8FOLD/ACRA: Jolt City # 20, "Download of Doom!" (1/3)

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Sat Aug 3 19:48:38 PDT 2013

The Oval Office: the Green Knight grabs hold of President Bush and shakes him.  A huge ceiling-mounted television monitor looms over their heads; on-screen are the villains Gallery, Whistler, and Cockatrice.
   "Mr. President!" exclaims Green Knight. "You have to do it! Now! You have to shut down all the Internets! It's the only way to avert this

         "DOWNLOAD OF DOOM!"

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// ////  //  //  ///   //    ///    ///   //     \//# 20
//////  //////  ///// //    ////// ///   //      // PT.1

April, Aught-Eight.  It's been a year.  Not exactly a year, not right on the dot, but roundabouts, and that's much sooner than Gallery hoped.
   It hasn't been a good year, but neither has it been a bad one.  Being poor and free is better than being in Earbox.  Being with Jerry is better than being without.  Be better if Jerry wasn't sick.  Be better if they had money.  Be better if Jerry was still making the paint.  No, not a good year, but they were getting by, and next year would be better: he had things in the pipeline, real things, things that didn't break the promise, things that kept him on the straight.  Not a good year, but it was a year without Whistler.
   They had not parted amicably; almost immediately after they gave their word to Martin and the Knight, Whistler smirked.[1]
   "I meant it," Gallery said.
   "I don't doubt it," said Whistler.
   "Me neither," came a voice from Whistler's shirt.  Whistler undid a button and Pocket Vito climbed out.  Whistler set the three-inch mafioso on the hood of the car.  He brushed off his suit and lit a microscopic cigar.  "But don't be a fool, Gallery."
   "We just got out of Earbox."
   "Yes, we did!" said Whistler.  "We're the first to escape from the Gorgon's perfect prison.  It was your paint and my voice."
   "And Martin's brains."
   "Yes, I'll grant him that much: our eyes are open now.  The possibilities are open-and-wide; why waste them on the straight?"
   "We've been given a second chance," said Gallery.  "We don't deserve it, but we've got it.  I'm not gonna throw that away."
   "Well, this is all quite compelling stuff," said Vito, "but I've got a grid to drop off of.  I don't need to tell you boys what I don't need to tell you boys, right?"[2]
   "Your secret's safe with me," said Gallery. "I promise."
   Whistler whistled in Gallery's voice. "I promise."
   "See that it stays that way," said Vito as he strapped on his miniature jet-pack.  "And when you need some work, leave a couple fingertips on the Dark Internet."
   Gallery and Whistler talked for a while longer after Vito left.  Whistler expected him to bend, like he always did, to agree just to end the conversation.  But Gallery surprised himself.  He held firm.  And by the time it began to rain in those woods, it was clear to Whistler that something had changed, and he let it go.  "I guess I'll be on my way, then," he said.  He walked to the car and opened the backseat.  He pulled Jerry out of the backseat and let him fall writhing and oblivious to the ground.
   "You're taking the car?"
   "Don't act surprised," said Whistler.  "I'd get moving if I was you.  After all, you just got out."
   "I need the car," said Gallery.  "Jerry can't walk on his own."
   "I'm taking the car," insisted Whistler.  He climbed in to the driver's seat.
   "But Jerry's your brother!"
   "What, you think I forgot?"  Whistler pulled away, and the rain came down hard.  
   That was the last time they saw him, until now.  Gallery fully expected to be caught that night, but they were lucky.  Normally, the escape of three black capes from Earbox and the crippling of Darkhorse would've been the number one thing on the law's radar.  But that was the same night as the Apelantian invasion.  They had bigger things to contend with, and Gallery was always small-time, so he and Jerry survived the night and got as far from Jolt City as they could.
   He painted a bubble of invisibility to keep them hidden; painted a car of their own to get them moving.  They got a little room and he painted a couch to sit on, and a bed for Jerry.  When Jerry was in too much pain and the paint rushed out of him in floods, Gallery painted a squiggle in the air and called it morphine, and Jerry had no more pain.  When he cried out in the night, Gallery painted a curl and called it Peace, and Jerry slept sweetly.
   After a month, the paint that had been spilling out of him non-stop slowed to a trickle and a drop, and then dried up completely: Jerry dried up completely, his flesh tight against his bones, alive but asleep, without pain but without comfort.
   Gallery had been proud of himself, using the paint to care for Jerry.  Very clever, very smart, the sort of thing he'd never have thought of before Martin.  But he hadn't been smart enough.  He wasted all that time on patch-jobs, when he could have just drawn a perfect circle and called it Cure.  Of course he thought of it now, when the paint was gone.
