When I exited the New York Doorway, the world had slowed to a crawl. Unlike James and Max, I couldn’t dial my speed up or down. I was stuck at what would later be categorized as Class 2 speed, in both movement and perception.
It taught me a level of patience and self-discipline beyond what I’d learned in the military. It gave me the luxury of thinking my actions through before most people could begin to act. Sometimes, I wondered if it gave me too much time to think, too much time to turn things over and over in my mind, rationalizing actions that surely a normal person, even a soldier, would find reprehensible. I felt a sense of isolation most people couldn’t really understand, and there were times I wondered it if would drive me crazy.
It was, to be frank, a godsend when James discovered he could enhance his speed with his lightning mana. If he hadn’t been there for me as a companion in the beginning, I might have actually snapped in the first few months. He probably always thought that I had just been using sex to manipulate him, and, well, I would be lying if I said that that was entirely false. I had my orders to keep him under control after I had hunted him down and helped the government capture him. But it wasn’t just for that reason that I slept with him. I had been genuinely terrified that I would never find another person I could talk to normally again. Others would arrive that would later mitigate that fear, but I was always grateful to James for being there for me, even if in the end, I still ended up using him.
After him, there was Max, the snot-nosed punk gangster who thought she was going to be the Kingpin of Crime in Chicago. Turns out all she needed to snap her out of such idiocy was someone to show her she wasn’t such hot shit after all. Once she got knocked down a few pegs, she was much more receptive to someone showing her a better way to use that pent up aggression. I couldn’t say I used my charms on her for entirely non-business related reasons, either, but she, too, had been someone I could connect with. We’d both had rough childhoods. We’d both grown up on the streets. The only difference was, I saw a chance to get out with the military. She never realized she even had the opportunity to leave the ghetto until she was too deep in to change on her own.
I showed her that potential to change, and she took it eagerly. While our partnership wasn’t that much longer than my time with James, I was glad for it, both because she too could match my speed, and because we understood one another, moreso than James and I ever had. Hell, if it hadn’t been for the Fantasmas incident, she might have one day been my successor in leading the Stilettos. Instead, she did something I never thought to do myself. She turned her life around a second time, and this time became a hero. An unsung one, sure, a bounty hunter instead of a costumed glamour girl, but she stuck to the law, and didn’t fall back into crime, like some of my other former Stilettos.
Her actions show me the opportunity that I hadn’t seen, that I didn’t have to keep being the monster in the shadows. That maybe I too could take the higher path. I never got around to telling her she was at least half the reason I eventually joined the Super Fem Force.
And now James and Max were dead, because for once, I found myself in a situation so far above my head, even I didn’t have time to plan things out properly. I’d been forced to improvise. When Cero had ambushed the Super Fem Force and turned my teammates one by one, I couldn’t just run. By the time we knew what she was doing, other members of the team who were faster than me were on her side. Lisa was one her side.
My only bit of luck was that, when I was captured, Cero only had three of her mind-altering devices on hand to use. I’d been spared a few seconds of seeing the effects on my teammates before they used the device on me. I’d discerned that some kind of hypersonic frequency was involved. I’d taken the gamble, and used my own sonic powers to disrupt the signal on a pitch no one else could hear. I had no idea until afterwards how lucky I was that my trick had worked. The device had used some kind of alien energy wavelength, not hypersonics, but my power had interfered just enough to spare me the effect anyway.
From that point, though, I had to follow Cero’s orders. I had no chance to slip away. Everyone on the team was told to watch everyone else for any signs of trouble. Cero had apparently perfected her device, but she was always cautious. If I slipped away to do something in secret, I would be reported. She would have used the device on me again and made sure it worked, or she would have just had me killed.
I only finally saw a chance when I saw reports of James in America. I knew he’d come looking for us. Call it a hunch, I suppose, but even though we hadn’t talked in years, I knew he was the sentimental sort. I did my best to follow the reports, and noticed the people he’d gathered. And when Hitchhiker appeared at the Kansas bunker, I knew he was onto us.
