A motley parcel of rogues.
I’m back! Pensacon was a blast, and I’m looking forward to several more cons this year as things begin to spool up again now that the vaccination rollouts have allowed us to come out of our holes and take off our masks to interact with each other like human beings again. I got to share a booth with Melinda Snodgrass, Peter David, and Dan Wells among other great writers. But enough about the show! What you really want to hear about is Book 9. I don’t blame you. So, here we go.
Future Days, now officially titled Joyeuse Guard, is late. Sooo late. And this isn’t news to anybody. I hope in a few weeks to be able to announce a publication date, but in the meantime, as an apology, below is the remainder of the first short story in the book, Repossession.
So why is the book so late? Several reasons. First, 2020. Yeah . . . that was an interesting year. But second, Repercussions closed out what I like to think of as Astra’s first big character arc. In Wearing the Cape, she became a sidekick and junior member of the Sentinels. In Repercussions, now a veteran cape, she exited the Sentinels to found her own team. The Post-Event world itself is likewise stepping into a new era. All this means that Book 9 is something of a relaunch, albeit one built on everything that’s come before, and many a night I have found myself staring at my monitor with an expression that has to be somewhere near Munch’s The Scream.
So Joyeuse Guard has turned into a different kind of book. First, it’s closer to Wearing the Cape and Team-Ups & Crossovers than it is to the rest of the series. There’s no single “problem” that confronts the team from beginning to end, it takes place over close to a year, and it’s been divided into a series of short stories, some longer than others. WtC: A Christmas Carol was one of those stories told out of order, published because I knew it was going to take awhile to get the rest finished (although I had no idea how long). But there is a light at the end of the long, long tunnel. After that I intend to get back on my track of a single WtC book per year, plus hopefully an additional non-WtC title or two. We shall see. Meanwhile, here is Repossession in its entirety. There will be another round of grammar edits on it before the Book 9 release, but it’s the bridging story that opens Book 9.
Mal slipped and got a mouthful of Lake Peppas’ warm water as his head went under. Digging his feet into the sand, he pushed up and grabbed Ellie around the waist, lifting her laughing off her feet and dunking her in turn as her tiny rainbow drakes darted around his head. She sputtered as he brought her up, hair covering her face.
“Hey hey hey! I need to breath!”
“Then stop laughing! It’s—” He yelped and went under again as Megan took him out at the knees. Letting go of Ellie, he grabbed for the other girl but she pushed away and then Julie landed on his back, double-teaming him with her girlfriend. He came up again to see Jamal, holding the beachball and laughing at him. “Hey! If it’s boys against girls, then save my ass!”
The kid showed his tactical smarts by bouncing the ball off Mal’s head and Julie let go to lunge for it. Free of her weight, he wrapped his arms around Megan’s legs and heaved to easily lift and toss the shrieking Bee away. The Sentinels’ physical training regimen was really paying off. “Tiff would love it here!”
“You’re just bummed she’s not here to check out your abs,” Jamal taunted. “You can’t show off for your girl.”
Megan came up spitting water. “You’re going down, pretty-boy!”
“Julie’s got the ball,” Jamal pointed out as she spun. “You’re on defense now.”
“Then try it—hey! No fair no pow—!”
Jamal blurred in stutters, on Megan’s left before she could blink and fingers tickling sensitive ribs to turn her protest into a shriek before he stuttered again and held the ball. “Gotta balance your numerical advantage, ladies! I won’t speed while I’m it, don’t need to!” Spinning, he pushed away through the water, all three outraged girls splashing after him—and disappeared beneath a pile of avenging drakes.Mal laughed so hard he had to brace himself as Jamal speed-swam from under the leather winged mass so fast he breached the lake surface like a dolphin. “You might want to rethink that, buddy!”
“So not cool,” Jamal gasped when he came up again, and Mal laughed harder when the beachball bobbed up in the middle of the rainbow scrum of drakes, Ellie’s little critters hissing happily as they swarmed each other for it.
“Anybody want to get the ball?” Julie asked.
“Nope.” Mal shook his head. “I think they’ve won.”
Ellie shrugged sheepishly, straightening her purple suit. “Sorry, they really don’t— What’s going on? When did Ozma and Brian get back?”
Everyone turned to look, and Mal’s gut tightened. What was Shelly doing on the beach in her office clothes? The girl had been planning to join their Littleton Vacation the instant her last Ouroboros meeting got out, but she’d have changed first, right? “I’ll be right back, guys.” He started wading in, and after a moment the rest followed.
Hope turned towards them before he hit the shore, calling out “Everyone!” Jamal blinked away to stop beside her as Mal picked up his feet to splash the last few yards to the sand, Ellie right behind him.
“In uniform, now! We’re going home!”
“Shit!” He twisted his changing ring and his swim trunks disappeared between one step and the next, replaced by his armored jumpsuit and helmet as he broke into a run. Beside him Ellie slipped and recovering her footing, his supporting hand on her elbow as she did the same, swapped her swimsuit for her new articulated armor Kindrake costume. Beachball forgotten, her polychromatic flock of flying lizards caught up to swirl around her, settling on her as they skidded to a stop in the forming circle. Pushing a drake-wing out of his face, Mal got a look at the group standing by the beach blankets.
What? Hope and Jacky stood in uniform beside Shelly, who was holding Cat-Shell—who’d gone to Oz with Ozma and Brian—all of them standing protectively over Shell’s sprawled gynoid cybershell.
What the hell?
Ignoring them, Hope gave Cat-Shell a quick ear rub. “Shell will be safe, I promise. Take care of everyone while we’re gone?”
Shelly nodded, stepping back and clutching her furry twin tighter as Hope beckoned them in. Everybody linked up, Mal clasping Ellie’s right hand and Jacky’s left even as he groaned. With the pouch of Travel Dust in Ozma’s hand, he knew what was coming. A couple of the drakes settled on his forearm, jostling for room, and when Hope looked around the circle and gave Ozma a nod, he closed his eyes against the blast of wind that caught them up and whirled them away.
Shitshitshitshitshitshitshitshit! He kept his eyes shut, swallowing repeatedly as the air buffeted them, throwing him about and yanking on his hold to the girls. He hated flying under anyone’s power but his own; it always flashed him back to his first, triggered flight when he hadn’t been in control and one-hundred percent positive he was going to die.
On combined family vacation last year, Tif had teased him gently for his nerves as their plane had made a controlled, easy taken off—which had been fine, she’d been holding his hand and stroking the short hairs on his arm, a great distraction—but Tif wasn’t there now and nothing said Not In Control like spinning through the “sky” propelled by Ozma’s teleporting Travel Dust!
The magic whirlwind felt like it went on forever. When it let them go, he opened his eyes to find himself looking down at the Dome and—
What. The. HELL?
Chicago burned below them. Fires filled the air with smoke between lit towers in the Loop, and to the south and west Mal could see at least a half-dozen rising white columns. Streams of fleeing people crossed Michigan Avenue into the open spaces of the parks. Letting go of Artemis and Kindrake he lit off, using just enough kick to slow his descent and let everyone else fall away from him before opening up on the thrust once he had enough room to avoid toasting anybody, as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
“Com-check!” Astra called. “Ast—”
“Astra, report!” Lei-Zi cut in on their single team channel.
“Full team present, directly above the Dome and closing fast!”
“Open channel, Young Sentinels com-check!”
