BLUE NOTE CAFE
Nat frowned, tugging at the sequined fabric wrapped tightly over eir hips.
“I am not a fan of this costume,” ey subvocalized, smoothing the pencil dress over eir body. “How do you landbounds even walk in stuff like this?”
“Landbounds? You have nicknames for us now?” Emi’s voice vibrated up Nat’s jawbone, providing an externally silent means of communication thanks to the Damselfly’s new comm implant. “Are you an Aerial Supremacist now?”
“I dunno, maybe,” Nat smirked at no one, “your people have such impractical ritual garb.”
“Okay Nat, focus for two seconds. The guy we’re hunting is almost certainly in the audience tonight, and he has connections with the Chicago mob. We don’t know what he looks like, so keep an eye out for anyone with muscle. He likes to rough up sex workers, so your talent should hook him.”
“I gotcha,” Nat slipped a blonde wig over eir head and checked eir makeup and costume in the mirror. “Mm-mm. I would take that home.”
“Feel free to disable your comm before making more comments like that.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Our next act is a brand new debutante from points unknown! Give a warm Naperville welcome to… Audra Natta!” The emcee’s announcement was met with moderate applause.
Pressing eir feet to the floor, Nat faked a convincing walk onto the stage, hips swaying. Eir petite size was offset by the four-inch stilletos ey wore, but ey still had to lower the mic stand to sing directly into it.
“How is everyone out there tonight,” Nat purred, and the audience applauded a bit louder. Nat started singing in a dusty alto to the pre-recorded track playing over the club speakers.
“Offer me diamonds; offer me pearls
make me a princess or queen of the world
I still won’t be happy, though it’s not a bad start
But all I really want is your heart.”
Nat looked over the crowd, person by person. If ey had been looking for stereotypical gangsters, ey would have found none: most of the crowd dressed casually or in suits with a modern cut, and not a single fedora could be seen in the audience.
“Buy me a big house of the greatest size
buy me the coolest car McGowan can devise
Yes, heap treasures on me, but if you’re really smart
You’ll give up and give me your heart.”
Worse, a large portion of the club was comprised of the kind of people who appear to be taking a brief break before returning to bouncer duty. No help there, necessarily.
“You could give me your hand but the meat’s too lean
you could give me a dirty look but my plate’s still clean
I need somewhere to sink my teeth, babe, but not down south
There’s just one organ that I want to put in my mouth”
The audience seemed to be growing more appreciative of Nat’s performance, laughing and whooping at the morbid parody of sexuality. A few audience members looked different: glassy eyes fixed on the stage, a lack of awareness for anything but Nat. One of these, the hypnotized and helpless, was eir quarry.
“Wanna wrap my hand round it, and feel it thud
wanna bite and lick til my chin’s dripping with blood
try to enjoy it, dear, before you depart
just watch me devouring your heart.”
As a musical break took over, Nat left the mic, walking out a hip-swaying rhythm and doing some simple, slinky choreography. Eir eyes stayed on the crowd, though, passing over the faces of each potential predator.
Moments before Nat had to sing again, the answer came. A desperate-looking man snaked through the crowd, beelining toward one of the glassy-eyed men in an aloha shirt and thick glasses. Feet away, a hulking patron with a similarly colorful shirt stood, placing a hand on the intruder’s chest. The desperate man argued with the goon for several moments, gesticulating toward his intended target, until the muscle got sick of the conversation and hauled him out of the club.
The bespectacled man hadn’t even noticed. His eyes stayed fixed on Nat. Bingo. The Damselfly grinned triumphantly, gripped the mic, and started crooning again.
Eir act over but still in the long cocktail dress, Nat walked a slow, weaving line through the club. Ey could feel eyes on em, but ey shrugged it all off. If the Legion’s quarry was who they thought he was, he’d make sure that he got to talk to the mysterious singer first.
Nat leaned against the bar and offered the bartender a directionless smoulder. “Yeah, can I get a cosmopolitan?” Ey was willing to do this noir theme, but drew the line at ordering whiskey neat.
“All you had to do was ask me,” a voice next to Nat said. Ey turned and found the aloha-shirted man sitting on the next stool over. The man’s goons had arranged themselves in a loose half-circle around them so they didn’t appear to be part of a group, but they were all within neck-wringing distance.
“Well, now,” Nat forced a grin, deliberately looking the man up and down, “I didn’t know this kind of cosmo was on the menu.”
“Only for the very lucky. Miss Natta, was it?” The man asked. “My name is Robert Bosko. I had to come by and talk to you after seeing your performance. You are a pleasure to watch onstage.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Bosko,” Nat held out a delicate, gloved hand, which Bosko took and kissed. “I’m happy that you enjoyed my song.”
“There is something inimitable about your stage presence, Audra—may I call you Audra?” Bosko paused to let Nat nod, then continued, “your singing is all right. I am not going to lie. Your singing could improve. But your movements, your stage presence—inimitable.”
Nat raised eir eyebrows. “Are you negging me, Mr. Bosko?”
