I would recommend that before you read this chapter, whether you’re a long-term fan of this storyline or not, that you go to the link above and read at least the previous chapter and perhaps better yet, both previous chapters (after all, it’s been nearly a year since I wrote the previous chapter…*sigh*). Assuming, of course, you didn’t just do that in the past few days or weeks, in which case it is probably a moot point. However, I did take a very long break at kind of a weird point in the story, and this chapter picks up directly from the last one. The stuff about Cole/Quantum may be particularly confusing if you’re not fresh on the previous chapters. Things are quickly coming to a head, and I figure there are only between five and eight chapters left before this comes to a conclusion and I move on to the next series.
The closer he got to the Guardian Corps headquarters, the more Cole wished his vision would just return to normal so he wouldn’t have to talk about it with anyone. It didn’t matter that he knew how stupid that sounded even saying it silently in his brain. This was a serious problem and if it just “went away” he was still going to have to dread it might return.
He needed a friend right now, and he had precious few of them in the world of costumed transhumans. Desperado knew his worth and knew his loyalty and still poisoned the hearts of most the guys in the Guardian Corps to see Cole not as Quantum but as some overeducated, know-it-all asshole.
Key word: Guys.
Desperado is even more dedicated to being a male chauvinist pig and borderline misogynist than he is to making my life miserable and trying to undermine my efforts to become a costumed crimefighter, Cole considered. I have friends among the relatively few women in the Guardian Corps, and two stand out more than the others.
As it happened, both were there when he arrived, lounging just outside the room “assigned” to the women in the Corps—trying to hear and know as much as possible and refusing to be shut out, even though they knew they could rarely penetrate the inner circle that Desperado and his lieutenants had so carefully fortified.
PrinSass’ deep brown eyes caught his before Sweet Talker’s did, and it struck Cole as ironic that the brawny one of the two of them—the ass kicker—would be the one with more sensitivity to the fact he has a predicament than would the one who was tasked with most of the interrogation duties around here.
She tapped Sweet Talker on the shoulder, nodded toward Cole and then jerked her head in the direction of the door to the “ladies’ area.”
Once behind the pink door, PrinSass wasted no time. “What’s the matter, Quantum?” she asked Cole. “Ya look like you’re gonna pass out or like you’ve seen a ghost or some shit.”
In a mostly coherent but still jumbled and frantic stream, Cole told them both about his sudden vision changes—how all the colors he saw were wrong now. He was shaking and occasionally mumbling things like “Oh God is it cancer?” or “I feel like I’m going crazy.”
PrinSass laid her broad, strong hand on his shoulder. “Calm the shit down, Quantum,” she said softly and with no small amount of sympathy despite the choice of words. He shuddered once, then twice in succession, then took a deep breath and seemed to center himself. “Y’ain’t gonna die, home-slice,” she told him gently but firmly. “Y’ain’t gonna like it, either, but y’aint gonna die. And crazy ain’t on the list either.”
Cole paused, looked at Sweet Talker—who simply smiled and shrugged and nodded toward PrinSass—and then looked PriSass right in the eyes. “What, then? What’s happening to me?”
“I don’t know no one who’s had it happen to them, but I know some folks who know about some Warpsmiths and shift-running Speedsters and Ectos who’ve had to deal with weird shit ’long the same lines,” she said. “Apparently people who connect to hyperspatial realms like y’all do sometimes get this weird shift where the whole world turns into like a color negative or something—inverted colors, I think it is. And usually it don’t get better. Sorry. But at least it ain’t the end of the world. Kind of like dyslexia, though; you’re gonna have to relearn the colors all over now to make the world make sense again.”
“I don’t wanna relearn all the colors, PrinSass,” Cole whined, hating himself for the pathetic sound. “I mean, you look light blue instead of brown; Sweet Talker looks dark blue instead of white. This is like the visual equivalent of bugs crawling all over me. It’s freaking me out,” he finished, his voice almost hysterical.
