Vertigo: No Way Up
Vertigo: No Way Up

By Kelly "Kielle" Newcomb
(kielle@aol.com)

DISCLAIMER: John Carlton, Anna Mayfaire, Misfire, Maelstrom, the Program,
and the word "telekinetipath" are mine, more or less. Other than that, Marvel
owns these characters and the basic setting. I'm not trying to steal Marvel's toys,
harm them, or make a profit from 'em. I'm really not worth suing, so please be kind.
Do not archive without my permission. Rated PG-13 for some language and violence.

NOTE TO ANY NON-X-MEN READERS JUST JOINING US: This story is based
around a simple premise: Marvel once created a pack of ferocious, soulless killers called
the Marauders and left them at that...without personalities, without any details at all beyond
standard villainous nastiness and their names & powers. I decided to adopt them and to
give them their own story...especially one in particular, on whom who I managed to dig
up a bit of completely forgotten back-history. Therefore, you're going into this about as
blind as any comic-reading regular, so don't feel lost! Just sit back and take it on face value...



INTRO, DISCLAIMER, AND SUNDRY EXCUSES
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I believe in nothing / Never really had to
In regards to your life / Rumors that are not true
Who's defending evil? / Surely never I
Who would be the witness / Should you chance to die...?

-- Chance by Savatage

Why? Well, because. Because I wanted to write about someone no one has ever bothered to write about before. I think I succeeded. How GOOD it is, I don't know...but it's different, I hope. I got to wondering about these particular characters' "blank slate" lives, and when I did some digging and found out that the slate wasn't as blank as I thought, well, I got to thinking... (That, and I can't stomach the assumption that our government would be so utterly clueless as to NOT know about these bastiches.) Blinded by the glamorous glare of spandex and superpowers, we tend to forget that even the most unredeemably evil have at least SOME humanity...we underestimate the abilities of the non-superpowered branches of law...and we overlook the fact that most SPBs can be taken down by a bullet or a speeding car as quickly as any ordinary human.

I can be reached at kielle@aol.com -- please drop me a note! I think this is the best fanfic I've ever written, and I want to hear your opinion, good or bad or deranged. I worked on this baby for MONTHS, so I'm not choosy. And if you're reading this on Fanfiction.Net, please, vote for me! Yes, I admit it -- I'm a total ratings-slut. ;)

Note: There's a dash of "bad" language and there may be some gore, but other than that it should be acceptable for most readers. Some of the early parts take place around the events of X-Man #13 (which I only picked up because it had Madelyne Pryor AND the Marauders in it, woo-hoo!) and there's some mention of ye olde Mutant Massacre, but other than that don't worry y'self about continuity, I've got it all covered.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Laersyn and Kitarra for their patient plot assists; to my dear husband, who put up with my constant brainstorming and random "listen to this!" attacks; to Chris Kallemeyn to his first-hand dock-worker experience; to Tapestry, who agonized through my teasers, and Asparagirl, who firmly believes that I can write ANYTHING; to whoever it was who said "Hey Kielle, why haven't YOU written an epic?"; to my wonderful beta readers: Kristina Sennvik, Laurent, Link, and anyone else I missed, because I lost my dratted notes; and to Savatage, who provided some awesome "mood music" during the writing of this and other pieces. And most of all to Chris Moore, who knows exactly why.

Boy, doesn't Kielle like to hear the sound of her own voice? ;) Let's get on with this, shall we?

Vertigo: No Way Up
A tale of fire, frying pans, warped mirrors,
burned bridges, and shades of grey

~~~~~~~~
Prologue
~~~~~~~~

"I can't believe you haven't assigned anyone to this case file before now. This is serious business."

"What makes you think that we haven't?"

An October evening, clear and brittle with the promise of snow. Two men stand on the steps of the Smithsonian, speaking in hushed voices as tourists eddy past. It seems an oddly public place for to discuss such a dangerous subject, but then again, who has time or the urge to eavesdrop when the world-famous museum closes in an hour? A pair of stereotypical "men in black" might have drawn curious stares, but somber gentlemen in sensible grey suits are not an uncommon sight in Washington DC.

The taller of the two, an older man with iron-grey hair, finishes his unhurried inspection of a sheaf of photos and hands them back. "These are new, aren't they." His tone is a statement, not a question.

A flicker of unease shadows the younger man's expression for a moment. "Uh, yes, Mr. Carlton. Three days ago. A mostly-mutant commune down in Tennessee." The photos, with their stark black-and-white imagery of absolute carnage, disappear into an envelope which in turn almost magically vanishes into an inner pocket. "It's not on as grand a scale as the mid-Eighties massacre under New York, and one of the major telltales is absent--"

"The clawmarks."

"--uh, yessir. But as you can see by the other indicators--"

"They're back." The older man, Carlton, chews thoughtfully at his lip for a moment. The wind now carries a chilly edge as the sun sinks into an orange haze on the horizon. A scattering of Boy Scouts tear past up the stone steps, ruffling the back of his overcoat. "I was under the impression that they'd been...retired. Perhaps moved abroad. What with their master's new 'pets.'"

The younger man snorts in contempt. "Oh, right. The so-called 'Nasty Boys'? Obviously a complete failure."

"I know that," his contact replies with the first trace of impatience in his voice. "Which is why your department should already have been preparing for this! It's patently obvious that eventually these monsters would be brought back in circulation. Despite their many shortcomings, you must admit that they are certainly--" his lip curls slightly in distaste "--efficient."

Carlton pulls his coat tight against the encroaching night and turns away. To the younger man's surprise he walks not away from the museum but towards it. "Consider my people on the case. To borrow a worn-out cliche, 'we'll be in touch.'" He pauses and glances back over his shoulder, down at his bemused contact, his expression unreadable in the gathering twilight. "And I would suggest that you keep this information well above X-Factor's clearance level. Our mutant allies tend to become, let us say, 'unreasonable' when the Marauders are involved."

~~~~~~~~
Part One
~~~~~~~~

Sometimes I think I'm gonna drown
Cause everyone around's so hollow
I'm alone
Sometimes I think I'm going down
But no one makes a sound
They follow
And I'm alone
Yeah if I make it I'd be amazed
Just to find tomorrow
And if I make it I'm still alone
No more hope for better days
But if I could change
Then I'd really be amazed...

