The Gathering Storm, Part 16

Posted: September 5, 2011 in The Gathering Storm series
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Janus gave Underworld a lingering eye-to-eye look over the edge of the files he was perusing and through the eyeholes of his half-comedy/half-tragedy mask. He sighed heavily, and Underworld raised one eyebrow.

“What?” she prodded.

“Shrill?”

“Why not?”

“You think we should bring Shrill into the organization?” Janus asked.

“Why not?” Underworld repeated.

“A flamboyant, cross-dressing, bisexual guy who can shriek loud enough to make people’s ear bleed?”

“Are you concerned his presence will threaten your long-held heterosexual beliefs and make you long for his tight-ab body?”

“I’m concerned,” Janus said with sagely intonations, “that he will embarrass us. I am actively trying to recruit Tooth Fairy because she is frightening as hell—sometimes even to me. I have you working on Zoe—which, by the way, needs to come to some sort of conclusion in the next two weeks. I’ll let her have her graduation if you insist, but whether by choice or by abduction, she’s in our hands in 14 days. And that is because I think she has a combination of powers that will make her quite formidable in a fight. Between the two of us—you and me—we are also trying to secure Gunslinger, Mindfuck, Breathtaker, Rancor, Steampunk and Laugh Riot. Shrill has a very unthreatening name and an annoying and unfocused power, and will look ridiculous.”

“More ridiculous than that fat fool Hellfire?” she challenged him.

“You know full well I only want to string him and some of the other loser-level villains along for the sake of cannon fodder,” Janus said. “Or misdirection. In any case, you know they aren’t in for any real cut.”

“Won’t make them look any less foolish—or potentially us by association. Look, do you know how long I’ve had my people working with Shrill?”

“No, I don’t. I never would have guessed you would even have had an interest,” Janus said with exaggerated boredom.

“Well, guess this: Do I look like the kind of person who’d groom a transhuman whose best was to make ears bleed and deafen people—including perhaps any comrades nearby?”

“I suppose not. What have you accomplished?”

“With a nifty little high-tech collar device, which also doubles as a gorgeous choker for my wonderful cross-dresser; work with some neurologists of questionable ethics who have enabled us to understand better how Shrill’s power works and more importantly how it affects others; and several voice coaches, Shrill is very versatile now,” Underworld said. “He can focus his shrieks more precisely now. He can hit pitches that make people not just cower in discomfort but also make them nauseated, disoriented, sleepy and even, under very controlled circumstances, highly suggestible. The name Shrill will keep people focused on what they think he can do, and not wonder at the wide range of things I’ve trained him to do.”

Janus paused. “Is he still going to dress like a girl?”

“Like a woman. And, yes. It’s who he is. He’s even trying to see if he can find a Regenerator or Primal who can make his breasts grow larger so he can lose the padded bra. Get used to it and lose the sexual bigotry.”

Janus paused again, sighed, and shook his head. “Get him to dress like a threatening woman, then. If he’s going to wear dresses, nothing pink or white or yellow. Blacks and deep purples. Dark makeup. Dark hair or white hair. Go Goth. Bonus points for some scary-colored contact lenses. Agreed?”

“Compromise is a beautiful thing, Janus; glad to see you learning the skill—at least with me. Agreed. But if he wants to be frilly or sophisticated or whatever around the HQ on his own time, he gets to. Period. I think he looks great in pink.”

“One more thing. He changes his name to Shriek or Caterwaul.”

“No promises on that one; I’ll discuss it with him. If he agrees, I get to increase his salary by 10% compared to my original plans.”

“I should have recruited Madamnation instead of you as my right hand,” Janus said. “She’s utterly ruthless and deviant but even she wouldn’t stoop to MBA-ing and lawyer-ing me to death.”

* * *

Three hours of planning and negotiating with Janus about the direction of the organization—and arguing over even more annoying things than whether Shrill was worth bringing in—was enough to give Underworld a migraine on the best of days. Today called for a serious does of meds and then killing off an entire bottle of red wine while getting her feet—and maybe something else—rubbed by two particularly submissive members of her personal staff.

Rounding a corner in the level of the office building that Janus had claimed as pretty much his own, Underworld was startled by the sudden presence of another person, moving in the opposite direction and apparently as oblivious to their surroundings at the moment as she was. They crashed together and the pile of files Underworld was carrying tumbled to the floor. The only thing that kept her from swearing was the knowledge that most of them were in stretch-band-sealed portfolio-style folders, so few of them would spill open, if any.

