Sorry this installment took forever and again with the no-sex, but I think the ending will give you something to look forward to next time.
Zash and Akma looked at each other, while Blank, our temporary squadmate, looked like he was having an internal crisis. Our recent captive just blinked at us.
“If you have information then let’s hear it,” Zash said.
“I have conditions,” the sword-twin replied.
“Oh, so this is a negotiation now? This day is getting better by the fucking minute.” Thumb crossed her arms and scowled effortlessly.
“My brothers grow weary of pursuit. If I tell what I know, I would like for them to be guaranteed safe haven. Truly safe. Away from the SLA and away from Sanctuary.”
“And for yourself?” Zash asked. “No immunity?”
He nodded. “I understand how these things work. Someone must be made to pay. I will do so that my brothers can be free.”
“Zash,” Blank said. “Might I speak with you in private for a moment?”
“I think we’re beyond secrets here. If you have something to say to this team, feel free to speak your mind.”
Blank took a deep breath. “The apprehension of this quartet is very high on the SLA agenda and you’ve all heard what Director Evers had to say about this mission. Making guarantees that you might not be able to honor would not be prudent at this moment.”
The sword-twin looked at Blank with an expression of bored distaste, then he looked back at Zash. “Then I will place our fates in your hands and hope that you are an honorable man.
“We came to the SLA as broken things. The link between us, my brothers and I, was the only thing that kept us sane. The manifestation of our abilities was unprecedented: a near complete empathic link between four individuals. We couldn’t sleep without being sedated, if one of us felt pain, even the slightest amount, we would all of us be incapacitated by the consequent feedback. It was hell.
“Then…then we came to the SLA and they untangled us. They made us whole. For that they had our gratitude, but they wanted more. They wanted fealty. They made us soldiers and taught us how to numb ourselves to pain, to emotion. And they gave us new powers.”
Zash, Akma, and I looked at each other, then immediately at Blank. It was preposterous, of course. The manifestation of abilities was an aberration that science had been struggling to explain as long as there had been heroes. Before we could ask anything, the sword-twin continued.
“Our weapons, the one’s we call so easily, as if they were always a part of us. They are the product of extensive research and development. Ask the Director’s pet if you find my story difficult to believe.”
Blank cracked his knuckles and stroked his chin. “I can’t confirm all the details of his story, but there was an initiative dedicated to the exploration, just the exploration mind you, of the question of manipulating abilities using gene therapy and other methods. Our friend here says that this science could be used to make soldiers, I don’t doubt that, but it could also be used to control more unstable abilities, as it did in this case.
“As to the more inflammatory suggestions of his story, again, I could not speak directly to those.”
“This is getting complicated fast,” I muttered.
I had something else to add too, something about how I hadn’t expected any of this when I woke up that morning. Or even when I signed up just a few weeks before. Unfortunately I never got around to that because that kickback that Blank was talking about; the one that would be really bad and knock me on my ass? Yeah, that hit at precisely the worst moment. The feeling was indescribable. It was a deep, searing pain that radiated out from my shoulder so suddenly and so powerfully that I lost my breath. I managed to let out a squeak and then I passed the fuck out.
Some hero, huh?
I woke up to the sight of Devon sitting cross-legged on a hospital bed awkwardly eating jello with his left hand. His right arm was bandaged up pretty good as were both his shoulders and chest. His face was reddish as if he was just a bit flushed and overexerted, but he looked well. Better than he had in the greenhouse anyway.
After a little while he noticed that I was awake and raised his jello cup at me.
“He awakens, at last!” he said triumphantly, then, “I ate your jello. Sorry.”
“I’m incensed,” I managed to croak out in somewhat of a deadpan. My voice was rough and my throat felt gritty.
I tried to get upright and pain flared through my shoulder. I hissed and let myself lie still. I looked over and found my wound wrapped tight. I had been dressed in a pair loose fitting shorts and a tank-top, both bearing the SLA’s golden insignia. Devon’s outfit was identical, except for the fact that he looked better in it.
“How long have I been out?” I asked.
Devon shrugged. “Since last night. You were suffering some kind of shock, but your injuries weren’t too terrible apparently. They might want to hold you for observation…” He pointed at the flat screen tv on the wall. “…there’s a Buffy marathon so it’s not too bad.”