-- Amazed by the Offspring

~~~~~~~~

    Excerpt from Review #184030-1282
    Circa January 1995, classified deep-black:

    Interviewer: So, tell us a little more about your relationship with the others.
    Subject 184030: Again? Well, what about it?
    Interviewer: You didn't get along, did you?
    Subject 184030: Oh yeah sure, sometimes we got along great. When we
    were out on missions, on the trail, we were a TEAM. Team with a capital "T,"
    right? We knew what we were all doing, and we all knew our place. It was
    the biggest rush in the world -- doing what we did best, cleaning up the world
    a bit at a time. Maybe some of us never made it through the mission or couldn't
    rack up the kills like the "big guns," but as long as we did our bit in the beginning
    that was okay. It was all part of the game. It was only afterwards, or between...
    Interviewer: (makes a inquisitive prompting gesture)
    Subject 184030: (sighs) That was when it got...uncomfortable. Downright
    nasty, even. Some of us got it rough for...well, for not being as "macho" out on
    the job, I guess.
    Interviewer: You?
    Subject 184030: (snorts derisively) What do YOU think?



Iceland...wolves..."the wonders of electronics"... She flicked through the worn magazine, occasionally pausing to run her fingers down a tattered page. The paper was still glossy, although the glue was disintegrating with age; she had to be careful to hold it just so, the spine cupped in one palm, to keep it from slithering apart.

She dallied at one particularly beautiful photo, a two-page spread of green valleys and misty peaks. She never could quite believe this one. That much green, a rainbow placed just so...it couldn't be real. No place like that could exist. No. It was a fake. It had to be. It made her want to throw the magazine across the room, to scream and stamp her feet in frustration. Yet she always paused on that page anyway, to run one hesitant finger along one forested ridge and down the waterfall...

"Jesus Christ, Vee, aren't you sick of that ratty ol' thing? Gimme here." A hand fell heavily over her shoulder, grasping at her prize. She reacted almost instinctively: a feral growl escaped her clenched teeth as she pulled the magazine close to her belly -- "Leave me ALONE!" -- and lashed out without moving a muscle. She glanced over her shoulder just in time to see her tormentor reel back drunkenly, trip over a broken chair, and crash into an ignomious heap.

When the woman clawed back up onto her feet, she was seething with rage. "How dare you...on ME...I'll..."

"Oh, for cryin' out loud, give it a rest, wouldja?" The tired male voice boomed out from the other side of the ruined room, where the rest of the gang were involved in something which vaguely resembled poker. "Leave her alone. There's nuttin' wrong with her tryin' ta get some education."

"What's wrong with readin' Hustler like the rest of us?" someone else joshed. A chuckle ran around the table.

The first speaker, a huge brutish mountain of a man wearing nothing more than pants and metal bracers, grinned but didn't take his eyes off of the situation brewing on the other side of the room. Momentarily forgotten, a battered fan of cards crumpled in his huge hand. "Damn, what's wrong with you? PMS again? Let it go already, Arc. We're supposed ta be staying quiet."

The woman hesitated. If it had been anyone else telling her to back off, she would have probably told them to go do something anatomically impossible involving a whifflebat and a live badger. However, the guy in question was the only person in the room capable of actually folding her up like a dishrag if he felt like it...

Therefore, instead, for a long moment she exchanged a murderous glance with her other female teammate, each sizing the other up: the young predator curled protectively around her prized magazine, glaring up through a curtain of particolored hair, her teeth bared in an unconscious snarl; the Amazon towering over her with clenched fists, nails digging into her palms...

The moment stretched, wavered, and then passed. The tension collapsed as the taller woman took one step back, favored her twisted ankle. "Didn't think you were the type to hold with 'book-learnin',' Blockbuster," she taunted instead, turning back to the makeshift poker game.

The behemoth shrugged neutrally. "It ain't my thing, naw, but I got no problem with some'un else wantin' ta learn stuff."

"'Sides, the gal's gotta be useful in more than one way, right?" one of the others commented, a broad-shouldered man with a drooping moustache and a malicious twinkle in his eye. He cocked his thumb at their teammate, who was angrily attempting to ignore him in favor of her magazine. "Seeing as she only ever lasts what, ten seconds in a fight? May as well paint a bullseye on her forehead. 'Yo, X-Men! Here I am! Knock me out, quick! Don't worry, I'm too rock-stupid to even THINK about dodging!'"

A coarse guffaw rippled around the table. Furious, Vertigo scrambled to her feet and stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind her. The blood pounding in her ears masked the next snide comment, but the next burst of laughter rose loud and clear right through the thin wall. She leaned back against the cool plaster and sucked in one deep breath after another, forcibly regaining control over her temper.

Something crinkled in her hand. She glanced down and swore softly, bitterly, under her breath. In the course of her sweeping exit, all of the pages had silently sifted right out of the ancient National Geographic. All she had left was the cover.

She pressed the back of her free hand against her forehead, eyes closed. "GodDAMN it," she muttered. "GoddamndamnDAMN it!" Why do I put up with it? Why the HELL do I put up with it? The ratbastard pack of jackals! One week it's all buddy-buddy, the next it's like...like...

Her hand tightened on the empty cover, crushing the spine beyond repair. Her eyes snapped open and she raised it to eye-level, frowning. It's like that pack of wolves in the magazine, she realized. And I'm the...what was it? The 'omega,' whatever that means. Yeah. The wolf stuck at the fucking bottom. And now alla the sudden Arclight 'n' Scalphunter think they're the alphas.

She felt a grin tugging at her lips at the pun which suddenly presented itself. Well, I always said that she was a royal bitch.

There was a tap-tap-tap on the door behind her, right next to her ear. She pushed herself off of the warped wood and turned, backing away, fists and teeth clenched. A moment later the door creaked open and a slab-cheeked face peered out at her from somewhere near the ceiling. "Hey there."

Vertigo grunted wordlessly and turned away, folding her arms over her chest. She heard the door close and the boards underfoot creaked ominously. Something rustled by her shoulder -- she glanced over involuntarily. A ragged sheaf of magazine pages. She caught herself reaching for them and jerked her hand back, stuffing it under her other arm, turning her back. "Don't need 'em."

"I know. But you want 'em."

She picked a stain on the far wall and scowled at it. "NO, I DON'T. Not any more. They're ruined. It's ruined. It's just a stupid magazine anyway. I can get another one."

"It's the principle of the the thing, though, huh?" Blockbuster's big gravelly voice was remarkably quiet, for once. Some of the dumb-hick slurring he'd been putting on for laughs was gone; the slight German accent he'd picked up as a young merc in Europe was more noticible.

She whirled on him, lashing out at the nearest target. "What do you care? Who put you up to this? I don't need your sympathy! Fuck off! Leave me alone! I'll -- look, it's nothing. Nothing at all. The usual. Who cares."

He said nothing. The silence dragged out and began to unnerve her. To fill the dead air, she started pacing and grumbling. "What the hell are we doing in Paris anyway? What are we HERE for?"

"That's not our business," Blockbuster rumbled. "So long as HE needs us to kill sumthin' for him, that's good enough."

"Yeah sure. 'Good enough.'" She stopped and poked him in the chest with one finger. "We just settle for whatever he throws our way, don't we? Isn't...isn't there anything else?"

"Hey, what more do we need?" Then he squinted sharply down at her. "Are you okay? Hold on, you ain't gettin' second thoughts, are you?"

"No...! Don't be ridiculous." She sighed heavily, suddenly dead serious. "I'm just...I'm bored, okay? What else IS there, Mike? I mean...there's more out there, right?"

Blockbuster was taken aback. He studied his teammate carefully from his vantage point about a foot above her unruly green-and-silver head. "Whaddya mean? I don't get--"

"You have a name. You had a family...well, parents at least. You WERE someone else. Before Sinister. You remember...other things," she said intensely.

"Uh? A little. I guess." He shrugged, suddenly uneasy with the turn the conversation was taking. He'd gotten out of the habit of thinking, period. To suddenly be confronted with these questions from Vertigo, the team's "know-nothing airhead"... "Vee, what's gotten into you?"

She retreated a step, her expression suddenly guarded. She turned away to face the far wall again. "Nothing, I guess. Maybe I'm just homesick or something. I dunno. Never mind."

Blockbuster thought for a moment and then patted her carefully on the shoulder -- "carefully" in his case meaning "not quite enough to knock her flat on her face." "Homesick, huh?" he asked her with exaggerated cheerfulness. "No worries. We'll be back in N'York within the week. Um...y'mind if I get back to the game now?" he added rather lamely.

"Go ahead," she replied, her tone wooden. Her hands had crept up to clasp her elbows. Blockbuster hesitated, but this really wasn't his forte. He gave her shoulder a clumsy squeeze and beat a retreat back into the abandoned apartment...back to uncomplicated company, to crude conversation that made sense.

"Homesick, yeah," she murmured as the door creaked shut behind him. "But not for New York."



As shadows fell over Paris with the passing of the sun, eight more shadows set forth like loosed hounds, ghosting through the alleys and back lanes, casting about for their quarry. The sole reason that they'd been brought overseas. The mutant who drew her power from death itself and yet insisted upon pretending that she was just a poor sweet innocent little victim. The woman who fancied herself too good and pure to dirty her delicate little brown hands by associating with her fellow "employees." The deserter...the traitor.

If they found her, Threnody was going to learn a valuable lesson: once one served Sinister, it was until death.

In some cases, beyond.

Scalphunter took the lead as always, directing the search with only the slightest of gestures, his face creased by a deep frown. Though he had never "officially" been elected leader of the Marauders, he was nonetheless the undisputed boss in the field. As far as the others could tell, he had no discernable mutant abilities...but his keen mind and the fact that he could shoot out the eye of a sparrow at a hundred feet more than made up for his lack of "flash."

By unspoken agreement, Arclight followed close in Scalphunter's tracks like a tall powerful silver-clad second self. Frankly, her new attachment to their erstwhile leader helped to keep her temper somewhat in check. Useful when the woman in question tended to punch out walls when she got pissed off -- which, lately, was far too often.

Harpoon and Riptide were the second unofficial team-within-a-team for different reasons, and had been for some time. Oddly, the silent Inuit hunter seemed to enjoy the company of the oftimes-mad human tornado. Harpoon was quite welcome to him -- Riptide's bouts of rambling blustering psychotic nigh-manic "cheerfulness" had a tendency to get on the nerves. Just a week before, Blockbuster had given him a concussion out of sheer irritation. And, come to think of it, the week before that too.

Speaking of Blockbuster, the behemoth currently stalked alone, away from his comrades, ambling through broader streets without giving a damn who saw him. He had an irritating tendency to "get lost" and show up hours later smelling like beer and peanuts, but it was damn hard to force a living tank to stay in line. Ah well. As long as he showed up when it counted -- and he always did -- his teammates weren't going to complain too much.

Scrambler had recently acquired the same irksome habit of vanishing on patrol...except that when HE disappeared, he returned smelling of far more interesting things than food and alcohol. In fact, this time the young Korean lothario had blatantly disappeared within a minute of leaving the lair. They were in Paris, the so-called "City Of Love"...so no one really expected him back until at least the next afternoon. Or maybe the next afternoon after that. Scalphunter looked ominously dark behind his drooping mustache, and Arclight had quite clearly announced her intentions to thrash their errant teammate the moment he stepped back over the lair's threshold.

Usually Vertigo shadowed the team leader (leaders?), eagerly waiting for an order to turn her disorienting power on a target. This time, however, she'd felt the distinct chill from Arclight and had reluctantly fallen back, taking to the other side of the street. She felt a little at loose ends; she wasn't very good at making her own decisions in a fight. She'd been drilled over and over, by master after master after master: Do As You're Told. How would she know what to do if they did indeed locate Threnody?

She compromised by staying within sight of Scalphunter as he swept the street with a handheld scanner, searching for any biological trace of their little truant. She hoped that they would succeed in their search, even though they all knew perfectly well that until Sinister narrowed down the range they were looking for a needle in a haystack. It was just good to be out and doing SOMETHING. She wasn't a killer, not per se -- she didn't have the strength or the training -- but she always took great delight in making the kill easier for her teammates. In doing what they wanted her to do and doing it well.

Threnody isn't very tough, she's not a real threat, Vertigo thought wistfully. Maybe this time she'd have a chance to assure the team's victory without getting knocked out of the fray within the first few minutes. Maybe this time she could do her master proud. She hated it when she disappointed him. It seemed like she always disappointed him...

A footstep cracked a dry leaf behind her and she glanced back, startled. The familiar glitter of crystal reassured her that there was no threat; she automatically returned her full attention to the field leader, absently skirting a telephone pole.

"Hey, Vee. Mind if I stick with you for the mo'?"

She looked back again at her teammate, more startled than before. She'd assumed that they'd crossed paths by coincidence and that he'd be gone a moment later. No such luck; he was definitely dogging her footsteps. Strange...what could he possibly want? "Uh, sure."

Prism fell into step beside her, his glass body gleaming dully under the streetlights. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the moon reflected rainbow over and over again through his crystalline facets -- facets that could focus a flashlight into a killing laser. Facets that could absorb ambient light and instantly flash-blind an entire room full of enemies.

Facets which were almost one hundred percent likely to get shattered into a million fragments within a minute of battle.

Prism was therefore the most-killed Marauder, if her count was correct, and he always seemed a little...strange to her, because of it. Unreal. She couldn't remember the last time he'd actually spoken to her.

His sudden attention was throwing her a bit off-balance, and thus she couldn't properly keep visual track of Scalphunter. One moment he was there; the next he was gone, vanished into an alley while Arclight ranged ahead. She paused and frowned, trying to see what was up, trying to see if she was needed. Prism continued on for three more paces before he circled back to her. "Something up?"

"I don't kn--" Scalphunter emerged from the shadows and set off after Arclight, his easy pace almost leonine over the pavement. "Mmm. No, I suppose not." She eyed Prism. "Is there something you want? Or did you just want to laugh at me some more? I heard you in there at the poker game today, you know. Cackling like a hyena." She almost spat the words as she set off again, not waiting for him

Was it her imagination or had his expression shifted guiltily? With Prism, simply because of what he was, it was hard to tell. The lanky man of glass caught up with her a moment later. "Look, Vee--" his voice dropped to a confidential murmur "--I wanted to say I'm sorry, okay? It was either you or me. I'd rather they not be laughing at me, y'know?"

She drew in her breath to reply but then remembered that time last week when Riptide had made some disparaging remarks about their amazingly breakable comrade. Yes -- she'd giggled right along. She sighed. Well, it HAD been funny at the time. "What's with the apology all of the sudden?" she asked, still hostile. Changing the subject. "And stop calling me 'Vee.' We're NOT friends."

"I'd like to be."

That stopped her dead in her tracks. She turned and stared at him, open-mouthed. "What--?! I don't get it."

This time she was sure of it: Prism looked distinctly anxious. "Vertigo, c'mon. Can't you sense it? We're both odd men out. Odd man-and-woman out, whatever. If something should happen, if it should happen again..."

"Like what? What are you getting at?"

"You don't know?"

"No. I don't."

He sighed, starlight glinting through his clear faceted features. This was the most she'd ever heard the strange mutant say at one time, and the first time she'd ever seen such strange emotions in his face. Fear, nervousness...even a touch of drawn weariness. Though she couldn't imagine why.

"I didn't want to say this but I have to," he said quietly but intensely. "Listen. We have to stick together. The others don't care about us, they're safe, but you and I...we have to look out for each other. Because if we don't, we'll be the first ones to go."

A chill ran down Vertigo's spine at his low, husky, obsessive words. Words which were utter nonsense and gibberish as far as she could tell. Go? Go where? She stepped back, and then back again. "Damn, man, you're as crazy as Riptide."

"No, no, I swear I'm not! Just think about it--"

Her predicament was mercifully solved by a commotion ahead, across the street. As she turned, she caught a faint burst of whistles. Scalphunter's signal. No sign of their assigned prey, the pattern told her, but he'd caught the trail of another mutant. Probably just a runaway or a vagabond, judging by the part of town they were in. But enough to provide a momentary diversion. If there was one thing the Marauders enjoyed to the last man (or woman), it was taking the occasional side-trip to clear out the genetrash. Only the strong would survive. They'd proudly borne that credo since well before the re-emergence of that upstart elitist Apocalypse, and no matter what Sinister's orders it was the Marauders' mutual opinion that there was always time for a little sport on the side.

Only the strong will survive...

Something about that clicked hazily with what Prism had said, but by the time Vertigo turned back to him he was already loping across the street and into Scalphunter's alley. She shrugged and set the thought aside and followed, idly wondering who'd take the points for this diversionary kill and not really caring one way or the other.

By the time she got there it was too late anyhow.

Booted feet planted in the pool of blood on either side of the pitifully small body of the murdered mutant, Scalphunter waited until the entire team assembled -- with the exception, of course, of Scrambler. The team leader scowled but said evenly, "We're pulling in early for the evening, folks. Just got word from the bossman than there's a lead across town, but not a solid one. We'll have us a mission when he can confirm the sighting. In the meantime...sorry folks, but we've gotta report in for a brain-drain."

Riptide groaned and kicked petulantly at a moldy blood-stained newspaper, but the rest of the assassins merely rolled their eyes in bored acceptance and faded back onto the streets in half-a-dozen different directions.

After all, there were many paths leading to the heart of Sinister's web.



    Excerpt from Review #184030-1282
    Circa January 1995, classified deep-black:

    Interviewer: Now this term you used in the last session: "brain-drain"...?
    Subject 184030: Oh, that. I can't remember what Sinister called it.
    Some long words strung together, something he did with those machines
    of his. We did it every month or so, or right before a dangerous mission.
    It kept the copies of our memories on-file pretty much up-to-date for the
    next time we needed o be cloned, that's all that mattered.
    Interviewer: You sound reluctant to talk about it.
    Subject 184030: I...can't we talk about something else?
    Interviewer: What about Sinister?
    Subject 184030: (silence)
    Interviewer: How did you feel about him?
    Subject 184030: ... Afraid.
    Interviewer: Why?
    Subject 184030: Have you ever met him?
    Interviewer: Of course not.
    Subject 184030: Then I can't explain it. He's...Sinister, okay?!
    Interviewer: Now, now, there's no need to get so upset.
    Subject 184030: That's what YOU think.



There're only two things I hate worse than this, Vertigo thought abstractly as the helmet settled over her head. Three things, if you count Arclight. Four, if you count...

She bit her lip. Okay, so there's LOTS of things I hate. Let's just say that I hate THIS and leave it at that.

She wriggled her shoulders back against the tilted stainless steel, but in vain -- it was ice-cold and not likely to get any warmer, seeing as this would only take about five minutes. As always. Five minutes of...of... Well, she could never quite remember. The conscious mind was effectively taken offline for the duration of the procedure. But she knew that whatever it felt like, it always left her feeling like her brain had been turned inside out. The others had no problems with the process, but it left her dizzy and sick and retching.

The word "ironic" came to mind.

Vertigo looked up as HE swept by close enough to tickle her ankles with the trailing edge of that ridiculous "cloak" he insisted on wearing. Ridiculous...? Part of her cringed in horror that she'd even dared think such an irreverent thought about HIM. He terrified her. He'd always terrified her. Something about the way he spoke, every word exact and icily final; the unhurried, regal manner in which he moved. Sinister, the undisputed commander of killers who at first glance could easily take him apart at the seams. Looks were deceptive.

Most frightening of all, or so Vertigo firmly believed, was the way the man always appeared to know exactly what was going on. The way he always seemed to have calmly taken steps to be far, far ahead of anything that could possibly happen... It was foolish of her, perhaps, because she knew that he was far too judicious a man to waste his time in idly tormenting his servants, but she always felt as if his post-mission interrogations were merely a formality, a test of his pets' accuracy and loyalty -- that he knew exactly what they were going to say before they said it. That he could see right through her, directly into her doubts and fears...

She closed her eyes and tried to swallow, but her mouth was too dry. When she looked up again He was right there before her, too close, adjusting the electrode at her brow, His sheet-white face furrowed in absent concentration. He didn't seem to even be looking right at her -- a blessing, perhaps. She hated being the focus of His attention...and seeing as she was always one of the few Marauders to consistently return alive from their more dangerous excursions, she'd had quite enough of His cross-examinations to last a lifetime, thank you very much.

This time, the Marauders' master hadn't bothered with a word of greeting or a comment beyond a cursory complaint that they were two days late for the monthly processing. Good timing for us, actually, she thought wryly. If Scalphunter wasn't so paranoid about 'losing more experience than he has to,' we'd probably never show up for this at all. Memory. Who needs it anyway? Nothing ever changes.

Still, though, it made life easier. Marauders didn't have a very promising life expectancy rate. To maintain his little strikeforce and to remove the fear of death which would have kept them from giving their all, Sinister was often compelled to clone and reclone his more..."accident-prone"...assassins. And for clones to be of any use, why, they HAD to have the memories of their predecessors to function properly, right? Right. And thus the frequent "touch-up" sessions here, under the encephalosiphon. Adding the latest mental "news" to the electronic caches of memory and experience stored along with the vials of raw genetic material which would someday become new Arclights, new Prisms, new Riptides.

New Vertigos.

She shivered slightly. Unlike the others, she didn't really relish the idea of...

Unannounced, the helmet crackled into life around her temples. Glaring white washed across the insides of her eyelids, cutting her off in mid-thou



Vertigo never dreamed.

But sometimes, as her mind was combed for information at the heart of Sinister's web, sometimes she dreamed dreams that she would not remember when she later awoke ill and miserable.

She was not a very creative person, this she knew. When it came right down to it, even she had to shamefully admit to herself that she simply did not have the imagination to do more than follow orders. Therefore, these "dreams" were not flights of fantasy; rather, they were chains of vivid images roused from the depths of her mind by the merciless mental probing, like thick mud stirred into clear water.

She almost couldn't help it. The mere physical fact that she was strapped to a tilted table, helpless and unhappy, a device humming about her ears, her head pounding and her stomach wrenched into knots, connected directly to the deepest core of her being.

Because her first conscious memory was exactly the same...



NEXT: Come see what the comics don't show: the aftermath of a Marauder mission. Ever wonder what it's like to come back from the dead? It's standard operating procedure for these guys...well, for most of them...

