Relay landed between me and Sidewinder. The supervillain remained pinned into the ground, her attempts to escape only succeeded in further shredding the grass and dirt around her. Relay’s power only seemed to effect, in the process reinforcing her clothes so Sidewinder didn’t shred them like tissue paper.
“You sure you’re not hurt?” The woman, or perhaps girl, didn’t bother to look at me. I allowed my tech to scan only deep enough to confirm she wasn’t hidden from my technology. “You said her name was Sidewinder?”
Oh shit, I shouldn’t know who she is. God damn rookie mistake. “She has a record in Texas.” I could only hope that by playing it off as routine, she’d assume it was routine and forget about it. I gripped the hem of my shirt. “Damn, and I liked this one.” The tattered cloth surrendered with only a soft tug and a rip which sounded much more violent than it felt.
Now Relay glanced at me, then her head snapped back to the supervillain. “Did you have to do that?” I had expected her to have a reaction, but she was more upset than I anticipated.
“Sorry, I’m not one of the Tanks who’s immune to wardrobe malfunctions.” I didn’t push the comment any further; her feelings ensured my error would no longer be a memorable part of this encounter. I kept talking as I went to find my jacket. “When I found her, she was attacking the tree near the corner. I initiated arrest procedures, but she was more interested in combat than conversation, and here we are.”
Sirens had been in the background the whole time, but now they were close enough to dominate the soundscape. I ignored them as I brushed my jacket clean, confident a Truthsayer wouldn’t catch that I could have repaired my shirt rather than destroy it. The poison, and address, remained nice and safe in their plastic wrap, so sealed that even a drug dog couldn’t sniff them out.
Relay waited until I was dressed before she talked. “You said she was attacking a tree?”
“Yup, the elm. Like I said, she wasn’t interested in talking.” I walked as close to Sidewinder as I dared with the drugs on my person. “So, that offer to help clean the pepper spray out of your eyes is still on the table, if you stop struggling.”
“Fine, I’m done,” Sidewinder muttered, still face down in the dirt. “Son of a fuck. Why the pepper spray? Heroes don’t use pepper spray. Thought I was getting a fair fuckin’ fight, an’ this shit burns like hell.”
“Just so we’re on the same page, I am not a hero. You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you.”
“Bullet proof, bacon bits.”
“Your eyes bullet proof, as well? Because I’ve got excellent aim. Now, what was that about a fair fight?”
“Dammit, she’s a Worf.” I looked up at Relay, still standing off from the pair of us. She must have seen the confusion in my expression. “It’s a term for people who get into fights in order to lose.”
“That doesn’t make any sense to me.” I’d heard of taking a dive in professional competitions, but there was often a lot of money on the line there.
“Look, it’s a big city, with a lot of heroes and villains competing to climb to the top.” The field of light pinning Sidewinder to the ground flickered out. “Well, some of them want a publicity boost so bad that they’re willing to pay for it. Some people make careers of doing some light property damage, maybe kick around some gangbangers to get a rep, then they take a bribe, lose a fight, and make someone else look good. And now, it’s going to look like I had to resort to such contemptible tactics.”
What. I focused my attention on Sidewinder, who was busy rubbing her eyes. “Who paid you? Also, don’t rub your eyes, that only makes it worse.”
“Don’t know who paid me.” She took her hands away from her face. “It’s all anonymous, just told to show up, wreck up something, throw the fight. Then you show up with the god damn pepper spray!”
Relay was all too pleased to continue explaining the situation. “There are other reasons to hire a Worf. Some crook wants to do a crime and needs a distraction. Some politician wants to look good by padding the number of arrested supervillains. To say nothing of crimes like insurance fraud. Even civilians who want to humble-brag about their experience with the big, bad supervillain attack. Even see some women who pay to get kidnapped so they can live out their fantasy of meeting and maybe hooking up with a superhero.”
With every new item on the list, Relay’s tone became more embittered. I had no doubt in my mind she had a personal problem with the last on the list.
“Wow, things in this city sure get weird.” <Was this part of the plan?>
“You have no idea.” Relay walked toward us. “Hey, look, can you guys do me a solid? When the police reports are done, can you say the fight was over before I showed up. There are some ugly things being said about me online, and I don’t need this kind of publicity. I can clean the pepper spray, if you want.”
