A few brief, or knowing me not so brief, words of explanation. “Emancipation” is set in the copyrighted game world of ‘City of Heroes/City of Villains’, an online MMORPG produced by Cryptic Studios and NC Soft and all copyrighted names and such are theirs to keep forever and ever and I don’t want to infringe on them in any way, perish the thought.

This is the second story I wrote after starting to write again (‘One Evening In The Attic’ being the first, Ch. 1 of ‘Oil of Roses’ being the third) and it was basically an experiment to be submitted through some friends who work at NC Soft to see if they would be interested in some more ‘adult’ fiction set in their game world.

They weren’t.

So it’s the first story in a series that won’t go any further with these characters, or in this ‘universe’. The two characters, Sue Sunbeam and Sister Mary Dominatrix, were characters I created/adapted for the game (Sister Mary Dominatrix having been the name of several characters in several venues, none of which ever completely worked for my concept of her). Although the two of them are no longer in existence, my wife and I are still playing COH/COV.

As it was written quite some time ago, I can’t really remember who to thank for help in its initial writing, but if I owe you my thanks for it, consider yourself gratefully acknowledged. In whipping it into shape for posting online, my undying gratitude to Kevin, who is and remains the best friend my writing has and to my wife for handling the editing chores.

After you’ve read this, if you have any inclination at all to comment, please do so, either by email or on the comment board.. The best way for me to grow and improve as an author is to hear from the people who read my work.

I welcome constructive critiques and non-abusive comments. I will answer, in at least a semi-prompt manner, any email that comes with an email address.

If you feel you must respond in a hateful or angry fashion, you may put your head down upon your desk and do so, quietly to yourself, for as long as you feel it necessary. This story may not be copied to other sites without my permission.

* * * * *

She was staring at inch-wide plastic tubes sunk into her arms like monstrous IVs. On one side, heroin flowed into her from a fifty-five gallon drum made of gold. On the other side, her blood flowed out the tube to pool on the floor, an ever-growing sea of crimson. She closed her eyes and she was flying, like a comic book hero, the pale horse and rider ahead of her and galloping fast but she was faster and gaining on them. She opened her eyes again. Her nod was deeper and sweeter than any before. If she’d known that bleeding out could improve her high, she’d have been dead years before. She felt ice forming on her skin as the blood drained away. The spreading of the crystals across her was like a sexual caress, sending little icy orgasms straight to the base of her brain. Closing her eyes, she was almost on him, she could almost touch the black robe, and that was all she had to do. Just touch it and there’d be no more pain or fear or loneliness. She’d go into the black and never feel again. As he turned to look at her, she screamed. It wasn’t the face of Death that stared back at her; it was Al.

Sue sat up in her bed, shrieking, clawing at the track marks that still scarred her arms.

It was 6:45, just like every other morning, just like every other nightmare, and it was time to get up.

She stood in the kitchen in her flannel pajamas, shaking from aftershock, as she waited for the coffee to finish brewing. She thought hard about her schedule that day. Sue lived by her schedule. She knew that unscheduled time was time she would be thinking of junk, and just how sweet it would be to shoot up. Keeping busy meant keeping clean.

She had classes at Paragon City Community College all morning, was planning on patrolling through the afternoon until 5 or so, then would come home, catch a quick nap and a bite to eat, and go on shift at the bus station from 9 PM to 3 AM.

Alright, time to restructure some priorities. School couldn’t be skipped, she was in enough trouble already courtesy of 2 ½ weeks in the hospital recovering from a fight with some Clockwork, the gang of sentient machines that plagued the city. Her shift at the bus station for Paragon City Runaway Rescue couldn’t be skipped either. There were too many kids coming to Paragon and too many predators waiting for them.

Al was waiting for them.

That left either sleep, which she really couldn’t afford to skip any more of, or patrol. Maybe she could combine patrol and some informal counseling. That would at least be better than nothing.

She dialed Maria’s cell phone number from memory.

“Hey, this is Maria’s voicemail. At the tone you know the drill.”

“Maria? It’s Sue. Are you free this afternoon for some talk? Bad night and no way to make a meeting. Give me a ring if the answer is no, otherwise meet me on top of the Richards building between 12:30 and 1:00. Thanks. Once again, you’re gonna be a lifesaver.”

* * * * *

Class was a blur. If they’d really wanted her coherent and attentive, they shouldn’t have scheduled ‘The Physiological Basis of Behavior’ at 8 AM. Her next two classes, though, were no better as mentally she was about 5 miles from the classroom, on a filthy mattress in the wreckage of a bedroom in a deserted building.