Unexpectedly, PrinSass caught him up in a hug. She squeezed hard, but not nearly has hard as she could have. Cole considered that if she had, he’d be headed for the emergency room for a few cracked ribs.
“C’mon,” she urged with a lighthearted tone, “now you’ll hardly be able to tell the Black people from the whitefolk; might get rid of any lingering racial bias and white privilege shit you mighta been packing still. Hey, dontch’a worry. Sweet Talker and me can find someone who can help you out soon, and we won’t say shit to Desperado. Fuck him. He’s just looking for a reason to boot ya, Quantum, and we ain’t havin’ none’a that. We’re gonna make sure if you leave here, you leave on your terms.”
Cole hugged PrinSass back, and felt a little guilty wishing it were Sweet Talker instead.
Dammit! he thought, Sweet Talker said all those weeks back I was crushing on her, and I denied it to her and to myself. And if there ever was a chance for me with her, now I look like a pathetic, blubbering idiot. I’m acting like I went blind. Some hero.
* * *
A few hours later, with Cole calmed down and having been left under Sweet Talker’s watchful eye, PrinSass asked around and got a general idea where Epitaph had last been spotted today. A couple hours later, she finally found him and asked him to join her in a nearby diner.
“Look, I like you but I don’t have time and patience for your weird-ass quotes and trying to figure out what you’re really saying, so don’t talk. Or, better yet, write the shit down since at least you can write normal,” she said once they had been seated at a booth. “I know you do more than just watch out for us Guardian Corps types and help us out like one of our own. I know you’re reporting back to someone. A supporter or something. Someone with resources, I’m guessin’. Well, I’m tellin’ ya on the down-low, because I know you’ve a soft spot for him, that Quantum’s got that crazy thing with his vision some Ectos get. If you don’t know what I’m talkin’ about, hit the Internet like Quantum didn’t because he was too freaked out to think about doin’ the obvious. While you’re at it, think about how much Desperado doesn’t like him and how he’d be much better somewhere where people other than just me, Sweet Talker and a few of the other gals are giving a shit about him. I bet the person you report to can help with that. Now, I’ve said my piece, you can start talking crazy now if you wanna, and let’s order some food. I’m starving.”
Epitaph frowned. He’d already known and made it clear to Query that Cole needed to be out the Corps if he was going to do any good as Quantum and survive the streets. This new information kicked things up a notch. And it pushed him into a corner. He’d just gotten a job offer from Fortunato that morning to join up on the man’s fledgling team, and even though Query wanted him to be his eyes and ears there just like he was with the Guardian Corps, he hadn’t been sure he liked the idea of being part of any operation the billionaire former crimefighter was running.
I know Query gave Fortunato Cole’s name already as a potential team member, but that was before this latest twist for the young man, Epitaph fretted. Now I feel like I have to join to keep an eye on him, because there’s no doubt Fortunato will use Cole’s physical woes for leverage on him.
“If death meant just leaving the stage long enough to change costume and come back as a new character, would you slow down? Or speed up? We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will. You have a choice. Live or die. Every breath is a choice. Every minute is a choice. To be or not to be,” Epitaph said, his brain calling up some writings of freelance journalist, satirist and novelist Chuck Palahniuk and earning a frown from PrinSass, who was probably regretting her offer to let him speak. He smiled at her sympathetically and added, hoping to comfort her but realizing it would only mean more confusion, “Youth lives on hope, old age on remembrance.”
PrinSass frowned and pulled a pad and pen out of her purse, pushing both across the table. “Mind clearing that all up for me?” she asked.
Epitaph smiled, took up the pen and wrote: Cole can’t change anything happening to him except to give up his new costumed life. He won’t. I’ll look after him. Least I can do as an “old guy.”
