A Stitch in Time: Meeting the Family

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Participant users:





So how’ve things been going as far as making yourself known around Detroit goes? Sorry I’ve been quiet the last few days. Got myself stuck in a hard place and had to lay low for a bit.


Hope you’re doing all right! I’ve been doing an okay job, I think, and I’ve ventured out of Detroit and gotten a little networking attention from points further out. Local HS is getting a little harder to find, tho. I’d love to believe that their numbers are thinning but think they’re just getting better at going to ground.



Yeah, I’ve been keeping a close eye. They’ve been falling back on drug dealing and extortion, focusing on money more than message. Probably trying to save up for something. Have you heard of the Family?



Yeah. Chicago-based HS mob, right? Didn’t one of their big guys just get nabbed for tax evasion or smth



Yeah, which means a slot has opened up in their hierarchy. I’ve got reason to think Jorja might be moving in on it. Still working on the details, but her people and their people have begun some sort of negotiations. Could just be more firearms but…it could also be something worse.


The Family has a pretty tight grip on the local Black Market after all.



Damn. We really need to get Gwen in there ASAP. We probably don’t have time for a long game, but if we can get her into the Family’s middle management…



Absolutely. Now what I am thinking our next move should be is, I’ve located a member of Jorjas group. Woman by the name of Carolina Smith. I’ve got good reason to believe she is going to be the next rep to meet the family for discussion. Maybe Gwen could use her, meet someone in middle management, and get a feel for their personality all while learning their plans. Will give her more to go off of when she does shift into the position.



Sounds good. Just let us know where and what.



She’s scheduled to drive to Chicago tomorrow night, they are meeting in Warehouse 14B7 in the Milligan Complex. You can probably find your mark outside of her home, scrubbing off the Pariah symbol I sprayed on her garage door. Here are the coords.

<<attachment: carolina_smith.mmt Format: McGowan Map Tag>>



All right. What should we… do, though? I don’t want to kill anybody, and if we replace her she needs to not show up.





How do you feel about planting drugs on HS members so they get arrested?



That seems like an acceptable transgression to me.



Cool, I will bring one of my vans around with a wire for Gwen. Throw Carolina in the van and I will hold her for the night, then release her with some meth in front of the police station after our mission is complete. Sound like a good plan?



I’ll let her know. Here goes nothing, I guess!




It was late evening in the outskirts of Detroit. The neighborhood was quiet, since it was one that had few children and fewer businesses.


At the edge of a suburban neighborhood, a driverless van idled.


Close to the other end of the same street, a woman in her 40s, of average build and appearance, scrubbed at the graffiti on her garage door, her brown hair in a tight bun and covered by a work kerchief. Her lined face was twisted into a scowl as she sprayed solvent on the stubborn paint, which was coming off an inch at a time.


Between the two, a stream of midnight-blue sand slithered along the inside of the curb, moving toward the woman’s house slowly, unseen by any of the residents. It was quiet and subtle enough, and nearly invisible on the neat blacktop of Carolina’s driveway, that she didn’t notice its presence until something blocked the streetlamp light she was working by.


“Hey, what the–” she turned, then her eyes went wide.


A sand sculpture in the shape of a familiar-faced woman smirked. “Borrow you for a second?” the sculpture whispered.


Before she could scream, the sculpture flattened and wrapped around Carolina, enveloping her entire body. For a few seconds it clung to her, forming a deep blue silhouette of its victim as she scrabbled futilely at it. Then a pink light flared from within, and the sand collapsed to the ground in a heap.


A moment later, it slithered away from the driveway.



Carolina hit the metal floor of the van’s cargo hold hip-first, sending shooting pains up her side. She gave a panicked glance around her. She’d seen vans made for this purpose: sound insulation on the walls and the back of the seats. A retractable metal mesh barrier. She was being kidnapped.


“Who in the fuck–” she stammered.


Just then, someone in the passenger seat turned back toward her and grinned through the barrier. Whoever it was looked just like… her.


“Hi!” said Vera-as-Carolina. “So, this is awkward – for you, mostly, but uh… You’ll probably spend twenty four months in prison, less with good behaviour, and then you can go back to your regular life. Maybe consider making dramatically less shitty choices your second time out, eh?”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Carolina demanded, wild-eyed, “and who the hell are you? What do you want with me? I’m just an accountant!


“An accountant?” Vera mimed surprise. “No, you’re Christina, aren’t you? The woman who helps run the gangs in this area?”

“No,” Carolina muttered through gritted teeth, “I’m not. I’m Carolina Smith, and I’m an accountant at the Cruz & Drumpf accounting firm. My name is on the door, you’ve got the wrong woman, now let me go.


“Cruz & Drumpf? Alright, boom, that’ll help make the lie more convincing. Thanks, Carolina, you’re a doll.” Vera winked with Carolina’s lashes.


“Who the hell are you?” Carolina exploded. “What is this van? And why are you working with—”


“Me?” The sand statue peeked around the edge of the other seat, smiling, as the van kicked into gear and started driving itself.


“You’re that monster,” Carolina growled.



“She’s the monster, yeah, and I -” Vera grinned sharkishly. “I’m Carolina Smith, and I’m an accountant at the Cruz & Drumpf accounting firm. My name is on the door!”

“I’m not telling you shit-else,” Carolina muttered, “so gimme my mark and dump me in an alley.”


“Yeah, we’re not going to do that,” the Pariah whispered. It seemed she couldn’t talk very loudly in this form.


“Like I said, twenty four months. That’s not bad! And it’ll be a nice prison.”

“What for? I haven’t done anything!”


“Well, no, not yet you haven’t.” Vera-as-Carolina cupped a hand around her mouth and stage whispered. “But you’re gonna.”

“You’re having way too much fun with this,” the Pariah whispered.


“You’re not having enough.” Vera shot back, and dangled a bag of heavy white powder on her side of the mesh, and grinned. The grin said it all.


Pariah laughed. It wasn’t… the nicest sound in the world; it sounded like sand buffeting a tent during a windstorm. “Do you enjoy your other gigs this much?”


“Nah, none of them are with you.”

“Aw, you,” Pariah whispered coyly.


“You’re flirting,” Carolina’s eyes were wide with incredulous offense. “I’m in the back of a padded van, you’re about to frame me for possession, and you’re fucking flirting with each other. You Paras are sick!”


“See, it’s bigoted statements like that that make me feel perfectly fine about what I’m about to do. Pariah, how do you want to knock her out?”

“I figured we’d let her scream herself hoarse overnight, then give her like a third of this thing of coke and set her loose downtown. Unless you have a better idea.”


“Oh, yeah, there’s a Legion center way uptown, and civilian Legionnaire police patrol around it. I think we can knock her out, drop her near the doorstep, and I’ll make sure one of the helpful little gray collars come and find her. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.”

“Yeah, I think that’s fine. I think I just worry about knocking her out without brain damage; that’s a lot harder than it looks in the movies. How about I get a little coke in her, knock her around until she’s dazed, and then we do the rest of your plan?”


Carolina stared at the two paranormals discussing her fate.


“Oh, nice, nice, and then when the cops find her she’ll be like oh no I’m not high on cocaine officers, it was a woman who looked like me and the Pariah monster, they had me in a van and wore my face and then they made out, oh noooooo. No one will believe that.”

“That was my thought. Less likely to do permanent damage, and also: hilarious.” The blue sand-woman turned in her seat and gave Carolina a friendly smile. “Hey Carolina, do you like cocaine?”


Carolina frowned. She did like cocaine. She did not want any cocaine right now. She was about to have some cocaine.


“This is Stray Hound reporting in. It seems our friend Carolina is being escorted to her new bastille. Lovely work you two.” The van said as they made their way down the highway to Chicago. “Now we only have one shot at this, because chances are word about Carolina will get out before too awful long. Talk in prison spreads fast when gangs are involved.” The van sped up a bit. “There’s not much as far as new info is concerned, but it appears Carolina was was going to negotiate the terms of some sort of truce, maybe a joining of the two organizations? An exchange of money for guns. They were to negotiate the cost, Carolina being a bookkeeper and all, and then Carolina would report back so the funds can be transferred.”


“That however, is not what is going to happen. Instead, should we work quickly, it will appear as if Carolina has not returned at all. The parties exit the room. We tail the Family rep back to their home, and Gwen steals their face. Gwen will then tell the reps boss of some egregious offence committed by Carolina at the meeting. Jorja assumes her rep was killed or captured. We have the two at each other’s throats for a bit, hopefully long enough that the two can’t mend fences, and then…well, depending on what extra information we can gather, we will stay ahead of the HS game for quite a while.”


“This sounds good,” Pariah agreed. “My current form is well-suited to this stealth mission, so I can hang out on the premises and ‘port Gwen back to the van if things go pear-shaped. Hell, I could probably sneak into the building and listen in.”


“You guys are lucky I’m on board with this plan,” Vera griped. “It’s painful to wear one face all day, let alone swapping into another face half way through the day. Y’know when you work out too hard? It’s like that.” Vera shifted back into Vera briefly, rubbing her cheeks with her hand. “But, y’know, it is for a good cause…”

“Sorry to hear that Gwen. Try to hang in there a bit longer…if this all goes as planned, I will be sure to send you two some tickets for a vacation or something. Or at least bowling. Love bowling.” The voice said, trying to lighten up the situation a little bit. “Will fill up on gas just before dropping you off so we can have the van already running if things go bad. Like that plan Pariah.”





