A Fistful of Collars
Part 1: Gamma Squad
If a string has one end then it must, necessarily, have another end.— Miksch's Law
Twin elevators with tinted metal doors were flanked by rough concrete on the second floor of 457 Haines Street. The League of Superheroines was well connected to be sure but office space in Alterra was only increasing in cost, especially within the financial district. The superheroine team stationed in the middle of banks and mid-sized software ventures was listed under the unimaginative moniker “Gamma Squad”; unimaginativeas it was unintuitive, as they were the fifth squad the League had established in Alterra city and not the third. The Jackal, over on Alpha squad in City Center, always joked that Egality Gal had tried to alphabetize the Greek alphabet using the roman one; placing delta and epsilon before gamma when naming squads. Whatever the reason, Gamma Squad was the newest official League response squad and had worked hard over the past few years to prove itself. And this morning the third senior-most Gamma was alternating between checking her phone and the occasionally-opening elevator doors, waiting for her friend and colleague.
With a ding the doors opened, revealing two women in lanyards chattering about EWS service architectures. The shorter of the two, a brunette wearing a flowy cerulean blouse, stepped off the elevator and looked at Artificer, the superheroine's jumpsuit and masked face sparking confusion. She turned her head back towards the elevator and noted the floor number, stammering out a quick apology as she hopped back on the lift. The doors closed and the two were gone, off to their actual offices for a company named something like Flowify or Capybarraly. Artificer smiled as she made up more dumb names for tech companies in her head: KrinkleIO, SmartLev, HyperNinja, SimpleSmartHubifyLy. That last one was truly atrocious.
The doors dinged open again; this time yielding a pretty blonde, slightly taller than Artificer, wearing a red leather jacket and matching pants despite the forecast of eighty degree weather for the day. Blue eyes, a slightly worried face, the ability to bend fire to her whim, and an inability to commit to anything more serious than lunch plans; it was her old friend and roommate Cinder. Artificer waved her over.
“Feeling any better?” she asked.
“Yeah, I just needed to take a day after last weekend,” Cinder responded, shaking her head and rolling her eyes as she went on, “First there was that weird cult with the silver-suited women that Bullseye called me in for despite not being able to help, and then the whole thing at the bank two nights later. Both were a little bit embarrassing, if I’m being honest.”
“I understand. There’s no shame in taking a day for your mental health and wellbeing, I’m just glad you’re okay after going no-contact on Sunday.”
“Sorry about that.” Cinder flushed a little. “I just wanted some time to myself: binging TV, getting pizza, hitting up some bars; just trying to cheer myself up after accidentally setting off the fire alarms at the bank.”
Seeing the embarrassment on her friend’s face, Artificer was almost sorry she’d brought it up. However she did need to warn her:
“Madam M. said she had an update on the incident at the bank but that she was going to wait until you were back. Hopefully you’re not in too much trouble.”
“Thanks for the heads up Artificer, I can take whatever… did you call her Madam M?” Cinder raised a questioning eyebrow, “What happened to just M. M?”
“I helped Panzer and Bullseye do the booking on the group last week who all claimed to be Metal Maidens,” Artificer rubbed her eyes wearily, “and between Metal Maidens and their leader, Mistress Mechania, who was wearing a costume cape with ‘M. M.’ embroidered on it, that initialism just seems a little overloaded at the moment.”
Cinder chuckled, “Maybe you need a vacation day or two too, huh?”
“I’m saving them up so Mae and I can visit New Zealand in the fall. She and I have wanted to go for a while, and if I don’t take any vacation days between now and September we can plan three weeks in October to see the sights.”
“Sounds really nice,” Cinder replied, her eyes squinting in thought for a moment, “That’s where the Lord of the Rings stuff is right?”
Artificer opened her mouth to respond, before being cut off by Cinder.
“And Mae is using ‘she’ now?”
“Oh…” Artificer took a deep breath and thought through her mistake. Cinder could be a bit careless and flakey, but damn was she sharp. Artificer chewed her lip for a moment before explaining: “Well we’re trying it out privately but they currently only want to try it out with me. I think it’s where they’re headed but you know Mae, they take half-an-hour to get into a pool, adjusting inch-by-inch. So forget I said anything until they’re ready.”
Cinder made a zippering motion across her mouth, which didn’t stop her from saying: “You two really are perfect for each other.”
“You both feel the need to plan everything in your lives out so carefully,” Cinder teased, “You finally found someone who can match your fetish for structure.”
“Now we just need to find you someone who doesn’t mind leaving their weekend plans to your shifting whims and we can double date.” The elevator dinged again.
“Actually,” Cinder flushed again, a dreamy smile coming to her face, “I’m working on that.”
“Oh?” was all Artificer managed to get out before a figure in olive green spandex rudely walked between them.
“Glad you could make it today Cinder,” Panzer sneered in passing, “If you could wait until about twelve-thrity to set the fire alarms off, that would be great. Should give me an extra ten or twenty minutes for lunch.”
Both women glared silently at Panzer. When it was clear neither would take the bait, the green-clad heroine made a show of slamming her ID against the reader and opening the door to the inner-offices. She stuck her head back out to say one more thing before pulling the door shut with a bang:
“Don’t be late to the morning briefing ladies!”
“Asshole,” Cinder muttered under her breath, fishing her own ID out of a pocket, “What time is it Artificer?”
“It’s…” Artificer checked her phone, eyes bulging in panic when she saw the clock, “Oh damn it’s already nine-fifty-nine, let’s get moving.”
The two hurried after Panzer through the door, each scanning their ID beside the door and briskly walking down the hallway to the meeting room. Four other women were already there, including Panzer with her boots kicked up on the oval table as she leaned precariously in her chair. Madam Mirror watched them with silver-grey eyes as they took their seats.
“Ten-o-one,” her matronly voice mused, “You’re fortunate I like starting meetings at palindromic times or you two would be a minute late.”
Artificer gave a half-nod as her silent response. Madam Mirror continued:
“As always, let’s start with roll call. Madam Mirror: present.”
She typed her status into her tablet as she spoke. Madam Mirror prided herself on running the most well-organized squad in the League. A tall figure clad in white and silver, Madam Mirror had joined the League after a short career freelancing with Scrylocke as private detectives. Artificer had never really seen the full extent of her power as Madam Mirror mostly performed managerial work these days. The few times she had felt the need to show up in the field, it had been a sight to behold: she and four copies of herself zipping around a group of armed robbers in perfect synchronization or stopping an armored car heist by reaching out of the rear-view mirror to disable the vehicle.
“Scrylocke: absent. Diligently working on Crimson Codex investigation”
As she typed on her tablet again, Panzer let out a snort. Madam Mirror starred in her direction, mouth creasing.
“Did you have something you wanted to say, Panzer?” There was a hidden sharpness behind the smooth surface of the words.
“No boss,” Panzer returned her stare, a half-grin creeping up the left side of her face, “Actually, yeah. Scrylocke has been working on the case for what? Weeks? Months? And we’re no closer to finding out who’s behind the Crimson Codex, or what they want, or hell even what they are. Whatever Scrylocke’s methods are on this case, they’re not working. We should be asking around and cracking skulls; or at least doing more than waiting around hoping that Scrylocke will suddenly find all the answers. I’ve got a number of contacts and informants out on the…”
Panzer slowed to a halt as she noticed Madam Mirror’s visage glaring at her from every reflective surface: windows, phone screens, Artificer’s glasses; everywhere a reflection could form those grey eyes warned her to stop. Panzer bit the inside of her lip as she leaned back in her chair once more, attempting to maintain an air of dignity despite being cowed into silence.
“Brief interruption of roll call to discuss Crimson Codex case,” Madam Mirror stated as she typed, “Further discussion delayed until the Other Business section of the briefing.”
Panzer may have been an asshole, but Artificer could understand her doubts. Scrylocke had been using her powers for years, decades at this point, to detect crime and solve mysteries. In the past she was able to root out blackmail schemes from reading tea leaves and catch burglars by gazing into basins of water. She’d never gone this long without a major development in a case, and it was fomenting no small amount of worry on the team. She was also one of the cheeriest people Artificer had ever met and her extended absence left a damper on everyone’s mood, most especially Madam Mirror’s.
