The List Episode 20: New Recruits

The excrement of a million people sloshed beneath my boots and soaked into my skin as I put a length of tunnel, and an even longer trail of bodies, behind me.

Arachno’s words still rang clear in my mind.  The bounty he’d put out on my head made the net worths of most superheroes look like play money.  And now I was trying my best to keep from killing any average Joe who thought he had a shot at the fortune.  I’ve got to tell you, that has not been easy.

If it hadn’t been for the dome of City Hall collapsing from my little fight on top of it, I’d be in the same shape as most of my hunters.  My body had nearly given up, awaiting its destiny as a prize to be laid at Arachnos’s feet.  But five thousand tons of falling rock had a way of motivating even the most stubborn broken bones, and the ensuing rubble had provided a decent cover for my blood streaked tracks.  Sometimes a guy catches a lucky break, if you call falling fifty stories to near death a lucky break.

But I’d survived, and now I ran the tunnel system under the city, following the paths I had mapped out in my mind, jumping from auxiliary transit lines to antiquated sewage systems.  Taking out the hunters as they came, building plans to take Arachnos down in the mean time.

My instincts flared up, sensing an unwanted follower, and I ducked into the tunnel wall.  Instead of smashing my face against concrete I passed harmlessly through a holo, into one of my many caches.  There I stood, back glued to the wall, listening for the ripple of sludge, the quieted breathing, and, if they were amateurs, the rustle of weapons.

Thirty minutes, and nothing came.  Another hour, and I decided that my pursuers were serious.  I silently punched the code into my glove that prepped the explosives planted around the perimeter of my current hideout.

And then a darkness passed by, at first like the shadow cast from light hitting a rat, then it expanded and swirled until it coated the entire tunnel.

I had never seen it in person, but I knew what it was.  Intelligent fabric designed to absorb all the surrounding light.  Only one person had access to said fabric, and coincidently said person was very high up on my list.  Vignette.

Which meant Synapse wouldn’t be very far behind, reading my brainwaves and passing it along to Vignette.

The wall to my back slithered.  I spun, and came face to face with fierce eyes and pouty lips that curled up at the ends.  Her arm swung out, holding a piece of fabric that was hardened flat and curved like the blade of a scythe.  I toppled back out into the tunnel and unloaded my Seiver in the general direction of her face, but she slipped back into the living mass that was her costume.

I prepared to land, and the darkness covering the tunnel shifted, distorting what was up and what was down.  A hand caught hold of my ankle, sending me tumbling, and was gone before I could blow it away.  I tried to find my footing, but gravity seemed nonexistent in this void.

I closed my eyes and focused, mentally kicking myself for not immediately deciphering the attack.  The trick was subtle.  Most of the effect was coming from Vignette’s costume, but I could now feel the faint strings tugging at my mind and screwing with my senses.  Synapse’s telepathy was nothing like most of the other telepaths.  Where most bludgeoned their way into your cerebral cortex, he scoured the surface, looking for keyholes to pick the locks of.

His hook caught on a pin and cranked the tumbler, increasing the psychosis.  The tunnel twisted and snaked, imparting a sense of vertigo as it became a well with no end.  Vignette sprouted from one of the walls, long scythe emerging with her.  She took her time approaching.  No matter what direction I pointed the Seiver in, it ended up finding only empty space.  The black scythe rose to my neck and drew a line of blood.  Vignette’s breathe blew warm and shallow on my cheek.

I started entering two simultaneous codes into my glove.  One to release a high powered hallucinogen into my blood stream, which would no doubt do a number on Synapse’s cerebral cortex, as it was now linked to mine.  The other would simply bring the tunnel down on top of Vignette and me.

“Stop,” a calm but booming voice commanded, cutting through the darkness and freezing my fingers just over the last part of the code.  The darkness of Vignette’s costume retreated; Synapse’s mental fingers withdrew from my brain.  I dropped a meter and splashed into the sewage on all fours.

