Posts Tagged ‘loc-down’

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Chewing thoughtfully on his cheeseburger, Carl realized he probably wasn’t doing it thoughtfully at all. He was considering the scent of machine oil and harsh cleanser in the room. He was blaming it for how his stomach now churned. And as his appetite quickly fled, he realized that all of that—far from being thoughtful—was just a delaying tactic.

There’s something I need to deal with—there are important thoughts tumbling around in carl-beachammy head, but they’re something my brain knows I don’t want to face, Carl considered. So why deal with them when I can sit here and leisurely gnaw on greasy hunks of food like a cow chewing cud?

Query looked up from the fuselage of the drone he was fiddling with, and regarded the lawyer through his mask. “Are we going to get to new business any time soon, Carl?” Query asked. “Usually you plow through your two burgers in no time flat—this second one’s taking you a while. Did Wendy’s use some rancid meat?”

“More like my employer using rancid-smelling and probably toxic substances that aren’t supposed to be used in enclosed spaces,” Carl said, finally setting the remains of the burger down on the table next to him.

Query put down his tools, turned in his chair, and pushed the recently installed bulletproof window behind him up about halfway. “There’s no good angle to get a bullet through that particular window anyway unless you’re in a cherry picker, so as long as no one is waiting to lob a grenade up in here, we should be good. Can we get on with things so I can get back to this without complaints from you?”

“Feel the love,” Carl teased wearily, and regarded the compact surveillance craft occupying all of Query’s desk and extending nearly a foot past each end of it. “What’s wrong with your drone there anyway?”

I’m stalling again, he realized, because I think the new business is what will put my mind where I don’t want it to be—it’s what’s going to trigger a talk I don’t want to have.

“New Judah PD shot at it and got lucky,” Query answered. “Nothing too serious, but a pain in my ass. Seems they don’t like my eyes in the sky. Guess they don’t like the competition for the three drones they have that are twice the size of mine, half the speed and not nearly as cool-looking.”

“Well, next time they should steal theirs from the military like you did instead of settling for first-generation models,” Carl shot back, looking at his half-eaten burger and sighing. “OK, new business, then. I’ve heard from inside Fortunato’s building, but only from one of our parties: Zoe. After a few days, Fortunato finally made a job offer, and she’s got a contract to send me for review.”

“Look it over with the finest-tooth comb you have and don’t let him screw her, Carl. At least not screw her over legally and contractually. I don’t care what other kind of screwing might happen.”

“I’ll keep her safe and solidly armored by flawless paperwork. Don’t worry about that. What you should probably worry about is yourself. Fortunato finally gets your attention and now leaves you hanging for three or four days? What’s he up to, you think? Why so coy now?”

Is this what’s bugging me? Carl thought. Fortunato’s plans? No, there’s no sense of dread. What am I avoiding?

Query paused in adjusting the wing articulation controls in the drone and looked up again. “Partly he wants to make me sweat, because he’s delusional enough to think he can. Mostly he’s busy trying to figure out how to get Zoe in his camp—”

“Loc-Down,” Carl interrupted.


“Just occurred to me you might want to know. Zoe’s codename’s apparently going to be Loc-Down.”

“Cute,” Query said. “She’s got a whole head full of locs that can punch through metal plates and tear you to ribbons when she morphs. As good as any name. Anyway, he’s busy with her,” the black-clad hero continued, “because he knows I’ll sit tight. Zoe’s slippery and he doesn’t want to let her get away. Certainly not until he puts her to work with the plans he’s hatching.”Query-3

“Which are?”

“I don’t know,” Query admitted. “I’ve got wonderful intuitive powers, Carl, but I’m not an oracle. Most likely it has something to do with his cousin that took a dive out a window. I think Fortunato wants revenge.”

“On who? Did the guy’s pharmacist give him the wrong anti-depressants?”

“No, Crazy Jane gave his cousin all the right incentives to make the leap to the great beyond,” Query responded.

“How do you figure that? Did one of your birdies see her watching his swan-dive?” Carl asked, nodding to the owl-head-shaped cowling on the desktop that Query had removed from the nose of the drone some 10 minutes earlier.

“Nah. I got hold of some video that shows her making regular visits to the guy. The images were sent to Fortunato privately so he’d know who was responsible. I knew she could unnerve people psychically as well as transmit electrical shocks, but always wondered if she had more powers, given how unstable she is. Guessing this was either some mind control in action or, more likely, she can make people lose their fucking minds. That’s in line with her name, so it seems most likely. Nasty power.”

“I thought she was being held in the Givens facility under high security.”

“You must have been hung over or out of town a few months back, Carl. She was busted out of Givens. Bloody damn job, too. A dozen dead staff or thereabouts—and they took one of the doctors there with them—hard-ass, DA-hired headshrinker named Marcus Blood. No one knows if he was an accomplice or a hostage. Still haven’t found him. Big news. Janus busted her out personally—well, with some of his lackeys with him. Those three scary killer women he’s got and a couple norm human troopers.”

“So, Crazy Jane got busted out, maybe just to do this job against Fortunato’s cousin, which means Janus is behind it all, and he isn’t just going after you but Fortunato, too. Fortunato wants your help with getting back at him.”

“Probably,” Query acknowledged. “But I can’t say for sure yet. It feels like Fortunato has something else brewing. I think he may be trying to form some kind of team, but I can’t tell if it’s just a revenge kick or some kind of vanity project with longer-term goals. I need more data. Which is part of the reason I’m even going to lend him an ear when he finally calls you up to meet with me. As far as I’m concerned, the biggest single threat to New Judah after Janus is Fortunato right now. Man has a God complex and even if he thinks he’s doing good, he’ll probably leave a whole lot of damage in his wake—eventually, his ego and greed always get in the way.”

And there it is, Carl thought, and with a sickening mental lurch, he realized he was finally in the territory he had been avoiding all along. No stopping now…

“With all due respect, Query—”

“In other words, ‘let me point something out something potentially insulting to you’.” Query said, cutting him off.

“Anyway,” Carl sighed. “No offense—”

“Same thing,” Query teased him.

“Jesus! OK, Query, what I’m trying to say is, you’re right that Fortunato has an ego bigger than the city itself, but you’re not in a position to judge somebody else’s God complex. You have a squadron of high-tech, programmable, auto-pilot mini-drones flying around the city, you’ve got a network of informants, you regularly hack into all kind of surveillance systems and all that, and you share hardly a speck of your intel with the police. You know the identities and even the damn home addresses of several costumed whackjobs and you mostly keep that to yourself. You don’t go after them yourself very often, you don’t send other white hats after them very often and you almost never share with New Judah’s finest men and women in blue. Why?”

For several moments, Query said nothing. Carl’s guts clenched, but he didn’t sense anger from the man. Bewilderment, maybe, but not anger. As the sharp cramp in his belly eased, Carl could almost imagine the hero’s eyes blinking behind the mask like a startled cartoon character. The mental image calmed him a little.

“First off, Carl, my personality gives me plenty of right to judge Fortunato,” Query retorted mildly. “If I’ve got a God complex, and I don’t—but anyway, if I have a similarly large ego and level of presumption as Fortunato—then I’ll judge him all day long. Takes one to know one, and I have enough distance from his issues to know when he’s too close to them to think straight. Honestly—and this pains me to admit—the same could probably be said of him sorting out my issues if he knew enough about me to know what I was up to.”

“So why don’t you?”

“What? Share my entire wealth of data with everyone who’s going after the bad guys, you mean?” Query asked.

“Yeah. Because you should be.” Carl’s tone was flat, but still, the sense of accusation transmitted clearly.

“Partly because I’m not God, Carl. I can’t fix everything, and I shouldn’t try to. I also don’t want people knowing just how much I know, because then they’ll start wondering if I’m more a danger than an asset to the city or, if they’re the bad guys, they’ll realize I’m even more a threat to their operations than they know already. I don’t need to be dodging hit squads like the one Janus sent on a regular basis. That shit’s tiring, and I’m getting too old for that.”

Carl said nothing. But the accusation remained.

“But in the end, it’s really about balance,” Query said.

“You think the crooks deserve to have some kind of balance?” Carl spat out. “That’s crazy. A level playing field for them?”

“Oh, hell no,” Query sneered. “It’s not about making things fair for the black hats; it’s about not adding to their numbers, man.”


“Look, transhumans aren’t crazy per se, Carl, but we’re wired differently. We have issues in our heads—an awful lot of us, anyway. And some of us more than others. Let’s say I handed out my data like candy at Halloween and we cleared out most of the costumed bad guys in the city. What would happen?”

“I guess folks would come in to the city to fill the voids. That what you mean?”

“Worse, Carl. Some of the heroes and vigilantes in the city might fill those voids, too. Without suitable challenges…that is, without enemies that are like them—peers in power, if you will—I suspect some of the white hats who mostly like kicking ass or getting attention might gravitate toward the dark side. Jedi/Sith-style like in Star Wars. A lot of those heroes need an outlet—fighting folks who are like them. Without that, seizing power and misusing their power might start to taste good to them.”

