War Games


Part Twelve: Close Encounters


[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


Taylor


"Uh, just out of curiosity," Reynaud remarked, "if you sent Coil out to a fake meeting with Kramer, where's the real Kramer been this whole time?"

"In orbit, lad." Sean should've sounded happier about that. "But now he's on the move. I posit a high chance that his systems detected the use of my particle cannon." He paused then his tone changed, taking on the snap of command. "All hands, secure for maneuvering. Strap in; we're going for a hard burn."

Reynaud and Geneva were already diving for the command seats in the cockpit. I grabbed Dinah and we piled into two of the side-seats and grabbed our belts. Lisa was the first of the Undersiders to follow suit, with Alec and Brian close behind.

"What's going on?" yelled Rachel, her dogs clustering around her.

Even as the engines lit off, Sean manifested his hologram from the table in front of her. "Lass, we're about to perform some tricky moves. I'll do my best to compensate, but I don't want you thrown around the cabin."

"What about my dogs?" insisted Rachel.

"We'll put them in their own seats!" That was Brian. "When the robot spaceship says to strap in, strap in!"

At that moment, the entire ship swerved slightly and Rachel stumbled sideways, fighting for balance. The dogs scrabbled for purchase with their claws, not looking thrilled. Reaching out, Brian hauled Rachel to the seat beside him.

With bad grace, she clipped her belt closed, then gave a whistle. The dogs jumped up on the spare seats where the straps auto-deployed. Rachel gave me a glare as if to say, 'I don't trust you with my dogs', which … well, it was par for the course, with her. If Rachel did one thing really well other than dog handling, it was holding a grudge.

"Okay, so what's actually going on?" asked Lisa. "Are they attacking us?"

"Not as yet," Geneva answered. "But they've dumped something out of the airlock. Scans indicate that it's their hooper, and he's tied up."

"Wait, how high up are they?" asked Brian. "Why would they murder one of their crewmates like that?"

"And what's a hooper, anyway?" added Alec. "Inquiring minds want to know. Is he, like, really good at basketball or something?"

"They were about a hundred twenty miles up," Sean explained via his hologram. "And I doubt he's actually dead yet. Though the landing might kill him, if we don't get to him first. Brace yourselves; high-G maneuver."

With a lack of external viewports, save the one at the front (which I couldn't really see at the moment), it was easy to think that we were sitting still, or maybe just moving around a little. Reynaud had explained how the gravity inside the Bond James Bond could be adjusted to mitigate high-speed turns and stuff like that, so I knew what was going on outside didn't match what we felt inside. Still, I had to keep reminding myself of that, right up until I suddenly felt about twice as heavy; then, I didn't need any reminding at all. The ship creaked all around us, but nothing appeared to break.

"What do you mean, not dead yet?" asked Brian. When Sean didn't answer immediately, he turned to me. "What does he mean?"

I drew a deep breath. "Hoopers are like ultra-Brutes," I said. "No matter how hard you—"

Clang. The noise echoed through the ship.

"Got him!" shouted Geneva.

"Airlock secured," Sean responded. "Triggering fire safety protocols. Returning to Brockton Bay."

"He's alive?" asked Geneva, then paused. "Good. Not too much damage, even. He'll be needing—"

"—food, yeah. On it." Reynaud unbuckled from the control chair and headed toward the back of the ship.

"Wait," said Lisa. "This hooper was falling from space, and you caught him in your airlock?"

"That we did, lass," confirmed Sean. "It was the only real way to do it. Sorry about going quiet on you back there. I had to concentrate for a few seconds."

"They've done it before," Reynaud commented from wherever he was in the rear of the passenger compartment. "When Geneva rescued me, for instance."

"Okay, so you're steely-eyed spacemen with nerves of titanium and balls of pure tungsten," Alec observed with a touch of sarcasm. "But let's get back to this hooper. How the hell was he supposed to survive in vacuum, much less re-entry? Brute, I get. But there's limits … right?"

"No, there's not," Geneva said, emerging once more from the cockpit area. "Hoopers are humans who've been infested by a virus-like parasite native to the planet Spatterjay. It makes them incredibly durable, but …"


About One Minute Earlier


It was becoming increasingly clear to Johnson exactly where he'd screwed up. Signing on with Kramer had seemed to be a great deal at the time; the man had no scruples worth talking about, so it wasn't likely that he'd be kicked off the crew for going overboard on any particular job. But what he'd neglected to consider was that working in a crew composed of murderous sociopaths could just as easily put his face in the path of the laser cannon.

Still, he never thought the break would be because he didn't kick his crewmates' heads in when he got the chance.

As he tumbled through the vacuum, on a collision course with the vast planet spread out below, Johnson began to regret not snapping Kramer's neck when he'd had the chance. Of course, the man had a certain amount of charisma and he'd used this to play the crew against each other, so that no single clique ever got enough traction to get around to murdering him and taking over the ship. Johnson, for one, had been totally taken in by the man's sheer presence. Also, Kramer's plans tended to work out more often than not, keeping the loot rolling in and the crew supplied with the illicit substances of their choice.

