Warp vs The Cards
The medic who treated Warp clearly had dreams of a career as a Detention Officer.
“Don’t move,” she told him sternly as she set his shoulder.
“But –” Warp began.
“Don’t. Move.” Warp didn’t know what she was carrying in the slim holster at her belt, an antibiotic syringe or a firearm. Whatever it was, he was sure she wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him with it. He kept his ass on the stretcher, his mouth shut, and let her do her work.
The weather was clearing fast. With Shard gone the mass of unnaturally cold air was dissipating rapidly. The snow had stopped and, most mercifully of all, the brutal wind had died.
There were emergency vehicles all over the tarmac. The Black Signal team from Davenport had arrived nearly forty minutes before anyone had expected them to – and with a full medical team in tow. Warp had always known that Black Signal was a global organization that could field some impressive manpower on a moment’s notice, but there was a real difference between knowing it, and being right here on the ground to see it in action.
There were over a hundred armed security professionals here already, and more were arriving every minute. Warp didn’t recognize half of them. The FPA and local law enforcement were already on scene, and uniformed police had cordoned off the Esso lot. Warp heard a chopper overhead that was probably a local news crew. The media would be here in force soon.
Prodigy had escaped. It’d been a madhouse in the closing minutes of the battle, but Warp knew that much for certain. After U07 bit Prodigy, Prodigy had broadcast a psychic wave of agony that had incapacitated everyone for nearly half a mile. By the time Warp had staggered to his feet, Prodigy was gone. Warp had a fragmentary mental image – a memory, maybe, recalled through a haze of psychic pain – of Sly and Athena bundling Prodigy up and bringing him to the van U07 had arrived in. Prodigy had been barely conscious, and in no shape to maintain an illusion.
Warp had no idea if Prodigy could possibly survive an assault as brutal as the one U07 had leveled against him. But whenever he closed his eyes, he could feel a cold itch in the back of his head. An itch he’d felt the first time when he’d met Prodigy.
He’s still alive, Warp thought with certainty. Alive and out there somewhere, curled up in pain and hate.
The medic finished putting his shoulder in a sling, then stepped back and looked him over disapprovingly. “How’d you get those cuts on your face?”
Warp felt so battered it took a second to recall. He had to run through the lengthy catalog of indignities he’d suffered tonight. “Those? Sly gave them to me.”
“Yeah, well.” The medic bent over him again, dabbing at his face with something that stung. “I’m going to have to disinfect them. And they’re gonna leave scars.”
“Ow. Ow!!” He pulled away from her little cotton balls of pain, but she grabbed his chin and forced him to be still.
When she was done he tried to stand up again, but she shook her head. She affixed a final bandage to his forehead. “You need to sit tight until Rapid Response debriefs you.”
Warp grimaced. The Black Signal Rapid Response team would have ten thousand questions. He knew that conversation was unavoidable, but he much preferred to do it in the comfort of a Black Signal facility. Maybe with some hot tea and a biscuit.
“I have to check in with my team,” he said, trying to stand.
She put a hand on his chest and pushed him back on the stretcher. “Stay put,” she said.
“But – “
“You don’t walk until I say so.”
She turned her back. She started tapping a report into her tablet, ignoring him.
She’d said he couldn’t walk, but she hadn’t said anything about flying. As stealthy as he could, Warp levitated off the stretcher. Seconds later he was hovering ten feet over the ambulance. He came down on the far side and limped away quickly, glancing back over his shoulder.
He almost ran straight into Lone.
“There you are,” she said, frowning at him. “Everybody’s looking for you.”
He took her elbow, steering her away from the ambulance. “I’m glad I found you. I was being tortured by a freaking medic from Hell.”
“Sounds kinky,” Lone said.
“Not really. You okay?” Warp asked. “Last time I saw you, I had to dig you out of a snowbank.”
“For the most part. I couldn’t stop shivering for half an hour. Medic says I have mild hypothermia. And check this out.”