“But some of these black hats are way more of a risk than the average crook, and you let a lot of them continue to run free when you could shut them down. Doesn’t that—”

“Make me feel conflicted? Make me feel like shit sometimes knowing if I’ve misjudged that someone I thought was no big deal might kill a whole bus full of children or a convent full of nuns? Yeah, Carl. My job sucks. But the fact is, no matter how big my ego, I’ve got enough perspective and humility to know that sometimes I need to let nature run its course. I need to remind myself that no one—not even me—can make crime ever go away. We all have our roles to play, Carl. A lot of times, mine is to sit back and keep my nose out of other people’s business—even when I can smell things are going to go sour.”

* * *

Although her work as an assistant district attorney took her to the main building of the New Judah Police Department on a fairly regular basis, Andrea realized this would be her first time going above the fourth floor since she had started the job two months ago. Truth ADA_Andrea-Yatesbe told, though, that little bit of trivia was only a minor note in her mind right up until the elevator doors opened.

Then she gasped.

The man standing in front of her in a crisp suit-and-tie ensemble might have thought she was gasping at the sight of him, she considered many hours later—he was tall and handsome enough—but what had taken her breath away was the crisp, clean, high-tech appearance of the mostly open-plan landscape of the sixth floor. The rest of the eight-story main precinct building and the other, smaller precinct buildings she’d visited weren’t that much different than what she’d seen in the city of Cleveland’s Division of Police—the offices were neither startlingly decrepit nor were they models of modernity.

But this floor looks like it belongs on the set of some science fiction show, she thought.

“ADA Yates; good to meet you,” the lieutenant said, extending his hand. She took it and gave him a light, quick shake as she exited the elevator car. “Can I get you a coffee?”

“Sure. Black. Do you have a machine that teleports them straight to you, Lt. Greene?” she joked.

He chuckled, low and slow, as he stepped around into a small reception desk and grabbed a cup, pouring from a pot just underneath the counter. “Well, a lot of the officers around here do call this floor ‘The Enterprise,’ but no. Old-fashioned brewing and pouring,” he said, smiling and handing her the paper cup as the steam from it spiraled up in the air between them. “C’mon, let me give you the grand tour. So, I know this is your first time here, or I wouldn’t be your tour guide, but I wanna make sure I show you the right things. I hear that you wanna handle a lot of transhuman cases?”

“Yeah. Is that weird or something?”

“Not at all, Ms. Yates. You see,” he said in an almost boyishly excited voice as he extended one arm in an arc to show off one half of the floor like a gameshow prize, “a lot of this floor is forensics. State-of-the-art lab computers and stuff—the actual labs and clean rooms are a floor above us. Lots of great equipment in there, but that floor looks pretty much like standard police issue architecture. Fortunato actually paid for a lot of this floor as a goodwill gesture to the city. But this—this is what you’re really gonna wanna see.”

He pointed toward the other side of the floor, and led the way to a door marked “SO/GT Div.” Opening it, he waved her in and followed right behind her. It was one of the few parts of the floor that wasn’t open and airy, and there were no windows to let anyone see into this section from the rest of the floor or see out onto the main part of the floor.

“Why do I feel like I’ve been ushered into a secret lair?”

“In a way, you have. This part of the department doesn’t get talked about a lot. I wouldn’t say it’s secret, but it’s probably best if you kind of behave like it is. We talk about it too much, and it may not work as well for us as it does.”

“As what does?” Andrea probed.

“Well, remember how Detective Sergeant Lindemann kind of read you the riot act a few weeks ago about not pushing the department to arrest transhumans on weak evidence?”

“Good God. Is he telling that story all around the department or something? Am I going to be like the village idiot around here?”

“Oh, hell, nothing like that. He’s discreet as hell. But I asked anyone in the department who feels like they have any sense of you or any major interactions with you to come and talk to me before our appointment today.”

“Why, Lieutenant?”

“So I know what your level of knowledge is and what I need to teach you about what we do here. What did Joe tell you was one of the biggest problems about arresting transhumans?”

Andrea sighed and didn’t bother to try to mask the exasperation in her voice. “Making a positive ID and linking them to a crime, since they typically wear masks and gloves—hell, whole costumes that make it less likely they’ll even drop hair as evidence. Plus some of them use body doubles as misdirection.”

“Bingo!” the detective said eagerly. “Even if you get good video, making an ID is hard, because unless the mask is pretty form-fitting, you might not even be able to use facial recognition software to match a suspect to the perp you caught on tape. And that’s why we have the SoundOff Program. That’s the ‘SO’ part of what was on the door back there. We have high-quality recordings of the voices of a lot of transhumans—criminals, vigilantes, heroes, whatever—and we can use those to match a suspect with their voice on file to help make the identification stick when we charge ‘em and you try to convict ‘em.”

With a rush of awareness, Andrea realized what felt strange about this area. Much of it struck her like it was a sound recording studio or radio station.

“But you’d only have them recorded if you’d captured them before, right?”

“Oh, no. We estimate we have voiceprints—good, thorough ones—on probably a third of the trans crooks in town, regardless of whether they’ve ever been caught or even questioned,  and average to middling quality on another third.”


“They call us.”

“No, seriously.”

“Dead serious, ADA Yates. Dead serious. Transhumans who put on costumes tend to be the ones most touched in the head. They’re the ones who often want the attention, or why would they put on costumes and give themselves these crazy names? They love to call and taunt us right before or after a crime. Or just to try to strike fear into our hearts when they first enter the scene. Or to complain to us when the press is mischaracterizing them or we’re supposedly slandering them. And of course the heroes and vigilantes call in to let us know there are bad guys to pick up—so we’ve got them recorded and stored, too.

“Attention,” Lt. Greene continued. “The biggest mental block most any costumed transhuman has is a desire—on some level—for attention or validation. So we sometimes know the villain’s name before anyone’s even seen the creep in action in costume, and we have a voice to match to it—all because he called to introduce himself—or herself. We’ve even been able to nab a few who changed their costume and name later thinking it would help them avoid capture, and charged them with the crimes committed under their previous identity.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“We’ve had this division and this equipment—or earlier generations of it—for a decade, give or take. There are similar centers like this in Manhattan, D.C., Chicago, L.A., Dallas, Philly and Gryphon. Marksburgh flat-out refuses to adopt the technology, even though God knows they need it more than anyone else.”

“And they still call you? No one’s caught on? Surely you have to reveal to the defense and the judge that you have a recording and how it was obtained.”


“Then why don’t the newer transhuman villains stop calling you and giving you evidence to help identify them?”

“Same reason people see shows on TV like CSI or Law & Order or some cheesy Lifetime woman-gets-murdered-by-crazy-husband movie and know the police have special sprays and lights that can show bloodstains that aren’t visible to the naked eye and yet still clean up all the blood and think they’re free and clear. Or rape a woman without wearing a condom. Or don’t wear gloves even though fingerprinting technology’s been around forever. They’re either dumb, overconfident or want too badly for us to realize how amazing they are. And it’s not like we go trumpeting the fact we have all these technologies—that’s why I say behave like it’s a secret, even though it really isn’t.

“But in the end, who knows?” the lieutenant continued, “Ego? Stupidity? Both? I dunno. Maybe just ignorance in some cases. Doesn’t matter, though. In the end, we have these trans guys and gals on file—and non-transhuman folks who crave attention, too, like serial killers or activist extremists. And that’s where we get into the ‘GT’ part of this division’s name. The GeneTrapper Program. Genetic material when we can get it from a crime a trans villain is known to have been at, cross-referenced with the voiceprint and with the gene records and voiceprints of known associates and enemies. And other stuff, too. But showing’s better that saying, and I’ve got some people for you to meet. C’mon, Yates—let’s show you what you’ve got to work with when you go after these costumed nutjobs.”

Barely even looking at him—her head swimming with the realization of just what kind of people she was about to start making the focus of her work and the strangeness of them—she followed in his wake.

I guess we’re not in Cleveland anymore, are we, Toto? Andrea mused as her guide continued to regale her with tales of technology and transhumans as he led her farther down the long hall. Or maybe I’m picking the wrong fantasy analogy. Maybe I just fell down the rabbit hole like Alice did.

* * *

Pushing a comic book just slightly to cover an errant view of the dull, pitted hardwood of his apartment’s floor, the man leaned back. He admired the wall-to-wall “carpeting” of his small, dingy place in the part of the city known as The Hollows—the sea of comics. This tiny place was more than he deserved, really. Crazy Jane had told him that so many times, even as she stroked his hair and called him her good little puppy. Or her bad little puppy.

In the end, both terms were usually used for the same behavior.

He didn’t deserve this little hovel furnished with nothing but two wooden chairs, a small table, and hundreds of comic books to cover the floors. He didn’t deserve Jane. But in the end, he’d played that small part in her escape because she was his world by then. He needed her. Craved her attention. Even now, he shook with stress over the fact she hadn’t Dr-Marc-Bloodbeen to see him since two mornings ago, and rubbed his hands nervously across his black-hooded face.

Usually, she’d visit him daily—sometimes a few times in a day—to monitor his progress. To see how he was developing.

