Paragon City Stories: Darkness, Digitized
Hosted and Narrated by TIMESHADOW
Act II, Scene 4
Place: Founders' Falls
After the conversation in Williams Square, you go with your team to the site of the next Crey Facility located in The Gaspee neighborhood. Though it’s a beautiful place filled with canals and pre-Rikti War architecture, it’s also a hive of Crey agents in dark suits and even darker sunglasses. Thankfully, they don’t know to register you as a threat since your earlier exploits were done under the pretext of the Carnival of Vengeance.
You stand on a rooftop, looking out across the pristine waters toward a squat little building that houses your objective. Now is the time to finalize your plans. After that, the only thing left to do will be to put them into action.
Devereaux lifts a hand to his chin and strokes his goatee. As is the norm before a job, his mind is working in overdrive. Assets, obstacles, and contingencies consume his thoughts. Somewhere in the maelstrom, vying for attention, is the earlier conversation in the cafe.
“We need to do this one a little differently. Crey’s sure to be on high alert for the Carnival so the disguises are out. We’ll have to get back to our roots, so to speak. Keep it smooth and quiet.”
He looks from one team member to the next, finally settling on Linuial. “You were right about one thing, Blondie. I haven’t been using the specialists as well as I could be. It’s time to change that.”
Paige is texting on her phone…
She turns her phone back off and puts it away.
You: I never did ask, how was Praetoria?
Tim: It was kind of a bust, but it wasn’t. Hard to explain… Lisa didn’t get what she wanted.
Tim: Did D and L make up?
You: No. Same as before.
Tim: Still at each other’s throat?
You: No. They got a bit out in the open.
Tim: That’s good. Keep me posted.
You: Sure thing. Later Taco-meats.
Tim: Later Cricket.
On Linuial’s recommendation, in order to avoid comparisons with the “pet” of the Carnival of Vengeance of their previous escapade, Bubastis made a trip to Serge’s Icon. With his help, she replaced the brown leather leg wrappings with black ones, bought black three-quarter length pants to cover the rest of her legs, a plain solid black Spandex Hero shirt with three-quarter length sleeves, and black leather wrappings for her forearms and hands, leaving her fingers and lethal claws exposed. The final touch is an all black hood to cover her mane and lion-like ears.
She pushes the hood back a bit…she is wearing the gold tiara with the brown ankh she favors. Her preferred tool-bearing belt tops it all off.
“Serge didn’t have any way to hide my tail,” she tells the blonde woman, “so we applied a temporary hair dye to stain it black.”
Linuial nods her approval to the cat-woman, gives her a smile before turning back to Devereaux.
“I’m not going in with you,” Devereaux says, his usual pre-mission calm settling in. “After that last incident with our comms, it’s pretty clear that we need to keep command and control separate.”
He gives Paige a nod. “Nothing personal. We’re just heavy on telepaths. With this kinda team composition your sonic blasts are much more valuable than anything else you can do. It’d be stupid to handicap you when we’ve got other people who can do the same job.”
He continues, addressing the team as a whole again. “I’ll be on overwatch. I can run comms and monitor you all from here. If anything starts to go sideways I can influence the situation. Just remember that I can’t go all out at this range. Misdirection and whatnot won’t be a problem but don’t expect me to drop anyone on the spot.”
“Nyghtshade, I want you to take over for me as advance recon. Like I said before, you’re the best suited to be our black asset. Don’t be afraid to get out in front and mix things up a little. Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he adds a mischievous grin.
“Blondie,” he pauses, the devilish expression still fixed in place. “I’m granting your wish. As my new second in command, you’ll be the one responsible for field ops. Any tactical questions, you know how to reach me but I’m not gonna call the shots for you. Do whatever you think is best.”
Finally he turns to Bubastis. “I doubt you need to be told but I will just in case. Your job is to cover the others and do whatever Linuial tells you to do.”
The orders delivered, he folds his arms and takes a rigid stance. “Everybody got that? Any problems, now’s the time to say so.”
Paige looks out at the skyline, with Williams Square bright and bustling, the Gaspee is relatively dark and sleeping in comparison. She looks forward to returning there when school is out of session and there’s no mission at hand.
“Sounds good so far… so, with the entire neighborhood crawling with Crey troops, what’s our plan to get in?” Paige asks, holding a drawstring backpack lightly filled. “I’ve got a change of clothes that’s less obvious. The reflective piping in these athletic shorts are good for night jogging, but they are not ideal for this.”
The tiny woman nods understanding. “Very well,” she responds. “And I am granting your wish as well. I have promised Paige that I won’t argue with you any more…at least in front of her.” She returns the sly grin, then becomes more sober. “Do you have a plan for me to follow? Or are we just going to ‘wing it’?”
Nyghtshade has come prepared for ‘infiltration’, wearing the typical Crey Female Field Agent outfit of polarized sunglasses, white dress shirt and plain tie, black tailored jacket, black ankle-strapped heels, and a black skirt only barely longer than the jacket, revealing plenty of leg. She also wears a shoulder-length wig of a nondescript ash-brown color, and is using plain, minimal makeup. Her usually pale skin is now mild tan in color, and it’s likely she’ll fit right in under all but the closest inspection.
At night, the black outfit renders her a little less visible from a distance, although showing so much leg might negate that a bit. Still, she knows showing so much leg can also be a useful distraction.
Nyght indicates her ensemble, noting mentally to the others, “Since Ah can’t fool cameras, this will hopefully suffice to keep from arousin’ suspicion for anyone watchin’ the monitors. Which, this time of night, the’ah likely to be watchin’ just a little less vigilantly.”
“This place isn’t like the last one. It’s a dedicated research lab from top to bottom. The information I could gather suggests Crey’s using several legitimate projects as a smokescreen to hide some illegal ones. Security’s tight. They do a full sweep of the building every hour on the hour.”
Devereaux motions toward the top of the building. “Going in through the roof and working your way down is the best bet. Nyghtshade, that’s where you come in. Take this,” he unzips his travel bag and rumages around until he comes up with a stainless steel disk and a small square of what appears to be nylon.
“Electronic auto dialer,” he says, holding up the disc. “It’ll disable the lock on the roof access door. This patch is a self-contained blasting charge. Not much power but it should be enough to trigger the fire suppression systems and cause a temporary. evacuation. That’ll give the rest of you a window to enter. All you have to do is fold it over and stand back. Try to place somewhere important.”
“Linuial, you, Paige, and Bubastis are staying put until the evacuation starts. Once it’s on, you can fly over to the roof and teleport the others. I’ll guide you from there.”
Nyght accepts the disk and patch and carefully tucks them into a couple of interior jacket pockets. She asks Dev for his binoculars, and uses them to scope out the roof for security cameras, checking for any possible blind spots, as well as any with a view of the top floor exterior. Finding a likely spot, she hands the binoculars back, with a crisp nod. “Ready when you all are. Just say the word.”
Watching Nyghtshade’s preparations, she says quietly over one shoulder, “I assume we are after the second half of the encryption key, is that right? If this building is tech-heavy, are we just looking for the nearest computer, a console, or a specific piece of equipment?”
“That’s where it gets a little complicated,” Devereaux responds. “We can’t assume that Crey’s stupid enough to leave it on the main system now that they know the ‘Carnival’s’ after it. They wouldn’t risk moving it completely but they’d certainly take it off the building’s mainframe. The good news is that place is full of software developers. Guaranteed, more than one of them is on the Mind Wipe project. You’ll have to find someone who can tell you where they’re hiding it.”
He motions toward Bubastis over Linuial’s shoulder. “Use the cat. She was very helpful with finding the first one.”
“Time for my phone booth thing…” Paige walks to the roofhatch door and closes it behind her. She changes in the stairwell and comes back three minutes later, wearing a black T-Shirt and dark blue jeans, ditching her baseball cap and glasses.
“Nothing I can’t live without if it gets ruined…” She says as she tosses the bag to a corner on the roof, “Ready!”
The plan in place, you and your team mates go to work on your assigned tasks. The initial phase is both the most important and the most difficult. If you can’t prompt an evacuation of the facility, reaching your objective will be a near impossible prospect.
But something isn’t quite right. A flash of movement catches your eye. You snap your head up just in time to see a human-like silhouette in a window. It quickly disappears but leaves behind a niggling feeling of suspicion. You might want to investigate.
“Dev, we’ve got company. See that building? Third floor from the top, second window on the right. We’re being watched.” Paige sent to Devereaux without pointing or looking directly at the window.
“If I try a focused blast in his direction, anything else in the building would hear it, including other Crey. I’m thinking Mass Hypnosis… might put civilians asleep in adjacent rooms, but beats giving away our position. What do you think?”
Paige’s message puts a chill in him. His muscles tense immediately. Any hostile surveillance is bad for the plan but with no way of knowing whether the unseen observer is looking through a camera lens or a rifle scope there’s no room to take chances. Few things compare to the naked terror a sniper, real or imagined, can instill.
“If you’ve got the range, hurry and go for it,” he replies without moving.
“Alright, here goes…” Paige crouches down and sneaks along the backside of the ledge unseen as the other team members look at her oddly.
In 30 feet, she’s at the corner of the ledge and pushes out a wave of psychic energy like she did at Peregrine Island… that same note that induces a trance-like state to encourage sleep to all who hear it. And it’s wide enough to hit not only that window, but every window in a 75-foot radius, and about 400 feet deep into the building.
She reaches forward and looks for the assailant, who is pacing back and forth trying to fight it, so she does it again and persists for 45 seconds until she sees him drop on to the floor.
“That oughta do it.” Paige said to the team, “The sharpshooter’s asleep… along with four other families watching TV, three couples, and half of a frat party… Nyght, you’re all set.”
“Good,” Devereaux affirms. “Now get moving. I’ll go see just who was keeping tabs on us.” He taps his memory, looking for one recollection in particular. “Can’t afford to be deaf and blind this time.”
In his mind’s eye the image of a woman appears. Dressed in a form fitting red and white jumpsuit, her skin is an unusual shade of magenta. She sits on the ground, hands bound behind her back. Her lips are drawn in a tight line and the look on her face is one of disdain. “I swear to God, Devereaux! I’ll get you for this!” she hisses, her voice sharp inside his head.
“Sorry Sabrina,” he says by way of apology. He knows the reflection can’t hear him but it just doesn’t seem right to ignore it. “You really were lovely.”
Fully transformed into a Longbow Warden of the mentalist variety, he begins to hover above the rooftop. “Call me if you need me,” he says in the heroine’s voice before flying off to begin his investigation.
The blonde woman doesn’t follow Devereaux’s actions, but turns immediately to Nyghtshade.
“You’re up, Monique. We can’t wait for Dev to get back. Can you get in and set off that patch, or do you need any other help? Once that’s done, I’ll fly over and bring Paige and Basti.
“And, by the way…”
She forms an image of the shadowy woman in her mind, pushes her thought toward it: “…can you ‘hear’ me if I address you like this?“
“Ready,” Nyght confirms, adding mentally to Linuial’s question, “Ah can heah you. Is this a private link, or can eveh’one else heah us as well?”
Paige looks blankly at the two.
Guess that answehs mah question, Nyght thinks to herself.
Next, she tests out the mental link she’d established with Devereaux before they gathered here, to make sure his mental ‘Switchboard” function is working.
“Ah’m ready to go in. Evehbody pickin’ me up all right on the ‘switchboard’ link?’
Linuial shakes her head. “I’m no telepath. Devereaux taught me that as long as he is in one of his telepathic forms, I can sort of ‘shout’ at him mentally, and he’ll pick it up. But that’s his ability, not mine. I can only do that with telepaths, and can’t act as a switchboard, either. Empathy isn’t telepathy.”
“Yup. Hear ya five by five,” Paige said, not knowing what it means, but remembered it from an episode of some vampire TV show in the 2000’s.
Nyght has studied the rooftop of the Crey building, and thinks she can ghost onto it without drawing undo attention. Taking a deep ‘calming’ breath that she doesn’t really need, Nyght nods to the others, and then gathers herself and leaps easily across the intervening distance, dropping to a crouch with hands spread to soak up the impact and muffle the noise of her landing.
It only takes a few seconds for Devereaux’s auto-dialer to key up the right code for the roof-top door, and she pulls it open carefully and slips through. Once inside, she broadcasts out her mental ‘no-see-me’ compulsion to anyone around, and quietly makes her way down the stairwell to the first door she comes to, then opens it silently and slips into the hallway of the top floor.
Thus ‘cloaked’, at least to the eyes of those she might encounter, if not the cameras, she strides down the hallway with all the ‘confidence’ of someone who belongs there, sidestepping when possible those she does come upon without their even noticing her, and when necessary, pausing long enough to let them pass before moving on.
With her shields down, the barrage of thoughts from so many people in the building is loud and confused, but over time she has worked to learn to separate out individual threads of thought, much like learning to hear the various instruments and parts in an orchestral piece. Most of those she passes are technicians, researchers and research assistants, their thoughts about their break, their social lives, their irritation with fellow workers, and at least to some degree about their jobs, a jumbled kaleidoscope of projects that mean nothing to her.
She continues to move, slipping around them as quietly as possible, alert to any stray thoughts about“Mindwipe”, or anything about electronic neural networks, or any kind of electronic networking.