Johnson struggled against the bonds, which gave a little but not enough to let him slip out of them. From the feel, he'd been tied up with number four cargo cable, which might even be strong enough to hold him for the moment. When he hit the ground, that would be a different matter; the impact might break the cable, or maybe sever an arm or something. And if he was really lucky, he might regain consciousness before his arm crawled away on its own, so he could reattach it.

Of course, this required for him to survive the landing. He didn't know how thick Earth's atmosphere was, though he was starting to feel the first buffets now. Breathable air for him was a pleasant luxury; he'd heard of other hoopers being held under water, drowning and then reviving over and over again.

But the friction heat of re-entry was something else altogether. It might reduce him altogether to ash, but it probably wouldn't. The hooper virus was infamous for reconstituting people from their most basic remains. His main problem with all this was that whatever survived and crawled out of the crater wouldn't be Mrs Johnson's little boy anymore. The fall through atmosphere wouldn't kill him, but it would very likely kill him.

As he tumbled through the ever-thickening atmosphere, feeling the heat build inexorably around him, he tried desperately to give the finger to where he thought Kramer and his stupid-ass ship was. It wasn't much, but any gesture of defiance was a good one.

And then, another ship cut down past him then vanished, giving him one hell of a surprise. He'd only seen a blur of motion, but Kramer had said there was only one other space-rated ship here, and that was the Bond James Bond. What they wanted, he had no idea. Maybe to shoot me out of the sky. The way his luck was going these days (shitty, with a side order of extra shitty), he wouldn't have been at all surprised.

He screamed soundlessly as his clothing caught fire. The shipsuit was fire-retardant because duh, but it wasn't rated for re-entry. His flesh began to sear, his hooper durability and regeneration only slowing the process down. He had a higher pain tolerance than normals, but right now he was being cooked over an open flame, so that didn't mean jack or shit.

The ground below was coming up fast, but not fast enough for his taste. He was still tied up, and the pain was rapidly becoming more than he could endure. Worse, the cable was still intact and red hot, which wasn't helping in any way whatsoever.

And then he slammed into something. It wasn't the ground, because the ground wasn't made of metal, and also wasn't travelling downward at almost the same speed as him. A cool spray hissed into the space around him as it went from horizontal and vertical, and his overtaxed brain finally made the connection. Airlock. I'm in an airlock. Fuck, they caught me. Why?

He decided to shelve that question for the moment and just enjoy the sensation of hanging in zero-G, not touching anything, as the ice-cold spray coated his burns. Some of the nerve endings had been burned away, while others were still faithfully reporting what was going on. He should've been screaming in agony at the sudden change in temperature, but hoopers were tougher than that.

The last of the fire flickered out on his shipsuit, and he blinked as his eyelids began to regenerate themselves. Then the airlock opened, and he saw his rescuers.

He knew who Geneva Hastings was, of course. Kramer had gone on several extended rants about her, and had shown the whole crew her holo-image just so they knew who to shoot at first. Johnson had doubted some of what the captain had to say, until the raid where she snatched the Klovis kid out of the Gambler's Ruin. Now he didn't doubt anymore.

In the cabin area, Johnson saw five teenagers (he guessed; he associated with kids as little as possible, so they could've been anything from ten to twenty) and three dog-style quadrupeds. The kids and the animals didn't seem to have any cybernetic enhancements, not even augs, so he assumed they were locals. What Hastings was doing in letting them on board her ship, he had no idea.

And then, from the rear of the passenger compartment, the Klovis kid emerged, carrying a tray of what looked and smelled exactly like fresh boxies, something he hadn't seen or tasted since he left Spatterjay. Klovis brought them the length of the cabin and then stopped a couple of metres away from Johnson. Right then and there, Johnson couldn't have cared less about the ransom they might get for the kid; his overworked regeneration was starting to demand its due, and what it wanted was food!

"You." Hastings stepped between him and the tray, deliberately drawing his attention. "What's your name?"

"J—Johnson," he mumbled, through lips that were still regrowing. The hunger was building in his gut. "Johnson. I need to—"

"Eat. I know." Without taking her eyes from him, she reached back and grabbed a boxy.

Due to the insanely predatory nature of Spatterjay's sea life, most fish had evolved to grow their brains and vital organs inside their hollow bones, leaving ninety-nine percent of their flesh outside where it could be easily eaten without doing them lasting harm. Boxies had gone one better; their bodies were cube-like, to the point that they were stackable. When caught, their skeletons could be literally pulled out of the middle of the cube and tossed overboard, where they swam away to start building up flesh again.

Boxies didn't even need to be cooked; they were eaten on the spot, just like an apple. When she held it to his face, he ripped chunks out of it with his teeth and swallowed them whole. All too soon it was gone, and he glared at her. "More!"

