Archive for March, 2012

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The road stretched before Query, but he traveled it slowly.

If there’s a metaphor in there, I’ll just go ahead and ignore it, he thought. Too many people attach too much meaning to roads. Road trips as spiritual journeys. Intersections as allegories for life-changing decisions.

This road was simply a tool. A means to an end—getting to where Janus’ people were.

On his way to the location of Janus’ forest safe-house, Query began checking for messages from heroes and vigilantes he’d contacted before reaching Zoe and taking out Janus’ men—people who either owed him favors or could sometimes be cajoled to join him in a big fight.

Buttress had left a text response around the time Query had caught up with Zoe and Mad Dash—which Query hadn’t seen since he’d been a bit busy setting up to ambush Janus’ team—saying he’d be over as soon as possible and another one a few minutes ago saying he was now at the entrance to Grace Memorial Highway. Query sent him a button for the QuikLynx page he had created with directions to guide allies to the rendezvous point and a simple message reading: Thanks.

Feral, who was usually up for a fight of any kind, had minutes earlier sent a text that he was already a few miles up the old highway, since he figured there weren’t any places to hide a hideout anyway before that point. Query sent him the same link as Buttress, along with the message: Appreciate it; try to keep body count low.

Peregrine had messaged him that she was on the roof of the Dresden Building waiting on his signal, and should be able to glide all the way to his location. So he sent her directions, too, and the message: Consider me paid in full when we’re done.

Greenguard—at least that’s who he would be tonight; Query had long ago figured out the man had two other costumed identities called Knockout and Hardcase—had left a message that there was no way he could make it there in time to be of any help, as had Morning Glory and Python.

Morning Glory isn’t much good in a direct fight anyway, Query thought, but his Luminar powers could have been good for backing us up. Python’s probably too busy admiring his abs or posing for the paparazzi, but I’ll miss his sheer muscle in this, and that goes double for Greenguard.

High Impact hadn’t responded at all and Query hadn’t expected him to, loner and general misanthrope that he was. Solstice hadn’t responded either, but Query knew she was still trying to tie up loose ends on her Marty the Hun situation.

He found himself wishing he’d had more time during the ongoing Janus/Zoe situation to contact Coldraven and Good War to let them know he’d discovered their identities. He didn’t have any sympathy for Coldraven, who occupied the gray areas way too often and might actually be a little dirty, so blackmailing her into helping would have been useful. He had no intentions of blackmailing Good War, but now that he knew his identity, contacting him would be easier so that Query could ask how best to reach him in costumed mode and not as a civilian.

Finally, Query reached the rendezvous point, knowing he probably wouldn’t have any company at all for at least six minutes and wouldn’t have everyone together for 15 or 20 minutes. As he hurriedly switched from his sniper-friendly attire to a riot-style outfit, that thought gave him pause, since there was a good chance anyone at the safe-house already would be alerted to his impending arrival and preparing for that. The only question was whether Janus would tell them to sit tight in the hopes they would kill Query, have them bug out and take as much with them as they could, or torch the entire place.

The first option, given Janus’ attitude and approach thus far, seemed most likely. There was only one practical way out of the area in which the safe-house was located, and Query was close enough to that road now to pick off anyone who tried to flee with potential evidence. Given the likely timing of them knowing things had gone to shit, Janus telling them to evacuate when the road was probably being watched didn’t strike Query as a likely option. However, if Janus thought the safe-house might have any incriminating evidence in it, the place might end up rigged to blow or might already be burning, with a strike team in the woods waiting for Query’s arrival.

One way to find out, he thought, and decided to override the navigational controls for Pidwidgeon—which had been circling Janus’ place in the woods for several minutes—to remotely land him here, then hide him away somewhere for later retrieval, since Query didn’t have the van with him anymore.

Shit planning on my part to have sent Dash and Zoe off with the van so they could cart away the prisoners. Would have been better to leave the thugs in the woods for a while. I’ve burned too much of Pidwidgeon’s fuel already to feel 100 percent confident about letting him go home on autopilot anyway, and this sedan I’ve commandeered is stuffed with gear I needed from the van, so the drone will never fit in there.

Then Query paused in his thoughts. OK, Screw the regret, he chastised himself. I’m going to look on the bright side. I’d rather download Pidwidgeon’s data directly in this case rather than by wireless, anyway, just in case Janus’ men at the safe-house are both more talented and more well-equipped than I think they are.

* * *

Jack Hansen was rarely a man to be left speechless. Quietly snarky and sarcastic, perhaps, but not speechless.

But rarely did anyone expect the president of the United States to show up unannounced in their place of work, even if that place of work was a black-budget government operation. Especially well into the evening hours—though it was a common thing for Dr. Hansen to work late.

I wonder if I should be worried that the president knows my work habits that well and we’ve never met.

“Dr. Hansen,” President Barack Obama said solemnly, holding out his hand to shake but with little cordiality in his expression.

“Mr. President,” Dr. Hansen said, shaking the president’s hand and looking back and forth behind the chief executive of the United States.

“I’ve left my Secret Service detail elsewhere, doctor,” the president said as their hands disengaged, noting his confusion. “That’s not the easiest thing to make happen, but you and I need to speak privately.”

Dr. Hanson nodded and led the president to his office. “What can I do for you?” he asked when they were behind the closed door.

“You can tell me personally what you’re doing here and what I should know about that General Alexander won’t want me to know. More importantly, you can start by answering one simple question: Is this where Doctor Holiday was created?” the president asked.

“No, sir. There’s no connection…”

“…let me try this one more time, doctor,” President Obama said, cutting him off. “Think of this as a baseball game and remember what happens if you get to strike three. Did the Genesis One lab create Doctor Holiday?”

Dr. Hansen paused, stunned as surely as a deer caught in headlights. There was something in the president’s tone that clearly spoke of awareness of the deception, and all Dr. Hansen could think of was, Who’s the leak? and What’s going to happen to me? Finally, the head of Genesis One sighed and said, “Yes.”

“Why?”

“First, Mr. President, I am begging you not to tell the general. He was only trying to protect your plausible deniability and if he knows I’ve snatched that away…”

“…I’ll deal with the general soon enough,” the president interrupted, then repeated: “Why?”

“We didn’t create him intentionally—not the twisted way he turned out, that is. The goal was completely laudable; the results were unexpected. When he escaped—well, we had assumed he’d have been neutralized long before now. The scope of his powers are far beyond what we expected. You see, what…”

“…No, doctor. I don’t have time for details. I’ll get those from the general, unless he wants to lose his job, his commission and his freedom. I want a simple answer to my next question, and this time you only get one chance to answer it honestly. Are we going to end up with another Doctor Holiday?”

“No, sir,” Dr. Hansen said. “Well, vanishingly improbable, anyway. There were specific characteristics of that subject that even made the experiment possible. To attempt it on anyone else—including the effort it would take to find someone suitable and do so secretly—would cost an amount of money we’d never be able to lay hands on.”

“I have serious reservations about this program, doctor, and about the selection and retention process for the subjects.” There was a hard edge to the president’s voice now, a tone that was vaguely menacing. “I’m trying to quit smoking, not have new reasons to do more of it.”

“Mr. President, all of the subjects are either voluntary or had no right of refusal to begin with,” Dr. Hansen hurriedly explained. “This is an ultra-secret facility but nothing we do here crosses the lines of any existing national security policies.”

“What about ethical lines, doctor?”

“Ordering targeted assassinations or unseating regimes crosses ethical lines,” Dr. Hansen pointed out a bit defensively, “but those have been done before and I’d wager the same or similar things have been done at your command. Sir, this facility is not about turning people into monsters or using them as disposable guinea pigs. Our efforts are often harsh and unpleasant, but focused. We’re trying to stay ahead of nations like China, sir, or at least not fall so far behind them that we end up as potential victims of potentially hostile powers with armies of transhumans.”

“I’m going to tell you something, doctor, so that there is no confusion from here on out, and so that we don’t have any miscommunication,” the president said. “Don’t ever lie to me. That one time tonight is the last time. Lie again, and you’re through—and I don’t just mean you’ll be out of a job. I am going to keep tabs on Genesis One and will be contacting you frequently, in person. If you lie to me, I will know.”

“You’re…transhuman yourself…aren’t you, sir?” Dr. Hansen asked hesitantly.

“If you even suggest to anyone—if you even talk out loud to yourself about it, whisper it into the ear of a dog or discuss it with a vase of flowers—that I am transhuman, you and Jimmy Hoffa will suddenly have a lot in common,” the president said. “My own wife doesn’t know, and the only reason I’m telling you is because of what you do here. I need you to know how personally I will take any indiscretion committed here. But yes, I can tell when people lie. I got to the Oval Office on skill, but remember when I made my first appearance on the national stage—me, a relative political unknown giving the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention? I got the chance to give that speech thanks to a lie I caught the convention chairman in months earlier.”

For a minute or so, they sat in silence. Finally, Dr. Hansen cleared his throat. “Mr. President, if you can tell when people are lying, why do you keep making deals with the Republicans in Congress when they insist they are willing to work with you?”

For the first time, the president cracked a smile, following by a low chuckle. “Because believe it or not, most of them think they’re being honest when they say they’re reasonable and want to work with my party,” he answered. “That’s just how out-of-touch crazy they are since I got elected. I don’t know what’s worse in this country these days: messed-up racial attitudes or mistrust of transhumans. But I know which one is giving me most of my gray hairs and aging me way too fast in this job.”

* * *

Peregrine touched ground, as sleek and graceful as her namesake animal. She’d skipped the full-head hawk mask tonight and instead her eyes and forehead were done up in an elaborate feather pattern with makeup while a dark brown ninja-like mask covered most of the lower portion of her face and the sides of her head. As she came to a stop and approached, Query said, “That’s all of us. Gather ‘round.”

“Good turnout,” Feral commented, adjusting his fur mask and scratching one sweaty, bared pectoral—Query was pretty sure the man had run most of the way here since he hadn’t arrived in a car or on a motorcycle as Buttress had; chances were the man was exploring his wild side in the woods and that’s why he was so close and ready for action when Query contacted him. “Hard to get this many of us to show up in one place.”

“I think we’ve all gotten a sense of how dangerous letting Janus go unchecked in our city will be,” said Buttress, wearing the full-head brown leather mask that was his staple, but a light, brown canvas coat over his flak vest rather than his usual leather one in deference to the early-summer weather. “Surprised there aren’t a few more.”

“Well, it remains to see how smoothly we’ll work together,” Query noted, considering what it said about transhuman psychology that four of them working together could be considered a sizable group.  “But I give credit for the good turnout to my charming personality and winning attitude.”

Buttress was helping Peregrine get her glider wings folded and retracted into the pack she wore, and Query noted silently how the squat, muscular man seemed to know exactly how the glider system worked. Certainly, it would save time compared to Peregrine taking the unit off her back to do it herself, but mostly Query filed the observation away as another bit of evidence that Buttress and Peregrine were probably spending a lot of time together, and not just patrolling. He’d long suspected they’d casually hooked up shortly after Peregrine and Asclepius broke up—now he suspected they were a full-fledged couple, even if they weren’t obvious about it.

They’d almost have to be for Buttress to know those wings so well, since she’s only had them for a little over six months, he considered. Designed by Boeing aerospace engineers with assistance from Julian Gregori for the aesthetic and comfort side of the equation. United Airlines had picked up most of the bill on five of those babies for Peregrine in return for a three-year deal under which she would endorse their airline, do some celebrity spokesperson touring and do several commercials for them. For Boeing, it might mean some good military money coming in soon, since they had retained marketing and commercialization rights as their payoff for doing the work, and the wings seemed to be working splendidly for getting Peregrine around town by air, with some impressive glide times and maneuverability.

Of course, they won’t be of any use for what he and his short-term team gathered here would need to do, Query considered, and they might even end up as adornment for her corpse if he wasn’t careful.

“We have any intel on these guys, Query?” Feral prodded. “What’s the backstory? What’s the problem?”

“Can’t be 100-percent certain about numbers, but I think there are between eight and ten armed men in a few cabins down the road here,” he answered. “Janus was trying to abduct a transhuman civilian; I’ve been protecting her. He snatched her, I sent Mad Dash to intercept, she busted loose and killed her kidnappers before he got there and then Dash and I took down the team of seven that came looking for their little lost pair. Right now, Dash is keeping her safe and transporting the captured crew to a proper destination.”

“You had seven prisoners and…”

“…I had five. I killed two before I warmed to the idea of merciful justice.”

“OK, five prisoners and you aren’t sure how many more we’re facing? You’ve lost your interrogation touch, Query,” Feral taunted.

“My ‘client’ put the kibosh on me using more coercive tactics, but she did convince them to give up the location of their hideout. However, when I was loading folks in the van I did manage to whisper a few sweet-nothings to one of them and bend back a finger and jab a few select nerve bundles with just the right finesse for him to tell me there were ‘at least four or five’ guys at their safe-house. What my client doesn’t know won’t hurt her—and it wasn’t technically torture.”

“So where do you get the ‘eight to ten’ estimate?” Buttress asked.

“Partly from my experience with human nature. The guy wanted me dead so of course he’d lowball the number a bit, knowing he’d be far from me by the time I found out otherwise,” Query noted. “Also, I had a drone circling above them for a bit and there were six people outside working to lay mimetic explosive devices at the two most direct approaches we could take for an assault, and I saw movement at two windows—probably lookouts with rifles. Figured there could be two more who are just not moving much. There are only a few modest-sized cabins there and a couple storage sheds, and since they sent seven guys to find their missing folks and originally planned to bring a prisoner and two more people in for a little while, which would have made maybe 20 people staying there…well, even Janus doesn’t give his people the sardine treatment.”

“So, what’s the plan?” Buttress asked.

“Feral approaches one set of explosives while Buttress approaches the other, and I sneak in to gas and flash-bomb their asses a bit, Peregrine comes in low, fast and quiet from the rear, then we rush them old-school style,” Query said.

“What if we step on the explosives and ‘go boom’ while you’re skulking?” Buttress countered, and Query saw Peregrine wince at that image, confirming his suspicions about them.

“Follow my directions, and you won’t—I’ll place some fluorescent markers on the ground about 15 yards from the MEDs before I go in, so that you’ll know when to slow down and get ready for an end-around run when the shit hits the fan. I should be able to keep them dazed and confused long enough for your extra travel time not to be a problem.”

“What if they shoot us with their rifles when they see us coming toward the explosives?” Feral asked.

“Would you bother to use MEDs so that they’re perfectly camouflaged for folks to trip over and die without you needing to aim and then wreck it all by taking a chance you’ll miss with bullets and warn them off?” Query asked.

“Actually, I’d probably drop from the trees and rip their throats out, but that’s just me,” Feral said.

“Keep all the throats intact if possible, please,” Query said. “I’m trying to keep my body count down.”

“It would be my body count and you can just deny involvement later,” Feral noted. “I’m ready. Let’s go already and kick ass.”

“Wait,” Peregrine said. “I have some thoughts.”

“If they involve you stripping down naked and going in with your wings all out like a Victoria’s Secret angel and a pizza in your hand to distract them at the door, I’m all for it,” Feral said.

Query saw Buttress twitch at that, and one set of fingers curl into a fist—then his shoulders tensing as if to charge. Query straightened up, lifted his head up fully and fixed his gaze at a point between Feral and Buttress so that neither one would feel targeted but both might wonder if Query’s words were meant for him alone. “This is not the time or place for that bullshit. Don’t put me in a position to fight allies when I have real enemies to deal with. Peregrine, what’s on your mind?”

