Posts Tagged ‘whethermen’

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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.”

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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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Ladykiller started nervously tapping her fingertips against the tabletop until she realized, moments later, that she was doing so with her left hand. She slid the condiment caddy over the several pits and scratches her clawed gauntlet had made, and said, “This is a really bad idea. I don’t even know why I’m here.”

Mad Dash frowned. “What wrong with this place?” he asked, looking around at the large diner-style restaurant, which was busy even at this hour. Nearly half of the patrons were clad in costumes—from the garish to the cheesy to the chic. Almost all of those people wore masks of some sort, whether partial or whole-head. “This is the perfect place to eat. They’ve got great waffle-cut seasoned fries—I like the three-layer ones with chili, cheese and sour cream—and the cheeseburgers are great. Oh! Or are you vegetarian? They have a whole page here of stuff like that—even some things for the hardcore Vegans. And they serve breakfast 24 hours a day. What could be better?”

“How about a place that attracts less attention? The police must have a field day staking this place out. I’m wanted, you know,” she said, lowering her voice and leaning forward. “Doesn’t matter that anyone and everyone I’ve assaulted or killed was a rapist or some other woman-abusing piece of shit—I’m still wanted!” she hissed. “The food looks great, but it’s not going to be so great if my next meal is bologna on white bread in the lock-up.”

Behind the big yellow-lensed goggles that sat over his half-head mask, Mad Dash blinked. Blinked again. Then shook his head and chuckled. “You need to relax. For one thing, there aren’t any public images of you, so who knows what Ladykiller really looks like? I don’t think anyone’s even eye-witnessed you actually offing anyone. People wouldn’t even know it was Ladykiller doing the work if you didn’t always leave a calling card on your victims—is it a literal calling card, by the way? I’ve always wanted to know, and the police never say publicly.”

“Uh, yeah. It’s an actual business card. It says some scary, threatening stuff about what happens to men who abuse women. I figure enough of the cards will be grabbed by other criminals or get in the hands of the media that the word would get out, but…”

“…does it have a phone number on it to call you or an e-mail address?”

“No. That would be stupid…”

“…any cool graphics?”

“If a blood splatter behind the circle-and-arrow symbol for men is cool, then ‘yeah’…look, that doesn’t matter one…Wait! You’re right about me being under the radar so far. I don’t think there are any pictures at all of me in my costume—not even good composite sketches in the hands of police or the media. And most of the women I rescue from these guys never get a look at me and the times they have I sometimes don’t leave a card. How the hell did you know who I was in the alley?”

“We’re gonna need a few more moments,” Mad Dash said to the waitress as she approached. “Query,” he answered as he turned back to Ladykiller. “He circulated a description of you to a bunch of us in the costumed community. He’s a real apricot of a guy.”

Query knows what I look like in costume?”

“Might know what you look like out of costume, too,” he answered, then stopped and put a couple fingers to his lips briefly, blushing. “Oh, crap, I didn’t mean like whoopee-whoopie out of costume. He probably doesn’t know you that well.”

“How does he know at all?”

“20/20 Rule,” Mad Dash said. “You know, the mikshakes here are splendiferous. You should try the oreo-mint-toffee one. I know. Sounds crazy. But it works.”

Ladykiller sighed, and began to tap one foot nervously. Suddenly, the idea that Query had intelligence on her was driving out worries of the police busting in here. “20/20 Rule? I’m guessing that has nothing to do with good eyesight…except maybe metaphorically?”

“It’s actually Mad Dash’s 20/20 Rule of Transhuman Familiarity Regarding Query, but that was too long and people didn’t seem to like the acronym MD2020RoTFRQ either. You see, I figure it like this: If you’re an active transhuman in New Judah and the news or police don’t have photos or good descriptions of you, there’s a 20% chance Query has an image of you in his files, either a sketch or a photo. And if Query knows what you looks like on the job, I figure a 20% chance he knows who you are under the mask, or at least knows what neighborhood you live in.”

“This is very disturbing, Mad Dash. You billed this as a relaxing meal, and now I’m having an anxiety attack.”

“You should take Yoga-nidra. Calm you right down. Mediation works.”

“Meditation,” she corrected him.

“That too,” he said. “Look, unless you start killing off pickpockets or maiming innocent bystanders, Query isn’t going to bother with you. You’re punching the tickets on total scum-sacks. Too much on his plate to go after people just to be all moralizing with them, and it would be the gravy boat calling the coffee cup ceramic anyway if he did.”

The waitress returned, asking, “Can I get you two something to drink while you look at the menus? Oh, my, that clawed glove is striking, Miss. You have such a sleek, clean look to your outfit.”

“A jumbo Coke, jumbo pink lemonade and large chocolate milk for me,” Mad Dash said.

“Um…medium Diet Coke?” Ladykiller asked.

“Sure thing, you two. Just take your time with the menus.”

As the woman walked away to get the drinks, Mad Dash smirked. “See? You clearly don’t get out enough. I’m a little crazy but I’m not dumbedy-dumb-dumb.”

“So no one here seriously thinks we’re transhumans? All the people in costume but us are all just posers and wanna-bes?”

“No, actually, I think that might really be Python in the corner over there—copying or faking abs like that is pretty hard. Dude owes me $50. But yeah, there are like two other locations for this place, and some other places that get similar clientele. Speed Demon and Feral could be sitting on two stools next to each other at the counter and they wouldn’t fight because they couldn’t be sure the other guy was for real. Some people rock their own look, and some people copy their idols in the hero or villain world and a lot of them just like the idea knowing real white hats or black hats might be here. I mean, look at that Devil-May-Care over there. That costume is right on the mark. Probably one of the guys the real villain pays and gives costumes to and has run around town and eat at places like this.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Because he likes to eat out, silly-butt, and he wants to know he won’t get hassled if he gets a hankering for a prime rib or an apple pie and coffee when he’s in costume. A buncha years ago, the police would round up ‘villains’ from these places from time to time just to be safe and to question them, and then after a few big lawsuits and shouting about unreasonable cause—because they never actually grabbed a real villain or dangerous vigilante; except for once, and he was C-list all the way—they just gave up watching these kinds of places.”

Ladykiller visibly relaxed. “So, we’re cool here?” Mad Dash nodded vigorously and smiled as the drinks were set down and the waitress promised to come back in a couple minutes. “Foie gras?” Ladykiller blurted out from behind the menu. “Escargot? Steak tartare? Shitake and swordfish risotto?”

“You got to the gourmet page, huh?” Mad Dash said. “You wouldn’t think a place like this could handle that kind of food, but they do. They make money hand over mouth around here and like I said, there are some heavy hitters with fancy tummies who drop in here.”

* * *

Shortly after he had started walking with the costumed guy from the Guardian Corps, Cole had said, pleasantly, “Hi, I’m…”

“No,” the man said, cutting him off. “I’ll just call you Noob, if I have to call you anything at all, and you can call me Blockbuster if some crap happens that I need to know about.”

Cole sensed the undercurrent of “shut up and just follow me” and walked in silence for the next half-hour, until a van came by, stopped for them, and drove for 20 minutes. Blockbuster got out, motioned for Cole to follow him, and led him into a small tenement-style apartment where another costumed figure awaited them.

“Welcome to the Guardian Corps,” the new man said.

“Uh, thanks,” Cole said, doing a quick visual scan of the sparsely and coarsely furnished place. “I kind of thought you guys would have a bigger headquarters.”

“This isn’t our headquarters; this is where you will hang out until we’re sure of you,” he answered. “Gangs don’t like us. Organized crime franchises don’t like us. Supervillains don’t like us because we help bring up new crops of superheroes. Common criminals don’t like us. A lot of left-wing groups and several politicians don’t like us. So you have to work your way to seeing one of our actual headquarters. Because you could be working for any of them. And if you were working for a villain to get inside our operation, you could kill a lot of people. So I don’t want you near any of our people.”

“Oh,” he said, some disappointment in his voice. “I guess I understand that. So how are you going to be sure of me?”

“We’re going to watch you for a bit. We’re going to talk. We have some people doing some poking around right now. A little later, we’ll interrogate you—intensely.”

“I guess you probably want to know what I can do…”

“No,” he said flatly. “I don’t. I don’t know you, so I don’t trust you—which means I wouldn’t believe anything you tell me yet anyway about your powers—if you even have any. And if you try to show us any powers or I even think you’re using powers subtly, it’s going to get ugly for you very fast because I will assume you are attacking me and Blockbuster. Do you understand?”

Cole nodded.

“Now, we’re going to go over some basics, and I’m going to ask you some questions before our expert comes in here to really grill you. You cool with that?”

“Yeah, I guess. I mean, yes.”