Through the gunk dripping down my face I could see a broad shouldered figure, cape dragging in the filth.  Vignette still clung to a portion of the tunnel wall, only the upper part of her torso visible.  Synapse hovered cross legged not too far behind her, his figure emaciated to the point that the tendons and muscles bulged unnaturally.

“Rune,” Vignette said, poison in her voice, “Is there a reason you’re interrupting?”

“If I hadn’t stopped you when I did, you’d be in worse shape than Levi,” Rune said.

“That true?” Vignette asked Synapse.

Synapse seemed to doze off for a moment, then lazily replied.  “I couldn’t sense it at the time, but I see it clearly now.  He’s right.”

“Of course I’m right,” Rune said.  “But that’s not why I’m here.  We had an agreement.  You’re not to go after Levi until I give you the go ahead.”  He looked to me as he said this, as if sending me a message beneath the words.  I sent one back, and it included at least five particularly nasty four letter words.

“If we wait much longer,” Vignette snarled, “this piece of shit will be dead anyway.  If someone is going to kill him, it should be us.”

“Come on,” I said, feeling left out of the conversation. “Give me at least a little credit.”

“You’re really going to let the new recruits have a go at him?” Vignette asked, ignoring me.  Rune nodded, stone faced, and Vignette turnned to Synapse.

Synapse shrugged half heartedly.  “Let’s just leave it.”

Vignette threw up her hands and her costume spiraled around both her and Synapse, in what I assume was her version of storming out, blotting out their figures and carrying them off into the distance.

“I seem to remember you previously making disparaging remarks regarding my smell,” Rune said, then mock sniffed the air.  “I’ll withhold further comments.”

“Gee, thanks.  What’s with the new recruits Vignette mentioned?” I asked. “And why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like this.”

“We had some open positions, as I’m sure you’re well aware, and we were recently found candidates worthy of filling said spots.  And besides, Superior Four just doesn’t have as nice a ring to it.”

“I take it I have to find out for myself who they are.”

“Now you’re getting it, but I hope you aren’t disappointed you won’t have to do much sleuthing,” he said as he turned and waved back.  “Have fun.”

At that moment a hole blew through the ceiling of the tunnel.  It made me wonder if superheroes all had a built in timer that told them exactly when and where to strike for the most dramatic entrance, or if maybe they all got together before hand to plan things out on a whiteboard.  Either way, I was glad for not having to wait.

A man splashed down among the falling chunks of concrete. His long poled sledge hammer barely fit in the cramped space of the tunnel.  He scowled beneath his rugged beard.  I could hear the faint grumble of a train coming in through the hole, and it matched with the map in my head.

“You remember me, Levi?” the man asked.

Of course I did – Jason Force, ex-CEO of Force Industries and all around scumbag – but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.  “No…wait,” I said, snapping my fingers, “You’re the guy that scavenges for food in the dumpster outside my apartment building, right?”

“No,” he said, his right eye twitching.  “You damn near ruined my business, and screwed up my plans of taking control of the Superior Six.  Ring any bells yet?”

“So now you’re part of the Superior Six? I guess that’s a step closer to your goal.”

“That goal died a long time ago.  Now I only live to make sure you die, and earn my spot back at the top of the ladder.”  He reared back with his hammer, its head barely thumping into the wall but still crumbling the old concrete.  “Today, I will complete that task!”

He rushed at me, the water cresting up both sides of the tunnel.  I did the same.  I could tell that his strength had been boosted, and letting him test it out on me with that hammer of his wasn’t on my agenda.  He started swinging it in a wide but quick arc, and I ducked into it, where I could roll with the handle.  The hammer harmlessly slammed into the other side of the tunnel, and then I felt an immense pressure on my back.  The shockwave shook the tunnel, and a length of the ceiling behind me deteriorated, filling the tunnel with a cloud of rock and dust.

So, Force literally had “force” power.  Should have seen that one coming.