Her art project. Her pet project.

Her pet.

And her toy.

Oh, never to play with sexually—such a thought repulsed him. Not because he didn’t desire her. He did. Oh so much. But it would repulse her he was certain. And it would anger Janus, which might cause him to be permanently removed from Crazy Jane’s attentions. He couldn’t disappoint her like that. So he would never overstep that line.

Besides, he could slake his desires on other men and women just like Crazy Jane had taught him. Just as she had molded him to do. Because she’d imprisoned the sanity that had always held him back from glory. She’d freed his mind to the wonder of what others called madness.

But it was really just truth. Problem was, most of society couldn’t handle the truth.

He admired the colorful, paper carpeting of his abode. Comics with Doctor Doom on the cover. Or Doctor Fate. Or Doctor Strange. Doctor Octopus. Doctor Light. Doctor Silvanus. And so many others.

He’d need to get a tarp today. And then a victim. Mustn’t disappoint Crazy Jane, who’d expect him to have some kind of project to show her when she arrived tomorrow. That’s why she was making him wait, probably—he’d been slack in giving her new pieces to admire. It had been a couple weeks now. He needed to find someone new to—modify.

But first, the tarp.

It wouldn’t do to bloody all these famous comic book “doctors.”

Even if his own name was Marcus Blood, M.D.

Dr. Blood.

* * *

Janus looked out through the broad window of the conference room in which he and Underworld were ensconced. Toward the figure sitting outside on a small sofa. Long-legged and busty with silver-streaked dark hair pulled into a pair of pigtails. Black, sleeveless top and plaid miniskirt. Fishnet stockings with a big pair of lacy white garters at Caterwaulthe swell of the thighs, matching the four smaller garters on the arms, over black opera gloves. High-heeled red pumps with their own lacy garters. Face shining with pale powder and highlighted with a black circle at each cheek and equally black lips. And to top it all off, contact lenses that made the eyes look red as burning embers.

“I cannot believe you convinced me to let that on my team,” he sighed.

Our team,” Underworld corrected him. “And you can’t deny the test results and reports. She’s everything I promised you she would be. Her powers are incredible, especially now that my team has honed them with vocal training and couple technological additions. She’s a goddamn work of transhuman art.”

“She? She has a dick. Cleverly secured back between his ass cheeks or not—a dick. That’s a man, and I wish he would act like one.”

“She already agreed to change her name from Shrill to the more intimidating Caterwaul—and go Goth for you so that she doesn’t look too frilly in a fight. And I have to admit, she does Goth so well. She’s made her concessions. I’m not going to make her dress in slacks and a button-down for you.”

“That is not a woman,” Janus insisted. “I cannot believe you are enabling this ridiculousness.”

“She feels like one, and I’m on her side,” Underworld said. “A chick with a dick, as she likes to say. Variety is the spice of life, Janus. I’ve even found a Regenerator who assures me he can get her body to start producing estrogen consistently. With that and a little cosmetic surgery help, she won’t need the padded bra anymore.”

“A fucking she-male on our team. Just what I wanted,” Janus sneered.

“She hates that term; so do I. You know, for someone who wears masks that express some kind of duality and has the name of a two-faced god, you’re awfully persnickety about sexual identity issues,” Underworld observed.

half-and-half-mask-4She also observed, silently, that there was a subtle difference to his mask today compared to others he had worn. The forward-facing central part of it struck her as angry and male. On each side were two other faces, one looking right and the other left. Both of them seemed feminine, with one smiling and the other’s mouth exhibiting a more neutral affect.

In a sense, he’s wearing three faces today instead of his usual pair, and it mixes masculine and feminine. A little outside his box and perhaps a sign of confusion. I do believe I’ve hit a nerve and found a new way to make Janus uncomfortable, Underworld considered. And that’s always a good thing for me.

“I’m a superpowered kingpin. I reserve the right to be a hypocrite. I just happen to believe that when it comes to gonads, you play the hand you’re dealt,” Janus said. “Or you go under the knife and change your hand to a whole new one. You don’t mix up two different decks.”

“She likes having a dick. It’s like her big, fat juicy clitoris,” Underworld taunted him in a syrupy sweet tone. “And for a pussy she has—”

“Oh, God, please shut up,” he groaned. “Will he go all the way in a fight if necessary? Does he have the killer instinct?”

“She’s sexy and pretty, not a pushover,” Underworld said. “She’ll perform. She will get the jobs done. She. C’mon…say it. Sheeeeeee.”

“It…has…a…dick,” Janus enunciated slowly. “He’s your responsibility, so just make sure he—”


“If I start using ‘she’ and ‘her’ can you promise me we will never again discuss its sexual anatomy or who and what it sleeps with?” Janus said with quiet intensity.

“Oh, of course, my dear,” Underworld said with even more exaggerated sweetness. “That Underworld-2sounds just lovely.”

“Then I look forward to her proving herself. If she fails me by showing the slightest hesitation—if she crumbles at any crunch-time—I will not hesitate to crush every one of her protuberances before I kill her.”

“Fair enough, Janus,” Underworld said with a smug undertone. “You’ve gotta admit, though, she has a great ass and gorgeous legs.”

Janus sighed heavily. “In hindsight, I suppose I should have made you agree not to talk about any part of Caterwaul’s body.”

“Yeaaaaah,” she responded, slowly and softly.

“I think we’re done today,” said Janus. “Tell the others to come back in a couple days and we can finish sorting out the final roster and backup members. Hopefully, you’ll be over your gloating by then. I trust you can see your Goth-tart protégé out by yourself.”

“Of course, darling,” Underworld said as if addressing a small child, her glee at ruining his day a little taking some of the edge—a sliver at least—off her burning daily desire to murder him. “Wouldn’t want Caterwaul to get any of her transvestite cooties on youuuu, would weeee?”

“Go,” Janus snarled, then smiled brightly beneath the angry frown of his mask. “Please go before I forget how much I need to keep you around.”

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

“Welcome to the show, Secretary Dahl, and congratulations on your recent confirmation earlier this spring as head of the Department of Transhuman Affairs,” Ben Glick said with his unique mix of solicitude and disdain. “Why don’t you tell myself and my audience how you’re going to deal with the transhuman problem in this country and how you’ll be working with the Defense Department and State Department to deal with transhuman threats abroad.”

“Well,” the guest said, clearly taken aback, “thank you so much, Mr. Glick, for telling me what my agenda is supposed to be, particularly the foreign affairs role you seem to think I have. If you don’t mind, though, I’ll wait on President Obama to tell me what he sees my priorities being on what you call a ‘problem’ and what I simply see as a fact of life. We have transhumans…”

“…so, you don’t have any original thoughts,  Secretary Dahl?” the host goaded him. “The man who brought us socialist Obamacare and who’s trampling on the Constitution and refusing to produce a physical birth certificate from the U.S. has to march you through every step? Well, why does he need a secretary to head the department, then? He can just keep doing nothing and run Transhuman Affairs himself.”

“I think you’re well aware of the fact I meant I’ll be getting my broad goals and parameters from the President, as do all Cabinet members, Mr. Glick. And the U.S. government has hardly been ‘doing nothing’ as you say with regard to transhumans.”

“Really? What has been done with regard to the transhuman problem?”

“These are fellow humans, sir, not a ‘problem’ to be solved.”

“Oh, I’ll grant you there are a small number—those who watch me regularly, I’m sure—who side with humanity, but they aren’t human, sir. That’s why we call them ‘transhuman’ and they most certainly are a problem, as evidenced by the crimes so many of them commit and the damage the so-called ‘heroes’ do as well.”

Dahl rolled his eyes visibly. “You’re talking about a very small percentage of the population of transhumans, out of the already small percentage who have significant powers.”

“Interesting word choice: significant. Yes, Mr. Secretary, I worry about the ones I don’t see talked about on the news, or who have powers that aren’t showy, who might be using them to get over on humans, or push them out of jobs, or influence them, as the Socialist-in-Chief looks the other way.”

“I’m well aware of your conspiracy theories, but making charts of presumed connections between the Oval Office, transhuman agitators or anyone else with your dry erase markers on a whiteboard when you’re on the air hardly makes your theories fact.”

“Oh, certainly, sir, belittle my audience.”

“It’s not your audience that I’m addressing, and I’m still not sure what it is you think the President should be doing that isn’t already being done, particularly my part, given that my department is concerned with issues of health, discrimination and social issues—not law enforcement.”

“Well, aside from no longer cozying up to transhumans behind closed doors and handing the keys to the kingdom to them,” Ben Glick said loftily, “how about he give us some enforcement of the laws against them?”

“I’m a bit more concerned in my department about enforcing laws that should be protecting them to ensure they have the same rights as any other American, but the fact is that transhumans who break the law are arrested by local authorities or the FBI depending on the nature of their crime.”

“Oh, yes, some of them—for show. Those who aren’t of any use, since ‘President’ Obama has a history of throwing inconvenient people under the bus, as it were,” the talk show host responded. “How about…oh…Doctor Holiday?”

“Why would you pick him?” Secretary Dahl asked. “The government clearly has him in its sights. He’s on FBI’s most-wanted list.”