"I can take the cable off if you want," she said. "Then you can feed yourself. Would you prefer that?"

It took him a few seconds to register that she'd asked a question. "Yeah," he said immediately. "Yeah."

She eyed the cargo cable, then stepped around behind him. A moment later, he felt the locking-latch disengage, and the cable fell away from around him. Immediately, he grabbed for the tray; the Klovis kid let him take it and stepped back out of the way.

By the time he'd stuffed the last boxy in his mouth, the haze around his brain that he hadn't even noticed was starting to fade. No longer was he fixated on eating, replenishing his body mass. Now, he could actually think.

"Feeling better?" Hastings took the tray away and handed it to Klovis, then commenced coiling up the cargo cable.

"Yeah," he grunted, then looked around. "Why'd you save me?"

"A couple of reasons," she said coolly. "Why did Kramer boot you out the airlock? He catch you with his favourite catadapt?"

Johnson shook his head, not even questioning how she knew about Kramer's predilection for catadapts. "Nah. Dunno why. Everyone in the crew started actin' all janky in the head. Fights startin' over dumb shit, nothing at all. It's bad to have fights leading up to a big raid. Too much chance of people carrying grudges over and shooting each other in the back. So I been breaking them up. Next thing I know, Kramer's shot me in the back, tied me up, and deorbited me. Why'd you save me?"

"So I could ask you questions." Hastings smiled. Far from being a naïve simper or even the jaded semi-grimace of a frontier-planet streetwalker, it was the smile of something lurking in the deeps, preparing to surprise its next meal. "What's Kramer got in mind? How much does he know?"

Johnson squirmed, suddenly aware that the more he told her, the less valuable he was to her. And he was willing to bet that if she tried to kill him, she'd have a lot more chance of doing it right than Kramer. "Uh … what do I get if I tell you?"

"This keeps being a friendly conversation." Hastings raised an eyebrow. "Want some more boxies? Some water?"

"Couple more boxies would be nice, thanks," he said, the courtesy popping out almost by accident. "And yeah, I'm thirsty."

She barely had to glance at Klovis before the kid nodded and headed toward the back again. He had to admit, she had the kid well trained. Just a couple days in her company, and she didn't even have to give him orders. He'd dragged his feet a lot more on the Gambler's Ruin, all of Kramer's 'incentives' to the contrary.

"While he's reconstituting those boxies, how about a few answers?" she asked. Her voice was still conversational, but he had no doubt that could change. "What does Kramer know? What's he up to?"

What the hell, he decided. After Kramer's Prador act, Johnson didn't owe him a bent plastic half-credit. "Kramer saw your particle beam cannon go off, so he knows where you've been based. He's probably on his way there right now."

Hastings nodded. "He is. I've got him on scans right now. He's looking for us, too. Do you know if he's cracked our chameleonware?"

Johnson frowned, trying to remember. "If he did, he never said anything about it. Why don't you just blow him out of the sky? If you can see him and he can't see you, he'll never know about it."

"Strongly considering it." At first, Johnson didn't think Hastings was going to keep talking. "We've just got to catch up with him first and make sure of some things. Also, you know that thing you brought on board?"

"The statue? Sure. What's that about, anyway?"

Hastings looked him dead in the eye. "That's called the Simurgh. It's the local version of Jaintech, you idiot, and it's been terrorising the local population for the last nine years. It can sing a song in your head that sends you insane."

Her tone was deadly serious, and the look in her eye told him she wasn't pulling his leg. "Fuck," he muttered. "That's why everyone was fighting, and Kramer tried to kill me."

"Yeah," she said, and frowned thoughtfully. "Now, why it hasn't driven you nuts, I'm not sure."

"Uh …" That was the Klovis kid, returning with a squeeze bottle of water and more boxies on the tray. "How do we know he isn't?"

One of the younger kids raised her hand. "Ninety-nine point four one three percent chance that he's not a Simurgh bomb," she offered.

The blonde girl in purple nodded. "That tracks," she agreed. "He'd murder us all for our pocket change, but not for funsies."

Johnson didn't even bother protesting. It was true, after all. He'd done worse for a few hits of some injectables. "So, what are you going to do with me?"

"Keep you alive until it's not convenient anymore," Hastings said. Every word rang true to Johnson. "Just in case you had the idea to escape and live big among the primitives down there, they aren't so primitive and their authorities specifically know about you, and about the hooper virus, because I told them. The current order is to kill you as expediently as possible and incinerate your body all the way to ash and beyond. Fortunately for you, I don't consider myself bound by their laws; I'm happy to take you back to the Polity and hand you over to the authorities there. But if you cause me the slightest bit of inconvenience, I will boot you out the airlock and let Sean snipe you with the particle cannon."