Artificer was in her usual steel-grey jumpsuit with neon-green stripes and swooshes. She’d started as support staff for Delta Squad until a few years back. Bridging the gap between technology and magic, the founding duo had asked her to be their first addition to the then-fledgling Gamma Squad believing that her blend of skills would be able to uniquely contribute to crime fighting and especially useful among the high-tech banks and blooming tech businesses in their precinct. And so far, she’d like to think that she’d proved them right.
“Rook: absent. No reason given.”
Artificer looked from the empty seat beside her to the window, hoping to catch sight of one of Rook’s birds. Alas she only saw the construction across the street: steel rods and wooden frames being worked into some new monstrosity of corporate sterility. Rook had a checkered past; she and a few others had worked as independent supers for hire, often ending up working for small-time villains. Somehow they had gotten caught up in Doctor Destructo’s plan to level Alterra City six years ago, and she and her partner Magpie had helped the League put a stop to their employer’s diabolical plan. Scrylocke had requested the two of them join Gamma Squad, believing the steady work would keep them out of trouble and that their contacts in the world of villainy could be useful to crime fighting. Rook agreed, Magpie didn’t. She wasn’t the most punctual, but had otherwise become a reliable member of the team. Rook being late wasn’t anything new, and Madam Mirror moved on without further comment.
Artificer smiled at her friend at the far end of the other side of the table. They had been college friends and even briefly had a fling before both of them realized they didn’t quite work as romantic partners. They’d kept in touch after a short period of silence and when Cinder wanted to move out from Alpha Squad’s heavy response team, Artificer had put in a good word for her here. Gamma Squad needed someone with more traditionally offensive powers for when things got messy, and Cinder needed someplace where she wasn’t only being used to torch genetically-engineered hydras and incursions of chain demons. Plus, working with a friend certainly made the job more enjoyable for them both.
“The Flurry: present.”
A gleaming red knife spun on her knuckles, just one of many that formed her intricately patterned cape. She’d had told them she’d found the first one in a field, detasseling corn for some agricorp in Nebraska as a young girl. She’d picked it up and felt it slice through her mind, a searing pain that subsided into bewildered wonderment shortly thereafter. From the psychic wound had sprouted something new, she’d told them it was like suddenly finding you’d grown a third arm. She could control these little red shivs like they were a part of her, and could feel them when they were nearby. She’d found them in the oddest places over the years: old caves, fancy restaurants, wedged in-between walls; always morphing from something else into a knife identical to every other one she controlled. She was a bit aloof and perhaps a little too obsessed with finding more of her magical blades, but she’d saved Artificer’s ass on multiple occasions and so it was hard to be too upset with her.
A muscular bitch with a cocksure attitude, Panzer was their youngest and brashest member. She’d made it very clear time and time again that she wanted to be running her own League Squad within the next five years, and took every opportunity for advancement that came her way. She frequently brustled against the more cautious and methodical methods of Madam Mirror, but her boldness often had a way of working out in her favor; most likely because of her invulnerability. As much as Madam Mirror found Panzer’s attitude obnoxious and actions careless, having a superheroine who could walk into a burning building or into a hail of gunfire without worrying about her own safety was extraordinarily useful for protecting and saving people. And so as much of an asshole as Panzer could be, she was heavily valued by the team and by the broader League.
The redhead in the beret gave a little finger-gun, before scrunching her face up to think. Artificer could see her briefly pantomime drawing a bow instead before shaking her head “no”. Bullseye was… odd. She was a nice person, an extraordinarily talented archer, and her powers to imbue arrows with magic more closely matched Artificer’s own than most other heroines; but she existed somewhere between spacy and silly and weird. Some days she seemed obsessed with a singular topic to the point of all conversations necessarily cycling back to it while on others she was a deluge of rapid-fire facts and trivia that were seemingly completely unrelated. If you were ready for it, it could actually be quite enjoyable to talk with her and jump between say labor organizations of the early twentieth century and the complete works of Jorge Borges; but if you weren’t it could be excruciating.
“Roll call taken,” Madam Mirror said, tapping on the tablet and turning on a projector, “On to our first order of business this morning: the incident at the Alterra City Bank on 53rd and Webbley three nights ago.”
Artificer saw Cinder take a breath as the projector displayed little more than the words “Bank Incident.” Madam Mirror’s presentations were little more than titles and the occasional bullet point to match the current topic of conversation. Almost completely useless, but always present at her briefings.
“I would like to congratulate Cinder on handling herself well in the face of what was, apparently, a very disorganized and confusing test of the bank’s security systems.”
Panzer made a face as Cinder noticeably relaxed in her chair. Artificer found that she had been holding her breath as well, feeling relieved to finally let it out.
“Despite some breaches of protocol, the bank’s manager personally called to thank our branch of the League for responding in an appropriate time frame and leaving when asked. Apparently parts of the new security system were experimental and resulted in alarms escaping the sandbox while they were testing it. Both the alarm to us and the alarm to the fire department were supposed to only log in their systems while they ran the test, but went through as if real incidents were happening. The bank manager asked me to extend her apologies for you getting sprayed by the sprinklers.”
“Oh yeah, thanks,” Cinder replied, flushing slightly, “That was sort of embarrassing... and also quite cold.”
“The good news though is that given your response time that evening they’ve waived any further readiness testing and agreed to extend their contract with the League for another three years at an increased rate,” Madam Mirror’s face broke into a rare smile, “So congratulations again, Cinder. I know that night was rough on you, but you kept your head and actually bettered our position.”
Bullseye gave a light clap, slowing with worry as she noticed no one else joining in. Artificer politely started clapping as well, not wanting to leave her teammate feeling isolated. Bullseye flashed her a thankful grin as Madam Mirror continued.
“I’m hoping with the new influx of cash we can bump our cost of living stipends up a bit and maybe even bring on another heroine to help. But that’s still up in the air, I’ll let you all know when I have something more definitive worked out. Next item on the agenda is…” She tapped the slide forward, “Today’s Assignments.”
“Cinder and The Flurry are covering the day patrol.”
The Flurry gave Cinder an acknowledging head nod, probably the most personable thing Artificer had ever seen her do while at work. From what Cinder had told her, The Flurry appeared to have both a crush and a sense of fangirlish awe towards the fiery superheroine. Both of them seemed content to let that feeling linger in the air between them, unresolved and unacknowledged.
“Panzer is on operations duty.”
“Woohoo,” Panzer sardonically replied. Despite being relatively decent at doing operations coordination, she really seemed to hate doing it. Artificer attributed that to Panzer’s preference for constant action and forward movement; her need to always be moving forward in obvious ways. If she wasn’t bare-knuckle boxing burglars, then she was bored.
The door flew open in a rush of feathers, a black-and-white cape fluttering towards the empty seat to Artificer’s left. Rook was here, accompanied by a parliament of her namesake birds perching on her chair and around her space at the table.
“Sorry I’m late Madam Mirror. We caught sight of a mugging over on Henderson and dropped in to stop it.”
“Rook: present at ten-thirteen,” their leader said as she typed, “Reason for tardiness: stopping mugging.” She looked up from the tablet to continue daily assignments.
“You’re just in time for daily assignments: Bullseye and Rook, you two are on night patrol.”
Bullseye beamed across the table at Rook, giving her an air high-five from the opposite end of the oval. Rook looked up from stroking one of her birds under the chin, chuckled, and returned the goofy gesture. There was an odd kinship between the two of them, Rook’s rough past and her connection with her birds somehow made her fast friends with the strange archer.
“Madam Mirror: city grant applications and League bookkeeping.”
“And last but not least: Artificer we finally got security footage and stills from the Zenith break in. I need you to run them out to Shutterfly for examination.”
Panzer flung herself forward into an upright position, gesticulating angrily: “Why does she get to work on the Crimson Codex case? Can’t I at least come along or something? Bullseye will cover me for operations, right Bullseye?”
The archer looked at Panzer and then to Madam Mirror, mouth hanging open in momentary indecision. Her people-pleasing nature soon won out: “Uh… yeah I could cover operations.”
