It's lunchtime. Koyotie is sitting up in bed, and Izzard is busy gathering up the dishes from her meal when she notices the stranger standing in her doorway. He's about 6' 1", and muscled like a weightlifter. He's dressed in a polo shirt and khakis that look like they might have been hanging on a department store mannequin just an hour ago. He's bald, clean-shaven, and quite handsome; but there's something slightly "off" about him that Koyotie can't quite define. A second later it hits her—the man has no hair on his forearms, or even eyebrows. He raps lightly on the door, and his pale blue eyes regard her for a moment.
"Koyotie?" he smiles slightly. "It's me. It's...Contained. Or I guess 'Bill' will do, now. I was hoping," he says, glancing at Izzard as he finishes cleaning up, "that we could talk. See how you're doing... maybe discuss a lead on a story you'd be interested in...."
Koyotie stares at Bill for a long moment, as if unsure if what she is seeing is really there. "I take it everything worked out between you and Blackheart?" she says at last.
"Good enough," Archer replies. "Seems this body is going to have a certain 'breaking-in' period; but after all I've been through, I'll take what I can get."
As Izzard leaves the room with a nod and a smile, Archer picks up a chair and maneuvers it closer to the bed. He shoots a furtive glance at the far wall—the one Koyotie's bokken is leaning against—before sitting down. He hopes she doesn't recognize the significance—that he's sitting directly between her and her sword.
She's fast—faster than me, Archer thinks to himself. Better trained, maybe as strong, too. But she's still hurt, and she doesn't know what I can do now.
I should've talked to Heather before trying this.
"So how about you, kid?" Archer turns his attention back to Koyotie. "How are you feeling?"
"Well enough that I don't need you calling me kid." Koyotie doesn't quite snap.
"Sorry. I didn't mean anything by it," Archer replies. "Just that I am almost old enough to be your father, though I may not look it anymore." He smiles slightly. "Benefits of being rebuilt from scratch, I suppose."
"Are you now?" Koyotie asks, her tone calculating. "I never knew my father." She gives an almost predatory grin and then shakes her head, visibly straightening up in bed. "Never mind. I've been in here too long, it's making me irritable and stir crazy, and you're the only other person aside from Jacket who's come by."
"Actually, I think Technicality was by here one time, but you were still pretty out of it. Alex has been monkeying with that Mayhem-Mobile he boosted. And Tangent," Archer pauses, "well, last we heard, she was still in New York with that 'Night Shift' fellow."
"Anyway," Archer continues, "if you're starting to get cabin fever here, there's a... situation that's come up, that I think we should look into. Something that involves me personally, but if I'm right... well, if I'm right, it could have broader ramifications for all of us."
"There was a report on the news a little while ago, about a house in Los Alamos that was reduced to a smoking crater. MY house—back from before any of this shit ever happened. There would have been only one other person living there: my wife, Sharon. But so far there's been no trace of her, no sign of a body there."
"This could be Blackheart's work, but I doubt it—he had every chance in the world to kill me if he simply wanted revenge for stealing his psi-clone. Or it might be Flashburn acting alone—we DID thwart her and Sterilizer's coup of the Syndicate, and she seems to think I'm partly to blame for her own... condition. But again, it seems unlikely—she paid me a little visit when we made the trade with Blackheart; and she could've made a move, but she didn't."
"No... I'd put my money on Colonel Stern—the guy calling the shots at the lab where I used to work. The one who tried to kill me, and ended up turning me into Contained. I think he may be calling me out, trying to get to me with the only leverage he still has. And that he may be continuing the experiments that transformed me and Flashburn. Which makes him the nightmare scenario version of ICoMP—a high-ranking officer with massive resources and no accountability, running roughshod over anyone who gets in his way. And now," Archer adds bitterly, "he may be a psychotic colonel with a 'nuclear option'..."
"Think Erica Chase would foot the bill in exchange for an exclusive on THAT little story?"
There's a long moment where everything is quiet in the room, Koyotie content to simply sit in her bed and stare wordlessly at Archer. She then bends over and reaches down next to the bed, coming up with notebook and a pen. Brushing her hair back from her face with one hand, she sits back and gives Archer a inquisitive glance. "Start over," she says. "From the beginning. With Los Alamos, and how you became Contained." Her pen waits over the blank page of the notebook.
