Another chapter of Spotlight finished up this week, so that’s our archive re-post today. What do you call terrorists from Saskatchewan? No, really, Spotlight have no idea. Also: living legends, clandestine meetings, spoiled dates, international intrigue, and Stallion is still looking for a super-powered three-way. Cut tag after our first section in service of politeness, as always:
Chapter 5: Recovery Phase
“I think all of that Spotlight daily regimen is finally starting to show,” Gloria said with a smile as Liam sat down in the booth. He could feel the blush, and was thankful that the restaurant wasn’t particularly well lit.
“I’m not sure how to take that,” he said. “I mean, I had a bit of a belly before, but I wasn’t–”
“Compliment,” Gloria said, laughing. She signaled for the waiter. “Take it as a compliment. Everything isn’t a conspiracy, you know.”
Liam returned an awkward chuckle. “Okay. So: thanks.”
“See? Look how much easier that is,” she said, then nodded to indicate the arriving waiter. Conversation lulled as they made their orders. Liam barely even looked at menus these days. The standing eating out scenario: Grilled chicken breast. Broccoli. Water with lemon. It was tempting to order a greasy burger, smothered in chili and unnatural cheese sauces. As Gloria had just pointed out, however, such things didn’t mix well with the physical regime Liam underwent as part of his term in Spotlight.
“Honestly, I’m a little jealous,” Gloria said as the waiter moved off toward the kitchen. “It’s been hellish trying to adjust to losing on-call fitness and nutrition staff.” She chuckled again, adding, “and that’s from a professional trainer.”
“Well, I’m not seeing the struggle,” Liam returned, nodding to Gloria’s own athletic shape.
“Ah, this is nothing like the Glo-Ray days, though.”
“Yeah. I guess I always thought you guys got those bodies with the powers. I never realized how much work you had to put into them. Well, unless you got super-strength like Christian.” Liam winced and rubbed his left shoulder. “I mean, Stallion.”
Gloria tilted her head to one side as he let go of the old bruise. “I told you he wouldn’t like you calling him by his old name.”
“Everyone else seems to be fine with it,” Liam said. Gloria shrugged but said nothing more. “In any case, obviously his body came with the power, but the rest of us have to work at it.”
Gloria nodded sympathetically, then frowned.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing to Liam.
“That. That face you just made.”
“Nothing,” Liam foundered, and held back a loud, relieved sigh as the waiter swung by to deliver drinks. He was suddenly parched.
“Nuh-uh,” Gloria jumped right back in as soon as the waiter was gone. “You’re avoiding. Is it Sarah?” Her humor was gone. Understandable. Sarah was, after all, how Liam convinced Gloria to start meeting with him in the first place. Once Trent had the techies put blocks on all of Sarah’s communication lines after the Transparent C+ incident, Liam had been the only loophole the two could exploit. He wasn’t a former teammate of Gloria’s, so he could meet with her. And pass messages between her and Sarah.
They were a month and change into the arrangement, though, and Liam still couldn’t bring himself to admit his own ulterior motives. All in good time.
“No. No, Sarah’s fine,” Liam assured Gloria, who relaxed visibly at the confirmation. “She’s still … quiet. Spends a lot of time by herself. Or, with her selves, I guess, depending on whether she’s manifesting any counters. But she’s fine. Passed her psych eval and everything.”
Left unsaid was Liam’s own mandatory counselling after his first fatality in the field. It had been two weeks since his last panic attack. Five days since he last dreamed of his own still-beating heart tearing itself from his chest. And Sarah was the one Gloria cared for, worried about. Their own connection was tenuous enough without oversharing.
“Then what was…?” Gloria pressed.
“I … okay, this is a little … I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but…”
“Oh, for God’s sake spit it out,” Gloria was tensing again, which of course tensed Liam.
“The Stone doesn’t give you physical changes unless that’s part of your power. I know that now. Which means, when you were Glo-Ray … did you …?”
Gloria laughed so loud that some of the closer heads turned. She hunkered down a minute and stifled the volume. They chose this place for the discretion of staff and patrons, but calling too much attention to themselves did no one any good. She took a deep breath, then answered:
“The Stone only gives you five years to make an impact. You have to work all the angles. Sometimes, you do that by enhancing the curves,” Gloria said. Gloria feigned nonchalance well, but while dim lighting and her natural coloring might hide any blush, Liam’s extra-audio senses made it a lot harder to hide the embarrassment in her voice.
Liam was about to respond when his phone went off with the trademarked interval progression signalling an official summons.
“Covert?” he whispered as he read the text.
