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.”
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.”
THE FLYING FORTRESS
Scanner was too preoccupied to notice the door to the core open, someone coming in. She swivelled her torso to peer at one screen, and then another, myriad cables trailing behind her as she pivoted. Something had the cyborg’s interest.
The Sthenographer walked into the core the same way she always did: chrome locs walking along the ceiling, and holding food. This time, it was a bag of kettle corn. She did little to announce her presence, lost in thought herself.
It took Scanner a another minute to notice her guest. She turned her head and swung down to make eye contact with Stheno, although she kept a respectable distance. “You brought food again.” The tone was slightly accusative.
Stheno faked being taken aback. “Whaa? Oh hey, so I did. Neat.”
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.
FREELANCER HQ, ARCHAVEN
TRAINING ROOM 04
“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?”
MICHAEL CHENEY’S OFFICE
If there was one good thing about Michael Cheney, it was that he was predictable. The man followed the rules when it came to appointments and open door hours. And so, the great suit of armour containing Wasteland found itself sitting in a comically large chair in Cheney’s office.
“So,” Cheney said, flipping a fountain pen between his fingers. “You wanted to see me? You’re normally a self sufficient agent.”
“Yes, sir. I wanted to talk about one of our agents in the Social Rehabilitation program. Vera Newman, AKA Throwaway.” He shifts slightly, feeling like he is towering over Cheney even in the super sized chair. “I’d like to know more. She did some good work helping with Otto De Fe, standing up to the guy, knowing he could immolate her in a snap of his fingers.”
“We discovered Newman under some… unusual circumstances. She had been on our radar for a while, doing celebrity impersonations and racking up a good deal of cash. Nothing too terrible, and I can respect someone with that kind of business sense. She bought a few houses, I thought that’d be the end of it… And then she made that tape.”
“I understand. A large mistake. I understand that put her quite in debt in years towards the social rehabilitation program. However, from what I’ve seen from my interactions with her on and off the field, I believe she’s made progress. I was wondering if I would be able to help her with that rehabilitation.” The speakers boomed loudly in the little office, and Wasteland winced. He turned the volume down just a tad.
“Help her?” Cheney’s eyebrows rose. “Well. You have to understand, acts have values, yes? You paid off your rehabilitation quite quickly, as you’re… well, one of a kind. Newman, though, is of… limited use in the field. She could take a bullet to the heart, for instance, and our investment would be ruined. We’re keeping her in… low-risk scenarios.”
“ Of course, sir. Actions to consequences, and generating the maximum gain. In the field of combat, sir, perhaps.” He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “But I’m not sure the Freelancers are using her shapeshifting talent to the best investment, to use your vernacular. In my time in… other situations, sir, that I obviously cannot discuss, there would have been a good use for greater intelligence. Situations like Otto De Fe, while helpful, aren’t key. But intelligence assets are.”
“You think we can trust her enough to bump her up the ladder, give her a promotion, get her into work that’d allow her to pay off her debt to society?” Cheney asked, one eyebrow staying high and the other dropping.
Wasteland paused again, thinking. He was a soldier, not a politician. He had to use his field of advantage. “Sir, you didn’t see her when she stood up to that maniac. She was scared, sure. But she didn’t let it control her. She acted, and then when it came time to get down and let others handle it, she did so. No wild heroics. No cowardice. Professional and straight to the point. I have a hunch, sir, and they usually pay off. I think we should give her a chance, to really make a difference, and pay off that debt.”
“I see.” Cheney said, and there was a pregnant pause. “You would take responsibility for Throwaway, then? I assume if we found anything that… jeopardized her employment, you’d be able to take responsibility for that?”
“I would take responsibility, sir.” He didn’t hesitate. If it got thrown under the bus, so would he. He felt in his bones, burning and irradiated that they were, that Pariah and Vera were doing the right thing. While the smart thing would be to bail and leave them to their fate, it wasn’t in him. If anything, fighting the human supremacist movement, supporting independents, and in general keeping the peace should be seen as a good AND profitable thing. But he couldn’t say that to Cheney. He was certain that if it came to light, Cheney could spin it so that it was a Freelancer outreach program, designed for better policing and peacekeeping. But Vera would never be free.
He nodded to the man, accepting it. “Also, she’s going to need a better codename. We’re Freelancers. The best of the best. Not trash.”
“…” Cheney watched him for a moment, and then broke out into another big grin. “Loving this enthusiasm and initiative, Wasteland. This is exactly what I want to see from our agents. Go ahead and set up a new codename with Newman, get her ready for jobs. As I always say, the less agents we have in social rehabilitation, the better.”
You have never heard Cheney say that, ever.