Which, Johnson knew, would reduce him to basic plasma. Not even an Old Captain could survive that. He raised his hands. "Hey, I'll be good. Enemy of my enemy and all that, yeah?" It wasn't like he had a choice, or even a chance to take over the Bond James Bond. Johnson wasn't smart, but he wasn't stupid either. Right now, they had his immortal nuts in a vise.

"—is my enemy's enemy, no more and no less," said the skinny black-haired girl. It sounded like a quote of some kind.

"Right first time." Hastings took the tray and handed it to Johnson. "So, weaknesses of Kramer's crew. Don't worry about mental weaknesses. Physical stuff. For instance, is there any easy way to shut down those Golem?"

Shit, decided Johnson. This was the point where he decided whether he was going all-in or holding something back. He glanced at the kids, and the two who had spoken up about his intentions were watching him intently. That was almost as off-putting as facing Hastings herself. Fuck it, let's do this.

"Okay, so this is what I know …"


Miss Militia


Hannah did not consider herself any kind of Thinker. She knew what her power was, and she used it to its full capability. Even more, now that she'd given it a look at Geneva's pulse pistol. However, she was starting to gain a sixth sense where it came to being contacted by Sean. When her phone buzzed, she somehow knew it was him.

Then again, perhaps it was because the PRT were currently combing through a previously unsuspected underground base that had had a very large hole blasted clear through it and into the bedrock beneath. Hannah wasn't an official weapons expert, but she had a huge amount of personal experience with them, and the overall impression she got from the burn signature around the blast hole was that exactly one thing capable of making such a hole existed in Brockton Bay. And, just to be clear, it wasn't Purity's power.

She'd been there when the Bond James Bond unleashed its staggering weapon capability against Leviathan. The sheer destructive force that the spaceship could bring to bear against its foes had stunned her at the time.

Exactly how and why this hole came to be, and the identities of the two deceased capes, promised to be a fascinating story, one which she couldn't wait to hear the full details of. Taking out the phone, she glanced at the screen even as she swiped to answer. Her instincts had been on the money, of course. "Hello, Sean."

"Hello, lass. I'm calling to let you know that Kramer and his crew are inbound, precise ETA unknown. Unfortunately, we're a little out of place so we can't shoot them in the lips when they arrive. Even more unfortunately, their Simurgh bomb status has been verified. We're making our best speed back without compromising our chameleonware."

Several swearwords rose to Hannah's lips, but she didn't let any of them out to play. There was a time for venting and a time for acting. "Suggestions?"

"He's likely to be looking for us in Brockton Bay. Either evacuate the PRT building or get all nonessential personnel under cover. Also, put out an alert to get civilians off the street, in case they start shooting the city up. Be ready to upgrade the alert to full Endbringer status."

"The compound in front of the building," she said, grasping his meaning. "It's the same size as the Bond James Bond. They'll know it's where you've been. Also, we still have prisoners in the cells."

"Depending on the size of the crater they make in the street, that might change, lass," he said grimly. "If you really want to keep those prisoners, I'd move them."

"I'd really rather keep the whole building. Thanks for the heads-up." She gestured to the nearest PRT officer and gave the hand signal for big problem. He hustled over as she ended the call.

"Ma'am?" he asked as he got to her.

"X-Ray Tango Two is on the move, almost certainly toward Brockton Bay. He'll probably home in on the PRT building. Alert the Director, get everyone out of the top few floors. We've seen what their weaponry does to buildings, and this individual was reportedly an unstable sociopath before he became a Simurgh bomb."

She kept talking, rattling off the rest of the instructions, as they double-timed it toward where the vehicles had been parked. This was not an ideal situation, but at least they'd had some kind of warning.

As they peeled out of the impromptu parking lot back toward the city centre, sirens started sounding across Brockton Bay for the second time in forty-eight hours.

The hole in the ground could wait, but she was going to want to know what happened there.


On Board the Gambler's Ruin


There was something Kramer loved about approaching any given planet for the first time. A planet where they'd never heard of him, and had no idea how far he was willing to go to make a profit. The feeling was primal, an electric buzzing that filled him from chest to fingertips, almost delicious.

He wasn't sure why, but this time was even better than usual. Maybe it was the fact that the blind shuffling morons down there on the planet's surface had no idea what it was like to travel in space, let alone make a U-space jump. Or it could be that he was going in there to utterly fuck up that bitch Geneva's whole fucking continuity once and for all.

He knew she was scared of him. She was hiding from him. Otherwise, she wouldn't have contacted him in the clear like that. It was obvious as a brand-new supernova; he had the upper hand, and now that he'd gotten rid of the weak sister in the crew, it was time to take care of fucking business.

(And by 'business', he meant killing Geneva Hastings.)

(Just so everyone was clear on that.)