~~~~~~~~
Part Two
~~~~~~~~

Doesn't matter what you see
Or intuit what you read
You can do it your own way...
If it's done just how I say

-- Eye Of The Beholder by Metallica

~~~~~~~~

    Excerpt from Review #184030-1282
    Circa January 1995, classified deep-black:

    Interviewer: What did "death" mean to a Marauder?
    Subject 184030: Inconvenience. A loss of memory, 'cuz you'd only remember
    up to your last brain-drain of course. A bad mark in the game.
    Interviewer: Game?
    Subject 184030: I've already told you about that. Ask something new.
    Interviewer: All right then. How did YOU feel about it?
    Subject 184030: Me? I don't know. It never happened to me.
    Interviewer: Never, Vertigo...?
    Subject 184030: Oh, for crying out loud...no, NEVER! And for the last
    goddamn time, don't call me by that name ever again!



Sight returned in a lifting fog. She blinked slowly, stupidly, and only then realized that her eyes had actually been open for some time. The world had a murky, greenish cast to it, and she felt...well, "strange" was an understatement. She seemed to be upright but she could feel no weight on the soles of her feet, no pressure at her back. Her scalp felt odd -- "light," almost -- and although her arms were crooked at the elbows her hands hung weightless like a kangaroo's paws, disenclined to obey gravity. There was a pressure around her mouth and nose, but when she sluggishly tried to reach up and touch it, her wrists encountered resistance. Yielding but abrasive...loose canvas tethers, perhaps?

The aborted movement sent a silvery cloud of hair swirling lazily forward to hover, undulating, about her cheeks. And it was then, as she stared incomprehendingly at this second flagrant dismissal of the law of gravity, that it came to her.

Liquid.

She was floating in a tank.

Then that means...oh, no. No.

She blinked but then something burned her opening eyes. Air! Distracted, she hastily squeezed her eyes shut once more as the clear greenish goop sank past her nose, past her chin, and continued to drop, draining away with a soupy gurgle. Her weight increased as the liquid disappeared, depositing her feet onto a coarse steel mesh. She staggered before she managed to lock her wobbling knees into place. Thankfully, the air was almost the same exact temperature as the fluid.

The loose wrist straps were easy to shake off now that she had a better sense of what was going on. And now that she had weight once more, she found that there was indeed something strange about her face... Almost without thinking, she reached up with both hands -- en route, her knuckles banged painfully into glass. She hastily pulled them in closer to her body and felt her way up a ribbed tube to the rubber-and-glass contraption attached to her face. A breathing mask. It peeled off easily once she found the catch under her chin. The moment she was free, she drew a deep breath -- the thick, organic scent of the draining gel promptly assaulted her nostrils and she gagged, wrinkling her nose in distaste.

Vertigo almost leapt into the air as something tugged sharply between her thighs but then it was gone, too, slithering away through the mesh beneath her. A catheter, she realized with a grimace. With one hand she scraped the sodden hair from her face and tried to see, but the air still stung her eyes after the soothing nutrient fluid. Therefore, she was forced to simply stand, quiet and blind, as the glass tube emptied and then retracted, rotating, into the groove around her feet.

Now she could hear sounds: grunts, the plop-splat of wet feet striking concrete, a shouted greeting, the meaty slap of a high-five, a rumbling chuckle. Scalphunter and Harpoon were already deep into their traditional heated betting match over who "took more of the bastards down with 'em."

She scrubbed repeatedly at her eyes until she could finally pry them open, and she let out a low whistle as she looked about the lab. Almost the entire motley crew was there, fresh out of the tubes. The only ones she couldn't spot were Riptide and Prism.

Just about the entire team got taken down! Christ! I wish I could remember...

That line of reason brought her mind slamming back down to the first coherent thought that had crossed it after she'd woken up...the thought she'd shied away from.

If I'm here...that means that *I died too.*

She found herself breathing in short pants, almost subconsciously shaking her head in denial. With a burst of sheer will she forced herself to stop. Only now did she notice the small details: the wrinkled skin at her fingertips, the fact that her knuckles felt too tight as she spasmodically clenched her hands. Her feet still smarted from the few seconds she'd spent standing on the steel mesh; the cold of the concrete floor was rapidly seeping through her soles into a bone-deep chill. This body was new, fresh...artificial. No calluses. No creases. No scars.

Almost in a panic, she sought back, trying to remember, but no matter how hard she tried the last thing she could recall was the brain-drain: the helmet and the lab. For a dizzy moment she thought that perhaps she'd blocked out some terrible trauma...but then the truth became obvious. Of COURSE that was the last thing she'd remember. Her mind was now the sum of what had been stored in Sinister's databanks. The memory of anything which had happened after that final recording session -- how long? hours? days? weeks? months?! -- was now gone forever.

Dead...someone killed me...I DIED...

Dammit, stop being such a CHILD! This is S.O.P. for a Marauder!

But the fact remained that alone of the Marauders, she'd never been "killed" before. Knocked unconscious, half-drowned, concussed, shot, blasted, singed, yes, but killed...? No... Wait. There HAD just been that one time, way back right after she'd entered Sinister's service...yes, of course. The Morlock hunt -- that time down in the tunnels under New York when she'd been too young, too blindly obedient, too "new" to really understand what had happened to her...

"They got you too, huh honey?" Scrambler clapped her on the arm with a wet smack, incidentally shattering her chain of thought, and favored her with that lopsided grin of his. Thanks to the regenerative goo, the handsome young Korean's normally "fashionably ruffled" haircut was slicked close to his skull with the exception of one rooster-like cowlick.