They sounded off in order as Mal rocketed down Michigan Avenue, and then Lei-Zi fired orders. “Keep Jackson east of Michigan Avenue clear! Evacuate bystanders through the parks with Seven as overwatch! Multiple threats with standoff capability!” He could see the weird little tanks she described as Astra started calling shots. “Megaton take the mini-tanks first, Kindrake drop east of Michigan and protect bystanders, Ozma provide cover! Go!”
Targets. Now that he could handle.
Dropping almost to street-level for cover, Mal strafed the line of mini-tanks pushing up Jackson like something out of an invasion movie. Broad hot blasts to toast video and ultrasonic targeting sensors—there was no way he could blast through their armor without slowing enough to get pot-shotted himself. Twisting into a tight turn up State Street, he used the buildings as cover for his turnaround, looking for targets spilling north and south of Jackson to encircle the line the Sentinels held to keep the way open for evacuating bystanders.
A ripple of automatic fire echoed off the towers as some of the creepy-ass soldiers tried to bring him down but they moved way too slow and had no concept of leading their shots. Zombie soldiers? Really? Mal walked his blasts through them between mini-tanks. They ignored it but burned nicely.
At least we’ve got—
Astra’s inarticulate yell cut through the open channel and a ringing hit loud enough to filter over their coms. Mal went into an evasive, jinxing climb while trying to get eyes on her. Where? Where? Without Shell feeding them tactical intel they were freaking blind. “Astra! Where are you?”
Another yell answered, another crashing impact, more crashes, and then Astra came flying out of a business tower in a shower of glass—not flying, falling ahead of a hulking figure in black armor, flying above them on massive boot-jets and swinging a ridiculously huge sword. What. The. HELL?
Astra didn’t hit the street; pulling out of her fall, weaponless, she threw herself upward with a scream to smack into her attacker. Calling out their location, Mal pulled himself around in a g-pushing turn that made his vision gray out as she reeled from another hit and fell again to smash off an abandoned truck and hit the street hard. Big-and-ugly dropped after her, sword raised, and Mal hit him.
He’d dialed his blast for pure punch to throw him away from her and the hit blew big-and-ugly into the side of a till-now undamaged building. That felt good, but the mystery-villain didn’t even drop his weapon.
Okay, we go big then.
Putting himself between big-and-ugly and Astra, Mal drew the heat roaring through him into his center, maintaining only enough blast to stay in the air to stoke the burning pressure at his core as the armored villain shook himself free of the broken wall and came on like a flying freight train.
That’s it, ugly, come to daddy. Wait . . . wait . . . now!
Mal gave a shout, letting go with a point-blank blast of mixed heat and punch that blinded him before they crashed together. Smashing impact lower down radiated through his body and ripped his breath away as he hit the street beside Astra. The impact drove the air from his lungs as he reached for her, scrabbling to grab hold and blast them away.
Sudden pressure over his whole body told him Variforce had arrived to cover them with his fields and then his hair stood up beneath his helmet as a cracking explosion of electricity arced past him. Yes! Eat lightning and like it, ugly!
Mal thought Lei Zi’s blast didn’t do anything until the big armored sucker seemed to stagger in air—maybe she’d fried it’s boot-jet’s guidance systems? Then he vanished.
Crap, armored flying teleporting hulks. Not fair. Mal tried to sit up but golden fields weighed him down, tightening around his legs, and then Variforce was beside him.
“Don’t move, kid!” the older cape needlessly instructed him. “Help’s on the way!”
“I’m fine.” His head hurt and his legs throbbed hotly but he’d hit the street pretty hard and his bodysuit’s armor could only do so much but he was fine. “How’s Astra?”
“She’s out and you’re not fine. You’re— Just stay still, I’ve got you.”
“What are you talking about?” Mal managed to lever himself up on his elbows. “Oh. Shit.”
His legs were missing at the knee. Both of them, and he stared at the stumps like they were a magician’s trick. “Doesn’t hurt.”
“Adrenalin, shock, what’s missing can’t hurt. I’ve seen it before and I’ve got your legs too, you’ll be fine. We’ll get tourniquets around you and then we’ll move—”
Blasts rocked the street and the world went black.
<Well, this is a fine mess.>
Mal blinked, or thought he did since he wasn’t actually seeing anything. Huh?
<Go back to sleep—it’s the drugs talking.>
The need to vomit finally pulled him out of the clouds, the rolling nausea sharper than any other feeling. Damn drugs. Shattering an arm in three places in middle school had taught him more than he wanted to know about his idiosyncratic reaction to opioids. What did I break this time?
“Hey,” Shell said. “You awake? Does it hurt? I can give you more stuff.”
Forcing his eyes open, he stared at the lights above him. Not my room. “What did I break?” His mouth moved funny and it came out slurry—for a moment he wasn’t sure he’d said anything. Turning his head, he didn’t see Shell. Or anyone. “What happened? Where are you?”
“I’m everywhere, mwa-ha-ha. Duh.” Shell’s voice came from an intercom beside his bed. “Your condition’s stable and you’re all hooked up. I’m monitoring your vitals and I can have a trauma team on top of you in thirty seconds. Or a nurse, but they’re all kinds of busy at the moment. So, do you hurt?”
Shit. If Shell couldn’t even have one of her Galatea shells with him, whatever happened was still happening. Or the cleanup was. He blinked. Blinked again. “What?”
“I said, ‘Do you hurt?’”
“Not enough for more drugs.” There was still a weird lag between what he said in his head and what came out. Not his normal drug reaction, and he enunciated every word. “It gets counterproductive.”
“Yeah, I read your medical history. Maybe Chakra can come by later, magic the edge off if she has any juice left.”
“I think she got me earlier.” He vaguely recalled a semi-lucid moment when his head had felt . . . fuller than just with himself.
“Nope, she’s busy too. What do you remember?”
He sighed. So it had been that kind of hit. “The beach. Wish Tiff had been there. Um. Ozma and Brian and—” —Shell’s gynoid shell lying in the sand. Gut-churning flight. Smoke, invasion, Big Ugly Dude— “Now that was freaky.”
“Big Ugly Dude.” The big sucker hadn’t exactly looked nice—black armor didn’t give anybody that kind of vibe—but what gave him the skin-crawling conviction that if the dude’s helmet had come off he’d have been looking at the skull of a putrid rotting corpse? The memory of adrenalin-muted revulsion made his gut churn harder. Imagination, gotta be. After all the half-desiccated green zombies walking around had primed him, right?
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“You’re drifting, but that’s enough. Look down.”
“Right. Oh, yeah.”
The shape of his legs under the sheet ended with a small tent at the knees. It looked like a magician’s trick, one Blackstone might perform on stage. “Doesn’t hurt. Why can’t I move them?”
“They strapped you down under there so you wouldn’t thrash without anyone here to stop you. You can unbuckle everything yourself, but for that you’ve got to be, you know, lucid, and I can hit you with more nighty-night stuff before you ever get that far.”
“So, what? They put tourniquets on them?” He felt as detached from his emotions as he was from his legs.
“Oh, hell no. Rush rushed a specialist in from across town before you’d even got to the ER and you’ve already been through surgery. That was hours ago and now you’re at the drain and maintain stage.”
Heat crawled up his limbs, even the parts no longer there, fight-or-flight ready to release. “Surgery? Then where are—Variforce said—”
“Um. You were blasting when they . . . separated, so you kind of toasted them a bit. Also, they were shredded more in the last explosions. But Vulcan says he can make you new ones! Won’t even show at the beach! He did say making a pair that works around you power might be a problem, though.”