“Do you have video from your drone you can show me?” she asked.

“Sure do. On my iPad in the car.”

“Show and tell, then,” she said, a sort of sassy smugness creeping into her voice. “You show me, and I tell my idea.”

* * *

Trust me, Peregrine had said.

But for Query, trust was hard—particularly trusting that some else’s plan might be better than his own. Or, rather, her adjustments to his plan.

Still, he moved in stealthily as Buttress and Feral inched closer to the explosives that would have been damned hard to locate even with flashlights, given that they were designed to take on the color of the ground around them.

He waited.

He waited some more, maybe a minute past the appointed time, and started to get that itchy feeling. Anxious and ready to strike. Worried that he’d misplaced his trust.

Worried that the extra 15 minutes they’d tacked on to his plan already to do it Peregrine’s way might lead to more trouble rather than put them in a better tactical position and cause their enemies to grow complacent.

Then he saw her, and the poetic part of Query’s mind wanted to write lyrics to describe the sight.

He’d never have imagined that jumping off the very low hill near the cabins would have been enough altitude to pull off this maneuver, but she descended raptor-like from above, the white accents of the mostly black and blue-gray feather patterns on her glider wings reflecting the moonlight, and then angled her body almost sinuously as she veered toward the roof of one cabin, dropping a pair of tear-gas grenades perfectly down the chimney.

Then her feet just barely touched the roof, and with a few tiny running steps and one big push at the edge of the cabin, she was up in the air again, going up and then diving downward to swoop past the front windows of another cabin and toss in three flashbang grenades Query had given her.

She had a fourth flashbang but held tight to that as she touched ground, shed her wings while running, and tossed it into the third cabin, rolling for cover as she did.

There’s no way—no matter how good those glider wings are—that she should have been able to pull that off, he considered. That she’s an Acro is no secret, and I’ve long suspected she’s a Primal as well, but her gliding prowess suggests to me she’s an Eco, too. Able to manipulate air currents, perhaps? Slightly reduce the pull of gravity on her? Both?

The lightshow from the flashbangs was the signal for Feral and Buttress to move in. Query did his part, heading straight for the cabin where noxious fumes were wafting from the windows—the cabin farthest back of all them. He approached warily from one corner of the structure, did a quick check through one slightly open window from an angle, and then smashed the panes in with the butt of his shotgun, immediately turning it, aiming through the window, and firing at the one man who was standing and seemed most unfazed by the tear gas.

The shell burst open to release a tight cloud of rubber-covered metal shot that was meant to have much the same non-lethal impact as rock salt from a shotgun, but with more punch. The man stumbled backwards, unbalanced but—as Query noted—also wearing a vest, so likely not stunned. However, as he tripped over his own feet, he fell back against the mantle of the tear-gas-exuding fireplace that had taken down his partners, and went down as his skull cracked loudly against the heavy wooden surface.

Query ducked under the window, came upright on the other side of it, and kicked in the door.

Or tried to, anyway. The doorjamb cracked and the door gave a little, but remained closed as he hissed “Shitterific!” and kicked it again. The door flew open and Query stepped in quickly. There was a man on his knees, hacking and eyes watering. Wearing a mask with a respirator, Query was able to leisurely take aim with the shotgun’s stock and crack the man in the head where it was most likely to keep him down a while. A quick scan of the cabin and some exploration of the bathroom, bedroom and two closets yielded no other foes, and he quickly bound his two vanquished opponents. Then he strode out of the cabin, moving quickly toward the next-nearest building, to which Feral had been assigned.

I’d better assist the loose cannon, he considered. Even though the final cabin only got one flashbang tossed in, at least Buttress is a Tank, so he’s strong and resistant to harm—plus he’ll have Peregrine as backup.

* * *

Buttress didn’t bother with finesse. Peregrine already had out her twin batons, each weighted at one end with a small mace-like head and an falcon-claw-shaped rake at the other, and she was headed toward a closed window, getting ready to smash it in and likely dive through it. So he hit the front door with a full charge and took it straight off its hinges. As he cut to the right upon entering, he felt a bit of instant gratification as the door slammed into one of the combatants, and she stumbled and tripped, dropping her gun. A nearby comrade heard the shattering of the window and turned to deal with that.

His stomach knotted as he saw the gun aim straight for the window. But Peregrine didn’t come through, to both his surprise and the potential assailant’s. Instead, she flashed by the now doorless entry and to the other window, diving straight through it. Buttress rushed the gun-wielding man he’d feared would shoot her, realizing that somehow he had managed to avoid being stunned or blinded by the grenade, possibly by having been in the bedroom or bathroom when it went off. The man tried to bring his gun to bear on Buttress but the hero grabbed his wrist and crushed every bone in it with almost no effort. As the man screamed, Buttress punched him three times in the face with his left hand and the man went down hard. As the woman who had been struck by the door got to her feet and reached for her gun, Buttress got her into a headlock and then applied a chokehold.

While he cut off the flow of blood and oxygen to her brain and waited for her to pass out, he saw Peregrine land a couple stomping kicks to the gut of someone on the floor, whom Buttress could only imagine she’d taken down seconds earlier with a roundhouse kick or a high-kick, both of them signature moves for her.

Once the woman caught in his grip was unconscious, he gave Peregrine a quick, hard kiss and then they tied up the trio, heading out toward the sounds of gunshots and shouting.

* * *

Query’s arrival at the middle cabin was greeted by a pair of bullets whizzing through one window—probably strays since they were headed at an angle away from him. He slid into the ground underneath that window, crawled past the mostly closed door and huddled under the next window, listening to the cacophony of shots being fired.

He could make out swearing and threats—Feral’s voice—and figured that at least two and perhaps three people were shooting at him.

That makes no sense, Query thought. With three stun grenades having been tossed in there, Feral should have an easy cleanup, not a shootout.

Query popped his head up twice in quick succession to survey the scene through the bottom part of the window, then whispered, “Dammit.”

He had seen three people out of it on the ground and two firing at Feral from behind cover. The vigilante-hero was pinned down, using a couch and coffee table as cover, while his assailants made use of a barricade consisting of a large maple table and a sturdy wardrobe-style cabinet that they had pushed over onto the floor.

Taking cover again, Query tried to sort out what little he had seen of the two shooters.

A man and a woman, him shirtless and wearing a riot helmet and her with a shoulder bared and her top only half on, with a vest haphazardly thrown over her torso, he thought. Damn…they had been taking a break in the bedroom behind a closed door doing things Janus would probably string them up by their nethers for doing while on the clock. All the flashbangs did for them was alert them to trouble.

Clearly, the extra time Query and his team had taken had made at least some of them complacent. The unfortunate part is that if this pair was able to go have a tryst without catching shit from the other three, one or both of them were probably in charge. And Janus didn’t put people in charge who weren’t skilled.

And overconfidence on their part by taking time out for a quickie doesn’t mean they aren’t deadly, Query reminded himself.

Not having drawn any fire yet, Query risked another peek through the window to assess Feral. The man was bleeding heavily from one temple. Given how bloody even minor flesh wounds to the head could be, it might be nothing. On the other hand, it would be triggering Feral’s more violent instincts, and he might shrug off blood loss and other injuries to keep on fighting—to his own risk and possible demise. He also appeared to have a shoulder wound, though it was hard to tell if that was from a bullet or perhaps catching a corner of the coffee table as he dove for cover earlier.

That extra glance revealed his position, though, and he felt several bullets strike the wall where he was hunched. One penetrated the wood and sizzled past his leg, grazing his thigh and leaving a hot line of pain behind.

Without hesitation, he rolled away to brace his back against the corner of the cabin, where they were less likely to aim and the bullets less likely to penetrate.

Query glanced over at the side window near him—closed and with curtains drawn. It tempted him, but he knew by the time he was able to break it and clear away the visual obstructions, he’d be riddled with bullets. His armored vest would probably protect his torso, but his head, throat and limbs might not make it through the ordeal. He caught sight of Buttress and Peregrine making their way toward the cabin and gave them a hand signal to stop and duck low. He held up three fingers and pantomimed sleeping to indicate three were down at the moment, and then held up two fingers and pantomimed a gun with his thumb and index finger. Both of them nodded, and then they leaned their faces close to one another’s. Not going for a kiss, Query figured, but probably discussing a plan of action. He considered calling or texting one of them to coordinate, but Feral probably wouldn’t hold out much longer. So he caught their attention one last time to signal he was going around the back of the cabin, and then set off.

His hope dimmed when he made it to the back wall and the window of the bedroom where the two shooters—apparently with no shortage of ammunition considering how long they’d been firing—had presumably tried to get their freak on while their three comrades remained in the main room. They had shoved a dresser and the bed up against the window, already having anticipated someone might try to gain entry there.

I could get past it easily enough, but not without announcing my arrival with all the subtlety of a bucking bull in a china shop.

He looked with dismay at the small window to the bathroom. He could remove it quickly and quietly enough, but he’d have to shed his vest, shoulder rigs and duster and leave the shotgun behind to shimmy through the small aperture—and then just barely fit. If he made the slightest racket, he’d be a sitting duck and get his head blown off.

Well, today’s a good day to die, I guess, he decided, and got to work, removing the window before he removed his coat and armor, just in case someone came gunning for him while he was occupied. Once he was down to his unitard, he propped the shotgun against the wall in the hopes of reaching down for it afterward.

Halfway through the window, his foot tapped the stock of the firearm, and he heard it slide to the ground, swearing silently as it did. No gun now but a tiny Beretta strapped to his ankle, against two people with automatic weapons and probably more besides.

Query could still hear Feral shouting epithets, and counted that as one bright spot, at least—I’m not too late, anyway, and a storm of bullets haven’t been fired into this tiny deathtrap of a room I’ve entered.

Taking a deep breath, Query quietly gripped the doorknob and then turned it quickly and shoved it open. Both heads turned as he came through, and Query launched himself at the pair. The woman rolled out of the way, suddenly tangled in some table linens but quickly working to extricate herself and bring her gun to bear.

As the man swung his weapon around, Query batted it away with his left hand—his dominant hand, as it happened, so he had maximum coordination and force behind the swiping strike. At the same time, he slapped the palm of his right-hand glove against the man’s neck and pressed a small button near the base of his index finger. A small ampoule in the red exclamation mark on that black glove shot forth, extending a needle as it did. The paralytic venom acted almost instantaneously and the man went down.

Query turned immediately to face his other opponent and also stepped to the side, toward the bathroom, in case he needed to take very temporary cover. A sputtering stream of bullets whizzed by him and he had visions of being cut in half in moments by the armor-piercing rounds when a dark blur bounded over the top of the barricade Janus’ minions had been using. Query shouted “Fuck!” as blood sprayed against him, Feral laying into the woman with his clawed gloves, slashing at her and beating her. Between his enhanced strength as a Brute and the fury-fueled savagery that was both the blessing and the curse of his particular brand of Primal abilities, he was making short and bloody work of her. She was dead before Query could even get a grip on what was happening.

Not wanting to get in the path of Feral in full bloodlust mode, Query vaulted over the barricade. Then he remembered the temporarily paralyzed man back there with Feral—not to mention the fact the vigilante wasn’t likely to be any more calm when he came back out of there after being driven temporarily mad by serious injuries and the prolonged anxiety of being pinned down by gunfire—and he swore fiercely before leaping back over and slapping Feral on the neck with one the last two doses of toxin in his glove. Feral backhanded him and Query spun almost all the way around, then completed the circle of his own volition and slapped Feral with the final dose.

Finally, with a shudder and a sudden seizing of his limbs, Feral went limp as the double-dose overcame his powers. His eyes were still wild, though, and Query bound him thrice over with nylon ties—both hand and foot—and then slapped a pair of handcuffs on him for good measure.

When he went back over the barricade, one of the three stunned minions was mostly recovered and reaching for a gun when Peregrine leaped in and took him down with a blow to the back of his head with one of her batons. She looked at Query, who said, quietly, “All clear now. I need some damn air. Tie everyone up please.”

As Buttress came in shortly behind Peregrine, Query remembered the man had experience as a field medic and asked him to grab the gear left behind the house. When he returned, Query fished a small first aid packet out of a hidden pocket in his duster, told Buttress to tend to Feral, and then stepped out into the moonlit night.

He considered two lives taken tonight at his own hand—not so much in self-defense as in a pre-emptive strike. Thought about Zoe’s own two kills she hadn’t even consciously sought, which were because of him. And now another person indirectly dead because of him; dead in large part because he’d used Zoe to get this close to Janus.

As he pulled the bottom of his mask up, pushed the respirator aside and took a deep, shuddering breath of warm night air, he gazed solemnly and reverently at a wide puddle in which the moon was beautifully reflected—a thing of lunar wonder on which he promptly vomited.

If I wasn’t my own boss—and an asshole boss at that, he thought as he looked at the second-hand gore covering him, reminded of Zoe’s own bloody clothing, I’d quit after this shit tonight.

Instead, he pulled his mask back on and went to try to figure out what he was going to do with Feral for now, as well as determine where to start in his search for evidence and answers on this grim little battlefield.

[ – To view the next chapter, click here – ]
_____________________________________________________
Bird makeup imagery from a photoset of makeup artist Linda Truong.

The fur mask thumbnail pic is, I think, from a photo by Bart Hess.

I know I ruminated and even fretted slightly in this recent post about whether my characters might be too derivative of other iconic or even obscure comic book characters. (You know, I just realized Mad Dash is perhaps a kind of a mash-up of the Flash and the Creeper).

Today, I wanted to talk about real-world influences.

That is, people in my actual life, directly or peripherally, who influence my characters in the world of the Whethermen.

The first appearance of Query was something my son Rory (@yomilo on Twitter) immediately realized was an homage to him. First, Query is somewhat Batman-like, and that is Rory’s favorite comic hero. Second, the first name we see associated with Query is Milo Phillips. Milo is the name Rory took on at Twitter and as his hip-hop performing monicker (based on the boy who is the main character in The Phantom Tollbooth). Phillips is derived both from one of his middle names as well as the first name of his biological dad. Query’s real name is Alan Millos and the Alan part is Rory’s other middle name, with Millos clearly pulling from Milo again. Even the seldom-mentioned Nigel Roy identity for Query was a kind of in-joke—Sir Nigel Calabash having been an Ultima Online character we dreamed up and Roy being the most common way people screw up Rory’s first name.

But even beyond the name-game, certain of Query’s personality traits owe to my son. Query has musical interests and performs hip-hop in underground and local circles, like Rory does. He literally never sleeps (and Rory has a talent for going to bed very late, whereas I take that up a notch by staying up late and still getting up early-ish). He can be very introverted but also fiercely loyal to true friends. His private thoughts are sometimes a significant source of pain, as well as motivation.

At the same time, Query has some of me in him. Middle-aged and willing to throw down hard when pushed to the wall, sarcastic and somehow both cynical and hopeful. Also, I think I have a knack for sorting out complex situations and figuring out people’s motivations, but for me it takes days or sometimes weeks, and Query’s much quicker than that.

The character Cole Alderman, who now has a codename finally (Quantum) is based in part on one of Rory’s friends, Alexander Kollman (@S_afari_Al on Twitter). Again, there’s a pretty obvious name twist going on, but I also based some of Cole’s history loosely on the early life of Alex. Early on, having been inspired by the web site that Rory and several friends started (The Whethermen’s Union, which sadly has apparently gone into perhaps a permanent hiatus), I had hoped to integrate some of his buddies into the “Tales of the Whethermen” mythos.