   He had spent the balance of the last year looking for paint and not finding it.  It reminded him of the old days, before he met Whistler and Jerry, when he was always down to less than a pint and scouring paranormal USENET groups and the Dark Internet for reports that fit the description.  More than half of them were duds.  Two were traps.  One: a would-be usurper who found, to his dismay, that Gallery was the only person who could use the stuff.
   The other was the Mask-Eater.  Gallery was, of course, lucky to still be alive, lucky to be one of the only four black capes that met the Mask-Eater and lived to tell about it.  People started to take him seriously after that, and shortly after Whistler and Jerry got in touch with him.  With Jerry around, there was no need to go looking for the paint again.  In retrospect, he was glad it had happened.
   But in retrospect, it had also been an obvious trap.  If he had been cautious, if he had been smart, he wouldn't have put himself in that situation.  But that was the old days, alright.  He was desperate for the paint, and when you're desperate, you do very stupid things.
   He was desperate now-- more desperate, in fact, because now he didn't just want the paint, he needed it, Jerry needed it, Jerry needed him.  And, yes, this past year, he had done some stupid and reckless things.  Legal things, mind: he was on the straight.  But he almost got caught a couple of times, and then where would Jerry be?
   So, it had been almost a year.  A desperate year, neither good nor bad, but on the straight and free and with Jerry.  And now Whistler knocks on his door and ruins it.
   Whistler has another of his blondes with him.  Gallery thinks she's new, but she's exactly like all the others: big boobs and tall enough that Whistler doesn't "have to lean to get to 'em".  His need for accessibility also dictates her mode of dress: her loose blouse has plenty of décolletage.
   Gallery doesn't bother with I wasn't expecting you, or what are you doing here, or I don't want you here.  Going through those motions would just prolong the conversation.  Better to get it over with and send them on their way.
   "This is Cockatrice," says Whistler.  A fellow black cape.  "You heard of her?"
   Gallery shakes his head politely.
   "That's because she keeps a low profile.  Unlike you.  That nonsense in Texas last month..."
   (When you're desperate, you do very stupid things.)  
   "No, Trice has kept it low.  But not for much longer, right baby?" He kisses her on the cheek and grabs her left tit.
   "Nah," she drawls, "my darlin' is planning something awful smart."
   "I am." He grabs the right for balance.  "Smart and bold and big.  I think you know why I'm here."
   "I know," says Gallery.  "But I don't want in.  I'm on the straight now.  I'm taking care of Jerry."
   "Are you?" says Whistler.  It's a challenge more than a question.  Never one to be subtle, Whistler continues: "He's getting better, then?"
   "A little better," says Gallery.  "Did, did you want to see your brother?"
   Whistler whistles: a long snore comes out.
   Trice doesn't seem surprised.  "Gallery, sweetheart," she says, "this job we're doing, it is a doozy.  And after, you'd be able to put the Chemist-- to put Jerry-- back as he used to be."
   "I don't care how much money there is," says Gallery.  "I don't think there's a doctor in the world that can help him."
   "But you could," says Whistler, "if you had some paint.  That's why you're looking for it, right?  Jerry stopped making it, and it never dawned on you that you could just paint him a cure."
   Gallery nods.  Then, tersely:  "And money isn't going to get me more paint."
   "Neither is running across the country on wild goose chases," says Whistler.  "All the places where it welled up in the nineties have dried up by now."
   "Maybe not all," says Gallery.
   "All," says Whistler.  "C'mon, if there were any left, you would've found it."
   Gallery tries to be silent.  "But I need to do something," he whines, hating himself for it.
   "All the wells have dried up," says Whistler, "but I know where some paint is."
   "Let me guess," says Gallery.  "If I do the job, you'll tell me?  If I don't, you won't?"
   "Ouch," says Whistler.  "Does that sound like something I would do?  Don't answer.  Does that sound like something Trice would do?  You can't answer that, but the answer's no.  No, I'll tell you where it is, gladly.  It's right where you left it.  In storage in Earbox.  And I'll tell you something else, too: that's the job.  You and me, we're the only ones who ever broke out of Earbox.  Now the three of us will be the only ones to break into it, too."
   Gallery smiles broadly despite himself.  "That's insane."
   "I thought you'd like it."
   "I would, if I wasn't on the straight."
   "Forget that for a second," says Whistler.  "Just hear me out, and then you can say no. I don't think you will-- it's a sweet job-- but you can say no."
   Gallery knows that if he listens, he'll let himself be talked into it and off the straight.  Except for that night in the woods a year ago, he always bent when Whistler blew.  But the job sounds good and crazy, and he loves Jerry.  He's desperate, and when you're desperate...  "What's the toast?"[3]
   "For you, it's the paint," says Whistler.  "For me and Trice, it's a number with a bunch of zeroes on the end sitting pretty and wet in the cheese.  Figured you won't mind, since you're narrowing."
