The Climactic Battle
“What’s going on?” Kyle asked.
Toni and Two-Bug both seemed tense, watching something through the windshield. Neither turned as he entered.
A massive figure paced the open space between the rig and Prodigy’s vehicle. It had unkempt white fur and stood nearly fifteen feet tall. It stared at the cabin with undisguised hatred.
“That your friend Whip?” said Two-Bug.
“Yeah,” said Kyle, not bothering to hide his surprise. “Where the hell did he come from?”
Toni twitched a finger to the left. About a hundred yards away, well past Prodigy’s huge ride, was a blue SUV.
“Showed up a few minutes ago,” she said. “Little alien-looking guy got out, naked as a jaybird, and gradually turned into that ugly thing.”
“U07,” Two-Bug observed, using the call sign the FPA had assigned to Whip. “He’s still growing.”
He was right. Even as Warp watched, U07 increased noticeably in height, gaining at least six inches. As his stature increased, so did his aggression. He bared his teeth and screamed at the rig.
“He rushed us two minutes ago,” said Toni, pointing to the driver’s side. “Punched the window.”
Kyle examined the damage, a starburst pattern in the glass.
“Hope he broke his damn hand,” Toni muttered.
“I thought you dropped a rock on that guy?” Two-Bug said.
“Damn right I did,” Kyle said. He leaned forward, squinting through the frosted windshield. He watched Whip as he rage-stalked back and forth across the snow-dusted pavement.
“You see the back of his head when he turns?” he said.
“Yeah, I saw it,” said Two-Bug. “Blood spatter. On his neck and shoulders.”
“I definitely hit him. I got a glimpse of him on the ground afterwards. Skull fracture or concussion, at the very least.”
“Then what’s he doing prancing around buck naked in front of me?” said Toni, averting her gaze in disgust. She poked Kyle’s shoulder. “What are you waiting for? Get out there and hit that ugly mother with another rock.”
“Silas must have sent the SUV to retrieve him,” Kyle said. “I have to say, he doesn’t look so good.”
It was true. U07 was shaking his head like a dog in pain. As Kyle watched him, he briefly lost his balance and nearly stumbled.
“How is that dude still standing, and not in a hospital?” asked Two-Bug.
Kyle reflected on the icy minutes he’d spent on his knees, a puppet to Prodigy’s whims. You are now a tool of my will, he’d said. When you cease to be such an instrument, your life will cease to have meaning.”
“Silas,” Kyle said. “He’s controlling Whip, and he doesn’t care how broken he is. He’s putting him in play regardless.”
“Damn,” said Two-Bug. There was something almost like sympathy in his voice. “Whip must be in agony.”
“I’m sure he is,” says Kyle. “Silas doesn’t care. Whip is just another tool. They all are. He’ll sacrifice every one of them without a second thought if it gets him what he wants.”
“What he wants…” said Toni. “You mean Haste, Alicia Brazil? What does he want with her?”
Kyle wasn’t sure how to describe the conversation he’d just had with Haste. Looking back, he wasn’t at all confident he could do it justice.
Simple explanations were the best, he decided. “We can’t let him get his hands on Alicia,” he said. “If he can psychically take control of her, he’ll be unstoppable.”
Two-Bug and Toni both gaped at him. “Is she that dangerous?” asked Toni.
“She’s that dangerous.”
“Okay,” said Two-Bug. He nodded grimly. “Then we seal up the rig. Hole up inside and force them to come to us. We fight for every inch, and hold out until the Davenport team gets here.”
“For an hour?” said Toni, shaking her head.
Kyle stared through the windshield, watching the wind rearrange the thin layer of snow on the asphalt. He thought of Haste’s final message to him. BELIEVE, hand-stenciled on a three-by-five inch note card.
That’s what it came down to, Kyle knew. Because if he could accept that Haste really could see the future, that it all wasn’t some parlor trick, then he had to believe that she knew how the battle turned out. Could it really be possible that they actually might survive this? That he’d have a chance to kick Prodigy’s ass?
As that thought bounced around in his head, he considered that death might not be all that bad. If he could kick Prodigy in the head, just one time, he might die a happy man.
“We go out,” Kyle said.
“What?” said Toni.
“You can’t be serious,” said Two-Bug.