At this oddly ludicrious sight, Vertigo couldn't help grinning back. She briefly wondered if Arclight had ever caught him for that threatened beating or if it still lay ahead in his future. She shook her head to clear it of the lingering sluggishness and rediscovered how to use her vocal cords. "Um...yeah. Yeah, I guess so. D'you know what happened to us?"

He gave her a condescending look which made her ears burn. "Duh! Naaah, no more than you do. I guess the survivor'll fill us in." He jerked his chin to her left; she glanced over and only then spotted Riptide lounging against a door on the far wall. He was wearing battered civvies rather than his "business" bodysuit; his haphazard lavender hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and there was a definite smugness to his half-smile.

Vertigo knew that look; she'd worn it herself. He and several of the others kept an ongoing tally of who'd survived the most missions. Vertigo had of course never been invited to join the contest -- either because she wasn't really part of the cameraderie or because she would have won by a huge margin, she wasn't sure which -- but she could hardly NOT know the current score. This point in Riptide's favor would cancel out the time Colossus had broken his neck down in the Morlock tunnels, putting him once again even with Scalphunter...and knocking Arclight out of the tie.

Arclight.

As Scrambler ambled off, Vertigo snapped her gaze back across the room. Sure enough, Arclight was drawing her metal bodysuit back on with a thunderous expression, refusing to look at or speak to her teammates. She took matters of pride seriously. Absolutely seriously.

After all, it's not like she has any other hobbies, Vertigo thought snidely. She cast around until she found something resembling a towel and began to rub the drying gel out of her hair and off of her skin, still a little mentally off-balance. Still trying to see how she felt about the fact that this wasn't her body. That this wasn't technically HER. She'd practically forgotten the first time Sinister had been forced to clone her anew, because at the time she hadn't truly comprehended what had occurred.

This time, however, it was a staggering thought.

Almost masochistically, she probed for her feelings on the subject the way a child pokes at the socket of a missing tooth. The initial stab of irrational emotion had already died down. She felt a little numb.

Should that bother me? Should I care that I don't care as much as I should? she wondered as she absently fished an over-sized T-shirt out of the nearest equipment locker and tugged it over her head. I mean, it's not like I was a real person to begin with.

Now THAT hurt. She hadn't allowed herself that thought for a long time now...

She shook herself out of that mental rut and stepped back just in time to avoid being run down by Blockbuster and Scalphunter. Most of the rest of the team had already congregated by the laboratory door, exchanging taunts and gibes with Riptide. The "survivor," as Scrambler had casually dubbed him, was heartily enjoying himself at the expense of his teammates.

"Pity I couldn't bring her in," he was now cheerfully informing Scalphunter, "but hell, when someone's in that many pieces..."

"You're saying that she took us ALL out? HER?! You've got to be kidding."

"Hey hey, you're the ones who came home in doggie bags. Not me. Like I said--"

"I don't believe a word of it."

Arclight's voice cut right through the macho chatter like a sluice of ice water. Vertigo faded back as the tall woman stalked past, her muscles tiger-lithe under her liquid-metal bodysuit, her gaze focused upon her "lucky" teammate. The others gave ground, almost instinctively leaving a clear space around Riptide. Their eyes glittered with anticipation as they looked from one opponent to the other.

Like wolves again, Vertigo reflected absently as she cautiously brought up the rear, skirting around Arclight at a good two yards distance to find a sidelong vantage point. This could get interesting.

Riptide stood his ground, his stance light and easy on the balls of his feet, his manic smile unwavering under Arclight's level glare. "Look, I wasn't THERE for most of the fight -- we split up. She took the rest of you guys out, I dunno how, but Sinister's gonna be PISSED. I mean, we're talking about Threnody here! The chick wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders, and she's no fighter..."

Arclight merely eyed him as she would regard a cockroach. "And--?"

He hesitated. "Well...it gets a bit murky there. Confused, like. With Prism out of commish and the tunnels dark -- I had to take her down. Hard." He slashed the air with his hands, grinning bloodthirstily. "Chopped to bits."

Arclight smiled. It wasn't a pretty smile. "And," she pointed out softly but clearly, "you neglected to bring any of those 'pieces' back as proof? If nothing else, you know that HE would have wanted the genetic material for the banks."

Riptide reddened. He pushed himself off of the wall and advanced a threatening step, fists at his sides. "Are you accusing me of--"

"The reason he didn't bring back any pieces," a cool satin voice cut through, "is because oddly enough, there weren't any."

Vertigo went cold. She gulped and edged aside. Her master stood towering behind her, arms folded loosely over his armored chest. His face was utterly devoid of expression but for the sardonic lift of one eyebrow.

To his credit, Riptide held his ground. "S-sir, I told you the truth--"

"I know you did, Janos. I know you did. Unfortunately, it was an over-simplified truth shot full of gaping holes that a child could see through." Sinister's gaze did not waver from the unfortunate Marauder. "I have conducted certain -- investigations -- through a confidential Parisien contact, and I have come to the conclusion that our little escapee received assistance in the form of another mutant. It would be my assumption that whoever this person was, he or she has psionically tampered with Riptide's mind, submerging the true memories of what happened under Paris that evening."

His piercing gaze now lifted to travel unhurriedly from Marauder to Marauder. All of the assassins were forced to drop their eyes except for Arclight, who practically blazed with pride as she met her master's scrutiny head-on. Sinister paused but then smiled ever-so-slightly and nodded to her -- the only praise he would bestow upon her for her flash of cleverness. He then returned his attention to Riptide, pinning the man like a bug with a single sharp look.

"Whoever Threnody's rescuer may be," he continued with glacial aplomb, "they are admirably thorough. It is likely that the only reason you were allowed to live, Janos Quested, was to bear this false message to me...to fool me into believing that Threnody is dead. To throw me off of her scent, so to speak. I am insulted that our mystery psi believed me so foolish as to fall for such a sloppy memory patch. I will, however, require you to remain here in order to suitably extract the truth. It may be...messy."

Riptide was now pale and shaking, though with anger or fear Vertigo couldn't tell.

Still thoughtfully holding the "surviving" Marauder trapped with a gimlet look, Sinister gestured dismissively to the man's teammates. "The rest of you are free to return to your 'lair' for the time being, as I believe that I may have further need for you in this affair."

"What about Prism?" Scalphunter spoke up, his voice a rasp of coarse sandpaper after Sinister's cultured elocution. "If Rip was the only survivor, then where's..."

Sinister cut him off with a slight but sharp gesture. "Prism has proven one too many times to be utterly useless in combat. He will not be rejoining the team at any point in the foreseeable future. I'm afraid that if you wish to have light on your underground strikes, you will have to carry flashlights."

The master geneticist sounded amused at his own rare flash of dry wit, but only for a moment. He was dead serious once more as he added coldly, "I will no longer tolerate dead wood. See that you all remain...useful. Dismissed."

Sinister's masked threat was addressed to the entire team, but a sudden rush of fear twisted painfully in Vertigo's stomach. Suddenly Prism's paranoid gibberish that other night out on the streets of Paris clicked into perfect focus.

She could swear that Sinister was now speaking solely to her.



NEXT: Does Vertigo have the guts to make the biggest decision of her obedient little life? What could possibly push her to that edge? And does she really think that she'll get away with it...?

~~~~~~~~~~
Part Three
~~~~~~~~~~

I need to wash myself again to hide all the dirt and pain
I'd be scared that there's nothing underneath
And who are my real friends?....
Am I sinking this low?