Her mind was locked on the time-frozen moment where everything had changed. She was laying naked on that mattress, pale and emaciated, a syringe still stuck in her arm, hanging there like a leech on her soul. Next to her was Deadboi, a Skull gang punk who for once, deserved his name. He’d brought the Mexican Brown and she’d done him for a hit. Sometime during her nod he’d checked out of Hotel Hell and left her to wake up next to a cold stiff body in a pool of vomit and piss and shit.

It was her epiphany, her moment of clarity. They’d shot up the same junk, the same amount. He’d died in a seizure-wracked overdose and she’d just taken a nap. That was her life. That was all she was going to be. That was how she’d end up someday. There she’d be, dead, and knowing those sick fucks, someone would have to hump her corpse as a gang initiation.

It was time to live or time to die, her choice. Living was going to be hard, so much harder than just letting nature take its course. She knew withdrawal; she knew the torment that was waiting. She could only imagine the hell of trying to stay clean for even a day, for a week, a month, a year.

And then there’d be Al.

Live or die, it was time to decide.

* * * * *

She’d been born Susanna Caroline Sunbeam to a pair of confirmed hippies who’d legally changed their names back in ’69. Later they’d become conformed yuppies, but kept the name. She’d grown up as the freak everyone laughed at and it all started with the name. If she could have maneuvered through life with no one knowing her last name, she would’ve had it easy. She grew up hating her name and eventually, right on the puberty schedule, hating the parents who’d given it to her.

She’d evolved into a Suburban Goth. Every weekend she and the other ‘Burb Babies would hit the big city and try to pretend they understood the concept of ‘street smart’ while daring themselves to walk just a little closer to the shadows and the predators that lived in them. When her parents found out, and grounded her, it was only natural that she ran away to a big city but not Houston, the one her suburban world orbited. That would make her way too easy to find. She’d taken all her money out of her savings and hopped a bus to Paragon City.

So there she was, in the Paragon City Bus Terminal. Sixteen years old, dressed in mall gear, trying not to look like the scared prey she was. That was the first time she’d met Al. He was in his late 20’s, slightly overweight, medium height, long black hair tied back in a ponytail, goatee and mustache, intense eyes, undeniable charisma, dressed in black and oozing acceptance & sympathy.

He’d seemed friendly enough, but something in his manner had stank to her of predator, so she refused his offers of help and shelter and told him to ‘fuck off’.

After her first night of dodging cops, huddling in alleys trying to stay warm and more importantly stay unnoticed, things changed and she was not so full of bravado when he gave his second invitation the next evening. By that point the hard realities of being a runaway in Paragon City were showing her that her proper place in the food chain was ‘prey’ and that she had a long way to go and a whole lot to learn before that changed.

Al took her to his place, a converted warehouse on the west side of Kings Row. It didn’t look like much from the outside but inside it was a whole different story. His living space only took up about an eighth of the interior; the rest was like a runaway bunkhouse. There was a kitchen area, lockers for the girls to keep their valuables in, an entertainment area, beds and bathrooms.

Free food, free drugs, free booze, free everything. All Al wanted in return was obedience. Obedience was enforced by the beatings “for your own good” and the mental abuse “to help make you strong” and by the sex “because you know you want it”.

She was young and she was scared and he was like no one she’d ever known and he had a good line of patter and there was no one else she could trust and she bought it all, the whole spiel, completely.

And from that point it was a slow, inexorable slide to her moment of clarity.

It was easier to fuck whoever and whenever he wanted her to than fight him, and it was easier to run any errands he wanted run than fight him, and it was easier to become who he wanted her to be than fight him.

And it was easier to sit in the ritual circle and let him use her as a battery than to fight him.

Al had a rep as a magical badass who wore the street handle AC666 because he considered himself the spiritual inheritor of Aleister Crowley’s legacy. He was a man who refused an invitation to join the Circle of Thorns because he didn’t “need their weakass shit”, a sorcerer of power and ruthless determination.

It had taken Sue a very long time to realize the truth, once she was out from under his domination.

Al wasn’t a Sorcerer; Al was a very charismatic bastard with the ability to discern power in others. He was smart enough to figure out how to tap and channel that power. And most of all, he was smart enough to know how to control the sources of that power, the girls he ‘rescued’.

He’d never refused a Circle invitation, he’d never received one, but they let him carry that rep in return for his usefulness to them.

Yeah, Al could walk around, fairly crackling with magical energy, so long as he had a harem of strung out girls to suck it from.

