’t want to be a criminal. I don’t want to be under the thumb of someone like Janus. What are you going to do? Drag me to him? Force me?” Zoe wanted to sound indignant and defiant, but realized she was sounding frightened instead.

“Zoe, I think you probably have a fine future ahead of you,” Underworld said. “I like to see women get ahead on their own merits, and I don’t like to see them victimized.”

“But you came to tell me I have to work for Janus, anyway, didn’t you?”

“I’m telling you that Janus is insistent. I’m telling you he wants me to recruit you,” Underworld said. “I’m telling you that if you don’t want that, you should run very far, very fast and forget about trying to complete your studies. He likely won’t wait that long, and the longer you’re in his sights, the less chance you’ll be able to run without him knowing exactly where you’re going.”

“I can’t just run. How would I live? Where would I go?”

“Zoe, I’m going to court you and I’m going to tell you all the wonderful perks of being part of a criminal empire and helping to build it from the ground up. I’m going to do that because even I slip up sometimes, and one of these visits, Janus might manage to slip a bug on me to monitor what I say. Since I love my family, I’d prefer to keep them unscathed, and I won’t be this open with you again. I’m going to woo you for as long as it takes to get you to say yes.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Zoe said. “Are you telling me to run or telling me it’s no use to try?”

“I’m telling you that this won’t be the first meal I take you to. I will drag out the process as long as I can for you to figure out what you want to do,” Underworld said. “I don’t have much of a conscience—I just have female solidarity—so if you take too long, I won’t try to stop any of Janus’ people from dragging you to him. I also won’t cry over it. You’re going to have to decide whether you say ‘yes’ before he gets mad, whether to keep trying to buy time for too long and make him mad by doing so, or whether to run.”

Or whether to get help somehow, Zoe thought, but left the words unspoken. This wasn’t an ally—just a reluctant enemy.

“You’ve delivered your message, and clearly I’ll piss you off if I don’t finish this meal with you and let you leave here on your own terms as quietly as you can. So, can we change the subject to something that isn’t terrifying, please, so that I don’t throw up my brunch as soon as I start eating it?”

“By all means, Zoe,” Underworld said with a smile that bore a cruel edge to it. “By all means.”

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

Comments
  1. Deacon Blue says:

    So, my friends, we’ve seen a bit of Cole for a few chapters now, and I’ve finally revealed his powers enough that it’s time to figure out what name he’ll eventually choose for himself. Anyone want to offer some suggestions? Polls are open.

  2. Alexander says:

    I’d suggest Quasar if it hadn’t already been implemented in the Marvel Comics universe.

  3. Alexander says:

    Journeyman
    Sir Real (LOL)
    Sojourn(er)
    Planeswalker
    Vengeant

  4. Deacon Blue says:

    Thanks, Alex.

    BTW, to everyone, sorry if there was any confusion with a certain name in this story. I had written Buttress over and over in this chapter for the character actually known as Blockbuster (Buttress having only appeared in “Fresh Wounds, Old Scars”) Fixed now, and sorry for any confusion

  5. GriffinTeer says:

    I love reading your blog for the reason that you can always bring us fresh and awesome stuff, I feel that I must at least say a thank you for your hard work.

    – Henry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s