She knows time is short, and is beginning to despair of finding anything useful as she moves down to lower floors, but at last is relieved to catch an irritable rambling string of thought from a disgruntled tech as he makes his way to the vending machines at the end of the hallway. “Stupid asshole,” he is thinking as he fumbles through his pocket for change, “Anderson acts like he’s the only one who can grasp what we’re trying to do. Mindwipe’s not just his baby, we’re all working on the damn project!” His attention shifts to counting out change, and Nyght is relieved to see they’re the only two in that end of the hallway.
Dropping her mental ‘no-see-me’, she strolls up from behind, and sidesteps him to stare thoughtfully at the vending machine choices. He glances over, and she takes advantage of that to tug at the hem of her very short skirt, which naturally draws his attention down there. “Mah eyes are up heah,” she chides crisply, and when his eyes rise to meet hers, she nails him with a mental hold, causing him to stand there, drowsily unfocused.
“Wheah’s the Mindwipe project lab,” she probes, and learns the location easily enough. “Who’s in charge?” Not surprisingly, it’s Anderson, and she gets a good mental image of him as well. “Security protocols?” That leads to the lab door access code, and the location of Anderson’s office.
The clock is ticking, and she’s nearly out of time. She compels the tech to just ‘blank out’ for a moment, adding, “You won’t remember eveh seeing me.” Throwing out once again her ‘no-see-me’ compulsion, Nyght leaves him and hurries to the nearest elevator, taking it up to the top floor. She takes advantage of the few seconds within it to mentally pass along to Devereaux –and through him to everyone else– what she’s learned. “Gettin’ ready to set the charge,” she warns them, drawing out the blasting charge patch as she exits on the top floor.
Folding the patch and sticking it to the hallway wall just halfway between sprinkler heads, Nyght hastens down the hall to put distance between her and it, and lets the others know it’s set. No sooner has she contacted them than it goes off with a magnesium-bright flare and a shower of sparks and smoke.
Sprinklers activate, alarms begin pealing, and Nyght tucks herself into a corner out of what she hopes will be a stream of fleeing traffic, hopefully none aware of her presence.
Linuial turns to Paige and Bubastis. “That’s our signal.”
She activates her flight capability, and soars to the adjoining rooftop. Reaching toward the two women, she yanks toward herself, and Paige appears next to her. A second reach-and-pull, and Bubastis joins them.
She addresses her mental image of Nyghtshade. “We’re on the roof…ready for us to come in?“
“Oh yes, please!” Nyght responds with a certain fervor. “Any old time now!”
She adds the code for the rooftop access door, and points out her relative location on the top floor.
Linuial opens the door and shepherds her charges inside and across the top floor. Twice she pulls them up short, a finger to her lips, once rushing them into a side room, as footsteps pound past the cracked door. The mood in the building is electric, giving her plenty of warning of oncoming Crey employees via her empathic sense. It only takes a few minutes for them to rendezvous with Nyghtshade.
A quick greeting, and then down to business. “Lead on,” she tells Nyghtshade, with a quick nod.
Those who are evacuating seem largely to have done so, and Nyght leads the Linuial, Paige and Bubastis straight to the lab access door without incident, and keys in the code.
The door slides open, to reveal a large room full of servers, computer work stations, and what looks suspiciously like a small-scale operating room in a glassed in enclosure in the rear.
A number of staff are still there, including Anderson himself, who grabs a handgun from his desk drawer as they enter and aims it steadily at them.
“Who the hell are you… people?” he demands, with a bit of a wide-eyed stare at Bubastis.
Your initial incursion into the building was successful and unusually quick. You’ve even managed to locate a scientist who may know the location of your prize. But there’s a problem. The fire marshal has arrived and found nothing to indicate a threat to life or property. He’s authorized reentry.
Already anxious, the staff are quickly making their way back inside. In accordance with protocol, security forces are the first to return. Your stealthy mission may just turn into a firefight after all.
Devereaux reaches the observer’s position and carefully makes his way through the open window. Inside the small room, a man in a dark suit is slumped on the floor. Though unconscious, his hands keep a nominal grip on a high powered rifle.
“Crey Sharpshooter. Could just be a standard part of the security team but more likely he was placed here to watch for us. Not good.” He casts a critical eye over the man. Black suit, advanced optical suite clamped over one eye, and a flat expression. Everything about him indicates a garden variety spook. But a quick glance at the weapon he carries reveals a very different story. Far too stubby by the standards of a traditional rifle and showing no indication of the bolt action mechanism usually preferred by snipers, the gun is too advanced even for Crey.
“More high grade firepower,” he thinks to himself, remembering the similar weapons carried by Lucas Ryan’s bodyguards. His instinct is to downshift and get to work on finding out who’s supplying Crey with new equipment but before he can do either, the room is bathed in pulsing red light. Devereaux curses, turning back and looking out the window just in time to catch a fire engine retreating from the laboratory.
He fires off a message to Linuial. “Look sharp, Blondie. They’re coming back in.”
That done, he expands his telepathic purview to encompass as much of the building as he can manage. Thankfully, the Longbow Warden’s psionic powers are comparable to his own. He can pick up the gently glowing illumination from most of the minds inside. A sea of them swirls around the front doors, slowly turning from a trickle into a steady stream as they reenter the building. Honing in on the team, he’s alarmed by the presence of another group nearby. Choosing one of the newly noticed lights at random, he dives in.
“Well that was annoying,” the voice is gruff. “Good thing it was just a false alarm.”
“Yeah,” another voice responds. “Who knows what these eggheads get up to when we’re not around.”
The view from the stranger’s eyes reveals a hallway inside the building. Though he’s not familiar with the decor, Devereaux knows that the person isn’t far from where the team has inexplicably stopped moving. He sends out a second message. “You’ve got company,” his mental voice is sharp. “Four guards, coming up fast. Whatever you’re doing in there, you’re about to be interrupted.”
“Ah’ve got this,” Nyght confirms, and steps out into the hallway in her Crey Field Agent uniform. As the squad of Crey security guards round the corner, they see a Field Agent standing there, snapping impatiently, “Took you long enough!”
As they halt to assess the situation, Nyght hits them all with the compulsion to sleep, and their weapons sag from suddenly slack hands, their eyes drooped closed. They are literally asleep on their feet.
“Let’s move this along,” she urges Linuial and the others. “Ah can keep puttin’ them to sleep, but othehs are likely to be returnin’ too.”*
“Paige, I think we need a few people to go to sleep…can you accommodate?“ Linuial pushes to her mental image of the girl. At the same time, she begins chanting, placing her hands on either side of her head; a half-second later a whistle freezes the gun-wielding Anderson. Once she is certain he is unlikely to pull the trigger, she speaks to Bubastis in a low voice. “Would you please relieve him of his gun, so we can have a quiet friendly little chat?” Keeping an eye on the scientist, her hands still resting against the sides of her face, she walks behind the cat-woman to confront the man, as he begins to show signs of movement again.
Within a couple of minutes, Anderson and Devereaux’s team are the only people who have not dropped to the floor in a somnolent state, and all but Nyghtshade are gathered in a circle in the center of the largest room.
“Monique, if you learned any way to relock the door to this section, please do so now. We need to be undisturbed for a few minutes.“
As Paige takes Nyght’s place for keeping foes asleep for the count, Nyght shifts position to just inside the doorway, responding, “Devereaux didn’t tell me how to lock anything, just unlock it. Ah’ve got the access code to open this lab’s door, but not how to lock it again. Although I’ll bet Anderson does. If you ask him, he can’t help but think it, and Ah can pick up up from him if you want.”
Another part of her thoughts involve a resolve to set up that lunch date with Linuial soon, and clear up the name thing.
Linuial waves at Bubastis, who pushes back her hood, flexes her hands to bring her claws to the fore, and growls warningly in Anderson’s ear. The blonde woman smiles at the scientist. “Mr. Anderson, my friend here doesn’t want to be startled into doing something…regrettable. I think we’d all feel a lot more comfortable if we locked the door, wouldn’t you? Would you mind giving me the code so my colleague can do so?”
Anderson’s face doesn’t show the steely resolve of the Crey security personnel. There is no visible struggle before he volunteers. “Just tell her to use the entry code backwards.” That doesn’t prevent his expression from curdling into a scowl.
Linuial turns and nods to Nyghtshade, before returning to the man. “Look around you. You know better than we do just how impregnable your department is, and we can keep your people asleep indefinitely. There are four of us, and one of you. And my feline friend, here, is not known for either patience or finesse. We are not here for your life, only for information. It’s up to you how hard you want to make this.”
“Ask your questions and get out of my office,” Anderson growls. “I’m a busy man on a deadline, and you are not important enough to be wasting time on.”
“Have to give him credit for dedication,“ Linuial tells herself. “Very well, sir. I understand you are heading a little project called MindWipe, is that correct?”
Unexpectedly, he begins to laugh. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
Linuial’s eyes narrow. Despite being unable to read thoughts, her empathic ability reveals the truth, as emotions often tell the tale even more accurately than intellect. “Monique, I can tell this man is lying, but I need your help to ferret out the truth,“ she directs toward Nyghtshade.
Having locked the door, Nyght suggests, “Try asking him about military interest in this project, about who he reports to, about encryption keys and about data relating to the military project he’s working on heah. And keep throwin’ ‘Mindwipe’ in eveh so often, just to jog things loose.” Ah’ll slide in and see what he’s tryin’ to hide.
“Ah can do a deep search of his mind, but it won’t be fast, and it doesn’t look like we’ve got a lot of time left.”
“Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to see if he knows of an emergency exit, in case we need a backdoor way out of heah.”
“Exit isn’t a problem. If necessary, you can hole up here while I make a run for it, and Recall you out of the building once I’m in a safe location. Since this is a high-security area, it is probably proof against even their own people being able to crash it, on the principal of compartmentalization. Oh, and when you get a chance, see if you can figure out how to change the key code on that door, using the known key. Wouldn’t hurt to be one step ahead of them.
“I’ll run through your suggestions, keep filling me in on what he’s thinking to help me direct my questions.“
“Mr. Anderson,” she begins, looking pleasant, which only serves to make him look more uncomfortable, “two of my colleagues here are very talented telepaths, and I am an empath. Trust me when I tell you that you can’t possibly hope to deceive all of us. You’re in a hurry to get back to work, and we’re in a hurry to get out of your way. Let’s just make this as easy as possible, shall we?”
At the mention of telepaths, the man suddenly goes white. He starts backing up until he bumps into a desk, with a start. “No…” he says, softly, then puts a hand up in front of himself, as if he would push them away bodily. “I’m just an administrator…I can’t tell you…you don’t understand…I’m expendable…” He shakes his head, his eyes wide. “They won’t hesitate…my life would be…”
With a scream, he jumps at Paige, punching her in the face without slowing his run straight at the door. Paige drops like a broken doll, shoved to one side, as Linuial whirls to follow him…
…and Bubastis leaps over Lin’s head and several desks to land squarely on the man’s back, knocking him to the floor.
“DAMN!” Linuial snaps, as she struggles to leapfrog several desks herself. She kneels next to the prone man, pulls out zipties and slips one around each wrist, then signals Bubastis to lift her weight slightly as the blonde woman tries to turn the man over. His forehead is obviously cracked open, his neck bent at an odd angle.
“Monique, get over here!” she calls, then begins chanting, green light flaring from her hands into the man’s body. “I don’t know if I have time to heal this…he’s got a broken neck and a concussion as well…he may be dying, we need to get what we came for quickly.”
Without waiting for the shadowy woman to join her, Linuial begins snapping out questions, listening for Nyghtshade to reveal the dying man’s thoughts. She expects no answers from him.
“Where is the encryption key for MindWipe?”
“If you’re not in charge, who is?”
“Who paid for the MindWipe project?”
“How is the military involved?”
Nyght concentrates, sliding into the dimming mind of Mr. Anderson, a slowly darkening place where the answers are fading. She drops to her knees beside him, mentall delving deeper, sifting memories, grabbing at whatever she can find, but it’s like following a rabbit down a swiftly-darkening rabbit-hole.
Trying to cling to a dying mind is a dangerous proposition, one she knows all too well. And yet, she can’t allow this to have all been for nothing. She dives deeper, grasping at memory straws, fighting to get answers, any answers, while Anderson’s mind circles the drain.
Outwardly, Monique has gone very still, eyes unfocused, as her hold on the real world begins to slip as well.
Bubastis had rolled her weight free of the dying man as Linuial struggled to keep him in the world of the living. She now turns her head, gazing at the woman in the Crey outfit. Lifting a clawed hand, she gently touches Linuial, then nods in Nyghtshade’s direction.
Frowning, the blonde woman turns to look at Nyghtshade, indecision plain to see in her expression. She finally interrupts the healing chant to shift to another, bathing her body and the group huddled around her alike in a globe of changing light. “Come on, Monique, don’t leave me now, we need you…I’m giving you strength and a Clear Mind, and we’re likely to lose Anderson because of it…“
Nyght seems unchanged for long slow seconds, but finally flinches and lurches forward, arms out to catch herself before she topples face-first onto Anderson’s body.
She raises her face to Linuial, her eyes oddly dark, her expression strained. Drawing a shaky breath, she rasps out, “He’s gone. But… but Ah got a few of the answehs.”