“We meet them on the battlefield,” said Kyle. “There’s no point hiding away in here, letting Silas call the shots from the safety of his pimpmobile. We take the battle to him. Keep him off balance, keep him scared. Keep them away from the rig, and Haste, as long as possible.”
Toni looked uncertain, but he could see Two-Bug was considering. Two-Bug eyed Whip through the windshield.
“You think One-Bug can take that butt-ugly thing?” Kyle asked him.
“I don’t know.” Two-Bug smiled. “But I know he damn well wants to try.”
Kyle straightened, stretching his spine. “Then let’s give him a shot. Suit up.”
Two-Bug started to zip up. When Toni reached for her jacket, Kyle said, “You ready for this? It might get bloody out there.”
“Hell yes, Warp,” she said, using his call sign. “I’m looking forward to it.”
She stretched out her right arm, fingers splayed out. Warp moved back instinctively, and not a moment too soon.
As she curled her fingers together, one by one, a wicked looking blade manifested in her right hand, assembling out of shadow and sheer will. It was over three feet long, straight-edged, and with a wide blade. Array held it firmly, her body very still.
Warp glanced down at her left leg, almost unconsciously. Below the knee, Array’s leg was a permanent prosthesis of titanium steel built by Black Signal’s Special Projects Group.
Five years ago, when her powers were still new, Array had been ambushed in a parking lot by three PIPs led by Vice, the notoriously violent enforcer for the underground tech billionaire Patrick Vance. Vance had tracked the steady drain of funds from his Bahama accounts to a solo hacker in Dallas, and Vice and his team were there to exact retribution. What they found instead was a steel-eyed PIP who knew how to defend herself.
In the moment of the ambush, knocked to her feet and badly bloodied by Vice’s ethereal whip, surrounded by three men who’d been instructed to toy with their victim, Array had manifested her blade in a single fluid motion. In that breathless instant she accidentally severed her own leg.
When the Dallas Police Department arrived thirteen minutes later, they found Vice and one of his associates. Both had been cleanly severed in half at the waist. They arrested the third man four blocks away, mostly by following the blood trail. He told them their attacker had been a woman with a blade. She shouldn’t be hard to find, he said. She was missing her left leg below the knee.
Dallas PD never found the mystery attacker. Vance never recovered his money, though he never really stopped trying. Array had joined the Black Signal Group, where she’d found a home for her many talents. And, as she was fond of saying, finally found a new leg. She added to her legend during her time with Black Signal, but Kyle never forgot the stories told of that Dallas parking lot, and the warrior who’d coolly faced down three killers with one leg. That was the woman he knew.
Array pulled on a pair of black leather gloves, and handed each of them an earpiece. She strapped a custom scabbard to her back; it would fit her blade nicely. Warp had seen her wield it many times, and always with lethal precision. As she stared through the windshield, grim resolve settled on her features. Warp was very glad he’d have her at his side.
He slipped the earpiece in his ear and adjusted it. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Warp was first out of the door. The cold was almost bracing, a jolt to the system. He climbed down quickly and stepped away from the rig. Array followed. Two-Bug was last out, moving slowly. Warp tried not to notice how much he was limping.
“What’s the plan?” he heard Array say in his left ear.
What was the plan?, Warp thought. In the presence of so many unknowns, he decided it was best to stick to certainties. What was the one thing Haste had said would happen?
“We find Silas,” he said. “And we kick his ass.”
“I love this plan,” said Two-Bug approvingly.
“Toni, you hang back, see if you can eavesdrop on their comms, make sure no one approaches the rig. Two-Bug, we work our way to the big vehicle, force Silas out.”
“And then we bring the pain,” said Two-Bug.
“Then we bring the pain,” Warp agreed.
The wind had settled somewhat, but if anything the air had gotten colder. It was quiet enough that Warp could hear the crunch of ice beneath his boots as they fanned out in front of the rig.
From here he could see that there were three figures on the ground. In addition to Whip there were two smaller opponents, huddled together next to the blue SUV U07 had arrived in. One was short and wiry, with the body of a gymnast, her features hidden behind a wide white mask. The other was tall and burley, heavily bearded and built like a wrestler.
U07 was still pacing about a hundred feet from the rig, and he took notice of the arrival of adversaries for the first time. His head came up and he bared his teeth.
“Hey, Whip!” Warp called. “How you been, buddy?”
U07 screamed in rage. Warp saw blood dripping down his neck.
