The Climactic Battle, Part II
Warp knew that what he was seeing was a projection, an illusion, but he couldn’t help but take some small pleasure in the way the cold wind whipped Prodigy’s thin hair into his eyes, and the sour look on his face as he looked up at Warp atop the vehicle.
“Kyle, my boy. You disappoint me,” said Prodigy. His voice was as cold as the Iowa wind. Though he couldn’t see it, Warp visualized the barbed tentacle he knew was twitching at his back, dripping nasty green fluid. This guy was repulsive.
“Silas,” said Warp. “Who’s your friend?”
“This is Argot,” said Prodigy. “She’s anxious to meet you.”
It was tough to get a read on Argot. She was tall, very tall, but wrapped head-to-toe in a black cloak. As she turned slowly Warp got a brief glimpse of her feet, and they gave him a preview of what to expect. They were taloned and black, like a great bird of prey. Her skin was blackish-purple, a color that the Pulse seemed to favor for its more exotic transformations.
Argot peered at him from underneath the hood of the cloak. Her face was devilish. She might have been pretty before the Pulse had had its way with her, perhaps even beautiful, but now she was a creature of nightmare. Two bony horns protruded from her forehead, and small yellow eyes were set over purple cheekbones. She smiled, exposing rows of razor-sharp teeth. A grotesquely long tongue darted out, exploring the winter air as if it had a will of its own. Something at her back stirred, hinting at great purple wings that strained against the fabric of the cloak.
“I’ll leave you to get acquainted,” said Prodigy. “That idiot Kollerwip is taking too long with a simple task. I will deal with it myself.”
With that he turned away, his long overcoat snapping in the stiff breeze as he strode across the lot. Is he even actually wearing an overcoat? thought Warp. Or is that all part of his vanity and illusion?
He was tempted to go after Prodigy, get right to the main event. But something told him Prodigy would be expecting it. Better to deal with the threat in front of him first.
“Don’t go far,” Warp shouted at Prodigy’s retreating back. “I was hoping we could grab a coffee.”
“You have a mouth on you,” said Argot. Her voice was sibilant, filled with friction and consonants. Warp was frankly amazed that she could speak at all with that serpentine tongue sliding around in her mouth.
“You seem nice,” he said. He stepped off the roof, controlling his fall. His boots slapped the ground as he landed before the ramp leading up to the vehicle.
The door at the top of the ramp was silently closing. Ignoring Argot, Warp strode up the ramp, slipping inside the vehicle before it sealed. “Who we got hiding away in here?” he said.
The interior looked more like a board room than a transport vehicle. He stepped into a surprisingly well appointed chamber. There were leather chairs, and a bar under a window. But the real surprise awaited him just inside, where he came face-to-face with a pale man whose face was a picture of surprise and dismay.
“Albie?” said Warp. “Albie Gleeson? How the hell are you still standing, man?”
Frankly, Zone didn’t look well at all. The last time Warp had seen him, Zone had been right where he’d left him – face down in the snow next to U07, waiting for Whiskers and Lone to figure out what to do with him. Prodigy must have sent someone to stealthily retrieve him. Or maybe November Legion’s much maligned Operations team had finally shown up, and whisked them away.
Whatever the case, Zone was no longer the able-bodied and loud-mouthed mercenary Warp had faced on a lonely Iowa highway. He looked pale and shrunken, and his neck was in a rigid brace. He recoiled at the sight of Warp like a man scalded. Seeing him like this, Warp almost regretted kicking him in the head at seventy miles per hour. Almost.
When Zone pulled back, Warp saw the figure standing behind him. He momentarily took for it a statue, before he saw it move. Shit, that’s Shard, Warp thought.
One of the most notorious PIPs on the East Coast, Shard – a retired radiology technician named Ellie Gatt – was a woman who’d been radically changed by the Pulse. No longer flesh and bone, her body had been transformed into a malleable statue of blue-green crystal. Her new form gave Ellie remarkable abilities, including the power to dramatically drain heat out of almost anything – including, in two newsworthy incidents, the air mass over entire metropolitan areas.