Only one person really came forward to give me some insight into himself, and that was Alex. I don’t know that Cole much resembles Alex as he is now (I don’t know him well enough), but even so, working in some of the feelings and struggles Alex had in high school and even before gave me a rich start for Cole’s backstory.

Zoe Dawson is based on my six-year-old daughter and my wife, in certain respects. First, Zoe was one of the top three names on our short list for her when she was born (though it didn’t make the final cut). But also, Zoe has an incessant need to confront people and to be the one who’s “right,” which is something about my six-year-old that I both respect and get irritated by. Zoe’s tendency to push her rage and irritation inward is something I remember all too well from my wife’s younger years. But also, Zoe is someone who stands strong and tries to solve her own problems, which I very much respect in my wife. Also, my wife had locs (some call them dreadlocks) for several years, and that was an inspiration for Zoe’s hairdo.

Finally, there is Janus, whom I think may be my evil twin. He is significantly smarter than me and vastly more ambitious, but we share a similar temperament. Most who know me well would, I think, characterize me as largely unflappable even in the face of extreme stress. I just don’t tend to get anxious or worked up, though I can be pretty irritated at problems that won’t go away. However, I think those same people would admit that if you put me in a situation where multiple things are going to hell-in-a-handbasket or someone I love is at risk in some way from another person, my anger can peak to some scary levels.

Similarly, Janus tends to be outwardly unfazed (and inwardly, too, for the most part) by crap going on around him. The twist, though, is that my calm is more Zen-like and constructive, whereas Janus plots insidious things calmly. And when his anger flares on those rare occasions he is pushed beyond his tolerance point, he’s likely to get medieval on some asses in a Spanish Inquisition kind of way, which isn’t really my style.

So, for what’s it’s worth, there you have it: How the real people around me inform the people I create out of thin air.

Next chapter of “The Gathering Storm” will likely post tomorrow. Certainly no later than Saturday.

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

She’d known he was coming—she’d been alerted by phone.

But apparently he’d also been warned she was on edge.

All for the best, Zoe supposed, as she heard a twig snap in the distance and a youthful, jovial voice calling out amiably, “Fringe, not foe!” as Mad Dash came into sight. The mask he wore—revealing only his nose, cheeks, mouth and chin and sporting almost comically large dark yellow goggles—was only slightly less grin-inducing than the garish short-coat he wore over his gray-green unitard, which was a medley of different colors, types and shapes of fabric. A sturdy looking coat and well-constructed, but ridiculous as hell, she thought.

God can I use a laugh right now, even if it’s only a chuckle and gone almost as fast as it arrived, Zoe considered, flinging her spent cigarette into the road from the rock on which she sat near the tree line. Before she’d fully exhaled her last lungful of smoke from that butt she was already extracting another one to light.

“Those are terrible for you, you know,” Dash told her when he drew near, though to his credit, Zoe noted, he didn’t wrinkle his nose or wave at the air to disperse the fumes like so many people did when they said something like that. “Your lungfish are going to go belly up in the aquarium if you keep up that habit.”

He delivered the cautionary note so matter-of-factly, without any trace of judgment in his tone, that Zoe decided to forego the usual snide response. “They’re right; you do speak a little odd,” she said. Then she cocked her wrist so that the smoldering cigarette stuck straight up into the air and she pointed at it with the index finger of her other hand. “Bad for me though these may be, they’re the only thing making me feel a little human right now, a little sane right now and a little calm right now. Chain-smoking several butts is phase one. Phase two will be a very long, very hot shower and lots of scrubbing until my skin is raw and any blood I see I know is my own. Phase three would be getting piss-drunk, but I can’t even hardly get a buzz drinking, so I’ll settle for some herbal tea and a warm bed and not getting up for 12 to 15 hours.”

“I didn’t bring a shower. Or tea. Or a bed,” Mad Dash said, though he glanced quickly inside his backpack as if he might find one or all of them in there, while he awkwardly juggled a large and apparently mostly empty soft drink cup from Wendy’s in one hand. He rattled it a little, lifted the lid, and then downed the last swig and let the last few chunks of ice left slide into his mouth. “I have some water bottles left in my backpack and a few snickety-snackedy-munchies,” he mumbled as he crunched the ice. “If you like granola bars and Cliff Bars and stuff.”

“I think I can keep food down now, so a granola bar sounds great,” she responded with a smile. “I’ll make Query come up with the other things to make up for letting me get kidnapped.”

After he handed over the snack and a bottle of water, he paused and then said, “Oh, salmon! Your clothes look like they came from the fall war-refugee fashion line at Macy’s and I should get you a…whoa! I’m so sorry I’m looking at you I just saw a nipple sorry sorry sorry,” he stammered, wrenching off his coat and handing it to Zoe.

“I like you, Madster,” Zoe said as she put her arms through the sleeves and buttoned it up. “You’re weird, but I like you. Chivalry’s not dead, even though your fashion sense might be. Comfy coat, though.”

“Thanks. I make them myself,” Dash said, positively beaming.

“Well, don’t give up your day job, because I think there won’t be many customers for this kind of style. But you’re a Renaissance man, Mad Dash, and you’ll make a fine catch someday.”

“Oh, I’m already the lobster special of the day—got a girlfriend named Honey Badg…hello? Yeah? Querio? Where you at, man? I’m here with Chloe…”

“…Zoe,” she corrected him.

“Zoe,” Dash repeated, and then rattled off a series off a series of “yeah’s” and “uh-huh’s” as his part of the communication with Query.

At least I hope he’s really talking to Query via a Bluetooth or some hidden headset, because I don’t want to find out he has voices in his head, Zoe thought. I can’t deal with shit like that tonight.

Mad Dash paused, then turned to Zoe. “Query says we need to stay put, stay down and don’t get involved with what’s about to happen until he says so.”

“Huh? What?” Zoe sputtered. “No, no, no. Tell Query to call me on my cell phone right now.”

“Says he’s kinda busy setting stuff up.”

“Tell him to call me on my phone right the hell now,” she snarled and then, as if on cue, her phone rang. “Talk to me. What’s gonna happen?”

“Zoe, I need you to trust me right now. I’ve got stuff to do and probably not much time to do it and I just want you and Dash to stay out of the way for now,” Query said.

“Oh no no no no no,” Zoe said, dragging hard on her cigarette and then expelling smoke in a chaotic mass like some angry dragon. “Look, I’ve had a really shit goddamn day and I’m just barely holding it together and you failed to stop them from getting me and I want some damn answers.”

“I take all my jobs very seriously, Zoe, but you’re not being charged for this work,” Query said. “What do you want? A refund check for zero dollars? I’m trying to protect you.”

“And I just killed two guys and some of them is staining my clothes and that’s fucked up and I deserve some answers,” she retorted, her voice sounding angry and anxious all at once. “Plus, if shit is about to go down, I want to know what is going down. Tell me right now or I will walk out into that road and flag down the next car I see.”

“OK, fine. Zoe, they were taking you into the woods. Must mean they have a safe-house somewhere around here. If I were running this operation, I’d have at least a few people waiting there in case there was trouble getting you out of the car. I’ve made some best guesses based on the topography around here and I’ve got some ideas of the most likely places. Also, the guys you zeroed out aren’t able to check in or respond to any communications so chances are Janus and gang will know soon shit’s gone wrong, if they don’t already. I intend to ambush them when they come looking for their friends’ car.”

“How would they find it? You had me drive it off the road.”

“I already figured Janus would likely have all the cars fitted with locators,” Query said. “Pidwidgeon’s on-board sensors have confirmed transmissions from it—someone’s likely monitoring. So I’m going to wait for them to come. I promise I’ll get you out of here. Just sit tight.”

“It’s almost dark already,” she noted.

“I have night vision equipment.”

“We don’t.”

“Dash does. And if things get too hot, and I need you to pitch in, I’ll provide the party lights,” Query said. “I promise. Now find cover, keep quiet and let me do my job. Pretty please. With sugar on top.”

* * *

He was standing in the doorway to her office. Had he been anyone else, Underworld wouldn’t have cared. But she hated him right now, and she was trying not to think of murder right now so that she could get work done. It was way too soon to deal with him again.

Not to mention the fact he never visited other peoples’ office—he summoned them to his. That disturbed her even more.

“I thought we were done after we discussed Odium,” Underworld noted.

“I may have been too quick to praise you for your successful abduction plan,” Janus said, the sourness of his tone mixing in an interesting way with the slightly tinny echo produced by his two-faced helmet.

Underworld said nothing; simply arched one eyebrow.

“We’ve lost contact with the car carrying Zoe,” Janus clarified.

“Where?”

“It was last seen getting ready to get onto Grace Memorial Highway by Breathtaker and the two men in his car when they parted ways.”

“Then I still win,” Underworld said dryly, taking her eyes off him and returning them to the computer monitor.

“How do you figure that?”

“Because if my plan had been flawed, the car would have been stopped or commandeered or whatever long before it got to that point,” she said, still not looking at him. “And the other car, too, for that matter. I assume Breathtaker and the two guys with him are still in contact and running free.”

“Yes.”

“Then the problem isn’t that I had a bad plan or that I failed. The problem isn’t that my hand-picked team got sloppy. The problem is, I suspect, that you picked a fight with Query and he’s still got tricks up his sleeve for keeping tabs on Zoe because this shit is personal and not just business.”

A loud metallic sigh, and them a simple “Hmmmph” from Janus. “I hate it when you’re right,” he said as he walked away. “I think I’ll kill somebody after I finish handling this.”

* * *

A car finally arrived nearly 20 minutes after Query got off the phone with Zoe, stopping very near to where Zoe had driven her abductor’s car behind the tree line. Making some educated guesses about probable locations for any Janus-owned safe-houses out here, Query did some quick calculations about when the car with Zoe might have been expected to arrive at any of those areas, figured their comrades would wait until they were 10 or 15 minutes late to panic, factored in required travel times for those other bad guys to show up here from all the possible locations, and had the sites for Janus’ place in the woods narrowed down to three prime leads.

All while he used the scope on his rifle to size up the three men who were now getting out the car. One of them had a device in hand—probably some kind of receiver/locator—and was likely getting a read on just how far away their missing car was and in which direction it lay. All of them had flashlights; the two guys with Mr. Receiver—as Query had mentally designated the lead guy—had Uzis in hand as well.

If Mad Dash and Zoe were following instructions, they wouldn’t be anywhere near the car and its two corpses right now—wouldn’t be in any spot where the three new arrivals would be scanning the trees with their flashlights.

Hopefully, they’ll also be behind some cover, since Mr. Receiver has clearly figured out where the car is and is now pulling out night vision goggles to look for threats, Query thought. He probably doesn’t really expect any police presence here, or else the car they were seeking wouldn’t be out of sight. But he might be expecting a trap of some other sort. As well he should.

Mr. Receiver even took a long, slow look at the other side of the road, where Query had found a tiny hillock to give himself just a bit of high ground. Query didn’t flinch; the modified portable hunter’s blind he had set up in front of himself would block his heat signature and look like a rock or bush to the night-vision goggles. The barrel of his rifle like some branch.

The man was very thorough in taking stock of his surroundings; his companions were very vigilant in watching his back.

And Query’s trigger finger was feeling quite itchy.

But it was too soon. He trusted his instincts and waited for what he expected—for what he would have done in their place.

And so it was that a second new car arrived on the scene some five minutes after the first one, pulling off to the side a bit farther up the road. For a moment, Query considered waiting some more for a third car, but that was just getting paranoid. So he simply waited until the new quartet of men started walking toward the trio, pulling night vision goggles on as they did.

Odds are that the first team will be going down to check out the car and team two is here to give them some additional protection.

About 10 meters from the trio, the quartet’s tight formation began to fragment just the slightest amount as one man slowed a little, and Query knew that was the point one of them would stop, as the other three would continue on and each stop in turn so they could fan out for the best coverage and ability to kill anyone coming at them from the woods. The two armed men from the original trio were already keeping watch on the road from near the edge of the trees.

Since Query knew the most dangerous threats were getting into position, he decided there was no time like the present to prevent them from getting organized.

While the newest arrivals were still clustered relatively closely to one another, he said into his headset, very softly, “Dash, in 10 seconds the first three guys are yours—take them alive,” and then fired off five shots in rapid succession at the group of newcomers.

The first bullet entered the skull of the man who had just stopped walking. The second bullet went through the throat of the man nearest him, who likely would have been the next to stop in a few more meters. Figuring the time for piling up corpses had come to an end, the fourth and fifth bullets took the third man’s ability to shoot and to run with a bullet in his gun arm and another in one thigh.

Naturally, Query thought, the fourth guy would be alert enough and agile enough to take cover.

Query set down his rifle, picked up a grenade launcher not much larger than the Uzis that Janus’ men were carrying, and said into his headset, “Wait, Dash. Close your eyes until you hear two booms, then hit them.”

Query fired two flashbang grenades just past the roof of the original trio’s car, where his quarry had taken cover, one near the front of the car and the other near the trunk. A loud “whump” and another a second or two later accompanied two bursts of bright light and then Query was bounding down the hillock and toward the road.

He wasn’t trying to beat Dash—no sense in trying that anyway and there was a bit of cleanup work yet. Once he had sprinted across the road, he walked to the man he had shot in the arm and thigh and pepper-sprayed him in the eyes and mouth before quickly binding his hands to his ankles with nylon ties, then continued around the front of the trio’s car, confirmed that his target there was stunned insensate, and quickly bound him as well. He did his best to focus on the task at hand and not react to the sounds of shouting and running so close to him; did his best to be as quick as he could without rushing. Then when he was done, squatting behind his place of cover, he closed his eyes and let his ears sort thing out.

Feet running through the dirt, twigs and rocks—faster than a normal person’s. Mad Dash was still moving. Voices calling out to each other and swearing—only two, though, so Dash had likely taken one man out. Shots fired, but none of them in the direction where Query was huddled against the car, so the remaining pair was clearly too focused on Dash to think about or deal with their other threat: Query.

Query opened his eyes and stood, taking out a tangler. He was just in time to see Mad Dash do a furious high-speed zig-zag through the trees, sliding finally as if trying to beat a ball thrown to home plate and slamming into the legs of one of Janus’ men, who went down about as hard as one might expect when being hit at about 35 or 40 miles per hour.

I know Dash’s unitard is padded and/or lightly armored in places like the thighs and ass, but that costume’s likely going to be a goner and Dash is going to be sporting some rather bloody scrapes, Query thought.

The last man, seeing his comrade go down and realizing he was alone now, was already headed for the car and an attempted getaway, but came to a startled halt as he saw Query.

“Evenin’,” Query said, casually throwing the tangler at the man’s legs and smiling as the sticky tendrils burst out and then contracted back on themselves. The man wobbled for several seconds and finally fell over in a heap. Query tossed a small plastic bag of nylon ties to Mad Dash to restrain these last three men and added to the man on the ground at his feet: “You just relax while I make sure those two friends of yours are really dead and decide whether to make all of the rest of you the same way—only much slower.”

* * *

Underworld was finally in a decent frame of mind again—she’d done a quick set of breathing exercises and a few calming yoga poses and was finally able to get back to the work she needed to finish for phase one of her and Janus’ team expansion plans.

It was, therefore, very disheartening to her when a person burst through the door to her office, ran all the way to her desk and jumped over it, pushing by her legs and then crawling underneath it.

Underworld looked down to see a completely tattooed face staring up from between her legs, and resisted the urge to make any number of snide and risqué comments to the woman huddled underneath her large maple desk and only inches from her lap. She was less able, however, to control the flood of irrationally joyous feelings over the fact that Crazy Jane was near her, though she was pretty sure she managed to keep those feelings from showing on her face.