As the Gambler's Ruin coasted down over the east coast of this weird version of America, he flexed his hands on the control yoke. Normally it would be Johnson doing this job, but the hooper's wimpy ass was currently decorating a crater somewhere else on this Prador-forsaken dirtball. Not that Kramer regretted booting Johnson off the crew for one second; the man had been useful from time to time, but everyone had to be on the same page at all times, and he just hadn't been a team player. So, he'd had to go.

The best thing about all this, the part he was savouring the most, was that no Polity law-enforcement was going to come sniffing around, spoiling his fun with the suckers on this planet. Once he'd gotten rid of Geneva, he could squeeze them for whatever he wanted. Original artworks like the one already in his hold, exotic 'crew interns', and anything else that caught his eye. Hell, blow away a few national capitals and they'd probably fall over themselves to anoint him President of their little backwater mudhole.

President Kramer. He liked the sound of that.

With the Gambler's Ruin chameleonware running at full capacity—he was confident, not a moron—he swooped the ship down over the ocean, heading in toward the coast. Up ahead was his target, the place his downloaded maps had marked out as Brockton Bay. Going after disaster areas was kind of like shooting fish in a barrel, though he didn't care; an easy score was an easy score.

The scans on the screen showed an impressive amount of devastation as he crossed the coast. Ships were piled on shore—that is, primitive ships designed to float on water—as well as other less identifiable wreckage. Everything within a hundred metres of the shore had been battered and smashed into rubble. The monster had caused at least one really big wave to come on shore, it seemed.

Well, that wasn't his problem. It was the problem of the people down there, to be sure, but he didn't give a flying Hohmann's-S about their hassles. In fact, he was quite happy to add to them, in the name of adding more profit to his side of the ledger.

Cruising over the city, he marked out his first target. The building belonging to the Parahuman Response Team was exactly where a do-gooder like Geneva would've gone. His downloaded map showed him where that was; as he got closer, his lips skinned back from his teeth in an unholy grin.

"Am I good, or am I a fuckin' god?" he asked out loud. Nobody answered, but that was okay, because they all knew the truth of it. Right there in front of the building, where everyone could see it, was an enclosure just about the right size and shape to hold a ship like the Bond James Bond.

She's trying to hide from me in plain sight, he decided. Geneva wanted him to fly all over the landscape like a blinkered fool looking for her. In the meantime, she'd leave her chameleonware on and wait until his back was turned so she could shoot him from ambush again. He had to admit, it was a good plan. With any lesser man it would've worked. But he was no lesser man. He was Kramer, and that shit did not fly with him.

Angling the nose down, he centred the targeting pipper in the middle of the enclosed area, then triggered both particle beam cannons at once. The street in front of the building erupted in flame and airborne rubble, sending cars flying and shattering the frontage of the building itself. He laughed harshly, retargeting the cannons to take the top two floors clean off the building. For a change, he activated the X-ray laser, sweeping it across the frontage and causing a wide swathe of glass or glass-analogue to shatter and explode away from the building.

Oh, hell yes, he decided. This is the way to go.

No extra space-ship shaped debris came out of the hole he'd gouged in the street, but that was okay. Ensuring that the chameleonware was still cranked up to its highest level—she had to have had a tracker on him the last time—he activated the external speakers.

"PEOPLE OF BROCKTON BAY! MY NAME IS KRAMER, AND I AM CAPTAIN OF THE GAMBLER'S RUIN! YOU CAN CALL ME SIR! I'VE ALREADY MESSED UP YOUR PRT BUILDING! THEY CAN'T HELP YOU! IF SOMEONE DOESN'T TELL ME WHERE TO FIND GENEVA HASTINGS OR THE BOND JAMES BOND BY THE TIME I COUNT TO FIVE, I'M GOING TO LOCATE THE NEXT TALLEST BUILDING IN YOUR PITIFUL EXCUSE FOR A CITY AND LEVEL IT! ONE ..."

He grinned tightly, imagining the scramble down below as they desperately tried to locate that cold-hearted bitch.

"TWO ..."


Sub-Basement Bunker Under the PRT Building
PRT Director Emily Piggot


"Christ!"

Emily had never experienced an earthquake before, but she imagined this must be how one felt. When the floor bucked under her feet, she nearly went down. She was only prevented from falling headlong by Deputy Director Renick's timely assist. Dust sifted down from the ceiling.

"Careful, ma'am." Renick could command a certain amount of dry wit when under stress. "I don't want your job quite yet."

"So noted, Mr. Renick. And thanks." She turned toward the trooper manning the console. "Have we got a fix on him yet?" Every city had banks of missiles in covert bunkers, held in readiness for a high-threat parahuman rising in neighbouring population centres. It was almost unheard-of for such measures to be employed against parahumans within one's city, but she was rapidly running out of other options.

"Negative on the fix, ma'am," he replied crisply. "His stealth is as good as the other craft."

"Alright, understood. Casualties?"

He paused for a moment. "Negative on fatalities," he said with some relief in his voice. "I'm getting reports on minor injuries from falling rubble and burns from a heat-ray. Nothing that can't wait."

