Loose Cannons (Chapter 2)
LOOSE CANNONS – Chapter 2
A Whateley novel
by Bek D. Corbin
The man known to Evan as ‘Mister Bland’ watched as his subordinates unloaded the last of the recovered materials from the warehouse and noted with dry irony that while they’d gotten back everything that was expensive, they’d lost everything that was valuable. He was trying to frame his report on the incident in such a way that he could point out that escaping paranormals tended to leave trails of bodies and wanton destruction behind them, without sounding like he was making excuses or covering for himself. Still, they had managed to scavenge everything that they could, and three of the Retrieval units had managed to come back under their own power. Oh, who was he kidding? Only ONE of the Retrieval units had come back with its systems intact, and it had dragged back the other two with unconscious pilots. This was the problem with this sort of operation- when things went wrong, they go disastrously wrong. He fatalistically wondered what else could go wrong.
As if on cue, there was a shout from the gate. A man, a remarkably unremarkable man who could have faded into any crowd in North America or Europe, was muscling his way past the uniformed security guards. They were piling on him five deep, but he just trudged on as if they were so many dry leaves that clung to his overcoat. A few of the security guards took the chance at harming their fellows and used the taser guns they were armed with. The unknown man waded through the assault as though they were only firing cap guns.
Security brought up a heavy infantry cannon and prepped a metal-injection shell. The intruder saw ‘Mr. Bland’ and said in a loud, deep, voice with a strange guttural accent, “Dr Prang, I would have words with you.”
Prang recognized the voice and shouted, “Stand Down! At best, you’d only waste an expensive shell, and at worst you’d merely confuse a delicate situation. Stand down, and resume inventory.” Prang waved the visitor into his new office. “I apologize for the reception, but it’s not like you gave us any warning.”
“I find it odd that your security should be so tight NOW, after you have so carelessly lost my dynamorphs,” the man - or rather, the devisement that the speaker used to converse with Prang announced pettishly. “Finding an Ur-dynamorph before it bonds with a being is like finding a diamond on a beach. Without a more complete understanding of what the elusive things ARE, even my most effective artifices are gambling with destruction at best. I gave you twelve Ur-dynamorphs to work with, for our mutual information. I have even provided for you an artifact that most of your competitors would lay waste to vast regions to possess. My word still stands sound and true. Up to now, the word of the Instrumentality has been sound and true. How comes this change?”
Prang sat down, and gestured at the other chair, but the humanoid communicator didn’t respond. Prang sighed, “Well, up to a few minutes ago, I suspected that a mole in our organization had suddenly poked its nose out of the dirt. But our latest intelligence suggests that we got hit by a perfect storm.”
“A… perfect… Storm…?” The android questioned uncertainly.
“A recent idiom, one that seems to have passed you by. Basically, I mean that a wide range of incidents happened that, individually, we could have dealt with without any problems, but collectively, added up to a colossal cluster fuck. Synergy meets Murphy’s Law.”
“And how did this… perfect storm… break?”
“We’re not sure. Let me spell it out for you. We were just seven hours from harvesting the mature dynamorphs. We’d pulled the graveyard shift technicians and most of the interior security guards off that shift, so they could be fresh for the harvest. We had a bare skeleton shift, and they’d just pulled a double shift. Then, about two in the morning, a bunch of winos tried to break into the warehouse, probably looking for a place to sleep. Or, they’d been paid off to do it. Exterior security dealt with them, but it went down bad, one of the winos got injured and the police got involved. Exterior security had to spend the next hour and a half making sure that the police didn’t get suspicious.
“During this time, apparently someone sneaked in, fried the status monitoring system, and released all of the hosts. He then sent three of the hosts after the interior security guards. They didn’t even have a chance to hit the panic button. Then, instead of leaving immediately, the hosts searched the lab and took the time to eat and compare notes. We estimate that they took an hour. Then one of the exterior security guards checked interior security, as a matter of SOP. Unfortunately, the senior guards were still coping with the police, so three junior guards loaded all the remote control capture units they had into the freight elevator and sent it up on silent mode. Despite being taken by surprise, the hosts, no doubt coached by their liberator, managed to take out six heavily armed anthro-frames and a horde of box-units. And, just to make it completely ridiculous, the sedative gas dispensers didn’t work for some reason. Nine untrained kids managed to destroy three of the anthro-frames and over a dozen of the box-drones. One of the subjects, Test Case #8, used an energy attack that was so powerful that she knocked one of the anthro-frames completely through a wall, which they used to flee the building. They even managed to steal a car before exterior security could get free of the police to investigate.”
The communications android’s operator made it nod. “You assume that a third party assisted the hosts in their escape. Do you have any pictures of him?”
Prang shook his head. “No, he managed to avoid been seen by any of the captor units’ pickups. Which only shows that we’re dealing with a professional.”
“And why couldn’t the captives simply have escaped on their own?”
Prang looked annoyed. “We chose our subjects carefully. They’re the very dregs of the American school system. Besides being the sort that the school administrators would have absolutely NO compunctions of getting rid of, they make for optimal prisoners. They’re stupid, ignorant, undisciplined, and lazy. If one of them somehow did manage to escape, his first reflex would be to try to sneak out. The floor below was kept empty and bare, to force anyone trying to use the stairwell to get out to cross the floor without any cover. On the very off chance that more than one managed to get out, the stress would cause their personalities to conflict; they’d spend more time arguing with each other than they would thinking. We picked a mix of ethnicities that would promote internal conflict. But first evidence suggests that they freed everyone, took time to eat and plan, and acted in concert against armed opposition. The only way that those punks would have pulled all that off would have been if a trained and disciplined adult broke in here, and freed them one at a time, gaining their complicity as he did it.”
Prang leaned back in his chair as a thought crossed his mind, “However, after they leave, it gets confusing.”
“As a matter of SOP, we sent teams to each of the escapees’ homes, posing as MCO agents. When he discovered that the MCO was denying taking the twelve students, the school administrator promptly covered himself by issuing a barrage of confusing statements about their disappearance. We’ve been able to exploit and amplify this a bit, but it’s brought more general attention to the situation than we are really happy with. Still, it has meant that the students’ parents have been very eager to cooperate with the MCO. One of the ambushes, for Subject #2, almost worked, but instead of bagging just one of them, all of the escapees managed to pull off a well-orchestrated counter-ambush. Subject #2’s family has disappeared, and we can’t afford to try and trace them just now.”
“How is this confusing?” the android relayed. “Obviously this mentor you theorize instructed the escapees in the effort, as to cement their trust of him.”
“Then why only ONE of the families? If our mysterious mentor were trying to get them to trust him, he’d probably try to do the same for at least one or two more, if only to prove to the escapees how dangerous we were, and how much they need him to stay free. But why pull off that rescue in the first place? Given their stupidity and lack of discipline, they’d implicitly trust the person who freed them anyway! And since this mysterious liberator is obviously working for one of our competition, it stands to reason that his first priority would be securing them with his patron, not running around getting them to trust him.”
The android nodded. “Very confusing. But now to important matters. What is the disposition of the dynamorphs? How many of them did you harvest?”
“Errr…” Prang hesitated, “None.”
“As I said, the subjects escaped hours before the harvesting was scheduled to begin. We pulled the usual workers off the graveyard shift, so they’d be available and fresh to help with the harvesting. Worse, we sent out seven of the Dyna-Tech units that we’d developed, to intercept what we thought were three of the escapees at Subject #2’s house. Instead, they ran into all eight of the escapees, working in unison. Only one of the retrieval units was able to escape intact, and it brought back two more of them badly damaged.”
“What over the other four?”
“There was no trace of either the dyna-containment units or the harnessing plates that you contrived for us. We have to assume that our mysterious ‘mentor’ has them, and is in the process of passing them along to his patrons.”
“So, in other words, you are telling me that I have provided you not only with twelve ur-dynamorphs, but the harnessing plates to develop your ‘dyna-technology’ with, and in return, I getting nothing.”
“It’s not as bad as all that!” Prang assured his visitor-by-remote. “We ARE committed to not only getting back the lost dynamorphs and the stolen technology, but to recovering Subject #8 as well. Alive, unfortunately, as we have no idea how the host’s death would affect the dynamorph.”
“I will rise to the question: what precisely is so interesting about Subject #8?”
“Subject #8 is… anomalous.”
“Anomalous? How so?”
“The energies that the other dynamorphs generate are all quantifiable. In the case of odd energies, such as gravity, cold, or the netting manifestation, it took a little time and effort, but we were able to identify the source energy and the manner of conversion to the use mode. But Subject #8’s energies defy analysis! They are nothing like any of the dynamorph energies! Also, Retrieval Unit #3 recorded Subject #8 striking at the containment pack for Retrieval Unit #6-”
“Which one was that? Your empirical posturing is beginning to annoy me.”
“The Psychic energy amplifier. It’s a damn shame that we lost that unit.”
“What happened to it?”
“Well, besides that devastating blast attack, Subject #8 apparently has the ability to create an energy sword of some sort. Energy swords seem to be very popular these days for some reason. At any rate, she struck at the harnessing plate and there was a catastrophic failure of the unit.”
“The dynamorph escaped?”
“Worse. The dynamorph for all practical purposes exploded. We recovered the unit and the pilot, but the pilot is currently comatose. We have no idea as to how he was affected by the backlash.”
“Exploded?” The android went so far as to rest its chin in its hand, as if to muse by remote control. “I need to see the implementation plate and the dynamorph containment crystal.”
There were a few rather awkward minutes as Prang sent for the two artifacts. The android examined the burned out crystal without comment. Then it examined the octagonal plate with an expert (and inhuman) eye. “There is a line that almost perfectly bisects the plate,” the android announced. “The metal isn’t touched, but somehow all the meta-resonant patterning has been torn through, as though it had been plowed.” It examined the eight satellite crystals. “Not as bad as the containment crystal, but still no longer viable. The contained energy had been violently disrupted from within.” The android looked back at Prang. “You are sure that none of your tests could analyze the energy created by the anomalous dynamorph?”
“Well, we’d exhausted all possible conventional energies, and we were debating whether to try and harvest it along with the other dynamorphs or leave it in situ, when the subjects escaped.”
The android tucked the plate under its coat and turned as to leave. “Very well. I regard the Instrumentality as keeping good faith. Continue your attempts to recover the escapees. I will do likewise with my own resources. Have your superiors keep me informed; I shall as well, should my efforts bear fruit.” With only that as a farewell, the android walked out of the office.
The assistant who had brought the plate watched the seemingly innocuous figure stoically exit the building. “Okay, exactly what does all THAT mean?”
Prang pulled one of the books from his shelf and took out a bottle of scotch. “It means that we get to live.”
* * * * *
I woke up feeling achy, with a familiar acrid smell in my nose, and the sound of a string ensemble playing. I lolled half-awake for a moment, and then strange, jumbled memories of things that should have been dreams slammed home. I bolted up to sitting, half-getting to my feet. I looked around, and found myself lying on the wooden floors of a long room with windows that had been whitewashed over, filled with long tables that I couldn’t see the tops of yet. Then I heard a high-pitched giggle.
I turned and spotted a very cute blonde chick sitting on the rubber matting on the floor with her back up against one of the tables, a very thick doobie in hand and a stoned grin on her face. “Welcome back,” she said with a voice thick with pot smoke, as she took another hit.