“Any advice on how to tangle with this guy?” Two-Bug said in his ear.
“Might be best to take him from the air,” said Array. “Kyle?”
“I dunno,” Warp said, staring at the blood on U07’s fur. “If I kick this guy in the skull again, I’ll probably kill him.”
“Jesus,” muttered Array. She gripped her blade with steady hands. “Save me from bleeding hearts. Two-Bug, just kill this fucking ape already.”
Two-Bug shot Warp an amused look. “Yes Ma’am,” he said. “Whatever you say.”
Warp watched the others approach. “Eyes up,” he said. “Anybody ID these other two assholes?”
“Don’t know the big guy,” said Array. “But the little one is called Sly. She fights like a cat.”
“She looks like a cat,” said Warp.
It was true. She scampered forward, almost on all fours, and something that looked very much like a tail twitched across her back. Her mask, which concealed her entire face, was painted with catlike features.
Array had already selected her opponent. “The kitty’s mine,” she said, sword at the ready.
“One-Bug and I got the big snowman,” said Two-Bug, moving to intercept U07.
That left the wrestler for Warp. “Keep an eye out for Silas,” he said as he walked forward. “And if either of you get the chance, break a piece off that vehicle. Take the fight to him, first chance you get.”
“Roger that,” said Two-Bug.
Warp sized up his opponent as he approached, not sure what to make of him. He was bigger than he’d first appeared. Easily seven feet tall, he was outfitted with a lot of bling, including a golden headpiece and a matching pendant on his chest. He was striding forward purposefully, eyes fixed on Warp.
“You get product endorsement fees for that stuff?” Warp asked when he got close enough.
The big guy wasn’t a conversationalist. He looked like a linebacker with a tackle on his mind, and he closed the distance in seconds. Warp dropped into a crouch and braced for impact. In the seconds before they collided he subtly brought his powers to bear, lifting himself two inches off the ground.
The man slammed into him with irresistible force. If he’d had his feet planted, he’d probably have been flattened. Instead Warp put up no resistance, focusing on floating frictionlessly above the asphalt. The startled look on his opponent’s face was almost comical as Warp slid backwards like a hockey puck, and the attempt at a tackle quickly faltered. They stumbled to a stop forty feet from their starting position.
“Don’t talk much, do you?” said Warp.
The man had stopped charging. He disentangled from Warp, rolled his shoulders and dropped into a wrestling pose.
“I'm gonna jam my foot up your ass,” he said, “and wear you like a pair of flip-flops.”
“I hope you’re a size six,” said Warp. “Got a name?”
“Athena,” said the man.
“Memorable,” said Warp agreeably. “What’s up with the fancy headpiece?”
The gem in the middle of Athena’s headband was pulsing. It was getting brighter, emitting piercing flashes of vibrant color, and Warp averted his eyes just before it flared painfully.
The flash of light was an explosive force. It punched Warp in the chest, lifting him off his feet and sending him flying. He barely recovered in time to prevent cracking his head on the pavement, using his abilities to cushion his fall and get his feet back under him. The blow badly disoriented him, and he scrambled to regain his footing.
“What the fuck was that?” he said, as soon as he could speak. He blinked away spots.
“Just a little juice,” said Athena, from somewhere over his shoulder. “Don’t worry. Plenty more where that came from.”
The world was spinning violently. Warp stumbled backwards, before forcing himself to stop moving and inhale deeply. He was rewarded almost immediately with a lessening of the dizziness threatening to overwhelm him. The horizon was losing its tilt, and everything was swimming back into focus.
Athena’s hand gripped his shoulder, wrenching him around. The man loomed over him, an entirely satisfied smile on his face.
“Don’t move,” he said. “It’ll be over soon.”
It was instinct more than anything. One moment he was planted firmly on the ground, the next he was plunging into the black winter sky at full speed. As he left the earth he snapped his legs up like a diver. His knees struck Athena’s chin with bone-breaking force, lifting the man three feet into the air.
Athena executed a neat backflip before crashing face-first to the ground. Warp had gained nearly eighty feet before he looked down to see Athena’s limp form sprawled on the blacktop, blood spatter radiating out from a broken nose. Athena didn’t move again.
One down, Warp thought, as surprised as he was satisfied. Skating above the fray, he turned his attention to the remaining skirmishes.
