The Watermark Incident
Posted 12 October 2009 - 09:58 PM
(A Farewell to the old Khazan.)
Written by YOU! (The FPL at Large)
Edited for consistency and continuity by Ivan
Additional material written by Ivan
The Mile High Grand Watermark Hotel and Casino thrust up through the Khazan skyline like a limbless sapling in tall grass. Towering above the city, situated smack-dab in the middle of downtown, the building helped give the impression that Khazan Proper resembled nothing so much as a giant sun dial.
From the top of the great building you could see all the way past Uptown, across the Spires and the Steppes to the beginnings of the Apos mountains in the north. To the east, the financial district and the coast, and on a clear day St Lucius Isle, the artifical island silhouetted above the waves like a digital Catalina. To the west and south you could gaze across the rolling hills and valleys of Sci Sec, and then farther to the nearest reaches of Lowtown. If you looked straight down on a cloudless day, you could vaguely perceive the scalar reiteration effect that had earned Khazan the name "The Fractal City." From the bottom, looking straight up, one was overcome with a sense of vertigo, as if to suggest that the massive edifice in front of you was the ground and you were merely an insect perched on some precarious window ledge, peering downward.
The Grand Atrium entrance to the Grand Watermark had received its own special issue of the Anderson Prescott Academy's Architectural Digest, and with good reason. It was beautiful to a fault: both ornate and grand on a scale rivaling the most ostentatious royal palaces in the Omniverse. The architecture itself moved in chords and arcs, creating a sense of visual energy and taking the eye on a whirlwind ride across the immense façade. Moving lights danced across the landscape, choreographed to the Wagnerian fanfare that rang across the entrance plaza from hundreds of tiny, well-hidden speakers.
The plaza itself stretched away from the hotel like a shadow at twilight, spilling out over the roundabout that formed both the hotel valet entrance and cul-de-sac at the end of Holliday Avenue. Nicknamed The Lamplight District, Holliday Avenue was the city's entertainment hub: lined with theaters, hotels, restaurants, and crowned by the Grand Watermark herself.
A soft ghost flitted amidst the people in the plaza, warmed by the effective twilight of the great building. Here an iron jawed gambler, confidently faking his way to the Hold 'Em table. There a first time visitor, awestruck, neck craning ever upward, eyes tracing each exquisite line to the aerial horizon. She knew their stories. Now they would know hers. The Gray Lady, the Lovelorn Librarian, Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Burning Books, smiled as she stood in the middle of the plaza. She had wandered for a long time, and no time at all. This was a perfect place for her story to begin. She whispered.
"Once upon a time…”
Posted 12 October 2009 - 09:58 PM
WHEEL AND DEAL
"He's terrifying. And he's lost his, shall we say, tact. We're not the Reavers, after all."
"What are you saying?" Haiku asked quietly.
"I'm saying it would be to the benefit of both the SLJ and the memory of the old Captain if he was subdued and detained. He has become a liability."
"The MEMORY of the old Captain? He is the old Captain!"
Val Britton, formerly the hero known as Mouse, shook her head.
"No," she said, "He's not."
She closed the folder in front of her and motioned with one hand that the discussion was over.
Haiku had prayed that the reports were wrong. That Captain Khazan was really still alive.
Now he wished they had been right.
He saw him. Using his own body as a pillar. Keeping the building up for a precious few more minutes. They searched through the rubble and never found a body.
He saw him again. Pulling the last few people out of a terrible car wreck. This time Haiku was faster. Haiku grabbed him by the wrist, his only wrist, but didn't get to his see his face. With a slight flick, the one armed man had sent Haiku flying backwards. Haiku searched the area for hours. Nothing.
The third time made Haiku feel sick. The hostage was holding her knees and slowly rocking back and forth on the floor. Dead bodies strewn across the room. Well, parts of bodies. Not a single one was intact other than the hostage's. The one armed man was on the floor slumped against a wall. He was covered in bullet holes. His arm drooped limply at his side. Bones sticking out. He still had a man's intestines clenched tightly in his fist. His jaw had been blown clean off. His tongue flapped against the open air.
The one armed man raised his head and made eye contact with Haiku. He seemed to try and say something. Blood gurgled out of the hole in his throat.
The one armed man pushed himself up. He shambled across the room.
Haiku didn't try and stop him as he went out the door.
Summer, fall, winter
Changes not only in spring
I can't close my eyes
"I can't," Haiku said.
Val pushed the folder across the desk. She motioned for Haiku to pick it up.
"You're not the first we've asked to do this."
Haiku opened the folder. Inside were pictures. Heroes. Broken. Haiku winced.
"He won't come peacefully."
"I can't," Haiku said.
"We understand you have history. We've waited this long on account of it. This is not a measure we wanted you to have to take."
"I can't," Haiku said.
"How many others need to be injured before you can?"
Haiku got a single punch in before the one armed man sent him flying into the wall.
Haiku stood on woozy feet. He looked up. The one armed man was facing him. Perfectly still.
"No," the one arm man said.
"No," the one arm man repeated.
"They want," Haiku stammered, "They want you to go away."
The one armed man didn't respond.
Haiku looked around. Blood. Bullet holes. Bodies.
"You can't keep doing this."
"No," the one armed man said quietly.
They stood in awkward silence.
"I won't stop," the one armed man said distantly.
"I know," Haiku whispered.
They made eye contact again. The one armed man took off his hat.
Atlas had the world
My shoulders, too, are weighed down
My burden, my Captain
…what have I done?
It can be said with some authority that Nathaniel Jarvis left nothing of value behind when he departed this world. In order to say that one would simply have to ignore several hundred billion in personal assets, and majority ownership of a AA ranked megacorporation. Nathaniel Jarvis was a businessman to the end. The "And Associates" part of "Jarvis and Associates" had long been replaced by a band of cringing sycophants, all of whom lived in mortal fear of their CEO. Nathaniel Jarvis was also the CFO and COO. And Associates might have been referred to as a group of Yes-Men, had there only been anything resembling a man left among them.
And Associates decided to do the only thing they were ever really good at. They made Nathaniel Jarvis money. They picked a struggling shell of a once-mighty corporation known as KOMBG (a name nobody ever really liked anyway,) and initiated a hostile takeover. Everything went swimmingly until the time came to finish the paperwork. You've heard it said "Dead men tell no tales." They also apparently have trouble signing notarized documentation for corporate mergers- although I suppose that makes for a slightly less elegant cliché.
And Associates needed a Jarvis. Jessica Pendleton was- by her own definition- no longer a member of that specific subset. It didn't matter to And Associates, they strongly felt a Jarvis-once-removed was Jarvis enough for them. Jessica Pendleton signed the paperwork, and promptly fired And Associates. They all agreed it was a brilliant political maneuver. Jessica now set about a new task: completely ruining both the reputation and portfolio of Jarvis and Associates. And Associates volunteered to resume their previous jobs at a significantly lower paygrade.
Jessica Pendleton decided to take a page from the playbook of her newest acquisition. The former (unfortunately named) KOMBG had pretty much written the book on Blatant Corporate Douchebaggery. The plan was a sure-fire stock market torpedo. Jarvis and Associates would put a price on the head of the most popular new hero in Khazan. And Associates told Jessica she would be surprised by what people would do for one hundred and fifty million dollars. Jessica said she already knew.
"You know my style. Quick and clean, no one gets hurt. Pretty sure I'm allergic to murder." Despite her attempt at injecting humor into the situation, the woman known as Novella was clearly outraged at her publisher's demands.
"Look dear," the silver-haired man said sweetly as he thumbed through Novella's latest draft. "this noble thief thing just doesn't sell books anymore. Your target audience is aging, and you know full well that young money is better than old money. You need to steal the hearts and imaginations of the new generation."
Novella turned her eyes away from her publisher's discerning face. She knew the novels she wrote about her criminal exploits hadn't been selling as well as in the past. Her husband had already left her for wealthier, sexier, younger Syndicate moll, leaving her with their two young children. She was on the brink of having her home foreclosed. Life was falling apart, and the only thing she could see that would break that fall is murder.
Novella sighed. "I've done my fair share of sins. What's one more?"
Her publisher smiled. "That's the attitude I like to see!"
"You're sure about this? You died the last time you were so…public. It's not like you to want money."
"I don't want the money. I need it." He lifted his right arm, detached and partly dismantled. "Supplies are low. Parts are low."
"He will despise you, if he sees who you are." Long ago, the Blood Man had used his own to clone himself. For conversation, for advice. He was long past anything that could be called a person, now, and he felt it best to be reminded of another angle to see things, were he still a person. "Of the people he's rescued from death, how many have you taken?"
"Six. He hasn't been a 'hero' for long." The Blood Man set his arm down, returning to the task of tightening springs, replacing screws, stacking blades.
"He knows they're gone. Five people, saved from a burning building. Four people, the papers say. You succeed because no one notices the extra missing from a disaster, but he sees the disaster. He notices the missing. How many taken from The Captains, over the years?"
There was a harsh whir as parts were activated and shrieked into life, reverberating in a faint echo throughout the chamber. The cylinders hummed, hundreds of them, fading into the distance of the massive, scarcely lit hall. Glass towers filled with blood in an endless red forest. "One hundred thirty three."