“Might be a—” Mal’s breath came fast, heat building in his core. “Shell, I need—”
“More? You got it.” A box above his head beeped and it might have been psychosomatic but Mal could feel coolness and calm spread up his arm from the needle-site as he relaxed. Whatever was going on outside, there was one more reason for him to wake up alone. It was safer for everyone.
“S’all right. Sorry about the nausea.”
“It’s better than panic and blowing shit up.” He closed his eyes. “So, prosthetics, huh? Does my family know yet?”
“We’ve been holding off on telling anybody anything besides you’re in no danger until we can get them in here.”
“Thanks. Dad’s halfway across the country right now and Mom—”
“Yeah.” Shell didn’t need to elaborate; they both knew his Humanity First-following mother wouldn’t cross the street for him, let alone fly back from where she’d run to with his sister. And he sure as hell didn’t want Sydney to hear about this. Not until he could see his little sis and show her he was alright.
<That’s going to be awhile.>
He frowned. Again the weird disjoint in his head. “So, what happened?”
“We stopped them, and everyone’s alive. There were more—different—attacks around the country, including the coasts. Your family’s fine there, too. I promise.”
“Okay. Got it. Everybody’s okay.” His eyes sagged and he forced them open. “Hit me with it. What happened after?”
So she told him, right up to the point where she basically took over Northwestern Memorial’s security to make sure nobody tried to “roll up and kick anyone while they’re down” and volunteered for remote-nursing.
Then she fed him more drugs until the world went away again.
Mal decided Tiff could use some drugs herself; she had an anxiety attack.
“Breathe,” he said desperately. He couldn’t see her face—she’d folded up in the chair, dropping her forehead to her knees—but he imagined she was ghost pale. She’d stepped in the room, managing to keep her eyes on his face for all of a minute, even laying a kiss on him, before they’d drifted lower. Her fixed smile had disappeared and she’d dropped into the chair and started hyperventilating. “Breathe, Tiff. I’m fine, okay?”
His dad had handled it better, had even managed to laugh at Mal’s “I’ll walk it off,” line. He imagined Hope was probably having as much fun with her parents right about now.
“Your— Your—” Her words fought through whining hiccups.
“Yeah, I sort of hoped you wouldn’t notice.”
“That’s not funny!”
At least the hiccups stopped. She straightened up and Mal would take red-faced furious over white-faced any day. “Just so you know, this isn’t how I wanted to lose weight. Hey. Aw, no.” She didn’t wobble again but her big brown eyes widened in appalled shock and she started tearing up. “I’m sorry, Tiff. Too soon?”
<No kidding,> his pesky new Inner Voice replied.
“Way to go, Dan Juan,” Shell snarked from the intercom. “Hey Tiff, he’s really not this stupid, I swear. He’s on the good drugs. I told you, he’ll still be able to dance. We can even make him taller. You’ll be able to wear heels.”
Tiff slapped her hand over a choking laugh, rolling her expressive eyes. Mal loved those eyes.
And Shell had told them. She’d told him twice, playing omnipresent nurse since he’d woken up. The painkillers really were the good stuff. Whatever they’d switched him to had calmed his nausea, and he kept having to look down at his truncated shape under the sheet to believe it.
All he really felt was a ghost of warmth and pressure, but she’d assured him that they’d been able to save his muscles, bones, and nerves down to the knees. They’d even been able to preserve the ligaments so they could achieve “maximum distil stabilization,” whatever that meant, and installed the latest joint-sockets so that Vulcan would be able to just slot in the cybernetic legs he was already customizing as soon as the stumps healed.
He’d be faster, stronger. He could join Rush and Watchman in the cyborg club. (He’d laughed when Shell had reminded him of Watchman’s own unnoticeable Verne-tech leg—maybe there was a curse on Sentinels? No, Watchman had gotten that in the Army.)
Beside him Tiff inhaled and sniffed, wiping tears. “I’m sorry, it’s just that, well, you know.”
“Geez, you two are eloquent. Tiffany, he really is going to be fine. Rehab will be a bitch, but he’s not in pain now and it’s not like the old days where we would have just given him a peg leg. It could have been a lot worse, and this is likely Mal’s last fight anyway—he’s hanging up the cape for engineering school, remember?”
“Yeah, Tiff.” Mal fought the grin and lost. “I’m walking away from it all.”
This time her choking laugh came from her gut. She hugged herself tight, but her smile was genuine. “I’m holding you to that. You need to be my boyfriend on campus this fall, that’s the deal.” Mal’s grin widened.
Then the alarm sounded. Tiff clapped her hands to her ears and even Mal winced. Cut off, it was followed by “Biohazard alert. Biohazard alert. All medical personnel in the Superhuman Medicine Section are to shelter in place and await instructions. The section is sealed. Biohazard alert. Biohazard alert.”
“I hope it’s the biggest wrong call I’ve ever made,” Shell said. “Rush went berserk a little earlier—he’s contained now—and physical factors point to a possible biological vector. It may be nothing, and if it’s biological it’s probably not contagious. Probably.”
Mal’s thoughts slid like boots on ice. “What was the vector? The attack?”
“Maybe something in it? I could be wrong.”
“But if you’re not, I was in the same environment. Could I be infected? Could I be contagious?”
Tiff’s eyes went wide as saucers.
“Probably not yet. But Tiffany? You guys were all smoochy-face a minute ago so I’m afraid you’re checked into Hotel Northwest Memorial until we know. Pull up a chair.”
Mal woke with a start, brain resetting to tell him where he was again as he realized he was breathing hard, heat in his bones.
“Shhh,” Chakra whispered. “You don’t want to wake her up.”
Right. Relaxing and looking over, in the hospital room’s dim light he could see the rise and fall of Tiff’s chest under her blanket, golden hair peeking out of the top. The cot they’d brought in for her to sleep on was barely long enough for her lanky form and couldn’t be very comfortable, but she snored quietly. They’d talked for what seemed like hours. He’d texted his dad, she’d texted her family, they’d all called back, everybody got to worry while pretending not to, and when she started to droop the hospital had provided what it could so she could sleep chez Northwest.
“There’s a confirmed virus,” Chakra said softly. I’ve verified what it looks like with Rush and Crash’s chakric auras and just came in to check you two.”
“No. You’re both completely clean.”
“Are they going to be okay?”
“I won’t let them be anything else.” She sounded exhausted. “And you’re fine.”
“Except being a lot shorter now.”
“Scamp.” She ruffled his hair. “Your chakras are a mess, especially your higher ones. If I didn’t need every drop of kundalini power I’ve got I’d see what’s going on.”
“Besides the delimbing, the blood loss, the surgery, and the drugs?”
She chuckled. “Yes, besides that. I’ll be there for your rehab, I promise. And I’ve got to go.”
“I get that.” Mal shifted. He wasn’t restrained anymore, and the painkillers and the wrapping meant moving didn’t shoot agony up his truncated limbs or anything, but he still felt off, out of sync with himself. “When you get a chance, could you—” his vocal cords froze, took over. “—check Tiff again?”
“I’ll check everyone again. But you’re both clean, I promise. Goodnight.”
Mal didn’t say anything else—he couldn’t—and she left with a soft click of the door.
What the hell? What the hell? He swallowed, swallowed again, pushed himself up to a sitting position. Not a sound came out of his mouth, and when he tried to reach for the call button his hand stayed by his thigh.
<Don’t panic.> Inside-voice didn’t sound panicked at all.
