The huge vehicle came to a stop about fifty yards away. Its lights stayed on.
“That’s a sweet ride, whatever it is,” said Two-Bug. “Bet you a cool hundred they have a wet bar in there.”
“I won’t take that bet,” Kyle said dryly.
“What do we do now?” said Toni.
“Easy call,” said Two-Bug. “We hit ‘em. We hit ‘em hard.”
Kyle put a hand on his shoulder. “Whoa, big guy. You’re in no shape for another brawl. Especially if they’ve got anybody serious in there.”
“We can’t just sit here,” said Toni.
“Maybe we can,” said Kyle. “They’re more in the dark than we are. Maybe they’re just trying to keep us from leaving. Trying to stall until they figure out their next step, or until they get new orders.”
“If they want to stall,” said Two-Bug, “it means they don’t know Davenport is on the way.”
“Right,” said Kyle. “And that gives us the advantage.”
“So we stall?” said Toni.
“We stall. As long as we can.”
Toni was quiet for several moments, watching the mystery vehicle. “Do you think they do?” she said at last.
“Have anybody serious in there?”
“Another major PIP, you mean? Like Spectre, or U07?”
“If they had anybody like that left, they’d already be on us. No, I think they just want to keep us here until the big guns arrive.”
“Looks like we’re about to find out,” said Two-Bug.
The side door of the vehicle had opened, and a slender ramp extended to the frozen ground. Someone was climbing out.
He moved slowly, with stately manners, like he was stepping onto a stage. He was dressed in leather shoes and a long white overcoat that matched his trim white beard. He had a silk scarf and black gloves, and a thin wooden cane. He took a few slow steps towards the rig and paused, leaning on his cane. His white hair ruffled in the stiff breeze as he pursed his lips in a disapproving stare. The door slid closed behind him.
“Jesus Christ,” said Kyle, taking a sharp breath. “That’s Silas Newport.”
Two-Bug’s hands were on the dash. His knuckles were white. “Damn. I thought he was dead.”
“He doesn’t look very dead to me,” Kyle said.
Silas Newport was the leader of the November Legion, a South Carolina-based team of fearsome reputation. Known as Prodigy, his followers included some of the most powerful PIPs on the East Coast. He was known to employ mercenaries from all over the world. Eleven months ago, at the invitation of exiled Interior Minister Carlos Balencia, November Legion had entered Nicaragua and crushed the military, installing Balencia as President and quietly making his most vocal opponents disappear. In return, it was rumored that Balencia had paid out more than $90 million looted from government coffers.
The Legion had been labeled a Villain organization, sanctioned by international authorities, and been issued a federal court order to disband eight months ago. Yet it continued to operate with impunity. No federal or international authority had been able to bring them to justice, and they were powerful and elusive enough that none was likely to any time soon.
“Oh, Christ,” breathed Array. “They’re going to kill us.”
Warp grit his teeth. He knew he should contradict her, but he hadn’t worked out how just yet.
“What the hell does an outfit like the November Legion want with us?” said Two-Bug.
“We’re in way over our heads, that’s for damn sure,” agreed Kyle.
“If it really is November Legion, they can take whatever they want,” said Two-Bug. “We don’t have the manpower to stand up to them – especially now.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Kyle said slowly. Two-Bug gave him an incredulous look.
“Look at their situation.” Kyle said. He kept his eyes on Prodigy, standing ram-rod straight in the cruel wind. “They’re completely in the dark. Spectre is missing. They’ve lost contact with Zone and Whip, who were supposed to show up here twenty minutes ago. The colonel and his wingman are stranded in a ditch. They planned a clean hit, but nothing’s gone the way they expected. Even if they have an assault team ready in that vehicle, they can’t risk sending them in without knowing what they’re up against.”
“What the hell could they be scared of?” said Array.
“The November Legion has enemies – powerful enemies,” said Kyle thoughtfully. “The Department of Defense, CIA, the big Hero alliances, probably a lot more we don’t know about. And right now, Prodigy is wondering how this opp went south so fast, and exactly who’s waiting for them inside this rig.”
“They’re worried it could be a trap,” said Two-Bug.