That’s how Prodigy caused the blizzard, Warp realized. Shard created it.
Zone’s face was a mass of conflicting emotions, shock and confusion paramount among them. He couldn’t turn his head, instead twisting his whole body comically back and forth between Shard and Warp. Suddenly he surged forward, grabbing Warp’s elbow and manhandling him out of the room, back onto the ramp.
“Whoa, whoa!” Warp protested. But he offered no real resistance. He was in no hurry to get back into it with Zone. The man looked like he’d collapse if spoken to sternly.
“Shut up,” Zone hissed. He leaned weakly against the door frame, like he could barely stand. He brought his head close to Warp’s, whispering urgently. “I’m helping you, you idiot. Shard will turn your face into fuckin’ bangers and mash if you tangle with her.”
Warp disengaged himself gently from Zone’s grip. “Bring it on,” he said. “If she’s a friend of yours, it’d be an honor.”
“Listen to me,” Zone said. His eyes were wide and his voice was cracked, as if he were in intense pain. “I don’t want to fight you. You know my rep. I’m no Villain. This isn’t the kind of operation I take pay to do. Shard doesn’t want to tangle with you either; none of us do. This whole operation is fucked. But he’s gone totally over the edge, mate. He’s insane with fear, and he’s making the rest of us insane too.”
“Who?” said Warp, genuinely surprised. “Silas? Is he controlling you too, Albie?”
Zone pushed closer, until his lips were only inches from Warp’s ear. “You don’t understand. You don’t know what it’s like. It’s a fucking nightmare.”
“I do. He tried to take control of me thirty minutes ago.”
“Don’t let him. Don’t let him in your head. You’ll never get him out once he’s there. Do you understand? Never.”
Was this an act? It didn’t seem like it. Zone was too frantic, too unhinged.
Behind Warp, he heard the agitated flutter of wings. “Shut up, you fool!” Argot screeched at Zone.
Warp ignored her. “How can I stop him?” he said.
“I don’t know. But you have to bring him down somehow,” said Zone. “Help me. Help all of us. He’s killing Whip. He’s making him… You have to stop him. Just don’t let him get in your head –”
Behind Warp, Argot screamed.
It was an inhuman sound. It was pain. It was diabolic rage and fury, funneled into an audio shriek that thundered around Warp’s skull like a cannonball. He staggered back, slamming his hands over his ears, tripping over his own feet and falling flat on his ass.
Argot lunged forward. She raked her claws against the door of the vehicle, slamming it closed, leaving deep grooves in the metal. Zone barely managed to leap back in time to avoid being crushed in the door frame.
The screaming stopped. Warp’s head cleared slowly. He used his abilities to lift himself back on his feet, but his ears were still ringing.
“Damn, girl,” he said. He’d encountered countless PIPs, but never one with a sonic attack like that. “You got a set of lungs. Where’d you learn that?”
Argot had shed her cloak. He looked up at her – and up, and up. She stood now at her full height, nearly eight feet. Her wings were taller still, leathery and huge. She wore scraps of what looked like boiled leather.
“You’re mine,” she hissed. “I will eat you raw and grind your bones.”
Warp worked his jaw, trying to get his ears to pop. Anything to lessen the ringing. “You know,” he said, keeping his tone conversational, “I had an ex-girlfriend who talked like that. I gotta say, you pull it off way better than she did.”
Argot lashed out at him. Her reach was nearly as long as U07’s and her arms terminated in wicked-looking claws. She pounced like a raptor, grasping for him with both claws simultaneously.
She was big, and she looked insanely strong. But she wasn’t fast, and she telegraphed her moves well in advance. Warp didn’t bother jumping or dodging, and instead kept his body still, centered and balanced. Before Argot made her move he simply levitated half an inch off the ground, and as she leaped he willed himself three feet to the left.
