Four, Volume One
"Digging Up the Past"
by Jason McDonald
Assistant Editor: Jason McDonald
Editor-in-Chief: David Ellis
Victor Ten Eagles
Xi'an Chi Xan
Eddie Van Beethoven
“You know, Eddie, you look a little tired. Maybe you should head home and rest a little. I can handle this on my own for a while,” the young mutant said, smiling politely. Eddie Van Beethoven just shook his head.
“I’m not just going to leave you alone in this section of town, Sham. It’s not safe – even for X-Men,” the metal mutant responded.
Sham nodded her head, suppressing a mild expression of annoyance. She had to remind herself that Eddie was only trying to help. Even so, she wished she could be searching for Quiver on her own for a little while – she just didn’t feel like company. Besides, she had been in worse places than Halo City’s Dead Alley – sure, there were junkies and pushers lining the cracked and broken streets. One had to wonder how the streets deteriorated so quickly – they had barely been poured six months ago, yet there they were, potholes and all.
The buildings of this portion of the city had fared about as well; some were little more than tents, others were so bombed out that one would hardly know they hadn’t yet been standing for half a year. The populace of this sector of the city had probably come here expecting to escape from conditions like these – Sham had to suppress a smile at the irony. It was easy to do, anyway: no one could smile that long with the unwashed stench clinging to the air.
“Thanks, Eddie,” Sham forced herself to say. She believed that her search would have turned up more results by then had she not been encumbered with her companion. Eddie was just trying to help. But he was getting in the way. She couldn’t do anything on the shady side with him there – he was all about the official police business. Flash a badge, ask some questions; it was kind of quaint, actually, however futile it was besides. Sham knew that people in Dead Alley knew better than to talk to a badge, no matter how unrelated they were to the incident in question. No one there could trust a badge, regardless of how wide their smile was.
No, Sham needed to get information the degen/decred way: don’t ask, demand. If they refuse, make them regret it. But Eddie was there, and that wasn’t an option.
Her father’s condition was unchanged. Of course Shakti Haddad knew that – had expected it, really – but she could still hope to hear different. Unfortunately, psyche-bombs don’t really leave much behind.
Zail Haddad was as good as dead – there had been no brain function since the bomb went off. So his body had occupied one room of the Protectorate’s medical level for weeks. He couldn’t see the demure white of the walls and the floor tiles, the clean, gleaming silver of the machinery keeping him alive, the dull green of his bedsheets and hospital gown. He couldn’t be disgusted by the cold, clinical hospital smell that invaded every inch of the room, or be deafened by the silence echoing off the depressingly sterile walls. But Shakti could – and she had, at least once a day since Zail’s incapacitation.
She knew she shouldn’t be wasting so much time with her father. She knew he was little better than a breathing, machine-fed corpse at that point. Even her own extensive knowledge of the human central nervous system couldn’t help him – her mutant abilities allowed her to disrupt and even control certain aspects of the system, but she couldn’t jump start dead tissue.
She had work to do to keep the Protectorate running. She knew she shouldn’t be wasting so much time with her father. But she was anyway.
Neon signs stung his eyes. The bustle of Las Vegas hounded his ears. The smell of vomit and rotting garbage overwhelmed his nose. In hindsight, Henri Huang had realized that this particular back alley had been the wrong place to hide out, though that hadn’t been his first mistake. Running into Vegas, in full X-Men uniform, after how he had left the city last time? He should have realized sooner that his reception would be anything but warm. Almost immediately, Syndicate security teams had set upon him. Luckily, they didn’t quite have the equipment to keep up with him.
At the moment, Henri was trying to find somewhere to grab a disguise, though not much was popping up. Syndicate casinos didn’t really have fully stocked clothing stores, just large assortments of novelty tee-shirts, and Henri didn’t really feel like stealing a suitcase from a random tourist.
He decided that there really was no other choice: the best place to start was at the beginning. Jack had called him to Vegas, and Jack’s last known location was the roof of the Synge casino, which was located ten blocks east of Henri’s current location. A short run for someone who could hit mach 2 without really trying. Neon signs blurred into one long, orange streak; casinos ran together into one solid wall. Before most people could finish blinking, Henri Huang was at the door of the Synge casino. He waited for the automatic doors to open before running inside, heading to the stairs, not the elegant glass elevator in the center of the lobby. Sixty-eight floors whizzed by before Henri kicked open the door to the roof. He scanned the area at super-speed, eyes noting the black tar, the golden brown of the bricks lining the roof. Empty. Nothing there but a silvery metal air-conditioning unit, and while it was impressively large, Henri was disturbed by the lack of a Virtual Unreality portal. He was really counting on finding one up there.