“This ain’t exactly what you expected, was it?”


“In a lot of ways, Cole, we’re like a street gang,” the man said. “We look out for each other, and a lot of us put the Guardian Corps before our personal life; sometimes even before family. When the Corps were formed, the Guardian Angels that Curtis Sliwa founded were our model. He took the notion behind gangs and tried to make something positive out of it, bringing young people together under one banner to try to help instead of commit crimes. He had them trained in basic hand-to-hand skills, and put them out to patrol the streets at night. This isn’t going to be some party or day camp.”

“I don’t expect it to be,” Cole answered.

“No, you probably don’t, but you also don’t know what you’re getting into, exactly,” the man said. “Do you know that we’ll eventually beat you up?”

“You mean if you thought I was a traitor or a spy, right?”

“No, I mean that if you get far enough in our training, a bunch of us will be in a circle around you, kicking and hitting you while you just take it, because you need to know what it feels like to get your ass kicked before some bad-ass on the street does it to you.”

“I get it,” Cole said, but there was hesitancy in his voice.

“You can back out, Cole. No harm. No shame. No foul. This kind of life ain’t pretty. You can do a lot of good, and it can be meaningful, but it won’t be fun very often. Maybe in between work there’s fun, but being a hero isn’t a game.”

“I want to learn. I want to try. I want to see how far I can go,” Cole said. “I mean, if you’re looking for promises, I…”

“Promises don’t matter,” the man said. “Actions matter. Intentions matter. You heart matters. Is doing this important enough to you to get your hands dirty and to get hurt?”

Cole paused for a moment, and tried to imagine a life at a desk or a lab table applying engineering techniques to life sciences. He couldn’t. The kind of work he had trained for in college seemed like something more suited to being a hobby. It didn’t feel like his life. He looked at the man and said, “Yeah, it is. I don’t know if I’ll do good enough for you or anyone else. I only know that I have to try.”

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Sometimes, Cole wondered if his affinity for the wee hours had more to do with his obsession to become a crime-fighter than did any actual desire for meting out justice—after all, so much of the action with superpowers and thwarting criminals and supervillains seemed to happen after sundown. And he’d always loved the night.

Ironic, though, that for so much of his life he’d enjoyed the night for the serenity it offered, and now he wanted to find the action in the darkness. The night and the small hours of morning had been his shield—his private and protected time. The night was a place where he could avoid those who caused him such stress, from the fellow students he’d known since Kindergarten who had turned into his quiet tormentors by fourth grade for reasons he still didn’t understand, to his parents Samantha and George Alderman who both taught at the private school that had been the source of so much of his anguish.

So much of his teen and early 20s life spent sleeping as much as he could during the day—and that certainly became easier during college—and doing most of his schoolwork and deep thinking until just an hour or two before dawn.

At first his parents tried to dissuade him from that and convince him to spent the daylight and early evening hours with them or with the peers who should have been his friends but weren’t. They stopped trying that about the time his powers began to manifest themselves—early in high school. Then, suddenly, his nighttime-oriented life was a blessing to them, so that they would have fewer awkward moments trying to figure out how to relate to a transhuman son.

By a trick of his genes, Cole Alderman had managed to alienate his parents in addition to his classmates, and he still wasn’t certain if that was a blessing or a curse that they had withdrawn from him.

College had been easier in terms of finding friends. A campus of thousands, rather than a high school with less than 300 students, offered far more chances to locate like-minded people. By then, he was also so much more adept at hiding the transhuman powers that had made him a complete pariah once a few schoolmates in high school caught on and the rumors and gossip started to fly.

He still hated the fact he had been blamed—though nothing had ever been officially pinned on him—for Hannah’s injuries the night of the Sadie Hawkins Dance—and he regretted the scars that Isaac bore from the Homecoming Dance. The irony was that the attack on Hannah was what made Cole a complete outcast in high school, and he’d had nothing whatsoever to do with her being hurt. Whereas he had been entirely responsible for Isaac’s injuries and no one ever even leveled an accusation at him about that.

Now he stood alone in the darkness, just barely inside the dim oval of illumination from an aging streetlight, having earned a biomedical engineering degree from the New Judah campus of the University of Connecticut almost a year earlier and still not having found enough interest in traditional daytime work hours to put it to use at anyone’s company.

This was the twelfth night in a row he had stood in this spot, in a seedy but not overtly dangerous part of town. He’d been told by people in the know that sometimes, it only took a night or two of waiting, and sometimes it took a few dozen. So he’d made sure to be here every night, from midnight to 3 a.m., without fail. He didn’t want to miss his chance.

The Guardian Corps were very careful. They didn’t want villains or authorities knowing where they were based, so one could only petition them indirectly. They made random sweeps at various official waiting spots in the city. If they saw you at one of those places, they knew you were probably interested in putting on a mask and a costume and trouncing some bad guys. They would take you in, and at least give you a little training; give you a shot.

Teach you some of the ins and outs.

The alternative was to just go out, get a costume and start trying to kick some ass alone. Most people who did that ended up hospitalized or dead pretty fast, though, Cole figured.

Even if he was about to take his night life to a dangerous new level, there was no reason to take chances learning things the hardest way. Better to come up through an established system. Learn in the minor leagues before trying out for the majors.

He ticked off the final minutes and then ticked off some more, and when it was a quarter-past-three, he gave up, and went home on heavy legs, dejection like a shroud over him. He’d gone home feeling that way for 12 days now, and each time the feeling got worse.

This time, though, someone was waiting for him outside when he got to the apartment he shared with three roommates. This time, Cole didn’t go inside his apartment to sleep. Instead, he let himself be led to an unknown place by a costumed stranger to embark on a questionable vocation.

At least the hours are good, Cole thought.

* * *

A scream—a woman. A shout—a man.

In response to the sounds, Mad Dash made a hairpin turn while running at around 40 miles per hour, and headed toward the alley that was the source of both.

He almost knocked over a woman with a torn shirt who was fleeing from the gloom of that alley, and came to a stop a few paces away from another woman inside it, this one in a costume colored like antique ivory—the design of a skull sketched half-realistically and half-abstractly over the face of the mask—and her left hand clad in a glittering and razor-sharp gauntlet with three fingers and a thumb that Mad Dash assumed corresponded to the four deep gashes in the belly of the man slowly writhing at her feet.

A great deal of the man’s blood was on the ground, along with a few pieces of what Mad Dash could only assume were from his small and large intestines. The hero presumed that the man would probably be screaming if not for the fact his windpipe seemed to have been slashed as well.

The costumed woman was simply looking at Mad Dash; she was tense and primed, but not attacking him.

“So, um, did he deserve it?” Mad Dash asked sincerely. “I’m guessing he was the yeller and the woman was the screamer? Wow!” he said, as he looked again at the dying man. “You were kinda sloppy-rough there, don’t you think? Really made a mess of the alley. This is really gonna put the garbage men off their lunch tomorrow”

“Did he deserve it?” the woman asked Mad Dash incredulously, repeating the hero’s words back to him in an almost mocking tone.

“I don’t know. I was asking you. Hey, you’re Ladykiller, aren’t you? Your claw is a lot shinier than I always thought it would be. So, uh, I just gotta ask again…was this like justifiable force? I need to know whether I need to fight you and stuff now.”

“You saw the woman running from the alley. Do you think this guy had this coming?”

“Could be. Was he cheating on you with that woman or something?”

“What?! Are you for real?” Ladykiller sputtered in a dumbfounded tone.

Mad Dash tilted his head and his eyes turned upward as if in deep thought. “I don’t know,” he said as if coming to some sort of mix of epiphany and self-contemplation. “Maybe I’m not real. I mean, I could be a figment of your imagination. But how would I know?”

Ladykiller paused, bewildered. “No,” she finally said when she realized he wasn’t teasing her. “No, no, no. I meant: Are you serious?”

“I try to be, but it never seems to take,” Mad Dash said as if admitting to something deep and shameful. “I just don’t seem to be good at it.”

“Let me try this one more time: You don’t seriously think I just gutted this man as part of a lover’s spat, do you?”

“Well, you’ve got a lot of negativity around you over the idea that you were in a relationship with him, so I’m kind of leaning toward the thought maybe he wasn’t your boyfriend,” Mad Dash responded.

“No shit, Sherlock. He was trying to rape that woman who ran off.”

“Oh. Well, I guess that answers my earlier question about whether he deserved it,” he said, then paused and frowned, jutting out his lower lip. “I’m wondering if disembowelment might be an overreaction though.”

“You barge in here, confuse the hell out of me, and now you’re going to criticize my approach to dealing with forcible rape?”