“Hardly. I just don’t talk about it,” Gloria quipped.
“No,” he said, looking back up at her. “Official Spotlight meeting in twenty minutes. With Covert.”
Gloria froze with her iced tea halfway to her mouth, then set it back on the table. “You’re kidding. The Covert?”
“Yeah,” Liam said. He looked across the room to where the waiter was, and without thinking bent his voice to carry through the crowd.
“I’m going to need mine to go.”
“Come on, baby,” Stallion pleaded, giving his biggest sex me up smile. With the mouth of a horse, that was impressively big.
“Look at how many of you there are. You can’t tell me at least two of you don’t want all up in this.”
The short, curvy counter in Crowd’s little human defense ring giggled and batted her long eyelashes. Crowd had been running around with counters on her flank ever since the shit hit the fan at the TV station, which was like dangling candy in his face. Stallion took a wide stance and pointed to the giggler.
“I heard that. You know I’m right. Who’s with her?” He turned his ears, trying to catch another giggle.
The athletic-looking counter next to the giggler nudged her with an elbow and the cluster of girls scurried on.
Stallion took a few quick, clopping steps to catch up to them. Which one of them smelled like lavendar? Which one was apple blossoms? Patchouli? Did they all put on different perfumes, or did they just smell that way naturally?
“Crowd, babe, I’m telling you. My power and your power were made for the absolute best orgy in history.”
The group kept moving toward the meeting room.
“At least a three way. Every girl wants a turn in the saddle, I’m telling you. We’ll talk more after the meeting.” There were footsteps back down the hall. Not heavy enough to be The Stone Cold Bitch, at least. No, he could actually smell that one ahead in the meeting room now that he thought about it. He turned to see Bruise.
“I just hope this thing doesn’t go long,” Bruise said, coming down the hall behind Stallion as he let Crowd move ahead of him. “I’ve finally got a date tonight after way too long. I need this to go–”
“Woah. Woah. Woah,” Stallion said. He flattened his oversized ears and put his hands over them. “Dude, you do what you do in private and that’s cool and whatever, but I do not need to hear the details of your butt sex.”
Bruise sighed and rolled his eyes. “And they said the sensitivity training wouldn’t help,” he muttered. Stallion shrugged and followed his teammate into the meeting.
“You’re the last, yes?” said the middle-aged man up front. Military cut. Square jaw. Black body armor, guns and knives and whatever other gadgets a guy like him got to play with strapped all over. This would be Covert, black ops superstar and Spotlight alum. Didn’t seem to be All That, though. What had his schtick been, anyway? Stallion couldn’t usually be bothered remembering the has-beens.
“Yes, Sir,” Roc said, practically standing at attention. Kiss-ass.
“Let’s not waste any more time, then. The government’s been looking into the man Voice and Crowd faced down last month. Turns out his abilities were the result of experimental, mutated code that he hacked while trying to follow his conspiracy delusions.”
Crowd’s counters all disappeared with a rush of air when Covert mentioned the psycho from last month.
“Do you know who created the code?” the newbie asked. “Tell us and we can–”
“It’s more complicated than that. The code wasn’t an original experiment. It was based on DNA samples. My DNA samples.”
That’s right. Covert had weirdo phase powers that mucked with surveillance before he’d gone norm again.
“So, then, his conspiracy theories aren’t that far off,” the newbie said. “I mean, I’m assuming the government got your DNA because–”
“It wasn’t a United States facility,” Covert interrupted. That shut the newbie up. Of course, Roc jumped right in to take his place.
“We’ve tracked them to a facility in Saskatchewan. The locals there have been on our radar for a while, but it wasn’t until our interrogation of Transparent C+ that we knew exactly how dangerous they were. I’m asking for your help to get in, retrieve their research, and sabotage the–”
“Woah,” Stallion said, his muzzle jumping up and down as he shook his head. “The terrorists are Saskatchewates?”
“Saskatchewanites?” Bruise tried.
“Saskatchewanians, maybe?” Voice offered.
“What the hell ever!” Stallion said, clomping his right hoof loudly to shut up all the nerds. “The U.S. Government’s big, needs-supers-to-fight-them terrorists are Canucks? Are you kidding me?”
“You’ll be sure to tell me how this is less easy to swallow than the notion of mind-controlling slugs or a magic rock that turns people into super-heroes, will you?” Covert said, and Stallion could swear the man’s dark eyes were boring through his skull.
“You might have a point. So, when do we attack Sasquatch?”