It was like he’d teleported. Like he’d simply blinked out of existence and reappeared a yard away. She crashed down like a hurricane on the spot where he’d been standing. Warp heard the concrete crack under her black talons.
They stood inches apart. She stared at him in surprise.
“I’m over here,” he said.
She shrieked again. Warp was ready for it this time, but it still rang his head like a gong. She leaped in mid-shriek, talons out, ready to rip out his heart and get started on his bones.
But he was already gone.
He jumped six feet away this time. Then nine feet, and then back to his original spot. She leaped after him each time, and each time her anger escalated. Her screams become louder, but also less focused, less painful. Her attacks became less precise, and with the fourth iteration she’d lost nearly all control, lashing out with her claws in a blind rage. She’d become so unpredictable she almost caught him that time, and if he hadn’t stumbled on her cloak, half falling, her claws might have ripped his neck open.
It was time to go on the offensive. Warp kicked off the ground, rising swiftly to fifteen feet, and began skating around Argot in a wide circle.
She watched him, her head moving like a bird. She didn’t give him an opening. “What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Getting off the ground before you make more potholes,” he said.
He sped up, tightening the circle. She continued to follow him with hungry eyes.
“Stop it,” she said.
“Get up here and make me,” he said.
As he suspected, inaction was her weakness. There wasn’t a patient bone in her body, and she simply couldn’t stand to wait until he got close enough. When he allowed himself to come tantalizingly close on his third pass, she leaped into the air, leathery wings flapping, coming after him hard.
She was even less agile in the air. Her claws strained for him, but in vain. He spun around her like a sparrow buzzing a vulture. Her wings flapped furiously as she tried to gain altitude, but she was too big and ungainly to be graceful in the air. He swooped close to her head, deliberately provoking her, and it shattered her rhythm. She shrieked, reaching for him with both claws, and began to plummet.
She broke off her clumsy attack, forced to focus on stabilizing her flight. And the instant she did, Warp came in for the kill.
He was tempted to deliver a debilitating blow to the head, take her down with a single kick like he’d done with Zone. But it was too risky to get close to those claws. And besides, there was a better angle. He looped around her as she began to regain altitude, and when the timing was perfect, he pulled in his arms and legs like an olympic diver and slammed hard into her right wing.
The impact numbed his shoulder. He thought he heard – or perhaps felt – the rigid bone of her wing snap, but he couldn’t be sure. She shrieked like a banshee and grabbed for him with her talons, but by then he was already twenty feet away and accelerating.
She fell to the ground like a flaming arrow. He’d timed it precisely, and she slammed hard into the roof of Prodigy’s pimpmobile. Warp heard breaking glass and another shriek from Argot, this one of pain. He took a quick pass overhead and saw her crumpled in a ball on the roof, her right wing twisted at an unnatural angle.
Two down, he thought.
Warp left her on top of the vehicle. He skated away, back to the scene of the melee, looking for Array and Two-Bug.
The fight was over. The combatants had separated. He spotted U07 and Sly on the left, and One-Bug and Two-Bug to his right. Sly was helping Athena to his feet. Inexplicably, One-Bug and Two-Bug seemed to be kneeling down before a thin figure.
What the hell? Warp thought. He accelerated towards his teammates.
The figure glanced up, looking straight at him. Prodigy.
He heard Prodigy’s voice in his head. You are too late, Mister Price.
Prodigy dragged him brutally out of the sky.
It was no different than the last time Prodigy had seized control of him. One moment he was in control, and the next he was a total stranger to his own body. He felt himself come clumsily to ground, felt the sting in his hands and knees as he stumbled painfully on landing, sliding to a stop on all fours on the snow-covered pavement. But it was as if it was all happening to someone else.