The clone sighed. "And they killed you twice." He was attached to an enormous machine, his flesh half devoured by tubes, wires and hooks. He'd never moved in his life, but still talked with his creator, unnaturally calm and sociable. "Maybe you can get the money somewhere else?"
With the closing of a thin panel, the loose arm was forcefully reconnected, shaking and grinding as if it were resisting its owner, before suddenly falling limp. The Blood Man's body ticked incessantly, dozens of mismatched rhythms clattering against one another. "Not just the money. I need his blood."
"Is it his prime already? There is…so little concept of time, here. You take all the clocks with you."
"Not his blood. The blood on his hands. Captain Khazan was before his time." He turned to look at the clone, his face a grotesque clockwork mockery of humanity. It was impossible to tell what was machine and what was man, or if there was even any of the latter left. "He wears the mask of a great hero. I want the blood on that mask. The blood he didn't want. The blood he didn't shed." He took his own mask from the table, a smooth, featureless black plastic shell.
"Can you take the old blood without killing the right blood?"
"It's just as well." The Blood Man locked the mask into place, putting on his dark coat and hat. In the shadows, he was mistakable as human. "A great hero…is a terrible person."
Jordana Penhale- executive receptionist at Jarvis and Associates- cocked an eyebrow as the mournful, awkward young woman shuffled toward her desk. Eye contact.
"Where is Haiku?" The girl’s demand was little more than a whisper, but the hushed tone did nothing to diminish her intensity.
Ms Penhale fixed with the girl with a withering stare. It was hard to do so, since the girl was so tiny, but as a corporate boardroom’s first line of defense in any and all negotiations, promised doom was something she had perfected.
"Presumably you read the press release, just like everyone else. No additional information is available."
"I'm sorry. I cannot read it."
“I beg your pardon?”
"Words hold no meaning to me anymore."
“Great. Whatever. Are we done here?”
“I’m going to kill Haiku.”
"Don't be stupid, kid. After he ties your arms in a knot and gives you up to the police, you'll be lucky to make it to a holding cell before the happy citizens under his protection lynch you. He's not human. You're not going to sneak up there and shoot him in the face."
"He would never hurt me," the girl whispered.
"Of course he wouldn't. Look, the contract is open to anyone. If you need someone to read the press release to you…"
The girl didn't answer. Ms Penhale was about to summon a security officer when she heard a cracking sound to the side. Frowning, she shifted her gaze. Several of her expensive fountain pens had been ripped open from the inside, and what looked like ink was snaking its way through the air. Then, with a sudden movement, the ink lengthened into an impossibly solid, quivering needle and drove half its length into the faux-mahogany desk. Quite the compelling argument.
"Latest intel indicates he's still holed up on the top floor of the Mile-High Casino. We confirm his death at your hands, you get a check with a fifteen followed by seven zeros. Good luck."
The girl had already turned away and was shuffling toward the elevators. Right before she opened the door, she looked back. "I don't want the money. I just want one thing."
“Yeah. Sure. Obviously. What exactly do you want that a hundred and fifty million dollars can’t do?”
"I want to die."
The City was abuzz. The majority of the criminal element was talking about the contract out on the new Capitan. A large portion of the population- specifically in and around Uptown- was talking about the Saint Anthony Killer.
These two topics came to a head at the southern border of Uptown and SciSec, where most of the upscale greaser gangs and wanna-be Syndicate members called their turf. Specifically a one young Jonnee Mallon's 2nd Street Steeljaws. The three of them, they weren't a particularly large gang but Jonnee had money so it didn't matter, were hanging around the 2nd Street Steel Mill talking about the recent goings on.
"So, you guyse hear about dis Saint Tony prick?" Jonnee said, voice as nasal as his hair was greasy. "Now dat's a class act!"
Something in the Mill stirred.
"Nah Jon, my family's been watchin the reports on that Cap Khazan debacle! That Vamp, Gray. A Zombie, some Poem Kid, and even that Limey Bastard were all duking it out. Don’t seem right the papers get to decide who the new Captain is.” Jimmy the Fish, one look at his face and the name was obvious. The Kid was born a Jimmy. "What's this St. Anthony guy all about?"
The stirring stopped, as though listening.
"Ain't Saint Anthony the Patron Saint of, like, Diseases and some sort of Firey Disaster or somethin'?" Little Bill didn't talk much but when he did it's because he knew something.
The stirring became a rattling.
Jonnee looked at Bill for a second. "Yeah, somethin' like that. They named him cause his victims are found charred husks. Just blackened bone. Freaky shit. How'd you know that Bill?"
"Eh, my Mom makes me study up." Bill shrugged.
"Hey, Hey! Know what'd be awesome?" Jimmy spoke up, wide eyes wild with excitement. "If we could get that Saint Anthony guy in on goin' after the New Cap! THAT would be a FIGHT!"
Deep in the mill, metal pulled itself together. From the aether a blue flame coalesced and a white suit covered a steel body.
Jonnee and Bill laughed in agreement. "Oh Man, could you imagine the Body Count!? Especially if Cap was that Gray Fell-URK!"
None of them saw it coming, stepping out of the darkness and clamping a gloved hand around Jonnee's throat. "Make it a Pact." A cold voice burbling from the domed glass head pressed against Jonnee's long nose. "Is it a Pact?"
Jonnee nodded in fright. "Y-yeah!"
"Good. I will kill The Captain." Saint Anthony said, dropping the greaser to the ground.
In his wake, the 2nd Street Steel Mill burned. Three bodies were found, flesh charred from their bones.
A White Suit walked the streets of Uptown towards the Grand Watermark.
"Cinquain? But, I've never seen you write poetry."
The well-dressed man smiled. "Have you ever seen Captain Khazan write poetry?"
"Precisely. What matters is that the name signifies my status as his nemesis. It wouldn't be proper for Haiku's greatest foe to be named something unrelatable, like Jonathan Verdunke Smythe or The Bonecrushinizer. Furthermore, 'Anti-Captain Khazan' was a horrible suggestion."
"Quite all right."
Cinquain's plebian associate thought for a moment. "But, is a proper name really that important? Shouldn't you be more worried about being able to beat him?"
"Sir... I believe you understand nothing of Khazan."
Sitting behind a mountain of blueprints and technical schematics, Novella pondered her plan of attack while sipping on a cup of herbal tea. As she sat her cup of tea down on the table, the door to her bedroom slowly started to open.
"Turner. Paige. You don't have to be sneaky like that, you two," she said to whomever was standing behind the door. "Just come in."
"We didn't want to bother you," Paige squeaked from behind the door.
"So you decided to spy on me?"
"It was her idea!" Turner said accusingly as he pointed at his twin sister.
Novella motioned for her kids to come sit on the bed with her as she looked over her plans.
"And see this here? This is the restroom that'll be my drop-off point. You know what a drop-off point is, right?"
"Yeah!" Paige squealed excitedly. "That's where your boss tells someone to leave your work stuff!"
"Show-off." Turner growled under his breath.
Novella patted Turner on the head. "Take a look at this page. Looking at this, can you tell me the best escape route?"
Turner dwelled on it for a moment before speaking up. "The vent!"
"Good choice." Novella responded earnestly. "But you also have to remember that the other guys are just as smart as you. I'd bet you that the vent has some sort of trap on it."
"No way!" Paige quipped. "No one's as smart as you!"
Turner groaned at his sister's enthusiasm. "If mom was so smart, why do you think dad..."
Novella quietly shushed Tuner before he said something they'd all regret. "Your brother is right, Paige. I always have to assume that the other guy is smarter than me."
"That's no fair!" Paige pouted.
"And that's what makes it fun!"
Jane was not a graceful woman; she never had been. When she jumped off the building it was not so much an elegant dive as it was a leap of faith.
She landed on the next building's roof in a tumbling roll, tucking her head instinctively for protection. Her shoulder clipped a sharp corner and she spun wildly, dangerously. A brand new handgun- earned by exaggerating her abilities- dug into her beltline as she rolled. The gunsmith didn't know what she was planning. Neither did Jane.
Jumping into the building was the best chance Jane figured she had for getting above the inevitable ground floor chaos. She briefly reflected on what it would feel like to free-fall down the side of the structure, for her body to be crushed against the sidewalk or someone's car. Would death come instantly, or would she have seconds of pain before being released? If only it were that easy.
She pulled herself to her feet, and stood on the theater roof facing the Mile-High Grand Watermark Hotel. Jane decided on a window, sprinted, and leaped. As she flew through the air she imagined she could see Haiku's handsome face in a high window, gazing wistfully outside. Jane's heart rose. She was fated to meet him, she knew it. Then…she would spend eternity with him.
Jane regained awareness just in time to shield her face with her arms as she crashed through the hotel window. She felt the shattered glass tear at her soft skin. Her tailspin painted the crème-colored carpet with blood and brushed glass. Fighting through the pain Jane lifted herself to her feet, she watched her skin cells duplicated over her wounds. Her cancer- deadly, incurable, and in nearly every organ of her body- was saving her again. It was why she decided to throw herself off that building, why she had seen Haiku. She knew she was going to die. It was much better to write the details herself.
As she stood her gaze settled on the room’s single, massive occupant. Jane recognized him as a mercenary. The hunting knife was a helpful clue. Kill or be killed. Jane drew her gun.
Gavet had been surprised at quite how quickly things had gone sour.
The plan had been for the two of them to stroll quickly and quietly to the elevators. He figured they would hit a shit storm sooner or later but he had hoped they would at least get a little closer to the top floor.
