Alan Dyment, chief stud to the stable of MNN reporters, was finding it tough going. He’d had tough interviews before, but this was something new. Every avenue seemed blocked; every approach was rebuffed with a cool, laughing ease that roiled frustration deep in his stomach. Sure, meta’s were cocky, but this was something else. There was a smug ease behind her rebuffs that made her impossible to get at.
Still, he made one more try. Balling both fists together and giving what he hoped was a terrifying shriek, he hurled himself up from the floor of the alley where she’d knocked him back a moment before, swinging wide and hard for her head. The throw hadn’t really hurt him but he was stung; she’d flung him like a rag doll and his pride was aching. This whole rotten set was stinking worse every second, and his only hope for salvaging a little pride was at least connecting with the bitch’s head.
Which he didn’t. She was too damned fast. She side-stepped, caught his wrists with one hand and jerked him up just short of slamming his bare knuckles into the brick alley wall. She smiled, maddeningly, and just held him there, grinning as he struggled in her grip. Damn, it was like a vise, hard and cold like no one’s damned flesh ought to be. He looked up at her and felt an icy melting in the pit of his stomach, working its way through the irritation he felt at this sort of amateur media-grabbing. There was something really, deeply, fundamentally wrong about her, and it went a lot deeper than the bondage babe outfit and the spiked heels.
At first he’d thought it was just a publicity grab. When Omega’s people had contacted him for an interview, he knew that something was screwy. Sure, he wouldn’t have done the smear (even for someone with Michelle Jude’s pull) if he’d seriously thought that Omega was dumb enough to go for him personally, but in the long night before the meeting he’d toyed with the idea and shoved it out of his mind as often as he could. He’d done everything he could to keep it safe; half the staff knew where he was and who he was going to meet, and he’d figured that he could make his position sufficiently clear to even a Nebraska yahoo. All he needed was a minute to talk and he figured that he was boilerplate.
Only he wasn’t, because she wasn’t. Wasn’t Omega, that was. When she’d slid up against him in the bar, he’d felt some sort of hesitation, but that had been overrun instantly by the high-voltage jolt he got from her body. Even with something as heavy as the Omega meeting on his mind, he felt an almost uncontrollable urge to devote the rest of the evening to figuring out how to get that tight black leather bodysuit off of her. She’d been all smiles until she got him out the door; then, just as he was hesitating on the threshold, she’d yanked him into the alley and pinned him up against the wall with strength that caught him completely off guard. She’d asked in a purr if he was looking for something, and when he hadn’t responded, she’d shown him a curve of sharp, white teeth and asked if perhaps he thought Omega might save him. And then he knew exactly what size and grade of complete idiot he’d been.
Now, looking into her eyes and noting with a sort of calm, submerged panic that they glowed red, he wondered what she really wanted. She looked positively predatory, and he had a sinking feeling that this wasn’t just about some mouthy new meta getting some press. She wanted something from him, and it wasn’t going to be good. He felt his thoughts trail off as he gazed up, still looking into her eyes, feeling the strangest sensation of floating, floating away...
He wasn’t sure how he got to the telephone booth on Chestnut Street, or how he knew what to say. He just knew it.
Orchid watched Dyment carefully, wrapping his mind in the force of her will, feeling the feeble struggling as he delivered his message. His mind was like that of most humans -- warm, trembling, pathetically open to the world. She kept the conversation moving as he spoke with Omega. It was a bit harder to concentrate on hearing the faint, tinny responses from the speaker, but her hearing (like everything else) was excellent.
“Jude here,” said the sharp, tinny voice from the receiver. Who was she and what was she doing in Omega’s hotel room? “What the Hell do you want?”
“I need to speak to the superbrat.” Dyment sounded remarkably cool. His face (per her orders) was fairly calm, but there was a sheen of cold sweat on his pallid face, and he gulped for breath rather too often.
“You worked for me, remember?” snapped the voice from the other end of the phone. Interesting. Orchid filed that away for future reference. Whoever Jude was, she was entangled in Omega’s life in a most interesting way if she was both the employer of the reporter who smeared him and on intimate enough terms with him to show up in his hotel room.
“That was then, this is now,” Dyment responded. Orchid refocused on him. That line was a real clanger. She’d managed to persuade him that calling Omega and making the arraignments was completely his idea, but it didn’t do to get sloppy with their fish on the hook. She gripped his mind and felt it carefully, getting a better handle on his responses.
“Well, now you can go to Hell.” She sounded ready to hang up, and that was going to screw up a lot of careful planning. But then, as Orchid scrabbled for a way to keep her on the line, a new voice came through the receiver. It was thin and tinny from the tiny speaker, but she knew it in an instant. It was him. It was Omega.
“What do you want?”
“Ah, if it isn’t the killer.” With only a minor nudge, Dyment gave the words a scornful sneer.
“I ain’t a John Woo movie. What do you want?”
“Well, kid, I found out your secret,” Dyment replied, glancing up at her for guidance. She nodded, sliding her commands delicately into his consciousness.
