The Gathering Storm, Part 26

Posted: 30th March 2012 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in The Gathering Storm series
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The road stretched before Query, but he traveled it slowly.

If there’s a metaphor in there, I’ll just go ahead and ignore it, he thought. Too many people attach too much meaning to roads. Road trips as spiritual journeys. Intersections as allegories for life-changing decisions.

This road was simply a tool. A means to an end—getting to where Janus’ people were.

On his way to the location of Janus’ forest safe-house, Query began checking for messages from heroes and vigilantes he’d contacted before reaching Zoe and taking out Janus’ men—people who either owed him favors or could sometimes be cajoled to join him in a big fight.

Buttress had left a text response around the time Query had caught up with Zoe and Mad Dash—which Query hadn’t seen since he’d been a bit busy setting up to ambush Janus’ team—saying he’d be over as soon as possible and another one a few minutes ago saying he was now at the entrance to Grace Memorial Highway. Query sent him a button for the QuikLynx page he had created with directions to guide allies to the rendezvous point and a simple message reading: Thanks.

Feral, who was usually up for a fight of any kind, had minutes earlier sent a text that he was already a few miles up the old highway, since he figured there weren’t any places to hide a hideout anyway before that point. Query sent him the same link as Buttress, along with the message: Appreciate it; try to keep body count low.

Peregrine had messaged him that she was on the roof of the Dresden Building waiting on his signal, and should be able to glide all the way to his location. So he sent her directions, too, and the message: Consider me paid in full when we’re done.

Greenguard—at least that’s who he would be tonight; Query had long ago figured out the man had two other costumed identities called Knockout and Hardcase—had left a message that there was no way he could make it there in time to be of any help, as had Morning Glory and Python.

Morning Glory isn’t much good in a direct fight anyway, Query thought, but his Luminar powers could have been good for backing us up. Python’s probably too busy admiring his abs or posing for the paparazzi, but I’ll miss his sheer muscle in this, and that goes double for Greenguard.

High Impact hadn’t responded at all and Query hadn’t expected him to, loner and general misanthrope that he was. Solstice hadn’t responded either, but Query knew she was still trying to tie up loose ends on her Marty the Hun situation.

He found himself wishing he’d had more time during the ongoing Janus/Zoe situation to contact Coldraven and Good War to let them know he’d discovered their identities. He didn’t have any sympathy for Coldraven, who occupied the gray areas way too often and might actually be a little dirty, so blackmailing her into helping would have been useful. He had no intentions of blackmailing Good War, but now that he knew his identity, contacting him would be easier so that Query could ask how best to reach him in costumed mode and not as a civilian.

Finally, Query reached the rendezvous point, knowing he probably wouldn’t have any company at all for at least six minutes and wouldn’t have everyone together for 15 or 20 minutes. As he hurriedly switched from his sniper-friendly attire to a riot-style outfit, that thought gave him pause, since there was a good chance anyone at the safe-house already would be alerted to his impending arrival and preparing for that. The only question was whether Janus would tell them to sit tight in the hopes they would kill Query, have them bug out and take as much with them as they could, or torch the entire place.

The first option, given Janus’ attitude and approach thus far, seemed most likely. There was only one practical way out of the area in which the safe-house was located, and Query was close enough to that road now to pick off anyone who tried to flee with potential evidence. Given the likely timing of them knowing things had gone to shit, Janus telling them to evacuate when the road was probably being watched didn’t strike Query as a likely option. However, if Janus thought the safe-house might have any incriminating evidence in it, the place might end up rigged to blow or might already be burning, with a strike team in the woods waiting for Query’s arrival.

One way to find out, he thought, and decided to override the navigational controls for Pidwidgeon—which had been circling Janus’ place in the woods for several minutes—to remotely land him here, then hide him away somewhere for later retrieval, since Query didn’t have the van with him anymore.

Shit planning on my part to have sent Dash and Zoe off with the van so they could cart away the prisoners. Would have been better to leave the thugs in the woods for a while. I’ve burned too much of Pidwidgeon’s fuel already to feel 100 percent confident about letting him go home on autopilot anyway, and this sedan I’ve commandeered is stuffed with gear I needed from the van, so the drone will never fit in there.