"Well, that's some good news," she said with more than a little relief. Every trooper upstairs in the building had volunteered for the job, but she still wouldn't be able to live with herself if she'd sent them to their deaths. "Damage report?"

"Yes, ma'am. They blew a hole in the street right where the enclosure was, then took the top two floors off the building. Then they played their heat-ray across the frontage and destroyed half the window glass. Now …" He flicked a switch, and a voice echoed from the speakers. It was loud and arrogant, and Emily instinctively wanted to smack the owner.

"… FIND GENEVA HASTINGS OR THE BOND JAMES BOND BY THE TIME I COUNT TO FIVE, I'M GOING TO LOCATE THE TALLEST BUILDING IN YOUR PITIFUL EXCUSE FOR A CITY AND LEVEL IT! ONE ... TWO … THREE … FOUR … FIVE … TIME'S UP!"

The voice fell silent, and Emily glanced at Renick. "The tallest? Is that the Forsberg Gallery or …?"

He shook his head.


Medhall Building
Crusader


"Where the hell is it?" snapped Kaiser. The emergency sirens were still sounding, but they weren't as loud as the attack on the PRT building. "I can't see a thing, can you?"

"Goddamn it, we need to open a window." Stormtiger hit the control, and one of the large glass panels around Max's penthouse office hummed open. "Okay, that's better. There's definitely something big out there, and I'm pretty sure it's coming this way. Cricket?"

The muscular woman shook her head and held an artificial larynx to her throat. "It's putting out masking vibrations. I can't get a fix on it."

"Uhh …" Justin was becoming more and more worried by the second. "Didn't that asshole say he was going to level the tallest building in Brockton Bay? Isn't this the tallest building?"

Victor shared a glance with Othala. "That's a very good point." Bending slightly, he scooped his wife up in his arms. "Superspeed, dearest. Now, please." A moment later, they blurred out of the room.

Hookwolf shook his head and sneered. "Wuss. We don't get levelled. We're the ones who level shit."

Justin was over at the doors by now. He had a really bad feeling about this. "Yeah, that's all well and good. But it helps to have something to hit."

"Yeah, it's definitely coming this way." Stormtiger grimaced. "If I'm seeing this right, it's a lot bigger than the other one, too."

"Just give me something to hit," urged Menja, half-drawing her sister's sword.

"Really close now," warned Stormtiger.

"Is it in your range?" Kaiser asked. "Because if it is, hit it!"

Justin didn't dare wait any longer. Bolting to the stairwell, he started down, leaping two or three steps at a time and trusting in his ghosts to catch him if he tripped. He was two flights down when the energy beam took the top of the building clean off, glaring so brightly down the stairwell that he was nearly blinded.

A steel helmet, glowing red-hot, bounced down the stairs past him.

He kept going, plunging recklessly downward, knowing that if he paused for even an instant, the destruction would catch up with him. Floor by floor, the Medhall building was destroyed. The cataclysmic roar deafened him even as smoking rubble fell all around. Screaming in panic, spurred on by the heat on his back, he fled down the stairwell.

When he reached the ground floor, he could barely put one foot in front of the other, but sheer momentum carried him past the long-abandoned security station and out the front door. Staggering, whimpering in terror, he made it down the steps and across the street, where traffic had long since halted and those cars unable to get away had been abandoned by their drivers. When he finally dared turn and look, Medhall was just a scorched and charred heap of rubble, a proud monument to the Anders name brought low.

Did anyone else make it out? He didn't think so.

Sitting on the curb, he had no idea what to do now.


Kramer


Letting out an ugly laugh, Kramer guided the Gambler's Ruin away from the wreckage of the office building. He wasn't sure what had bounced off the hull just before he opened fire, but it hadn't done more than mar the paintwork. These weak primitives couldn't face him, no matter what they tried.

"LET'S TRY THAT AGAIN, SHALL WE?" he broadcast to the city below. "TELL ME WHERE TO FIND GENEVA HASTINGS AND THE BOND JAMES BOND OR I'LL KNOCK EVERY ONE OF YOUR PRETTY LITTLE BUILDINGS INTO FUCKING RUBBLE."

"Uh, sir?" It was Harrison, one of the Golem. "Did we actually give them a way to contact us?"

Kramer paused, realising he hadn't, then snorted. "What do you expect me to do all the work around here? If they were smart, they would've found a way to talk to us by now."

"Scanning local EM-band comms," Harrison reported. "There's several sources, all trying to contact us. At least, repeating your name and the Gambler's Ruin over and over again."

"… oh." Kramer rolled his eyes. "Serves them right for using something so outdated. Any smart civilisation would be using U-space comms by now."

"But we already knew they didn't have—" Harrison began, before Kramer drew his heavy pulse pistol and fired. Everyone recoiled as the shot blew Harrison's head, and the crystal containing the seat of his consciousness, into tiny pieces. Slowly, the Golem's body toppled out of its seat.