Archer takes a deep breath, then begins his story: "I was working on a project for the government, at the old Sandia Labs facility, out in the desert. Most of the locals thought we were doing high-energy physics research out there—restoring the old supercollider they'd built there back in the 80's. But our project was something much, much more."
"Maybe you've heard of the 'Many-Worlds' Theory: that there are other universes, , existing just next door to our own. It's why photons form interference patterns and act like other photons are around, even when you project them at a target a single photon at a time—it's those other photons, in those other universes, that are interfering with them."
"Really?" Koyotie asks dryly, as her pen ran over the sheet of paper.
"What we'd built in the desert could best be described as a sort of 'quantum supercollider'—a way of collapsing all those different quantum states, of taking every version of an object from every parallel universe, and pulling them all into our own. In theory, you'd end up collapsing them all into a quantum singularity—a miniature black hole, which could be used as an incredible source of power. Professor Boleman—uh, 'Richard' Boleman, B-O-L-E," Archer says, as Koyotie keeps writing, " he was the real brain behind it all. I was brought in as a consultant because my specialty was nuclear physics—all the computer simulations predicted the singularity would create massive amounts of conventional radiation, and it was my job to come up with ways of containing and shielding against it."
"Anyway, I was working late one night; and by chance I stumbled across some discrepancies in the inventory lists. I started doing a little digging; and the more I looked, the more I found—funds for the project that had been redirected, electronic components that had been ordered and shipped, but were suddenly missing, and on and on. I figured something was going on—embezzlement maybe, or appropriating resources for some side project; but I figured there was bound to be a certain amount of secrecy in a government project like this, and Boleman was the project leader. So I figured I'd go talk to him first, get his side of the story."
"I searched the facility top to bottom until I caught sight of Boleman, ducking into a lab on Sub-Level 3 that had supposedly been mothballed years ago. I followed after him, went into the lab, and saw... something. It all happened so fast, I don't remember every much. The place was swarming with technicians, faces I didn't recognize, and they were building something. There were also armed guards, dressed in ICoMP uniforms. One of them spotted me, brought the butt of his rifle right down on my head."
"I woke up with one hell of a headache, locked inside the collision chamber. I could hear the hum of the electromagnets, gearing up for another test; and over the noise, somebody shouting orders outside." Archer smiles weakly. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what they were doing. We still hadn't worked all the kinks out yet—every other test object we'd put into the chamber had been vaporized. And now I would, too—no muss, no fuss, no witnesses. Just before the light hit me, I remember wondering whether the new magnetic containment field I had installed would hold..."
"And that, I think, is the reason why I survived in the first place." Archer smiles a bit more broadly, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. "You see, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle reveals to us that consciousness—the observer—can have a profound effect on the objective reality we perceive. And rather than collapsing all my possible quantum states into a singularity, the device only succeeded in converting my body to energy in this universe, while leaving behind all other versions of me in those parallel universes—and those other selves will still able to influence the bolus of radiation I had become in this one. It kept my consciousness more or less intact, and allowed me to hold that energy form together, rather than exploding in a thermonuclear blast."
"But there's a lot more to it than just that. I don't have the math for it but... somehow, even in that energy form I maintained a connection to those other, parallel selves. And when my mind was placed back into this new body, that connection went along with it. It's changed me, profoundly. To a certain extent, I can push part of myself into those parallel worlds, or draw part of those parallel selves into me. So now, I can do this," Archer shrinks down to about half size, nearly hidden inside the now-voluminous outfit. His shoes fall off his feet and onto the floor.
"Or this," he carefully grows back into his clothes, then stands up, and passes his hand, ghostlike, through the back of the chair.