“Aaannndd… exactly who are you?”
“Yer supposed to ask ‘where am I?’ ” she said with a giggle.
“Also a valid question,” I allowed. “But first things first. Who are you?”
She leaned over, a big Janis Joplin grin on her face. “It’s me, Roxie. Roxie Lockhart.”
Roxie? But Roxie had… and even before, Roxie had been a sort of a schlump with a fat face, dingy lanky brown hair, and a sort of potato sack body. And this chick was, like I said, seriously cute, the kind of chick that TV tells you that you really want for a GF. And Roxie had been changed into this bishonen kind of boy and-
I looked down at my body. Flat chest, narrow hips and a definite package between the legs, all packaged in a polo shirt and cargo shorts. Had last night been some sort of really weird wish-fulfillment dream? “Ah… Roxie? I’m a little confused… Exactly how did we get here?”
She took another deep drag and gave out a giggle of vicious glee. “What you really mean, is ‘did we all go through this really involved comic book scenario where we were kidnapped and put through a fiendish thingie and get changed into super-mutants and then escape, or did I just have a really weird dream where I turned into a kickin’ Goth chick?’ Sorry, Dude, but it really happened! Yep, you changed into this rilly kyute chick with the big hooters and grab-on-with-both-hands butt and big ol’ lavender eyes…”
“Roxie, is this your way of coming out of the closet?”
Roxie took the joint out of her mouth, looked at it and said, “Okay, the mark of a responsible doper is that she knows when enough is enough. Enough.” She tamped out the joint on the floorboards and tucked the remainder away for later. “Ah, no. But hey! I was a guy then. I noticed, y’know? And God knows, there was so much to notice…” she gave me a look. “Damn, how do you guys manage to keep from going all apeshit when you see cute girls, with all that testosterone going through you?”
“Why do you think we play so many video games?” I shot back as I got up and looked around. From a vantage point other that the floor, I could make out that it was a greenhouse. “Okay, I’ll go for the obvious question. Where are we?”
“WELL…” Roxie struggled to get to her feet. “After you shorted out that guy with your Freudian phallus-analog, you, Billy and Rachel were ever-so-slightly totally out of it, so we hadda bail. We made, like, a whole wave of anime-type havoc and destruction and like that, so we couldn’t really hang around for the cops, y’know? And we hadda ditch the van, so we went to the police impound lot, and helped ourselves to a couple of cars.”
“How do you just help yourself to a car from the impound lot?”
“Well, having a guy who can fly while lifting four tons helps a lot. Anyway, after that, Billy had come to by then, so he got us into the Salvation Army collection center on D Street? Hey, we couldn’t keep going around in the shit that we got from those lockers. So we helped ourselves to some clothing and left some cash to pay for it.”
“And you thought that if I were up and about, I’d pick this out for myself?” I gestured at the polo shirt and shorts. SO not my style.
“Actually, I picked that out for ME. We sorta picked… this fer you.” She indicated the black lace top, and black leather miniskirt that she was wearing. “When you changed and I changed, well, you couldn’t wear this, and that didn’t really fit me, so…”
“We’re wearing each other’s clothes?”
“And, back to the original question- where are we now?”
“Well, after what happened with Mack’s folks, it was damn obvious that all our folks’ places were being watched. Those that those scumbags hadn’t told some fairy tale to, and would call them the second that we showed up. We needed a place to sack out - I mean, talk about adrenaline crash! - so I told them about this place. I mean, it’s not like Spader or my folks know about it, so they couldn’t tell Dr. Shitface and his buddies about it.”
“And this place IS?”
“It’s a greenhouse that’s owned by Humboldt Slim, a buddy of mine.”
Humboldt? That’s a county up north a bit that has a serious reputation for being a major domestic source of marijuana. Given Roxie’s doper inclinations and that doobie she was smoking… “Buddy? Or pusher?”
Roxie made a dismissive noise. “Please! Slim is NOT a pusher! He doesn’t deal smack or speed or blow. He’s an Old School doper, who does it for the love of the buzz and respect for the bud!” she reflexively reached for the joint, but then remembered that she’d said ‘enough’.
“Okay, and he’s cool with a bunch of super powered fugitives laying low in his growing house?” I looked around and didn’t spot any cannabis plants. “And where’s the plants?”
Roxie made an amused noise. “Slim’s not fool enough to grow weed in any place so frickin’ obvious.” She walked over to a table, removed a board and pulled out a kilo brick of pressed marijuana. “He grows in rental storage spaces, and he moves from unit to unit every so often. He grows flowers and stuff here, and he just uses the place to stash some of this stuff. As for the man hisself, he’s down in Mexico, doing a little business.”
“He’s going to import from Mexico?”
“Nah, just gonna bring up some pollen, to experiment with his breeding stock.”
“I thought that professional weed growers used mostly clones these days.”
“They do, but like I said, Slim’s in this for the love of the bud. It’s not all about high THC levels, there’s taste and texture and the smoothness of the draw too.”
Okay, that was a little more about doper culture than I really needed to know at the moment. “Where are the others?”
“They’re out trying to see if they can’t get someone to listen to them and get word to the authorities about what really happened. Billy knows people who know people, and Rache has a few seriously connected people that she knows. And even if they can’t get the cops to take our word for what happened, she thinks that we can get some operating money by selling those guns that we took off those ‘Men in Black’ assholes.”
“Rachel? She’s back to being a girl?”
Roxie shrugged. “Well, as much of a girl as she ever really WAS. Yeah, she’d changed when she woke up, same as you’n me.”
“What about Chris and Shawn?”
“Nope! Still cute li’l girls. And Shawn’s pissed about it.” Roxie paused and thought. “Y’know, if we’re not careful, that could develop into something really nasty, and it could blow up right in our faces.”
“Shawn? Well, you’re right, but all we can do is hope that Mack manages to calm him down long enough where we can either find some way of fixing it, or at least he gets used to it.”
Roxie snorted. “Mack’s the problem. He’s being a little TOO comforting, if you know what I mean.”
“Hunh? But Mack knows that Shawn is a guy.”
“WAS a guy. Right now, Shawn is just about exactly Mack’s type. Pretty, petite, and troubled, with big green eyes, and all the right equipment.”
I let out a loud groan of annoyance. “And Shawn will totally freak out the second that it sinks in that Mack’s interested in her. And Rachel’s gotta be fixing to blow, ‘cause she’s got it bad for Mack.”
“Oh, you picked up on it.”
“Hey, I’m not totally clueless.”
“Just mostly. So, take care of it.”
“Me? Why should I take care of it? Why not you?”
“ ‘Cause I’m the spacey doper chick, and right now YOU are the White Boy that Mack’s listening to. Shawn might also listen to you, ‘cause of that little spazz-out that you pulled on me last night. I think that he thinks that you feel his pain.”
I grunted with annoyance. “Okay, but you talk to Rachel. Let’s see if we can’t get those two talking to each other. There’s nothing like hearing that someone else envies the hell out of you, to get you off the pity pot.”
That done, I asked if there was something around to eat. It was three in the afternoon, and there was what was left of some big runs to McGreasy’s, Pizza Clown, KFC, and some Cantonese. It was cold, greasy and disgusting, and what was worse, there wasn’t enough of it.
While I was choking down the cold chow mein, Roxie noodged me into using one of the laptops to hook up to her MMORPG. She couldn’t use the laptop herself, for fear of shorting it out, and she needed, really NEEDED to get online. It seems that, in addition to the weed, she was addicted to Good & Evil Online™. And I hadda do all the typing for her. For the next two hours, I found out more about the life and travails of her Wind Alfar Theurge Vestharinel Silvereyes than I really cared to know about.
I was finally granted blessed surcease when cars pulled up outside the greenhouse and Roxie and I hadda duck for cover. Then Rachel - in her tall, metallic male form - came storming through the door, slamming closed behind her. “Rachel!” Roxie said, not thinking, “You’re a guy again!”
“We ran into a few complications,” Mack said as he and the rest marched in after Rae. “Rae’s ‘good buddies’ decided that it would be better to turn us in for the reward and just take the guns, than pay the going rate for ‘em. It got nasty.”
“WELL, the weasel’s people weren’t any better!” Rae said defensively.
“Hold it, hold it, HOLD IT!” I cut it off before Rae could start venting on Billy, and it turned into a finger-pointing contest. “Reward? What reward?”
“Well, near as we can tell, Spader figured out that he just handed us over to somebody, so he decided to cover his ass,” Suzy said. She dumped some newspapers on one of the tables. “For the past six days, we’ve been front page news all over town.”
“Really?” I asked incredulously, “How did Spader explain away just handing us over like that?”
“I have NO IDEA,” Mack admitted. “I don’t think that even Spader really knows what he said. It’s all lots of noise and media hype, and the only thing that anybody’s really sure about is that twelve kids just suddenly disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and Principal Spader is leading the charge to get them back.”
“Get this,” Shawn sneered, “Somehow, don’t ask me HOW, but the assholes who grabbed us managed to blame all of this on US! That big fight we had this morning? Well, someone told the media that-” he pulled out a sheet of newspaper and read, “umm, ‘the battle that destroyed a good portion of the western part of J Street was between factions of the unknown parties who are behind the abduction of the missing students from Martin Sammish High School.’ ” He dropped the paper and glowered at me.
I picked up the paper. No proof, no logic, no evidence, and no mention of anyone in power armor. VERY detailed descriptions of us and our powers, though. “Okay,” I said carefully, “I gotta admit it; I’m impressed. This is a very nice piece of Trial by Media. The media wants a villain that they can blame for our disappearances, and the Lab Rats handed us to them on a silver platter. There’s no need for a trial; they’ve already convicted us of murdering ourselves. They’ve actually managed to arrange it so no one will listen to us if we ever went to the cops. Even if we went in to the police with our hands high, they’d never listen to us. The mayor and the chief of police have already endorsed this and are forming a special strike force, and there’s some talk of bringing in the Knights of Purity. I don’t see anything about the West Coast League.” I set down the paper. “Guys… it might actually be safer to go find the Lab Rats and turn ourselves in!”
Then I noticed something. “Eddie, when did you turn gray?”
“Oh Man, it is so cool!” Eddie held up a strange crystal that was about the size of a peach pit that he had on a necklace chain. “Remember those weird plate thingies that Billy pulled out of the armored guys this morning? While you were countin’ sheep, we killed some time tryin’ to figger out what they were. Billy says that there are a bunch’a people runnin’ around with them dyna-things, who don’t have ‘em inside ‘em, like we do. Instead, they’re stashed inside things like power rings and stuff like that. We think that those Lab Rat guys figgered out a way of powering those armor guys’ armor with dynamorphs. And these-” he held up the crystal, “-are like the batteries!”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Chris said. “But the short form is that we can use the powers stored in those crystals. Roxie thinks that those golden plates somehow act as control systems that let people who haven’t, y’know, bonded with the dynamorphs like we have to use their powers.”
“So, why is Eddie just carrying around the crystal, instead of the crystal set into the plate?”
“Because if the crystal’s in the plate, it interferes with our dynamorphs,” Roxie explained. “Don’t ask me why. We can use the crystal by synching it with our own dynamorph, or we can use the plates to refine the energy of our dynamorph, but if they’re together, like, sk-zot! Painful city!”
“So, we have a whole second set of powers to use?”
