Chapter Fifty-Three: Miscalculation

May 3, 2011

Jack tapped on finger on the steering wheel, thinking. Thinking was calming, comfortable. There was nothing for him to read that he hadn't read already, nothing to say to his companions that he hadn't already said. Their quarry could appear at any moment, which meant that if there had been anything left to do, then Jack wasn't doing his job very well.

But Jack was good at what he did, and so everything was done, and he had a moment to think.

It would surprise many to know that he wasn't thinking about what he was about to do: not about the two people he was going to meet, or the two people he was going to kill, or the two people who would be with him when he did so. He wasn't thinking about the rest of the plan, or the backup plans, or the escape plans.

He was thinking about architecture.

The building he was facing was a looming, broody sort of building. It had been a high school, once, and then converted into a K-12 campus when the population center migrated. Sometime later, but still quite some time ago, it had been converted into government use. May third was a Tuesday, but there was no sign of anyone in the building. Then again, Jack imagined that this particular building would look the same occupied or unoccupied. Something about it was simply static - solid but dead.

The heavy windowsills split the building horizontally with thick slashes, and the less-than-clean windows gave it an air of foggy, drug-filled eyes looking out over the little street. It was only a couple stories - three or four depending on how you counted the stupid little sheds on the rooftop - but it seemed hulking by comparison to the area around it.

Had the architect meant for it to be so imposing? Did he predict that the town would become a city, and wish his building to fit into some future cityscape? Was there hidden resentment for his own educational past coming into play? Did the man suppose that intimidation would somehow inspire respect?

Jack discarded the questions and turned his gaze from the building, watching as the vehicle they were waiting for came into view at the far edge of the tiny little town. He judged the speed of his target, then reflexively glanced down the road in the other direction. It was still deserted.

The vehicle approached, maintaining the posted speed limit. It was all too easy for Jack to ease his foot off the brake, feel the truck begin to drift forward, then slam his foot onto the gas, rocketing out of the alleyway.

It was exhilarating, the jump of two tons of metal racing forward and almost immediately jerking, shuddering, crashing to a stop as they t-boned the target. Wrenching metal and twisting glass shrieked and screamed and then was silent. The whole world held its breath.

Jack forced the door open, hopping out lightly as the striped, naked woman in the passenger seat slid out after him. Not even so much as a cut - god, he loved invincibility. He stood patiently at the side of the wreck, waiting for the opportune moment to act.

As he'd planned, he'd hit the other vehicle further forward than a true T-bone. If the driver wasn't dead already, he or she soon would be. The other car had been driven off the road and into the large tree at the edge of the property, killing or trapping whoever had been in the front passenger seat.

The back of the car, by contrast, was in much better shape. Jack smiled as he heard a car door open and watched the back-seat passengers slide slowly out of the car on the far side, circling widely around the wreck to come and see who had hit them.

He smiled wider when he saw the recognition dawn on their faces. Both were wearing tinker tech visors, but their faces were still easy to read: shock, fear, wariness trying to mask pants-wetting terror, and bravery as they accepted there was nothing else for them to do but face him.

"Contract!" he greeted jovially. "So glad to see you still walking." He was, too. He didn't want her seriously hurt or dead yet. That would be too easy. She held herself stiffly, just in front of Intrepid, who was going from brave to murderous right before their eyes.

That was okay; Contract wasn't a killer. She'd keep her teammate in check.

"Jack Slash," she said, though she wasn't looking at him when she said it. Instead she was sizing up the man to his left, the newest member of the Slaughterhouse Nine. It was rare that Jack accepted those who had nominated themselves without any further testing, but hey - when the stars align, the stars align. "I take it help isn't coming," she added wryly. Whether she knew Bloodlust's powers for certain or was just guessing, the comment was likely for Intrepid's benefit.

Sure enough, the young hero went from glaring at Jack to staring at Contract at the speed of whiplash. Beside Jack, the self-named Bloodlust chuckled ominously. "No, it isn't. As far as the precogs know, there's nothing wrong."

Jack had idly wondered how Contract would react to Bloodlust. It hadn't been difficult for Jack to guess that the other cape had a bone to pick specifically with Contract. He'd practically begged Jack Slash to go after the Ender.

