8FOLD/ACRA: Jolt City # 20, "Download of Doom!" (2/3)
joltcity at gmail.com
Sat Aug 3 19:51:11 PDT 2013
THE STORY SO FAR: Gallery, Whistler, and Chemist were the only three villains (with Martin Rock's help) to escape Earbox Super-Security Prison. Gallery retired from villainy and is attempting to care for the ailing Chemist. Whistler, now teamed-up with the buxom Cockatrice, convinces Gallery to pull One Last Big Job, in which he'll play an obvious patsy. The payoff, at least for Gallery, is a cure for the Chemist. The job is a daring break-in to Earbox, giving Cockatrice access to the computer systems for all Super-Security Prisons across the nation.
"DOWNLOAD OF DOOM!"
EIGHTFOLD COMICS GROUP PROUDLY PRESENTS
////////////// THE RETURN OF TOM RUSSELL'S
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// //// // // /// // /// /// // \//# 20
////// ////// ///// // ////// /// // // PT.2
Two of the guards help the three heroes escort the five escaped villains into the prison and their cells. Derek wonders why only two, and then he sees why: a dozen guards are standing in bizarre poses, frozen and unmoving, their faces contorted in terror. "What happened to them?"
"Cockatrice," says Martin. "Like the mythical beast, she petrified them with a touch."
The heroes are escorted to the door of the conference room. One of the guards knocks on the door. A moment later, the door opens; Martin catches the barest glimpse of an exhausted Gallery seated at the table before the door closes behind Assistant District Attorney Tad Dmowski.
"Mr. Knight, Mr. Boxer, Mr. Horse," says Dmowski, nodding to each one in turn.
"What's the story?" says Martin.
"Few months back, Whistler and this Cockatrice show up and tell him they have a job. Breaking into Earbox. They told him his paint was here. It took a little prodding on my part, but the original third for this little party, the Chemist, is holed up somewhere sick."
"I remember hearing about that," says Martin. "His body was just oozing with the paint."
"It dried up; so did he. Apparently he's in a bad way. Whistler and Cockatrice told him the paint could cure him."
"It probably could at that," says Martin.
"Well, in any case, it's not here, hasn't been for over a year," says Dmowski. "And I think Whistler knew that. Far as Gallery knew, plan was to get the paint, and get out. No paint, and he didn't get out. They left him here."
"So, he's a patsy," says Martin. "But a patsy for what? What was the point of this caper?"
"We don't know," says Dmowski. "And that's the part that doesn't sit well. I haven't been able to get much else out of him. He's still in that fuzzy place where he doesn't quite understand that they meant to leave him. Tried to push him out of it, didn't work. I'll give him a few minutes to process things, then come back with the 'you're in a lot of trouble, but maybe I can help you if you help us'."
Gallery stares at his thumbs and tries to look confused and worried. Cockatrice was right so far: she said they'd leave him alone for a few minutes after leaning hard. If she keeps on being right, Dmowski will come back in, play the friendly, and level with him.
Dmowski re-enters with two bottles of water. He places them on the table. After he sits down, he slides one half-way towards Gallery. Gallery pretends to hesitate for a moment before taking it.
"I'm going to level with you, Simon," says Dmowski. "This isn't a good situation that you're in. We're not sure what they're up to, but we know it's no good. Now, maybe we stop them. Probably we do. Probably we catch them, and they go to jail. And right now, probably you go to jail too."
Gallery holds the water bottle, unopened, between his two hands and stares at it, blank-faced. Looks like Cockatrice was wrong; sounds like he's going to offer to commute his past sentence, not reduce it.
"Well, more than you've already got coming to you, anyway," says Dmowski. Score another one for Cockatrice. "Of course, I can probably pull some strings there. Get it reduced, so you won't be in as long as you would've. Because, what was it you got caught for? Twelve Crimes of Christmas? I think this is bigger than that, isn't it? What they've got planned?"
Gallery gives a pained and practiced little squinty-eyed nod.
"So help us stop it. Maybe I can help you."
Gallery wants to come out and say it, but Cockatrice told him to wait, so he's going to wait.
"I can make sure they don't add time for the prison break."
Wait for it.
"Maybe knock some years off your sentence."
Let him be the one to say it.
"Maybe. Maybe I can help the Chemist."
Now. "Jerry? How?"
"Well, we're not going to give you your paint," says Dmowski. "But there's a possibility we can get some top-notch doctors, doctors that he wouldn't have had access to otherwise, doctors who specialize in four-colours."