Her gaze falls on their collapsed teammate. “Paige! He didn’t kill her, did he??”
Linuial pauses to survey Nyghtshade’s face before she answers. “No, I can tell from here that she’s unconscious, but not in any danger. But she’s going to have one hum-dinger of a nosebleed, and we can expect a crying jag when she wakes.
“What about you? Do I need to keep an eye on you?”
Monique shakes her head, more perhaps to clear it than in answer to Linuial’s question. “Ah’m… Ah’m OK. But unless you can unlock an electronically locked safe, we need to get Paige up and movin’. The secondary encryption key is in a safe back in the back, behind some file cabinets, as well as flash-drives with data on the project.”
She climbs to her feet, and turns to head back toward the file-room and the safe, dodging around unconscious bodies slumped over workstations, or heaped here and there on the floor.
Linuial checks the man’s pulse one final time, heaves a heavy sigh. As always, she had felt everything both Anderson and Nyghtshade had, but shown no sign of it. She shakes her head, then sing-songs a few words in her native tongue, hands raised over the dead man’s body, before climbing to her feet, walking to Paige, and kneeling at her side.
A chant, green light swirls. After a few moments, she pauses, slides one hand under the girl’s head to support it.
“Paige?” she asks, softly. “Paige, dear…I’ve healed your injury…it’s okay to wake up now, I’m here with you…”
Paige’s eyelids are closed, but are showing REM movement. Opening her eyelids by force shows her eyes darting back and forth with no apparent focus.
If you try to reach into her mind, you hear screams and fighting… But it’s clear Linuial’s softly spoken words are far from reach.
“XAVIER!“ Linuial allows her mental voice to crescendo. “Paige is fighting with Shiara! Can you help her from there? If not, I can Recall you to us.“
She switches to her mental image of Nyghtshade. “Monique, we have a problem with Paige. If you can’t get the safe open without her, come back over here and see if you can help her.“
There is a loud metallic crash from the files-storage room, and then Nyght dashes back out and drops to her knees besides Linuial. Some of the lab techs are stirring from the noise, and with a glance Nyght puts them under again, then turns to Linuial. “What do you need foah me to do?”
“This is more Xavier’s specialty, and yours, than mine. I have no idea what he’s been doing with her, they’ve never shared it with me. If you can’t figure out a way to help her, I’ll just have to wait and see if Xavier responds to me.” Her eyes reveal how deeply she is troubled.
“She’s what?!” Devereaux responds to Linuial’s call. “What the hell have you been doing in there?! Give me a status report!”
His earlier pondering forgotten, he leaps out of the sniper’s nest and into open air. After allowing himself to fall for several seconds, he activates his borrowed flight powers and arrests his descent. Flaring his senses outward, he scans the same area of the lab that holds the team.
Eight lights, four of them he recognizes. “That’s not right. There were nine before.” Ignoring the possible ramifications of a missing mind, he hones in on Paige’s. Usually a vibrant lavender, the girl’s light writhes violently as it transitions to something near black.
“Goddamn it, Linuial!” he forces across the link. “And you had the gall to tell me I was gonna get her killed?! Consider yourself relieved of duty. I’m coming in!” There’s no attempt to hide the fury in his words.
He rockets ahead, surging through the air in a mad flight to reach the team. When he reaches the nearest window on one of the lower floors, he lashes out with a Telekinetic Blast that shatters glass and sends cracks radiating out through the brick exterior surrounding it. He flies in without heed for who might be waiting in the room.
Before his feet can even touch the ground, he begins to shift. Red and white are replaced by navy blue and bright, neon yellow. A sleek, featureless helmet forms around his head. In the time it takes to go from airborne to surface bound, he’s transitioned into one of Crey’s enigmatic Paragon Protectors.
As he bursts from the room and begins a mad dash down a hallway a team of Crey Security Agents turns at the sound of his footfalls. They stand and stare with dumbstruck expressions. “Move!” he rasps in a voice that’s both devoid of emotion and heavy with what sounds like a deep sadness. They oblige without protest.
“If she dies,” he growls, using the Protector’s psionic abilities to communicate. “There won’t be enough ‘buffs’ in the world to protect you from me!” Heedless of whether the message reaches only Linuial or everyone in the psychic network, he continues barreling toward Paige’s location.
“Damn you…“ her voice is low and husky. She reaches in the direction of his mental casting, jerks…and he appears next to Paige. “Wasting time getting here, and blaming me…?“
“…now if you still want that report…or you can just focus on the important thing…“
Without waiting for his response, she looks to Nyghtshade and Bubastis in sequence, and snaps out, “Don’t attack, it’s not a Paragon Protector, it’s Xavier.”
Nyght hastily slides to one side, giving Crey Protector Xavier room, and digs the electronic key-code device from her pocket, sliding it to Linuial. “If we get the chance, try it on the safe. Theah’s anotheh key-encryption device theah, some data sticks and some kind of files.”
To Devereaux, she quickly adds, “Tell me what you need foah me to do to help Paige!”
Devereaux downshifts, revealing a withering glare. “As if I’d trust either of you to do anything of consequence! Get to work on whatever it is you managed to stumble over and stay out of my way!”
He doesn’t wait to see if his orders are followed. Instead, he kneels next to Paige. He can sense the battle raging inside her and doesn’t hesitate. Eyes closed and focus laser like, he delves into the teenager’s mind.
The scene inside Paige’s head is one of total chaos. Her mental landscape is in a state of violent upheaval. It shifts and thrashes without warning and he’s forced to gather a tight defense around his own psyche to keep from being caught up in the turmoil.
“Paige!” he calls frantically. “Paige, we have to do this together! Answer me!”
The woman known as Linuial becomes more and more calm…and something slips away from her. There is something of rage in the unnatural calmness.
Opening one palm, she pushes away the device from Nyghtshade, begins to rise…and keeps rising. They know she’s tiny…but somehow she seems to keep getting taller until they expect her hair to brush the ceiling…and at the same time seems to be reaching outward as well.
In a voice that almost sounds like multiple voices, she whispers with the volume of a gale, “…did you change the door locking code?”
“Ah have no idea how!” Nyght snaps back at her. “If you do, go foah it. I’m goin’ to help Paige.”
Gritting her teeth, she follows the mental link between her and Devereaux, and shoots down it into Paige’s mindscape as well.
The chaos is swept inward towards a diminishing point of light into a single keyhole shaped… well, keyhole. Everything is dark on your side, but as you feel slightly above the keyhole, there is a door handle and music on the other side. You open the door…
To a masquerade ball full of the Carnival of Vengeance. Countless attendants, acolytes, and many others… dancing, twirling, and bowing to the sounds of Debussey, while others on the sidelines of the ballroom engaged in conversation, others towards the windowsill looking for more intimate conversation, and the orchestra pit full of musicians in powdered wigs, as the Carnival of Light, clothes ripped in tatters are subservient to the entire scene. They’re quiet, and wearing ties while offering drinks and Hors d’oeuvres.
Devereaux is similarly attired as a acolyte, not too dissimilar to his Psi Shift form, as Nyghtshade is decorated as an attendant she once portrayed a few days ago.
Nyght scans the party, looking for anyone who has the look, the feel of Paige, but has no initial luck, since everyone there is masked.
She steps up to Devereaux’s side, expecting an explosion from him for disobeying, but not really caring about his opinion now. All that matters is finding Paige.
A wine flute can be heard being clinked with a fork by a tall effeminate acolyte in a pearlescent masque surrounded in black sequins that shimmer in the dim, warm light. “Ladies and Gentlemen, our latest prize of the evening, please witness the consummate Mr. Xavier Devereaux, along with his vision of a most lovely Nyghtshade.”
The two new honorees are greeted with an applause by the entire room.
“Charming, yes?” the emcee continues, “We welcome our newest clutch of recruits to the Carnival, as we triumphantly proclaim once more to the ineffectual and unelightened, to the indifferent and ignorant…”
“Vengeance…” he says in a bourgeoisie and soft manner aloud, stifling a giggle, “…is ours!”
“VENGEANCE IS OURS!” The revellers chant in unison, as the orchestra draws up their next offering, Ode to Joy.
Nowhere is the mask that Shiara wore in Peregrine Island, and there is no sign of Paige anywhere. No one at the party even looks like a teenager or as skinny as her.
“Bubastis, come with me,” she says softly in that strangely calm, chorus-like voice.
She leads the way to Anderson’s office. As she walks, she makes a circuitous route, passing close by each of the Crey sleepers. Inside the office, she methodically Recalls each one, and directs Bubastis to rip electrical cords out of their devices to tie each one up. Then she has the other woman lock the door from the inside, grasp the office door handle, and yank it out of its seat, throwing it outside into the common area.
Exiting the office and pulling the door shut, she directs Bubastis to try to open the door from the inside. When she is unable to do so after a few seconds, Linuial Recalls the feline woman to her side, outside the office, and has her shove a desk against the damaged door for good measure.
Attired in the crimson and deep gray of the Carnival, Devereaux tips his top hat and waves to the ostensibly genteel crowd. As the applause begins to die down, he notices the masked Attendant at his side. He takes her by the hand and cuts a deep bow, eliciting another round of adulation.
“What are you doing here?” he hisses, trusting the noise to keep the conversation private. “This isn’t the place to play hero.”
A minute has passed into Ode to Joy as the emcee claps his hands loudly, “We are ready! Bring me the forth tribute!”
There are murmurs in the crowd… as you think to yourself what he could possibly mean, a Carnival of Light “Waiter” is dragged to the center of the ballroom by very strong Relentless Armors as the emcee approaches the “tribute”.
“Let’s meet our next candidate, shall we?” the emcee says with a muted happiness as he rips off the masque of the “Waiter”…
“… my boy, what or who exactly are you?” he asks with a face of disgust. The “Waiter” is cut up badly across his body, including his neck and face. The extent of his injuries were hidden by the masque he wore.
“I’m… I-…I’m Carter Drake. I’m one of P–”
The emcee broadly slaps Carter over the face, “YOU SHALL NOT SPEAK HER NAME!” the emcee barks contemptibly at Carter as the audience gasps.
“I’m her classmate… at Paragon City University.” Carter manages to utter before exhaling, clearly in pain and fatigue.
“Aren’t you her crush?” The emcee says mockingly, “She adores you so much… Wouldn’t you agree, ladies and gentlemen? So lithe, well-mannered, so…” The emcee tries to reach for Carter’s backside as he winces to avoid it… “So ROBUST!”
“NO! No… I’m engaged… I’m just Pai–” The emcee raises his hand swiftly – “I’m just her friend. I don’t want her to think of me in that way.”
“I’m afraid she already does. But if it’s any relief to you…” The emcee turns away from Carter while talking only to swiftly march up to his back and produce a straight-razor, slashing his neck, “…she’ll never remember you AGAIN!”
As the audience laughs, the horror of what is actually going on reveals itself as you look again at each of the Carnival of Light… each one is a copy of one of Paige’s memories. You can see a clear placeholder for everyone she cares about… Linuial, Tahquitz, Antonio Nash… at the entryway, Bubastis is checking coats, and across the ballroom, you see a copy of Nyghtshade and Devereaux in masks behind chafing trays serving the guests.
As the emcee finishes laughing… “If you don’t mind ladies and gentlemen, our timetable for the evening is drawing to a close as we need to wrap this up for the night, so we should go big or go home… Our next tribute…. BRING ME TAHQUITZ!”
The cheers drown out the ballroom music as across the way, Tahquitz is being carried in the midst of his struggle by four Relentless Armors, one for each writhing limb.
As Paige is helpless to do anything but lay there, she starts to tremble, muttering “no… no…” in a whisper on the floor with Devereaux and Nyghtshade engaged in her rescue.
Devereaux stares coldly at the perverse spectacle, all thought of Nyghtshade forgotten. He’s seen this sort of twisted psychological torture before. “Break the will by eliminating the ties to friends and family,” he thinks, careful to keep the analysis contained within himself. “It’s risky. Hopelessness can easily lead to madness or, if a person has the resolve, they can be jolted into action to stop the killing. “
He steps forward into the center of the ballroom. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he shouts in his own voice despite wearing the form of the Acolyte. “I simply must express my gratitude for such fine entertainment. My companion and I are truly honored to be your guests. But would it not be more exciting to add a bit of drama?”
He looks to the emcee. The crowd titters at the suggestion of greater intrigue. “If I may, good man.” He holds out a hand for the razor.
The emcee warmly smiles through his masque, “Of course, Devereaux, my compatriot. What better way is there to prepare you for the grand finale? Have the honor, sir!”
The emcee hands the razor to him in a formalized gesture… behind his mask are rows of pointed teeth unlike anything human that Paige could have possibly met in her life.
“And you have my gratitude,” Devereaux replies, tossing and then deftly catching the blood slicked blade. “Bring me the boy!”
The audience roars with delight and the four enchanted automatons bring Tahquitz forward. He struggles valiantly but their grip is, quite literally, iron.
“You may release him,” Devereaux says imperiously, sounding almost bored. They obey, relinquishing their grip on the teenager. As soon as he’s turned loose, Tahquitz surges forward, fists and teeth bared. “You traitor!” he screams, aiming a right hook.