“Well, we were only able to get four of ‘em,” Eddie said as he poked among what was left of the food containers. “After you blew the backpack on that jerk, the guy with the nets flew off with him and one other guy.”
“Which powers did you get?”
“Well, the guy who was giving me such problems had the marble that gives Eddie the stone skin,” Mack said. “It makes him stronger, and a whole lot tougher.”
“At least his skin anyways,” Rache said, adding, “Wimp!” with a sneer.
“HEY!” I got SHOT!” Eddie came back.
“And you healed right back up,” Rae pointed out.
“So? It still HURT like fuck!”
“Anyway,” Mack took control of the conversation again, “when we figured out what it did, we gave it to Eddie, ‘cause even at normal size, he’s sort of a natural born target. We gave the spotlight guy’s marble to Chris, ‘cause it sort of synchs up with her light powers.”
“Yeah, I noticed that my blasts and stuff were a lot weaker in the dark,” Chris chipped in. “Haven’t been able to really check it out yet, but I think that I’ll be able to be a lot more effective with this marble.” Even wearing a baggy hoodie and jeans, Chris looked a lot hotter than she was probably really comfortable with.
“Now here’s the interesting thing,” Mack said. “The marbles all seem to work differently with everyone. The best that anyone else could do with Chris’ marble was sort of a really strong spotlight, but she can make like Green Lantern with it. Eddie’s marble made it hard for me to fly, it made Rae grow… spines of some kind, and let’s don’t even get started on what happened with Shawn!” Shawn just made a martyred expression. “Shawn tried the Ice-dude’s marble, but that was even worse than the Stone-marble. We gave it to Billy.”
“Yeah!” Billy enthused, “Check it out!” Suddenly Billy was just this blot of darkness standing there, and when he stepped into a shadow, he was flat-out invisible. “Super Ninja Powers!” Well, of course, they WOULD give Billy that marble. He’d probably jump up and down, and cry and hold his breath if they didn’t.
“Yeah, real nice Billy. Now, come out where we can see you,” Mack said. “Okay, here’s the last one, the gravity guy’s marble. Now, here’s the problem.” He held up a glowing red crystal, and wrapped his hand around it. Then, suddenly, I felt like I was in a dropping elevator, and everything and everyone started floating. Then the sensation went away and everything dropped again. “That’s all I can do with it. Or anyone else, as far as we can tell. That, and making things real heavy.”
He threw the marble to me. “What I don’t get, is why would a thing that creates ice for one guy make shadows for Billy?”
“Well, cold is basically an absence of heat, and darkness is an absence of light,” I hazarded. “I guess that the basic thing of whatever it does stays the same, but the form that it takes changes with the person using the marble. Or something.” I held up the marble that Mack had thrown to me and shook it. “How do you turn this thing on?”
“You say ‘I’m a big sissy’,” Billy said nastily.
“Okay…” I said, “‘Billy’s a big sissy’.” I looked around innocently. “Okay, ‘Billy’s a REALLY BIG sissy’.”
“Just think about what you want to do,” Chris explained.
So, I thought about flying, and I just sort of lifted up into the air. But the marble sort of towed me around by my hand instead of my entire body moving when I thought about it. I looked around. “Did it do that for any of you guys?” There was a general shaking of heads. “Weird.” I let myself settle down to the floor. “Any else interesting happen while you were out?”
“Yeah!” Suzy exulted, “You gotta SEE this! It is SO KEWL! Show’im Rae!”
“Oh, please,” Rae said disgusted.
“Aww… C’mon! Roxie hasn’t seen it either! Between them, they GOTTA have some ideas!” The rest seemed to agree, and I admit that I was more than a little curious as to what Suzy was talking about. Rae gave out a loud sigh and set into a posture with an expression on her face that suggested that she’d REALLY appreciate it if she didn’t have to repeat this. She held up her right arm and flexed it somehow. The ‘metal’ of her arm contracted, reassembled and reconfigured into some sort of gun that just grew out of the end of her arm.
Roxie and I looked at it, totally boggled. “How the fuck did you DO that?” I asked agog.
“I don’t KNOW!” Rae snapped. “I just DO it! How do you make that fuckin’ sword thing of yours?”
“Does it… DO anything?” Roxie asked. Rae just pointed her arm at a board leaning against one wall and let off a blast, like something out of Star Wars. Then she flexed her arm again, and there was a hand at the end of it again. “Could we see you…”
“NO.” With that, Rae just sat down on the floor, tight lipped. Or as tightlipped as you can get when your lip is made of some kind of metal.
“Sooo… Any ideas?” Mack asked.
“None,” I admitted freely.
“That’s impossible,” Roxie said. “I’ve heard of various people who somehow turn their bodies into a kind of living metal, but… moving parts?”
“And where did the energy for that blast come from?” I asked.
“I dunno!” Rae snapped.
“And how do you know how to make a freaking energy weapon?”
“I don’t know!” Rae repeated harshly.
After that, it was a little tense around the greenhouse. “Okay… I’m out of ideas. This is totally beyond me.” I asked, “Now what?”
Mack hopped up onto one of the tables. “Dunno. We sort of already tried everything that we could think of. The best thing we can do is somehow get to our parents and get them to listen to us. But even if we could, without tipping off Dr. Asshole or the cops, and we got them to believe us, who’d believe THEM?” Mack looked around the greenhouse. “I mean, it’s not like any of our folks know anyone with any real clout.” Then he thought for a moment and looked at me. “Hey, Evan… what exactly do your parents DO?”
“My… ah… folks are divorced,” I hedged.
“Who do you live with?”
“What’s he do?”
I managed to get out, “He’s in the Air Force.”
“He’s a Lieutenant Colonel.”
“A lieutenant colonel,” I pointed out. “He doesn’t have a full bird yet. If ever. It’s right between Major and Colonel.”
“If you live with your dad, then why do you go to school here in Sacramento?” Roxie asked. “I mean why not on base, or somewhere near Beale?” Beale AFB is about 45 miles or so north of Sacto.
“My dad doesn’t work at Beale,” I admitted.
“What’s he do then?”
“He’s… a liaison officer to the State Government. He’s the guy that the jerks in the State government go to when they have a problem with one of the bases, and he’s the guy that the Air Force uses to talk to the assholes in the State department, and like that. He does a lot of talking to guys at cocktail lounges.”
Mack, Rae, Suzy and Roxie all looked at me like jewels were dropping out of my mouth. Shawn, Billie and Eddie were all going ‘hunh?’ “Why didn’t you SAY anything about that?” Roxie shrilled.
“DUDE!” Mack exulted, jumping off the table, “This is just what we NEED!”
“Yeah!” Suzy agreed, “Your dad is CONNECTED! And he’s military, so he’s gotta know more about weird superhero stuff than most people!”
“Do you know his number at work?” Rae asked. “They might have your place bugged, but he’s gotta have hella phone security, with his job!”
MAN, they did not get it about my dad. I hated to rain on their parade, especially with the day that they’d obviously had, but I said, “Hold it! You don’t know my dad! He’s a Grade-A asshole! Once he gets something into his head, it’s like there forever! If he’s gotten the idea that I’m dead, there’s no way that I’ll ever convince him that I’m really me!” I paused. “Or, did I change back to looking the way that I did?”
Roxie hemmed for a bit. “Errr… well… sorta… you look like you, the way that Mack looks like Mack did before or Billy looks like he did. Sorta like you, only prettier and better built.”
“So?” Eddie chipped in, “Still, your dad’s in the military, right? You moved around a lot, so you gotta know lots of stuff about him and his work that only you’d know!”
I tried to talk them out of it, but it was their last straw, and they were clutching onto it with everything that they had.
* * * * *
I had a BAD feeling about it. Major Dad was way too reasonable over the phone. He made noises about it being possible after I reeled off a few personal experiences from our times at MacDill AFB in Florida, Peterson in Colorado, and Andrews in Maryland. I gave him the basics of what happened, but I said that I was on my own, and denied being in on what happened in the morning with the Armor Jocks. He said that me coming in to his office would be too complicated, and made a date to meet at the Country Club shopping center, which was far enough out of downtown that people wouldn’t be stressed out by what had happened on J Street.
When I put the payphone receiver down, Eddie asked me, “Why’d you say that you was alone? And howcum you said you wasn’t in on that fight on J Street?”
“Keeping it simple, Eddie, keeping it simple,” I replied. “Expecting Dad to believe everything that I have to say would be asking too much of him. First, I get him to believe that I’m me. Then I get fingerprinted and prove it. Then I tell them about Suzy, and she comes in. Same deal. Then you, then Billy. We prove who we are, and we’ll all tell the same story. When we have that much credibility, we bring in the rest of you. Also, if it goes down wrong the first time, I’m the only one really at risk.”
“You WON’T be at risk,” Mack said firmly. “We’ll be watching. If anyone pulls anything, we’ll blindside ‘em.”
Thankyouthankyouthankyou, Mack! Being brave, selfless and noble sucks, but I couldn’t ask them to cover me without looking like a total wuss!
But I still had a bad feeling about it all.
* * * * *
The Country Club mall is a five-story shopping mall out in the burbier parts of an already pretty burby town. Like a lot of malls, it was laid out in a rough cross pattern with an open atrium at the center and lots of clear visibility for spotting that perfect little shop across the way and down two levels. I spotted Dad wearing his uniform, standing by the railing, just in front of JJ Jeeters™, like we agreed. I also spotted Mack and Rae, ‘hanging’ one level up, looking like a couple of suburban kids trying to look like gangstas (do you know how EXPENSIVE it is to dress like a thug, without actually wearing nasty-ass clothes?). Rae was flesh and blood again, but still a guy. Chris, Roxie and Suzy were sitting at a bistro one level down, looking like mall brats. How Suzy and Roxie managed to get Chris to dress like that, with the raspberry colored skirt, I have no idea, but she looked great. Billy was well out of sight (that is, if he wasn’t shoplifting something), but we already knew where the mall main electrical panel was. Shawn and Eddie were outside, keeping the vehicles warm. Having them use their powers in these closed quarters was just asking for a disaster to happen.
I was dressed very inconspicuously, in jeans, a nondescript T-shirt, sneaks and a dark blue hoodie. Just one more kid at the mall. There was no sign of anything hinky and it looked like it was going down just as planned. So why did I have such a bad feeling about this? Was I afraid of Dad rejecting me? Or of accepting me? Had I been taking all of this as a way of running away from home, without actually working up the nerve to run? Was living with my father really that bleak, that I actually saw life as a wanted fugitive as an improvement?
Oh, hell yeah.
I thought about doing the spy movie thing where you stand there not looking at the other person while you talk to them, so it looks like you’re not talking to them. But hey, that’s stupid. I walked up to him and said, “Hi, Dad.”
He paused and looked at me. “Is this supposed to be a joke?” I tried to get a word in edgewise, but the Dadinator just ripped into ‘Standard Issue Ass-chewing #83’, or at least a variant thereof. I kept trying to get a word in edgewise, but as usual, he was pulling the Bee-Ess Drill Instructor crap where he keeps shifting the course of the discourse while keeping me on the defensive. Very much on the defensive.
“You are NOT my son, you freak, what have you done with him?”