Nope. Ground level.
At the door, Adlai was already a jittery mess.
As they walked through the lobby, Adlai was clenching his fists so hard his knuckles were white.
When they reached the lounge area Gavet still hoped they would make it to the elevators undisturbed.
The So-called C.B.U.B. had been up to that point something of an inconvenience to the hotel staff. Upon entering the lounge area themselves, they had begun screaming obscenities, knocking over tables, pushing patrons around, and generally just being terrible hotel guests. Security had formed a circle around them but couldn't quite get their hands on any one member.
Adlai glanced at the ruckus, walked another two steps, and stopped.
Katherine surveyed the casino, where the hotel lobby began bleeding into endless rows of slot machines and low-stakes blackjack tables. At the oval bar, a gentleman caught her eye. He was stirring his martini with the olive as he spoke with the bartender.
The vision from several days back, there was the face but she couldn't recall the name.
She shook it off.
A crowd was gathered in the lobby as she entered. Several belligerent guests were speaking in tongues and giving the hotel staff a general hard time. What they were saying wasn't very comprehensible, but there was some meaning behind the gibberish.
It was infuriating the security guards. Oddly, that felt like it was the meaning.
Across and over to the elevators, Katherine moved quickly. She pushed the button to go up. Waited. Stood.
The gunshots sent a slight jump through her back. It was coming, she knew, but the anticipation welled in her nerves a little just the same.
From out near the lobby it echoed. The spray of bullets sounded like they were coming from a semi-automatic weapon. As she turned her head, slowed the scene down, took it in, she saw it as she had seen before. It was just one man with a revolver.
The elevator, it was never going to work anyway.
The awkward young girl hesitated at the edge of the casino proper. The coins in the slots were of no use to her, nor were the poker chips at the betting tables. The cashier’s cage, however, was full of good, old fashioned paper money. The girl- who would’ve called herself Ink if anyone would’ve asked- found a seat at a table nearby and waited. Nobody asked. For a famous luxury resort and casino, the Watermark seemed remarkably short-staffed today. She waited. It started as a small disruption, a group of casino patrons regarding the foul-mouthed rabble with casual interest from the safety of their Roulette table. Then someone started firing a gun. Before Ink could summon a single drop, a strong arm picked her up from behind and pulled her into the employee-only stairwell.
“This way miss. Not to worry, the evacuation plan is in effect.”
To her amusement Ink found herself being herded up a flight of stairs with several frightened hotel guests by SLJ personnel. She was going to have to lose them eventually, but there was no sense turning down an armed escort for the time being.
Novella smiled as she thought about her children. It was for their sake that she was slinking around in a bathroom stall, waiting for her contact to arrive with her "writing supplies."
"The Queens watch us all," a voice whispered from the next stall. Novella's attention piqued as she recognized the voice. It was her husband's Syndicate tramp.
"But we should never watch back," Novella responded in a growl.
A black suitcase slid into Novella's stall. She stares at the case, wary of touching it.
"I'm... I'm sorry," the voice cried.
"I am. Trust me. But first, let me brief you on..."
"Get on with it." Novella opened the case and glanced over the weaponry. Pistol, ammo, knives, hacking equipment, assorted gear, and several bullets glazed in various neon colors.
"The green one is an anti-flyer round. Binds the target to the ground by summoning earth spirits. The spirits wrap around the target and try to drag him into the spirit world. They'll dissipate before they can do the deed, but the process'll leave the target grounded for as long as you need to do the job.
"The blue ones are to deal with his attitude. Bastard won't be able to go off on you and let his emotions run rampant. This sucker is filled with snow faerie blood. If that stuff comes in contact with non-fae skin, it sends the target into a euphoric and contented state. Won't keep him from smacking your head in, but he won’t be able to draw strength from his rage.
"And the orange ones deal with the speedster crap. A time imp is stored inside each bullet, and when the bullet hits its target the imp is freed. The bastard warps back to whatever hell he's from, but his very presence disrupts people's place in space-time. He'll still think he's moving at super-quick speeds, but due to his displacement you'll see him just fine."
"Good job." Novella said reluctantly.
"Thanks. Anyway, he left me barely two weeks after the divorce. He's sleeping with one of the Queens last I heard. Bastard."
Novella laughed. "Bastard indeed!"
"Before I forget, take this." A hand reached over from the other stall. In its palm was a silencer. "Probably not necessary..."
"But you can never be too safe." Novella said as she took the silencer from her former nemesis' hand. She then grasped her new friend's hand and gave it a friendly squeeze. "Thanks a lot, and get out of here before things get nasty. With this bounty I'm sure all kinds of freaks and murderers are already lining the casino floor."
"Already on it." The hand phased out of view, leaving a purple mist in its wake.
Mercy, the Deliberate Blade, had sneaked into the Watermark using a song meant only for the guard he played it for. The hotel security officer that had led him up the back stairs was now dead and dreaming, just as Lovecraft had written. Mercy listened for the music of death, but only heard slow, cautious footsteps. He saw Jane coming up the stairs before him. She stopped when she saw him.
"You have come to kill him." said Mercy, absentmindedly fondling his own blade. The blonde nodded forlornly. They didn't need to clarify.
"...I love him." said the woman. Mercy was surprised; this response may just as well have come from his own lips. He gazed into her eyes. They were tidepools, twin Charybdean emeralds boiling with emotion, perfectly still with determination. He could see pain, exquisite pain behind her eyes. Mercy could not fathom everything this woman had been through. His smiling heart ached for her.
"My dear lady..." asked Mercy so quietly as to almost not be heard. "May I ask you your name?"
Jane answered back flatly, the little emotion in her voice not betraying the feelings in her eyes.
"I see..." Mercy's sword began to sing. "Jane...You do not deserve the pain. I must put you to sleep...Because I love you, as well."
Jane's expression did not change, and her resolve did not falter. She simply raised her gun and fired.
Just after noon on Thursday, Ms Penhale was called into the executive boardroom of Jarvis and Associates. This had been happening a lot lately, and the new CEO had made no effort to hide the fact that she was aggressively trying to bankrupt the AA ranked megacorporation. It was hard to work for someone who was trying to terminate your employment, but Ms Penhale was a professional. Besides, Jessica Pendelton had made skimming off the top mandatory for all salaried employees. In four months she had put away nearly triple her annual salary. Who was she to argue with the boss?
“Jordana, call Daniel and let him know I’ll be home early tonight. Have our brokers buy out the remaining stockholders; once we have a controlling interest sell at 10% of market value. Don’t sell more than half of the shares, though- it wouldn’t do for someone to gain majority control and stop me from running this company into the ground. Contact Senator Cale’s office and let them know I’ll meet him Uptown tomorrow to discuss the terms of our arrangement. What is the update on the Watermark?”
“Shooting just started in the lobby ma’am. Evacuation is underway, SLJ has surrounded the plaza and sealed the exits. But Ma’am…”
“What is it, Jordana?”
“Ma’am, Mr. Van Sant went to the Watermark this morning to finalize the purchase agreements. He hasn’t returned yet.”
"You've got to laugh a little… cry a little… and let the clouds roll by a little…"
The irony wasn't lost on Daniel Van Sant as he hid behind the nigh indestructible jukebox that was somehow stuck on "songs that hit too close to home." This had not been in the plan. Getting shot at rarely is, but the Scotsman had been forthcoming about the potential repercussions of even the best laid plans.
"…travelin' tonight on a plane…"
The jukebox took another salvo, and switched mid-verse to yet another uncomfortably relevant song. This was going to be a long evening.
The Gray Lady watched him, and wondered if they were all like this. His story had already ended. Why was he here? What unfinished business kept him relevant, even after his time was up? She didn't know, but she liked the idea. Unfortunately he wasn’t right for the part. This one had too much expository baggage- the narrative needn’t be mired in such a preponderance of back-story. She knew this would happen. Conflict is part of the rising action. So be it. The Jukebox switched songs again.
"…Oh Danny boy, the pipes the pipes are calling…"
Posted 12 October 2009 - 10:00 PM
BEST LAID PLANS
There are heroes and then there are Sentinels. At first glance the distinction seems fleeting, but Haiku was feeling it now, and the accompanying burden that nested at its' core. He looked around the room: names and faces he recognized from the front page in his youth, others altogether unfamiliar. A small farm of random monitors displayed terabytes of shifting technical errata and held live video streams from dozens of rooms and hallways within the Grand Watermark. Dr. Alan Bedot, formerly the armored supersoldier Albedo, sat in his wheelchair like a starship captain, calculating risk and loss, commanding units to strategic fallback positions, attempting to curtail what casualties they could. Next to him sat Rez, not speaking but working from his tiny laptop to restructure the building in new and unique ways that kept it standing in spite of massive structural damage. Across the room Beryl the Shining Lady floated, singing softly. Her songs guided a covert battalion of ghosts and healers around the Hotel's lower levels, stemming the loss of life in any way possible. Albedo argued briefly in a hushed voice with one of the monitors and Haiku recognized the handiwork of Cortex, sentient digital intelligence and retired ruler of Savage Ombali. Haiku watched on one of the monitors as a trio of Cortex drones rushed to the middle of the Grand Ballroom. Back to back to back, they slowly began to subdue the various combatants dug in around the perimeter.
"I should be out there."