Devereaux sideteps the blow, extending a leg that trips Tahquitz as he passes and, at the same time, driving an elbow into his lacerated back. He falls to the ground with a yelp of pain. Devereaux moves quickly, stomping down with uncharacteristic savagery. He grinds his heel into Tahquitz’s back.
“Seems we have ourselves a spirited one!” he says loudly, evoking guffaws from the onlookers. “Sadly, it’s a wasted effort. This is where it ends, boy.” He hefts the razor and leans down, placing it just beside an ear. “It’s all over,” he whispers in a cruelly mocking tone before drawing the weapon back.
He stands abruptly and flings the blade sidearm with all the speed of a practiced knife thrower. It spins twice before burying itself in the emcee’s face. The man screams as blood begins to well up from behind his mask.
“Like I said, Shiara, it’s all over for you.”
Nyghtshade has silently watched Devereaux’s actions, certain it’s a charade, that he would not rally harm the boy. Her certainty waivers just a bit as Xavier hurts him, threatens him with the razor, but she holds her place, giving no outward sign of dismay.
When Devereaux straightens and attacks, Nyghtshade scoops the likeness of Tahquitz up from the floor and holds him against her, one arm cradled around him protectively, and seeks the next attack. The next target.
And to Devereaux, she sends cooly, “Get oveh yoahself. Ah’m not heah to play, and this is not mah first rodeo.”
“Prove it,” Devereaux replies curtly. “Forget about that thing. It’s not real. We need to-“ He’s cut off abruptly as a glob of inky blackness takes him full in the chest. He lands on his back with a grunt.
“EVEN NOW YOU DARE TO INTERFERE!” Shiara, still draped in the emcee’s guise, screams. “THE GIRL IS MINE! YOU WILL SUFFER FOR YOUR INSOLENCE!”
Devereaux gets to his feet just in time to avoid another blast of negative energy. It whizzes past him, trailing smoky black tendrils made of pure hatred and contempt.
“Don’t just stand there,” he chides before taking hold of a banquet table tucked away in a corner of the room. Pushing with psionic might, he heaves the heavy piece of furniture into the air before sending it crashing down on the newly revealed enemy. “Help me kick her ass!”
Nyghtshade plucks the mask from her face and drops it disdainfully to the floor as she also releases the Tahquitz simulcrum. The Carnival outfit she wears shifts, changing to her own costume, as she addresses the “emcee”. “So, Shiara, is yoah plan to scare me to death?” Her lips curve into a slow, cold smile. “Too late.”
She focuses on the “emcee”, gestures and rips a thick cloud of glimmering miasma from Shiara, knowing full well how painful she can make that feel. And it is painful, as health and energy and even speed are drained away as if literally torn from Shiara, evoking a scream of astonished agony from the “emcee”.
As she draws the darkly glimmering energy into herself, Nyght’s smile grows, although what she’s ‘consumed’ is rankly foul. “Oooh, tasty!” she murmurs with apparent delight, her gaze predatory now.
In turn, Nyght energizes Devereaux in a near-intoxicating boost of strength and health, even speeding his reflexes.
And all hell breaks loose. The Carnival of Light disappears as everyone else on the Vengeance side brandished their weapons and engage you in melee.
One upside to psychic combat? The laws of Physics no longer apply as you see the combatants engage you both on the ballroom floor and in the air.
Not waiting for direction from Devereaux, Nyght literally leaps into action, her movements accelerated by the energy she’s consumed. Athletically she deflects one sword-strike; grabbing her opponent’s wrist and spinning, she uses his body as both shield and weapon, his momentum bowling three others back into their closely thronged companions.
Plucking her victim’s sword from his grip, Nyght cuts him down and springs to attack another group, stabbing, slashing and reposting with brutal speed and deft accuracy as she strikes down one, then two, and literally disarms a third by simply cutting his hand off at the wrist.
She plucks his spinning sword from midair, shakes the dismembered hand free with a flourish of blood, and faces her opponents with both blades and a wolfish grin, ready for whatever comes next.
“Not bad, newbie. In fact, that gives me an idea.”
Devereaux extends a hand palm down, the fingers outstretched but locked together in a flat wedge. He concentrates, willing into existence the shape he envisions. A blade of pure mental energy springs to life, extending from his fingertips and bathing his arm in a fiery pink light. That done, he closes his other hand into a fist. The faint specter of something larger looms around it.
Without so much as a catchphrase, he charges the Carnival Attendant. Shiara, now back in her true form, meets his ethereal blade with a solid one of her own. They clash, the sound booming outward like a thunderclap. Devereaux turns his hand, forcing Shiara’s blade away, before taking a half step back and driving his fist forward. Though he never makes physical contact, whatever construct he’s created lands like a hammer blow. The Attendant is thrown backwards, crashing into a decorative column.
“DIE! DIE! DIE!” she screams in a fury and hurls another bolt of darkness.
Devereaux draws his arm back and slashes diagonally upward, dissecting the projectile in midair. “Let her go!” he shouts back and rushes in for another attack. One of the errant Carnival members descends from a position near the ceiling to bar his path. He responds with a wicked cut that decapitates the foolhardy defender. Before the headless body can fall, he grabs it in a phantom fist and hurls it at Shiara.
To her credit, she manages to avoid the grisly projectile but the opening is there. Devereaux crouches before lunging forward, his blade held low and poised to disembowel the enemy. The Attendant lowers her own weapon just in time to prevent the killing stroke.
“You have some skill,” she croons from behind her mask. He can just barely make out the movement of her lips between the gash where the razor left its mark. “But you cannot defeat me. Vengeance is DIVINE!” She raises her arm and readies a downward cut.
Devereaux reaches up and takes hold before turning around and executing a perfect counter-throw. Shiara is surprisingly light and the maneuver sends her tumbling through the air. She lands on her back with an unceremonious thud.
“Then tell God he can fuck off!” He closes his fist again and, dropping to one knee, punches toward the ground. The ghostly construct he wielded before re-materializes and comes crashing down on the Carnie. Pinned in place, she screams in pain and frustration.
“Paige!” he calls out again, looking back and forth around the room. “I know you can hear me! This is your mind; you have to be the one to finish her! C’mon kid, we need you!”
As you keep fighting the villains, you notice the walls of the ballroom lose integrity. Cracks, falling plaster and the walls slowly give way to the same maelstrom you witnessed before the nightmare begun.
The correlation is clear - defeating the attackers defeats the reality they are trying to impose upon you.
Shiara unfortunately melts into the floor, with an ominous volume… “You’re too late… She so buried in her own mind she can’t hear you.”
The floor cracks. The façade is falling apart, as the maelstrom begins to collapse the ballroom and everyone inside of it. Then the same darkness collapses everything to a point of light, except white this time. As the light recedes, you find yourself in a courthouse, sitting on the Defendant’s side. Devereaux in an expensive suit, Nightshade in an executive skirt and jacket. You’re in a recess waiting for the judge to return as you sit next to a middle aged, pear-shaped woman, who is sullen and sure of defeat.
“I just wanted to thank you and your team Xavier for all you have done to keep my family together. I know I’m sure to be found guilty, but I appreciate your work.”
As you look at the docket on the table, it reads “Massachusetts State Family Court - Case #UCF-76231: State of Mass. Vs Kathy Pirillo.”. You’re about to witness the last time Paige saw her adoptive mom in person.
She leans over, plucks the auto-dialer from Nyghtshade’s unresisting hand, places it in a pocket as she in turn extracts her cell phone.
Two phone calls later, she walks to the door that divides Anderson’s department from the rest of the building. Unlocking it, she examines the electronic locking mechanism, inside and out, door and jam. Pulling a metal faceplate loose, she peruses the interior workings.
When noises begin to echo down the exterior corridor, she beckons to Bubastis, directing her to stand in front of the door. Finally satisfied, she returns the faceplate to its seat, begins tapping the touchscreen, and finishes by leaving the door wide open, the cat-woman visible outside, as she turns toward the safe.
“Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me…” Devereaux groans under his breath.
Not knowing what else to do, he reaches for the manila folder on the table and peruses the documents. In truth, he knows very little about Paige’s adoptive mother or her family situation in general. When he first met the girl he simply wasn’t interested in her history and the past six months have been so overloaded with her psychological condition and his own work that there simply wasn’t time to ask.
After a few minutes spent reading the docket’s contents, he passes it along to Nyghtshade. “This is bad,” he says and ponders the legality of a telepathic lawyer for a moment. Surely there wasn’t a law specifically forbidding a psionic metahuman from getting a law degree. He shelves the thought for later and continues. “If this works like I think it does, we need to win this case. Problem is, Misses Pirillo seems to be about as fit to raise a child as she is to fight a psychic parasite. If we’re gonna get out of this we need to do something drastic…and by drastic I mean cheat.”
Before he can go into further detail, the sharp rapport of a gavel hushes the courtroom into silence. At the bench, the judge is seated with a serious expression. “The state and the defense have both exhausted their witnesses. We’ll move to closing arguments. As previously agreed, the state will begin.”
The judge motions to the opposition’s table. Devereaux turns his head and sucks in a breath. There, wearing a crisp black jacket over a red blouse and a skirt that surely violates some form of courtly decency, is Shiara.
“Thank you, Your Honor,” she says, her voice silky and without its usual insane rage. She stands and moves to face the jury.
He could swear more than a few of the jurors undress her with their eyes, and not just the male ones.
Nyght mentally responds, leafing through the pages without looking at Devereaux, “Is this Paige’s Adoptive motheh, or her real motheh who had to give her up to the fosteh system? Did Paige keep her original name, her real motheh’s last name? If so, and this is her real motheh, perhaps we don’t so much have to change history heah, as to just perhaps change Paige’s perception of abandonment from what happens heah.”
Thoughtfully, she adds, “And even if Paige weah adopted and then taken away, we could still have a chance to give Paige some sense of affirmation from it bein’ the last time she sees this woman.”
Removing the auto-dialer from her pocket, she examines it, then peruses the safe. A card-carrying Hero for over a hundred years, and a follower of the Star Queen her entire life, criminality has never been anything she aspired to master; this is not her area of expertise. In addition, the device was intended to be used on the roof-top door, not a safe.
However, thousands of years have taught her adaptability, if nothing else. Devereaux is a master criminal, if his stories are to be believed, and he intended this device to be used by a rank amateur. This is the only option she hasn’t explored yet.
She applies the device to the door of the safe as sounds of a skirmish, accompanied by growling and panther screams, echo through the open door. Her attention to the safe door doesn’t waver.
“You might be right. I don’t think Paige knows her biological mother. I feel like she said something about her being dead or in the wind.”
He looks up to check on the proceedings. Shiara is certainly putting on a show. There’s a subtle swish in her hips as she speaks and she keeps shifting her weight just enough to give a slight bounce to her movements. It’s nothing too overt. Just enough to keep the jurors’ interested.
“Bitch,” Devereaux curses. “This is why I never got married. She’s playing them like a harp and most of what she’s saying is garbage.”
Indeed, Shiara’s argument revolves less around Kathy Prillio’s parenting credentials so much as her less than ideal economic status. The woman isn’t destitute per se but she certainly isn’t having an easy time making ends meet.
“Child welfare’s not my specialty. Not by a long shot. Think you can give them something convincing to chew on? I’ve got an idea as to how we get out of this.”
Nyght has noticed a few other details in the report, eviction notices and drug use. It does not look promising for this Kathy Pirillo to retain custody of Paige, and she honestly doesn’t think Shiara is going to allow history to be changed here - but the circumstances around it might be.
Nyght is aware that Shiara’s playing on Paige’s insecurities, and she is well aware of how that feels. She writes something on a piece of paper, folds it, and tucks it under the folder. “Ah just might. Won’t keep Paige and this woman togetheh, because that didn’t happen. But it might give Paige the strength and comfort she needs, what she didn’t get the first time.”
She turns her attention to the Kathy, and takes Kathy’s hand in her own. Willing a compulsion to comply, she plants a mental command, a complicated one. She plants the conviction that Kathy knows she has failed this child, and is heartbroken about it, but wants what’s best for Paige. A little extra nudge, and Kathy bows her head, first one tear trickling down her cheek, and then another. A real show of remorse.
A final nudge, and Kathy is certain she wrote the note, and passed it to Nyght.
With a reassuring smile, Nyght pats her hand and tells her, “Ah know this is tearin’ you up, but Ah also know you love that little girl, and want what’s best foah her. And Ah’ll do mah best to make shoah she’s protected and cared foah. And maybe, when she’s old enough, she can come find you again.”
Nyght straightens, returning her attention to Shiara, waiting her turn to address the Jury.
A strident siren erupts from multiple ceiling speakers placed around Anderson’s department, and echoes of others flow up the corridor, streaming through the open hallway door. Spotlights attached to the alarm speakers flash once, twice, three times, before turning off once again.
There are no sounds from Bubastis in the hallway, nor can she be seen through the open door.
At the same time, the elfin woman’s cell phone sounds…she turns from the safe to answer the call.
“…we are on the 5th floor, northwest corner. Watch for Bubastis, she can lead you to our location…” she responds. “Come in quietly…I don’t want the team disturbed if at all possible.”
She turns from the puzzle of the auto-dialer; more experienced help is on the way, and she can be more effective in her area of expertise.
