I was waiting in the backyard of a burnt-out house on the north side of town when Squatter came to get me. He was a good forty minutes late, time I’d spent brainstorming album cover concepts. Right now I had a wicked sketch of Dracula the Red conducting a band made of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln impaled on spikes. The back door of the building swung open, Squatter standing backlit in the threshold.
I held out the sketch for him to look at. “How do you like it?”
He squinted. “Lincoln should be on guitar because he used an axe.” He reeked of weed. “You ready to go?” Squatter shut the door behind him. Then he reopened it, revealing a horrible-smelling apartment somewhere in New York City. Squatter had the power to travel between abandoned properties, which often meant hanging around the homes of the recently deceased.
“Damn, you’re right. Yeah, I guess.” I tucked the notebook into my pocket, grabbing my backpack and my duffel. My buddy Tooms had said to pack for a long trip. He’s Schilling’s contact in St. Louis, which means he speaks up for us if we need something from her, and he gets to deliver the bad news when she needs something from us. I was feeling pumped, though. What’s the point of being in a super-powered resistance if you never see any action? Not that there wasn’t plenty of action at home, of course. But who doesn’t love field trips?
We stepped into the apartment living room, where you could see a single dead hand poking into view through the bedroom door frame. “Should we call somebody? Get her picked up?”
“Leave ‘er,” Squatter said sadly. “As soon as her people find her and divvy this place up it’ll be off my RADAR.” He closed the door behind us, then opened it again. This time it opened up exactly where it was supposed to- into the hallway outside the apartment. “HQ’s five blocks North, three blocks East underneath Dawnbreak Books. It’s late and you look sketch as hell, so you’ll have to take the hatch beneath the dumpster in the alley.”
“Who says war ain’t glamorous?”
“Schilling doesn’t want war yet,” Squatter warned.
“Heh. Bigley’s patient, right?”
The smell was starting to get overpowering at that point, so we said our goodbyes and I made my way towards the alley. He was probably right that I looked sketch as hell. There’s a delicate balance to traveling as a young, super-powered woman in a strange city. If you’re too dangerous looking, you may end up having to hurt a cop. If you’re not dangerous looking enough, you may even end up having to hurt some other creep. That’s why I like the biker get-up. It’s iconic enough that I could be a super-powered rebel assassin, but plausibly deniable enough that I could just be some biker home from a trip. End result- a little extra scrutiny in exchange for a wide berth. Just walk cool.
Finding the secret hatch behind the dumpster proved easy enough. Some kid in stained sweatpants and a shabbily-patched blazer was hauling two giant cages full of rats out of the thing when I arrived. He set the cages down just so he could shoot me a pair of finger-guns as I approached. “Deathoscope, I presume.”
“Yup.” I looked him up and down. He was probably homeless, definitely a dweeb, but not one of those dweebs that knows they’re a dweeb, which made him The Worst.
“Let me guess… evil mouthwash powers?”
“Sure. Was gonna go by the Gargle-goyle but saying it too fast makes me gag.”
He nodded. “Righteous. Ambassador Ratman, nice to meet you.” We shook hands. His palms were sticky. Not fresh-sticky, but low-grade, chronic, taken-for-granted sticky. He paused, and perked one ear to the side. “Also, Schilling is complaining that you’re late. We both better hustle.” With that, he grabbed a cage full of rats in each of his hands and leapt straight into the sky.
The hatch was long and deep and slippery, eventually widening into a vast bunker of caved-in concrete, twisted rebar and medusaflesh. I’d arrived onto some kind of stage, set with a massive oak table and three seated.
At the head sat Winnifred Schilling, the closest thing the Posse Communitatus has to a leader. I still remember the days before Schilling signed on. We were definitely more radical back then, both in our goals and our deeds. We had also been a lot more rag-tag. Schilling brought organization, and more importantly, cash.
Towards my left there was seated a man dressed neck-to-toe in black, balding and slightly pudgy, skin glowing like some fucked up computer. To my right sat a seriously deformed little guy wearing a robins egg blue track suit.
“Well what have we here?” monitor-man asked as I walked in. He had a sleazy look in his eye, a bit like some of the divorced dads down by the Safeway. I sacrificed one second to scream internally. Whoever this guy was, I already couldn’t wait to shoot him in the head.