"It sounds like you're promising the moon."
"Well, I said it was a possibility," says Dmowski. He swallows; he knows this is a gamble. "I don't have access to those kinds of resources, but I know people who know people who do. If this is just some small, petty, local-level thing, those people who know people who do won't lift a finger. Of course, if that's the case, chances are we don't need your help anyway. But if this is big, if we need all the help we can get, I can get Jerry what he needs."
Gallery opens his water, takes a swig, sets it back down. He nods. "It's big. It's big."
"She has access to all of them."
"Not just Earbox. Glovehammer. Coldlock."
"All of them, all six?"
Gallery nods, perhaps overdoing his fearful twitching a bit. "She's going to open all of them. First she's going to threaten. Says she won't do it if she gets so much money. But she does."
"Because they're not after the money. They're after the Black Note."
"Jesus," says Martin. "The Black Note."
"Is it even real?" says Dmowski.
Darkhorse nods. "Whistler went after it once before. Phil stopped him. The government has it split up into three parts, three frequencies, each stored in a different facility. Heavy guards."
"Might not be heavy enough," says Martin. "How could he even use it, though? Wouldn't he hear it? Wouldn't he...?"
"No, he's actually immune to the sound of his own voice. He can also 'whistle' multiple sounds simultaneously. Once he impersonated an entire choir. So, if he hears each component separately but whistles them together, voila, the Black Note."
Derek raises his hand.
"Boxer?" says Martin.
"I hate to be the guy that has to ask the stupid question..."
"It's called being the sidekick."
That was cruel. "But will someone tell me what we're talking about?"
Darkhorse speaks. "You gotta start using your context clues, kid. Black Note is a sound which causes the human brain to explode."
"Oh. Okay then. Makes sense. Carry on." Useless as tits on an elbow.
"Obviously we need some of our guys at these facilities," says Martin. "And we need guys to take care of the prisons, keep the guys in or round 'em up if they get out."
"I'll get on the line with Phil, so he can coordinate with the local FCLs," says Darkhorse. He zips out the door.
"I wonder," says Dmowski. "If he's the patsy, maybe there won't even be another prison break. I mean, how can she have access to all six? The computers that run the prison aren't hooked up to the Internet."
"What about the Database?" says Derek. "Isn't that hooked up? Maybe there's something the Gorgon put there that we don't know about, that would give some access to the doors and security systems through the Database."
"Database is only connected to the Secret Internet," says Martin. "And there's no connection between the real Internet and the Secret one. So, even if the Database did give access to the other prison systems, there's no way to hack into it from the real Internet."
Martin turns to Dmowski. "When's this ultimatum due, to whom and how?"
Darkhorse pops back in. "Phil just said Whistler and Cockatrice just popped up on all the television stations."
"All of them?" says Martin.
"Every one in the country."
Derek pulls out his laptop. While waiting for the CNN stream to start, he tries to say something useful. "Broadcast intrusion isn't difficult at a local level. But to do it nationwide, simultaneously... I don't even know where you'd begin to pull that off."
"Like I said," says Martin. "Huh."
They cut into the video as Whistler and Cockatrice are winding it up. The two of them are standing in front of a camera, following the standard script, in what appears to be a kitchen. Dim light pours in from a side window. The most prominent feature is a big clock.
"The clock's wrong," says Derek.
"Ssh," says Martin.
Derek's skin flushes hot against his union.
"So," says Whistler stiffly, "you have an hour to respond, Mr. President. I trust you'll choose wisely." He hesitates, then reaches forward for the camera button.
"Well, now that is over with," says Whistler.
"Left it on, dumbass," says Darkhorse. "He never was a detail guy."
Whistler doesn't turn towards Cockatrice. "Do you think they'll buy it?"
"I think so," says Cockatrice. "Gallery's been right about everything so far. He's the maestro."
Whistler's jaw drops. "Oh no, I think I left it on!" He fumbles and the screen goes black.
"Gallery's been right about everything," says Dmowski. "You think he's playing us? He does seem too obvious of a patsy."
Derek pulls up the full video on YouTube.
"Too blameless and innocent," agrees Martin. "At the same time, the Gallery I've dealt with was never the mastermind."
"But that was before the prison break," says Darkhorse. "Before that weasel Martin Rock showed him and Whistler how to really use their powers."