-- The Bends by Radiohead

~~~~~~~~~~

    Excerpt from Review #184030-1282
    Circa January 1995, classified deep-black:

    Interviewer: You say that this idea never occurred to you before?
    Subject 184030: No.
    Interviewer: But you didn't get along with your teammates, and Sinister scared
    you -- you missed your "homeland" and you weren't happy. Why didn't you ever
    just...leave?
    Subject 184030: Look. You don't understand, you CAN'T understand. It
    just plain wasn't possible for me to think like that. It's like...like a kid who gets
    beaten by their parents and bullied by their big brothers. Just a little kid. They
    might have vague fantasies about running away, but to really, seriously DO it?
    No way. Now me...I'd never even HEARD that there was such a thing as
    "running away." I didn't know that there was anything better. I'd never watched
    TV, never read a newspaper. Hell, what was there to run away TO...? I didn't
    even have a childhood. All I ever knew was my master, my teammates, and my
    orders. First Brainchild, then Sinister. And now you. I had nothing else. I
    WAS nothing else. Anyhow, it wasn't a living hell or anything, just uncomfortable
    at times. The idea of leaving the team didn't even cross my mind until you guys
    first suggested it.
    Interviewer: Would you go back now?
    Subject 184030: I can't. And you know it.



That night, for the first time in what passed for her "life," she woke up screaming.

Actually, by the time the shriek was only halfway across her tongue Vertigo was already bolt upright and wide-awake. She clapped both hands over her mouth, biting the sound down to a short yelp, but the damage was done -- in the dim morning half-light the apartment came silently alive in a bristle of weapons and muscle.

For a moment she hoped that no one would have noticed that she--

Two low, clear words in the darkness. "Vertigo, report."

Shit. No such luck. Wide-eyed and flushed with embarrassment, she managed to force her hands back to her sides and pasted a battle-ready expression across her face. "Thought I heard something on the floor below," she lied gruffly back as she slipped out of her nest of mismatched blankets. There was a brief flurry of activity -- one of the shadows scoped out the window and another checked the hall. Nothing, of course.

"Could be a bum, maybe a cat," Scrambler murmured, stifling a yawn. He seemed quite unconcerned, not even bothering to throw off the sleeping bag he'd burrowed under. "Maybe even just a board settling. C'mon, guys, it's too early for this."

Vertigo could almost feel the temperature in the room drop a few degrees as Arclight and Scalphunter focused twin glares on their less military teammate. Harpoon was already out the door, presumably to check below. Hoping for something to kill. Vertigo momentarily wished that Scrambler had been right, because really, finding something to kill WOULD have put the whole group in a more amiable mood.

"No one was on watch. We didn't even SET one." Scalphunter sounded distinctly disgusted with himself. "We, ladies and gentlemen, are getting soft. Ript--Blockbuster, you're it."

The huge shadow on the sofa shifted indignantly. "Hey--! You're the one who wants a lookout, shouldn't YOU--"

"Can it, Baer. I'm not in the mood." Scalphunter was now up and fully dressed, oblivious to the bite of the pre-dawn chill. Across the room metal glinted -- Arclight was silently finishing her own suit-up, as if sharing his unspoken plan. They'd been doing that more and more often lately, acting in wordless tandem, a team within the team. It was...unnerving. "When Harpoon gets back, you can pass the buck to him if you like. I don't care, just so long as one'a you sorry carcasses stays awake at all times.

"And before you can ask the next stupid question that's about to cross your lips, yeah, I'm heading out for a few hours. Just plain 'out,' walking, checking the perimeter. I'm not in the mood to go back to sleep after this...but damned if I'm going to sit here cleaning my guns for the millionth time and listening to Sung snore. GodDAMN, I need to find a hobby. Stay put."

Without a backward glance he stalked out of the room. Arclight was gone on his heels a moment later.

Vertigo released a lungful of air and gratefully rolled back over into her bedding. She'd gone to sleep battle-ready, as she always did when Sinister ordered them to stay on alert status; unfortunately, her striped-and-swirled leotard wasn't much help against the cold which seeped into the ruined building from all sides.

True to Scalphunter's prediction, Kim "Scrambler" Sung was already once again blissfully rumbling away from somewhere within his woolen cocoon. For a lanky guy, he had a HELL of a rattle. Vertigo scowled and curled up on her side. Between that racket and the dream...

"Dream." A dream? But she didn't...

I've never seen anything in my sleep like that before. I'm not sick and I'm not hallucinating. Therefore, it MUST have been a dream. Huh! "Nightmare" is more like it. Her heart was still uneasily fluttering against her ribs.

She stared blankly at an inside fold of blanket, half trying to recall the details and half trying to shove them from her mind. The curious side won out. Only moments later, she regretted it. A low moan rose in her throat and she closed her eyes, hugging her knees to her chest. She hadn't been dreaming, not in the strictest of senses. No, she'd been...remembering. The writhing light streaming through her eyelids, her joints twisting and warping, her spine realigning with a creak and a pop that she could hear even over the sound of her own screams -- and overlaying it all, driving those screams down into a tearing silence in the back of her throat, the blinding molten sheeting agony as her skull and her brain itself e-x-p-a-n-d-e-d...

"...don't want to remember don't remember don't remember don't don't don't..." Vertigo caught herself whispering aloud like a mantra, rocking with her knees crushed painfully against her breasts. With a gasp she released her deathgrip from around her shins and just about bit her tongue off to shut herself up. Luckily, she'd been almost voiceless in her moment of weakness...and Scrambler was, if possible, snoring even louder than before. Incredible.

Suddenly angry at herself for her lapse, Vertigo quietly slid out of the blankets. Shivering in the grey light which was now streaming in through the broken window, she rooted through the mess until she found a servicable pair of sweatpants and a jacket two sizes too big for her. Good enough.

"Whatchup to?"

Blockbuster. She shrugged expressively, not turning to look at him. "I don't know. Maybe Scalphunter had the right idea. A walk sounds like a good idea." She hesitated, glancing out the window. The sun was almost up. "Maybe it'd be nice to see Paris in the daytime. Aboveground. Like...like a tourist or something."

"Vee..."

"I mean, I-I could put my hair under the hood of this jacket, and it's not as if I'd be the weirdest thing out there on the streets, and I'd be back in an hour or so, really..."

"Vee! C'mon! You don't have to get so defensive!"

"Um. Sorry."

"Sheesh! It's not like I'm gonna stop ya or anything. It's just not like you, to wanna go wanderin' around a strange city. Especially when ya dunno when The Big Guy's gonna want us on our toes."

"I won't go far," she promised. However, she only had one leg stuck awkwardly into the pants when the door banged open. Scalphunter and Arclight were inside an instant later, trailed closely by Harpoon. The Inuit looked sullen. The other two simply looked pointedly neutral.

"Up on your feet, guys," Arclight snapped. She dug a toe under Scrambler and kicked up hard enough to throw him sprawling from his warm "nest." The young man rolled onto the hard wood floor with a string of dire threats, but as he shook himself fully awake and realized who he was up against he quickly shut up and hurried to obey.

Blockbuster and Vertigo exchanged a glance. Blockbuster shrugged and looked away, clearing his throat. "Hmm. Sounds like ya talked to the boss. What's the word?"

"The trail's gone cold and he is MAJOR-pissed. We're heading back to the 'States. In tubes." Scalphunter grinned sadistically. "And oh yeah, I almost forgot," he drawled. "I hear there's going to be more thinning in the ranks, if you know what I mean." His gaze flicked impartially over the entire motley crew, but Arclight looked straight at Vertigo and flashed her a quick cruel smile.

Vertigo gulped, her stomach suddenly icing over again. The irrational little fear which had gnawed at her for so long had just become a certainty.

And right on the heels of this sudden cold knowledge a single brand-new thought chattered through her mind. A monstrous, impossible, ridiculous, unthinkable, unacceptable, traitorous, yet completely unavoidable thought.

I've got to get out.



INTERLUDE

"So that's how it was. Hmm." Sinister resisted the urge to thoughtfully tap his pen against his teeth, a bad habit he'd only acquired over the course of the last few decades. He briefly considered the messy remains of Riptide and decided that clean-up could come later.

He'd been right to move quickly, using technology and intuition instead of simply interrogating the unfortunate Marauder. Whoever had buried the psychic implant in Riptide's mind had set it to literally explode if the man gave even the slightest thought to the true events under the streets of Paris the night before -- the night when almost the entire team had been mysteriously decimated. Supposedly by Threnody. Sinister hadn't believed the flimsy cover story for a moment, and he'd been right; someone had tampered with Riptide's mind, planting false information to throw the assassins and their master off of the renegade's tracks.

Unfortunately, Sinister had had barely begun to pry out the truth before Riptide, never known for his sparkling intelligence, had been unable to resist trying to "see" the flashes of buried memory his master was painstakingly extracting...

The master geneticist brushed an overlooked chip of bone from his labcoat. [Come on, supervillain or not, would YOU wear armor in a laboratory? .-=K=-.] He regarded the mess smeared all down the previously white coat and then shrugged and removed the coat entirely, dumping it into the incinerator and consigning the broken-skulled body to the flames a moment later. A new Riptide drifted mindlessly in a tube on the other side of the lab, ready to be decanted, but Sinister wasn't really in the mood to deal with him right now. It disturbed him that Threnody was still on the loose, and with so powerful an ally -- for certainly this was a cover-up to mask the fact that she had survived.

More to the point, he was concerned about the fact that he had no idea who had come to her assistance. The few flashes of true images that he'd pried from the late Marauder's brain had been inconclusive. Her rescuer was male, young, and wearing a bulky jacket, a terribly sketchy description to begin with. Almost soon as the stranger had entered the tunnels the team had started to self-destruct, starting with Scrambler's foolhardy attempt to mess with the boy's powers. Scalphunter's artillery had gone haywire, destroying himself and several other Marauders...and then Riptide himself had been seized by some sort of external control, whipping into a deadly hail of shuriken which had brutally cut down both of his female teammates.

That last retrieved memory had been the most vivid, as if there was a genuine emotion woven through it -- Guilt? I didn't know Janos had that in him, Sinister mused idly as he meticulously washed his hands clean of any remaining blood and brain matter -- but the others had been a jumbled patchwork blurred by darkness and sloshing sewage. No clear images of their enemy's face. Useless. No way to tell if the boy had been a telekinetic, a magnetic, a mind-alterer, a reality-manipulator, or something even more exotic.

In addition to being a crude but powerful psi, apparently.

Sinister shook his head. He felt no anger or disappointment in the Marauders' poor performance, for they'd obviously been up against an unknown alpha-level mutant whom even he himself would have found difficult to subdue. What DID disappoint him was the fact that, once again, his chosen assassins had shown absolutely no capacity for teamwork under pressure. When the heat was on, they tended to panic and strike out at their foes as individuals, almost taking turns, with no thought to how they could combine forces to survive and perhaps actually succeed. They were brute force, a blunt weapon. Not Sinister's style at all. Whatever had possessed him to put together this unruly, haphazard pack of feral dogs in the first place? What had inspired him to reclone them after their first crushing defeat down in the Morlock Tunnels under Manhattan?

The same hidden streak of sloppiness that allowed me to hire the Nasty Boys, apparently, he chided himself, wincing at the memory. Sometimes he became so caught up in his intricate long-term plans that perhaps, he was forced to admit, just perhaps his short-term arrangements such as assassination, acquisition, and security became a little...hasty.

For a moment he briefly considered disbanding the Marauders completely. Let their next mission be their last. Let them cut loose on the X-Men for their final hurrah, as they'd long been champing at the bit to do so. Close down the tubes, toss out the samples, and jump up and down on the bubble-memory chips. It was tempting, all right.

But very, very wasteful.

And it there was one thing Nathaniel Essex was most certainly not, it was wasteful.

Moving across the lab to a computer terminal, Sinister called up a composite file on his pet assassins and glanced through it perfunctorily, this time not bothering to stop himself from picking up the nearest pen and tapping it against one razor-sharp canine. He was too stubborn to let the project go down the drain so easily. Perhaps he was looking at it the wrong way. Culling Prism had seemed rash at the time, almost a childish flash of temper, but in retrospect it was a good start.

"Perhaps...yes," he murmured aloud, pausing one screen and reading it again, more slowly. With an adjustment here and a complete restructuring there, the right training here here and there...yes, it could work.

And it's not as if I have anything else to do besides conducting dozens of genetic tests, keeping my two-century planner on track, beginning some serious research into Legacy, and perfecting...her, he thought dryly, half-turning to regard the second tube next to Riptide's. The tube which held something which had merely been an idle project before, but now looked as if it would fit perfectly into his new plan.

Yes, I do think this will work out after all.

END INTERLUDE



She'd done it a hundred times, it seemed. They all had. The "uniforms" and equipment stowed away in a compartment under the tube; the bodies went in the tubes themselves. The tube slid shut, the wires and catheters snaked into place, the sedative feed activated, and the lights went out until they were needed again. Actually, Vertigo really didn't mind it at all, especially when Sinister used the method to smuggle them overseas. She hated airline food, and she always got seasick. Chalk up another mark in the "irony" column.

This time, though, she was scared to death. This time, she was positive that she would never wake up. And in the clarity of that fear she'd come up with a plan. It wasn't a great plan, but it was the best option she had if she wanted to get a headstart on her teammates...because they'd be sent after her, certain as the sun rising. No one left the Marauders. No one.

She waited until the tube closed, until the crate cut off the light. Sinister was wasting no time shipping his assassins home -- even as the breathing mask dropped into place and the tubes began to coil around her wrists, the entire contraption swayed underfoot and then tilted sharply back, swinging her in the canvas harness and banging her into the glass. It was cold against her bare skin and she winced.

A sharp prick at her wrist alerted her as her distraction almost ruined her plan. She nearly bit her tongue as she fumbled in the dark for the IV, yanking it out of her vein before the sedative could pump into her system. Then she tried to relax, counting the seconds. She had no idea what to expect. That sting of the needle was usually the last thing that registered before she woke up lying on an uncomfortable examination couch with a new mission briefing echoing in her ears...

Vertigo glanced down at a gurgling sound, and moaned as something swirled warm and wet around her feet. The preserving gel. Of course.

By the time the crate was set upright again long minutes later, the liquid was up to her knees. By the time she decided that enough time had passed for her to safely make her move, it was rising around her thighs. An ominous numbness was creeping up her legs along with the gel. Anesthetic? Oh NO! Don't want to spend the whole trip conscious but paralyzed. Can't go back now. It's now or never...

With new determination, she reached up and shoved at the metal cap just above her head. At first it wouldn't budge and she almost panicked, but then she remembered how the glass had spiralled slightly as it rose into place. She twisted her entire body, almost wrenching her back, trying to unscrew the "lid" of the tube. To her relief it popped free and fell to the side, taking the breathing mask and a tangle of electrodes with it--

There was a tremendous jerk and suddenly she was choking! The mask! It was anchored to the cap of the tube by a mass of wiring! She clawed frantically at the catch under her chin and freed herself, cursing her stupidity and rubbing her wrenched neck as the cap clunked to the bottom of the crate outside the tube.

The anesthetic gel was lapping around her waist now and her knees felt like water. She hurriedly pulled herself up in the harness, and managed to jam one bare foot into the strap which had previously run between her thighs. Straightening up on that one wobbly leg, she promptly bumped into the plastic ceiling of the shipping crate. There wasn't enough clearance to climb out of the tube, and when she heaved her shoulders up at the crate it didn't budge an inch.

Of course. Like it WOULDN'T be securely fastened. Shit.

She leaned her chin on her folded arms on the edge of the tube and brooded for a moment as the gel begun to rise above her ankles again. Then, with a sigh, she did the only thing she could do.

She began to bang methodically on the inside of the crate with one fist.



NEXT: If you want to know who lets her out -- and what happens to them! -- come back for Part Four! Meanwhile, the government is closing in. All they need is one little slip on the Marauders' part...and just who do you think is on the verge of making the biggest "slip" of her life?