“Evening,” Schilling said, thin arms crossed. Up close she looked like a witch in the grips of chemotherapy, oxygen mask barely concealing a permanent scowl. Her eyes hadn’t seen a full four hours of sleep in as many days, one partially clouded with cataracts. “This is Jereme and Squirt. I’m not calling you by that ridiculous street-name Tooms provided, so you’d better have a Christian one ready.”
“Is Squirt that guy’s Christian name?” I pointed to the kid in the tracksuit.
“Does that look like something a Christian God would make?”
“Fair point.” Is it possible to be cute in a kind of Cronenberg way? The guy looked a bit like a blue-pale Charlie Brown, bald head nearly as large as the squat little body it rested on. He even had a button nose and big fat baby cheeks. The only thing that ruined it was the eyes. One stared dead into space, half-closed with the pupil dilated. The other… well, there’s no good way to put this. The other ‘eye’ was the biggest sphincter I’d ever seen in my life, and it had this grey tendril of slime just… whippin’ around outside of it, like a snake tasting the air.
But other than that, cute kid. “Give us a name and take a seat.”
“Kori.” I set my backpack and duffel down, grabbing the closest chair.
“Alright, Jereme. Would you please kindly explain your mess for these… persons?”
He gave her the side-eye as he steepled his fingers. “Yes, ma’am. Ahem. A couple of weeks ago the Posse’s ally Doctor Bugman approached us with an opportunity. His monsters had managed to commandeer an IntElect singularium, only for one to rise up and overthrow him. He offered the Posse access on the condition we help him get his monsters back.”
“Now tell them the part where you were stupid.”
“We don’t even know- hrmph! Okay.” Safeway Dad- or ‘Jereme’ as he was allegedly named- cracked his knuckles in agitation. “So. For completely intelligent, rational, maybe even genius reasons I saw this as a chance to bring an old ally back into the fold. I’d heard tell one of our former members had joined up with the Sugar Plum Fairy Corps. I figure, sugar powers are the perfect thing for wooing a swarm of man-bees, right? And once Mina saw the good we’d been doing under Fred’s leadership, she’d sign back up with her snazzy sugar staff.”
“A worthless stick compared to the tech on the singularium, and not even one that Mina herself owns.”
“Yes. Thank you. As Fred has so graciously indicated, we’ve hit a snag. Dr. Bugman was supposed to contact us as soon as the operation was over, but we haven’t heard back from the crew in nearly a fortnight-”
Schilling arched an eyebrow skeptically.
He sighed. “We haven’t heard back in nearly two weeks, and signals from the man-bees’ tracking devices show they’ve landed on an island in the Pacific. Either they can’t make it back to us, or they won’t.”
“Is it possible the doc decided he doesn’t need you guys now that he has his man-bees and a flying science island?” I asked.
“Not likely,” Fred wheezed. “Unless Bugman’s changed his mind about… certain collateral.”
“The Sugar Plum Fairy Corps was not a secure alliance,” Squirt observed. “They fear the Regime too much.”
“Mina’s hardly afraid of anything,” Jereme protested. “If anything, that… uppity stick-girl she’s working with probably talked her out of it.”
Fred waved a hand dismissively. “The Fairy Corps doesn’t recruit for grit. Besides which, they haven’t taken the singularium straight to the white house, either. Brundelzebuub and his man-bees most likely overpowered them.”
“But then why not take it to the mountain?” Jereme asked.
“It’s possible they’ve learned to manufacture candy on-board. Earth could be ass-deep in man-bees by Christmas. Excellent news, if the damn things were still under our control.” She gestured towards Squirt. “That’s your cue, mister.”
He squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. “The queen-signal is optimized, but unsatisfactory. Once it’s in place we should be able to reactivate the man-bees’ radiosensitive pheromonal programming, override their minds and take control as originally planned… but we’ll need to find an exterior power source on the vessel.”
“Right. Plug in the doohickey and do the thing first, Squirt. You got me? With the man-bees under our command we should be able to handle Bugman’s other monsters. Make sure to take down the hell-bug that started this mess.”
“What do we do with Mina if she’s still on-board?”
“Mina. Christ. Make her understand if you can. Bribe her to stay out of our way if you have to. If that doesn’t work… Well, don’t do anything unnecessary.”