It was incredibly easy to pretend to be an accountant.


All Vera really had to do was bring up her nose, act like she smelt shit, and scribble numbers (and a few arrows for good measure) in a notebook.


No one seemed to notice anything off, at least.


“All right, kids,” a small-statured but imposing man folded his arms. “Let’s keep this simple and brief. I’m jittery as fuck even being here in the first place, with everything that’s been going off the rails this month. Miss Smith, can we come to an agreement today? I ain’t in a haggling mood.”


“Carolina” tapped her pen against the paper in irritation. “The most recent terms you presented will work fine, but we’ll need to wire you the funds from HQ. I’m not authorized to make a transaction of that scope on my own.”

“Why the fuck are we meeting in person if you ain’t authorized to make the transfer?” The man demanded, eyes a little wild. The two goons standing behind him shifted, as if to remind the others of their presence. “We know Jorja’s playin’ her cards close right now but these guns are hot and I gotta move ’em.”


Vera-as-Carolina kept looking bored and detached. “We met to arrange terms. I am going back to my HQ now and authorizing my end of the transaction. Half an hour isn’t going to change anything. You think the police care about some guns when there’s a Paranormal on the loose, ripping the city up? I’m pretty sure you could shoot someone in the street and still have a few seconds to dance on their corpse before anyone showed up.”

“That’s Detroit. This is Chicago. We ain’t got no Pariah, and our cops are only so crooked. They’re real stirred up after the arboretum thing, too. But fine. If you can guaran-fucking-tee me that you’ll have that money wired before midnight, I’ll go ahead and start the caravan. But if we ain’t got the money by then we gotta take ’em elsewhere. Nothing personal, we just gotta.”


“Chicago, Detroit, all these cities blend together.” Vera smiled. “You have my personal guarantee that the money will be wired. I completely understand. Good doing business with you.”

“Good. Tell Jorja that we’re willing to give this a test run, but we’re keeping an eye on this. You ask me, things are way too exciting.”


“Ah, for you guys, maybe. But I’m just the accountant. I’ll pass the message on.”

And with a click click click click click, she turns to leave, heels clicking against concrete.


“Hang on a hot second,” the man said, and one of the goons moved to block the door. “Ain’t you forgetting something?”


“Am I?” She blinked at them through Carolina’s heavy lashes.


The goon’s face fell, and the little man smirked a little cruelly. “I thought you said you was on good terms. She’s straight up stonewalling you, brothah.”


“You know I like to keep things professional,” Vera improv’d. “Especially at such a big meeting. You know how it is.” And she went to move past him with a coy smile, hoping that would be enough.

“That’s cold, Line,” the goon, whose name Vera still had not heard, moped as she slipped by.




“Fuckin’ squirrely ass bigots,” the man muttered, tapping his shoes habitually before stepping out onto the plush carpet of the hallway. His quiet monologue continued as he walked its length, almost all the way to the end. “I ain’t gonna talk to those para-hating fucks again. I gotta tell Gian. I just ain’t gonna. Fuck. I miss Sin, that guy was. He was all right. Fuckin hell, don’t nobody clean this place? Sand fuckin everywhere. Blue sand. Where the fuck do you even get blue sand.”


He finally stopped in front of the door to room 731 and took a deep breath, bracing himself. “He ain’t gonna be happy about the thing, but once we confirm the wire…”


Before the diminutive wiseguy was able to raise his hand and knock on the door, something dark and dry and cool covered his eyes and nose and mouth, wrapping around all of his bare skin and pulling his clothes taut.


A disorienting moment later, he tumbled to the metal floor of a van.


“The… the hell?”


“God, this never stops being awkward, does it?” Vera craned back in the front seat to peer at him. “Hey, c’mere. Lemme get a good look at you.”

“What– Carolina? Is this a fuckin double-cross?”


“Oh, man, this is even more embarrassing. No, no, I’m not Carolina. See, come closer.”

“Wh– then who–“


“Surprise, motherfucker!” A grinning face of blue sand grinned from the other seat. “You just got Pariah’d!”


“And I’m not Carolina -” Vera-as-Carolina said, shifting into the man in the back seat. “I’m you! Boom, double surprise!”

“Uh,” the man stammers as the implications dawn on him. “Holy shit.”


“It’s room 731, sweetie,” Pariah smiled, “go ruin shit.”


“Aw, see, this is why I love you. I am really good at ruining shit.”

And with that, Vera’s smile widens.

“Unfortunately, I can’t walk in there in heels, so… I’m going to need you to give me your clothes, buddy.”

“If I give ’em to you willingly, will you let me stay fuckin conscious?”


“Sure, that’s a fair deal, but keep your donger hidden. I don’t need to see that shit.”

“Trust me, lady. Sir. Me. That ain’t something I wanna show off.” He kept talking as he disrobed. “Good job giving the HS a hard time, by the way. I miss the days when we didn’t hafta fall in line with shitheel bigots to be decent criminals. You start lumping all that shit in together and all of a sudden it’s in for a penny, in for a pound. A gangster’s gotta have some standards, you know?” He wadded up all of his clothes except for a pair of Hello Kitty boxers and handed them to Vera in a wad.


“I like this guy. Hey, guy, you got a name?”

“Eh, just call me Tallboy like everybody else does,” he sat on the floor of the van and shrugged. “Do me a solid and don’t get me in cement-shoes trouble, aight? Some trouble I can handle, but I’m bout to hit 10 years of service so it’s a shitty time to die.”


“No, no, quite the opposite. You want a job?”

Tallboy seemed nonplussed for a moment, then scratched his head and shrugged. “I’m listenin’.”


“Um,” the blue sculpture whispered, “Gwen, sweetie, can we finish the mission first? I’ll chat up our friend until you’re back.”


Vera-as-Tallboy made a face. “Alright, look, I’ll fill you in on the deets later. I get a recruitment bonus, you don’t get drowned, everyone wins. Alright, wish me luck, I’m out.”

“Good luck darlin’!” Pariah waved.


“Good luck!” Tallboy shouted. “By the way! Open palm clasp, move in for the shoulder pat, once and done. Don’t make it weird!”




“And I was basically like, don’t come to me about it, you’re the one who placed the order!”


“Stop,” Pariah was laughing so hard she could scarcely get a word out. It sounded like an etch-a-sketch being shaken. “Stop I’m gonna puke my portal out.”


“That ain’t even the worst of it!” Tallboy continued, grinning. “That’s when it turned out that she thought each gross she was orderin’ was one item!”


“Oh nooooooo,” Pariah whispered, then something caught her eye outside the van. “Oh hey, you’re back.”


“Izzat right. Hope I had a good time.’


“I am back, and we had a fabulous time.” Vera launched herself into the front seat, and then looked at Tallboy, and then looked at Pariah. “I want to drop the act. Can I put my real face on? For Hound, and for Tallboy?”

“Your call, sweetie. If you want people to meet the real Gwen.”


“Don’t put yerself out on my account.”


Vera-as-Tallboy shifted again, into just – Vera. The short, impish girl with green hair. “I’m Vera Newman, a Freelancer gone… eh, not rogue. But I… I want you guys to know that. I want you to work with me as Vera, not Gwen.”

Pariah raised her sandy eyebrows, but smiled.


“Nice ta meetcha, Vera. Dig the hair!” Tallboy grinned. “Oh, and the heels didn’t fit me. You can have ’em back.”


The van spoke. “Vera. Thank you for your trust. Seems our merry band continues to grow.”


“Yeah, I’m turnin’ into a real fuckin’ Adam Nova.” Vera grimaced. “Can we get burgers? I want burgers.”

“Given that I was expecting a beating when I ended up back here, a burger sounds like heaven right about now,” Tallboy quipped, still smiling. “Can I have my clothes back, though?”


Recovery: Default in Our Scars




Carolina Smith hunched alone on the jail cell’s cot, gently running a finger across the throbbing gash across her forehead. It’d scar real bad. The Pariah’s scars always stayed, and hers was long and low. She’d wear it forever, marked with the brand of a cause she barely even cared about. The drug habit that had gotten her into this mess in the first place had just sunk its talons even deeper.


She once thought she’d find a way to get out of the game, quit Jorja’s crew and just be a god damned accountant, but her last chance at that future had just leaked out of her forehead and scabbed over. She’d be no good as a face any more, and she was a good enough shooter and brawler—how did she ever end up being a good shooter and brawler?—that she was probably looking at life as a hitter until her body gave out.


Damn paras. Damn humans. God damn everybody.

Continue reading “Recovery: Default in Our Scars”

Recovery: Bookkeeping




“Good afternoon, Miss Smith.” The lab-coated man across from her looked more like a misplaced socialite than a doctor. He was tall, with a smile-creased face and dark hair lined with gray along the sides. His accent was upper-class british, and his gray eyes shone with a bright curiosity. His grin was, frankly, more infectious than was appropriate for a man who ought to be curing infections. “Or should I say Ledger?”

Continue reading “Recovery: Bookkeeping”

Recovery: Seeing Red



(Vera’s 7th House)


There was a stunned silence in response to Vera’s revelation, both from Pariah and from the Hound, who was participating via a conference call.


“I’m sorry,” Pariah finally whispered, “it sounded like you said that Smith was your… coworker now.”