“This is a mistake,” Roc said. It wasn’t the first time she’d thought it, but was the first time out loud. She’d deferred to Covert on the stealth jet ride out here, and that was right. That was what a proper paladin did, wasn’t it? Deferred to her elders, especially when those elders had already served. Continued to serve, in fact, despite losing the powers granted by The Stone.
“Absolutely,” Bruise agreed. “I hate wearing the official uniforms,” he moaned, frowning down at the customized body armor he wore. “I mean, I thought we only had to wear these things at Choosings and big, formal nonsense.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Roc said with a sigh, “though you just made my point. I mean, grousing about the benefits of body armor in a fight, just because it doesn’t fit with your ‘image’? How shallow are you?”
“Very,” Bruise returned, crossing his arms. “It’s warm and uncomfortable and makes it hell to try to move, which, so we’re clear, isn’t the bestest way to be when you’re in a fight.”
“If you’re warm, take off the leather jacket on top,” Roc returned.
“Whatever. You don’t even have to deal with this stuff. Your granite armor moves exactly the way you want it to because of your powers. Also: Please with this ‘I’m not worried about my image’ trash talk. Why else do you make your armor look like medieval plate mail?”
“This,” Roc said, glowering, “strikes the proper, intimidating image. It’s a design based on honor and tradition–”
“Tradition? Because there were so many knights who looked like you in The Crusades?”
“‘People who look like me’ have plenty of history as proud and noble fighters for the greater good, thank you, and this attitude is exactly why I don’t think any of you are ready for this!” Roc said. “We’re here on a serious mission. Not only could someone get killed, but there are all sorts of international politics to consider. An unpowered, true hero is out there right now, confirming intel about the security around this place. Meanwhile, you’re busy complaining about clothes and engaging in gender- and race-baiting nonsense!”
Roc shaped a granite shield on instinct at the new voice. She felt heat rise in her cheeks as she registered only a moment later that it was Covert, who seemed to have simply materialized right next to the arguing teammates.
Roc dismissed the shield and bit her lip.
“If Voice hadn’t been damping down the sound around you both, we’d have been given away before this little outing even began,” Covert continued. A quick glance to her teammate, standing with Crowd and Stallion, yielded his shrug and a nod of confirmation.
“I’m … I’m very sorry, sir,” she replied softly. She also wondered if Voice had been ready to damp the sound because he’d been using his powers to eavesdrop. Could she trust any conversation was private while he was around?
“Nerves are going to be strained on a mission like this,” he said, and Roc eased slightly. “But you need to trust your people.”
“She’s not in charge,” Stallion interjected as the other three team members moved closer.
“In your bylaws, no. I read the press release,” Covert said, and even Stallion seemed to cow a bit at the man’s cold gaze. “But you need someone managing your field tactics, and Roc’s your best bet.”
“I do have training…” she offered.
“Rolling dice and painting miniatures isn’t ‘training,’ Lesbiana,” Stallion returned.
“You all have your own strengths,” Covert interrupted before Roc could respond. “It seems to me you’re the one who has the public’s eye, yes?” he said to Stallion, and Roc admired how adeptly the agent could soothe the ass-headed jerk’s ego. Trent might even take some lessons.
“You aren’t an elite fighting unit,” Covert agreed, returning his attention to Roc. “But my grandfather wasn’t a seasoned veteran when he volunteered to be a code talker. He was just a scared, young man who wanted to help stop a growing evil in the world. And his courage inspired my father’s service, and my own. Heroism isn’t always about skill. It’s about heart. And as passionate as you lot are, I have to imagine you have that in abundance.
“All that passion needs now is someone to focus it,” he finished, placing his hand on her shoulder. “Can you do that, Roc?”
She hoped no one else noticed the tiny shiver that worked its way along the surface of her armor, echoing the tingle in her spine. Roc stood a little taller and nodded. Covert gave just the slightest hint of a smile. He gestured to the group and stepped aside.
“Voice, you’ve got Covert’s flank. You’re making the sneakiest man alive even sneakier. The rest of us are the perimeter. Covert’s tech will take down external communication, so we have to make sure no one gets out of here until he’s managed to reclaim the research samples and sabotaged the facility.
“We’ll split up and each take a side. Stallion, you and I play meat shields for Bruise and the primary Crowd while they spam the field with pain and duplicates. We can do this.”
And, as everyone nodded, silent and attentive, Roc did her best to pretend she honestly believed that.
