Cole awoke, groggily, mentally calculating how much more sleep he could snag before having to put on his uniform as Quantum and check in with the Guardian Corps. Then he remembered it was one of his days off, and smiled to himself. No patrols today. He turned onto his other side; opened his eyes just a crack to see what time it was.
Nothing was right.
The colors were wrong all around him, and he wondered why the lighting would be so off. This was late morning. It didn’t seem particularly dim; the view outside his window didn’t seem overcast.
And yet every hue around him was wrong. Everything was still sharp and in focus, but nothing was right. There seemed to be more brown tones than there should be. Blues and violets where there should be reds, oranges and yellows.
He rubbed his eyes, only to get a momentarily blurry version of his now-distorted view of the world. When his focus returned, the grotesque mockery of reality remained. He recalled his earlier bouts of visual distortion, and wondered if this was related. Closed his eyes for a while and reopened them, hoping things would shift back to normal. They didn’t. More waiting, and more disappointment.
And that disappointment beginning to turn into a churning dread in his belly.
What the hell is wrong with me?
He looked at a picture his cousin Emily—his favorite relative and as close to him as a little sister—had done for him a couple years ago when she was ten and that he had pinned to the wall to keep himself grounded in his new living space and new life. It was a big, beautiful, painted rainbow with all the hues in their proper order. Bold, wide strokes of color. The spectrum laid bare before him, on a light-blue background. Or what he used to see as blue. But that blue was a yellowish tan now—sepia-toned—and the rainbow itself darker and perverted. More deep violets and light blues in it than there should be, and in the wrong places. A swath of dark, rusty red and another of a pale orange that bordered on tan.
Like some sort of zombie rainbow. Deadened and dim and full of dismay.
He fretted internally for nearly an hour before he decided he needed to go into the Guardian Corps headquarters today after all.
And hope that he could find one or two of the few people who were honestly friends there.
* * *
Hush-a-Bye’s perfectly manicured merlot-colored nails drummed lazily atop the equally glossy black-leather-hooded head of GoodKnight, kneeling at her feet and waiting, his eyes cast downward to her feet on the floor.
Ten minutes of this, having followed 15 minutes of him being wordlessly but noisily flogged. Sweat still glistened on his throat and his bared torso, highlighting the red welts so nicely. Finally, she broke the verbal silence for him.
“Ya want me t’give ya a complete thought dump? Or am I answering only what’s asked of me, Mistress?”
“Let it all out,” she said with a haughty air, exuding a magnanimity that sounded just slightly more like indulgence than it did condescension. Rule his personality with strict authority, but remember to let him know I respect and need his input.
“Are our sources totally sure those clown asshats were after Query on someone else’s orders and they fingered us honestly thinkin’ it was us who hired ‘em?”
“As close to certainty as one can have. Let’s say 99-percent assurance,” she offered.
“Clear as day someone’s settin’ us up. The question’s why would they? And who are they? We’re over here in Marksburgh; Query’s over there in New Judah. Lotsa cushion between us. Probably not tryin’ to sic Query on us, because he’s not likely to come barrelin’ into a city this dicey and war-torn, ‘specially when it’d be doin’ so on our turf. We’d have home-field advantage and Query would have nothin’ ta gain”
“And?” she prodded, knowing there was more boiling under the surface, ready to be released. A top-notch mind in an unrefined, violent, masochistic and submissive package—such a mass of contradictions her GoodKnight was.
“It also ain’t likely Query’s gonna understand why we’d wanna go after him. So it stands to reason he’s gonna doubt we would,” GoodKnight responded, his words picking up speed. “Makes sense, because he’s a sharp tack and I can’t think of a single good goddamn reason to launch an unprovoked attack on him. So, we’re sitting here confused why someone’s framing us, Query’s sitting there wonderin’ what’s really going on, and we’re all of us trying to see who the real shithead is.”
“Who do you think it is?”