The thudding impact sent Underworld tumbling to her ass on the carpeted floor, and she found herself suddenly grateful for Janus’ ostentatious insistence on putting plush carpeting on his floor of the building.

A hand was on her arm helping her up, as she regained her wits. The files were scattered everywhere. One had opened and spilled out some of its papers.

And the face before her was a woman’s face, heavily tattooed. There was a sweet grin on those lips that utterly belied the many colorful designs of death, blood and mayhem—even as it agreed with the slightly lesser number of happy, sunny-dispositioned images permanently marking that skin. Underworld stepped back just slightly, a sense of unease washing over her. She’d been leery of Crazy Jane—even uncomfortable around her—since learning the full scope of her powers from Janus and the full measure of her psychiatric issues. Truth be told, she’d been avoiding the woman as much as possible and being as disdainful as she could just to keep her away as often as possible.

She made me uncomfortable from the first day Janus brought her into the building, silent and inside a cage, Underworld thought. But I preferred her then, before she could roam the halls.

“Here, let me help you,” Crazy Jane said.

“No, I’m fine,” Underworld said quickly. She injected as much imperious contempt as she could to mask her unease, and hurriedly began collecting files. “I have places to be, and quickly.”

“Sorry I wasn’t watching where I was going,” Crazy Jane said, gathering up the loose papers despite Underworld’s protests. “I was just thinking of all the delicious things I’ve been doing to Dr. Mark’s mind today. I’m so glad Janus let me keep him. Did you know his last name is ‘Blood?’—it’s so appropriate now with some of the things I’m egging him on to do. He’s soooooo fucked up and so eager for me to do more inside that gray matter.”

“Yeah. OK,” Underworld said. “File please?”

“Oh,” Crazy Jane said, and Underworld swore the woman was blushing between the colors of all those tattoos. “I just get so excited about my hobbies. Here you go.”

She handed over the file, their skin briefly touching once more, and Underworld barely suppressing the shudder of revulsion as she wondered if Janus and Jane had plans to decorate her body beyond just her face. Crazy Jane clearly could be useful, but Janus had fashioned her into something so disturbing, visually and in terms of her actions.

“Thanks. I guess,” Underworld said.

“Okey-dokey buh-bye now,” Crazy Jane said, skipping away and humming.

As she left, Underworld continued to feel unease, but there was a new character to it. The headache from her meeting with Janus seemed to have subsided at least, and dwelling on things was likely only to make it flare up again. She continued to her own floor of the building, the image of a severely disturbed and dangerous woman happily skipping stuck in her head like a bit of annoying elevator music for at least a half-hour thereafter.

* * *

The professor for Zoe’s Transhuman Psychology class was apparently at a loss for her own ideas today—instead choosing to play a video recording of a segment of Matt Lauer speaking with noted psychologist and researcher Dr. Joel Manning on an episode of the “Today” show from several months earlier. She’d already seen it, and read all of Manning’s books, so she did her best to tune out and catch some rest in the mostly darkened classroom. She’d slept poorly since Underworld had begun courting her, and she wasn’t even sure Query was doing anything to help. The hero, if he had decided to take up her cause, was known for stealth; she’d probably never see him in action until it was all over.

Or too late.

“So, Dr. Manning,” droned Lauer’s voice from the speakers in the class, “you have some very intriguing thoughts about the mindset and psychology of transhumans. This may be abrupt to start, but I was wondering where you came down on the recent debates about screening all potential mothers and fetuses for known transhuman genes as a matter of not just public safety but public mental health.”

Silence at first, as a frown creased Manning’s brow—Zoe didn’t need her eyes open to recall just how deep that crease had been and how intense Manning’s gaze had become. “Pardon me? I don’t see how transhumans as a whole could be considered a public mental health threat. Not to mention that isn’t the point of any of my research, teaching or writings.”

As Zoe listened to the words she had last heard when the program was airing live, this time with her eyes closed, she could sense something in his tone, and wondered if Lauer and the “Today” show producers had decided to suddenly change the tack of the interview right before going on the air. Had Dr. Manning been suckered into a sort of ambush interview? If would make sense, she considered; she had borne a sneaking suspicion that either Lauer himself or the producers of the show harbored some kind of beef against transhumans. It seemed that slightly negative coverage of them was the norm—very subtle, but still very noticeable to her. Zoe was not shy to admit that she could be thin-skinned and jump to conclusions. Having dark skin in America and being transhuman besides could do that to you. But hypervigilance was better than being caught by bigotry unawares. It helped her see the wrongs that others missed—taking their “normal” privilege for granted.