“No,” Madam Mirror shook her head, silver eyes focusing on Panzer, “First of all the operations rotation exists so we all get equal experience dealing with it and can better support whoever is in the field. You can’t keep dumping your shifts on Bullseye.”
“Second of all, Scrylocke says no one else should currently be working on the Crimson Codex case until we have more information, for the sake of the case and for the safety of us all. We need Shutterfly to examine footage from the crime scene, but in no way is Artificer ‘working on the case.’”
“Thirdly, Shutterfly doesn’t often do things off-schedule, and since we don’t want to wait three more weeks before they can review this footage I’m sending someone who has an established rapport with them. And finally, I’m still the team leader of this squad Panzer. I know you’re gunning hard and fast to move up in the League, but for the time being I make the assignments for this squad and you perform the duties you’re told to. Understood?”
The room was quiet save for the chattering of a few rooks on the floor. Panzer’s mouth was curled up in a snarl, her nostril’s flaring. Madam Mirror was cool and steady, outwardly unrattled. The rest of them sat in awkward silence until Panzer responded:
“Good. Show me you can be a team player, show me that you can do the bits and pieces of being a superheroine that aren’t glorious and glamorous, and then we can start working on preparing you for team leadership.” Panzer seemed to relax at Madam Mirror’s words, nodding thoughtfully as she steadied her breathing.
Madam Mirror continued: “Where were we? Right, Artificer you’re going to take this flash drive of security footage and a few stills we printed to Shutterfly. Walk them through what information we need, write down any details they can provide. Have a report ready tomorrow for me.”
“Next up: Other Business,” the slide clicked forward to another sparse white frame with only the words ‘Other Business’ on them. Madam Mirror ran the team efficiently and effectively, but Artificer doubted she would ever be a keynote speaker.
“First topic: I managed to get an opening with Dr. Klock on Thursday at two for the leader of the ‘Metal Maidens’ that Panzer and Artificer collared last week. Given that she has no superpowers, we’re hoping to save some time and money by having one of you escort her over. Any takers?”
The room went silent again, not even the birds chirped. Artificer glanced sideways at Rook, seeing the avian superheroine focusing with all her might to keep her parliament quiet. No one wanted to give any signal that they’d take the assignment. No one wanted to have to interact with Dr. Klock.
“Alright, fine. We’ll decide tomorrow,” Madam Mirror gave a shrug, “But if no one volunteers, then I’m picking someone at random. Final topic: the Crimson Codex case. Panzer, did you have any more ideas or questions from earlier? It is now the appropriate time to address them.”
“Yeah,” Panzer stated, much more calmly than earlier, “As I was saying before, I think we could work the case from multiple fronts. Maybe they have some sort of magic protection or something that’s throwing Scrylocke off. All I know is that there’s talk among some of my contacts and Rook’s contacts that the Crimson Codex is involved in more than just a one-time break in at Zenith. Weird things are happening at a bunch of companies, mercenaries and gangs-for-hire that used to be gung-ho for action have disappeared or are turning down what should be easy jobs, and there’s reports of a few supers with powers that don’t match anything we have on file. Even if I’m just on my own time, I could ask around a bit and maybe uncover a few leads on my end. That’s all I’m asking.”
Madam Mirror nodded, “I’ll take your words into consideration. I’ll need to talk to Scrylocke first to make sure a parallel investigation won’t get in the way of hers, but I don’t think what you’re saying is unreasonable. Sit tight for now and we’ll talk later this week about how to proceed.”
“Thanks boss,” Panzer replied, relaxing back into her chair.
The room sat silent.
“Alright then. Let’s keep the city safe. Gamma Squad dismissed.”
Artificer pulsed her power through the fob reader on the apartment complex’s exterior door, a happy beeping noise granting her access to the building. She knew she shouldn’t use her powers this way, but Shutterfly ignored their phone half the time and her fob to the place was sitting on her dresser back at her own apartment. She whisked through the hallway to the elevators, manilla folder tucked under her arm. She had changed back into her street clothes to avoid gawking eyes and asks for autographs, even though Shutterfly liked her in uniform. Hopping off the elevator at the fifth floor she walked the familiar hallway towards Shutterfly’s door, spotting a small package leaning up against its exterior. It was odd in that packages were supposed to be delivered to the front office for security purposes, but of course occasionally carriers just decided to drop them off directly.
She picked up the package and rang the doorbell. The return address on the package was from somewhere on the other side of the eastern mountains in Keffler Valley. The wrapping job seemed fairly amateurish: crinkled brown paper with tape pieces of various shapes and sizes holding it together.
“Who is it?” a soft voice called out from the other side of the door.
“It’s Jen. The League sent me over with some photos and some video.”
“Give me a few minutes, I’m not ready yet.”
“Mae, we sleep together three times a week. I know what you look like without makeup.”
“Well okay." She could practically hear the pout on their face. "Fine.”
The lock clicked and the door opened, with Mae hiding behind it so as not to let the world see them before they were ready. Jen slipped around the door and gave Mae an awkward hug while holding the folder and package. Mae returned the embrace, cradling Jen’s head into their neck, whispering seductively in her ear:
“And does that package have what I think it has?”
“What?” Jen stepped back and looked in her lover’s eyes before it clicked, “Oh no, I still have those back at my place. Don’t worry though I’ll bring them over tonight for our little playdate.” The two of them shared a mischievous grin. “This is just a package I found at your door.”
“Oh. I don’t think I ordered anything though…” Mae looked at her with brown, doe eyes, “Just let me throw on something a bit nicer than flannel pajamas and I’ll meet you on the couch.”
“Don’t take too long,” Jen said, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. Mae flushed as they bounced back towards the bedroom. Jen moved to her usual spot on the couch. She placed the folder and the package on the coffee table and looked around. The walls were festooned with paintings and photographs of all sorts, varying in styles and subjects. Jen searched for the one that best reflected her mood, settling on the picture of a pleasant sunset silhouetting two figures on a hillside. It was focused and sweet and beautiful, and right now it resonated with how she felt: lucky to get to spend her day with Mae and then even luckier once the sun went down and they got to have some real fun.
“Alright, so let’s see what you brought me,” Jen turned her head to see her partner strolling towards the couch. They’d traded off the flannel pajama bottoms and yesterday’s t-shirt for a buttoned blouse and patterned skirt. It looked like they had also quickly applied some foundation to balance out their face coloration. Jen remembered when this all would have taken them twenty minutes, now they were in-and-out in five.
Mae ripped the package open, tugging a battered book from within. Their face lit up in excitement.
“Holy shit! I thought I’d lost this for good!”
Jen read the title: Steppenwolf.
“Lost? How’d they know where to send it?”
“Easy,” Mae said as they flipped the front cover open, “I keep my name and address updated on the inside cover. I’m just glad that whoever found it was kind enough to mail it back.”
Jen’s eyes scanned through the crossed out old addresses and the crisply printed new one on the cover before they flickered over to the strange symbol on the title page.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the lines and loops sketched under the author’s name.
“Oh. I…”, Mae looked between Jen and the book, their cheeks tinging a very slight red through the foundation, “I really found a lot of help in this book when I was younger, before I really realized I wasn’t cis. Parts of it helped me begin to come to terms with myself and let me know that someone else out there had similar feelings when I felt alone and isolated. There’s plenty of better books out there for understanding things like gender dysphoria, but at the time I didn’t even know that’s what I was fighting. At the time I just needed something to tell me that I wasn’t a monster.”
They looked at Jen’s understanding face, saw the beginnings of tears forming in the corners of her eyes, saw her lips trembling with indecision of whether she should interrupt Mae to offer support. Mae continued without needing her to vocalize the feelings, they knew Jen understood the broad strokes from their months together.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to go that deep right now. Anyway, when I started to transition I re-read it for probably the twentieth time and it occurred to me that there's a trans-narrative in there someplace. The main character, Harry Haller, shares his initials with the author, Herman Hesse, and meets and falls in love with a woman named Hermine, a feminized version of the author’s own name. And that’s barely even subtext, since in the book it’s explicitly called out that she reminds Henry of his childhood friend Herman and at one point she even dresses up as him. It's as if the author created a feminized version of himself for his main character to talk to and fall in love with.”