Henri scratched his chin and tapped his foot, letting a cool breeze blow through his hair. If Halloween Jack wasn’t messing with reality, where had he gone? Where was he causing trouble now? Maybe the casino had some sort of records. It was a long shot, sure, but what else did he have? Henri re-entered the stairwell, practically flying back down all sixty-eight flights, then down even further, into the basement area. He came to a secured door – he had picked the lock at least a dozen times on recon missions back during the Gathering, and it looked like no one had upgraded the security system. It took him seconds to override the electronic lock, and he was in the private area of the Synge casino. The main archive terminal was down the hall, so he headed there first.
The automatic doors slid open as he came to a stop in front of them. Once inside, Henri found the main terminal and let his fingers go to work. The terminal wasn’t outfitted with equipment capable of supporting superspeed access, but it was fast enough. Henri just hoped he had found something before any security alarms went off.
*WOOOO-EEEE WOOO-EEEE* INTRUDER IN SECURE LEVEL ALPHA
*WOOOO-EEEE WOOO-EEEE* INTRUDER IN SECURE LEVEL ALPHA
“Now that’s an unfortunate bit of timing, isn’t it, freak?” a familiar, yet not immediately recognizable voice behind Henri said. Henri whipped his head around in time to see an electrified red fist flying right into his face. Thousands of volts coursed through his body, sending Henri to his knees. Before blacking out, Henri heard his assailants chattering amongst themselves.
“Des’ll be giving the Rat Pack a huge reward for this one, eh, Chairman?” the tall dark-haired man with the electric gauntlets asked.
“You got it, Mr. Entertainment. This ought to make up for… past grievances quite nicely. Suicide King, bring him down to the containment center,” a white-haired man dressed in an all-black bodysuit with red lining responded. Henri had blacked out entirely by the time the diminutive member of the Rat Pack grabbed him by the ankles.
“You’re sure these are the ten most powerful mutants in Halo City?” Morphine Somers asked, suspiciously eying his stone companion. Morphine sat in a chair he had brought for himself – it was quite a nice piece of furniture. The delicately molded arms each supported a wiry elbow; plush red cushions supported his back and buttocks.
Book placed his hands on his knees and smiled, turning away from the holographic display on his desk while soaking in the light reflecting off the white walls and tile floor. The window on the far side of the room provided a wonderful view of the sunset – Book had grown to enjoy watching it, to fill the time. It had been nice to have the luxury.
“You asked for the ten most dangerous mutants in the city, not including any of the X-Men. That is the list you see displayed on my screen. I have taken the liberty of forwarding it to your personal inbox,” Book replied calmly.
Morphine raised one eyebrow in consternation, before a roguish smile spread across his face. “Well then, Book, tell me a little bit about your selection process. What makes these mutants so ‘dangerous’?”
“Well, not being allowed to tap into the X-Men proved a little less troublesome than imagined. By my own search criteria, only three of the X-Men would have made the list –”
“Fitzgerald, Haddad, and La Lunatica. My search criteria centered around a combination of powers, personality, and various proficiencies in the deadly arts. It’s actually quite surprising how many mercenaries and criminals have made it into Halo City – the selection of candidates was really quite diverse.”
“Interesting,” the green-haired mutant responded, stroking his chin, “Which mutants on this list seem the most promising to you for, say, a specialized combat force?”
“Candidate numbers 1, 4, 6, 7, and 9 have the most experience in combat situations and/or violent environments. Candidate numbers 1, 3, 6, and 7 have probably the most experience in working as a team in such an environment.”
“And what five candidates would you say would make the most effective team?”
“Numbers 1, 3, 4, 6, and 7, with number 9 as an alternate, should one of the preferred candidates refuse, though I can’t possibly imagine any of these candidates doing so.”
“Very good, Mr. Book. I have to be going, but I am pleased with your work. Is there anything I can have my aides bring you to make your stay more… comfortable?” Morphine asked, rising from his chair. Book looked thoughtful for a few seconds before responding.