   "No, I don't mind," says Gallery.  "Last I checked though, Earbox didn't have any numbers with a bunch of zeroes on the end."
   "Earbox and all the other SSPs all have access to The Database," says Trice.  "Far as the admins and the government know, that's the only way they're connected to each other."
   "There's another?"
   "There's another built-in," says Trice.  "Deep inside the Gorgon's original specs that all the SSPs use.  They modified them, of course, but not well enough.  If I can get access to Earbox's system, I can get access to the other five.  If I can open the cell doors at Earbox..."
   "... you can open them at the other five," says Gallery.  "Unless..."
   "Unless they put the money in the cheese," says Whistler.  "And that's the toast."
   Gallery looks concerned; Trice jumps in.  "We just open a few doors at Earbox, enough to give Green Knight and Blue Boxer a work-out, and to show that we're serious."
   "Right," says Whistler, "nobody who'd make any stains, nobody that couldn't be handled with some spit-and-ginglymus."  
   "Whistler told me you're a man of the Code, sweetheart," says Trice, "and we're gonna do everything by the Code.  Whether my Whistlestiltskin likes it or not."
   Her Whistlestiltskin grimaces.
   "I appreciate that," says Gallery.  Quickly, he adds: "Not that I'm with you.  Once you're in the computer, what's to stop them from sneaking in while you're waiting for the ransom?"
   "We won't be holdin' court," says Trice.  "We're skedaddling just as soon as I've linked my computer to the network.  Like I said, this is big, and bold, and awfully smart, and that last part's the part that's important."
   Gallery takes a deep breath and exhales.  "Alright, so tell me the one-two-three."
   Whistler and Trice exchange smiles; Gallery is as good as in.  Trice opens her laptop and turns it towards Whistler and Gallery.  Whistler brings up a diagram of Earbox, and over the course of the next hour, he explains it all in surprisingly minute detail.  Whistler was never one for being thorough and actually doing the work; Gallery figures that Trice is the brains.  The plan is real clockwork, precise and unambiguous, like something a computer would come up with.
   But when they're finished, and Gallery takes a moment to soak in it, he realizes there's something that's bothering him. "So, Whistler's going to sound like the invisible Griffinians are at the south perimeter.  A month earlier, you're going to steal an Underman earthboat, but making it look like the Griffinians did it so it looks like they were planning something with the Undermen.
    "So, the 'Griffinians' attack the south, and they draw guards from the black tower.  And that's where we pop in with the gadget you stole from Fay Tarif's lab.  But before we get noticed, Trice uses her techno-puppetry to send the earthboat careening in at the north, at the main gate."
   "That's the beauty of it," says Whistler impatiently.  "Earbox is holding some Griffinians, and the deposed Underking as well, in the same building.  Soon as the attack starts, they'll bump up security there, leaving the admin building running skinny.  And that is where we'll strike."
   "Don't rush me," says Gallery.  "I want to go over this.  So, Trice uses her sting to knock out the guards and heads for the console to get what she needs and open a few doors."
   "But no stainers," promises Whistler.
   "You go to the locker, and use your whistle to impersonate the warden.  You come back with the paint, Trice sends her message to the shrublet, and then we reverse the gadget and skedaddle out."
   "That's about the size of it, darlin'," says Trice.
   "So," says Gallery carefully, "what's my niche?  It's all you and Trice.  I don't do anything, I don't even use the paint to get us out of there.  Why do I get the feeling you're gonna leave me holding the bag, and the bag won't even have the paint in it?"
   Trice laughs at Whistler.  "Looks like you owe me a backrub, lover!"
   Whistler explains.  "Trice and I had a little wager about whether or not you'd solomon onto us.  No, you're right, the paint's not in Earbox at all.  They moved it to a government facility last year.  Your job is to be the fall guy.  Your job is to be poor, hapless Gallery, trying to narrow, lured out of retirement because of true love, manipulated and bossed around and screwed over by the real bad guys and left behind while we make our getaway, bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha."
   "That's why we won't have you lift a finger, sweetpea," says Trice.  "You'd be perfectly, obviously blameless.  And so when you turn parrot, when you open your mouth and tell them exactly what we want them to hear, well, of course they're going to believe you, poor innocent Gallery. It ain't gonna be true, but they'll buy it. By the time they'll figure it out, we'll be squirreled away somewhere safe and rich. And after that, they'll buy that you bought it, poor dumb schmuck that you are. And of course they'll at least give you enough paint to cure Jerry, and maybe, if you look stupid and hapless enough, even give you a pardon or time served or a reduction of your sentence."
   Gallery stares at the table grain for a moment, then looks up at them.  "So, what is it you want me to tell them?"

