The Gathering Storm, Part 21

Posted: February 16, 2012 in The Gathering Storm series
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After the tense visit by Janus’ men, a nearly half-hour-long flogging at Hush-a-Bye’s hands had been very therapeutic, and now—flushed and covered with a sheen of sweat all over his bare, bruised, welted and blood-streaked torso—GoodKnight stood near her.

“Ya did real well dealing with Janus, today, Hush-a-Bye,” he said.

“It isn’t your place to tell me when I’ve done well,” she noted imperiously.

“It is my place sometimes. You’ve come a long way, but yer still learning. I’m impressed but I’ve still got worries after all this time. Like ya don’t speak in the same style as the original Hush-a-Bye. Yer more formal and haughty. Especially tonight.”

“You hired me to fill the void she left so that you could continue to hide the fact that the sleep and silence powers actually are your own and have someone who presents the proper demeanor you require. You paid for extensive plastic surgery so that I could pass for her and no one would know the difference. I did not sign up to actually become her, however. I will carry the name and the duties and reap the rewards, but I am who I am. If anyone notices that Hush-a-Bye sounds more like landed gentry now, we can chalk it up to a change in demeanor due to the growth of our criminal enterprise and the rise of my power.”

Our enterprise? Your power?” he responded, an edge in his voice. But there was a tremor there of something other than simply irritation. Hush-a-Bye wasn’t sure if it was hope, longing or trepidation. Perhaps a mix of them?

This might be the moment of truth; it’s been a long time coming.

“Yes,” she said firmly. “I am our voice. I am the one who presents as the power behind this enterprise, while you make plans in secret and use your powers and let everyone think they’re my powers. I do that for you and for our mutual gain, but in the end, I am your mistress and you are my slave. That is the dynamic you seek, and that is what you hired me for. But long-term, I cannot simply be a hired domme with a submissive client. We must evolve to something more organic and permanent. You know that. Or are you not a true submissive? Do you simply plan to hire a series of dommes one after another and change their faces? Or do you want a stable relationship and a firm hand to ground you? To hold your leash and discipline you.”

GoodKnight gritted his teeth, but in frustration, not anger.

“Hush-a-Bye…”

Mistress,” she interrupted him.

He paused, took a deep breath, and lowered himself to his knees, bending his head to gaze at the ground as he spoke. “Mistress, this is an awkward situation. Hush-a-Bye’s death was early. Unexpected. I always knew she might die or might wanna retire from being in the thick of things. But it was too soon. The plan had always been to find someone before then for her to train up. Someone who’d dominate me but be under her. In a perfect world…”

“In an ideal world, I would have learned from the bottom up—the business of crime and the business of ruling over you. To submit before I dominated. Just like all the best mistresses I’ve ever known. But this isn’t an ideal world, worm,” she sneered. “I’ve bottomed before—long ago—and while I might have been willing to do it again for your first Hush-a-Bye, if she were still alive, I won’t do it for you. You are mine, not the other way around.”

He winced at that, feeling defensive and guilty all at once. “Mistress, I do obey you. I carry guns now, at your command, just like ya told me, even though it’s knives I really like and really trust. I take yer lashes with gratitude and grace. I…”

“Obey me in all things, big and small, not simply what you choose to obey,” she said firmly. “Give your whole self to me, not just a part.”

“Mistress, Hush-a-Bye and me…we were a team. A unit. We built our criminal activities together from the ground up. It wasn’t just a mistress-slave relationship. There was love there, too. I lost more than just a domme that night.”

“All the most rewarding mistress-slave relationships will have love in them. We can reach that point. Perhaps soon. But first you must let go of control and submit to me fully,” she said. She could see his shoulders slump just a tiny fraction; could almost feel a kind of psychic tension break.

She’d always been very good at being a bondage and S&M professional and, before she decided to trade in her old face and name for Hush-a-Bye’s, she’d made a good living at it. The level of obedience and loyalty she’d been able to command from clients had sometimes made her wonder if she had Psi or Primal transhuman powers or simply a commanding personality. But regardless, in all these long months, GoodKnight had been resistant—a fact that irked her on personal and professional levels. Now, she felt she had reached a tipping point, whether by force of personality or possible transhuman abilities of her own.

Have I finally put a crack in that resistance? Because if I don’t, there could be trouble for both of us going forward, she worried.