“It’s a very weird book in many ways: I haven’t even touched on the soft fem-domming that happens in the middle of the book or the long, illusory ego-trip where he murders people for driving automobiles. As I said, it's weird, but it makes sense in context as an exploration of the psyche. In the end though Henry is still left to, how did Hesse put it, ‘traverse the hell of his own inner being.’ He kills Hermine, who is heavily implied to be an unrealized part of himself, and chided for being unable to think of a course in his life that could lead to harmonious coexistence instead of destruction. Throughout the book he obsesses over the conflict between what he perceives as his human and animal urges, to the detriment of all the other complexities and nuances of self. Throughout the book there is this undercurrent of desiring the feminine as part of himself, but his blind focus is always on reconciling with ‘the wolf’ half of him. And so at the end he has learned the process of reconciling with himself, but has not yet reconciled his estranged femininity. The book ends inconclusively because he has only taken the first step in his journey to self discovery.”
“All this is to say that the book meant a lot to me in a very vulnerable part of my life. And having dabbled in silly things when I was younger I decided to create a symbol for my transition and draw it in the book. I’d futzed around with sigil magic when I was in college, knowing it wasn’t real magic but figuring it would provide me something to focus on when I wanted to lose weight or quit drinking as much. So I made a sigil representing my transition and drew it in the book and kept it as a sort of talisman. A cluster of signs and symbols representing transformation and beauty in a book that I considered transformative. Any time things got hard I had a physical bundle of ideas and symbols to help urge me onward. And like an idiot I drug it out to Keffler Valley last week when V. T. Seeds wanted me to review footage of a supposed cryptid in one of their fields and I left it someplace.”
Jen sat speechless for a minute, trying to absorb everything Mae had just told her. A million questions flew through her mind, so many of them unimportant. She wanted to ask something that showed Mae how grateful she was that they shared this with her, but her mouth decided to blurt out:
“Later tonight dear,” Mae giggled. It was Jen’s turn to flush with embarrassment.
“I’m sorry Mae, that was just a lot of information and I feel like there’s more I want you to tell me about it but I don’t know what to ask,” she shook her head softly, “But really, thanks for sharing it with me.”
Mae clasped their hands around hers, “I would have talked about it earlier but it always felt kind of silly that I was drawing sigils to do ‘Chaos Magick’,” they hollowed their mouth to give that phrase a derisive ‘spooky’ tone, “when real magic had existed for at least thirty years by that point. Plus explaining Steppenwolf to someone is like… like trying to explain The Big Lebowski in its totality to someone: a broad summary is easy enough, but trying to keep everything important straight in a summarization is harder, and potentially more time consuming, than just watching the movie.”
They cocked their head and smiled. It was a pretty sight. “Sorry for the tangent and as always thanks for listening Jen. I suppose we should take a look at your photos or you won’t have time to go home and get our new toys for tonight. Not that that would stop us from having a fun time.”
“Right, the photos,” she was finding it difficult to push the thoughts of sex out of her mind, but that was part of the game. Mae loved to tease her when they knew she couldn’t take time to fuck them, because they knew she would pay them back for it later.
She opened the manilla folder and spread five photographs of the inside of Zenith’s CEO’s office on the table. Two showed a blank wall while the other three showed deep crimson gashes in the wall spelling out the word “nAdir”. The ‘A’ was capitalized and larger than the other letters, leading the investigators to initially suspect an anarchist group but eventually it trickled through the underworld that the Crimson Codex claimed responsibility. The residue left behind in the gashes was magical in nature, but very different from any registered or studied types of superherione magic. The closest comparison she could find was the magic binding The Flurry to her knives, but even then there were still a handful of differences.
Other than the calling card, a few experimental biosuits had gone missing. Panzer had been quick to link the Metal Maidens they captured last week to the Crimson Codex when they found that the woman they were attempting to convert was wearing the same style of bodysuit. However it was determined after booking that one of their group was an engineer from Zenith working on the biosuits project, and that the single suit she had was a slightly newer model than the ones stolen by the Crimson Codex. A coincidence of fate and a major disappointment to Panzer.
“I’ll be back in a second, don’t go anywhere,” Mae told her as they reached out to touch the first photo. They closed their eyes as their fingers touched the glossy surface of the photo, a white aura humming around them. Suddenly they compressed and condensed and zipped into the photograph, leaving Jen sitting alone in the room.
As Shutterfly, Mae could enter photos, look around, and move time backwards and forwards within the photograph a little bit. They’d told Jen that normally they could go about two minutes on either side of a photograph being taken before things started getting fuzzy and that their record was four minutes and twenty-nine seconds before the world in the photograph completely collapsed and threw her back into the real world. Needless to say, they were inundated with requests by various security companies and personnel to review photos of suspicious activity of all sorts. Added to the requests from the Superpowers Study Group as one of the few people to gain powers after beginning transitioning, and it became obvious why they lived their life on a strict schedule.
With a flash of light they were back on the couch, shoulders shrugging, “Nothing in that one. Let’s try door number two.”
And in a flash they were gone again, sucked into the photograph. Jen looked around the room at all the other photos and pictures hanging around, certain that Mae had visited every single one. Watched the sunset with the silhouettes, drifted on the old schooner with people now long-dead, and visited a pastel-colored Paris full of painted people. They said that in paintings the magics of their powers gave some of the things a semblance of life, that the fake people walked in small loops and sometimes even chattered in a facsimile of language as she pushed time forwards-and-back. Jen wondered if somehow she could experience that with them.
A flash of light and they were back again, an excited look on their face, “I saw them, right around when the picture started getting fuzzy. A feminine figure, somewhere between five-four and five-six, red-and-white outfit. They entered through a burst of red light back here,” Mae tapped a spot on the table that would have been closer to the camera, almost right under it in fact. “And then things started to get blurry. They summoned a blur of red energy and threw it at the wall, resulting in a blurry version of the word ‘nadir’ as seen in the other photographs.”
Jen scribbled the information down on the inside of the folder, “Anything else?”
“Nope. Well, not related to what I saw in the photograph,” they paused for a moment, “Why did Madam Mirror call in a favor for a vandalism case?”
“They stole some tech too, but the company was so paranoid about corporate espionage that they didn't put cameras in the labs,” Jen said as she finished her notes, ”Or so they claimed. That leaves us with just the vandalism in the CEO’s office, which connects to the burglary and is our only solid lead currently to the Crimson Codex.”
“Oh right, that case,” Mae nodded knowingly. Jen had told them about it a couple of times over the past month, mostly about the lack of progress, “All rumor and speculation with no hard evidence. It’s still surprising that she got the League to prioritize these pictures over any of the other cases. Delta Squad has been tracking down a gang of kidnappers responsible for at least six disappearances and their security footage got bumped to tomorrow for this.”
“It’s in an odd spot,” Jen explained, “Rook and Panzer have a ton of hearsay that this group is making movements in the criminal underworld, Scrylocke thinks it’s important enough to stay working on it for weeks, and I think we all can intuit that there’s something there. But Madam Mirror won’t enter evidence on intuition and hearsay, so despite us all knowing that trouble is brewing we can’t officially go all in on an investigation yet. It’s the world's most frustrating chicken-and-egg problem.”
“Well, let’s see if I can get you any more info in picture number three,” Mae wiggled their eyebrows and disappeared into the picture. Jen sat in silence, thinking. If they could finally get a description of one of the Crimson Codex’s members they’d have something solid to work from. Like an avalanche, cases like these tended to start small and slow but snowballed into something larger as clues and connections were discovered. The more threads they found, the more threads they could follow. She could feel that they were on the precipice of discovery, that the long-simmering mystery was ready to boil over and blow the lid off the pot.
Mae flashed back into reality and flipped the photograph face down on the table, panting heavily. Their brown eyes were full of panic, their mouth agape.
“Mae!” Jen asked, concerned, “What happened?”
They shook their head and held up a finger to request a moment. They closed their eyes and let their breathing steady, opening them again after a few calming breaths. They swallowed hard.