Al was a fraud. But unlike most frauds, Al was not totally sad and pathetic. Al had friends, very powerful and very nasty friends. In the end, on the streets, it doesn’t matter that you’re a 2 pound spider monkey playing like you’re King Kong if you’ve got a lot of 800 pound gorillas standing behind you.

But even after Sue had figured all this out for herself, it was only an intellectual recognition. Emotionally, Al was still the Great Sorcerous Ogre that haunted her nightmares.

* * * * *

She had chosen to live.

Somehow she’d centered all her consciousness on getting up off the soiled mattress. Then she’d focused on finding her clothes. She narrowed her whole reality down to whatever had to be done that minute. Next was getting dressed. Then came opening the door, and afterwards, making it down the trash covered stairs. She’d concentrated on recognizing where she was, then on dodging every other piece of life’s refuse that haunted the streets. She couldn’t allow delay or distraction. She’d made her way to the Sisters of Mercy Shelter, staggered inside, her only thought finding Sister Francesca, the nun in charge. She’d walked into the nun’s office and stood before her, a textbook junkie.

“Help me or I’m going to die” she’d said before collapsing to the floor.

* * * * *

Then it had been withdrawal time. Time for pain, and fear, and agony worse than anything she’d ever imagined. She’d begged for a fix, she’d threatened them, she’d promised them anything they wanted. She’d offered to go down on the Sisters, to whore for them, whatever it took. Through it all, the nuns had taken care of her, prayed for her, cried with her.

And one day, a thousand years later, it was over. Like a newborn colt on shaky legs, she left the shelter, promising to stay clean and make something of herself.

She’d gone home to visit her family and make peace with them before returning to Paragon City with their blessing and financial support, ostensibly to go to school. While school was indeed part of her plans, the rest of her plans weren’t going to be discussed with the folks back home.

She’d felt the power, the chaotic mass of possibilities, and the raw ebb and surge that was magic, the primal force of the universe being woven into spells. It called to her. And while she knew she’d never learn anything from swine like Al, there was bound to be someone in Paragon City who could help her.

Once again, a nun was going to be her guide although this nun had fallen far from grace and had also spent time in the hell that was domination by Al.

Sister Mary Dominatrix had been a nun, Sister Maria of the Order of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, until her convent was invaded and taken over for two weeks of horror by a nameless gang of outlaw bikers. She was the sole survivor and in an aftermath of rage and insanity, she’d ended up in Al’s ‘care’. She’d left before Sue arrived, but they’d met from time to time. Sister Mary Dom was a sorceress of no small ability. While Mary’s path was far too dark and vicious for Sue to walk, Mary had gotten her in touch with the Silver Pool Coven, a group of practitioners who not only practiced a brighter form of magic, but were heroes as well. She studied with them still.

* * * * *

It was 12:37. Both of Sue’s watches agreed. She sat atop the Richards building and peered down at the streets far below.

Same shit, different day. The gangs had all the distractions running. Crews threatening people, breaking into anything with a lock, fighting within the gang, fighting with other gangs; all of it right out in the open.

Distractions, that’s all they were. The real moves, the real fights, the real plots, the real crime, that all happened out of sight, in the buildings of the city, in the sewers, in the caves. The street action existed solely to keep heroes occupied, eating up their days so they never stuck their noses in the wrong places. Most of the time the gangs’ plan worked.

“Gets a little old, doesn’t it?” she heard Maria mutter behind her. She jumped, then swiveled, looking up at the scarred countenance above her. Maria’s ability to move quietly never failed to startle Sue, and Sue had often seen how Maria used it with those she hunted. To Sue, the experience made her think of a small, timid gazelle that turns to suddenly find a lioness a hooves breadth away.

“It’s like only having one channel on your TV,” Maria continued, “and all that’s on are the same reruns, day after day.”

“Maybe you’d prefer another blizzard?” Sue said. “Winter Lords popping up everywhere and the streets full of super cub scouts, bouncing around and getting in everyone’s way?”

Maria’s face broke into one of her all-too-rare smiles as she remembered the infestation of giant snowmen and the inundation of wannabe-heroes that had descended on Paragon City to fight them. “Yeah, ok, you got me there. Whole goddamn city turned into an episode of Romper Room. You wanted to talk, so talk. We can whup some ass while you do.”

So Sue related her dream to Maria as they did street sweeps, calling forth their magicks to deal with the hordes of petty criminals that infested the city like ants at a picnic.

While taking a breather, Maria said “So what you’re telling me is that somehow that pathetic shit Al has gotten lodged in your mind as the Be All and End All of Evil Sorcerers? You’ve fought the Circle. You know what real sorcerers are capable of. Al is nothing but a pimp, a chicken hawk, a dealer and a world-class poseur creep. Why are you building him up so big in your mind?”