"Maybe it's Rock," says Dmowski. "Maybe he's the mastermind."
"I've dealt with Martin Rock before," says Derek. "He's no mastermind. Dumb as bricks." That's for the sidekick cracks. "I think it's Cockatrice."
"But she said..."
"The clock is wrong," says Derek. "Everything about this has been timed, to the minute, to the second. Precise. But this huge honking clock in the kitchen is five minutes slow. This wasn’t live. Look at the quality of the light from the window. Bright as hell out right now. But dim as dumb in the video. They shot this... yesterday, or a week ago. It's not live."
"But who knows where they are?" says Dmowski. "They might not be in Jolt City."
"They might not be," says Derek. "But the, the clock is wrong. And he's wrong. Look at his hands."
"He's moving his hands a lot, so what?" says Darkhorse.
"He doesn't know what to do with his hands," says Martin. "Bad actors never know what to do with their hands. First lesson of disguises. First thing the first Knight taught me, first thing I taught the Boxer. Kid's onto something."
"He's acting," says Derek. "He's nervous, stilted. And he doesn't stop after he 'forgets' to turn off the camera. They want us to see this. They want us to suspect Gallery."
"They already set him up as a patsy," says Martin. "So what's the aim?"
"They want us not to believe him," says Derek. "They want us to think the Black Note is a feint."
"I don't buy it," says Darkhorse. "They want Gallery to tell us the prison breaks is a feint for the Black Note, and they want us to believe the Black Note is a feint, what for? A third, 'real' objective? Why go to all that? And they have to know we're not going to take any chances with any of it, that we're still going to guard the Black Note around the clock, so if it is a feint, why take the pressure off?"
There's silence for a moment.
"That's what I thought," says Darkhorse. "Let me get back to Phil..." Zip.
"I should get back in there," says Dmowski. "See what I can get out of him."
"Mind if I give it a shot?" says Martin.
Dmowski twists his lips, mulling it over. "Alright." Martin can tell he's not happy about it, and why would he be? Martin wouldn't want anyone else asking if they could moonlight his job while he's right there.
"The Green Knight...!"
"Yep," says Martin. He takes a seat. "You made me a promise, Gallery."
"I. I know. And I'm. I'm sorry. But Jerry is..."
"I'm sympathetic to that," says Martin. "And like the ADA said, maybe we can help with that. If you help us."
"I've told you guys all I know."
"The Black Note is a feint," says Martin. "We know that."
Wow, Cockatrice didn't plan for that. What can he say to that? Gallery looks Martin in the eyes and. Gallery looks Martin in the eyes. "It's you."
"You're the Green Knight."
Martin stares back at him. Then he closes his eyes and gives a slight nod. "It's me."
"God, I'm really sorry. About breaking my promise. The one I made to you. I meant to keep it."
"Let's not be sorry," says Martin. "Let's make it right. What are they really after?"
"I don't know," says Gallery. "They just told me what they wanted me to tell you. What I saw of the plan didn't make much sense to me. But I went along with it. Because they said in the end Jerry would be okay."
"I don't know if that is really part of their plan," says Martin.
"I don't think it was, but I didn't have any other options."
"So change the plan," says Martin. "Do what works for you. What works for Jerry. Give us something. Something we can use. And do it now. Because there's not much time. They've already screwed you. Laid everything at your feet."
"They said it was you who had the plan. You who was pulling the strings. Called you the maestro."
Gallery's entire body shakes sporadically, his limbs flailing about. His chair falls back and he spills onto the floor, still shaking.
Martin's up in a flash. "Gallery, what's going on?"
"Don't know," he quavers. Blood spills out of his nose. "They never left." He falls silent.
The door slams open; Dmowski, Derek, and Darkhorse rush in. "What happened?"
"He had some kind of seizure," says Martin. "He's still breathing, but he's out."
"Does he have epilepsy?" says Derek.
Dmowski ruffles through his file. "Not that we know of."
"I don't like this," says Martin. "They never left. What the hell does that mean?"
"I don't know," says Darkhorse. "I got bad news. Glovehammer just lost access to its own system. Completely locked out. They called in the Architect. He's going to connect the Secret Internet to the outside, see if he can fight the intrusion."
"Is that even possible?" says Martin.
"If anyone can do it, the world's greatest hacker can," says Darkhorse. His cell rings. "Hello? ... Great." He puts it back into his belt at superspeed. "Coldlock just lost access. Glovehammer's doors just flung open."