She pointed to the tip of her left ear. The skin there was ugly and black. “Honest to God frostbite. Tips of my ears, and two of my toes.” She spoke like it was a Medal of Valor. In a way, Warp supposed it was.
“Man, that’s wild. Looks kinda badass, though. Does it hurt?”
“Like a motherfucker.”
“Ugh, sorry. Bear okay?”
“Are you serious? That hairy ape? He never even noticed the cold. He’s like a goddamn St. Bernard.”
Warp laughed. That sounded exactly like Whiskers. “You two have any trouble with the November Legion Operations team, when they finally showed up?”
“None. They were expecting a pair of half-dead prisoners in restraint bags. When they saw Bear coming out of the snow the whole crew damn near shit themselves.”
“I wish I’d seen that.”
Lone made a face. “We shouldn’t have bothered with them. While we were tossing them ass-first into the snow, the big fish – Whip and Albie – got away. I have no idea how Whip could even stand after that beating you gave him. But he did. It was sloppy. That’s on us.”
“Not your fault. Whip was beaten, but Silas wasn’t. He forced Whip and Albie to crawl back to him. And it all worked out. If Whip hadn’t been there, things would’ve turned out very differently.”
“If you say so,” said Lone.
“Where are Two-Bug and Toni?”
Lone pointed at a pop-up tent the emergency response team had set up in the middle of all the hubbub. “Toni’s still being debriefed, I think. But I saw Two-Bug outside.”
Warp thanked her. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and hobbled as quickly as he could toward the tent.
He passed a security detail on the way, in a tight knot around another ambulance. He knew most of the team, and they nodded as he approached. Most were armed, and keeping a wary eye on the back of the ambulance.
Warp spotted the reason as he passed. Zone was handcuffed to a stretcher, where he was being treated by two medics. He caught Warp’s eye for a brief second, and gave him a nod. Warp returned it.
Warp stopped a few seconds later, then jogged back. He pulled the sergeant out of the group.
“Price,” said Sergeant Torres. “I hear you’re the big fucking hero.”
“Damn straight,” said Warp. “Where the hell were you clowns when we needed you?”
“Where we always are,” said Torres. “Waiting for the damn call.”
“Well, glad you made it eventually. Listen – what’s the word on the big guy? Kollerwip?”
“Whip? The freak?”
“Yeah, the big one. U07.”
“I heard you dropped a rock on him. Skull fracture.”
Warp winced involuntarily. “Did he make it?”
“Did you kill him, do you mean?”
“Torres. I saw him twenty minutes ago, and it looked like he was bleeding out. He’s the one who took down Silas. I just wanna know if he’s alive.”
Torres gave him an odd look, as if he didn’t understand this strange concern for the enemy. Then he shook his head. “Yeah. They evac’d him five minutes ago. Under guard.”
“Sedated, and in a fucking coma. But yeah. Alive.”
Warp looked up. Zone was half standing by the stretcher, as much as the handcuffs would allow. He was looking straight at him.
Warp approached slowly, Torres at his side. Torres stopped him when he got within fifteen feet. “That’s close enough,” Torres said.
“I see you survived,” Warp said to Zone.
Zone looked him up and down, taking in the sling on his arm and the cuts on his face. “Came through it a whole lot better than you,” he said.
Warp laughed. “I hear Whip made it.”
Zone’s face softened. “Yeah. Yeah, he did.”
Warp looked around at the assembled security detail. As soon as Zone was cleared by the med team, these gentlemen were going to escort him to a Black Signal high-security detention facility. It would be a very long time before Zone breathed fresh air again.
“What were you doing mixed up with a group of grade-A assholes like November Legion?” Warp asked. “You’ve got a better rep than that. I thought you were a Hero.”
Zone gave a mirthless laugh. “You go where the work is, ain’t that the truth?”
“Guy like you?” said Warp. “There’s a dozen outfits that would pay for your services.”
Zone’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah, but they won’t hire Whip, will they now? Silas, he’s the one that first threw us together. We were a team. There were a couple times when I could’ve walked. But not Whip.”