The hell I’m not going to— Okay, two inside voices just wasn’t right. Tiff! Tiff! The words didn’t even rise to subvocalization, staying inside his skull and now his breathing was slowing, deepening, the total opposite of what his head was doing.
<I was a little worried Chakra would spot me. Would have been bad luck for you, though.>
What the hell?
<I’m a demon and you’re possessed, congratulations. I’m going to spin your head around and spew gallons of green pea soup in three, two, one— That was a joke.>
You’re in my head!
<And in the driver’s seat. Too bad you’re in no shape to be driven off the lot. Would have been so much easier. I’ll wait right here while you go through all the “This isn’t happening!” “It’s the drugs!” “I’m having a psychotic break!” stuff.>
It’s— You’re— Mal’s brain melted down, rebooted, aborted, crashed again, and finally decided to call it a day as he just sat there, occasionally trying to reach for that damn call button or yell for help. His hand never twitched, his mouth never opened. He couldn’t even feel resistance, any motion at all as he watched his vitals smooth out on the heart monitor, soothing, regular beeps. It was like his body’d become completely detached from anything going on in his head.
Eventually he ran through a set of twenty prime numbers, mentally listed what he’d had for lunch for the last week, calculated the number of ceiling tiles by length and width of the ceiling, then checked the result by laboriously counting them—freakily easy to do since he wasn’t freaking out physically. He adjusted his blankets and position. He could that, could probably do anything that didn’t draw attention.
At least not freaking physically had a plus side; no adrenalin rush fogging his head and sending him all jittery, no need to lock down the heat of his power. He’d been more wired when he woke up.
<So, you done?>
He supposed he was. Are you a psychic time-traveler? Me from the future?
<Points for imagination, young man. I most decidedly am not.>
Hey, it’s possible.
<Then your world is a good deal stranger than mine.>
What do you want?
<The same things as you, I imagine. Good coffee, at least.>
This is a hospital, the stuff here is crap. Jacky makes good coffee.
Artemis. Black bodysuit, hood, guns all over, scary beyond belief?
<Oh, yes. If she’s a fellow coffee snob I’d love to meet her. Safest not, however.>
Mal shifted his angle on the bed, letting his hand fall closer to the call button. I’d be happy to introduce you. So what do you want?
His hands folded themselves over his stomach.
<Nice abs, do you have a physical trainer? Also, naughty. No trying to attract attention.> He could swear he heard a mental sigh. <I suppose this is as good a moment as any to clarify a few things. I’m not controlling you from a distance, like a drone. I’m right in here with you. Now, the laws being what they are, just my being here in your head and taking control is felony assault, felony coercion, and kidnapping. At least it would be if I had my own body somewhere else and was considered a person. Since personhood recognition still has a lot of catching up to do, all I can expect if I’m found in your head is a fast exit at best. At worst, some Psi-Type or Merlin-Type or Verne-Type could find some way to contain and remove me and keep me indefinitely, a disembodied mind with no physical link to reality. I’d go insane very quickly. That will not happen. Which reminds me.>
His hands picked up his smartphone, unlocked it with his fingerprint, entered a phone number and a text—Megaton Northwestern—and sent. Thirty seconds later, his phone vibrated and Confirmed popped up.
<Excellent. Now, the next thing you need to understand is there are only two ways I’m exiting your brain. The easy way is voluntarily. It takes just a few minutes for me to fully decouple, as it were. Unfortunately we need to be conscious for that, and the process takes my hands off the steering wheel, so to speak. You would be in control again, creating a perilous window for me, so your cooperation is required. Lacking your cooperation, circumstances can be arranged to keep you from interfering. That could be dangerous for you or those around you.> His head turned towards Tiff. <Do you understand?>
Mal swallowed, a bolus of fear closing his throat. Yeah, I understand.
<Good. Because the hard way is much quicker, safer for me, but terminal for you.> His left hand heated, rising to cup the side of his head. <I’ve been observing your control of your power, young man, and though I’m sure I don’t understand its finer points I’m confident I can atomize your brain. Brain-death releases me quite quickly. Should you prove immune to your own power, well, then I’d be forced to get someone else to do it. There’s lots of strong capes around, but I’m fairly certain you don’t want to kill dozens of bystanders and have to be put down?>
<Excellent. And bravo for skipping the usual protestations. My least favorite is “You can’t do that!” Of course I can do that. More than good coffee, I very much want to live. Everyone else’s life is secondary to that goal, yours especially since you have a choice of outcomes in this situation. And since death has been a profitable business for me, I am quite experienced. >
I can’t let you hurt anybody.
<You can’t stop me. But you can make it unnecessary. Simply don’t create a situation I’ll have to shoot my way out of, and all will be well. I’ll be on my way in no time.>
Inside Voice went silent after that, leaving Mal to stare at the ceiling in the dimly lit hospital room. He was possessed. Shit. Shit. Just . . . shit. Back to thought-spinning, he wondered if Inside Voice was sitting there listening to him. Maybe? They’d acted like they couldn’t hear him unless he was practically subvocalizing. But— No, they hadn’t taken control until he’d been about to draw Chakra’s attention to his head. He’d gotten half of it out before they’d grabbed his vocal cords and used him like a ventriloquist’s dummy. So, probably his deeper thoughts were safe.
Could he take the chance? He looked over at Tiff. She’d rolled over on her cot, hair spilling out in a tangled golden mop. Hell no.
Tiff would be gone in the morning since Chakra’d cleared her. He could suggest she stick with her mom and little sis. That was one of the things they’d bonded over, annoying younger sisters.
But getting Tiff out of the way didn’t really change the game; there were still too many bystanders. Northwestern’s Superhuman Medicine Section was built to be modular and robust, so if he started blasting here he wouldn’t bring the whole place down—reinforced and armored inside walls would limit the damage he could do, protect a lot of people—but protecting a lot wasn’t protecting all.
He wasn’t sure which room he was in, but he knew enough of the layout to know there were at least three adjacent rooms and a hall and nurse’s station that couldn’t be locked down to isolate him.
And if Inside Voice was determined, nothing in Northwestern could contain him like a specially designed hard cell would; he could blast his way out into the larger areas. If he triggered a fight, they could take a lot of innocent people down with them.
Shit. Shit. Shit. He looked towards the foot of his bed when the door opened. I’m not going to do anything, he thought when the morning nurse came in. You drive.
They did. When the nurse saw Mal was awake, he asked about the pain and didn’t change anything when Inside Voice told him he was doing alright. The nurse made sure he knew how to adjust the dosage within the parameters the programmed into the dispenser, let him know to call if it wasn’t enough, and left. Five minutes later Tiff woke up and “Mal” let her know about Chakra’s visit, that she was cleared, and suggested she go home. Inside Voice pulled back at that—he could feel them release control. <Your turn. Nothing funny.>
Mal grabbed his girl for a kiss—the kind of PG-rating grope-and-smooch he could always lay on her in public and get a laugh. “Tell Dad I’m good. I’ll call but I know they’re not letting him back in here until all this is over and he’ll believe you more than me.”
“I will. Love my monkey.”
“Ook ook. Now git.”
“Be good.” A last quick smooch and she left. Watching the door close behind her hurt. Okay, you said you’d be on your way in “no time.” What’ve I got to do to speed that up?
<Get us out of here. Which with your injuries isn’t happening today. Not tomorrow, either. Perhaps in a week or so.>
Have experience with this sort of thing?