It was my only chance. Cero almost didn’t sound convinced, but her perfected mind control allowed some small degree of autonomy and reasoning on the part of her thralls. When I made the suggestion that we try to add the Earth Mage to our team on account of his great power, she saw the logic and accepted my proposal. He was on the same level as Lisa, even if few recognized it.
By this point most of Reeha was already under our control, and the Pacific Alliance’s Superhuman Defense Force unit had been easily captured.
I made my suggestions for the team. Fire Fighter and Neon, two powerful elementals whom I knew James could easily shut down, though of course, I neglected to mention that little detail to Cero. Dragondancer, for sheer power, but whom I knew Hitchhiker could possess. Blue Bardess, for her power of song-based entrancement, but whom I could easily neutralize.
Lisa, however, insisted on being part of the group. I tried to convince Cero to keep her in the army headed to Madagascar. Lisa wouldn’t hear of it. I knew she still carried a torch for James after all these years. I hadn’t realized those feelings would be so strong, they could almost let her defy Cero orders, if only to insist she be allowed to remain behind.
Cero wouldn’t give me more than four, and she had plenty of superhumans as capable as Lisa now. She decided to allow it, and keep Blue Bardess with her. Worse still, she entrusted Lisa to hold the mind-altering device, on account she’d have the highest chance of success to use it.
It took everything I had not to cuss like a sailor. The only upside to this was that I still had Dragondancer. Only now, I would absolutely need Hitchhiker to possess her as fast as possible, and long enough to help James take down Lisa.
Most of the current Super Fem Force didn’t know me much beyond being a know-it-all former assassin. But Lisa, she’d been there with me in the beginning. She’d offered me her friendship, even after we lost James. Even after the people I’d killed, the assassins I’d trained to kill yet more, the secret acts of terrorism I had done overseas to ensure America’s prosperity, she had not given up on me. As much as she loathed it, she understood why I had done it all, and when the time came for us to work together again, she never once looked at me with hatred.
I had been ready to accept that my teammates were going to be fed into the meat grinder. It wouldn’t be the first time I had sacrificed allies for the greater good. It got tragically easier each time I had to do it, and although I didn’t like that aspect of myself, I felt little pain at seeing the rest of my teammates fall. With Lisa, though, it was just as hard as the first time, if not harder.
I was so used to having everything perfectly planned out. Even in tight spots, I could take my time to think. But there wasn’t any time left, even at my speed. I had one possible chance to end all of this, and I’d rolled the dice that I could finally gain the allies I needed to give me one clean shot at Cero.
The dice rolled bad. Not quite a snake-eyes, but still bad. I was still alive. So were some of my potential allies. Cero’s minions were dead. But so was James. So was Max. So was Lisa. Just about the only three people on the planet left who I’d cry at their funeral.
I didn’t let myself cry now, though. I didn’t have time. Even at my speed, I just didn’t have time. Instead, I went up to three people James and Max had recruited, to get them back on their feet.
Strider was lying on the ground, staring upwards. I saw a few tears slowly crawl down her face. A few feet away, the Doctress, now calling herself Shoggoth, was kneeling, staring at the ground with a thousand yard stare. About a hundred yards away, there lay the prone form of Hitchhiker, her body having been ejected when her host was destroyed.
There was gore everywhere. The detonation had occurred mostly in Dragondancer’s bestial skull, and the body was now shrinking into a human corpse missing its head and most of the shoulders. There wasn’t any sign of Lisa. Her whole body had been inside the dragon form, completely pulverized while a Glorifica-sized chunk had been exploded out the dragon’s massive head.
I first went to the Doc—to Shoggoth. I knelt beside her/him, moving with practiced smooth slowness to match those who still operated at a normal speed. I spoke slowly, using my sonic manipulation to modulate any mistakes, to make my voice sound normal to those slower than me.