Mad Dash put up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “No, nah, nada. Those in glass igloos shouldn’t punt bricks and all that. I’ve got a skeleton or two in my pantry. Say, you want to get a bite to eat?”


“Eat. Chow. Munch. Nosh. I’ve been running a lot tonight. Need to get some carbs in me like nobody’s tomorrow. I know the perfect place. C’mon,” he said, and darted off in a blur. A few seconds later, he dashed back to her side. “Oh, sorry, guess I should slow down for you,” he said apologetically, and then began to walk out of the alley. When he realized she wasn’t following, he turned back and added: “I’lllll paaaaay. The last crook I pounded had a really fat wallet.”

Ladykiller shook her head quickly as if trying to shake cobwebs off it, then paused and shook her head again, far more slowly. Mad Dash smiled crookedly in an expression that seemed like earnestness-gone-wild, and she threw up her own hands in a gesture of surrender that echoed his earlier one. “Oh, what the hell. OK. I’ll eat with you. But this isn’t a date, in case you have any ideas—and I pick up the tip.”

* * *

Tooth Fairy crouched in the tree, hidden by the night as she looked through one of the windows of the house. The man inside, moving through the kitchen with a cup of black coffee in one hand and a cup of hot chocolate in the other.

Another window, and the sight of a cat sauntering across the carpet.

When did he get a cat? she wondered, then pondered what it might taste like.

Yet another window, and the sight of a nearly four-year-old girl with rosy pink cheeks, accepting the gift of barely steaming cocoa and then returning her gaze to some insipid show with smiling, singing characters who passed along advice on how to work together, play nice and be a good citizen.


I wonder how Dora the Explorer tastes? Or Barney the Dinosaur. Or Arthur and Buster and all their friends at Lakewood Elementary?

Tooth Fairy took one last look at the little girl sipping hot chocolate that was probably in truth only lukewarm, and the woman licked her lips.

Another time, perhaps. Another time.

And then Tooth Fairy was racing across the grass, toward the woods, silken wings on her back flapping and giving the illusion that they were carrying her across the lawn as much as her feet were.

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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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It was always an interesting sensation to be both the hunter and the hunted at the same time, Query mused.

What say ye, pray ye? Oh, prey shall you pray to an indifferent god; while hunter is slaking his thirst on your blood?

Of course, this little game of hide-and-seek was more playful than most Query engaged in. He would never see this extra shadow he had attracted until she wanted him to, but he knew her by sound and sometimes smell; she would never catch him unawares. Not that she likely had hostile intent anyway.

After about 10 minutes, Query decided that the time for foreplay had come to an end—it was, he thought, the prerogative of a decent and sensitive man to engage in such things, but also to know when to bring them to a close and get to the main event.

Not as if I’ve had the chance for a sexual encounter in months, of course, he mused with some regret but not much rancor as the sexual metaphor played out in his mind, nor will this little liaison lead to any such thing. It would be too much like making time with a half-sister or a cousin to get involved with this one, and the feeling is likely mutual on her part.

“Cheshire, you can come out now,” Query said. “If this goes on too much longer, it will become a game of cat-and-mouse. And that’s unbecoming, given that I’m no rodent.”

“Well, I trust you’re not making me out to be the mouse—or a rat—in this scenario,” she answered in mock affront, letting just her head and one gently waving hand emerge from invisibility, then vanishing from sight again.

Query tracked her with his head, focused on the sounds of her steps even if she was hidden to his eyes. She was as stealthy as he was in her movements, but he had the benefit of enhanced senses. “Never, Cheshire. You’re too bold for a mouse and too refined to be a rat. I don’t even know that I’d call you a cat, frankly, despite your name. There’s something of the hound in you too many days to think of you as truly feline.”

“Oh, but I like the name Cheshire so much better than Cat-Dog, so don’t go ruining my image, Query,” she answered from atop a set of crates, resolving into full visibility now.

Or she might not be on that particular crate, Query noted. Her Luminar powers were not only advanced enough for full or selective invisibility, but also able to allow her to appear to be perhaps a couple meters from her true position.

“Are you shadowing me for practice, Cheshire, or do you really think I’m getting too old and sloppy not to notice you?”

Cheshire’s feet touched the ground with a soft thump as she hopped off the crate. Query had a split-second of disorientation as his mind adjusted to the fact that her body wasn’t where his eyes had told her it should be. As he suspected, she had been on an adjacent crate instead, her image out of phase with her true position. “I actually wanted your attention, Query—I just didn’t want to rush you. You can be so moody some nights. I’ve noticed you’ve been spending a lot of time near the docks this week.”

“Of course, I have,” he responded. “It’s all part of the rules; don’t you read the transhuman handbook, Cheshire? Villains all conveniently lurk at the docks or put their operations there, and they do all their business at night, and heroes like me show up to thwart them.”

“If only real life really were like the comic books, eh? If only it really were that simple,” she said. “Seriously, though, I’ve been working something of my own for a client—and for personal reasons, too. I think that you know about the villain cruise this weekend. I need you to stay away from it. I need you not to go after the folks who will be on that yacht. I need you to leave them alone. I need you to be someplace else, far away.”

“Goodness, could you be a bit more clear on what you want? Stop beating around the bush,” Query teased. “It’s my job to go after bad guys, you know.”

He let the statement hang there gravely, even though he was chuckling in his head. No reason to let her know that he knew about almost every one of the monthly social get-togethers of various villains in this city, most of them short cruises into Long Island Sound. He kept track of the “sin-ins” but he’d never crashed a single one of those parties and likely never would. He had his reasons for that, but there was no good reason to tell them to her, or even let her know about his hands-off approach with regard to the events. Better to see where this was going.

“Query, I may walk a fine line between the whole black-hat/white-hat thing, but I like to think of you as a friendly acquaintance, perhaps even a potential friend,” Cheshire said. “I really need you to rein in your heroic instincts this once. Please? For me?”

“I like you, Cheshire, even though there have been times I’ve wondered if I should bust you, but I don’t owe you any favors, and I owe plenty of people who will be on that cruise some payback,” he said, packing ominous conviction into his tones and hoping he wasn’t playing up his charade too much.

“No, you don’t owe me any favors, Query, but I’m willing to owe you one if you stay away from that cruise,” Cheshire said.

“That would be a big favor to owe, so I would expect a big payment in return.”

“As long as it doesn’t compromise any existing or upcoming business relationships I’m engaged in, I’m willing to owe such a debt.”

Query made a show of silently considering her offer for nearly a minute, even though her answer was what he had hoped for anyway. One never knew when calling in a favor from one of the best intelligence-gatherers around could be useful.

“All right, Cheshire, but I’m not going to be making a habit of this—it took me a long time to find out about this event, and I might never know about another one,” Query lied, smiling behind his mask.

* * *

Janus waved toward Underworld, gesturing for her to come over. She paused, fixing him with a distasteful glare as she had been doing more often than not ever since reluctantly joining his efforts, and finally stepped over.

“My dear, my dear, I must say that modern surveillance technologies are so useful, particularly when you employ people who know how to hack into them,” he said from behind a kabuki-style mask that was painted black with splatters of faux blood on one side, and violet with drops of dew—or perhaps they were meant to be tears—painted on the other. As garish as it was, the mask actually managed to complement his gray Italian suit with subtle purple pinstripes. “Take, for example, this delicious young coed who tore a small chunk out of a brick building with her fingernails at UConn–New Judah. I doubt campus security reviews the DVDs that closely or would even notice, but then again, I have so many motivated data miners in my employ.”

“My, but you’re chatty today, aren’t you?” Underworld sneered. “Your people work so hard for you because being tortured to death isn’t as attractive as collecting the meager paychecks that your cheap ass doles out.”

“That and the subcutaneous tracking devices that allow me to keep tabs on them, of course. No slackers in my sweatshop; no, indeed. But isn’t that girl stupendous?” he pressed, pointing the paused image on the monitor.

“I’ve seen lots of transhumans, Janus. Morph, probably. Maybe a Brute or a Tank. She doesn’t do anything for me, but if you want to leer at college girls on security vids, be my guest.”

“I’m thinking I should reach out to her soon. Provide her some incentive to leave all those silly college plans behind. It’s time for a recruitment drive, anyway,” Janus said.


“Why don’t you make some plans to find out more about her, maybe get to know her. Have a woman-to-woman talk someday in the near future,” he suggested.

“Why would I do that?”

“Aside from the fact that the more minions I have, the more likely I’ll let you slip back to obscurity one day, there is also the fact that the softer side of recruiting has its value, and you have a softer touch than I,” he noted. “It’s important to rule by fear early on, but it would be nice to have a few key people motivated by something more personal and meaningful than threats to their family.”