I couldn’t tell whether he was joking or not, so I ignored the statement.
“What happened with the quartet?”
“The three that you guys caught have been brought in for questioning. Zashir has made it pretty clear that he wants to discuss their fate with the director before anything is decided. Pretty ballsy if you ask me, demanding a place at the bargaining table.”
“So where is everyone now?” I asked.
He checked a non-existent watch on his wrist. “They should be in a meeting just about now. Talking about what happens next.”
I sat up, though it hurt. “So what are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the meeting?”
“Cuz’ I was waiting for you to wake your lazy ass up. Think you can walk?”
Devon hopped out of his bed and came over to help me get out of mine. My arm was terribly stiff and it was a little difficult to maneuver, but once I was up it wasn’t too hard to get going. I slipped on a pair of slippers left at the foot of the bed, while Devon padded barefoot out of the room. He led me down the hall and out of the medical center without incident beside a nurse who strongly suggested we get back into bed until I pushed her to indifference.
The SLA headquarters is more of a compound than a single building so we had to cross over a glass walkway from med into the administrative building. Europa’s office was on the top floor of the building, in the penthouse office. First though we had to get past her secretary, a smiling young blonde woman with pixie wings whose name was Juliet, but whose moniker was Hellfire.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” she asked pleasantly.
“We’re part of The Checkers. We have a meeting with the director,” Devon explained.
“Of course,” she said. “We’ve been expecting you. Go right in.”
And we did. Except that I don’t think either of us expected to be walking into a battleground: Europa was on one side of a long table and Zashir on the other. Exeter sat to Europa’s left while Akma was at Zashir’s right. The sword-twin, dressed as ever in his weirdly amorphous black garment, sat toward the middle of the table with his arms shackled before him. Devon and I found seats near Akma and she acknowledged us with a grunt before turning her attention back to the proceedings, Zashir didn’t acknowledge us at all.
“…I understand your position, director, but —” Zashir was saying as we entered.
“No. No buts, no refusals, no complaints. I have been lenient with you and your team, Mr. Saleh. It might not seem it, but I have allowed you to operate with impunity in this matter because I had the sense that you would do so with a measure of grace and loyalty. I didn’t anticipate having my authority questioned. Let me put it another way: when you have the demands of running a multi-national security taskforce on your head then I will be ecstatic to hear your thoughts on how I do my job.”
That one stung, but Zashir, it seemed, was not ready to abandon the fight. “You’re making soldiers out of the people your organization is sworn to protect.”
Europa straightened at that and her expression changed. The iron in her was not bent, but her rage visibly cooled.
“And if you only you knew how much we needed soldiers.” Her voice was low, and nearly mournful. When she spoke again though, she had switched back into her regular tone: equal parts martial and clinical.
“What is it you’re asking for Mr. Saleh? Plainly, please.”
He took a deep breath. Clearly he hadn’t anticipated breaking through to her, or at least not so quickly.
“They clearly just want to be left alone. If possible we can retrieve their lost fourth and then just let them be. That’s the kind of world that the SLA advocates. I think that’s the right thing to do.”
Europa looked at him for a while and then she smiled unexpectedly.
“It’s no wonder why The Talent chose you as his protégé. You have his way of cutting the heart of the matter.” Her smile faltered. “But it was his idealism that got him killed, Zashir. And to be honest, I don’t know what even he would think about this tangle.”
She took a deep breath. “Though for what it’s worth I agree with you.”
She shifted her attention to the sword-twin. “In return for our help getting your sibling back, you will submit to full testing at our laboratory’s discretion. I’ll brook no negotiations on that point. Furthermore, you’ll agree to full evaluations every six months until such time that you are deemed fully stable. Is that understood, Arthur?”
The sword-twin, who didn’t look like an Arthur to me, nodded. I didn’t know he even had a name, then I felt bad about that. Of course he had a name.
“I agree to your terms, director. They are…fairer than I had expected.”
“Apparently I’m growing soft in my dotage,” she replied.
The sword-twin, Arthur (apparently), looked as if he was going to reply but instead he turned his head and squinted at nothing. Then his eyes went wide for a moment and he smirked. It was another entirely new development. I didn’t know he was even capable of smirking. He turned back to Europa and cocked his head.