Professor Abernathy was still on communication’s duty. <I don’t know. I doubt Doctor Patil knew about this quirk in New York’s subculture. It’s not impossible that it was a coincidence. Occam’s razor cuts in that direction, but.>
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Sidewinder muttered. “Little boy blue can have all the credit he wants. What kind of asshole uses pepper spray?”
“This asshole, apparently.” I glanced over to the squad car, where Roberto was waiting inside the vehicle. “Mind cleaning me up, too? I’m immune, but my partner would appreciate it.” <But that is far too convenient. In any case, it does provide the distraction I need. Chances are you’ll be done with your replicant long before I’m done with this report.>
Relay touched Sidewinder’s shoulder, and stood there as the orange light expanded across the Altered. “There… is a lot of it.”
“Because this jackass used the whole fucking can!”
“Was in a grapple situation. I crushed the canister in order to disable the target.”
Kristie Hunter lived in a squalid building in an even more squalid neighborhood. In some ways not as bad as the drug warehouse in disguise that was the place Roberto took me through during my shift, but in other ways it was worse. At least that neighborhood had people in it with money. Here seemed to be where they put people who were unable to hold down even a career as a drug dealer.
Glad I thought to skip my shower before coming here. As it stood, the cheap hoodie and ragged jeans made me feel a little over-dressed. Out of the corner of my eye, a couple teens who should have been in school watched from behind a dumpster. My scanners showed signs of paint residue in their noses and lungs which matched an aerosol can nearby.
I ignored that, and the other signs of a neighborhood drowning in its own bile. Even if I were in uniform and on duty, there was precious little I could do here without violating the law. I wonder if Shannon has to deal with crap like this in Vancouver.
Kristie’s building had a security lock on it, in theory I needed a four digit access code to get in. I used gift card someone tossed on the sidewalk, instead. An obvious breaking and entering in the middle of the day, and no one so much as gave me a second glance. I accepted the convenience for what it was, and closed the door behind me so other opportunists wouldn’t be able to exploit the opening.
I confirmed Kristie was the only human lifesign in her apartment before employing my discount key-card method. The niceties of knocking, I would save for someone who didn’t prostitute her own children.
The first thing of note was the smell. The sick-sweet stench of alcohol, more than a hint of urine, marijuana, and what my scanners informed me was crack cocaine, all came together to assault my nose. Had my senses not been rebuilt into something inhuman, I would have gagged. Instead, I came away with a new appreciation for a certain Lynyrd Skynyrd song.
I stepped over a pile of dirty clothes and into the living room where half the floor was covered in dirty paper and plastic dishes. Some of them even had maggots, trying in vain to survive in food too dehydrated for them to consume. I glanced around the room, seeking some evidence that our vigilante group was watching me through their methods, but found nothing but more filth and signals from the other bioscanner. My tech wouldn’t work on the vigilantes, but it worked on Kristie, so I turned my scanner in her direction.
Kristie herself was splayed out on a couch that doubled as a biohazard, a cigarette burning a hole into what remained of one cushion cover. Small miracle the alcohol-soaked couch hasn’t gone up in flames and rendered this whole scenario moot.
Her body had been ravaged by years of substance abuse, a testament to the ability of the human form to keep itself alive against all odds, logic, and expectations. The drugs in her system seemed a haphazard blend of alcohol and sleeping pills, perhaps as a self-medicated stupor to fight off the withdrawal symptoms. Her hair had started to prematurely gray, and my scanner identified signs of osteoporosis and several infections in her mouth, growing in her rotted out teeth. Don’t know why they want me to kill her, seems like she’s doing an excellent job on her own.
<Phoebe still in the command center?> I should ask for a camera feed up there so I can check to see who is and isn’t on duty.
<I’m here!> Phoebe, somehow, still kept her bubbly cheer. <Eww, her neurosystems are a nightmare. It’ll take months to repair all that.>
Repair? <Wait, are you saying you can cure drug addiction?>
<Oh, sure, it’s not hard at all,> Phoebe said. <First we just need to rework the pleasure and reward centers, adjust their function so they offer greater pleasure with less stimulus and pain with more stimulus. They’ll be in a walking, happy daydream, then we reduce the effects as we heal the damage to the brain. By the time I’m done, their addiction will be to being sober.>
<Doctor Reed, you know Miss Jill doesn’t feel that’s wise,> Professor Abernathy said.