“So why does she get such velvet glove treatment and you put the screws to me?” Underworld asked tartly.

“She’s a college student, so she’s young and impressionable,” Janus said. “Nubile and succulent, too. You, on the other hand, are a handsome and stubborn woman, and need to be driven with a cattle prod at times—metaphorically speaking.”

“So, I’m a bitch and a cow, and she’s fresh young meat. Janus, you are a pig.”

“But a well-dressed pig.”

“A pig in an expensive suit is still just swine in the end,” Underworld said. “And the only good I see from pigs is bacon or pork chops. I’ll see what I can do to worm my way into her life and do a soft-sell of your organization, Janus.”

“Thank you, Underworld. It’s good that you’re being civil and professional about this.”

“No, Janus, I’m showing some solidarity with a fellow woman. I’m all too aware of some of your past recruitment tactics with young women,” she said, her gaze drifting to the cramped cage in one corner of the room, where Crazy Jane sat cross-legged on the floor, still in the straitjacket she had been wearing when Janus liberated her from the high-security wing of the Givens Psychiatric Detention Facility three days ago. Her eyes blazed hungry but soulless, sharp and bright and cruel against the contrast of the tattoos all over her face—a mix of sunny, gay images and grim, twisted ones.

Underworld turned away from the cage, and Janus met her eyes knowingly. “So, we understand each other, then?”

“Too well, Janus. All too well.”

* * *

“I want to thank Senator Bodswell for being on the show today—he’s a real patriot and a testament to the power of the Freedom Party to put America back on track,” Ben Glick spoke into the camera as he connected with his viewing audience in the closing moments of his show. “I know I support Freeman candidates whenever I can, and you right-thinking viewers of mine no doubt realize the importance as well.”

He paused for a moment, and adjusted his glasses, then looked gravely into the camera again.

“Before we switch over to Fox News Update, though, I want to remind you all—and please realize that I’m not advocating violence, but we are in violent times with humanity and so-called transhumans right now—you need to exercise your Second Amendment rights as Senator Bodswell mentioned today,” he added. “Use them now while you still have them, because I guarantee that the first thing our great socialist President Barack Hussein Obama and any transhumans in office or that he’s putting in positions of power are going to do is try to overturn that constitutional right. Because if you’re transhuman, what do you need guns for? You have powers. And they’ll want to make sure us traditional humans don’t have bullets if we need them. Think about that tonight, if you can sleep with that prospect in mind. Thanks for watching ‘Ben Glick’s America’ here on America’s fair and balanced news source, Fox News, and see you tomorrow.”

Moments later, as the program director indicated they were off the air, Ben’s assistant Janice came by with a fresh cup of coffee for him, and a pastry.

“Intense stuff, today, Ben,” she remarked. “You seemed really supportive of the senator’s thoughts on screening newborns for any transhuman biomarkers and sterilizing them immediately if they show any signs of being able to develop powers.”

“Of course I support that. Why wouldn’t I?” he remarked cheerfully, but there was a kind of challenge in his eyes.

“I just…I mean, you’ve always been so supportive of right-to-life efforts and reproductive rights and the need of Americans not to have their choices taken away,” Janice said as noncommittally as she could, realizing she had just stepped into treacherous waters.

“Civil rights are for humans, and I hope the Supreme Court make a ruling on that soon, Jan,” he said sagely. “The Constitution was written for humans, not transhumans. And I have to support something like sterilization of transhuman babies and transhuman adults. I’m totally against abortion, so we can’t rip the monsters out of a woman’s uterus. The only answer is to keep those creatures from breeding, and keep them from interbreeding with real people. Coffee could use a bit more cream, Jan,” he said after he took his first, slurping sip from the cup.

“Oh. Sorry. Let me just bring you a fresh one, Ben,” she said nervously, and rushed off. Once she was out of sight, she touched her belly, thinking of the tiny life forming inside her womb, which she had only confirmed the existence of a few days before, and decided tonight would be a good time to update her résumé.

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Another out-of-the-way, grimy location; another dollar.

Well, more accurately, $33,000 for this little trip, which was why Julian Gregori wasn’t grumbling much about driving all the way up to Maine from new Judah to deliver the crate in a defunct textile mill that hadn’t yet been snatched up by developers looking to repurpose it for offices, businesses, condos or a combination of all three.

And, aside from the money, continuing to cement his reputation for personalized and discreet service didn’t hurt, either.

“OK, Leon, I’m all set,” Julian told the driver of the truck, who was his partner in both the business and intimate senses of the word. “You go ahead and have some coffee and a roll down the road a bit, and wait for my call.”

A quick kiss, followed by the roar of an engine, a little spray of dirt and gravel and a dissipating cloud of exhaust, and then Julian was alone with a big box.

Par for the course.

Of course, his latest client was expecting to meet him at another location some 10 miles distant, where he would find instructions to come here instead. When dealing with transhumans, one always wanted to be careful. It was a lucrative enough part of Julian and Leon’s business, but there was no reason for both of them to be put in an exposed position.

For eight minutes, Julian let a song play out in his head and tapped the toe of his left foot in rhythm to it, clad in a relatively modest Ferragamo—no reason to risk a pair of his really high-end A. Testoni or Louis Vuitton shoes on a trip like this. Then he stopped and looked up as he noted the sound of crunching gravel in the distance, and was surprised to see an SUV pull into the parking lot of the old mill. It slowly come to a halt near him, and Julian took a deep breath.

Traveling 10 miles through city streets and here in less than 10 minutes, when he would have had to find my note and figure out how to get here? Julian thought. This client is not only in a hurry; he was there very early. Not a comforting sign. Transhumans can be a volatile bunch, particularly the ones who lead shady lives, as this one might hope to—if he isn’t already doing so.

While a beefy looking woman remained in the passenger seat, a man slid out of the driver’s seat of the SUV wearing khaki slacks, Timberlands on his feet and an L.L. Bean Jacket over a chambray shirt. Julian assessed him immediately. Trying to look like he belonged in Maine, but not from Maine. Not that he had expected his client to be from here, but going to such efforts to look like he belonged? That made Julian a bit more uncomfortable than he already had been.

“My employer doesn’t appreciate wild goose chases, Mr. Gregori,” the man said.

That made Julian a tad more comfortable—this wasn’t the transhuman guy he had been dealing with by phone and online but the client’s lackey instead. But then Julian lost that slight feeling of ease when he noticed the bulge under the coat that told him the man was packing a firearm.

Not the first time, Julian reminded himself, and it doesn’t mean it’s meant for me

“I’m not attempting to give anyone the ‘run-around’ sir,” Julian said. “But security is of course in both my interests and your employer’s.”

“Please open the crate,” the man said as he approached, “so that I can make sure everything is there.”

“I would be happy to, but as a show of serious good faith, perhaps you could at least make an effort to have a duffel bag or briefcase in hand that theoretically has your contribution to this transaction?” Julian suggested. “Mister…?”

“How does ‘Jones’ sound?” the main offered, and went back to his vehicle, opened the driver-side rear door, and pulled out a small duffel sack. He lifted it, gave Julian an expression that suggested, Well? and started back toward him.

Julian pried open the small crate, and stepped away. The so-called Mr. Jones peered in, moved the items around, and stepped back. “It all seems to be here,” he said, and handed over the duffel bag. The moment Julian took it, he heard a rustling from bushes off to the side and slightly behind him, and the woman got out of the SUV, as Mr. Jones said, “Julian Gregori, I am FBI Special Agent Roth, and you are under arrest.”

Julian dropped the duffel bag to the ground and placidly offered his wrists to be cuffed. “For what charge?”

“Attempting to aid and abet a known criminal transhuman,” Roth said as he applied the handcuffs, “and I think we’ll tack on intent to enter conspiracy with the same.” The FBI agent then read Julian his rights.

“I understand my rights fully, Agent Roth, and you should understand that I knew the supposed client I was working for wasn’t really Devil-May-Care, even if I didn’t know he was undercover FBI,” Julian said with a bored tone in his voice. “I figured it was a villain fan-boy who wanted to play serious dress-up or some copy-cat wannabe. Devil-May-Care has an in-house team to do his costumes and equipment, and if I know that, and every other designer who works with transhumans knows that, I’m sure the FBI already knows it, too.”

“Really, do you want to tell me more?” Roth ventured.

“What? You think that’s incriminating? That if I were smart, I’d make sure my lawyer thinks I should say that?” Julian said incredulously. “It’s a crime to sell clothing now? Even to villains or villain fans or wannabe villains? There’s not a single regulated material, controlled substance, weapon or piece of ammunition in that crate. Kevlar is legal. Chain mail links are legal. Leather is legal. So is the Egyptian cotton/Spandex blend undersuit—which breathes wonderfully and is heaven to the skin, by the way. So feel free to let me go at any time.”