“You stayed for Whip?
“He’s not as bad as they make him out to be. Not when he’s got s omeone to look after him. That’s what he needs, to keep his temper in check. I was that guy, for a while.”
“Was it worth it? Warp asked.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Zone said simply. “Even though we were both under Silas’ thumb, I grew attached to the hairy fella. He didn’t ask to be turned into what he was. None of us did.”
“I guess not,” Warp said, nodding. “You take care of yourself, Zone.”
Zone called after him as he walked away. “We’ll meet again, you flying fairy.”
“Guy seems like a real prince,” Torres said to Warp, when they were out of earshot.
“He’s got real charm,” Warp agreed dryly.
He found Two-Bug outside the tent, half-buried under a big blue blanket, drinking coffee with a few other members of the Black Signal Operations team. Warp had to endure a bear hug for the first six seconds.
“The man!” Two-Bug said to the assembled group. “Ladies and gentlemen, this here is the son-of-a-bitch who brought down Silas.”
Warp waved a hand dismissively at the assorted cheers from the small crowd. “Lies, it’s all lies.”
“Hell of a takedown,” said Amish Patel, the ERT paramedic.
“I didn’t do any actual biting,” Warp admitted. “That was all Whip.”
After he’d answered what felt like a thousand questions, he finally had a chance to talk privately with Two-Bug. “Where’s Alicia?” he asked.
“You didn’t hear? They whisked her away.”
“First thing they did. Soon as they got here, the Rapid Response Team secured our rig and got her outta there. They took no chances. What’s wrong?”
“Oh… nothing. It’s just, we never had the chance to finish our conversation.”
Two-Bug clapped him on the back. “For the best, amigo. Folk like that, they’ll mess with your head. Better you don’t talk to ‘em at all.”
“What happened to Spectre?”
“He’s on his way to secure detention. Don’t worry – he’ll pay for what he did to Caspar.”
“Will he?” Warp asked. “Spectre’s no Villain. He was being controlled by Silas, same as Albie.”
Two-Bug nodded reluctantly. “Damn. It’ll take a while to sort this mess out.”
“Any word on the crew that went after Silas?”
Two-Bug shook his head. “He’s in the wind. Sly and Athena got away with him. But it was still a hell of a haul. Spectre, Zone, U07, Shard, and Argot are all in custody.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
“Damn right you will,” Two-Bug said. “And you’re buying.”
They loaded the survivors of the Transport Team onto a transport for the trip back to Davenport. Warp collapsed into a seat a few rows behind Two-Bug and Array, glad he’d found a place to hide from the Rapid Response team, at least for now. They could debrief him in Davenport, after he’d had a few minutes to get his head straight.
There was a lot for him to process. In the peace and quiet at the back of the bus, he finally had time to come to grips with Caspar’s death. He’d worked with Caspar for almost four years. The man had trained him. He’d been there for Warp countless times when things had gone sideways, when Warp had gotten in over his head.
And in the moment of his own death, Caspar had been alone. Warp hadn’t been there for him. The tragedy of it – the unfairness of it – welled out of the darkness and threatened to choke him.
He set his grief aside with an effort. There was much more to unpack in the night’s events. Not just Caspar’s tragic death, but how close – how hair-raisingly close – they’d all come to joining him.
And then there was Prodigy. Warp wasn’t sure he’d ever recover from the mess Prodigy had made of his head. The casual way he’d simply swept away every one of Warp’s hopes and dreams, and coldly replaced them with his own. Even if just for a short while.
But as horrible as all that was, it wasn’t what Warp dwelled on during the long drive to Davenport. Over and over, his mind kept circling back to the same topic.
No matter what Prodigy has done to his head, it paled next to the ways Haste had messed him up.
When it had grown quiet in the car, and it sounded like Array and Two-Bug had settled down and maybe even dozed off, Warp reached into his pockets and drew out the cards Haste had given him.
He held them face down in his lap for a very long time. When he was ready, he took a deep breath, and spoke his first question out loud.