She strides across the room to stand over the huddle of Devereaux, Nyghtshade, and the supine Paige. She reaches out, begins to chant, and her familiar buffing lights appear, fade, surge, and transform. She runs through her entire gauntlet of aids, with special attention to Clear Mind, then repeats the sequence, endlessly, as she waits for the PPD and her supergroup to join them.
Silently, Nyght asks Devereaux, “Do you have a plan? Because if not, Ah do, and Ah can address the jury if you want. Bein’ a woman, it might carry moah weight with any motheh’s on the jury.”
“I don’t think it would help Paige to have Kathy and her stay togetheh, because she’d know it wasn’t real. But if we could show her that Paige isn’t bein’ ‘abandoned’ heah, if we can show Paige she’s not alone, then that might turn the tide, give her some of the strength she needs to fight back.”
And yes, it will involve a little cheatin’, but Ah’m hoping Shiara won’t see it comin’.”
“Unless you’ve got a betteh plan?”
The man hesitating at the hallway door is a sight to give anyone pause. His dishwater blonde hair is long and shaggy, framing a face even a mother would have nightmares over. Deeply embedded into his right eye is an optical device that would appear more appropriate attached to a 35mm Nikon. The skin is traced by silvery lines one would expect to see on a silicon motherboard, not human flesh.
The lines continue uninterrupted down his throat, shoulders, back and chest. Both of his arms are metal rods, joints, motors, wires, pulleys, and gears, with no flesh attached, terminating in hands of a similar manufacture.
He wears a leather belt with small leather boxes attached, a pair of stiff new jeans with shredded hems, and brown boots.
The blonde woman turns, her hands still outstretched over the tableau of three. The icy calm expression she is wearing begins to thaw, then the chant fades away, as she appears to shrink within herself. She lowers her head for a moment…when she looks up, she has returned to her mild, unassuming appearance.
A slight, welcoming smile spreads across her lips.
“…Jon…” she says softly, her voice its usual timbre once again.
His eyes are concerned, as he moves slowly toward her. “Lin, are you alright?” He lifts one metal hand toward her.
She looks puzzled for a moment, then smiles, a warm, gentle smile. “You’ve never seen me angry, have you, Jon?” she says softly. She laughs. “I guess no one in Starfire has ever seen me really angry.” She sighes, then reaches to take his hand in hers.
“I didn’t think you could get angry, Lin,” he answers, the look of worry beginning to fade.
“Obviously, I can.” Her smile is now wide, open, relaxed.
The cyborg reaches up to touch her cheek…she briefly leans her face against his metallic hand, before straightening, turning to look at the frozen tableau of bodies.
“What is it…?” he asks.
There is a rap against the hallway door frame. Linuial and Jon turn, Jon nods his head in acknowledgement. “Chris.”
The man in the doorway is dressed all in black, with a hat and a black handkerchief or scarf pulled up over the lower half of his face. The first impression is of a classic thief or hitman, about to commit a “heist”. “Maggot Man, to you, Jon,” the black-clad man replies. “Only Lin gets to call me Chris.” The tone is bantering, teasing.
She laughs in reply, then turns sober. “Chris, where is Bubastis?”
“She’s talking with PPD downstairs. Since she’s the only witness to the death you reported that they’ve seen yet, they’re taking a brief statement from her now. You need anything?”
“Yes, please.” She turns, indicates the safe, the auto-dialer still plastered to its face. “We need someone experienced in opening safes, and depending on what PPD thinks, we might need a subpoena as well.”
“Wincott insisted on coming along, he’s talking to Bubastis now,” Maggot Man replies. “I’ll talk to him about it.” He looks over her shoulder. “What about those three? You need medical?”
“Eventually, perhaps. Right now, I don’t want them interrupted. Three lives might be at stake, and this is not my area of expertise, it’s telepathy. I’m doing what I can to help, but I don’t want any more people in this room than are absolutely necessary. There,” she points at Anderson’s body, “is the man who died. He tried to escape, Bubastis tried to stop him, and in the struggle, his neck was broken. He’ll be autopsied, of course, but we’ll need the results as soon as possible, to back up my story and Basti’s. Nyghtshade,” she indicates the woman in the Crey outfit, “is the only other witness, but I don’t want her disturbed until they all ‘come out of it’ on their own.”
“I’m on it, Lin.” Maggot Man touches his hat, nods to Jon Smith…it is impossible to see his expression…and strides away down the hallway.
Linuial turns to the cyborg. “I need to help them. Until they wake, there really isn’t anything else that can be done.”
Jon Smith nods understanding. “I’ll stay, too, Lin. In case you need anything.” He reaches up and brushes her hair back from her forehead, gives her a look that might have been a smile, it’s hard to tell with his damaged face, leans forward and touches his lips to her forehead, before turning to look for a place to sit down.
“Actually, I was thinking the same thing.”
Devereaux looks up again and sees that Shiara has come to the end of her remarks. She stands triumphantly, her back to the jury and a smug look on her face. She walks confidently back to her seat at the prosecution’s table and sits patiently, like a cat waiting for a mouse to dart out of a hole in the wall.
“The defense may proceed now,” the judge announces, sounding bored. It’s clear that the man, or rather this mental reflection of the man, has already made up his mind about the verdict.
“You’re up,” Devereaux responds to Nyghtshade. Then he adds, “Don’t make me regret trusting you again.”
A flash of recall on Paige’s part strikes Devereaux and Nyghtshade to convey what actually happened in the real trial: Paige’s Mom was found to be an unfit mother, the state revoked her license as a foster parent, and remanded custody of her to The State of Massachusettes. But that’s not the worst part: Kathy’s reaction to the judge’s verdict caused him to find her in contempt, with her grief escalating her sentence to a year in county jail. A gross miscarriage of justice, but with a public defender that shook hands with the Prosecutor after the trial more than his own client, she never really had a chance.
Shiara’s play might be using this reenactment to further weaken Paige for her conquest. But a careful touch is necessary; in gaining a foothold in the delusions instead of hacking and slashing everything that comes forward, Devereaux and Nyghtshade have avoided the one outcome that Paige does not need: Revulsion. Once that starts, Paige’s own psyche is vulnerable and any action will harm her, from her friends, Shiara or otherwise.
Meanwhile, Paige’s pulse is slowing after six minutes in REM Sleep… If Devereaux could see her aura from the outside, there’s a faint pulse of light left that illuminates the black swirling maelstrom it has become, and it grows weaker with every minute.
Stretching her hands over the trio, Linuial again begins to chant, cycling through her repertoire, hitting Clear Mind every other cast. Jon Smith watches from his perch in the background…it is so difficult to read any expression on his mangled face…but there might be a slight frown emerging.
Nyght lays a reassuring hand over Kathy’s, and then rises and walks over to face the Jury. Earnestly, she begins.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, Ah ask you, how many Americans right now, today, are livin’ one paycheck away from eviction? We all know the answeh - far, far too many, people you may even know. But Ah ask you, is tearin’ children from theah motheh’s arms, is that the America we know and love? Is that the America you all want to live in? Kathy Prillio is strugglin’, no question, but that just makes her a person who needs help, not a bad parent. Theah are programs, plenty of state and federal programs, to help someone get theah life back on track, to help them learn to budget, to help them search foah jobs. Theah’s no need to destroy a family because they’ve hit a hard patch.”
She turns to gesture at Kathy Pirillo, who sits with tear-streaked cheeks, lip trembling, eyes red. “This woman,” Nyght says, turning back to the jury, “This woman is not a criminal. This woman is not a bad motheh. This woman cares foah Paige, cares deeply, this woman is in tears at the thought of losin’ her daughteh. This woman deserves mercy, not condemnation. This woman, this mother, deserves help to try and save her family, not a judgement that tears it apart.”
And although Nyght knows it’s cheating, she does her best to compell as many of the jury as possible to feel the stirrings of sympathy for Kathy and Paige’s plight. As Devereax would put it… she cheats.
Striding back and forth, the very picture of concern, she continues. “Even if –even if– little Paige Pirillo needs to be removed temporarily, temporarily, mind you, that shouldn’t mean that the bond between Paige and Kathy Parillo, the bond of motheh and daughteh, should be sundered. Any parent, considerin’ what it would be like to be permanently torn away from theah children, must find in favoh of keeping a family togetheh, and failin’ that, of regular visitation for Paige and Kathy Pirillo, until such time as they can be re-united.”
As she talks, Nyght sweeps her gaze across the jury, making eye contact with each, and compels the members of the jury, this time stoking their sense of compassion for a mother and her child.
She concludes, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, the Prosecutin’ Attorney argues that you should observe the Letteh of the Law, no matter how merciless. Ah am askin’ you, Ah’m askin’ you to look into yoah hearts and consideh Justice, not mere legality, and Justice tempehed always, always with mercy. The kind of Justice you yoahselves would hope foah – that’s the kind of Justice Ah implore you to grant to Kathy and Paige Pirillo.”
Having done the best she can, she turns and walks back to sit at the table next to Kathy.
The courtroom walls begin to crack, just like in the Ballroom, but not fall apart. Shiara has a seething growl on her face, as she looks away from the Defense and concentrates on the Judge.
“Jurors, you have your case, I order you to the deliberation room and place the court in recess until you have a verdict.”
Kathy has a puzzled look on her face… “I don’t understand… You told me my only chance was a plea deal, and when I said no, you said I had no chance. Why such an elaborate argument?”
She cried gently and said “Thank you,” reaching to hug Nyghtshade.
The jurors leave the box to head into the room as ordered.
Shiara approaches the Defense table… “Are you impressed with the control I’ve found in so short of a time? Paige’s counselor is terrible… Try to reason with the intruder and see why she is there… I know everything she thinks when she thinks it. Stupid.”
“But it doesn’t matter… I’m almost finished here, and when you see her next out in the real world, it will be me you’ll be talking to. I am in full control.” Shiara said with enormous confidence as the jury returned to the box and she sat down, “See? Fastest verdict in history. Say goodbye to your little girl, Dad.” She says mockingly to Devereaux.
“Your Honor,” Devereaux says abruptly as the jurors return. “If you’ll allow it, I’d like to make a motion.”
The judge’s mouth hangs on a word. His expression is one of indignation. “That time has passed counselor,” he says and begins to raise his gavel.
“This is critical to our case, Your Honor. We only need a moment.”
Sniffing with annoyance, the judge lowers his symbol of office. “If you were anyone else, Mister Devereaux, I’d remind you that you’re out of order. But considering your long history with the court, I’ll allow it this time. Be quick.”
“Long history? Paige must think I’m some kind of petty thief. I haven’t been arrested since I was seventeen.” Discarding that thought, he rises and walks to the center of the courtroom. He spares a glance for Shiara. Her all too confident smile hasn’t faded.
He pauses and takes a breath, not certain if what he’s about to say will work as intended. “Your Honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’m sure you’re well aware of the traumatic effects that removing a child from parental custody can have.”
“Get on with it, Counselor,” the judge interrupts. “We don’t have all day.”
“Of course,” Devereaux replies cooly. “My apologies. I move to petition the jury to remand the minor, one Paige Pirillo, to my custody until she reaches such age as she can properly care for herself.”
Nyght leans over to say softly to Kathy, “You need to be brave and strong now, foah yoah little girl. And Ah want you to remembeh somethin’ important. No decision, no decision is final. Theah are always appeals.”
She locks eyes with Kathy, adding earnestly. “And Ah will not, will neveh give up on you. Mr. Devereaux and Ah will do eveh’thin’ humanly possible to make shoah you and Paige are togetheh again soon. Hold on to that.”
“Objection!” Shiara shouts as she leaps to her feet. “He can’t just-“
The judge cuts her off. “You cannot object, Miss…what was your name again?”
“That’s good.” Devereaux flashes over to Nyghtshade. “Deviations like that might disrupt Paige’s recall, make her realize this isn’t real.”
“Doesn’t matter. This is not a criminal trial, counselor. Now sit down.” For a moment it seems like the Attendant turned attorney might disobey. She wavers but eventually complies.
The judge continues. “I must admit that this is highly irregular though. Mister Devereaux, what makes you think you’re capable of caring for this girl?”
“Not a whole lot,” Devereaux thinks but keeps it to himself. “Your Honor, the prosecution’s case for removal rests on the idea that Misses Pirillo is financially unfit to care for Paige. According to them, the girl should therefore be placed in a more capable home. As an officer of the court, I’m more than capable of providing her with everything she might need. All things considered, you’d really be giving the prosecution what it wants.” At the last words he turns and gives Shiara a broad smile, the true meaning plain.
“Hmm…” the judge pauses, deliberating. “I suppose that’s true. I don’t see any harm in trying it out but are you certain you want to do this?”
“I am, Your Honor” he replies without missing a beat.
“All right then. Motion granted. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I hereby instruct you to seclude yourselves to deliberate. We’ll hear your verdict when you return.”
Shiara cracks her neck, and stands up briskly, “That’s enough of this…”. The judge vanishes, the audience disappears, and 12-year old Paige with long hair and a purple dress is sitting with a DSS Appointed Guardian who grabs her shoulders. She is sitting two rows behind Kathy as Shiara draws a gun and shoots her, causing blood to splatter where she is sitting.
“She’s not getting court visitation, your friends didn’t bring her back alive. She’s dead! She’s dead Paige, and you never saw her again. You never kept your promise to find her. SHE IS FUCKING DEAD!”