"All of them," says Darkhorse. "Every single one."
Twenty minutes earlier. Chicago. Office of the Four-Colour Liaison.
"Doctor Rosenberg." Dani shakes his hand and takes a seat. "Thank you for this opportunity."
"Don't thank me yet," says Rosenberg. "I'm going to tell you right off the bat, I've interviewed twelve other candidates to be my replacement. Very competitive candidates. Candidates who have a great deal more education in the Four-Colour Sciences than you do. So, what do you bring to the table that you think makes you the best candidate?"
"To be frank?"
"They may have read all about being an FCL, but I've done it. I also have twenty years experience-- not to mention a master's-- with traditional law enforcement, which makes me an ideal choice to coordinate efforts and ease tensions between traditional and non-traditional means of keeping the Greater Chicago Area safe."
"You were the FCL for Jolt City for a year?"
"Almost a year, yes."
"And which heroes did you deal with in that time?"
"The Green Knight, of course. Also the Blue Boxer. And Darkhorse."
"Was Darkhorse active during that period?"
"Well, technically, no," says Dani. "He was still recovering from the injuries he received the night of the Apelantian invasion."
"So, two," says Rosenberg. "We work on a slightly larger scale here. Chicago has a long tradition of costumed adventurers. Currently in Chicagoland there are forty adventurers recognized by this office. Ten of those handle eighty percent of crises that arise. The other thirty are less dependable and competent; we occasionally throw a bone and schedule team-ups with them so that when one of those ten step down, one of the 'trainees' can step up. Beyond that, there are about two dozen others that we do not recognize due to the Fitzwalter Rule. Six of these we are trying to apprehend, as they have technologies that, given to the proper individuals with the proper training, could help protect us. And I presume you know that if Fitzwalter was followed in Jolt City, the Green Knight and Blue Boxer would be outlaws, not friends. People without powers have no business jumping around on rooftops."
"With all due respect," says Dani, "the Green Knight is the bravest man I've ever known. When we had those eight Doc-classers running amok, he marched right in..."
"And got his hand torn off," says Rosenberg. "I'm not questioning his bravery. I'm questioning why he was there in the first place. And why you failed to get him the support he needed. Real heroes. With real powers."
"I tried," says Dani. "But no one, including your office!, would help me."
"You never helped us, either," says Rosenberg. "We can't just tell our heroes what to do. They have to say yes. And you and your office, where everything revolved around the Green Knight, didn't give them a reason to say yes. I'm sorry; I know you mean well; in this business, there is no room for 'I tried'. That goes for us, and that goes for the heroes."
"Sounds like you made up your mind about me before I sat down."
"Well, your reputation preceded you," says Rosenberg. "But my mind is open. I told Whaley I'd give you a chance and I mean it. It's just that it's up to you to make your case." His phone rings. "Speak of the devil, it's Whaley. If you'd step out for a moment, we can continue after."
Dani nods and closes the door behind her.
She's kind of glad, actually. This little intermission gives her time, and it gives him time: she to remember all the things she had practiced saying, all the diplomatic and clever ways she had planned to deal with the elephant in the room but hadn't, and he time to forget that disastrous beginning. She can change his mind. This job is hers; she just has to take it.
The door opens and Rosenberg is moving out of the room. "I'm sorry, but there's a crisis. If you'll come back tomorrow we can continue the interview."
"What's going on?"
Rosenberg crinkles his face, irritated by the question. But he answers anyway. "Someone is threatening to open all the SSPs. That includes Glovehammer, which is our responsibility. Now if you'll excuse me, my staff and I have to make forty phone calls in the next ten minutes."
"I. I can make phone calls. I can help."
Rosenberg crinkles his face again. But he waves for her to follow him anyway. "We're going to deploy our heroes in three lines. Business up front around Glovehammer. Those with promise in strategic locations throughout the area. The screw-ups get tiny safe communities in the North to romp around in. They won't see any action, which is fine by me. But we like to make them feel involved so that if they ever do shape up they'll work with us more smoothly. You'll be calling the third group. Is that a problem for you?"
"No," says Dani.