“I was manipulating time within the photograph, like I’d done a thousand times before,” they explained, eyes suspiciously watching the photograph, “And kept rewinding as far back as I thought I could without collapsing the illusory space around me. At first I thought it was maybe the fuzziness or that I wasn’t remembering things quite right but… Jen, the figure started moving on it’s own. It looked right at me.”
“What?! You’re sure?”
“I tried to play forward time again and they looked right at me when they should have been focusing on the wall, like they could move around in there the same way I can. Like they weren’t just part of the photo. I never… That’s never happened before. They should have just done the same thing over and over, like playing back a movie. But somehow they turned and looked right at me. Looked right at me, grinned, and started raising their hand towards me.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I bailed as soon as that happened. I’m just a little rattled is all,” they pinched the face-down photograph on either end and folded it in half, creasing it so the glossy sides were stuck together, “Nothing’s ever been able to move of its own accord when I’m in a photo. I’m used to having complete control in there. It’s the first time I’ve felt like it wasn’t my own private domain, as if someone was intruding in something so specially my own.”
“I’m so sorry Mae,” Jen said as she flipped the other photographs face down as well, hoping that would somehow help, “I didn’t think…”
“I didn’t even think it was possible, there’s no way anyone could have known,” they folded another of the photographs in half, “I don’t know how their powers would work, if they could try to escape through the photographs. I figure folding them half is a good start, but if I can make a suggestion Jen: I’d suggest you burn them.”
Jen started folding the remaining photographs too, “I think that’ll be alright. I’ll take them back to headquarters and run it by Madam Mirror though just to make sure we don’t have any reason to hang onto them. What about the video?”
Mae rolled their eyes, “I don’t know how many times I have to tell people my powers don’t work on video. And yet they keep sending me video files and DVDs to review.” They shook their head. “I have no idea what’s safe or not from the footage, best to get rid of all of it or at least keep it someplace secure.”
“Got it. Are you going to be alright?” Jen asked as she carefully slid the folded photographs back into the manilla folder.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Don’t pack up too quickly, I still need to tell you the details I managed to get before retreating.”
Jen raised an eyebrow and picked up her pen, “Even in the face of danger you managed to dig something up? You really are something Mae.”
“Don’t flatter me too much Jen or I won’t be able to contain myself until tonight,” they gave a quick wink, “Your suspect has green eyes that glow red when they’re casting magic. They have prominent red tattooing winding across their arms, and potentially other parts of them as well, all of it pulsing with magical red energy. Most definingly, they have a large, capital ‘A’ emblazoned in red on their sternum, nearly identical to the one on the wall in the photographs.”
“Wow, that’s a lot more than we had before,” Jen looked up from her notes, “Thanks Mae. Hopefully this will give us the break we need.”
“Any time,” they said, pausing to amend, “Well any time that I’m not otherwise busy.”
“Good thing I made reservations in advance then,” Jen said leaning in for a kiss, “I’ll see you tonight.”
A surge of water pounded Panzer square in the chest, sending her flying off the dock. The wake of the speedboat crashed over her head as she swam for land. Above her the full moon rained down cold white light, shimmering on the cresting waves rolling towards the dockyard. Behind her another swimmer pursued, zipping through the water like an otter, gaining speed and distance on her by the second. Fortunately Panzer didn’t have much further to go to reach the land.
Funnily enough the biggest concern in her head wasn’t that she’d be caught: as unpleasant as drowning was, it couldn’t actually kill her. No, the thought worrying her right now was this: come tomorrow, Madam Mirror was going to lose her shit.
She reached the gentle slope of land and rushed out of the bay, turning to face her pursuer. The figure leapt out of the water and landed deftly on her feet, right hand reaching backwards towards the water. A funnel of liquid surged forward into her hand, undulating into a blobby, but nasty, looking liquid harpoon. Panzer ground her heels into the wet dirt, hoping to not be knocked off balance by whatever this supervillain threw at her next.
“Just surrender now,” she barked at the water-wielding super, “You can’t hurt me. All you’re doing is delaying the inevitable.”
“Forgive me if I don’t take your word for it,” she hoisted the harpoon above her shoulder, “I prefer to learn through experience.”
She snapped her arm forward and sent the watery weapon soaring towards Panzer. Panzer dodged to the right, the harpoon piercing into the ground where she had just been standing before collapsing back into liquid. Panzer kicked forward and rushed the villainess, jumping at her with a fist pulled back. She landed inches in front of her opponent and slammed her fist forward, connecting hard with the other woman’s torso. She reveled in hearing the breath spill out of her foe, her other hand already pulled back to pummel her again. This time she hit her higher, sending her staggering backwards towards the water.
The villainess flopped into the water behind her, smacking the surface hard before diving under. Panzer caught herself before unthinkingly wading back into the bay; she wanted to deny her foe every tactical advantage she could.
Suddenly with a deafening roar the waters surged upwards to form two giant walls, the supervillainess darting up the rightmost one like a salmon. Panzer backed away slowly and carefully, not wanting to be near the tidal waves but not wanting to trip during her tactical retreat either. When the briney villainess reached the pinnacle of her thirty-foot wave she summoned another harpoon of hardened water, pointing it down at Panzer.
“Let me show you why they call me Undertow,” she sneered as she flicked the harpoon towards Panzer. The leftmost wave curled towards the ground-bound heroine, brackish water stretching inwards over her head. Sparkles of moonlight filtered through as Panzer turned and ran, hoping to escape the bay water’s grasp. She made it only about ten feet before a smaller burst of force knocked her flat; Undertow must have thrown the harpoon again. She pushed herself upwards to her feet just in time for hundreds of cubic feet of saltwater to crush her back down and drag her backwards towards the bay.
She dug her hands into the wet dirt, slowing her slide in fistfuls of mud and rubble. She felt the water lose its hold on her, leaving her waterlogged but not quite yet in the drink. She craned her head around looking for Undertow and then plunged her hands back into the dirt before the second wave came crashing down a moment later. Saltwater stung her eyes and left its foul taste in her mouth as she waited for the riptide to return to it’s basin, planning her next course of action in her head as she tightly held on to the softening ground.
Suddenly she felt her right hand pull free of the dirt, her eyes popping open as she flailed her hand around trying to find purchase once more. Undertow was mere feet in front of her, using another one of her harpoons to try to pry Panzer loose and send her hurtling into the bay. She jabbed at Panzer again, the dirt and stones beginning to crumble under her left hand. Panzer readied herself.
The next jab knocked the remainder of the dirt loose from under Panzer’s left hand, something that would have certainly swept her backwards into the dark waters had she still been using that last scrap of mud as an anchor point. But the indestructible superheroine had flung her right arm around to grab the harpoon as it struck, hoisting herself forward and yanking Undertow off-balance. The water flowing past her had already started to die down, and with Undertow’s brief loss of focus Panzer was able to throw herself forward and tackle the villainess to the ground. A fist crunched into Undertow’s cheek, a spurt of blood and spit shooting forth from her mouth to mingle with the mud and brine. Panzer moved her other hand from the downed woman’s shoulder down to her throat, pressing firmly on her artery. One final rage-fueled punch struck the panicking Undertow before Panzer moved her other hand down to aid in cutting off blood to her foe’s brain.
“I fucking told you,” Panzer hissed, “You’re only delaying the inevitable. How’s this for learning through experience?”
Predictably Undertow scrabbled at Panzer’s iron grip, hoping to pry her fingers free. Panzer snarled down at her, ready to chance the worst outcome for her opponent in her blind rage. Undertow’s struggles gradually slowed as blood stopped flowing to her brain. Panzer prepared to flip her over and cuff her while she was still trying to recover. This whole tactic was dangerous and potentially deadly, but she hated anyone getting the best of her. She was everything a superheroine should be: powerful, invulnerable, ambitious, ready to do whatever it took to ensure justice was served; and yet constantly she was looked down upon, treated like a weak and worthless child. While it was dangerous and unethical and immoral to take her anger out on supervillains, it sure was cathartic. She felt Undertow go limp beneath her, eyes fluttering closed as her brain shut down. She released her grip around Unsertow’s throat to grab her shoulders, preparing to roll her face down, and then it happened.