Wasteland blinked behind his helmet. That wasn’t… what. That…. oh shit. Well, time to ramp up the paranoia. Check everything. Make sure that Cheney and anyone else didn’t have anything on him, at all. Clean the history from his suit. Delete the porn…. well maybe not the porn. He’s pretty sure Cheney doesn’t care about that…. delete it anyway, just in case.
“Really? Thank you, sir. I’ll let her know. I’m sure she’ll enjoy a new codename.” And make triple clear that none of the Freelancers have anything on Vera or Pariah, at all. Kill Solomon Swift. Wait, that’s just a daydream. “Thank you for your help, I’ll forward you any new details and ideas I have for jobs across your desk first, of course.” He rises from his chair, and offers a metal gauntlet to Cheney.
Instead of shaking, Cheney bumps his own knuckles against Wasteland’s metal ones. “Good talk, Wasteland. Can’t wait to see how this turns out.”
“Uh… yes sir. Got a good feeling.” He nods, and shuffles around the giant chair, and out the door. It’s kinda awkward, being this big in an office.
Alice had rented a private booth and slipped in through the back of the restaurant. No paparazzi, no camera shots, no noisy patrons peeking in through the double wooden doors of the private dining space – no problem. She fussed with her dress – a soft rosy pink cocktail dress with gold jewelry. This was what you wore to a date with a new … what should she call Tabitha? Sweat broke out on her brow.
Then Tabitha walked through the door, and the thought was immediately lost forever.
It wasn’t the first time Alice had seen her friend in formal wear. Tabitha had always known how to rock a tight cocktail dress, and she wasn’t afraid to deploy one strategically when a situation demanded it. Alice knew that Tabitha still went to the gym regularly, ate well, kept fit for a middle-aged woman. She’d seen those breasts and hips fill out dozens of outfits. She’d seen those sapphire earrings, that black choker, that decorative hairstick.
But there was something very, very different about seeing all of those things, and knowing that they were being worn for her.
Tabitha looked like this for her. For Alice.
Alice’s mouth fell open and stayed there as Tabitha slid into her seat. She had been at dozens of cocktail parties, stealing wistful glances at her with as much subtlety as Alice could manage. This was something completely different.
“Hi,” she managed after a long, long pause.
“Hi.” Tabitha’s smile was small, but there were volumes in it: amusement, exhilaration, gratification… and what Alice could now recognize as desire. “Thanks for bringing me out.”
“Yeah.” Alice said, still lost for words. She cleared her throat and tried to regain some composure. “You, uh, look nice.”
“You always look nice,” Tabitha smiled wistfully. “Even as the rest of us start to go the way of candle wax, you’re as flawless as ever.”
“It’s not as easy as you might think.” Alice gave a crooked grin, finally relaxing a little. “You know I still get carded constantly? I still break out sometimes. No one takes me seriously.”
“Lots of people take you seriously,” Tabitha replied, “but I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to imply that it’s all keggers and compliments. There’s always been a lot on your shoulders, just as much as mine. I mostly meant… I always thought you were more beautiful than me, and it only feels more true now.”
“Oh gosh.” Alice whispered. “I mean, um, thank you. I … that’s very kind of you to say.”
A waiter entered the room, head bowed and quiet, and poured them wine and offered them menus. Alice hardly looked at hers; instead, she gazed dreamily over it at Tabitha.
“Do you already know what you’re going to order, hon?” Tabitha teased with a smirk. She’d opened her menu already, and was scanning the entrees. It was fancy even by her standards.
“Oh, uh, filet mignon, medium rare. I uh, googled the menu before I got here. And how to pronounce everything. I just, y’know… this doesn’t feel real. I keep expecting to wake up.”
“I… know how you feel, I think,” Tabitha set down her menu, meeting Alice’s eyes, “every time I thought about this kind of thing, it was some alternate timeline I thought we’d lost access to decades ago.”
“I don’t think it would have worked out back then. I was so young. I was figuring out what it meant to be the Oathkeeper, figuring out what God wanted from me… I think it’s a blessing that we waited this long. And you might want to send Scott a thank you card.”
Tabitha leaned back a bit in her chair, wearing a self-assured smile. “Do you remember that mail-order steak service he liked so much? The one that closed, and he was so distraught over the closure that he cried real tears about it?”
Alice burst out laughing. “He was heartbroken. And he tried to start his own, remember? But he didn’t know any of it, so he sold it off – and then the person he sold it to closed that one as well.”
Lacing her fingers together, Tabitha leaned forward and smirked conspiratorially. Oh gosh, that neckline was. Um. Didn’t leave much—to—uh— “I’ve been getting one off the ground for months, to surprise him. Good people running it. Subsidiary of a company I’ve already seen succeed. It went live last week.“
“Oh, um, wow, that’s…” Her eyes dropped. She was looking.