At least Prodigy let him breathe this time. When he had finally skidded to a stop, he slowly rose into a kneeling position. His limbs were shaky. With his peripheral vision, Warp could see One-Bug and Two-Bug kneeling on his right. He strained to open his eyes marginally, get a better look at his surroundings.
There was a roar from somewhere close by. He knew that sound – U07. Warp couldn’t see him but he could feel him, feel the rumble of his heavy tread as he paced the ground somewhere very close. U07 roared again, a scream of frustration and agony. Despite their animosity, Warp couldn’t help but feel badly for U07. He has no doubt his agony was very real.
What was it Zone had said? He’s killing Whip.
“This is over, Mr. Price,” said Prodigy. He was somewhere close, but not yet in Warp’s field of view.
“You’re in my head,” Warp said through gritted teeth. “Get the hell... out of my head.”
But it was useless. His limbs refused to obey. No amount of effort would allow him to lift his hands even a fraction of an inch. He was kneeling in a short line with One-Bug and Two-Bug, like prisoners before the executioner. Straight ahead Warp could see the rig, its running lights still on, a friendly golden retriever named Radio painted on its side.
Prodigy was shouting at someone, contempt in his voice. Warp couldn’t tell who, but he could feel the residual psychic lashing, right down to his tailbone. It was like holding a live wire.
This must be what Albie meant, Warp thought. Don’t let Prodigy in your head. Once you did, you felt all his rages, all his cruel punishments, his endless contempt and hatred. As bad as it was for Warp, he knew it must be ten times worse for U07, Zone, and the others. Prodigy held them close, like his own pack of attack dogs, and they never escaped his cruel attention for long.
The victim of his current tirade limped into sight. Argot.
Warp watched her approach. It was clear her right wing was broken. Perhaps several ribs too. The way she was limping, something was very wrong with her left ankle as well.
None of it mattered to Prodigy. He screamed at her for her failure, for her slowness in responding. Warp felt the intensity of his psychic assault on Argot like a physical thing. Every word from Prodigy’s mouth, every insult, was like a barb in his skin.
Argot had it much worse. She flinched as Prodigy shouted, wilting before his tirade like flowers in a furnace.
There was something else. As Prodigy turned his wrath on Argot, Warp felt his own psychic restraints loosening.
Not much. But it was definitely noticeable. He was able to breathe a little more easily, and he found he was able to turn his head an inch or two. He looked around cautiously.
Argot stumbled to a stop thirty feet to his left. Prodigy came into view at last, still verbally lashing her. Behind them were Zone and Shard. Shard looked drained, exhausted and on the verge of collapse, perhaps from the exertion of maintaining the blizzard. Zone wasn’t faring much better. He’d lost his dinner jacket, and endured the cold in nothing more than a thin shirt. His already pale face looked like it had been drained of blood altogether.
Prodigy was assembling his troops, puppeting them into a rough line. U07, Zone, Shard, and Argot stood to Warp’s left; Two-Bug and One-Bug knelt on his right. Prodigy strode out in front of them like General Patton, the wind whipping his overcoat.
“This is pathetic,” Prodigy said as he looked them over. Warp felt his contempt for his audience, for his followers, radiant from him in waves. It made Warp vaguely nauseous.
“The core of the November Legion, my instrument, cowed by a team of rank amateurs,” Prodigy said. “Two of my warriors, humiliated by a man whose only ability is to fly like a butterfly?” Prodigy made a mocking gesture in the air with his left hand, like a bird.
“Argot, you are a creature of stark terror. The very sight of you makes grown men piss themselves.” Prodigy pointed a bony finger at Warp where he kneeled in the snow. “And yet you allow this flying clown to cast you from the sky?”
Argot made a sniveling sound. Warp still had unexpected control over his neck muscles, and he inched his head to the left to get a better view of her.
Zone was standing next to him, looking more miserable than ever. His eyes were downcast, and his lips and fingers were blue. Next to him stood Shard, her head sagging. She looked like she was having difficulty standing.
