If I put this off any longer, I’m going to feel like a creep. I aimed the stun weapon at Lynx, pulled the trigger, and holstered the weapon in one of the hidden compartments in the armor system.
“Wha? Shit!” She was awake before I could get my hand out of the compartment.
She rolled to her feet, the black smoke of her power completed her costume before she hit a crouching stance with her gun in hand and pointed at me. Damn she’s fast. “Back off, asshole!”
“First, we both know that weapon won’t work.” I think. We still weren’t certain where she hid her weapons, so it could in theory have been a different gun than the one she tried before.
I held my hands out, nonetheless. “Second, if I wanted to hurt you, I had plenty of time to do it while you were unconscious. Uh, sorry about that by the way.”
She didn’t relax, but she took the time to glance around the room. “Where are we? Is this your house? Did you bring me home with you?” Fear and suspicion blended with sheer incredulity. I couldn’t say I blamed her; being beaten unconscious only to wake up in a stranger’s bedroom wasn’t my idea of a good time, either.
“Foreclosed property on the edge of town.” We picked it in part for its isolation, but mostly for the metal shed in the back yard. “Mind giving me a minute to explain myself before you add burglary to the B&E, infiltration, assault, evading arrest and whatever else you’re planning to charge me with? I just took you to a healer to get your injuries checked out.”
She took one hand off the gun to rub her face and jaw. “You… you healed me? You touched me. How!?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” We still didn’t know the full extent of her powers; if she was a Truthsayer, I couldn’t risk giving away information. Which meant the safest way to not give away information was to refuse to say anything of value, truth or otherwise.
“What about my communicator? You changed my clothes?” Black shadows flared up around her, reaching out toward me. “Where’s my sword? How did you take my sword?!”
This isn’t going well. I have to come up with something that calms her down. <Sorry, I’m trying to keep as many secrets as I can, but I need to tell her something or everything goes south.>
<I understand,> Patil answered. <Just do your best.>
Nicest boss I’ve ever had. <Affirmative.> Maybe I should take Phoebe’s advice; if only to get her to cooperate. Not that I would; professionalism aside, Phoebe’s assumptions didn’t account for the fact that people were watching almost everything I did with Lynx from inside my head.
“I called in a favor and brought you to a healer. A female healer, if that makes you feel better. She decided to take you out of your sewage covered clothes.” Healers are generally Gifters, and Phoebe is considered a Gifter, and she did heal Lynx. It’s roundabout, but it counts. “As for the rest? Well, I think the communicator might still be in the sewer, and you left your sword inside me. Real bitch to remove, by the way.”
“You…” she hesitated, if only for a moment. “Why did you bring me here? Heal me?”
“I owed you. If… if you had struck to kill, I wouldn’t be here right now. It left you vulnerable, and I…” I took advantage of you. “I didn’t mean to do that kind of damage, I didn’t think my power nullification was good enough to really hurt you.” A lie; I didn’t so much as stop to think about her wellbeing until she was down. “After? Well, I couldn’t leave you to die, could I?”
Her fingers clawed through the shadows, as if searching for something invisible. “I’ve dealt with power nullifiers before, they don’t work on me. No one’s ever been able to get close enough to touch me before.” Tendrils of black smoke oozed toward me, only to vanish into nothing on contacting my armor. “You can actually hurt the Lynx. And you got me here without getting caught. How many powers do you have? No, you had help enough to get a healer. Who?”
One power from the bargain bin. <Can I get you to do some research on lynxes that might help me, here?>
<I can look, but I doubt there’s anything useful,> Abernathy answered.
<Thanks.> “Trust me, you would not believe me if I told you.”
The black mist retreated back to Lynx. The black shadow now kept her features entirely obscured; even the scanner tech was having trouble locking onto her. “Yeah, that’s bullshit. Try the truth.”
<Her stealth powers obscure my scanning equipment. I suspect they work on other powers as well.> Jesus Christ, how absurd can one power be? “Okay, I wouldn’t tell you even if you’d believe me. Is that better? If it makes you feel any better, I can’t do mind control.”
Though given Phoebe’s abilities and the sheer number of Gadgeteers available to Artemis, I wouldn’t be surprised if mind control could be arranged.
“More honest, at least.” With her power as thick around her as it was now, her voice sounded hollow and inhuman. “What were you doing at the hospital?”
“Investigating. I didn’t expect to walk into someone’s trap.” Namely because our employer us should have warned us. “I presume you were expecting whomever mind controlled Vine to come back, either to reclaim or silence her. You set yourself up as bait. This suggests you’re immune to mind control?”
“Not quite immunity. It’s been tried before, and the Lynx…” Lynx turned to look out the window. Her next words, I only heard thanks to my enhancements. “They had to identify her by the serial numbers on her breast implants.”
<She refers to her power as ‘the Lynx’. Third person. Connection? Attempting to coax more details.> “It’s not your fault. A lot of people get powers like yours.” <Also, I thought your computers said she has no black marks. There’s no way she could have dissolved someone without it being recorded.>
“I don’t have powers.” The words bordered on a snarl. She was angrier now than before, when she was wondering what I may have done to her while she was unconscious. She looked ready to attack me, but thought better of it. “I have a family curse.”