“Please,” the man’s face darkened, and Nat saw the hint of something dangerous behind his eyes for only a moment. “Do not compare me to pick up artist trash. I am merely straightforward. See: I find you fascinating and attractive. I wish to speak with you privately over a glass of fine bourbon. There. No criticisms, only interest. What do you say?”
Nat grinned. “You have my attention, Mr. Bosko.”
“Please. Call me Robert.”
Pressed against the plush seat of a luxury car, Nat painted Robert Bosko with seductive glances. Ey had to admit, there was a certain allure to the man. He was confident, straightforward, and had a situational awareness about him that was easy to find attractive. His, er, “dad bod” looks wouldn’t have been for everyone, but Nat rarely discriminated on that basis. If ey didn’t know more about him, Nat might even have been interested.
But Nat did know more, and Nat was not interested. His arm around eir shoulders made eir skin crawl, and ey couldn’t wait to watch a Legion task squad herd this jerk into a custody craft. Thank goodness they were almost—
The gentle chime of Nat’s comm implant danced up eir jaw, followed by Emi’s strained voice. “We’ve got a problem, bug.”
“What’s going on?” Nat formed the words inside eir mouth. It felt weird to try to talk without vocalizing or even using eir lips, but ey’d practiced it enough that Emi should be able to understand. “I’m almost to his place.”
“There’s a Freelancer chasing a bounty in the Arboretum. Your route is gonna take you right alongside it.”
“Okay, so what?”
Nat was unable to stifle a sharp inhalation through eir nose.
“I hope you’re not having second thoughts, Audra,” Bosko’s smile sent chills down Nat’s spine.
“Just allergies,” ey replied, rubbing eir nose coyly before averting eir eyes and taking a few deep breaths.
The Freelancer known as ‘Collateral’ had not chosen that name. It was rumored that she was created as a failed experiment to make a hybrid between a human and one of the technosome machine beings, but neither she nor the Freelancers were inclined to talk about her history. Known for her violent temper, weapon-generating body, and determination to complete any contract no matter the cost, Collateral had earned her name when she wiped the entire town of Galesburg off the map during a bounty chase.
The Freelancers only called her when something big was going down, and usually evacuated the area first. Come to think of it, there didn’t seem to be many cars on the road.
“Can we listen to the radio?” Nat asked, trying to keep eir voice from shaking.
“Nothing but crap on the radio,” Bosko shook his head, “damn shame. There used to be a good big band station, but it got replaced with electronic junk.”
“I just thought it might be nice to—”
“Fine. Giorgio, put on a CD.”
Nat clamped eir mouth shut. Ey didn’t want to press eir luck with her mark’s already-dwindling patience, but…
“The fight is heading South, Nat, they’re going to end up on the freeway you’re exiting onto right now.”
“I don’t know what to do!”
“Abort the mission. Focus on your safety.”
“Do not die, bug! You are more valuable than—”
“What in the hell?” The driver exclaimed, squinting at something beyond Nat’s vision.
“Giorgio, would you please shut your—” Bosko’s voice faltered as he saw the massive wave of pavement approaching the car. “Oh shit!”
When the dust-choked air cleared enough to see, it seemed ridiculous that they had somehow survived. The asphalt was reduced to rubble, and a few other cars were smashed flat, overturned, or in trees nearby. The car that the three had been riding in was the only one that looked like it had been picked up and gently set down rather than thrown violently. It bore dents and damage and no longer had windows, but it was miraculously still running.
Robert Bosko looked around, then frowned at the lounge singer in the next seat over, whose hands were braced against the car’s roof as though she were holding it up.
“It’s all right, babe, we’re safe,” he said, and turned to his driver. “What in the hell was that? A bomb?”
“B-b-boss….” Georgio stammered, pointing up through the broken glass.
Above, a lean humanoid figure descended through the air in a slow arc to land on the pavement. It was dressed in a jumpsuit colored platinum and pale gold, with an androgynous figure and a face completely covered with a matte silver oval mask. The figure was familiar; Nat had seen it on television news stories about a master tactician who could track any variable and loved nothing more than a high kill count.
“Oh no,” Nat subvocalised. “It’s Scoremaster.”
“Get out of there, Nat!”
Moments later, a metal monstrosity slammed into the road in front of the figure. The thing was vaguely bipedal, made of various metals and indistinguishable parts. It was not at all clear how it moved, but each move produced a cacophony of horrid squealing.
“Curious,” Scoremaster’s voice had a slightly distant quality, as if it were coming from a loudspeaker nearby. “You had the chance to defeat me before, had you struck without announcing yourself. I was unaware of your involvement. You have squandered that opportunity, and every diminishing one since.”
A great roar came from the metal hulk that contained—was—Collateral, and Nat briefly saw a woman’s heavily-scarred face inside, contorted with rage. Deafening reports filled the air as she fired a massive fusillade of bullets at ScoreMaster. He turned gently in the air, dodging them all unharmed.
“See?” Scoremaster lighted on the ground, not far from the unharmed car. “No unseen variables exist. What I know, I can predict. You have no means left to harm me.”