PrinSass smiled. “Not just as an ‘old guy’,” she noted. “A friend. One thing less for me to worry about. ‘Cept maybe to wonder when I’ll finally just open-hand smack Desperado across the face and knock half the teeth out of his head.”
* * *
Feral raised one clawed glove above the prone man whose chest he was currently straddling. He licked his lips in anticipation of the feel of flesh splitting. The spray of blood. The dimming of life in the criminal’s eyes.
These were the things he lived for.
His arm tensed. His mind settled on its goal. Claws flashed downward.
And then a sudden wrenching thought of What? as there was a very real physical wrenching of his arm. As he heard something snap and as he was flung into the nearby wall of a building. His arm was in agony, but he summoned his Primal powers and began to feel the berserker rage fill him. He stood up and faced…
A gun. Aiming right at his face.
A gun. Only inches away.
A gun. Held by Query.
“Tamp down the Primal powers, Feral, or these will be the last few seconds of your life.”
Feral clenched his teeth. Clenched his fists. Forced down the animal rage and let normal, human rage suffice. His lips curled into a snarl. “Stay out of my business. I’m dealing with human scum here.” He glanced past Query to see that the man on the ground wasn’t going anywhere, caught up in myriad tangler grenade tendrils.
How the fuck did Query manage to get the drop on me, break my arm, point a gun at me and toss a tangler at my perp? My prey.
“Good motherfucking boy,” Query taunted with a ragged edge to his voice. “So, what’s this one’s crime? What makes him deserve death like the two Peregrine was fighting didn’t?”
“Leave me to my business,” Feral said. “He fucks up women, all right? Ain’t that enough?”
“Yeah, I recall you being quite the feminist,” Query snapped sarcastically. “I’ll ask you again: What crime did he do that deserves death?”
“Like you haven’t killed anyone, Query,” Feral snarled. “He beats the fuck out of women, OK? Good enough for you?”
Query cocked back the hammer of the .357 magnum he had trained on Feral. He’d chose the revolver for effect and exactly so he could cock back the hammer at some point in this conversation. “I’m only going to ask one more motherfucking time, and if I don’t get an honest answer, I might just paint that wall behind you with what passes for a brain inside your dense goddamn skull. What did he do?”
“He hit his girlfriend.”
Query slowly lowered the hammer of the .357 back down just so that he could cock it back again—which he did. “That’s all?” he asked in perfect sync with the click of the pistol’s hammer.
“He hit her a few times, OK? Leave me to handle this. I don’t tell you how to do your job.”
“Did he break anything really serious? Is she in the hospital? Is she disfigured? Dead?”
Feral hesitated, and he knew in that pause he’d told Query too much already. “No,” he admitted sullenly.
“I think I was very clear on telling you to restrain yourself. I’m a really big fan of women, Feral, but even I don’t think simple assault, even man-on-woman, deserves a death sentence. One might argue your actions do, though, given the body count you’ve generated in just a few days.”
“Great. You gonna kill me, Query? Is that gonna make you feel better? I thought you saved that for self-defense and shit like that. You gonna become an executioner now?”
Query stepped forward and pressed the barrel of the gun against the pale skin of Feral’s forehead, contrasting with his dark, unkempt hair. Humiliatingly and against his deepest desires, Feral flinched and squeezed his eyes shut. He could think of no one in the world he had ever hated more than Query right now.
The impassive black mask—more a light helmet than a mask, really, and bearing no visible lenses or eye holes—remained fixed on Feral. The gun did not waver. Neither did it discharge.
“Even Ladykiller wouldn’t gut someone just for a couple slaps or punches against a woman; even she has more sense and restraint than you,” Query sneered. “You are no longer welcome in my city.”
“Hey! It’s my city, too!” Feral protested.
Query’s left hand, holding the .357, had never wavered. Now, out of nowhere, his right hand joined the game, pressing a Desert Eagle pistol against Feral’s throat.