That shot me down, totally flatfooted. And I do mean that. I was so aghast that he’d say that, that they caught me completely by surprise. An attractive Asian couple who were shopping and an attractive Anglo couple, who were going over their purchases nearby us all moved as one, surrounding me. “FREEZE!” the Asian male in the polo shirt said as he pointed something gun-like with two canisters screwed in (very much like the gas gun that I’d seen back at the lab). His partner was armed with a flash-gun, again very much like what I’d seen back at the lab. The Anglo guy was pointing something like an oversized shotgun at me, and the blonde was aiming a rather straightforward taser. They bracketed me in an off-center ‘X’, so none of them could hit one of the others. “M-SOC! You’re under arrest!”
As I pulled back and did the raising hands thing, dad repeated, “What have you done with my SON?”
“I AM your son, DAD. Remember, on the phone?”
“All that that means is that you’ve got some freak way of getting information out of him.”
It was just sinking in that Dad had finally done it, he’d fucking sold me out, when the other shoe fell. Four figures in power armor swept down, pinning them all with bright spotlights mounted on the chest. “MCO! PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS! SURRENDER THE MUTANT!” blared a voice through a loudspeaker.
“What are you doing?” Dad yelled back, “You’re interrupting a military sting operation!”
I didn’t fucking believe it. These assholes were bickering over who got to arrest me! I even heard a woman saying in a hushed but clear voice, “We’re at the Country Club Shopping Center, where a Mutant Commission Office team of Shepherds is executing a perfectly orchestrated capture of one of the mutants believed to have killed the twelve Martin Sammish High students earlier this week.” They even brought along a TV crew to film it!
* * * * *
Two floors above, blissfully unaware of the M-SOC and the MCO thrashing out who had jurisdiction below, Middle School prankster and perennial slacker Noah Barnes slouched into one of the mall rest rooms. After taking care of business, and more out of sheer boredom than anything else, he waxed the fuse of a powerful and quite illegal cherry bomb, lit it, and flushed it down after his filth. While he would have been quite happy to claim it, had he known about it, Noah had no way of knowing that his little prank just happened to get stuck in a part of the plumbing that had managed to build up a rather formidable amount of sewer gases in a pressurized bubble. When the cherry bomb went off, it was the precisely the amount of ignition necessary to set off the methane-hydrogen-oxygen mixture. The bubble exploded with the force of two sticks of dynamite, causing a chain reaction of events within the mall’s plumbing system.
* * * * *
Don’t ask me how, but one minute the assholes were yelling themselves hoarse, I was waiting for that backup that Mack had promised, and then suddenly the glass front of JJ Jeeters™ exploded. The Asian guy reflexively fired his gun, but something backfired and it gushed its sedative (or whatever) in his face. His partner also fired, but her gun went off as she was reacting to the blast, and she wound up flashing Dad and the MCO jerks instead of me. The Anglo guy tried to fire his gun, but it just jammed on him. His partner wound up tasering the Asian chick. I made to get away, but someone very, very strong grabbed me by the throat from behind. I reflexively parted his hair with my energy sword, all the way down to his Adam’s apple. As he spasmed, I reversed his grip and threw him at one of the MCO armors. I quickly followed, using one of those turbo-charged leaps, and took a passing swipe at the armor with my sword.
Then, just when I was in mid-leap, the lights went out. Okay, from here, I can’t really describe that much. It was dark, there was a lot of screaming and brief flashes of light, a LOT was going on, and I was hella busy myself. I saw flashes of light from where I think Chris and Roxie were, and I think that they pegged two of the MCO goons on the fly. There was a blur of blue, and I think that Mack got into the game. I landed on the far side of the atrium, and there was the din of people panicking adding to the confusion. Okay, the entire bank of plasma TV’s exploding at once added a lot, too. Okay, Evan, remember the plan. Unlike SOME presidents that I could name by initial, we went in with an exit plan, in case things went pear-shaped. We’d go out in pairs, covering each other, except for Billy, who would trip the lights and head out all but invisible. Each team would go out separate exits, and head for the parking lot, where Eddie and Shawn were waiting for us. Hopefully, Eddie wouldn’t do anything to piss off Shawn, and the parking lot would still be there. Mack and Rae were one team, Chris and Rox were the other team, and Suzy was my backup.
I was looking around in the darkness, trying to figure out where the fuck my doors were, when I reacted to a flare of light and a scream. I looked around and saw Chris, conspicuous again in the darkness. The three MCO armor jocks were playing dirty (but smart) and were ganging up on her three-to-one. One of them had her in a full nelson hold, and one of the others was wrapping her up in ice. The third one was holding off Roxie with flame bursts that seemed to de-rezz her electric bursts. Not really thinking, I super-leaped up at them, did a drive-by swipe on the Ice Jock, and came down square on ‘Major Nelson’s’ little pin head. He let Chris go just as I brought my sword down on the flight pack of his suit. As the two of us dropped, Chris took out the Ice Jock, and Roxie changed the terms of combat by going Magneto and chucking an entire hot popcorn cart at the Fire Jock. The fuel tank of the popcorn cart exploded, sending the Fire Jock reeling.
I managed to disengage myself from ‘Major Nelson’ just before we hit, and I landed light. The Major hit hard, but was right back up on his feet anyway. He kicked up the brightness on his headlight, and kept me really busy keeping away from him. Then Suzy finally got on the job and zoomed me out of there. We were headed for our exit, when it all went south. The doors burst open and five guys in heavy (non-powered) combat armor carrying what looked to be assault rifles with all the add-ons, burst through the door. They had lamps on their shoulders and lights on their guns, and they were loaded for dragon. “Nobody move!” one of them bellowed.
Yeah, right, like we listened to them.
Suzy hauled ass, but she didn’t do that well in the darkness, and wiped out when we piled into someone as she rounded the corner. I went rolling, and landed against the obligatory fountain at the center of the atrium, which promptly groaned like a lost soul and started randomly spraying water in every direction. Which was a very bad thing for the gun-goon who came chasing after us. He was at least as fast as Suzy, but he was focusing on us, not the floor. He hit a slick spot and slammed into a pillar, going about ninety. Armor or not, he was down for a while.
Suzy freaked and split, and the other gun-goons came charging in after us. They stopped in their tracks when spotlights came down from above. “THIS IS AN MCO OPERATION! REMOVE YOURSELF FROM THE AREA IMMEDIATELY!” blared down from above.
Good God, I knew that inter-departmental rivalries ran deep and nasty, but they were arguing jurisdiction in the face of dangerous opposition? Not that I was complaining, it gave me and the guys a chance of getting out of here while they were bickering. But I still didn’t expect it when a volley of fire rained down from one of the floating figures with the spotlights. But as the gun goons shot back (one of them lashed out with electric powers like Roxie’s and tried to magnetically pull them down), I noticed that one of the ‘MCO’ armor jocks just shut off his light. Then I noticed a telltale blue light up on the railing pulling at something. Then the penny dropped. Mack was holding up Rae - who had passed herself off as one of the MCO jocks in the darkness - with a rope, and probably using a flashlight taken from one of the stores to suggest one of the suits’ spotlights. Kick up the opposition between the goons a notch, very GOOD, Mack!
While the gun-goons were distracted, I did one of my power-jumps up to the balcony of one of the upper levels. I had no idea where Suzy had gotten to, but our escape plan was the only thing that I had going. If I could mix with the crowd and get out of there, I should have been able to get to the car without too much trouble. Get connected with a few of the other guys, get the fuck OUT of there, and everyone would meet back at the greenhouse. Or grab something automotive, get out and meet at the greenhouse. The plan was pretty much shot to shit, and the greenhouse was the only thing that I could think of that would occur to everyone.
Fortunately, between the dark, the panicking crowd, the dispute among the heavily armed dingbats, and the confusion in general, I shouldn’t have any real problem getting out of here without any of the aforementioned dingbats spotting me. Unfortunately, everywhere I went, things were going spectacularly, disastrously wrong, with things exploding, sparking, shattering, falling apart or otherwise going totally batshit in ways that drew lots of attention to me. I did power-leaps from balcony to balcony, trying to shake anyone who was tracking me, but every time I jumped, I was hopping right back into the fire. I’d completely lost track of where I was - and everyone else, for that matter - when I heard a familiar voice yell out, “EVAN!” I turned around and saw dad there, looking at me intently, with recognition on his face.
“Dad?” I asked, hoping that this clusterfuck might turn out right after all.
I should have reacted faster, but to be honest, dad just surprised the hell out of me. Even when your dad’s a Grade-A fuck, there’s always a part of you that wants things to be right with him. I let myself believe that it was all finally getting right between us. And then he drew a gun and shot me.
Actually, he shot three times, and missed twice before grazing my shoulder. I was just standing there, not able to believe that my own dad was SHOOTING at me when the third bullet hit. Thank God, the Dadinator is a prime example of USAF handgun marksmanship. And Air Farce hand-gunning is the laughingstock of the US military.
The graze knocked me out of my shock, and our eyes met. And I knew that he knew that it was me. And I knew that the son of a bitch (yes, I can call my father a son of a bitch; you’ve obviously never met my grandmother), was going to kill me.
He let off a volley of three shots in quick succession. By pure reflex, I brought my left arm up as to block it. A perfectly-round, lambent, pale purple shield maybe two-and-a-half to three feet across. The first and third bullet caromed right off it (the second one was a sheer miss). As I looked at the shield in pure shock, dad let off another three rounds, all of which bounced clean off my shield. I ‘unsheathed’ my sword and went at dad with a piercing scream that hurt my throat. He let off three more rounds as I charged at him, and never got anywhere near me. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to slash him, so I bashed him with the shield and sent him flying.
As I turned to run, a spotlight hit me. But it turned out to be from that idiot news crew that the MCO brought. I reacted to their stupid spotlight just long enough for two of the M-SOC jerks to get into position, this time with real guns. “FREEZE!” the Asian chick said, “Metahuman Special Operations Command! You’re under ARREST!”
I felt… something… tap at the edges of my awareness, but then someone grabbed me from behind. I reflexively did the thing where I hit the idiot over - no, THROUGH - the head with my sword. I then threw him. “Oh, SHIT! DAD!”
“Freeze!” the Asian chick yelled again. Yeah, right, like I listened. I ran and jumped across the atrium again. For all the good it did me. Between the M-SOC jerks in mufti, the gun-goons in body armor, and the MCO jocks in power armor, they pretty much had me tracked. No matter how much I ran and jumped, no matter how much the other teams tried to trip them up, I just couldn’t shake them. They were herding me, and worse, I knew they were herding me, but I couldn’t do shit about it. I was scrambling with everything that I had, just to stay ahead of their spotlights.
And then the darkness turned against me.
I was on the ground floor, and I was making my way as best I could through the shifting gloom. I ran into a blank featureless wall. I doubled back, and ran into another featureless wall just ten feet away. Then I saw the spotlights tracing down the hall. Yes, it was a blank hallway. I fumbled my way down the hallway, figuring to find the door at the end and slice my way through before they fixed me with the spotlights and put more holes in me than they did into Bonnie and Clyde.
No such luck.
There was no door. It was one of those pointless dead end corridors that they put into buildings that make no sense unless you have an architect’s blueprint. Which, of course, they had. This was their trap for me. My back to the wall, I watched as the spotlights staggered carefully but inexorably toward me, methodically searching every inch of the hallway, just in case I tried to sneak past. Y’know, it’s one thing to read about the superiority of careful planning over improvisation, it’s another to rationally understand how good strategy is better than winging it, but it’s a whole different thing to have it come up and bite you on the ass this way. The spotlights were almost on me, I was wishing with everything that I had, just to get away…
And I moved.
