Wunderkinder: Alone

 

FAIRFAX, IOWA, USA

January, 2022

 

The Infinity Legion’s decades of dominance over the infrastructure of Earth had led to many of the towns and smaller cities across the United States of America becoming slightly homogenous, with familiar elements on every street corner. Legion recruitment offices, news stands stocked with The Infinity Report, the occasional museum or monument…

 

A young woman who had grown up in such a city now found herself on the wrong side of the world as she knew it.

 

Her name was Mariah, and she had four more legs than she’d ever had before in her life. Her grossly elongated torso wobbled precariously as she fought to become used to the additional appendages and shifted weight. Her upper body was mercifully recognizable, though covered with a layer of fur that she’d also never had before.

Continue reading “Wunderkinder: Alone”

Wunderkinder: Portfolio

DETROIT, MICHIGAN

VERA’S SEVENTH HOUSE

 

There was no sign of “Throwaway” at the Detroit safehouse for a few weeks. Just as her unlikely roommate began to worry, she managed to find a note pinned to the front door.

 

LONG TERM SUBTERFUGE ASSIGNMENT. WATCH FOR ME AT THE GOP DEBATE LOL.

-V”

 

“She’ll fit right in,” Mariah murmured to herself, squinting at the note. “Well, this certainly makes my sneaky plan easier. Why in the hell did she pin it to the front door, though?”

Continue reading “Wunderkinder: Portfolio”

Evolution: Homecoming

DETROIT, MICHIGAN

VERA’S SEVENTH HOUSE

 

After the promised ‘while’ (two weeks, to be exact), Mariah was jolted away from a couch nap to the sound of Vera’s keys jangling in the door.

 

“Ahh, shit,” Mariah hissed, “I’m so not ready.”

Continue reading “Evolution: Homecoming”

Evolution: a Paw in the Dark

DETROIT, MICHIGAN

A FILTHY DOWNTOWN ALLEY

 

Mariah had been clinging to the wall for nearly an hour, her finger- and toe-pads showing no sign of releasing their grip but her boredom mounting steadily. Had her triangulation been wrong? She’d been keeping meticulous track of Human Supremacist activity over the past week, and everything seemed to indicate that where she was standing—well, clinging—was right in the center of a hotbed of illicit trade and handoffs. Had she fucked up? Did they catch wind that she’d be here?

 

Or was one damn hour not enough time to draw conclusions like this? G-d dammit, Mariah, be patient.

Continue reading “Evolution: a Paw in the Dark”

Evolution: Invasion

DETROIT, MICHIGAN

VERA’S SEVENTH HOUSE

 

Mariah lay back on the couch, propped awkwardly up against the armrest so that she could keep playing her cell phone game without unplugging it from the wall. Vera had been gone for almost a week, and Mariah’s body had been changing rapidly all the while, forcing her out of the house and into populated areas in order to gather the emotional energy that she seemed to feed on right now. Thank goodness her face still looked human, and she could cover the glow from her chest with a heavy coat.

Continue reading “Evolution: Invasion”

A Stitch In Time: Rallying Team Pariah

DETROIT, MICHIGAN

VERA & MARIAH’S HOUSE

 

Mariah paced the living room, her jet-black feet clicking against the ground. Vera was coming back today. Her glowing heart throbbed in its chest cavity, which was smaller than it had been and had filled with a clear purple liquid. Her hands were still black, but smoother and softer than the day before. Vera was coming back today. She’d cleaned the whole house, but it was already fairly clean. She’d gone into town and ‘fed’ on the happy excitement of a wedding party, so she was bursting with energy and had nothing to spend it on. Instead, she paced.

 

Vera was coming home today.

 

And sure enough there was the tell tale sound of Vera coming home – the metallic clanking of her checking the mailbox, chucking all of its contents into the recycling bin on the front porch, her keys jangling in the front step. Sometimes she’d come home with another face or a different height, but her routine was always the same.

 

“Hey, lady.” the Freelancer calls as she enters the house. It’s looking downright clean and homey these days. “Miss me?”

Mariah’s eyes literally glowed with joy (and pink light). “What do you think, you jerk?” She darted to Vera and hugged her tight.

 

Vera grins and hugs back as tight as she can. “I’m a bit of a jerk,” she admits. “Barcelona was hell. Never go.”