“That’s because she is my coworker now. The Freelancers hired her. And you want to know what the bitch of it is? The real thing that’s getting under my skin? She’s walking around without a power suppressant collar. She’s not in the social rehabilitation program. She’s probably getting a salary, and the ability to piss in Archaven without someone waiting outside the door. I just – AUGH -”

“I thought… I thought she hated paranormals?” Pariah still sounded deeply confused.


“There was an explosion in Detroit. They bring Smith in the next day. Now, they don’t tell me these details, but I can put two and two together. We uh, we may have caused someone to Emerge.” Vera said, rubbing her face with both hands.

Pariah opened her mouth, then closed it, too nonplussed to reply.


“I think I gotta talk to Meda about this.” Vera finally groaned. “I’m all twisted up. Things are moving fast – we have an employee, we are startin’ all kinds of shit – it’s nothin’ you did, obviously. It’s… it’s just… you know? Last month all I gave a shit about was the new Borderlands game. Now I’m giving all sorts of shits. Fuck!”

The hounds voice came in. “This is either very good, or very bad. We need to keep a close eye on them. Turn this in our favor somehow…it’s possible she changed her tone now that she is a paranormal herself. Which doesn’t make them any less of a bad person, of course, but it could still be advantageous. We should probably make sure she doesn’t figure out you work with Pariah though.” He said to Vera. “At least not for the moment. Observe from a distance and strategize.”


“Can I have this pizza?” A reedy voice yelled from the kitchen.


“Yes, but it’s old,” Pariah tried to yell, but her voice couldn’t rise higher than a whisper. “Damn it.”


“It’s old,” Vera hollered. “Eat it at your own risk. God. Okay. I’m going to go make an appointment. With my fucking therapist! Because I’m an ADULT!”

She stormed out onto the front porch, pausing to shout: “WITH RESPONSIBILITIES!” before slamming the front door.


“Is this what being on a superhero team is always like?” Pariah whispered.

Where There’s Smoke: Pacification

Tags: Collateral, the Freelancers, Corey “Stormcore” Adams, Vera “Everyperson” Newman, Carolina “Ledger” Smith, Archaven






FROM: dispatch@freelancers.co.av

TO: uncontracted@listserv.freelancers.co.av; active@listserv.freelancers.co.av

SUBJ: [URGENT] APEC: Collateral



Freelancer special resource Collateral has escaped handlers and is currently AT LARGE in the surrounding suburbs. Casualties mounting; more expected. All available Agents will receive 1.5x standard contracting rate for this All-Points Emergency Contract. Available and uncontracted participants in the Social Rehabilitation Program are expected to report to dispatch for possible deployment.


Collateral is to be disabled and subdued by any means. Damage to the head or spine of the contained body at Collateral’s center may cause permanent damage or death to the resource and may void reward.


Three people on a crowded dropship, heading toward ‘Suburb 14’. Fifteen minutes out, they’d said.


Carolina– no, Ledger –looked through her mask at the two available ‘partners’ she’d been assigned for the emergency mission. Corey she knew, though this was her first time seeing him in armor. They’d sparred. He was decent at it, but she knew that his specialty was firearms. The other woman… was the green-haired one who’d given her the cold shoulder in the hallway. Fun.


She shifted her shoulder holsters, still getting used to the light but ever-present weight of the specialized pistols they’d commissioned for her.


“So,” Everyperson said, finally breaking the silence. “How about, that, uh… Corey, don’t you like sports?”

Carolina winced behind the mask. What did this lady know that made her so pissed?


Corey was in the process of checking his systems. He looked up, his one brown eye blinking. “Sports? They’re good for team building?” He said with the hesitance of someone who hasn’t really played sports since he was seven. He picked up his assault rifle, checking the stun pulse shots, and shouldered the weapon. There was no sign of anything heavier on him. “But we should talk strategy.


“I suggest I provide heavy fire and distraction.” He could take it. “And the two of you evacuate any civilians left in the area.”


“They said that they’re gonna bring in a containment ship, but we have to pin her down somehow,” Carolina’s voice was nervous, “can… you do that by yourself?”


Corey considered the question. “Not physically. She’s in my old armour, and that was a tank, if I do say so myself. I can pin her down via firepower, but I’m unsure how much stun blasts will take to bring her to unconsciousness.”


“Here’s a question, what the hell am I supposed to do besides not die?” In truth, Vera knew that the others had no better impression than she did. She’d been given some photos with brief descriptions: this was Collateral’s husband (whom she accidentally killed back when her name was still Rae), her kid (ditto), the scientist who helped install her into Earthcore (dead, replaced by Dr. Bowman), but… it all seemed like shots in the dark. Dispatch had also mentioned something along the lines of providing a decoy for either Ledger or Stormcore, which sounded like a super great idea.


“I dunno,” Ledger shrugged, “um… what do you do, actually?”


“Ssssshape shifting. Uh. Perfect impersonation of any human being.”

There was a long pause as that sunk in. “… oh.”


“Yeah.” Vera busied herself with looking at the files.

Corey looked at the two of them, bemused. “Regardless, I’m trying to recall any weaknesses the Earthcore had. I’ve not been given any up to date schematics of the…attachments to Collateral. I’ll keep her busy and away from the two of you.”


“The dossier said that she can jump almost a half a mile in that rig,” Carolina’s anxiety about the mission managed to overtake the awkwardness. “With two of us evacuating, there’s no way that we can get all of the civilians clear.”


“Then the most important thing is that I lead her away.” Corey sighed. He slipped his helmet on, and it sealed, expelling air and pressurising.  “I hope that she’ll come after me in a rage and she’ll ignore the both of you.”


“That’s stupid. You’re the muscle, and you want her to be paying all of the attention to you? No, I’ll lure her, you two hit her hard. You uh, can hit, yeah Carolina? You’re… a Para now?”

Ledger sighed. “You should… probably call me Ledger now. And yeah, I’m a Para, and I can hit hard, but it costs me in a big way. If that’s what it takes, though, that’s what it takes.”


“So let me run, and you two gun. Comprehende?”

She looked over at Corey for confirmation. He seemed to understand this shit better than she did.


“I don’t like it. The threat to you will be much greater than to either of us. But it’s a decent plan. Stay under cover and keep moving.”


“I guess it’s a plan, then,” Ledger tried to keep the tremors out of her voice, “I’ll start out using the guns and if they don’t work I’ll break out the powers.”


“Alright. And we’re all Freelancers now, so we gotta trust each other. We can do this. When are we landing?”

Carolina pulled up the sleeve of her trenchcoat, checking her watch. “Less than five minutes.”


She unholstered one of the pistols they’d given her, checking its battery housing, lock, readouts, and settings. She’d practiced with the thing, but it felt weird going into combat with a gun that didn’t use plain old chemical propulsion.


“By the way, um,” she said, “in case this sucks and I croak– sorry about. Before. Hope your friend is doing all right.”


“Yeah, I’m sorry too about, uh, the cocaine thing. Friends? Or coworkers, at least?”

“Yeah. And for what it’s worth, I never really cared about… the cause. My parents were real gung-ho. I just wanted to be an accountant.” She checked the other pistol. “Just ended up accounting for the wrong people.”


“We all make mistakes. If we survive this, I’ll tell you about mine.”

“Okay, kids, we should be reaching the drop zone soon. We’re a ways out, because we don’t want to get so close that–“


The intercom was drowned out by a loud crash, metal slamming against metal. The vehicle lurched, then tilted, and the Freelancers drifted upward from their seats as gravity ceased to keep up with the craft’s downward momentum.


Corey stumbled then braced. He really braced. If he went loose in the vehicle, he’d cause some serious damage to both Ledger and Vera. Hands against the roof of the vehicle, and feet planted firmly, he wedged himself securely. Then he patched into the vehicle’s visual feed and nodded in confirmation. “She threw a car at us.”


“Oh, Christ -” Vera is gripping onto the handholds with all her strength. “We need to get on the ground, I can’t lure shit if I’m a smear on the wall.”

“Are you fuckin’ kidding me? We haven’t even started the mission–” Ledger threw her hands outward, trying to catch onto a handhold or wall, then finally gave up and thrust both arms straight outward. A spidery red script poured from her hands and snaked through the cabin, around her arms, around Vera, webbed Corey into the corner, and–




As the stars and the ringing in their ears died down, the Freelancers found themselves frozen in position, bound by the rigid energy cabling that Ledger had thrown up at the last moment. Then the script crumbled, dropping them all on the floor of the wrecked craft.


Corey was neither bruised or shaken by the crash. The suit was good for that. Instead he knelt up and tested his wings. They whirred, moving from closed position to wide open. Then he asked, “Are the two of you injured?”


“Not yet.” Ledger’s tone was resigned.


“Lil’ bit,” Vera grunted. “Broken ribs, I think. Fuck. Fuck. Hurts like a bitch, but I’ll be okay.” She stood and staggered up to Ledger, leaning in to whisper: “If I don’t come back from this, find the Pariah. Tell her I died of my own choice, doing a stupid fucking mission to earn my stupid fucking freedom.”

And then she stepped back, and she was no longer Vera.


She was Collateral’s mother.


And she took off at a sprint.


“She’s going to get herself killed.” Corey reached out and tapped Ledger on the shoulder. “I’ll go first.” He stepped out of the vehicle and zoomed up and out.


“Fuck’s sake,” Carolina groaned, clambering out of the wreckage as quickly as she could. “Noooo. If she hears that you died and I was there, she’ll force-feed me my mask!”