~~~~~~~~~
Part Four
~~~~~~~~~

"'Is there any crime you haven't committed,
Master Platime?' Ehlana asked sternly.
"'Barratry, I think, your Majesty. Of course, I'm not
sure what it means, so I can't be entirely positive."

-- The Sapphire Rose by David Eddings

"The Doctor grinned. He reached out and touched
Benny's nose. 'What would I do without you?"
"'Get lonely,' Benny smiled back. 'And fail terribly.'"

-- Doctor Who: No Future by Paul Cornell

~~~~~~~~~

In a small, crowded dark room somewhere in Virginia:

"Phillipa Sontag." The tip of the slender metal pointer tapped the projection screen, on the picture of a woman in military fatigues and a severe haircut. The next slide which snapped into place showed the same woman, this time clad in shining metal and a sadistic smile. "Now goes by the name 'Arclight.' One of our own failures, I'm sorry to say. The details of her service to the United States are classified, but everything else you need to know is included in your briefing file."

The slide clicked over again. "Scalphunter. We know absolutely nothing about this man, but he's a tactical genius and a crack shot, possibly the most dangerous of the lot. He seems to be the brains of the outfit, so make it a priority to take him out first if at all possible."

Click. "Michael Baer. 'Blockbuster.' Mostly muscle. We do have patchy records on his early terrorist career in West Germany -- he was the only survivor of that 'Fists of Victory' debacle -- but he's an American citizen."

Click. "Kim Sung. 'Scrambler.' No threat to human operatives unless he's actually bothered to pick up some fighting moves." Click. "On the other hand is Janos Quested, 'Riptide,' who is arguably one of the most lethal of the Marauders. We have nothing on these two men aside from their names and abilities. We're still tracking leads."

Click. "The other three, Vertigo, Harpoon, and Prism, do not appear to exist in any database we've been able to reference so far. It is possible they're clones or genetic creations of some sort, but we can't rule out any possibilities yet. Of the three, Harpoon has the craftiest mind and is the one to watch out for. Vertigo is a non-combatant, and Prism is notedly overconfident and can usually be picked off early."

Click. Click. "There's a high probability that we no longer have Malice or Sabretooth to contend with, but their files are included just in case."

The humming slide projector died, leaving the room strangely quiet except for the shift and murmur of human bodies. The man with the pointer -- the same stone-calm grey-haired man who'd collected their first solid lead not two days before on the weathered steps of the Smithsonian in Washington DC -- turned to face his strike team in the near darkness, his arms folded across his chest. Special Agent Carlton was not a violent man, nor an irrational one; quite unlike the stereotype of the modern government man, there was not a single anti-mutant bone in his body. But if there was one thing that heated his calm, rational blood, it was the name "Marauder." He'd been dogging the trail of these brutal, bullying murderers for far too long...

When it came to his "interest" in the elusive pack of assassins that some said didn't even exist, even Carlton grudgingly used the word "vendetta."

"That concludes the mission outline," he said crisply. "You all have two hours to acquaint yourselves with the full Marauder dossier. Everything you have heard in this room and everything you have been assigned to read is classified red as per orders under the Wideawake II Protocols. Lethal force is fully authorized should these orders be activated...and trust me, people, I don't think you'll have very long to wait this time.

"Dismissed."



    Excerpt from Review #184030-1282
    Circa January 1995, classified deep-black:

    Subject 184030: I always felt different, you know.
    Interviewer: Mmmm?
    Subject 184030: Well, THEY had pasts, some of them at least. Blockbuster,
    Arclight, Scalp, 'Poon...even Riptide, I think, though I could quite never tell when
    he was serious and when he was ranting. Anyhow, they didn't talk about it much
    but I knew that they...remembered. Families, growing up, owning stuff other than
    weapons and clothes, that kind of thing. Blockbuster...he'd tell me bits and pieces
    sometimes. Just when he was bored, really, and they weren't always very good
    stories, but I didn't mind listening. Oh sure, he had his moments -- he'd get kinda
    paranoid-mean sometimes, or start throwing full-bore punches over some stupid
    insult, didn't care too much who or what he hit, either -- but usually he wasn't too
    bad of a teammate. Sinister actually trusted him more than some of the others, I think.
    Interviewer: And why was that?
    Subject 184030: Because he wasn't smart or anything, but he did exactly what
    he was told. He didn't think too much, know what I mean? The others all thought
    that Sinister liked Scalphunter the best, and maybe he did, but when Sinister
    needed something simple done right, without questions or creative thinking, it
    was always Mike. No one else noticed, but I did.
    Interviewer: Mike?
    Subject 184030: (sigh) You know. Blockbuster.
    Interviewer: You say that this "Mike" was the closest thing you had to a friend.
    That he looked after you.
    Subject 184030: Yeah right! "Felt sorry for me" is more like it. It wasn't all
    the time, just sometimes, when he felt like it. But when I really, really needed
    a hand, he was usually there. S'funny, now that I think about it. Maybe he
    had a kid sister I reminded him of or something. Maybe I pulled a thorn outta
    his paw at some point and didn't know it. Maybe he just secretly wanted into
    my leotard. Who knows?
    Interviewer: So you got along, at least.
    Subject 184030: Hey, you're digging again. What's so interesting about the
    fact that we "got along"?
    Interviewer: (ahem!) Well, if you must know, none of this fits with our
    psychological profile of Michael Baer. As far as we can tell, the man is nothing
    but a brutal, slow-witted, cold-blooded killer.
    Subject 184030: Of course he is. So what?



Vertigo's raised arm was getting numb, her hand felt like one great bruise from pounding, the air was getting stale, and the gel had levelled out at the top of the tube (and around her waist) when something clunked against the side of the crate. She almost lost her balance but grabbed the side of the tube and grimly hung on for dear life as someone began to unclasp the catches on the outside.

Her heart was already somewhere down around her toes. She'd had plenty of time to think, hunched over in the darkness, and her plan was looking worse and worse by the minute. She'd be lucky if just one cargo handler had come to investigate. More likely whoever had heard her had promptly called in his supervisor. There could be a dozen dockhands out there right now, more than she could ever hope to handle on her own...and of course once they'd found her there'd be questions and investigations, and they'd certainly want to pop open the other crates...

Okay. Take deep breaths and focus. Whoever it is, you'll have to knock 'em out FAST, she told herself firmly. Not that it'll do much good. If I leave him alive, he'll talk; if I kill him, he won't go missing for long, then they'll REALLY come after me. And of course it's probably more than one anyway. Dammit...

The plastic creaked and light flooded into the crate, along with a blast of cold salty wind which instantly raised goosebumps all over her body. Without thinking a moment longer, she squeezed her eyes shut against the glare and slammed outward with her power. She heard a startled squawk; the box rocked abruptly and there was a meaty thud outside. As quickly as she could, she shoved the lid aside and pulled herself over the side of the crate.

Unfortunately, her intention of a running escape was dashed when her feet hit the deck. Her gel-numbed legs promptly folded up under her like a marionette's wooden limbs and she landed hard on her butt -- right on top of the downed dockworker. Who, by the sound of his groan, was recovering rapidly from the pulse of disorientation. Snarling silently, she summoned up the strength for another attack--

A wide hand closed around her wrist. "Vertigo! Vertigo, kid, cut it out! For cryin' out loud, it's me!"

She blinked and paused at the familiar gravelly voice. "B-Blockbuster...?"

"Yeah, that's the one." He pushed her off of his stomach and clambered to his feet, pulling her up with him. "Geez, what happened? The sedative not kick in or somethin'?"

"Uh...sorta...I...what are YOU doing here?!" Only now did it register: her massive teammate was dressed in an equally huge but surprisingly well-tailored jumpsuit, dull yellow with orange tabs and emblazoned with bright symbols across the breast pocket and sleeve. The metal bracers glinting dully from under his unbuttoned cuffs were all that remained of his usual haphazard "killing" attire.

The second thing, which registered a bare half-second later as her adrenaline rush faded away, was the fact that there was a salty, nigh-frigid wind blowing. This did NOT agree with the fact that she was nude and half-soaked.

Completely accustomed to seeing his teammates in that condition, Blockbuster had other things on his mind. "Hold on, let's get you out of sight before one of the regular guys comes around to check out the commotion." He handed her a dirty towel (which she quickly tried to wrap around herself), replaced and reclamped the great plastic lid, and then ushered her past a row of crates identical to her own. All were lashed securely into place with bright red labels on all sides. Labels she couldn't read, of course.

He noticed her squinting up at them. "'Biological waste and specimens,' that's what it says," he explained as he lowered her down through a hatch -- out of the icy wind and piercing grey sunlight, much to her relief. "As in 'nasty stuff from a hospital.' Keeps even the nosiest of folks from pokin' around in 'em." He tapped the badge over his heart. "Me, I'm the 'hazmat official' who keeps an eye on 'em on the way over. Pretty smart of Sinister, huh?"

"G-good thing," Vertigo agreed. Her teeth were belatedly starting to chatter as the initial numb shock passed. When he let go of her arms, her awakening feet went pins-and-needles -- she sat down abruptly on the edge of what appeared to be a makeshift cot. "K-k-kind of appropriate, too. The, the l-labels, I mean. Have you, um, d-done this before?"

"Oh yah, sure, lots of times. Who do you think seals up the other crates? Can't exactly seal up my own, y'know. An' hey, it's like a vacation -- no work, no backbiting, no 'setting watches,' just me an' a bunk an' a deck'a cards. You never noticed?"

"No. I was always in a crate at the time, remember?"

"Oh." There was a momentary silence. "You cold, kid?"

Vertigo glared up at him, clutching the towel to her breasts and turning a delicate shade of blue. "Y-yes!"

Blockbuster cast around carefully and then came up with a reasonably intact blanket. He tossed it around her bare shoulders and grinned as she promptly cocooned herself in it. "This should do until we figure out what's wrong with your tube. Shouldn't take long -- those things're pretty much foolproof. I mean hell, WE c'n be taught ta use 'em, huh?"

Vertigo couldn't help it -- she smiled. Then she caught herself. "Uh, would it be okay if I, er, y'know, didn'tgobackinthetube?" she blurted quickly. "I mean, we get along well enough, and I wouldn't mind keeping you company. I could use a 'vacation' from the others, too. How long is the trip? And where ARE we, anyway?"

"We're aboard the Hanjin Hammer Bay, an' it's four days t'port in the 'States." Blockbuster considered matters for a moment, stroking his chin with one hammy hand. "I guess it WOULD be better'n playin' solitaire for four days, an' you don't eat much..."