"Stop arguing with me!" screamed Kramer, brandishing the pistol. "I'm the boss here. Me! If I say do something, fucking do it! Does anyone not fucking understand that?"

Nobody said a word, which was just the way it should be. Kramer put the pistol away and set a course for the next tallest building. This one seemed to be some kind of art gallery. He grinned savagely; he hated art galleries.

"OKAY, FROM THE TOP, YOU MORONS," he broadcast. "TELL ME WHERE SHE IS, OR I KNOCK THIS ONE DOWN TOO. THREE ..."


Geneva


"TWO ..."

Using her aug, Geneva activated the exterior speakers.

"One."

Even as she said the word, she triggered the particle beam cannon. While not as powerful as the paired particle beams on the Gambler's Ruin, it packed more punch than either one individually. As such, it ignored the smuggler's chameleonware and punched clear through the bolted-on weapon nacelles; in one side and out the other.

The Gambler's Ruin bucked as something exploded inside it, and smoke poured out the hole Geneva's shot had made. She wasn't paying attention to that, as she glanced across to Dinah. The precog was ready, and spoke as fast as she could. "Eighty-four-point-nine-six-three!"

That was a go signal; Geneva panned across the fuselage of the damaged ship until her targeting pipper hit the right spot, and she fired again. This time there was no smoke or fire or explosion, but the shot blasted into a specific cargo hold, blowing its contents out the other side. Contents that included one wrapped-for-transit Simurgh, which threw off the wrapping and hung there in mid-air, glaring back at the Bond James Bond.

"WHAT THE FUCK? WHERE DID YOU COME FROM?" A tirade of profanity echoed across the city.

Geneva ignored the words and had the chin turret shred Kramer's X-ray laser array. Beside her, Dinah grabbed a targeting joystick and closed her eyes. The particle beam cannon and the maser array fired shot after shot at the hovering winged woman; the Simurgh tried to evade, but each shot found its target anyway. Feathers flew off, and one of the alabaster woman's legs vanished altogether.

"Surrender now, or you die." Geneva knew he wouldn't, but she had to make the offer. "I'll take you back to the Polity to face justice, but you'll get to live."

"YEAH, THAT'LL HAPPEN. I DON'T FUCKIN' THINK. COUNTER-OFFER: YOU SURRENDER TO ME RIGHT NOW OR I DROP A CTD."

There was no doubt in Geneva's mind that he was capable of it. Kramer had never been the most stable of individuals, and under the influence of this 'Simurgh', he was entirely unbalanced.

But there was one tiny detail.

"You can't, can you?" she riposted. "You used your last one to get here. You idiot. How were you planning to get back? By going into cryo and waiting?" It was one of the other bits of information that Johnson had passed along.

"YOU UNBELIEVABLE BITCH!" he raved. "OKAY, YOU'VE ASKED FOR IT. OVERLOADING ENGINES."

Now, this could be a problem if she let it. Letting fusion engines go too far off the safe readings threatened an explosion that would incinerate the entire region. Yet another data point to show how far gone he was.

However, there was a solution. Any explosion needed to be contained, at least for a short while, before being released. Puncture the containment prematurely and …

Sean, back off now please. Out loud, she warned, "Brace for impact!"

On it, lass.

Watching the readouts in her mind's eye, she targeted his engines. Kramer continued to laugh wildly. The moment the Bond James Bond passed the safe threshold for the incipient detonation, she fired.

When the Gambler's Ruin engines went up, the fireball consumed the entire ship. Down below, the overpressure wave shattered windows and dealt even more incidental damage to the battered city. Here and there, charred debris fell out of the sky.

The Bond James Bond bucked and pitched as the blast wave passed over it, but with Sean's virtual hand on the controls, no harm was done. In the cabin, the effects were minimised by the artificial gravity, so they barely felt a jolt.

The Gambler's Ruin was no more, and Kramer with it.


Simurgh


This was annoying. Each time she attempted to evade the constant attacks from the hovering ship, she was outguessed and more of her outer body was destroyed. However, her aim had been achieved; the second interloper was no longer a player on the board. The elements which it had threatened to introduce to Earth Bet would have potentially destabilised everything. Guiding them into a self-destructive course had been even easier than she had anticipated.

Of course, there was the first ship to deal with now as well. Her brother had reported its sheer destructive capability, which should make the game more interesting going forward. Or perhaps she should claim it for herself; the improved technology would make achieving her aims much easier in the long run.

Also, she was getting tired of being shot at so effectively.

However, just as she was about to move in on it, a portal opened and her progenitor/adversary emerged, along with his two companions. They arrowed in her direction, clearly ready to do battle.

This was not a time to press the attack. There would always be another opportunity.

She withdrew from the field of battle. Let them think they'd driven her away.

She knew better.