Stumbling steps took the Masked Ledger over rubble and ruin, through the streets of a once probably very nice suburb, until she caught sight of their quarry: it was hard to miss the giant hulking metal mass.


Collateral seemed to be holding still, for a moment, making only small, hesitant movements as she tried to process what she was seeing. A carbon copy of her mother, trying valiantly to get her attention.


Corey flew overhead, hovering to the right of Collateral where her file said her unenhanced natural eye was supposed to be. He hoped to be far enough and that Vera was distraction enough, that Collateral didn’t notice him. His rifle came out and he waited, studying Collateral in his old armour. He wanted her moving when he attacked. She’d have less chance of avoiding hits that way.



And then she took off at a sprint again. C’mon c’mon c’mon do I gotta piss in your eye –


The hunk of metal seemed to contract in on itself for a few moments, emitting an earsplitting squeal before Collateral’s amplified voice boomed out from unseen resonators, almost shaking the ground and even louder than the metal noises. “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!!” She screamed. “YOU’RE NOT MY MOTHER! WHY ARE YOU TORTURING ME??!!!”


“Oh shit,” Ledger drew both of her pistols and took off running toward Collateral, moments too late: like a great robotic animal, the metal mess took off in a screaming, loping, four-‘legged’ run toward Vera, fast. Way too fast.


“HOJESUS I’M GON’ DIE -” Vera vaulted herself to the side, not able to roll with any grace, just launching herself away from Collateral’s impact point.


If that wasn’t Corey’s cue to swoop down, he didn’t know anything. He let gravity pull him as his jets blazed. His rifle was at ready and he hovered for a few scant seconds in front of Collateral and let loose a burst of stun blasts. White pulses of light spat out of his rifle, each connecting against the massive target that was Collateral. They should have disrupted her systems, and would more than sting. Then the turned and sped away, luring her away from Vera.


The scream of pain that Collateral let loose upon being struck with the stun blasts was enough to nearly deafen Ledger, and she imagined it must be worse for Vera, who was only paces away from the monstrosity. The hulk turned, and lurched, and stood still for a moment– then it was gone, only a crater where it stood moments ago.


A faint, tinny, muffled crash made its way into Ledger’s senses through her ringing ears. A moment later, Collateral crashed to the ground, only paces away from her. In huge, malformed metal ‘arms’, Stormcore struggled to avoid being crushed, or at least to bring his stun rifle to bear.


“Uh– UH–” Ledger raised one of her pistols and fired several times, but the stun bolts weren’t nearly as powerful as the ones Corey had fired earlier. She didn’t even know if Collateral felt them.


There was a scream of metal, but it was fine, it was just his precious wings being crushed. Slag smeltin-. Corey didn’t have time to swear, but this close to Collateral, he had one trick. Slapping a hand onto Collateral’s faceplate, he hacked into her own systems….and what did you know. She actually had some good firewalls. Corey felt his armour bend and redoubled his efforts. If he could get past her walls, he could paralyse her systems.


“What’re you–” Corey heard her voice, confused, then scared, then he was through and wait a second no why was it feeding back it’s not supposed to


Collateral and Corey screamed together as his armor and hers caught each other in a vicious feedback loop, suffusing both users with blinding pain and sending arcs of electricity through the air. Though she shed plates and parts rapidly, Collateral’s grip remained, and Corey’s armor started to buckle in earnest.


“Corey, Corey – no no no -” Vera shifted again, into Collateral’s daughter. “Mom, no!”

It felt cheap.


But sometimes a cheapshot is necessary.


“Baby?” The feedback loop stopped for just a moment, and the mech turned, and plates unfolded, and a woman’s badly scarred face was visible– and she reeled as a stun bolt hit her face, dropping Corey so he lay just next to his stun rifle.


Collateral turned toward the offender, her face exposed in a mask of rage for just a moment before the metal closed down over it and she leaped upon Ledger, who shrieked in panicked surprise and dropped the stun pistol.


Corey, likely barely conscious by now, saw that most of the excess armor that had been piled atop Earthcore by Collateral’s horrific powers had sloughed away. She was almost uncovered. Almost.


… wait, was that an exposed elbow? When she pulled her arm back?


He reached for his rifle, painfully slow. Ah yes. His pain dampeners were overloaded. Crushed ribs were likely. The suit will worked despite all his damage alarms. He pushed himself up, synced with the rifle, aimed and fired one single accurate shot.


With a startled shudder, Collateral just… stopped moving. Corey’s suit struggled to inform him that the human host inside Earthcore’s twisted remains had fallen unconscious, and the device’s power had gone toward sustaining her life and repairing itself. They’d won.


“Oh God someone please help me,” Ledger croaked from underneath the metal hulk.


“HQ. Send containment in. She’s down for now. We require medevac.” It wasn’t sent in Corey’s voice, but through a synch version. He didn’t feel like he could manage manual vocalisations just yet. He pulled himself up, and yes, there was the suit digging into his side. He stumbled towards the metal hulk and tried to push it off Ledger.


Vera, wheezing and sweating and dealing with a case of shaky knees, moves to the other side of the hulk and strains with her skinny arms.


The hulk doesn’t move. Vera’s strength makes no difference whatsoever, and Corey’s suit, while it would have been able to do the job normally, was operating with limited hydraulic capacity thanks to its damage.


“Oh, this is going to suck so bad later,” Ledger whimpered before bracing herself and shoving the hulk away with ridiculous strength, using Corey’s efforts to roll it to the side as she lifted. That done, she collapsed on her back, pulled her mask up, and looked up at the sky.


“Really not looking forward to paying this one off.”

Between a Rock and the Anvil





The bartender on duty was a tattoo covered woman who knew when to pay attention to her patrons and when to ignore them. She was ignoring the slim woman at the bar – Vera Newman, who kept shifting her face to look like various Freelancers in an attempt to screw with the bartender.


Corey limped in soon after. It wasn’t that his leg was injured, more that he was walking in that stiff manner that indicated his torso was injured. He was dressed as he always was, in skin tight activewear, a cap, and a jacket with the Freelancer patch on the shoulder. He didn’t pause to look around, but just headed to the woman with the changing face.


She was surprised to see him; for a moment, her face got stuck as Rooster’s before it snapped back. “Hey.”

“Vera.” He nodded, levering himself onto a stool next to her. He looked different out of the suit, much shorter than and a lot thinner than expected, though still very fit looking. There were metal braces on his hands, and exposed circuitry on what skin you can see.


“You holding up okay? Sorry I couldn’t do more out there.”

“I’m fine. Just healing ribs and a patched lung. I’ve honestly had worst.” He ordered a diet soda from the bartender. “And I am relieved you’re not hurt. There’s a reason I like armoured suits.” He gives a faint smile.


A healthy-looking, uninjured figure stepped into the bar with a shuffling, wobbly gait. Once again in her dual-hued trenchcoat and hat, with her character-shifting mask firmly affixed, she nonetheless failed to cut a terribly heroic figure as she looked like someone who’d just come out of a marathon fifty shades of grey fanfiction reading.


She practically stumbled to the bar.


“Christ,” Vera said, her face shifting into Michael Cheney’s. “You look fuckin’ rough.”

That flickering mask stared at Vera for a moment, then Ledger’s voice croaked: “I’m goin back to the infirmary.”


“Yes, but imagine going all the way back there.” Corey sipped his soda and made a face. “Why are these things always so sweet?”


Ledger slid onto the barstool next to Corey with agonized, slow movements. “I’ll have two fingers of blow. Or whiskey, I guess.”


“Blow only comes out after midnight, sweetheart. Whiskey it is.”

Vera sips her chocolate milk. “You would not want to see what happens to this -” She shifts her face into Corey’s for a second. “When I’m high. Bad news bears.”

“Is this how you’re always gonna greet me when I finish paying off a debt?” Ledger picked up the proffered whiskey glass, raised it to her face, and… drank it through the mask? Technology, man.


Corey remained silent though the talk of narcotics and getting high as he sipped his soda like a professional designated driver.


Wasteland entered the bar area, the machinery whining softly as he moved towards the group. He signalled to the bartender, and nodded as he stood, rather than sat, near the group. “Hey, folks. Glad to see you all out of the infirmary.”


“Still kind of tender,” Vera says bashfully. “But I’m healin’ -” Her eyes move to the door and her face pops back into being her own and twists into a mix of disgust and incredulousness. “You know what, yeah, I’ll take something strong bartender, thanks.”

Solomon Swift enters, holding a heavy book by Dr. Atlas.


“Wasteland, come join us. We could have used you in that fight.” Corey gave a small wry smile.


Solomon sits just close enough to the group and listens in while pretending to crack open his book.


“I think I did pretty okay for my first Big Girl mission. I mean, I didn’t die! I totally expected to die.”

“Your… first big girl mission? W-what does that even mean—” Ledger sounds kind of horrified.


“Eh, the Freelancers used to put me pretty much exclusively on…” Vera shifts again and it’s suddenly Chloe Karsgaard, famed actress and celebrity sitting at the bar. “Y’know, pretendin’ to infiltrate certain interviews and stuff? Spreading propaganda and just generally being in the right place and the right time?”


“Which is desperately unethical -”

Vera scowls.

Ledger swivels in her seat to stare at Swift. It’d be more impressive if she actually had visible eyes.