“This is what happens when you’re supposed to follow ‘the sneakiest man in the world,'” Liam grumbled as he pressed himself against a wall. Two stray security guards raced past him toward the row he knew his teammates were creating outside. It probably defeated the point of talking to himself that Liam was maintaining a silence field with his powers, but it helped to vent his frustrations, so he went with it. The sonic nullifying, at least, meant the guards didn’t even notice him.
“Seriously, how do I cover his flank when he leaves me in the dust?” Liam continued as he slunk around the corner. No more guards, at least.
Without much effort to shift his senses, even this deep into the facility, he could pinpoint the others outside: the distinctive crunch of Teresa shifting mineral deposits, the pop and woosh of Sarah calling counter-selves into and out of existence, the impact reverb from Christian–Stallion’s–hooves and massive fists. Max’s powers were the only ones which made no noise on their own, but the tinny pattern of screams and gasps made triangulating a central point relatively easy.
But Covert? Nothing. Maybe the tech he was using to jam the comms was interfering with Liam’s own powers? Or maybe something in the sterile, metallic walls of the facility itself. These people were culling Stone-given powers; maybe they knew how to block them.
He called up the schematics on his goggles again, but even with a big, blinking light telling him where he was, Liam still couldn’t tell exactly where the mainframe and labs were. And Covert had refused to allow a tracer on his own suit. “Bad practice,” he’d insisted.
“Okay. Plan A outside is going right,” Liam muttered, then took a deep breath. “Just … focus.”
Liam closed his eyes. Ignored the acrid scent in his nose and the stitch in his side. Swallowed back the bile in his throat. Then, finally, dropped his attention from his ears and listened.
He had been slowly coming to realize that his extra-audio senses weren’t connected to his regular hearing. Letting go of the hearing paradigm–however counter-intuitive–helped him concentrate on the sound. There were shivers of gunfire, smoky screams, tart points of pitch, bright patches of heartbeat. Synesthesia helped familiarize the alien, but it still wasn’t quite right. It gave him fits that he didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what sound felt like through his new powers.
Radio and cell signals were electromagnetic, so trying to sense for Covert’s jamming frequency wouldn’t do him any good. And he wasn’t nearly good enough to have memorized the specific beat of the black-ops legend’s heatbeat. No. He’d need something else. He needed him to speak. The specific quiver of his voice.
“Come on. Just one little word, sir…”
Liam opened his eyes with a wide grin as he caught the rugburn tone of a single expletive uttered under Covert’s breath.
“Such language from a paragon,” he quipped to himself. “What will Teresa think?”
Then he realized that anything which broke Covert’s resolve enough to make him talk on a sneak operation couldn’t be good. He oriented himself quickly, then ran through the maze of identical, shining corridors.
Thankfully, Max had mostly been ruffling feathers about the uniforms being restrictive. The Phile-tech body armor was made from featherweight materials. Between the lack of over-encumbrance and the ongoing training regimen, Liam was managing an impressive sprint.
Which was good, since apparently he’d been going in completely the wrong direction. The vocal wave he was trailing lead almost to the opposite end of the facility from where he thought the labs should have been. Way to let down a living legend.
Another vocalization: a grunt. And matching it, impact ripples that Liam recognized as a punches landing. He pushed his pace, using the walls to break his forward momentum and shift direction rather than worry about slowing down. Thankfully, the hyper-light armor weave also had top-end impact absorption. Maybe he should wear it more often.
“Hold on, Covert, almost there.”
Liam smacked into one last wall, finally catching sight of Covert. He was surrounded by at least a dozen guards, though they all showed more than their fair share of damage from the brawl. With all those bodies in motion, he didn’t think he could direct a dozen strands of ear-piercing tone well enough not to risk Covert’s eardrums. Unless…
He reached into the center of the dogpile, snatched the mildest creak of Covert’s belt. He wrapped it around the black-ops master, then pitched and amplified it, letting it loose in a burst pattern that hit everyone outside the tight perimeter of Covert himself.
The guards all grabbed their ears and stumbled away. Liam felt a ridiculous thrill as the elder hero gave him a thumbs up.
Then he felt a sharp pain on the back of his head, and everything went black.
“This is getting stupid-boring,” Max half-yawned as he set the last guard’s pain receptors to flash-fry. The man barely gargled out a sound before falling unconscious.
“No shit,” Stallion said as he swung at the air the guard had previously been standing in. “I barely got to hit anybody.”
“If it helps, they barely felt it,” Max taunted.
“You are full of shit you little fa–”
“Hey, I’m the pain expert, and I’m telling you they had nothing but drips and drabs of it to share,” Max said with a shrug. He stood his ground as Stallion’s oversized nostrils flared, chuffing air.