Hot middle of June, Riddle's manse.  Martin knocks on the door with his hand.
   Sure enough, the door opens, and there's Roy Riddle's face, a little heavier than last time, but a little brighter, too.  "It's nice to see you," says Riddle.  With anyone else, the words would be meant to sting: Martin hasn't been by since before Fish tore off his left hand, and when last they did meet, it had not went well.  But Riddle is always surface: every word means precisely and only what it means, each grin or grimace communicates exactly how he feels and nothing else.  When Roy Riddle says it's nice to see someone, and smiles at them, it's genuine and isn't meant to sting.  It still does, though.[4]
   Partially, that's the history between them, and partially, it's the reason for Martin's visit.  Martin resolves to delay that reason as much as possible.  "It's nice to see you too," Martin says, simple as he can.  And while that's genuine enough (it is nice to see his old friend), it doesn't hide the flush of shame underneath it.
   "Well, come in, come in," says Riddle.  "No use standing out there in this heat.  I have tea steeping, will you have some?"
   "A little warm for tea," says Martin, dabbing at his brow.
   "Oh no," says Riddle, "never too warm for tea.  For me, anyway."  He looks pointedly at the cast on Martin's stump, and the fake hand at the end of it.  "Fingers look very life-like."
   "Yeah, the whole thing comes off," says Martin.  He presses at the elbow and the cast, fingers and all, slips right off.  "Dr. Fay made it for me."
   "Aren't you worried about...?"
   "Dr. Fay seeing me, putting two-and-two?  Nah.  We don't really travel in the same circles anymore, if we ever did."  Granted, he's still got reason to worry after Derek let his real name slip, but no reason to tell Roy about that. "And I don't really use it that much, because I don't get out of the house much.  At least, not as Martin."[5]
   "You haven't been doing as much as the Knight, either," says Riddle.
   Martin nods.  "I still get out, but yeah, not as much.  Plan's always been for Derek to replace me by the end of the year.  Just starting the process of phasing myself out a little sooner than I planned."
   "Is Derek ready for that?"
   "Lord, I hope so."
   "Martin, don't take His name in vain."
   "I wasn't," smirks Martin.  "I was praying."
   Riddle smiles at the remark; Martin's surprised how quickly they're falling into an old and comfortable rhythm.  As if they hadn't fought at all.  Still, the reason for the visit nags at Martin.  He pushes it down.
   Riddle clears his throat. "How's Danielle? It must be hard for her, losing her job."[6]
   It comes back up, sticks in his throat for a moment.  "She's taking it all in stride.  I thought it was going to crumple her up a bit.  She's not as strong as..." He was going to say as Pam, but thinks better of it.  "She cries easily and that.  But she's stronger in the long-term.  She's in Chicago today.  Has an interview with their FCL."  That's mostly because of Darkhorse, but no need to mention that, either.  "Cross your fingers for her.  You've got more of them than I do."
   "It's great to see you have a sense of humour about it, Martin."
   "Hmmph.  I do and I don't."
   "If you need someone to talk to about it, I'm always right here."
   "We're talking about it now, aren't we?"
   "Talking around it, more like," says Riddle. "Most things, you talk around."
   "Maybe another time," says Martin.
   "Whenever you're ready," says Riddle.  "My tea should be done now.  Sure you don't want any?"
   "Thanks anyway."
   Riddle pours his tea and sets the saucer on the table.  He makes a deep, disapproving sigh.  "And how is Pamela?"
   Martin's actually glad that he asked.  "She's well, I guess.  We, uh, we broke up.  She moved out last week."
   Riddle nods approvingly, ever the prig, but what do you expect from a priest?  "I'm glad you did the right thing."
   "Me too," says Martin.  He didn't do anything, though; it was Pam that left.  I've always been your second choice, she had said, and I was cool with that, because it was fun.  We had some fun, but it stopped being fun, and now all that's left is knowing that I'm your second choice.
   The parting was amicable, though, and Martin had been kinda relieved, because he had been wanting to push Pam away for a long time now.  Or at least, that's what he told himself; part of him remembers the times he wanted to push Dani away.  But not any longer.  Now, Pam had made it clear for him, she had said it herself: Dani was first, number one, the one.
   But no need to tell Roy that.
   "I'm going to marry Dani," Martin says at last.
   "That's splendid news," says Riddle.
   "There's actually something I, uh, I want to ask you..."
   "Martin, of course I'll marry you two."
   "Uh, no," says Martin.  "I mean, sure, yes, but that's not what I wanted to ask you."
   "Okay. What is it?"
   "I haven't proposed yet," says Martin.  "I plan to do it tomorrow night.  When she gets back from Chicago.  I, um."  He falters, stares at the table.
   "Martin, what is it?" says Riddle with a goofy smile.
   "It's hard," swallows Martin.  "I don't like having to ask..."
   "Pfft. Like the Big Guy said, ask and you shall receive."
   "I need, I need some money.  For a ring."  He stares at his stump.
   "Sure!" says Riddle.  "How much do you need?"
   "I don't know when I'll be able to pay you back... I'm hoping to try and find a job after I, uh, retire, but..."
   "Don't worry about it."
   "I hate doing this.  I haven't talked to you in months, and then I show up asking for money, it just makes me feel..."
   "Martin," says Riddle.  "Seriously.  I'm happy to help.  I don't feel used; I feel useful.  Now, how much do you need?"