Then Query paused in his thoughts. OK, Screw the regret, he chastised himself. I’m going to look on the bright side. I’d rather download Pidwidgeon’s data directly in this case rather than by wireless, anyway, just in case Janus’ men at the safe-house are both more talented and more well-equipped than I think they are.

* * *

Jack Hansen was rarely a man to be left speechless. Quietly snarky and sarcastic, perhaps, but not speechless.

But rarely did anyone expect the president of the United States to show up unannounced in their place of work, even if that place of work was a black-budget government operation. Especially well into the evening hours—though it was a common thing for Dr. Hansen to work late.

I wonder if I should be worried that the president knows my work habits that well and we’ve never met.

“Dr. Hansen,” President Barack Obama said solemnly, holding out his hand to shake but with little cordiality in his expression.

“Mr. President,” Dr. Hansen said, shaking the president’s hand and looking back and forth behind the chief executive of the United States.

“I’ve left my Secret Service detail elsewhere, doctor,” the president said as their hands disengaged, noting his confusion. “That’s not the easiest thing to make happen, but you and I need to speak privately.”

Dr. Hanson nodded and led the president to his office. “What can I do for you?” he asked when they were behind the closed door.

“You can tell me personally what you’re doing here and what I should know about that General Alexander won’t want me to know. More importantly, you can start by answering one simple question: Is this where Doctor Holiday was created?” the president asked.

“No, sir. There’s no connection…”

“…let me try this one more time, doctor,” President Obama said, cutting him off. “Think of this as a baseball game and remember what happens if you get to strike three. Did the Genesis One lab create Doctor Holiday?”

Dr. Hansen paused, stunned as surely as a deer caught in headlights. There was something in the president’s tone that clearly spoke of awareness of the deception, and all Dr. Hansen could think of was, Who’s the leak? and What’s going to happen to me? Finally, the head of Genesis One sighed and said, “Yes.”


“First, Mr. President, I am begging you not to tell the general. He was only trying to protect your plausible deniability and if he knows I’ve snatched that away…”

“…I’ll deal with the general soon enough,” the president interrupted, then repeated: “Why?”

“We didn’t create him intentionally—not the twisted way he turned out, that is. The goal was completely laudable; the results were unexpected. When he escaped—well, we had assumed he’d have been neutralized long before now. The scope of his powers are far beyond what we expected. You see, what…”

“…No, doctor. I don’t have time for details. I’ll get those from the general, unless he wants to lose his job, his commission and his freedom. I want a simple answer to my next question, and this time you only get one chance to answer it honestly. Are we going to end up with another Doctor Holiday?”

“No, sir,” Dr. Hansen said. “Well, vanishingly improbable, anyway. There were specific characteristics of that subject that even made the experiment possible. To attempt it on anyone else—including the effort it would take to find someone suitable and do so secretly—would cost an amount of money we’d never be able to lay hands on.”

“I have serious reservations about this program, doctor, and about the selection and retention process for the subjects.” There was a hard edge to the president’s voice now, a tone that was vaguely menacing. “I’m trying to quit smoking, not have new reasons to do more of it.”

“Mr. President, all of the subjects are either voluntary or had no right of refusal to begin with,” Dr. Hansen hurriedly explained. “This is an ultra-secret facility but nothing we do here crosses the lines of any existing national security policies.”

“What about ethical lines, doctor?”

“Ordering targeted assassinations or unseating regimes crosses ethical lines,” Dr. Hansen pointed out a bit defensively, “but those have been done before and I’d wager the same or similar things have been done at your command. Sir, this facility is not about turning people into monsters or using them as disposable guinea pigs. Our efforts are often harsh and unpleasant, but focused. We’re trying to stay ahead of nations like China, sir, or at least not fall so far behind them that we end up as potential victims of potentially hostile powers with armies of transhumans.”

“I’m going to tell you something, doctor, so that there is no confusion from here on out, and so that we don’t have any miscommunication,” the president said. “Don’t ever lie to me. That one time tonight is the last time. Lie again, and you’re through—and I don’t just mean you’ll be out of a job. I am going to keep tabs on Genesis One and will be contacting you frequently, in person. If you lie to me, I will know.”

