Leopard awoke in darkness.
He didn’t move a muscle. Not yet. He wasn’t sure where he was, but he could remember being captured. He fought down the urge to open his eyes, cut away that ancestral drive to become as aware as possible at the remembrance of consciousness.
He stayed still, and listened.
He heard nothing beyond his near-silent breathing and the gentle rhythm of his heart in his ears. When he truly focused, he could hear the sound of a ventilation fan. For a time, he almost thought he was in Gate’s sanctum once more, that he’d open his eyes and see Monkey and the others.
But when he opened his eyes, he saw nothing but the darkness-shrouded architecture of a holding cell.
Everything came back to him then. It just didn’t make any sense. Monkey would never bet–
Leopard rolled over and sat up, swung his legs off the hard bunk. Immediately, the lights flickered on, bathing him in harsh fluorescence, forced him to screw his eyes shut. He counted until he could open them again. Seven seconds.
He looked down at himself. His black armorweave was missing, replaced with some kind of grey cotton t-shirt and tracksuit pants. The seams itched along his thighs and biceps. Then he set his attention inwards, searching for any hint of pain – be it a deep throbbing of an injury or the sharper pain from a recent incision.
You could never trust anyone working for IPSA, after all.
After several moments, Leopard was satisfied that he was okay, beyond the tenderness on the left side of his face from where the SOLAR cape had laid him out with some kind of telekinetic attack.
He ran his tongue over his teeth, first lower, then upper. Found them all still in his jaw.
Well, that was always a positive.
How long had he been out? Perhaps a day or two, given that the Tower seemed to have lights again – but for all he knew, it might’ve taken them weeks to recover. It might’ve only taken them hours. He couldn’t know. Not yet, anyway.
He was so hungry.
The voice sounded from somewhere in the room, some hidden speaker system. A man’s voice, laced with contempt. Leopard couldn’t place the accent, but he recognized it – the SOLAR cape who had knocked him out. Blueshift.
“I will be coming through that door in three seconds,” he continued, “If you give me any reason to hurt you, I will do so.”
Leopard counted. On three, the SOLAR cape stepped through, clad in midnight-blue armor, helmet on his head.
It was so obvious, Leopard thought. It was a thought he had whenever he saw one of IPSA’s chief enforcers. They weren’t superheroes, they were super soldiers. Masks for helmets, bodysuits for battle armor.
They were thugs as much as he was, but he was honest.
“You can walk under your own power, or I can bring you with me,” Blueshift said. “But there are no other options for you to consider.”
Leopard considered some of them, just to see if Blueshift could peek into his thoughts. It wasn’t unheard of. He considered crossing the room at a slow pace and at a run, he considered placing all of his strength into a blow at neck, abdomen, or groin – the areas where the cape was less armored.
The cape stood there, arms by his sides, looking almost like a gunslinger from an old film. Leopard only considered the moves, of course. If he were to try any of them, the telekinetic would need to merely sweep his arm to put him down.
Leopard rose to his feet, slowly.
“I’ll walk,” he said. His voice was a rasp of a croak. It surprised him how dry his throat was when he spoke. He whet his lips again, tried to drive saliva down his throat. “I’ll walk.”
“Smart choice,” Blueshift said. “Let it be the first of many smart decisions you make today.”
He told himself that it wasn’t fear that made his throat dry, that it was only the recycled air.
It was funny how much more cognizant of his hunger he was once he was standing, once he was walking, once he knew his body was burning energy to power simple bipedal locomotion.
Blueshift marched him through the halls at a solid pace. Everywhere, Leopard could see the remnants of the joint strike on the Tower. Some of it was hard to spot: bullet holes here and there, a few spent shell casings that had been overlooked. Some of it was obvious: rooms trashed by Taurine’s rampage, walls broken and ceilings sundered.
However long it had been, it’d been enough to clear the bodies at least.
All around him, seemingly no matter where Blueshift took him, he saw men and women in the uniforms of the PCPD and other Paradigm emergency services doing work. About that many again of people in construction gear going about their tasks, many of them herding a service robot or two.