Pull it together, Alice.
“I, uh, that’s, well, y’know, he’ll love that. A lot. He’ll be so happy.”
There was a short silence. “Do you like my dress, Alice?” Tabitha asked. Her voice was low and soft and inviting, much like the view.
“Y-Yes.” Alice said, managing to make eye contact with an incredible effort.
“I don’t mind you looking,” she straightened her back again. “But here’s our waiter.”
“What may we get you?” The server asked politely.
“F-FILET MIGNON, MEDIUM RARE, WITH POTATO ON THE SIDE THANK YOU.” Alice wasn’t shouting per se, but it all rushed out in a strangled sort of whisper.
“I’ll have the Canard a l’Orange,” Tabitha said with a smile, “and the salad.”
The waiter left, and Tabitha looked like she was stifling a giggle.
“I’m not good at this!” Alice said, awkward and embarrassed. “I – I never dated, I’ve never, um, been… with… a – a lady. You know how me and Scott just kind of… fell in together, right?”
Tabitha laughed. “I remember, yes.”
“So, I mean, it’s not like I have – you know, experience with…” She gestured widely and vaguely. “This?”
Tabitha placed one hand on the table. Her nails were glossy, painted to match her deep blue dress. “It’s just me, Alice.”
“You’ve always just kind of, um, been this… not perfect, but… you’ve always felt kind of…” She gestured again. “Out of reach. You know things, like how to vacuum and file tax forms. I feel like kind of a dummy, or a kid, in comparison.”
“But… Scott knows how to do all those things too, hon. We’re all the same group of friends.”
Alice smiles again, bashful. “You’re right. You’re a good friend. My best friend. I mean, smooching doesn’t change that.”
“It doesn’t. We’re still best friends. And I’m still just your Tabs. And you’re doing fine.”
“Hee.” She flushed, and glanced at the menu. “It says it takes about twenty five minutes to cook the meals to perfection, huh?”
“Mm-hmm,” Tabitha nodded, “they pride themselves on discretion and quality. Speed is not part of the package.”
“So…” Alice in one, swift movement that demonstrated her incredible strength, picked the table up and moved it aside, closing the difference between her and Tabitha. “We have time to – kiss?”
“Yes we do,” Tab purred, standing up, “and I let the staff know to leave a signal when the food’s ready. We will not be disturbed.”
“Oh my God -” Alice said, grinning. “You planned it too?!”
“Alice, love,” Tabitha smiled and took Alice’s face in her hands, “I plan everything.“
Alice snaked an arm around her handler’s waist, leaned in to kiss her. Even without her gauntlets and warhammer, she was incredibly strong, even though she looked like a slender girl. Able to maneuver Tabitha, tuck her in closer for kissing –
Then Tabitha did something she’d never done, something that Scott had never done, not like this, not in the way that Tabs did, that poise and posture tilting and moving and—
She gave her weight entirely to the Oathkeeper. Leaning back, moving until she slid a bit and Alice put her other hand lower on her back, to steady her, and Tabitha just let her feet leave the ground, resting entirely in Alice’s hands, her knees bending and lifting and pressing against Alice’s back, hands coming up and taking her face, lips closing in and a deep kiss, an upward-tilted relaxed surrender that said in this moment, I am all yours and I trust you to have me.
She hesitated, just slightly; you get the feeling that she’s never been given this level of total control before, but she continues to be firm, gentle, balancing Tabitha easily, her hands beginning to roam –
There’s a rap on the door.
Tabitha paused, pulled her head back slightly. “That is not… the signal I asked for.”
Alice blinked, dazed. “What? Signal?” You have the feeling a horde of rhinos could come through and she’d hardly notice it.
“Um,” Tabitha struggled for a moment with the desire to ignore the interruption, but ultimately decided that there’d be more time later. “A knock, hon. On the door.”
It sounds again, polite but insistent.
“Let me get it.” Alice gently lifted Tabitha, put her back on her feet, and moved the table back.
Tabitha smoothed down her dress and adjusted her jewelry, patting her hair briefly to make sure that she didn’t look too mussed. She didn’t, of course. She watched as Alice answered the door…
“Ah, Mrs. McGowan, ma’am.” It’s the manager of the restaurant. “Ah, Mr. Cheney just took a table, and he – said he noticed Ms. Armitage’s car in the parking lot. He wanted to cover your meals, and pass on this bottle of wine.”
Tabitha Armitage’s expression did not change, but it did freeze in place. She lowered herself gradually into the chair, placing one palm on the table.