“You have the transhuman powers, GoodKnight; I’m the misdirection so that people don’t know that. You have the proven experience in conducting successful criminal activities and mobilizing criminal minions, so you are the brains for the scheming,” she said to him as she loomed above his kneeling, half naked body and admired the bruises and bloody stripes with which she had marked his back and shoulders. “However, I am the face. I am the voice. I stood up to Janus today without hesitation and proved I’m fully ready. I am the one who says what will be done and why. We are partners. But I make the final decision in all things, in every facet of your life. There was no Hush-a-Bye before; forget her. There was a good woman who paved the way for my arrival. There is only the Hush-a-Bye that is now. Leave the past behind and kneel to embrace the present and future, or forsake all hope of any pleasure and any peace of mind.”

“I…I want…”

“I command,” she said. “And you obey. Or you do not obey, and I leave you to your solitude and misery. There is no want. Not for you. That is my purview. For you, there is the ability and even necessity to advise me and guide me, but above all, in the end, to obey me and protect me.”

She was startled for a moment as he made a strange choking sound, and then smiled when she realized he was sobbing.

“I’m…I’m sorry…Mistress,” he said haltingly. “I’ve been…outta line. For too long. I’m nothing. I…beg forgiveness.”

One red-gloved hand stroked the black leather of the hood that covered almost his entire head, and she said, “Weep upon my boots, and lick up those tears. Wash my feet in your sorrow and your acceptance, and clean the salty residue from the leather with your kisses. That is your penance, and our true beginning.”

* * *

I’m a transhuman in costume, Zoe thought bitterly, but in a very unflattering one and not for a very heroic role.

She turned to one of her few good friends at the university, spread her arms wide, and said, “These graduation gowns are ugly as crap. They make me look and feel fat. The cap doesn’t help a bit, either, and I can barely get it to stay on my locs even with a billion bobby pins.”

“Suck it up and wear it with dignity, Zoe,” the classmate said. “Today we become real adult women, so that we can give our time and talents over to The Man in exchange for paychecks and healthcare benefits.”

Zoe chuckled at that, but she was still nervous about today. Underworld had told her Janus would let her have her graduation. Even if that was true—and this close to the event it seemed it was—that still meant that this was her last day of whatever passed for peace of mind and security since the day the recruitment and intimidation process had begun. But she wasn’t helpless, so she could still laugh. She wasn’t alone, even though she had no idea what Query was doing or whether it would help her.

Time to stand with my class, and hope for the best, she thought. At least if I end up in  Janus’ clutches, I should have my diploma when I do. Maybe I can negotiate a better cut of the criminal profits with that piece of paper, she joked with herself silently and bitterly.

* * *

Two more Guardian Corps patrols had been ambushed in the past week, and it was making Cole nervous. Not so much for himself but for the future of the Corps. Everyone seemed to be on edge, and their enemies in New Judah, especially the five toughest neighborhoods on which they concentrated their efforts, seemed to know where they were going to be much of the time now.

Making it worse was the fact that all of the recent ambushes had been against major operations. Against plans by the Corps to take down big targets. It was a wonder, Cole thought, that no one had been killed in the past two skirmishes, though a couple of the injured had come close to meeting their ends.

Cole was waiting outside Desperado’s office just as he had been told to do, and it was just a couple days after overhearing part of a strategy meeting and catching hell for supposed eavesdropping.

And the hell of it all was that I was only there to hear everything because I was doing something Desperado told me to do, he thought as a sense of déjà vu hit home.

That sensation and the memory of the previous dressing-down made made his gut twist even more when the office door opened and three people left, all of them high-ranking members of the Corps and among them one of the two lieutenants Desperado had been briefing that last time. The man gave Cole a curious look, and then over his shoulder called back to Desperado, “This little punk seems to hang around your office an awful lot.”

“Yeah, yeah he does, doesn’t he?” Desperado said, leaning against the doorway and fingering the hilt of one of his revolvers.

“But you…” Cole began.

Cutting him off, Desperado said, “Shut up, get the fuck in here and let’s address some shit, Cole.”

Calling me by my real name instead of my codename Quantum means he’s pissed, Cole realized. I’ve finally figured that out. Around here, that’s a bigger insult than slapping a name like “Puppy” onto a new recruit.

“Fuck,” Cole muttered under his breath, and shambled into the office to be dressed down yet again.

* * *

As Zoe was pulling her gown off over her head, she couldn’t see the startled looks on the faces of fellow students all around her who had been, like her, returning their gowns at one of the smaller tents that had been set up in the commons for the post-graduation activities. But she did hear the rapid popping sounds of bullets being fired nearby.

She sensed people scattering around her as she struggled out of the gown to free up her limbs and her vision—as she began the metabolic shift of her Morph powers.