Bethany Clayton was fifteen when she found the shuttle. The alien's technology had been seemingly destroyed in the crash, but before she finished high school, her brilliant mind had repaired the Singularity Gauntlet and the Wrinkle Belt. Bethany decided to use this technology in the service of mankind. Knowing her gear would be confiscated under the Fitzwalter Rule, she pretends that their incredible powers are the result of renegade gene-splicing. Grad student by day, at night she defends Calumet Heights as
| |/ / \ | |/ __ \ / ____| |/ / __ \| | | |__ __|
| /| \| | | | | | | / | | | | | | | |
| < | ` | | | | | | <| | | | | | | | |
| \| |\ | |__| | |____| \ |__| | |__| | | |
|_|\_\_| \_|\____/ \_____|_|\_\____/ \____/ |_|
| \/ |/ __ \| | | |/ ____| ____| in "FACE-OFF
| \ / | | | | | | | (___ | |__ WITH THE
| |\/| | | | | | | |\___ \| __| FIDDLEBACK!"
| | | | |__| | |__| |____) | |____ a DOWNLOAD OF
|_| |_|\____/ \____/|_____/|______| DOOM tie-in
Her phone rings just as she's getting out of class. She reaches into her pocket and flips it open. There's nothing on the other line, and the ringing continues. That's when she realizes it's the phone the FCL gave her at the beginning of the year. This is the first time they've actually used it. She presses herself up against the building and answers.
"Knockout Mouse?" She doesn't recognize the voice.
"This is she."
"My name is Danielle Handler. I'm calling on behalf of the Chicago Four-Colour Liaison. There is likely to be a massive prison break at Glovehammer. We need your help."
"You got it. Tell me where you need me."
"We have you assigned for Portage Park."
"But Glovehammer is on the South Side. I'm right here already."
"I know it seems silly to have you trudge all the way up there, but our computer says we're definitely going to need you up there."
"Alright, I'm on my way."
Wowza. They're finally taking her seriously.
Keys on coffee table.
She's not just a screw-up anymore.
She's been waiting for this.
Slips into her union.
Wanting this. They believe in her.
Need her. And she won't disappoint, not this time.
They don't suspect him. When the gates open, no one's there to watch him.
Heart rate picks up.
Of course not. He's been asleep for twenty years.
Lungs fill with air.
"Rendered comatose by his own necrotic crackle."
Or so they think. He put himself to sleep. He willed it.
So he had time to dream. Time to comprehend his powers.
Time to master them.
Bethany fixes her eyes on a point in the distance, blinks her eyes, and is there. Another point, another blink, and so it goes, her Wrinkle Belt traversing the twenty-three miles to the Portage Park neighborhood in three minutes. She feels it pressing against her waist, hot and yearning from overuse. Better give it about ten minutes to cool down.
This is a good sign, being assigned Portage Park. Pill Hill isn't even two square miles, but Portage Park is twice that. She'd feel more comfortable defending her home turf, of course. She knows her way around, knows the shortcuts, knows where to go. Knows where to hide.
Stomach acid burns up her throat, but she swallows it down. She's not going to hide this time. Not going to let anybody down.
He watches for a moment as heroes and villains collide outside the prison. Getting bogged down. That's not the way to do it. Better to hide, to wait, then to strike, then to run.
He sees a familiar emblem. It's Red Squirrel. Or a Red Squirrel, anyway. Costume is different, and she looks too young, barely fifteen. She's not likely to be the same woman who humiliated him two decades ago. Still, he tingles his fingertips and affords himself a smile as she turns to a lump of dead black tissue.
Before her compatriots can process what has happened, he's scurried to his next hiding spot.
She hasn't been in Portage Park in a few years, and whenever she went, it was because Marva dragged her along to Six Corners. She doesn't know how she should patrol the area. Maybe she should call Miss Handler and ask what she should do. No, that's a terrible idea. It would make her look incompetent. But she'd look worse if she didn't call and something happened.
She waffles on it for several minutes before activating the cell. It's Angela who answers. Angela hates her.
"May, may, may I speak to Miss, Miss Handler, please?"
"Uh, I think her name was Handler? She called me. This is, this is Knockout Mouse?"
"Oh, yes. She's a little busy right now. We all are. Kind of a crisis. Are you in... we have you in Portage Park?"
"There's nothing going on there, is there?"
"Oh, no. No. Nothing like that. I just had a question."
"Maybe I can answer that for you. Or pass it along."
"Um. No, never mind."
"I'll have her call you back. Handler. When she has a chance."
"Sure, sure." She slides the phone into her pocket and tries to steady her breathing. And it's only after she's done so that it occurs to her that she should focus her patrol along Belmont, on the south edge of the neighborhood; any escaped villain heading her way is unlikely to come from the north. She didn't need to call at all. She made a fool of herself, and for nothing.
