<As you said, it’s obviously a test.> Much like the Vancouver mission, Professor Abernathy had taken the lead from the ‘control’ side. While Patil outranked her in the organization, he no longer attempted to be a battlefield commander.
<We can disappear her until the mission is over, but it risks tipping our hand.> I’ve been silent too long. “Hey, Bob? Why do you still do this? Driving the streets, I mean. You’re more than qualified to get a desk job.” <It’s impossible for their resources to match half what they pretend, but whatever reach they have is pointed directly at me right now.>
“Eh, who wants to be a desk?” Roberto chuckled more than the mediocre joke deserved. I assumed that he was making some pop culture reference I didn’t recognize, so I joined him in laughter for the sake of politeness. “If I did nothing but sit around all day, I’d go insane. Xerox a picture of my ass to the boss or something. Nobody wants that.”
<We could, perhaps, create a replicant of the woman. Which would require an agent to extract her and set the duplicate in place. Made doubly difficult if this is a double bluff and they don’t intend on you killing the target. If she’s in on the act, she might just buy the drugs and report to her bosses.> Abernathy brought up a good point; even if Kristie Hunter was a real woman with a real addiction, they may have killed her three days ago and replaced her with an actress.
“All xerox machines of the world just shouted in joy without knowing why.” <I could get in close enough range to confirm her addict status; if she’s a fake, that should reveal it. If not, I either give her the drugs that will kill her, or they’ll know I’m not going to follow through.>
<She’s not a decoy or trap.> Abernathy sounded like she just announced a funeral. <My power confirms she’s an ordinary woman with no connection to anything shady aside the usual street crime. I… the accusations they made of her are true.>
Oh. I brushed my hand across the poison in my pocket. No, even knowing… it is not my place to be her executioner. We have law for a reason. I was just glad Phoebe and Integral weren’t in the mission planning. <Do they know for a fact that she’s guilty?>
<I can’t answer that question.> Abernathy’s tone was deflated, tired. This situation is wearing her down as well.
“Earth to Saul, you in there?”
I looked over at Roberto, forcing a smile that fooled no one. “Sorry, guess I’m gonna be in a funk for the rest of the night. I’d tell you to pretend I’m not here, but I don’t want to know what you do in this car while you’re alone.” <Right. I think we can rule out physical evidence, but they seem to have at least one Esper. Or perhaps they have no proof and made a lucky guess. But, whatever her crimes, I won’t kill her in cold blood. I’d rather withdraw and do what we can.>
<If you can buy time, we can enact an alternate plan,> Doctor Patil said. <We can deposit a scanner device in her oven, or perhaps one of the neighboring apartments or a janitor’s closet. If we start now, we’ll have a convincing replicant constructed by noon. Can you delay?>
“You mean stink up the place instead of holding it ’till I can get out or roll down the window?”
“Yes. I prefer you don’t do that.” Damn it. <I can try. Perhaps I can use the car problems as an excuse to go to the shop after hours, or annoy Chief Brown. The shrink can buy me an hour, but that’s about it. Or, think you could get the FBI to send one of their fake forensics guys to do a fake interrogation about my fake homicide? That’ll buy me a few hours while you get everything in place.>
<I’m sure they’ll be willing to arrange something,> Doctor Patil said. I had no doubt they would; after all, they were getting partial credit for a major anti-terrorist operation without doing any of the work. <Professor Abernathy? Please explain the plan to Integral, Doctor Reed and Miss Pretorius. I’ll be on the phones for some time.>
With that, both conversations seemed at their conclusion. Our night proved rather peaceful otherwise, with only routine stops for a broken tail light and a man who blew a red light, but stopped for the sirens. He wasn’t happy about the ticket, but being sober and otherwise having a clean record saved him from anything worse. While there was no shortage of other crimes, it was always a different team who answered the call.
The sun was rising when we got the first interesting call of the night. “Imbued units. Reports of unknown supervillain attack near Fifteenth Street and Prospect Park West. One identified attacker, no civilians or unaffiliated heroes involved. Suspect is Altered, with evident Tank and Brawler capabilities.” Translation: someone is breaking a building with his bare hands.
“Son of a bitch, teach me to complain about boredom.” Roberto reached for the radio, muttering his complaint under breath until he had his finger on the button. “Two seventeen responding. We’re on Atlantic. We have ARC.”
“Understood. Backup will be there in under ten minutes.”
ARC was code for Alpha Response Clearance, a rating for Imbued officers who could be trusted to survive an encounter with other Imbued who had unknown powers. Typically it required either high end powers that could win most fights on their own, or a Tank rating high enough that the frequent beatings wouldn’t result in expensive hospital care. I was considered to be part of the second classification.
Roberto smiled at me. “So, kid, think a good fight is what you need to feel better?” He didn’t wait for an answer before stomping the gas.
As far as excuses are concerned, there aren’t much better. Bob was right; nailing a simple, unambiguous criminal did sound good. I activated the electrical show rather than a verbal response. <Abernathy?>
<I’m here, just tired. I’ll connect you to the recognition software.> I felt the not-tingle of the computer changing priorities for me. In the couple minutes before we reached the park, the tech was readied for use at the cost of my chemical-analysis library going on the back burner.
The Altered was tall, approaching three meters, with an almost birdlike bow to his legs and movement. No, less like a bird, and more like those dinosaur movies. His skin was a shimmer of metallic yellow that bordered on neon, a color that might be found on an expensive sports car. For Altered, his appearance was nothing unusual. I could not, however, explain why he had his arms around a medium sized elm tree, straining as if he believed could pull it from the ground.