I didn’t pass through the wall or dig my way through it, I just… moved… sort of like I fell a ways, only sideways. And suddenly I was outside the mall, on the sidewalk facing the western parking lot. I had no idea how I’d gotten there, but I was so giddy with adrenaline relief that I just didn’t care! I pulled out my cell phone, went to text and speed-dialed everyone the message, [Im out, get ur azzes out 2]
Suzy was out, circled the mall, found me and was up in my face before I even put my cell phone away. “EVAN! Wherewereyou Ilostyouafter thoseguyscamebustingin howdidyougetout itscrazyinthere shootingeverywhere whereiseveryone wegottagetOUTofhere!”
“Chill! We gotta wait for everyone else, in case they come out with unwanted company on their tail, and we gotta cover ‘em. Over there!” I pulled Suzy over to one of the bits of potted shrubbery that surround the mall, and draped my arm around her shoulder.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Protective camouflage,” I shot back, slumping against the planter. “Y’know, the dude hanging out with his cute girlfriend bit. If you fit in with the oldies’ preconceptions about kids, then they don’t notice you. You’re just part of the scenery.”
“Yeah? And since when are teenage lesbians part of the scenery in Sacramento?” She jabbed me in the chest with a finger, and I got an unexpected painful reaction to being poked in the boob.
I looked down, and sure enough, the contours of my chest and hips were all off. “When did THAT happen?” I pulled off my hoodie and tried to figure out how to make myself look more like a mall babe, as to throw off the Security guards that were coming out of the doors.
“Ooohhh… letting it all hang out, Evie?” Rox - not Roxie, but Rox - came walking out calmly carrying several shopping bags full of clothes and things. Instead of the jazzy dress that she’d been wearing earlier, he was wearing very preppy chinos, a polo shirt and a denim jacket. “NOT that I’m complaining, but do you think that going bra-less is a good idea, when we should be trying to lay low?”
“Very funny - what’s with all the swag?”
“Protective coloration, dear,” Rox said primly. “In order to look like we were proper shoppers, Suzy, Chris and I hit one of the major stores, and had the salesgirls put them on hold for us. When I got your bugout call, I figured that the Gestapo wouldn’t think to stop just another shopper trying to get out with his crass materialistic booty, and things were way too busy for them to notice a shoplifting alarm going off. Just a second, we got something that should do for covering you up so you don’t attract the wrong kind of attention.”
But, just as Rox was starting to rummage through one of his bags, one of the gun goons rounded the corner and came right at us. We flinched, but even Suzy realized that running would only make us obvious, so we tried to do the ‘innocent bystanders shrink into the background’ bit. But he came right up to us, and held up a hand. “Guys! It’s me!” Mack pulled off the gas mask. “I figured that nobody would stop one of the guys with guns, so I pulled this uniform off the speed-guy who wiped out. He’s sleeping it off in the men’s room.” Okay, score a slick move for the Macker.
“So THAT’S how you pulled it off!” We had a brief moment of panic as a spotlight fixed us. Behind it we could make out a TV camera, and a feminine figure was pointing a microphone at us.
“We didn’t do anything WRONG!” Suzy wailed.
“Look, we didn’t kill the kids from Marty Sammish,” Mack started, “We ARE the kids from Marty Sammish!”
“Who cares about that?” The news head said. “What I really want to know is: do you think that Brad will leave Angie and the kids and get back together with Jennifer?”
The general reaction was, ‘Hanh?’
The newshead giggled, and the camerajock lifted up the camera. Rae grinned at us and said, “GOTCHA!”
“We figured that our biggest problem was sneaking Rae out of the mall,” Chris said, obvious in her Channel whatever Eyewitless Snooze blazer, now that we weren’t being blinded by the spotlight. “I noticed that nobody ever paid any attention to the guy holding the camera, so we jumped the news vultures and took their stuff. If anything, people are avoiding us so they don’t have to answer embarrassing questions!”
“NICE ONE, guys!” Mack said, “Okay that’s everyone except for the Squid. Evan - man, you changed again? - never mind, it’s all good. You, Rox and Suzy stay here and wait for Billy. Rae, Chris - we’re too conspicuous here. Let’s haul to the van before somebody does notice who’s holding the camera. Evan, you’re in charge.”
Mack and the others were at the van, and back at the meeting site with us, Rox was starting to bitch about having a gurl in charge, when we heard a commotion. Looking to see what was happening, we turned just in time to see Billy come tearing around the corner, carrying a large box and screaming at the top of his lungs. He had his tentacles out and he was hauling ass.
And behind him was a squad of security guards with their guns out. But that wasn’t what he was running from. Flying into sight over the corner of the mall was a large hovering airship. And dropping from it on delta-wing gliders were the Knights of Purity™.
* * * * *
Knight Commander Vernon Swive watched from his Tac/Ops post aboard the airship as his squad dropped on the mall. The CIC display in the middle of the post showed that M-SOC and the MCO Shepherds were still inside the mall mixing it up with… something. Multiple targets reported, shots fired, civilians were leaving in droves, and according to the security bands, one of the mutants had been spotted leaving a middle-echelon jewelry store with a box. Fucking mutants, goddamn thieves, every one of ‘em. “Okay, standard operating procedure here, people,” Swive said over the comm-link. “Surround, neutralize and contain. Best guess is that this punk isn’t alone, but M-SOC and MCO probably have his buddies tied up. Corporate says that this one has to be a goodwill effort. So we tag and bag this putz, and wait for M-SOC to chase his buddies out. When that happens, we back up M-SOC or MCO. No glory hogging. Okay, he’s heading for that group of three kids there. Probably looking for some hostages. Head him off at the pass, boys. Perimeter scan shows that we have media on site, so keep it clean.” Then the ship was rocked. “JESUS CHRIST! What was THAT?”
“We’ve been hit on the port lifter,” T/O-2 reported. “That subject there-” she highlighted one of the three minors in the group that the target was heading for, “-just emitted an energy pulse that Threat Evaluation rates as at least a Level 7 threat. Damage Evaluation says port lifter at 45% and falling, kicking in Emergency Lift NOW.”
“Take her up NOW!” Swive yelled, unbuckling his safety harness. “He wasn’t going for a hostage, he was running for backup! Designate that bitch as Target A, Lethal Threat! Authorize Lethal Force on THAT target! Mark the other two as possible threats but do not engage unless they show hostility. Marks, take the helm, take her up to a thousand feet; I’m going down in the Ump.”
Swive exited the T/O post through the airlock into the deployment bay. He opened the last sealed hatch in the bay with his key and climbed down into the ‘Umpire’ suit of KoP armor. He settled his legs into the strider units, made sure of the waldo controls, and fired up the internal systems. It only took 15 seconds for the internals to boot and go green light. Then he hit the seal button. The ‘head and shoulders’ unit swung down over his head, the sensor pod in the head went online, and the bottom dropped out of the chute. 25 seconds after climbing into the deployment chute, Swive was dropping down to blacktop. He popped the delta wings just in time to break his fall. He ditched the wings and opened up the oversized black diamond recharge plate on his unit’s back. “Marks, bounce all broadcast power and T/O information off me, I’m still running this show.”
[Pilot: Roger-dodger that, Kay-Cee.]
The ‘Umpire’ suit was the Knights of Purity’s way around power armor’s besetting flaw: namely power storage. Every power suit user operating had some fudge, some cheat to get around the simple fact that you can only carry around so much power with conventional batteries. Some used hideously expensive exotic batteries. Some used batteries that were dangerously toxic or explosive under certain conditions. Some operated on ‘extension cords’. Some had operators that had exotic personal energy powers that powered the suit directly. Some had ‘loaders’, guys who went around loading battery cartridges. Some had very dangerous small power plants. The knights used broadcast power to recharge their suits while they were in operation, using a system in the liftships. The problem with THAT was that the suits couldn’t be recharged if they were under cover that blocked the broadcast, and the ships were these big honking sitting ducks for anyone with any ranged attack. The ‘Umpire’ was basically a walking relay point for the broadcast power and Tac/Ops information. It was built on the ‘Batter’ chassis, with all the armor, but besides the oversized charge plate and the broadcast power emitter, its real function was to carry around eight suitcase-sized batteries. It could go into buildings and close cover with the combat units and still keep them juiced.
It was against regs for the ‘Umpire’ to go directly into battle, but it was still the closest that Swive could get to actually getting into the action as a Knight Commander.
The Five combat units had engaged the four mutants. The punk with the legs had, predictably, scuttled off when the units focused on the blaster. However the blaster wasn’t following the usual pattern. Instead of flying up, where the Pitcher and the Shortstop could herd her into the Catcher, she was on the ground, mixing it up with the Batter with an energy sword. One of the other kids was also a blaster, but he was staying low to the ground. And the fourth one was moving like a rocket on the ground.
[Batter: I need some backup here! She can’t get through my armor, but that sword’s fucking up my servo systems something fierce!]
[Pitcher: Come ON, people! Break it up a little! I can’t get a clear shot here!]
[Catcher: Hey! Where’d that punk with the tentacles come from?]
[Runner: The rabbit is on my five, and I think that she’s faster’n I am. I can’t get a good shot ‘cause she keeps pushing me off balance!]
[Shortstop: I’m switching from netcaster to gas sprayer]
“Runner, try and get that bitch close to the Catcher,” Swive said, keeping his voice steady and even. “Pitcher, lay down denial fire for the rabbit, help Runner steer her. Runner, don’t be afraid to run through fire, you can take more damage than she can. Shortstop, do NOT switch over, you’ll only confuse the visuals. Batter… hold on… Batter, you have an M-SOC grunt coming up on your six, do not, I repeat, do NOT react as a hostile. He’s on our side - for once.”
[Batter: What the FUCK? The HELL you say! Hey, Barney, watch-] The M-SOC trooper came up from behind the Batter, grabbed him by the rear assembly, and lifted the power armor over his head. With a heave, he chucked the Batter into the Catcher. The sword-blaster came in behind the Catcher and gouged out its rear assembly. The Catcher unit responded by wrapping its capture arms around the Batter, neutralizing both of them. Then the M-SOC goon broke out the oversized assault rifle and started firing up at the Pitcher.
“Knights, be aware that we may have a mind controller in the area. Use anti-mind intrusion measures!”
[Pilot: Umpire, I have a message from the M-SOC unit inside the mall. They say that they just found one of their people unconscious and naked in there. They think that one of the hostiles is dressed in their vines.]
“Oh, Y’THINK? Do you have any GOOD news?”
[Pilot: Well, Kay-Cee, that deeps on your definition of ‘good’. M-SOC and MCO have finished shooting at each other inside, and they say they’re coming out to reinforce us. Is that good news?]
“It’ll DO. Listen up Knights - disregard mind control countermeasures. Pitcher, return fire. Shortstop, net him, he’s a ringer. Runner, just keep the rabbit running, we have backup coming. Catcher, what’s your sitch?”
[Catcher: Umpire, I have a fist full of Batter, and my cuffs are not responding. I’m trying to release the manual catches, but it’ll take a bit.]
“Take your time. Batter, you have authorization to break out. Shortstop, once you net the ringer, switch to gas sprayer and smoke these punks!”