<I know.> Phoebe’s excitement drained out, replaced by a child who’d been told she couldn’t have something she wanted. <I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to cure addictions.>
If Doctor Crisp felt it wasn’t good for Phoebe to do such a thing, then I trusted her judgment over my own or Phoebe’s in this matter. As it stood, my admittedly untrained ears thought it sounded like a high tech lobotomy. My thumb brushed over the drugs in my pocket as I looked at the unconscious form of Kristie Hunter. At what point do we decide the cure is worse than the disease? Not a question I had answers to, but if lobotomy and murder weren’t over the line, then nothing was. <Phoebe, I need you to leave the command center. I won’t be able to do this if you’re watching.>
<But… I…> she choked out the words. <Okay.>
Now I feel like an asshole. Well, time to confirm it. I thought of my approach, then stepped forward to the unconscious woman. I brushed trash away with my foot, including some paraphernalia and a spoon which existed as the only non-disposable item. It took several sweeps, accompanied by rattling of empty and half-empty cans and squeak of styrofoam containers which would have woke anything less dead than my target. I pinched the cigarette, then tossed it in a corner. Out of an act of mercy, I moved her arm down and adjusted her leg before I grabbed the back of her couch and tilted it forward until she fell onto the floor in a heap.
Her eyes fluttered open, as her drug-addled brain struggled to comprehend the world around her. I gave her just enough time to register my presence. “Rise and shine, bitch!”
Part of me hated myself. The rest of me hated that I hated myself; after all, this woman was in all ways that mattered a child molester, she didn’t deserve any compassion on my part. If it were a man, I would not have been so gentle in waking him up.
“Wh’re you?” She struggled some, scooting away toward her kitchen. “G’ out! I’ll scr-”
I considered pointing out that if she screamed, people would either ignore it or come to watch, perhaps join in, but that was just the cynic in me talking. I brought up my hand, holding the baggie of drugs as if dangling a treat in front of a dog. “Heard you’re buyin’. I’m sellin’.” I used a somewhat different act than I did as Saul, because I couldn’t know there were listening devices.
A spark of light jumped to her eyes, alertness she hadn’t show when a large, dirty man accosted her in her living room. “I- I’m waitin’ fer the welfare check, then I c’n pay. Jimmy lets me suck-”
“Wrong answer!” Put that on the list of sentences I never want to hear completed. She flinched back, but the way her eyes remained locked on the baggie was almost heartbreaking. Almost, because I was fighting off my sympathies by reminding myself of her crimes. “Let’s talk about your daughters, instead.”
The woman’s eyes started to water. “I- I don’t have ‘m. The state took th’m away.” She brought her arms up, as if to hug herself. “I- I know I’m old, but maybe if you do it from behind, I-”
On reflex, my other hand came up. “Stop! Just stop.” For the love of what’s left of my faith in humanity, I can’t listen to another word. “What I want, is your contacts.”
She stared at me with empty eyes, her drug addled mind blended with my request had sent her into a blue-screen. “Wh’ you want that?” Her brain had put together some semblance of a response. “I ain’t no snitch, if tha’s-”
I brought my hand down, returning the drugs to my pocket. “Then I’m gone.” What it said about this woman, the culture she belonged to, that she would sooner prostitute herself or her children than ‘snitch’, could be a work of scholarship unto itself.
I hadn’t made one step before she shouted. “Wait! I’ll talk!”
“Thought so.” Her loyalty to the drugs was greater than her loyalty to her friends. I turned to face the desperate, pathetic, horrible excuse for a human being. “Let’s start with the people you’ve sold your children to.”
She covered her eyes with her hand. “It hurts. Gimme a hit, first? Just a small one, t’ help me think.”
I kept my hand in my pocket with the drugs, but God help me, I was tempted to give her what she wanted. “You get your hit when I decide you deserve a hit. Now stop wasting my fucking time.”
The next hour was a long, painful experience which would have been forever etched in my memory even if it wasn’t perfect. By the time it was all finished, the FBI had a cage for a child trafficker, and I had a list of seven people who made me wonder if these vigilantes were the bad guys.