<Before I died, and after.>
Not even going to ask. I can guarantee that when they let me check out of here they’re taking me straight to the Dome. Round the clock monitoring, Vulcan-upgraded infirmary, perfect for recovery and rehab. If you think security’s tight here, you’re in for a treat there. Also Chakra will get back around to me once she’s not busy saving everyone else and then you’ll be busted. And that’s if she beats Dr. Mendel to it.
The team shrink. Any time one of us is hurt or hurts someone else we get head-shrunk first thing. Lots of “How are you doing, how’s this and that?” questions and she’s been asking me that stuff for the last two years. She’s good.
<. . . I see. So, you’re telling me this to demonstrate that my best window for departing undetected closes when you check out.>
Abso-freaking-lutely. So again, what have I got to do to speed that up?
<. . . I need to think about it.>
Apparently thinking hard took a while; Mal felt Inside Voice let go and accessed his smartphone to catch up on the news. It was grim as hell. He deliberately avoided the secured Dome updates and stuck to the public access stuff. He also didn’t call for Shell, but she patched in and linked him to the morning’s emergency meeting at the Dome.
That didn’t cheer him up at all.
A rabies plague. Shit. At least the declaration of an Omega Event gave him an opening—when Blackstone announced activation of the Bugout List, evacuating all capes’ families from the city, he got Tiff’s family added to the list. But the meeting ended with nothing but questions. How long until the alert would be lifted? How long would area-decontamination take? How many more people were going to die? No answers when everyone signed off. And I’m stuck here.
Was I too loud?
<You practically muttered under your breath.>
Right. So have you thought long enough?
<I won’t compromise my ride.>
Could he hear mental grumbling? He felt an impatience he was pretty sure wasn’t his.
<The text I sent earlier was to my partner. I have a . . . compatriot who is my normal ride. While I of course don’t exist as a person of record, they very much do. If my existence becomes generally known and my freedom is threatened then I can simply leave them, but we’ve been together for some years and I would consider that regrettable. So would they.>
Wait, his puppeteer had a voluntary doll? That was so wrong. How does this affect you getting out of my head?
< . . . I see I’m going to be forced to share much more than I’d like.>
Oh goody. Can we start with a name? I can’t keep thinking of you as Inside Voice.
<Why not? Call me Corvid.>
Corvid? As in ravens? Crows?
<Also rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers, yes. It’s a worthy super-villain name, I think, and since I’ve never used it before it won’t lay any breadcrumbs.>
So you’re a super-villain.
<I make a very good living creating terminal events that look like anything but paid assassinations, so yes. Are you comfortable? I suspect I have a higher pain tolerance than you, and would rather avoid a higher dosage, but we could take a little.>
Mal shifted. You could kill me with that dispenser, right?
<Quite easily. I do know how to override it.>
Then thanks, but I’ll pass. So you were sharing?
<Quite right. My breakthrough was triggered by a rather unusual trauma. I was the victim of a serial killer. As I was dying, he himself passed out via inebriation. With the death of my brain, I took his unconscious one. This was unacceptable so I killed him at the first opportunity, and of course found another ride. The process is involuntary. If I lose connection with a brain, then I’m pulled to others close by. Unfortunately, I can’t properly anchor in a conscious brain. Even a simply sleeping brain will resist complete connection, so control is difficult, a constant struggle I never win for long. Once anchored in a deeply unconscious brain, however, I’m immovable and in the pilot’s seat. My new ride’s usual driver is relegated to the copilot role.>
So you were riding someone who died in the fighting in the Loop?
<Yes. I don’t recommend death by shooting, but I bled out fairly quickly. Counting my blessings, it did complete my current job.>
<Yours was the closest unconscious mind, and that was all I knew at the time. In my in-between state all I see of the world around me is other minds and I can’t tell anything about them. I can’t be very choosy. The longer I stay in that state the more difficult it becomes to think. I rather suspect I could die that way, lacking a mind to anchor to.>
So picking me was an accident.
<Yes. Not the most convenient jump I’ve made.>
Why do I need to be conscious for you to leave?
<Because it takes concentration and I think with your brain. I can’t think with your unconscious brain any more than you can.> Mal could have sworn he heard a Shelly-like “Duh!” attached to the thought. Or at least the emotion. <And before you ask, no. You sleep and I sleep.>
So your preferred ride needs to be close? And you need my cooperation as you leave.
<Or some way of rendering you incapable of drawing attention. And of course I don’t want my ride observed.>
And here we are, surrounded by cameras and security doors.
<Indeed. Guards too, I’m sure. Ideas?>
. . . I need to think about it.
Mal got only silence and a frisson of dark amusement back. Okay, he was definitely feeling emotions that weren’t his own. Mind-body feedback? A warning to keep himself in check, anyway; if he could feel Corvid’s emotions even a little, Corvid could probably feel him at least as well.
Damn it, how did he get stuck in a hostage negotiation? Because that was really what this was. Everyone around him was an unknowing hostage, and he had to help a super-assassin escape undetected or they’d take a bunch of innocent people down with them.
Dammit, he was supposed to be out of the game.
When his nurse freshened the bandages on his stumps and took care of more embarrassing things, Corvid remarked drily that it was best to just ignore being tugged, positioned, and touched and think about something else. They recommended Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, and Mal could hear it in his head despite not remembering anything about it himself other than the opening tuh-tuh-tuh-TUH.
Fantastic. A supervillain assassin was helping him cope with body embarrassment.
“Alone” again, he lay back, aches rising from more than just his stumps. He’d hit the street hard, and his breakthrough might have made him more physically resilient, but it was still a good thing body armor and a helmet had always been part of his costume.
He wasn’t alone for long; five minutes after the nurse left, Crash stuck his head in. “Bro. Receiving visitors? Shell said you’re all nice and tidy.”
Mal waved him in. “Shell? Who else is still here?”
“Riptide and Watchman are lurking about waiting to be released,” she answered from the intercom. “Want me to tell them the party’s here?”
“Why not? Can you smuggle anything in past our wardens?”
“How’s pizza? I can free up a Galatea to do delivery.”
“Make one Hawaiian,” Crash spoke up.
“Bleah. Isn’t hospital food bad enough? Two pies, I’m on it.”
<Be very careful,> Corvid warned and Mal would have jumped if the assassin had let him.
I’m on this. I want to see something. He forced himself to relax. No good making the twitchy assassin twitchier.
Watchman and Riptide showed up before the pizza. Watchman wore sweatpants, leaving the carbon-fiber binding and brace covering his torso bare under the hospital robe. Riptide was back in his leather duster despite the bulky bandage on the side of his neck. The ex-street villain thumped Mal’s arm, the one not intubated with the drug feed. “Hey, mocoso. They giving you a souped-up chair?”
“Vulcan’s building him a new set of legs with Dance Dance Revolution software,” Shell quipped. “Don’t want our boy falling on his face at prom.”
“No way,” Mal groaned. “You’d hack it and totally Saturday Night Fever me.”
“Hey, it’d be an improvement—I’ve watched Grendel and Crash try to teach you moves and you’re the total white-boys-can’t-dance stereotype.”
Watchman ignored the byplay, turning the room TV on to Chicago News Channel to watch. The pizza arrived and was slain, their empty cardboard shells disposed of before Hope walked in on a breaking situation update.
“. . . The CDC has yet to release estimates of how many are so far known to be infected, but has assured the public that outside of the restricted zones infection by the virus can be avoided using precautions equivalent to those taken to avoid common STDs. Chicagoans who have not been contacted and who believe they may be infected are encouraged to call their local police hotline for information—”
Mal turned off the sound and dropped the remote before trying a dance joke on her. It didn’t go over well, and she had a hard time looking at him—a flinching glance at his legs, then eyes over his head. Which gave him plenty of time to check her over, and his gut clenched.