Still, I was in close where his hammer was useless, and I drew my beam blade.  It flicked on, and for a moment there was a look of regret on Force’s face.  Then the entire tunnel went white, matching the intensity of my hot blade.  I squeezed my eyes shut.  Black dots danced on the back of my eyelids.  When it felt like the light was gone, I opened my eyes back up.  I couldn’t see where the light had come from – I couldn’t really see anything at that moment – but I knew that power and wished the owner of it hadn’t joined the fight.

My beam blade flickered off, probably due to conflicting photons and electrons emitted from the intense light that still shimmered in the tunnel.  The rubble from Forces’s last attack formed a nice ramp leading up to the next level, where I could just barely make out the silhouette of a man.  Though I couldn’t see it, I knew his face would be covered by a visored cowl.

Through double vision I saw Force stumbling, swinging his hammer in small arcs that shook the earth.  “Aperture!” he yelled in the wrong direction, still apparently blind and disoriented. “I’m down here too, you idiot!”

Aperture’s light had only hit my back, but my eyes still burned in their sockets.  I could only imagine how that felt for Force.  Too bad he wouldn’t be feeling it much longer.  I pulled my backup blade from my boot – this one forged from solid black superinium, which wasn’t susceptible to the same problems as my beam blade.  I twirled the knife in my hand and dove in.

“He’s attacking!” Aperture’s voice rang down.

Force’s head jerked up.  He was facing the wall, eyes squinted tight, but he held his hammer perpendicular to his body and spun three-sixty.  I had been a foot out of his reach when he started to spin, with nowhere to dodge.

The telekinetic blast caught and flung me, sending me bouncing up the rubble and into a concrete pillar.  The low light contacts I wore turned the dimly lit area into a brightly illuminated room that resembled a train platform, minus the gates to get street side.  My ribs ached under the protective armor that had probably prevented me from splitting in half from the last attack.  At least it was dry up there.

“So, you up for that beer now?” I said as I staggered to my feet.  Aperture stood there, arms crossed and jaw clenched.  I couldn’t see his expression under the polarized visor, but I imagined it ranged somewhere between disappointed and pissed.  After running into him during the Gauntlet and deciding he wasn’t such a bad guy, I had checked up on him periodically.  He was the one superhero who actually deserved the title.  Despite the masters in engineering that would have landed him a nice office job and an even nicer salary, he had worked full time as an EMT or firefighter while doing various other volunteer work.  He even taught martial arts – of which he was proficient in seven different forms – in Old City to underprivileged kids.  After a string of violent gang activity in the neighborhood he taught at, he put his book smarts to use and built himself a superpower.  And somewhere in between all this he was dedicated to his wife and small son.  I didn’t even think people like him could exist, but he did.  So you could see why what little conscience I had didn’t want to put a bullet in his skull.

Which was exactly the reason the Superior Six recruited him.

“You made a fool out of me,” he said.  “Don’t think I’ve forgotten what you did during the Gauntlet.”

”So you want to kill me too? Get a little vengeance?”

“Do you think so lowly of me?  I know you knocked me out for ‘my own protection’.  Yeah it pissed me off that you didn’t think I could handle myself.  But this isn’t about some personal vendetta.  Levi, you’ve committed mass murder, and I’m here to take you in for those crimes.”

I had to fight back the urge to laugh.  That was a new one, and part of the reason why I liked the guy.  “So you’re just going to beat me up and take me in?  Then what?  Are we going to have a trial?

“That’s exactly my plan,” he said, half smile showing he knew it wasn’t going to be easy.  “There’s a system in place for a reason, to maintain the order and safety of our city.”

“What system?  You said it yourself, there’s something going on behind the scenes,” I said.  “Not that it matters, but Arachnos was the one who orchestrated the prison break and assassination of the Mayor.”

Force called up from the tunnel below.  “You going to take care of him or what?  I’d join you, but on account of my temporary blindness it’s going to be a few minutes before I can.”

“Yeah, quit your whining,” Aperture yelled back down.  “Well, Levi, you ready?”