“The computer equipment I’ve been given is proving to be inadequate for my needs. I can send you a list of the hardware I desire,” Book responded, trying to hide his eagerness. Morphine wasn’t good for very much, but a chance to upgrade from the obsolete garbage can fodder he was currently saddled with? That would almost make his presence tolerable.
“I’ll have it sent over right away,” Morphine smiled, leaving through the automatic door. Book returned to the holographic display on his desk.
The temple had changed since Xi’an had left it three years ago. The previously white columns were covered in overgrown vines of some unfamiliar plant; the pristine green of the lawn of his memory had yellowed and decayed. The wooden walls appeared rotten, and in some places had collapsed altogether. The pervasive smell of wildflowers remained, however, though Xi’an could see no vegetation save the dying grass and wall-climbing vines. On the journey to the temple, many passersby had described to Xi’an how the temple had become abandoned after the last monk, Quan Ngo, had passed away the previous year. Xi’an still had found it hard to believe the temple could have fallen into such a state of disrepair in so short a time, but the evidence was before him. Victor had scaled the small set of stairs some minutes ago, and had been spending his time inspecting the wooden walls.
“It looks like termite damage,” the tall Native American called out. Xi’an snapped out of his haze and took a few steps toward the temple.
“It’s not quite like I remember it, but it smells the same. I wonder where the flowers have gone?” Xi’an wondered aloud. He scaled the steps himself and wandered into the main chamber of the temple.
Immediately, Xi’an received the answer to his question. The center section of the back wall of the temple had collapsed – a good portion of the roof having gone with it. It would have been impossible to see the damage from the front of the temple, or even coming up the road, but Xi’an noted that it was fairly extensive. In the space where the roof had hit the floor, wooden floorboards had upturned and exposed the fertile dirt underneath. A brilliant swirl of reds and yellows and oranges bloomed from the unearthed section of soil. Unfortunately, the collapsed wall had taken the altar with it, technically making the building not a temple at all. Still, the scent alone was enough to calm Xi’an’s mind. This would be a good place to rediscover his peace.
“This place has no roof,” Victor announced, entering behind Xi’an, “We’ll need to find somewhere else to stay.”
“A little of it remains,” Xi’an responded calmly, “It will be enough for my purposes.”
“And if it rains?”
“Return to town and buy a tent, if it worries you so. I’m not leaving until I’ve found what I seek.”
“I’ll know when I’ve found it.”
Victor threw his hands up in defeat. He began to wonder if accompanying his friend had been such a good idea.
“Ooogh… where am I?” Henri Huang grumbled, rubbing the back of his neck.
He was somewhere dark – a very thing ray of light pierced through the barred window in what Henri assumed to be the door, providing a little light for the whole room. He could see that he was on some sort of bed – the mattress was paper thin, he could mostly only feel the steel underneath. The walls were grey concrete, as was the floor, but that may have just been a trick of the light.
Most importantly, he noticed the bed across from his. He noticed that it wasn’t empty.
“Heya, Henri! Good to see you’re finally awake. I was getting bored conversing with an unconscious lump of flesh, handsome as that flesh may be,” Henri’s cellmate greeted enthusiastically. Henri recognized that voice.
“Boone. Why am I here?”
“Ahem - ? Dammit… Jack, why am I here?”
“Why ask me? It’s not like I called you, or anything.”
“Yes you did! You sent me an e-mail last night!”
“Henri, do you see a computer in here? Even so much as a PDA?”
“I… no. I don’t. But if you didn’t send me here, then who did?”
“Sounds like your problem, H. But, while you’re here, you wanna give me a hand?” Halloween Jack asked, smiling sinisterly.
Henri wiped his hand across his face. “With what, Boo – Jack?”
“Well, as you can see, my situation has changed somewhat since last you saw me. I hit a little… snafu some weeks back. A trifling thing, really, but I must admit, I never saw it coming. But that’s the best part of life, isn’t it? The way it can all change in a second.”
“Get to the point.”
“I didn’t realize super-rudeness was one of your powers. Anyway, there I was, innocent little Jack, playing with my innocent little VU generator, when all of a sudden, there was this midget with a gun pointed at me. I laughed, of course – I’ve had weirder hallucinations when that thing was on – but, it turns out, the midget was real! And so was his gun! And, here’s the best part, he shot me!”