“All right, all right,” a confident voice drawled. Nat’s head snapped to the side and she saw Robert Bosko, hands held up in a peaceful gesture, cautiously approaching the two paranormals. “Let’s talk this out.”
“Robert, no!” Nat scrambled out of the car, remembering just in time to put eir high-heeled feet on the ground and pretend to walk.
“Just stay back, babe,” Robert gave her a smirk. “I got this.”
“Nat, what in the world are you doing?” Emi demanded.
“Being a variable,” Nat replied silently.
Scoremaster turned. “Begone, if you value your life.”
“Now hang on,” Robert held up a hand. “Listen. I happen to be fairly important, all right? I’m the main supply contact for the Family in Chicago. I bring in a lot of value, yeah? Weapons, drugs, money, manpower. Your little playtime is a little disruptive to my business, and maybe I could make it worth your time to move on. Yes?”
“Did you get all that?” Nat subvocalized.
“Wow. Um. Yes. I’m gonna send in the squad, please get out of there.”
“One more thing,” ey said, walking with careful stops toward the mobster.
Scoremaster turned to face Robert, looming over him. Collateral seemed to confused to do more than stare.
“You do not understand my priorities, human,” the Villain said. “You consider yourself important. To me, you are a single point to add to my score, barely worth the miniscule effort it will take to snuff you. You are so unimportant that I need not even consider you as a minor threat variable.”
With no warning and no sound, Nat struck. Ey wrapped an arm around Scoremaster’s neck, then swept one leg out from under him. Though unbalanced, Scoremaster immediately reacted, gripping Nat’s arm and preparing to overwhelm the presumed human with crushing strength.
He did not have the opportunity. Nat yanked both of them into the air and tumbled into a headlocked somersault, rotating in air at a rapidly climbing pace. In only seconds, Nat was spinning the Scoremaster in midair too fast for either one to be visible as anything more than a blur.
For a few seconds, the Scoremaster struggled against Nat, adapting to the new and dangerous variable thrown his way, but the overwhelming motion eventually overcame him, and he went slack in the Damselfly’s arms.
Nat responded by wheeling about one last time, shifting eir weight, and driving Scoremaster mask-first into the broken pavement. Ey floated a few inches off the ground, breathing hard, eir wig gone and sequined dress ripped up to the hip.
Collateral and Bosko both stared. The gangster finally blurted, “who are you?”
Nat shrugged sheepishly. “Nobody important?”
THE FLYING FORTRESS: EMI’S OFFICE
THE FOLLOWING DAY
Nat had a large bruise on the side of eir face and was holding a bag of frozen peas to it, but eir grin was genuine and unsullied. Ey pressed down into the chair across from Emi’s desk, straight-backed and attentive.
“You risked a lot there.” Emi’s brow was creased with worry, and she seemed to have aged a few years since Nat saw her last. “On one hand, as an agent, you were spectacular. On the other hand…”
“I just… I had this feeling, you know?” Nat’s voice was excited. Ey’d slept for twelve hours after coming back from the assignment, and was evidently just now receiving the payload of adrenaline and endorphins. “It was an opportunity, and either I had to let everything go, and probably let Bosko and a whole bunch of civilians die, or bring him in and prevent further damage from the fight! I wasn’t trying to worry you, I just… couldn’t stand the idea of just letting it all play out.”
“No, no, objectively, you’re right. It was the right thing to do. You made a choice under pressure and you executed it perfectly. I am proud of you, bug. And it seems like you’re suited to this line of work. It’s just…” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I would really be quite sad, were you to end up a smear on the pavement.”
“I’d be kind of cranky about it myself,” Nat shrugged, “since I’m supposed to take that cute card witch from the restaurant for an aquarium date. It’d be very rude to stand her up.”
Eir shoulders slumped after a moment, realizing just how tasteless the joke had been. “I… know. I’m sorry, boss, I really don’t want to die out there either. I really ought to be more careful, probably, it’s just never a skill I learned. I only survived this far by taking risks, and it’s so natural for me to keep doing it.”
“As long as it’s always a calculated risk. You don’t want to end up like Jessica, going for that adrenaline high every time.”
Nat nodded, face thoughtful. “Honestly, it… it was calculated. Everyone’s mood felt almost tangible, each one acting exactly like I expected them to. I never even would have moved if I didn’t know for sure that Scoremaster had written us off as non-threats.”
Ey giggled. “Did you read any of the stories? The news sites can’t believe that Collateral won, much less brought someone in alive.”
Emi finally smiled. “And you’re not present in many of the narratives, which is good. The Freelancers are eager to claim credit, and the story of a bad girl gone…” Emi hesitated. “Better, at least, is a tempting one. Add in the fact that the Legion still controls our share of media outlets, and you get to stay under the radar. Yes, a success all around, I think. Do you like ice cream?”
Thumbs up. “I’m for it.”
“Good. A celebration seems appropriate, and nothing says celebration like ice cream, I think.”
“I can think of other things, but you’re my boss, so ice cream is probably better.”