“And yet still at large—for Obama’s entire administration.”

“All of Bush’s, too, I should add,” Secretary Dahl said.

“Yes, but not with an official ‘hands off’ rule from the Oval Office back then.”

The Transhuman Affairs Secretary got an “ah-ha” look on his face. “I see. The so-called order to let Doctor Holiday do whatever he pleases. It doesn’t exist. It never did. It never will. More conspiracy theories, as is the idea that the government created him.”

“On Christmas 2009, just last year, he tossed a man into his own burning house after accusing him of horrific crimes for which there was no evidence—killing him without letting him have the benefit of a trial—and putting a whole neighborhood in danger. On Veteran’s Day three years ago, he dug up several caskets in Arlington Cemetery and flung them away. Several months ago, on New Year’s, he murdered…”

“Look, let me stop you there,” Secretary Dahl said. “I’ll grant you the Christmas example, as it was murder, though I should note the family has since confirmed many of the accusations. But all three caskets at Arlington turned out to be problematic—two of them were in the wrong graves, having been switched, and one corpse was of a soldier who it later turned out was guilty of several heinous crimes while deployed in Iraq. As for the New Year’s incident, we have the word of one man that Doctor Holiday did it. I’ll remind you of how many people accuse Doctor Holiday of everything under the sun, even when it isn’t a holiday, like the woman who drowned her three children a few years back and said ‘Doctor Holiday did it’ or the man who robbed the bank he worked at a few days before Easter and said Doctor Holiday did it. Even BP was trying to blame their oil spill in the Gulf on Doctor Holiday for the first few weeks. Need I go on?”

“Still, he walks free, and on that Christmas incident, why didn’t the authorities notify the FBI unless they were ordered to ignore…”

“As I understand it, Mr. Glick, the local authorities were a bit frightened and confused and were slow in letting the FBI know, and there was a mix-up in the message going through proper channels once the FBI was called…”

“So, every time Doctor Holiday shows up, the FBI or military are conveniently nowhere to be found.”

“You know as well as I do that Doctor Holiday seems to have a very large number of powers, and…”

“…and apparently friends in high places,” Ben Glick snapped. “There should be teams ready nationwide so that the moment someone spots Doctor Holiday, an Apache helicopter is sent out to fire a Sidewinder missile right at that menace to society.”

“Aside from the danger of using a Sidewinder on a single man in what would be a populated area most likely, weren’t you just complaining how Doctor Holiday denied a man the right to a trial by summarily executing him?” Secretary Dahl noted. “And now you want him executed on the spot?”

“The Constitution was written by humans and for humans, Mr. Secretary,” Glick said. “Someone like Doctor Holiday deserves no more consideration for due process than a rabid wolf in a Macy’s.”

* * *

Zoe consulted her e-mail and her Twitter account on her smart phone, then set it down to take a drink of her mocha with a double-shot of espresso. As she did, she heard the scrape of a chair behind her as someone sat at the table there, then a quiet voice saying, “Ms. Dawson—you should go to the library and look for some books by Donald Miller. An associate of Query’s would like to make your acquaintance in that section.”

Then the man moved his chair closer to his table, and she heard him sip at some beverage loudly.

Her heart seemed to stop in her chest for a moment, and she wondered if it was a trap set by Janus or Underworld to test her or trip her up, then realized the ridiculousness of that. They’d have to know she called him first, and that seemed unlikely. She hadn’t used her own phone or her normal e-mail account to do that. Then once she dispensed with that fear she felt a fresh wave of anxiety as she wondered how deep she was getting if she actually had gotten Query’s attention.

Part of me wonders if the wiser move would simply have been to play along with Underworld and take her offer at face value, Zoe considered. Except I don’t like being forced into a corner and I’m not sure I can just turn off my conscience that easily.

She stood up, gathered her things, and headed back to the campus to visit the library, hoping that her mysterious contact hadn’t meant the city library. She thought about asking him, and then wondered how many eyes Underworld or Janus might have on her, and kept walking instead.

* * *

The man behind the desk sighed, removed his feet from the top of it, and then leaned forward, hands steepled together in front of him. “Bob, I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable with the direction of this project. I’m particularly uncomfortable now that I’m only just finding out about its existence 17 months into my presidency.”

“I only found out about it a couple days ago myself, sir,” responded the Secretary of Defense. “This has been an active but largely black-budget project for many years, and apparently they’re under a standing executive order to only bring themselves to my attention or yours at certain milestone points. Like this one, for which they need approval to proceed.”

“This just isn’t right,” President Obama said. “It smells bad, Bob.”

“But it isn’t some ultra-secret autonomous project or some rogue thing, sir, as evidenced by the safeguards and approval processes we’re seeing now.”

“I promised a more transparent government, not a more opaque one.”

“This isn’t the kind of thing we can tell people about, but I think it’s a project we need, no matter how distasteful it might seem. Look, we know that China is pushing transhuman development plans, both training the ones they have—most of them in the military—and working on ways to activate dormant transhuman genes in otherwise normal citizens.”

“China isn’t an enemy, I should point out,” the President said.

“Nor a friend, really, when we get down to it,” added Secretary of State Clinton, who had been silent until that point. “They already flex the muscle they have owning so much of our debt and being such an economic force potentially. Their people are already genetically predisposed more to transhuman powers than our largely white population here in the U.S., and they have a fifth of the world’s people in their borders.”

“Hillary’s right, sir. They will push the envelope, and if they decide to be aggressive, we will be at a serious disadvantage,” Secretary Gates added.

“General Alexander knew about this?”

“Yes sir,” Secretary Gates admitted. “He was NSA director under President Bush, too, and oversees it. He, like the facility in question, was under a standing order…”

“…he authorized them to take the next step and gave them a deadline to produce induced transhumans,” the President pointed out, an edge to his voice. “That is totally unacceptable.”

“Unfortunately, sir, it was part of his job, and written into his national security duties, as well as his military obligations, to only notify you when he needed authorization. He gave them a deadline, but only you can push the button on this,” Secretary Gates noted. “Given that China is mostly on our minds here, but also Iran and other nations who are more predisposed to their people becoming transhumans, you, me and Secretary Clinton need to know about this. But we either need to be on board with it, or stop and bury the project and make sure no one ever finds out about it. Those are really our only two options.”

For several minutes, the president of the United States said nothing. “Shit I need a cigarette,” he muttered. “OK. Hillary, Bob, we need to keep a tight lid on this. Obviously. I don’t like it one bit, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much I can do about what’s already been done, so let’s finish the project’s currently active phase. But I swear to God, if General Alexander or anyone else authorizes any new warm bodies to be added in in this exercise, I will make sure some heads start rolling, no matter what ‘standing executive orders’ are in place. And speaking of that, I want the general in here tomorrow to give me a full accounting of these standing orders he has as director of the National Security Agency and what orders the Genesis One facility has, or I’ll have him manning an Arctic research station by week’s end. Are we clear?”

“Crystal-clear, sir,” Robert Gates noted, and Hillary Clinton herself just nodded.

“I need a lot more convincing that this is important enough to keep going,” the President added. “As of right now, I’m feeling like this batch of poor guinea pigs in this program needs to be the last.”

* * *

In a quiet warehouse far from the New Judah city limits, a man in a suit walked nervously to the center of the structure, and stopped. After a while, he said, “I hope you’re here. You’re not an easy woman to find, my employer was very clear that I needed to reach you, and I am supposed to report back soon.”

“Is that your way of suggesting that I can’t kill you or people will know right away you’re missing?” came the gleeful reply from above. Moments later, Tooth Fairy dropped from above, and grunted as she hit the ground a little harder than she planned on.

“Just trying to emphasize that I don’t want to rush you, but I have to,” the man said.

“Oh, really? So I have to make a decision now. Is that it?” she asked, opening her mouth and letting her normal teeth turn into long needle-like curving fangs.

The man put his hands before his chest, waving them back and forth quickly. “Not at all, ma’am. I just need to be able to report that you got my message and that I gave you the means to contact my employer.”

“Are you a cop?” she asked suddenly.


“For your sake, I hope not. Because if a bunch of boys in blue rush in here, you’ll be dead before they take me and certain unmentionable parts of your anatomy will be in my mouth—and not in a loving or affectionate manner.”

“That won’t be necessary…”

“Damn!” she said, smiling and with a playful look in her eyes, which contrasted hideously with her toothy visage. She let the teeth revert to normal. “That’s a pity. Well, you’ve given me your message. I’m really not the joining type, though. Maybe killing you would be a good message to send to that effect.”

“It’s just an offer, ma’am. An expression of respect for your abilities and a chance for you to say yes or no as you please.”

“Call me ma’am one more time, and I’m going to have a snicky-snack,” Tooth Fairy said. “Go on, now, and run back to Janus. Leave your card or whatever on the ground and fly away home little ladybug.”

“Yes, ma…” the man said, then bit down on his tongue, set a business card on the ground, and hurried away as fast as he could without completely abandoning his dignity or decorum.