Red swirls, lines, and cracks ran along Undertow’s arms and up through her face as she sucked in a surpised breath. Her eyes burned crimson as her hands snapped out towards the bay, making a beckoning motion to the moontouched water. Panzer flipped her over onto her face and forced her hands together behind her back, hoping that with speed and subjugation she could avert whatever new watery menace her prisoner was trying to conjure. She held Undertow’s wrists tightly together with a single strong hand as the other patted the side of her thigh searching for handcuffs. For the first moment that her fingers felt something cold she assumed she’d found them and reflexively tried to close her grasp around the chilly substance. However as her fingers met her palms she realized that it wasn’t cold iron she was grasping; they were squishing through some sort of suspended liquid.
Panzer tried to tug her hand free of the enveloping liquid only for a reciprocal force to suction it further inward. She spun herself off of Undertow, leaving the villainess facedown in the mud, rotating her stuck arm to face the servant of living water her opponent had summoned. Veins of red magic streaked through its translucent carapace, patterned purposefully but unintelligibly. It’s faceless blob of a head swished back and forth as it waited patiently, seemingly content with merely capturing Panzer’s hand.
Panzer pushed backwards with her legs feeling her hand beginning to move out of the creature. For a brief moment she could feel the slimy coldness where her soaked skin was once more licked by the cool night air, and then the congealed brackish waters rushed forward to reclaim what she had managed to free. And just for good measure it oozed another inch up her arm before stopping again, waiting.
“I… I…” Undertow sputtered on the ground, limbs clumsily pushing her to her feet. Panzer could tell there was something wrong with her, something about the way she was moving now. Her movements were stiff and stilted, somewhere between the shamble of a drunk and the controlled movements of a marionette. As her vacant, glowing, red-filled eyes met Panzer’s, it became clear the trouble was more the latter than the former.
“I am…” Undertow intoned, head lolling to the side, “the white breast…”
Her head straightened again as symbols and letters in crimson shades excitedly lit up along her skin. Panzer noticed something else as she spoke, another voice buzzing alongside Undertow’s; a malign tone just a split-second out of sync with its host’s words, its pitch oscillating around Undertow’s tired monotone. Her limbs shook and trembled, knees almost buckling as she took a step towards Panzer.
“Of the dim sea,” she gasped out, face contorting into a wicked grin. Her body shuddered as the gleam of scarlet lights emanated from her torso, rippling along the red cracks and veins that zigzagged along her body. Panzer watched with horrified fascination as her opponent’s eyes refocused on her; the calculating, appraising expression on Undertow’s face so much more terrifying than that of the determined fighter from minutes ago.
“Panzer…” the red eyes of the purloined face flickered with intelligence and menace, “Short for ‘Panzerkampfwagen’. A German compound noun for ‘armored combat vehicle’. Indestructible. Bold. Brash. Brazen.”
“What’s your fucking point?” Panzer spat at the red-rimmed woman, swinging her free arm forward to grab at her. Undertow glided back just out of her range, moving so much more gracefully than moments before.
“I need you,” the red eyes glimmered with greed, the crackling second voice dripping with sinister purpose, “you fit the criteria so well.”
Panzer started to speak, but her first phoneme elongated into a thrashing shout as the watery figure surged up her arm. Reaching her shoulder, it poured across her torso and then outwards over her remaining arm and legs. She struggled and twisted against the chilly liquid encompassing her body, but every moment it became more and more difficult. At first it felt like movement through any other body of water, requiring slightly more effort to move due to the need to displace the water around you; a gentle pressure responding to your actions, something you could deal with. In that phase Panzer managed to break the surface of the water-being holding her tight a couple of times, flesh briefly bobbing out of mystically suspended water before being sucked back under. Then, once it had covered everything below her neck, she felt the pressure of the water push inwards uncomfortably, pinning her in place.
Undertow made a beckoning motion towards her and she felt the watery sheathe around her move her body forward in response. She was no more than a puppet on watery strings. They began walking towards one of the warehouses, neither woman in control of their own movements.
“Let go of me!” Panzer demanded, trying to hide the panic in her voice, “When I get out of this, I’m going to make you pay!”
“That seems like a poor incentive for me to free you,” the voice spoke through Undertow, her head cocked in thought. They stopped and the crimson-cracked villainess gave her a cross between a grin and a snarl, “I could just kill you here, drown you where you stand. A small loss on my part, but perhaps less trouble in the end.”
“Just go ahead and try it,” Panzer growled, “You can’t hurt me. You think you’re the first to try and drown me? Better villains than you have tried and failed. And when you fail, I’ll beat your crimson ass back to wherever you came from.”
“Excellent,” the voice purred, hand flowing upward, “It is as I hoped, we can continue in silence without damaging you.”
Panzer screamed a mish-mash of profanities as the waters flowed upward over her head, muting her into burbling silence. The living suit of water trudged along after the possessed Undertow, its raging prisoner fully isolated from the external world by pressurized liquid. Panzer strained to see through the refraction what was happening or where they were going, but she existed now in a world of murky images juxtaposed with refracting patterns of light. She was helpless, and all she could do about it was scream into the watery void surrounding her.
Brackish water flooded her mouth as she raged at herself for letting this happen. She should have waited like Madam Mirror had asked her to, at least then she’d have had backup. That thought panicked her a little, the only person who knew she wasn’t working operations right now was Bullseye and she thought Panzer was helping a friend a few miles away. She tried to thrash again against the membrane puppeting her, but to no avail. She felt her lungs start to burn for air, karmic payback perhaps for blood-choking Undertow earlier. It hurt like hell, but her superpowered body somehow kept the oxygen from depleting in her bloodstream, somehow kept her alive. She let out a series of screams once more into the watery helm, all sound absorbed by it’s rippling medium. Her legs continued to move against her will; even her super-strength was no match for the liquid wrapping her and piloting her.
Then a scream broke through. She could taste air instead of brine and felt her words reverberate normally. It was surprisingly sudden. She spat a mouthful and then a lungful of salt water out in a hacking cough, the pain in her lungs lessening. She felt the cold, wet envelope of water slide down her: first as a viscous semi-solid and then rapidly reverting into little more than normal water puddling on the ground. She blinked the stinging salt from her eyes and shook out her limbs. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes since Undertow imprisoned her, what the hell was going on?
As her eyes cleared she saw her savior: a dark, barely familiar, new acquaintance of flowing shadow. Shadow Lass had Undertow on the ground again, a pair of pitch-back bonds tethering the villainess’s arms to the dirt and a hand clamped heavily over her mouth.
“Some help?” Shadow Lass called out, “I can’t keep the shade shackles going for too much longer.”
Panzer sprung into action, cuffs at the ready as she snapped them around one wrist and then rolling Undertow over roughly for a second time that night to cuff the other. The villainess and the presence inside her tried to say something as Shadow Lass moved out of the way for Panzer, but a smooth and still darkness wrapped itself over her mouth. Panzer rolled her to face upwards again; hands restrained and cuffed between her body and the earth, face staring up at the stars and the soaked superheroine.
“I told you you’d fail,” Panzer sneered, cracking her knuckles as she loomed over the downed woman, “And I made you a promise for what I’d do when you did.”
Pain echoed on Undertow’s face as the first punch connected with her stomach.
Murderous glee etched itself on Panzer’s face as the second punch landed in the same spot.
Concern sprouted on Shadow Lass’s face as the bevy of blows showed no signs of stopping.
A soft pillow of darkness caught the next of Panzer’s blows, causing her to stop mid-swing. She looked at Shadow Lass, bewildered and furious, breathing heavily through her nose, face framed by drenched brown hair.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Panzer hissed.
“She’s already down,” Shadow Lass said, holding up her hands in a placative gesture, “Shouldn’t you take her in for questioning or something?”
“Shouldn’t I…” Panzer steadied her breathing, letting her fists drop to her side, “Yeah… Shit, I’m sorry about that. I just… She fucking had me trapped in that watery prison and I hate being made to feel helpless.”
“I… Well… Okay,” Shadow Lass nodded along, not sure she wanted to plumb the depths of Panzer’s issues right now, “Do you need any help bringing her in?”