Crazy Jane’s eyes were wide and earnest as she looked up at Underworld. “If Janus comes looking for me, I’m not here. Please don’t tell him. Please say you don’t know where I am.”

Keeping her eyes fixed at a point she could see both her doorway and Jane in her peripheral vision, Underworld said quietly, “He’ll know if I’m lying. He always knows.”

“Not always,” Crazy Jane. “Not when he’s enraged. It doesn’t work when he’s really mad. That’s when he can’t do that and that’s also when he can do other things. That’s why I need to hide. He’s furious.”

“You do something naughty?”

“No, but Query did,” Crazy Jane answered. “At least I think it’s Query. We’ve lost contact with the team sent out to find out what happened to the car Zoe was in.”

“I don’t think you have to worry, Jane,” Underworld said soothingly. “If you got out of Janus’ way, he’ll likely find some staff member to take it out on. Pretty unlikely he’ll come to my floor looking for trouble, much less looking for you.”

“Thank you, Undie,” Crazy Jane said, and Underworld almost teared up at the sincerity in the younger woman’s voice. “Sometimes, we girls have to stick together, right?”

Underworld simply nodded.

“Can I stay here a while, just in case?”

Underworld nodded again.

“You know, while I’m down here I could give you a foot rub. I’m really goooooood.”

“Oh, what the hell,” Underworld said after a few moments of consideration. “Why not? Girls sticking together, right?”

This time is was Crazy Jane’s turn to nod. And to smile as well.

As Underworld settled in to get her admittedly aching feet pampered a little, she smiled, and not just at the wonderful feeling of having knots and kinks worked out of her toes and soles. She smiled as well as getting some unexpected intelligence about Janus.

I’ve long suspected his ability to tell when a person lies was gender-specific, since he only ever stresses to women that he can tell when they’re not speaking the truth, she thought, but I never realized it was tied to his mood, too. And Jane’s reference to “other things” makes me think perhaps Janus has two sets of powers: one for when he’s calm or relatively so, and one for when he’s not. Makes sense when you consider he named himself after a two-faced god.

Suddenly, being Crazy Jane’s friend, willingly or not, didn’t seem like such a bad thing.

* * *

Two corpses had been added to the pair already in the car with the ruined trunk. The five surviving members of Janus’ team were well past the tree line now and all of them bound and gagged. The two other cars were now parked near each other by the side of the road and a little closer to the tree line.

Query walked back toward Mad Dash and Zoe from those cars, after having left Mad Dash’s backpack on the trunk of one of them and a few scattered granola bars on the hood of the other, along with a jacket and a pair of shoes and socks from one of the dead men

“Why did you do that?” Zoe asked.

“To make it look like they pulled over to do a little wandering and hanging out, instead of looking like they need help. Less likely that a state trooper will check things out if a cruiser happens down the road, and regular drivers will be even less likely to stop and look at things,” Query answered, looking over each man in captivity as if assessing and comparing each one, and then setting down a small tool case he had brought back with him.

“What now?” Zoe asked, fiddling with her bright orange disposable lighter nervously.

“You and Dash will go to my van parked a couple hundred yards down the road and head to a safe-house I have near Fishmonger’s Wharf. Dash knows where it is. You can clean up and you should be able to find some clothes that’ll fit you, Zoe. Have a decent meal, too, if your stomach can handle it. Watch some DVDs or listen to some music. Get some sleep. Dash’ll keep you company there until I’m finished. If I’m not there by dawn, chances are I’m dead and Dash will know who to call to get your situation as sorted out as possible.”

“What about them?” Zoe asked, nodding toward the captive men.

“Don’t worry about them. I have that covered.”

Zoe looked at the case at his feet, and then stared down his concealed eyes behind the black mask for several seconds. She walked up to him, pointed to the red question mark on the mask over his mouth—her finger just inches from it—and said, “Your name is Query; I just asked a question.”

“I ask questions; I rarely like answering them,” Query said coldly.

“You’ll answer mine,” she said, nervous at his tone but reminding herself it was probably bluster to get her to leave—and reminding herself that even if she was wrong, she was hardly powerless. “What are you going to do with them?”

Query sighed behind his mask, and Zoe imagined that his eyes were probably rolling behind it as well. “Zoe, I’m going to ask these fine gentlemen where their little hideout in the woods is. If they don’t answer me, I’ve going to demonstrate how badly I can hurt them with easily accessible items here in nature, and then tell them about the tools in my case here that are more professional-grade. If they don’t answer me even then, I’ll begin using those tools on them.”

Zoe shuddered. “You’re going to torture them.”

“Only if they make me.”

“You mean only if it’s the most convenient route for you.”

“Zoe, I don’t want to debate situational ethics with you right now,” Query groused. “These men kidnapped you. They were willing to kill you.”

“Noooo,” Zoe said. “Two of the dead men in that car over there, and I guess some guys in another car from what Dash has told me, were the ones who kidnapped me, and only one of them maybe was trying to kill me. They’re dead. I fucking lost my composure and killed them. Two other men are dead at your hands. These men came to check on their buddies. I don’t know what they would have done if you hadn’t attacked them.”

“Surely you not suggesting I shouldn’t have…”

“Of course not. You shot first. Wise move. They work for Janus. They were armed. But goddamn it I’m not going to let you torture them just to find out where they came from or for anything someone else did to me. I mean, really, do you expect to find Janus at their hidey-hole? Do you expect him to come here to the woods and throw down with you? I’ve been dealing with Underworld all this time and nothing suggests to me that they’ve suddenly gone lax on their security. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts these guys probably don’t even know where Janus is or the other guys who tried to nab me before at graduation probably would have known.”

“I think we need to be sure, Zoe. And if I go to their place here in the woods, I can look for clues that will help me find Janus later,” Query said. “I need you to go now.”

“How would you even know if they were telling the truth if they did give up a location to you, huh?” she pressed. “People will say lots of things under torture or to buy time.”

“Because,” he responded, raising his voice for the benefit of his captives and turning his head slightly in their direction, “I’ve already figured out from their response time and what I know about this area where the three most likely locales are. If they give me any other location that isn’t in one of those areas, I’ll hurt them more.”

“No.”

“Zoe, this isn’t your operation. This isn’t about you.”

“Yes it goddamn is!” she shouted. “I was the one kidnapped. I’m the one who’s got bits of people all over her. People have been firing bullets all around me and one zipped right past the top of my head. You took on my case so I’m your fucking employer—kinda. It’s all about me and I say you aren’t going to do this.”

“It’s more about me than you know, Zoe. In any case, I need this info…”

“…fine!” she interrupted him, and stalked toward the bound men, morphing as she did to take on a slightly more attention-getting and menacing look—though Query noted her locs, while clearly hardened and sharp, were no longer animated as when she was panicked in the trunk. “Here’s how it’s gonna be, boys. One of you will tell me right now where your little place in the woods is. Then after you’re handed over to the police or whatever—somebody less likely to torture you, in any case—you can go back to clamming up and not saying any damn thing about Janus and if he asks you can all tell him you don’t know how Query knew how to find your hideout. He can just assume Query found your place on his own with his super-intuition. Totally plausible, since he’s apparently already narrowed it down. But he’s really cranky, as you can see, and if you make him search too long, or waste too much time talking to you about it, he’s going to go all Spanish Inquisition on you. Whoever wants to tell me can just nod and I’ll pull off your gag.”

No one nodded.

“Unless Janus is there at your place in the woods, this is a win-win for everyone to tell me, guys,” Zoe said more firmly, flexing her fingers with their sharp, glistening burgundy nails. “You stay quiet about it, then Query is going to start thinking Janus is there, and if that happens I think you’re all going to be probed in a lot of places humans weren’t meant to be probed with things that weren’t meant to go there. Your choice.”

Ten minutes later, Zoe was in the passenger seat of Query’s van on her way to a date with a hot shower, with Mad Dash humming some tune wildly out-of-key on the driver’s side, while Query was taking a ride in one of Janus’ cars to a place in the woods.

Zoe closed her eyes and smiled a little.

I win.

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

My fiction has a tendency to expand beyond my original intentions, particularly when I do lengthy multi-part series. Inevitably, as I go along, I find the need to add characters and scenes that had not occurred to me early in the process.

Or I find that writing certain scenes out takes many more words than I expected.

That’s what’s happened as the defecation began hitting the rotary oscillator in “The Gathering Storm” in chapter 23. Now, there have been any manner of crises and conflicts throughout the series so far. Hell, the series started off very early with Janus sending more than a dozen professional killers to eliminate Query for as-yet-unknown reasons and the resulting carnage was dramatic. But a lot of the series has been introducing characters and defining their personalities. My readers thus far seem pleased with the pacing and the mix of dialogue, exposition, angst, humor and violence. But I’ve known there were certain key things that I’ve been working toward.

Chapter 23 was one of those key points, and it is a huge turning point in the series. Or catalyst. Or something. You’ll see later. Of course, I didn’t realize it would take so many chapters to get there, but we finally did.

Now, I figured that two chapters would be enough to cover the flurry of events that begin in chapter 23 so that I could move on to the further plot developments and such as we work toward the conclusion to the series (probably by chapter 30-something, I guess, though I won’t be surprised it it enters the 40s, I suppose). Early on in chapter 23 I realized this wouldn’t be possible, and that it would take three chapters. Then, after about 3,400 words of writing for chapter 25, I realized three wasn’t going to be enough, so the current events will continue through chapter 26.

Sure, I could pack everything into one chapter, but considering this is a blog you’re reading chapters on, I try not to exceed 5,000 words on major stories and series chapters, and try to keep my stand-alone stories under 3,000 words when I can.

In any case, what it means is that after chapter 25 gets posted either today or tomorrow, you’ll have one more chapter to look forward to that will prominently feature Query in ass-kicking mode and Janus losing his shit over it.

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

Stale stifling blackness. Spinning bouncing. Smells—Greasy sweaty green. Sensations—rough, warm, damp, gritty.

No room to move; can’t focus. What? Where? How?

Drifting. Panic. Sleepy. Weak. Angry. Terrified.

I will no go…I will not…gone…go…quietly.

* * *

“Dash! Please tell me you’re not in the middle of something you can’t get out of.”

“Query? Yeah, I’m cool. Just at my place deciding whether to patrol or watch a chickety-chick-rom-com-flick on streaming.”

“Zoe’s been nabbed,” Query said over the phone. “She’s on the move with her captors and I need an intercept while I’m driving like a bat out of hell to get there.”

“How do you know where she is if you’re not…”

“Quiet, Dash! Listen. Time’s short,” Query said, thinking about how the private investigator had needed to drop out of the pursuit of the kidnappers mere minutes ago when they pulled over in a dark area to put an apparently drugged and now also handcuffed Zoe into the trunk out of sight of any passing motorists or cops. The last thing the PI had seen in his rearview mirror were the cars getting back on the road, the one with Zoe still heading toward Grace Memorial Highway, apparently, while the other car headed back into the city proper.

“I had someone following her,” Query said. “He lost them but I reacquired her with one of my drones. Pidwidgeon is following now and keeping tabs. But they’re headed into the woods using Grace Memorial; I may lose them if they go anyplace thickly forested.”

“Grace?” Mad Dash said. “Q-man, I’ve got a few pre-packed school backpacks for emergency crapiolus like this but that’s a long way over a lot of different species of terrain. I’ll have to pack a hiker’s backpack with one or two extra pairs of boots and tons of snacks to refuel on the way.”

“No!” Query snapped. “No time for that, and a backpack that big’ll throw you off balance. Last thing I need is you breaking an ankle. Throw one extra pair of boots in a small pack and toss as many energy bars and water as you can in it. Do you have cash around? A decent amount?”

“Yeah, surely whirly I do. I guess maybe 60 or 70 bucks?”

“Fine. Grab it all. Take Parliament Avenue then hit Madsen and then Mozart. Cut straight through Whitley Park near where the bike trails start and then pick up Route 136 on the other side of the park and head toward Grace. That route will take you by plenty of fast-food joints. Hit the drive-through lanes as you need to fuel up; ignore the lure of Happy Meal toys. Make sure you have your headset on before you leave, set to our channel; remember to turn it on. I’ll keep in touch and guide you when you’re close enough. Got it?”

“Gotcha. Getcha. You betcha!”

“Go! Run like the fucking wind, Dash.”

* * *

A large hand engulfed Cole’s right shoulder, settling there with surprising gentleness. Then the couch squealed a bit in protest as PrinSass settled her bulk down next to Cole.

“What’s gotcha down, bruh?” she asked quietly, the softness of concern weaving oddly amidst her more gravelly bass tones. It always struck Cole as odd how unfeminine PinSass’ voice was aesthetically yet how obviously female it remained nonetheless.

“Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s ever gonna change, PrinSass,” Cole said. “I’ll be the outsider that the top guys can’t stand as long as I’m here, and these fucking migraines and clouded vision will just get worse from the stress probably and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing anymore anyway.”

“Muddling through, Quantum,” she said to Cole. “Gettin’ by. Toughing it out. That’s what it’s about, bruh. Just cuz I weigh a few hundred pounds and can squash almost anyone by sittin’ on ’em or punchin’ ’em, it doesn’t make it easy. I’m still a bitch. Cunt. Twat. Chick. Girl. To Desperado and all them. Whatever. You ain’t noticed that yet?”

“Of course I have…sorry…I know it’s not easy for you ladies and for a lot of other folks in the Corps. I know I’m having a pity party,” Cole acknowledged, grimacing and now flushing with embarrassment. “But is it worth going through?”

PrinSass made a rumbling chuckle. “For me, for you or for everyone else?”

“I was thinking about me, but…whatever you can provide your wisdom on, oh mighty oracle,” Cole joked.

PrinSass smiled. “I like beating folks up and not having to feel bad about it, so…yeah, it works for me, Quantum. Fightin’ crime’s good for my complexion, too. Keeps me a cute big gal. Is it worth it for you? I dunno…is it?”

Cole hesitated, frowned and finally sighed. “Doing what I do is worth it. I’m just not sure it’s worth doing with Desperado calling my shots. But what else is there for a noob like me? I’ve got a name—Quantum. I almost have a costume. But that’s about all I have at the moment.”

“It’s a start,” PrinSass said, slapping him hard on the thigh and making him wince. “Now let’s go grab a couple cups of really bad coffee while everyone else cleans up this time and we wait for Sweet Talker.”

* * *

Query’s altered brain functions since he became transhuman were well-suited for multi-tasking; however, trying to make phone calls while driving fast and trying to avoid police cruisers that might pull him over—all while checking on the video and GPS info from his drone—was straining that ability.

Not to mention the fact that the drone was moving so much faster than it should be while on autopilot that he had to make sure to adjust its course now and again with the tablet computer in the passenger-side seat of his car, lest Pidwidgeon crash and make this entire exercise a moot point. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to reacquire Zoe with another drone in time if that happened, though he’d sent out a summons for Bubo, the nearest of the other four drones out tonight—to join Pidwidgeon in the pursuit—just in case.

No telling how much longer that will be, since I don’t have any more attention to spare to track Bubo.

At full tilt, even with a few stops for food, Mad Dash would almost certainly beat Query to Zoe, if he was able to get to her in time at all. Dash’s apartment was closer already and he had the advantage of being able to cut through alleys and across parks and such, unlike Query’s van.

Would have been better for speed of travel had I been driving the Mercedes or Porsche, but it’s a little hard to stash much in the way of costumes and gear in a four-door sedan, he mused bitterly, and damn near impossible in a sports car.