“Exactly,” said Kyle. “For all they know there’s a dozen Heroes in here – or maybe one or two that are really dangerous, like Jack the Lad, or Our Lady of Near Orbit. The longer we keep them guessing, the better.”
“If we can stall them long enough for Davenport to get here, we might live through this,” said Toni.
Two-Bug glanced at his watch. “That’s a whole lot of stalling.”
Kyle grabbed his jacket, started to zip up. “Then it’s time we get started.”
“You’re not going out there?” asked Toni, alarmed.
“We haven’t got much choice,” said Kyle.
Two-Bug grabbed his arm. He tore his eyes away from Prodigy and fixed them on Kyle. “You know who that son of a bitch is,” he said, his voice low.
“Yeah,” said Kyle, trying to exude a confidence he didn’t feel. “One of the most powerful PIPs on the planet.”
“You’re gonna try and bluff him?”
“No,” said Kyle with a lean smile. “I’m going to let him try and bluff me.”
He threw open Array’s door and climbed out, before he lost his nerve.
It was still brutally cold. The wind sucked all the heat out of him in seconds. He’d wanted to stride out to meet Prodigy like a boss, head held high, shoulders straight, but by the time he’d taken a dozen steps he’d shriveled to hide from the wind, pulling his hood down tight. He slumped, keeping the wind from his face, squinting through half-closed eyes and staggering forward like a drunkard.
Silas was as still as a statue as he approached. The man was so gaunt it seemed impossible he could stand rigid in the relentless wind, but stand he did, tall and unyielding.
Warp stumbled to a stop a few feet in front of him.
Newport fixed him with an unblinking stare. Up close Kyle could see the lines around his eyes. He guessed his age to be around eighty, give or take. Newport betrayed no discomfort in the sub-zero cold, and in fact seemed in no hurry to speak at all. As he weighed his opponent, Newport’s lips grew thin in disapproval.
Newport might not be in a hurry, but Warp had quickly concluded that he didn’t want to be here any longer than absolutely necessary. It was time to get this started.
“Senator Newport,” he said, keeping his voice neutral.
Newport made a dismissive gesture. “I’m no longer a member of the South Carolina Legislature,” he said evenly. “That corrupt institution is unworthy of any man of integrity or ambition.”
Jesus. Newport sounded like he was warming up a floor speech. This conversation was barely ten seconds old, and Warp hated it already. He yearned to be back in the warmth of the cabin, away from the wind and dangerous megalomaniacs.
He tried a different tack. “My name is Warp. What can I do for you?”
Prodigy smiled coldly. “I know who you are.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do –”
“Don’t interrupt me, young man.” The smile was gone, and in its place was a frigid glare that cut like the Iowa wind.
It might have had more impact if Kyle’s patience wasn’t already badly frayed. “Then don’t waste my time,” he said. He fought to keep his voice level.
Silas’s posture, impressively straight, managed to stiffen perceptibly. “As you wish,” he said. “You have something I want. I am in possession of something you want. In keeping with the tenets of civilized commerce, I propose a fair exchange.”
There was precious little about this evening that Warp would classify as “civilized commerce,” but he let that pass. “What do you want?”
“Your passenger,” said Silas. “Alicia Brazil.”
“I don’t know anyone by that name,” Warp said truthfully.
Silas smiled again. “I don’t doubt that. I don’t doubt, in fact, that there’s a single player in our little drama that is as thoroughly ignorant as you, Mr. Price. About…” Newport spread his arms to encompass the parking lot, the surrounding fields, and the wide universe beyond. “About everything.”
Silas Newport was one of the most feared men on the entire planet, a Villain of terrifying power. But for long seconds, Warp silently debated the merits of punching him in the face.
“Maybe that’s true,” he conceded at last. “But I know this much, Mr. Newport. You’re still wasting my time.”
He was rewarded with a genuine flash of anger in Prodigy’s eyes, the sight of which brought Warp some small satisfaction. He took two steps back, began to turn away. “I think we’re done here,” he said.
“We are done, you self-important jackass, when I tell you we’re done.”