Sue looked at Maria. “He never broke you, did he Maria? You never gave in all the way, did you?”

Maria looked away. “No. No I never did, and he couldn’t break me, not after the convent. But it was a close thing.”

“Maria, he did break me, and I let him. It’s like he has a piece of me, a piece I gave him or he took, it doesn’t matter. And I’ll never be whole again, never completely free, without it, and I haven’t a clue as to how, or even whether, I can get it back.”

“Okay kid, I may not be able to fully understand what’s going on in your head where Al is concerned, but I do know a thing or two about fear. As cliché as it sounds, you’ve got to face your fears, stand up to them, defeat them. And to me, that sounds like you need to kick Al’s ass.”

“Yeah, that’s my take on it too, I guess. But I’d much rather walk naked, deaf, dumb and blind into a pack of zombies.”

“Oh my god” said Maria. “Now it’s icky.”

* * * * *

The small, dirty hole-in-the-wall electronics shop wasn’t in the Yellow Pages. When you did the kind of work Karol Kubicek was so very good at, you didn’t want to advertise. The people who used your services knew where you were or could find out. Her time working for the “Shop”, the Office of Scientific Intelligence, had served her well. She was still a severe tech nerd, but now she had other, more deadly skills as well; as a wealth of knowledge and training that it would have been very difficult to find anywhere else.

Karol leaned on the counter, her long blonde hair falling around her face like a veil as she peered into the guts of the black box for a final inspection.

From behind the veil, her voice murmured “Now, uh, you know that if you kick this jammer on, your immediate area will fall out of the teleportation grid? That means no trips to jail for anyone you put down, and no trip to the hospital if they put you down? I mean, you could, uh, die.”

A thought occurred to Karol and she raised her head, flipping her hair out of her face. She looked at Sue intently as the stammering techno-nerd side of her was replaced by something darker and colder.

“You know, I hadn’t really thought about this. Why would someone want one of these? Okay ‘Sue Sunbeam’, or whatever your name is. If it happens that I or my work gets involved in a murder investigation, you better hope you’re dead or behind bars. I still got some contacts at the ‘Shop’, and you don’t want those friends interested in your ass. If they take notice of you, you’ll be praying they just kill you, and don’t do anything ‘creative’.”

“No worries Ms. Kubicek” Sue replied. “If I have to use it, I’ll make sure it’s never found, no matter what happens. You have my word on it.”

Karol’s head dropped once more as she resumed her inspection. “Your word, like your word is gonna mean diddly shit to me if you get caught or get dead. I hope whomever you’re gonna kill is worth everything you’re risking to do it.”

“I’m not going to kill anyone!”

Karol raised her head again, not bothering to move her hair. “Don’t take me for an idiot! The information you traded to me for this little beauty was worth, roughly, fifty thousand dollars, because that’s what I’d charge in cash for this. You may be a hero and all, but I doubt it was in any way easy for you to acquire that information. People don’t pay fifty large for something like this on a whim. You’re going to kill someone. I don’t doubt they deserve it, but you are going to kill someone. There’s no other reason for one of these.”

Her head dropped once more and the nerd returned. “Now, uh, I’ve outfitted this thing with a short term, high energy discharge battery. Once it’s activated, the jammer will, uh, ‘jam’ for about half an hour, give or take. You can’t turn it off. I mean you could, uh, try to destroy it, but that would result in a big, uh, explosion and I wouldn’t advise it. I’d also try to, you know, avoid, uh, damaging it since that too could crack the battery casing and, uh, really, uh, mess up your day.”

* * * * *

Sue, covered in inky darkness from head to toe, crouched on the rooftop of Al’s warehouse, hardly daring to breath. The overcast skies above her reflected the city’s lights and occasional rumblings of thunder rolled over through the sky and seemingly through her as well.

She wasn’t going to kill Al.

That’s what she kept telling herself. She was just going to beat him severely, get enough information to implicate him, and then it would be time to arrest him, so she’d wait for the jammer to burn out and then it would be over.

Sure it would. She didn’t like lying to herself. She was already waffling on her resolve not to kill him, creating hypothetical situations in which his death would be justified. Those hypotheticals were being loosened to the point where almost anything would give her the excuse.

“Christ Sue, why don’t you just skip to the chase? If he looks at you funny, you’ll kill him” she said aloud.

“Sounds like a good idea to me. Don’t know why you’re sitting here dithering with yourself” said Maria, from behind her.