“You’re…transhuman yourself…aren’t you, sir?” Dr. Hansen asked hesitantly.

“If you even suggest to anyone—if you even talk out loud to yourself about it, whisper it into the ear of a dog or discuss it with a vase of flowers—that I am transhuman, you and Jimmy Hoffa will suddenly have a lot in common,” the president said. “My own wife doesn’t know, and the only reason I’m telling you is because of what you do here. I need you to know how personally I will take any indiscretion committed here. But yes, I can tell when people lie. I got to the Oval Office on skill, but remember when I made my first appearance on the national stage—me, a relative political unknown giving the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention? I got the chance to give that speech thanks to a lie I caught the convention chairman in months earlier.”

For a minute or so, they sat in silence. Finally, Dr. Hansen cleared his throat. “Mr. President, if you can tell when people are lying, why do you keep making deals with the Republicans in Congress when they insist they are willing to work with you?”

For the first time, the president cracked a smile, following by a low chuckle. “Because believe it or not, most of them think they’re being honest when they say they’re reasonable and want to work with my party,” he answered. “That’s just how out-of-touch crazy they are since I got elected. I don’t know what’s worse in this country these days: messed-up racial attitudes or mistrust of transhumans. But I know which one is giving me most of my gray hairs and aging me way too fast in this job.”

* * *

Peregrine touched ground, as sleek and graceful as her namesake animal. She’d skipped the full-head hawk mask tonight and instead her eyes and forehead were done up in an elaborate feather pattern with makeup while a dark brown ninja-like mask covered most of the lower portion of her face and the sides of her head. As she came to a stop and approached, Query said, “That’s all of us. Gather ‘round.”

“Good turnout,” Feral commented, adjusting his fur mask and scratching one sweaty, bared pectoral—Query was pretty sure the man had run most of the way here since he hadn’t arrived in a car or on a motorcycle as Buttress had; chances were the man was exploring his wild side in the woods and that’s why he was so close and ready for action when Query contacted him. “Hard to get this many of us to show up in one place.”

“I think we’ve all gotten a sense of how dangerous letting Janus go unchecked in our city will be,” said Buttress, wearing the full-head brown leather mask that was his staple, but a light, brown canvas coat over his flak vest rather than his usual leather one in deference to the early-summer weather. “Surprised there aren’t a few more.”

“Well, it remains to see how smoothly we’ll work together,” Query noted, considering what it said about transhuman psychology that four of them working together could be considered a sizable group. “But I give credit for the good turnout to my charming personality and winning attitude.”

Buttress was helping Peregrine get her glider wings folded and retracted into the pack she wore, and Query noted silently how the squat, muscular man seemed to know exactly how the glider system worked. Certainly, it would save time compared to Peregrine taking the unit off her back to do it herself, but mostly Query filed the observation away as another bit of evidence that Buttress and Peregrine were probably spending a lot of time together, and not just patrolling. He’d long suspected they’d casually hooked up shortly after Peregrine and Asclepius broke up—now he suspected they were a full-fledged couple, even if they weren’t obvious about it.

They’d almost have to be for Buttress to know those wings so well, since she’s only had them for a little over six months, he considered. Designed by Boeing aerospace engineers with assistance from Julian Gregori for the aesthetic and comfort side of the equation. United Airlines had picked up most of the bill on five of those babies for Peregrine in return for a three-year deal under which she would endorse their airline, do some celebrity spokesperson touring and do several commercials for them. For Boeing, it might mean some good military money coming in soon, since they had retained marketing and commercialization rights as their payoff for doing the work, and the wings seemed to be working splendidly for getting Peregrine around town by air, with some impressive glide times and maneuverability.

Of course, they won’t be of any use for what he and his short-term team gathered here would need to do, Query considered, and they might even end up as adornment for her corpse if he wasn’t careful.

“We have any intel on these guys, Query?” Feral prodded. “What’s the backstory? What’s the problem?”

“Can’t be 100-percent certain about numbers, but I think there are between eight and ten armed men in a few cabins down the road here,” he answered. “Janus was trying to abduct a transhuman civilian; I’ve been protecting her. He snatched her, I sent Mad Dash to intercept, she busted loose and killed her kidnappers before he got there and then Dash and I took down the team of seven that came looking for their little lost pair. Right now, Dash is keeping her safe and transporting the captured crew to a proper destination.”