“We’re clear on this side. You?” Roc’s voice cut in over the comms.
“Aside from Gelding being mad he lost at minion bowling, we’re good,” Max returned.
“Gelding. I like that one,” Roc returned.
“Shut it, Geekazon,” Stallion growled, his impressively-muscled chest heaving where he stood. It was a damn shame he was such a complete and utter shit, Max thought.
“You couldn’t make me with an instruction booklet,” Roc mocked.
“Rendezvous?” Crowd’s voice cut through weakly.
“In two,” Max said. “Don’t suppose I could get a lift?” he asked, but his equine teammate was already vaulting across the lawn to the meeting place. Max sighed and started a hustling jog to make it there on time, himself.
This mission was a complete and utter ruination, he thought as his combat boots scrunched over the gravel in the facility lot. As he wiped away the sweat dripping down his nose, he steadfastly refused to acknowledge that Teresa had a point about the jacket.
The two jittery rookies gave themselves away before Max even saw the bushes they were hiding in. With nearly every other conscious mind gone, their leg cramps stood out like glaring neon to the first wide sweep of pain radar.
He let them cower a good thirty seconds, though, as he moved closer. If he was going to blow his date for this asinine road trip, he was at least going to have one or two tales of derring-do to impart on his return. The young guards moved with less-than-military precision to jump him on both sides.
“Oh, boys, I’m flattered, but not tonight,” he said as they leapt with vague synchronization. “You have headaches.”
He flipped open the reservoir and directed it just behind their eyes. They were out of it before they could even appreciate his pun.
“Boys back yet?” he asked as he jogged up to the rendezvous point. Roc had told them there was a nice, solid piece of granite not far beneath the surface that she could use to accomplish their airlift out.
“Not yet,” Roc responded curtly.
“And no comms,” Crowd offered from within her ring of counters.
“Legend-guy was blocking comms,” Stallion offered.
“Exactly,” Roc agreed.
“This whole thing is ridiculous,” Max said, pulling his jacket off.
“I told you not to wear that,” Roc started, but Max held up a hand.
“Company,” he said as he felt the faintest blip of pain. Stallion hunkered down, Roc regenerated her stone sword, and Crowd’s entourage doubled in number.
“Just me,” came Covert’s voice as he stumbled out of the bushes. There were at least a dozen gashes and scorch marks along his body armor, several of which had managed to penetrate. The right side of his rebreather mask was missing, blood dribbling down from his swollen lower lip.
“Sir!” Roc said, dismissing the sword to catch the agent as his feet wobbled out from under him. “Bruise!”
“On it,” he said, reaching into Covert’s pain centers and pulling away what was there. Which was, inexplicably, not much. But he could see the burnt flesh on Covert’s thigh, the nasty bruising along his rib cage, the unnatural angle his wrist was bent at. How much discipline did it take to put up with that much abuse and barely even feel it?
Covert steadied himself as Max pulled away what pain was there. “Things went south. I assume Voice followed protocol and met up with … he’s not here?”
“Dude, Loudspeaker was with you,” Stallion said as Crowd’s selves began murmuring worriedly.
“Dammit. It’s too late, then.”
“Wait a minute,” Max said. “We’re not leaving here without–”
“I set the incindion charges, kid. Before I ran into the trouble. We have–we don’t have time. Roc, we need airborne now.”
“Incindion?” Max asked. “We were sabotaging this place, not making a crater of it. There are people all over–”
“Terrorists,” Covert returned. “And if it had just been a few computer banks, maybe I could have … What they have in there, if it cracks, millions die, unless it’s all incinerated the moment it blows. There weren’t any half measures to be had.”
“Teresa, no!” Crowd pleaded, pressing past her human buffers, her eyes already dripping. “You can’t let him–”
“We will all die,” Covert said, pulling off what remained of his mask and locking his gaze on Roc. “If you don’t get us out of range of this thing. Now.”
Roc looked to the others, her wide brown eyes filled with the same dread Max felt. This was a pain he couldn’t absorb. He could try to deflect some of it, though.
“He knew the timetable,” Max said. He and Teresa came into this crazy Spotlight mess together. He could do this much for her. “He’d find another way out.”
She nodded. “Hold on, everyone,” she said, raising her arms. Max could tell from the quaver in her voice how desperately she clung to the hope he dangled.
Everyone stumbled as Roc literally ripped the ground up beneath them. The platform of rock and asphalt shot upward quickly.
“That is cold, girl,” Stallion muttered, shaking his head.
That’s when they all felt the shockwave and intense heat from the massive explosion.