Sue leapt to her feet in surprise, turning to face Maria. “Will you please stop doing that” she hissed. “Goddamn it, I’ve never understood how you can move so quietly in chain mail!”

“Funny, I’ve never understood how you stayed alive so long being so unaware of your surroundings” Maria replied. “But that’s beside the point. Why are you still sitting up here debating about it? The son-of-a-bitch needs killing, you’ve got more reason than most to kill him. I hear from Kubicek that you’ve got a toy to make it easy to kill him. So go kill him.”

“Is it that simple for you? Is it really just, I don’t know, pest control for you? Why haven’t you killed him, if it’s such an insignificant thing?”

“I’ve thought about it” Maria said, scratching underneath her eye patch. “I ain’t upset by the idea, or the reality, of taking someone’s life. In fact, I’ve killed quite a few waste cases, and I’ve been brought up on charges because of it. I’ve been investigated by the Paragon City Heroes Council Internal Affairs Division as well as the police and come out clean each time. Doesn’t change the fact that I murdered them, just means I got away with it.”

“Thing is, I ain’t sure how much longer I can continue to get away with it. Someday the ACLU will lose one of their cases and it’ll be legal to used psychic interrogation on criminals. From there it’s just a short step to using it in investigating hero misconduct. If that happens, I know sooner or later I’ll be condemned to the Vault to spend the rest of my days with all the other heroes who crossed the line too openly or too often. Al ain’t ever been worth that risk to me. It ain’t enough that he deserves killing. If I killed everyone in Paragon City that deserved it, none of the rest of you heroes would have anything left to do. And I’d be real tired. The question for me boils down to ‘is he worth losing my freedom over’? The answer so far has always been ‘no’.”

Sue looked down at her feet. “Maria, I’m afraid that killing him is the only way I’ll ever be free of him. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, yeah it does. It’s bullshit, but it makes sense.”

Sue reared her head and glared at Maria. “Bullshit? What do you mean it’s bullshit?”

“Just is. The only reason real hold he’s got on you is you. Trust me; Al doesn’t sit up nights worrying about his grip on you. He prolly figures he’s still got a hold on you, mostly because you haven’t come and fixed his little red wagon, but it’s not something he works on. He has a hold on you because where Al is concerned, you’re still a victim. Until you stop being a victim, he’s got you. You wanna stop being his victim, then stop. Otherwise, go kill him and quit wasting time.”

Sue looked at her, furious. “Is there a reason I haven’t kicked your cynical butt all over this city?”

“Mostly because you ain’t got that much ass on your best day. You could try, but the outcome would just embarrass you. I’d hate to see you sitting in a mud puddle crying like a little girl because you made the mistake of thinking you were all of that.”

“Goddamn you’re a bitch!”

“Yeah, yeah I am. And I’m also right. You want me to help with this? Don’t worry, anything I see stays with me.”

“No, you go on. This is something I have to do, I have to do it alone and I’m pretty sure I can handle it. If I can’t, then I deserve whatever happens.”

“So be it.”

* * * * *

The skylight looked free of alarms and she could sense no wards or other spells. Weaving a spell of silence with one of containment, she broke the skylight and moved the suspended shards of glass over to rest on the rooftop.

So far, so good.

She crawled onto the support beams, high above the floor and crouched in darkness, both magickal and natural, studying the scene below.

Little had changed in the years since she’d been there. In the dormitory area, girls went about their business. Al’s rooms were softly lit and quiet. She couldn’t see him anywhere, although she was sure he was there.

She listened intently, trying to separate out the various voices from below, trying to ‘tune out’ any voice but Al’s, but it was no use. She was far too nervous to focus that intently on anything, which didn’t seem to bode all that well for her plans. If she was too rattled to get her spells together when she needed them, she’d probably get written off as another overdose fatality when they found her body tomorrow.

“I can’t let that happen” she thought. “I’ve got to get my head together.”

So she sat, hunkered down on the I-beam in lotus position and began to calm herself.

After a few moments, she was much more centered. She looked for an area in the warehouse below with low or no lighting, where she could drop to the floor unseen. She had found a suitably dark corner of Al’s bathroom when the rain that had been threatening all evening finally let loose.

She froze. Rain was pouring through the skylight she had broken. Someone was sure to notice at any moment. Lightning was slashing downward all over Kings Row as the wind picked up. She figured she had mere seconds to get down to the warehouse floor before someone started shining a light up to see where the rain was getting in, and a blob of magickal darkness would stick out like a sore thumb in the beams of flashlights. Quickly preparing a spell of levitation, she dropped from the beam, plummeting most of the 40 feet to the floor then being caught by her spell mere inches above the concrete. She looked up and as if on cue; the beams from several lights around the warehouse hit the broken skylight.