There was a tiny flash of movement on the display of the iPad Quinto in the passenger seat. Something narrow and long. If not for his enhanced senses, it might not have caught his attention at all. Then another. And another.

Trusting his instincts that he needed intelligence more than he needed to try to keep up with Mad Dash’s arrival time at the narrow old highway heading into the woods, Query pulled the van over to the side of the road suddenly and snatched up the tablet computer.

He saw the trunk bulge slightly in one place, the dent produced from inside. By Zoe, no doubt.

Then another long, thin something punching through the metal. Four holes now.

Those looked like damned red, black and yellow snakes, Query considered. Or eels or tentacles. Or…Zoe’s locs. Her hair.

Another dent, and now there was a trio of razor-sharp, frenzied locs punching through. Then a flurry of them. Holes and more holes, and some of them tearing the metal a little.

Despite all the ruckus, the driver and his partner in the car didn’t seem to notice anything over the noise of an already bumpy road and their conversation and whatever music might be playing on their radio or disc player.

I want to get to her; I want to be close, especially if it might lead me to Janus or end up with Janus arriving on scene—unlikely though that would be, Query thought as he watched the video feed from Pidwidgeon. But in all honesty, it looks like at this moment, there isn’t a thing I can do about whatever’s about to go down, except watch, analyze, let Dash know and then get there as soon as I can.

The trunk was quickly becoming a ruin of holes and rips, and then Query saw a hand punch through, one cuff of a pair of handcuffs attached to it, but only a few links of chain dangling there. Five nails of that hand dug into the exterior surface of the car in which Zoe was trapped. Then her other hand, just as lethally clawed and bearing the other half of the broken handcuffs, tore a huge gash through the top of the trunk.

Her movements angry and panicked, she started flailing, finally ripping a hole large enough to let her rise to a squatting position, her head now level with the top of the sedan that had so recently been her prison. Her body was criss-crossed with various cuts and scratches, Query could tell—Pidwidgeon and the other drones offered fantastic video resolution.

But she’s not nearly as hurt as she should be considering all the jagged edges of metal she just burst through, Query noted mentally.

Her head swiveled slowly, taking stock of things. She still seemed a little confused, but he swore he saw something like realization now, and cold fury along with it.

They probably drugged her, but she’s not very much out of it anymore; perhaps she’s a Regenerator on top of her Acro and Morph powers.

Her locs of varied colors were swirling and writhing like the serpents on Medusa’s scalp, and then she looked through the rear window, toward the driver and passenger.

Query couldn’t see Zoe’s face after she turned to behold her captors, but he could imagine any number of expressions that might be on it, and few of them struck him as something either man in the car would want to see.

But the passenger had clearly registered the flurry of motion and the bulk of a human body now half out of the trunk, and turned to get a better view of what his peripheral vision had picked up. He saw that look that Query couldn’t, and Query was pretty sure it scared him. The driver himself jerked, probably in response to a warning from his partner—though perhaps he’d seen something in the rearview mirror as well.

Too late. Way too late, Query realized.

The only question remaining unanswered for him right now was whether it was too late just for Janus’ minions or for Zoe as well.

She surged out of the trunk and onto the roof, her sharp and apparently very hardened nails giving her firm purchase, aided by the uncanny balance and agility afforded to her by her Acro powers. But the hair and nails weren’t the only change from her Morph powers—her skin was glossier now, and seemed smoother and tighter against her muscles. Perhaps a tad darker as well. Her clothes were shredded from the metal of the trunk ripping at them, but her skin was mostly unmarred.

She managed to get above the driver and passenger seats and ripped a good-sized hole above the driver’s side with one hand. But before she could make any more progress, the driver hit the brakes as hard as he could without swerving completely out of control.

Query’s belly cramped and twisted at the thought of Zoe’s fate now, as physics won out over her firm grip and sure reflexes, and she flew forward past the front windshield, taking a small piece of the roof of the car with her.

One of her feet managed to make contact with the hood—intentionally, it seemed—and her leg thrust her upward even as she flew forward. Then to Query’s amazement, she flipped once in the air, came down hard on the road on both feet, and then flipped several more times, including a one-handed flip that sent her nearly straight up into the air.

She was awkward and almost lost her balance several times. In competition, such sloppy form would have lost her plenty of points with the judges. But considering she’d just been flung from a rapidly braking car, the fact she hadn’t slid across the asphalt earning a body-wide case of road rash was amazing to Query.

When she competed in college gymnastics, she was holding back as least three-quarters of what she was capable of doing, he estimated.

When she came to a stop some dozen meters from the car, she was in a crouch. The driver of the car was disoriented at first and unsure what was going on, but as soon as he saw her, he put the car back in gear. By then, though, Zoe was already on the move. By the time he was accelerating at all, she was already on top of the car again, and yanking his head up toward the hole she had made in the roof. He was strong, but it was clear Zoe was at least a low-level Brute on top of everything else, and she wrestled his head through the hole. No longer able to press the accelerator or steer, the car slowed and drifted toward the shoulder, as the passenger yanked the emergency brake.

Looking into the driver’s eyes for a split-second, and then glancing down to see one hand reaching for something under his left armpit, Zoe started yanking his head back-and-forth, slashing his neck against the sharp edges of the hole in the roof of the car, even as the claws with which she gripped his scalp dug furrows into his skull.

Satisfied that he was no longer a threat, Zoe let him fall back into his seat and leapt back to the road as the passenger scrambled out of the car and pulled a gun.

Query’s renewed concern for Zoe was tempered slightly by the knowledge that if this man did kill her, Janus would do something far worse to him than simple death for cheating the crimelord of his prize.

Zoe hesitated only a moment, pulled between the desire to fight and the urge to flee to cover, and then she lunged. The man got off a shot, but it went wide.

Zoe’s attack did not, however.

She slashed him with one set of nails, and then began to circle him in something that seemed half a dance and half an acrobatic spectacle. She whipped her head back and forth as she spun and flipped around him and over him. Her locs, clearly razor-sharp and harder than they had any right to be since she had employed her Morph powers, laid into him like a scourge in the hands of a Roman centurion. In moments, half his face and one arm were thoroughly flayed, and the rest of his upper torso didn’t look much better.

His gun was on the ground now, and Zoe stopped her deadly dance.

She looked at her victim almost curiously, and Query thought he detected a hint of shock and queasiness in her eyes now, dulling the rage. He stood for several moments, though dead or nearly so, before gravity introduced his corpse to the ground.

Query made a call to Mad Dash, hoping the man had remembered to turn on his headset.

“Dash?”

“En route, toot-e-toot-toot, Query. Moving as fast as I can,” Dash said, sounding winded but chipper.

“It’s not that, Dash. I just want you to know this isn’t as much a rescue operation as I had expected. It looks like more of a clean-up.”

“Oh, no! She’s dead?”

“No. No, she isn’t. Dash, when you get close to her position—and believe me, I’ll give you plenty of warning—go in as calmly and as non-threatening as you can. If you go in hot and she thinks you’re an enemy, I might be burying you in the woods along with the two guys she just laid waste to.”

* * *

“Thank you for coming, Underworld, though I had told you to be here 20 minutes ago,” Janus groused. He was wearing a bulky metal helmet with two faces on it today, but more science fiction or fantasy-like, Underworld noted, compared to the one he often wore with the ancient Greek-style dual faces of the god Janus gazing into the future and the past. The mask he was wearing now suggested something more like paranoid conjoined twin warlords looking out for attacks. Also, it seemed familiar, as if she had seen it in some movie trailer or poster some years back.

It was a Vin Diesel movie, now that I think of it, she remembered. What I wouldn’t do to have a nice-looking piece of man like that right now here beating Janus’ face in while I watch.

“Janus, you don’t tell me to do anything,” she retorted sourly. “And you should feel lucky I only showed up late and not with an Uzi or a pair of Rottweilers trained to attack anything that smells like your cologne or your sweat.”

“Are you still on about the Crazy Jane situation?” he asked. “You needed a girlfriend to hang out with; you should be happy. I can’t believe you’re still imagining the most vile ways of killing me because you think I’m responsible.”

“My choice of examples should indicate I’ve downgraded from the ‘most vile’ notions,” she half-growled. “Some of my earlier ideas involved blowtorches, red ants, sulfuric acid and things along those lines. You’ve got too many fucking sins stacked up with me, starting with threatening my family so no, it’s not just about having a Crazy Jane addiction. That’s just the final straw.”

Janus leaned back, the oversized helmet somehow both completely out of sync with the lean and sleek silver-gray suit he was wearing today and yet somehow going so well with it. “You need to lighten up, Underworld. I treat you with far more kindness and respect than 90 percent of the people I deal with. Relax. Enjoy our promising life of crime together. Get to know Jane. Stop projecting your anger outward and redirect your energies.”

Those words from any other mouth might have been reasonable, thought Underworld, but she was certain she detected a taunting note in them. He doesn’t fuck me over as badly as most people, but he enjoys pulling my strings like a puppeteer far too much. It’s intolerable.

“What do you want, Janus? Why did you call me? If you want me to stop hating you so much, you need to let me have some space from you when we aren’t interviewing or orienting new recruits and prospects.”

“Amazingly enough, I actually did call you into my office because of staffing issues—as well as to kill time while I wait for word on Zoe’s delivery to our wooded enclave,” Janus said. “Excellent work, by the way, on the snatching of Zoe. Stealing her right out of a party and no one at it any the wiser. I’d almost think you were showing off.”

For once, Underworld noted, there was hardly a hint of jeering or needling in his words; instead, he seemed pleasantly amused and legitimately complimentary. That threw Underworld off her game a bit. She wanted—needed—to hold tight to her hatred and anger. This was not a man she could trust; she could not allow herself to think of him as anything more than an uneasy ally.

“Thank you,” she said stiffly. “I knew Breathtaker would be perfect for that job.”

“I hope you’re not going to petition for him to be on our A-list. He did well, but I’m not sold on him.”

“Not a chance,” Underworld answered, putting the slightest hint of offense in her cadence. “He’s B-list. Second tier. I don’t think he’s discreet enough and I wouldn’t trust him to be any closer to the center of our circle than he absolutely needs to be. But he’s certainly not on the C-list like Hellfire and your other cannon-fodder recruits.”

“Agreed. But it’s not really Breathtaker I wanted to talk about. It’s Odium.”

Underworld winced and made a small groaning sound. “I don’t deny that his powers would be useful—and his non-transhuman skill sets,” she said, “but he disturbs me. There’s something terribly wrong with him.”

“There is something terribly wrong with most of us, my dear,” Janus pointed out. “You are regularly hanging out with a woman who is guilty of several very grisly and sadistic murders and who revels in using baseline humans as material in the pursuit of her creation of artistic works of insanity.”

“You’re responsible for making her that way, Janus…”

“…you’ve just made my point,” he cut in. “There’s something terribly wrong with me—by society’s standards, at least—and I’m the kingpin of all this and you’re my partner.”

“Point is,” Underworld said sternly to retrieve her line of argument, “that I was never comfortable with Crazy Jane being around, either—at least not out of that giant bird cage you had made for her—until you directed her to use her powers on me and I was biochemically coerced into being her friend.”

“You know, I’ve never admitted to doing that; it’s all speculation on your part,” Janus noted. “Did you ever consider that Jane just liked you? She has odd ways of showing affection at times.”

“Stop trying to deflect me and stop pretending you didn’t order or at least strongly suggest she ensnare me.”

“Ooooh, ‘ensnare.’ I do like that word choice. Has a very sensually kinky feel to it. You continue to prove day by day that you were a much better choice than my backup plan of Madamnation as a partner.”

“Would you please shut the fuck up!” she snapped. “Point is that we need to be careful about bringing people onto the A-list—or the B-list, for that matter—who might be a little too crazy. We already have you in one of the top two seats, we then we have Jane and Tooth Fairy. Too much crazy already for my tastes, no matter how obsessive and effective a control freak you are. Eventually, you will have a herd of insane, murderous cats you can’t herd anymore.”

“In fairness, Tooth Fairy is in the A-list in only a peripheral sense,” Janus countered. “She’s going to be a key player, but she’s not a team player. She’s primo hired help.”

“Odium isn’t exactly striking me as a team player either, Janus.”

“Not exactly, no. But he wants to be, and I can use that to rein him in,” Janus said.

Underworld paused and considered. She’d already picked up on Odium’s self-hatred, but she hadn’t considered the deeper source from which that might spring. “You think deep down he wants a family, don’t you? Someplace to belong.”

“Yes, I do,” Janus stated. “And I don’t think; I’m sure of it. And Crazy Jane might be just the sister-figure he needs, with Papa Janus and Mama Underworld.”

“God, Janus, don’t use Jane to snare everyone and have some hold on them,” Underworld warned. “The more people she juggles and who want her attention, the more you set up risks for conflict and competition. Also, it goes both ways. She gets attached, even if it often is a creepy kind of attachment. What if she has her hooks in Odium and you have to sacrifice him later?”

“Worry not, my dear,” Janus said. “I’ve considered that, too. He’s not someone I’d just toss away on a whim, and we won’t have to worry about romantic entanglements—Jane would be going for a sisterly approach as she sets her hooks. And Odium is the only person on whom I plan to have her use that particular power—and tell no one on any of our teams about that power, Underworld—at least the only person for a very long time.”

“Aside from myself,” Underworld noted with a sarcastic edge.

“I continue to tell you that I am not taking credit for Jane and you. Perhaps she has deeply buried bi-curious tendencies or simply feels isolated by her demeanor and needed a girlfriend to hang out with as much as you did, for different reasons,” he responded reasonably. Then his tone shifted suddenly to the taunting mode that so infuriated her as he said, “Now, go toddle off and do some girl things together while I wait for word on Zoe.”

A sharp, hot ribbon of rage flashed into Underworld’s brain, as if a rocket of hate had launched from the base of her spine.

After all that, trying to mollify me, and then at the end he throws it back in my face again to let me know he did it without openly admitting it. Oh, I’m back to wanting you dead, Janus. Thank you for that. I don’t know how to pull it off yet, but I’ve been involved in long cons before—this is just a more lethal variant of that. I’ll find a way to end you and still keep Jane to myself without her ever knowing it was me—alone with her to console her and move beyond you.

* * *

She’d just killed two men. And she’d thrown up. And she was half-naked, her clothes largely a mass of tatters on her now.

One of the last things Zoe Dawson really expected or wanted was a phone call.

As she heard her phone ring and felt it buzz in her pocket, she began to reach for it, and then realized her hand was covered in blood. She started to wipe in on her pants, then thought better of it—as well as almost being seized by a desire to retch at the idea—and then she wiped it off on the car’s interior upholstery. By that time, the ringer had stopped and voicemail had picked up. Then the phone rang again, and she yanked it out of her pocket.

“Hello?!” she blurted in a voice too loud and shrill with anxiety and panic for her own comfort.

“Thank God your phone’s still on you and not damaged. This is Query. I need you to toss those guys in the car and get that car off the road and mostly out of sight now.”

“How do you know…”

“Zoe, do it now. We do not want police entanglement or witnesses. I’ve made calls to slow any traffic heading up the road from the city, but someone might come the other way. Get those men in the car and drive it off the shoulder and just past the tree line. There’s a small rocky rise you should be able to use to keep anyone from seeing the car. Now, Zoe, before someone sees that carnage!”