“Tell him thank you, but we’re not interested in the wine or the bill. Thank you, though.” Alice said, tone cool.
The manager nodded. “Of course. My apologies, ladies.”
Alice sat, looking… annoyed.
Tabitha clasped her hands on the table, looking down at the centerpiece. “Alice…” she began, like she was about to break the news of a dead pet. “I think that it might be best if… if we went public.”
“You mean sit outside? That’s fine, they have a nice fireplace.”
“No, hon, I mean go public about us.”
Alice choked on her wine, spluttering and coughing for a moment before gasping: “Why?”
“Cheney sent us wine,” Tabitha tapped a spot on the table, then kept moving her hand and tapping in sequence, leading to the edge of the table, “and offered to cover our meals. Plural. He’s figured it out. Nat figured it out. I think that even that Freelancer, Rooster, has it figured out. People are starting to talk, hon. I… I love you, and part of what I love about you is that you are too honest and straightforward to keep a secret like this.”
The Oathkeeper is white in the face. “So he knows, people know, okay, that’s one thing, but why make it a big public thing?”
“Because if we let someone else break this story, their version is the official one, and we’re left running defense. Cheney sent us that wine as a message, Alice. He knows, and he’s willing to use the threat of outing us as leverage.”
“…You think he’d tell people I was cheating on Scott.” Alice says, the realization dawning on her face. “Or that I’m a lesbian, or…”
“Or literally whatever he wanted to say.”
“I have kids, he can come after me, but he has to know that my kids would be in the firing line if he did that, that has to be sacred to him -”
“Alice!” Tabitha reached out and took one of Alice’s hands with both of hers. “I love your optimism, I love your ability to believe the best of everyone, I love that you can’t imagine that the man who hurt me, who betrayed us would stoop this low, but you need to understand that if you gamble on your ideals here, you do so with exactly the stakes you just mentioned. Do you understand?”
“…Shit.” Alice said, very quietly.
And then she paused, and flexed her hand nervously inside Tabitha’s.
“How long do you think we have?”
“A few days, at least. I’d want to have a plan within a week, preferably sooner.” She slumped. “Alice, I’m—I shouldn’t have dragged you into this. I’m sorry. Maybe we can pin this all on me, somehow; maybe you could just—”
“No.” She sets her jaw stubbornly. “I love you, Tabitha, and I’m the Oathkeeper. I’m not throwing you under the bus for my choices. God never said anything against… what we have. I’m not ashamed. I’m not afraid. We’re going to enjoy our dinner, and then we’re… going to… prepare for a press conference.”
Tabitha let out a sigh, then sat still for a moment, then slowly uncurled, regaining her posture. “I’ve already… drafted a few approaches for the possibility that this would happen. We can discuss them tomorrow.”
“Okay. Good. Um. I mean, okay, Scott took the kids to his parents’, and, um, the house is empty, and… in for a penny, in for a pound?” She smiled shyly.
For the first time all evening, Tabitha Armitage was caught well and truly off-guard.
It was only once Tabitha left the media center that she switched her phone back on. Immediately, it rang.
“Armitage,” she said as she answered it, pushing down her exhilaration as best she could, switching back to that terse, businesslike mode.
“Tabby Cat!” Sounded a very, very familiar voice.
“Michael,” well, that was an easy way to make her sound less excited. “Hey.”
“Dynamite press conference. You still have it. You never fail to impress me, you know that? That’s going to be something that lasts for decades. Great imagery, great drama. You can’t script that.”
“I’m sure you could, Michael,” Tabitha casually backhanded. “Thanks for the compliment.”
“So, what prompted it? You’re usually a shy one.”
Tabitha quirked an eyebrow. Come on, fuckface. Don’t insult my intelligence. “You’ve shown us the value of an aggressive public relations approach. It seemed like the way to go here.”
He laughed. “Right. Well, the Legion did good work today. You’re looking positively red and blue.”
There was a pause.
“What happened to us, Tabitha?”
Tabitha actually halted in her tracks for a moment, stunned with disbelief. “You did, Michael. Or was that a rhetorical question?”
“I offered you a job. You could have come with me. I just… I miss you.”
When Tabitha spoke again, her voice dripped needle-sharp icicles. “You offered me a pound of my own flesh and called it filet mignon. You don’t want to walk this road, Michael.”
The edge in her voice drew back slightly. “I’m willing to work with you,” she said. “I respect the strides your organization has taken. I see a hand reached across the gulf between the Freelancers and the Legion, and I am willing to take that hand. For the sake of the goodness and the aid and the potential profit of that collaboration… let’s leave it at that. Don’t dredge up the waterlogged corpse of our relationship. It’ll only infect everything else.”
