By and large, I think I’ve pulled over most of the older posts I wanted to highlight in the new space, so the archive weekend posts will likely be limited to the Spotlight reprints as I end each chapter. Which, as it turns out, I just did.
This chapter: gazelle vampirism, super-powered prison fashion, shadowy conspiracy chambers, and the only event that leaves every single version of Crowd speechless. Plus, pray for us all, because Stallion’s about to be the reasonable, level-headed one. This can’t bode well.
Chapter 6: Special Persecutor
“He’s not dead,” Roc said quietly.
“Still. And: no shit,” Stallion returned for the bajillionth time. He’d tracked Roc down to the observation room for The Stone. Which wasn’t moving, and hadn’t moved in the two days since they got back from leaving a crater in Canada. Which meant Voice was still alive. Somewhere.
“So then where is he?” Bruise asked. Stallion had dragged the cutter along, hoping he could get the Stone Cold Bitch to, you know, move or something.
“We still haven’t heard from Covert?” Roc asked, finally taking her eyes from the not-moving glitter rock on the other side of the unbreakable glass.
“Not since the tool ditched us just after the border,” Stallion said. “Girl, seriously, you aren’t doing Volume Knob any good just standing here. Unless you’re waiting for him to die?”
Here was where he normally would have been dodging giant concrete hands or something, but even Stallion’s normal button-pushing barely got a rise out of the girl.
“Covert has intelligence resources we don’t,” she said, turning back to look at The Stone.
“And we have still being big deals instead of has-beens,” Stallion countered.
“Stallion has a point,” Bruise said. Stallion locked eyes with Roc in a bit of shared shock, then they both looked to the guy with green hair (this week).
Bruise fell back a bit, but explained: “Covert brought us on that mission in the first place because we’re big, loud, and have a massive PR machine. If things went south, we’re the bright shiny thing to point to, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing Trent’s had to spin.
“We don’t have a military industrial complex and world-spanning intelligence agency to use, but we do have fame. I know you don’t always like it, Teresa, but sometimes that opens a whole other set of doors, you know?”
“See? Listen to Chewy,” Stallion said with his extra-wide grin.
Roc bit her lip a moment, checking out the still-not-moving Stone.
“I don’t even know where to start,” she whispered.
“Girl, even I know where to start,” Stallion said.
“You do?” Roc and Bruise asked at the same time. Stallion chuffed air and crossed his arms.
“Seriously? You guys suck,” he said. “The psycho from TV. Duh. He hacked this place that went ker-blooey, right? He’s gotta know who they are and where else they are. We show up, flash the smiles and the awesome, and grill the hell out of code-loser until he gives it up.”
“The authorities aren’t just going to let us waltz in and–” Roc started.
“Since when?” Stallion returned. “The love us. You probably won’t even have to flirt with any boy cops to get in.”
He dodged the concrete bludgeon by several inches. There was his girl.
“I told you, I’m not–”
“We gonna dance with each other, or with the psycho?” Stallion asked. Roc fumed a moment, then nodded.
“I’m in. Let’s go.” She was out the door before she’d even finished talking. Stallion heard the security checkpoint beeping even as Bruise and he scrambled to catch up. Just as they’d passed out of the tech maze that protected The Stone, Bruise’s phone rang. Stallion could smell the nerves and hormones surging as goth-boy checked the screen.
“I … I have to take this,” he said. Stallion rolled his eyes.
“Girlie’s already in high gear, so I’m not waiting for you to deal with your rent boy or whatever,” Stallion said, running for the open front door.
“Tell Schizo where we went if her dupe-stapo let you talk to her,” he yelled back just before leaping skyward to try to catch up.
“I haven’t been avoiding you,” Max spat out as he answered the phone and Stallion leapt out of sight.
“This is good news,” Devin said, laughing on the other end of the line.
“We were just–”
“Off looking for mountain gazelles so you could drink their blood?”
“Oh, for the love of … Trent is such a huge, huge, di–”
Max’s diatribe died, overshadowed by Devin’s uncontrolled laughter. He’d have to wait to denounce Trent’s cover story for hiding Spotlight’s recent foray north of the border.
“Max, seriously,” Devin said once he’d recovered. “I’m sure Spotties the world over are super excited at the idea that Gothy Pain Guy took the team to a remote mountain village to play animal vampire. But I was there when they served you kitfo at the Ethiopian place, remember?”
Max groaned, his stomach churning at the memory. He crossed to one of the couches in the common room and fell onto the overstuffed cushions.
“It hasn’t been that long since our first date, has it?” Devin added into the silence that followed.
“No, I just … yeah. I hope the stains came out of their rug.”
Devin laughed again. It was a giddy sound, pitched higher than he would have expected, its rhythm uneven. Max didn’t realize until that moment, as the sound seemed to break it all up, how much tension he’d been carrying.