“Then explain the secrecy around this transaction, Mr. Gregori, since you’ve clearly decided to waive your right to silence.”

“I deal with anyone who wants costumes like this, Agent Roth, some of them heroes with secret identities, too, by the way. If it’s illegal to do legit business with people you don’t like, are you going to start arresting restaurateurs and chefs who’ve fed Janus or Freak-Easy meals? Hmmmm? Maybe the mechanic who fixes Speed Demon’s day-to-day beater car if you find him?”

“We have enough probable cause and reason for suspicion to arrest you, Mr. Gregori. Now let’s get you in the vehicle and if you want to dig yourself a deeper hole by trying to justify your actions, you just go ahead and ramble. But I’m going to wait to ask any more official questions until we’re sitting down and I’m enjoying a nice hot French roast coffee from a mug while you drink some lukewarm water from a Styrofoam cup.”

“Barbarian,” Julian chided him with an amused and irritated little sneer.

* * *

The night feels good. Comfortable like a well-worn coat, Query thought. Been too antsy for too long. Hunting is good for me. And after three nights of it, I’m feeling almost human again.

There was a sudden shift in the displacement of the surrounding air, but Query’s enhanced hearing had already picked up the “Yoo-hoo, Query…incoming”—the only thing that kept him from reflexively striking out at the man approaching at high speed down the alley.

“Good evening, Mad Dash. How’s things?” Query asked as the man came to a halt with his usual remarkable skill, but with an odd, spinning flair that seemed equal parts ‘70s disco dancing, Olympic ice skating and flamenco dancing.

“Thought things were peachy like Tuesday morning until I got the news,” Mad Dash responded.

“What news, Dash? I like games, but ‘Twenty Questions’ isn’t one of them.”

“Julian Gregori, man. FBI arrested him on some bull-spooky, dude.”

“So?” Query asked, then nodded, adding, “What, is he your costumer?”

“Yeah, man. Crapiolo on that. I needed to order another shipment from him, too.”

“Gregori does your costume?” Query probed dubiously, eyeing the fellow hero’s short coat, which was a crazy-quilt assortment of colors, shapes and at least eight different materials, from velour to leather to corduroy. Mad Dash had a lot of other ones like it, in different styles, but all of them were at least as wild and haphazard in their design, if not far more so. Query couldn’t imagine how much someone like Gregori would charge to risk having his name attached to that kind of look.

“Nah, not my duds, dude,” Mad Dash said. “That would be bubblicious but I couldn’t afford that. I learned how to sew and stuff a couple years ago. I nearly go broke trying to keep my tootsies covered, though. He does my boots. The man is a genius with shoecraft. As much running as I do, I wear through even his phantasmo quality work after a few months. Whoa!” the hero said, swiping at the air. “Oh, though it was a flying scorpion again. Just a dust mote in God’s eye.”

Query had to silently admit that he was impressed at Mad Dash’s tailoring skills. The coat looked ridiculous and insane, but it was well put-together, and dealing with such disparate materials couldn’t be easy. But as usual, he worried about the man in that coat, and he sighed heavily. “You really should lay off the shift-running,” Query said, a concerned and soothing undercurrent in his words.

Mad Dash was that rarest of all Speedsters, not only able to run at legitimately high speed but also able to shift interdimensionally to take tiny split-second shortcuts through space-time—most could only do one or the other, Query reminded himself. It made Mad Dash one of the fastest Speedsters around, able to give a Formula 1 racecar some serious competition. Trouble was that Mad Dash also had some kind of sensitivity to the dimensional in-between space, unlike most shift-runners, and it was so acute a sensitivity that he got good long looks at whatever oddness lay between dimensions, even though he spent only tiny snatches of time there. Query suspected that the images stayed with him and revisited often like hallucinogen flashbacks.

“It’s fucking with your mind,” Query continued,  wondering how many times he’d given the man this admonishment. “Give yourself a rest from it.”

“Gotta go gotta go gotta run,” Mad Dash said in a sing-song voice. “Black hats don’t stand still for long. Besides, it’s too cool. Makes me happy. Anyhoo what I really wanted was to ask your help.”

“With a villain?” Query asked hopefully.

“No. Nah,” he said, then paused. “Nah na na, naaaa na na naaaa,” he added, mimicking some children’s show tune, then stopped. “Nope. Hoping you can spring Julian. Get the feds to let him go. Man, I’m down to my last pair of boots.”

“They’re just hoping Gregori will give up something on his nastier clients,” Query said. “Maybe he will and maybe he won’t—if he even has anything useful to share other than what he charges them, which I doubt. But regardless, his lawyer will get him out soon. He hasn’t committed any kind of crime. FBI is just flailing around the past few months. They’re irritable. Besides, even if that weren’t the case that he’ll be out soon, I’ve got more important things to worry about, Dash. Janus sent a whole team to try to kill me almost two weeks ago.”

“Did they…?”


“Did they kill you?”

“Mad Dash, even for you, that’s a crazy question to ask,” Query noted. “Do I look dead?”

“I don’t know. How do you look when you’re dead?” Dash asked, leaning forward and squinting his eyes behind the oversized yellow goggles he usually wore. “You heal so fast. Maybe you can do a Lazarus trick. Come back from the Great Beyond-oh, you know-oh?”

“Doubt I’m that lucky,” Query muttered. “Or that gifted.”

“Maybe Baby Jesus would raise ya back up,” Mad Dash offered. “You seem worth it to me. You’re worth more than a thousand-year-old solid gold buffalo nickel.” He smiled in his usual disconcerting mix of earnestness and mania, and Query smiled back, even though he knew the man couldn’t see his mouth.

“Thanks, Dash,” he said. “That’s nice. Crazy, but nice. It means more to me than you can know.”

* * *

“I’ve been happy to be mostly retired, Janus, since I’m still young enough to enjoy it. I don’t like being summoned. I don’t like the implications of someone thinking they’re entitled to do that and I don’t like sticking my head out. I still have two unfinished prison sentences.”

“Semi-retired, and yet you came here wearing your costume,” Janus pointed out. “You always did look good in black. It still fits nice. You’ve kept in shape.”

“I still do publicity photo shoots, asshole, and I have a web-based pay-per-view program, and other interests—and you know it,” Underworld said. “And wearing my costume when I’m out is safer. Better for people to see my costume and mask and forget the mugshots, so that I’m less likely to be recognized when I go get a cappuccino in civilian mode.”

“I’ll never forget your face, my dear,” Janus said through his helmet, with a face in front and back, in the style of the Roman god Janus who could look both into the future and the past.

“I’d really like you to forget,” she retorted. “Why did you insist on seeing me?”

“Something has been bothering me for a long while, Underworld, and I do believe that your ability to dispel my confusion will lead to great success in my new life here on the East Coast. I wish to know how you escaped from prison the second time.”

“Trade secret, Janus. Now, if that’s all…”

“How? Don’t lie to me, now…you know I’ll know if you do…”

Underworld said nothing.

“I could hurt you to find out, you know.”

“Bad business to hurt someone you think is so valuable.”

“Your information is valuable,” he noted. “Not your body.”

“I have a great many fans and supporters who would argue otherwise—plus I think you’re lying. In any case, do you really think you’re fast enough to catch me, Janus?”

“Of course not. But how long can you run? I have all the doors sealed. I have since you entered.”

“Really?” Underworld noted blandly. “I hope the place is also rocket-proof. I do have people watching, Janus, and even if you’ve already found and neutralized some of them, you haven’t found all of them. I guarantee it.”

Janus laughed smoothy. “Oh how I miss working with you, Underworld. It will be good to have you back as an associate for a while. After you answer my question, of course.”

“No to both items on your agenda,” Underworld said. “Did I mention that I’m armed as well? I knew from the moment you called that this meeting would be trouble. You were too insistent. Too eager for it. But I couldn’t afford not to know what you wanted.”

“We won’t need to fight, Underworld. I’m sure that keeping your sister alive will be enough incentive to get you to answer my question, avoid killing me and sign on to my team for a while.”

Underworld’s face registered blank confusion as she blinked and said, “I don’t have a sister.”

“You lie so convincingly, my dear,” Janus said, and clapped his hands together in brief applause. “You really should have been an actress. Yes, you went to quite some trouble to erase your old identity and create an entirely new one when you started your criminal career. Complete with wiping out any sign of your surviving sister. And two cousins. And one great-uncle. Would you like me to recite their addresses? Your sister, of course, in Berkeley, California, at 436 North…”

“Enough! I get it!” Underworld snapped. “You’ve made your point. Why is it so important for you to know?”