“You had seven prisoners and…”

“…I had five. I killed two before I warmed to the idea of merciful justice.”

“OK, five prisoners and you aren’t sure how many more we’re facing? You’ve lost your interrogation touch, Query,” Feral taunted.

“My ‘client’ put the kibosh on me using more coercive tactics, but she did convince them to give up the location of their hideout. However, when I was loading folks in the van I did manage to whisper a few sweet-nothings to one of them and bend back a finger and jab a few select nerve bundles with just the right finesse for him to tell me there were ‘at least four or five’ guys at their safe-house. What my client doesn’t know won’t hurt her—and it wasn’t technically torture.”

“So where do you get the ‘eight to ten’ estimate?” Buttress asked.

“Partly from my experience with human nature. The guy wanted me dead so of course he’d lowball the number a bit, knowing he’d be far from me by the time I found out otherwise,” Query noted. “Also, I had a drone circling above them for a bit and there were six people outside working to lay mimetic explosive devices at the two most direct approaches we could take for an assault, and I saw movement at two windows—probably lookouts with rifles. Figured there could be two more who are just not moving much. There are only a few modest-sized cabins there and a couple storage sheds, and since they sent seven guys to find their missing folks and originally planned to bring a prisoner and two more people in for a little while, which would have made maybe 20 people staying there…well, even Janus doesn’t give his people the sardine treatment.”

“So, what’s the plan?” Buttress asked.

“Feral approaches one set of explosives while Buttress approaches the other, and I sneak in to gas and flash-bomb their asses a bit, Peregrine comes in low, fast and quiet from the rear, then we rush them old-school style,” Query said.

“What if we step on the explosives and ‘go boom’ while you’re skulking?” Buttress countered, and Query saw Peregrine wince at that image, confirming his suspicions about them.

“Follow my directions, and you won’t—I’ll place some fluorescent markers on the ground about 15 yards from the MEDs before I go in, so that you’ll know when to slow down and get ready for an end-around run when the shit hits the fan. I should be able to keep them dazed and confused long enough for your extra travel time not to be a problem.”

“What if they shoot us with their rifles when they see us coming toward the explosives?” Feral asked.

“Would you bother to use MEDs so that they’re perfectly camouflaged for folks to trip over and die without you needing to aim and then wreck it all by taking a chance you’ll miss with bullets and warn them off?” Query asked.

“Actually, I’d probably drop from the trees and rip their throats out, but that’s just me,” Feral said.

“Keep all the throats intact if possible, please,” Query said. “I’m trying to keep my body count down.”

“It would be my body count and you can just deny involvement later,” Feral noted. “I’m ready. Let’s go already and kick ass.”

“Wait,” Peregrine said. “I have some thoughts.”

“If they involve you stripping down naked and going in with your wings all out like a Victoria’s Secret angel and a pizza in your hand to distract them at the door, I’m all for it,” Feral said.

Query saw Buttress twitch at that, and one set of fingers curl into a fist—then his shoulders tensing as if to charge. Query straightened up, lifted his head up fully and fixed his gaze at a point between Feral and Buttress so that neither one would feel targeted but both might wonder if Query’s words were meant for him alone. “This is not the time or place for that bullshit. Don’t put me in a position to fight allies when I have real enemies to deal with. Peregrine, what’s on your mind?”

“Do you have video from your drone you can show me?” she asked.

“Sure do. On my iPad in the car.”

“Show and tell, then,” she said, a sort of sassy smugness creeping into her voice. “You show me, and I tell my idea.”

* * *

Trust me, Peregrine had said.

But for Query, trust was hard—particularly trusting that some else’s plan might be better than his own. Or, rather, her adjustments to his plan.

Still, he moved in stealthily as Buttress and Feral inched closer to the explosives that would have been damned hard to locate even with flashlights, given that they were designed to take on the color of the ground around them.

He waited.

He waited some more, maybe a minute past the appointed time, and started to get that itchy feeling. Anxious and ready to strike. Worried that he’d misplaced his trust.