“All right, Alicia. I’m ready to listen. Tell me what I need to know. What’s coming?”
He turned over the first card. The answer was written in blue ink in Haste’s steady hand.
THE END OF THE HUMAN RACE
“Shit,” Warp muttered. For a brief moment, he found he couldn’t breathe.
Two rows ahead, he heard Two-Bug mutter something in his sleep and roll over. Warp drew a ragged breath, waited a moment, then spoke again.
“Let’s take this slow, Alicia. What’s the first thing that’s going to happen?”
He turned over the next card.
YOU’RE GOING TO BE ASSIGNED TO
A NEW SECURITY DETAIL AT GENESYNTH.
“Genesynth? The robotics company?”
YES. I USED TO WORK THERE. THEY’VE DEVELOPED
THE FIRST TRUE INDEPENDENTLY MOBILE AIs.
“Sounds exciting. What are they?”
DOTs. DESIGNATED OBSERVATIONAL TRAVELERS,
DESIGNED TO EXPLORE THE SOLAR SYSTEM.
Something tickled at the back of Warp’s head. “Shit… DOTs. Silas mentioned DOTs. He said his destiny was intertwined with them. They’re the reason he was so desperate to reach you. Because of the DOTs, mankind’s fate teeters on the abyss. Is that right?”
Warp stirred in his chair. He was being given a glimpse of the apocalyptic storm clouds gathering in the next few months, and it made him profoundly uneasy. He didn’t have the luxury of looking away, however.
“All right. Let’s get to it. What’s going to happen at Genesynth?”
THE DOT LAUNCH WILL OCCUR ON SEPTEMBER 22. IF YOU
DON’T ACT, IT WILL BE THE EVENT THAT DOOMS MANKIND.
“Dooms it how?”
I DON’T KNOW. A CLOUD OF DEATH HANGS OVER THE LAUNCH.
IT’S THE START OF EVERYTHING. THE BEGINNING OF THE END.
“Okay. Okay. I believe you. So we have to stop this launch?”
I DON’T KNOW. WE HAVE TO FIND THE TRUTH.
A DARK CONSPIRACY IS AT WORK. A FORCE THAT WANTS
TO BRING ABOUT THE END.
“That wants to destroy mankind? All of us?
“Okay. Who can I trust?
I DON’T KNOW. DON’T TRUST ANYONE.
“Great. You’re not making this easy, Alicia.”
I DON’T PRETEND TO UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING
I SEE, KYLE. BUT I KNOW WHAT I SEE IS TRUE.
“All right. Let’s try this. Who’s behind the conspiracy at Genesynth? Give me some names.”
I DON’T KNOW. I CAN’T SEE THEM.
“Shit. What do you see?”
I SEE YOU.
“What the hell does that mean? Can you see the future, or not?”
I CANNOT SEE GENESYNTH’S FUTURE.
I ONLY SEE YOURS.
“That doesn’t make sense. Why me?”
I WISH I KNEW.
BUT I THINK IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE
AT THE HEART OF ALL THIS.
“What does that mean?”
YOU ARE ONE OF THOSE UPON WHOM
THE FATE OF MANKIND HINGES.
Warp felt his mouth go very dry.
He took a break for a moment. He looked out the window, watching the snow-covered roadside as it rolled by. For the first time tonight, the pristine landscape almost looked enticing. Peaceful.
He pictured Alicia sitting in her cell, scribbling her half of this conversation. Experiencing… what? Visions? Seeing him here, on the bus? Hearing the questions as he asked each one. Was that why he had to speak them out loud, so that she could hear them in her visions? And if he was holding the cards in his hands, it meant that she had already heard the questions he was about to ask, the ones he hadn’t even formulated yet –
It was all a bit much. Warp had never experienced vertigo in his life, but he imagined it felt very much like he felt right now. Like he stood at the edge of a hungry precipice, inexorably tipping forward.
He used breathing exercises to steady himself. Without turning them over, he carefully counted the remaining cards. Fourteen left. He was running out of answers.