Rings cost more than Martin figured.  He gets the nicest one he can in his price range.  As he's coming out of the store, his bleeper goes off; it's Lacey Trimmer.

City Hall, Office of the new Four-Colour Liaison Lacey Trimmer.  Derek answers the phone when the Green Knight calls.
   "So, what's the skinny?" says Martin.
   "I dunno," says Derek quietly.  "She doesn't think it's any of my business."
   Trimmer calls from her office.  "Derek, who is on the phone?"
   "It's the Green Knight," says Derek.  "I'll, uh, transfer him in."  He pushes the button, grabs his styrofoam cup, and heads over to the drinking fountain near Trimmer's door.
   "... at Earbox.  They've captured Gallery, but the other two escaped, and six, hang on..."
   Derek hears her footsteps.  He stops filling his cup and turns back to his desk (nice and smooth).  Her door slams shut.
   Yeah, real smooth.
   This whole thing was a lot easier when Dani ran the department.  Granted, he couldn't stand her smug, condescending attitude, and the silver lining of her getting canned was that he only had to deal with it when he was home, which was as seldom as possible.  But whenever the Blue Boxer needed to spring into action, Dani would give him the details and keep him on the clock.  Obviously, that couldn't be the case with Trimmer (it was still a shock, though, when he got his first post-Trimmer paycheck!), but he didn't expect her to keep the details from him, either.  And no matter how many times Martin had tried to drill it into him, sneaking and spying just weren't things that came natural to him.  Falling on his face, on the other hand...
   Like all his physical deficiencies, Derek had whipped up something to compensate for it and bugged his boss's office.  That worked well enough for about a week; then Trimmer found the bug.  Derek played dumb as the Green Knight was called in to investigate (Martin thought that was really funny).  Since then, Trimmer had been especially paranoid.  Derek had been tinkering with a new model, but he's unsure when he'll have a chance to place it without arousing her suspicion.
   She opens her door two seconds after Derek's bleeper goes off.  It's Martin: it's an eleven.  Derek swivels in his chair.  "Um, Lacey...?"
   She stands against the door frame, her arms crossed and pressed against her small bust.  Her tightly-wound but unruly mass of brown curls are sprinkled with gray.  She stares at him with pale green eyes set in a milky white face.  It's a hard stare, a none-of-your-nonsense stare: a look to which Derek has become increasingly accustomed.
   "Um," says Derek again.  "I kinda gotta go.  Sorry.  It's a bit of..."
   "...of an emergency," Trimmer overlaps.  "Well, we've got an emergency right now.  A real emergency."
   "What sort of...?"
   "For the eighth time, that's not your business," says Trimmer.  "And we don't have time for this.  Lives are on the line.  I need you here."
   "I'm sorry," Derek mumbles.  He's bad at hiding things unless he mumbles.  "But I really have to go."  He gets up and heads for the exit.
   "Leave your city ID badge," says Trimmer.
   Derek closes his fist around the lanyard, uncomprehending.
   "Only time I want to see you again is when you pick up your last check."
   "I, I switched to direct deposit."
   "All the better.  Leave the badge."
   He stands there dumbly.
   "Maybe Handler put up with this," says Trimmer.  "Maybe she let it slide; she let a lot of things slide, and a lot of people, innocent people, died because of it.  There's zero margin for error in this business.  Zero margin for having a life, either.  Green Knight's calling the Boxer now; do you think he's shirking it off to go play with his girlfriend?"
   "I don't even have a..."
   "This is what matters.  There's no room for anything else.  And I know that's a lot to ask, but if it can't be asked of you, then you've got no business here.  If you got it in you, I need all the help I can get right now.  If you don't, stop wasting my time."
   Derek's bleeper goes off again.  He leaves the badge.

Derek slips into his union and taps his headset.  "Where to?"
   Derek taps the tiny keypad on his left arm.  "A second break-out?"
   "Break-in," says Martin.  "Gallery and Whistler, working with a new black cape called Cockatrice, the Griffinians, and possibly the Undermen.  Whistler and Cockatrice got to the mainframe and let six prisoners loose before they scooted.  Gallery got left behind, and he's in custody; first blush is he's a patsy."
   Derek's unicycle streaks into view.  Doesn't look like it ran into any cars this time.  Good; the new algorithm is working.  "So, we're on round-up?" He hops on the bike and heads for Earbox at fifty miles an hour.
   "That's step one, yeah.  Likely they're in the forest."
   "So who're the six?" [7]

Frogmouth's plan is simple: he's going to wait them out.  Find the right tree, flatten against it, and wait, unseen, until they stop looking for him.  It might take days.  Even weeks.  That's alright.  He's a patient man.
   It's easier to be patient, of course, when you have a pocket universe that digests despair in the place of a belly.  He's a little peckish now, true, but he'll just eat one of the guards and digest him slowly.  Make him last until they stop looking.
   He'll choose the right guard, at the right moment, striking from the right tree.  Until then, he'll wait.  Unmoving.  Unseen.