“Auntie E, this is a collect call from your loving nephew, will you accept the charges?”
Europa’s face twisted in disgust. “Owen. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for you to contact me. How are things with your anarchist friends?”
Arthur’s face wasn’t his anymore. His expressions were Owen’s, complete with a kind of wry condescension.
“Things are just smashing, thanks for asking. I’m assuming since the SLA’s best and brightest aren’t stalking me through the streets that you’ve kept my little betrayal close to your vest. Are you still hoping for a reconciliation?”
“No. I don’t think that’s possible, but I will have your corpse interred in the family mausoleum. That’s the least I can do. After I strangle you to death.”
“So you’re still angry then? Oh well.” Arthur shrugged. “And thanks, by the way, for the emotional rollercoaster you had them put into Lance’s brain. That was a lot of fun. The particularly nasty emotional resonance of mass genocide nearly put me into a coma, but I guess I’m made of good stock because as you can see I rebounded quickly.”
“What do you want, Owen?” Europa asked.
“I was wondering, had been wondering in the back of my mind for a long time, but I guess it’s just recently that I’ve started to seriously consider it. I thought, what good is the SLA? What function does it serve? You play savior to regular people for a shot at a hunk of fame and fortune: ‘Maybe I’ll be the next Virtue! Maybe I’ll get a cosmetic deal like Ebon-girl! Or I could get a gig selling luxury sedans like Breakline!’
“I wondered, why should we play by the rules when everything in our genetics tells us to rewrite them? Movements don’t come out of nowhere, Auntie E — they’re forged. That’s what we’re doing, we’re forging a place where people who can do amazing things will do them because they can, not because some washed up normal commands them to from her perch way above the world. You’ve had your time in the sun, Europa, and now we’ll have ours.”
“And what exactly does this movement aim to accomplish outside of completely undoing the years of goodwill that the SLA has earned for people with abilities?” Europa asked in a measured voice, admirably keeping her anger at bay.
“We want what any sane person would want: autonomy. Sanctuary has built a place for us outside of the scraps we’re given by the government and the conscripted slavery that the SLA offers. It’s a place where no one has to hide what they are nor whore their abilities to survive.
“We also protect our own. That’s why we want to negotiate. Let us study the quartet. Our scientists will do their magic and you’ll get them all back, safe and sound to do with what you will.”
“So you can reverse engineer SLA technology? Is that what you’re suggesting?” Europa just managed not to laugh. “That’s a pitiful joke.”
“Don’t mock me, Europa.” Arthur/Owen’s face grew stormy. “This is the only time we’ll ask nicely. Give us what we’re asking for or I swear there will be retribution —”
“And threats, apparently. People with complexes have been threatening me since before you were born. So let me make this easy for you. Return Lance to the SLA or there will be retribution, except it will be on your head. You have twenty-four hours starting now.”
Europa hit a button embedded into one of her cufflinks and spoke into it. “Juliet, please send up Justin.”
Perhaps realizing that his time dominating Arthur’s body was growing short, Owen looked around. “And what about all of you, do you believe in the dream of the SLA? Do you think that you will all be rewarded in the end for being good little boys and girls?”
Arthur turned to me. “Do you, Nick? None of the others have abilities like we do, the power to control. Since you’re in this room right now I’m assuming you know what the SLA has done to this body and to its siblings. Are you comfortable with having an organization that would do that pulling at your strings?”
“And what makes you think Sanctuary is any better?” I asked.
Arthur’s face smiled. “I like you, Nick. Have I ever told you that?”
There was a buzz and Juliet’s voice piped in from a speaker in the table. “Justin has arrived, Director.”
“Send him in.”
Owen-as-Arthur continued to talk to me as if there was no one else in the room. “When you get tired of all this, when the secrets and the lies start to wear on you: remember that you have a place with us. A place where you’ll be more than just a cog in a massive, misleading machine.”
Justin entered the room and Europa merely had to point at Arthur for him to begin. Justin’s eyes flashed green and the expression faded from Arthur’s face. It returned to its familiar neutrality.
“That was…uniquely discomfiting,” Arthur said, once he was himself again.
Europa thanked Justin who replied with a respectful nod. Then she turned on Exeter with narrowed eyes.
“Care to explain what the fuck that was about?” Europa spat.