He had to ration his questions. Make every one count.
He felt a brief sense of almost overwhelming panic. The fate of the entire world was, literally, in his hands. In a very real sense, it all came down to these next fourteen cards.
How could he possibly ask the right questions in the face of that? He couldn’t. It was impossible.
Before he could gather his thoughts sufficiently to verbalize his next question, he heard footsteps coming down the aisle. He slipped the cards under his leg.
Array stood over him. She leaned against the chair in front of him, wearing a half smile.
“You talking to yourself back here?”
“What?” he said. “Oh – no. I’m sorry. I’m just… you know. Sorting through some stuff.”
“Yeah. Hell of a night, huh?”
“Hell of a night. I’m not keeping you awake, am I?”
She laughed. “Are you kidding? Who can sleep after all that? Other than Two-Bug, of course. That shithead could sleep through the damn Pulse.”
“Yeah,” said Warp flatly. A few seconds later, her remark struck him as both funny and endearing, and he found himself chuckling.
She cocked her head and gave him a strange look. “You doing all right back here? You want some company?”
“No,” he said, a little too quickly.
Her back stiffened. “Okay. Just making sure Silas didn’t turn your brain to cottage cheese. Carry on.”
He called after her before she got more than two rows away, and she walked back to him.
“Toni… listen. I just wanted to thank you for what you did. For sacrificing yourself to save me, and Bear and Mina. That was incredible.”
She gave him a thin smile. “I didn’t do it for you,” she said. “I meant what I said. You were the one shot we had. So I took it.”
“Two-Bug gave me credit for taking down Silas,” he said. “Sergeant Torres said the same thing. But that’s only because they don’t know what you did. I’m going to fix that. This was your victory tonight. We won because you kept your head, and stayed clear of Silas’s influence long enough to get us all out. That’s what I’ll tell the Rapid Response team.”
“I’m not the one who pushed Silas over the edge,” she said. “You did that. You know, I couldn’t understand why you threw away your chance to escape. Man I was pissed, when I saw you come back. Even as I watched you try to manipulate him, I didn’t think it was possible. I could feel his hold loosening, the more of us he tried to control, but even then… I don’t know. I was totally in his grip at that point. We all were. I don’t know how you fought him long enough to find his breaking point, but you did.”
“Alicia told me it would happen. She told me to believe.”
“Maybe so. If I were in your shoes, I’m not sure I would have listened to that crazy bitch.”
“We did this together, Toni. All of us.”
She gave him a smile – the first truly warm smile he’d seen from her tonight. She leaned close to whisper in his ear.
“This is your kill,” she said. “Take it. Don’t question it. They wanna make you a hero? Let them make you a damn hero. It’s good for the whole team. Let those PR assholes earn their damn money for once. Let ‘em celebrate you.”
She was already turning away. “You know what this job is like, Kyle. They won’t give you many more chances to shine like this. Besides –”
She turned, fixing him with that famously fierce stare. “This time – this one time – maybe you deserve it.”
He watched her walk away. He felt an incredible sense of pride. In his team, and in himself. He allowed the reality of what they’d done tonight to sink in.
They had defeated one of the most dangerous PIPs on the entire planet. And not just Prodigy – his entire damn team. They had prevented Haste from falling into his hands, and they’d aided in the arrest of some of the most wanted Villains in the world, including U07 and Shard.
They had done it. Not the Rapid Response Team. Not Jack the Lad and his elite squad of celebrity Heroes. The damn Transport Team. Warp, Array, Two-Bug, Whiskers and Lone. And Haste.
It hadn’t been simple luck. It had been the team. They had done the impossible. And Warp knew that, if they had to do it again, they could. With this team at his side, the impossible became doable.
Warp pulled out Haste’s cards. He knew what he wanted to ask.
“I can’t do this alone, Alicia. I need my team. How can I make that happen?”
THEY’LL BE WITH YOU. YOU’LL BE RUNNING THE TEAM.
Warp felt a surge of relief. “What about you? These cards can’t be the last I’ll see of you.”