Angela waves her steno pad at Rosenberg to get his attention. "I've got a report from Vigilis Maximus. Final headcount and six are missing. One of them is Fiddleback."
"He's been in a coma for nineteen years. His body would've atrophied."
"We live in a world where people shoot lasers out of their eyes. Nothing's impossible."
An hour into her lonely patrol, Bethany suddenly finds herself being shouted at by a polish woman in her sixties. In polish.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I don't understand. Is there some kind of trouble? My name is Mockout Nouse, Knockout Mouse, and."
The polish woman spits in her face. Bethany backs away from her, and the woman waddles down the street, still shouting.
A kid (eleven? twelve?) watching the scene from outside the library approaches her. He reaches into a pocket full of wadded up facial tissue and hands her one, which she uses to wipe her face.
"You're a hero?"
"Yes, I'm from the South Side. Knockout Mouse."
"I'd say you are." He clicks his teeth and lets his eyes linger over her body.
"Don't get pervy, kid."
"I'm mature for my age."
"So, are you here to replace her?"
"No, no. I'm just here today. Why would I replace...?"
"She just died. At the prison. It's all over the news. People are pretty upset about it." He points at the rapidly receding dot that had spat at her. "She was pretty upset about it."
"I'm so sorry."
"Well, I didn't know her," shrugs the kid. "She was a little young for me."
Bethany reminds herself that it's just a kid, and that kids are dumb.
"But," he continues, "she, and before her, her mom, they were kind of a tradition here. So to a lot of people they meant a lot to people. I guess it would be the way the people where you come from would feel if you died."
Actually, it's not that way at all. Pill Hill wouldn't give a fig if anything happened to her.
The cause of death is quickly confirmed as spontaneous necrosis. Rosenberg relates the news to Vigilis Maximus.
"I'm sending you all the intel my office has on Fiddleback. It's not much. He focuses necrotic energy generated by his body at living tissue, causing massive premature cell death. Back in eighty-six eighty-seven he would blast wealthy socialites across Chicago and give them the antidote in exchange for cash. Red Squirrel, the original, happened across him, put him in a coma. Until now."
They never found out his name. They never found his money. They had no idea why Red Squirrel found him in Portage Park that day. They searched in vain for one of his victims. But Fiddleback knew better than to piss where he swims.
The first thing he does when he's clear of the prison is to ditch the orange jumpsuit for something less conspicuous. He lets his powers go dormant, the rough discolored tissue sliding off to reveal something more human. No one at the prison ever saw this face. He easily slips past the cordon of four-colours constricting about the city. He sees one of them, a black girl, teleporting up and down Belmont as he enters the old neighborhood.
Just a few more blocks, and there it will be. I used to live here, he'd say. It was my childhood home. I know this is a little funny, but would you mind if I looked around? Once they let him in, he'd have to kill them, of course. They certainly wouldn't let him tear up the floorboards to get at his money.
Once he's got the money, then what? He'd get out of Chicago, but where to go, and what to do, he doesn't know. But really, having a big pile of money is better than not having a big pile of money.
Across the street he thinks he recognizes Bert, standing there, like many of the people he's seen today, holding a small plastic thing in one hand and tapping at it with the prime finger of another. Completely absorbed. Oblivious. Good. He doesn't want anyone to recognize the face he's wearing.
Almost there. He turns the corner and it's gone.
The house. The whole house. It's gone. A big empty lot teeming with filthy green grass and yearning saplings. His house. His whole house. His whole money. Gone. Demolished.
Bethany hears the screams and cautiously starts blinking in their direction. A few seconds later, she finds herself standing across the street from a vacant lot of dead grass and dead trees. Standing in the middle of it with his back to her is a dark man with black splotches of, of something, she doesn't know what, evaporating from his skin into the air.
He doesn't know that she's there yet. She doesn't think so anyway. She could just blink herself right in front of him and take him out with a single punch. Certainly one of the advantages of having a right hook that can become as dense as a white dwarf is that you really only ever need one punch.
Of course, she has to be careful. Has to make it just as dense as it needs to be and no denser. And she can do that. She's done it for years, in secret, in practice. She's just never done it with a human face before. She couldn't bring herself to do it with her first villain. She was too scared of killing him.