Haiku's comment went seemingly unnoticed by the inhabitants of the room. James Monroe, the original Captain Equinox, looked up from his tablet PC and locked eyes with the young hero. There was a quiet sadness about him, and Haiku's memory flashed visions from his youth. There were the two of them side by side, the original Captain Khazan and the original Captain Equinox; comrades, saviors, and brothers. Dr. Bedot addressed the room.
"They're trying to stackjam the teleport uplink with pinpoint static. Fix it."
A nine foot tall Benedictine monk wordlessly loped over to a control panel. Haiku recoiled slightly as the man's arm burst into a writing mass of cords, which began plugging themselves into the wall. A small sequestered ring of couches held a hushed conversation. Elwin motioned for Haiku to join her on the couches. Clockwise to her right sat James Monroe, then the esteemed Dr. Timothy sipping tea and poring over a refreshed data set, then Trevor Cale, the SLJ's chief Bureaucrat, and his assistant Val Britton. Haiku spoke to the assembled group before sitting down.
"I really should be out there."
"No, you shouldn't."
Val was the first to answer. Val Britton, once known as the costumed superheroine Mouse, had been his main SLJ contact before all this; before the papers crowned him the new Captain Khazan. She was the one who had asked him to do the unthinkable act that led to both the media circus and- ironically- to his ascension into the upper echelons of the SLJ. He resented her and she knew it, but they were both Sentinels and that was bigger than either of them. Trevor Cale, her boss and mentor, took over for her.
"We've got things under control down there. We're really lucky that we were able to confine most of the destruction to the lower levels. Rez is rewriting the building, many of the assassins have already been arrested or neutralized, and we've only lost four of ours. The fact that they're all working their way to a single point works to our distinct advantage, which is why all of Khazan thinks you're at the top of that hotel. All things considered…"
"Make that three, my good sir." Dr. Timothy interjected. "Pardon for the interruption, Professor Cale, but Helia just isolated and removed the last shard from the echoing grenade, and with my help Patterson will pull through."
"Duly noted. We've got things covered down there. Lucid and Nurse Helia are our on-site liaisons. We're herding them toward the top floor, closing off everything below them and keeping evac at least three floors ahead. We're curbing the bloodshed when we can, but first priority is civilians and our own people. The last thing we need is an impromptu display of gatecrashing heroics. Think what this would be like if these monsters had been allowed to tear up the city in search of you. We got the Carnage guy early on, and the rest of them are all confined to a single building."
"One death in my place is one too many. There has to be something I can do…"
Haiku's eyes raced around the circle. Everyone's gaze projected knowing sympathy, a recognition of the frustration he was feeling. He saw real people then, in all of them. There was Elwin the fierce aging mother, James with an iron will and a failing body, and Trevor the silver tongued peacemaker perpetually running from his past. He even saw it in Mouse; who knew he would perceive her look as condescending and instead diplomatically averted her gaze. The eldest member of the circle spoke.
"There are two things you can do, and if you're truly worthy of the title they've pinned to you, you'll find a way to do both of them."
Elwin D'Larthi was many things: mother, warrior, and the closest thing the SLJ had to royalty. Everyone waited for her to continue.
"First, you'll trust your teammates. As long as I've been a Sentinel- which is a long time by anybody's reckoning- this group has survived because those who are a part of it have depended on one another. And second…" She paused, pursing her lips and slowly drawing a quivering breath through her nose. "You'll learn that you can't save them all."
Slowly, very slowly, the elevator door opened. Father Faust- The Priest of Pain- slid to the floor, bloody beads from his broken rosary leaving sanguine stripes across the polished glass floor as they rolled. Novella noticed a platinum High Roller Suite keycard resting limply in the pocket of his bullet riddled cassock. It seemed fortune was smiling at her after all. She hadn't been looking forward to climbing sixty floors of gunplay and mayhem, and now she didn't have to. Down the hall an engraved mahogany door with gold inlay, carved by an underappreciated eighteenth century Italian master, was being gradually reinterpreted into a pile of burning slag. There was Charlie. Novella watched the hall's chic bioluminescent wallpaper peel and wither around him, and then in an instant he knew what she had and she knew what he wanted. The two stared silently at one another for a moment, and Novella made a mental note not to overplay the high noon angle when she wrote this down later… if she lived that long.
Safe for a moment, Katherine paused, let her pulse slow. She let her thoughts calm, and then focus. Possibilities flickered. Out through the lobby was the one man arsenal. Down… down through the garage something felt wrong. It felt like a beating heart ticking closer to death. A dark collection of stolen power, cut and roughly forced together like some grinding horrible grandfather clock, feeding on the assembled masses even as it discarded them. In her mind’s eye she saw the twisted image take a crude form- that of a man. As she watched it, she realized the thing was staring back. A single word formed in her mind. Run.
Up she went, no longer seeking but once again running. One flight, two… She made it up a third flight before the explosion ruptured from below.
Blood. So much blood.
Blood mixed with fire as the entity known as St. Anthony climbed ever upward. The previously alabaster service stairway had become a blackened cave of immolation. Below him the stairwell warped and crossed itself in creative ways. It wasn’t from the heat. St. Anthony knew someone was fixing the building, ensuring the structure’s survival. It wasn’t something he could concern himself with. Heat rises, inevitably.
Tabuki Samma’s holy cloth had been enchanted to resist steel, but not fire, and as such The Patron Saint of Cataclysm had made short work of the painted warrior. Soban the Tinkerer had yet to present himself in person, but his army of incredibly lifelike golems had all displayed the same left-side blind spot. St. Anthony dropped the smoldering husk of his most recent cremation. A powerful will still occluded his path.
In the mixing haze above him, a slight, effeminate form mingled with the smoke. The storyteller was angry. Alexandria Icon had a marked dislike of fire.
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
Sometimes fate demands a high body count. Cinquain reflected on this as another two score thugs in white tuxedos and traditional Greek oratory masks rushed by him to take up positions around the craps tables. The Great Dionysia was not a well known gang in Khazan, but there certainly were a lot of them, for all the good that did. When Cinquain first saw the screaming sharpshooter, he had sneered at the sheer number of bullets he was carrying for his custom single-action revolver. Did he really plan to use them all? Cinquain's answer came in the form of another salvo, and a half dozen fresh bodies bleeding out on the Vandemar Pearl. Cinquain was keeping the count of dead Dionysians: eighteen comedy masks, twenty three tragedy. Cinquain still needed a weapon, and the revolver had certainly proven its' effectiveness thus far.
The bodies continued to hit the floor, but those were no longer what Cinquain was counting... Four, Five, Six, Seven... there it is. Heh, an extra shot... He had to admit, the old warhorse's skills were amazing. As he picked off a white tuxedo from a fallen goon and put on the jacket over his own, he noted the shot lodged perfectly in the center of the mask. They were always perfectly in the center of the mask. Not only was he a good shot, his reload time was remarkably short... but it was there. Cinquain predicted the next one almost to a second as he crouched down next to a group of thugs hiding behind an overturned craps table. "Hey, I seem to have lost my mask, mind if I borrow yours?"
"You lost it? What? ....Yeah, go ahead. This guy's crazy, I'm not stickin' my head out there." Several of the other goons seemed to nod in agreement. Cinquain looked around discerningly; the gang's numbers were dwindling rapidly, he'd have to move quickly. "Alright, look, I've got an idea. Everyone grab an extra mask for decoys, there's plenty lying around." The goon who had loaned him a mask balked. "Hey, why'd you take mine then? I don't wanna use one with a hole already in it." Cinquain shrugged. "Think of it as me doing you a favor. Since yours will have a hole in it, he probably won't shoot you."
The goon grinned. "Oh yeah, heh, good thinkin! Sucks to be you though." Cinquain smiled from under the mask. "I guess so..." Right before the others charged, he made one extra adjustment, slipping off the white jacket and, with his right hand, "wearing" it carefully around his left arm and head, his left hand holding his mask up through the neck. It wasn't perfect, but in the heat of battle it would suffice. The goons charged, and Cinquain made his move.
And so it went. Jane pressed forward, her grim determination slowly being chipped at by the horrific orchestrated violence that seemed to engulf everything around her. The world was slowly dying and Jane was slowly dying, and none of it seemed right. She took a shot at the new girl and missed, putting a respectable hole in the hotel's concierge desk. Splinters of wood and graphite flew through the air. Ink cursed her luck.
"Why did they have to use pencils?"
Swirls of ink snaked through the air as Jane blasted away at the disfigured young woman. The swirling ink blocked and deflected the slugs, and sharp ebony knives of liquid stabbed at Jane, forcing her back into a wall.
Click. Dry gun. She cursed and fumbled for another magazine. She had just managed to drop the spent magazine and reseat a new one when she heard a whistling.
Impossibly solid spears of ink stabbed her through the torso, pinning her to the wall. She hissed in pain as her gun fell out of her nerveless hand. The strange girl gestured, and another needle formed in front of her face, quivering. "Forgive me," the girl said somberly. "I just want to die."
Gnashing her teeth, Jane struggled to wrench her arm under her coat. "Guess what?" She grasped the butt of the shotgun. Praying that there was already a shell in the chamber she whipped the weapon out and leveled at the other girl. She pulled the trigger.