“Mmm, okay. I won’t. Did you bring me back something?” Mariah pulled away from Vera a little.


“I did!” Vera grins and pulls something out of her pocket. Inside is a necklace made of glass beads and bits of stone, all sorts of colours and materials spinning and sparkling in the light. “It made me think of you ‘cause it’s made up of all sorts of stuff, and it’s – well, y’know, it’s, ah, beautiful.

 

Mariah’s eyes brimmed with joyful tears, which immediately hissed and boiled away from her energy-emitting eyes. She gingerly took the necklace and strung it around her neck. The light from her heart shone into the lowest stone, which glowed softly. “Oh my gosh Vera, this is the sweetest and most personal gift—” she took Vera’s face in her cool, smooth hands and kissed her deeply.

 

Vera leaned in, enjoying the kiss for a long time. Finally, she pulled away. “Can’t do that all day,” she chided with a crooked grin. “What have you been up to, anyways? Any exciting haps?”

“Well, I helped Phalanx contain a blobby alien digesty thing that crashed in the middle of Old Town Market. I went and had pizza with some mixed-affiliation paranormals that were meeting in Chicago. So actually I’ve been… kinda social!” Mariah heard surprise in her own voice.

 

“See?” Vera beamed. “I knew you’d do just fine without me. Not that I’m not glad to be back.” Vera flops down on the couch, which makes a squeak. “Gotta get new furniture. Keep cleaning this place up. Talkin’ about cleanin’ stuff up… Any progress on the HS sitch?”

“No,” she frowned, “they haven’t totally gone to ground but they’re being careful now. They’re afraid of me, but I need to figure out how to make that work in my favor. I think I’m gonna need your help, and the Hound’s, to do that. Oh, he gave me a police scanner by the way.” She pointed at the squat box sitting on the nightstand.

 

“Good idea. I can get us Freelancer tech, but that’s a Pandora’s Box we can never close again. Good to go without it as long as we can. What did you have in mind for me? Y’know I’m not much of a fighter…”

“Infiltration, I think,” Mariah mused, “and from there, either gathering information or sowing disinformation. I think the Hound has some ideas, and he said he’d be reaching out soon.”

 

“Reaching out, eh? Kind of vague, don’t you think? But infiltration is something I can do, so just point me in the right direction and give me a face.”

The usual tone of three cute barking dogs would buzz on Mariah’s phone. Speak of the devil.

 

“Oh hey, that’ll be him,” Mariah walks to her phone, picks it up, and reads it.

 

“I’ve got some possibly useful intel. Are you in a good spot to talk?”

 

Mariah turned to Vera. “You wanna conference call with our informant?”

 

“Sure. It’ll be nice to finally hear from that dude myself.”

“Yeah, give us a call. Gwen’s here too,” Mariah texted back.

 

And so he did. “Hey. Nice to hear from you again Pariah. Nice to meet you as well Gwen. Hope everything’s going alright? I’m not interrupting anything am I?”

 

“Not yet you aren’t. But you should get to the intel quick.”

“We’ve got a couple of things going on right now. First and foremost, those Underground types? I think i found one of their operatives hideouts. It’s possible we could pit the HS forces against them, similar to how we did the PS members before. Other than that…things have been pretty quiet. They’ve been spending a lot of time in the sewers trying to weed you out. Recruitment however, is their current top priority. You’ve got the kids who aren’t true believers questioning orders. Scared members who would rather keep their prejudices silent than live their lives with a mark. My opinion though? What we need is a traitor. Someone who was on the inside, reformed. Someone to show them that it’s ok not to hate.”

 

Mariah nodded. “It’d be child’s play for Gwen to impersonate an existing HS wise guy or something. We could potentially replace one, or… I don’t know. You know more about their operations than I do, I’m sure. If they have a hideout that I give a berth, Gwen can probably get in and plant a few seeds.”

 

Vera grins widely. “Absolutely. Just get me a face and I’ll get in there. You two can do the rest, once I spill all their dirty little secrets.”

“Right now, my strongest skill is intimidation and a little bit of community support that may grow in time. Hound has the most information, and Gwen can extract more and… well, abuse trust in ways that’ll work for us. We can make this work.”

 

“Good, good. The only thing I haven’t quite figured out is what to do with the person who is being impersonated. We want a permanent figure. Someone who was an HS, but redeemed themselves. If gwen replaces them, we need the real one out of the picture. And I get the feeling from our past work that murder is not the public image we want, correct?”