Worried that the extra 15 minutes they’d tacked on to his plan already to do it Peregrine’s way might lead to more trouble rather than put them in a better tactical position and cause their enemies to grow complacent.

Then he saw her, and the poetic part of Query’s mind wanted to write lyrics to describe the sight.

He’d never have imagined that jumping off the very low hill near the cabins would have been enough altitude to pull off this maneuver, but she descended raptor-like from above, the white accents of the mostly black and blue-gray feather patterns on her glider wings reflecting the moonlight, and then angled her body almost sinuously as she veered toward the roof of one cabin, dropping a pair of tear-gas grenades perfectly down the chimney.

Then her feet just barely touched the roof, and with a few tiny running steps and one big push at the edge of the cabin, she was up in the air again, going up and then diving downward to swoop past the front windows of another cabin and toss in three flashbang grenades Query had given her.

She had a fourth flashbang but held tight to that as she touched ground, shed her wings while running, and tossed it into the third cabin, rolling for cover as she did.

There’s no way—no matter how good those glider wings are—that she should have been able to pull that off, he considered. That she’s an Acro is no secret, and I’ve long suspected she’s a Primal as well, but her gliding prowess suggests to me she’s an Eco, too. Able to manipulate air currents, perhaps? Slightly reduce the pull of gravity on her? Both?

The lightshow from the flashbangs was the signal for Feral and Buttress to move in. Query did his part, heading straight for the cabin where noxious fumes were wafting from the windows—the cabin farthest back of all them. He approached warily from one corner of the structure, did a quick check through one slightly open window from an angle, and then smashed the panes in with the butt of his shotgun, immediately turning it, aiming through the window, and firing at the one man who was standing and seemed most unfazed by the tear gas.

The shell burst open to release a tight cloud of rubber-covered metal shot that was meant to have much the same non-lethal impact as rock salt from a shotgun, but with more punch. The man stumbled backwards, unbalanced but—as Query noted—also wearing a vest, so likely not stunned. However, as he tripped over his own feet, he fell back against the mantle of the tear-gas-exuding fireplace that had taken down his partners, and went down as his skull cracked loudly against the heavy wooden surface.

Query ducked under the window, came upright on the other side of it, and kicked in the door.

Or tried to, anyway. The doorjamb cracked and the door gave a little, but remained closed as he hissed “Shitterific!” and kicked it again. The door flew open and Query stepped in quickly. There was a man on his knees, hacking and eyes watering. Wearing a mask with a respirator, Query was able to leisurely take aim with the shotgun’s stock and crack the man in the head where it was most likely to keep him down a while. A quick scan of the cabin and some exploration of the bathroom, bedroom and two closets yielded no other foes, and he quickly bound his two vanquished opponents. Then he strode out of the cabin, moving quickly toward the next-nearest building, to which Feral had been assigned.

I’d better assist the loose cannon, he considered. Even though the final cabin only got one flashbang tossed in, at least Buttress is a Tank, so he’s strong and resistant to harm—plus he’ll have Peregrine as backup.

* * *

Buttress didn’t bother with finesse. Peregrine already had out her twin batons, each weighted at one end with a small mace-like head and an falcon-claw-shaped rake at the other, and she was headed toward a closed window, getting ready to smash it in and likely dive through it. So he hit the front door with a full charge and took it straight off its hinges. As he cut to the right upon entering, he felt a bit of instant gratification as the door slammed into one of the combatants, and she stumbled and tripped, dropping her gun. A nearby comrade heard the shattering of the window and turned to deal with that.

His stomach knotted as he saw the gun aim straight for the window. But Peregrine didn’t come through, to both his surprise and the potential assailant’s. Instead, she flashed by the now doorless entry and to the other window, diving straight through it. Buttress rushed the gun-wielding man he’d feared would shoot her, realizing that somehow he had managed to avoid being stunned or blinded by the grenade, possibly by having been in the bedroom or bathroom when it went off. The man tried to bring his gun to bear on Buttress but the hero grabbed his wrist and crushed every bone in it with almost no effort. As the man screamed, Buttress punched him three times in the face with his left hand and the man went down hard. As the woman who had been struck by the door got to her feet and reached for her gun, Buttress got her into a headlock and then applied a chokehold.