The primer ignited and expelled the white phosphorous, sending out a tongue of flame at Ink. The disfigured girl reflexively culled the liquid back to her, forming a barrier against the heat. It held for an instant before the water boiled away, leaving steam and inert dust to fall to the ground.
Free of the spears holding her to the wall, Jane lunged forward and snatched up her fallen pistol. "So do I."
She fired three times, each bullet plowing into Ink's body. With a wet gasp the other girl toppled over. Black ichor oozed from Ink’s body, permeating the deep pile carpeting. Jane stood over her, gun trained on her head.
The disfigured girl gave a weak smile. "Thank you."
They say frustration can make your blood boil. If they only knew. The Blood Man hacked his way through the Satellite Sisters, and Johnboy’s impenetrable iron lung was now a coffin. The girl, however, was giving him trouble. She moved quickly and deliberately; each impossible action twisting her figure into the perfect evasive shape. He could feel her calm, calculating rhythm, it permeated the air. Clairvoyant blood, even that beyond its prime, certainly had its' uses. Time to collect.
Katherine spun again, leaning back as a series of knives lodged themselves into the wall behind her. She was running out of room fast. Her instincts screamed at her. Up. Straight Up. She glanced upward but saw nothing. The ceiling. No room to teleport. She had to trust. A leap of faith. The Blood Man’s body erupted in an orgy of blades and gears, just as an explosion blew the doors off the elevator. The doors passed inches below her just as she reached the apex of her jump, and slammed into the Blood Man, knocking him across the hall. Katherine knew an exit when she saw one, and wasted no time on her landing. She vaulted straight into the elevator shaft, extending her arm just in time to grasp a stray cable. The cable’s momentum jerked her upward, and Katherine held on for dear life.
As the smoke cleared, a strange silence took its place, and the Blood Man shifted his attention to the surroundings. An ordinary hotel likely would have collapsed by now under the strain this one was bearing, but it didn't even groan. He watched the burnt bits of paint flake away from what should have been the charred and bare innards of the wall. The building seemed to watch back, intentionally holding still, like a hunter holding his breath and trying not to rustle a bush. For a brief moment, the squeal of protesting metal broke the silence as a saw-shaped gear met one of the holes in his body instead of the matching part it was expecting.
The Blood Man was not a fool, nor was the promising threat of danger or success moving enough to distract him. He could see the jaws of a trap.
His body ticked and whirred, and he turned his empty gaze upward, concentrating on the blood above. An unpleasant assortment was converging. Could he pass or kill them? A gear spun out of place and was reset. It didn't matter. This would not be his day. His presence would only worsen the odds of the conflict ending in his favor, alongside the odds that he wouldn't emerge intact. More blood seemed to spin in a strange pattern below, following, waiting. The trap had a pulse, too. Countless methods were being taken to hide those in both directions, and though he could see, he could not follow. No, a simple exit down the stairs was not an option either. He wasn't so proud as to deny when he had to escape.
But, there was something he had to know first. He focused on the inside of the building's workings, listening to the brick and mortar and steel that shifted even now, blurred by other things he couldn't see or understand. His own internal mechanisms gradually realigned themselves, attempting to merge with the hotel, until he and the hallway clicked in time: two meshing gears in one giant machine. He stretched his arm out to the side, the hand folding in on itself and sliding into the arm itself, as several large blades dislodged themselves from hiding and took its place, forming a simple drill. Letting even the weapon spin in time, the Blood Man drove his arm up to the shoulder into the wall.
A deep, muffled groan echoed through the stillness of the hallway. The Blood Man dug the fingers of his free hand into the wall to brace himself, head snapping back as he remembered pain. He forced his awareness further, his thoughts a maelstrom of winding, colliding gears. He found something within the building, something aware of itself, aware of him and of the blood that resonated within its rooms. Hearts beat in the tune of the ticking of clocks, set at birth, winding down to a certain time. He searched for the pulse of a specific timeline, listened to it, and made his prediction. It would not end here. There would be other chances. That was all he wanted to know, but he stayed in place for a moment too long.
Every technician in the SLJ War Room turned in disbelief. It was the first word Rez had spoken in days. He smiled as his fingers became a blur. He had been tracking the two anomalies since their arrival, but he couldn’t get a steady fix on either one, until now. The hallway went silent once again, the Blood Man watched familiar trappings of the Grand Watermark disappear, only to be replaced by the familiar white shimmer of bernoullium-laced ionized plasteel. XD Detention Center. Maximum Security Wing. No arrest, no trial, just a one-way ticket to a secret extranormal holding facility. The Blood Man roared. Nobody heard him.
The Art Deco glass and steel arched entrance on the Zeppelin Dock looked exactly the same as Lucid remembered it from "All in the April Evening," (not the crappy remake, but the original with Sophie Nouveau and Gordon Klein.) Had the weather suppression engines still been turned on, she might've admired the way the city lights gently rose through the night haze to dance at her feet like a mirrored sky. As it was, the wind's roar enveloped her senses and buffeted her thoughts. She finished loading the last of the evacuees- the hotel's chief security officers had been reluctant to leave- into the armored transport. The elderly pilot winked at her and fixed his steely gaze on the twilight horizon. Artie Britton was a retired cab driver and local folkhero up in the Spires. He was also widely regarded as one of the best pilots in Khazan. She felt a kindred spirit in the spry septuagenarian, someone who loved the sky the way she did. It was too windy for words, but his wry, tenacious grin as he coaxed the clunky hovercraft into the mercurial night wind put her mind at ease. Evacuation complete, she turned her thoughts to the situation inside.
Marley Monroe, heir to the mantle of Captain Equinox, took up position next to her as they cut across the empty skystation atrium. After the gale on the dock, the terminal's silence was utterly unnerving. Lucid realized she had been subconsciously hovering- a nervous habit- and lowered herself into a brisk walk.
"Do you think he's cute?"
The question caught Lucid off guard. Marley was a couple years younger than her, and new to her role as a Legacy, but they had bonded quickly and were prone to candid girl-talk while in the field. The current situation, however, warranted the kind of operational focus Marley was still unaccustomed to. She continued to talk.
"Lucy? Do you think Haiku is cute? I mean, Jamie's pretty hard on him but I think he's still getting over the whole thing."
Marley Monroe was the only person in the world who could get away with calling her older brother "Jamie." He was, by turns, the only person who ever called her "Madison."
"I don't know. Maybe. Listen Marley, Dr. Albedo wants us to get to the stained glass greenhouse and establish a defensible position, so we can use the Mile High Penthouse as a fallback."
Marley understood all the things Lucid didn't say. She nodded, furrowing her brow in an outward display of focus, and the two turned toward the piano-key switchback staircase at the opposite end of the atrium. Lucy smiled in spite of herself, and Marley couldn't resist reveling in the moment of sisterhood.
"I think he's cute."
The last few members of The Great Dionysia seemed smarter than the rest. It didn't matter. Adlai blasted each mask, decoy or no, swiftly and efficiently. He reloaded and unloaded; one of the leads already had a hole in his mask; Adlai put a bullet straight through the hole. The last round in the chamber hit the last gang member in the room so hard it blew his head clean off.
Then the headless man somehow punched Adlai in the gut and grabbed his revolver.
The shock of such a thing happening seemed to cause the gunman to freeze in his tracks. Cinquain was expecting a fight, but the man just stood there, as if the gun was actually his heart and soul. "Well, it wasn't THAT impressive... hmm, there was something else..."
Behind him, Gavet rose, a handgun pointed at Cinquain. "I knew it! I knew you weren't just some random guy wandering around... well, too bad for you." Gavet was about to pull the trigger when a bottle of wine suddenly *clonked* him on the back of the head. He fell over, out cold.
"Ah, right on schedule." Cinquain adjusted his clothes as the bartender put the bottle aside and took Gavet's handgun. "Oh sure... I bet you 'planned' that as well, right?"
The well-dressed man discarded the white jacket and picked some ammunition from the stiff assassin. "Destiny, my friend. Quickly now, the night is still young, and there are already several others ahead of us."
Pashki watched the two chatty Sentinels ascend the staircase. He smirked, or he would've smirked, if he still had a mouth. Pashki was a rug. He had been delivered two days earlier, and was in a good deal of pain because of it. The full body tattoo hadn't had time to heal properly. The vacuuming had been excruciatingly painful, and the trampling airship passengers were even less fun. Still, when you're in that much pain, not having a mouth is a blessing.
Pashki worked his way back to human- a process that took a full minute and ended with him naked and vomiting. Pashki's mouth still remembered its grin. He reached up to the house phone and dialed an outside line.
"Heroes aren't the only ones with friends." He thought.
Minutes later a very expensive, very stolen stealth helicopter landed the airship mooring pad after only the second try. Toc Darkone stepped off the landing pad with an icy confidence born of calculated risk. The SLJ's strategy hadn't been hard to figure out. They'd focus first on evacuating the innocents, and then use the building's structure to their advantage, funneling and diverting the various would-be assassins upward, securing the levels below one at a time as the self-diminishing destructive force climbed ever skyward. Their error was in their caution. The SLJ- ever concerned with protecting their own- was staying a full three floors below the ascending combatants. As long as someone was still fighting on the skystation level, the Sentinels wouldn't move beyond it. As the ill-fated melee clambered skyward, anything left in their wake was ripe for the taking. While this didn't exactly include the casino vault, the suites on the concierge levels of the Grand Watermark were renowned for their ostentations. The artwork alone was well worth the risk, to say nothing of the other furnishings and the personal valuables left behind by the evacuees.