He’d only gotten a glimpse of her crumpled on the street, too busy trying to keep Big Ugly off her, but her half-mask had been knocked away, bright blood covering her face. He might have seen naked bone. He knew that Atlas-Types recovered fast, but even after two days what he could see of her injuries made him wince. When she removed her new helmet-mask to show it off to everyone bruises extending from her hairline to her jaw covered nearly half her face, the black-and-purple hematomas looking less like battle trophies than the result of a beating.
And she was going back out there still half-broke. For a rabies plague? What the hell?
Her banter with the rest of the room slid around him as she fudged the fact that she was kinda-sorta back on duty—overriding Watchman’s protests—and when she made brief eye contact with him again she looked . . . guilty? Ashamed? She slipped away before he got a chance to find out what she was thinking, and after she left the party broke up, Crash being the last to leave.
“Chin up, soldier,” Crash told him. “That’s what my mom used to say, anyway, and I’m sure Watchman here agrees. Anyway Rush says Vulcan’s prosthetics are the shit, you’ll be able to outrun everyone but me. Probably not going to raise your dance game, though.”
“As long as I can still kick your ass.” They fist-bumped and then Mal was finally alone again. Well, as alone as he was going to get.
<So, did you see what you wanted to see?>
Yup. Shell used one of the Galateas to deliver the pizza. That’s your window.
<What are you talking about?>
My turn to share. “Shell” is an AI, a fully sentient artificial intelligence. Like you she’s a legal non-person.
<. . . And?>
She’s like a goddess of the internet, a cyber-ghost, hacker supreme. If I get her to sign off on it, she can get your regular ride in here and out without anybody seeing or leaving any security footprint.
<But then she’d know.>
Yeah, but if I set it up right, she wouldn’t know know. She explained it to me once. She’s got governing privacy protocols built in that tag every “memory” she makes. She can code requested memories for deletion, selective amnesia arranged before the fact—even after the fact if I have a private conversation with her and then tell her to delete the memory.
<. . . You’re serious.>
Serious. She’s got a shit-ton of inhibiting protocols designed to keep her from seizing full control of the internet and ruling us all as The Invincible Digital Overlord. Ultimate power, tight parameters. She’s already got standing instructions to give private time between Tiff and me the memory-hole treatment.
<And how would you secure her help?>
I’ll just let her know I need to meet with somebody. Privately, untraceably. That’s all this would be, right? Your ride comes in, hangs here for what, five minutes, leaves? No monitoring, no record. So, I’ve been meaning to ask, where’s the monologue?
The monologue. I’m a cape. You’re a villain. I’m at your mercy, bwa ha ha. Why aren’t you spilling the dirty deets, gloating about how evil you are and how you’ll never be caught?
<Because I’m not an absolute idiot. My existence isn’t a complete secret, so I don’t need to kill you, but why should I tell you anything for you to blab later?>
Yeah, in the movies that never made much sense to me. Lazy writing, I guess. Anyway, that’s my offer. It’s the only thing I can think of, and it’s got to be soon. Before things return to “normal” around here. No pressure.
<. . . I’ll consider it. While I’ve become fairly cavalier about death, some things do remain distasteful. I’ve found that it’s not what you do, or why you do it, but who you do it to that really matters.>
Shell never let him be alone for very long. Doctors would leave and she’d give him some time before popping in virtually on the TV or his pad, chatting through the hospital intercom system, even dropping by a few times in a Galatea shell. She was with him when someone attacked the CDC base to wipe out the rabies-vaccine stockpile, fed him the Dispatch updates as it happened. And she told him when Rush died.
“Easy! Easy! Do you need—”
“No,” Mal ground out. The pain medication he was on was doing shit for his emotional control and sick, blood-boiling rage twisted his gut, burning under his skin as he breathed and held it in. It helped that nobody was in the room with him; if he lost it completely all he’d do is scorch the walls and fry a paycheck’s worth of medical equipment.
A stinking virus. Only Shell’s reassurance that Crash looked like he was going to make it let Mal hold it in.
“Shell. Privacy?” I am the fire. I am the fire. I am the fire.
“Okay. . .” Even over the com she sounded dubious. “Call if you need anything.”
“Thanks.” I am the fire. I am the fire. I am the fire.
<What are you muttering?>
I am the fire. I am the fire. “A mantra. Shut up.”
I am the fire. The heat and pressure eased, flowing away to wherever it came from. I am the fire. “Chakra taught me to do it, active meditation and biofeedback.”
<And does this happen often?>
“Not anymore. I don’t get that angry, I can feel it coming and ground myself, cool off.”
<Never have children.>
<Never mind. And nobody’s come to see why you almost lit the bed on fire?>
“I asked Shell for privacy.”
Mal fingered his heated sheets, drier-hot and almost uncomfortable. “So she’s monitoring the room on autopilot. This is the listen-but-don’t-hear I told you about. You think she wouldn’t be back in here in a second if she heard me talking to myself like this? If she wants to come back, she’ll clear her throat or something, get my permission.” He shut up and let Corvid chew on that for a minute. “She doesn’t have complete control like this at the Dome. Security’s on a government system over there, it’s got redundancies.”
< . . . Alright. What do you need to do?>
“Just trust me. You want out, I want you out, let me talk and blow us up if you feel like it after. Please?”
I am the fire. I am the fire. He didn’t say it under his breath this time, just let the words flow. I am the fire. “Shell?”
He’d known she’d answer, but he still relaxed minutely. “Got a request. I need to have a private conversation with someone. Soon? And I mean private. I need you to get them in here to see me and back out with nobody knowing about it. Nobody. Soon.”
“Easy.” No pause at all, but then she could think a million times faster than anybody when she wanted to. “There’s just five security cameras and three access doors between you and outside. I need to clear two guard points but that’s doable. I can just substitute two Galateas for the hospital’s own security and keep them on autopilot. Why?”
“I can’t tell you. Just, lives are at stake.”
“Lives are at stake. And you discovered that from your bed? Is it about Rush?”
She threw in a bit of delay this time, probably to make him sweat after she reviewed every nano-second of security recordings, texts, and any other bit of non-private digital data from his stay so far. He knew it’s what he’d do.
“Okay,” she said after what felt like forever. “But if you’re not going to give me anything else then the privacy window’s going to have a safety lock. I trust you, but I’d be stupid to blindly trust whoever you’re meeting.”
“So, what’s the lock?”
“All security data gets stored under privacy until the window closes. If everything’s not one hundred percent okeydokey and hunky dory when I look back in after your guest is gone then I read everything and respond as necessary approximately one picosecond later. But if everything’s okay when I look in then nobody, not you, not God himself will be able to recover anything from the window.”
The band around Mal’s chest loosened. “I think that’ll work. Set it up as soon as you can, thanks.”
“No worries, pretty boy. I gotta keep you around for Tiff. Later.”
“And the later means we’re alone again.” He felt like a well-boiled noodle, utterly limp.
“That’s it. She’ll arrange a way for your ride to walk in, let us know how to coordinate it. And you can go.” He almost held his breath, trying to feel what Corvid was thinking. Nothing.
<And now I’m going to ask why you’re not trying to stop me? You’re the hero, after all.>
“Yeah, well, I’m not a stupid hero.”