All of them gave Leopard a wide berth whenever they had to come near him. And, just like that, Leopard felt fierce.
It didn’t persist long. They weren’t clearing out of his way because they were afraid. When he noticed them looking at him, it wasn’t with fear or grim respect or anything he had wanted. The only thing he saw in their eyes was hatred, disgust, anger.
They weren’t clearing out of his way — they were clearing out of the way for the cape behind him.
Not that it mattered. They were nothing.
But still, some part of it felt wrong. He had never wanted hatred, disgust, and anger. He had been fighting against a corrupt, unjust system, using the materials of monsters in the service of good. That was the whole point of the Animals. Monkey had always said that, even if Leopard had to remind him.
Monkey had always said a lot of things.
Leopard’s mind turned to his leader and friend as he was marched into the lobby. Even the trucks had been removed. He knew then why he had been left behind. It was so obvious. Monkey needed someone to confuse the SOLAR capes, to throw them off the trail, to make them think they would come back for their lost member.
Monkey would never bet-
SOLAR would do everything they could to break him, but Leopard would bend like a tree in the wind. He reminded himself that there was nothing they could do to hurt him. He’d cut away everything but the Leopard persona long ago. The only thing that tied him to any life was a set of black armorweave and a chrome helmet.
And even those were probably gone. He was a ghost, a spectre.
Blueshift herded him to one of the elevators and then up thirty floors. Leopard had expected to be taken downstairs, into the secure basement levels. He wondered why they would be taking him upwards.
Not that it really mattered.
When the doors opened, Leopard stepped out. With Blueshift at his back, he was marched down a series of corridors, turning left and right. It took all of Leopard’s experience to be able to hold the path in his memory. He still had it committed when Blueshift led him to a door and reached around him to press his palm against the biometric panel.
“Inside,” Blueshift said.
Leopard did so. He heard Blueshift step in after him, and the door hiss closed.
Inside, the room was blandly hospitable. Soft grey carpet and cream walls, a view panel that Leopard almost confused for a window – windows at this height were a security risk. In front of the window was a desk he could only call non-descript, a chair on either side. The only thing on the desk was one of those lucky golden cats, paw waving eternally.
And on the far side of the desk, looming with a cup of tea in her hand, out of her armor but still in a deep blue uniform, was Aegis.
She gestured to the chair in front of him.
“Sit,” she said, her tone just warm enough to not be considered utterly frozen.
Leopard remained standing.
“I said sit.”
Leopard’s stomach lurched as the room surged around him, fighting down the sudden surge of motion sickness and whiplash. Something slammed him into the chair, hard enough to jar his tailbone. Pain flared.
He fought it down, didn’t let it show.
He tried to look behind himself but, no matter how much he felt himself activate the muscles in his neck and shoulders, and then his waist and hips, he couldn’t turn. Something was holding him fast, pressing him into the chair.
Aegis set the cup down, exhaled as if she was preparing herself for something horrible, then swallowed a set of pills. “Starting this off by getting on my personal bad side to match my occupational one. Not a good move, Jack.”
Leopard stiffened in his seat at the sound of his name, despite the throbbing pain in his coccyx. The subtle motion betrayed his surprise and his shock. Aegis noted it, and she smiled thinly.
“Hudson, right?” Aegis said, looking at him, her voice arch. “Jack Hudson. That’s your name, isn’t it?”
Leopard kept his voice flat. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re a very bad liar. What’s more, you’re a very bad liar with very few rights. Here’s your first piece of advice: do not fuck with me and I won’t burn you to the ground. Am I absolutely clear?”
He’d gotten to her already. Leopard smirked, “Utterly see-through.”
“You’re rather amusing. For an idiot who thinks his jokers are worth anything at a Poker table.” She crossed her arms, pointed a forefinger at him from above her elbow. “Let’s cut to the chase. Three questions. You and your friend, why are you still here? Your other friends, where have they gone? Our network, how did you bring it down?”
Leopard sat up, put his shoulders back. SOLAR’s best, and they didn’t know any of those questions? And she thought his cards were worthless.
“Wouldn’t you like to know, to all of the three. I’ll never betray my people. If you want those answers, you’ll have to rip them out of my mind.”