Wait, is this guy even a villain? She can't just blink up to some guy with superpowers standing in a vacant lot and punch him. Not if he hasn't done anything.
A crowd is slowly forming on the periphery; they're smart enough, at least, to know not to crowd in on a potential four-colour battle. Bethany silently waves them to step back.
"Ex. Ex. Excuse me, uh, sir?"
He whirls around. Blasts of black energy fly out. She blinks out of their way. Yep, villain.
The crowd that had begun to disperse has gone into a full sprint now. Almost as if on cue, an elderly woman trips. Bethany blinks over to her position, grabs hold of her, and blinks her down the street. She helps the woman up. The spitting image of the woman who accosted her before. She doesn't give her time to either recant nor double-down.
She blinks back to the vacant lot. She sees the villain running down the street. She'll blink in front of him and knock him out before he hurts anybody.
Bethany over-blinks, her eyes having focused haphazardly on a point on the horizon. Quickly she realizes her mistake and starts blinking back, taking it in small jumps. It's a lot of blinks in short succession; the belt itches and burns against her hips and waist. It's intended for efficient travel, not ping-ponging all over the place.
She blinks about ten feet in front of him. Overshot again, too far to take him by surprise. As easy as he breathes, he stretches his fingers out in her direction, sending another blast her way.
She side-blinks out of the way. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she sees a unsupervised fat little toddler in a blue dress standing right in its path. Aw, come on.
She blinks to the kid, then blinks them both away. Before she opens her eyes again, the beam finds a target and she hears the bizarre sound of a tree dying-- not slowly, not gradually, but violent and now.
She blinks the kid down the street and plops her in front of two twenty-somethings. "Don't know if she's yours, but watch her."
She blinks back and doubles over, her hands holding onto her aching gut. Definitely blinking too much.
He fires at her again, and again, she blinks. She should just blink out of sight. Wait there. Hide. Not hide. Recuperate. Give her belt time to cool down, then renew the chase.
But if he can do that to a tree
If he can
Then she can't leave. She won't leave. She'll keep blinking.
No one got hurt last time. The villain got away. And maybe he's hurt someone since then, but
She can't let this one go. There's something awful in his eyes.
She has to keep blinking.
Blinking closer. Burning closer.
But as she approaches, he's not just standing there waiting for it. He's smart, he's adapting, now he's blasting where he thinks she'll show up instead of where she is.
But she's smart too. She blinks behind him.
He hears her breathing, hears her hyperventilating. He turns towards her.
She pulls back her fist, but just before impact she thinks it's too dense. She falters.
It's enough time for Fiddleback to touch the left side of her face.
By reflex she throws herself back and away from him. It is the worst pain she's ever felt in her life. This is what it must be like, she thinks, to be dying.
She staggers back a few steps, feeling the death spread across her cheek and the belt burning into her abdomen. This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.
This isn't fair. She spent years with this belt and this gauntlet. Lonely years. She was always alone, always apart, and part of her stubbornly insisted on it. But that intensified when she found the spacecraft. It gave her a reason. Something to focus on, something to dedicate herself to. Something to prepare herself for.
When you spend that much time, when you give up so much, when you throw yourself over to something so completely, it should count for something. It shouldn't end like this.
She blinks. She blinks. She blinks. Eight times a second. Here, there. Sporadically. Desperately.
The belt gets hotter. Burns deeper. It can't take it much longer. She knows that.
She knows the belt. She figured out a long time ago that if it overloads, there's a ninety percent chance it's going to explode. She knows the hypothetical radius of the explosion. It won't be huge. Shouldn't hurt anyone except her. And him. And then he won't hurt anyone again.
She spent years with this belt and this gauntlet, and it should count for something.
It's at the limit now. It's going to go. With one last blink, she puts herself right in front of him.
And then there's a sound from her waist like a car battery dying. The belt is ruined with a whimper. Well, there was a ten percent chance it wouldn't explode. All that effort, the spreading death on her face is going to kill her, and she has nothing to show for it.
No. Not nothing.
Her fist flies out and shatters the bones in his face. Damn. Harder than she intended. But not too hard. He's flat on his back, out cold, blood pooling out across his face, but he's still breathing. With proper medical care, he'll live.
And so will she, but that's a story for another time. Now where were we? Oh, yes, they had just called in the Architect.