<Heh. Fair enough.>
Even with the ongoing escalation of prospective disaster, time crawled since Mal couldn’t do a damn thing about anything. The teleconferences just pounded the crisis in, and then he and Shell laughed like crazy people over the Oz Solution. Corvid provided a profanely scatological commentary on the insanity of saving thousands of people by turning them into objets d’art and express shipping them to fairyland, but what did an assassin know?
But the wake was excruciating. And scared Mal shitless.
“Nice bed,” Jamal said.
<Remember I’m here.>
It wasn’t like he could forget. “Vulcan called it a preview.” Their resident Verne-type had whipped up a “bed” that was more like a reclining brace on wheels. Balanced on three small but broad motorized wheels, it snuggly gripped his legs and provided a shield in front so nobody could hit his stumps. In the up position it acted like a harness that almost had him standing, in the down position it felt like a luxurious pool recliner. And of course it came with all the monitors or Northwestern never would have let him come back to the Dome for the wake. “How are you doing?” He hadn’t seen Jamal since they’d all heard, and the kid’s normally coffee skin looked starkly gray against his tight cornrows.
“Chakra says I’m clean of the virus. I’m—shit.” Mal watched him flicker, grabbing seconds or minutes of hypertime to calm down in.
“Yeah,” he said when the kid was still again. “I get that.”
“He stopped me.” Jamal looked around the room, eyes sliding away from the video wall showing Rush’s greatest hits, good, bad, and hilarious. “We were working our asses off, burning time like there wasn’t going to be a tomorrow and he made me take breaks, drop behind him while he—he got ahead of me. Chakra figures I was more than half a day behind him when he . . . when he showed symptoms.” He flickered again and there was a cup in his hands. “Chakra told me—she said Rush knew he was done, made her save her strength to pull me back.”
“He had nothing to do with it.” He flickered again and the cup was empty.
Chakra looked their way as Shell recited poetry and Mal felt dipped in ice. She couldn’t read his chakra’s clearly from across the room, could she? She looked worse than Jamal, and Mal was grateful as a nightmare vision flashed behind his eyes, of her scanning him and just having time to realize something was wrong before Corvid blasted her to ash with his power.
It wouldn’t be just her—everyone but Variforce was there, other than Ozma and Grendel off in Oz. Astra sat talking with Blackstone and Riptide, and Watchman and The Harlequin were back to trading stories. Kindrake and Artemis brooded separately, looking dark and goth and ignoring how much they parodied each other while Vulcan stared into space and Chakra watched everybody. Corvid could take out half the team in one blast. “—Death is certain but its timing is iffy.”
Mal swallowed. “Just something Rush said once. It was a joke. Dude, stop stealing time. How far off-cycle are you now?”
Elbows on knees, Jamal rubbed his face. “It’s after midnight for me.”
“Then let’s get out of here. Look, Hope’s leaving.” Their fearless leader, still looking like shit, said something to her table and exited with a nod to the two of them. She’d made the rounds of everybody when the “party” started but had wilted pretty fast. “Shell?”
“She’ll be fine. How are you doing?”
“I’m not, but no more drugs. I’m going to tuck our boy here away and get back to Northwestern.” He looked around one more time. Rush should have gotten more than this, a room full of wounded, exhausted friends waiting for the next hit to come. When it’s over. If it ends. He snorted. And could I be more pessimistic?
His stumps ached.
“But can you keep up with me?” Jamal snarked, but he put his refilled cup down. Mal flipped the switch and went full-upright, leaving him taller than his drooping friend.
“I can if you don’t cheat. C’mon.”
The chair’s motors whined softly, softer than Jamal’s footsteps on the hall carpets. They stopped at his door and the speedster didn’t open it.
“It’s not fair.”
“I’ll never say it is. Get some sleep, shit’s still happening.”
When the door slid closed Mal turned his “robo-bed” around, back the way they came and to the elevators. The right one opened with a ding and he found himself sharing it with Shell’s social-face Galatea. The freckled redhead gynoid shell looked fresher than anyone at the party had. “Here to take me back?”
“A Bob could do it, but it’s as easy for me.”
“Awesome, ‘cause we have business. Privacy?”
She nodded. “Your visitor?” The elevator stopped but the doors didn’t open.
“Yup. It needs to happen tonight. I’ll be back here in a couple of days. It might be easier for you to do from here, but I don’t think they trust me enough to walk into the Dome.”
Shell smirked. “Yeah . . . I can see that.” She fished in a pocket and pulled out a cellphone and handed it to him. “I’ve got this. It’s loaded with a schematic of Northwestern. Whoever’s coming can unlock it with a swipe. They’ll see the floorplan and an icon for their position, another showing them where they have to be each step of the way, a bunch of blips showing the movements of everyone around them in realtime, and a countdown. I’ve got the security system sewn up, the doors will unlock ahead of them without alerting Northwestern’s security center. They’re stretched real thin—I only had to swap in one Galatea.”
He looked at the phone, passed it back. “A real Marauder’s Map. How do they get it?”
“I’m going to leave it under an outside bench in Smoking Corner. It’s accessible from the street, in a security-camera blind spot. You tell your friend where it is—I hope you have their cell number. They can just drop it in the trash when they leave, it’s going to brick itself when the window of opportunity closes anyway. There’s one thing. If they deviate even a little from the laid-out path, I’m alerted. Best I can do, I’m not going to trust your friend with the safety of the whole hospital. Take it or leave it.”
“We’ll take it.”
“Good. It’s linked to your cell, too, so you’ll know when they’re on their way.” With a ding the doors opened and she escorted him past the armored Bobs.
The ride back was quiet, Shell letting him rest with only a few pokes on how he was doing. He texted the number Corvid had given him with Shell’s instructions and timetable, and then used his cell to write messages for his own eyes.
Will that do?
< . . . Send this to the number I gave you. Seven.>
Mal sent it and looked at the “3” that came back.
<Good. Send ‘four.’>
“Y” came back.
Awesome. What was that?
<The seven-three-four was a secret handshake. I send a number, they reply with the number needed to take it to ten, and then I reply with the number left if their number was subtracted from my first number. So they know it’s me and the “Y” was confirmation that they could do it.>
Just me knowing the number to text to wasn’t enough?
<If I’d sent a different reply they’d have known I was under duress or just telling them to get the hell out of town.>
“So who are you texting?” Shell asked from the front seat.
“Tiff. She sends her love.” He hit her number and did just that. She sent her love.
When his screen lit up Mal felt a real strong urge to pray. Hope did it all the time—it couldn’t hurt. “They’re on their way,” he said needlessly. It was completely needless; Shell hadn’t told him his phone would show the same Marauder’s Map as the dropped cell, and Corvid took over to hold their little window on the op in his hands.
Mal couldn’t even turn his head; with nobody left to fool, Corvid had given up all pretense that he wasn’t his meat-puppet.
<It looks like she’s done it. We’ll see.>
It was after eleven, and Shell had dropped her cell before ten. Corvid hadn’t done anything about it, let Mal sweat until finally sending off a single word of text: go.
The ride’s icon crept closer, past the first door and down a service hallway. <Remember. You’re going to have control as I extract myself. You’ll feel it with a tingling, you’ll probably twitch a bit, and then you’re in the pilot’s chair again.>
“And you’ll be out.”
<It’ll take a couple more minutes. I’ve planned for that.>
<I don’t trust you to not be a damned hero. So my ride is going to take your phone away and strap you down first. Brought a nice ball gag and everything for the transition—when your friend looks in on you, she’ll find you nice and healthy and not going anywhere. Oh, and my ride’s leaving behind enough wired C-4 to blow up this whole wing. It’ll be triggered if there’s any interference or pursuit, they’ll probably think it was you until they do a chemical analysis.>
“That wasn’t the deal!”