Wasteland ignores Swift.  He does, however, join the group, nodding at everyone. “Wish I could have been there. Only got the call just as you guys were dropping. May have words with the dispatcher. Collateral… is a big gun. Rooster or I should have been there to back you up. But that you guys managed on your own? That’s major respect, even if you did take some hits.” He nods at the bartender, who gave him a beer, and he puts a straw from his gauntlet into it.


“I underestimated her.” Corey shrugged. “I should have been faster, kept my distance. “ He looked like he was about to say more, but only sipped his drink.


“I did great,” Vera bragged. “Perfect distraction, only got a couple of bruised ribs, didn’t die despite actively pissing someone who calls themselves Collateral off.”

Solomon leans past Vera and reaches a hand out to Ledger. “Hi, Solomon Swift.”

After pausing briefly, Ledger took his hand in her gloved one and gripped it, giving a single, decisive shake. “Ledger.”


“What’s your actual name?”
Oh here we go…”.

Ledger released his hand. “Ledgelie L. Rutledge.” Even without the benefit of facial expressions, the acid tone in her voice betrayed that Solomon had not impressed her. “Ha!”


Solomon rolled his eyes. “See, if you ask me -”

“No one did.”

“There wasn’t even a question. Here, let me: if I buy you a drink, will you leave me alone about my personal details? There. Now you’ve been asked.”


Wasteland is trying, not very hard, to hide his amusement. He fails miserably. The armor shakes a few times in suppressed chuckles.


“I’ll take an appletini.” Solomon finally says, voice dripping with – disdain? Really?

“I say, barkeep,” Ledger leaned against the bar, “your finest appletini for my lovely new friend. And I’ll have two more fingers a’ blow.”


Corey looked amused and decided that it was socially appropriate to change the subject.


“Wasteland, tell us about the time you defeated Cancer.”


“Wasn’t really much. Just a guy…. In a crab suit. I mean, the suit was pretty well made, but…. It was a crab suit. I don’t even understand why.”


“Just someone in a crab suit. Heh. I need to find some footage on this.”


“Wait a crab suit? Like, what, foam? One of those inflatable deals?” Ledger sounded skeptical. He had to be pulling her leg.


Corey hadn’t moved from his seat, nor was he holding a phone in his hand. He was staring at some midway point, then burst in a soft laugh. “No, mechanical. What was that foam string stuff he shot at you?”

“Foam string?


“Yeah, some kind of foam. It was…. Really, really dumb. But Cheney called me himself, saying that it was probably the best PR opportunity he’d ever seen.” Wasteland snickered.


Solomon scoffed. “You see, it’s people like that that are sullying the image a layperson has about Paranormals. Honestly, the code names and costumes are just degrading.”


“Shut up, kid.” Said the scowling black lady who came in, unloading her heavy bag onto the bar.

Without hesitating or even looking up, Ledger launched her empty whiskey glass across the surface of the bartop. Swift managed to lift his Appletini well before the glass collided with it, but the message was clear.


“What in the fuck,” said a woman who had just spent the last two days in near-constant pain, “do you know. About laypeople, mister Swift?


“I’m the only person in this bar using their real name,” Solomon said, unflustered and disdainful. “I’m the only person who doesn’t wear some stupid mask or spandex.”

“Sure you are.” Said Doc Brown. Who was wearing a sensible oxford and docs.

“Do you know what the name Corey Adams is associated with?” Corey turned a bland face towards the boy. “Do you know that by the time I was your age, I’d been a soldier for eleven years in a war I was forced to fight in? Do you know that I had caused the deaths of thousands of innocents by the time I was twelve? Do you really think that I want to be associated with that? Please do think about the experiences that others around you may have had that you have been fortunate enough not to have experienced yourself.” He took a calm sip of his soda.

“Like this kid’s name is actually Solomon Fucking Swift anyway,” Ledger growled, evidently trying not to get involved further but still visibly pissed.


Now that the topic was on his favourite topic (himself), Solomon became visibly animated. “Right, but that’s what I mean – I’m privileged, I recognize that, but I don’t try to remove myself from humanity. If you ask me, this whole Paranormal thing, this whole Freelancer and civilian thing – if you ask me, we should all be civilians.”

“The door is that way. Feel free to lead the way.”


Ledger glanced over at Vera’s face, then at Solomon. “You really think that’s an option for all of us?”


Wasteland LOOMS over Solomon. His beer is finished. He stares, and the yellow eyes seem a little brighter, staring at the little SHIT that said those things.

Sawbones perked up a bit. She liked that Wasteland kid.  She caught his eye and gave an encouraging smile.


Corey idly held his glass in his hand, his expression blandly amused.


Ledger stood, and put a gloved hand on Wasteland’s metal-shod arm (a faint hiss came from the glove, and she took a moment to be thankful that she was wearing gloves at all). She shouldered past him slowly.


“Solomon. I get that it’s real easy to think that everything works the way it’s supposed to work. Yeah? But the fact of the matter is that we are the way we are because life is flawed and complicated. It’d be real great if I should show my face or tell you my name and not worry about whether my life would be hell later. It’d be nice if Wasteland could take his armor off, ever.” Thank goodness she’d read a few dossiers. “It’d be real cool if Stormcore had an upbringing that’d let him… eat solid food. But none of those things are true. Get me?


“You’re coming at us like we’re aloof, acting above humanity. But it ain’t so. You’re just acting above us.”


“I’m just trying to start a conversation.” Swift shot back. “Have you ever thought about how -”

Vera punched him.

And he went down.


She stood, horrified, holding her hands over her mouth.


“I – shouldn’t have done that.”

“And you didn’t. I did.” Corey sipped his soda, still calmly perched on his stool. “And that’s what everyone else here will say. And if Cheney asks why, I’ll say it was to save his life or Wasteland would have done it.”

“Shit, I was all but about to go into Debt again to shut his dumb ass up.”


Brown gave a snort. “That’s what I saw.” She nodded.

“I’ve wanted to do that for years.” His tone is positively, demonically gleeful. “Thank you.”


“And Cheney ain’t gonna ask. Cheney ain’t doin’ shit.” The Doc seems rather sure of that.


Swift bolted to his feet faster than humanly possible and stared at Vera with something very close to hate. Then he stormed out of the Anvil, slamming the heavy front door behind him.


For the first time many of them could remember, The Doc actually looked not-grumpy! She raised her beer to salute the others almost cheerfully.


“You know,” Ledger returned to her seat and swiveled to face the bar. She lifted her whiskey glass and sipped it through her mask. “I was sorta worried that I’d have trouble getting used to this work environment. Don’t think I’m too worried any more.”


Vera relaxed. “Oh my God. Oh my God. I just punched Solomon in his stupid face. This is the second best day of my life.”

“I hope the first best wasn’t the one I was there for,” Ledger quipped.


“Did I get that on video?” Wasteland pauses for a moment. “Oh my god my helmet cam caught most of it. THIS IS GRAND.” He’s ecstatic. “Buying a round for everyone. And the next one. LIFE IS PERFECT.” And he does. He’s got the cash. Why the hell NOT.


For the first time, Vera finds herself being the hero of her peers. She turns pink, hunches down around her drink, and grins widely.


“Well. He’s already reporting this on social media.”


Sawbones drew herself up, and announced with the utter conviction that only old women who’d been through hell could summon: “Fuck that guy.” Ledger toasted to that. As did Wasteland


“It’s fine. I just sent in a report of the evening’s events taking full responsibility.”


“Good man. And this made my week. Aaaaah… Thank you, guys.” He chuckles again. Clearly he’s watching it inside his suit.

“Okay I gotta hit the little heroes’ room,” Ledger swiveled in her stool, then vaulted off of it. She looked a lot steadier than she had a half hour ago. “Back in a bit.”


As she walked away, she took her phone out of her trenchcoat pocket and started poking at it. Those who caught a glimpse of it would see a popular cat-trading game on the screen.


Corey considered another soda the same way teetotalers consider another drink. In the end, he cut himself off and got a glass of water.


The door swung open, and Vera turned to sneer: “Come back for another round, Swift?”

Instead of Solomon Swift, it was six armed people, wearing animal masks. Their leader held up a rifle and aimed it directly at Vera’s chest. Before the shapeshifter could react, a tranq bolt sank into her neck and she swayed and hid the ground with a thunk.


Sawbones was moving before she really even realised what had happened. Soon as she could get her old bones off that stool, she’d moved to hook her arms under Vera’s armpits and start dragging her behind the bar.


Ever seen a guy who was casually sipping a glass of water on moment and had dived for cover in the next heartbeat? Corey shook off the air of casualness like a veil and turned into a trained professional. He ducked under a table, flipped it over and ducked up with a handgun in hand. “Attention. You do realise that this is a Freelancer bar, correct?”


The six animal masks look up: Zebra, a Tabby, a Bulldog, an Elephant, a Goat, and an Anteater.


They don’t say anything. Hesitation or determination?


Sawbones went instantly into Doctor Mode. She pulled out the tranq dart, looking up at her bag, sitting up on the bar. Dammit. “My bag, kid!” She ordered in a voice that didn’t brook arguement.


Wasteland CHARGED at the group, hands blazing already. “This was a VERY BAD IDEA.” He swung at the nearest guy, probably Bulldog. He seems like a good choice.


Someone tossed the bag at Sawbones. Solomon Swift stares her down, as if expecting her to object. He must have snuck back in with that super speed of his.