“That’s the best part?”
“No, not really. Anyway, I woke up, apparently two days later, to the sound of Desdemona Synge laughing at me. Apparently, we didn’t do a good enough job killing her the first time. We’ll fix that later.”
“Desdemona Synge is alive? What about her brother?”
“Haven’t seen him, but stick with me here, H. So, it turns out, she and the Syndicates were a little miffed about our misadventures here in Vegas. The other heads all wanted to kill me, but Dessy-poo kept me alive out of spite, apparently. She comes down here to taunt me every couple of days. It’s getting kind of old.”
“OK. Now what do we do about it?”
“We get out of here. And take back the city.”
“I don’t know about that second part, but I’m with you on the first. What kind of lock does this door have?”
“Complex. There’s no cameras down here, though, so we have time to work. Dessy doesn’t like to record her abuses of prisoner rights.”
“Syndicate prisoners have rights?”
“Oh, God, no.”
“Hey Shakti. Brought you some coffee,” Krystalin Ogada announced, shoving the wooden door to Shakti’s office open with her hip. She carried two white coffee mugs, wisps of steam rising from the rims. She paced to the black leather armchair across the desk from Shakti and placed one mug on a coaster.
“Thanks, Krys. This paperwork’s killing me. The council does not like it when members of the Protectorate up and run away to Vegas. They were furious with me at our last meeting, and Morphine was all over the situation. I think some of the council members are actually starting to lean towards his proposal over this,” Shakti blurted out angrily, picking up the mug. Krys nodded her head and gripped the mug carelessly with both hands.
“And I don’t even know how Morphine found out that Tim and Luna always turn off their comms when they’re not on duty. I’m afraid he might have had this whole office bugged,” Shakti continued. Krys took a sip of her coffee and nodded again.
“The council is really riding me about this, Krys. We’re in real trouble here. If Morphine keeps pressing this…”
“What?” Krys asked.
“We just need to pull it together. All of us. Next time I see Tim and Luna, we’re going to have a long talk. And don’t even get me started on Henri. When he gets back I’m going to tear his head off and put him on active duty for a year,” Shakti grumbled. Krys smiled and took a sip of her coffee.
“Can’t patrol without a head, Shak.”
“He’d better find a way, if he knows what’s good for him.”
Krystalin took another sip of coffee.
Xi’an took a deep breath, inhaling the aroma of the flowers surrounding him. His eyes were closed as he sat, cross-legged, hands resting on his knees. He exhaled slowly. In his mind, he saw a vast field of overgrown grass. In it stood two figures. Xi’an crept toward them, slowly, quietly. As he drew closer, he noticed their features. Both resembled Xi’an himself – one was dressed in black, his hair slicked back. The other was dressed in white, long hair left free across his shoulders. They seemed to be arguing.
“…Can’t control him like this anymore – it’s shaking his entire psyche apart,” Xi’an’s white-garbed counterpart stated. The black-clad one shook his fist at his companion and shouted his response.
“I don’t care! I won’t be cooped up in here any longer! I’ve been subjected to this wretched non-life for too long already!”
“Non-life? We were never alive to begin with. Our mere presence here is indicative of a major problem for him. We cannot interfere with him anymore. We should not even exist,” the white-clad man responded calmly.
“NO! I will not spend the rest of our life cramped in here with you! I will retake control!”
“You shall have to get through me, first. And, might I remind you, we are perfectly matched.”
The black-clad Xi’an threw a fist at his companion – the punch was caught, but shockwaves blew to the ends of the field, knocking Xi’an back into consciousness. His eyes snapped open as he lurched forward – Xi’an thrust his hands into the ground to prop himself up. He was breathing heavily. A metallic hand gripped his shoulder.
“Are you all right, Xi’an?” came Victor’s concerned, but oddly calm, voice.
“I’m… fine, I suppose,” Xi’an responded, sitting up, “I saw something durin my meditation. It’s already fading from my memory…”
“What do you remember?”
“I remember... a field of grass. There were two men, one in white, one in black. They looked like me. They were arguing over… something,” Xi’an said thoughtfully.