Jack had only refrained from killing him for two reasons - he already wanted to hunt down Contract, and he'd wanted to see how she'd deal with him. At the moment, she wasn't showing any sign of recognizing him specifically, but given the certainty with which she'd declared his precog immunity it seemed likely that she was bluffing.

Contract turned her attention more squarely onto Jack himself. "Why shouldn't I just kill you where you stand?" she asked almost mildly.

Jack let his eyebrows raise in a bit of honest surprise. "You actually believe you could get past the Siberian?" She did too, he could see it in the set of her jaw. Well, this just got more interesting. Contract didn't volunteer an answer, so Jack told her of his most recent safeguard.

"You wouldn't just be killing me, little hero. I've tied my life to a great many others- I've lost count really, but Bonesaw assures me it's enough to make a statement- and you'd be killing all of them along with me. Robert Heely, Christina Deets, and Richard Nolan, to name just a few." He could see the recognition of their names in her face, and he relished it. There could be no doubt for her that he'd targeted supporters of her ridiculous capeless movement purely to get at her. Even if she hadn't already been so set against killing, their lives and her culpability would have guaranteed his survival here. "The only thing keeping them alive is my life. I die, so do they."

Contract nodded simply, suppressing the guilt that was already taking root deep in her psyche. Intrepid balked under his controlled mask of rage and bravery. Jack suppressed the urge to laugh. Oh yes, meeting with Contract had been worth the effort to make it happen. He hadn't had such fun since he'd decided to take in Bonesaw. Even if Contract never joined them - and Jack thought he should be able to swing even that, if the game went well- breaking her would still be delicious. Going after the absurdly hopeful civilians who worshipped her was just the beginning.

"Then they're already dead," Intrepid said. Jack could almost hear the strain as the young hero forced the words out, tried to force himself to believe it. Jack wondered if this was the right moment to announce the real kicker, but decided to hold back. He couldn't rush himself.

Contract had already moved on past the issue of his life insurance anyways. "How did you find him?" she asked, jerking her chin at Bloodlust. Beside Jack, the parahuman snarled at being discounted. Contract didn't so much as twitch, but Jack was sure the slight was purposeful. Nothing made Bloodlust madder faster than dismissing him.

"He found me," Jack admitted, curious to see how this would play out. He'd ordered Bloodlust not to attack her, not in this first encounter. He'd dangled as bait the assurance that she would suffer far more alive than she would dead. He doubted that would restrain the psychopath for long.

Jack couldn't wait to see what sort of mincemeat the Ender would make of a parahuman that - as far as Jack could tell - hadn't existed three months ago. Every press conference, every comment on PHO, every cape encounter she'd participated in screamed her refusal to kill. But death was not the worst thing that one person could do to another. Jack was willing to bet that Contract knew how to deliver a world of non-lethal pain. It would give him a good baseline of where she was starting from.

Contract turned her head to regard Bloodlust, leaning almost casually against the wreck of the PRT car that had been driving her and Intrepid back to Brockton Bay. She regarded him for barely a moment and then something - something shifted in her posture.

Jack's internal mirth died away as the one thing he hadn't expected to see surfaced. Despite everything he'd learned about Contract, despite how he'd researched and studied her, despite everything he knew, it obviously wasn't enough. In that moment, outside of everything he'd predicted about her, he saw Contract's killing intent rise.

"Where's your brother?" she asked Bloodlust, almost lazily.

"Why don't you ask yours?" Bloodlust snarled back. He took a single step forward threateningly, but didn't actually charge across the tiny no-mans land that separated the two groups.

Contract grinned. As far as Jack could tell, it was born from honest amusement. "Good for Brooks," she crowed with quiet but evident satisfaction.

Bloodlust lunged forward, faster than humanly possible, but Contract was ready for him. She seized his outstretched claws as soon as they came into her range, using them as leverage. She swung him around her body, letting his momentum work against him. She twisted as she did so, and Bloodlust ended up pinned against the hood of the car - no, not pinned. He was impaled on a sharp edge created by the crash. Then she jerked him off the edge, toward herself, his feet still without good grip on the ground after his spin.

She hauled him backwards, then threw herself forward and carried him with her. His body weight and hers drove his neck down on the edge of the wreck. A moment later, Bloodlust's headless body dropped to the ground, while the head remained stuck to the top of the wreck.

Intrepid was looking shockingly unsurprised as Contract turned back to face Jack and the Siberian. Jack wished the boy would look shaken instead. Hell, Jack was feeling a little unsteady himself.