 

“It’s not, no. And I also just don’t want to do it. I haven’t had to kill anyone yet and I’m trying to stall that as long as I can.”

 

“Believe it or not, neither have I. Keeping our hands clean is the better option by far.”

“Agreed. I’m working on some profiling work, keeping tabs on the most likely candidate for someone who would switch over, and be vocal enough to convince their comrades. It’s going to take a bit. In the meantime, the graffiti I have been spraying around town? It’s been a large success. Not only does it spread awareness for our cause, but when the HS scum show up and try to cover it…well. It creates a perfect trap. I’m sending you a map of graffiti sights now so on slow nights you can make rounds.” A bloop popped up on her phone. “Also, it’s glad to hear you want to keep your hands clean. I mean from a moral perspective of course, but at the same time, if we really want to put an end to this for good…killing won’t help. So that’s reassuring. Anything you want me to keep an eye out for?”

 

“You’re doing great,” Pariah smiled, “and I appreciate you keeping an eye on the underground. If it’d help for me to actually talk to anyone directly, I’ll probably still look human for a few more days. This form is odd but I can walk around in public in it if I stay covered up. Other than that, just… keep me apprised. Thanks again, Hound.”

 

“No problem.” The Hound assured. “You are doing great work. Actually, come to think of it, as you are now it might be a good idea to go around and talk with the non HS locals. Get them to know you. Hell, do some volunteer work. If Detroit is your city, you are going to need the people’s help to protect it. Make a good impression on em. At the same time, don’t be overly predictable. I know, easier said than done. Anyway, I will be watching your back. You two stay safe out there.”

 

“You too,” Mariah says, then ends the call. “Wow, we’re gonna do this.”

 

“Of course we are,” Vera said, that lopsided grin re-appearing on her face. “We’re heroes.”

“We are.” She smiles, then, folding her hands behind her back and giving Vera a hooded glance. “You should give me my other present.”

 

“I – didn’t get you another present, am I…” Vera looked down, checking her pockets.

 

Mariah walked up to Vera, tilted her head up with one finger, and purred, “You should give me. My other. Present.”

 

“Oh. OH!” Vera finally got the hint and took Mariah by the hand. “Well, y’gotta open that upstairs…”

 

A Stitch in Time: Meeting the Family

Begin Encrypted Chatlog

Recorded and archived via McGowan SecureSoft v2.3.1

Participant users:

Pariah_am_I

a_Stray_Hound

 

a_Stray_Hound:

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.

Pariah_am_I:

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.

 

a_Stray_Hound:

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?

 

Pariah_am_I:

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

 

a_Stray_Hound:

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.

 

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

 

Pariah_am_I:

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…

 

a_Stray_Hound:

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.

 

Pariah_am_I:

Sounds good. Just let us know where and what.

 

a_Stray_Hound:

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>>

 

Pariah_am_I:

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.

 

a_Stray_Hound:

Right.

a_Stray_Hound:

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

 

Pariah_am_I:

That seems like an acceptable transgression to me.

 

a_Stray_Hound:

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?

 

Pariah_am_I:

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

A SUBURBAN HOME

DETROIT, MI

 

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.

“Mm-hmm.”

 

“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.”

 

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

WAREHOUSE 14B7, MILLIGAN COMPLEX

 

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.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

LE CHATEAU APARTMENTS

 

“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!”

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

A VAN PARKED OUTSIDE LE CHATEAU APARTMENTS

 

“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?”

 

Where There’s Smoke: Concerns

DETROIT, MICHIGAN

 

A new text message arrives on both Vera’s and Pariah’s phones. It simply reads: “Need to talk. Urgent. – Wasteland.” Followed by an address. Looking up the address, it leads to a small warehouse on the outskirts of the city.

 

“Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck -” Vera is the one who volunteered to drive to the warehouse, holding onto the wheel with white knuckles and her jaw set. “Fucking… fuck.” As if in sympathy, her midrange McGowan model vehicle groans and shudders.

 

“Sweetie, you gotta calm down,” Pariah whispers, “please. Wasteland is… he’s a decent guy. It’s gonna be okay.”

 

“Easy for you to say,” Vera retorts. “You’re not in a social rehabilitation program. You’re not one fuck up away from being collared and put in isolation. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

She parks outside the warehouse and sighs. “Might as well just… get it over with.”