"And there's a lot more besides," Archer adds, "but I'm not exactly dressed for it at the moment. But the real key, I think, is my awareness of what the experiment is all about—quantum manipulation, not nuclear energy. I'm betting it's why Flashburn started out like me as well. Stern probably told her what was going to happen to her when he put her in the chamber—hell, the bastard probably even showed her videos of it. She's convinced she's going to turn into a ball of radiation like me, so she does. Same goes for Blackheart's contraption. I already had an inkling of what was really going on, even on an unconscious level; so when I changed, I was able to tap into that 'purer' manifestation of the power—the quantum connection. Flashburn just wants to be human again; so she gets her wish, but otherwise stays the same. And while it would be dismissive to say it was her own fault, it was probably her state of mind that caused her to become barren as well—most people associate radiation exposure with sterility."
Archer pauses for a moment, and sits down to put his shoes back on....
"You keep mentioning Flashburn in the past tense," Koyotie interjects into the sudden break in the narrative. "What happened to her? She still alive? Or did she under go the same process you did and now no longer has any paranormal abilities?"
"No, no," Archer replies. "When Flashburn was first put into the collision chamber, she came out like me—like 'Contained'. And later she bartered with Blackheart, just as I did, to be restored to flesh. And that version is the Flashburn we all know. But at the time," Archer adds, "she didn't have anything so valuable as a case of psi-clone to trade to Blackheart; so now she's working off her debt to Blackheart by doing jobs for him. I know Technicality would disagree with me on this, but I really do think we could come to an understanding with Flashburn—maybe even get her to quit the Syndicate permanently—if she were no longer beholden to Blackheart. That's why I tried to contact her before our meeting with Blackheart—to give her the means to re-purify the psi-clone we'd stolen, and let her use it to settle her debt with the Syndicate. Hell—I'd still be willing to help her pay off the debt, if it meant the Syndicate was permanently down another member; but the only other time I saw her was at the meeting, in the containment chamber, with me out of my suit and unable to speak. Then she took off, and Blackheart completed my transformation."
"And what did Flashburn do to get put into collision chamber? Do you have any idea?"
"That, I don't know," Archer responds. "I didn't exactly recognize her out of costume, but I got the impression she was just another technician on the project. She mentioned that nobody else at the lab believed Stern's story that my disappearance had been an industrial accident. She also intimated that her own transformation might have been averted if I had gone straight to the authorities, instead of going on the lam. Granted, it was still Stern who threw the switch; but she may have a point. If Sharon's still..." Archer pauses for a moment, "when we find Sharon, I'm very seriously considering going public—I'm not keen on living inside a fishbowl; but with ICoMP having so much power and color of authority on their side, the constant media attention may be the only protection we have. But that's something I want to discuss when everyone's present—I have a proposal for all of you, but it's going to involve considerable risk; and whoever wants to be involved, it has to be voluntary...."
"Hmm..." Koyotie nods as she taps her pen against her notebook. "And didn't Flashburn kill Mudshark and Thunderbolt? Do you really want to let her go free once this is all over?"
Archer shrugs noncommittally. "It's an imperfect solution for an imperfect world; but if I had to choose between the two, I'd rather see the man who gave the order to have Mudshark and Thunderbolt killed behind bars, than the woman he blackmailed into pulling the trigger...."
"And if Technicality disagrees?"
Archer frowns. "It may not even come to that. I'm still not convinced it was Flashburn who destroyed my old house. But if it was, and we do manage to corner her... well, if Technicality's willing to join forces with some Yakuza hitman in order to bring down the Syndicate, she would probably agree that the lesser evil of leaving Flashburn as a loose end would be worth taking down Blackheart permanently...."
Koyotie stops writing to look up. "A what now?"
"During the 'White Knight' memorial, some Yakuza hatchet man showed up—called himself 'Lightning Takeshi' or some such. He got the drop on Lady Liberty, when she tried to arrest Technicality. Seemed a little too convenient, if you ask me; but Technicality was willing to offer him a piece of the action, at least as far as the Syndicate is concerned."
"Wonderful," Koyotie shakes her head. "First Technicality wants to fight the Cold War again, now she's aiming for World War II." She pauses to think, "We'll get back to him, but first, how did Blackheart complete your transformation?"