<We’re still looking,> Abernathy’s voice entered my head. <One incident in Ontario fourteen years ago fits the basic description, including the implants. Well before the start of Lynx’s career.>
<Wouldn’t be the first Imbued to change identities.>
<Or she was new to her powers, a juvenile. Fits her current mentality,> Patil said. <If I were to hazard an early diagnosis, she’s got a form of dissociative identity disorder. She’s personified her darker impulses into this ‘Lynx’, a secondary being that controls her powers. She has control over it, but not so much that it can’t break free when necessary. A coping mechanism to absolve her from responsibility. Whatever you do, don’t challenge her belief. She wants to talk about it, encourage her.>
I sighed, looking out the same window. Note to self: ask Phoebe where she got her degree, then ask if they do psychology. “Want to talk about it?” I took a couple steps closer. “I’ve seen my fair share of family curses.”
The black shadows which made up the bulk of her costume reached toward me, only to draw back again. I was at maximum power, so the spare power went to generating calories for the endosymbiotes. In theory, if I had enough spare energy I never had to eat. In practice, I would still feel like I was starving.
“You think I’m insane.” There was no accusation in Lynx’s voice, just resignation.
“I think you’d have to be crazy to be sane in this world. Besides, you did start a fight with an unknown superhuman in a sewer.” I decided against pressing on the subject of Lynx’s neurosis; much like with Phoebe, my solution was avoidance. “Can’t imagine your boss sanctioned that move.”
She turned her head toward me, then stood up on the bed. She was not a tall woman, and still had plenty of clearance. In fact, our eyes were on the same level now. “What is your angle, anyway? You’ve done the whole ‘saving’ part. Why didn’t you run? What do you want?”
“I’m investigating. It’s what I do.” In part. “I was hired to find out the real story with Vine. Sure, things aren’t going according to plan, but that’s no excuse to just quit the job.” The part where the client stabbed us in the back is, and that’s why I have to stay.
“Is that your angle?” Black smoke swirled around us, again trying to find its way into attacking me. Like a thousand tiny shadow wolves, they flanked around me seeking vulnerabilities. “Manipulate me into helping you? Well, fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”
“I was hoping you’d recognize we’re on the same side.” One step closer to her; whether conscious or otherwise, she was trying her best to intimidate me. It was a battle of dominance, and I had to show I wasn’t going to back down. “I don’t know Vine, but what happened to her means a powerful Imbued is involved. Would you rather fight that alone, or have an ally you can trust on the field.”
“Or you’re playing a weird double-agent game.”
Crap, I’m losing her. “Or, I’m playing a weird double agent game. There’s nothing I can do to prove otherwise.” Especially since I am a double agent, just for a different organization. “So let’s put it this way: I intend to keep investigating and find out what happened here.” Then shoot someone in the face for the trouble. “I would like your help, but I’m not stopping either way.”
“Your face and powers are known by half of Vancouver by now,” Lynx said. “If you think throwing on some new costume is going to fool anyone, then you not equipped to solve a crossword, let alone-”
To answer her point, I activated the stealth protocol. I fought down the urge to shudder in disgust as the endosyms shifted about. It felt similar to when my friends would dare each other to let banana slugs crawl on our faces, only this time there were hundreds of them and they were beneath my skin.
Melanin was added to my skin and eyes, changing both to a deep chocolate brown. My lips, nose and ears puffed out, changing not just the color but the actual shape of my face. The forcefield system curled my hair in on itself and added a reasonable amount of grey. In a matter of five seconds, I’d gone from looking vaguely Hispanic or Mediterranean to indisputably black.
Despite the literal crawling sensation, I forced myself to smile. All the default forms in the current library were handsome men, without a single ugly face to choose from. A flaw I’d already requested they fix, but one which had its advantages; people liked to imagine they weren’t so shallow, but attractive people were simply treated better. “You were saying?”
“How many powers do you have?!” This time, Lynx didn’t bother to hide her incredulity. “Nevermind. I won’t believe you if you tell me, right?”
“Something like that. Suffice it to say that I’ve already revealed more than I should.” There was no disputing that detail. “I’m putting a lot of trust in you, which you could use against me if you wanted.”
“And you’re trusting me, why?”
Guilt. “Same reason I got you to a healer. You could have killed me, if you tried.” Sword to the back of the head while I was gummed up in that web, as an example. “You didn’t, even though you thought I was an enemy. Now, I’d like us to help each other. I don’t want to hurt you, or Vine, or anyone other than maybe the asshole who controlled her. I don’t need your help, but it would be much simpler. For both of us.”
She hesitated, her eyes suspicious. “I don’t trust you, but I suppose it’s easier to keep you where I can see you, rather than let you escape and turn into anyone you want to. I don’t need that kind of paranoia on top of the rest of this case.”
“Good enough for me.” I reached out my hand toward her.
She looked at me for a moment, more confused than anything.
“It’s called a handshake. It’s what people traditionally do after agreeing to-”
“I know what a handshake is.”
She hesitated for a moment before reaching out. Her hand was trembling when her fingers touched mine. The black smoke surged forward like some hybrid of angry serpent and tidal wave, only to break to pieces once in contact with my hand. Minor numbness radiated up to my elbow, as what was left of the shadow recoiled back, revealing Lynx’s arm up to the shoulder.
She drew her hand away, then reached out to grasp mine, squeezing hard. I gave her hand a gentle squeeze in return. She kept her hand in mine, long after the appropriate time for a handshake had passed. After thirty seconds, I decided I needed to say something, but I needed something that wouldn’t insult her. She hates her power, sees it as an outside entity. “I don’t think the Lynx likes me very much.”
“No,” Lynx said. She reluctantly slid her hand out of mine. “It doesn’t like anyone.”