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After a long day of meting out justice—or perhaps just venting her frustrations over life’s problems on the few kinds of people on whom it was more or less socially acceptable to do so—Solstice really just wanted to relax, grab a quick bite, and get acquainted with her bed.

Instead, she was met by the words, “Hey, Michele, welcome back!” and an upraised arm with a half-empty glass of soda being shaken back and forth as the woman added the words, “Drink’s a little warm.”

Shaking her head in half-amused irritation, Michele Cho stepped over to the couch, touched the glass of her stepsister and roommate for a few seconds, and used her cryokinetic powers to cool the beverage down to something near refrigerator temperature. She could smell just a hint of rum wafting up from the Coca-Cola.

“Thanks,” Isabella said. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around aside from that half-the-rent and half-the-bills thing.”

“That and my sunny disposition and the sheer joy of my company,” Michele responded dryly. “Why I keep your demanding and bitchy ass around, though, I’m not entirely sure.”

“I’m adorable and bitchy. You know you want me bad.”

“Oh God, that’s unseemly and depraved even for you, Izzie. We’re sisters.”

“Hardly. You the almost full-blooded Chink and me the almost full-blooded Spic. Sisters? Does not compute.”

Michele snorted a half-laugh. Isabella was right, of course—there wasn’t much sisterly in their relationship. Her Chinese father and the other woman’s Puerto Rican mother had married when Michele was 14 and Izzie was 12 and neither had ever viewed her respective stepparent as anything other than an annoyance.

“Still, it would be really awkward to explain you and me sleeping together at the family gatherings at holiday time,” Michele noted. “Not to mention the fact that you don’t go for girls, so why would I bother with keeping you around as a potential piece of tail? I don’t need to work on converting someone when I can get dates easy enough outside the apartment.”

“Not to mention the fact you don’t like brunettes,” Isabella said, flipping a bit of her hair for effect.

“Not true at all. I’m not generally attracted to brunette women—blondes and redheads all the way there,” Michele said. “Men, though—I love me some tall, dark and handsome there. Brown and black hair for the XY chromosome recreational nookie.”

“Fickle bitch,” Isabella muttered. “Hey, don’t go to bed too soon. I might need my drink chilled again.”

“Then get some ice you lazy twat,” Michele said with good-natured affront.

“So, how did the whole superwoman thing go tonight?” Isabella called out as Michele stepped into the kitchen and pulled out her Solstice cowl from her shoulder bag to give it a quick wash in the sink. “No trouble, I hope. No one got a good hit in on you, did they?”

“Nah,” Michele said. “Strictly losers tonight. I was busy and I’m tired, but it wasn’t even a challenge. Lots ’o bad guys, but zero skill.”

“Just don’t get cocky,” Isabella said. “I may find you to be a gloomy, pretentious Goth freak, but you’re still technically family as well as my roomie, so you’re my gloomy pretentious Goth freak. I don’t want to be dropping some roses on a casket for you until you’re at least in your 60s.”

“I’ll do my best to stay safe and alive, you self-absorbed, overly entitled slut,” Solstice said, blowing a kiss.

Isabella snatched the phantom kiss from the air and made as if she was popping into her mouth, then pantomimed chewing and swallowing. “Love you, too, Michele.”

* * *

Only a few days old now, the month of May did not look to be shaping up as a sunny time, Zoe considered as she nursed a soft drink and picked at the appetizer before her. This was the fourth time now that Underworld had treated her to a recruitment meal and each time, Zoe could feel her time running out more and more. She should be looking forward to graduation in about six weeks, but instead she could only envision doom. Underworld had made it clear that Janus wanted her to recruit Zoe soon and that college plans should be discarded—whether Zoe complied with Janus’ desires or decided to flee.

Zoe wanted a cap and gown and diploma, a little down time, a little time in the work world, and then start applying to grad school.

Instead, a madman was mentally fitting her for a costume and a criminal career, using Underworld as his proxy.

Underworld had gotten very good at reading Zoe’s expressions and discerning the track of her thoughts, and smiled. “Tick, tock; tick, tock,” the villainess said. She was wearing an auburn wig today and clothes that made her look a little like a soccer mom. “Are you feeling Janus’ breath on the back of your neck?”

“You’re an evil bitch,” Zoe said mildly.

“Hardly. You want to know about evil bitches, you should meet Madamnation.”

“Madame Nation? Who’s that? Some jingoistic villainess with a patriotic theme?”

“You really don’t like to follow the transhuman crowd in the news or on the web, do you?” Underworld noted. “Not Madame Nation. Madamnation. Madame plus Damnation. And believe me, she takes the demonic and hellishness thing all the way. The only fellow female for whom I’d reserve the use of the word cunt.”

“Guess you and her have some history,” Zoe noted, trying to keep the discussion away from Janus. The closer the talk came to him, the more her anxiety deepened.

“History? Yeah. She runs a website, too, for all the fanboys and girls, just like I do,” Underworld said. “Except where I do merchandise, book sales and soft porn or artistic sexy images, she’s riding high on the kinky stuff. Fetish, full nudity, a whole stable of girls with cam shows and everything. Tacky, slutty stuff all the way.”

“And more popular because of that, of course,” Zoe added, relishing the chance to get even a small dig into the woman relentlessly recruiting her.

“True. The web was always ripe for the most base desires and for our darkest fantasies to be made readily accessible, wasn’t it? But we’ve also crossed paths in criminal endeavors and she’s done me wrong there, too. Still, as much as I hate her and as unbalanced as she is, she’s less psychotic than Janus, so that’s one plus in her column. Maybe you should see if she’ll take you in and shield you from us.”

Zoe groaned as the conversation again steered where she didn’t want it.

“Really, Zoe,” Underworld continued. “You need to make a decision soon. Janus is a terror, to be true, but he can be managed and I can help you learn how to avoid the dangers. To be honest, I think it might be nice to make you my protégé. You’d find a lot to like on our side of the line, my dear. Crime really does pay when you’re smart enough to do it right. While I don’t like his approach much, Janus and I both know the business, we complement each other, and you’ll do a lot better financially with us than you will with corporate America.”

“I have this nagging moral streak, you see.”

“Oh, yes, the moral streak that allows you to lie to the NCAA that you’re not transhuman, so that you can get scholarship money to pay for college. What does Jesus think of that, Zoe?”

“Don’t go there. Don’t,” Zoe said with unvarnished threat in her tone.

“You see? Zoe, I’m a hardened criminal. I publicly crippled Glory Boy. I’ve escaped prison twice. I’m not a sociopath, but I’m dangerous all the same. And right now, you show that spark again that you aren’t cowed by me. That’s the kind of spirit I want to work with. Yes, I’m worried about you being close to Janus but I think he’s got the right idea about your potential, and I’m really warming to the idea of mentoring you.”

“Not interested.”

“How long can you put it off before you realize you don’t have any choice?”

“There are always choices. And they don’t have to be limited to running away or bending my knee to Janus—or you,” Zoe noted.

Underworld looked around slowly, assessed her surroundings, and then smiled. “I don’t think you’ve brought in the authorities yet, but I admit I was wondering for a moment there. I am curious why you haven’t yet done so.”

“Because if I do, you or Janus might be mad enough to kill me—or worse.”

“Now, now, Zoe. You know we aren’t going to throw away such potential as you have over something like that. You’d only get hurt…a little. And don’t try to play as if you’re afraid of me. What’s the real reason you don’t call in the cops and tell them about me and my efforts to recruit you?”

“Easy. For one thing, I don’t ever know where we’re meeting until the last minute.”

“Oh, I’m sure the FBI would love to stake you out and be ready at a moment’s notice to follow you and try to nab me,” Underworld pointed out.

“Oh, yes, and won’t it be so nice to have to tell them I’m transhuman and possibly trash the college education that I’m still hoping I can finish before I have to figure out how to get Janus and you to fuck off.”

“Well, there are always the so-called ‘white hats’ that you could call in,” Underworld noted with an air of disdain.

“Oh, yes, because it’s so easy to just call up a superhero to come on over and help—or to be my bodyguard for a while,” Zoe said. “And a transhuman battle on campus between you and some super-dude would be so fucking great for my college career. And yeah, I have tried to see if there are any who I could get to help, just in case. But they don’t have receptionists.”

“Well, some of them…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Zoe said dismissively. “Super groups. Teams. Sure. I’ve done my research. Most of them are more like clubs. A bunch of transhumans who sort of get along but none of whom think the others know shit. They’ll have an office and a phone number for a few months and then they can’t keep up with the bills any more and the number they had in the phone book is disconnected, their website hasn’t been updated in months, and their e-mail inbox is overloaded and kicking back your messages. The only transhumans who always keep their phones operational are mercenaries, and I can’t afford one of them.”

“I see someone has been doing some homework other than prepping for final exams,” Underworld noted.

“As if I’m going to sit on my ass while you and Janus map out my life without my consent?” Zoe said. “There are only what—three legitimate transhuman hero teams?—and one of them is in California, the other one’s in Texas, and the third is in New York and its has such a low opinion of New Judah that they wouldn’t come across the Long Island Sound to do anything here if you paid them. And the fucking Guardian Corps are all about street crime and training new heroes. So, yeah, I’ve got lots of backup, don’t I?” Zoe finished with a sarcastic note.