Paige is sitting in the pews in complete shock. Too hurt to cry, but too mad to speak. A undercurrent of rage builds on her face as she starts lifting the courthouse benches with her mind in some form of telekinesis she’s never shown to others. And she starts throwing them, one after another at Shiara… “Get… Out… Of… My… HEAD! Get out of my head! GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”
“You can’t stop what is already be–” Shiara begins to yell back, as Paige cuts her off one last time: “GET OUT!”
Paige has begun ripping the walls apart and throwing them at her now. If this isn’t revulsion it is pretty damn close.
Nyght leaps to her feet, staggering through the maelstrom of furniture and debris, ignoring bruising blows, to reach Paige’s side. “She’s not dead, Paige, Kathy’s not dead!!” Nyght shouts, “Yo’ah not alone!”
Heedless of the risk, Nyght throws herself down beside Paige and wraps her arms around the furious young girl, wrapping her in an enveloping hug, as Nyght continues urgently.
“Shiara is a big fat liar, Paige, and we both know that. She’s a liar, and a bully, and she’s losin’ and she’s mad. And she’s scared. She’s scared because she knows yo’ah strongeh than she is. That’s what she’s afraid of, terrified of you because yo’ah strongeh. And because you know the truth!”
With one arm still protectively wrapped around Paige’s shoulders, Nyght gently turns the girl’s chin, so they are gazing eye to eye. “You know the truth, Paige. You are not alone. Kathy is still alive, and she does care about you. Devereaux and Ah are right heah, and we’ah not ‘made up’ like all the rest of Shiara’s side show. We’ah real, we’ah heah, and we’ah heah because we care about you too,we care about you so much!”
“You are not alone, Paige, and you are loved! You are loved, you are strong, and we are heah foah you.”
Nyght’s tone hardens as she turns to glare toward Shiara, and urges Paige, “Now… Time foah you to throw that bitch Shiara out of yoah head, once and foah all!”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Devereaux follows Nyghtshade through the storm. A bench flies toward him but he alters its course with the wave of a hand, sending it spiraling off into the rapidly encroaching void. He reaches Paige, turns, and kneels down beside her.
“Nyghtshade’s right, kid,” he says, the friendly nonchalance back in his voice. “All of this is just a bunch of crap Shiara made up. She knew she couldn’t take you head on so she had to rig up this little piece of trash theater.”
He stands and stares at Shiara, his posture the picture of disregard. “Like I said before, this is your mind. Besides, she doesn’t have any real power anyway. She never did. That’s why she wants your body so badly. Because you’re strong and she’s just a weakling in frilly black tights.”
He smiles again but this time the expression is decidedly predatory, like a cat about to kill a mouse. He addresses Shiara directly. “Too bad about the suit. I’d make you pay for it but it looks like you’re out of time. Oh well.”
He shrugs, twisting the knife. “Tell me something. Just how embarrassing is it to know you’re gonna be wiped out by a twelve year old version of a fifteen year old girl?”
Shiara kneels at the end of the last remaining strip of ground where Paige, Nyghtshade, and Devereaux are standing. Paige, holding on to Nyghtshade, says out loud, “And with them I have more power than you could ever wield. Say goodnight, Shiara.”
Paige splits the ground in half, letting her fall into the maelstrom, which suddenly stops and fades to black.
She then ages before their eyes to her current residual self-image: short cropped hair, T-Shirt and jeans. She’s back and looks relatively unharmed from the encounters.
“That was intense… Thank you guys for helping me. I owe you everything,” she said.
Paige received a letter from Souza-Baranowski Correctional Facility addressed to her from a Inmate she didn’t recognize. It was a letter informing her about Kathy Pirillo’s last days in the facility. She wasn’t killed by an inmate, or committed suicide, in fact, she wrote to her every month. But in the last 8 months of her internment it was discovered she has a rare form of cancer that metastasized. Stage IV. She had months left to live, and because she was incarcerated, her life insurance policies were cancelled from Term Exclusions. Despite being her sole benefactor, Paige only acquired some of her debts from less scrupulous types.
All she left to her was her favorite book in her cell… a shipment a week later from the same facility: a worn paperback copy of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde that she kept in her dorm room right by her bed. She keeps rereading it over and over.
“Just don’t make me do that again and we’ll call it even,” Devereaux says, laughter in his tone. “Now c’mon. We’ve still got a job to finish.” Devereaux withdraws from Paige’s mind, his mental avatar fading away as he goes.
In the physical world, his eyes snap open. Even for an experienced psychic like himself the experience is disorienting. The effect is compounded by the sheer length of time he’s spent with his consciousness outside of his body. He sways, thankful that he took a kneeling position before diving into Paige’s mind.
Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs, he looks around the room in a half-stupor and groans, “And the day is saved.”
Paige is still holding on to Nyghtshade, as she looks her in the eyes… “Ready to go back?” Nyghtshade nods.
“Just one thing…” Paige starts to drain energy from Nyghtshade as only Shiara could from Paige’s hands… “You’d make a lovely Attendant.” Shiara’s form returns, gripping onto Nyghtshade.
Linuial watches the awakening Devereaux, but retains her position, still chanting, still casting. Neither Nyghtshade nor Paige has moved. The ordeal is not over…
Nyght staggers, both appalled at what she’s seeing and shaken by Shira’s draining of her own energies, and then rallies. “Oh, hell no!”
She does her best to drain Shiara in return, then reaches out unexpectedly and wrenches the mask free from Shiara’s face. “Hell no!”
In the real world, Nyght flinches violently, but does not open her eyes.
“I think I’ve found a new way to recruit Carnival of Vengeance members… infiltrate an unsuspecting psychic, burrow in her subconscious, then spread when her friends tried to save her. I wasn’t after her energy… she’s almost drained. With yours,” Shiara waves her hand and drains some wisps from Nyghtshade, illustrating that she’s still connected to her once she begun contact with her, albeit less than if she had direct contact, “I can reawaken Paige with all of my mental abilities back tenfold. Her stupid sonic powers are useless to me. I was hoping for Devereaux to be the one who stayed behind, but one will MORE than do.”
“I’ll call him ‘insurance’… if he returns, even better,” Shiara said.
Speaking quietly, expecting a backlash of anger from the Praetorian, Linuial asks: “Xavier, what is happening in there? Monique appears to be in pain…did you leave her alone? Is she in danger?”
Devereaux looks up at Linuial. He’s still a bit groggy from his time spent outside himself and her words are muffled as if he’s hearing them underwater. Even so, he recognizes the blonde’s posture and her look of grim determination.
“Or not,” he says with a hint of irritation. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a heal or two ready? I’m gonna need a booster for this. Actually, if you have any whiskey that’d probably work just as well.”
Nyght couldn’t possibly look any paler than she already was, but she staggers, feeling herself weakening. “No…” she groans, “Ah won’t… Ah won’t be ‘turned’ again. Ah won’t…..”
She turns, clutching Shiara’s silmulcrum form, and shouts, “Paige!! Paige, help me! Help me stop her befoah it’s too late foah both of us!”
And then Nyght’s eyes flare red, her grip on Shiara tightens, and she feeds. Deeply.
“Of course,” she replies, relief plain in her voice. She shifts from buffs and Clear Mind to the Heal Other chant, then back to her rotation, topping off all of his abilities to their maximum, and then some.
“Thanks,” he says. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten that this happened on your watch, Blondie. There’s just something more important to deal with right now.”
He shifts back into the form of the Longbow Warden. For all her ability to annoy him, Linuial’s healing abilities are nothing to be ignored. Both his physical and mental faculties are restored to their full strength. He uses them both, planting his feet and reaching outward to lift Paige and Nyghtshade in a telekinetic grip.
With both of their unconscious forms safely in hand, he shoves them out the window.
Jon Smith leaps to his feet, Linuial throws her hand up to stop him. “Hold it, Jon, if he drops them we’re 5 stories up, they’ll die.”
“All right, Devereaux,” she says quietly, her demeanor returning to its former, more powerful appearance, “…what are you playing at? This building is surrounded by PPD, they’ve already arrested most of the Crey employees. Starfire is both inside and outside…you can’t possibly spirit Nyght and Paige away safely, you’ll have a firefight you can’t win on your hands, and your attention will be divided.
“I didn’t expect anything like this from you…you’ve guarded your emotions well. An explanation is in order…now.”
Her eyes narrow.
“Or…perhaps I should address you as Shiara. Would that be more accurate?”
“All will be revealed,” he says, his borrowed feminine voice sounding strangely out of place. “Just let me make sure they don’t die first.”
He leaps out the window at a run. Free falling through space, his arms held out in front like a diver, he tracks Paige and Nyghtshade’s bodies as they hurtle downward toward the street. He reaches out and scoops them up in another telekinetic hold, then activates his flight powers and reverses course, towing the two women behind him like a tugboat on the waves.
When he reaches the window he pushes the two women in first, setting them down gently inside the office. Then he flies in himself, reaching up to catch the top of the window frame and hoisting himself back inside.
“It’s just like a dream,” he says. “If you fall in a dream state, your brain will wake you up before you hit the ground. Standard response to avoid trauma.”
He kneels down to inspect the heroines. Though not fully awake, they show signs of stirring. “Telepathy comes with a lot of reading about neuroscience. The popular theory says you’re basically comatose when you enter another person’s mind. Truth is, that’s stupid. People in comas can’t influence the world around them. You’re actually closer to a REM state.”
He looks up at Linuial and winks. “What? Five thousand years of being an obnoxious mother hen didn’t teach you that?”
Maggot Man appears at the hallway door, panting. “…Lin…!”
Jon Smith throws a hand up in warning.
Maggot Man shakes his head. “Lin, the two women you’ve been helping are dangling outside your window…!”
Jon nods. “We know…hang tight, Chris.”
The gauntlet worked… Shiara is in a state of panic and has no control of what Paige is giving to her in terms of stimulus since she doesn’t have full control of her mind just yet. It doesn’t wake Paige from her weakened state, unfortunately.
But Shiara’s illusions have been effectively short-circuited. And since it took nearly a minute for them to fall, this is a persistent effect. With no firmament to walk upon, you’re in constant free fall and able to hover where you like… The maelstrom is completely gone, and you see Paige’s mind. And the mechanism that Shiara was using to kill off her identity.
A single sphere of energy is visible at the center of her mind, swirling with black energy, with small gaps where a soft pale light is visible. Inside of the sphere, past the dark energy is Shiara’s Demon, weaving a new body for her inside of Paige’s mind. The head, torso, arms and midriff is formed, but nothing below the ribcage. It appears Shiara was more desperate for energy than she let on, she needs Nyghtshade or Devereaux to complete her form, but in any case, Paige is almost forfeit.
And she is snared in a sphere of dark energy, hairless, her body glowing but dark purple with black veins all over it as Shiara has her perpetually feeding her Demon’s work. There are two tendrils in her ears piping Kathy Pirillo’s voice to her constantly… “I love you, cupcake… I love you. I love you, cupcake…” Paige is helpless to softly cry and whisper back weakly, “I love you, mom…” when she has the energy…
Shiara was right… she’s had Paige ensnared so well since she was knocked out then revived she has no idea what is going on past that simulacra that Shiara fashioned for her. No idea that her body is being drained, her memories are being deleted, or that her soul is about to perish.
Relaxing, the blonde woman’s expression returns to a calm one, if not actually smiling in her usual wont. She turns her head and nods to Maggot Man, waves a hand to invite him in.
Nyght hovers, having been knocked loose from Shiara, and tries to make sense of what’s happening in this new ‘reality’. The fall has broken her Hunger’s grip, returning her to some sense of who she is and what’s happening. She’s made so many mistakes here, been tricked and deceived, and hasn’t helped Paige at all. But all she has to go on is what she’s seeing, and if nothing else, Shiara seems panicked, and that doesn’t fit with her illusions.
Nyght shakes her head slowly, the red glare fading from her eyes, and focuses on what she hopes is truly Paige’s essence, her spirit, this time. Nyght wills herself to arrow through the air to Paige’s form, laying gloved hands on her body, and then looking down at that emotional barrier. She pushes back her hood, pulls the gloves off and lets them float away as she cups Paige’s face in cool bare hands. Afraid of what could happen if she dislodges the tendrils whispering in Kathy’s voice, Nyght does the only other thing she can think of.
“Oh Shugah,” she sighs, a cold tear streaking her cheek, “Ah’m goin’ to try and help you. Be strong, Paige.”
Nyght bows her head, whispers a swift prayer, and then begins pumping lifeforce energy into Paige’s body, the energy Nyght has consumed here… and when that is spent, Nyght begins feeding Paige Nyght’s own lifeforce as well…
Devereaux notices Linuial’s change in demeanor. “Wow, after all this time you still thought I’d just up and kill them? You’ve got a lot to learn, Blondie.”
It’s only then that he notices the cyborg standing in a corner of the room. A glimmer of recognition strikes him. “I remember you,” he says. “From that little stint we did on Peregrine Island. John, right? Don’t look shocked, in my business forgetting a face is a good way to end up dead.”
Downshifting and dusting his jacket off needlessly, Devereaux returns his attention to Linuial. “Did you get the key?”
Paige’s body turns from dark purple to a more normal appearance as Nyghtshade returns the energy from that simulacrum of Shiara, which is enough to make her aware of her presence as she opens her eyes.