She gave him a cursory nod, and dug into it, giving a series of rapid-fire orders. Yep, Swift was being bossed like a kid. Deal with it!


The Bulldog crumples under Wasteland’s assault, and the other five turn on him, automatic rifles firing all at once.


Corey aimed, his optic lens flashing, then fired one accurate shot. It hit the Zebra in the knee. He took aim again, finding a new target.


Zebra stumbled forward, colliding into Wasteland’s armour. The other four scattered, Anteater sliding under a pool table.


The automatic weapons didn’t really do anything but ricochet against said armor, firing lethal little pellets every which way. But at least it was concentrated on him. He put Zebra down with another fist, and looked at the scattering crooks. “You guys really might want to give up now.”


“Yes, do consider your life choices about now.” Corey tracked the Tabby and found a nicely exposed shoulder. He aimed and fired. Tabby cat cried out and no doubt learned a lesson in keeping cover.


“What in the hell—” Ledger emerged from the bathroom, a stun pistol in hand. She glanced about, then noticed an animal-masked figure hiding under a nearby pool table. “Glad you yahoos are in uniform,” she muttered, taking aim and firing immediately.


Anteater took a shot and fired back at Ledger, sending a burst of automatic fire her way!

Ledger reeled, throwing up her free arm to catch the gunfire, which mercifully glanced off of her armored coat with enough force that would leave bruises but not send her back to the infirmary.


“You fuckin asshole! Do not make me go back in the red!” She dove for the cover of another pool table, returning a volley of stun bolts.


Corey, too, ducked low when there was a burst of gunfire in his way. He stretched on the floor, idly checking his magazine. There was a lull, then he poked his head around the side and shot high, aiming for the light fixtures above one crook. He ducked back behind.


Wasteland launched himself at the Elephant, fists ready. “C’mon then!” He went after Elephant, relying on Ledger to take care of the asshole Anteater.


That left Goat.


Corey continued shooting out the lights above him in an obvious intimidation tactic.


Goat threw up his hands. “I surrender! I surrender!”

“Throw down your weapons, take off your mask, and lie face down with your hands on your head.” Corey wasn’t going to step out until Anteater had also been subdued.


Ledger kept blindfiring around the corner of her cover for a few moments, then muttered “screw this” and scuttled across the floor from her pool table to the goon’s. She peeked around the corner, then as her assailant thrust a gun in her face, she grabbed it and yanked hard, eliciting a yelp from Anteater. He grabbed her arm, only to scream even louder as she shifted her weight and neatly broke his.


A moment later, she stood up, dusted her coat off, and picked up the submachine gun from the ground.


“I go to take one leak.”


Corey reached into a pocket and handed a ziptie to Ledger. “And read him his rights.” He went to collar Goat and herd Tabby and Zebra to the center of the bar.


“No hold up! I haven’t memorized the speech yet! Also I’m still tipsy!”


“You have a speech?” Solomon asked in disbelief.


“The you have a right to remain silent, that kind of thing, Solomon.”


“It’s totally different here than it is in the states, and I wasn’t even a cop over there. I don’t carry the fuckin handbook everywhere.


“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Sawbones spat, and looked up at Swift. “She’s stable. Good.” she said, with the barest hint of approval. She didn’t say thank you, but it was Doc Brown so really, subtly acknowledging his help was enough. Right?


Corey sighed, poking at Tabby’s shoulder gunshot wound (and eliciting a scream of pain). “I’m calling in Emergency. I hope they have insurance.”


“Anyway, you all have the right to remain silent…”

Ghost in the Chillicothe



Strange whispers had been coming out of the town of Chillicothe. Those who were part of the efforts to eliminate the Cult of Midnight knew that it had been a suspected branch of the cult, but eyewitness reports from the Vernon and Quanah painted a stranger picture: pliable, taciturn citizens, but not a purple eye among them. This little southwest city hosted something strange, but it didn’t seem to be the influence of Anathema… but bounties were going up. Something was going down in Chillicothe, and there was money for anyone who figured out what it was, and more if they stopped it.


The trip into town wasn’t terribly inviting; the first real structure you’d see was a run-down old gas station with a hand-painted ad on the side. Buildings further in had a similarly derelict appearance; this town hadn’t changed in a long time. Finally, a working gas station, an office… toward the center of the city, its dead skin sloughs away to reveal what seems a bit like life. At the intersection of 287 and FM-91, it’s starting to look like a real southwestern town.


But where are all the people?


The one visible person on that street corner stood out immediately: a shady-looking character in a fitted women’s trenchcoat and cabbie cap, both of which were colored half red, half black. She wore a white mask with shifting red and black characters scrolling too rapidly across its surface to read them.


She stood next to a parked motorcycle bearing the same color scheme as her clothing and looked around, getting her bearings.


She wasn’t the only one that clearly stood out – there was a young woman riding above the streets on a fucking broomstick dressed like a gestapo agent fell in a pool of red dye. With a gigantic witches’ hat on. Whoever she was she seemed to land on top of a building somewhere to stand high up and get the lay of the land.


For unknowable reasons, there was someone (considerably) taller on the back of said broomstick. Clinging to said unfortunately-dressed woman for dear life. And talking loudly. Very very loudly. Or at least, loud enough that some of it drifted down to ground level. “If you drop me I will haunt you for the rest of your life. I will also make sure that is not long.” Among other statements.


“What we’re not even that high up anymore you’ll be totally fine when you fall…”


Imagine a ghost town, but somebody inexplicably decided to build a nice post office and a Dairy Queen. Then, flat scrublands as far as the eye can see. That’s the lay of the land, right there.


“Oh a dairy queen. How delightful!”


The woman in the trenchcoat watched a witch go by, went “huh,” and then jogged after her.


Mackenzie arrived after her drones – two spherical robots that buzzed around, peering at this and that with bright blue and green optics, occasionally bumping into each other in their excitement to explore. Mackenzie trailed after them almost absent mindedly, heavy goggles pushed up over her mane of red hair, blue eyes unfocused. She either didn’t notice the other agents, or she wasn’t interested in them. She’d occasionally stop next to one of her drones, run a hand over its surface, and murmur something before moving on.


“…Okay so we can get ice cream once the whole zombie cultist dark magic thing is done yeah?” “Why would we do that. They probably don’t even have proper fridges in this place.” The woman looks around from her awful, useless perch and catches quite a few other people who are completely out of place in The Arse End of Nowhere in her view. She also notices at least one of them moving directly towards her, so she just perches herself on the edge of the building’s roof, broom-in-lap and waits for her to catch up. “Nah they have fridges, just not electricity. They’re just basements with ice in them.” Mother of God. Gretchen can laugh? Yes.


The masked woman was breathing heavily by the time she reached the sidewalk below the broomstick-riding pair, but in that measured ‘I’m some kind of asshole who works out several times a week’ way.


“Hey!” She shouted when she caught her breath. “You heroes?”


Lili shouts down and isn’t particularly good at shouting. “We are military personnel representing the Infinity Legion of Earth!”


Gretchen, because Lili mostly sounds like a mouse that can talk, repeats it for her: “Ja! In the sense that we are Legionnaires.” … well. She carried the basic message along. “Yourself?”


“Name’s Ledger. Freelancers.” She looked around for a moment, then pointed at the woman with the drones slowly approaching. “She yours too?”


“No. She seems far too much like she enjoys what she does for that.”


“Huh?” The redhead looked left, and then right, and then pointed at herself. “Do you mean me?”


“Yes, Zaubermaus.”

“Who are you? What’s your deal?” Ledger stuck both hands in the trenchcoat’s pockets, pulling the fabric a bit taut. A trained soldier would be able to identify the fold of the fabric as being armored, and the bulges beneath it were probably shoulder-holstered compact pistols.


“PHALANX, sometimes. They sent me back to the Legion, though. I kept talking to this one girl’s tank. She didn’t like that very much. So I guess I’m Legion, now?” She fiddled with one of her red curls. “They said I should make myself useful. So I’m here.” She finally offered. “I’m Mackenzie.”


“Alas. I am wrong again, today.”

“Lotta Legionnaires,” Ledger said, her voice a little nervous, but her stance still neutral. “I thought this was an open bounty. Am I late to that party?”


The armored medic shrugged. “I cannot say. I am here because – “ and she gestures at Lili “Insisted I come. Also, I admit I enjoy a good mystery.”


“I think it’s okay.” Mackenzie said, absent mindedly. One of her drones hovered close to her face, and she nodded thoughtfully. “Yes. Tank and Turbo say it’s fine and they’d be happy to work with all of you.” “Thaaaat’s. … lovely.”

“Yeah, all right,” Ledger turned her flickering mask back up to the rooftop pair. “I’m willing to go even split on this. If I get a quarter of the bounty, I’ll help out.”


“Gosh, a bounty?” Mackenzie smiled serenely. “I’m just here because all I hear is screaming and I want it to stop. I don’t need a bounty. Thank you, though. That’s very kind of you.”

“Ethics demands that I see where the people have-” She glances around again, like suddenly she’ll find them and that will solve all of this, but no. No she does not. “…Well. There ought to be people, and yet. That is, I do not care for the bounty, either. You and Lili may go half and half, I suppose?”