“Janus,” GoodKnight said without emotion, his slight exuberance muted to a dull, lifeless edge now. “And Underworld. They’ve got beef with him and a connection to us that he don’t know about and they’d never let on about.”
Hush-a-Bye had considered that Janus might be behind it, but couldn’t figure an angle on it. They had been forced into an alliance of sorts with Janus’ crew. He and Underworld knew that it was uncomfortable for Hush-a-Bye and GoodKnight, and therefore ultimately unstable, but it was awfully early to be disrupting something the two teamed-up New Judah kingpins had worked so hard to create.
“Why?” she asked, not doubting GoodKnight’s insight but needing to understand.
“They need Query off-guard,” he said. “Or at least they need him looking in too many directions and too many scenarios. They want him off the scent of something they’re up to. They need patsies, and we’re good because they know Query won’t be eager to come over here and stomp us any new mudholes, ‘specially since we have no openly declared beef against him. They confuse him, but know there ain’t much chance he’d damage us and thus our connection with them.”
“What are they hiding?” she asked.
“I ain’t psychic, Mistress,” GoodKnight said to Hush-a-Bye in an apologetic tone, lowering his gaze to the mirror-like gloss of her black-booted feet, his own leather-clad head a distorted reflection in it. “Frankly, I’m still thinkin’ the best thing we can do is figure out how to sever our alliance with those fucks in New Judah. I’d rather not be part of anything they’re up to. I don’t like bein’ used, even if it’s not likely to bring shit to our doorstep.”
“Good boy,” she said, stroking his ebony hood like he was a house pet. “Good boy. Now put that slave brain to work figuring out how we can make that happen as soon as possible, while you put your tongue to another use for the next hour or two.”
* * *
The “Hey, Query” that issued from Carl’s mouth had the signature tone that something ominous was about to be shared; the black-clad hero braced for the likely ruination of what had been a pretty decent day so far.
“Spit it out,” Query sighed.
“Hush-a-Bye and GoodKnight are trying to arrange a meet with you. Super clandestine. Which makes me more than a little suspicious after them sending a couple goons after you.”
“Set it up.”
“Yeah, I thought…wait! What? Set it up?”
“Query, how many traps and potential traps are you planning to walk into with your eyes wide open these days?”
“As many as it takes, Carl. And for the record, I haven’t walked into many that actually were traps except when I didn’t know they were traps. This probably isn’t. So stop worrying.”
“It’s my job.”
“It’s your hobby,” Query countered. “And you enjoy it too much. I’ll give you details on how to set it up. Don’t fret. Provisions for mutually assured destruction if either side steps over the line will be in place and obvious to everyone. Which means neither me nor they will do shit except discuss whatever it is they want to talk about. Which should be really interesting.”
* * *
Every day began the same way. He never left the bedroom upon waking up without picking up the framed 5×7 of himself in the gold unitard and full-head mask of shimmering golden spandex. Posed heroically with all the blustery cockiness in which he had wallowed, once upon a time.
Deserved to wallow in, he thought. The image he had earned and once profited from. And these days, only able to walk with braces thanks to Underworld crushing his legs and even top-notch Regenerators unable to restore them fully, he subsisted on a life of public speaking. Living off the good old days and depending on the money of strangers who still remembered him fondly enough to want to hear him talk on stage.
A costumed crimefighting career cut short by that bitch in 1998 but still shoring up his income-making ability in 2010. Well, that and the residual income from merchandising, trademarks, film and television appearances and more.
It wouldn’t pay for a mansion, but it all kept the roof of a decent, mortgage-free, six-bedroom house over his head, along with a new RAV4 in the driveway and a 60s-era Mustang in the garage. And a condo in Hawaii he could retreat to from time to time.
A shrill tone broke his reverie, and he answered the ringing telephone reluctantly; it was too early to be taking calls. But he answered all the same.