“No, it isn’t. You no longer have any New Judah privileges. If you are still here 24 hours from now, Feral, even if you’re hiding out in the woods far from most of the people, I will put bullets in every part of you that isn’t fatal. I will cripple you and I will laugh at you when I am done. I told you the rules; you broke them. You’re only a couple encounters away from killing a jaywalker or a shoplifter at this point. This city deserves better than you. You are evicted.”
Feral opened his mouth; Query pressed the Desert Eagle firmly into his Adam’s apple, making him gag.
“If you say one damn word that sounds remotely like a retort, I may kill you instead of crippling you. This isn’t a debate. This is a mandate. You will leave town. Or I will have no mercy. Take it or leave it.”
Feral said nothing for a few seconds, and then he closed his eyes and nodded shallowly. “All right. I’m gone in 24 hours or less.”
“No body count in that time, Feral. You savvy?”
“I won’t kill anyone before I leave,” Feral said.
“You won’t so much as break someone’s nail or give them a charley horse. Clear?”
“Yeah. Crystal clear.”
“I’m going to lower my guns now and trust your word for at least the next 24 hours, Feral. If you so much as sneeze before I leave here, you had better by God have your soul sorted out before you do because I will end you on the assumption you’re about to jump me. When you are out of Lark County you can remove the tracker I made you wear. Don’t ever come back to this city. Or this county. In fact, I would highly recommend that you never set foot in Connecticut again just to be on the safe side.”
Feral nodded; Query lowered the guns.
For a split-second, Feral considered taking Query out. The featureless black mask staring back at him, though, seemed like the eye of God. He could almost imagine the face behind the mask watching for the slightest misstep.
I’m thinking Marksburgh is more my speed anyway, Feral thought irritably but with a growing sense of purpose and hope. I can have my dignity back. Fuck New Judah and everyone in it. Time to go a city that appreciates violence and where I can be a real hero.
* * *
“I’m here,” Query said to the villainous pair of Hush-a-Bye and GoodKnight as he stepped into the mostly empty lot ringed by streetlamps that seemed only half committed to their job. “ As agreed, we both have shooters watching for any shenanigans and, if there are any, all three of us are dead. Let’s hope they didn’t all pick the same rooftop and are currently trying to kill each other. Bear in mind that I’ve just had to deal with an unpleasant situation and that my life has been threatened quite a lot more than normal lately, and you would be well-advised to get to the point—fast.”
On all fours with a leash attached to his neck, GoodKnight looked up at Hush-a-Bye, dressed in full-on dominatrix mode, and cocked his leather-hooded head toward Query.
“Oh, and by the way, great job on her cosmetic surgery; she almost looks like the original,” Query added to GoodKnight and then turned his gaze to Hush-a-Bye. “Almost could have fooled me—if I wasn’t me. I hope the two of you are at least as happy together in BDSM bliss as he and the first Hush-a-Bye were.”
Hush-a-Bye sighed, and looked at the black-clad vigilante with naked condescension.
“Is there some reason that you need to be quite so personal and hurtful, Query?” she asked. She stroked the back of GoodKnight’s hooded head to soothe him as she felt him tense to strike.
“You sent a pair of killers after me,” Query said. “And, as I said, it’s already been a bad night and the two of you are bad news. I don’t like the Marksburgh stink of you smelling up New Judah.”
“We sent no one to kill you, Query,” Hush-a-Bye said coolly. “I think you know that.”
“Well, the insulting part of my retort still applies,” he responded. “You wanted this meeting. Why?”
“To tell you in person that we have no designs against you and no hand in any attacks upon your person,” she answered, as she turned to lead GoodKnight away by his leash. The knives and guns sheathed and holstered on his torso glittered in the lights of the streetlamps. “No matter how much your crude behavior would make me wish otherwise. We simply thought you should know that other criminal elements care what you do here. We do not. Kindly do not darken our door in Marksburgh, and we shall extend the same courtesy here in New Judah.”
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