She sighed with relief. "You're great. Thanks, Mike."

"Any time, Vee."

She was quiet for a moment, clutching the blanket up around her ears. Then she hesitantly asked, "Uh, Mike...?"

"Yeah?"

"There's...um...something else I need to ask you about. Promise you won't get mad?"

Blockbuster grinned. "Eh, I could never get mad at you, kid. Spill it."

"Well, I don't want to get you in trouble or anything, but it's about when we get to the U.S..."



The Hanjin Hammer Bay arrived at the bustling Baltimore Seaport late on a Monday evening after a completely uneventful four-day trans-Atlantic journey. Unloading was scheduled to begin the next morning.

The next morning, two night watchmen were found dead just outside their perimeter post, each apparently bludgeoned to death with a single blow from a dull object. No witnesses and no murder weapon could be found. The only clues found onsite after the initial hasty examination were

a) a few scattered fingerprints too big to possibly belong to any normal human being, and

b) two sets of footprints, marked only by traces of blood: one huge set marching stolidly away from the scene, back towards the docks; and one small shoeless set, sprinting past the abandoned side gate and away from the harbor.

Into Baltimore.



"Bingo. Carlton? We've got positive ID. Prints from that murder scene in Maryland match one of our targets, as do the physical specs of a suspect who went missing before the local law could round him up. Along with the cargo he was guarding, according to the Haijin HB's manifesto -- five 'medical' crates more than big enough to hold bodies."

"Christ. That's much closer to DC than I like... All right. I think this warrants a full alert. Initiate Project Safari. I want to know where those crates went, and in the meantime I want downtown Baltimore staked out and searched from top to bottom. Especially the inner harbor district. Quietly."

Even faced with that seemingly insanely impossible task, the woman at the computer didn't bat an eyelash. After all, this had been coming for years. Her hands flew obediently over the keys and mouse, setting aside the forensics report, typing in and firing out a single string of code which would set in motion an entire slew of private e-mails and re-assignments. All "quietly," of course.

The grey-haired man at her shoulder nodded absently in approval, silently glad that he'd insisted upon holding the full Marauder briefing the night before. There was certainly no time to update his people now. He drummed his fingers against the high back of her chair, his brow still creased with thought. "Make a note, Anna: I'll be overseeing this matter in person. And while you're at it, pull that murder case out of the locals' jurisdiction as of ten minutes ago."

"Yes, sir. What about the one already on the loose?"

John Carlton snorted lightly. "Unless they've changed their M.O. and added someone or someTHING new to the team, there's only one Marauder who could possibly fit into those little-girl footprints. If they thought she'd be inconspicious enough to act as a forward scout, they've screwed up royally this time. Maybe a woman with green-and-silver hair down to her ass could blend into the California crowd...but not here. Put out a public APB on the murdering bitch. We'll pick her up her when the locals drag her in for us."



NEXT: On the loose in Baltimore, all Vertigo thinks she has to worry about is her rumbling stomach and her vengeful ex-teammates. She's dead wrong.

~~~~~~~~~
Part Five
~~~~~~~~~

And what I used to think was me is just a fading memory
I looked him right in the eye and said "goodbye"
I was up above it...now i'm down in it...

-- down in it by nine inch nails

~~~~~~~~~

    Excerpt from Review #184030-2556
    Circa December 1997, classified deep-black:

    Subject 184030: There's something different about today. You're done with
    me, aren't you? They need me for something.
    Interviewer: You've shown remarkable progress...
    Subject 184030: Bullshit! Don't talk down to me. I've proven that I can play
    "pet assassin" and follow orders here just as well as I could back under Sinister's
    command, and I'm more than ready to prove it. I have been for months.
    Interviewer: Well, we believe that--
    Subject 184030: Don't interrupt, dammit, just let me finish for once. I handled
    the last assignment perfectly, and they told me that my "status" had been bumped
    up, but STILL you keep me here, like a--a goddamn mental patient or something.
    Poking at me with the same tired questions over and over when you're not running
    me through tests and training and whatever else. What's so special that you've
    finally decided to give me another shot at the outside? If you're not going to let
    me out of here and give me the truth, at least give me a straight answer about
    what you want me to do. Or I won't do it. Plain and simple.
    Interviewer: So...you're determined to be difficult?
    Subject 184030: Ohhh, this isn't difficult. Now...THIS...is difficult.
    Interviewer: What--I--uhh!--

    (At this point review session #2556 was terminated. Subject 184030
    was sedated and restrained; interviewer #46 was rushed to intensive
    care and diagnosed with a massive heart attack, resulting in death
    within ten minutes of onset despite full emergency procedures.)

    (Regardless, Project Mirror will continue on schedule.)



All in all, it had been a pretty good day for Jack Andreas. He was through with this semester's college finals, that nasty spat with his girlfriend had finally blown over, and it had been a good night at work. In fact, he was going to get a healthy tip for this particular delivery.

He leaned over the duct-taped passenger seat of his battered Toyota and squinted up at the building to double-check the address. Yep, this was the place all right. Some slavedriver of a Radio Shack boss was keeping his employees up inhumanly late with inventory on a Wednesday night...but at least he was keeping them fed.

Jack tucked the pizza carrier up under his arm, grabbed the additional paper bags, and stepped out of his car, leaving the ignition running; it was, after all, a safe neighborhood...

Two steps later, the dizziness hit him like a tornado, twisting his senses upside down and his stomach inside out. He barely felt his knees crack into the pavement as he fell, retching and gasping. Something tugged at his delivery box -- he had enough presence of mind to fumble out the little tube of mace on his keychain (he'd thought it was a lame idea when his girlfriend had insisted that he take it!) and fire a spray wildly in the general direction of his attacker. Then a foot connected solidly with the side of his head, heel-first...and that was the end of Jack Andreas' good night.

Oddly, his car was still purring at the curb when he came groggily to ten minutes later, and his money pouch was quite untouched. All that was missing was a package of Pizza! Pizza! and several batches of Crazy Bread.



On the roof of a nearby trendy coffee shop, Vertigo sat hunched over with the heels of her hands pressed into her watering eyes, taking deep choking breaths as the agonizing burn of whatever the man had sprayed at her finally died away in a ragged wash of tears. Her stomach was settling out too, back into the dull empty ache which had dogged her for two days now.

The instant she was able to take her hands away from her reddened eyes, she tore into the box of pizza. Even in her hunger she had the presence of mind to strip off the cheese and chuck it away -- the stuff always made her ill, "lack-something-intolerant" Sinister had called it -- and wolf down the delicious pepperoni first despite her now sore throat. Almost the entire pizza was gone by the time she slowed down and was curious enough to look into the fistful of paper bags she'd snagged too. Looks like bread, smells like bread. Hmm. All right then. Most of that vanished too, leaving her thirsty but more content than she'd been since parting company with Blockbuster at the port two days earlier.

He'd been easier to convince that she'd thought. Not happy with her decision to desert the team, but not about to stand in her way. He'd been quiet for an entire day as if thinking about the subject in great detail -- of course, being who he is, he probably needed the whole day to think about it, she thought with a grin. Then he'd offered to teach her how to play poker and it had been as if nothing had happened between them.

Until three days later, when she'd made her move to escape. He'd loomed out of the darkness, huge and disconcertingly silent, to crush the skulls of those two guards in his bare hands before she'd even spotted them. No words had been exchanged -- she understood instinctively that it was the only and the last piece of help he could offer.

They hadn't exactly been friends (the word "friend" had never been spoken aloud) but she felt more than a little uneasy when she thought that the next time they met, he'd be her enemy.

Vertigo mentally sighed and shrugged, concentrating instead upon licking buttery parmesan crumbs off of her fingers as she leaning back against a brick accessway on the chilly rooftop -- one of many she'd haunted since leaving the port, staying out of the alleys and definitely out of the sewers. Her teammates, now out to kill her or drag her home to Sinister for far worse? So be it. It wasn't like they'd ever been the fondest of friends, anyhow. Let them try to find her. She might not be the greatest Marauder in the world, but when she put her mind to it she could obliterate her trail so well that even four Scalphunters wouldn't be able to track her down.

She didn't know how she knew how to do that -- she just did. Something bubbling up from the flat blankness before her "birth" at the gnarled little hands of Brainchild, most likely. She didn't want to look the gift horse in the mouth. She was just happy that for once she was able to DO something.

Brainchild...now THERE was a name she hadn't thought of in years...

Sirens passed on the streets below, the flicker of their red-and-blue strobes reflecting off of the windows on both sides of the street, their kaleidoscope glitter bouncing up even to her third-story-level retreat. It was the fourth police car to pass this way in the last hour. She'd never really bothered to get a feel for life in the city, any city, and so she didn't know if that was normal or not. She knew it was silly and egotistical to think that it had anything to do with her, but if the others were already out on the streets looking for her...

She shook her head, pulling her stolen sweater tighter around her shoulders. No, they were more professional than that. They'd hit quietly, when she least expected it...

Great. Now I'm getting paranoid. Suddenly she felt colder than the night air warranted. She stood up, stuffing the leftover Crazy Bread in the hip pocket of the stained sweat-pants Blockbuster had found for her aboard the Hanjin Hammer Bay. Time to get moving for real. Somewhere, anywhere, just away. Far away. She had a sinking feeling that once again her so-called "plan" was far too simplistic to be useful, but what could she do but try to...

Out of nowhere, light splashed over the rooftop in a brilliant white flood and waves of wind beat around her like a hurricane. She instinctively threw one arm over her still-raw eyes and shrank back against the bricks as a helicopter roared overhead. They're after me! They found me! How did they find me?

In a blind instantaneous panic she "lashed out" at the helicopter even as she sprang to her feet and dove for the fire escape. Behind her she heard the beat of the 'copter's rotors change pitch as it veered off, swerving violently and barely missing the slightly taller building to the west. The light swept away too, leaving her dazzled and blind against the night, but she'd already grabbed the railing and swung her feet onto the metal ladder, and she didn't need her sight to scramble down towards the ground.



"...in airborne support of the ground units on the East Lexington Street break-in when all occupants were hit by intense dizziness and nausea -- pilot reports seeing a multicolored flash from ground-level. Suspected mutant interference, one female suspect spotted. Do we pursue, over?"

While the harried dispatcher dealt with the situation from Baltimore PD HQ, giving a negative and directing the helicopter back to its initial assignment, other listeners made careful note of the conversation. This was exactly what they'd been waiting for, though they hadn't counted on getting such a clear confirmation! Within ten minutes, that area would be flooded with agents under the jurisdiction of Project Safari...

However, there were other agencies within the government with an interest in the case. A personal interest. A flag flashed red on a single computer, activating a pager across town and alerting someone only a few streets away from the disturbance -- so close that the helicopter in question thudded unsteadily past overhead even as the pager beeped smugly on its beltloop.

The woman checked the little device and then looked up through short-cropped green-and-silver bangs, allowing herself a triumphant smile. "Ah. So THERE you are."



NEXT: Okay, so that was a short one. Who's our surprise mystery guest? Your first guess may seem impossible, but hang onto it, because I'm just getting started. Do you folks remember the Mutant Massacre? Oddly, Vertigo DOESN'T...