“Helllllllo, stranger,” came the sultry feminine greeting. A voice he’d never forget, particularly since she’d been on his mind mere moments before.
“What do you want, Underworld?” he asked, wondering how she had gotten hold of his personal phone number. Again. It had been nearly four years since the last time he’d heard her voice, and that was still too soon.
“Just wondering if your legs still ache like a sonofabitch when you get up,” she answered. “Just wondering if the accumulated pain is enough yet to equal me having been in prison twice because of you, me being humiliated by you in public so many times, me being beaten by you like a scene out of Ike and Tina Turner’s married life long after I was down for the count. Wondering if it’s enough to make up for all the fantasies I’m sure you had about raping me. But most of all, wondering if your sham of a life is still pathetic enough compared to the one you used to enjoy with all that attention as Glory Boy. Still feeling glorious, Kevin? I’m still active, and I’m free. I’m still getting attention for doing notable things and pulling on a slinky costume almost every day; you’re still talking about the old days and trying to motivate losers. But y’know, let me know if you ever need me to come over and rub some Ben-Gay on those achy legs and reminisce about the last time we met face-to-face.”
She hung up swiftly, feeling a bit better. The memory of Janus slapping her the other day during their row had still hardly faded in her mind, and its continuing psychic sting certainly had put her in mind of her previous nemesis. Put her mind to the notion that she could take some of the lingering hurt away by hurting someone else.
Sometimes, it’s good to be needlessly cruel just to keep your mind from flying apart, Underworld mused. I may have to make these calls to Glory Boy a weekly thing. Far better form of self-medication than booze or drugs.
She felt a lot better after the call but she also realized that, if anything, her desire to kill Janus had only been sharpened when she had hoped to dull it briefly.
So much for removing all of my distractions at the start of the workday.
* * *
Well into enjoying their second round of drinks at a bar near Fortunato’s building, Zoe, Michele and Isabella unleashed a volley of jeers and mild taunts at the 40-minute-late arrival of Vanessa.
“It’s not my fault!” she protested loudly over the music and conversation around them. “Blame Fortunato! One of you get me two of whatever you’re having while I hit the lady’s room.”
By the time she returned, there were two margaritas waiting for her courtesy of Isabella. As she picked up her first glass and drank deeply, Zoe arched an eyebrow, noticing something skin-tight and translucent—nearly transparent, actually—over the woman’s hands and asked, “What’s with the gloves, Vanessa? Forget to take off the entire Allison Wonderland costume today?”
“Again, blame Fortunato. As usual, he’s got me field-testing things, and I think he’s enjoying the thought of me being embarrassed in public for several days with people around me assuming I’m compulsively fearful of germs or that I have a medical fetish. They’re smartgloves. After Bluetooths, smartwatches and smartspecs, they’ll be the next new thing, I guess. Don’t even know what company—probably Apple or Android or both—Fortunato sweet-talked to get his hands on the tech early to make these, but he plans to use them as a backup and/or a replacement for any mask- or helmet-mounted cellphone interfaces we have when we’re in costume…and he plans to use us and the rest of this new team of his to help promote the things and get some extra kickbacks when they go commercial next year.”
“What do they do?” Michele asked.
“Just like a Bluetooth, mostly. You talk into them and listen with them when you have calls or messages, and you can use them for phone voice commands.”
“Why, pray tell, do you have two of them?” Zoe prodded. “The company couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to make one for listening and one for talking, could they?”
“Different styles,” Vanessa said. “One you cup your hand against the side of your face and talk into your palm and listen from your fingertips; the other one you hold in the ‘call me later’ gesture and talk into your pinky-tip and listen from the thumb-tip.”
“Cool!” Isabella giggled. “Can’t wait for those to hit the market. Then I can signal a guy to call me later at the same time I’m actually calling up some other dude to meet up with.”
“Forget that,” Zoe said. “This is gonna replace sexting and be huge with the webcam porn folks. You can talk dirty to a guy and he can hear you squishing while you jill yourself off at the same time.”