I had time to nod my head.  He closed the gap between us and swung a tight uppercut that would have pureed my kidney.  I met his fist with my elbow, knocking the attack away, then lunged with a kick that aimed to destroy his knee cap.  He slid to the side and caught the heel of my boot with his thigh, and as I retracted he grabbed hold of my ankle and spun me to the ground.  His legs wrapped around my torso and he cranked back on my ankle.

It broke almost instantly.  I hadn’t put up any resistance, which caused a split second of confusion in Aperture when the tendons tore.  I used that moment of hesitation to flip him and pin both his arms behind his back.

“You don’t belong with these people,” I said, careful not to break anything as he struggled under my hold.  “You’re better than them!”

“If that’s the case then I’ll take them down next!” he yelled into the concrete floor.  He uncurled his fingers so his palms were now face up.  “But I have to stop you first!”

I tried to block the light with my arms, and it plowed into me, throwing me from my straddle.  So he had been upgraded as well.  White decorated my vision, and my brain seemed to flip flop as the platform filled with the roar of a train.  Aperuture flipped to his feet and came at me with a flurry of punches.  I stopped the first and second, but the third and forth and the rest landed solid blows, twisting me and tossing me around.  He planted a final uppercut into my abdomen, slamming me into the wall of the moving train as it shot by.  The momentum of the train grabbed me like a top and sent the world spinning.

I crashed, hard.  The next time I opened my eyes, Force was joining up with Aperture.

“Color me surprised, you really did it,” Force said.  He nudged me with his foot, turning me onto my back, and then startled.  “Damn, son, he’s still breathing.”  Force raised his hammer so that the head of it aligned perfectly with my line of sight.

“And I plan on keeping it that way,” Aperture said, grabbing the hammer by the pole.

“How about you step back,” Force said, “And let me cave his skull in.”

“We’re taking him in.  Alive.”

“I didn’t get where I am today by taking orders from others.  Step back now.  You won’t receive another warning.”

While they were busy with their lover’s spat, I was regaining my senses.  I had options.  Work them against each other, and nudge victory in Aperture’s direction, was one. Try to take them both head on while at the same time keeping Aperture’s heart beating, another.  And then there was the one that forced me to tell my pride to take a long walk off a cliff – escape and regroup, come at this with a fresh plan. Unfortunately the only non-lethal grenade I had was a flashbang.  No math needed to see why that wouldn’t work.  The tunnels started to shake, and I gave in to the third option carried by the distant hi-beams of an oncoming train.

I took the opportunity, and thrust myself into a reverse flip off the edge of the platform.  The train streaked by, scrapping the skin off the tip of my nose, but I had just enough time to see the expressions on Force and Aperture’s faces.  By the time I landed on the far side of the tunnel, the last car of the train had almost caught up, and I readied myself to have my arms yanked out of their sockets.

I reached out for the seam between the cars, but it didn’t go as planned.  The car screeched and severed at the coupling and jettisoned off its tracks, dragging me and miles of sparks along behind.  I counted 4 hundred meter markers before blacking out again.  When I awoke, the acrid smell of melted plastic and burnt flesh filled the air.

The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t feel my legs.  I reached down, expecting to touch wet stumps, but they were still there.  Just barely, though.  The screams and cries that can only come from those close to death bled out from the shredded car just up the tunnel.

“Force!” Aperture yelled as he ran up, the horror on his face apparent even under the visor that reflected the flames and wreckage before him.  “What have you done?”

“I’m finishing the job, that’s what,” he replied, and I realized too late he was standing above me, maniacal grin on his face and hammer ready to drop.

And Aperture wasn’t close enough to grab it by the handle this time.

I prepared myself to suck in all the pain and move my body.  The feeling in my legs was starting to return, which was both good and bad.  Good I wasn’t paralyzed.  Bad each gash, abrasion, and fracture was now jamming my brain with pain signals.  But I found they weren’t ready to support my weight yet when I tried to shove myself out of the direction of the hammer.