Faster Pussycat had been skeptical of the plan when he had first proposed it, but she reasoned that if you were going to stoop to what was essentially looting, you might as well loot in style. The Marauders- or what little was left of them after the Syndicates staged their coup- were in need of a windfall- both financially and in terms of morale- and this was right up their alley. Mayfield had been giving the crew a crash-course in on-the-fly appraisal. Those Marauders with a discerning eye had quickly proved their value, and Toc was currently flanked by two of the best: Dodger and Lynde. Behind them walked Killjoy and Staccato, whose job was to provide enough carnage to keep the SLJ from advancing.
With a wave of his hand Toc dismissed Pashki, who left in search of a bathrobe and a bottle of mouthwash. Killjoy, a “Legacy” in his own right, (having forcefully inherited the name from his predecessor,) extended the tripod base on the first of a dozen sentry guns. Toc nodded in approval. The Syndicates may have all but replaced the Marauders on the front page, but the one thing they could never emulate was style.
"Time to go to work."
Novella’s previous adventure had taken her to a cloud kingdom above Kyoto that could only be accessed through the power of Love. That was a far cry from the sobering mix of hedonism and carnage she was witnessing now on the upper concierge levels. A shower of blood and steel teeth clattered against the fractured liquid matrix television she was using as cover. Someone- or something- had finally been fast enough to cold cock the pennywhistle techno-vampire. Until that point, the vamp had a number of would-be assassins- including herself- pinned down around the Watermark Spa’s mudbath and leechpool. A sickening crunch told her that whoever stopped her assailant also had sufficient strength to crack the exoskeleton of a next generation cybervamp. This wasn’t something she could handle alone.
There was a giant albino reptile oozing life in the far corner. She knew- and hated- the drone of his transwarp handcannon. That weapon would certainly do the job, but his accuracy left something to be desired. He was never going to hit unless she gave him a stationary target. Novella eyed the case of orange-glazed rounds- the ones that could immobilize Haiku. Part of maternal instinct is knowing when to play your Ace. She gave a quick peek to get a fix on the target. A flawless bronze-skinned titan towered ominously over the broken body of the techno-vampire. In a second he would re-accelerate, and her kids would become orphans. She had to take the shot now. She took all six, just to be sure.
When a time imp is released from prison, its second instinct is to warp directly back to its’ home dimension, temporarily distorting local spacetime. The idea is that this impedes high-velocity movement for a few second. This was the intended effect of the weapon, and for all intents and purposes it served that function. What the bullets’ engineers never bothered to mention was that a time imp’s first instinct- in nearly every situation- is to scream. Listening to imp speech has been compared to the sensation of biting down on a high speed dental drill. An angry imp shriek is that with inflection, and Novella had let six go at once. Demons, unlike angels, don’t traditionally sing in choirs, but for one brief moment four would-be assassins on the Spa level of the Grand Watermark Resort and Casino got a glimpse of what that would be like. The lurking Needleback died nearly instantly: a victim of naturally heightened senses. The statuesque, bronze superman in the middle of the room tore his ears off in agony. Novella clutched her own skull, doubling over as the malevolent dischord battered her sanity. The jarring buzz and crackle of the transwarp handcannon was- at that moment- the sweetest sound Novella had ever heard. As what was left of the bronze titan spilled to the ground, the room filled with the most blessed, blissful silence. Seconds passed as the two surviving killers savored the calm. Eventually the albino lizard growled at her.
“You still alive girl? Listen, it’s yours. I’m not going to shoot at you. Just promise me you’ll never do that again.”
Novella tossed the remaining fistful of orange rounds into the mudbath before moving on.
Posted 12 October 2009 - 10:01 PM
Cinquain hefted some munitions onto his shoulders. Discarding the gentlemanly coat, he was donning the full metal jacket. It was adaptation to fit the situation. Glancing upward he noticed the girl, she was caught in a brief moment of thought. It was somewhat unusual for your professional cold-blooded killer. Perhaps she wasn't very long in the job. Regardless, they were all wrapped up in this game of fate now. She could have been lucky in that last encounter. She'd moved far enough along the board and encountered someone unfamiliar with the rules, thereby pulling an unexpected en passant.
An idea came to mind.
"You know, if you just keep standing around, you're never going to get to the top." Jane's thoughts were interrupted by a well-armed man standing across the hallway. An associate behind him looked around nervously. "There's going to be another group of guards pouring out from the stairwell next to you in approximately two minutes. Unless you have a death wish, I'd highly suggest you keep moving."
Jane regarded the man curiously. Was he not here to kill Haiku as well, and if so, why inform her of the situation?
"Assume I have a death wish." Her hand fidgeted, ready to draw and fire if necessary.
"I don't know if you're after him for money, fame, or personal reasons, but I'll tell you this right now: the way you're going, you're never going to reach Haiku before they get you. None of us will. Perhaps you haven't noticed, but the number of assassins in this building has dwindled considerably in the last hour or so, while security and Sentinel presence has increased. I'm starting to think this whole scenario was a set up... but I believe there is still time. Fighting each other, getting picked off one-by-one, we'll all end up dead or in jail, while Haiku will sit pretty at the top. But... working together..." He held out his hand as a token gesture, though they were still some distance away.
Jane was, reasonably, untrusting. "Won't you just stab me in the back once we get to him?"
He shrugged. "Admittedly, you have no reason to trust me, save that I could've shot you while you were lost in thought. I didn't. If you so desire, we can shoot each other in the back later, but better that than be eliminated here." She still seemed hesitant. "...Fine. But we've no time for duels. If you don't want to join us, stay here if you like and face more heroic goons, but we're taking another route up. It's your choice..."
The odd man and his companion kept walking, past a doorway dividing the hallway. The man's companion turned back to look at the still motionless woman. "Keep walking," whispered Cinquain.
Jane made her decision. She fixed her eyes on the pair in front of her and advanced. The wall to her left began to rumble. A very blue explosion swelled within the doorframe for a moment before erupting into the hallway, breaking glass and parts of Jane too. The burst of energy was relatively small, but the shockwave was enough to send her straight out the window of the 206th floor.
Cinquain began running. His compatriot, unable to keep up, shouted ahead. "That--that was yours, wasn't it," he gasped, "you made her think so she wouldn't move until…"
Cinquain mused. "Not one of mine. I honestly could’ve used the help. Ah well. Guess it saves us having to kill her in the end."
Jane flew. She began plunging, her hair flapping in the wind. She saw the ground, so far away. She was dimly aware she had let go of her gun at some point. Jane drew a cleansing breath as she fell three quarters of a mile straight down. It wasn't quite what she wanted, but at least it would all end. She spread her arms, then withdrew them. She didn't want any cross symbolism.
And Jane fell, simply, quietly. She was at peace.
"You can't save them all."
The words echoed in Haiku's head as he stood silently beside the woman who had spoken them. Together they watched Field Surgeon Helia's report on the wounded. Thanks to some unexpected intervention by an unnamed holy man, both SLJ and KPD deaths were surprisingly low. Low is a relative term in casualty ratings, and given the nature of the incident Haiku was having trouble accepting one hundred seventy one dead and an unknown number of wounded as any kind of victory. A sickening crunch offscreen caused Helia to look up in alarm, and then immediately avert her eyes. The pained look on her face told everyone what they needed to know. Someone had fallen from way, way up. One hundred seventy two.
On another screen Dr. Bedot coached the on-site team at the entrance to the penthouse, while James Monroe stood uncomfortably close over his right shoulder. Lucid, Marley, and the handful of remaining Cortex drones had been joined by Solarwind. James Gerard was barely out of his teens, but he'd already been a hero far longer than Haiku. Trevor Cale had been pushing the Legacies into action as a cohesive unit, and the public was starting to see them as the new face of the Sentinels. The man who now held the title of Captain Khazan didn't know whether or not he belonged on that team, but he knew he needed to be there. Slowly, cautiously he eyed the teleporter.
The Point to Point teleportation technology had once proven the Achilles' heel of the SLJ- nearly destroying the entire organization. As a result, use had been scaled back significantly. In the room of assembled heroes, only Elwin and Trevor Cale had personal teleport codes, and the field team's emergency retrieval beacon, (whose channel Dr. Bedot was working doggedly to keep open,) bounced through two classified DNA scanning satellites, and ended up behind a foot-thick sheet of ionized plasteel. Even if he had known the codes, two heavy hitters, The Prince and Stormbreaker, stood near the chambers ready to be called in at a moment's notice. Trying to commandeer the teleporter wasn't an option. Dr. Timothy and Val Britton had left to oversee the transportation and care of the wounded, and Trevor Cale was briefing the press on the apparent success of the operation. There was nothing to do but stand and watch the monitors. Watch them pull bodies from the rubble. Watch nervous young heroes stand in his stead. A single, repeated thought raced through Haiku's mind. "It should be me."
"I know what you're thinking, kid."
There, in front of him stood James Monroe. James Monroe the real man. Not Captain Equinox, the iron-jawed titan, but broken-bodied James, leaning heavily against the wall, talking to him for the first time.
"I wish I could be out there too, but we had to learn the hard way from too many mistakes. Go in without the right support, you might not come back. It happened to Trent…"
His voice trailed off, uncertain where to continue. Haiku spoke first.