“Shit!” exclaimed Omega from the other hand, laying on a heavy dose of ego-powered mockery. “Okay, Dyment, you got me. I’m... I’m... I’m left-handed. I know it’s a terrible burden being a southpaw, and it’s somewhat gauche, and maybe even a little sinister...” She nodded to Dyment, and he cut him off in mid word-play. Still, it was interesting and it kept her on her toes. She wouldn’t have guessed frat-boy for the type with enough brains to understand the puns, let alone make them.
“Laugh all you want, but what I know is worse than that. Enough to get you thrown off Nike’s ‘good little boy’ list, and probably enough to put you in Purgatory Prime.” Dyment paused, flailing, and Orchid suppressed a sigh of frustration as she nudged him mentally. It wasn’t easy handling a conversation at one remove. “I... I understand those Alaskan superprisons are real cold.”
“That’s what they say. Of course, how do I know you have this information?”
Good. It sounded like there was something else out there -- that, or he wasn’t even sure himself if there was. It might be enough to hook him in. She nudged Dyment. He was doing well, sounding fairly natural, but his responses were slow. “You don’t honestly expect me to give a straight answer! I give you even a hint, and you’ll use your powers and make it disappear, and probably me with it.”
“I leave that sort of shit to the bad guys. Like Hack and Slash!” Omega’s laughter brayed from the receiver as Orchid puzzled over the meaning. “Man, are they ever idiots! Especially that Hack dude, he looks like a complete dork. Hockey mask villains are such an ‘80s motif; who’s next, the Boy George villain? How would you like to rant about him on your next exposé?”
Emabarassed, Orchid found herself pressing her knuckles to her mouth to muffle an impulse to laugh. The Boy George villain. Man, would Melvin ever But he wouldn’t. She stopped as the laughter wilted and died. He wasn’t Melvin. Not any more. And we’re none of us what we once were, she thought. Meanwhile, Omega was ranting on in his usual style. If justice were ever done, Rowdy Roddy Piper had some royalties coming to him.
“If you want a scoop, how about this? I’ve seen the footage of what those two maniacs did to Permafrost, and they don’t impress me. Permafrost may be a weak little Canuck, but Omega is the fucking king of the fucking superheroes! When I get my hands on them, it’ll make what I did to the Chain look like a fucking love tap.”
Nodding to herself, feeling her resolve strengthen with Omega’s return to his typical bravado, she had Dyment keep it simple.
“I want $50,000. Tonight. Nine o’clock. There’s an alley just off Chestnut Street, downtown.”
“You want fifty thousand in cash? Give me a fucking break! Do you know how long it takes to get that sort of money together? You haven’t even told me what the fuck this so-called secret is!”
Orchid shook her head. No, that wasn’t the issue. The only problem with $50,000 was that it was almost too low. She hadn’t wanted to tip their hand, but asking for more might very well have made a delay necessary. A corporate super-brat like Omega had that kind of money for pocket change.
“You know your hands aren’t clean, Omega.” Dyment paused as she reminded him of the particulars. “$50,000, nine o’clock.”
There was a long silence; so long that Orchid felt her stomach flip-flopping. A trace on the line. Another line calling the cops. Something. But then the sweetest words of all, in a broken tone that went deliciously to her heart: “Look, I’ll pay you ten times that amount if you tell me where Permafrost is. Please, I need to know. I’m begging you...”
She closed her eyes, a slow smile spreading over her lips. Something about that just felt good. She savoured the feeling, long enough that Dyment actually started to look like he was developing initiative. Crushing that impulse swiftly, she pushed him to close the arrangements. “Don’t try to get on my good side by pretending to care about your colleague.” Dyment swallowed hard, his skin paler than ever and his eyes wide. “We’ve known for a long time that you hate working with him. Don’t give me this bullshit. Just be there, with the money. Rob a bank, put on a different costume and rob an armored car, or something: just get the money.”
“Fine. I’ll be there,” growled Omega’s voice. “Nine o’clock. Hundred dollar bills.”
As Dyment gazed up at her, she took the phone from his nerveless hand. Smiling, she leaned over him to hang it up.
Hack crouched in ambush deep in the alley, his mask a faint gleam from the shadows next to the dumpster. There was a deep, inhuman stillness to him, an utter concentration of purpose that left his body perfectly motionless while poised like a cat’s. Orchid kept watch from the window of the room two floors up, tense, pacing. The hands of the cheap plastic wall clock stood at five to nine, and she’d been pacing for half an hour to work off her energy.
Henrick Moore had been an obvious target -- young, living alone, manager of a shady electronics shop downtown. She’d done a quick walk-through of the nearby apartments the day before and found his, complete with what she really wanted -- a video camera. She’d taken Hack in through the wall, shown him the layout, gone over the plan. Again. It was unnerving talking to that mask. He nodded but he never spoke, and she found it impossible to tell what the nods meant. Agreement? Eagerness? Annoyed but patient toleration? It was impossible to tell where she stood, and it made her back creep. Sometimes it got better; some times they would sit, silent but in good company, Hack eating food she’d brought back for him or letting her tend to injuries that would form another layer scars. More jewelry from Mistress Pain. But sometimes she could reach him, then.