“Vera. VERA.” Pariah can’t shout, but she whispers as hard as she can, grasping Vera’s shoulder with her increasingly claylike hand. “That will not. Happen. We will vanish off the face of the fucking earth before I let them collar you. I will kill before I let them collar you. All right? We’ll go in there, we’ll talk to Wasteland, and we’ll figure it out.

 

“Okay. Okay. Okay. …Okay.” Vera rests her head on the steering wheel for a moment, then lets out a long breath. “Okay. Let’s go.” She unbuckles, opens the door, and walks towards the warehouse in the same way someone might walk down death row.

 

The warehouse is actually one that’s for sale, right now. There’s a nice little cheery sign that says if you’re interested in buying it or leasing, contact this number! Of course the cheery sign has been graffitied with different Human Supremacy or Paranormal Supremacy signs, slogans, and the same with the warehouse itself. There are a few broken windows, but over all, it isn’t something that’s clearly a horror movie waiting to happen. The doors in the front of the warehouse are open, however. Inside, there’s a couple of chairs, clearly for Vera and Pariah if they wish to sit, and in the armored suit, waiting like a statue, is Wasteland. He’s got his arms at this sides, and just looks… patient. Nothing scary, or frightening, despite that he’s a seven foot behemoth in a thousand pounds of armor, and a menacing helmet that the eye’s glow a fierce yellow. “Evening, Pariah. Vera.”

 

Pariah leads. She looks significantly less… grainy than she had at the club. Evidently she’s adapting again, and her substance looks a lot more cohesive and flexible. “Wasteland.”

 

Vera has lost four inches of height, even though she’s still Vera. “…Eve…ning…”

Wasteland holds up his left hand, palm facing them. “First off, I want to say I’m off the books here. My own time, not Freelancer time. Second, no one is recording or listening. My armor’s computer is scanning for anyone who might be listening in via electronic surveillance. Can’t do much about satellite or psychics, however.” He lets his hand drop, and looks from Vera to Pariah.

 

“Second, I want you two to know that whatever I have to say, is just advice. I don’t tell people what to do. I have some concerns, and I thought I should bring them to you. Whatever you do with it, that is up to you. You’re adults, and I’m going to treat you both like that. Okay?”

 

Vera looks left, looks right, and points at herself. “Wait, you know who I am? You’re actually giving me – like, friendly advice? You’re not…” She blinks, clearly unsure. “You’re not calling me Throwaway.”

 

Pariah shifts in place, dull blue eyes glancing between Vera and Wasteland.

Wasteland’s helmet nodded. Underneath the helmet, he grimaced. “Yeah. Honestly, I don’t know why anyone picked that name, it’s a shitty name to call someone. There’s reasons I call myself Wasteland, besides describing what I do to everything around me.” He pauses for breath, and his speakers manage to convey an even gentle tone, despite the mechanical boom.

“And yeah, I know who you are, Vera. I try to make sure I know who everyone is in the Freelancers, plus, you were on the take down team for that asshole, Otto De Fur or whatever the fuck his name was. ‘course I know who you are. And yeah, friendly advice. Free of charge. I ain’t Doc Meda, she’s the one who’s got better advice than me.”  He chuckles, the speakers in his helmet popping slightly.

 

“I guess we’d better hear it, then,” Pariah whispers. She still sounds pretty wary.

 

A tear rolls down Vera’s face, but her thin lips have quirked up into an uneven smile. “Yeah, yeah, okay. Advice. I’m listening.”

Wasteland nods again. “I know you two are roommates at the very least. Vera, I know you’re in the social rehab shithole, like I was a long time ago. Pariah, you’re independent. I know this is personal, but I have to ask. Are you two more than just roommates? Because of what I see on the Blue Bird’s feed, and such, I get worried. Partners in the Detroit Clean up? I’ve been following the police reports, the crime statistics, since you arrived here, Pariah.”

 

Pariah says nothing, managing to keep her already hard-to-read clay face fairly even. She turns slightly, looking over at Vera for a cue. She clearly intended to let the other woman take the lead on this.

 

“…Yeah, we’re uh, together. On a personal and a, uh, professional level.” Vera sniffs and rubs her eyes with her back of her hands. “I uh, guess you figured that out and I’m just confirming it, huh?”