“Ohmigod,” Vanessa moaned, swallowing down half of her first margarita as Isabella burst out in a laughing fit and Michele barely stifled her own. “Your mind is so filthy, Zoe. I’d better catch up fast with these drinks or I’m never going to survive this evening.”
“Especially after I start telling guys in here that you have a thing for latex gloves and then give them your phone number,” Isabella said with a wink.
* * *
“I am surprised at you, Query,” Fortunato said, smirking.
“Oh?” Query asked dispassionately.
“You have actually been helpful,” Fortunato continued. “Sending me in the direction of Solstice was actually a good call. I thought you might have been trying to cause me problems. Instead, I have someone who is independent enough to have the initiative I need in a costumed field operative, and who has just the right-sized sliver of insecurity to make her somewhat malleable.”
“Well, you know how much I like to bring joy to people’s lives,” Query countered dryly. “Let’s get this over with, so I can get on to doing other things.”
“You have the four names you promised me? Please tell me they are men; I love women, but this team is all estrogen thus far, and I need some friendly gender support.”
“The fact you see women as potential adversaries tells me all I need to know about why neither of your marriages lasted,” Query said. “Yes, having anticipated your desire for testosterone, they are all men. Also, I didn’t have any other women I thought would fit your needs. My recommendations—and as you’ll see in the dossiers, I’ve already felt out three of them and the other one will likely be interested just to be in a more cordial environment than his current one—are a mix of experience and potential, but all of them stand-up personalities and as sane and level-headed as they come: Quantum, Epitaph, Good War and Mr. Indigo.”
“Epitaph? You are suggesting someone who cannot speak in a manner that people will be able to understand him. That is rather counterproductive to team-based field work.”
“Hardly,” Query sneered. “He can text with crazy speed and accuracy on his smartwatch, and his writing doesn’t suffer from the same limitations as his speech. I’m sure you have some technology that can turn his texts into audio for the communication devices the team members will have. Also, good field operations rely on non-verbal signals as well, and Epitaph has that kind of thing down pat after all his work with kids in the Guardian Corps. Man’s damn-near bulletproof and strong as an ox. Morally grounded, too, and highly protective of teammates,” Query said, leaving out the part about the man potentially being his eyes and ears inside Fortunato’s operations. “How can you not take him? His only limitation is he won’t likely work for you on a full-time basis; likely three-quarters or half-time.”
“You make a strong case, and the time availability is not a huge factor. We will not have to patrol like police; I do not need them all full-time,” Fortunato said. “Good War is a pleasant surprise, but why would he join? He seems to be running around the country a lot.”
“I asked him for a favor, and that was to give a job offer from you serious consideration. My sense is he’ll take it for the income boost. Like Epitaph, he’d probably be part-time, though—he does get around a lot sniffing out corruption in law enforcement and the military and all that.”
“I hope the others—“
“—are both likely available for full-time work, yes,” Query answered, “though I’m sure Mr. Indigo will still want to have some solo work on the side, too, so you’re not going to get him exclusively. I doubt he’ll stop providing part-time security for White Cross.”
“Mr. Indigo’s telekinesis would be a useful addition,” Fortunato admitted. “And he has a good track record of apprehensions with a minimum of hospital visits for himself. Who is this Quantum?”
“There’s where you get some very young, new talent,” Query said. “He’s with the Guardian Corps right now but not happy there. He’s a Warpsmith and an Ecto. I don’t know him personally, but I’ve got reliable people to vet him, Epitaph among them. His powers are coming along nicely, and if you want malleable, it doesn’t get any more so than an eager young man new to a costume. He’s a college grad and he’s no loose cannon by any means.”
“I like the mix, Query, now that it is all settling into my mind, and I think they will mesh well with Peregrine and Buttress—did you know they were dating? But of course you would; you know everything—as I already approached them about part-time work on the team. I think the only person left to consider whom I had in mind for the initial roster is Mad Dash. I haven’t spoken with him yet, though. What do you think of my idea there, Query?”