“Was I not crystal clear on the vital importance of this mission?” Prodigy said. “Where is Athena?”
“Here,” came a gruff voice.
Athena hobbled forward, blood flowing freely from his broken nose. He was leaning heavily on Sly, who looked too small to be capable of supporting him.
Athena started to open his mouth, but Prodigy clamped his fist closed, and in front of him everyone’s mouths obediently slammed shut. Warp’s jaw snapped closed so quickly he bit his tongue.
“I don’t want to hear your excuses,” Prodigy said. He dismissed Athena with a contemptuous wave.
Warp felt a corrosive wave of emotion surge out of Prodigy. It was a punch in the gut. Athena stumbled and nearly collapsed. His face looked wracked with despair. Sly held him up somehow; Warp heard her voice whispering to him supportively. There was a gentleness to her actions that surprised him.
“Listen to me,” Prodigy said. “All of you.” His eyes swept over his audience, including the three kneeling on the left. One by one, he met their gaze.
“As far as you are concerned, this matter is straightforward,” Prodigy said. “You will cast off the lie of free will, the burden of independent thought, and surrender to me. As of this moment, there is no more to your purpose than service to my will.”
A sense of calm washed over Warp. Even the pain in his tongue seemed to dim. What Prodigy was saying made sense. More than that. Surrendering the never-ending burden of decision-making meant throwing off so much weight. It no longer mattered what happened to the others, what happened to Haste. Prodigy took all that responsibility away. What was left was blissful freedom.
There was a sound to Warp’s left. He craned his neck to look over at Zone.
Zone was sobbing quietly. He was staring at U07. Warp followed his gaze.
U07 stood in front of the others. His towering body was wracked with spasms. He was shivering, but not from the cold. From this angle Warp could see the steady trickle of blood flowing over his shoulder, across the thick tangle of his dirty fur.
Zone was right. U07 was dying; there was little question of it now. U07’s crushed skull was slowly bleeding out, and he was trembling with spasms of agony.
Prodigy paid no attention. The excruciations of his followers were beneath his notice. His speech to his puppets continued, but for the first time quiet questions began to bubble to the surface in Warp’s mind. Why am I listening to this asshole?
There was a voice. “Warp. Do you read?”
It was Array, over the Comm unit in his ear. Warp’s mind cleared slightly. He quickly scanned the parking lot, looking for her.
“I’m here. You can’t see me,” she continued. “I’m masking myself from sight. I can’t do it for long. But I can do it long enough to get close to Silas. Do you copy?”
Warp tried to respond. Although his eyes and neck obeyed, his mouth would not. It remained clamped shut, and Warp knew it would stay that way until Prodigy opened his hand.
“Kyle, I hope you’re hearing this,” Array continued. “I need to move quickly. We’ll only get one chance at this. When I hit Silas it’ll break his focus, just for a second. That should allow you to move. You need to get airborne. You hear me? Silas will regain control in seconds. You’ll have two to three, tops, to get the hell out of here. Get out of range.”
Prodigy was still talking. It took all of Warp’s will power to focus on what Array was saying. There was nothing left to move his head, or even to breathe.
“I know you can do it,” Array said. “You need to get to the Davenport team. Let them know what happened. Make sure they pick up Bear and Mina. You understand what I’m saying? You’re the only hope I have to make sure the three of you survive.”
Warp made a noise deep in his throat. He tried to say No, tried to shake his head. But he could do neither.
“Don’t argue with me, Kyle,” Array said. “You know damn well I’m right. Save your life. Save Bear. Get out of here. And listen… it was a helluva honor serving with you all these years. Take care of yourself.”
Prodigy was wrapping up. He stopped speaking suddenly, twisting to his right. The air around him seemed to shimmer.
Array appeared out of nowhere, as if she’d stepped through a rift in the air. Her sword flashed, aimed at Prodigy’s exposed back.