There was a long pause, and then Cheney chuckled. “How’s Emi?”
“Good,” Tabitha answered, casual again. “Very happy for me and Alice.”
“We should get lunch. Talk about the future. If current trends continue, we may see an alliance between our bosses.”
Tabitha sighed. “What do you want out of this conversation, Michael? I’m going to be seeing plenty of you in interfactional meetings, especially if the Legion and the Freelancers fortify this alliance.”
“I want to not be at war, Tabitha. I launched a volley, I admit it, I was going to ham the whole…” She knew him well enough to recognize where he’d be making a hand gesture. “Gay scandal thing up, get some views, drum up some interest, but… Y’know, it went badly for me. I can’t beat you. I might as well join you.”
“I don’t want to be at war either,” she shook her head. “But you have to know that there’s as much a gulf between war and alliance as there is between alliance and friendship. Okay? You were trying to use my love life as a weapon against me days ago, and now you want to… to grab lunch? I’m not going to attack you, Michael, but we are not friends. I’m not going to give you ‘friends’. I’ll take ‘allies’. That is my offer.”
“…You always did drive a hard bargain. Offer accepted, Tabby Cat.”
“To you, Michael? Tabitha.”
BLACK OPS STAFF LOCKERS
There were over twelve thousand possible combinations to open the combination lock Vera Newman kept on her locker in the corner of the black ops staff and prep room. She had taken the smallest locker, in the corner, since she wasn’t expected to bring gear – all she needed was her face. Well, her collection of faces.
Twelve thousand possible combinations might have been a problem to someone else, but Solomon Swift’s fingers span adroitly around the dial. Three thousand and four… Four thousand ten…
He eased the locker door open. Quietly, quietly.
Wasteland was already in a mood. His Black Ops mentor and friend, Trick, was in the medical center. Doctors said it could go either way. His bad luck powers had overcompensated against a bad guy, and the guy’s whole string of grenades had gone off, catching Trick in the blast as well. Mission accomplished, sure, but an operative was down, possibly done.
The rest of the guys had met for a quiet drink, to tell a few stories. The usual stuff. His armor was in quiet mode, for now. Every Black Operative knew that Wasteland could move very, very quietly when he wanted to. It was a misdirection, part of a big plan to make him seem like a big ol’ tank that couldn’t drive straight if his life depended on it.
He put a hand on the locker room door, and paused. Goddammit, Trick. He knew better than to use his powers around explosives.
Solomon heard the door open and took a breath, slowly easing Vera’s locker door shut with the present inside. He managed to get just enough distance between the locker and him that he could look somewhat casual, a little less suspicious. Who was interrupting him? Hopefully it wouldn’t be –
Wasteland looked up, saw someone inside already. And then his eyes narrowed behind the helmet. “Solomon. This is really not the time to be around here. Half the guys here already ha…. Wait. Why the hell are you in the Black Ops room?”
Swift put on his best smile. “Hey, Thomas, I was just –”
Screams. They were always screaming, his name, asking why. It was his mom screaming, again, this time, why this time, in his ears. The fire raged around him. His breath hitched, and all he could see was fire and redness for a long moment. He took a breath. Another.
Wasteland’s armor steamed the very humid air around him as he went into that past mental state. The locker room went up several degrees as well, drying the air in a small thermal.
Wasteland’s voice went low, flat, and guttural with suppressed rage. “Solomon. Swift. I have… asked you… not to call me that. And this place… this is not for you. Last chance.”
“Alright, alright, I’m sorry, Wasteland. I was… meeting a friend here, that’s done, I’ll clear out.” He raised his hands in a pacifying gesture and moved towards the door.
Wasteland is lightning quick, and makes a grab for Solomon as he tries to pass. “You don’t have friends in here, Solomon. I know. These guys are my family.” That low, guttural growl is still there, and there’s something that Solomon hasn’t seen before in Wasteland’s body language. This isn’t Wasteland, nice guy and hero. This is Wasteland, soldier. Killer.
Solomon Swift is fast, but he expected Wasteland to let him pass – and so his shirt is grabbed in that gauntlet. There’s the hiss of heat against the plastic of his buttons. “Th- Wasteland, come on, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill -”
“Yeah?” Wasteland lifts Solomon up, one handed. This new suit, it is glorious. Not even a strain to his systems, lifting Solomon up. “On a day like today? Who’re you fucking with in here, Swiftie? Decided that maybe since Trick is out of commission, you should inherit his stuff? To the best go the spoils? Or maybe since Roberts and you had it out in the cafeteria because you two disagreed on… oh right, saving kids, you thought it’d be funny to mess up the pictures of his family? Well?”