“Ethically speaking, I should not be taking any bounties given this is literally my job. Like, I get paid to do this already and get bonuses for good work I think even more money is a bit much.” “I am so proud of you.” Hair ruffle. Lili probably looks murderous. She glances around. Yes there should be people here. Even in a dead-end hamlet like this. She unclips the holster on her wand in a little paranoid flick.


“Uh,” Ledger’s voice is not the sound of a woman who groks what has just been said. “Long’s I get paid. If y’all want to cede the bounty to me, I ain’t gonna complain, but if I get shot in the back or something I’m gonna be real cross. Anyway, I got a tip that there was people buzzing around the BBQ place on 287, the one looks like it shoulda been condemned a decade ago.”


“That does not narrow it down very much,” Gretchen deadpans. She points from her rooftop perch. “There? Yes?”


Lili looks positively murderous.


“That’s the one. Don’t have a contact in mind, but I looked up a few names to ask about, like the Sherriff, Aldon Pace. There’s… not much to go on.”


“So, smash in the door, stun anything that moves? Or do we need to like, do this legally?”


“I was thinking… talk? To people?” Ledger said with no small amount of hesitation.


“Oh!” Mackenzie says, with a big smile. “Tank is very personable. He loves to talk to people.” And the strange woman ambles towards the BBQ place.

Ledger hustled after her.


Grumbling about not being able to stun anybody, Lili re-mounts and waits for Gretchen to do the same before flying… about fifty feet so they’re on the ground and then walking the rest of the way.


“We could have just walked, Zaubermaus.”


“Yeah but then we wouldn’t have been flying.”


“You are just being contrary.”


“You just don’t like flying!”


There a ping on Ledger’s comm. “Stormcore here. Noticed you were in the area. Need backup?”


“I’m not gonna say no to you being here, Corey,” there was a smile in Ledger’s voice as she jogged up to slightly overtake Mackenzie. “Meet us at the BBQ place on 287, the one that looks closed.”


“Roger that. Stormcore out.”


Ledger’s summary was… accurate. The BBQ place, though not far from the Dairy Queen, was not comparable in terms of repair. The building’s white paint was peeling, the letterboard outside was missing most of its letters, and the sign that would normally declare its name was so badly damaged as to be unreadable. A single swinging door seemed to be the only visible entrance, and it would be easy to assume that the building was closed… but there was the smell of roasting meat, sure enough.


As the heroes halted not too far from the building, Ledger whispered, “Dairy Queen window,” loud enough that the others could hear.


Four people stood in the Dairy Queen, looking out. Staring, stock still, at the gathered party. None were moving for the door, none showed any expression on their faces. They just… stared.


Mackenzie looked back. “Tank wants to say hello to them.” She announced. “Uh. o-okay”


A hum of jets could be heard overhead, and in a few seconds, a white armoured suit with blue and red trimming landed beside the group. The helmeted head nodded at them before taking that helmet off revealing a young face with cybernetic upgrade around the right side of his head. A blue optic lens was set over the socket of his right eye.. “Stormcore, Freelancer Corey Adams.” He nodded at Ledger and Gretchen as people he recognised before looking at the Dairy Queen window. “Hmm.”


Mackenzie’s blue drone bobs off. The mechanic herself turns to Corey, eyes wide. “Hello.” She says. “I’m Mackenzie.


“Hello, pleasure to meet you.”

“Hallo, Stormcore. It is a pleasure to see you again.” She seems a bit more interested in the Staring Possibly Zombies than Stormcore, but who can blame her? “…Perhaps we all ought to go see if they are-” Pause. “Well?

“Brainwashed?” Lili actively draws her wand, now, glaring back to the window, viciously. She also nods towards Corey after everyone else is done speaking. “Lili Meriatti, Legionnaire Witchpyre.”


“Maybe they’re just… kinda surprised to see a bunch of superheroes in their town? I mean this ain’t exactly a town that sees a lot of action.” Ledger pauses. “Yeah no that’s creepy. Ugh. Guess we’d better check it out.”


“Surprise does not usually entail a total lack of expression, no. Lili? We’ve an excuse to fly, I suppose.” “Well maybe I don’t wanna fly now.” “Please, dear?” “It’s like, ten feet away!” “Oh, alright.”


“Sssh!” Mackenzie hisses at Corey. “Excuse me. Don’t be rude. I’m talking to your augments.”


Ledger sighs and starts walking toward the Dairy Queen. “Somebody else should probably do the talking… if they talk. I ain’t that good at diplomacy.”


“I’m not that great at it, let’s be honest.” She follows after. On foot.


“I am sure Stormcore will be able to handle this brilliantly.” And she heads for the Dairy Queen before anyone can question that.


Corey gives Mackenzie an amused look before following after the others. Mackenzie also gets the impression that all of Corey’s augments, including the suit, are as amused as he is.


As the heroes approach the Dairy Queen, the staring people slowly back away from the window, neatly stepping around the obstacles as they move further back in the restaurant. Up close, they can see someone standing behind the counter, also staring.

“This is perfectly safe. What could go wrong?”

When they enter, no one says anything. They just stare.


Stare. Okay. Well. Someone has to say something. “Hallo, citizens.” Wait. No. That training program said not to say things like that. Uh. Shit. “…Is- Something the matter?”


“No,” one of the people says.


“Welcome to Dairy Queen,” the person behind the counter says, “how may I help you?”


Silence again.


Corey looked at them. He said, “They act like me when I have my social algorithm programs turned off.”


“Or me at a party.”


“They’re being extremely rude to Tank, that’s for sure.”

“Rude to your… drone?”


“I missed something.” She’s got one eye on all the standing folks. Finally, she says aloud – loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear  “Nonetheless, we’ve received reports of a disturbance. May we investigate?” This is a patent lie. Please Lili, go with the lie.


“Tank has feelings.” Mackenzie insists.


Corey eyed the drone but left it at that. It was rude to contact another person’s electronics without permission. He turned his attention back to the Dairy Queen tribe. “Are there any other people in this town?”


“Yes!” One of the ‘customers’ responded immediately.


The person behind the counter spoke up, answering Gretchen’s question. “I disagree. There was no report of a disturbance.” Sort of answering Gretchen’s question.


“Why is the air so thick with screams?”

“It’s not,” said one of the ‘customers’.

“Given that we are the ones who received the reports, I imagine we have more context for what reports we’ve received than you do.” Fucking hell super serious Lili sounds nothing like the mousy meek little mess that usually makes up her fragile existence. “And our reports clearly state that a report has been filed from this locale.”


“Let’s stop arguing here. Where are the other people in this town…and who is the head of this town?”


The townspeople looked at each other, turning their heads as if to confer.


“Holy shit!” Ledger gasped.


With their heads turned, the heroes could now see the backs of the townsfolk’s heads, or what was left of them. A number of tubes and wires sprouted from their neck and head as if having grown organically from the ragged edge of their scalp.


“Oh, ja. That.. that is normal.”


“…Very much so.”


After a moment, they turned their heads back. “You wish to speak to the person in charge?” The cashier asked.


“That would be ideal.”


“This explains everything,” Mackenzie said with a beatific smile.


“Tommy,” a customer said, head bobbing in a grotesque parody of a nod.


“They want Tommy,” another customer said.


“You should speak to Tommy,” the cashier agreed. “Won’t the four of you guide our new neighbors to talk to Tommy?”


The four customers all nodded in exact unison. “We’ll take you to Tommy. Follow us.”


And with that, they walked in synchronized steps to the building’s other exit door and outside.


“Fuck,” Ledger murmured, sounding vaguely nauseated.


“I need to take one of the machines out of their head.” Mackenzie said, as calmly as someone might say ‘I need to go to the bank’. “That’s easier than talking to Tommy.”

“And I’m suddenly reminded of a book I read while I was in recovery.” Corey held the door open with his foot, his hands very close to his holstered handguns. “The Tripods. Very interesting. About aliens who brainwashed humans. I wonder why it was left by my bedside.” The dryness in Corey’s voice rivalled deserts.


“Do we… follow them, or?” Gretchen sounded – odd. Odd only because she seemed unsure. And uncertainty had a distinct feeling of wrongness, coming from her.


“Go on ahead. We can handle this.” Corey sounded really confident.


“Are you sure I shouldn’t just rip a machine out of them? Machines like me.”


Corey’s response was through electronic waves. We should endeavour to preserve all lives…even the organic.

Corey makes an excellent point. There are at least two people with high powered rifles here. Gretchen marches forward to meet with the .. ‘tour guides’.


The guides led them across the street and down it for a little while, offering a steady view of the scrap-packed ruins that used to be the backs of their heads. Finally, they reach their destination: the town’s elementary school.


The guides gestured to the door.


“Tommy is in charge. You will find him in the science lab. He will help you.”


“Tommy is cruel.” Mackenzie announced, not caring if the guides overheard. “The screaming won’t stop. He is cruel to the spirits.”


“Tommy saved us,” a guide said.

“I don’t care about you,” Mackenzie snapped. “I’m talking about the spirits.”

“Saved you from what, then?” Gretchen asked


“Saved us from midnight,” said one.


“Saved us from Anathema,” said another.


“Our eyes are clear,” said the third.


Finally, the last one spoke. “We are free.”


“..I see. I suppose the only thing left then, is to speak with – Tommy?” She sounds entirely disbelieving that these folks have been saved from anything. Let alone Anathema things. Also, midnight is a pretty natural phenomenon. You really can’t be saved from it.