Oh shit it’s happening, her panicked mind repeated several times as she finally threw off the gown. Underworld wasn’t fucking kidding about the deadline. Talk about a literal graduation day cut-off to my reprieve.

Something struck her, and then another something, and she felt stunning jolts throughout her body even as her skin began to toughen and her hair and nails become razor sharp potential weapons.

Too slow, though. Too late. As she stiffened, relaxed, and then tumbled over her own feet, she was out before she hit the ground, her last thoughts being: Fuck my life.

* * *

As disguises went, it wasn’t the best in the world, but by standing in the shadows and ducking his head a lot, the human-face mask over his black mask didn’t have to be all that detailed—just easy to yank off.

And a fake graduation gown hides a multitude of “fuck you up” toys, Query mused.

When the assault team rushed out of a nearby van toward Zoe as she was pulling off her gown, Query was ready. The presence of a van already had him alert; the scent of sweat, gun oil and more from inside when he passed by it earlier made him infinitely more so.

He didn’t like the idea of letting them actually reach Zoe, but it seemed the best course. The more they thought they had things in the bag, the better for him and for the element of surprise. Also, since he didn’t know whether Zoe would be a help or a hindrance in a fight, it made sense to have her down and more or less safely out of the way.

When the two tasers struck home and felled her as she finally yanked off her gown, Query pulled off his fake graduation cap, peeled off the black covering and revealed what really lay beneath—a metal disc with several nodules around the edge. He flung it into the van and covered his face for a moment as the series of mini flashbangs went off.

That takes care of the backup team members and the getaway driver.

That left four armed men in light body armor. Ripping off his faux graduation gown, and hoping he’d put the right amount of weights around the hem of it, he flung it like a net over the head of the nearest abductor and pressed a button on his belt as it draped the man’s entire upper torso. Query heard the hacking and gasping as the small gas bomb inside went off  and took him down, even as he rushed the next-nearest man and caught him in an armlock before he could bring his gun to bear. Query put a tree in between himself and one of the other two remaining men, and his mostly immobilized enemy in between himself and the other perpetrator.

To Query’s dismay, that man had enough sense, good reflexes and combat savvy not to fire his weapon.

So much for getting him to maim or kill my human shield, he thought, and pulled out a small cylinder from one of the inside pockets of his leather duster. He jammed one end of it into the lower back of his prisoner and as the needle shot forth and delivered the contents of the ampule inside, he dropped the man to the ground to let him quiver and shake, soon to pass out.

Or, if he’s allergic to what I gave him, to die of anaphylaxis, he considered. No great loss to society if so.

Coming around the other side of the tree, and having been more or less tracking one of the two remaining men by hearing—difficult but not impossible with the yells and screams of bystanders all around—Query had a Walther P99 out and ready.

His first 9mm bullet went a little high and barely grazed the man’s hip; the second hit him squarely in a kneecap. As the man stumbled and fell with a shout, Query shot him with a tranquilizer dart from a gun in his right hand, then tossed the now-useless weapon away since it could only hold one dart.

In other circumstances against armed men like this I’d be more inclined for the lethal approach since bullets are more plentiful and effective, but there are too many bystanders and I’m likely to have police involvement. No reason to make my life any more complicated by killing anyone—even the bad guys.

The fourth and final man shot Query right in the heart, and the costumed hero spun nearly 360 degrees to his right and around the back of another tree, less from the impact of the bullet than a desire to avoid getting shot again.

That hurt, asshole, but you made a bad decision in the heat of the moment. That’s the most heavily armored part of my costume.

Query wasn’t eager to find out how well the lighter armor in his mask would take a bullet—and this remaining man would likely be smart enough to go for a headshot this time—so when he came out from behind his cover, Query flung a pair of tanglers at his final opponent, one after the other. The first exploded against a shin, sending out an array of sticky tendrils, most of them attaching themselves to nearby trees and a few sticking to his other leg. As the man stumbled, the second tangler ended up hitting him in one shoulder instead of his head, but it was still enough to hinder his gun hand and ensure Query could restrain him easily and then attend to all of his friends.

Janus, you’re a bastard for not showing up yourself, Query thought as he finished up with the four men outside and moved on to handcuffing the stunned occupants of the van. But I knew that would be a long-shot.

Retrieving the tranquilizer gun he had tossed aside earlier, Query took stock of his surroundings. He didn’t see any casualties aside from the perpetrators he had subdued—except for the shots at Query, the gunfire from the abduction team had been intended to clear people out of the area.