While he cut off the flow of blood and oxygen to her brain and waited for her to pass out, he saw Peregrine land a couple stomping kicks to the gut of someone on the floor, whom Buttress could only imagine she’d taken down seconds earlier with a roundhouse kick or a high-kick, both of them signature moves for her.

Once the woman caught in his grip was unconscious, he gave Peregrine a quick, hard kiss and then they tied up the trio, heading out toward the sounds of gunshots and shouting.

* * *

Query’s arrival at the middle cabin was greeted by a pair of bullets whizzing through one window—probably strays since they were headed at an angle away from him. He slid into the ground underneath that window, crawled past the mostly closed door and huddled under the next window, listening to the cacophony of shots being fired.

He could make out swearing and threats—Feral’s voice—and figured that at least two and perhaps three people were shooting at him.

That makes no sense, Query thought. With three stun grenades having been tossed in there, Feral should have an easy cleanup, not a shootout.

Query popped his head up twice in quick succession to survey the scene through the bottom part of the window, then whispered, “Dammit.”

He had seen three people out of it on the ground and two firing at Feral from behind cover. The vigilante-hero was pinned down, using a couch and coffee table as cover, while his assailants made use of a barricade consisting of a large maple table and a sturdy wardrobe-style cabinet that they had pushed over onto the floor.

Taking cover again, Query tried to sort out what little he had seen of the two shooters.

A man and a woman, him shirtless and wearing a riot helmet and her with a shoulder bared and her top only half on, with a vest haphazardly thrown over her torso, he thought. Damn…they had been taking a break in the bedroom behind a closed door doing things Janus would probably string them up by their nethers for doing while on the clock. All the flashbangs did for them was alert them to trouble.

Clearly, the extra time Query and his team had taken had made at least some of them complacent. The unfortunate part is that if this pair was able to go have a tryst without catching shit from the other three, one or both of them were probably in charge. And Janus didn’t put people in charge who weren’t skilled.

And overconfidence on their part by taking time out for a quickie doesn’t mean they aren’t deadly, Query reminded himself.

Not having drawn any fire yet, Query risked another peek through the window to assess Feral. The man was bleeding heavily from one temple. Given how bloody even minor flesh wounds to the head could be, it might be nothing. On the other hand, it would be triggering Feral’s more violent instincts, and he might shrug off blood loss and other injuries to keep on fighting—to his own risk and possible demise. He also appeared to have a shoulder wound, though it was hard to tell if that was from a bullet or perhaps catching a corner of the coffee table as he dove for cover earlier.

That extra glance revealed his position, though, and he felt several bullets strike the wall where he was hunched. One penetrated the wood and sizzled past his leg, grazing his thigh and leaving a hot line of pain behind.

Without hesitation, he rolled away to brace his back against the corner of the cabin, where they were less likely to aim and the bullets less likely to penetrate.

Query glanced over at the side window near him—closed and with curtains drawn. It tempted him, but he knew by the time he was able to break it and clear away the visual obstructions, he’d be riddled with bullets. His armored vest would probably protect his torso, but his head, throat and limbs might not make it through the ordeal. He caught sight of Buttress and Peregrine making their way toward the cabin and gave them a hand signal to stop and duck low. He held up three fingers and pantomimed sleeping to indicate three were down at the moment, and then held up two fingers and pantomimed a gun with his thumb and index finger. Both of them nodded, and then they leaned their faces close to one another’s. Not going for a kiss, Query figured, but probably discussing a plan of action. He considered calling or texting one of them to coordinate, but Feral probably wouldn’t hold out much longer. So he caught their attention one last time to signal he was going around the back of the cabin, and then set off.

His hope dimmed when he made it to the back wall and the window of the bedroom where the two shooters—apparently with no shortage of ammunition considering how long they’d been firing—had presumably tried to get their freak on while their three comrades remained in the main room. They had shoved a dresser and the bed up against the window, already having anticipated someone might try to gain entry there.

I could get past it easily enough, but not without announcing my arrival with all the subtlety of a bucking bull in a china shop.

He looked with dismay at the small window to the bathroom. He could remove it quickly and quietly enough, but he’d have to shed his vest, shoulder rigs and duster and leave the shotgun behind to shimmy through the small aperture—and then just barely fit. If he made the slightest racket, he’d be a sitting duck and get his head blown off.