“You’re sure you still want to have another?” he asked, welcoming back the stranger that was his own smile.
“We’ll just choose something a little less adventurous for dinner.”
“I appreciate it.”
“And make up for it by being more adventurous after.”
“We shall see,” Max returned.
“It’s a date.”
“And maybe you can tell me where you really were that slaughtering exotic species was the less sensational headline,” Devin said.
“Top secret,” Max returned. “And I’m immune to torture. Because power over pain.”
“Uh huh,” Devin said playfully. “There are other ways of making you more pliable, you know.”
“Ah! No showtunes. We’re above that,” Devin said. “Okay. Tomorrow night. I get off-shift at 8.”
Max looked at the phone screen a minute after Devin hung up. He fell back on the couch, smothering his face with a pillow as he felt the warm flush at his cheeks. Blushing like a high-schooler was Sarah’s thing. Max was worldly. He was over all this stupid, spoonfed, corporate narrative crap.
“Why are you giggling into a pillow?”
Max shot up straight, tossing the pillow away and forcing his face back into its naturally aloof default expression. Sarah was in the center of about a dozen counters. The speaker was a round-faced pouter with an asiatic flair. She reminded Max vaguely of his cousin Joan.
“I … just a good joke,” Max said.
“Oh? Tell us!” cried a bouncy counter in a pixie cut.
“You hate jokes,” the original speaker returned flatly, eliciting an exaggerated pout out of pixie cut. Now she really reminded him of cousin Joan.
“Teresa and Stallion went to question Transparent C+ for what he knows about the Saskatchewanist terrorists,” Max said rather than try for another poor cover story. He’d had enough of those, anyway.
“Saskatchewanites?” tried pixie cut.
“Saskatchewanians,” corrected round-face.
Max fell back onto the couch as the multitudes of Sarah started taking sides in the Name the Citizens debate. Let them go. He just had to make it through one more day of crazy to get a night of normal. Or possibly better than normal.
Pixie cut squealed before calling out, “Oh look! Bruise is so adorable when he blushes, isn’t he?”
“You’re testing my patience,” Roc said softly, coldly. “Tell me where he is.”
“Get bent, corpora-zombie,” Transparent C+ returned from his rickety chair. He wore a cowl-to-toe suit made from anti-phase weave materials, which made him look a little like he just needed an oxygen tank and a facemask to take a tour of a reef somewhere.
Stallion had been right, much to Roc’s chagrin. Showing up in full, granite armor and asking nicely had been all the more it took to put them in an interrogation room alone with a crazed super-terrorist. Then again, a proper knight didn’t exploit her reputation, so of course it hadn’t occurred to her.
Transparent C+ hadn’t been nearly so forthcoming. Over an hour of being polite, being stern, being manipulative … nothing. She’d sent Stallion for some water after her teammate had complained long enough.
“I’m not the one who tore a man’s heart out of his chest,” Roc said, taking another step forward. The clack of her stone mail on the concrete of the interrogation room floor echoed slightly in the all-but-empty space. It felt like some kind of sad, patronizing clap. “And I’m trying to prevent even more death.”
“You’re a shill,” TCP spat back. “How much do they pay you to hide their secrets, huh?”
Roc took a calming breath and tried again. It didn’t really calm her, mind. Inside her head was all personal recriminations and a building frustration-panic. She had to break through his delusion, had to make up for her tactical error. She could still save Liam. And her reputation. “I swear to you, I don’t have secrets. I’m a champion of truth and honor, a modern day paladin–”
“Look at you!” the man scoffed. “You do their dirty work and dress up in the clothes they tell you to wear.” He was red-faced and yelling now, and Roc was finding it harder and harder not to return the screaming. Her fingers quivered. She clenched her jaw.
“You even let them brand you,” he yelled, jabbing his chin at Roc’s personalized Spotlight logo, which she currently had etched prominently into her armor on instinct.
“You’re nothing but a slave without the chains, girl.”
Roc felt the heat rise in her face, could barely hear the door open as her heartbeat pounded in her ears.
Concrete snapped and shifted, covering the observation room glass, the security cameras, the door. With one thrust of her hand, the floor beneath the phasing terrorist shot up, slammed him against the wall, knocking the wind out of him with a loud grunt Roc barely registered.
“I am done playing this game with you, little man,” she growled.
“What the hell?” Stallion was at her shoulder.
“I’ve been nice and calm and even-handed, and he just used up the last of it. I’m not putting up with race-baiting bullshit from this terrorist when we need to find Voice.”
“Telling you … squat. Girl,” Transparent C+ groaned.
“Stop. Calling. Me. That!” Roc growled, each word accompanied by the creak and snap of the granite pressing just a little harder against the prisoner. A tendril of concrete wrapped itself around his throat and slowly tightened.