To her credit, Query thought, she was good under pressure, and got one man into the car quickly. The other one, closer to the shoulder of the road, she simply rolled down toward a ditch-like depression, which would put him out of sight from the narrow highway. Then she started driving the car, realized the hand-brake was still on, disengaged it and got the car off the road.

Then she put the phone to her ear, and asked, firmly and quietly, “How do you know what’s going on?”

“I had someone watching you tonight,” Query answered. “He lost you after they nabbed you, but I have some Air Force-issue military drones in my possession and one of them, Pidwidgeon, has been watching you since shortly after that happened.”

“Pidwidgeon…” she said dubiously. “You read the Harry Potter books?”

“I have eclectic tastes and sometimes a lot of time on my hands,” he answered in a dead-pan. “How are you doing?”

She looked down at her bloody clothes and stained hands, and said, “I think I may throw up again soon, if that’s all right.”

“By all means, Zoe. By all means. Look, I don’t want to worry you, but this isn’t over yet. I need you to stay put and stay alert and stay calm,” Query told her. “I have a friend, Mad Dash—you may know about…”

“…runs really fast. Acts a little loopy. But pretty much a straight-ahead good guy,” she said.

“Yeah. He’s on his way. Please don’t confuse him for an enemy combatant when he arrives and kill him or anything. He’s one of the few real friends I have.”

“OK.”

“You’re doing fantastic, Zoe. Really.”

Then she doubled over, threw up violently, and when the dry heaves finally stopped, she placed the phone against her cheek again, a thin trail of tears on either side of her face. “How about now?” she said in a whimper.

“Still doing great. You’re tough as nails, Zoe. I know that. But killing someone isn’t pleasant. It messes with you. That’s natural. It means you’re a decent human. You’re doing great.”

“Thanks. I want to go home. Very badly,” she said in a quiet voice.

“I think we need to find someplace safer than home, Zoe, but I promise I’ll keep you safe. We’re almost done with the worst part of things,” Query said. “Just wait for Dash. Zoe?”

“Yeah.”

“You ever watch Pulp Fiction?”

“At least eight times in my life so far, I guess,” she said, perplexed but feeling a sense of calm return. Just small talk now. She’d killed two men, but now it was small talk. Normal life in the midst of madness.

“Well, Zoe, you and Dash sit tight,” he said. “I’m sending in The Wolf.”

“Shit, nigger, that’s all you had to say,” Zoe said, laughing and crying a little at the same time, delivering the movie line in a half-anxious, wavering manner, but not too far off Samuel L. Jackson’s original cadences. “Wait, though,” she said. “If Mad Dash isn’t The Wolf, who is?”

“That would be me, Zoe,” Query said. “Big Bad Wolf, in fact. I’m going to blow down someone’s house. At least one of them. It might only end up being the straw house, but I’m gonna fucking blow it down.”

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

What Next?

Posted: March 21, 2012 in Announcements / General

So, partly just a random post to break things up between chapters (the next chapter of “The Gathering Storm” will likely be up before the weekend), but also because I’d like to find out if anyone has any desires/wishes/etc. in terms of any characters to tackle in one of my next stand-alone short stories.

Anyone big names so far you’d like to see get a tale woven around them? Any secondary characters? Hell, are there any whose names have been dropped and haven’t yet appeared in anything (Madamnation, Speed Demon, etc.) who you’re tired of only hearing other characters mention in passing?

If so, let me know in the comments…

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

Darkness is a comforting shroud. A sturdy cloak.

Those thoughts passed through the mind of Query, sitting in the semi-darkness of the club as Milo Phillips, while various pairs of rappers took their turns on stage to do a bit of freestyle vocal battling with one another. But not Milo tonight; he had to make sure he was on-call.

In so many aspects of his life, he preferred darkness. And many times, a mask as well to further obscure him and wall himself off from the world. He lacked the escape of dreams from reality, and sometimes, putting layers in between himself and others was all he had.

He reviewed his iPhone Sextet as a new message came in, disregarded it for now, and slipped it back into his belt holster. Then he pulled out his “real” smartphone—or at least the one he relied on as Query and when he was simply Alan Millos—his Android Hyyper. It was much easier to modify the Droid smartphone for his critical needs, but the iPhone was part of Milo’s identity and image.

Really need to make some time to buy the new Droid Nexusz soon, get it up to speed for my needs and transfer my data over, he considered. So hard to find time to do everything sometimes, even being awake 24 hours a day.

When he saw no messages there for Alan or Query, he slipped that phone back into its secret pocket and pulled his iPad Quinto out of his satchel to review some notes and files, as well as some pilfered video feeds from the police and FBI.

At least all my identities agree on the iPad as far as tablet computers go, he thought with mild amusement.

Reviewing his files did nothing but dim his flash of good humor, though. It had been nearly two weeks now since Janus had attempted to abduct Zoe, and there had been no sign of him, his lackeys or any freelance hired help since then.

Local and federal cops had questioned the mercenary team that Query had brought down after Zoe’s graduation ceremony, but nothing had come of it. A couple members of the team had been willing to give evidence and testimony for lighter sentences, but had precious little to offer. They couldn’t even say for certain who had hired them. That was a sharp divergence from the team that had tried to kill Query three months earlier. The two mercs that Query had spirited away then to question personally, as well as the survivors the police had questioned, were clear and consistent as to who they had been paid by—Janus—even if they were far less willing to give much information about him.

Not that they knew much anyway, but Janus has never been known for his forgiving streak, so most of those he hires tend to be discreet when captured, to the point of often not even sharing information that seems innocuous, Query considered.

Still, there was plenty of evidence to point to the fact that this team had been hired from the same source as the mercenaries that tried to kill Query. That supplier of talent was pricey indeed, and for two teams from that source to show up in New Judah over a three-month period was unlikely to be coincidence.

Not that the police have put that together, Query noted mentally. The FBI has made note of the oddity, but they don’t seem to get the connection is to Janus yet. I do, though. So, the question is, since Janus could have hired talent from a different source for the Zoe job, is he becoming lazy and sloppy? Or did he hope I’d figure it out and know he was still fucking with my city—even though it’s unlikely he would have expected me to be protecting Zoe and find out from first-hand contact?

It also didn’t help his mood to be reminded he was using Zoe as bait even as he was protecting her, and that might come back to bite her in some unexpected ways. Because Janus’ hired kidnapping team had struck in such a public place and focused on one woman, some people were looking at Zoe now and wondering, “Why her?”

The mercs hadn’t admitted to trying to nab her—or anyone, really. They didn’t want to be implicated in any more crimes than necessary, and so far, the hard evidence that they planned to kidnap anyone or even kill anyone was slim. They’d clearly face any number of assault and weapons possession charges—maybe even some domestic terrorism charges—but they weren’t going to want to face charges of attempted murder or kidnapping as well.

At least one person at UConn’s New Judah campus was speculating quietly in the upper-level administrative offices that Zoe was the sole target, and perhaps it had something to do with her athletic prowess. So, now rumors were circulating that she might be transhuman and that might have made her a target. The admin who’d had that epiphany was even suggesting to the dean that they might need to sue Zoe to make her pay back the scholarship money since she hadn’t disclosed she was transhuman.

It likely won’t happen, he realized, if only because they don’t want the scandal of having an athlete in violation of NCAA anti-transhuman rules. It would be a black eye they’d want to avoid unless they needed to be pre-emptive—and so far, the NCAA didn’t even seem to be taking any notice of the attempted abduction, much less have any reason to be suspicious about Zoe’s abilities.

Still, he had played a part in bringing about just the kind of attention that Zoe had so assiduously tried to avoid, and it was messing with his conscience more than a little.

A voice and a bit of verse from the stage pulled him out of his Query mindset and back to the Milo Phillips role in which he currently was dressed.

“…Parlez-vous Français? Cuz all the Froggies say you’re gay. Comprende? Capiche? Cuz I’m deep old money, but you be nouveau riche.”

Milo groaned at that—both the rhymes and the awkward delivery. He hadn’t heard what verses had led up to that portion, but knowing the rapper who was delivering them, Milo knew all too well the prelude had probably sucked just as much and perhaps more. Killah-Be tended to get pretty far in these rap battles even though he was so terrible at hip-hop—Milo suspected the young man had some transhuman powers, though he might not be aware of them. People who went up against him on stage often got flustered, lost their concentration, and became nervous and hesitant—as a result, their flubbed verbal attacks ended up being worse that Killah-Be’s delivery.

He’s probably a Primal pumping out pheromones of some sort, or maybe an Interfacer who disrupts neural processing slightly, he considered. Might even be a Psionic projecting thoughts of inadequacy or worry.

Killah-Be’s opponent on stage, a 23-year-old indie rapper who went by the nom de rap of EZStreet, seemed utterly unfazed, however. Although Milo was certain Killah-Be was transhuman, he was uncertain if the young man’s powers were erratic or some people just resisted it better than others. In any case, with no muddling of his mind or confidence, EZStreet volleyed back verbally within seconds.

“That’s all you got, polyglot? I know what I am; know what you’re not. Not worth a second or a third thought. Be here long after your verses rot,” EZStreet snarled, then continued with: “You’re hip-hop-i-vomitous; I know that sounds ominous. But all it really means is you make me feel nauseous. My rhyme are plenteous; I’m rap-i-venomous. Toxic to fools like you who are the pettiest.”

Milo snickered to himself, happy to know that Killah-Be would be knocked out of the rap battle early for once, as he deserved. Then, once again, his brief bit of joy was snatched away as his Droid smartphone buzzed in its hidden pocket and as he realized it was a call from the private detective he had keeping an eye on Zoe tonight.

But whatever grim and dark thoughts that brought, as he wondered what mess was likely unfolding, it was quickly replaced by the hunger for the hunt.

I think Janus has finally made his second attempt, Query thought. I just hope there’s still time to keep Zoe from harm in all this.

* * *

Michele Cho opened the freezer door, pulled out the pack, shook it experimentally, frowned and then strode into the living room where her stepsister and roommate, Isabella Fuentes, lounged watching a DVD.

“Any idea where my cigarettes are?” Michele questioned Isabella with a snide edge.

“Oh, yeah, I’d hoped you’d see the empty pack and buy some more,” Isabella responded mildly, not even looking at Michele as she did. “You know, it’s really hard to enjoy smoking when you buy them so infrequently.”

“Buy your own, you cheap bitch,” Michele grumbled. “Or get a boyfriend to buy them.”

“Like you said, I’m cheap, and I don’t have a boyfriend just at this moment in time,” Isabella said, finally meeting Michele’s gaze and rolling her eyes as she said it.

“I’m going out to Club Darque, and now I gotta stop by a convenience store to buy something that I thought I already had because my stepsister has been bumming them all week. Really, Izzie, could you at least have told me you were stealing them?”

“You woulda just hid ’em, Michele,” she answered. “Hard enough to just sneak a couple a day so you wouldn’t notice for a while. You hardly even smoke, so why stress yourself out by keeping a pack in the house that I’m just going to steal from anyway?”

“I like to smoke when I go out clubbing and drinking and dancing and maybe hooking up with someone, you twat. You know that, Izzie. Fuck! Fine, I’ll buy a pack for you, too, when I’m out. Find a boyfriend soon so you don’t dig into the one I put in the freezer for myself.”

“I’ll do my best,” Isabella said sweetly, if with an obvious and humorously disingenuous note.

“When you were stealing my cigarettes like you did from my dad and your mom when you were 13, did you remember to get that intel on the skeez lab?”

“Of-fuckin-course,” she answered. “It’s all on the dining table. Not like I want you getting killed during a drug lab raid, Sis.”

“Yeah, because who would buy your smokes then?” Michele asked.

They both broke out laughing.

“God, I hate you,” Isabella said.

“Love you, too, Izzie.”

“Seriously, though, why do you even buy cigarettes? I don’t get the social, once- or twice-a-week smoker thing. I started my off-and-on love affair with cancer sticks at 13; you didn’t start until 17, which as I recall is when you started piercing and tattooing and dressing in black a lot. Is smoking a required part of the official Goth uniform?”

Michele chuckled. “Kinda. Dunno. Gets me in the right mood when I’m out clubbing—feel more bad-ass and rebellious. Also, nice to have a cheap high that doesn’t inhibit my judgment, my ability to drive, or break the law. All right, so I’ll look over the stuff when I get back so I can start our little ‘catch Marty the Hun plan’ on Monday.”

“Yeah, because heaven forbid you should do the take-down and set-up this weekend and fuck up your chances of nailing some Goth chick or Emo dude that you hook up with tonight or tomorrow,” Isabella sneered good-naturedly.

“Girl’s gotta put herself first sometimes for the sake of mental health,” Michele said, then her equally good-natured tone suddenly turned serious. “Besides, Izzie, I’m more than a little nervous about this plan, and I’d like to have a good time before I possibly check out.”

* * *

Taking a life was a thrilling thing, Breathtaker thought, and something he didn’t get to do near enough of. Sadly, he wouldn’t be doing it tonight, either. However, making someone feel like they were dying and leaving them with their last conscious thoughts that they likely would end up a corpse was pretty satisfying, too.

The dreadlocked bitch that Underworld had set him to nab as his graduation test to join her and Janus’ operation had been easy pickings. She seemed largely withdrawn from the party she was in, which was attended mostly by current and recently graduated college students. She just stood there holding up a wall, a half-smoked cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other—either a cola or a mixed drink.

Stuck-up, much, Zoe? he had thought. Too good for everyone else? Shy? Psycho loner? Or do you just not feel like you fit in with all these fuckin’ norms?

He’d gone up to her, introduced himself and made small talk like he was trying to hit on her. After a minute or two she was clearly a bit short of breath and said she needed to get some air.

“Maybe you smoke too much,” Breathtaker had said. “Maybe that’s all it is. Then again, I make a lot of women breathless.”

The tone of his voice at that point—having taken on a more aggressively taunting tone then—had tipped her off that something might be wrong, and he had seen it in her eyes. But that had been what he’d wanted. Fear was good. Made things more fun.

He had grabbed one of her arms and then, with physical contact, could put his Interfacer powers fully to work, completely shutting down her ability to breathe. Her eyes had taken on a panicked look, and he noticed her appearance begin to change slightly. He had stepped back, knowing that he could keep her respiratory system in his mental grip for bit longer from a distance now that he’d made direct contact with her nervous system. She had swung haphazardly and slowly, her fear and inability to breathe throwing her off. Still, her nails grazed him, tearing open his leather jacket and shirt and one of them leaving a red line of blood. Janus had said she was a Morph, and he hadn’t been wrong about how sharp her fucking nails could be.

But then she was stumbling and beginning to lose her balance, and Breathtaker had rushed in to catch her. He had embraced her like they were making out, keeping her lungs from working until she passed out against him.

She had smelled good, he recalled. Really nice perfume or scented oil or something. He had taken a few moments to suck at the light brown skin of her neck, and cop a cheap feel for a couple minutes as he let her body begin to breathe again just enough to keep her from dying on him. She wasn’t his usual type—she was like some Rasta chick with those dreadlocks and about half of them colored red or bleached blonde. For Breathtaker, he liked his sisters to have long hair, but preferred it straight as hell and black as night.

Finally, he had spoken into the transmitter on his shirt collar, saying to the rest of the team, “One of y’all get the fuck in here and help me with this bitch.”

Now, she was in the car ahead of him, pumped full of sedatives, and on her way to Janus.

Hello, opportunity, Breathtaker thought, smiling. I’m in the Big League now.

* * *

“Talk to me,” Query said into his phone as he exited the club and left the world of hip-hop behind him, striding with purpose toward his van. The private detective wouldn’t be calling for some routine check-in—something was almost certainly happening.