“There was no sign of your cell being forced. No sign of you on any monitoring equipment. No tunnels. Nothing. What power are you hiding, woman? I want to know, and if I like the answer, I’m going to insist you sign on with me for a while.”

Underworld just looked at him defiantly for three minutes, and he stood impassively, face unreadable behind the bearded and bronze visage of his namesake god gazing into the future. Then she closed her eyes, and her chin drooped just a fraction. “My answer buys a promise from you that my relatives will remain untouched. Not just now, but forever.”

“I will also require you to join me…unless I don’t like the answer, and then you can leave with only my disdain to accompany you.”

“Two months only,” she said. “Not a day longer.”

“Twelve. Rebuilding a criminal empire after abandoning one is a daunting task.”

“Four. Final offer.”

“Don’t dither with me, woman. Twelve. Or I’ll make sure it’s my own hand that helps release your sister’s intestines into the light of day.”

“God DAMN you, Janus!” Underworld growled, and pulled out a grenade. “I’m not your bitch! Be a good businessman and negotiate, or I will send us both to Hell!”

“Now there’s my old Underworld,” Janus said gleefully. “I knew I could bring her out again. Ten months.”

“Four-and-a-fucking-half,” she said.

Janus paused. “Oh, this is getting boring now, and you’re becoming petulant. Let’s just skip to the middle and agree on six months, which is where we both planned to settle anyway. You’ll probably stay on at least another year or two once the money starts whispering sweet nothings to you.”

Underworld put the grenade back in her pocket and shook her head, muttering “Doubtful.” Gritting her teeth, she said, “OK…how I broke out: I phased.”

“You’re a fantastic Speedster, but shift-running only works in fractions of centimeters at a time—an inch or two at best. Even if you managed to hold it a bit longer, you’d have a concussion, contusions all over your body and a few small bits of you stuck inside your cell wall after your dimensionally shifted impact—and you’d still be imprisoned,” he noted, then paused and rubbed one metallic bearded chin of his helmet. “Still, you’re not lying. I’d know. I can’t see how you could be that lucky to have had perfect timing with the dimensional shifts even if you had enough speed to carry you through a wall in concert with them. And the perimeter alarms still would have caught you later. Come now, tell me the whole story. Some hyper-acute clairvoyance, perhaps? Long-term illusion generation?”

“I did tell you the whole story, but you didn’t pay attention. You’re too fucking pleased with the sound of your own voice. I told you: I phased,” she said. “I didn’t just shift-run. I short-hopped through space several feet at a time. I teleported.”

Janus paused, then laughed. “Now who’s won the lottery? Janus, that’s who. Teleportation! No one’s managed that. You’re a true prodigy, Underworld. I never could have hoped for that. Not just some new zero-to-mach-2 in a split-second speedster capability mixed with the shift-running. Not some new powerful mind-bending ability you used on the guards. Real teleportation. This will be so useful.”

“Not as much as you think. It’s exhausting and dangerous.”

“Then we’ll use it sparingly, won’t we? Welcome aboard, Underworld. You can tell your friends outside to stand down now. How many teams did you have by the way?”

“More than one. Less than 10,” she answered.

“Well, then, you can congratulate anywhere between one and nine teams on their consummate skill, because we only found one team, and so you only have two corpses on your conscience. You know how to pick your staff, don’t you?”

“Janus, this is low even for you. This whole thing. Extorting me in an effort to recruit me. What ever happened to honor among thieves?”

“I’ve never believed in that,” Janus countered.

“Then believe this: No one threatens my family,” Underworld said. “This is the kind of thing that leads to a reckoning one day.”

“Yes, I suppose it would,” Janus said. “Then we will both simply have to hope that we come to a reconciliation along the way so that one of us won’t have to kill the other. I’d miss you.”

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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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Milo Phillips’ fingers finished dancing across the keys on his touch-screen, as he imagined the winding down of the beat in the back of his mind that had accompanied the words he had written.

The tongue is a weapon, my words are a sword.
They sever, slice
Once, twice and thrice
Must suffice
So I banter right, and banter left
Death by verbal bat’leth

A young man paused near Milo, leaned slightly over his shoulder from the side, and looked down at the rap lyrics that he had just written on the screen of his palmtop. Annoyed and distracted, his mental reflexes kicked in even as he quietly verbalized the new lyrics, instantly retrieving the young rapper’s stage name from his memory: Slaughter Vox. Then other data flooded his thoughts. Birth name: Bourey Timothy Moore. Age: 22. Occupation: Fucking slacker. Social security number…

Milo shut off the feed of information flowing through his mind, kicking himself mentally for dwelling on pointless personal data that he had gathered about one of the semi-regulars in his musical circles. He wasn’t Query right now, so it was a waste of mental resources he could better devote to his rapping. Neither was he jazz composer Nigel Roy right now nor even in his original birth identity of Alan Millos, the scientist everyone thought paralyzed and secluded in his big house out near the edge of the county line.

Time to focus on the current identity and the current task—getting ready to go up on stage in about 30 or 40 minutes.

Slaughter Vox was still standing there, still peering over Milo’s shoulder, and now letting out a scornful little half-laugh.

Arrogant little prick, Milo thought.

Half-white, half-Cambodian, and he fancied himself as blacker than a black man—even one in his mid-40s, like Milo, whose parents had been part of the latter years of the Civil Rights Movement. Milo heard a snort of derision now from the young man as he finished softly vocalizing the lyrics a second time, and then looked up with boredom in his dark eyes, awaiting the jibe he knew must be coming.

“What ’da fuck’s a ‘bat lip’ old man?” Vox sneered.

“Bat’leth,” he answered evenly, correcting Vox. “Klingon sword. Star Trek. First seen in the Next Generation series. Nasty piece of work if you were to be on the receiving end.”

“Jeeeesus, niggah” Vox drawled in some pale imitation of a ‘street’ tonality. “Fuck. If you gonna pull a sci-fi ref to old-ass shit, try somethin’ people give a shit ‘bout, like Star Wars or classic ’Trek. Better yet, try yo’self on some Battlestar Galactica or Fringe or some other mo’ recent shit. Fuckin’ dinosaur. No place in rap fo’ clueless old men.”

Feeling a bit of his Query persona creeping in, Milo mentally reviewed the two or three best ways he could break Vox’s forearm. Then he considered that a blow to the moron’s windpipe would be a better idea, since it would spare the world the sound of his pathetic words for a while. Instead, Milo sighed, and went back to his palmtop, jotting down ideas for more lyrics.

This is no time for violence, he considered. I’m not in my Query identity, so no need for heroics. Not that hitting the idiot would be heroic, anyway, he considered. Vox isn’t even a criminal—at least not yet, or at least not that I know. He’s just a punk.

So a while later, Milo did what he did to any punk on a night like this. Instead of breaking a bone or giving out concussions, he slaughtered the young man on stage. With words.

* * *

By the next night, Milo Phillips was nowhere in evidence—nor was Nigel Roy or theoretically wheelchair-bound Alan Millos. This was another venue in another part of town. A small room in an aging commercial building that looked like a cross between an accountant’s office and a private detective’s. Too much high-end computer equipment and too clean to be called seedy; too cluttered and small to be called classy.

This was one of Query’s nights.

Shit, most nights are for Query, the man thought behind his almost featureless full-head black mask—the only adornment a red question mark occupying the space from the bottom of his nose to just above the tip of his chin. When you get down to it, Query is who I really am now.

Right on time, a key rattled in the lock and the door to the office swung open, as Carl Beacham stepped in.

“Good evening, Query,” he said. “Keeping your nose clean?”

It was a common joke to hear from Carl. Query found it reasonably amusing even after hearing it dozens of times over the past couple years, but he didn’t laugh. He simply said, as he touched the mask-covered tip of his nose, “How would you be able to tell if I were lying or not?”

Carl smiled slightly at the usual comeback, and was reminded, as always, how strange it was for Query to talk to him but never to see that question mark over his mouth move a bit. As always, he wondered if some kind of thin and hard “protective cup” lay over Query’s mouth, chin, nose  and jawline to create that unnerving effect and to disguise slightly the shape of his face—and no doubt keep his teeth from getting knocked out in hand-to-hand fights.

“So, I met with the Grimmond family tonight as planned, and sussed out some more information. The kidnappers are still holding their child and giving them all sorts of rules, ultimatums and vague demands. The police still haven’t been brought in because they’re afraid that will get the kid killed, but the family can’t seem to give me any idea of when the kidnappers plan to actually make a firm demand. It seems like they’re mostly screwing with the family now, and the father is really nervous that you won’t be able to find the kid. I don’t know. Maybe the kidnappers are trying to scare them; maybe to see if they’ll break the rules and bring in the police. Or maybe the kid is dead and they’re trying to figure out how to cash in anyway.”

