Perhaps for the first time – at least, he could not recall if he had this particular insight before – Leopard understood the world of difference from entering a tempest as one of the forces behind it, as opposed to being a piece of the debris that had been swept up into it.
Melbourne Airport was in a state of carefully-controlled chaos. Leopard stepped out of the car (commandeered this time, not stolen) and attempted to find the professional stride of someone who brought order to such chaos, as opposed to the relaxed gait of someone comfortable with it, someone who caused it.
The terminals were being evacuated, but the logistical necessities rendered it a slow process. Leopard scoped out the crowd as best he could, but it was like pressing his face against a display panel. But nothing caught his eye, which was somewhat relieving. Whatever Monkey was doing here, it hadn’t become a slaughter.
Yet, Cometary said. Yet.
The authorities were out in force. Regular members of VicPol were orchestrating the evacuation, with an entire unit of officers in black special operations gear, their rifles held relaxed, waiting nearby. If not for his chrome helmet, Leopard could’ve slotted right in with them. Here and there, Star Patrol capes were blue and green islands in the ocean of the crowd, as well as more than a few independent or private capes.
Incarnate had already picked out whoever was overseeing the operation, closing on them at speed. The ranking Star Patrol cape was a stocky, grim-faced woman brooding over a flickering holodisplay. Her outfit was two parts armored suit and one part labcoat. She looked up, turning as the group approached and Incarnate flashed her badge.
“Doctor Apocaeucalyptus,” Incarnate said, slipping her badge away. “I am Incarnate, with SOLAR. We are here to assist.”
Apocaeucalyptus nodded to Incarnate. “You got here fast,” she said, but squinted at the rest of them. “Who are the others?”
Incarnate gestured with right hand. “Cavalier Cat, Trigger, and Impel. Independent capes.”
“Howdy,” Tiger said.
Apoceucalyptus’ eyebrows shot up. “Impel? Well, I’ll be damned.”
Fisher grinned, expression sardonic. “Turns out there’s life in me yet.”
Incarnate pushed on. “These three have been assisting SOLAR in an ongoing operation to apprehend an empowered fugitive. It is highly likely that he is the individual behind this attack.”
Something twisted in Leopard’s gut, like a clutch of spiders emerging and dancing around his organs. He’s here. This is it.
“Hey,” Apocaeucalyptus said, raising a hand, “I’m not asking questions. But I had expected an entire team of IPSA’s best. Not one member of SOLAR and three irregulars.”
“I have alerted the rest of my team, and they will be on-station as soon as possible. Until then, Doctor, the suspect must be contained. Sitrep.”
“We have him in the international terminal. Bastard started shooting his way past security. No demands, no idea who he is – every camera in the place went out the moment he started shooting. We’ve lost every drone we’ve sent in to locate him. You said he’s empowered?”
“Yes,” Incarnate said. “Casualties?”
“Five security guards, six police officers, and three capes – two of our boys, one independent. At this point, I’m loathe to send anyone else in until we have a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”
“That information is classified.”
“So, it’s that bad.”
“Yes,” Incarnate stated without feeling. “That bad.”
Fisher asked, “Civilian casualties?”
“Just injuries during the initial panic and evacuation,” Apocaeucalyptus said, “No fatalities.”
“Yet,” Tiger said. “It’s always yet.”
“Hey,” Fisher snapped, “Let’s take whatever small miracle we can get.”
“We have the roads closed, and all outgoing aircraft have been grounded, all inbound flights diverted,” Apocaeucalyptus stated. “We can hold him here until the cavalry arrives. If he steps outside, I’ve given the order for the use of deadly force.”
Deadly force. The spiders boiled over each other.
“Understood,” Incarnate replied, nodding crisply. “For now, my people will attempt to apprehend the suspect.”
“That’s risking escalation,” Apocaeucalyptus said, her voice a warning tone.
“Doc,” Fisher said, “We’ve got reason to believe that this guy is some kind of omni-capable technopath with some kind of hell-grudge against the world. He might be going for an aircraft. If it is, he’ll be gone before anyone gets here.”
Apocaeucalyptus nodded, but displeasure flickered across her face. “I’ll notify the air force and our capes rated for high-atmospheric flight.”
“If that’s everything,” Leopard said, tapping the body of his rifle, “We’ve got a monkey to catch.”
Incarnate nodded. “Cavalier Cat, Trigger, Impel, I will remain here to better coordinate our efforts.”
The meaning was clear: let’s not send the killer robot in there when Monkey might just take control of it.
And yet as Leopard checked his rifle and made his way past the cordon, Tiger and Fisher at his back, he wasn’t sure if that thought was genuinely directed at Incarnate or if, as Tiger had once said, he really did have a remarkable gift for projection.
The international terminal was quiet. Leopard swept his rifle left then right then left again, checking every corner and every abandoned storefront. No sign of anyone, no sign of Monkey. All Leopard set his sights on was a mess of luggage and belongings, strewn and scattered across the whole terminal floor – all of it discarded in the chaos of the evacuation.