Warp was driven to his knees. It happened so suddenly he wasn’t even sure how it happened. Before he could react, he felt his spine snap forward and his head jerk to the sky, leaving him splayed out before the ex-senator like a kneeling supplicant, begging to an angry god.
Warp’s body wouldn’t obey his commands. He couldn’t blink, he couldn’t even breathe. All he could see was the dark Iowa sky, a dimensionless vault of swirling snowflakes.
Warp’s heart was racing. He heard Prodigy pacing slowly around him. The ex-senator began to speak again.
“Among the many things of which you are ignorant, the paramount matter is exactly whom you are speaking to,” said Prodigy. “Let us rectify that immediately. I am not a man you can comprehend. It is best if you make no such wasted effort. It is easiest if you think of me as a purpose, a creature of pure intent.”
Prodigy’s words had a rhythm, like a prayer. Warp heard his steady footprints like a measured drumbeat, flawlessly keeping time with the rise and fall of his voice.
“The shadow of my desire lays firm upon the fabric of reality, and it bends eagerly to my will. I brought this storm to life as a pure manifestation of my will. You are now a tool of that will. When you cease to be such an instrument, your life will cease to have meaning.”
It was growing harder and harder to follow Silas’s words. Warp had been unable to draw a breath for nearly two minutes. His mouth was open, an urn for tiny snowflakes, but all the effort in the world could not open his lungs and let him suck in precious air.
“Mr. Price, as ignorant as you are, this evening I learned – to my surprise – that you are a capable young man. Impressively capable.”
Black dots were swirling in Warp’s field of vision. He couldn’t see the snow. Couldn’t feel the wind on his face.
“I believe you are the instrument I need. In fact, I’m certain of it. You will enact my will, Mister Price.”
Warp collapsed to the frozen ground, gasping air into his lungs. He took long, ragged breaths, so cold they hurt deep in his chest. His fingers gripped the pavement like he was about to fall off the world.
He forced himself to keep his eyes open. Above him, to his left, a figure was moving. Pacing. It wasn’t the distinguished silhouette of a South Carolina senator. It wasn’t human at all. It was stooped, impish. A thin layer of translucent skin stretched tight over its head, and Warp could see the thick gray folds of its oversized brain. The creature moved like a scorpion, and for an instant Warp glimpsed something twitching, a spiny tentacle at its back that ended in a nasty barb. The barb dripped a greenish fluid.
And then the thing was gone. In its place was the flawlessly groomed visage of Silas Newport.
“Stand, Mister Price.”
Warp obeyed, slowly. Both of his legs were wobbly. But they held.
Prodigy stopped his pacing. He stood before Warp, leaning on his cane.
“Calista Sanchez, Prinny Nguyen, and Victoria Al-Qahta,” said Silas.
Warp blinked at him until comprehension dawned. “You have the Package Red team,” he said.
“I do,” said Silas, “I will exchange them for your passenger. Three people, for one. A more than generous offer, you will agree.”
Warp forced himself to think. Something wasn’t right.
“There are four members of the Package Red team,” he said at last.
“There were, yes. The fourth member, Mister Clarence Saint-John, suffered a weapons mishap in the process of his surrender. He was regrettably killed by his own weapon. Entirely avoidable, and entirely due to his own inadequate training. My team of professionals secured the scene with no additional casualties, and you will find Mrs. Sanchez, Nguyen, and Al-Qahta completely unharmed, and eager for a civilized trade.”
“I’ll need to speak to them.”
“No,” said Prodigy flatly. “Not before you hand over Ms. Brazil.”
“I told you, I don’t know who that is.”
“And I told you, Mr. Price, that she is your passenger. She is Package Blue. Do not use your ignorance to impede our negotiations. It is tedious and unproductive.”
Warp nodded dumbly. Feeling was just starting to return to his arms and legs, in the form of a profound ache.
“You have twenty minutes,” said Prodigy.
It was a dismissal. Kyle needed no further prodding. He turned and began to walk.
“Remember,” said Prodigy, his voice a warning. “You will enact my will.”
Kyle gave him a thumbs up without bothering to turn around. “Team Silas,” he said.
He made his way to the rig, and warmth.