[Shortstop: Problem, Kay-Cee. The blaster is swatting my nets out of the air with that sword, and the electro-blaster is trying to fry my circuits. Pitcher, can you get a clear shot now?]
[Pilot: Heads up, Kay-Cee, you got two more headaches. It appears that we have two more hostiles coming up on your ten, and you have a news crew on your nine.]
“WHAT? Marks, see if you have those idiots’ band and tell them to GET THE FUCK AWAY from our combat zone! Knights we have more hostiles! DO NOT FIRE! We have news dipshits in the crossfire zone. Pitcher, create an area of denial, we do NOT need more ‘taters in this stew! The rest of you, hunker down and deal with what you got, until backup arrives.”
[Pilot: Good news, Kay-Cee the Seventh Cavalry just showed up and-]
[Pitcher: OH CHRIST!] A howling gale whipped up out of nowhere, and the Pitcher was thrown ass over teakettle. [Pitcher: Where the fuck did THAT come from?]
[Pilot: Kay-Cee, it looks like one of the bogeys is a weather witch. You have a wall of wind between you and your backup. It’s not picking up cars, but - oh shit, there goes a Mini Cooper.]
[Shortstop: Kay-Cee, we’re not getting the full effect of the gale, but both my nets and my gas are useless. Request permission to use the siren.]
[Batter:] Jeezus! One of the Bogies is a fucking GIANT, and he just threw a pickup at me! WHERE IS OUR FUCKING BACKUP?]
[Pilot: Kay-Cee your backup is stuck behind the wall of wind. One of the M-SOC grunts tried to walk through it, and I think he’s in the river by now.]
[Shortstop: Ammo Green! Hey, Kay-Cee, I know that it’s a pain in the ass, but I think that a nice earache is just what these bitches NEED! Ammo Yellow! Kay-Cee? Kay-Cee, are you there? Ammo Red! Kay-Cee, I can’t use the siren unless you give me the GA! Bingo on Ammo! Kay-Cee, can I use the fucking siren-] #static# [Shortstop: Oh Fuck, I’m useless. Guys, have fun without me.]
“Marks, patch me over to the M-SOC topkick, what are they DOING over there, having a TEAPARTY?”
[Pilot: Kay-Cee, they’re sending in one of their tanks and… He’s through! He’s through! He’s… he just got hit by a Hummer.]
His unit wasn’t designed for it, but Swive got down on his hands and feet and crawled through the nearly solid wall of screaming wind, using the parked cars as cover when he could. Once he was through, he maintained a low profile until he could spot one figure floating arrogantly in the air, obviously in control of the raging tempest. Take out the wind, and the MCO and M-SOC would be there in a heartbeat. It was hard in that position and using the unit’s servos, but he fished his .30 cal backup from its sheath. The ‘Umpire’ wasn’t a firefight unit, but they had foreseen that the unit would need its own support. He carefully placed his shot and still lost five rounds of the six-round burst. But the third round caught the bitch in the hip. She screamed and fell, hitting the blacktop hard. The round must have lost a lot of thrust to the wind; it should have carved a big gaping hole in her hip. But she just looked badly hurt. Score one for the good guys.
The wind died down, and from where he was, Swive spotted the M-SOC and MCO troopies gathering themselves to advance. Too bad, ‘cause the KIs saw them too, and their speedster grabbed the Knights’ backup gas grenades from their exterior racks, and laid down a solid line of CS gas that hid them from the mall. And it was the Knights’ own special ‘Mutant Blend’, designed to do everything that regular CS did, and to do it to augmented metabolisms. The M-SOC immediately reacted to get all bystanders away from the gas, which would have been lethal to normal people. A van pulled up and the fucking news team was helping the bitch that he tagged into it!
The electro-blaster had put Grassil in the Batter unit down, the Pitcher had been put out of the picture by the wind, the Catcher was still trying get his rig working again, the Shortstop was out of everything, and he didn’t know where the Runner was. But if he didn’t do something, those Sierras were going to get away! He propped up his .30 cal up on the hood of one of the cars and let fly with an 8-round burst that ran across the backs of the boarders. He strafed across the backs of the camera dog, the weather witch and news whore, but only the witch seemed to be affected by it. There was a metallic sound when the bullets landed on the camera guy’s back, and the news bitch reflexively flared up a force field. But the three rounds that hit the wind-maker’s back hit nice and clean, blowing big chunks of meat and blood on the two punks trying to help her into the van.
She fucking exploded. Not ‘blow up’ exploded; rather, she erupted in a flare of energy that took all in four of the Sierras that were around her. They reeled, and the other Sierras knew that he was there. He pulled two of the CS grenades from his own hold-out and chucked them at the punks; let’s see how THEY like it!
But the camera dog whipped around and somehow fired an energy weapon that came WAY too close to him. As he tried to move for a better position, the phony M-SOC freak jumped over to him and grabbed him. The Umpire suit was rated to be able to lift just a little over two tons of weight. The freak was handling it like a 90-pound weakling. From what Swive could see of the buck’s face, he was in a killing rage. Swive triggered the shotgun under-sling for his .30 cal, which was loaded with magnum-loaded double-ought bear-slugs, nailing him square in the chest five times, and then put the .30 on ‘shoot the wad’. The buck reeled, and Swive kept his finger on the trigger. Then batteries #2 and5 went off-line, then 6 and 1, then 7- Swive spun around, but didn’t connect with anything. He had just enough battery power to stand and keep the gun and sensors going.
Then the ‘head’-mounted sensor pod went. Then there was a tearing sound, and the shoulder ‘hatch’ of the unit swung up. A hand reached down into the unit and dragged Swive out by the scruff of his collar. Swive was hauled up into the snarling face of a beautiful young girl with shaggy black hair and eyes that glowed with pale purple power.
And Knight-Commander Vernon Swive knew fear.
There was a glowing sword in her other hand and with a bestial growl, she cocked her arm to strike with it. Swive flinched, knowing in his heart that his time had come. But with another growl, the girl held her blow back at the last second, the edge of her eerie blade a hair’s breadth away from the bridge of his nose. “You live,” she grated out through teeth clenched in hate, “by MY mercy.”
She threw him back as if he were filth she hated touching, and gutted the interior controls of his unit with her sword. Then she shoved him back into unit, and shut the hatch. Swive cowered inside the darkness of the unit, abject horror reducing a normally cool, professional soldier to a quivering heap. There was another noise, and the hatch was somehow sealed from inside. In the darkness, the only piece of equipment that was still working was his headset. Shuddering and sobbing, he listened to the disjointed chatter as Marks up in the support ship tried to advise M-SOC and MCO as the Sierras vacated the parking lot.
Suddenly, something snapped in Swive, and he refused to be afraid. Mercy? HER Mercy? SHE had mercy on HIM? Like HELL! “GET THEM!” He screamed into his head set. “I don’t care what happens to the rest of those shits, but THE BITCH IS MINE!”
* * * * *
There’s an interesting thing about human nature. If you run away, people will chase you. If a cop is chasing someone, then other cops will chase them. And that’s how I managed to decoy the Sacramento PD, the CHP, the MCO, the M-SOC and a flock of news vultures, while the others quietly drove off in the Channel X Eyewitless Snooze van. I just drove out of there on a hot-wired motorcycle like a cat on fire as the cops drove up, making sure to get their attention by slicing a lamp post with my sword as I left. The first cops chased me, the other cops chased after them, the media followed them, and M-SOC and the MCO did their damnedest to catch up. To be honest, even with four helicopters following me, the hardest thing was keeping them close enough to give the others breathing room without making it too fucking obvious that I was being the rabbit. When I had them nicely committed to one overpass, I hopped the bike over the railing, bounced off the back of a passing semi, and merged into the traffic of the crossed highway. Losing the helicopters was a little harder, but ducking into a cluster of high buildings took care of that.
I ditched the motorcycle and the hoodie, and quickly bought a pink windbreaker to replace it. I caught a bus from there to another part of town, where I stole a bicycle from in front of a yuppie hang (hey, I might be a wanted felon, but I’m not shit enough to steal a kid’s bike!). With the stolen bike, I pedaled back to the greenhouse. A stream of cop cars even raced past me with their sirens screaming, and nobody even gave me a second glance.
And even with all that and riding a bike, I still got to the greenhouse before the other guys did!
* * * * *
“Why did you leave her body there?” Mack demanded at the top of his lungs.
“Mack, he was DEAD!” I answered as reasonably as I could. I didn’t like the fact that we’d had to leave Shawn’s body behind either, but there was nothing that we could do about it. The others were feeling it too, but no one was taking it as bad as Mack was. And as the ‘second in command’, I’d had to make the hard choice while Mack was unconscious from the battering that KoP fuckhead had given him. So I was the one who had to take the heat for the decision.
“You don’t know that!”
“Dude, he took three .30-caliber rounds to the back! Two of ‘em went right through him! Look at my SHIRT! Look at Rae’s back! Hell, look at YOU!” I gestured at him. The armored vest that he’d taken from the M-SOC goon was in tatters. “Hey, that vest isn’t denim made in Hong Kong, y’know! That’s multi-level Kevlar, with ceramet plates! Look at it! That .30 cal tore it to shreds! Shawn took three of those without any protection!”
“So? We’re all mutants! We got powers! She might’a survived it!”
I picked a gory shred from my shirt. “Dude… that’s LUNG tissue. If Shawn survived that, he’s in the fucking hospital, and he ain’t getting out any time soon. And dead or alive, being in custody’s the best thing for him right now. There’s no way that we could take care of him. If he’s alive, then the hospital’s the only thing keeping him that way.”
“Yeah… But we could’a…”
“Could’a WHAT? What were we supposed to do? Drag a dead body around? Or worse, haul Shawn around, and try to save him? Dude, I got first aid training, and that’s IT. This way, IF he’s still alive, then he may be in custody but they’re doing everything they can to keep him alive, ‘cause they want to get answers out of him. AND, if he’s alive, the first thing they’ll do is fingerprint him. They’ll match his prints with the ones his parents had taken, and then finally the authorities know that something weird is going on, and maybe we can come in from out of the cold!”
“Go to the authorities?” Billy snapped. “The fucking AUTHORITIES? Are you fucking INSANE?” He hopped off the counter and started making like John Belushi in ‘Animal House’. “They are fucking trying to fucking KILL US! They are going to kill ALL of us! Well, I say SKUH-REW that! We got powers! I say we USE them and TAKE THEM OUT! That Knights of Putridity douche? DEAD! Spader? DEAD! Your old man? DEAD! All of ‘em, Dead Men!”
“Oh, that’s just GREAT!” Mack yelled back at Billy, choked with grief. “I’ve known Shawn’s parents since we was in kindergarten! I was supposed to look out for him! I was supposed to keep the assholes off his back! I was supposed to BE there for him? What am I gonna tell his parents, huh? Oh, Shawn got killed, but hey! It’s cool! We murdered a whole bunch’a people to get even, so we’re all square!” By this time he could hardly talk for the sob in his voice, and his eyes were wet with tears. “Is THAT what I’m supposed to tell them?” With that, he finally broke down into tears. Rae went to comfort him, but Mack waved her off.
Mack staggered off to be alone. Chris went over to Rae and said in a quiet voice, “Go. He needs you.”
“But… but he… but I…”
“He needs someone he knows. He barely knows us. Most of us only knew Shawn as the mouthy powder keg who blew up on a regular basis. But you and Mack knew him since grade school, right?”