“You said this Zoe isn’t the getting-piss-drunk type, right? Or the recreational drug type, either, right?”

“Correct on both counts,” Query told the man. “Why?”

“She’s been at this party thing at a college friend’s house for a while. Two guys were just carrying her out like she was drunk and needed help walking. She looked pretty much totally passed out to me. Got her into a car and drove away. One of the guys carrying her got into another car that followed the one she’s in.”

“You are tailing them, right?” Query said with an edge in his voice.

“Of course. Discreetly as hell. But I think they’re headed toward Grace Memorial Highway. Think they’re headed for the woods. Fifty-fifty chance, anyway. If I’m right, I gotta break off soon. No offense, Query, but if you’re involved, at least one of those mo-fo’s is a transhuman and I don’t fuck with transhumans directly. I follow them too far on Grace and they’re gonna spot me and make me out for a tail.”

“I don’t want you getting spotted either,” Query said, “and it has nothing to do with you keeping your out-of-shape ass bruise-free and bullet-free. Give me an exact report on your position and their direction and give me updates every minute until I tell you otherwise or you have to break off the pursuit.”

* * *

The Guardian Corps headquarters had an odd vibe, Cole noted. It was hard to put his finger on what it was, but he felt out of place somehow. It almost seemed like a whole other organization tonight to which he was a complete alien.

He tried not to let it bother him as he hung out and waiting for some marching orders. Desperado or one of his lieutenants would assign Cole to a team—

…a team, Cole considered. Why don’t I see many of the usual…

“Fuck! Shitfirefuckgoddam!” someone shouted, and Cole’s wasn’t the only set of eyes to turn toward the voice, which belonged to Blockbuster, the one person in the Corps who seemed to dislike him more than even Desperado did. “Another fucking patrol just got hit! Desperado! We’ve been fucking hit again on the streets! Total ambush! The raid on the red crush lab! Two injuries but no one dead this time.”

Desperado burst from his office, eyes blazing with anger and seeming to Cole as if they were seeking something in particular. They landed on him within seconds, and there was a dark satisfaction in them as they did.

“Talk to me, Blockbuster,” Desperado said, dragging his eyes from Cole and toward his right-hand man. “Who the fuck is doing this? Was anyone on that team who didn’t fucking get hurt connected to any of the other teams that got hit? I want a fucking suspect already.”

While Blockbuster started pulling up files on the six-year-old PC, another voice rang out.

“I don’t think we need to look very far,” said Puma, one of Desperado’s chief lieutenants. He walked toward Cole, one finger pointed at him like a gun. “That motherfucker over there has been around your office a lot when we’ve been talking lately. Including when we were talking about tonight’s major motherfucking operation. And guess who was conveniently fucking off the night we fucking had a bloodbath in here?”

“Yeah, you’re on to something there, Puma,” Desperado said, and Cole felt his chest constrict and his vision began to swirl darkly at the edges.

Wait! What? Oh shit what the fuck’s going on what the hell am I gonna do, Cole thought, panicky and confused.

“You know I am, Desperado. That shit-fuck joined us just to give us up to the fucking enemy!” Puma shouted. “Let’s take this motherfucker…”

“…Let’s take him out for a motherfucking drink why don’t we, Puma,” Desperado snarled, and now it was Puma’s turn to join Cole in confusion.

“Huh? What the…”

“Let’s talk about who else was at every meeting about a patrol that got hit,” Desperado said. “Only one goddamned person besides me knew about all those missions that got ambushed. I should know. I set up half of them just to fucking flush out the traitor and if the leader of each team hadn’t known they were fucking bait from the get-go I’d’ve probably lost a hell of a lot more people. And I made motherfucking sure Cole was fucking around so you’d aim for any patrol he might have been around to hear about and then make him the scapegoat. Right on schedule, you traitor shithead! Actually, ahead of schedule. What are you gonna do now?”

Suddenly, Cole realized what was weird about the headquarters tonight. He was one of only a handful of relative newbies here. He doubted there were more than a few people among the couple dozen or so in attendance tonight who hadn’t been in the Corps for over a year.

It’s a fucking trap for Puma and shit is going to go…

“Cover me! Hit the fucking exits all y’all!” Puma shouted.

In a panicked rush, Cole’s head swiveled and jerked in a haphazard attempt to take stock of the whole area, and it seemed that at least three people were reacting to Puma’s words.

He’s got friends in here who are traitors, too, Cole realized, and they’ll be fighting their way out.

One of those men, standing several yards from Cole—who went by the codename Kobra—made a lunge for one of the Corps members from behind, his hands growing to the size of spades and the fingers becoming deadly claws. From seemingly out of nowhere, PrinSass barreled into him before he could strike. She wasn’t a Speedster—just a Tank—but still Cole was amazed she could move so fast given the size of her body. Her big fists were pounding at Kobra with blunt, determined blows that sent blood and teeth flying from the man’s nose and mouth. The blows made sounds like wet thumps and Cole was certain he heard them punctuated by the cracking of a cheekbone despite his distance from the fight. PrinSass made up for lack of finesse and agility with hits that were harder and faster than anything he’d ever seen, and Kobra was down without having been able to so much as scratch anyone.

A shot rang out, entering the back of the computer monitor where Blockbuster had been working, coming out through the screen and nearly clipping the man as he ducked for cover. Cole whipped around and saw the gunman, a guy who went by the name Breakout—clearly another of Puma’s friends and now taking aim at Desperado from behind. Marshalling his will, Cole began to twist space near Breakout but even as he did, someone shouted a warning and Desperado spun, both revolvers drawn with breathtaking speed and aimed with unwavering accuracy. Desperado only pulled the trigger of one gun, and took Breakout down with a single shot between his legs, shouting out gleefully, “Hah! Gelding!”

The gun in Desperado’s other hand moved in an arc to reacquire the target he had wanted to take down before Breakout had become a threat. But that intended target, Puma, was already on the move and Cole got an inkling of at least one reason for his name when he realized the man was a Speedster.

Desperado’s chances of hitting Puma as he headed for an exit were slim, as he couldn’t track the man quickly enough with the gun in his left hand…

…until Cole realized Desperado’s other gun hand was moving inward, and Puma was headed right for that arc. A pair of cracking sounds and two small explosions of blood and torn fabric from his shoulder and hip, and Puma tumbled to the ground, rolling and crashing against a wall. Several Corps members rushed him.

There had been noises all around him during those hectic moments, and now Cole tried to figure out where the other conflicts might be—there had to be at least one or two other threats…

…but there was suddenly silence.

Relative silence, anyway, and Cole realized that five men and one woman were down, and only one of those people seemed to be getting field care at the moment. So, Puma and four accomplices—and only one casualty among the loyal Guardian Corps members.

Cole was close enough to Blockbuster’s desk to overhear as Desperado approached him, and said quietly, “Yo, ‘buster. Isolate Nightstrike from those other motherfuckers. Puma brought him on a few weeks ago; he might not know about Sweet Talker. Lock him up and get her in here to pump him for information. If that doesn’t work, torture his ass. I wanna know if anyone else not here tonight is on Puma’s payroll.”

Blockbuster hurried off to carry out Desperado’s order, and the bronze- and brown-clad man holstered his guns, cocked his Western hat and stepped toward Cole.

“Exciting night, huh?” Desperado said blandly. “You get hit or anything?”

“No,” Cole said. “I don’t think…um, no.”

“You almost messed up my shot with that Warpsmith shit, Cole. Don’t mess with my fucking shots. That said, sorry for the rude surprise of all this. You were the perfect fall guy to make this plan work but obviously I couldn’t tell you what was happening. The fact you weren’t here the night they attacked us directly here was fucking gold—made things move quicker when Puma knew he could finger you perfectly. Probably why he had several guys here tonight, to make sure you didn’t live through the night to defend your case. You being off that night was spectacular for my plan.”

“I doubt the people who got killed or hurt that night feel spectacular about it,” Cole said darkly.

“What? Fuck you, Cole. Or fuck you, Quantum. Whichever you prefer. Don’t get high and fucking mighty with the moral high ground. I didn’t know they were gonna fucking attack us that night. You not being here was luck, man. I appreciate divine providence when it comes knocking. I wouldn’t put that many people at our HQ at risk to flush out a traitor.”

“You put patrols at risk to flush him out. You said so,” Cole noted.

Every damn time I send out patrols I put them at risk, motherfucker,” Desperado retorted.

“So, all this time you didn’t really hate me,” Cole said. “Ever since I came on, you’ve been eyeing me as the guy to use to figure out who the leak was.”

“No, I hated you from the start, Cole. Made it a whole lot easier to play you, in fact. I don’t hate you any more. I just really strongly dislike your smarter-than-thou ass,” Desperado said. “I’m still hoping you quit soon or wash out of here, because I don’t think you have the shit to make it on the streets.”

Desperado turned and strode away without another word.

I just helped save the Guardian Corps without even knowing it, Cole thought, and I’m still just as much a pariah as I was before.

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

Love in the Air

Posted: March 13, 2012 in Ruminations

Just a little bit of chatter about the writing process to fill a little space until the next chapter of “The Gathering Storm” arrives in a day or two.

Romance in the lives of superheroes isn’t anything new. The always sultry Scarlet Witch married Vision, an emotionless android. Cyclops and Marvel Girl/Phoenix were a longstanding item, with Wolverine stirring up the dynamics. There’s always been a little something going on under the surface of Batman’s interactions with Catwoman. For a long time, Peter Parker (Spider-Man) was involved with Mary Jane. Superman and Lois Lane always had a vibe, and eventually she fell in love with the hero’s secret identity, Clark Kent. The list goes on, of course.

It makes sense, of course, because you can’t have every panel of a comic book be about fighting bad guys. Eventually, you need to see the heroes in their more vulnerable moments and in their day-to-day lives dealing with the same crap that you and I do (though rarely do they ever deal with the big question of how heroes pay their bills. I mean, if you have to hold down a job and be patrolling the city so often, how…)

…but, as usual, I digress.

Of course romantic relationships were going to crop up around here. I make a point of spending a lot of time on transhumans as people with issues of one sort or another, just like the rest of humanity.

Given the amount of time that’s been spent on the unlikely match-up of Mad Dash and Ladykiller, naturally that plot development was part of my plans all along. Right?

…uh…well…actually, no.

Frankly, I never saw it coming. In fact, I’m as surprised as anyone that these two characters would hook up. Just another example of the story sometimes guiding me instead of the other way around.

Ladykiller was never even intended to be part of the series “The Gathering Storm.” I had a sense she might show up in passing, much like a multitude of other characters, but I didn’t see her as a key player. In fact, I’m amazed that after writing the origin story for her (“Prison of Wishes“) on Nov. 29, 2010, she showed up in “The Gathering Storm” in chapter 6 only 10 days later, on Dec. 9, when I posted that chapter here.

I mean, the story “Prison of Wishes” was itself a fluke. Listening to Kurt Elling’s rendition of the song “Nightmoves” in the car one day, a specific line from his lyrics really struck me: “Starring you and me | The hero is struggling to say, that his lady is far away | In her prison of wishes …”

The phrase “prison of wishes” lodged in my head, and I tried to imagine what such a thing might be. From that simple beginning formed the very grim story that is Sarah Gagnon and her imprisonment, ultimate escape from her captor, and perhaps another kind of self-imprisonment wrapped up with self-discovery and self-empowerment along with post-traumatic stress and a largely unfulfilled desire for vengeance and redemption. That story was only supposed to be about the reason why she went from a person with powers who wanted nothing to do with them to the violent vigilante known as Ladykiller; it wasn’t meant to be a prelude.

So, I had an origin story, with a character I didn’t have any particular plans to revisit any time soon. I felt the story was enough on its own, and if Ladykiller never actually showed up in a story, that was fine. “Prison of Wishes” was meant to show a struggle and a partial resolution, not to pave the way for something more.

And then, a week later, give or take, I’m writing a scene in which Mad Dash comes across Ladykiller in the midst of dealing out her version of justice.

A character with no specifically planned future thrusts herself into my larger ensemble story.

And then what does Mad Dash do after seeing she has disemboweled a rapist?

He asks her to join him for a meal. After all, he burns a lot of calories running. And who wants to eat alone all the time?

What I didn’t figure on…nor Mad Dash, I guess…is that his innocent invitation would lead to an odd-couple pairing of the romantic sort. Doubt Ladykiller saw it coming either. But that’s what she gets for being all assertive and jumping into my narrative.

And so, now, I find myself suddenly with a venue in which to explore a character I hadn’t expected to be so close to center stage, with all her conflicting insecurities, assertiveness, anger and affection. Not to mention exploring how a man so removed from normal perceptions of the world and friendly (if socially awkward) will grow along with such a woman.

Should be an interesting ride…

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

Cole looked out across the devastation of the main gathering area at the Guardian Corps’ central headquarters. In some senses, it didn’t look that much different than normal. It wasn’t as if the Corps had deep pockets. They survived mostly by donations and secondarily by whatever bits of money they might surreptitiously lift from some of the gang-bangers that tended to be their main prey as they patrolled the streets.

As such, their main headquarters was a smallish warehouse that a local company had found little interest in using to its full effectiveness and less interest in bringing up to code so that the city would let them, deciding that donating it to a crime-fighting cause was the easiest path. The furniture and computers were likewise donated—old and often not in the best condition. The members of the Corps themselves were often young men with at least a slight propensity for slovenly habits. As such, the place was usually a slightly dusty mess.

But this was something else entirely, and while it might not look tremendously more messy than usual, the substantive damage was more serious. Computers cracked open. Several chairs and one big table reduced to splinters. They were used to litter and clutter, but not from things that used to be useful and now were destroyed. Also, there were the numerous bullet holes in the drywall of haphazardly erected rooms that had been built to give certain members of the Corps a sense of having their own workspaces—something more than cubicles but less than offices. Now those walls were, in many cases, leaning and probably ready to fall over.

The various patches of blood on the concrete floor were also new. They’d been mostly mopped up, but while no longer thick, sticky and wet, they were still red stains that recalled the battle the night before.

Cole had been off-duty last night, so he’d missed that fight. That made him feel a strange combination of guilt and relief.

After weeks of having their patrols and raids sabotaged, some of their enemies had finally taken the fight directly to the Corps—to the main headquarters that it tried to keep as low-key as possible and a secret to their worst enemies, at least.

All in all, the string of ambushes and now an overt attack suggested that one or more people inside the Guardian Corps was a traitor who was feeding information to the highest bidder.

Or bidders.

The leaders of the Corps, including Desperado, were furiously directing people to clean up and pack things, as they also tried to secure a new location to which they could move soon and try to regain some sense of secrecy and security.

This place wasn’t much, but to Cole, it had become a kind of home. He wasn’t sure it was someplace he wanted to be involved with long-term, like Epitaph was, but it was home.

And now, he would have to move, and wonder if any place they might set down roots for the Corps now would ever be truly safe.

Cole saw Desperado in the distance, and met his eyes, which were hard and cold. The man said something to a few nearby lieutenants that Cole had no hope of hearing, and suddenly four sets of eyes were boring into him. Once again, among the most piercing stares was from one of Desperado’s top guys: Puma. A similar look as the man had used a couple other times recently when Cole was the object of attention and derision by Desperado and his inner circle.

But it was a look of deliberation and consideration, it seemed, and only tinged with hostility, while the other sets of eyes looked at Cole as if he were an unwelcome outsider.