Zoe was groaning, and the fact she was already getting up confirmed the suspicions he’d had when he saw her skin color and texture shift a bit, along with the texture of her hair—all of which had returned to normal once she had been stunned. In addition to being an Acro, she was a Morph, and likely the change she had initiated provided her some protection against the twin taser shots.

He stepped over to her, and held out his left arm, saying, “You all right, Miss Dawson?”

Blinking and realizing who was standing there, she took the proffered hand and he pulled her upright. As she got to her feet fully, she yelped “Ouch!” and yanked back her hand.

“What?” he asked. “Something wrong?”

“You just stabbed me in the wrist or something,” she complained, rubbing at a small wound there.

He took her wrist lightly and turned it back and forth to examine it. “Sorry about that. I’ve got plenty of sharp edges all over. Probably a bit of my light armor has a little bent edge after that melee. Just a small cut. You OK otherwise, though?”

“Yeah,” she said, taking stock of the trussed-up team. “Wow. You took out six people by yourself?”

“Seven if you count the driver. Helps that I wasn’t expected,” he said with a snort, hearing approaching sirens.

“Is it over?” she asked hopefully, craning her head to get a better look at some of the men who’d tried to abduct her. He suspected she was looking for signs that one of the perps might be Janus.

“Doubt it. But I’m on to some leads to track this back to the source and head things off next time,” Query lied. Then, because it always felt better to him to temper such lies with truth, he added, “But if anyone comes again, I plan to keep showing up. He won’t send as many people next time most likely. As it starts costing him too much, he’ll stop coming at you.”

“I wasn’t sure you were even doing anything all this time,” she admitted.

“I take my jobs seriously, Zoe, even the pro bono ones. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d rather leave before the police get here, but I’m sure you can tell them enough,” Query said. “As well as press charges, I assume,” he added with as jovial a lilt as he could muster.

“Bet on it,” she said with a smile as he brushed by her and headed away from the sirens.

Sorry to keep using you as bait, Zoe, but at least I can be pretty sure he won’t try to kill you, Query thought as he beat his hasty retreat, wishing he could have taken one or two of the abduction team with him for interrogation, though it was unlikely they knew Janus’ whereabouts. Let’s just hope I don’t slip up and let him take you where I can’t follow.

* * *

“Rare Query sighting in the daytime, sir,” Jeremiah said as he entered Fortunato’s office. “He seems to have foiled an armed attempt today to kidnap a graduating senior from UConn’s New Judah campus.”

“A bit more colorful and dramatic than his usual fare,” Fortunato said.

“And a strike team of seven that he took out, no less, with vests, riot helmets, automatic weapons and more,” Jeremiah added.

“My oh my. What is this student heir to, that someone should be so eager to abduct him and that Query should be on alert and waiting in the wings?”

“Actually, sir, a young woman of no particular means at all, except for being a skilled enough athlete to earn a full scholarship,” Jeremiah answered. “However, some of our inside sources in the police have passed along some information that your analysts found interesting, in that the team Query took down may be directly or loosely attached to the group Janus hired to kill him recently.”

“So, Janus still has an inexplicable animosity toward Query, and their antics have become more public. Well, Jeremiah, it’s looking like my decision to build a team is even more prescient than I thought—and maybe this recent twist will make it more likely we can convince Query to sign up.”

* * *

Nearly everyone was on edge on Janus’ floors and Underworld’s floor of the building. By all accounts, Janus was furious about the failure of the operation to kidnap Zoe, and even more so about Query’s involvement in thwarting the abduction.

She bought that story for about 15 minutes until she came to her senses. Everyone else could continue believing the rage was real, but probably the only part of it that was would be true was the irritation about Query’s presence. Janus wanted Query dead very badly, for reasons she still didn’t understand, so it was likely the hero popping up now would anger him.

But the rest rang hollow. The team Janus had sent against Zoe was a good one, to be sure—if it had been sent against a normal person. But Zoe was potentially valuable enough for Janus to have Underworld woo her, so he must suspect she had strong talents or knew of significant powers that he hadn’t revealed to anyone else. Also, he couldn’t have been fool enough to think Zoe might not have tried to secure some kind of transhuman aid since she knew she was being pursued by transhumans.

Both factors would have indicated that the team should include at least one person with a strong power set, if not two of them, and that the operation should never have been carried out so boldly in broad daylight.

Janus isn’t that stupid or sloppy, so why did he order an operation that had a decent chance of failing? Underworld pondered, fuming silently. And why is he keeping me in the dark?