“This whole case has been odd from the start,” Query noted. “I didn’t expect it to get any easier toni…”

Query sniffed. Paused. Sniffed again.

“What?” Carl asked.

“Did you make out with some woman tonight before coming here?”

“No…what?…not that it’s any of your damn business, but…”

“Did you?” Query pressed.

“What kind of question…”

“A question from me. Just because I’m called Query doesn’t mean I ask questions for the damn sake of just asking them. You should know that by now. Did you…”

“No! I danced with a woman. Mr. Grimmond met me at a nice little tavern so that I wouldn’t be seen going into his home or office by the kidnappers. When I was leaving, a pretty gal gave me the eye, and asked if I could dance. I had time to kill before coming here, so we danced a couple slow ones to the jukebox. How did you know anyway…”

“Perfume. I can smell it on you. It’s not what Patsy wears.”

“Now, you’re not gonna say something to Patsy, are you? It’s enough trouble being your attorney, investigator and go-between in these cases without having you in my relationship.”

“Stand still,” Query said brusquely, then stepped forward to frisk Carl. The man simply let it happen, realizing that arguing at this point about anything was pointless.

“You know, it’s already not that damn easy being your go-between so that you can keep your dark and mysterious vibe up and keep people away from your secret office, and now you’re frisking me. You know, I had yet another reporter call yesterday and insist that it was obvious I was Query since I do all the interviewing legwork and initial investigatory work, and I was shitty at keeping a secret identity, and I should just come clean in an interview with him. I pointed out that I was at least five inches shorter than you and at least 30 pounds heavier and he snorted something about girdles and platform shoes before I hung up on him.”

“Well, that’s why I pay you well—to deal with that bullshit so that I don’t have to,” Query said. “Not to mention that you deserve plenty of pay since someone might take a potshot or something at you someday to get to me.”

“You have such a warm and comforting nature, Query.”

“You’re welcome,” Query said. “It’s becoming clear now. This entire process has been too drawn out. The family is either under contract to fuck with us and the child is safely with friends, or their child is being held to force them to help set us up.”

“Set us up for what?” Carl asked, as Query finished frisking him.

“Nothing,” Query muttered, and it was clear he was referring to the fruitless search of Carl’s person, not answering the man’s question. “Turn out all your pockets on the desk. Now.”

“For what…”

“Now. Do it.”

Carl emptied everything from his pants pockets, suit coat and overcoat. Query sifted through everything there rapidly, picked up a shiny quarter, considered it for a moment, then said, “Get everything else you care about back in your pockets, fast. We’re about to leave.”

“What’s going on?”

“Since when have you ever carried pocket change?” Query asked.

“What do you mean? Who doesn’t?”

“You, for one. Carl, you pay for everything with plastic. I’ve observed you buying a $1.50 coffee from a gas station using a credit card or debit card on at least 20 occasions. You are cash-averse. And now there’s one lone coin in your pocket when you don’t pay in cash? The woman who danced with you slipped this into your pocket while you were copping a cheap feel.”

“Guess my dancing wasn’t very impressive. Or my flirting. Maybe I just picked it up from the ground or a table without thinking about it. Ever consider that?”

“It’s too heavy to be a real quarter, Carl. Short-range transmitter. They’ve probably had to circle around a few times in the neighborhood to get a good fix on it though—signal would be for shit, especially with the white noise and other interference I generate in the area. They wouldn’t have followed you closely by car for fear of spooking you. They’re here to kill me.”

“How long before they…wait, you said ‘they’re here.’ Shit. Already?”

“Setting up, and waiting for the rest of their team probably. Blocking any avenues of escape. I heard movement in the alley below and wondered why a vehicle was rolling down it so quietly. No doubt there are teams at the elevators and stairwells. They think I’m ignorant of all this. Not altogether foolish of them; they are good at stealth. I’m just better and more perceptive. They’ll be on us in 10 to 15 minutes probably—they know I was planning to debrief you and they’ll want to make sure they block off all the exits, so they’re not rushing. I’m figuring we should assume we only have three minutes, though, to be on the safe side.”

“So, we’re going to fight our way out? Take them by surprise?”

“Did you bring a weapon or body armor, Carl?”

“Of course not. My most dangerous weapon is a Mont Blanc pen.”

“Did you learn martial arts on the sly when I wasn’t looking? Develop superpowers, perhaps? Or do you simply want to die in a firefight?”

“So we’re gonna wait for them?”

“Nonsense,” Query said amiably, handing Carl a canvas shopping bag. “Please take my external hard drive there and carry it with you. The Chinese vase, too. It has sentimental value.”

Query snatched up a shoulder bag for himself, slid everything small and loose from the top of the desk into it, pitched the quarter into a corner, punched a few keys on his computer and then slapped a button on the side of the filing cabinet. Carl got a whiff of some terrible chemical stink from inside the cabinet and wondered how long before the acid-bath in there—or whatever it was—finished with the paper and started eating through the metal of the cabinet itself. No doubt a virus was currently trashing what little data Query actually kept on the computer’s CPU hard drive.

“Don’t worry, Carl, we have a huge advantage.”

“Really, what’s that?”

“They think I’m secure enough and complacent in my secrecy here and that I’m arrogant enough to not have expected something like this,” Query said. “Besides, they’ve already found my two ‘escape hatches.’ One of them anyway, from some noises I’ve heard down below; I have to assume they’ve found the other one, too.”

“Why is this supposed to make me comfortable and how does this give you an advantage?” Carl said. He was maintaining his composure pretty well as usual, but a little nervous tic was entering into the equation now, Query noted.

“Because, my friend, they don’t realize that I’m three times more cautious and paranoid than they think,” Query said. “Those two ‘secret’ escape routes are just for show.”

* * *

The primary assault team worked its way down the hall—three men and one woman who had killed enough people between them over their careers to populate a tiny backwater town.

They were hyper-aware of potential alarms and traps, and actually noted at least one motion detector and one laser tripwire, both of which they thwarted en route to Query’s office, which was listed as “Northeastern Market Consulting LLP,” a business theoretically co-owned by a man named Lloyd Swinton and a woman named Gloria Redfisher. When they got near the office door, they wasted no time, and opened fire on the door and outer wall with automatic weapons loaded with armor piercing rounds. When they were all clicking on empty, they dropped those weapons, pulled out fresh ones, and cautiously entered the office, expecting to find at least one dead body and perhaps one body-armored hero who was heavily wounded. Instead they got an office full of bullet holes and a filing cabinet with fumes leaking from partially corroded drawers.

It took them two minutes to figure out that the bookcase covered a hole in the wall and that some kind of dumbwaiter had been built into that wall, leading straight to the basement. Five levels down.

That was already 14 minutes too late, and by the time a pair of two-person teams had been mobilized to the basement, all they found was a small explosive device that filled the air with high-velocity shrapnel and reduced their ranks by three.

* * *

“So, if I may ask, why didn’t the hit team think that you might escape to the sewers?” Carl asked, as they approached a dimly lit area at the end of a mildew-scented tunnel, where a ladder led upward into the barely illuminated gloom. Query motioned for him to go first.

As they progressed up the rungs, Query said, “Because this isn’t on the city plans. I didn’t pick an old area of the city for the shit of it, Carl. There are all kinds of old utility tunnels and other things that aren’t even kept track of anymore. The sewer is roughly parallel to our tunnel and 10 or 20 feet higher up. I’m sure they have the sewer covered—or booby-trapped—at both ends respective to the office building.”

When he reached the top of the ladder, Carl found that the trap door above him swung open easily. A light automatically came on in what appeared to be a small garage. A very nice five-year old Mercedes occupied most of the space.

Query followed him into the space, tossed what he was carrying into the back seat of the car, pulled out a couple of bags that were already in there, and handed a set of keys to Carl.

“Can you drive a stick?”


“Excellent. Good thing that it didn’t matter anyway, since this car is an automatic, but I’ll remember that in the future in case I leave my Porsche in one of my hidey holes. It never occurred to me to ask what you could drive when I hired you two years ago.”

“OK, Carl,” Query continued, “the GPS in the car can lead you to the Lark County safehouse I have. Uncork a bottle of merlot when you get there, thaw some steaks and grill yourself up a nice meal. Keep my shit safe, and don’t run up the cost on the pay-per-view too much with the satellite TV. If I don’t come up to meet you by 8 p.m. Sunday, you can safely assume I’m dead and carry on with your life. Keep the car as a memento if so.”