"I was there. Both times. I’m the only one who saw."
His voice was soft but firm. He wanted to admit he could never live up to the title, or the man. He wanted to say that he didn't deserve it, and he wished he could give it away. He knew it would be patronizing. Responding in turn, James spoke for him.
"I know, I helped Trevor make the decision. I wanted to do it myself, but that wasn’t an option anymore. Maybe it never was. I wanted to at least have a say, but I knew you were there, and I knew you were a good man. It was a shitty thing to have to do and you got the bum end of the deal, and now all this? It isn't fair for you to have to sit here, but things don't always work out like they should. Fate is funny like that… Listen, kid, have you seen the dossiers on the remaining assassins?"
"No, not really. I thought it was classified."
"When you're in this room, it isn't classified. Anyway take a look at this one."
"I'm not sure I…"
"Look at his real name."
Jack Dawkins- known amongst the Marauders as Dodger- had earned a post-graduate degree in Art History through a correspondence course in prison. In the six years after high school- while his classmates were acquiring debt and squandering their scholarships- Jack was earning his scars and proving his company loyalty. Things had looked bleak for a while, but it was certainly paying off now. The Matisse, the Maurer, the Hansen, they were all authentic, and the security tags were useless in Lynde’s personal pocket dimension. He forced a set of Paul Storr goldware into Lynde’s back even as Toc was pilling in armfuls of scrolls from the Stained Glass Greenhouse’s private library. Lynde had his arm shoved through the door of the concierge level’s holding safe, and was visibly shaking with the strain of displacing so much mass at once. Pashki was running around the Skystation Food Court in a terrycloth bathrobe, smashing cash registers with a ball-pin hammer. Faster Pussycat’s philosophy was that the only people who understand “time is money” intimately are lawyers and thieves, and the world didn’t need any more lawyers.
Two floors below, Staccato was leaving fist-sized holes in whatever he could reach. The crippled ethereal construct lashed out with its’ remaining tails. Staccato anticipated and dodged each in time, his acceleration matching his growing bloodlust. As his rage grew his precognitive ability decreased, but he was still moving several seconds ahead of the room. Killjoy watched with calculated caution as his compatriot’s swinging fists broke the sound barrier. Not even Faster Pussycat could control Staccato’s ferocity for long, but Toc’s unique psychotropic cocktail was allowing them to direct it. Killjoy remembered Toc’s lessons on how to properly drug a precog. Every Marauder had been unknowingly ingesting the inert formula for two months; it was in the water, in the food, even in the beer. By the time he got the premonition, it was already too late to do anything about it. Even so, Staccato was burning through the designer nanodrug at an alarming rate. Killjoy finished stringing the last of the monofilament razor wire- the old tricks are the best tricks- and spoke into his watch.
“Time to go, boss.”
Staccato’s attention became fixed on the elevator door moments before they opened. He was all savage fury now, and he would fight viciously and blindly until either the drug wore off or there was nothing left to hit. The elevator doors swung open in a cloud of smoke and Staccato was already inside, slamming his supersonic fists into whatever unfortunate passenger was waiting inside. Killjoy easily sidestepped his own camouflaged electric caltrops and his retreating DNA signature automatically armed the cluster bombs waiting for the approaching heroes. A series of tiny canisters peppered the stairwell as he ascended. The proximity grenades more than likely wouldn’t do anything, but at this point the extra weight would just slow him down. Besides, it wouldn’t do for the Master of Traps to get caught in one. Covering his retreat was second nature.
The assembled Marauders- minus Staccato- gathered for a moment on the Skystation Atrium level. Lynde’s body lay sweaty and twitching in the center of the tiled floor. Dodger was helping Pashki stuff fistfuls of semi-rare coins into a Watermark gift shop bag. Killjoy looked down at Lynde’s shallow, fevered breathing and then up at Toc, who was staring down in mild disapproval.
“Some guys just can’t handle this town.” Pashki snarked as he twisted his face into a quick mimicry of Lynde’s apparent pain.
“He has your entire payoff stuffed into his chest. Pick him up.” Toc’s orders were quick and concise. He was ready to leave.
Killjoy grabbed Lynde’s arms as Pashki grabbed his legs. The two manhandled the uniquely talented, uniquely comatose thief out onto the Zeppelin dock. Dodger shook a crystal snowglobe at Toc.
“I’m keeping this. You can take it out of my cut.”
Toc raised an eyebrow. “You know the real one is black? That’s just a fancy knockoff.”
“I’ve seen the real one. FP doesn’t know what she’s got.” Dodger gazed intently into the bauble. “This is a prop from the Gordon Klein movie they shot here. It’d be worth plenty to the right collector, but I’m not planning on selling...” Dodger turned toward Toc, only to find himself alone in the atrium.
The top floor of the Stained Glass Greenhouse was a perfect hemisphere- a high glass dome gave the room plenty of wide open space. The dome’s perimeter was filled with lush, exotic green and blue plants, neatly trimmed and with gold and white accents. Whispering pines, hanging crystalveils, and goldleaf topiary dotted the ivory planters. Faintly glowing blue electrosebuds climbed a staggered waterfall trellis, and behind them, an unobstructed view of the night sky. Underfoot the silky, pale shadowmoss grew in a blue and dark blue patterns; elongated triangles evoking an ornate compass rose. The center of the room was completely empty, save a small ivory dais where Sophie Nouveau had once performed her famous “Beautiful Dreamers” monologue. A soft breeze danced in the leaves, mingling with the gentle trickle of the waterfall trellis. The night air was heavy with the perfume of natural flowers and running water. In the late hours the room was overcome with a familiar otherworldly quality: one of an idyllic childhood memory come to life. Novella gazed at the romantic, breathtaking scene and swore. There was shit for cover, and a line of Enforcer Drones at the North compass point, barricading the Sapphire and Ivory arched entrance to the Mile High Penthouse. The Greenhouse Library had a hidden dumbwaiter normally used for shuttling books between levels; she had used it to avoid more than one fight. She was counting her blessings now as she crouched behind a giant goldleaf tiger. She noticed that even the back of the topiary-which the majority of visitors would never see- was perfectly trimmed and detailed.
A rustling in the bush to her left let her know someone else was coming up the dumbwaiter. She held her breath. With any luck the idiot wouldn’t give away her position, and would take at least a few of the armored drones with him. Hushed voices let her know there was more than one. She pressed herself against the tiger, and made herself as still as she could. Two men appeared.
“Hey, this is where the old lady died in that movie!” the awestruck whisper came from a man in a cheap tuxedo who clearly lacked a comprehensive knowledge of classic Khazan cinema. His heavily armed associate nodded but did not speak. The subtler man’s eyes turned to meet Novella’s. He spoke in a low, hushed tone.
“I know you… you wrote Into the Breach. I loved that book.”
Novella was caught offguard. Into the Breach had been widely panned as an overly long character study with little to no action, but it was secretly one of her favorites. Her years on the road had taught her that flattery typically heralded deception, so instead of accepting the compliment she leveled her gun at him.
“Easy now. No sense in giving away our position.” He nodded toward the robotic sentinels. “I really do like your work. Listen, I’m guessing you’re here at the behest of someone else. Maybe a pushy publisher, who won’t settle for the high crimes and romance angle anymore. I know you. You’re no killer. Here.”
The man pulled a thick manilla envelope from his jacket and opened it so Novella could see its’ contents. Money. Lots of money.
“One hundred fifty million in non-sequential unmarked bills, minus the price of two top shelf vodka martinis and a deck of cards from the gift shop. It’s yours if you leave now.”
Novella looked into the envelope. It was a lot of money. Maybe it was as much as he said, maybe not. It was certainly enough to pay off the mortgage, plus enough to put Turner and Paige in any private school in the city, and enough left over for her imagination. It was maybe enough for her family to disappear from the Three Queens Syndicate. She reached for the envelope. The man smiled, an earnest smile.
“Do you have an exit strategy?”
“I was planning on hiding in the ladies room of the library archives until a passing Sentinel saved me.” She mulled over her plan for a moment. “Here, guess I wouldn’t make a convincing scholar in distress with this,” she handed him her pistol and her case of marked ammunition. “The green ones keep him from flying, the blue ones act like a sedative and sap his strength.”
“What about this one?” the gentleman picked up a single remaining orange glazed round. Novella shuddered at the sight.
“You don’t want to use that one. Trust me.” Novella gave a light wave as she tucked the envelope under her arm and crawled back into the dumbwaiter. “Good luck, Mr…“
“Cinquain” he answered just before the door closed.
Novella laughed all the way down to the archives.
Toc Darkone surveyed his surroundings. He was floating in an impenetrable cloud of grey fog. His captor had yet to come forward, but he had already drawn several conclusions. This was clearly not Sentinel handiwork. It contained a degree of on-the-fly creativity which ruled out the Reavers and Syndicate, and a Marauder betrayer would’ve been better prepared. Fog was, after all, made of water. Toc felt the ill defined prison buckle slightly under the weight of his reasoning. He sneered. Abstract spirits had no finite limit to their power, but- like djinn- they possessed a morbid preoccupation with rules that made them incredibly easy to exploit. Still, this one seemed otherwise engaged. Whatever had grabbed him must have been watching… must still be watching the hotel. Likewise, he must physically be somewhere in the hotel. Tiny, nearly imperceptible shifts in his environment told him his assumptions were manifesting as realities. This spirit wasn’t even trying to be clever; it was clearly busy elsewhere. Toc wondered briefly if he could get in and out of the casino vault this way, and quickly decided the original plan was a safer bet. Get to the zeppelin dock and get out. A slight wave of pressure hit him from above, but he stayed fixed in the midst of the fog. Toc cursed. That last thought had been born of desire instead of reason. Giving desires to an abstract had the potential to be dangerous. As easy as they were to manipulate, they were also prone to manipulation. Many of the Indefinites fancied themselves gods, and the ironic twisting of mortal desire was the singular expression of that divinity.