What the actual hell? Not bothering to wait for Bob to slow the vehicle down, I popped the door open and dived out, following a simple tuck and roll maneuver that gave even a normal human a good chance of surviving the sixty miles per hour collision with the ground. I used the momentum to carry me closer to the suspect. “You are under arrest!”
His neck, twice as long as belonged on a human his height, twisted to face me while his body stayed tethered to the tree. “Back off, little boy blue, this don’t concern you.” She’s a woman. She had a deep, but feminine, voice that could belong to an opera singer along with a heavy southern accent.
Her face, in keeping with the theme, looked much like a real world version of those cartoons with humanoid animals; recognizable as human, while animal enough to resemble some type of lizard or snake. Her eyes were unchanged, a medium brown that would have looked natural on a normal human, but seemed alien on her modified features.
The computer identified her as a Texas villain known as Sidewinder. Brawler 3.5, Tank 3.4, Transit 1.4, Tracker 1.8, Stealth 4.1, Threat 3.2. Beastial package, approximate maximum lift capacity of 2700 pounds, 37 mph run speed, estimated immunity to medium arms fire, light regeneration, claws able to cut through aluminum, but not steel. Can dazzle or blind onlookers by warping light on her skin.
Not unbeatable, but a pain to fight. “I think it does.” I ordered another jolt of electricity to dance across my body as I took my police jacket off. I didn’t wear a vest under the uniform, thanks to my powers, so I only had my black undershirt on. “But I gotta ask. Why the tree? That ‘villains attacking mother nature’ fad died twenty years ago.”
She pushed off the tree toward me, her body twisting in mid air to match the orientation of her face. I had time to go into a combat stance and analyze her body. Her speed was superhuman, but limited to physics. When her bifurcated feet hit the ground, her talons dug into the dirt to give her traction, and her muscles stretched and contracted rather than some exotic mechanism such as forcefields.
She kept her arms tight to her center as she approached. A Muay Thai stance. Excellent choice for harnessing her limbs’ long reach, especially if she wants to deal damage without the risk of killing with her claws. She stopped over a meter away, then took a quick left jab, with an emphasis on speed rather than strength.
I had no trouble blocking with my right arm. I ducked down and dived forward to close the distance. She jumped back as I made my approach, while I narrowly avoided a ball of dirt and mud she’d kicked up at me. She moved to the side, aiming for another jab at my head.
Smart, testing my abilities from max distance. Avoiding heavier blows until she knows the limits of my durability. <How hard can I fight her? Is my cover strong enough to win this fight?> I caught her against my neck with a solid grip on her forearm. Before I could position myself for an elbow lock, but she kicked out with her right leg.
I took the blow to my side with a grunt, then locked her leg against my side with my left arm. She took her other leg off the ground to kick me in the other rib. This time I didn’t have a position for balance. She knocked the wind out of me, and before I knew it I was in the air.
She held me between her legs while she did a back flip, then slammed me head first into the ground. Had I been human, my neck would have been shattered; instead I had to pull my head out of the ground while she rolled back to her feet.
She’s decided I’m durable enough to endure a beating. I sensed her coming in for another blow while I was still on my hands and knees with my face covered in dirt. Wait for it. I dug my fingers into the sod, waiting for the last possible moment before tossing two fistfuls of grass and soil in her face. I activated the leg enhancements, dug my toes into the ground, and jumped forward.
This time, I was the one who took her off the ground, though I didn’t bother with a slam. She flashed a light that didn’t mean much to me, since I couldn’t see at the moment anyway. I felt her elbow slam into my back, followed by another and another.
<Your cover is durable enough to take her attacks, but unable to do any notable damage.> I could forgive Abernathy for the slow answer; the whole fight to this point felt like minutes, but had only been a few seconds.
Nothing in her records about protected senses. I grabbed the pepper spray off my belt and brought it above my head. She grabbed my arm, twisting it away from her so I couldn’t shoot her with the canister, but that was never my plan. I clenched my fist, and the chemicals exploded all over both of us.
“Fu-” her exclamation was replaced by hacking and coughing.
I slipped out of her grip, grabbed her arm, and twisted it into a proper joint lock while she was unable to do anything but cough. “That shit burns like hell, don’t it? If you cooperate, we can get you cleaned-”
Her elbow joint popped, then bent backward. No longer immobilized, she grabbed my forearm and I was once again pulled off the ground. She brought me in a full arc over her body, then back first onto the ground. Her joints can change direction without breaking. I was yanked back into the air, this time to enjoy a slam face first into the turf. What asshole neglected to put something as important as immunity to joint locks in her profile?
A knee pressed into my back, forcing me deeper into the soft dirt. Throughout all of this, she hadn’t stopped coughing, and I could feel her shudder with each violent attempt to clear the chemicals from her lungs. I had options to beat her; activating the full extent of my forcefield, knocking her unconscious with the stun system, or using the taser all had a chance. My cover, however, was more important than bringing in some second rate crook whose only crime in this state was hugging a tree too hard.
Turns out, I needn’t have worried. A new person entered bioscan range, then Sidewinder was no longer on top of me.
“Are you injured?” Female voice. My recognition software identified her as Relay, one of the heroes who worked in a different station. Her power involved infusing telekinesis into an object by touch, then setting it to go off later, a trick she translated into flight by manipulating her outfit. In this corner of the city, she was considered one of the heavy hitters as long as she could touch your clothes.
I pulled my face from the dirt for a second time in as many minutes. “I’m fine.” I jumped up into a combat stance. “What happened to Sidewinder?” As if to answer my question, a body slammed into the earth not far away, covered in a light purple glow much like the one around Relay’s costume.