“You still with us?” I said.
Slowly, not just by my standards, Shoggoth turned his beautiful face towards me. It was a look of terrible trauma that I was very familiar with, but even still, it disturbed me.
“I can’t bring them back,” he whispered. “She destroyed their heads. I can’t bring them back.” He lowered his gaze and looked at his hands. “The only fucking thing I was even on this team for, to make sure they stayed alive, and I’ve already failed.” He looked up towards the horizon. “I never even actually healed them at all. I didn’t get the chance. I didn’t heal anybody on this entire mission, except a woman who refused to live.”
He grinned a manic grin. “Hahahaha! My entire life is a fucking joke. Hahaha! And the funniest part of all is that I can’t even end it! HAHAHAHAHA!”
The laughter of the mad. He snapped his gaze to me. A tendril of flesh wrapped around my arm. I jerked back, but with a speed beyond what a normal person could have achieved, his body surged over me in a wave of liquid flesh. Myriad eyes and serrated teeth sprouting from his roiling form, resembling the Lovecraftian horror from which he took his new name.
“YOU! YOU SHOULD HAVE KILLED ME! YOU SHOULD HAVE TRIED!” he screamed in a chorus of broken voices.
I knew talking was going to be useless at this stage. I decided to let him expend his wrath. I was tough enough to take it. I felt teeth that could slice through steel plate scrape uselessly across my skin. A thousand needles broke against that same skin. Liquid flesh poured into my nostrils and ears. My outfit was completely shredded as he stabbed and sliced me a million times at once.
I gave him a few seconds to unleash his fury, but only a few. Before he could completely suffocate me, I activated my power. Sonic vibrations exploded his form from my body and my super strong and tough esophagus and lungs purged him from my innards. He fell into a rain of flesh and blood and bits of bone, slopping down around me. A hundred shattered mouths silently wailed as a hundred eyes spun wildly.
“Doctress,” I said firmly. “Were this any other situation, I would indulge your anger, but I do not have time for it now.”
I had the sense that something was suddenly behind me. My sonic powers granted me a form of echolocation, micro-bursts of sound waves which I sense as they impacted on the world around me. Strider had teleported to her feet behind me.
“No,” she said, wiping her eyes. “We don’t.”
I turned, not bothering to be slow about it. “We need to get to Madagascar, as fast as possible. How far can you teleport?”
She looked at me for a long moment, and I felt an impatience I hadn’t known in a long time. Just before I repeated myself, though, she said, “Without the Earth Mage, I can only do a mile at a time. And once we hit the ocean, that’s going to complicate matters.”
I nodded. Even I had never heard of Strider before, but Max had told me a little about her teammates. Strider’s powers depended on ground contact. Once we hit the ocean, we’d either have to travel over the water, or find someway to survive teleporting repeatedly across the ocean floor.
“We’ll figure something out,” I said.
I turned again, this time towards Hitchhiker. She was still laying face down in the dirt. I went over to her. She was knocked out cold, pale and breathing shallowly. I knew her possession was strained by more powerful hosts, and that she was ejected when a host died. Possibly, the method of death likewise strained her, and she might have popped out of Dragondancer just before the explosion of the two bodies occurred, hence caught in the shockwave.
I turned to the puddle of flesh coalescing into a humanoid shape nearby. Soon, the earlier form of a tall, blue-eyed, blond haired young man had resumed. Unable to reform his clothes, he was now as naked as I was, though I noticed that Shoggoth didn’t actually bother forming male genitals. “He” was truly androgynous in this guise.
“Shoggoth?” I said. He still looked haunted, but my sonic blast appeared to have shocked some sense back into him. “You have a chance here to do what you were brought here for. Your teammate needs your help.”
He stared at the former Fantasmas.
“Shoggoth,” said Strider, in a calm voice. “Please. We need her. And we need you.”
He glanced at her, then snorted. “You don’t need me,” he said. He glanced at me as well. “Neither of you do.”