Panzer nodded slowly as the beserk rage receded in her mind, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure my phone is waterlogged to hell. If I could borrow yours…”
“Sure,” she summoned a sleek phone from the shadows dappling across her body and handed it to Panzer.
“Thanks,” Panzer said as she took the phone, looking at it briefly before continuing, “And thanks for the rescue. I don’t know what she would have done with me if she managed to march me back to her lair, but I’m certain it wouldn’t have been good.”
“No problem. I was patrolling along the back alleys a few blocks over when I saw the tidal waves and decided to come investigate.” She jerked her thumb towards Undertow. “Who is she anyway?”
“No idea,” Panzer replied, phone still in her hand, “She called herself Undertow, but I haven’t heard of any villain by that name before. And the red glowing shit, that has to be related to the Crimson Codex.”
“The Crimson Codex,” Panzer looked at the phone one more time before handing it back to Shadow Lass, “A new underground group involved in some real shady shit; mind control of superhumans being a favored tactic of theirs if rumours are to be believed. We’ve got next to nothing in terms of hard evidence. Until tonight…” Panzer grinned at Undertow’s slumped form.
“And so you’re not going to call this in?” Shadow Lass looked at the phone still in Panzer's outstretched hand, an eyebrow raised inquisitively.
“No. You are. I’m not supposed to be out here. I’m supposed to be working the operations center and not investigating the Crimson Codex until my boss says it’s okay. You however, you’re a free agent.” Panzer paused thoughtfully. “You helped us catch the Metal Maidens last week and saved my ass this week. I’m thinking maybe… maybe we could team up?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“I’m not trying to make you commit to anything,” Panzer assured her, “I’m just saying that I can feed you case information and leads that we should be acting on but aren’t, and you could help surveil things outside of League jurisdiction and bureaucracy. You’d be helping people and there’d be no strings attached. Any progress that you make, even if it's on our own schedule, is bound to be faster than the months we’ve been waiting for clearance internally.”
“And this is… legal?”
“As much as being a vigilante crime fighter not registered with the League is,” Panzer shrugged, “As I said, I’ll let you know what I know, and you can choose to act on it if you want.”
“Alright,” Shadow Lass nodded her head tentatively, “That sounds fair enough. So when I call this in I’m going to say what?”
“Hmmm… Well let’s start with the truth and whittle it down from there. I was doing some detective work on the Crimson Codex case after asking my coworker, Bullseye, if she could cover me for two hours.”
“See I have this theory that the paranoia of all these big tech corporations is preventing them from actually reporting odd occurrences at their companies outside of internal channels. They’re all spooked that the same stock tumble that happened after Zenith reported their breakin is going to happen to them, so they try to keep things hush-hush until they know for certain that they need real help. So I’ve been asking around, off-the-record, if anyone’s heard anything. Over the weekend I met a nice young lady from Tachyderm Solutions, a friend of a friend, who does the accounting for their subsidiaries. One of them, Calmwater Logistics, is shipping things into this dockyard but mysteriously all the cargo manifests from the dock warehouse to their inland storage list fewer items and lower overall tonnage than what’s reported as being shipped into this port. And I know what you’re thinking…”
Shadow Lass shook her head slowly, “I don’t think you do.”
“You’re thinking ‘sounds like a standard smuggling operation’ or one of those ‘reinvoicing’ schemes rich fuckers like to use to hide their money in the Caymans. I thought the same thing at first, figured I’d enjoy her company and the drinks and we’d part ways, but then she mentions that Calmwater is also having problems with staff turnover. Five watchpeople quit in the past three months, another two in the hospital in comas, and another one has just plain-old gone missing. Now dockguard isn’t the most glamorous of jobs, and most people don’t plan to make a long-running career out of it; but that’s eight people in three months. Seems a bit high doesn’t it?”
“I guess,” Shadow Lass agreed, curiosity sparking in her dark eyes.
“And what you don’t know is that this pattern matches what I’ve heard out of employees from Zenith and Lentrium. Mysterious doings and high staff churn in very specific departments of each of these companies. And it’s all right under our noses, being kept out of official channels by stock-price paranoia. So tonight I decided to poke around Calmwater Logistics, bribe the gate guard with a nice bottle of whiskey and the promise that I wouldn’t take or break anything. I thought I may have to fudge that promise a little to get a peek at what they’re storing, but when I got here the loading doors were already open. I came around the corner to find Undertow over here standing guard.”
“She shouted a warning to her compatriots and ran back through the warehouse. I followed her, sprinting down aisles of brown wooden crates. I saw one of the people working with her dart out the back door about ten seconds before she did. I ran after them, along the back and sides of the warehouse, back towards the docks. Two figures were already in a speed boat, revving the engine, as Undertow ran towards them. They started boating out into the bay as I reached the dock, and she plunged into the water. That’s when she knocked me into the water and we started fighting.”
“From there until you showed up it was just the two of us beating the shit out of each other. So if it was you…”
“I was investigating a smuggling operation operating out of this dockyard,” Shadow Lass started, head bobbing slightly as she concocted the story, “I was here strictly for non-invasive reconnaissance, sticking to the shadows and staying out of the locked warehouses. I heard a noise and moved to investigate, finding Undertow and two others looking suspicious. When I stopped to ask them what was going on, she attacked me as the other two ran for their lives. After a watery battle, I subdued her and called the League for help.”
“Perfect,” Panzer gave her a friendly slap on the back, “When you call in, ask for me by name. Say that you remember me from last week’s collar and just need someone to take her away to the proper authorities. I’m going to try and get my phone dried out enough to take the call. Provided that works, I’ll say I’m in the area and bing-bang-boom you get some nice commendations from the League, we’re one step closer to taking down a criminal enterprise, and I don’t get bitched out by my boss tomorrow. Which of course also means that I owe you one… hell, I owe you more than one.”
“Don’t mention it,” the flush at the tips of Shadow Lass’s smile was barely detectable in the dark, “Perhaps as one of those favors we can discuss the next parts of the investigation over drinks someplace? Or maybe just get dinner and drinks one of these nights? You’re buying of course.”
Panzer flashed a toothy smile, “I’d be happy to.”
“Ooooooo”, the moan broke through the flirtatious gaze between the two. Both of them turned to see the last bits of the shadowy gag dissolve from around Undertow’s mouth. Panzer knelt down in front of her, noticing how dimly the red lines streaking across her body were glowing. She thought for a moment and then began ripping up and across Undertow’s uniform, revealing a sinister, crimson letter ‘W’ arching above her navel.
“What the hell did the Codex do to you?” she murmured, asking herself more than Undertow. She rolled the ripped uniform into a long, thick strip.
“Oooo,” Undertow groaned, eyes flickering and fluttering, “Oed und leer das Meer.”
Panzer snorted at the nonsense words as she tied the makeshift gag around Undertow’s head. She rose to her feet ready to leave, when Shadow Lass gasped and pointed behind her. Panzer spun, fists at the ready, and watched as the red light filled Undertow again. She screamed into the gag as her body shook, eyes bulging in crimson fear and scarlet panic, before she slumped silently forward. Panzer held her breath, worried that her first suspect in the case had perished before they could bring her in. She let out a sigh of relief when Undertow’s chest gently heaved with life once more.
“Fuck,” she said uneasily, “What the fuck was that?”
“No idea,” Shadow Lass responded, “But it looks like she’s still breathing at least.”
“No red glow anymore… Let’s not wait around any longer; call it in.”
Shadow Lass pulled her phone out of her wispy robes of darkness and dialed the League’s help number. She went through the story as they rehearsed, and Panzer could tell that Bullseye was giving her very little trouble with the report. It took less than five minutes before she hung up.
“Alright. She said she’s going to try to contact you.”
And sure enough Panzer’s phone started vibrating. She gingerly pressed the ‘Accept Call’ button and held it up to her ear. Bullseye’s voice was tinny over the waterlogged speakers, but still intelligible. Panzer told her that she was nearby and would be over as quickly as possible. She almost hung up before deciding to remind Bullseye to send a police van before hanging up, just to make sure she didn’t forget. Once that was confirmed, she ended the call.