“What are you going to do?” Carl asked. “You’re not going back there, are you?”

“Of course I am, Carl. What if someone is working late in another office, hiding out after all that ruckus, and they end up dead because no one wants any witnesses?” Query said. “Besides, they who live by the sword, die by the sword. You reap what you sow. And all that jazz.”

As he shouldered his bags, Query paused, and stared off into the distance for a few moments. Though his eyes were hidden by the black mask, Carl could imagine the faraway look in them. “Though I suppose I should leave a couple of them mostly intact to answer some queries.”

* * *

The mercenary heard a soft sound and turned toward it, not realizing the man who made it had intended just that effect. Suddenly his vision was filled with a red exclamation mark that emblazoned the palm of a black leather glove, fingers splayed mere inches from his face and blocking his vision. A split-second of distraction before the other gloved hand, fingers curled into a striking position, hit him once at the base of his sternum and then in his throat.

I’ve had to use all of my tanglers already on his friends—a pity I had to use them on their faces instead of the feet or hands like I usually do; perhaps a few of them won’t asphyxiate, Query thought, as he made a final blow to the prone man to incapacitate him fully. Now that’s a nice pistol you have there, my friend. I hope you don’t mind if I keep it.

What Query lacked in expert martial arts capabilities—oh, he was far more than competent, but there were many heroes and villains, both super-powered and not, who could easily wipe the floor with him hand-to-hand, he readily acknowledged—he more than made up for in stealth. His enemies were still working their way through the building to find where he had gone or to discover if he were still hiding here, and he had dispatched a dozen of them already by ones and twos. Based on the trio of unfamiliar vans in the area that were clearly for transport and surveillance, he estimated that he had taken out more than two-thirds of their force by this point, and decided to err on the side of assuming seven more, though five seemed far more likely.

No police were going to come, clearly, Query surmised. Response rates to this neighborhood were notoriously slow, but after this much time, clearly there was either no one else in the building to hear the commotion and call the cops, or the strike team had disabled the alarms and phones and was jamming cell signals from leaving the area, too.

He had used up almost all of his silent ranged attacks, and before long, he was going to have to resort to his flechette pistol, which was quiet but far from silent, or one of three semi-automatic pistols he carried—one of them the former property of his latest victim—and those would be anything but stealthy.

Query dragged his latest victim into a maintenance closet, bound and gagged him for possible later interrogation, and then consulted the homemade app on his smart phone to identify the last-known position of another pair of his opponents.

They had disabled all of the obvious alarms and monitoring devices by now—which was precisely the reason Query had made them obvious to begin with, so that they would be too busy to find the real devices.

The pair he was tracking now were registering as having been hit with an odorless aerosolized sedative some 10 minutes earlier when they accidentally sprung one of his traps. It wasn’t enough to knock them out, but it would sharply reduce their reaction time.

He found them a few minutes later, downing one with a small bolo, then firing off a flechette from point-blank range into the ribcage of the other. Query knocked the first one out and bound and gagged him as he had the previous victim, and then held down the other, covering his mouth to keep him quiet until the damage to his heart and one lung overcame him.

Query could hear the faint sound of a voice from the earpiece of the mercenary’s communication equipment. Even with his enhanced senses, it was too hard to make out the details of what was being said, but the fact that the man wouldn’t be responding would alert them to Query’s presence if they weren’t already aware of it—and the fact that most of their team was down.

Another check-in on the smart phone told him that two of the mercenaries had recently left through the front door. Retreating to live another day, no doubt, and Query didn’t begrudge them that.

He just barely heard a van start up, and drive away.

Two more gone, then, and one to three remaining, most likely. They hadn’t passed any of his electronic checkpoints though. They were either lucky or better than the rest.

No indication that they left, and only one van has left, Query considered. This is the clean-up crew. Dedicated and likely deadlier than the rest.

He felt the change in air pressure before he heard any sound from the person hunting him, and the shots were ringing out before he could find cover. Two bullets hit the vest protecting his upper torso. Their impact hurt, but nothing short of an explosive round was going to get through that body armor. Another bullet ripped through his left forearm, while yet another tore out a chunk of his left bicep, leaving two trails of agony in their wake. The sleeve of his leather duster was reinforced, but far from bulletproof. His accelerated healing would stop the blood flow soon enough, but that arm would be of little practical use for a good day or two while it healed—except maybe to block any other attacks. The limb had become a casualty to be put in harm’s way, so that the other arm could do its job.

A pity that I’m a leftie, Query thought, as he pulled out one of the pistols with his off-hand and lobbed a small flash grenade with the injured one. As it went off, he rushed out from his hiding place and grabbed the gun of his adversary with his left hand. Before he could fully wrest it away, the man fired off several shots, one of which plunged through his palm. With Query cursing in pain and momentarily distracted, the mercenary struck him repeatedly. Even mostly blinded and disoriented, the unarmed merc was putting up a good fight, and Query was intensely glad he wasn’t facing the man in peak condition. He managed the beat the man away long enough to get a good shot, and shot him twice in the gut.

Then, as suddenly as the enemy was down, Query heard the man’s partner approach from the side, and managed to take cover before any bullets hit him this time. Taking out his last bolo, he came out from behind his cover and flung it at the mercernary’s weapon. He heard swearing in a feminine voice and then rushed her, batting away the pistol she was drawing. Getting his attention with the gun had the desired effect though, and with her other hand, she slashed at him with some kind of powered knife he hadn’t seen her draw.

Query used his otherwise useless left arm as a shield, the blade slashing easily through the sleeve of his coat. Every time she hit home, he not only howled with pain but mentally tallied up the additional damage. One slash. Two. Three. Probably another week added on to his recovery time, as the blade reached bone with the final slash. Then Query got his opening, and kicked in one of the woman’s kneecaps. As she stumbled, he pulled a retractable baton and used it to disarm her, then strike her across the head twice.

He retrieved his pistol from the ground—no, it was her pistol, he realized—and considered killing her or at least shooting her through the spine. He already had five other mercs trussed up in various locations, and he only needed to take two with him to question. Simply knocking this one out was too risky—she was probably the most dangerous enemy still alive or uncrippled.

But a woman and a man—one of each—that could be useful, Query thought. Each gender has its own weak points, and I need all the edge I can get to obtain answers.

He bound and gagged her, unloaded a syringe of sedative into her, and dragged her into his dumpy looking backup car—then found one of her teammates and tossed him along with her. He wondered if one last mercenary would show up, but no one did, and he smiled with as much satisfaction as he could with a seething and bloody landscape of agony where a fully functional arm was supposed to be.

When he was a few blocks from the scene of the attack, Query called the police and told them where to find the bodies—both warm and cold.

* * *

“You have come here with good news, I hope, though I wonder—because you seem to lack the corpse that would make me happy,” said the well-dressed and broad-shouldered man to whom the remaining two mercenaries had retreated. He turned his head slightly to face them, his expression unreadable, covered as it was by a full-face drama mask, half of it the iconic “comedy” image and the other being half of the “tragedy” image. His eyes seemed hard, though, and added to the severe, almost military-style cut of his hair, Janus presented an imposing image.

But still his mood was unreadable, and a report had to be made.

“Judging by the fact that our remaining two team members haven’t joined us, I presume the entire mission is wash,” one of the mercenaries admitted. “Query took out 16 of us by himself.”

“It could have been 18, had you two stayed to do your job to carry out the mission, or die trying,” Janus pointed out.

“We were ordered out of there to report back to you.”

“Do you think I wouldn’t have ascertained the results of your mission had you stayed to die or be captured? After all, Query probably has a kinder hand than I.”

“If the ranking member of the team orders us out, we go. If you have an issue with that and he’s still alive, take it up with him,” the mercenary answered.

“Orders. Obedience. Well,” Janus said. “I can’t argue against that when it’s precisely what I demand, can I? It is, after all, the only reason that you’re still alive.”

“I appreciate that,” the man answered, and his partner nodded.

“Don’t,” Janus said. “The fact I don’t plan to kill you doesn’t mean I won’t hurt you. I want to make sure I get a full and accurate debriefing, and I wish to ensure that you are telling the truth when you say you were ordered out.”

Both mercenaries tensed, and the one who had been speaking could easily visualize the cruel smile that must be under that mask. Both he and his comrade considered running, but in the end, they allowed themselves to be led away by a trio of henchmen in kabuki masks.

Besides, they wondered, how bad could a painful interrogation be if it meant they got to live?

It was a question they would ponder quite often in the weeks after Janus let them go. It was a question that one pondered for three months, actually, before he ultimately took his own life to burn the memories from his brain. The other one took a slower form of suicide, and buried the memories for years with heroin instead.

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