The sound of the rain on the metal roof of the warehouse was growing louder. Sue moved quickly from the bathroom into what passed for Al’s living room.

Then she heard him, heard his voice, coming from his kitchenette.

“Son-of-a-bitch, power’s out again! You’d think a city the size of Paragon could keep the lights going through a little rain!”

Low and lethal she moved out of the living room through the dining room into the hallway to the kitchen. She was interlacing the strands of power for a spell of holding as she caught sight of him in the flickering illumination of the lightning.

This was what she was afraid of? This was the Ogre of her nightmares? This was who had broken her?

He stood in his paisley robe, hairy belly visible between the lapels, wearing a pair of black silk boxer shorts with “I’m So Goth Even My Underwear Are Black” printed on them in red. He looked like a shlub, one of those nonentities you see every day on the streets and forget almost as soon as they pass out of view. His hair was scraggly and un-brushed, his goatee had bits of something food-like in it and he was digging in his ear with a finger as if his life depended on him getting something out of it.

His life depended on something else entirely.

The spell sinuously crawled across the floor away from her, reaching him and curling upwards around his legs like some erotic serpent. It twined about him, anchoring him in place, freezing his limbs and turning his skin a pale grey. It struck so quickly that he had no time to react, and whatever was in his ear would have to remain there a little while longer.

She moved towards him, confident and strong, warping her power around them in a bubble to prevent them from being heard.

“Hello Al, long time, no see.” She released the tiniest portion of the hold so that he could speak.

When the lightning lit her face, recognition flickered in his eyes.

“Well knock me down if it isn’t little Sue Sunbeam. Or should I call you Camelia Hodges? I think that’s the name you’re living under these days. I always thought it funny, a hero who fights under her real name and lives under a phony one. How’s that working out for you? Are you enjoying your psychology courses? Have you figured out why you’re a worthless junkie whore yet?”

The booted foot that slammed into the side of his face recoiled from him violently as the spell held him in place, allowing little recoil. He smiled, his bravado shaken but still there as he spit out blood and a piece of tooth.

“That’s going to cost you bitch. I’ll be suing you for wrongful arrest within 12 hours of my lawyers waltzing me outta jail. I hope Mommy & Daddums have got lots of money to support their little darling because I’m going to bleed you white.”

She placed the jammer on the counter in full view of him and flipped the ‘on’ switch.

“You already have you piece of shit” she said as the almost audible shriek of the jammer began.

He looked at her, the bravado slipping a bit more. ‘What is that?”

She grinned and in that grin was the pure cold anticipation of a predator pondering a small and frail and shivering prey.

“It’s a jammer. It’s jamming the teleportation grid. You’re not going to jail. You’re not going to the hospital. You’re going to the morgue and I have about 20 minutes to give you a memorable bon voyage.”

But instead of the look of fear she was anticipating, his expression reflected confidence.

It was then that a blow like a sledgehammer hit her in the back of the head, and all went black.

* * * * *

She fought her way up through the black tar that she was drowning in, clawing her way towards the light. As she made her way back to consciousness, she felt hands restraining her, clamped down on her wrists and ankles, pressing upon her back, pushing her into the linoleum-tiled kitchen floor.

The back of her head exploded into flames as something cold and wet poured onto her scalp. She came fully awake as the smell of very expensive tequila inundated her nostrils.

“Ah, the heroic princess has returned to us. Time to wakey-wakey, Puddin’. Hold her, girls; I’m making her a special shot full of vitamins and minerals.”

Sue caught the scent of cooking heroin. Terror flooded her whole body and she began to shake, to shiver, betraying her panic to any and all.

“Oh look girls, she can’t wait. Tie her off, Pat; it’s just about time to finish this pathetic little scene.”

He leaned down; crouching to Sue’s left, so she could see him.

“See Princess, here comes Mr. Overdose the Dancing Needle!”

She stared in fear and hatred as he moved the syringe up and down, back and forth, before her eyes.

“Sue, I’d like to tell you this isn’t going to hurt, but it is. It’s going to hurt a lot. Now that the girls are through with a little costume change for you, I’m gonna give you this, you’re gonna die convulsing with your eyes rolled back in your head. Then we’re gonna take your worthless little body out and dump it in an alley and you’ll appear to be just what you really are: another junkie whore who overdosed in the bad part of town because she was just too weak to make it. PCPD doesn’t even really investigate those kinds of cases anymore, especially if the corpse is found in here in the Row. Even your status as a ‘hero’ won’t garner too much attention.”