“I… can’t quite recall, exactly. Something about being trapped. The white one said something about an even match. I can’t remember any more,” Xi’an finished, “What do make of it?”
“Hmm. I’m not sure. Surely you’ve noticed by now that you seem to fluctuate between two radically different personalities?” Victor suggested, crossing his arms.
“Certainly,” Xi’an responded with a shudder, folding his hands in his lap.
“Might these two figures have represented your two personas?”
“Hmm… interesting. One thought, however – I witnessed the event, I wasn’t participating. I can recall that much with certainty.”
“Can you, now?”
“Yes. But what does that mean? For the longest time, I can only recall leaning one way or the other; towards the darkness or the light. Now, though, I feel neither – only a sort of emptiness. A great loneliness mixed with confusion. Whatever I have been before, I have never felt so confused. I’ve always had a purpose.”
“Interesting,” Victor responded, dropping a sack next to Xi’an, “But you can reflect later. I think you need something to eat. You haven’t had anything all day.”
“Yes… I think you’re right.”
“This is going nowhere,” Sham whined, dropping onto a green bus stop bench. She clasped her red-gloved hands together and rocked forward, tapping her foot on the cracked sidewalk.
Eddie rubbed the back of his head. He wanted to sit down, too, but the bench didn’t look sturdy enough to hold a bulky man made of adamantium. Normally, he would have shifted to a lighter metal, but no way would he do that in the Alley. “You look tired, Sham. Maybe we should go home for the night, get a fresh start in the morning,” Eddie suggested.
Sham sighed heavily, depressed. Then, she saw an opportunity. “That’s a good idea, Eddie. I’ll, uh, meet you at the Protectorate building, though. I left something at Quiver’s apartment,” Sham suggested quickly, springing to her feet and beginning to walk away quickly.
“I’ll walk you back,” Eddie suggested.
“No! Uh, I mean, no that’s all right. I know the way. And besides, I just… want to be alone right now. I’m not really in the mood for company, if you know what I mean,” Sham responded.
“…OK. Stop by my apartment when you get back, though, or call me or something so I know you’re OK.”
“You got it, Eddie!” Sham called over her shoulder as she jogged away. She rounded the corner and pressed herself up against the cold brick. Peering around the corner, she saw Eddie start to make his way uptown. Sham smiled to herself before walking in the opposite direction. Without Eddie, she could ask all the questions she wanted, with worrying about Eddie’s well-intentioned gentleness. For a big dude made out of adamantium, he was a total softie. An endearing quality, to be sure, but a little annoying when one was involving oneself in a less-than-legal investigation. She worked her way to Marko’s, a seedy-looking bar and pushed open the swinging door. Time to get down to the real work, she thought to herself, It’s gonna be a loooong night.
Book, Personal Journal Entry 12105.07
Ah, where to start today? My surveillance of the X-Men proceeds unhindered. Shakti Haddad, as always, worries me greatly – I know she suspects that someone is monitoring her team, though she has no reason to suspect me… yet. Once it is announced that I am working with that worm, Morphine Somers, however, I believe it will not take Miss Haddad very long to discover my connection to the affair, though I also know she will have no hard evidence. I have been covering my tracks rather carefully, if I do say so myself.
I have still been unable to locate Xi’an Chi Xan. This has me greatly worried. His continued absence is desirable – at least until Morphine succeeds in his bid for control of the Protectorate and the Halo City Police Department. My success is all but assured past that point. Should he return as abruptly as he left, I shall have to pay him special attention. Though I am confident in my ability to handle his return, something about him is still a little… unnerving.
On a more pleasant note, my relationship with the Red Market grows apace. I have been covering their tracks as they make headway into Halo City. They assure me that my request is being honored as quickly as they are able, and my own forays into their data archives confirms their statement. It pleases me to know that at least one part of the plan is moving ahead without even the possibility of complication at this point.
Though I will keep a close eye on the situation – Van Beethoven and the girl are getting very close to discovering my allies’ presence in this city. They must not be allowed to get too near the Red Market, though keeping them away will prove difficult. Perhaps a warning is in order…
NEXT ISSUE: Meanstreak and Halloween Jack take Vegas by storm – Xi’an comes to a fateful realization – Morphine discovers that Book is playing two sides, but how will that benefit him?.
Comments, Questions, Thoughts?