This was the girl he'd profiled as incapable of killing? The Christian with an absolute respect for the sanctity of human life? The one who had just beheaded a parahuman with a truck?

Bloodlust had been faster and stronger than baseline human, in addition to however he blocked precognition. Contract had known this, had used his speed against him, and had provoked him into attacking by mocking his dead brother, if Jack had understood their little tete-a-tete correctly. Double shit.

Contract stepped over the dead body as though it simply no longer mattered to her. She was still three arm-lengths away from him, but it didn't seem like nearly enough space, now that he knew how badly he'd misjudged her.

"I would guess you've got about a minute before someone realizes we're not at the next check-in. And about ten seconds later, Eidolon is going to show up. So what's your move, Jack?"

Normally, seventy seconds was an eternity for him. He could drive people to suicide or madness with seventy seconds. He'd once peeled a man out of his skin in fifty-five, using the very knife currently resting in his belt.

But he didn't want to kill Contract just yet, not like this, and he was no longer certain of what made her tick. Seventy seconds had just become a hell of a lot shorter.

He had aces he could play, of course. But which one, which one?

Jack let the silence stretch just a hint, emphasizing that he didn't feel a time pressure even if he did.

"My move? My move is already underway. Just not here."

Chapter Fifty-Three: Integration

May 3, 2011

Intrepid was glad to be back in the car, driving back to Brockton Bay. Contract had her visor back on, so he didn't have to listen for her anymore even if the telepathy contract wouldn't expire until midnight.

The meeting with Accord had gone as well as they could have hoped. He'd agreed to curtail his criminal activities in exchange for Contract taking his "plan" to the president, when she finally met with the man. Until then, he'd work on revising it to take some of Contract's concerns and power mechanics into account.

Not perfect, nothing legally binding, but better than it had been. And no one had been hurt. His ribs were even feeling better.

In the front seat, the car beeped. The driver slowed the car down to the speed limit before the driving monitoring system logged the violation.

"Stupid speed trap towns," he muttered.

"You got somewhere better to be?" asked the agent in the passenger seat.

Don't we all? Contract asked Intrepid mentally. Since leaving Accord's office she'd been inexplicably impatient to get home. They'd debriefed with the Boston Protectorate and PRT, filled out paperwork, and completed other necessary activities and the whole time she had been antsy to get on the road.

What's up with you?

Bad feeling. Can't explain it, but I think it might be my precognition.

Intrepid took a moment to consider that. Nothing has happened yet. Your Jedi sense has never been any good this far out, has it?

No. But there's always a first -

Sound. A jerk sideways and back in the seat, his seatbelt pulling him tightly. Shrieking metal.

Car crash, Contract thought at him, and for the first time all day it was loud. He was hearing her unfiltered thoughts. Your gun - to agent Porter. Cut out. Ambush.

Intrepid turned his head. They had come to a stop; Contract's side of the car was relatively undamaged but his window spidered with cracks so dense it was impossible to see out of. There was a click, and then Contract reached over and undid his seatbelt too. Intrepid looked forward. The driver, whose name Intrepid couldn't remember, was pinned by the deflating airbag and didn't seem to be moving. The passenger agent was moving only a little.

Intrepid felt a hand on his gun and tried to catch it. He found himself looking into Contract's eyes.

Eidolon is watching me. If he's not already here, then this was planned by a precog blocker. Or something else even bigger is going on. Either way, we need to react. Give your gun to Agent Porter. He's only alive because my precognition and telekinesis let me save him. Follow me out of the car, and for God's sake if you get a chance to run, do it. Bring help. Please.

Intrepid nodded, then swallowed. He caught Contract's wrist before she could move away. He was panting, but realized he wasn't in pain. You okay? he asked.

Not a scratch.

Intrepid heaved another breath in and out. What in the world was going on? Who could have done this? She waited, perhaps sensing that he wasn't ready to go just yet. Contract was okay, he was okay, Agent Porter was groaning, and the other agent, whose name he still couldn't remember, stared at him through empty eyes.

Who could have attacked the Ender without being stopped? Who would have? The answer came to him- nothing more than a gut feeling and a conviction but he knew, knew it was right. "It's Jack Slash," Jason choked out, unable not to say it aloud.