Lili seems mostly annoyed to be dealing with cyborgs instead of dark wizards like she’d expected. She pouts a little.


There’s always something a little weird about an empty school, but this one just felt significantly more sinister than it should have. The smell of machine oil and blood hung in the air.


The guides stepped into the hall behind the heroes and let the doors close, but didn’t provide any additional information about where they should go, where the ‘Science Lab’ was. Luckily, a directory on the wall did: on the second floor, at the end of the hall.


Corey snapped a pic of the directory with his optic lens. “Right. I’ll take point.” He slid his helmet back on, a stun gun in his hand, just in case.


“Fire support.” Lili went into ‘actually trained’ mode, drawing her wand again and slipping some distance behind Corey, dragging Gretchen by the wrist. The nerve!


Gretchen does not, as it happens, seem to mind. “Covering fire, ja. And medical assistance.”


With a little crackling and feedback, the PA system came online.


“Heyo, test test one two. Hah! Probably should have upgraded this, huh? No rest for the wicked, though. So hey! Welcome to Chillicoth, heroes! It’s an honor to have you, really it is. Sorry I didn’t have time to greet you myself, but you know how it is, right?”


“You are terrible with machines.” Mackenzie hurled the accusation at the PA system. “You make the spirits weep with your fat fingers and lust for acclaim.”

“Gretchen. Establish radio contact with home base.” Lili is not the type to fight with a PA system. Well, she is, but more physically than verbally.


“Hey, all right. Not fans. I hear what you’re saying,” the voice continued, “and I respect that! I do. But you know what? I broke Anathema’s mind control. How many people can you say that about? Hell of an item for my resume, yeah?”


“…Quoting directly, mister PA system; ‘Whilst the control Anathema inflicts upon her victims is undesirable, it is typically a form of verbal contract. Underwriting that with a form of control that does not require such permissions is far more ethically abhorrent than the original control ever was, we cannot allow such actions to be permitted in our names’. So, no, actually. That would not be an item for your resume. Like, literally. They said no. Repeatedly.”


“Hah! You’ve got to be a Legionnaire. Cool cool. Well, I can hear that you’re on your way to come see me, and that’s probably gonna be a little tense, so why don’t we get to know each other! My name’s Tommy, and I like working with machines!”


“Got it!’ Ledger snapped her fingers. “Tech priest!” Corey facepalmed his helmet.


“NEVER FUCKING CALL ME THAT AGAIN!” The PA system roared. When it spoke again, the jovial, pal-around-office-supervisor voice was back. “Just Tommy is fine! It’s not 1995, we can be on a first name basis!”

“I think he prefers Adeptus Mechanicus..”

“That is horrible latin.”

“It kind of is.”



Human. Villain. Lyons walks the line between ‘enthusiastic lover of all things tech related’ and ‘dangerous terrorist’. Unfortunately, all too often, he sways into the latter. Lyons could be rehabilitated into an asset if he could learn to temper his enthusiasm and stop putting cybernetic implants on people who don’t want them.


“Waaaaaaaaaaaait! Wait wait wait wait wait a minute, I know you! Thomas Lyons! You were in my advanced engineering and mechanics class! And you dropped out of my AI ethics class!” Mackenzie frowns in thought. “You’re still doing this? I told you a million times, the spirits scream every time you go near a piece of tech. Didn’t I tell you to go into farming? Cows don’t scream.”

“Until you butcher them you mean?”

“Cows do not scream even then. If it is properly done.” HOW HELPFUL, GRETCHEN.


“Oh, uh. Mackenzie!” The voice on the PA sounds distinctly nervous, though less in the ‘people are coming to kill me’ way and more in the ‘I am not ready for an awkward social situation’ way. “Nice to hear from you again! You never did, uh, approve of my methods of disruption, and my methods of innovation. Listen, that’s great but uh SECURITY!”


Suddenly, there were people boiling out of every doorway, filling the hall in front of and behind the heroes. Several held stun batons, and a few near the back appeared to be holding handguns, but most were armed with pipes, wrenches, baseball bats, and other improvised implements of incapacitation.


“Whoo, okay, thank goodness,” Thomas said, audibly relieved. “That was getting real awkward. Oop, mic’s still on.” Click.


“Well!” Mackenzie said, deeply affronted. “Thomas knows my deepest weakness is being beaten with blunt objects. How impolite.”

And then she hid behind Corey.


Corey squinted at the upcoming hoard from behind his faceplate, then grinned. He filled his hands with little spheres, handed a few behind him to Mackenzie. “EMP grenades,” he explained. Then he depressed a deep button on the side and lobbed a few at the more lethal looking targets.


“Gretchen, do you have contact yet?” She twirls her wand lazily in her hand, but glares towards the group of people she is absolutely not allowed to kill for some dumb reasons.


“Ja. What are you wanting to say?” She sounds completely calm. “And ah. I do not carry less-lethals. Good luck with that.”


“Request orbital EMP strike, for one. And request permission for lethal response as necessary.”


“Can we take a moment to appreciate the fact that the only people who brought less-lethal armaments,” Ledger snapped, taking aim with both of her stunbolt pistols, “are the fuckin’ Freelancers?“I am being slain by irony.”


“I have them.” She lets out some dumb-ass weird pseudo latin and flicks her wand towards one of the gun-wielders. Less-than-lethal didn’t necessarily mean ‘leave the bones intact. Or existing’. “But they are less fun.” “I thought you lot were supposed to be the good guys.” “Morality is a frame of mind.”


“I am not entirely sure a taser or EMP would be less than lethal in this case. So…” She shrugs. “It is not that I do not have them. It is that I think they still are.


“I have less than lethal instruments!” Mackenzie shrieks as she cowers behind Corey.


She’s technically right. Tank has seized a lead pipe and is spinning it around in a circle while doing laps. Turbo has taken the EMP grenades Corey gave her and is bouncing them off the walls. Most of them go wide or clank clank clank down into the hall, untriggered. Corey doesn’t have time to facepalm at this.


“In the event that less than lethal armament is not capable of disabling the enemy, and they persist in their attacks, lethal force is authorized on the judgement of the officer in question.” She responds to gretchen, not-at-all tersely. “Expulso.” Towards an unpleasant looking woman with a stun baton right after.


Corey sighs, tosses a few more grenades, then starts aiming his stun guns, first at the targets with firearms, then at the stun baton holders.


Gretchen shrugs. Annnd she just kinda starts smashing people in the head with the butt of her rifle. She is not good at combat. She just has the rifle as an oh no. She’s mostly successful at hitting people in the head though. “..Apparently, by the way, there is no such thing as an orbital EMP strike.” “Thank goodness.”


The PA crackles again. “Yeah, hey, listen,” the voice sounded noticeably more sweaty, “trying to keep all these people aggressive is kinda rough on the beta hardware, so if you could all fight a little less harder, that’d be great, yeah? I’m not finished packing up my stuff.”


Still firing, Corey tried his best to keep Mackenzie covered. He copped a pipe to the helmet, and merely shoved that assailant away as his stun guns fired.


“Anybody else hear that? Ow.” Ledger said, indicating an increasingly-loud high-pitched whining noise that seemed to be coming from the otherwise-silent cyborgs.


“..Yes. Yes, it is rather loud.” She is busy trying to bully her way through to – presumably, the principle’s office. Many people’s heads are suffering as a result of her desire to get there.


There was a loud pop and suddenly every cyborg dropped like a sack of potatoes. Acrid, vile-smelling smoke gently wafted from the gear on their heads, sparks leaping from them every so often.


“Ehh, well,” the PA said. “I really shoulda fixed that bug last week. Whoops.”


“Well, fuck. Can anybody break down the wall, get us outside, catch him? I mean he did kinda just kill… a lot of people.”


“Right. Everyone duck behind some cover.” Corey pulled out a couple more grenades. “These are incendiaries. Should do the trick.” Pulling the pins, he lobbed them at a wall.


With a bang and a roar, the grenades blew a hole in the wall, letting in the sunlight and the hot Texas air. The voice on the PA was distinctly smug:


“Yeah that’s cute. I’m one of the best experimental engineers in the world, you don’t think I’ve got a teleporter? Let’s just hope it– OW! Oh, fuck that’s like half my FOOT, that’s gonna–“


And with a weird zwoop noise, the voice went silent.


Corey looked outside, then upstairs. “Hmm. I’m going to check on the science lab.” He started to make his way up the stairs.


He met no resistance on the way up; there were several people in the upstairs classrooms, but they stood still and unresponsive.


The Science Lab itself looked like a cross between a back alley street doctor’s lab and a car garage. It smelled terrible and looked worse, and near the edge of a platform that still trailed a green hazy smoke lay… the end of someone’s foot, neatly severed and still encased in the tip of a converse shoe.


Corey patched through to Freelancer HQ. “HQ, update description of Thomas Lyons, aka Tech Priest. He’s now missing the end of one of his feet. Stormcore out.” He began to poke around the lab looking to see if there were any notes left behind.


Gretchen, meanwhile is trying to figure out if the people are … alive, actually.


Well, technically they were. They seemed to have beating hearts, they responded to basic stimuli, and could answer basic questions… but they seemed to otherwise be pretty unresponsive.


“Oh!” Mackenzie cooed. “Oh, my poor poor babies. My poor babies. C’mere.”

Her eyes never landed on the people. She was too focused on the tech Lyons had left behind.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. That’s terrible.”