“Second grade,” she agreed. “But I-”
“He thinks he needs to be alone. He doesn’t. He needs someone he knows. And you need to be there for him. So, go.” Rae nodded and went after Mack. Man, I didn’t wanna listen in on that conversation, it was gonna be brutal.
And I had my own demons to face. Before we hauled to the mall, I’d had that talk with Shawn. And Roxie had been on the money. He was living his personal worst nightmare, and he’d thought that I was the only person who got it. We talked for a while, and Shawn surprised me. He was a lot more aware than I’d appreciated. He hadn’t bucked up and taken it like a man or anything, but… he was getting there. He would have gotten there. He would have made it… If that bastard in the armor hadn’t shot him in the back. And I had to leave Shawn for dead.
While we hadn’t all exactly been palsy with Shawn, he’d been one of us. Those .30 cal bullets could have done that to any of us. We each dealt with it in our own ways. Mack and Rachel talked with each other. Billie curled up in a ball and didn’t say anything for hours. Suzy ran off and rang every doorbell in the Greater Sacramento area. Eddie went off and did… something, I never did ask him. I went up on the greenhouse roof and looked up at what stars showed through the waste light around Sacramento for a few hours. Then I went down and joined Chris and Rox in a few spliffs and got seriously stoned.
* * * * *
In the morning, Knight-Commander Vernon Swive was sitting through the debriefing (read: ‘finger-pointing session’) for the Country Club Mall debacle with the serenity of the only man in the room who achieved any level of success whatsoever. He was watching the MCO FOIC argue with the top-ranking freak from the M-SOC with the detached amusement of a spectator at a tennis match. His cell phone buzzed in his pocket and he stepped off to the side. “Swive,” he said sotto voce.
[Sir? This is Chan, down at Field Forensics? You wanted a preliminary report on the killed mutant from last night?]
“Good man. Anything interesting or indicative?”
[Sir, ‘Interesting’ is an understatement. This broad’s body is showing traces and byproducts of things we’ve never even seen before! As for ‘indicative’, first thing we did was run her fingerprints, SOP]
“Don’t keep me waiting, Chan.”
[Her fingerprints show 73 out of 85 possible matches for Shawn Lefavre Turner, more than enough for a positive identification]
“And who is Shawn Lefavre Turner?”
[Sir! He’s one of the twelve kids from Martin Sammish high school, the ones who went missing last week? The ones that these mutants are supposed to have kidnapped?]
Swive felt as though someone had dumped a tub of ice cold water over him. He’d shot one of the kids he was supposed to be rescuing? That smarmy Air Force Lt. Colonel said that one of the perps had called him, saying that he was the Colonel’s kid, in order to set him up. The Colonel’s kid was one of the twelve that disappeared. If that bitch really was one of the twelve who disappeared, then that asshole who tore up the mall really WAS the Colonel’s boy, and they’d really been trying to contact the proper authorities. And they’d just gotten their asses mauled trying to kill the minors that they were supposed to save!
Swive’s serenity dissolved like a snowflake in a blast furnace. Images of disgrace, dismissal and major felony charges loomed large in his future. Not only had he killed a minor, but he’d shot a black female minor who was only trying to get back home - IN THE BACK. That wasn’t how it really was, but Swive knew that that was how the editorial writers, activists and other professional thumb-suckers would spin it.
“This is expected,” Swive extemporized (read: lied). “Corporate has been expecting a development like this for a while. We didn’t expect it this soon, or in this case, but it’s not a complete surprise. You are to break down the body into component parts and ship them and all personal effects separately under Code Protocol: Diamond Victor Thomas/343 to Dr. Emil Hammond, care of Goodkind Central Labs in upstate New York.”
[But we’re not a part of Goodkind Industries]
“It’s all in the family. I have this on the highest authority. Oh, and file a report saying that the body was turned over to the MCO, on their request.”
“Just fill out the paperwork. Swive out.” Swive shut his phone and steeled himself for what he would have to do. Fortunately, the only people who would have to die were mutants.
Swive stepped into the debate. He was calming. He was reasonable. He was gracious. He was inspiring. Within five minutes, he’d mended the hurt feelings and soothed the ruffled feathers. Within ten minutes, he’d created a context in which no one was to blame, they’d all been given bad intelligence, and all their moves were logical and reasonable within the context of that intelligence. All they really needed was better communication. Within 15 minutes, he’d created a formidable mutual enemy that the M-SOC, MCO, KoP, and local authorities could rally together against. After all, look at how they effectively and ruthlessly deployed that illegal CS gas (carefully ignoring the fact that they’d used KoP grenades). He told them that someone claiming to be MCO had taken the body from the KoP Field Forensics lab. Someone didn’t want that body identified. After a half-hour, he had a clear mandate (and pending contract) from the Sacramento County government for the Knights of Purity to cooperate with the M-SOC, MCO, National Guard and local police agencies to track down the clear and present danger posed by the Sammish Kidnappers. After all, they still had to find 12 missing teenagers!
* * * * *
The next morning, we were still tense, but we didn’t have the luxury of sitting around being all emo. There’s nothing for getting on with your life like realizing that if you don’t, you won’t HAVE a life to get on with.
Suzy went out and came back with breakfast for twenty and the morning papers. What we read in those newspapers almost made us lose our appetites. “They’re blaming US for that whole clusterfuck?”
“What, you thought they’d tell the media, ‘Well, gee, we sorta jumped the gun on that one. Sorry’?”
“They’re saying that we used illegal chemical warfare stuff on the civilians at the mall!”
“Well, we sort of DID. Suzy used those gas grenades to hold off the MCO and M-SOC, remember?”
“But I got them from the KoP!” Suzy complained. “What’s this ‘M-SOC’ anyway?”
“Metahuman Special Operations Command,” I answered. “They’re basically super powered soldiers – mutants, dyna-hosts, other kinds - who’re pretty much a combination of MPs and Special Forces for the military. They’re the ones that make sure that those secret squads of super-powered soldiers mind their manners, handle super-powered incidents on military bases, and stuff like that. They, ah, don’t exactly have what you’d call a rep for being the most understanding people in the world.”
“Why’d he call in them, and not call the cops?”
“My dad may be Air Force, but he’s still military,” I answered. “Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, whatever - when something happens, you keep it in-house. Period.”
“Who were those other guys?” Chris asked. “They said they were MCO, but they sure as hell didn’t look like the power-suit units that I’ve seen the MCO using on the news!”
“They’re called ‘Shepherds’,” Billy answered. “Believe it or not, the MCO has mutants working for them, and other kinds of guys with super powers - telepaths, psychics, all sorts of low-key weirdos. They give ‘em these really bleeding edge power-suits, probably with really dangerous batteries or shit like that, probably figuring that if it blew up on ‘em, well that’s one less weirdo to worry about.”
“Eewww…” Eddie squealed, “What did you DO, Suzy? It says here that six people hadda be taken to the hospital, ‘cause of the gas you used.”
“Hey, it wasn’t MY FAULT!” she snapped. “The KoP made those things!”
“They must be using a pretty nasty formula to affect mutant metabolisms, and not bothering to tell anyone about it,” Roxie said, poring over her paper. “And not bothering to mark their gas canisters, either. It says here that the gas canisters were unmarked, and they’re guessing that it means that we brought them there to use in case things got hairy.”
“HEY!” Eddie snapped, “HEY SQUID! It says here that the security guards spotted one of the ‘alleged terrorists’ sneaking a box out of the Jewelry Annex™ store.” He shot Billy a harsh look. “Hey, what WAS that box that you was so careful about, Billy?”
Billy started to hem and haw, but Eddie wasn’t having any of it. He pushed past Billy and stomped out to the van hidden under the tarp. He brought the box in with one hand and ripped it open like a letter envelope. “What’s THIS?” The box was filled with lots of smaller boxes marked only with UPS zebra codes and cryptic alphanumeric codes. He opened up one of the smaller boxes and pulled out a gaudy diamond ring in bubble wrap. “What’s THIS?”
“You ripped off a fucking Jewelry Store?” Roxie screamed. “We were running around trying to keep from getting fucking KILLED, and you ripped off a fucking Jewelry Store?” By the end, she was shrieking.
Eddie grew up to twelve feet, and had Billy by the head in a way that reminded people far too much of a kid trying to twist the head off a doll. “You fucking killed Shawn for some fucking BLING?”
Mack flew up and pried Eddie’s hands off of Billy. “NO! We NEED him!” Mack grated through his teeth.
Eddie let Billy drop, and shrank down to eight feet. “You EVER pull anything like that again, and I’ll rip you up and flush you down the toilet, while you’re still alive!” he growled at Billy.
The tense scenario was broken by, of all things a low moan. “Oh crap,” Chris said in a flat voice, as she hurriedly scanned one paper and then another looking for something.
“What’s the matter?”
“None of these papers say that Shawn was captured or killed.”
“SO?” Chris echoed. “So, what happened last night was a total cluster fuck! We musta trashed a dozen or so stores and carts inside the mall, and we wrecked at least twenty cars out in the parking lot! They’re estimating that we did at least $15 million in damage! Okay, a big chunk of that is people padding their insurance claims, but we made the MCO and M-SOC look like chimps! They GOTTA have something to show the TV crews! And Shawn is all they got!”
“Oh Christ,” Mack moaned, getting where Chris was heading. “They fingerprinted Shawn, and now they know who we are. But they killed Shawn, and they can’t cop to killing one of the kids who disappeared.”
Rae let out an agonized groan, and buried her head in her hands. “They’re gonna kill us! They know who we are, and it don’t matter no more, ‘cause now they gotta kill us ALL! They’ll tell our parents that we killed their kids, but it’s cool, ‘cause they killed us tryin’ to resist arrest! They’re fucking gonna fucking kill us ALL!”
Suzy looked at Mack and said in a small voice, “So… Mack… what’re we gonna do NOW?”
Mack slumped down onto the floor. “I… I dunno… We’re screwed! We can’t go anywhere without someone trying to kill us!”
“We gotta get out of town,” I said. “It’s just too hot here. Even if we could get someone to listen to us, they’d roll over on us, ‘cause we’re the hometown version of Osama bin Laiden. Our only hope is to get out of this fucking burg and go somewhere where they won’t freak out.”
“Right! Right, I should’a seen that,” Mack said. He slumped down. “Aw, fuck it, I’m no good at this… I got Shawn fucking killed… Evan, you take over. You got the chops, you be the leader…”
There was a small storm of protest over this - with me being the loudest - and we managed to buck Mack out of his funk a little. “Mack,” Rae said, “this is the hard part. Anyone can be the boss when it’s easy. But when we’re gettin’ our heads handed to us, THAT’S when we need someone with guts in charge! You GOT the guts, if you’d just own up to it. This is the hard part… SHOW us you got the heart!”
Mack rubbed his face with his hands and let out a gusty breath. “OKAY! Okay… So! We gotta get out of here. Where?”
“Wait a minnit!” Suzy chirped, “I saw something on the laptops when we were searching their databases…” She pulled out one of the laptops and buzzed through it, pausing a couple of time to wait impatiently for the computer to catch up with her. “Check it out! They got e-mail!”