“Nyghtshade? Is- Is that you? Where am I? And why am I nearly naked?” Paige asks as she feels the same drowsy spell she felt from when Linuial revived her… “Wait, wha–” She lifted her hands to see Shiara’s Demon wrapping them into tendrils draining her. She tries to rip them off and twists one of them away from her left hand, then works on freeing her right.
She removes 5-6 other similar suckers from her and sees her reflection in the energy sphere… “Okay, I’m never going for the Willow Smith look… I look positively anemic bald… Did Shiara construct all of this while I was sleeping?”
Linuial continues her chant uninterrupted. Her mental voice reaches the Praetorian. “Since you were the only one who surfaced, for all I knew, you might be Shiara fleeing, and killing Paige and Monique to cement her hold on your body.“
She nods at the two. “Since you’re back, and you’ve ‘fixed’ everything, care to tell me why they are not waking up? Monique in particular is getting weaker, not stronger. This is your area, Mr. Telepath…what are you going to do about it?“
“It’s me, Shugah, and we’ah in yoah hea… yoah mind. Shiara’s still heah, so we have to watch out foah her.”
Nyght plucks away at more of the tendrils, and tries to pump a little more energy into Paige, explaining wearily, “Ah’m tryin’ to make you strongeh, in case Shiara attacks again. Hold on, Shugah, we’ll figure this out. And Ah’m heah foah you, yo’ah not alone.”
She sees Nyght start to stagger as she gives Paige additional “feedings”… “Are you alright? Sweetie, I don’t want you to hurt yourself…” With more energy and less being drained, Paige’s self-image is coming back, as her clothes return, and her skin takes on the peach complexion it once had.
“Tell me, can you drain that body the demon is holding directly to get your strength back? If you can… I think I have a plan.”
Devereaux ponders Linuial’s question for a moment before responding. “I gave Paige a pretty good spiel about how she’s stronger than Shiara. That’s true but Shiara’s crafty than she is. A lot craftier. If I had to guess, they’re still fighting. Doesn’t explain why Nyghtshade’s still under, though. I could go back in and check on them but it seems you’ve managed to turn this operation into a proper clusterfuck.”
He checks on the two women again. Their breathing is more rapid than it should be and their eyes dart back and forth behind closed lids. “Definitely still fighting,” he tells Linuial. “I can’t risk peeking in. If this whole thing really is some elaborate trap, I’d be giving Shiara an opportunity. Just keep them topped off for now. I need to go look into something.”
He stands and gives Paige another cursory check. Then he strides confidently toward the doorway.
“Do want that status report now, or after you’ve stepped in a bear trap?“ she responds, not really expecting an answer.
Nyght looks from the clearly recovering Paige to the incomplete demon-body, and nods. “Ah can try. Watch yoah back while Ah do.”
Nyght shoves off and glides swiftly to the other half-formed figure. Grabbing it firmly, she begins to swiftly, steadily draw away its energy as well, while keeping a wary eye on where she’s last seen Shiara.
Paige watches Nyghtshade rise up to face the half-formed body, avoiding the demon’s whirling form drawing matter in like a vacuum cleaner to try to make it complete.
Right now, she knows she’s getting all sorts of stimuli to wake up, even if she’s too fatigued to actually do it and stay awake. But she knows Shiara is stunned from the feelings from Paige’s body. She can’t concentrate on a damn thing…
And she knows this as she is still physically attached to the Demon as a slight draw in energy is still occuring… there’s no tendrils left on her, but the sphere itself she’s sitting in is enough to keep draining her. And such a connection is allowing for Paige to see into the recesses of the mind that Shiara is trying to obscure from her, and has been for months… she is frozen in panic, not expecting what is happening. Everytime she tries to gather her personality into form and decide on her next course of action, another sensation from Paige’s body skips the mental needle from her record.
As she watches Nyghtshade drain the body, she feels Shiara write in pain, causing further discord… and that pain is centered at her torso, where the core of the demon resides.
“I know where to strike… and she CAN’T see it coming. This is my chance.”
Paige gathers herself in the energy sphere and kicks off to hover past where Nyghtshade is, then settles on the body’s chest between the ribs. She rips the flesh and starts digging through muscle and viscera that the body has… She approaches Nyghtshade with a static-covered blob that resembles the first encounter she had with her intruder… “Nyghtshade! Quick! Come here and drain this!” She says holding it up, as the blob shoots tendrils down Paige’s arms.
Nyght reaches out with one hand and clenches her fist above the pulsing blob. Energy streams steadily out from it into her, and Nyght in turn extends her other hand toward Paige, directing it back to the girl.
The tendrils begin to shrivel, and the blob’s movements begin to cease.
The body starts to turn to ash as the core is robbed of it’s life, with the dark energy falling out of the sphere like dust as Nyghtshade drains it. The blob’s static movement stops as the 100’s of 1,000’s of miniature body parts ash over and fall away in turn… The blob is no more…
Paige, on the other hand, is essentially complete as her freckles return to her face and arms, her hair returns, and her body loses the dark veins entirely that persisted from the loss of neural energy. The Shiara clone that Nyghtshade fought before Paige and her started falling faded with the blob once it was drained, leaving a dark and dusty mindscape left.
“Allow me to clean up in here.”
Paige claps her hands… a shoreline without an ocean, with damp sand and puddles everywhere, a sunset painting her mindscape soft oranges and dark pinks, with purple clouds in the skies.
“Is this better?” Paige asks Nyghtshade… “This is what I normally keep in here. I’ve always wanted to visit an endless beach, full of tidepools,” she says… “I can’t say Shiara is absolutely gone yet. I don’t know, it will take me a couple of days… and tests. I’ll know for sure then. But… what happened when you were fighting for me? How did you know I was in trouble? Oh, my God! Am I still in that tower? Crey! I totally forgot!”
Nyght watches the changes warily. She’s been fooled more than once in here. “It’s beautiful,” she says quietly. “Ah love the beach, mah apartment looks out oveh teh Boardwalk and the ocean, in Talos. You should come visit some time.”
“As foah what all has been happenin’, maybe you should wake up first, so Mr. Devereaux can fill you in.”
“If you like, Ah can introduce you to Azuria, and we can ask her to get her people to help you check, to see if you’ve gotten rid of Shiara completely.”
“And maybe, just foah a little longeh, Ah’ll just wait right heah for a little bit, just to make shoah Shiara isn’t still around, and tryin’ to make a come-back when yo’ah not expectin’ it…”
Nyght has no intention of leaving till she’s sure Paige is really, truly awake. Till she’s certain this isn’t another of Shiara’s ruses.
Devereaux stops and speaks aloud over his shoulder. “Just give me the highli-“
He breaks off in mid sentence. “Looks like Vampire Diaries managed to pull it off after all,” he says, turning to move back toward Paige and Nyghtshade. He reaches out with his telepathy, careful not to let his consciousness brush against either woman’s. Paige’s mind has returned to its usual vibrant glow. Nyghtshade’s is shrouded but he’s come to expect that of her.
“They’re coming back. If you’ve still got the energy for it, I bet they’ll appreciate some of those heals when they wake up.”
She continues addressing her mental image of the Praetorian, so as not to interrupt her chanting. “I intend to.“
She continues. “Anderson knew where the key was…that safe back in the file room, but panicked because he’s not really a key man on the project, ran for it, and must have thought Paige looked the weakest because he cold-cocked her to make his getaway. Basti brought him down, but he broke his neck in the fall. Monique and I were able to extract much of what he knew before he died, which is how we found out about the safe.
“When I went to check on Paige, she was still unconscious. I knew immediately from the emotions she was radiating, even then, that she was in trouble, and called for your help at once.
“With the three of you down, and I was certain that trying to wake any of you could easily be fatal, Basti and I could only hold off Crey for so long.
“I thought about trying to make a run for it, and Recall you all out of the building, but since you apparently couldn’t help Paige from outside, I was afraid it would break your connection and might kill you all.
“I considered setting a fire for real, to evacuate the building, but not knowing if you might be occupied for hours, the danger was too great that we might be caught in the flames.
“The only way I could figure out keeping you all safe, and uninterrupted by interlopers, was to call for backup, and have the PPD lock the building down. I explained that there was a dead body, and they’d need to secure the building in order to investigate. I also called Starfire out just in case I had trouble handling everything at once.“
She nods again toward the file room. “Safecracking is more your line of work. Why don’t you go do something useful for once?“ A sly smile draws at the corners of her lips as she chants.
“I guess there’s only one way in the immediate future I can prove that I’m not her… Time to wake up.”
Paige opens her eyes in the building after the psychic onslaught… and the left side of her face is puffed and painful from the hit. But she doesn’t cry… “Owww… my jaw. Wha- what happened?” she asks, her eyes a bit blurry as the breeze outside blows over her body. It felt like days since she felt wind, except she’s been out for maybe 10-25 minutes, tops.
Her eyes focus and sees Linuial standing over her, with Nyghtshade laying down next to her. “Is everything alright? Where’s Devereaux? The Key! Did we get the key?” Paige asks blearily, and tries to get up, but the fall left her backside sore, and she collapses again. “GAH!”
After Kathy’s arraignment for contempt, at DCF in Massachusetts…
“Alright ladies, we’re going to bus you to your group home… pay attention, we’re not going to repeat your names,” the clerk said, “Abbie Cole, you’ll be on Bus 15. Andrea Lopez, you’ll be on Bus 8…” She prattles off more names, as the girls rumor about the various homes, local legends, and horror stories from Juvenile Hall. The clerk skips the P section, so Paige thinks for a second that they didn’t call her to leave… until…
“Rebecca Thompson, Bus 3.”
“I hate that name. I go by my middle name, Paige. And the last name is Pirillo, lady.”
“Today, you’re Rebecca. Stop talking and get on the bus… Rachel Clarke, you’re on Bus 6…”
Linuial shifts to Heal Other to make certain that all of Paige’s injuries have been taken care of. She pauses her chant. “Paige, dear, Xavier is right over there,” she nods in his direction, “…and he can fill you in. Right now, I need to concentrate on Monique.” She returns to her chanting, now focuses solely on the one unconscious form.
After another moment, where-in it seems to Nyght that Paige’s mind is properly empty of threat, Nyght withdraws from Paige’s mind. At least, it seems like she does. Her eyes flicker open, and she slowly sits and looks around. She fingers the floor, her gloves (still on), and looks to the others, her team-mates, the newcomers, and Paige… and frowns.
Slowly, warily, she rises to her feet to face everyone else. “So… how do Ah know that this time it’s real? How do Ah know this happy reunion isn’t yet anotheh of Shiara’s mind-games?”
She doesn’t say it, but a part of her wonders if she’s still back there in the mindscape, newly beguiled while Shiara finishes her off.
Linuial drops her hands, heaves a great sigh. Suddenly, she begins to look her fatigue.
“Mon…Monique…” A bit of hoarseness roughens her voice. She points in the direction of the man in all black, with the hat and face scarf. “Do you recognize that man?” she asks, knowing the answer already. The question is not rhetorical, it is to help Nyghtshade orient herself.
Nyght shakes her head, but replies, “No. But Ah didn’t know any of the people in the jury, eitheh. In the mindscape. In the mind-trap.”
Linuial nods. “That’s Maggot Man, he’s in my supergroup. MM, this is Nyghtshade.” The man nods politely, touches the brim of his hat with a finger.
Nyght gives him a wary nod. “Hello. Ah’d say it’s a pleashoah to meet you, but that kind of is yet to be determined. Not meanin’ to be rude, though… in case this really is real.”
“You know I can’t enter Paige’s mind, so either this is real, or I’m Paige’s simulacrum of Linuial. Paige has only ever once met a member of my SG, and that would be Jon.” She nods to the cyborg, who nods back. “She knows nothing about any others…and really has no reason to imagine what they might be like.
“There are several more downstairs, I can have them come up and meet you, if you like. The more different entities you see, the less the likelihood this is someone’s imagination, Paige or Shiara.”
“What is it with you two and paradoxes?” Devereaux asks as he inspects the safe. “You’re awake, Newbie. But considering how spectacularly this thing’s gone to shit, you might wanna head back into one of Shiara’s mind games.”
He whistles appreciatively at the wall safe. “This thing’s no joke. 1967 Hamilton, probably with the optional glass panels installed to keep anybody from drilling in.” Frowning at the digital access panel, he taps a few buttons and shakes his head. “It’s way too old to have a digital locking mechanism. Can’t say I blame you for not figuring it out. It’s a pretty good mock up.”
He takes what looks like a credit card from his pocket. With a flick of the wrist, the little black object snaps open along its length, revealing a small triangular blade. Jamming it into the edge of the false panel, he slides it up and down a few times before prying the device off completely and revealing a traditional tumbler.
“Where’s the cat?” he asks. “I could use that enhanced hearing of hers about now.”
Nyght’s jaw draw drops at Devereaux’s callous dismissal of her ordeal, but he’s walked away and doesn’t see it. She is suddenly furious, but fights it down.
Linuial turns to speak to Maggot Man, her voice still whispery. “Chris, would you please see if Bubastis can come up here, now? And have her bring Stray as well.”
“Sure,” the man in black responds. He takes out a cell phone, taps, talks quietly to it, gives it a final tap before putting it away. “On their way.”