“You never get used to seeing shit like this,” Fisher said, somewhere between a frown and a grimace. “Take it from me.”
“Never say never, husband,” Tiger replied, raising her weapon to her shoulder and squeezing off a burst. Ahead of her, a hovering custodial robot exploded into smoking fragments, pieces sliding across the floor.
Incarnate’s voice crackled in Leopard’s ear. “Gunfire. Status?”
“Just took out one of your distant relatives,” Tiger replied. “If you think he can jack machines, I’m not taking any chances.”
Leopard’s HUD flickered with green static. He tapped at his helmet, frowning. “Incarnate, I’m getting interference on my heads-up display. It’s green. Is this a problem?”
“The interference is likely to be resulting from proximity to the target.”
“Okay, I figured that.” The spiders in his gut intensified, gnawing relentlessly. “How close are we talking here?”
A moment’s pause. “I do not have access to that information.”
“Fantastic,” Leopard sighed. “Thanks.”
“You are very welcome. Samantha, please refrain from opening fire – there may still be civilians inside the terminal.”
Tiger shrugged. “You’ve got it, boss.”
The line clicked off. Leopard turned his gaze upward, eyes on the departures board and all the flights on it, all of them canceled.
“We’ve got a lot of ground to cover,” he said, then pointed across the terminal, to the staff computers. “But we can thin it down. Find what’s currently landed. Discount any of the larger commercial craft – wherever he’s going, it won’t be with anything he needs to land in an airport. It’ll be something quick, like an aeroshuttle.”
Impel crossed over, followed by Tiger. “It’s no good,” he said, poking about. “Systems are all unresponsive.”
“Then we’ve really got a lot of ground to cover.” Leopard glanced up again, ran through the numbers. “We’ll brute force it – you two take the top half, I’ll take the bottom. He’s in here somewhere. If we don’t find him, we’ll meet back here and plan our next move.”
“And if we find him,” Fisher said, terse, as if trying to make something clear, “Then we call the others for backup, and we engage him together.”
“Exactly,” Leopard said, and he knew it was a lie. “Exactly.”
Alone, Leopard prowled the halls. Around him was nothing but the shadows and ghosts and memories of a life he was no longer sure he had actually lived.
This is it, he told himself. He’s still here and it has to be me.
It has to be me.
The question was still sprinting laps around his skull when he found him.
Monkey stood to the left of Gate 14, gazing out through the armorglass panorama with his arms crossed. Next to him, the boarding gate was open. Beyond him, connected by an umbilical, Leopard glimpsed the fuselage of a sleek aeroshuttle.
Somehow, he took no joy in being right.
Monkey was still and silent, flatfooted and vulnerable. Shooting him now was the right thing to do, Leopard knew, but surely he owed him better than that – even after everything.
Call for help, he heard, somewhere distant, in Fisher’s voice. Call for help. Call for backup. Don’t be stupid, Jack.
But Leopard stepped forward, reaching up to remove his helmet, the damaged seal hissing. The spiders in his gut had migrated to nest behind his eyes and the world floated around him, slowing down with every breath he took in, only to ramp back up as he exhaled. He dropped his helmet and saw it fall by inches.
His helmet hit the ground, the sound echoing. Monkey turned, and smiled.
“So, here you are,” he said, “I knew you’d come.”
He looked just like he did in his memories. Tall, broad of shoulder, red hair wild and free, somehow in that moment both betrayer and confidante. Leopard noted that Monkey’s left arm, from hand to elbow, was like that of an obsidian skeleton, viridescent lines glimmering under the skin of his bicep, pulsating gently – but somehow that didn’t seem important.
Leopard wandered closer, his steps slow and halting. He dropped his rifle from hands didn’t feel like his own and set his right hand – his shooting hand, his killing hand – on the holster of his handgun.
“It’s time for this to end,” Leopard said. “SOLAR is on their way, Elias. There’s nowhere to run.”
Monkey took a step to the right, standing with his back to the gate. “I could say the same thing to you, Spots. You’ve come a long way to track me down. A long way to forget your cape.”
Someone settled his pistol over Monkey’s heart. “I don’t want to kill you, but I will.”
“I know you don’t. That’s why you missed the first time.” Monkey reached up, gestured with his hand at his face. Thin threads of gossamer obsidian crisscrossed the ragged scar across his temple.
Will bullets even work on him now?
“I didn’t miss,” Leopard replied.
“Well, I’m still alive,” Monkey said, shrugging.
“I just want answers.”
Was his voice always this hoarse?
“To what, Spots?”
The barrier cracked, and pain and anger spilled out of him before he could stop it. “Why do you hate me? Why did you throw me away? Replace me?!”
His hand was shaking now, his aim wavering. Monkey sighed with all of his body.
“Spots,” he said gently. Then, “Jack. I threw you away for a reason. I gave you an out – an out I knew you wanted.”
The usage of his name was a chisel into that crack, secondary fractures spreading. Leopard swallowed. “That’s not true.”