“Not completely sure, director. It would seem that your nephew is a more clever empath than either of us gave him credit for. Somehow he was able to hijack the empathic link and seize control of Arthur’s body.”
“Can we trace his influence back to the source? Do we have any empaths on hand?”
Exeter chewed his bottom lip for a moment and then shook his head. “Personnel records say our best are currently engaged elsewhere. Mood Ring is in Taiwan helping to deal with our porcine problem and Spectrum is in Australia doing his scheduled emotional detox. Owen was actually our backup.”
“How about you, Arthur? Can you locate your brother?”
“The empath has put up a block. I might be able to undo it. Not on my own, but perhaps with my brothers. Maybe together we could punch through. It is not out of the question.”
“Fine. Tell Exeter what you need and he’ll get it for you. How long do you think it will take?”
Arthur shrugged. “A few hours perhaps, we have never tried such a thing and certainly not without our full ranks.”
“Take your time. Do it right. When the time comes, Justin’s team: the Ocelots will take the lead on this mission while the Checkers will play support. There’s no way to know what kind of resistance we’ll have from Sanctuary so we’ll have two more teams on standby, though I’d prefer if we could keep this as small as possible for obvious reasons.”
Europa waved a hand to dismiss us and then instantly drew it to her temple. Exeter was by her side in an instant feeding information to her. The rest of us (excluding Arthur who was still restrained in his chair) started drifting toward each other.
Justin was the first to approach me. He put a hand on my arm and gave me a sincere look.
“How are you, Nick? I heard you took your first big boy injury. How’s the shoulder?”
I tried moving it and felt a flare of pain, less than before. “Not too bad considering there was an arrow in it yesterday.”
“Good to hear. I’m glad you’re on your feet again. Hopefully you’ll be back in uniform for the coming operation,” he said, then added, “not that you don’t look good in hospital garb.”
I raised an eyebrow at the compliment, but Zashir followed up a moment later and I didn’t get a chance to press Justin on his statement. Was he hitting on me? My sexual interactions with Justin — though incredibly hot — had never crossed the line from mutual masturbation. There had never been any signs or even any talk of attraction between us. For someone who could supercharge other people’s sex drives I was surprisingly oblivious to most flirting.
Zashir briefed me with pretty much the same set of facts that Devon had given me in the medical center: immediately after I passed out the team packed it in and returned to headquarters only to be called in for an emergency meeting with Europa. He had tried to postpone it until I was wake, but he had only managed to get it pushed back to the morning. He apologized for that, but I brushed it off.
“So we have our orders. We’ll be moving out once Arthur and Co. finishes up with their empathic link. Until then, enjoy your downtime and try to rest that shoulder.”
Everyone broke off into separate conversations after that. Justin and Zashir talked tactics while Akma, Devon and I headed for the door.
“So have either of you meet the other Ocelots before?” I asked as we walked.
Both Devon and Akma groaned in response. They told the story of a team of heroes who were as capable as they were smug. It was a wonder, they mused, that Justin managed to suffer them. Among them was Bloom, the material warper who could rearrange inorganic material like a set of legos. Then there was Shroud whose ability to disappear into shadows and command darkness itself was not only creepy in theory, but incredibly creepy in practice. The last of them was Ringo. Though Justin was the group’s tactical lead, Ringo was the group’s field commander. The two of them fought like rivals nearly all the time, but in the field their joint command operated like a well-oiled machine.
I asked what Ringo’s power was and received a vague semi-answer about magic rings, so I dropped it.
The three of us headed back down to the main concourse of SLA headquarters and from there Akma went off to imbibe some much needed caffeine. The dark circles under her eyes were expertly concealed with makeup, but they were proof she needed sleep more than stimulants. I wasn’t about to voice that opinion though. Devon stretched and looked over at me once Akma was gone.
“So what are you planning for your downtime?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Dunno. Should I be going over some kind of documents or something? Researching battle strategies?”
Devon gave me a blank look.
“Only if you plan on leading troops later today. Do you think this is the military, dude? Leave the tactics to Zash and Justin, they’ll take care of it. Trust me.”
“So what should I be doing then?”
“Well…do you wanna fuck around?”
My brain thought: Excuse me?
My mouth said: “Ok.”