“That’s what I like about you, Zoe. Proactive. Thorough. Practical. Logical. Fearless. You’ve been working the angles and you’re not afraid to make sure I know it. Join us, Zoe. I’ll keep Janus off you. He has Crazy Jane back in his hands and that makes him happier, and I’ll find new playthings for him, too. You don’t have to worry.”

“Put myself in your loving hands. Lesser of two evils, huh?”

“I’m not so evil, Zoe. I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

“Go ahead, steal lines from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but that doesn’t change the fact I don’t trust you to have my best interests at heart,” Zoe said. “I’m still weighing options. I figure it’s going to take you at least two or three more lunches to convince me.”

“I doubt Janus will let me do this more than four or five more times before he steps in, Zoe, so I hope you’re right,” Underworld said. “And I hope you make the smart choice.”

Oh, I plan to, Zoe thought, as she idly fingered the smart phone in her pocket. And now that I finally have a number worth calling, I have more choices than you think. At least I hope I do; I don’t know what kind of response time I can count on with this option.

* * *

Carl wasn’t sure he liked Query’s new office all that much—this building was even older than the last one, and smaller, too. After the attack at the last one, he felt more exposed now. But he supposed he would also get used to it soon enough.

“I trust you passed on the chance to dance with, fondle, feel up or neck with any strange women, right?” Query asked. It was the first time they had met face-to-face for business purposes since the destruction of the previous office.

“Learned my lesson,” Carl said. “Mr. Beacham has turned over a whole new leaf in terms of fidelity thanks to almost getting killed before.”

“Don’t refer to yourself in the third person. You’re not famous or eccentric enough.”

“Agreed,” Carl said. “So, is there an escape route behind the bookcase, just in case?”

“If we need to escape, that’s the point at which you’ll find out where I’ve put it. But you also passed through several screeners on the way in here, and I think you’re clean. I clearly need to step up my paranoia level now that Janus is in the region,” Query said. “So, on to the business stuff, which I’m sure has backed up. What do you have for me?”

“Backed up is an understatement,” Carl noted. “I haven’t been able to screen or research all of the calls. Fortunato is trying to reach you…”

“He can go fuck himself,” Query interrupted. “At least until I have a personal reason to want to talk to him, then he can have his say. Go on.”

“The FBI and ATF both want to talk to you—I think they’ve guessed that the whole hit squad thing at your last office had something to do with you…”

“The ‘fuck off’ thing goes triple for them,” Query noted. “Next?”

“A senior at UConn New Judah says Janus is trying to press her into service, using Underworld as a recruiter. She wants help, she’s asking for discretion, and even though she tried to sound tough in her message, there’s a strong undertone of ‘scared shitless’,” Carl said. “She’s also left several e-mails.”


“Too soon to tell. Could be. Good chance. Janus would want to make it look good, and this student is likely already in his pocket and ready to stab us in the back when we—rather, you—show up to help. On the other hand…”

“I don’t want to leave some girl twisting in the wind while Janus is stalking her—if she’s on the up-and-up.”

“Exactly,” Carl said.

“All right. Be discreet. Get in touch with her. Find out if she seems to be playing it straight. Let me know what you think. I’ll have to trust your judgment.”

“All in a day’s work, boss,” Carl said, batting his eyelashes and smiling in a purposefully insincere manner.

“Yeah, Carl, I know the check is late. I would say it’s in the mail, but I actually have it right here,” Query said, handing over an envelope. “Have I ever let you down?”

“No, and that’s why I try not to let you down either, Query.”

“Just stay away from loose women with transmitters to drop in your pocket, Carl, and you probably won’t let me down ever again—Patsy will be a lot happier too. All right, what else do you have for me?”

As Carl turned over the sheet of paper on his clipboard, and Query spied how many lay underneath it, he knew it was going to be a long night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No and no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not sure I’m hungry anymore.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Silence was a delicate thing, Jeremiah has always thought, and needed to be treated with respect. His employer had read the letter—his first official task of the morning—and had clearly been considering its implications. But, being ever-attuned to the nuances of environment, behavior and timing, Jeremiah felt that the silence was on the verge of gathering pressure and mass—it was poised to become oppressive and distracting. So he did what he had always done in his role as executive assistant—a role that had been built as something far more than a glorified secretary, even if it was also far less than a vice presidency.

He intervened to manage the silence, and keep the flow of activity in its proper course.

“Sir, how should we respond?” Jeremiah asked the man who had been named Arturo Vasquez shortly after emerging from his mother’s womb, but was known by most people now simply as Fortunato.

Fortunato smiled lightly, both a recognition that it was time to act somehow and also an acknowledgement that he appreciated Jeremiah’s exquisite timing and perception. “For now, we do nothing.”

“Sir, Janus has officially issued you a challenge,” Jeremiah noted. “He is stating his intention to you—as I’m sure he has to other business leaders, as well as various criminal bosses and public officials—to set up a new operation for himself in this region and to impinge upon your income.”

“And that is just the thing,” Fortunato pointed out. “I’m not his only target of interest in making this known.”

“But you are one of the richest men in the nation and one of the most powerful businessmen in New Judah, and a known transhuman. Much of your influence and wealth comes from your notoriety and popularity, which in turn comes from the fact that you lead a life publicly and openly as a transhuman. Even though you rarely intervene directly in crime and such anymore, Janus may see you as a threat.”

“Perhaps,” Fortunato said, “but clearly he sees Query as the big threat. I’ve heard through the transhuman community that Query was targeted by a very well-equipped hit squad backed by Janus. No, Janus isn’t interested in engaging me directly—at least not any time soon. He likes fear and he likes to make aggressive postures. He’s sending a message to all of us that he want a piece of what every one of us has, whether we pay protection or whether we let him into our operations, criminal or legitimate.”

Jeremiah frowned. “But you’re not going to ignore him.”

The words were a statement, not a question; he knew his boss too well. It was just a confirmation, and an invitation for Fortunato to continue.

“Not a bit,” Fortunato said. “As you well know, while I don’t engage in truly unsavory commerce, there are aspects of my corporate reach that are less pure than others, and which Janus might be able to touch directly. I’ll have to keep an eye on those shadier areas in particular.”

“But most of all, we wait for now to see what he will do next, and to determine how we will respond,” Jeremiah stated.

“Exactly,” Fortunato said. “Now, on to reviewing matters that actually impact my bottom line in the short run, before I have to talk to the board of directors this afternoon.”

* * *

Mornings were already anathema to Zoe; having to endure the discussion section for Prof. McGinnis’ Sociology and Culture class at 8 a.m. on Monday was sheerest torture.

Today was worse than most such Mondays.

The grad student who oversaw these discussion sessions was wholly in the professor’s camp in terms of theory, to a degree that was verifiably sycophantic; Zoe wondered often whether Cheryl had a single original thought in her head when it came to the topics they covered in class.

And now that they were discussing religion and culture, the heavy focus on transhuman influences in culture that had so pervaded the class had been poised to go precisely where Zoe didn’t want it to go. But, as she had worried, it did anyway.

Adding to the discomfiture was a woman in the class whom Zoe didn’t recognize—too old to be a student. Perhaps some kind of academic observer? In any case, she was an outsider, which added to Zoe’s stress levels.

“Why does Jesus have to be a transhuman?” Zoe said in response to a theory Cheryl had tossed out to the class like fresh meat to a cage full of lions, and which had been under discussion for at least 15 minutes now.

“Because it’s what makes sense, Zoe,” countered one of her classmates, Ralph, whom she normally liked well enough. But he was rigidly and even haughtily atheist and she had long since learned that religious discussions were a lousy place to go with him.

No helping that in this venue, though, she thought bitterly.

“Why?” she asked. “Look, if you want to say the stories of Jesus’ miracles were just made up, fine. But why does it ‘have to’ make sense that he was a transhuman when we only started seeing transhumans in the 1970s, and Jesus was more than 2,000 years ago?”

“Really, Zoe,” Cheryl chimed in, “do you believe that there were no transhumans before the late 20th century—that they just popped up out of nowhere?”

“Of course not. They have probably been on the rise for some time, but unnoticed for decades—maybe a few centuries. But 2,000 years ago? Because then you have to say that maybe Moses was a transhuman, and that’s even farther back. Or Samson…or the sources of any other miracle-based biblical tales or even the older pre-Judaic mythologies. And you’re saying we almost never see these transhumans throughout all those millennia and then, boom!—we hit the jackpot in the ‘70s? C’mon!”

“It makes a hell of a lot more sense than God incarnating as a human,” Ralph said. “Jesus’ healing powers would be easily explained by him being a Regenerator, and his charisma and ability to discern danger and future events could have been Psionics and/or Primal powers.”

“The loaves and fishes?” Zoe noted. “Creating matter from nothing? Or water to wine? There are no known Transmuters or Creators—those are strictly theoretical and unlikely powers.”

“Well, those were probably just stories added later.”