“I think it was only a matter of time,” Pariah whispers. “We’ve become more integral to each other with each day.”

 

“I get that. I do.” The armored man crosses his arms before him, thinking. The metal grinds a little against his chest. “There are multiple reasons I’m worried, ladies. One, if I figured it out, and I’m no rocket surgeon, other people will too. Some jackasses who might turn you in, Vera.” And he looks at Pariah. “And I’m worried about the repercussions that might backlash on you, Pariah. I assume you know about the Social Rehab program, and how Vera can get in trouble. I’m not sure if you’ve thought about how it might hurt you, too. The Freelancers do not take to people using… and I’m using Cheney’s words, not mine, assets, kindly.”

 

“The second thing, is that there are others that use it. Not the public, though we have had some people hack in to find scream at Oathkeeper or yell at Rooster. But enemies might be watching it too. People who might hurt you, both. I’m not trying to say get out of the game, but I am hoping you’re aware of the risks. Like what Anathema did to Oathkeeper’s family. There are monsters out there. And you two have been bringing a war to the Human Supremacists, Pariah, Vera. Things might get nasty.”

 

Pariah nods slowly. “Yeah. We know. I… went into this kind of knowing that living the way I do was basically gambling with my life. I didn’t really expect to… have a partner. This is probably gonna kill us both at some point, and we do know that. But I appreciate you looking out.”

 

“Things might get nasty,” Vera agrees. “We’ll – look at risk mitigation. But… you served your time in the social rehab program. You got out. I’m never getting out. Ever. I can’t live like that. I need to – I have to do something -”

“If we get real, real lucky,” Pariah shakes her head, “maybe we can figure out a way for Vera to ghost. I can’t really imagine we’ll get that far, but I’d rather die in a futile attempt to get her free than watch her stay enslaved for the rest of our lives.”

 

Wasteland pauses for a long time, thinking. “It might look endless, but it isn’t. I know that. And hell, if they say it is permanent, I’ll say it isn’t. I’ll work with you, Vera, on seeing what we can do to get you out.” And his tone goes flat, and angry. Not with them, but in general. “Never say die, you two. Okay? The job we have is risky, violent. But don’t ever, ever expect to die. I’ve seen decent folks start to expect to die, then they turn towards seeking out the man with the scythe.” He takes a deep breath, relaxing. “I want you two to keep hope. And yeah, keep working with each other. Can’t do something smart, do something right.”

 

Pariah smiles slightly. “Well. Vera’s the only reason I haven’t done that already.”

 

Vera is now openly crying, even though she’s all smiles. “Yeah, yeah. I’m on board. Okay. We’ll – we’ll figure something out.”

“Cool. If things do get nasty, or if you need back up, let me know. I’ll be there ASAP.”

 

He pauses, then looks outside. “I’ve gotta get back, Bowman’s wondering if I go a little hotter. Y’ think the guy would learn after nearly putting a hole through his precious bunker…” He chuckles, and nods at Vera, and Pariah. “Stay safe, ladies. Keep up the good work.”

 

“I – I know you got the suit, but could I – I mean, can you hug, or can I hug -”

Wasteland pauses, as he was heading towards the door. “Uh, yeah. Sure. Just, careful. I’m somewhat pointy and such.” The suit is warm, but not uncomfortably so. Hotter than human temperature.

 

Pariah goes in for the hug too, wrapping around both Vera and Wasteland. She whispers, “see, love? Sometimes other folks actually give a shit.”

 

Then, after a moment, she whispers, “by the way, Wasteland? My name’s Mariah. And… thanks.”

 

Distant Thunder: The Tumble Dry Lowdown

Sarah “Piper” Elliston’s Basement

Detroit

 

The room was dimly lit by a couple of bulbs hanging overhead. The walls were covered with layers of posters – Oathkeeper, Dr. Atlas, Excalibur, Winged Liberty, Shadow Mask, Rooster. Most of the posters had been thrown up with scotch tape, and were crunched and faded with age. Others were scribbled over. Dr. Atlas’s grin was covered in red ink that someone had hastily scrawled MISSING, DEADBEAT DAD in.

 

Piper’s mother had given her friend a wan smile before gesturing them into the basement to join the girl who called herself the Number One Hero Researcher in the Nation, and insisted on the capitalization being just like that.