“Enough.” Toc spoke plainly, conservatively. “By the Compact of the Three above One, I invoke the Precepts of Disclosure. Tell me what you want.”
The Compact was one of Baal’s cleverer ruses. An Indefinite’s existence is shaped by mortal perception. By magically manipulating enough information- chiefly historical accounts, sentient memories, and oral traditions- an event that had never actually occurred was common knowledge to the pereternatural elite. It had taken centuries, but there were archangels, adepts, and avatars throughout the Arcanus Obliques who would swear to details of the Compact, right down to the colors Madame Memory was wearing as she penned the final draft. The so-called “Precepts of Disclosure” were easy enough to invoke as long as you avoided using them against any of the older Spirits Wrath- many of whom were still incensed about being left off the fictional guest list.
A shade appeared before him: slender, feminine, and desperate to escape the wave of flame that loomed behind her. Toc reacted instinctively, falling to his knees and then his back in one motion, dodging beneath the fire, diverting as much of it as he could upward- even as icy fingers grasped the air that should have been the girl. Toc tasted the familiar sulfur of cataclysm and realized then that the Indefinite had been fighting something else entirely. Here was something powerful, with a single minded force of will that could not be directed or controlled by circumstance or metaphor. The Saint Anthony Killer. Toc blinked. If the Abstract was out of her depth, what did she think he could do?
The answer came in another volley of wrath and fire, this one directed at Toc himself. He fell to his side, forming an icy blade from the fog; an extension of his body and willpower. Toc waited as long as he could, identifying a weak point in the attack and planting himself there. Flame and anger washed around his hastily constructed defense, but he was spared. The air around his skin rippled with steam. He couldn’t fight the Patron Saint of Destruction head on. He needed a plan.
“This won’t work here. You’ve got to put us back in the hotel. Somewhere with lots of water. Now.” Even as he spoke she was complying with his demands, weakened and desperate to give him any advantage. He recognized the domed room immediately. Top floor.
Cinquain watched the door close, and handed Adlai’s five pound revolver to his confused compatriot. “You’ve got seven shots at a time. Don’t crack the dome if you value your eardrums.”
“Where did you get that much money? And don’t tell me I ‘know nothing of Khazan,’ because there are a lot of things you could’ve done with that money to make our lives easier before now.”
“There was always the possibility that, in spite of our cleverly planned route, I was going to come up against someone I couldn’t beat in the traditional manner. Parting with that money wasn’t the initial plan, but it served its purpose in getting us closer to my goal. Now, stay low. I’m going around the perimeter, if you have to shoot something, make sure it is in the middle of the room.”
A trio of massive Cortex robots stood motionless at the entrance to the Mile High Penthouse: cybernetic linebackers whose job it was to protect the young Sentinels peeking out from behind them. James Gerard, known to the world as Solarwind, looked on with steely determination. James and the older Sentinels shared a bizarre sort of distrust… he had been fully pardoned for his actions against the Steel Guardian, but there was still enough bad blood among Guardians’ old allies to make life hard for the young hero. Trent Young, the original Captain Khazan had actually issued the pardon himself and publicly stated his faith in James, for all the good it had done.
Lucid watched him from behind and wondered how he was coping. She had overheard Elwin and Trevor Cale say that adding James gave the team distinct advantages. Elwin spoke of his skills and insider knowledge, Cale claimed that his inclusion gave the Sentinels an image of compassion, and that the media would eat up the “second chance” angle. Today, though, James was a real person, not just ranged fire support and a publicity stunt. He turned to her, his pinkish visor winking in the low light. She tried to sound confident.
“Be ready to fall back into the hallway. Hey, Marley?”
The girl in the silverskin bodysuit smiled weakly. She wanted to appear eager and ready. Her nerves were clearly on edge. “Yeah?”
“The three of us aren’t doing much good in this tight space. Maybe you could get to the top of the dome and provide a second vantage point?”
Marley Monroe eyed the Starmap Chandelier hanging from the top of the dome. She had been working on her fear of heights, but it looked sturdy enough and it was a much better spot than trapped in the hallway behind three giant bullet magnets. “Gotcha.”
Time and space became irrelevant for a fraction of a second, and Marley crouched atop the chandelier. She spoke into her radio.
“Ok I’m here.” She paused a moment as she surveyed the room. “Oh, I see someone! There are two of them in the ferns, near the South compass point. Hold on, something’s happening…”
Several things were happening, actually. A thick fog began blanketing the room, boiling up from everywhere and nowhere. At the dumbwaiter entrance, Cinquain made his move, circling the perimeter with remarkably sure footing, staying below the fog and behind the plantlife as much as possible. His bartending associate leveled the barrel of Adlai’s trick revolver across the room, while the three robotic Sentinels sprang to life at the sound of Marley’s voice, bristling with riot control weapons, ready to unleash their clever, non-lethal payloads. In the center of the room there appeared a tall figure in a white suit, with a glass dome where the head should’ve been. The figure seemed to glow with its own menacing internal light. Across the floor a second, thinner figure crouched below the fog, sensing the water in the air, the irrigation system in the greenhouse, even the tower’s plumbing. Toc’s focus became a divining rod. On the broad disk atop the chandelier a thin, smoky figure collapsed next to Marley. Alexandria Icon, the Lovelorn Librarian, Spirit of A Hundred Thousand Burning Books, lay still- her frail, inconsequential body heaving from the effort. She was nearly human now, weakened as she was, and could do nothing but watch as the events unfolded below.
Killjoy sat in the cockpit of the Renaissance swearing to himself. Toc was supposed to help cover their escape. Without him, they’d be an easy target for the advanced SLJ gunship that was circling in the sky below. Pashki sat dejected in the cargo hold next to the moaning Lynde. Pashki wasn’t sure which prospect sounded worse: getting captured by the SLJ or becoming a rug again. Jack “Dodger” Dawkins sat in Toc’s seat, wracking his brain for solutions. Part of coming up with a good plan is preparing a number of contingencies. This wasn’t one they had discussed.
A series of muffled explosions rocked the Atrium staircase. Killjoy and Dodger exchanged glances. Something was coming up the stairs. Fast.
“Speedster.” Dodger readied his handy shocknife. At best he could hope to stun the hero at close range and let Killjoy take the shot.
“No. Listen to the pattern.” Killjoy’s eyes narrowed. “Teleporter.”
Katherine Vali appeared at the top of the stairs, facing a pair of mean looking sentry guns. Reacting instinctively she dove down and forward, just out of the reach of the auto-targeting system. Dodger was already in the back, shaking the unconscious Lynde.
“Davis, buddy, time to get up… we need some help here.”
Killjoy unstrapped the pulse rifle from his back and leveled it at the woman. He watched her turn and make eye contact with him before teleporting out of sight. Dodger was still shaking Davis Lynde, next to a nearly-flat Pashki. Another explosion on the staircase ripped Killjoy’s attention away from the teleporter. The sound of rage and fury and destruction accompanying the explosion meant only one thing: Staccato was coming up the stairs. And things had been going so well.
Killjoy flipped open the turbines and pulled harder on the flightstick than was strictly necessary to achieve lift. He looked down at the Sentinel gunship, and made a mental note of the armaments it was carrying. It was bristling twin ZF-1 turrets, a battery of Wasserfall guided fire anti-aircraft flak cannons, a LeVent Intersteller tractor beam, and probably a dozen costumed heroes ready to do god-knows-what to serve the greater good. Killjoy had also seen Staccato angry before; he decided he’d take his chances with the SLJ. As the helicopter took off, a desperate Katherine Vali appeared in the back. The chopper’s occupants looked even more surprised than she did. She was about to teleport back to the dock when the rug she was standing on reached up and grabbed her ankle.
A glowing knife pressed itself beneath her throat. Dodger’s eyes met hers, and she knew better than to try anything.
“Wait.” The voice came from the pilot. “You’re a precog, aren’t you?”
Katherine hesitated. The pulse rifle. He had seen her anticipate the attack.
“What if I am?”
Killjoy flashed a wry smile. “Take me to my leader.”
Back on the dock, Staccato watched with puzzled worry as his fellow Marauders flew away without him. Rage is a powerful emotion, but its got nothing on heartbreak. The Human Hurricane, the Man who Cannot be Contained, stood perfectly still, staring at his friends as they ascended into the night. A sudden and unexpected wave of calm swept over him, and he sat on the edge of the dock, feet dangling in the wind.
“They’ll come back,” he told himself. “they’ll come back for me.”
Posted 12 October 2009 - 10:08 PM
The C.B.U.B. was awesome, I don't care what you all said...Damned Adlai.
Posted 12 October 2009 - 10:09 PM
0 user(s) are reading this topic
0 members, 0 guests, 0 anonymous users