On the way to his office, she spotted Crazy Jane coming around the corner at the other end of the hall, a bright smile on her tattooed face. Underworld’s steps faltered as she considered turning around, but then the compulsion to be near Jane kicked in, and she semi-reluctantly continued forward.

I need to confront the bastard anyway, and to get to him I’ve got to go past her.

“Hi, Undie,” Crazy Jane said. “It’s been a couple days since I’ve seen you. Miss ya! See ya soon,” she concluded as she glided by Underworld and skipped down the remainder of the hall.

Underworld felt a little flood of relief, not just because Crazy Jane hadn’t lingered but, she realized, because she’d given Underworld her much-needed fix.

I needed to see her and hear her voice, and now I have, and it makes me feel better; makes me want to call her up for coffee soon. Shit.

That reminded Underworld of her suspicions that Janus was probably behind Jane setting her hooks into her to begin with, and simply reinforced her commitment to confront him.

She burst into his office moments later without preamble; without knocking.

“Now is not the time!” Janus bellowed. “Come back—”

“Cut the bullshit, you douche-plug,” she responded curtly. “Drop the act.”

“Which act would that be?” he asked, voice suddenly calm and with a playful, teasing hint to his words.

“Take your pick,” she said. “But what the hell, how about I go ahead with lady’s choice? Let’s start with the botched attempt to nab a woman you’ve had me working so hard to bring into our fold. You didn’t consult me on the team, you didn’t tell me you were sending one, and you fucked it up—on purpose. Why?”

“Well, I didn’t actually want it to fail,” Janus said. “That would just be stupid. I don’t throw money and men away, and I do want lovely Zoe to join us. However, I felt there was a high probability things might go south, so I wanted to test the waters without risking any of our more valuable assets.”

“So, are we giving up on Zoe now, or are you going to let me pick a proper team this time with a plan that is actually designed with a win firmly in mind?”

Janus made a show of leaning back dramatically in his chair and putting his hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling for several moments before saying, “Oh…fine…you go ahead and show me how it’s done, Underworld.”

“Great. Only problem for you is that I don’t think you’ll be alive to congratulate me when I nab her.”

Janus sat up, and behind the half-comedy/half-drama theater mask he had chosen to wear today, his eyes regarded her more intently, a glint of intrigue in them. “Oh? And why are you stepping up any plans you might have to part me from my mortal coil?”

“Crazy Jane.”

“I know you’ve occasionally gone to your side of the gender line for sexual recreation, Underworld, but I didn’t realize you wanted to steal my girlfriend. So unlike you.”

“Don’t be a smart-ass,” she snapped. “You directed her to nail me with her addictive powers.”

“Why would I do that? We both know their effects aren’t as dramatic on transhumans, and I’d hardly want competition for her time and affections, especially with her pet projects she spends so much time on. I’m the jealous type.”

“Yeah. Jealous and greedy and grasping, which is why you wanted her to make biochemical friends with me because if we’re BFFs, I won’t jump ship from this operation you shanghaied me into joining,” Underworld said.

“Intriguing notion. It’s possible I might even have thought of such a thing,” Janus said. “However, I don’t see why this would make you want to kill me, even if it is true.”

“Because you’ve messed with me in a fundamental and really fucking disturbing way. I may not be able to take any of this out on Jane thanks to her little hold on my affections now, but I can take it out on the person who sicced her on me.”

“Oh, but if that were so, you wouldn’t dare,” Janus said smoothly.

“Why not?”

“Kill me openly and obviously, and Jane would be angry with you. I’m her main man. Her first love. Her true blue. And she cares enough to have a hold on me, too. Take me away, and she’d likely take her attentions away from you in retaliation. It wouldn’t devastate you like it would a normal person, but it already hurts to consider it, doesn’t it? Hurts your heart a bit—metaphorically, that is. You like her regard too much to risk losing it.”

“Bastard,” Underworld hissed.

“And, if you were to kill me clandestinely,” he continued, unfazed, “you’d still risk that she’d suspect you of avenging yourself on me. The more you consider it, the more unpleasant the consequences of taking me out are, aren’t they? In fact, you’ll probably have to consider the necessity of making extra-sure I stay alive, just in case any harm I might come to might look like it was orchestrated by you.”

“Shit!” Underworld spat, turning and storming toward the door. “This isn’t over!” she shouted without turning back.

“I know! Toodles! Go take your anger out on Query by snatching Zoe, please. Thanks oodles!”

Janus smiled and leaned back in his chair, sighing.

If not for Query still being alive, I’d say everything was going perfectly.

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

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