THEY WON’T BE.
“Where will you be detained? Can we meet?”
I WON’T BE HELD LONG. I ESCAPE IN EIGHT DAYS.
“Damn, Alicia. That’s impressive. Nobody escapes the Black Signal detention team. If you’re that good, how’d you manage to get captured?”
I ARRANGED MY CAPTURE SO I COULD MEET YOU, KYLE
“That… that doesn’t make any sense. Why go through all that trouble? Why not just knock on my door?”
THIS ISN’T JUST ABOUT YOU AND ME. WHAT HAPPENED
TONIGHT CHANGED THINGS. IT MADE YOU NOTICED. SOON
YOU WILL BE PUT IN A POSITION TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
IT HAD TO HAPPEN THIS WAY.
“If you say so.”
Before he flipped the next card, Warp counted again. Nine left.
What if I just flip them over now and read them? he thought. For a moment, the urge to abandon this ridiculous game and do just that was very strong.
But he knew exactly what would happen. They’d be blank. This was a conversation with Haste, nothing more and nothing less. She couldn’t carry it one-sided. She was trying her best to help him, and he wouldn’t make it any harder on her than it was already.
Nine questions left. He took his time now, thinking for a minute before asking each one.
“Tell me who else you see in your visions. Who else has a hand in the end of the human race?”
A SMALL NUMBER OF OTHERS. I DON’T SEE THEM AS
CLEARLY AS YOU.
“I need names, Alicia.”
I CAN GIVE YOU TWO.
THE FIRST IS JACK THE LAD.
“Jack the Lad? The founder of Black Signal Group? That Jack the Lad?”
“Please tell me he’s an ally. Someone who can help?”
I DON”T KNOW.
BE CAREFUL WITH HIM. VERY, VERY CAREFUL, KYLE.
“Fuck! Okay. You said two names?”
THE OTHER IS ALRANTHUS
“What the hell is an Alranthus?”
HE’S A DOT. HE CAN HELP YOU. HE WAS MY
ASSISTANT WHEN I WORKED AT GENESYNTH.
“What did you do at Genesynth?”
I DESIGNED THE CODE FOR THE DOTs
Only two cards left.
“Alicia. There’s so much you haven’t told me. We need to meet. I have so many more questions.”
IT’S TOO DANGEROUS.
Warp wanted to argue, to tell Haste all of his concerns and doubts. But the last card in his hand made him keenly aware that his time had run out. He had to make this one count.
“Okay, Alicia. Fine. Last question. How can I uncover the truth?”
FIND ALRANTHUS. AND DON’T STOP DIGGING. THE TRUTH
IS HIDDEN. DO WHAT YOU DO BEST, KYLE. GO AFTER IT,
AND DON’T GIVE UP.
Warp couldn’t sleep for the rest of the trip. By the time they reached Davenport, dawn was breaking on the eastern horizon.
He was the last one off the bus. As he stepped onto the tarmac at the Black Signal security compound, he saw Whiskers, Lone, Two-Bug and Array clustered together, chatting. He joined them.
Array handed him a thick envelope.
“What the hell is this?” said Warp.
“New assignment,” said Lone.
“You’re kidding me,” said Warp. “Now?”
“The wheels of commerce grind on,” said Whiskers.
“In fairness, the assignment was probably made yesterday,” said Lone. “Before all this happened. I’m sure if we need some relief, they’ll assign someone else.”
“I don’t know,” said Array, and there was an unusual quality to her voice. “I like this one. It sounds interesting.”
“What is it?” asked Warp.
“Some big tech company in Baltimore,” said Whiskers. “Security detail for a high-security government project.”
Warp’s breath caught in his throat.
“Genesynth,” he said, when he was able to speak again.
All four of them looked at him oddly.
“How’d you know that?” asked Whiskers.
He clapped Whiskers on the back, and pointed at the cafeteria. The lights were already on, and he could see the kitchen staff starting to prepare for the day.
“Breakfast is on me,” he told them.
“I have a helluva story to tell you.”