Merlot keeps moving.  The faster he can get out of the woods, the faster he can get to Darcy's.  He doesn't particularly relish the man's company, and his teeth are already on edge merely thinking about his mindless and uninformed prattle-- he still remembers the time Darcy tried to pair an 1811 d'Yquem with Roquefort!-- but Darcy is his last friend in Jolt City.
   He'll tolerate him long enough to get a hot bath and a chartered plane to the continent.  There he has so many other friends, smarter but only in comparison to Darcy, who will keep him sheltered and soused while he plots his next caper.  He might even get one or two of his patrons to bankroll it so they can brag to their equally witless friends.
   Yes, he can see himself now, hopping from one chateau to the next, once again the favorite black cape among those with discerning taste.  All he has to do is escape these woods, and endure an evening with Darcy, the latter of which gives him far worse palpitations.

White Ant knows this is his moment. The moment that divides him in two: the man he was before (the third-rate villain, the screw-up, the coward) and the man he'll be after.
   If given the opportunity, he can be better than he was. He knows it. He can do good in this world. He can do great things. He can earn a pardon. Perhaps not in the eyes of the law, but in his own.
   He's prayed for a chance, and now it's here. He just has to get to the other side of this, and this is a delicate thing: he can't waffle and hedge and worry, he has to move, has to get out of here before they find him; he can't rush either, can't make the wrong choice or he'll wind up back in Earbox or worse. He has to play this smart. Smarter than he's ever been.

Fairway knows he can't outrun them; his heart will make sure of that. And he's never been one for hiding. No, the only way he's going to do it is to stand his ground, like a true Scot. It is a desperate gamble, he knows, perhaps doomed to go agley. But having been given a chance at freedom, he will fight for it dearly.
   Within moments of finding his ideal patch of earth, the mathematical wonder that is his brain determines the correct position for each tee, the right ball for each attack, and the exact club, as well as the precise stroke, which he will use to rain ruin and death upon his enemies.

Gray Glaive doesn't know what he's going to do, but that ain't nothing new. He's not a planner, never has been. Plans lock you in, plans doom you; if there's one thing he's learned listening to the other inmates yammer on about their grand designs that should've could've would've, it's that.
   No, he's never planned. Always kept himself open to whatever came his way. It had its drawbacks. Some days he went hungry. But it's good to be a little hungry and lean. Keeps you looking, keeps you ready. That's how he found the electric glaive (well, electric partisan). And that's how he'll put some miles between him and Earbox. He'll focus on staying free for longer than an hour. All the rest is gravy.

Lobsterman options limited. Lobsterman no hide. Lobsterman no blend. Lobsterman seven-foot tall. Also red. Also claws, big as bicycles. Lobsterman always Lobsterman. No fresh start. No new job. Lobsterman never be accountant, or actuary. Lobsterman never come home to Lobsterwife, two point five Lobsterkids, stupid Lobsterdog. Lobsterman out of prison, but Lobsterman not free.

Darkhorse and Martin meet Derek in front of the prison.
   "You're back in action?" says Derek.
   "Yep," says Darkhorse. "And this time, my doctor gave me the all-clear. So, I figure we'll split up, you two go one way, I go another, until we nab all six of them." [8]
   "Sounds fine," says Martin.
   "Why not all three of us go three ways?" says Derek. "Cover more ground that way."
   Darkhorse looks at Martin skeptically.
   "What?" says Derek.
   Martin takes Derek's arm with his hand. They walk a few paces. "All six of these guys are dangerous, Boxer.  You're still a little, uh, a little green."
   "Bullshit," says Derek. "It's been four months now that I've been the Blue Boxer. And I filled in for you for a couple of months last year. I'm up for this. If you're just going to hold me back, what are you training me for?"
   "I hear you, but."
   "Look, I got something to prove, right?" says Derek. "Prove that I can do more than smash my face into telephone poles. I got something to prove, fine, let me prove it."
   Martin takes a breath, exhales, and nods. "Alright. But be careful. You get in over your head, call me for backup."
   "I will," says Derek.
   You would, thinks Martin, if you ever knew when you were in over your head. It's a hard thing to learn, and a harder thing to admit. Maybe that's why Martin doesn't tell Derek the real reason he doesn't want the kid to go his own way. It's not that the Blue Boxer needs the Green Knight to watch his back, but that the Green Knight, minus one hand, needs the Blue Boxer. Still: Derek has something to prove. Let him prove it.
   They head back to Darkhorse.
   "We good?" he says.
   "Yes," says Martin. "Splitting three ways."
   "Good. Zip!" The speedster disappears into the woods.