“Convenient, Ralph,” Zoe said. “The stuff you can’t explain was made up; everything else was due to being transhuman. How about the resurrection? Because I don’t see his entire apostolic crew praising him and risking crucifixion or worse themselves after he called himself the son of God and then died like a punk on the cross. As far as I’m concerned, he had to come back to life for them to put themselves on the line like that.”

“This isn’t a theology class, Zoe,” Cheryl cut in.

“Step off, Cheryl. This is a discussion section, and I’m in a discussion. Add to it or get out of it and leave me to my work,” Zoe snapped.

“Zoe, him ‘coming back to life’ would have just been autonomic self-healing as a powerful Regenerator—he never actually died,” Ralph said, and Cheryl nodded vigorously, face red with anger at Zoe’s challenge to her classroom authority.

“Have you read anything about what damage crucifixion does to the body?” Zoe asked. “After hours on the cross, then being sealed in a tomb for a couple days without food or water—no Regenerator is going to come back from that. The body needs decent conditions and some kind of nutrition to fuel the healing process.”

“It’s a strange world, Zoe, but it doesn’t need God to explain such things,” Cheryl said. “I think we can almost all of us agree to the likelihood that Jesus was transhuman, and move on.”

Zoe was mentally ready to continue the fight, but pushing her agenda and view now wouldn’t win her anything but trouble when it came time for grades to be handed out. But she fumed quietly. Her application of her personal religious and spiritual views tended very much toward liberal and centrist notions, but she didn’t like having her foundational beliefs about God and Jesus challenged and dismissed so blithely.

Yet another area of my life where transhumanity overshadows things, she bemoaned silently.

* * *

Cole’s sleep was jarred by something sharp and hard, and it was only when he heard “Rise and shine” and began to gain awareness that he realized it was the toe of a cowboy boot prodding his ribs. “Get a good night’s rest, Cole?”

“Yeah, this mat’s fantastic, and the rats in the walls kept me company really well,” he answered miserably to the costumed man he had met just hours earlier. This time, he was attired more completely, not just in a mask and wearing those boots, but with a Western-style Stetson hat and a long leather duster over his dark unitard and vest. Everything was shades of brown with hints of black, from the attire and accents to his skin, eyes and hair—making him look like almost like a antique bronze statue of a cowboy. As before, Blockbuster was here with them, and as just as lacking in humor, talkativeness and warmth as he had been before.

“If your apartment’s cozier, go back,” the man said. “I told you this wasn’t going to be easy.”

“You could have told me I’d be living here, and I might have brought a change of clothes or two.”

“You won’t be living here precisely, just camping out, and you can leave soon enough, and check in with your roommates—give them some story to explain why you’ll be gone a while. Assuming that we decide to let you stay here for a probationary period.”

“I guess that’ll be determined by the intense interrogation you mentioned before you left me here alone,” Cole noted hesitantly. “Can I at least get a name for you before you start with the thumbscrews or waterboarding or whatever you’re planning?”

“Would you like to be waterboarded?” the man quipped. “I have a trainer here in the Guardian Corps who did time with the military and has some first-hand experience. I was planning something a little less brutal, but if you prefer…”

“I’ll trust that your original plan is better,” Cole said quickly. Nervousness was beginning to fray his composure.

“Desperado,” the man said, finally answering Cole’s question. “Now you’ll have a name to curse later along with Blockbuster’s.”

Cole’s palms were sweaty and his heart was beating fast enough for him to gauge its beats by the pounding bursts at his temples. With a panicky surge in his mind, he almost got up and ran for the door.

I shouldn’t be here. What the hell am I thinking? I’m a recent college grad who should be applying for biomedical engineering jobs. I…

He didn’t want that life, he realized just as suddenly as the anxiety had struck, and he clenched his sweaty palms into fists instead, squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and took a deep breath.

“Can we get on with it? The sooner you satisfy yourself, the sooner I can find a shower and then settle in here.”

Desperado made a shallow nod, stepped toward him slowly, somehow managing to convey intense menace in those few steps across a span of less than six feet, and said, “Tell me about Hannah.”

The question caught Cole off-guard, and he blurted out “Who?” before he suddenly realized who Desperado meant.

“Hannah Marie Rosenberg, Cole. Sadie Hawkins Dance. Junior year. Was she that forgettable? Or have you assaulted a whole lot of other women we don’t know about yet and she’s just faded into the background of fresher meat? I told you we’ve been checking into your past, Cole, as we wait for our professional interrogator to arrive. I just figured I’d grease the wheels a bit and see if we can save her the trouble of having to use her skills and cut you from consideration right now.”

“I never touched Hannah!” Cole said with more vehemence than he intended.

“Well, I don’t know what your power—or powers—might be yet, so maybe you didn’t need to touch her, Cole.”

“I didn’t do it! I wasn’t even anywhere near her when it happened. I don’t even know where it happened. Everyone assumed I did it, even though there wasn’t any reason to tie me to her, but I didn’t do it,” Cole said.

“I suppose you won’t be taking credit for Paul Whitten or Isaac Stone, either,” Desperado said grimly, a savage note underlying his voice.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about with Paul—I don’t remember anything really bad happening to him in school,” Cole said, and then paused, feeling like not only was his stomach dropping, but the floor was disappearing beneath him. Isaac. “Isaac…I’m sorry about what happened to Isaac. Congratulations. You’re the first person to even say it might have been me. I didn’t mean for him to get hurt that badly. But once…after it happened, I couldn’t cop to it—I didn’t dare—and I figured I was already paying for Hannah’s injuries without having done anything to her, so it came out even.”

“I doubt Isaac felt that way.”

“He recovered all right in the end,” Cole said weakly. “Hardly any of the scars were anywhere he couldn’t cover them. But I still hate that it happened. I’m not proud of it.”

Desperado paused and seemed to take Cole’s measure, then tipped up his Stetson to scratch at his forehead. “It’s not what I would call complete remorse, Cole—not by a long shot—but it’s a start. It’s a good enough start that we can move to the next step.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Professor McGinnis jotted down a date on the whiteboard—1970—then underneath it the current year: 2010. He turned to his Sociology and Culture class, every one of the 25 students a senior, pointing the dry erase marker at them, waving it like a wand and saying, “Who can tell me what they think is the most important change in society to occur in this period?”

Zoe caught his eyes squarely even as she raised her hand—it was a trick she had learned long ago to ensure she didn’t get overlooked. Joe McGinnis was as often flustered by her as he was elated with her answers, so he sometimes had an inclination to ignore her at first. But the main reason Zoe did it was because when she had a thought to share, she was damned if anyone else was going to go first. It often came at the cost of getting in the final word, but it was a price she was typically willing to pay.

“Yes, Ms. Dawson.”

“Very rapid advances in microchip technology over what had been created in the early ‘60s, which ushered in the widespread use of personal computers in homes in the early 1980s and led in turn to widespread high-speed access to the web later that same decade thanks to fiber-optic advances as well as memory and data processing speed breakthroughs,” Zoe said.

“Interesting approach, Zoe,” the professor said. “I would have thought…”

“…that I’d pick the answer everyone else does?” she noted. “The emergence of the first documented and confirmed transhuman in the mid-1970s? No, that’s just a freak occurrence of nature that has become a more widespread occurrence of nature over the past 30 or 40 years. It’s a major evolutionary development, sure…but it doesn’t represent a fundamental altering of the way we live and work.”

“I beg to differ,” Prof. McGinnis said. “The rise of transhumanity has had widespread and fundamental impacts on our nation and the entire world. For example, it changed the nature of crime and forced police departments to include transhuman units in addition to SWAT units. It also forced the creation of special prisons, and the need to identify and keep separate so-called ‘heroes’ who violate anti-vigilante laws from ‘villains’ who are more identifiably evil. It also sharply altered media and entertainment, from comic books to mo…”

“All of those things are simply ramped up versions of things we already had,” Zoe interrupted him. “It didn’t change anything fundamentally, not like computer and web access have. Crime, punishment and incarceration have always been in flux. Entertainment is always shifting. I mean, look at the rise and fall and re-emergence of musicals in film…”

Interrupting her himself now, the professor cut in with, “Then what about social issues? Transhuman changes seem to sharply favor those of Asian or African descent. This is rapidly leading to global socioeconomic and sociopolitical shifts of staggering implications. And here in the U.S., it’s bringing race relations issues to a boiling point in many areas as Caucasians come to fear that their hold on wealth and power isn’t just at risk—but also wondering if they are going to be rendered extinct in the next century or so. Have you considered that?”

“Certainly I have, Prof. McGinnis, but shifts in power and the rise and fall of world powers is nothing new, either. Neither are race relations issues in this country or globally. China already owned so much of our debt—does it really make a big difference that they will have more transhumans and take a lead role as a world power? Or Africa, for that matter? It’s just their turn. On the other hand, widespread access to the Internet and the ability to process, send and store massive amounts of data instantly is truly transformative. Just for starters, widespread access to e-mail for going on nearly three decades now has made the U.S. Post Office a shadow of its former self. The way people meet and interact and what they are willing to share about themselves has changed in ways that are so deep and so broad they can’t even be compared to the impact of the telephone’s invention. The way news is disseminated has changed fundamentally.”