Contract stilled, no longer waiting but tense as a piano wire. A fragment of a thought was all that answered him - Jack -

Intrepid understood her hesitation. Jack Slash was like no other threat she'd ever faced before. It's okay. He's scary. Capes are scary, he deliberately echoed the words she herself had used after the kidnapping by the Boston Wards, but you are badass. We're going to be okay.

She nodded, and then her game face was back and she was sliding out of the car. Intrepid gave his weapon to Agent Porter as Contract had suggested. He seemed out of it, but the gun would do no one any good out there, where it would be seen and anticipated. Expecting Agent Porter to manage some sort of ambush was a long shot, but it was better than the nothing else Intrepid could think of.

Then Intrepid was out of the car, and he had no time to focus on anything except following Contract as she circled around the tree that had kept them from getting pushed across a lawn. She walked around the front of the vehicle until they could clearly see their assailants.

It wasn't the whole Slaughterhouse Nine, but it was Jack Slash. He had the Siberian with him. The woman wasn't touching him at the moment, but she was close enough that she could make him invulnerable in an instant. The third cape on Jack's other side wasn't one Intrepid knew.

Lanky build, greasy hair, wane features, sallow skin, and surprisingly normal street clothes on a middle aged man. He didn't ooze danger the way Jack Slash did, but Intrepid did get a distinctly creepy vibe off of him.

Wish you'd been wrong, Contract told him, and Intrepid sent a quick agreement. It was one thing to think he was about to see Jack Slash. It was another to actually stand in front of the psycho.

"Contract!" Jack said, as though he was welcoming a friend. "So glad to see you still walking!"

"Jack Slash," Contract answered levelly. She looked deliberately towards the cape Intrepid didn't recognize. Vampire. Fast, strong, precog block. "I take it help isn't coming," she added to mask the hidden conversation.

If you kill him, can we be found?

Yes, she returned quickly.

It was the vampire who answered Contract, not Jack Slash. "No, it isn't. As far as the precogs know, there's nothing wrong."

Contract turned her head to face Jack Slash, dismissing the vampire. "Why shouldn't I just kill you where you stand?" she asked almost mildly.

Jack's eyebrows rose, making him look sort of offended. "You actually believe you could get past the Siberian?" Contract didn't answer him, but Jack seemed to accept that she could. He elaborated, anyway.

"You wouldn't just be killing me, little hero. I've tied my life to a great many others- I've lost count really, but Bonesaw assures me it's enough to make a statement- and you'd be killing all of them along with me. Robert Heely, Christina Deets, and Richard Nolan, to name just a few." The only name Intrepid recognized was Richard Nolan, who had offered to refurbish one of the capeless high schools at cost. "The only thing keeping them alive, is my life. I die, so do they."

He still has to die, Intrepid told her immediately.

And take innocent people with him? she demanded, even as she was nodding to acknowledge Jack's statement.

It won't stop. He has killed hundreds of people. You won't be killing those people, he will. "Then they're already dead," Intrepid said aloud. Do you trust me, Contract? If you trust me at all, if I am your partner, I beg you. Kill him.

First things first, Contract thought back. Intrepid ground his teeth and tried to think of how he could convince her. He knew that wasn't an agreement, but a delay. "How did you find him?" Contract asked, jerking her chin at the vampire. He snarled at being discussed so casually but Contract didn't so much as twitch.

"He found me," Jack admitted. Contract didn't seem surprised.

Don't try to help me, she warned. Then Contract turned her head to regard the vampire, shifting her weight so it looked like she was leaning on the front of their SUV. "Where's your brother?" she asked him, almost lazily.

"Why don't you ask yours?" the vampire snarled back. He took a single step forward threateningly, but didn't actually charge across the gap that separated the heroes and villains.

Don't be shocked by what I'm about to do. Contract grinned her scary, mocking grin. "Good for Brooks," she crowed with quiet but evident satisfaction.

The vampire lunged forward, and it was over almost before Intrepid realized what had happened.

Intrepid forced his face to give away nothing. He'd known Contract was a hunter, and that she killed supernatural beings. He'd expected that she'd be more willing to kill the vampire than a human, even a human as bad as Jack. Even so, he'd never seen anyone beheaded before.