"That, I'm not too sure about, either. Things were already a bit tense that night; and Technicality wasn't helping matters much—you know how she likes to get her digs in at Blackheart. I didn't want to the deal going south by asking too many questions, so I kept my mouth shut, and tried to get her to do the same. However, I did notice that Blackheart had several technicians from Sandia Labs working for him in that warehouse—including Professor Boleman! Not sure what that means—maybe they got fed up with the way Stern was running things and accepted an offer from Blackheart; maybe ICoMP and the Syndicate could somehow be collaborating. But with the massive amount of resources that were dedicated to the original government project, I seriously doubt Blackheart would be able to re-create the project here, in St. Louis, in an abandoned warehouse. And I can't imagine there'd be much of a market for a device that exists solely to restore people from balls of radiation into human form. In fact, given my theory about the nature of my own and Flashburn's powers, I'm beginning to wonder if Blackheart's device might even be a Hieronymous Machine."
"Or perhaps all of those ICoMP uniforms you saw were worn by Second Syndicate personnel," Koyotie comments, "In case they were seen by prying eyes."
"That's an interesting thought," Archer remarks, "but setting up their operation right under the noses of a government facility? Or that the project was a Syndicate front the whole time? That might play well with Erica Chase's readership, but that sounds a little too 'black helicopters' to me—they'd have had to have Boleman on the payroll from the start when he submitted his proposal for the project, plus all the peer reviews and background checks, trying to get approval for funding... I don't have enough information to rule it out, but it sounds a little far-fetched."
"No more far-fetched than you and I having infinite versions of ourselves living in infinite parallel worlds." Koyotie thinks for a moment, "And what's a 'Hieronymous Machine'? Is that anything like a Von Neumann Machine?"
"A Hieronymous Machine," Archer explains, "is basically... well, essentially, it's just a box full of junk. But it's junk that just happens to perform exactly to the experimenter's intent."
"Why?" Koyotie interrupts. "Is this due to the experimenter's paranormal abilities? Like Dr. Ator and his hand-drawn circuit boards?"
"Something like that. Maybe it was Blackheart's hoodoo that created those replacement bodies for Flashburn and me; but it was our consciousness—a sheer act of will that bonded our collective quantum states to them. It might even be why Blackheart specifically had Professor Boleman on site—placebos work better when they're prescribed by a trusted doctor. I just don't know; we're most definitely in terra incognita here. We need information here; and I think Sandia Labs is the place to start looking...."
"And you want me to be there... so we can help expose either a Second Syndicate plan to build their own paranormals, or an ICoMP plan to experiment on American citizens, right?"
Archer licks his lips, and shifts in his chair, letting most of his weight rest on his feet. This is it, he thinks to himself. Get a hunch, bet a bunch.
"We could certainly use your skills," Archer says, meeting Koyotie's gaze. "Infiltration, espionage, a little light combat if someone tries to sound the alarm. Right up your alley. But before that," Archer pauses for a beat, "I think it's time we talked about what you're really doing here... Inspector Highwolf."
The silence that falls could been cut with a knife. Archer watches as Koyotie's eyes flick to where her bokken rests against the wall. He recalls that it's made of multilayered composites around a carbon-fibre core and that Koyotie nearly took out all of Mayhem Inc.—by herself—with it. He's pretty sure he's stronger than her, but she is so very, very fast.
"The same thing you are, Dr. Archer."
Archer resists the urge to follow Koyotie's gaze. He keeps looking straight at her; and as he begins to speak, he's silently ticking off points in his head.
Bed—good and sturdy; would make a decent flyswatter.
"Look," Archer begins, "I don't doubt you're serious about fighting crime—you've done your share to back all of us up, and you've got the scars to prove it."
Armoire—nice and heavy; two steps behind me, right side.
"...And I haven't forgotten that when you showed up in my home, inviting me to join this merry band of misfits, that that," he says, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder, to Koyotie's bokken, "stayed tucked in your belt."
Window's closed—could still phase through it; but getting back to base stark naked would be a pain.
"...But officers of the law don't avoid hospitals when they're hurt; or fail to identify themselves to the local authorities when they're in somebody else's jurisdiction—that is, unless they're 'off the clock' or deep undercover..."
If she follows me outside, her speed won't count for much against my greater reach—she doesn't know I can grow, too.