One-Bug had manifested, as he always did when Two-Bug was in danger. For all his posturing and aggression, Whip had proven surprisingly cautious, circling the two of them warily. U07 seemed to have stopped growing, but at some seventeen feet, he still towered over Warp’s companions. He crouched low, his long arms outreached and grasping, his broken black nails scoring the rough pavement. Two-Bug looked apprehensive but One-Bug, as always, seemed cool and collected, watching his adversary, waiting for an opening.
Warp was about to swoop down and come to their aid when he heard the sound of clashing steel. To his left, he glimpsed Array and Sly leaping over the snow, darting back and forth, locked in a constantly moving battle. He dropped altitude, drifting in their direction, watching for long seconds. My God, he thought, shaking his head in amazement.
He and Athena had been lumbering oxes compared to these two. They fought like dueling trapeze artists, perpetually in motion, spinning through the air with death bare inches away. Array attacked with a long blade; Sly used her claws, and parried Array’s flashing strikes with a short metal knife. Their constant feints, lunges, and lightning fast strikes were almost too quick to follow with the naked eye.
Warp drifted lower, lower. Neither combatant gave sign that they’d noticed him yet. On the surface Array seemed to have a slight edge; she had longer reach, and was absolutely fearless with that blade, attacking with a flurry of strikes that seemed impossible to dodge.
But Sly was untouchable. Her resemblance to a cat wasn’t just cosmetic; she was catlike in her movements as well, right down to her uncanny reflexes. She leaped higher and further than possible for a mere mortal, and coiled along her back was a long metallic tail that gave her inhuman balance and poise. She dodged midair attacks in a manner that strongly implied she’d also inherited a cat’s nine lives.
Warp hovered, waiting for an opening. It came sooner than he expected. Array feinted left, forcing Sly back on one foot; with the flair of a master springing a trap, Array lunged forward, unleashing a tight sequence of strikes. Her sword flashed. Sly backpedaled, parrying widely, but in her haste she stumbled. Array didn’t hesitate; aiming a brutal strike at her left foot.
Sly leaped backwards blindly. The leap turned into a fall, and the fall into a roll. When it ended Sly was on all fours, a hissing bundle of fur and rage, spitting inarticulately at Array. She was completely flatfooted and, most damning of all, in no position to defend from an attack from above.
He came in boots-first, a fast-falling attack that would pin her, and probably crack half her ribs in the process. He fell without a sound.
“Kyle, no!!” Array shouted.
Sly reacted faster than he’d ever seen a human being move. Just before he landed, slamming both boots into the small of her back, she sprang to the right. Warp hit the pavement with a bone-jarring impact that hammered through his knees and rang a gong of pain in his hips.
Before he’d even registered what had happened Sly pounced, climbing him like a squirrel racing up a tree. She scampered over his face and shoulders, launching herself to safety. As a memento of their brief time together she raked her razor-sharp claws savagely over his face, scratching his cheeks and forehead and just missing his right eye. He grabbed for her blindly.
He overreached, losing his balance. He would have slammed face first into the blacktop if Array hadn’t appeared out of nowhere. He outweighed her by a good sixty pounds, but she caught him effortlessly and lowered him into an embarrassed heap.
“I can’t believe you fell for that,” she said. She’d already released him, and was standing at the ready, eyes alert for the next attack.
Warp’s hands found his face, slick with blood. “What –??” was all he could manage.
“She suckered you,” Array said coldly. “Didn’t you see her tail position, ready for the jump?”
“No,” Warp admitted. “Seriously, what the hell just happened?”
“You’re an idiot,” said Array. Her eyes fell on Sly again, where she coiled coyly on the pavement, tail twitching, watching them expectantly.
Array moved towards her. “Let me deal with this,” she said, giving Warp a final glance. “Get back in the air where you belong.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. He climbed to his feet, took a resigned breath, and was back in the air five seconds later, leaving nothing on the ground but a smattering of blood drops.
When Warp reached sixty feet, he took stock of the battlefield. One-Bug and Whip were in the thick of it. They’d stopped the feints and the posturing, and Whip had finally made a move on One-Bug, reaching out with his unnaturally long fingers. He’d quickly discovered that One-Bug was a lot stronger and more formidable than he looked.
At first glance, the melee was spectacularly one-sided. Whip outweighed One-Bug by at least two thousand pounds. His broken black talons were five inches long, and his mouth was filled with long yellow fangs. The only thing One-Bug carried was a slender eighteen-inch machete, and it looked very ineffectual indeed as Whip towered ten feet above him.