Cole turned away, hung his head, and went to help Sweet Talker and PrinSass clean up some debris. At least the candy-themed, chewing-gum addicted woman and her burly, broad sister-in-crimefighting seemed to like him.

* * *

“So, how do you like the place?” Janus asked the man in front of him, who was clad all in black, from his shoes to his jeans to his shirt to his trench coat—all except for the full-head, red mask that revealed no part of the man’s face at all. “A little tender loving care from our new team, and it will be something to adore, don’t you think? A really sweet spot to enjoy life and have a few laughs.”

“Is that supposed to be a joke?” the man said grimly, not a trace of amusement in his tone.

“A joke? Why of course not…oh, all right, a little ribbing, I admit,” Janus said, stroking one side of his mask as if smoothing back some unruly locks of hair—it was some Central American themed thing that looked to Underworld like it was from a Day of the Dead celebration, with one side a smiling face and the other hinting at a skull. “I mean, you might actually end up working for me, after all. It would be nice to know if you appreciate my humor.”

“I’ll do my best to pretend I do,” the man said.

“Janus, his name is Odium,” Underworld noted. “I don’t expect much good humor from a man with that kind of name—and reputation.”

The red-masked head swiveled toward her. “Do you have something against what I do?” The voice was heavy with menace, but Underworld didn’t even flinch—only smiled disarmingly.

“While I know she’s more than capable of taking care of herself, I should point out, Odium, that if you use your powers against either one of us, this interview will be cut brutally short.”

“Oh, I’m well aware,” Odium answered. “So, what if I don’t want the job? Now that you’ve let me see where your headquarters is. Especially with the both of you being suspicious of my attitude.”

“Would that be a threat?” Underworld asked mildly.

“Observation,” Odium responded.

“Well, if you’re basing our worth as an organization with which to connect yourself on this location, you’d be underestimating us,” Janus broke in. “Underworld and I, along with core non-transhuman staff like my hackers and analysts, reside on several nicely appointed floors in a very reputable building.”

“And if I decide I want the job, I get to bunk down a lot with a handful of other folks here in Sparsity Land?”

“Janus and I value security, and whatever transhuman team we assemble will be more likely than us to draw tails and such,” Underworld said, “as well as being less able and sometimes less willing to follow strict security protocols. So, none of you will ever know about the central operations. Also, you won’t all be in the same place at the same time, unless for some seriously big shit. We have several small buildings like this one. You’ll get a small support staff and we will be doing substantial redecorating—fear not.”

“Although,” Janus interrupted, “you don’t seem the type who cares much about the finer things in life. Should we just put a cot and small table in your room at each location? Maybe a radio that only gets AM?”

“I find hate for hatred’s sake to be enough for personal satisfaction most days, but that doesn’t mean I want to hang out someplace with concrete floors and fold-out metal chairs and card tables,” Odium said. “I don’t hate myself.”

“Not entirely, anyway,” Underworld said.

“What’s that supposed to mean? You fixing to psychoanalyze me?”

“Making an observation,” she said, putting just enough emphasis on the last word to let him now she was sending his earlier retort right back at him. “This is a job interview. Make no mistake. For a potentially very lucrative line of work. With benefits. I’d be your boss…”

“One of your bosses,” Janus noted.

“Yes, one of your bosses. But since some people seem to have trouble focusing on administrative details with staffing, I’d be the one giving you most of your marching orders and doing regular performance reviews,” she told Odium, trying to get back to ignoring Janus as much as possible. It was the only way she figured she could avoid the temptation to murder him for the whole Crazy Jane situation.

A line of thought that only reminded her she missed Jane a bit and hadn’t seen her in more than a day.

Shit, she thought, feeling both an eagerness to get back to the main building and see her as well as revulsion at the low-level addiction she had to the other woman’s presence. Problem is that the eagerness and desire have steadily come to outweigh the fear, disgust and annoyance, meaning that I’ve all but stopped trying to find ways to slip the snare that is Crazy Jane. But on the bright side, ending my interest in escaping her small hold will give me more time to figure out how to kill Janus without upsetting her.

“Job reviews, too?” Odium sneered, pulling Underworld out of her private thoughts. “Ah, hell, just what I wanted. A 9-to-5 gig.”

“Hours will be longer than that sometimes, shorter at others,” Underworld noted. “But few jobs will offer such moral latitude, including giving you many chances to hurt people and sometimes kill them, will they? Unless you think your prospects are better as a mob enforcer.”

“Don’t knock it,” Odium said. “I’ve made some bucks that way.”

“Yes, and probably been looked at like a freak and treated with about as much affection as a guard dog by a bunch of norms who don’t understand a damn thing about you,” Underworld noted. “And all so that if there’s a family struggle or organizational squabble, you can possibly end up taking a bullet to the back of your skull during a dinner at an Italian or Russian restaurant as part of the staff reorganization plan.”

“I’ll think about it,” Odium said.

“You have the prospectus,” Underworld said. “And now you have four days to get back to us.”

“And every day you wait, our interest in you will wane accordingly,” Janus added.

* * *

The tiny fluttering sensation of his belly rising a hair and then gravity pulling it back down a fraction of a centimeter. A ding. The tiny rumble of a metal door sliding open.

And then he was looking at it.

Ladykiller’s home.

Well, a hallway, anyway, Mad Dash considered. Not all that great of a hallway, either. Wallpaper is kind of bleu cheesy. Table might be nice in a Greek food temple. Flowers in the vase look like they could use some Vaseline Intensive Care lotion.

“You can go in, Dash—I mean, Peter,” Ladykiller said. She was in civilian clothes, as he was, and clearly she was uncomfortable having to think in un-costumed norm terms, though he noted an almost giddy expectation in her eyes. Nervousness, excitement and a desire to please all rolled into one. “Welcome to my home.”

Of course, this is the most intimate thing she’d done with me, he considered of his girlfriend—Ladykiller or Honey Badger in costume and Sarah out of them; they hadn’t graduated to sharing each other’s surnames yet. Letting me into her home. Her secret lair. The most personal thing we’ve shared aside from making out—at least since that time a few weeks back when she showed up at my tussle with that other Speedster and let me see her real face.

Peter realized he was still just standing there, and then chuckled nervously and stepped into the hall and set down the duffle bag that held his costume and various miscellany. Sarah smiled back, a little less nervousness there, and took her finger off the “hold” button for the private elevator to this penthouse condominium, stepping into the hall herself and taking Peter’s left hand in her right. Her palm felt warm and clammy and her fingers were quivering just a little, he realized, and he gave it a small, encouraging squeeze.

“My home,” she repeated. “Let me show you around.”

She gave him the rounds in a haphazard way, sometimes leaving a room only to bring him back to it again within a minute or two to point out something else about it. She seemed most proud of the bathrooms and living room. The kitchen and small bedroom where she slept got the least attention.

Eight rooms in total, with the last one on the tour a combination of office and armory, where she kept her costumes, weapons, a couple computers, some files and other things related to her vigilante work. It was the biggest of all the rooms, and looked as if it had once been an office and a bedroom with the wall knocked down between them. The door to it was heavy and fitted with several locks, as well as an alarm system.

“Nicey icey place,” the man known in costume as Mad Dash said finally. “How do you pay for this, Sarah? I don’t get the depression you work for a living. Are you noodle riche or something?”

“Noodle…? Oh, Nouveau riche? I wish,” she said. “Oh, wait, I guess I kinda am now for the past couple years. This was his condo. The guy who kidnapped me and kept me here for nearly a year raping me when was home—thankfully, that wasn’t very often. No day job since he locked me up here, though; didn’t even go back to being an office hack after I killed him. I spent my days working out for him; now I spend them working out so I can be Ladykiller.”

“He left you alone all day long in here with that war-room back there? I’m guessing it was his at first. You know, before you sent him to sleep with the daisies.”

“See those white lines on the floor on front of the elevator, doors, and windows, Peter? Well, if I got too close to those lines, it triggered a taser locked around my neck. And that would alert him by pager or phone or something. It only took one time to get the message quick that I shouldn’t try to go where I wasn’t allowed.”

“Still…if I were that freakazoidal I think I’d be nervous you’d get my keys and get into that room with the guns and whatnot,” Peter noted.

“There was a key chain thingy his keys were attached to. He told me if I got near it that would set off my collar too. I didn’t have any reason to doubt that was true; never got a chance to test it. He’d drop them on the table there in the hall near the elevator when he got home and getting near that table would set off the collar too. See? White line all around it.”

“So…but…how? The money. I mean, I know you killed him but it’s not like he put you in his will? Did he?”

Sarah laughed harshly and briefly. “As if,” she huffed. “Dash, no one remembers their account numbers and passwords. He had them all written down in the locked office like anyone else. Took me a while to find them, but once I did, there was no problem doing electronic transfers and stuff. Security questions weren’t that hard either once I went through enough stuff to figure out his mother’s maiden name and his place of birth and shit. Hell, he waxed poetic about his childhood more than a few times while raping me. Paying attention to his diarrhetic spewing about his pets and his cars and crap was better than thinking about what he was doing to me.”

“Sounds like a nasty chunk of work,” Peter said, “but apparently a hard worker if he could afford this.”

“Yeah, I think he was in investments or something along those lines,” Sarah said. “Finance-related, anyway. Also got plenty of money and items to fence from his criminal activities as Mister Master.”

“That name popped up now and again starting a few years back,” Peter said, frowning, “but I didn’t know much about him. Query wasn’t really all that reactive back then, so he probably doesn’t know much either.”

“Guess he was better than the average crook then,” Sarah said. “Anyway, I set up automatic payments from his accounts for some things he didn’t already have set up that way. The mortgage and taxes for this place and the utilities and all that will be covered for at least the next three years. After that, I guess I’ll have to move out.”

“Nobody knows he’s dead?” Peter asked.

“Struck me as being the kind of guy nobody was sorry to see never come back to the office or the family reunions. He was creepy when I first met him.”

“How did you get his keys with the jolty bolty thing on your neck back then?” Peter asked.

“I stepped over some lines enough times to exhaust the battery in the collar,” Sarah answered matter-of-factly, squaring her shoulders a bit and taking a deep breath. “Gave myself a couple days off in between each jolt cuz I was afraid I might fry my brain. Took four times.”

“Cheezy Louise-y!” Peter said. “Honey, you’re one tough petunia.”

“Determined or desperate, more likely,” she countered. “But they look the same as toughness sometimes.”

There was a long pause, during which she silently slipped her right hand into his left again and they simply stood there. Peter tried to process it all through the chaotic filter of his mind and seized upon one thing above all others. Eight rooms she had shown him. But that wasn’t the entirety of the place. There was a ninth one that Sarah had rushed him past at least three times now.

“Would it be impolitic to ask what’s in there?”

“Impolite, you mean?” she asked, then seemed to change the subject as she blurted, “You wanna stay over tonight after we do a patrol as Mad Dash and Honey Badger?”

“Sure. Yeah,” Peter said. “Ummmm, is this the night…”

She busted out laughing. There was a sad look in the back of her eyes, but mostly amusement. “No, tonight won’t be the night I take your virginity and find out if I can even have sex anymore. Wouldn’t mind a cuddle, though. And someone to help keep the nightmares away.”

“Sure, Honey. No problem.”

He realized Sarah’s question and offer to stay over wasn’t a diversion when she sighed heavily and said, “Well, then, if you’ll be staying here in the place I creepily live in, since it’s stuffed full of memories of my abuse and psychological torture, you should know what’s in that room.” After a long pause, she stated, “He is.”

“Mister Master?” Peter gasped. “Right now?”

“Yep,” she responded.

“Isn’t that un-hyphenic and stuff? And stinkerific?”

“You know those big bags they sell for storing your sweaters and stuff in off-season? They’re like big Ziploc baggies?”

“Uh. Yeah. But…”

“…Once you’ve chopped up a body into about four equal portions, they slide in really nicely. I bought a bunch of them. Quadruple bagged each big hunk of that sadistic motherfucker and then stuck the bags in four plastic bins with lids. Then I quadruple-bagged the bloody mattress and bedding in mattress bags. I’m sure after a couple years he’s liquified by now and there’s a nice toxic soup in those bags that can send me straight to prison. Oh, well. You can understand why I don’t invite many people over. Like, ever. Never before now, in fact.”

“But even with all the bags and closed door and spiffy air fresheners, can’t you…”

“My super-powered nose can smell him a little. If I pay attention. I tune it out, mostly. When I notice, I figure it’s a good reminder of how I got where I am today and why I do what I do.”

“I guess I three-wish you hadn’t had to go through any of that but if you didn’t, I guess I wouldn’t have met you,” Peter said, shuffling a bit. His feet didn’t stop moving until her hand slipped into his once more.

“Yeah, life’s fucked up that way, ain’t it?” she said, and led him to the kitchen so they could eat before suiting up and going on patrol.

Several hours later, after they had returned from patrol, they slipped up to the condo that had once belonged to Mister Master, masks off and wearing long coats to conceal their costumes from prying eyes. Exhausted, Sarah pulled off her coat and tossed her mask to the ground, leading Peter to her small bedroom. She quickly slipped under the covers with the faux-fur-trimmed outfit still on—as she did, he barely heard her mumble, “Too soon to see; too soon to show him”—then she told Peter which drawer to open to find her workout clothes so that he wouldn’t have to sleep in his costume.

And I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want me naked or in my underwear, or she’d probably be that way herself, he told himself. And she wouldn’t have told me where to find something to wear.

As Sarah drifted off to sleep, Peter remained awake for some time. He thought about the fact he was wearing a women’s pair of black yoga pants and a pink T-shirt with red lettering that read: Redheads Rock! He thought about how even with the air conditioning going, it was way too hot tonight to be spooning a woman wearing a partially furred costume. He considered the fact that just a few doors away, the putrefied remains of a rapist and murderer were locked behind a bedroom door.

Mad Dash buried his face in the auburn hair of the woman mostly dressed as Honey Badger right now, sniffed deeply of the shampoo and sweat there, and figured that despite all that, he was the luckiest man alive.

(Crimson mask image for Odium modified from an image of Black Panther; character copyright of Marvel Comics)

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

Easier to Navigate

Posted: March 7, 2012 in Announcements / General

As I continue to write new Tales of the Whethermen stories, it becomes increasingly hard to remember how everything fits together, and increases the chances that I will write something that is totally out of sequence with everything else, thus messing up continuity.

So, I went through the effort over the past few days to sort out all the short stories and the chapters thus far of “The Gathering Storm” to figure out what happened when.

The result is a chronological list that I will update as I add new stories and new chapters. If ever you wanted to have a better sense of how things fit together…or if you’re new to visiting here and aren’t sure where to start, I hope this helps.

Of course, it didn’t stop there. I realized I should probably have a thematic page too (which doesn’t have all the stories and features no chapters from “The Gathering Storm”).

So, I reorganize the story list menu at the top of the blog so that it is now a portal page and there are drop-down menus for the various new menus, along with a new drop-down menu to represent what was originally on that Stories & Series List page (that new drop-down is called “All Stories” because it’s a list of all of the tales…just not terribly organized).

You’d thing I’d be done, then, right?

Hah!

You don’t know me well enough. One of the things I spent a shit-ton of time doing at my main erotica blog was to organize my stories by separate worlds so that I knew which ones were in the same setting/universe and so that readers could find things they liked better instead of flailing around. Yes, I’m not a type-A about much, but when it comes to organizing my stories…

So, I didn’t stop with a new menu portal for stories and three new menus for finding them…I also created an alphabetical listing of stories.

I think I’m done for now, but I’m sure I can find another menu or two at some point to add along with the others.