The shirt starts with tiny licks of flame around Wasteland’s gauntlet, and that faint scent of plastic burning wafts through the locker room.
“No, no, no, dude, no, you – it’s not like that, it’s – I’m not a monster, man, it’s just -” He looks down at the flames burning the collar of his expensive shirt and cringes away. “It’s Newman, and it’s not a big deal, okay? You don’t have to do this.”
Wasteland digested this for a moment. “Huh.” And he walked, with Solomon, still in his upraised right hand, towards Newman’s locker. He opens it, assuming that the lock hadn’t clicked shut. He’s quiet, his suit is quiet, save for the quiet hissing of melting, bubbling plastic and tiny licks of flame from the shirt.
Inside her locker, admit the clothes and bags and boots, is a small bag of –
Solomon snatches it, swinging off Wasteland’s gauntlet. The shirt is gone, ripped and burning in Wastelands hand. Shirtless and holding whatever it was, Solomon begins to sprint out the back door.
Wasteland’s world went red and orange. The fire screamed to be let out, to burn and ash Solomon, to utterly destroy. And he couldn’t… hold it back….much… he tapped his comm, broadcasted to the black ops folks.
“Someone. Anyone. Please. Get…. Dr. Meda. O-or…. Rooster. Or s-someone…. I’m about to kill Swift.”
And then there was nothing but incoherent rage as he chased after Solomon, the suit thundering after Swift, demolishing the steel bench between them into shattered, molten steel.
If Solomon Swift was anything but a speedster, he would have been dead already. He tore out the door and down the hallway, sprinting at top speed. For him, the lockers and doors just moved in a blur. “Fuck, fuck, oh fuck, someone get Meda, someone get Rooster, someone get me the hell out of here -”
There wasn’t anything smooth or pretty about how Wasteland moved as he barreled through the Hallway, his armor nearing fireball status. The walls burned, the footsteps torched the very pretty tile, and the steel warped with his passing. And then there was the speakers, broadcasting his wordless roar of rage that sounded, probably to Solomon, like the incoming roar of a backdraft.
And he ran, gaining speed. Somewhere, behind the rage, he noted that on his HUD, that people were getting out of the way, clearing quickly. Thank God. But that little voice was a very little voice, and couldn’t be heard over the roar of the Fire.
Loud and clear through the comms cut a calm, steady voice suddenly spoke, inserting itself between Wasteland’s red-hazed vision and his mind. Meda.
“This isn’t you, Wasteland,” she enunciated, “you are not this. Come back with me. Come to the beach. Standing on the shore, watching the whitecaps. It’s all right.”
Wasteland stumbles, but keeps going, the suit taking over, mostly, as the Fire suddenly gives way to a flash of a calm beach. Cool breeze. Waves crashing. But then the fire is back, raging, burning hot, and he keeps going. The little voice manages to get a little control, and he responds.
“It’s too hot… too hot… he’s… he wanted to hurt a friend. I can’t…. I can’t….” Wasteland gasps out, as he continues on. He catches sight of Swift as he turns a corner, then Wasteland crashes into the wall shortly after, hot on Swift’s heels. “NO ONE HURTS MY FRIENDS.”
“You’re justice now, Wasteland,” Meda reminded him, “and this isn’t justice. The fire isn’t justice. A painful death for Swift won’t make this right. Walk with me on the beach, Wastey.”
The waves on the beach crash against the fire, the soothing sound of the ocean. The hypnotic suggestions were a very, very good idea. The Fire gutters and snarls with incoherent rage as it dies a slow death, clawing for every inch of control before it’s gone, stuffed back in the iron willed control of Wasteland.
“I’m justice. I’m… I’m… I’m the one…” Wasteland saw Swift, again, and… halted…. Just…. Breathing. Trying to get control. Gauntlets on his knees. Everything hurt. It hurt so bad.
Why did everything hurt?
“You did it,” Meda assured him. “You are justice. You are strength. Calm waves and whitecaps. Placid sand and sunlight. You are Wasteland. You are in control. You are going to be all right.”
At this point, Swift was smart enough to stay out of sight, a couple of hallways over, panting and glistening with sweat.
Wasteland took another deep breath. His lifesigns were stabilizing, but the amount of radiation that he’d put out inside the suit…. He’d burned through two weeks of radiation absorbers in less than a minute. Oh dear.
He took another deep breath. The Fire was still screaming to get out, to just burn things. “Swift. Swift put… put something in Vera’s locker. C-caught him. He stole it before I could…. Could grab it. Put it in her locker. Ca-can’t let him get away with that.” At some point he’d fallen to his knees. When’d he do that? That… that isn’t right.