 

“Hey, your mom says to turn over the laundry if it’s done,” her friend Ruby said, bounding down the stairs in twos. Ruby was a childhood friend, and the only one who had stuck with Piper through this Hero Research phase, partly because it was sort of interesting and partly because she was kinda worried about Piper.

 

“LAUNDRY?!” Piper exploded, pushing her chair back from the computer. “Laundry?! Who can think about LAUNDRY at a time like this?! Ruby, are you watching the news! This is the story of the century!”

“Yeah, it’s pretty huge,” Ruby hurdled over the back of the ratty curb-rescued couch, “I had to look up what the word ‘polyamory’ meant.”

 

Piper reluctantly began to pull clothes out of the laundry machine, but she kept talking as she worked. “That’s not even the biggest part of it! You know the Pariah? The Paranormal I’ve been following for weeks?”

‘Following’ could be used in either the social media and online sense most people used these days, or the literal sense, which could also be rephrased in the less polite sense as ‘stalking’. Ruby could never be sure which one Piper meant these days.

 

“Yeah I remember Pipes, you musta said her name to me like ten thousand times. You keep track of her nasty transformations like people keep track of their babies learning stuff.”

 

“Except one of those is actually worth studying!” Piper flung her arms out to accentuate her point, and sent some wet socks flying. She seemed to either not notice or care. “Look, okay, look. None of the tabloids will accept any of the PICTURES I took. That’s weird, don’t you think?”

Ruby had seen the pictures before, taken on Piper’s extremely expensive Infiniti camera that she had scraped and scrounged to be able to afford. It turned out that the camera wasn’t enough to make Piper into a good photographer. Most of her shots of the Pariah were, well… a mess.


“Not really,” Ruby picked up one of the cookies that she’d mysteriously neglected to tell Piper that her mom had baked from the plate and took a bite. “But you’re gonna tell me why I should think it is, right?”

 

“The tabloids LOVE pictures of bad guys in the act! They eat them up! But here I am with…” She fiddled with her camera. “Nine hundred and seventy four pictures of things that are either Pariah or look a lot like her, and no one will talk to me! So if they don’t want my pictures, she’s not a bad guy, and if she’s not a bad guy, who’s killing people and leaving her mark on them?”

“Maybe it’s a conspiracy,” Ruby chuckled, not realizing what she had just done.

 

Piper dropped the laundry all over the floor and gaped. “Ruby,” she whispered. “You’re a genius.”

“Mmm?” Ruby blinked, mouth full of half-chewed cookie.

 

Piper sprinted to her desk, nearly slipping on a damp sweater, and grabbed a spool of red yarn and some push pins. She stabbed a push pin in on the Oathkeeper’s face. “The Legion haven’t recruited Pariah. Why?” She asks.

 

“Maybe she didn’t wanna join?”

 

“Ruby,” Piper said, very seriously. “Have you ever heard of Murphy’s Law? You know, the idea that the simplest explanation to a problem is never true? No, no, it’s part of the conspiracy.” She stabs another pushpin into Rooster’s face, and links the two with thread. “One that goes to the Freelancers.”

“Why would the Legion not hiring her go to the Freelancers? They ain’t hired her neither. And anyway, that’s Occam’s Law.”

 

“Because!” Piper said, dramatically. “The Freelancers and the Legion are in CAHOOTS.”

“Sarah!” A voice called down the stairs. “I don’t hear the dryer!”

“It’s PIPER!” The Number One Hero Researcher in the Nation yelled back up the stairs, but she started gathering the laundry back up.


“But we know they’re in cahoots. You been goin bonkers over how they working together for weeks now. What’s all that got to do with the Pariah?”

 

“She’s not playing the game!” Piper said, confidently taping a foggy picture of what looked like a sand column up between the pushpins on the board, and connecting that with red string too. “She came out and no one made an announcement about that. She’s gay and trans AND Jewish! Think about it! And the Human Supremacists and Paranormal Supremacists both hate her, right?”

“Well yeah, they do, but—”

 

“Like you said, it’s a conspiracy! Everyone thinks the Pariah is guilty! Someone’s framing her!”

“You think the HS and the PS are working together to frame this one vigilante.” Ruby’s voice couldn’t have been more skeptical.

 

“I just need proof.” Piper shot back. “And I’m gonna do whatever it takes to find it. Starting right now -”

 

“SARAH!” Her mom yelled down the stairs.

 

“Starting right after the laundry’s done.”