Prodigy was gone. In his place was the impish thing Warp had briefly glimpsed during their last encounter. Translucent skin covered its oversized brain. It skittered backwards like a scorpion, blocking Array’s attack with a spiny tentacle. The tentacle lashed out, spraying green venom. Only her inhuman reflexes allowed her to dodge what would surely have been a lethal strike.
The psychic bonds on Warp were gone. He could move. One-Bug and Two-Bug realized it at the same time he did. They surged to their feet. Warp saw One-Bug grab his machete as he climbed to his feet.
“Come on!” Two-Bug shouted at him. Warp watched as they raced forward, toward where Array and Prodigy battled.
Warp took a breath. Then he fell into the sky.
He moved as fast as he was capable. The cold night air whipped past, stinging his face. He didn’t stop until he was three hundred feet in the air, well outside Prodigy’s influence. Nearly invisible against the blackness of the night sky, he turned his attention to the ground.
He was too far up to hear what was being said, and he was out of range for the earpiece to work. But the tiny figures below told the story.
Array lasted the longest. Perhaps it was sheer stubbornness, perhaps it was her tenacity and skill with her blade. Perhaps the sight of One-Bug charging in fury across the snow-covered lot had demanded Prodigy’s immediate attention. But he brought One-Bug and Two-Bug to a stop first, and then turned his full attention to Array. Seconds later she ceased her attacks, dropped her sword, and stilled.
Warp watched as, one by one, his friends bowed down before Prodigy. The battle was already over.
Warp had difficulty swallowing. He knew he should leave, head east towards Davenport and the oncoming rescue convoy, but he couldn’t. Not yet. His friends had sacrificed everything just to give him a chance to escape. It felt like a betrayal to turn his back on them.
The others around Prodigy were moving. Warp could make out U07, and one that was likely Athena. They were moving about – perhaps looking for him? It wouldn’t be long before they started searching the sky. What would they do if they spotted him?
He knew he couldn’t risk it. He kicked out with his right leg, started moving. He watched the figures below as they became smaller. His eyes were focused on Array and Two-Bug. They were unmoving, kneeling before Prodigy, like lambs at the slaughter.
He couldn’t think about it. It was too horrible. He has Bear and Mina to consider.
In a matter of minutes it would be over. Prodigy would do what he willed with Two-Bug and Array – kill them, or bring them permanently under his sway – and then he would have Haste. Everything they’d done to stop him had been in vain.
Warp thought of Haste. Had she seen this coming? She must have. He pictured her as he’d last seen her, holding up her final card.
Why had she said that? She must have known what was going to happen. She must have known her fate, seen how the battle would end. Unless…
Unless the battle wasn’t over.
Warp slowed. Was that possible?
He considered it from all angles. Was it possible that Haste had lied to him? It was possible, but he didn’t think it likely.
Was it possible she had seen a different outcome to the battle? Was it possible that there was a different outcome? One in which they were victorious?
Warp didn’t see how. If he returned now, Prodigy would dominate him as effortlessly as he controlled Array and Two-Bug. To return was foolhardy. It was suicide. It was…
It was an act of faith. In his own abilities and luck, and especially, in Haste. He understood now why she had chosen that last card for him.
That’s what it came down to. Belief. He had to choose, right now, whether he believed her.
How could he? How could he believe that he was going to kick Prodigy’s ass? How could he believe when he knew the battle was hopeless? How could he believe when he knew he wanted to, so desperately. Wanted to do something, anything, other than run away and leave his friends at the mercy of the monstrous Prodigy.
Warp realized that he was already turning around. Because it wasn’t really a question any longer. He did believe her.
Perhaps he was an idiot. Perhaps Haste’s gifts were nothing but smoke and mirrors. It didn’t matter. He believed them. He believed her.
No battle was hopeless. In just the last hours he’d defeated Zone and U07; he’d humiliated Athena and Argot. What was Prodigy but just one more ugly pretender?
And besides, he had a plan. Or at least, the inkling of one.