Contract stepped over the dead body, advancing toward Jack Slash. To him, it might look aggressive, but Intrepid knew better. She wasn't prepared to kill Jack. It was fundamentally against her ethics and religion - quite literally the worst and most power sacrifice she could imagine. It was a bluff, and would remain so unless Intrepid could somehow convince her otherwise.

"I would guess you've got about a minute before someone realizes we're not at the next check-in. And about ten seconds later, Eidolon is going to show up. So what's your move, Jack?"

What's our move? she asked even as Jack Slash considered her with what appeared to be new-found respect.

Kill him, Intrepid insisted, trying to think of any other way to say it. Could he reframe the question instead? Somehow remove the blame from her?

I can't, Contract begged. What else?

Intrepid fought down irritation which he knew was really panic in disguise. They needed a card to play, or they were both going to die. He didn't want to put this on her shoulders, but it wasn't something he could do for her.

Intrepid's brain stalled, as he realized the truth. Do you trust me?

There was a moment - not of hesitation, but of realization.

Yes. The answer echoed between them like a heartbeat. Why?

"My move?" Jack finally drawled, unaware of the conversation going on outside of his hearing. "My move is already underway. Just not here."

Chapter 53: Solution

May 3, 2011

Phil was aware that he wasn't fully processing the passing of time. There was a lot of pain, and a sense of being drunk, which was weird because the last time he'd been drunk during the daytime he'd been about half as old as he was now.

How did Phil know it was daytime? The head-pounding sunlight was a good hint.

Phil had a gun in his hand. It was not his gun, but Phil was trying not to think about that. If he focused on what was happening outside the windshield, he didn't have to think about looking up and seeing Kevin's lifeless corpse. The Wards had left him with a tinkertech weapon, which was better than nothing since his own gun was crushed, along with his hip and what felt like most of the right side of his body.

But if Kevin had still been Kevin and not a corpse, he would have said something like "damn useless hard light nonlethal shit" or "damn tinkers" or even "Why can't they just obey the laws of god-damned physics like the rest of the planet?"

Kevin had definite ideas about tinkers and their "infernal devices," and Phil agreed with him enough that he'd decided to arm himself with Kevin's gun instead.

Kevin would have also had something to say about the horrible pain that Phil was in, and the even more horrible lack-of-pain below his waist, but Phil wasn't thinking about that. Instead he was staring out the shattered windshield, leaning forward to reduce his visible profile, trying to watch the capes outside.

He knew which two figures were Contract and Intrepid, and he'd finally figured out which was Jack Slash when his face had passed into view through a slightly less destroyed patch of glass. Phil was moderately sure the cape closest to the car was the Siberian, but he didn't recognize the last figure.

Phil had Kevin's gun partially raised, but didn't dare aim it at anything. Between his drunkness or whatever injury was approximating it, the deplorable visibility through the windshield, and the likelihood that the windshield would partially deflect any shot he took, he was as likely to hit Contract as he was to hit Jack Slash.

Phil leaned further toward Kevin, ignoring the way that Kevin also sprawled toward him, trying to see out the slightly less destroyed half of the windshield.

The car rocked violently, and Phil braced himself with his left hand, stifling the urge to scream. Something in that hand was not working the way it was supposed to.

Contract was standing closer to the vehicle, and it looked like the unknown cape had been impaled on the front of the wreck. She ignored the unmoving cape and took a step toward Jack Slash. One more step, and she would be in Phil's line of fire. He'd be unable to help at all, and she was most certainly within Jack Slash's striking range. She's be dead before Intrepid could try to intervene and likely before Phil knew what had happened.

His gun came up, rock steady despite the pain and the concussion. Jack Slash was laughably close to him - he made much further shots on the range all the time.

On some level, he knew it was a bad idea. He knew that the shot would be tight, there was a risk of hitting Contract, and he didn't know who else was in the area. His vision through the windshield was blurry, and Kevin was dead, and he would be shooting through safety glass, even if it was already very compromised - wait, would that make the shot better or worse? - and what if the glass was distorting the angles?

Maybe he should empty the clip, just to be sure.

Maybe he shouldn't shoot at all.

But it was Jack Slash.

Only a moment had passed, and Contract could step forward at any time, putting herself in his sightlines.

His left hand came up to steady the gun, and he ignored the pain and ignored the black at the edge of his vision.

He managed half a dozen shots, before the pain from the recoil finally released him into unconsciousness.