“Alright, Kori, want to explain how the boys are getting in?”
“Magic carpet ride, maybe?” Jereme asked. His eyebrows wiggled in a uniquely repulsive dance.
“Let’s let it be a surprise,” I said. “It’s basically teleportation, though. Line of sight. It can go through walls, but unless this place has got windows we’ll be firing blind, so you better pop in ready to rumble.”
“I like to think of myself as one of those born-ready types,” Jereme replied.
* * * * * * *
“So, is there a Mrs. Squirt?” The slightly undead-looking Charlie Brown kid was in the pilot’s seat, that grey tendril of his stuck directly into the plane’s console, edges consolidating into a mess of wires spliced into the controls.
His regular eye barely turned my way as he responded. “My physical sex is an expression of my chemo-digital whims,” he replied.
“Not what I was asking, but same.” Conversation had been like that for most of the ride. Jereme, thankfully, had respected the ‘fuck-off’ vibe I tried to throw his way, and spent the whole ride sleeping, figuring it might be his last chance for a while.
When we arrived at the source of the signal, there was nothing but a clear beach with not a man-bee in sight. “Do you think something happened to their trackers?” I asked.
“Ssshhhh…” Squirt said gently. He curled his tendril back into his head, the wires at its ends melting back into grey goo. When it extruded back out of his face, its tip had reconfigured into a black box about the size of a loaf of bread, its surface dotted with tiny MatronLite™ projectors.
They began to fire bright beams of different colors, some going up individually while others converged into pyramids of light. “Some kind of cloaking device…” he whispered. Then, “There. We’re in the right spot.” The strange box disappeared and soon we were landing on a nearby hill.
“What was that?” I asked.
“MatronTek metaspectrometer,” he murmured, eye still on the controls. The plane touched down. “They still haven’t mastered any of the singularium’s finer systems, it looks like. They’re impervious to the visible spectrum but the ship is fully materialized. Should be like hitting the broad side of a barn once I give you the coordinates.”
“Excellent. Spit the numbers at me while I set up my shot.” I grabbed my duffel and began to climb off of the plane.
“What do you mean exactly, shot?” Jereme asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, unzipping the duffel. The sniper rifle inside was matte black with a dark red skull emblazoned on the butt. I began to assemble it while Squirt and Jereme made their way off the plane.
Jereme continued to pester me like that until the shot was set up, huffing and puffing as he lugged two large black briefcases. It was a bit spooky- and to be honest, anti-climactic- shooting blind like this. There was virtually no chance of missing the singularium if it was really as large as Squirt said, invisible or not. The main challenge would be making sure the guys ended up somewhere near each other without being able to use the singularium itself as a reference. “You two ready to roll?” I asked.
They nodded. Jereme had some kind of minor shape-shifting power. I’m guessing it was people-only, because he had turned into some random buff guy rather than a dragon or a bear or anything like that.
Squirt was still Squirt, but the grey tendril dangling out from his face had branched into a tangle of prehensile tranquilizer darts, fang-lined tentacles and electric eels. I figured it’d be best to do him first. He looked scarier and you never know how people are going to react to this sort of thing. “Alright, Squirt. Line on up. Go ahead and just sit down with the back of your head against the barrel of the gun.”
“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh no,” Jereme whispered as Squirt calmly walked over and knelt before the rifle.
“Relax,” Squirt said, glancing at Jereme through the eyes of an electric eel.
I fired. The bullet exploded from the rifle barrel and directly into Squirt’s bulbous head. Black and turquoise flame blazed upon impact, and when it subsided Squirt’s head had been completely incinerated The bullet disappeared into the invisible walls of the singularium, where Squirt was presumably reforming from a similar gout of blue-black fire.
His headless body slumped forward onto the ground. “Line on up!” I chirped.
“You heard the little man, relax.” Careful not to disrupt the rifle, I stood up and walked behind Jereme. I placed my hands on his back and gave a gentle push. He began to trot in front of me, eyes still fixed on Squirt, mouth still babbling about whatever. The trick was to move slowly, without rocking him from his daze. He sat in front of the barrel of the rifle, foot brushing the body. “Don’t forget these.” I wrapped his fingers around the briefcases.
“Murder,” he whimpered. I fired. Black and turquoise flames shot a meter into the air, leaving a charred neck behind.