Zoe stopped to take a breath, but held up a finger and gave the professor a stern look to indicate she wasn’t done.

“The fact that you can store a terabyte of data on your pocket PC is transformative. You can store a huge library in your pants,” she said, earning a round of chuckles from her classmates, “which is something unimaginable for thousands of years of civilization. We have the first artificial intelligence computers emerging now. Internet access has enabled people to conduct research and share ideas in minutes—sometimes seconds—instead of having to hop a bus to the nearest library, hoping the books they need are there, and spending tons of time finding them. Scientific and healthcare breakthroughs we see now coming at us at geometric rates, and the rapid changes in science and the understanding of the world, too—and this all came about from microchip technology, not transhumans.”

The professor smiled.

“But, Ms. Dawson, what about the fact that the first ‘documented’ and ‘confirmed’—both your words, by the way—transhumans were in the 1970s? That means that likely transhuman genetic effects were in play before that and were simply unseen and unrecognized. Meaning that the microchip breakthroughs you note were probably the result of transhumans who would now be classified as ‘Brains.’ Check and mate, I believe.”

Zoe smiled in turn, but it was a bitter and rueful one. “Only if you base your conclusions on unproven assumptions, professor—which you have.”

After that, others in the class began to get their comments in, and the tide was overwhelmingly in favor of the professor’s view. A few other ideas were tossed out here and there about other major changes to society and culture from other sources, but it always ended up coming back to the transhumans.

Seething with frustration and simmering with unspent anger as well, Zoe literally stomped through the first half of her journey to her dorm after class. At one point, her emotions coming to a peak, she felt the cellular shift take hold, and winced slightly at the split-second pain as her nails and hair changed composition to become harder and sharper than any knife—and as her skin became tighter and more resilient. In a flash of anger, she struck the corner of one of the oldest buildings on the New Judah campus of the University of Connecticut when no one was looking, raking four deep gouges in the bricks with her nails.

Then she calmed down, felt her body shift back to normal, and brushed the red-brown dust from her hand and the tiny hard chunks from under her fingernails. She pulled out a cigarette and lit it, and when a passing student scowled at her like she was a leper for doing so, she smiled sweetly, blew a kiss as she exhaled her smoke, and then flipped him off.

We aren’t transformative, professor, Zoe thought bitterly. People like me are just the next logical step, I guess. Or maybe just freaks. We just complicate things; we aren’t that special in the end.

* * *

Query flexed his arm, and contemplated the scars that had been with him for three days now, and would soon enough fade away. Still plenty of internal damage to heal, though, so the arm was far from fully functional. Still, looking at it, no one would know that less than a week ago, it had been slashed and shot to a bloody pulp.

He looked at the clock. 4:17 a.m. A perfectly putrid time of day when he wasn’t in proper condition to patrol, investigate, capture or punish as Query.

So I guess that makes me Alan Millos right now…or is it Milo Phillips, since that’s the human face that most people see?

He was restless. How long had it been since he’d actually slept at all? Three or four years now? Even before then, increasingly sporadic sleep after the accidentally forced emergence of his transhuman powers. Not even the strongest anti-insomnia medications had done a thing for him. Anesthetics were equally useless. He’d forgotten what dreaming felt like—forgotten how it felt to drift off into slumber with his head resting on a soft and warm pillow. All because he had wanted to heal his spine—ruined that night so long ago as the victim of a hold-up. All because he had taken that drug that he himself had deemed too dangerous to bring to market. He’d gained so much in return—besides just the use of his legs again—but he’d lost so much as well.


And dreams.

Don’t become maudlin. Find something to do.

Got to feed the sleep-starved brain; or else I’ll fucking go insane.

Sadly, he had nothing to investigate—well, that wasn’t true, precisely. He just didn’t have any paying clients or specific pro-bono cases now that the Grimmond kidnapping had turned out to be a setup all along. What he should be investigating was why Janus had gone through all that trouble and sent a team of 18 hired killers to get rid of him.

Janus had been running a successful criminal empire out west. There wasn’t much reason to come out this far—all the way to the East Coast. The man’s network wasn’t solid enough to expand this far out—hell, he wasn’t even in a position to dominate the entire Pacific coastline yet, much less start expanding into Arizona or New Mexico or the plains states. Yet here he was, skipping all the way across the nation in one fell swoop.

Based on the interrogations of his two prisoners, along with some other probing, it seemed that Janus had essentially closed up shop in California, Tijuana and Nevada and was setting up a whole new network out here, centered either in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh or New Judah.

And since the New Judah and New York metro areas are where I spend most of my time—and he tried to have me killed, that helps me narrow it down to two choices.

What was harder for Query to figure out yet was why Janus would try to kill him specifically. He’d never had any reason to go head-to-head against any of the villain’s operations out west, so there was no grudge match in play, and Query certainly wasn’t the only hero here out east—nor even the most active. Yet as near as he could discern, no one else had been targeted but him.

It was just confusing him instead of inspiring his investigative instincts. Worse, his lack of interaction with the scene out west meant he didn’t have a good handle on Janus and what made him tick—aside from what he could glean from sketchy reports and profiles generated by others. Every time he tried to examine the angles on the situation, it gave him a headache.

Aside from the investigatory block he was suffering, the underground rap scene had been irritating him more than inspiring him for some days now, so he finally decided to compose a couple new jazz tunes. He hadn’t produced anything as part of his Nigel Roy identity in a few months, so it was a good choice. Melodies for a while, instead of rap lyrics. In fact, he hadn’t made an appearance in public as Nigel in more than six months, and that was too long. Disguising himself as a Caucasian was good for keeping up his skills with makeup and prosthetics—he hadn’t had to use those talents in a while. It would also give him a chance to go on stage and work the sax or the guitar a bit.

Can’t get rusty. Need to keep all my diverse balls in the air.

Distract myself from lack of dreams; or else be driven mad with screams.

He sighed. Maybe after getting a rough melody down, he could review some pharmaceutical journals and attend to some of his business affairs as Alan Millos, too. Sure, he couldn’t investigate or patrol right now, but there were plenty of other things to do as he lived each day 24 hours without a break.

Sometimes he wondered if four identities was enough anymore to keep him sane—enough to occupy a mind forever denied the restorative power of sleep and dreams.

* * *

The teeth, the bank executive thought. Oh, God, the teeth. Please don’t smile again.

Of course she smiled though, and the executive squeezed his eyes shut and whimpered.

“That’s rude,” the woman told him in a voice that sounded like the husky, smoky intonation of Kathleen Turner with just an added hint of razor blades scraping together. “Open your eyes and look at me when I’m talking to you. Don’t make me ask again, or I’ll take another nibble.”

Sweating and shivering at the same time, he opened his eyes to look at that face. A face that looked so normal—just your average 30-something-year-old soccer mom—except for a set of teeth than was mix of oversized canines, needle-like fangs, curving fangs, jagged molars, blade-like teeth, and more. And then she smiled wider, and he saw a second set of equally horrific dentition just grow behind those teeth, and then vanish just as quickly. The smile faded. Then she lifted a hand, presented it palm-first, and the flesh peeled open like a gash until he realized a mouth was forming there, full of tiny needle-like teeth. Then it, too, retreated.

Somehow, through it all, he managed to keep his eyes open as she had ordered. He didn’t want her to nibble anymore. The ruin of the little finger and ring finger of his left hand wasn’t something he wanted repeated.

“Wha…wha…what do you want?” he managed. “Please just tell me what you want.”

She said nothing, instead pulling out a set of pliers, pushing him to the ground—not a difficult feat, since he was already on his buttocks on the floor—and then straddled his chest. Without preamble, and ignoring his screams, she reached in with the tool and yanked out a tooth, then slipped it into a pouch on her belt. Even through the pain, he couldn’t help but notice the gruesome jewelry she wore and wondered if his tooth was destined to be a new charm on her bracelet or a sixth earring to adorn her right ear. With a giddiness born of fear and dread, he even wondered if it might end up being a belly button piercing.

Moaning with pain and the metallic tang of blood in his mouth, he moaned, “Why? Why are you doing this?”

“To get your attention, silly,” the woman said. “Now, if you don’t want me to own all of your teeth, or nibble some more, or both, you will tell me the passwords to get into the mainframe, so that I can conduct a very quiet robbery of a lot of money. Well, quiet except for those moans and whimpers you keep making.”

“But…” he began, and she waved the pliers in a lazy arc in the air, and he said, “Yes. Fine. Yes. Yes. Whatever you want.”

“Good boy,” she said.

When he’d given her what she asked, and she’d made the necessary transfers 15 minutes later, she pushed him down again, and sat on his chest, and his eyes bulged with terror. “But you said…”

“I said if you didn’t give me the passwords, I’d own all your teeth,” she said, and shook her shoulders bit to loosen up. The bank exec noticed the short cape or whatever it was hanging from her neck, gauzy and fluttering almost like two wings. “Don’t worry; I’ll only take two or three more. Tooth Fairy needs her souvenirs.”

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