Chris saw where she was going immediately. “They wouldn’t use these things for personal business. It would strictly be for either research or logistics shit for the lab! So, any e-mails on these things would either be-”
“Sharing information with other labs, or requests for supplies and materials from whoever’s supplying them!” Roxie jumped in. “We track that down, and we find out who the fuck is behind all of this! We find THAT out, and we are halfway home.”
“And how do we do that?” Billy sneered. “They don’t give their addresses on those things, just e-mail addies!”
“Which have telephone numbers attached to them on the ISP, which can be matched to a physical address by an online reverse directory,” Roxie sneered right back. “Okay, if they’re wireless, they won’t have a physical address, but they’ll be registered to someone, and some of them WILL have landline locations.”
“Okay, sounds like a plan!” Mack said, bucked up by actually having an idea to work with. “Make it happen!”
Roxie guided Suzy through the process and in a few minutes we had registration of ownership and locations for several of them. “Wow, these people are all over the place,” Roxie remarked. “We got addresses in Seattle, Las Vegas, Denver, Omaha, a bunch down in the San Francisco Bay Area-”
“San Francisco?” Mack jumped on it.
“Yeah, Frisco, Berkeley, Santa Rosa, Palo Alto-”
“Palo Alto?” Eddie asked, “Where the fuck is Palo Alto?”
“That’s Silicon Valley,” Roxie sneered. “Maybe you’ve heard of it?”
“That’s IT!” Mack said, leader-guy all the way again. “San Francisco! It’s close, we know how to get there, and, hey, it’s not like they ever pay any attention to what happens up here in Sacto, that is, unless the governor cuts the pork or something. Besides, Dynamik operates out of Frisco. He’s a frickin’ Super-Genius. We show him that weird ring dingus that Suzy took from the mutating machine, and we got a big name superhero pitching for us.”
“Yeah,” Chris nodded. “And it’s SAN FRANCISCO! Weirdness capitol of the West! I mean, they got a Gay Pride parade every year! If there’s anywhere this side of the Mississippi where we’d find people who’d openly support mutants, it’s in Frisco!”
“Whoa!” Suzy said, peering into her laptop, “Check THIS out! There are, like, EIGHT different Pro-Mutant activist groups listed in San Francisco!”
“Yeah, but only three of them are legit,” Chris said as she did a little work of her own on her laptop. “Five of them are listed as having storefronts and do lots of advertising, but they don’t actually DO anything. No petitions, no applications to begin various programs, no letters of support of any of the local mutant superheroes, no real… y’know… activism.” She did a little more checking. “Guess what… according to this, two of them are funded through front companies owned by the Goodkind family.”
“Goodkind?” Eddie asked.
“Big time East Coast old money family,” I said. “MAJOR buck-itude. And they got a hate-on for mutants like you wouldn’t believe. As a matter of fact, our old buddies the Knights of Purity™ were founded and are run by Herbert Goodkind.”
“Right,” Roxie murmured. “Those outfits are probably either the mutant version of those phony ‘Environmental’ lobbying groups that loggers and other industrial types put up to lobby against Green measures, or they’re-”
“Or, they’re MCO traps,” Rae said with her stolid cynicism. “Mutant hotels. Mutant kids check in, but they don’t check out.”
“So, we go down there and bust those ratbags UP!” Eddie said with a meaty smack of his fist into his off hand.
“NO,” Mack said definitively. “We keep it quiet. We go down there, lay low, get the lay of the land, figure out what’s what, who’s who, and all that. We check out those addresses in San Francisco and Berkeley. When we KNOW what we’re doing, we sit down, make plans and we make sure that we don’t walk into a fuckin’ trap like we did last time!”
“And you thought that you didn’t have what it takes to be a leader,” I cooed at him.
“Okay, Boss-guy, but how do we get DOWN there?” Chris asked. “Check out the podcasts on the news. Traffic’s backed up for, like, hours, ‘cause they got National Guard roadblocks covering every highway and major road in and out of Sacto. I’ll lay you odds that they got KoP, MCO or M-SOC units at every airport and bus station.”
“And they’re probably watching all of the little roads out of town with satellites, or sum’thin’.” Billy grumped.
“Shhiiitttt…” Rachel moaned. “We are up Shit CREEK!”
“Creek?” Eddie said, his eyes popping wide. “YEAH! I GOT it!”
It seems that Eddie knows a guy who owns a houseboat. This guy had the thing hauled out of the water to have it scraped for dry rot, and hadn’t gotten around to having it put back in the water, so there wouldn’t be any suddenly empty moorings to tip off the River Police. Eddie and some of his buddies had been using it as a hang behind the owner’s back. And, just to make it perfect, the boat was covered by a big tarp, so no one would notice the empty dry dock until they actually looked under it.
Common sense dictated that we do this at least after 11 at night, so we spent the day chilling in the greenhouse. Rae, Eddie and Billy paid a quiet visit to a guy that Rae knew and came back with 15 grand in operating expenses. Rae insisted that she sold him that box of jewelry that Billy ripped off. Given the crappy quality of the stuff in the box and the number of units in it, I’d be amazed if they got two grand for the whole lot. But given the circumstances, I was sort of obligated to believe Rae when she said that he gave them that much for it, out of the goodness of his heart. Hey, it’s not like we asked the guy who owns the houseboat, either.
Normally, it takes a very large, very loud crane the better part of an hour to get a houseboat on or off a dry dock. But between our powers and those power-spheres, it took us five minutes, tops, and we were as quiet as church mice.
We let the houseboat drift with the current for an hour or so, as Eddie and Mack worked on the engine. The rear of the boat reeked with gas fumes, so I was chilling out of the front - well, can’t really call it a deck - part. As I lay there, numbly looking out across the river, passively keeping an eye out for the River Police, Roxie walked up and sat next to me. “Yo. Evan.”
“Yo. Rox.” Scintillating conversation, hunh?
“Uhm, hey, Ev. Back at the mall… I saw… I saw your dad shoot you.” I just gave her a blank look. It was all I had to give. “Dude, I saw his face. It was dark, but there was all that craziness going on… Dude… He knew you!”
“Yep,” I said in my best Clint Eastwood laconic way.
“How… how could your DAD SHOOT you like that?”
“With blessedly poor marksmanship.”
She started to complain about me making jokes, but she stopped before she actually said anything and looked me in the eyes. “How could he DO that?”
“Oh, he’s been working up to it for a while now. Only now, he has an excuse.”
She sort of curled up and said in a small voice, “Is it really that bad between you? And your dad?”
I started to say something Dirty-Harry snarky, but thought better of it. “Roxie, my father is a dick. Period. It wasn’t so bad when he and my mom were still together. Or, maybe it was, only he was taking it out on my mom, instead of me. I think-” I started to do a little bullshit psychology on my dad but chucked it. “Fuck it. He’s a shithead. Period. I gave up trying to figure out what makes that fucktard tick years ago. These days… these days, I just wish that I could stop caring about what he thinks. I try, but it doesn’t seem to quite click.”
“Wow,” Roxie said. “Man, I thought that I had it hard… I mean… My folks are always at me, telling me that I needed to study harder, work harder, get into Yale - not even Stanford or Berkeley, but Yale - learn another language, take more extracurriculars, ‘why can’t you be like Tristan or Gwen’!” Roxie lit up a reefer and took a big hit. She held it in expertly and let out a plume of acrid smoke. “But they never, y’know, HIT me!” she choked out. “Spanked me, but, y’know, strictly in the line of duty and all that! But your dad… he tried to fucking KILL you!”
Chris came over and sat down on the other side of me. There I was sandwiched between two cute blondes. Story of my fuckin’ life. A guy’s favorite daydream happens, but only ‘cause people are trying to kill us all. “So, wha’cha talking about?”
I took a hit off of Roxie’s joint. “Oh, ‘Breakfast Club’ shit. Baring the secrets of our tortured souls, and all that crap. So… Chris… howcum you became the Wal-Mart of Marty Sammish?”
She leaned over and took the joint from my hand. “What? Is it supposed to be some big mystery? I mean, look at me - no, I mean, remember what I looked like… Scrawny white kid nobody pays any attention to, not even my folks. So, you gotta do something, or you just sort of… disappear… in the crowd of losers. But, when you got something that people need, they talk to you. They owe you favors and shit. You’re somebody.” She let out a plume of smoke.
We got mildly stoned, talked about things, knocked around how we felt about crossing the gender line, and by the time that we woke up, it was morning. The boat had gone down the Sacramento River into San Pablo Bay, and we’d pulled into Pittsburg. No, not the steeltown in Pennsy, but a refining town on the bay. From Pittsburg, we took the Bay Area’s light rail service, BART, and we were in San Francisco in time for lunch.
* * * * *
Swive was hanging out by the mobile ‘power-frame repair garage’ trucks watching the mechanics try to resurrect the Catcher’s capture mechanism. A rather rumpled looking stocky guy with a receding hairline walked up and flashed an ID at him. “Haines. MCO.”
Swive stood up cautiously and regarded the man. “I’ve already made out my report.”
“Relax,” Haines said. “I’m not here officially. This is strictly off the record. I just wanted to thank you for standing up for the Office, when you said that you thought that we didn’t snatch that body out from under you. Damn good of you. Suspects keep disappearing one way or another, and people keep saying ‘the MCO picked them up’ and then nobody hears from them again. Seems like any yuck can walk into a jail, flash a phony MCO ID, and just waltz off with a suspect. People seem to think the Office is a Gestapo, just taking mutants off into the night and fog.”
Swive relaxed a bit. “Yeah, we get that too. ‘Oooh… the KoP is a bunch of trigger-happy goons shooting innocent mutants right and left!’” he made a disgusted spitting sound. “Please! The only time that we get called in the first place, is that the Em-Dee is fuckin’ dangerous! What’re we supposed to do? Hit him with Flower Power?”
Haines knew that an Em-Dee was a ‘Mad Dog’ in KoP and M-SOC parlance. He just nodded and sighed, “Yeah, well, what’re you gonna do? Someone’s gotta do the job, or it just doesn’t get done.” Haines paused and asked, “So. Swive. What do you think’s going on here?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, there’s something seriously whacked going on around here, but for the life of me, I can’t make any sense of it. Look, the guy who was trying to pass himself off as that Air Force flack Ramsey’s kid was trying to pick up a freaking Air Force Colonel. Why? It only makes sense if they were trying to pull something very sneaky on the regional level. But at the same time, another one of ‘em screws up a perfect exit by ripping off a box of crap jewelry. That just doesn’t add up to me.”
Swive shrugged. “So? In any outfit, you got screwups and brainfart artists. But believe me, whoever was running the show was a pro. Check it out. They didn’t send their man in alone, they had multiple people covering him so well that we still don’t know where the fuck they were hid. They had an exit plan in case it went south. They forced the assumption on us that we were dealing with one or two targets, and staggered revealing their additional strikers, so that every time we adjusted to the new situation, they threw another curve ball at us. They had your Shepherds and the M-SOC ding-dongs shooting at each other. M-SOC says that they had the point man isolated, and were herding him into a dead-end corridor, but somehow he slips away clean. You do NOT have punk-ass kids who’ve never been in a real fight pulling slick shit like that out of their asses. Somebody who knew what he was doing sat down with a map of that place and planned everything, starting with a clean grab, and working his way down to the cluster fuck that we landed in.”
Haines nodded. “So. Swive. What do you think’s going on here?”
“Don’t ask me, I’m just a gun bunny.”