“Well, Doctor,” Lauer continued, “you note in most of your books, especially in your current one on the bestseller list—Psyches in Flux: Transhuman Minds and the Evolution of Mankind—that transhumans are particularly prone to mental illness.”

“Actually, I said nothing of the sort,” Manning noted, and Zoe recalled how proud she had been of the man’s poise when she had first watched the episode. The strength of conviction in his voice as he adjusted to the unexpected direction of the interview was nothing short of stunning to her, and with her eyes shut now, she respected it even more now without the distraction of visuals.

“Not to put words in your mouth, Doctor, but if I could quote from page 23 of your current book: ‘As is well-known, transhumans exhibit behaviors and personality traits that differ from the accepted norm, and this is more pronounced the older the person is when powers reach full emergence and when multiple groups of powers manifest—and often this is more marked when powers are initiated unnaturally in a human who is otherwise baseline. This is a well-known scientific fact, and one that requires us to consider strongly the direction of humanity and the personality traits that future humans will possess.’ Now, that’s a bit of a mouthful, Dr. Manning, but aren’t you saying that humanity is, at least in the transhuman population, more prone to, and moving more strongly toward, mental illness?”

“No, I’m not.”

“It’s well-known that transhuman villains are more likely to be sociopathic than normal human criminals. Even those who label themselves heroes are often reckless. You note that transhumans tend toward very specific kinds of narcissism, self-centeredness, disdain for authority, snap decisions…need I go on?”

“No, you don’t, because there is no research comparing the cruelty or evil of transhuman villains in the media spotlight vs. the huge number of evil baseline people who outnumber them by far. Also, the words ‘sociopathic’ and ‘psychopathic’ have never cropped up in my books with regard to transhumans in general—only with a subset of them,” Manning noted. “I talk of personality shifts in evolution, not so much about mental illness per se.”

“You don’t see a bunch of narcissistic people who are self-centered and possess powers the rest of us don’t as at least a potential public health threat?” Lauer prodded.

“You know, Matt, as a clinical psychologist who also possesses an advanced degree in philosophy and a bachelor’s in anthropology, I can tell you that the personalities of early humans are likely not much like the personalities we lift up and honor now,” Manning said. “Nor are several personality traits that were respected in the 1300s or even 1700s much in vogue today—like attitudes toward woman and resolving disputes through public violence. It is true that the more powers a transhuman has and the later they appear in life, the more likely for intense personality traits that are outside the norm. Hence all the costumes and grand gestures sometimes on the part of villains and heroes. That’s the desire for attention and sense of self-importance. At the same time, you also see almost obsessive or compulsive behaviors—sometimes overly so—that manifest as an overwhelming sense of duty to protect or an overwhelming desire to have a theme for their crimes, or seek an adversary or some-such.”

“I’m not trying to say transhumans are by their nature dangerous or a threat to healthy evolution, Doctor, but there are people who do say that, and what you’re saying doesn’t seem to contradict—“

“Bullcrap,” Manning said with utter calm. His face was serene, and his voice even. “Utter bullcrap. Alcohol abuse became a whole lot bigger issue when guns came along and then when cars did. It’s easier to pull a trigger in anger than to draw a sword and lop off someone’s head. You aren’t as likely to kill someone drunk horse-riding as drunk-driving. But do we outlaw alcohol as an answer? Or eliminate guns and cars? Maybe, in the world you speak of, potentially screening for transhumans, we should forbid people with a family history of alcoholism from breeding. Getting violently drunk is a form of socially unacceptable behavior. So is being a selfish and mentally abusive lover. Or an obnoxious boss. Or a Type A personality if taken far enough. And yet many people succeed and productively contribute to society even with less-than-stellar personality traits. Even with destructive traits.”

“Then what is your point, Doctor, in your books? I’m simply playing Devil’s advocate here.”

“Are you, Mr. Lauer? Or are you subject to the very fears you are giving legitimacy to here by tacitly defending them?”

“I think you’re reading too much into my words.”

“As you did into out-of-context passages from my book?”

“Touché, Doctor. But what is the point, then? You tell us that psychologically, transhumans may fit a wholly different set of molds than normal—“

“Baseline humans—transhumans are normal too. They are simply another part of humanity. A person with a disability getting around in a wheelchair is not an ‘abnormal’ example of humanity Matt, nor an aboriginal Australian in the middle of the whitest neighborhood in New York City. They simply stand out more. Everyone is ‘abnormal’ in some way, usually many ways.”