“Gir– Roc. You gotta chill,” Stallion said, moving toward the prisoner as the man’s face turned a purplish red. “You’re gonna kill him.”
“He’s a killer,” Roc returned flatly.
“Yeah. But you’re not. You’re … T, look at me. Just … just, we’re all gonna calm down, right? Take deep breaths, okay?”
Roc breathed deep, ready to return her own tirade, but her rage did seem to fade a bit even before she spoke. She backed off the pressure of the stone holding TCP in place, and he gasped for air. Then she stared at Stallion a moment.
“Did you just pheromone me?” she asked, already knowing the answer. He shrugged.
“You were kind of on the verge of the no-return, you know?”
“I …” there was the briefest surge of indignation in her. Whether she pushed it down herself, or Stallion’s pheromones were still affecting her, she decided it didn’t matter.
Besides: “Now him,” she said, nodding to the prisoner, who was coughing as he tried to catch his breath again. She ignored the inner chastisement for not having thought of it earlier. Stallion raised one of his equine eyebrows. She sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Phobe,” she muttered.
Stallion snorted, but said nothing else to her, instead walking over to Transparent C+.
“Easy now, brah,” he said calmly. “Deep breaths, and we’ll get you back on your feet.”
After a cough or two, TCP complied, and indeed seemed much more pliant than he had been before.
“Thanks,” he said. “For a corporate shill, you aren’t so bad.”
“Thanks, brah,” he said, “So, how about for saving your life, you tell me all about the folks you hacked to get your powers?”
“I … yeah, I guess I could do that. You seem all right, you know?”
“We know they were based outta Saskatchewan,” Stallion began. “Separatists holed up in–”
“Saskatchewan? No,” TCP said with a scoffing chuckle. “No, that mutant code was home grown.”
Stallion glanced back to Roc, who did her best to smooth her features over, hiding a response. She nodded to Stallion, who turned back to the prisoner.
“Keep talking,” Stallion said. And the man in the high tech scuba gear did just that.
Ever since the explosion in Canada, Sarah’s head was nothing but cacophony.
Not dead, mutilated
Burned all over
Should have been there
Should have told him
“I guess we should have grabbed a ride down there,” Max said, biting his lower lip. Sarah had trouble keeping track of time with all the babbling, but it had been quite some time since he’d mentioned Teresa and Stallion’s trip to the prison. “But we can’t fly or jump, and I just figured they wouldn’t be this long, you know?”
“Does that hurt?” one of the counters asked. Gabriella, with the short, strawberry blonde hair.
“What?” Max returned, frowning.
When doesn’t he frown?
“Biting the piercings?” Gabby said. Sarah couldn’t see them from here, but she imagined the girl’s wide doe eyes were glittering with a saccharine innocence.
Look who’s learning cynicism
Just let me eat her face.
“Rude!” Jun chided, elbowing the smaller, inquisitive counter.
Whether it was or not wouldn’t be decided for the moment, however, as Trent came walking into the room, finger flipping quickly through screens on his tablet.
“Seriously with this animal blood crap, Trent? Again?” The counters receded to a murmuring audience, all of them recognizing the venom in Max’s tone.
“And hello to you, Bruise,” he said with a smile. “Look, like it or not, your demographic sucks this stuff down with a straw. Some of them literally.”
“You’re still trying to sell that?”
“Bruise, I’m always trying to sell. It’s my job, remember?”
“Bullshit,” Max spat back.
“Language,” Trent said.
“You can’t keep screwing me over in the press just because you couldn’t screw me in real life,” Max growled.
Sucks when they don’t love you back
Should have told Glo
Should have told Liam
“I thought you didn’t care about the press,” Trent oozed back. “I mean, it’s all just fabricated by corporations and conglomerates and it’s all just so very far beneath you, isn’t it?”
A few of the embodied counters oohed under their breaths, shushed by several others, as Max clenched his jaw, face reddening.
We should do something
We should stay out of the way
He’s going to kill him
“I’m going to kill you, Trent!” came the female bellow from the front doorway. Gloria stormed in, grabbing the PR man by the vest and slamming him up against the wall.
“Glo!” cried out several of the counters gleefully.
We can tell her
“Hey, little one,” Gloria said, sparing a quick smile to the throng. She raised an eyebrow to Max. “I interrupting?”
“You go right ahead,” Max said with a self-assured grin, falling back onto the couch to watch.
You tell her. We like Liam better.
“Miss Riel,” he said. “Is there a problem?”
Her face hardened again as she held him in place.
“You’re getting in my business, Trent,” she growled. “I can’t get a call through, or an email returned. I’m not breaking your precious little bylaws, so you let me talk to Liam and get your nose out of my life, you wriggling little–”
“He’s missing, Glo,” Max interrupted. Her face fell.
Go to her!
“I … how long?” Gloria asked. Trent’s polished-to-perfection slip ons tapped lightly on the ground as she let him down from the wall. He just adjusted his glasses and leaned back to watch.