Shadow Lass and Panzer sat in silence for a minute or two before smalltalk rose to fill the emptiness. They talked a bit about where they grew up and the places they liked in Alterra, nothing too deep but a good place to start a new friendship and partnership. As they talked, the shadows around Shadow Lass grew thinnner and less agitated. Panzer could finally make make out the gentle curves of her body and parts of her soft-skinned face. She was actually kind of cute. Panzer smiled wider. For the first time in a long time, she felt pleasantly at peace.
The supervillian detainment van showed up with lights flashing and sirens blaring, a rude interruption to the friendly chat beneath the stars. The shadows roared back to life around the vigilante and Panzer prepared her toughest scowl. The two women gave their rehearsed stories to the officer and helped him load the unconscious Undertow into the van. It was only after he was sure that the prisoner was secured in the prison wagon that the officer asked them the question they should have already asked themselves:
“What were they smuggling anyway?”
“I didn’t…” Shadow Lass looked at Panzer, mouth half-open, “I didn’t get a good look.”
“Well I could call in another unit to investigate,” he started, looking them over, “Of course if you wanted to have a look first I could give you a few minutes. Captain Halleran over on white-collar crimes is notoriously not great on sharing information.”
“Thanks?” Shadow Lass replied, unsure of what else to say.
“You’re welcome,” the officer chuckled, “My niece helps out with Beta Squadron and said Halleran gave them a stone wall when they were trying to investigate a series of embezzlements. Figure it helps to keep the superheroines apprised of things so White Collar doesn’t drag their feet too slowly on solving crimes.”
“We’ll do our best to keep a fire lit under his ass if there’s something actionable, officer,” Panzer promised with a curt nod, “Be back in ten.”
They hurried back over to the warehouse, each of them eager to see what the Crimson Codex had been smuggling into the city. The first few aisles yielded nothing evidently interesting, just boxes and containers of computer parts and microelectronics. Then in the back corner they found it, boxes pried open and contents shifted aside. A stone tablet, a few pots, and a ceremonial headdress; artifacts of some other culture and country. Ancient items of cultural and artistic significance buried under the mass-produced circuitry of the twenty-first century; even to Panzer’s generally apathetic feelings towards art and culture, there was something almost sacrilegious about it.
“So they were smuggling in artifacts,” Panzer mused, “To sell? Or for some more nefarious purpose?”
“And not just artifacts,” Shadow Lass added, awe in her voice, “look at that!”
Partially hidden behind a stack of shipping containers, faintly glinting in the dim, overhead lights, was a five-and-a-half-foot tall statue of pure gold.
Cinder giddily tugged the slip of paper from under the turtle paperweight on her dresser, cherishing the cute curlicue on the bottom hook of the “C”. She’d reconnected with an old friend over the weekend, and suddenly love was fluttering in her stomach after a single hazy night of excess drinking and talking. She punched the numbers on the paper into her phone, holding her breath for a moment before pressing the call button. The phone rang and Cinder waited nervously for Claire to pick up.
“Hello?” the voice on the other end of the line asked. Something about it’s tone and owner made Cinder shiver pleasurably.
“Hey Claire, it’s Summer.”
“Oh Summer! Hey, how’s it going?”
“Good!” She startled herself with how loud she said that. She quieted herself a little bit out of embarrassment, “I was just calling because we had such a fun time the other night and I was wondering if you well… wanted to go on a date or something?”
She silently cursed herself for how lame that sounded, racking her brain for a better phrasing to use in future.
“Oh Summer, don’t you remember?” Claire cooed through the phone, “We already have plans for tonight.”
“Oh?” Cinder’s brow furrowed, trying to remember, “I’m sorry Claire I was kind of drunk by the end of everything last night, it must have slipped my mind. Are we meeting someplace? Did I miss it?”
Claire chuckled, “No you didn’t miss it Summer. It’s okay. In fact I’m almost to your apartment.”
“My apartment?” Cinder looked around at the unwashed dishes in the sink, the junk mail teetering on her table, the clothes still strewn on her bathroom floor, “Can you give me like thirty minutes or so to tidy up real quick?”
“It’ll be fine. I’m used to a bit of a mess from the lab, so don’t worry too much about it.”
“It’s just…” Summer trailed off, her mind focusing on picturing Claire’s lab. She could see it so clearly: the desks of mechanical parts and various contraptions, the weapons she was assigned to test and catalog, the scorch mark so newly made across the desk right behind her new girlfriend. Why was there a scorch mark? Had she done that?
“Just what sweetie?” Claire replied, her voice so smooth and sexy.
“The mess…” Summer imagined them on the floor of the lab together, kissing and groping and fucking each other. Summer pulling down Claire’s tights and fingering her to orgasm, then Claire reaching a gloved hand downwards towards her own cleft. The cold chill of metal on her imagined vulva.
“Summer, are you there?” Claire’s voice was worried. It was worried in a way Summer wasn’t expecting though, something was wrong with her tone. Like she was worried not for her but about her.
“The lab…” Claire’s other hand in the daydream was on her head, spreading out over her temples. She cold feel the cold metal contacts in the gloves, equally fearing and desiring their touch. Beautiful blue sparks rippled through her, her body spasming with Claire’s superpowers.
“The lab? Oh shi-- Summerbot foreground.” Claire’s voice was hurried and panicked.
“Summerbahhhhhh....” She had started the phrase as a question, part of her mind piecing together that Claire had done something to her. That part of her mind however was no longer in control and it droned out it’s final syllable as Summer’s back straightened and her eyes fluttered. When they opened fully again, Summerbot had reasserted her dominance over their body. Mistress Claire had etched her into Summer’s neurons, forming her from Summer’s own repressed desires and memories. With Claire’s simple command the emulation of Cinder the superheroine was ended by the more powerful system it ran on, just like closing a program after it starts taking up too much RAM.
“Summerbot active,” she mindlessly intoned into the phone.
“Wait there until I knock on the door, then let me in,” Claire commanded.
“Yes Mistress,” she droned right before the call ended. She sat absolutely still, phone still at her ear, waiting for Claire to knock on her door. She didn’t mind, in fact she quite enjoyed the blissful nothingness of waiting for external stimulus to allow her to move and think again. Not only was it psychologically refreshing after a hectic day of superheroine patrolling, but Claire had made it so following her orders was physically rewarding as well. She could feel the wetness between her thighs as she sat frozen. She could feel the tiny jolts of pleasure rocketing through her nervous system for obeying Claire. She could feel the promise of more to come, provided she just listened and obeyed.
Three sharp knocks stirred her from the couch, her hand with the phone finally dropping to her side as she marched to the door and opened it to find her Mistress, a worried look on her face below the short, black hair. She gave Summerbot an awkward hug, one that it took Summerbot a few seconds to intuit she should return.
“Let’s go sit on the couch, Summerbot.”
“Yes Mistress,” she cheerily chirped as she led them over to the couch, clearing pillows and blankets to make room for Claire to sit.
“I’d hoped we could have a more normal date tonight,” Claire stated as she sat, “Where we could have some fun together as friends instead of supervillain and brainwashed heroine, but I suppose that was an ambitious ask. With a bit more work I’m sure we can get the Cinder persona completely encapsulated and completely ignorant of how deeply and totally she’s controlled.”
“I could reload the Cinder emulation Mistress,” Summerbot suggested, hoping to please her owner.
“No, we can try again tomorrow night. I’ll try to be a bit less pushy about plans she won’t remember and avoid anything that would trigger her recall,” Claire caressed Summerbot’s cheek, “As much as I want Summer to love me without needing to be controlled into it, I’m okay with another night of fucking your mind as well as your body.”
Summerbot shivered as blue sparks danced out from Claire’s fingertips, nestling themselves into the pleasure center of her mind. Each one sizzled outward through chains of neural pathways that Claire had helped her establish, the pleasure spiraling outwards through concepts of obedience and love for her Mistress and then back through pleasure again. An endless loop of ecstatic thralldom.
“But first,” her fingers retreated, leaving Summerbot’s lust for more constrained only by her greater desire to obey Claire, “tell me about your day…”