Only a few minutes pass before Bubastis appears at the doorway, followed by a Nova form Peacebringer. Linuial nods to the feline woman. “Basti, would you please assist Xavier?”
The blonde woman turns to Nyghtshade. She raises a hand to indicate the Kheldian. “This is Stray, another member of my supergroup. Stray, I’d like you to meet Monique.”
The floating squid-like creature bobs slightly and responds, “Pleased to meet you, Monique.”
“Paige saw Stray once, although she may not even remember her. She brought me something when we were all in the Cutlass Isles, but didn’t stay. Paige only saw her Nova form. She never saw Stray’s human form. Stray, would you mind, please?”
“Sure.” With a concussive blast that echoes off the walls, the Kheldian transforms, becoming a tiny catgirl, in white and lavender. “Again, Paige, or Shiara, would have to instantly come up with a complete image of what Stray looks like. This isn’t in Paige’s memories.”
She then turns to the cyborg. “Jon, please tell Monique your full legal name.”
He shrugs, smiles. “Sure, I’m Jon Smith. That’s it.”
“And tell her your birth name.”
She turns to Nyghtshade. “Again, Paige would have no idea that his original name was anything other than Jon Smith, and she or Shiara would have had to make that name up instantly, with no warning. ‘Ezekiel Norman’ is not a common name…tricky for someone to come up with at a moment’s notice.”
“Try pinching her,” Devereaux calls from his position at the safe, chuckling lightly to himself. “I hear that works.”
He spends a minute explaining to Bubastis her role in cracking the safe. When he’s sure she understands, he begins slowly rotating the tumbler. With each successful number Bubastis waves a clawed hand to indicate he’s found the right one. The process takes several minutes but eventually the locking mechanism surrenders with an audible thunk.
“And viola,” Devereaux exclaims then opens the weighted steel door. The innards of the safe are sparsely populated, containing only a flash drive and a series of documents. He pockets the drive and begins leafing through the paperwork.
“Oh…not good,” he says morbidly. “Seems Crey wasn’t bluffing about their government connection. This is loaded with black ops intel.”
He keeps fanning through the pages, absorbing as much information as he can. “Looks like DIA but I could be wrong. Regardless, we need to be somewhere with a lot fewer blue suits. Now would be ideal.”
“Xa…” she coughs, begins again. “Xavier, the only thing I told the PPD is that a man had died here. I didn’t mention anything about your mission. Just close that safe, and push the file cabinet back in front of it, and we can walk out of here with no one the wiser. You did avoid leaving fingerprints inside the safe, right?” She chuckles, then coughs again.
“You weah in Paige’s mind, Linuial, and so was Basti. We all weah. But….” She looks to Jon and Maggot Man. “But Mr. Smith and Mr… um.. Chris, they weah not. But theah weah plenty of people in the Jury Ah’d neveh seen befoah, eitheh.”
Nyght stands there, trying to find something to help her out of this dilemma, but nothing is particularly forthcoming. At last, she nods stiffly to Linuial. “Ah don’t see an immediate answeh to all this, but me being locked into indecision won’t help anyone but Shiara. So, foah the moment at least, Ah’m going to try and act on the likelihood that this heah, right now, with all of you… is real.”
She glances toward where Xavier has vanished into the file room, before adding a little more loudly, “If the PPD is heah, what is ouh coveh story? Foah bein’ heah, and foah theah bein’ a dead man?”
“Just call me Maggot Man, or MM, if that bothers you. No ‘mister’. “ He nods.
Linuial sighs wearily, coughs. “Help me out, here, Monique, I’ve been refreshing you all for damned near an hour, and I’m reaching the end of my admittedly ‘prodigious’ strength.” She winces. “I haven’t blown the cover off this operation yet…all you guys have to figure out is how to preserve that accomplishment. Ask Mr. ‘I can do no wrong’ back there. Lying is in his wheelhouse, not mine.”
Jon gets up, walks out into the hallway…returns with a glass of water he offers to the blonde woman. She gratefully accepts, as he sits beside her.
“Ah’d offeh to give you a boost in return, Linuial, but Ah’m pretty well spent, sorry. Gave up most all I had to help Paige.”
Nyght slumps into an office chair, and waits for Devereaux to reappear, while keeping an eye on Paige to make sure she’s still… Paige.
“You can do whatever you want, Blondie. I’m gonna have someone I trust not to fuck it up take a look at all this. Keep your phones on. I’ll have Paige call when I’m ready to get going again.”
He moves to the door and pauses, sparing a backward glance for the teenage heroine. “Make sure she gets checked out properly. None of that back of an ambulance, five minute medicine.”
With that, he steps out of the office, the quiet click of the door the only evidence of his departure.
Nyght grimaces at Devereaux’s departures. “Seriously,” she mutters to no one in particular, or perhaps the world at large, “How do you all keep from stranglin’ that man…”
Then she draws herself up again. “That still leaves the question of what to tell the police. Can we say we weah tipped to an illegal operation heah, and when we got heah and tried to talk to Andehson, he attacked Paige, one of us knocked him away from her, and he fell wrong and hit his head? Would the police buy that, do you think? Given that it’s actually in fact the truth?”
Linuial laughs, her voice strained and tired, coughs, takes a sip of water. “Welcome to the so-called ‘Devereaux team’, Monique. You’re starting to get the picture. It’s a team in name only. He gives the orders, we jump like we’re being paid, which, this time, none of us are. I’m sure if you ask him, as I started to do at the University, he’ll tell you that he is being paid by his unknown contact, and he plans on paying all of us…whatever he thinks we’re worth. He’d never accept a job without knowing exactly what the pay is, and yet, here he has 4 women all jumping at his every command, and not a one of us has even the most vague promise from him of getting anything out of it…besides a ‘sense of accomplishment.’ What angers me the most, is that he is training Paige to just accept that for herself…he yells ‘frog’, and she jumps, and never even stops to think if she is getting anything out of it that is worth losing her life over. He’s taking advantage of Paige’s youth and inexperience, and my determination to protect her from him.”
She coughs again. Jon puts an arm around her shoulders.
“The problem with all that,” she continues after a moment, “…is that Xavier’s unknown employer might be the very person who has been setting up traps for us. There may BE no pay for Xavier, even if we accomplish this mission…and you can bet your bottom dollar he isn’t going to pull money out of his own bank account to pay the rest of you.”
She winces. “When Steelhelm died, I was offered his share of the two million dollars, which I declined in favor of my usual INF stipend, allowing Xavier and the children to split that share equally. The money means very little to me, I don’t need it. Unlike Xavier, the currency I deal in is mortal lives. But I don’t want Paige to adopt the belief that she owes her life to him, even if she does. I want her to learn to balance risk against reward, for herself, selfishly if necessary, at least while she’s still young, and Xavier is making that increasingly unlikely.”
She lifts a hand, waves it toward the door. “…and there he goes again, running off, leaving us with no instructions, no suggestions on how to deal with the PPD. Maybe he’s gone to cook up an explanation, that he’ll deign to share with us in a few minutes. Maybe not. About all we can do is either come up with our own solution, or wait to see if he has one. Myself, I’ve been making decisions for this mismatched team for the past two hours, I’m exhausted, and I don’t trust myself to think it through. If you have any ideas, I’m listening. If not…we wait.” She drops her head toward the floor.
Time has been ticking past. The PPD finally reaches the fifth floor. Linuial sighs, stands.
“All right,” she announces. Her voice has begun to recover. “I’m not waiting on Xavier any longer. If he cared about keeping this mission a secret he should have come up with an explanation he liked by now.”
She turns around, making eye contact with each person in the room. “Since he ran off, we’re playing this my way. Tell the PPD the truth. All of it. Chris, stay with Paige and see that she gets thoroughly checked out. Go with her to the Hospital, and make sure they check everything. Psyche eval if they think it’s necessary.” She raises a hand when the girl looks as if she might protest. “If you want to continue with this mission, I’m requiring it. Otherwise, I’m making a phone call to your guardian.
“Nyght, do whatever you need to. If you want to go along with Paige, you can. I’m taking Starfire and heading back to our base. We might be able to do some research, although I have now idea how helpful it might be.”
She turns back to the teenager. “Paige, once you’ve finished with the Hospital, I want you to get some rest. Nap, if you can. Then I want you to meet with Fannour. No argument. Shiara falls within his speciality; we should have had him check you out before we started this mission.”
Nyght straightens, and ducks her head in acknowledgment. “Ah can stay heah and talk to the PPD. Ah’ve done debriefs with them befoah. But all Ah’m going to tell them – foah now, at least – is that ouh team was contacted and tipped to an illegal research project heah, and when we arrived to talk to Mr. Anderson about it, he apparently panicked and attacked one of ouh team.”
“Ah’ll explain that anotheh membeh of the group pushed him away from the person he was attackin’, Andehson fell wrong and struck his head, and despite ouh attempts, we weren’t able to save him.”
“Ah’ll tell them Ah can’t reveal any moah details foah now, foah risk of compromisin’ ouh investigation, but the PPD can have mah contact infoahmation – in fact, they probably already do, given Hero Registration – and that we’ll cooperate fully once ouh investigation concludes. And that’s pretty much all Ah think we need to say. Besides, it’s the truth.”
With that, Nyght nods to the others, and walks out into the hallway to await the PPD officers.
After their afternoon of catharsis, followed by a night mission the team feels more distant from each other than the day before. Things have not improved, morale is down, and now not only are Lin and Dev not trying to talk to each other, Paige is afraid of what Nyght saw when she was in her mind.
All Paige can remember is getting hit, waking up in Shiara’s trap, then the office. It is starting to make her think that something she had done to Nyght is making everyone more cold and dismissive.
And it is bothering her. Just what the hell happened?
She is escorted by a tall, darkly dressed man as she is directed to an ambulance for transport. It turns out the hit she took is suspect for a concussion based on the amount of time she was out… Or at least that’s what the man told the EMT to get her a ticket to ride in the back of the van with a blanket and a bottle of water instead of a “sweep and sign” that most walking victims of trauma get from Paramedical types when they say that they feel fine.
“Maggot Man, is it? Is Linuial upset with me? Since I woke up, everyone is angry about something, and I don’t think they want to talk to me about it,” she asks the man, sitting in the opposite chair of her on the back of the Ambulance, “…and I’m not talking about the mission.” Paige is flipping a business card idly in her other hand that Linuial gave to her with Fannour’s Office Number and Atlas Park address (Not from her, of course, as it would be weird having business cards stashed in her dress… it’s scrawled on the back of a Crey Corporation business card.)
The man in black looks the girl over. The lower half of his face is fully covered by a black handkerchief, pulled up from where it’s tied around his neck to cover his nose. It’s the classic 1950s “bad guy” look, from an old Western on TV. The rather debonair black hat defeats the image, however. He takes the hat off, but the scarf remains in place. With the hat out of the way, his eyes are surprisingly mild, with hints of laugh lines at the corners. There’s an expression of quiet, calm, a touch of concern, and definite warmth, like an old friend. Paige begins to feel an odd sensation, like he might be someone she can trust.
“Maggot Man, it is, but if you don’t like that, you can just call me MM, everybody does. Everybody in Starfire, that is.” He nods affirmation. “I think Lin started it.” He shrugs.
“Lin isn’t upset with you, Paige. She worries about you, but she worries about everybody. Something about that ‘older than dirt’ thing she’s got going.” He laughs, and it’s an easy laugh, like he does it a lot. “She’s not happy about your much-older-than-you ‘friend’ Devereaux dragging you into stuff you’re obviously not ready to handle, but that isn’t your fault, and she doesn’t blame you for it. She might be angry with him, but I doubt it. Not really. Exasperated might be closer to the truth.
“I’m sure they all…well, Lin, anyway, and Jon, and maybe Nyghtshade, she seems like a nice lady…would be happy to talk with you, if you just approach them. You’ve been through a lot, just now, and nobody wants to begin a conversation with you that you might not be ready for yet. They’re watching you, and they want you to let them know what’s best for you. If you wanna talk…just talk.
“All right? Trust Lin. She’s tired right now, and I’m hoping she takes a few minutes for herself…hopefully, she’s doing that right now…but when you’re ready to talk, I’m sure she’ll be happy to do so, even if she is still tired.” He thinks for a moment. “You wouldn’t know this, but you, Devereaux, and Nyghtshade were all off in telepath-land for nearly an hour, and most of that time she was standing over all of you, spamming buffs and heals like nobody’s business. She’s drained, and I think she might have strained her voice.
“Let’s just get you taken care of, and after that nap she wants you to take, I’ll bring you to the Starfire base, would you like that? You can look around, roast some marshmallows if you want, and the two of you can chew the fat. Deal?”
Teamwork can be difficult. Your team is living proof of that. It seems that no matter how much you talk, the clash of personalities only gets worse. Perhaps it’s time to give up on the charade and simply admit that you can’t stand each other.
At least, that might be a good idea if you weren’t about to go head to head with a mega corporation and delve into the ultra shadowy world of the intelligence community. Bad blood or no, you’ll all need each other if you expect to have any hope of succeeding in your mission. That’s doubly true if you’d also like to survive the experience. As you all make your way to separate destinations, it’s clear that the tension is rising to what could be a very final crescendo. Better hope you can keep it at bay long enough to find out exactly who’s behind all this.