“A couple of days,” Max said.
Gloria bit her lip. “I should have recognized that stupid gazelle blood thing for a cover story,” she chided herself. “Just thought he’d asked you out again,” she added, jabbing her thumb to Trent.
We could be asking her out
“You have any leads?”
“You see, Gloria, now you are wandering past restrictions,” Trent said, interposing himself between Gloria and Max. “I’m afraid we can’t divulge information in an ongoing Spotlight operation to–”
Trent’s mouth kept moving at this point, but there was no more sound.
“You’d think he’d go hoarse eventually, wouldn’t you?” came a croaky voice from the door. Everyone turned to see an oddly vacant-seeming, heavily muscled gentleman standing at the door, propping up a young man. This one’s left eye was swollen shut, dried blood caked around his nose and lower lip. But there he was: Liam.
Gloria crossed the room in a rush. “Jesus, what the hell …?”
“It’s a story of the longish kind,” he croaked.
“Just shut up!” Sarah snapped under her breath at the voices in her head.
“Exactly,” Gloria said. “No more words.” She took Liam’s face in her hands, then, and kissed him deeply. He let go of the broad-shouldered man and wrapped his arms around Gloria, kissing her back.
Sarah’s voices couldn’t think of a thing to say.
Niyol Wing suppressed a sigh as he entered the poorly-lit conference room. The men and women in this room insisted on the dimness and backlighting to protect their identities, even though more than half of them had directly signed off on the multi-spectrum contacts he wore. Absolutely none of their features, then, were concealed from the agent formerly known as Covert. But, if his agonizingly long time with Spotlight had taught him nothing, it was the importance people placed on appearances.
So, let them believe themselves secure and anonymous. They paid him for intelligence so that they needn’t worry about their own, he supposed.
“Agent Wing,” came a distorted voice in greeting. Which was, of course, filtered back to its natural pitches by Wing’s adaptive earpieces. General Harris always did like his toys. Wing nodded slightly and managed to avoid another sigh.
“The operation was successful?” Senator Johnson asked. At least she didn’t worry about the voice distorter.
“The incindion flare effectively masked the facility’s shift to camouflage mode,” Wing responded. “As well as properly stunned the rest of the group so that I was able to steer them back to the states.”
Indeed. They had all been near wrecks for the entire journey back. The little one sobbed uncontrollably. The horse-head just punched a small dent in the rock that the hero-worshipper was barely holding together. He’d worried when the goth boy had pulled away his pain, since he knew half his injuries were false or overstated, but a good portion of that one’s jading seemed to be an act. He’d run his mascara off his face within ten minutes.
So Wing played the stalwart Covert and talked them all through returning home, kept their eyes on their mission, made sure their press man was properly covering, and then took a quick trip back to the Agency’s facility to check in on the guinea pig.
“I don’t have to ask how thorough you were?”
“My people used every advanced interrogation technique at our disposal,” Wing confirmed, careful not to specify, as several of those at his disposal weren’t exactly legal. The Ramsey boy was surprisingly resilient for someone without Wing’s training or a super-human endurance.
“I saw the boy on my newsfeed on the way here, so I gather…?”
“Our people will be going over the medical data and scans for several days, I’m told, but once word came in about the incident at the prison–”
“Why is that super-powered hacker still alive, again?” Harris asked.
“Because he was taken into custody. On live television. By celebrities,” Agency overseer Chen said coolly from her place in the backlit circle. “The media have a vested interest in seeing him for the moment, and there would be more questions rather than fewer if he disappeared into a hole. So he had to be kept publically until such time as he had sufficiently fallen out of focus.”
“Focus on a bullet in his head,” Harris grumbled. Since Wing knew he’d have been unable to make that out without the earpieces, he didn’t respond.
“Whether there’s medical or scientific evidence to point to a reason for The Stone’s repeat, I’m certain there’s no direct personal connection between Voice and Cherice Medina,” Wing said, his tone flat and calm. “He showed the same interest as the rest of the media in Sonar’s story, but we’ve confirmed there was no communication between her and the boy.”
“I hate that damn rock,” Harris grumbled.
“Thankfully, it never chose you,” Johnson offered.
Finally, Wing let out the sighing he’d been holding back. “None of this is why I’m here, though, is it?” he said. “You haven’t asked me anything your clearance and our reports couldn’t already tell you.”
Infrared made clear the sly smile that turned up on director Chen.
“Took you long enough,” she said. “You’re actually half an hour behind us, Agent Wing. That’s the trouble with communication blackout in transit, I suppose. The Ramsey investigation has lead to some very promising news from the temporoxenometaphasic mineralogy division.” Chen pressed a button to slide open a set of doors behind her. A new figure stepped into the room. “So, no, this isn’t about your completed mission. It’s about your next assignment…”