<The deal’s the same if your A.I.-friend doesn’t get cute. You live, everybody lives. You have my word. Heh. Don’t heat up now, you’re in the home stretch.>
I am the fire. I am the fire. I am the fire.
<That’s it. Nice and calm.>
The icon crept closer, past the second door as Mal wondered which of the blips was Shell/Galatea, willing all of them to stay away from Corvid’s ride.
His door opened and Corvid set down the cell. “Took you long enough.”
“I stopped for dinner and a drink. You weren’t going anywhere.” The voice was tinny, computer modulated. The figure in the door wore a thick padded coat and pants that hid their form, made completely anonymous by a full-face helmet with reflecting visor. He, or she, put down their heavy backpack and stepped up to the bed with—sure enough—a bag full of cuffs and straps.
Mal would have sighed if he could. Corvid chuckled, holding his hands up, and a minute later Mal lay cuffed at his wrists and arms, straps pulling his upper arms toward each side of the bed so that he wouldn’t be able sit up. Corvid wet his lips and opened his mouth for the ball gag.
I am the fire. I am the fire.
Corvid’s ride had done it all wordlessly, and now Mal felt it, a growing feeling of connection, like everything he’d felt before had been filtered and at a distance he hadn’t realized was there. And his body hadn’t been fully responding to his emotions since he’d first woke up in the hospital.
I. Am. The. Fire!
He locked his eyes on the Backpack of Doom and fought his heat down, inward, away, counting the percussive beat of his heart in his chest.
“All done, boy.” Mal’s gaze snapped to Corvid’s faceless face. They stood different, though he couldn’t have said how. “Got to admit, I wasn’t sure this would work.” Confident hands reached around his head and removed the ball gag. “Wouldn’t want you friend freaking because you can’t talk to her when she looks in. Be a good boy and warn her about the C-4. It’s not trapped, only one way to detonate and I’ve got it.”
They left Mal’s cell on the bed by his hip, easing the door shut behind them.
Mal licked his lips and cleared his throat. His throat. “Shell.”
She replied before his tongue had moved off the –ell. “Well that’s premature. Your guest is still in the building.”
“Leave them alone, get here now. Run.” His eyes were back on the backpack. “There’s a bomb. Remote trigger. You need to get it to the strongest containment room in the wing.”
Seconds later Shell threw the door open and grabbed the pack without even looking at Mal and was gone, leaving him alone to stare at his phone. Corvid’s blip passed the last door, moving fast, and disappeared from the screen.
He watched the countdown. Three minutes later, the image blanked. A minute after that a text-message appeared.
Well done. There are more bombs. Don’t get cute.
Shell stepped back into the room, her face completely blank. “I dropped it down Emergency Disposal, if it blows it’s down thirty feet of armored shaft.” She stepped up and started unstrapping him. “Talk to me.”
Mal didn’t stop for half an hour, words felt so good.
“Right,” Shell said when he finished. “Be quiet now.” She sat down and shut down.
Mal woke up. Shell was moving again and watching him. “You know,” she said, “after this you’re going to need all the therapy.”
He knuckled the sleep out of his eyes. “What time is it?”
“Four hours later. I’ve been a busy little bee.”
“I’m going to use a couple of Galateas to kick me in my own ass.” She laughed. “I should have seen something was wrong.”
“I’m glad you didn’t. It could have ended real bad.”
“There’s that. And they haven’t gotten away.”
“You actually caught them?”
“No.” She stood and stretched. “I found them. That part was easy. I didn’t lie to you about the setup, but there’s plenty of CPD street cameras out there. I also smeared the cellphone with a tracking agent—completely odorless but a chemical signature a Galatea can track like a bloodhound and that got on her hands. I got pics of her out of her helmet. Single white female, age around thirty, facial recognition said Corvid’s ride is Stephanie Tiller. Multiple prostitution arrests and hospital admissions that ended eight years ago. She’s from out of town but staying at a local hotel and I’ve got her current alias. And now the DSA has eyes on her. They’re tracking her credit cards, backtracking her paper-trail, all that stuff. Give them a day and they’ll know everywhere she’s been in the past half-decade.”
“And then what?”
“Then they send the telepaths in and lock Corvid down right where she is.”
“Yeah. I didn’t have much to go on, but despite what TV would have you think serial killers really aren’t that common. I looked in all the police and FBI databases and found one that died eight years ago.” She smirked. “The feds hadn’t been able to catch him, only closed the case because he ‘committed suicide’ and they found his last victim, Alice Spengler, a sixty-eight year old divorcee, in the apartment with his body. Guess who he lived right above?”
Mal dropped his head back on the pillow. “Stephanie Tillman.”
“Yup. From her hospital record she was a regular alcohol and drug user back then. My guess? She was passed out in her apartment when Alice died for the second time upstairs.”
“And she became her willing ride? Just like that?”
“Probably not ‘just like that.’ But she couldn’t push her out. Alice looks like she was a real piece of work herself. Her ex-husband and kids had cut all contact with her decades ago, the state handled the cremation because nobody wanted to claim responsibility. But she got Stephanie off the drugs and out of the life, and their current occupation requires Steph’s active cooperation so. . .
“So . . . what?”
Shell ruffled his hair, laughing. “So you caught, well, caused to be caught, a known but unidentified supervillain assassin. The government telepaths are probably going to lock Corvid down inside Steph’s head—standard protocol for voluntary possessions—and then try them both for multiple murders.”
When Mal swatted her hand away she gave him a look. “You feel sorry for them. Don’t you.”
“Not— Okay, a little. Sound like neither of them had a good deal to start with.”
“You forget Alice wasn’t starting her life. She was finishing when she was horribly killed. I can’t say she’d had a good life, but she’s the one who alienated her whole family. Nobody deserves to die like she did, but she had a successful career she retired from, good skills. She could have gotten Stephany clean and gotten her through school or through licensing and gone on as she had before. A comfortable if middle-class life. They could have met someone, I don’t know. Alice had a second life and she decided being an assassin was a fantastic career move. And Steph went along with her. Maybe not in the beginning, but eventually. The mind-guys will sort that out.”
“They did keep their end of our deal.”
“They had to make a deal. If you’d been anywhere else Corvid could have ‘suicided’ and had her ride close by and ready to go—here you’re in the middle of the hospital with the highest security in the country, Stephanie couldn’t get close without your help. If Corvid had just taken her chances, she was surrounded by patients constantly in and out of drug-induced unconsciousness if not comas, and she knew it. She could easily have been drawn to possess someone less capable of rational thought than you and been stuck. They needed the deal, and we sewed it up tight.”
She scowled thoughtfully. “Maybe they’ll cut Steph a deal, but probably not—she did leave a bomb in a hospital. But you get some sleep, I’ve booked Doctor Mendell to come head-shrink you after the Sun comes up. Also, I’m taking this shell home to recharge.” She turned away, turned back. “Oh! Before you see it on the news in the morning, Brussels got hit an hour ago. Hope took us there, but don’t worry, everyone’s fine. Night!”
She closed the door on Mal’s shout and he scrambled for his cell, swiped it and stared at it bleary-eyed. When it didn’t come into focus, he dropped it. What. The. Hell? Dammit!
Not a flicker of heat lit his bones.
He closed his eyes.