He stood, slowly. And started moving towards Swift, where he thought Swift was.
There’s one clue: the broom closet has a waft of burnt skin coming from inside.
“Wasteland, he works here.”
“Yes.” Wasteland’s voice is rough, and he opens the door quickly, nearly wrenching it open, but not tearing it off the hinges. “Yes, yes he does. And… I will report his transgressions, and make sure he…. Comes with me, and doesn’t hide what he’s done. And… I will make amends for the damage I caused.” His voice sounds steadier, quieter, and more like the Wasteland Dr. Meda has worked with and known for years.
Solomon Swift stares up at Wasteland in terror from the floor of the broom closet.
“Solomon.” Wasteland looks down at the man, and his gauntlets flex once. “Solomon, we’re going to go to the HR office. We are going to make a report. You are going to confess what you tried to do. I…. apologize…. For trying to kill you. I am going to pay you back for your shirt, and your medical treatment. Let’s go.”
“Okay.” Solomon says, standing. He looks at the floor as Wasteland walks him to the HR office, staying otherwise silent.
The HR office is empty of the usual administrative staff, which means they’ve been warned and told to clear out. Instead, Michael Cheney and Dr. Meda are waiting.
“Mr. Cheney. Dr. Meda.” Wasteland says stiffly. He stands at mostly attention. Still soldier Wasteland, in his mind set, the rigid, iron, self control.
“This is an issue with someone’s locker?” Cheney asks, giving the conversation enough respect to not have his feet up on the desk.
“…I tried to plant illegal drugs on Vera Newman’s locker so she would be removed from the black ops unit.”
“And I caught him in the midst of doing so. I lost my temper, sir, ma’am. It has… been a rough day for me, already. I apologize for not immediately taking this to a higher authority.”
“Well, Solomon, you’re paying for all the damages. And this is going in your record.”
Cheney clapped his hands. “I think we’re good with that, yes?”
Doctor Meda just… frowned. Silent.
“Yes, sir.” Solomon said again.
Wasteland blinks behind his helmet. Well, that was more than…. Okay, that was a major hit against Solomon. But the guy did try to get Vera screwed over. And arguing with superiors would probably be a Very Bad Idea. “Yes, sir.” He’d pay for a new shirt for the guy.
“Nami?” Cheney looked at the woman at his side.
Nami fixed her heterochromatic eyes on Swift for a moment, then said: “I recommend that Mr. Swift undergo a treatment program to address his inappropriate coping mechanisms.”
“My inappropriate -” Swift takes a breath. “Like, one of those seminars you can do at home? Sure. Okay.”
“No,” Dr. Meda’s voice was no louder, but firm as steel. “A supervised clinical treatment program. In my office, once a week, for a minimum of six weeks.”
Solomon glances at Wasteland, then looks at his feet again. “Okay.”
Wasteland doesn’t move from his stiff, statue impersonation. He expected a lot worse. Might be worse after Solomon leaves. He swallows a little. But doesn’t look at Solomon. Don’t want to feed any fuel to the fire.
Solomon blanches and turns, slouching out of the office, and Cheney turns to Wasteland.
“Did he deserve it?”
Wasteland pauses, thinking. “Sir… he didn’t deserve the beating I wanted to give him. Nobody deserves that kinda thing. With how angry I was, I might have killed him.” He takes another breath. “That said, you both know the things I’ve done, that the Black Ops teams do. We look out for each other, no matter what. If someone screwed with Apex, you know I’d have his back. Same with everyone, even Rodriguez…. Who is as much of an ass as Swift. And I’d know they’d do the same for me.”
Another breath. “Vera’s new to that part of the life. She’s going to get into the shit, real shit, soon. She needs to be able to know that she comes home to a safe place, with people who will watch out for her.”
“So no, he might not have deserved the beating that I was going to give. But he damned well deserved the terror that any operative should give him for even thinking of messing with us in our safe place. Sir. Ma’am.”
Cheney nodded. “Stay away from him. He’ll be working shit jobs for a long time. And he’s banned from the Anvil until this cools down between the two of you. Understand?”
“Understood, sir.” Wasteland nods.
“Dismissed, Wasteland.” Cheney span in his chair and then looked at Nami. “Talk to Vera, and make sure Solomon does his sessions.” He grins. “Sorry.”
FREELANCER INTAKE OFFICE
The Freelancer intake office was all straight lines and cutting edge efficiency. They preferred shades of blue and grey out here in the waiting room. A variety of magazines were on display, everything from Good Housekeeping to Infinity Now to National Geographic.