He stood. “Is there anything you want me to tell your parents? I’ll be at the funeral; I plan to make a point of meeting them, comforting them, since I am one of your oldest and dearest friends here.”

She felt something cold and reptilian uncoil from the base of her brain. The serpentine sensation, black and wet, slithered into her spinal column, moving down it like sewage through a pipe and when the pipe was full, it began to seep through her entire body. As it reached her extremities, it flowed out of her, a viscous darkness that leapt to gain purchase on the girls holding her down, sticking to them like ever-growing leeches, destined to swallow them whole. Before they could scream, or move away, they were entombed in the tarry flow, their energy being sucked from them.

Sue got up from the floor. She felt herself infused with power as she drained the girls who had held her. She sensed them dying and wondered if that would be such a bad thing. She released them, almost dead, to lie on the floor, curled into fetal position as they tried to forget the nightmare that had almost consumed them.

The beast born of her rage slid into her head, lying just beneath her skin, wearing her like a mask. It looked at Al through heavy-lidded eyes as he stood before it, frozen in terror, urine flowing down his legs as the syringe dropped to the floor, shattering.

“You’re pathetic,” it hissed. The darkness flowed from it once again to worm its way into Al. “I want you to understand, you’re only going to get one chance to tell what I want to know. If I’m not happy with your answers, then I’ll likely decide that answers aren’t all that important. Do you understand me?”

Al felt the black crawling through his body, entwining itself around his spine, encasing his nervous system in a sheath of death, pooling in his brain like a tumor.

“What do you want to know?”

Sue spoke through it, and in 10 minutes had enough information to keep her busy for at least 6 months. There were going to be a lot of very unhappy people by the time she was finished.

She stared at the black box through its eyes, wondering how much longer she had. It was time to release Al, time to prepare for the police investigation which was sure to ensue. She flexed her mind, trying to draw the energy back within her.

A sensation of ripping flesh crackled across her chest. “No,” it snarled. “I’m not done yet!”

She cried out as she felt the power invading Al’s body do its work. Entire sections of Al’s nervous system were consumed and she beat at the walls of herself as it left him a paraplegic. Sue screamed as Al’s auditory and optic nerves were shredded beyond repair. When the black lightning destroyed Al’s frontal lobes, she was trying to retreat into herself, but whatever it was, wouldn’t let her.

It seemed to shift within her and she felt it speak as though it were whispering into her ear.

“Now I’m through. Now you’re through. I know you. You’re weak. You’re going to try to tell yourself that you didn’t do this, something else was acting through you, using you, forcing you to do things you’d never do, not in your worst nightmares. Message from your nightmares: bullshit, I am you.”

It pulled itself back into her, back into her spine, and back up into the base of her brain. Sue fell to her knees, shock beginning to set in.

There was a motion and a very slight sound as Maria dropped from the beams far above to crouch next to her, pulling her head up and looking at her, looking deep into her eyes, turning her head to examine the swollen wound on the back of her skull.

“Okay, maybe you do have that much ass. Remind me never to get you pissed at me. I mean, I’d still win, but I’d be limping away.”

“Did you see it,” Sue asked, tears starting to soak her voice.

“Yeah, I saw it, but don’t ask me what it was, don’t ask me where it came from and don’t ask me where it went. I heard it speak through you. I heard it speak to you. I’m going to be hearing it in my nightmares for quite some time. I ain’t easy to scare. That scares me.”

Maria finished her examination. “You’re going to be ok, you’ve almost certainly got a concussion, and you need to be checked out by a doctor, no matter what. You probably need to spend a night in the hospital, under observation. It shouldn’t be long before police respond to this hole in the grid. Karol’s little toy has burned itself out; I reckon I’d better get it the hell out of here. You need to decide if you’re going to wait for PC’s finest.”

Sue looked up at Maria. “What do you think I should do,” she asked in a quavering voice.

“Run like hell.”

Maria grabbed the box and levitated towards, and then through, the missing skylight. Sue watched her leave, wondering if she had the strength to stand, much less to run. She decided she’d move as soon as she felt able. If that wasn’t before the police arrived, then she guessed she’d have to cross that bridge when she came to it.

A tendril of the black, like a scorpion’s tail, whipped around Sue’s head, sinking its tip into her ear.

“Be very still. Don’t move. Don’t speak. Don’t run.”