Aegis quirked a single eyebrow. “You’ll never betray your people? Funny. They seem to have betrayed you. Why? What’d you do to them? You’re already getting on my nerves – maybe that was it.”
Leopard felt that familiar anger flare, that touch of hated humiliation. He fought to suppress it, even the smallest microcosm of any response. Those pills could’ve been interrogation drugs, even if she didn’t have a power.
“Perhaps they left me here as a diversion.”
“Mm,” Aegis said, giving it obvious faux-consideration. “Doesn’t match the psych profile. Doesn’t even make good common sense. You were, all of you, outmatched by one member of my team and one of your people remains in a critical condition. That could change.”
The threat hung in the air like a knife.
“You wouldn’t,” Leopard replied, even as he felt himself fall into a trap.
“Seems an odd thing to say given your bravado of ‘ripping it from your mind’,” Aegis replied. “After all, very few people survive a direct hit from a phasic weapon. Why waste resources on her when there’s so many people – good people – who were injured in the line of duty?”
“You won’t. You have principles. IPSA regulations forbid the waste of human life.”
“Certainly. But under SOLAR operating parameters, I have considerable freedom to define what is and isn’t waste. If she dies and you talk, that’s not waste.”
The trap tightened around him. He tried to find some way to outmaneuver Aegis, soon realized it was impossible.
“Well,” he said, “Who cares?”
“I’m talking with you. I do.”
“Yeah. The good cop routine, got the bad cop looming behind me. You act like I don’t know what IPSA does. I know the camps exist. I know you brainwash children. I’ve seen the satellite images.”
Aegis shook her head, slowly.
“So,” he continued, “I know you’ll just throw the both of us in a re-education camp and mindfuck us. You think I don’t know about your organization’s fucked up facilities? I’ll die free before that happens.”
Aegis looked at him oddly, as if she’d seen him grow a second head then and there, mid-speech. “There are no camps,” she said, enunciating in that strangely terse way, as if speaking to someone she had decided wasn’t all there.
“You’re not telling me the truth.”
“My God, he has twisted you about his finger, hasn’t he?”
The soft, near-wondrous tone that Aegis had shifted into was more alarming than her rough terseness. The memory of Monkey kicking him down, leaving him in the hall to be captured, sprung unbidden to him. It made his chest ache, tighten.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Shut the fuck up,” Aegis snapped. “You’re not in a camp, you’re not in a cell, you’re in my temporary office. I’m here to talk to you. Your misplaced loyalty to the man who left you to die was amusing, at first, but now I’m tired of it. Shift.”
It sounded like a command, but Leopard’s realization of the fact that it wasn’t meant for him came at the moment his face slammed into the desk.
“I want to talk,” Aegis replied, while Leopard tasted blood. He gingerly probed his teeth with his tongue, found them all still there.
Always a positive.
“Funny way of showing it,” he spat back.
“I have little patience for cowards and murderers – and you are both. That hurt, didn’t it? Those words. I see it all over your face. So, for the last time: why are you here, where are your friends, and how did you bring down Paradigm City’s network?”
“Fuck you.” He wanted to spit but didn’t have the saliva to do so.
“Very big mistake,” Aegis stated. “Your friend, the monkey man, he has no idea who he’s playing with.”
“I’m not going to tell you anything.”
“We’ll see,” Aegis said. “I’ve cracked your mental armor. Now, time will split you open for me. We’ll see how talkative you are in a week. Blueshift, take him.”
Again, the room lurched around him. Leopard stumbled, found his footing. As they reached the door, Aegis spoke again, as if remembering something.
“Oh, one more thing. You haven’t eaten since we found you. Do you feel that hunger in your gut, Jack?”
He did still.
“I wonder how much worse that will feel in a week,” Aegis said, in a tone that indicated she knew the feeling with certainty. “Until then, the only thing you’ll have to chew on is your thoughts. As thin and over-indulgent as they are.”
As Blueshift led him away, Leopard realized he could finally hear the thought that had bubbled at the edge of his awareness since he’d seen the bootprint on his chest.
Monkey, why did you betray me?