Behind his mask, Query frowned; he didn’t like Fortunato having any kind of influence on Mad Dash at all. He bit back the urge to argue against the inclusion of his friend, feeling like this was a test. Fortunato was hiding his intentions and feelings well right now, but Query had a sense something was afoot.
I already have to worry about Dash’s brief but odd breaks with reality and the fact he’s dating Ladykiller, Query fretted. Having him beholden to Fortunato in any way…
That was all a mere second of time, though, as Fortunato awaited an answer. The kind of time one takes for a very brief rumination, and Query answered in a thoughtful but neutral tone: “I think he’d be a good fit. He might be a bit hard to manage sometimes as his…quirks…can distract him. But Mad Dash’s moral compass is true north and he’s a competent crimefighter.”
Sorry, Dash. I don’t want to get you tossed into the wolf’s fold—and if I’m lucky, you’ll turn the job offer down—but in the end I need to make sure Fortunato doesn’t know how much you mean to me and use you against me. And I can’t afford to have him think me entirely antagonistic to him or I won’t get the people I need in place here who are loyal to me.
Fortunato still seemed to be searching Query for some kind of additional response, looking at him intently as if he could read the man’s face behind the black mask and red question mark.
“Something else, Fortunato?” Query asked blandly.
“No, I think our business is done for now, Query. I know you do not like me, but I do appreciate your consultations and recommendations in this endeavor.”
But will you still feel that way, Fortunato, when you realize one day how much it’s actually been myendeavor all along?
* * *
Bippety boopety sugary serendipity, thought Crazy Jane as she skipped toward the man she’d been told to arrange a meeting with, ostensibly to pass along a case file for a job he was to do for Janus and Underworld. As if… Jane’s mind teased silently.
Odium stood so statue-still in his black outfit and featureless red full-head mask and emanated such an air of inapproachability that he seemed very tall to Crazy Jane, even though he stood only four inches taller than her own 5’6” stature.
I’ve softened up tougher and bigger than you, though.
His only movement was to reach out one gloved hand for the large manila envelope Crazy Jane bore.
It would be better without the glove, but I work with what I have, Jane mused, and handed it to him, touching her fingers to his and letting them linger for a second or two, “accidentally” fumbling with the envelope a bit and making it harder for him to get a good grip on it and take it from her hand.
Enough to make the connection. Enough to soften up the wall between them even though his transhuman nature would likely dull the effect of her powers. Enough to do what Janus wanted doing. Enough to set up the groundwork for the long game.
“Got a little while to hang out? A girl gets bored around the same folks all the time,” Crazy Jane said sweetly. “I can’t get out much being as conspicuous as I am with a completely tatted-up face. Hardly any of my fanboys and fangirls have the guts to go all in and get their faces done like me, so if I go out, everyone knows it’s really me. Not like you,” she pouted cutely. “Lot of people’ll dress in black and throw on a red hood or helmet.”
“Not much a socializer,” Odium said. Jane’s experience in this dance of hers and her practiced ear picked up on the ever-so-slight note of reluctance to deny her.
“Too bad,” she said. “Maybe sometime soon?”
Maybe sometime after my influence has had a night or two to settle into your neurons…
“Probably not,” Odium said tightly. “Maybe. Dunno.”
“I hope you will,” she said, her Psi powers and Interfacer powers playing their subtle notes across the strings of his mind—forging a mild addiction to her. “Something about you makes me think of the big brother I never had.”
“Uh, OK,” Odium said. For someone so notoriously antisocial and threatening, the vague, mildly confused dismissal of her was almost adorable.
“Seeya, bro,” Jane said with a smile, then pirouetted and strode away.
Enjoy that simple, token, totally bogus job I gave you, she thought, and welcome to our cozy little family.
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