Now she just hoped that he was listening. Melvin had always been bright -- he was a better planner than she was, really. He had the creative spark and could run with it while she was still plodding along, slow and meticulous, always hesitating for one more thought, one more piece of information, one more dry run. Now she was pushing herself to just do and not overthink, and at three to nine she was pacing with the sickening feeling of having left something out.
Henrick was fine. He stood patiently in the corner where she’d left him, staring at the wall with quiet obedience. Nearby, the video camera was laying in its open case, tape in and ready. All of the arrangements were made everything was set but the main player.
Years ago, she couldn’t have been more than five or six, a birthday party no one came too, she’d dressed up and stood there with ribbons in her hair and her new party dress and the clock had moved on past twelve and one and when she fell asleep they took her upstairs and she never asked for a party again
It was past nine when a sudden calmness fell over her, a deep, tranquil understanding that all was well and all would be well. She shook herself from reverie, half surprised to find black leather and not a white and pink party dress. Henrick was still staring into the corner and she called him over, had him lift the camera to his shoulder and site down on the alley below to where Hack crouched in the shadows. She sighed as she looked down, and in the hidden recesses of her heart hoped that Melvin was far away tonight. Behind Hack, beaten and mind-controlled into a state of near-catatonic submission, was Alan Dyment, about to fulfill his ultimate destiny.
And there, like a miracle, falling from the sky like the descent of Lucifer there He was. Omega.
He wasn’t in costume. It was a shame. Something about the costumes made everything so sharp, so clear, so real. It reached through to some hard-wired symbolic/archetypal nexus and remade reality. In costume, people stood for things. They embodied ideals. Omega in street clothes lacked a certain metaphysical weight.
But he was still Omega. Every line of the body was taut, the face sculpted and sure, the bearing regal and perfect. To Hack’s hugely overbuilt Goliath, he was a new David. Not Donatello’s fey, girlish youth, or Michelangelo’s lounging victor. He was a warlike David with all of his power upon him. If there was a model of Cuchulain in battle, this was he – sure, proud, every fiber of his body alive, but still with that boyish face and an uncertainty that was nothing to do with battle.
Hack stepped forward and Orchid leaned against the window, drawing in her breath. It begins. She gestured her pawn closer and he came, moving the camera, waiting her command. Hack beckoned, placing his feet in a fighting stance and raising his hands before him in massive fists. She brushed Dyment with the Power to keep him where he was, tucked away next to the dumpster in a silent, shivering ball. He was as good as dead; only the probability of a forensics team kept him breathing. Omega moved forward, eyes searching the alley. She pulled back from the window, then eased forward again as he sneered at Hack and spoke.
“You're a fucking coward.”
He sounded just as she had hoped -- cocky, angry, full of the vitality of his power. Lugaid’s line from the Tain came back to her: “I swear by the gods, they daren’t make water in ones or twos outside the camp, but have to go in twenties and thirties.” She stifled a laugh as she watched, and was glad that blood was not their business tonight. That golden head would look well bowed in humiliation, but she would not wish it bloodied. Not tonight.
In the alley, he continued. “Instead of coming at me direct, you go through my friends and do a pair of frame-jobs worthy of showing on America's Dumbest Supervillains. Well, I ain’t playing your fucking game. Tell Slash that I’ll come back here -- alone -- after Permafrost is safely released.” She frowned, then realized the meaning of the term. Slash. He thought her name was Slash. Interesting combination, but she would have to correct him on the matter.
Omega grinned at Hack, who naturally was holding back -- perhaps he thought out of fear? Orchid smiled to herself. Let him think so. “You want me, that’s how you get me. Provided the Canadian Shield -- all seven of them -- don’t track you down first for what you did to their countryman. Canadians are funny like that.”
Orchid blinked, then did laugh. Canadians are funny like that? Of all of the ferocious cultures on the planets, Canadians came pretty low on awe-inspiring reputation. It was like being threatened by Luxemborg. She enjoyed the idea so much that she almost missed the last comment. Almost.
Down in the alleyway, Omega threw back his head, yelling his challenge to the air. “You didn’t think of that, did you, you dumbass, cowardly bitch?” With a gesture of contempt, he leapt into the air.
She barely managed to murmur “shoot.” The white-hot bloom of rage burst through her, boiling under the tight control she clamped down like a wall of ice. The police, the conversations, the videotape hand-over went by in a blur, and everywhere, under every word, she could hear the barking. She had the dupe tremble suitably in terror and refuse to come to the station, beg the police to leave so that Omega wouldn’t know who had betrayed his guilty secret. The police were difficult but she got them out long enough for Hack to do his work and for them to both get out. Her mind was floating somewhere, disembodied, while a pure gem of blind hatred crystallized.
Back at the asylum, she looked at Hack, and for a moment found total recognition. The barriers vanished and she saw herself reflected. Hack nodded, silent but with an understanding that reached soul deep. She looked long into his eyes, then teleported the hell out of there.
Nothing really registered until she was in Omaha.
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