His high voice spikes over Martin's headset. "Bad news is that she definitely knows her way around the Secret Internet. Maybe better than I do, if that's possible, and I'm the one who cobbled it together from the Gorgon's design. I'm having the boys check on everyone who's ever worked on it, but so far no dice. It doesn't help that the Secret Internet has been a sausage fest from day one. I can't locate where she's hacking from, but we did trace the broadcast intrusion to an address just outside Jolt City..."
"Give it to me," says Darkhorse. "I'll be there in two seconds flat. Three if I stop for a sandwich."
"It's a bad idea," says Martin. "It has to be a trap."
"Maybe," says Darkhorse. "But they'll be expecting you and Bluenose Dolphin, probably. They won't be expecting a speedster. Remember, I've been out of action for well over a year. Maybe there'll be a clue or something. I gotta do something anyway." He makes his exit, leaving Martin alone with Derek.
"Architect, keep me posted," says Martin.
"Will do." He clicks off.
Martin takes a breath and looks at Derek. "Well?"
"That's a deep subject," says Derek.
"Well, what do you think?"
"What do I think?"
Martin leans back in his chair, stretches his hand palm-up across the expanse of the table. "You're the one who saw the clock. What else do you see?"
"Frankly, I'm still kinda surprised I saw the clock."
"There's a reason I picked you for this. And it wasn't your athleticism."
"No," agrees Derek. "But I don't know. It would be a lot easier to figure this out if we could figure out what they're after."
"Yeah, but... this is all a little, I dunno, extravagant just to give Whistler the ability to kill people."
"Whistler's always been extravagant."
"Yeah, but he's never really pulled it off, right? It's Cockatrice that's doing it, and it seems like an awful lot of effort on her part to let Whistler go around killing people."
"He could turn around and kill her," says Martin. "From what Gallery told Martin Rock, Whistler always treated women as disposable."
"Maybe she's immune," smirks Derek. "Maybe she's a robot, so her head won't explode. But seriously I think she's playing him. Using him. To get control of the Secret Internet."
"Which she has," says Martin. "Unless the Architect can do something about it."
"But why?" says Derek. "I mean, there's lots of what I assume are classified and dangerous things there, that's why it's a Secret Internet. And of course she can't get it at it through the regular Internet. So that's why the prison break. And the Black Note, to distract us from what she's really after. But what that is, I don't know. Sorry. I was hoping for another 'clock-is-wrong' moment myself, but I'm coming up empty."
The Warden and Dmowski meet them just outside the room. "It came from this way."
They make their way down the hall. Some thick smoke rises from a ventilation grate. With considerable ease Derek and Martin pull it off; it was meant to come off.
"A secret passage," says Martin. "They never left. Just like Gallery said. They've been under our noses the whole time."
He puts on his gas mask and drops down first, followed by Derek. Dmowski and the Warden stay up top.
"I wonder how she knew about it," says Derek as they work their way down the tunnel, their electric torches providing the only light.
"I'm more concerned with what went boom," says Martin.
"What went boom is also one of my concerns," says Derek. "It can't have been an accident."
They come to a door, slightly ajar. Martin motions for Derek to hang back and, wrapping both his hand and his prosthetic around the handle, pulls it back.
Before them is a grisly scene. Blood and viscera cake the walls of the large room. Lying on the ground is a headless body punctured by shrapnel. The costume looks vaguely like Whistler's. A mass of circuitry spills out of another body.
"She was a robot," says Derek. "Clock is wrong."
"She exploded," says Martin. "A suicide bomber. But where's his head?"
"All around here, I suppose," says Derek glumly.
"Most of the rest of him is intact," says Martin. "Comparatively speaking. He was on the ground when she blew up."
"He blew up too," says Derek. "Before she did. The Black Note."
Before they can speculate further, they hear gunfire upstairs.
Dmowski helps Martin out of the tunnel. "The guards who were frozen snapped out of it. Must've been too much of a shock for some of them, because they tried to shoot themselves."
"Tried to shoot..." Martin taps on his headset. "Architect?"
"I was just about to call you. She's gone, not a trace, like..."
"I need you to shut down the Internet. All three of them. All the Internets."
"That's not really a thing," says Architect. "It's not a physical thing with an off switch."
"We have at most maybe two minutes before three or four billion people die," says Martin. "Unless you shut down the Internets."
"Consider it done."
"GK?" says Derek. "What is it?"
"She's not a robot," says Martin. "He's the Gorgon. He has the Black Note. And it's about to go viral."
(CONCLUDED IN JOLT CITY # 20, PART 3)
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