“Baseline humans, then,” Lauer conceded. “What is your takeaway lesson, then? If we’re two groups of humans diverging psychologically as well as physically, what do we do?”

“These are tweaks, Mr. Lauer. Evolutionary tweaks. Not wholesale changes that make transhumans utterly alien to baseline humans,” Manning said. “They are still, at heart, far more like baseline humans than not. As with all things in evolution, we adapt. Or we become obsolete if we don’t. Turning transhumans into witches and going on a hunt with torches and pitchforks isn’t the answer.”

“That’s all we have time for, today, Dr. Manning. Many thanks for your time,” Lauer concluded. Zoe was certain she heard a trace of relief in his tone.

“No, thank you, Matt,” Manning said. As Zoe recalled, he stood up immediately upon saying that, and walked off the set before the camera could cut away.

The program clicked off, and the lights went up in the room. Zoe opened her eyes slowly.

“Well, class,” the professor said. “I hope you paid attention to the program. You will have 40 minutes to write an essay in the bluebooks Keith is passing out defending either Dr. Manning’s side or Mr. Lauer’s, making sure to use elements of at least three of the following transhuman psych theories in your work: either Thomason’s, Kluwer’s, Bacon’s, Muteesa’s, Ho’s, Garrison’s or Podeski’s. You may not use or refer to Manning’s theories in your work.”

Zoe’s lips formed a rueful smile. No problem. I’ve been writing this essay in my head since I first saw that damn segment anyway, professor. I’ve probably been mentally writing it since I found out I wasn’t baseline anymore.

* * *

At the sound of the voice, which had only said “So” in a deep and solemn tone from the nearby shadows, Solstice jerked to attention, her thermal and cryokinetic powers at the ready.

“I’m not here to hurt you, Solstice,” the voice said, and from the shadows she saw Query approach, then stop about 15 feet away from her. “Good evening. How are you doing?”

“Was doing fine until you got my adrenaline pumping like that,” she said. “To what do I owe the honor of a personal visit from Query?”

“Have you heard about a string of disappearances lately? Eight women so far?”

Solstice pursed her lips for a moment, then shrugged. “I haven’t heard of a string of disappearances—I might have heard of a couple here and there lately. I don’t really do missing persons, Query. Seems more your speed.”

His head bobbed in a short, quick nod. “Yes, sometimes it is. Did you know that Marty the Hun got out of jail?”

“No way,” Solstice said. “How the fuck did he manage that?”

“It’s what he’s good at, among other things,” Query noted. “You might have kept tabs on him after taking him down.”

“Not my speed.”

“Sometimes, speed kills. Carelessness destroys,” Query said gravely.

“I’m guessing you have a point here, but what is it? I took him down. The cops or D.A. let him out. Maybe I’ll get a chance to nail him again.”

“Maybe next time you should hit the nail harder. The women started going missing within days of Marty’s release. They’re all Asian. Female. Your rough height and build.”

“What the hell does that…oh, shit,” Solstice said. “He’s just randomly grabbing women hoping one of them turns out to be me?”

“Marty isn’t known for forgiveness,” Query responded. “Or subtlety. Or patience.”

“Why are you riding me about this? I feel like shit for the women, then, but I don’t know the first thing about tracking someone down, Marty or otherwise. I get info, I act on it. I see a crime, I act. I’m no investigator.”

Query set something down on the ground at his feet. “Here’s a start,” he said. “A thumb drive with some leads. Start learning to investigate, so you can clean up your messes in the future.”

“Look, asshole,” Solstice said. “I bust my ass out like you or anyone else in the hero gig. Don’t get on a high horse. I can’t be accountable for every crook I rough up or get arrested. What are you suggesting—that I kill them all in the future to head this shit off?”

“Far from it,” Query said. “I try to avoid killing if I can help it, or there would be hundreds of dead bodies in my wake. But next time, especially if you’re going to humiliate a vicious, sadistic, amoral man with resources to get revenge before you call the cops on him, you should make sure you don’t leave so many loopholes for him to use. You might want to make sure when the police arrive there is a clear chain of evidence for them to nail the asshole.”

Query snorted, turned on his heel, and walked away.

“Because if you did,” he concluded as he walked away slowly. “There might be a few more live women tonight. They’ve started finding the bodies now. Those poor girls aren’t missing. They’re dead. Probably tortured first. Marty the Hun doesn’t leave loose ends. Your problem now, though. I have my own young lady to try to keep safe.”

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

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