"...Now, that's not to say we can't still help each other out—like you say: we're both here for the same reasons. But you're going to have to deal straight with me."
"Am I now," she says quietly. "And what if I can't? Does ICoMP get a call? Or does Technicality come over?" Koyotie pauses and givers Archer a narrow glance, "Or does she not know?"
"Listen to me, Inspector," Archer says very deliberately. "I'm not looking to turn this into an international incident here; and I certainly wasn't looking to handle this Technicality's way, what with the lie detectors, and the rail guns, and the..." he lets the thought trail off,waving it away with his hand. "We've been trusting each other with our lives for some time here. Between ICoMP and the Syndicate, mercenary assassins and assorted psychopaths all around—cliché though it may be to say, all we really have is each other. I had hoped," he says, standing up, "that you might be a little more forthcoming—let us know what it is you're fighting for, maybe make use of our expertise and talents, instead of just trying to use us."
"But if you want to keep playing 'secret agent', have it your own way." Archer makes his way to the door. "Rest up. We should be back within a week or so."
"You didn't answer my question, Archer." Koyotie's voice has a tone he's not heard before. "Who else aside from you knows?"
Archer sighs, leans against the door jamb, and thrusts his hands in his pockets. "And you didn't answer mine," he says. "So what now?" he shrugs. "Mexican standoff? Duel at sunrise? Or maybe," Archer concludes, "talk things out, like two rational adults who both owe each other their lives?"
"Perhaps. Who else knows?"
"Blitzkrieg and Technicality know I'm here," Archer replies. "They don't know about you and the R.C.M.P.—like I said, I'm not about to let this turn into an interrogation... or a bloodbath. I simply wanted to hear your side of it—no polygraphs, no presumption of any sinister motives; just two people, talking plainly...."
Koyotie closes the notebook and sets it down next to her, the pen securely clipped into the spiral binding. Clasping her hands together in her laps, she starts, "The Mississippi is a Second Syndicate conduit all the way from New Orleans to St. Paul and Minneapolis, with St. Louis being a major crossroad. They ship everything up and down it—drugs, guns, vehicles, cigarettes, alcohol, DVDs—anything that will turn a profit. The amount of traffic that passes up and down it is almost unimaginable—and far beyond the Department of Homeland Security to deal with. Which means the the odds are for the Syndicate being able to smuggle whatever they want past ICE agents." She pauses and sits up, her expression serious, "And what gets past ICE and up in Minnesota often ends up in Manitoba or Ontario, and from there Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, and back down into New York."
Warming to her task, Koyotie makes a sweeping gesture, indicating the city outside of her room's walls, "ICoMP's all about enforcement and making sure anyone with a mask of any measure of paranormal ability is nicely registered and under your government's thumb. But that doesn't help me much, does it? The more they press, the more people slip free and end up with the Syndicate. So someone needs to tackle them, and if that means I'm here without anyone in ICoMP knowing, so much the better. I'm here to get results, not engage in pointless jurisdiction squabbles with your police forces. And right now, the result I'm aiming for is to bring down Blackheart."
She pauses for a moment, "So? Does that answer your question?"
"So that's the Canadian government's response?" Archer asks. "Send in one operative, with no backup, no coordination with DHS or the FBI, no official sanction, even? Not to disparage your abilities, or the wisdom of your superiors; but it sounds like they're not terribly committed to stopping the Syndicate—or even that they might be setting you up to fail. But if they've got plausible deniability of you," Archer adds, "and aren't going to send in the cavalry, I suppose it doesn't much matter what ties you had to them. And like you say—we both want the same thing."
Archer continues to lean against the door way, and scratches his head for a moment. The gesture makes Koyotie think of Shimada Kambei, the bald samurai from the movie Seven Samurai. Archer straightens, then turns to leave. He says over his shoulder, "I'm heading back to the hideout, to let the others know what's happened. We roll for Los Alamos in two hours. If you want in, give me a call—we'll swing by to pick you up."
Koyotie waits for the door to close. "You do that." She then glances around the room, noting the pile comprised of her cleaned (and repaired) costume. "And speaking of calls, I have a few I need to make as well."
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