Geneva


"Whew." Relaxing in her command chair, Geneva turned and gave Dinah a pat on the shoulder. "Well, that was a thing. Hey, good going there. Nice shooting."

"Ugghhh …" Dinah's face was scrunched up. "Headache. Pushed too hard. Hurts."

"Hey. Hey, hey, hey." Concern flooding through her, Geneva unbuckled and scooped Dinah out of her seat. "Sean, warm up the autodoc. Possible neural overload."

"On it, lass. Alexandria wants a word, too."

"Let her on board. I'll be back in a moment." She hustled back to the tiny surgery and laid Dinah on the bed. "You'll be okay, kiddo. You did real good today."

As the mechanism enclosed the girl's form—crap damn it, why does this world insist on making soldiers of its kids?—Geneva checked the readouts. She was fully aware that Sean would have a sub-mind overseeing the whole process, but she wanted to know for herself as well.

There were definitely signs of neural overstressing there. She called up the initial scan the autodoc had made when they put her through the first time, and they were present there as well. Coil had almost certainly been pushing her to use her future-sight more than was healthy for her, all while under the influence of drugs.

If I ever get the chance, I'm going to hunt that slimeball down and put a pulse pistol shot between his eyebrows.

"Relax and recover," she told the already semi-conscious girl. "We got it from here." The autodoc put Dinah further under as Geneva watched, carefully massaging the girl's abused neural tissue with soothing subsonic vibrations.

Knowing there was nothing else she could do for Dinah at the moment, she turned and went out to meet with Alexandria … who, she also knew, was Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown. Both of them were aware the other knew it, and both politely ignored the fact. "Alexandria," she said. "Sorry about the mess. Mistakes were made."

"On both sides, as I understand." Alexandria nodded. "It's good to see you again, Captain Hastings. I'm impressed; you've managed to drive off two Endbringers in as many days."

"I'm pretty sure it was a team effort both times," Geneva countered. "Sorry about Kramer. I knew he was an idiot, but not that much of one."

"Understood." Ignoring the rest of the passengers in the cabin, Alexandria tilted her head toward where Johnson was manacled to a modified acceleration chair. The manacles were more of a reminder for him not to move than an actual attempt to hold him in place. "Is that the hooper I was told about? Why is he still alive?"

"He's not affected by the Simurgh, for reasons we're still figuring out," Geneva said. "Kramer tried to kill him because of that. I rescued him and got valuable intel on the Gambler's Ruin. He's been cooperative, so he gets to live."

"He does have a kill order on his head." But Alexandria's tone was mild, and she didn't make a move toward him.

"In Earth Bet North America, yes." Geneva didn't bend an inch. She knew damn well the superhero was testing her. "On board this ship is Polity territory, and I'm taking him back for trial. If he sets foot outside the airlock, you can have him. In here, he's my prisoner."

"Understood." Alexandria nodded. "Well, I'll leave you to it. There's damage to be dealt with."

Geneva returned the gesture. "Yeah, Kramer's always been like that."

She watched as the airlock door closed behind Alexandria, then followed the superhero on the sensors as she flew down to start moving rubble. Only then did Geneva let out the sigh of tension she'd been holding.

The sooner I get out of this place, the better.


Purity's Apartment


Kayden looked around from changing Aster as the doorbell rang. "Theo, can you get that?"

With only a minor grumble, her stepson heaved himself off the sofa and went over to the front door. She finished fastening the diaper while listening with one ear to what was going on.

"Oh, hey," said Theo. "Wow, come in, come in." He raised his voice a little. "It's Justin!"

"Justin?" Kayden had seen the destruction of the Medhall building on the news. She'd been trying to reach everyone she knew, but all the phones had rang out. Picking up Aster, she hurried into the living room.

Justin looked terrible. From the lines on his face, he'd aged twenty years in just a few hours, and his eyes were bloodshot. "Kayden." Even his voice was hoarse and raspy.

Without speaking, Kayden handed Aster over to Theo. He took the baby, still staring at Justin. She'd seen this before, but not often. "Justin, come here."

He went to her hug, and she held him close. "I only just got out." Shuddering in her arms, he clung to her. "I thought I was going to die."

"Shh, shh." She began to rub gentle circles on his back as she guided him over to the sofa. Sitting down with him, she asked softly, "Do you know if anyone else got out?"

His head jerked spasmodically as he stuttered. "V-Vic-Victor and Othala. Th-they left before me. Kaiser … I saw his helmet. It was glowing. Dead. They're all dead."

As she cradled him in her arms, he began to weep, softly and brokenly.

Well, shit, she thought. What do I do now?


boxy: small fish that inhabit the oceans of Spatterjay. It has evolved a cube-like shape, and its skeleton (containing the vital organs within its hollow bones) can be pulled out and tossed overboard to swim away.

Old Captain: A hooper who has spent the last couple of centuries captaining a sailing ship on the seas of Spatterjay. They are very tough, very strong, and extremely resourceful.


End of Part Twelve