It’d be a lie to say that Callister did not deliberate over his clothing decisions. Should he be formal and come in a suit? That’s what all the job interview websites said. Personally, Callister thought that was trying too hard. Should he come in torn and ripped goth rocker? He frowned at that, both liking and hating that idea. That tried too hard too, to say “whatever, I don’t care.”
In the end, Callister wore a white shirt, ironed, but not tucked, black jeans and motorcycle boots. His hair was pulled back into a low bun, and he did not leave out the eyeliner. They asked for Callister Rayne, after all.
He sat at the office, manspreading like a jerk because he could, and with one arm slung around the back of the chair next to him, poked about on his phone with the spare hand.
The secretary, a thin man with a small smile and bags under his eyes, only made him wait for a couple of minutes. “Mr. Rayne? You want to go through these doors, third room on the left. Mr. Cheney will see you now.”
Callister looked up, considered the man with blood red eyes and nodded. He pulled himself up, ignoring the tug on the legs of the jeans that fit so well not six months ago and were now getting too short in the hem. Nineteen and still growing. Fuck. He made his way as directed, and entered the door with knock.
Michael Cheney clearly did not use this as his main office – he had travelled to come here to meet Callister. That was interesting. The man looked out of place in the average office – he was clearly used to having more room on his desk, a larger chair. Still, though, he managed to look comfortable and at ease. Callister hadn’t expected the public face of the Freelancers to come meet him.
“Mr. Rayne. Or should I call you Callister? Whatever you’re more comfortable with.”
Callister considered the man behind the desk. No, he didn’t expect Michael Cheney, but then again, perhaps he should have when the invitation came straight from the Wasteland. “Callister’s fine. Mister Rayne is my dad.” Maybe. Well, it was probably true, wherever he was. Not to mention “Mister Rayne” made it sound like he was at the Principal’s office.
He stepped into the office, and stood in front of the desk, body language screaming insouciance as he stuck one hand into a front pocket. “Mr. Cheney.” He nodded.
“I’m going to be honest with you right off the bat, kid. If you were walking in here as some hero off the street with the same resume, I’d be handing you a crap deal. But you have certain advantages, and I think we both know what they are. So I’m offering you something real sweet. Good bennies, high pay, time off, full access to your mother and a say in her care… Oh, and it’d piss all the right people off if you signed up.”
Callister snorted slightly, started to smile, then stopped. “I thought the Legion had my mother.” He frowned.
“The Legion and the Freelancers came to an agreement that since Hyacinth Mills had escaped their custody once before, we would get a shot at it.” Cheney says, still smiling. “It’s completely amicable.
Callister took a seat, wholly without invitation. He leaned back, ankle at his knee. Finally he said, “And she is secure? Visiting rights for my grandmother if she wants them?”
“She is in a facility staffed entirely by Nulls and with several other security measures I cannot disclose due to a serious NDA. And sure, bring the whole family in, that’s fine. We will ask you… any visitors, though. “
Callister knew he wasn’t too smart, but even he could tell when a deal was too sweet. “What’s the catch? This is all too good a deal.”
“We want you to talk to her.” Cheney admitted immediately, without a hint of shame or hesitation. “Hyacinth Mills, I mean. Anathema. Though we’ll be happy to help facilitating your relationship with your grandmother, get her the best medical care. Mills has… said concerning things about… cosmic matters. We want more information on that.”
Well shit. Someone actually listened to her rants. Worse, they believed her.
Callister frowned, leaning forward, looking into Cheney’s eyes.
“Huh. You’re not under her influence at least.”
“Nope. Like I said, I’ll be honest. This comes from above me. We’re pieces in some game of three dimensional chess, kid, I’ve just learned to roll with it.”
The Red Knight leaned back in his chair. He thought he’d put this whole avatar business behind him. That people were actually taking Anathema seriously concerned him. Did they want one to oppose McGowan?
Callister couldn’t see the game, could barely see the pieces, yet alone check the scoreboard. He felt like a pawn once more, and this time he couldn’t see the hand that reached out to move him. Cheney’s superiors. That was rumoured to be Adam Nova, right? What was he in this game? The invitation came from the Wasteland, and he was no errand boy. And here was Cheney.
One thing was certain though, things were moving so that he could be kept in the game.
And that in itself was challenge enough.
“All right. I’ll sign up. But I want a lawyer to look at the contract before I put ink to it.” That was Sin’s influence.
“Would you like us to provide one for you, or would you prefer to find your own?”
“I got a few names I can call on.”
“You got a one week window to look it over and negotiate. After that, offer closes.”
“Thanks, Callister. We’ll hear back from you soon. Smart choice, today.” Cheney stood and gestured for Callister to leave, all smiles.