Merlot slashes through some light brush with his cork-hilted smallsword.
   "Darkhorse," snarls Merlot. He thrusts with his blade.
   Darkhorse effortlessly sidesteps.
   "Wait," says Merlot. "Why did you do that? Why didn't you just vibrate through it?"
   "Why did you even attempt it if you knew I'd vibrate through it?"
   "Uh, well, it..."
   "Punch!" Merlot hits the ground.

Martin follows the low, buzzing crackle sound until he finds himself within fifteen feet of Gray Glaive and his ten-foot electropartisan. Bad enough Gallery, Whistler, and Cockatrice let him out of his cell, but they had to arm him, too?
   For the first time in a long time, he finds himself thinking consciously of Ray Cradle, and how he would have handled this sort of situation. Probably a pun to get the guy's attention, followed by something from the utility belt. He wonders if it shouldn't be the other way around; some gas pellets to knock him out before Gray Glaive even knows he's there. But then who'd be there to hear the pun?
   For the last year or so, Martin hasn't thought of the way the original Green Knight would do something, not because he doesn't have use for the old ways, but because he's been leaning that way himself. A few months ago, he would have just jumped in with a pun and some pellets, in that order. That was before he lost his hand.
   He's always known what a dangerous profession this was, and always stressed that to Derek, but when Fish crushed every bone in his hand to powder, he suddenly found himself feeling that danger acutely, not just knowing it but feeling it, the same way he feels the ache in his back or a tickle in the back of his throat. It brought it home that if he's not careful, he could lose a lot more than a hand. As such, punless pellets are looking better all the time.
   He reaches into his utility belt, pulls out a handful, and lets 'em fly.

>From the northeast, Derek hears a tokking sound. Fairway.
   He falls to his belly instinctively. The little white ball sails over him. Derek twists his neck and sees the ball hit a tree. Thick gray vapors start hissing out.
   He fishes his gas mask out of his backpack and slaps it over his face just in time to see another ball sailing right at him. He throws up his hand to bat it away; on impact, a net springs out over him from inside the ball.
   Probably another ball will be coming his way in a few seconds, probably something deadlier to deliver the coup de grace. Frantically, he scrambles for his knife and starts hacking away at the net. All the net-cutting practice with Martin seems like it's paying off; he skedaddles out of the net before three venom-tipped knife-balls impale the ground.
   Crouching, he catches a glimpse of the villain about ninety feet away. The villain doesn't see him, not yet. Good. He reaches into his bag. It's time to try out his Ventrilowand. He points the long metal microphone-shaped device at a tree about thirty feet to the northwest.
   "Careful," Derek's voice calls loudly from the tree, "or you're liable to give yourself a stroke."
   Fairway's eyes dart to the sound; he switches clubs and sends a ball careening towards the tree. It explodes on impact.
   Derek is already advancing, careful to keep the Ventrilowand steady and pointed in the same direction. "Seriously, though, can I ask you a question?"
   "I cannae guarantee you'll live to hear the answer." Fairway swings again.
   "How do these things work?" asks the tree. "If they activate on impact, why doesn't the first impact activate them? I assume you'd have a second layer that dissolves on the first impact, exposing the activating layer in time for the second."
   "Nothing that complicated," says Fairway.
   Closer now. Derek can see the proud, boastful glean in the man's eyes.
   "What is it then?"
   "It's timed," says Fairway. "Delayed response. The second impact has nothing to do with it. It's all math. Angle, speed, wind."
   "No wonder golf is so boring."
   Derek is almost upon him. He takes a deep breath to prepare himself for his attack. He grins and points the Ventrilowand directly behind the villain. "Fore!"
   Fairway whirls around, his back to Derek. Derek springs up and runs towards him.
   "Zip! Punch!" Darkhorse stands over Fairway's unconscious body.
   "He was mine!" says Derek. "I almost had him!"
   "Zip!" Darkhorse disappears with Fairway slung over his shoulder.

Martin backflips, putting all of his weight into his palm, and springs up, landing seven feet from where he started. It's two inches farther than the electropartisan's hot blue tip. Martin had been planning on it being five or six. (If he had known the gas pellets were going to dud, he would've just started with a pun.)
   "You know that's not a glaive, right?"
   "I know," says Gray Glaive.
   "It's a partisan."
   "I know." He slashes through the air.
   Martin leans back, limbo-style; the partisan smacks a tree, leaving a black singe mark in its wake. "So, why'd you pick Gray Glaive? Couldn't afford a uniform with some colour?"
   "Just keep talking, smart-ass. You'll get yours."
   "Not too late to change," suggests Martin. "You could be the Pink Partisan. Or Puce."