“Of course. Because what you want is to be a hero, a legend, which is why you’re here now. But that’s not really true either, is it? We both know why you’re really here. You’re here because I know what you’re really like.”
For God’s sake, Tiger shouted in his ear. Just shoot him, kid! Squeeze the fucking trigger!
“You made me into this!” He had to shout, had to be heard over Tiger’s words. “You brought me here!”
Monkey shook his head, as if disappointed. “It’s time to stop living the lie, Spots. You can’t forge a sword from clay. You’ve a darkness in you, Spots, and I’m the only one left who knows about it. In truth, I only think I really saw it when you executed that cape.”
“I had to do it. You told me I had to do it!”
“I was your friend!” Monkey shouted. “You were suffering! What was I supposed to do, let you kill yourself?”
Everything shattered, and everything hurt. Jack reeled back, stumbled a step.
“Oh, don’t look so surprised,” Monkey said. “You weren’t just cleaning your gun. We know each other too well to lie to each other. Everything I did, I did to help you. And here you stand.” He paused, shrugged. “From what I can see, it looks like you turned out alright. I’ve given you purpose, Jack, and from that you have a new life. All you had to do to keep it was walk away. All you have to do to keep it… is stop.”
“That purpose came from hurting people,” Jack fired back, aghast. “It came from stealing, from killing – I never wanted that!”
“And you think I did? This world is a fucked up place, Spots. The only thing any of us can do is survive it, and I helped you survive.”
“Whatever you’re planning on doing, that’s going well past survival.”
“You’re the one who told me we had to do what we think is right, that we could be something greater than what we were all those years ago. I did precisely what you said, and thought about how I could change the world for the better.”
“And now I’m the one telling you to stop! You can’t challenge the IPSA all by yourself.”
“Challenge them?” Monkey asked. “That had been my plan, Spots, but I’m afraid the situation has changed since you and your friends dismantled it. But now I have a plan that will work. The world will change, or it will be destroyed.”
“Just listen to yourself! This isn’t who I remember. I will stop you.”
“No,” Monkey said, “You won’t. You didn’t kill me before, and you won’t manage to do it now.”
“I will,” Jack replied. “I swear to God, I will.”
“Have you considered that you’re calling out to the wrong god?” Monkey raised his obsidian arm and made a show of rolling his wrist, flexing his three fingers.
“You’ve made us both into monsters,” Jack rasped.
“Did I?” Monkey laughed, hooting wildly. “Or did you create me, this phantasm you’ve chased all across the world? Are we all just the end result of each other’s flaws?”
But Monkey took a step back, toward the gate.
“If you take another step,” Jack warned, “I will have to shoot you.” But his whole body was trembling now, caught in a private epicenter.
“And if I don’t, your new friends will arrest me, and my legend will end. You’re not leaving me many options, Spots.”
“It’s not too late! We can amputate that thing. We can still go back to how it used to be.”
“We can’t go back, even if I wanted to.” Monkey shook his head and made a fist with his obsidian hand. Emerald light arced and popped around his fingers in response. “No. There is too much at stake for me to walk away now, even for you, Spots. But if you pull that trigger, it isn’t because I made you do it – it’s because you chose to do it.”
“Why do you hate me?”
“Hate you? If we’re honest, I think we hate each other. After all, you’ve chased me this far. And every step you take forces me to take another one.”
Monkey took another step. Jack grimaced, aware of every muscle from his neck to his shooting hand. He grit his teeth, concentrating, trembling, as if he could force his neurons to fire, to bridge the gap between wish and action…
“Stop this,” Jack said. “Please! Don’t make me kill you.”
“I’m not making you do anything! Don’t you see? Don’t you understand? Take some responsibility for yourself, Jack! These are your choices! You are the one who makes them! And you always have been.”
“I just want things to be how they used to be.”
“We can’t go back. Neither of us can. We’re too far gone, both of us, tethered and dangling over the edge of the world. And if we’re linked like this, then the only thing we can do is cut the cord. You’ll never stop chasing me.”
“Because of what you plan to do.”
“If that’s what you believe, Spots, then shoot me!”
His finger was on the trigger, the curve of it there, just against his armorweave gloves. All he had to do was find a single inch in his right forefinger, a single breath–
Monkey stepped back again, past the security gate.
“Follow me, Spots,” he said. “Follow me over the edge, and to the end of the world.”
Monkey waved his dark hand, and the gate slammed shut. Jack roared, suddenly mobile and stalking forward, squeezing the trigger, again and again, and again, finger spasming until his gun was clicking dry–
–on his hands and knees, chest heaving, thoughts burning with white noise. Someone was next to him, hauling him backward, making him sit. Their raspy voice was familiar, but there was no meaning to it, like hearing a shadow of a memory. “Jack,” they said, “Oh, Jack.”
They were reaching for his hand, prying at his fingers, trying to work them open, get the gun out of his grip, and he couldn’t find the motion to release it. “C’mon, Jack,” the smokey voice said. “It’s over. Give me the gun. It’s over. Let go.”
But she didn’t get it. He couldn’t let go.
He could never let go.