But One-Bug wielded the blade with unnatural speed and ferocity. As Whip grasped for him he pirouetted left, the weapon nothing more than a blur. Whip withdrew, howling in pain, and from the air Warp saw a long splash of red on the snow.
One-Bug didn’t slow. He lunged forward, coming in under Whip’s left arm. Whip stumbled backwards, clawing at him defensively. One-Bug slipped under the clumsy attack; the blade flashed again, and Whip screamed.
One-Bug was constantly in motion. When U07 bellowed in rage and scrambled backwards, One-Bug pressed the attack, feinting left and then coming in hard on the right. U07 pulled back again, but too slow. The tip of One-Bug’s blade sliced through his right calf. Whip bellowed in rage and pain.
Whip surged forward unexpectedly. One-Bug rolled under a savage swipe, just barely avoiding having his head torn off. Whip spun away before One-Bug could bring the machete to bear. Whip had dropped low to the ground, scrambling crab-like over the frozen pavement with surprising speed.
One-Bug came at him again, his blade still stained with blood. U07 lashed out instinctively. One-Bug leaped seven feet straight up, an inhuman feat, but not enough to effectively dodge. U07-backhanded him in mid-air, sending him sailing, his machete spinning off in the opposite direction.
Warp changed directions immediately, dropping altitude and moving to block U07 from following up with another attack.
He needn’t have bothered. One-Bug landed painfully on his back, skidding more than thirty feet across the snow-covered asphalt, but before he’d even come fully to rest he’d scrambled to his feet, a grin on his blood-smeared face.
He’d lost his weapon, but that didn’t even slow him down. He charged U07 full-speed, sliding effortlessly under his next clumsy strike. He grabbed a fistful of dirty white fur, lifted himself up, and suddenly he was clambering over U07’s shoulder like a greased weasel.
It was like Sly’s attack on Warp, reenacted on a grander scale. U07 reacted like a frenzied animal, shrieking in pain and fear. He threw himself to the ground, trying to tear One-Bug from his tangled fur. One-Bug leaped clear a fraction of a second before being crushed under U07’s shoulder blade.
Other than unsettling U07 it had been an ineffective attack, and Warp didn’t understand the purpose for it. Not until he heard Two-Bug grunt, and saw the machete spinning through the air. One-Bug caught it one-handed, and moved menacingly towards U07 again. The blade was still red with Whip’s blood.
One-Bug had successfully distracted U07 just long enough for Two-Bug to recover his weapon. The two were working together flawlessly, and wordlessly, as always. Watching them in action was entrancing and unsettling in equal measure. They fought like two limbs of a single determined whole – an analogy Warp knew to be close to the truth. As near as he understood his friend’s strangely partitioned existence, anyway.
Warp turned away. His friend had things well in hand, at least for the next few minutes.
He had something more important to do.
He skated towards Prodigy’s vehicle. It squatted on the pavement below like a fat white mushroom. Somewhere inside the puppet-master Prodigy was scheming, eager to coil his psychic tentacles around Alicia and bend her to his will. Perhaps to undo whatever heinous scheme he’d concocted, perhaps only to find some way to save his own skin from an oncoming apocalypse of his own making.
Warp didn’t care to know the details. Not yet, anyway. Not right now. All he needed to know was that he wasn’t going to allow Prodigy to sink his hooks into Haste. He’d had to endure the unique horror of having Prodigy seize total control of him. He wasn’t going to let Prodigy do that to anyone under his protection. Not ever.
Warp knew he should have a plan. And he did, of a sort. His plan was just what he had told Array and Two-Bug: Find Silas. Keep him away from Alicia. Kick his ass. The best plans were the simple ones.
When he was directly over the fat white vehicle, Warp lowered himself to an appropriate distance. Then he let himself drop.
He slammed into the roof with an entirely satisfactory BOOM.
There were shouts of surprise. Warp felt a familiar slithering in his mind, as if something loathsome nearby was reaching out, eager to find him. He clamped down with an effort of will, keeping himself from losing focus.
He saw the door slide open, and the ramp extend. A moment later two people stepped out. One of them was Prodigy himself. The only PIP Warp had ever met in the SkyRank Top Five power rankings. It was go time.
“Hello boys,” said Warp.