Sue sensed something, something that was sucking the energy from the air, a cloud of negative energy forming in the corner of the kitchen, coalescing into a form, tall and emaciated, male, wearing a soiled robe, open in the front. He moved towards her and she felt his antiquity rolling off of him in waves. This thing, for it couldn’t be human, was evil, a purity of evil she’d never dreamed possible in anything but demonic beings.

He stopped in front of her, his shriveled penis mere inches from her face. An almost skeletal hand slid along the side of her face to cup her chin, lifting her face up towards him. He was cold, a bitter cold, and he sucked the heat from everything and everywhere around him.

A voice from somewhere a thousand miles below the surface of the earth came forth from his lips.

“You’ve been very naughty, depriving us of such a useful tool, very naughty indeed. I wonder how you should be punished for that.” He dropped into a crouch as his other hand stretched out and began to move across her breasts like a foul breeze. “But then again, if you could take our tool out of play, he was too weak to begin with. I sense your outrage at the way our tool performed his duties, outrage at the innocence defiled, the lives ruined and corrupted, the potential wasted. Perhaps you think you could do a better job for us?”

As one hand continued to caress her, her skin crawling in response, the other cleared her hair from her face. He gazed into her eyes and she knew what a mouse felt like, trading stares with a cobra.

“You have potential and I don’t see the life you’ve chosen for yourself offering much hope of using and developing that potential. I hate the waste of useful things, especially the waste of such as you.” He leaned even closer, dragging his dry and leathery tongue across her cheek as he moved his lips to her ear. “So little sorceress, do you see that your destiny is to work for us, serve us, service us?”

The temperature in the area had dropped so low she could see her breath before her. She began to open her mouth to speak but then remembered the warning not to. She held her mouth closed and struggled to calm herself.

“No answer for me, little one? I am disappointed. I expected someone of your background to leap at such a chance. Don’t worry though, the offer will remain open.”

He rose and leaning down, kissed her on the head. The kiss was like dry ice, freezing her skin even through her hair. Then he walked away from her and as he moved, he dissolved into black smoke, smoke that drifted away into nothingness.

Sue, shivering, slumped to the floor and curling up in a ball, passed out.

* * * * *

She awoke in a hospital bed. As her eyes attempted to focus, she saw a nurse walk into her room.

At least she thought it a nurse at first, but as her eyesight steadied, she recognized Maria, in a nurse’s uniform.

“Look kid, don’t try to talk. Jeezus, I leave ya alone for a few minutes, you end up here. I was right about the concussion. What I want to know is why you were suffering from hypothermia when they found you. The other girls were dead, they froze to death, but happy of joyjoy, Al’s still alive and still the amazing paraplegic vegetable. Now you ain’t been through one of these investigations before, so let me tell you what to expect…”

* * * * *

“Yeah Mom, the investigation’s over, I’ve been cleared. I’m sorry you had to find out about my extracurricular activities this way, but I really didn’t plan on it. I thought some day I’d sit down and have a nice long talk with you and Dad.”

“No Mom, don’t worry about that. It’s almost impossible for someone to die in this business; the grid takes care of that. And I’m very careful, normally. Wait, Mom, no, don’t cry. I’ll be fine I promise.”

“Is Dad around? I’d like to talk to him for a minute. Hello, Dad? Dad, chill Mom out will you? I mean, you always told me to do something important with my life, to use the abilities I was born with. That’s all I’m doing.”

“No Dad, I’m not gonna let them turn me into a tool of fascist oppression. You don’t need to get the protest gear out of the attic. Yeah, I’ll be fine, and I’ll be home at Thanksgiving. You two take care. Love you both… bye.”

* * * * *

Sue crouched on the edge of the Hotel Geneva: Kings Row. From the sun, she gauged the time to be around 2. She might want to think about heading back to the apartment, get ready for her shift at the bus station. But it was a lovely afternoon and she felt like enjoying just a bit more of it before heading off.

“You seem relaxed. It’s obvious you’re a pod person.”

“Damn it Maria, you got me again.”

“You didn’t jump. You always jump. Are you on sedation? Do I need to rush you to the emergency room? Do I need to check you into the funny farm, maybe get you a room next to Al?”

“No, you need to shut the hell up and let me enjoy the afternoon.”

“Nice white stripe in your hair. That where he kissed you?”

“Yeah and that freaked out the doctors as well.”

“Figured out what he was? Who he was? What you’re going to do about him and his offer?”

“Maria, just shut up and let me relax and enjoy being alive.”

“It’s just not natural” Maria muttered as she went on her way.

“Maybe not” Sue thought, “but it sure does feel good.”

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