Well, today’s a good day to die, I guess, he decided, and got to work, removing the window before he removed his coat and armor, just in case someone came gunning for him while he was occupied. Once he was down to his unitard, he propped the shotgun against the wall in the hopes of reaching down for it afterward.

Halfway through the window, his foot tapped the stock of the firearm, and he heard it slide to the ground, swearing silently as it did. No gun now but a tiny Beretta strapped to his ankle, against two people with automatic weapons and probably more besides.

Query could still hear Feral shouting epithets, and counted that as one bright spot, at least—I’m not too late, anyway, and a storm of bullets haven’t been fired into this tiny deathtrap of a room I’ve entered.

Taking a deep breath, Query quietly gripped the doorknob and then turned it quickly and shoved it open. Both heads turned as he came through, and Query launched himself at the pair. The woman rolled out of the way, suddenly tangled in some table linens but quickly working to extricate herself and bring her gun to bear.

As the man swung his weapon around, Query batted it away with his left hand—his dominant hand, as it happened, so he had maximum coordination and force behind the swiping strike. At the same time, he slapped the palm of his right-hand glove against the man’s neck and pressed a small button near the base of his index finger. A small ampoule in the red exclamation mark on that black glove shot forth, extending a needle as it did. The paralytic venom acted almost instantaneously and the man went down.

Query turned immediately to face his other opponent and also stepped to the side, toward the bathroom, in case he needed to take very temporary cover. A sputtering stream of bullets whizzed by him and he had visions of being cut in half in moments by the armor-piercing rounds when a dark blur bounded over the top of the barricade Janus’ minions had been using. Query shouted “Fuck!” as blood sprayed against him, Feral laying into the woman with his clawed gloves, slashing at her and beating her. Between his enhanced strength as a Brute and the fury-fueled savagery that was both the blessing and the curse of his particular brand of Primal abilities, he was making short and bloody work of her. She was dead before Query could even get a grip on what was happening.

Not wanting to get in the path of Feral in full bloodlust mode, Query vaulted over the barricade. Then he remembered the temporarily paralyzed man back there with Feral—not to mention the fact the vigilante wasn’t likely to be any more calm when he came back out of there after being driven temporarily mad by serious injuries and the prolonged anxiety of being pinned down by gunfire—and he swore fiercely before leaping back over and slapping Feral on the neck with one the last two doses of toxin in his glove. Feral backhanded him and Query spun almost all the way around, then completed the circle of his own volition and slapped Feral with the final dose.

Finally, with a shudder and a sudden seizing of his limbs, Feral went limp as the double-dose overcame his powers. His eyes were still wild, though, and Query bound him thrice over with nylon ties—both hand and foot—and then slapped a pair of handcuffs on him for good measure.

When he went back over the barricade, one of the three stunned minions was mostly recovered and reaching for a gun when Peregrine leaped in and took him down with a blow to the back of his head with one of her batons. She looked at Query, who said, quietly, “All clear now. I need some damn air. Tie everyone up please.”

As Buttress came in shortly behind Peregrine, Query remembered the man had experience as a field medic and asked him to grab the gear left behind the house. When he returned, Query fished a small first aid packet out of a hidden pocket in his duster, told Buttress to tend to Feral, and then stepped out into the moonlit night.

He considered two lives taken tonight at his own hand—not so much in self-defense as in a pre-emptive strike. Thought about Zoe’s own two kills she hadn’t even consciously sought, which were because of him. And now another person indirectly dead because of him; dead in large part because he’d used Zoe to get this close to Janus.

As he pulled the bottom of his mask up, pushed the respirator aside and took a deep, shuddering breath of warm night air, he gazed solemnly and reverently at a wide puddle in which the moon was beautifully reflected—a thing of lunar wonder on which he promptly vomited.

If I wasn’t my own boss—and an asshole boss at that, he thought as he looked at the second-hand gore covering him, reminded of Zoe’s own bloody clothing, I’d quit after this shit tonight.

Instead, he pulled his mask back on and went to try to figure out what he was going to do with Feral for now, as well as determine where to start in his search for evidence and answers on this grim little battlefield.

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