Warp raced the wind back to the Esso station.
The scene hadn’t changed much. Prodigy was still holding court over the three kneeling figures. U07, Athena, Zone, Sly, Shard, and Argot were arranged in a loose semi-circle around them. Warp stealthily dropped until he was less than forty feet above the pavement. No one had spotted him, but he knew it wouldn’t be long.
He decided not to wait. “Silas Newport!” he shouted. His bloody tongue smarted in the winter air.
All sound below ceased. Eyes turned skyward. Warp dropped to twenty feet. He hovered over Prodigy’s head.
Prodigy stared at him with ill-concealed loathing. “Mister Price,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one staring. Array, who was kneeling with her hands clasped firmly behind her back, looked at him with open dismay. But they were all watching him, with a mix of disbelief and amazement.
“What the hell did you do, Silas?” Warp said. “What are you mixed up in that’s so terrible you had to risk everything to meet with Alicia?”
“My destiny,” Prodigy said coldly, “has nothing to do with you.”
“Sure it does,” Warp said. He spread his arms, taking everyone in, Hero and Villain alike. “We’re all here, Silas. Like it or not, we’re all caught in your insane scheme.”
“You are irrelevant,” Prodigy said. He cast his gaze around the circle. “All of you. Irrelevant. My destiny is intertwined with the coming of the DOTs. We are at a great nexus, a crux in history, and civilization itself teeters at the edge of the abyss. Only a handful will survive what is coming. I will be one of them.”
“Shut up. You’re the turd in the punch bowl, Silas. You believe you’re the puppet master, the one everyone is terrified of. But the truth is, you’re the fuck-up. Even your puppets think you’re incompetent, Silas. No one is afraid of you. We’re just royally sick of your shit.”
Prodigy’s face was frozen like a freeze-frame, his mouth comically wide open. Warp realized Prodigy was so distracted, so furious, he had stopped bothering to animate his illusion. Six feet behind him the snow stirred erratically, as if his invisible tentacle was writhing in fury.
There was an itch in the back of Warp’s mind. He knew it for what it was – Prodigy’s mind, reaching out. Preparing to take full control of his body. He lowered himself another eight feet.
“You’re never going to get your hands on Alicia, Silas. You’re a failed general who’s already squandered your best assets. Your boy Spectre is face down in a detention cell. The colonel is unconscious in a ditch. U07 and Athena probably have concussions. All you’re left with is this sad collection of losers, and let’s face it – you can barely stand to look at them. I don’t blame you.”
Warp had hit a nerve. As he’d been speaking Prodigy had regained control of his illusion, and now that illusion was looking at the six puppets he had left to control. Warp felt it then – the wave of renewed contempt and hatred that washed over the six like a tsunami. Warp saw Zone stagger under the horrible weight of it.
That’s it, Silas, he thought. You’re almost there.
“Just let it go, Silas,” he said. “Go home. You’ve lost. There’s nothing you – urk!”
Prodigy coiled around Warp’s mind and pulled.
Warp had never felt anything like this. Prodigy’s entire focus was on him, the full weight of his all-devouring will. Warp blacked out.
When he awoke he was on the ground. There was an excruciating pain in his ankle, and it felt like someone had just taken a mallet to his face. He tried to roll over, but his body wasn’t his own.
He rose like a puppet. His ankle screamed as he briefly put weight on it. He assumed a familiar position, kneeling before Prodigy.
“Mister Price.” Prodigy was barely whispering, yet every word thundered in his ears. “I am going to vacuum out your mind. When I’m done with you, you won’t even remember your name. I’m going to leave you drooling like an infant, unable even to speak.”
There wasn’t room in Warp’s mind for emotion, for reaction of any kind. There was only Prodigy. Prodigy filled him like a raging ocean, like a sea squall that spanned horizons.
Behind Prodigy, One-Bug, Two-Bug, and Array sagged, like marionettes whose strings had been cut. One-Bug was the first to react. He grabbed his machete and leaped to his feet, jumping for Prodigy with blood in his eye. Array was not far behind.