One moment, Derek's walking through the woods, and the next, it's all dark. Dark and warm. "Am I dreaming?" No, not dreaming. Very warm. Fingertips are fuzzy. Brain is fuzzy. Foggy.
   Where is he? He should be in the woods. Looking for the villains. Proving himself. Or trying to and failing. Smashing into a telephone pole. Hanging off the side of a building. Being the laughingstock of the internet.
   His debut was inauspicious, but he thought he'd make up for it. Overcome it. But he hasn't. The months have stretched on, and he's done nothing to distinguish himself. How could he? He's not as fast as Martin, not as agile, is a shit martial artist. He tries to compensate with his gadgets but half the time they don't work. He has no powers. Not like Darkhorse. He has nothing. He is nothing. Why is he even trying? Why is he even alive?

   "Lobsterman, Lobsterman, Lobsterman!"

Martin backpedals, putting himself well out of Gray Glaive's range. He reaches into his utility belt and readies his bolas, careful to keep them out of sight. The Glaive is going to run towards him, and right when he's in range, Martin will whirl his bolas and let them fly.
   As predicted, here he comes, Gray Glaive running right at him.  Martin starts spinning his bolas, and
   The partisan is flying through the air. It's been thrown. Martin scrambles to get out of the way.
   The partisan stabs the ground, and electric tendrils reach out in a eight-foot radius. They take Martin, and he falls to the ground.

White Ant watches as the Green Knight falls face-first. Gray Glaive is walking towards the fallen hero now. White Ant knows there are others in the woods, other heroes. One of them will find the Knight. One of them will save him. And if he doesn't get out of here, one of them will put White Ant back behind bars before he even has a chance to do any good in this world.

Gray Glaive picks up his partisan and uses it to flip the Green Knight onto his back. He takes the utility belt. Nice trophy. Can probably fetch a few bucks on the Dark Internet. He walks away.
   But wait. Why be the guy who took the utility belt, when he can be the guy that unmasked him? He walks back, leans in, reaches for the mask.
   Oh, no, not falling for that trick. Soon as he grabs the mask, the hero wakes up. Happens every time. No, he'll be happy with the belt. He walks away.
   But wait. He could just kill him. Yeah. Gray Glaive, who did what the Psychopomp couldn't. He'd be living high. For a little while at least. Get some fat assassination contracts.
   Yes. He raises his partisan above his head. He'll kill him.

White Ant thrusts his hand into a tree, turning all he touches into sawdust and powder. The tree lurches forward, falling.
   Gray Glaive looks up and makes a run for it.
   White Ant runs in, hands above his head, and eradicates the tree before it touches the Green Knight. He's still breathing. Still alive. Good. The others will find the Knight. Now to get out of here before they find him.

So warm. His fingertips are fuzzy. Warm in his mouth. Foggy brain.
   These are signs. Martin taught him these signs. He's hallucinating. Everything's black around him, he's not hearing things, not seeing things, but he's still hallucinating. Frogmouth.
   Alright, Derek: you know what's going on now. The question is, how do you get out? Frogmouth feeds on despair. And Derek's given him a lot to feed on. Because, let's face it, he has a lot to despair about.
   And not just the superhero stuff. He doesn't even know how he's going to pay the mortgage on his house. Pam's moved out. Dani got canned. Martin doesn't work. It all falls on him, then, and he just lost his job. He didn't even make that much in the first place.
   He should've just sold the house when his father died. He's too young to worry about a mortgage. Hell, he's too young to be an orphan. Too young to be alone.
   And he's going to be alone, isn't he? No Pam, no Dani, and it's not like Martin's going to stick around whenever he retires. Eventually, and sooner than he'd like, everything-- the mortgage, the superhero stuff, Jolt City itself-- everything's going to fall on him. And he knows that. He's always known that. And he used to be okay with that. Used to be upbeat. No matter what the challenge, he'd be up for it. Where he came up short, his gadgets would pick up the slack. He's young, he's intelligent, he's driven, he's talented. He was going to take on the world and he was going to win.
   He wanted that so badly. Right now, that doesn’t even seem like it matters. He doesn't want anything anymore. Should just let Frogmouth digest him.
   He thinks of his dead father. Moses Mason didn't want to drive an hour every morning and an hour every night to spend ten hours in a factory. He didn't want to; he had to, and so he did. That's what being a man is about.
   It doesn't matter what Derek wants. He wants to just curl up and die, just give up. But he must live. It has to be done. And so he'll do it.
   Suddenly light fills his eyes, a flash of yellow and green as he feels himself hurling towards the ground. He scrambles to his feet. Frogmouth stares at him, bewildered, gasping for air. "H-how?"
   "I manned up."
   Frogmouth makes a run for it.
   Derek turns on his piezoelectric boots, bounds into the air, and gives chase.

   White Ant slowly raises his hands into the air. No good deed...

Martin comes out of the woods, still brushing that weird sawdust off his costume and wondering how it got there and why he was still alive.
   First he sees Derek with his prisoner. Frogmouth. Wow. Good on him. 
   Then he sees Darkhorse with his four.
   "Where's yours?" smirks Darkhorse.
   "Got away," says Martin. "With my belt." And Dani's ring.


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