Despite his attitude, he did what he knew was the right thing. He came over and kneeled next to Hitchhiker, putting a hand on her leg. After a few moments, the color returned to her face. She let out a gasp and jolted up into a sitting position. She blinked and looked at Shoggoth, then me, then Strider. Shoggoth stood and helped her to her feet, steadying her as she shook off whatever jolt the healer had given her.
“So,” she said. “I assume we got them?” She glanced at me again, then back at Shoggoth. She smirked and opened her mouth, then happened to glance down. Her lips clamped shut and she frowned, then looked up at us again. “I was going to say it’s probably a bit early for a victory fuck, but apparently, someone forgot how sex works. Guys are supposed to have dicks, hon.”
“Hitch,” said Strider in a low voice. “The Earth Mage and Max-Out are dead.”
The former Fantasmas paused. “Yeah. I saw. I was there.”
Strider swallowed, and for a moment, I saw a few brief flashes of raw emotion cross her face. Micro-expressions, the small unconscious ticks and twitches that even the best poker faces make in the half-second between hearing something and forcing themselves not to appear to react to it. I saw anger and sadness wrestle across her features for a moment, before she forced herself to stay calm.
“Okay,” was all Strider could think to say.
Hitchhiker sighed in exasperation. “Look, I know you liked James. I thought he was kind of an idiot, but I’ll grant him his heart was in the right place. But you need more than your heart in the right place, you need your head there as well. And he rushed us headlong into this mission, kept us in the dark, coerced all three of us to follow him or he’d expose us to the authorities.”
She motioned to me without even looking at me. “Compared to the number of actual willing companions I lost thanks to this fucking psycho and her fucking kill squad, forgive me if I’m not shedding tears for the guy. And as for Max…”
She glanced at me. I just returned a cool look back, standing there calmly, with my arms crossed. She sneered. “I think you probably know how I feel about Stilettos getting deep-sixed.”
I could certainly imagine. “I need to know right now, which of you is still committed.”
Hitchhiker blinked and I saw her almost gawk, before she forced a laugh. She looked to the other two. “Can you believe this bitch? She just watched her old boy toy get fucking exploded and she doesn’t even care.”
I didn’t let her get to me. I couldn’t afford to. “I’ll shed tears when I’m dead. Now, let me explain this in terms even you can understand, Fantasmas. We are out of time. We have one, exactly one, shot at stopping Cero, the Villain Maker. As we speak, she has taken her mind-controlled forces to Madagascar. From there, she will capture and add to her army every Alliance and European superhuman stationed there, and then she will march them west.”
Strider blinked. “New Gondwana? What is she hoping to accomplish?”
“How much about all this do you know?” I asked.
The three shared a glance. Strider spoke again. “Just what we learned from TacTech. She said the Doorways send us to other planets to attack them, and the Villain Maker is from one of those worlds. We thought maybe it was some kind of false memory thing she used to brainwash people.”
I shook my head. “It’s real. All the time I spent with her and those she awakened, talking with everybody, I have no doubt. It’s all real. Cero never told me the details of her specific story, but she is an agent of retaliation from an alien world. She was behind the Extinction Wave, and she’s going to New Gondwana to finish the job.”
Strider stared at me, incredulously. “How?” she said. “Even assuming she can get beyond the force field—”
“What’s in New Gondwana that she could use?” said Hitchhiker. She was looking right at Strider. I gave the teleporter an intrigued look. I had noticed the South African accent of course, but I’d surmised she had not been on the continent when it shifted. She wouldn’t have been the first African or South American I’d encountered who’d similarly lucked out.
Strider paused for a moment, then her eyes widened. “The Queens.” She looked to the ground as something clicked in her head. “Kilika. Ojau. With Xyla and Yrba, they could—” She snapped her gaze to the west. “Oh, shit!”
Before I could even ask her to elaborate, she started teleporting us in mile-long jumps westward, so fast even I had trouble keeping up.