He never made it. Prodigy never even turned around. But Warp felt him divide his focus, felt the horrible weight of Prodigy’s attention lift. Prodigy flattened all three of his attackers, pinned them face down on the frozen ground.
Warp’s body was still unresponsive, but his mind was his own again.
That’s it, Warp thought. Focus on us, Silas. Focus on us.
Fifty feet away, the others were stirring. Prodigy’s attention had lifted, and they were no longer under his control. Warp saw Argot take to the skies. She made it nearly eighty feet away before Prodigy flattened her too, sending her into a painful dive that brought her crashing to Earth.
As Prodigy retook control over Argot, Warp felt the psychic bonds on him loosening even more. He was able to move his neck now, and his eyes roamed free.
Sly was next. Her approach was stealthy, and she got her knife within a dozen feet of Prodigy’s neck before he brought her low, flattening her to the pavement.
Warp was able to breathe more easily. He could move his hands. When he tried to stand, Prodigy turned back to him.
“I haven’t forgotten you, Mister Price,” said Prodigy. “This will only take a moment, I promise you. Do you know that, in the grip of certain seizures, humans are capable of breaking their own spines?”
Warp’s body twisted. He bent backwards like a contortionist. His limbs flew out in all directions as he writhed on the pavement.
“The human mind is truly incredible,” Prodigy said. “Here, let me show you.”
Array and One-Bug fought savagely, so much that Prodigy had to pull his focus away from the others to keep them flat. He didn’t notice when Argot’s wings began to flutter against the ground, or when U07 drew closer. Prodigy took too much pleasure in the way Warp twisted and turned, slamming his body against the asphalt, to see the way that U07 looked at him.
Blood dripped off U07’s fur onto the snow. After a moment U07 reached out. He picked Prodigy up by his right arm.
Prodigy screamed. “Put me down, you filthy ape!” For the moment Prodigy had enough presence of mind to maintain his mental focus on his opponents, keeping Warp and the others pinned to the ground. At least until U07’s talons began to dig into his shoulder.
Warp felt Prodigy leave his mind. It took a second for the pain to subside, for the spasms in his back to stop. He took a few seconds to cherish the stillness, both inside and outside his body.
The stillness didn’t last. It was broken by Prodigy’s screams. Every scream sent a psychic lash through him, triggering fresh spasms. Warp forced himself to sit up.
U07 was holding Prodigy ten feet off the ground. He dug at him with the claws on his right hand, splattering blood on the pavement. Prodigy was incoherent with rage and pain.
And he was… changing. The dignified, upright, illusionary Prodigy was vanishing. In its place was a squirming hideous thing. More like a scorpion than a man, with a barbed tentacle for a tail, Prodigy’s true form was visible at last. Warp saw both Sly and Zone recoil in open horror.
Athena came forward, shouting at U07 to stop. U07 turned to look at him.
Array was at Warp’s side, helping him up. “No,” Warp said. He was too weak to summon more than a whisper. “Get to Silas. We have to stop him. Keep him in pain, don’t let him focus.”
“But –” said Array.
“Do it,” Warp hissed.
Prodigy was recovering fast. In the brief second that U07 paused his torment, Prodigy managed to take a breath, and minimally compose himself. He opened his eyes, and threw the full weight of his focus against U07. U07 staggered backwards. His eyes glazed over and he stopped moving.
“Put me down,” Prodigy ordered.
One-Bug was there. As U07 lowered Prodigy gently to the pavement, One-Bug lashed out with his machete, biting deep into Prodigy’s ankle.
Prodigy screamed again. He turned his pitiless focus to One-Bug. One-Bug froze, then drew the machete towards his own neck.
In the brief seconds that Prodigy turned his attention away, U07 lifted him again. He brought him close, sniffed him.
Then he bit off his arm.