At the last second my body finally started to roll.  The shadow of the hammer head fell across my face.  At this rate I wouldn’t even have to worry about the resulting aftershock of Force’s telekinetic blast.

I expected the darkness of death, but instead my world was filled with light.  Not blinding, like it had been, but focused into a tight beam that radiated from Apertures palms and struck Force in the neck.  The beam threw Force backward and pinned him against the wall.  Aperture let out a roar, then cut the light off.

He stood there, panting and staring, but not at Force.  His gaze was enraptured by the wrecked car.  I could tell he was studying it, like I had seen him do when I had watched him during his day job, just before diving into a collapsing building.

“Can you stand?” Aperture asked.

I writhed and managed to get my legs under me.  “Sort of.”

“There’s ten people trapped in there.  Three of them conscious.”  He started for the car.  “The rest in need of immediate medical attention.”

I glanced over to Force.  He wasn’t showing any signs of getting up.  So I thought, one good deed won’t hurt my chances at hell, so why not.

Aperture grabbed a corner of twisted metal, what had been part of the roof but was now the side, and began prying it.

“Step back, this’ll be faster,” I said and loosened a wire charge from my belt.  The wire stuck as I pressed an outline onto the roof.  When it resembled an opening large enough for a man, I attached the detonator and flipped the switch.  There were no sparks, the wire simply chewed through the metal and it dropped to the ground.

Aperture rushed in, attending first to the ones who weren’t apparently dead yet, calming their cries and ushering them out and into an orifice of the tunnel where they’d be safer.  Once those that could move were taken care of, Aperture dusted the rocks off a long sheet of fiberglass that had been one of the car’s windows.

“Grab that end, would you?” he asked, and I picked it up and we carried it to one of the blood covered passengers.  A piece of shrapnel stuck out from his side, but his chest was still going through the motions of breathing.  We hoisted him onto the makeshift stretcher and took him to the others, then did the same with the rest of the still breathing passengers. We left the remaining four dead bodies in the car.

“We have to get this off the tracks,” Aperture said, and started pushing against the side of the car.

I shoved my shoulder in next to him and strained.

“Don’t think I’m going to let you go just because you helped save these people,” he said between the grunts.  “What you did doesn’t discount what you’ve done.”

“You still think you can bring me in?”

Aperture smiled, but it was a smile full of pain and sorrow.  “I’ll tell you what.  During the prison’s visiting hours, I’ll sneak in that beer I promised you.”

The car had budged maybe half a foot, so Aperture let off and started searching the rubble for something to lever the car to the side.  I had the perfect thing in mind to use for the job, but when I went to scoop it up, it wasn’t there.  Neither was its owner.

I spun.  Aperture was bent over, trying to wedge a piece of the handrail under the train.  My yell caught his attention, but not soon enough.  By the time he had straightened, the hammer had already slammed into the small of his back.

The telekinetic blast wave from the blow created small tremors in my bones.  Force continued his swing, with Aperture still stuck on the end, and struck the concrete wall.  Dust billowed as Aperture fell limp, and Force turned to face me.

The hair on his face and head was singed short, the skin bubbling into bright red blisters.  His eyes held the same dull glow I had so recently become acquainted with.

I didn’t care if it was Arachnos or Force at the helm.  The pain that had been wracking my body was gone.  There was only one thing on my mind:  Kill.

I stepped forward just as Force began another swing.  I planted my feet and caught the pole in my side and could hear the lower ribs snap.  Force tried to yank the hammer away, but I wrapped my arm around it and jerked it out of his hands.  I twirled the hammer and it wheeled around my neck, and the grip of the handle landed in the palms of my hands.

What was it he wanted to do to me?  Oh yeah, bash my brains in.  First worthy idea I had ever heard from the man.

I didn’t wait for the look of surprise.  I did just what he had intended to do, ending Force in one powerful downward thrust.  Through it, I hopped Arachnos would receive the message that blow carried.  A message that words could never do justice.  A message that said:  You’re next.