~~~~~~~~
Part Six
~~~~~~~~

i'm getting edgy all the time
there's someone around me just a step behind
it's kinda scary, the shape i'm in
The walls are shakin' and they're closin' in
Too fast or a bit slow
I'm paranoid of people and it's starting to show
There's one guy that I can't shake
Over my shoulder is a big mistake...

-- Gotta Get Away by the Offspring

~~~~~~~~

INTERLUDE
Several years ago:

Masked by traffic and the incessant pounding beat of city life, the low rolling rumble underfoot went almost completely unnoticed.

What followed right on the heels of that rumble, however, did not.

Completely without warning, flames roared up from every drain and sewer in Manhattan, licking through the gaps in manhole covers and lighting the paper trash in countless gutters with a rushing hiss. Cars skidded, bicycles swerved frantically into traffic, and pedestrians stumbled and cried out in shock. Here and there a pitch-daubed telephone pole lit up like a candle, flickering briefly but merrily. On one corner an old-fashioned newspaper stand went up in a fiery blaze, and at a bus stop a child screamed as his too-curious hands were enveloped in a gust of flames.

Then the fires died as suddenly as they'd appeared...except for the burning gutters and the occasional unfortunate who found themselves swatting out a smouldering coatsleeve or skirt.

As the city's pulse skipped a beat and then continued steadily onward to the wailing tune of fire engines, a mixed pack of police officers and FBI agents were forced back by the inferno which boiled up through the open sewer accessway they'd approached not two seconds before. Several men closest to the sudden blast of heat suffered severe burns and had to be relegated to the squad cars to await an ambulance. When the pain passed they would count their blessings, for a few moments later they would have been within the tunnel itself...

Special Agent John Carlton swore under his breath as the flames guttered and then vanished. The others held back, guns at the ready, wary of an attack, while Carlton stepped forward and ran ginger fingers along the inside of the great pipe. It had been slick with algae (and less pleasant substances) when his team had traced the murderers' trail to this very spot. Though it was now so hot to the touch that he had to jerk his hand back almost immediately, his worst suspicions were confirmed. In that intense but eeriely brief blast of heat, the curved metal surface within the pipe had been charred utterly clean.

Which meant no trail to follow. No clues. Dead end.

He raised a hand slightly and a moment later his chief assistant Anna Mayfaire was at his side. She was examining a handheld device, one of the few toys that the United States had actually managed to coax from special operative Forge when he was feeling cooperative enough to actually honor his long-standing government contract. Lights danced across the surface of the haphazard piece of equipment, and her forehead creased in anxiety.

"That wasn't natural -- though I'd say from your expression that you'd already guessed that," she murmured with a faint but distinct British accent. With one hand she was carefully shielding the classified device from the eyes of the local officers.

"Natural? Hardly. Too hot and too complete to be anything of the sort," Carlton replied, just as quietly. His own people had now regained command of the situation, cordoning off the pipe and preparing to send in a new recon team. It was probably all moot now, but he let them carry out their jobs. Thoroughness, pointless or not, would look better on the report. "Perhaps a weapon of some sort was detonated under the city, but on a hunch I'd say this was the work of one of our super-powered pals."

"Sir, if I may comment--? This is FAR beyond the abilities of any pyrokinetic on record."

"I know. Can you narrow it down?"

"Aside from the intense heat and the great quantity, the flames read normal except for...yes, there's a faint trace, perhaps the source...I'm cross-checking it with our records..." Mayfaire looked up, even more perturbed than before. "One match, one hundred percent. The power signature of the guiding energies -- it's definitely Asgardian."

"I...see. Well. Looks like someone beat us to the 'bad guys.' Again." Carlton's voice was utterly neutral but Mayfaire knew him well enough to know when he was truly in a foul mood. Politely, she backed away and moved off to triangulate the reading for the records.

Carlton tapped his chin thoughtfully, looking at but not truly seeing the sewer pipe as the first brave squad moved warily in. There had been a terrifyingly swift string of brutal murders in Manhattan on this muggy summer night, murders that at first had seemed unrelated aside from one tenuous connection: all of the victims were harmless second-rate mutants, mostly drifters and homeless street people. Then, not an hour ago, a bright young junior agent had made a jump of logic and it had all abruptly snapped into clear focus. The brutal murders weren't the work of a single killer but of a entire TEAM of killers, working together towards the same unknown goal. Preying on the defenseless. Why or what for, no one could say.

The trail and the blood-choked dying words of their latest victim had led here...to the sewers. Where, if their now-dead informant had not been hallucinating in her final moments, an entire previously unknown "clan" of outcast mutants lay in danger of mass slaughter. If they weren't dead already.

Which, between the elusive assassins and this underground firestorm, seemed completely likely.

So what we have here is a new pack of psychopaths, working in tandem...with a VERY high probability they're mutants themselves judging by the preliminary forensic reports on the bodies. Great. Just what New York needs.

Some of his compatriots had tried to deprioritize the assignment ("They're just killing their own kind," they said..."Leave it to those new government muties," they said) but allowing that kind of thinking to take root and letting this trail get cold were two of the LAST things Carlton wanted. He'd taken a huge risk already, pulling in so many resources for this particular bug-hunt...

He sighed, raking a hand through his greying hair and then over his eyes to rub the bridge of his nose. He had nothing against mutants himself -- in fact, his own wife could no longer pass for "human" on the street -- but when they went bad, their potential for damage was so much higher that a man would have to be a fool to take on a job tracking them down on a regular basis.

The FBI agent smiled wryly to himself. So call me a fool.

He had been idly scuffing his shoe in the weeds on the gravel embankment as he waited for the inevitable report of failure from the strike team. Only now did something strike him as odd. The toe of his shoe was wet -- and it hadn't rained in Manhattan for two months.

He crouched down for a better look, touching the damp patch and bringing it up to his eyes. In the glare of the squad cars' headlights, he could definitely see the red smear on his fingertips.

Blood.

Quickly, Carlton unclipped the flashlight from his belt and cast around. He only found a few more scattered drops on the gravel, not enough to lay out a solid trail, but they were fresh and wet...

He twisted without straightening up, aiming the flashlight into the darkness behind him. There was a chain-link fence not ten feet away, with a shallow drainage ditch running parallel down to the street beyond the squad cars. The beam of light played across something lying motionless in the ditch: a silvery fan of hair, a green-swirled shoulder...

Holding both the light and his gaze rock-steady, he called back, "Mayfaire? Bring someone over here. Carefully. I think we may have a survivor."

END INTERLUDE



A man shouted and a woman yelped indignantly as parcels went flying across the pavement, but Vertigo paid no heed to the commotion in her wake as she plowed headlong into the crowd with a profound sense of relief. Relief, because she'd been forced to flee through two practically deserted blocks of daytime businesses before reaching the "safety" of the busier nightlife streets near what the Baltimore locals called the Charles Center.

There was no sign of the helicopter, no wailing police sirens -- no sign of any pursuit whatsoever. The skin between her shoulderblades finally stopped crawling as she skidded to a halt and sagged heavily against a telephone pole, letting humanity swirl past on both sides like a protective curtain. She forced herself to breathe deeply as she clutched her elbows, closing the open sweater. To her suddenly self-conscious mind, the green-swirled leotard which stretched across her breasts felt like a glowing target. She'd put off stealing more clothes because it was tougher than it sounded; she wasn't quite down to digging in garbage cans yet, and, let's face it, people didn't exactly go hanging their wash out on clotheslines anymore.

It looked like she couldn't put anything off any longer. Only now did the full impact of what she'd done hammer into her. This wasn't a game. This time, if she screwed up, her death would be painful and permanent. Permanent...forever...she couldn't even begin to grasp that concept. And of course, that was only one possible outcome; living wasn't going to be much easier. She closed her eyes and let out a long breath as she realized that there was no way she could fit into the civilized world. She had no skills. She had no background. Hell, she didn't even have a name.

She glanced down at her mismatched, grimy makeshift clothing and smiled wryly despite herself. Well, with a bit more smeared dirt and a wool hat, maybe I could pose as a mad old bag lady while I try to figure things out...

When Vertigo looked up, it was straight into the eyes of a police officer.



On a balcony half a block away, the gleam of a streetlight flashed off of the lenses of a pair of binoculars. Their focus slid across across Vertigo's distinctively-colored hair and then snapped back, sharpening and zooming. The woman holding the high-tech viewer allowed herself a brief tight grin of triumph. "There you are!" she whispered, reaching for the phone clipped to her belt.

Her hand froze and she frowned, squinting through the binoculars again. No. Wait. The way she's standing...too stiff...something doesn't look right...

Her magnified gaze refocused and then tracked across to the flat police cap on the head of the person right in front of her target. Practically eye-to-eye -- and reaching for something on his belt with the false nonchalance of a hunter who doesn't want to spook potentially dangerous prey.

"Dammit!" Time to move already.

The binoculars vanished silently into an inner pocket; a metal grating vibrated under two swift footsteps and then the balcony was empty.



Though her heart leaped into her mouth, Vertigo bit the inside of her cheek and forced herself to stay calm, telling herself that it didn't mean anything, that the police officer was just doing his job. Maybe he thought she was in some kind of trouble...she DID look pretty out-of-breath and scared, she was certain. Or maybe he just wanted to give her a warning about loitering, or about running around banging into people, or something...

He was backing away, his eyes still locked with hers. He was raising a walkie-talkie to his mouth. He was easing his hand onto the truncheon at his belt.

For a moment she wondered if there was some way she could talk her way out of this, but her traitorous mouth was completely dry and even the vaguest semblance of a vocabulary had deserted her. With a low desperate whimper, she whirled and fled back into the crowd.

She thought that she heard a shout behind her and she thrust ahead with more determination than before, twisting and weaving like an eel through the almost solid mass of humanity. A ripple of unease was rolling through the throng as the word slowly spread that something was wrong, that there was something foreign and dangerous using their bodies for cover. In a few seconds there would be panic and she'd either be trampled or left out in the open. She couldn't even use her power -- that would make matters worse!

She tried to look back but could see no sign of the policeman, which didn't necessarily mean that he wasn't there, or that he hadn't called in backup to cut her off. Have to put more distance between us! She redoubled her efforts, trying to find a side way out of the crowd, maybe an alley...

Vertigo swerved around a pregnant woman, only to trip over a stroller which almost sent her sprawling. By now the herd was truly spooked; the metal-tipped corner of a briefcase took her hard in the ribs as its owner shoved past, driving her breath out in a painful whoof of air. As she reeled sideways, completely disoriented, an hand closed on her wrist. She wrenched free with a short inarticulate cry, finally cutting loose with a shockwave of nausea that only increased the chaos around her. But she finally saw an opening in the milling mass!

Gasping with relief, she ducked under the dark-suited man who'd attempted to grab her, sprinting for that glimpse of open air. Her feet and jaw jarred painfully as she ran right off of some kind of curb, but she could see freedom in the form of a serviceway not ten meters away across an clear intersection.

What if they have guns? What if they shoot? she thought in a panic, suddenly realizing that she'd exchanged one danger for another: the chance of being physically taken down for the chance of being picked off by a bullet! She glanced back and caught sight of three more officers converging on the area, and she could hear sirens fast approaching from both directions.

Well, there's no going back now.

She gritted her teeth and tucked in her elbows and kept running, her aching soles completely forgotten in the rush of adrenaline. Duck and dodge, don't give them a clear line of sight...they won't want to fire and miss, not with this many people around...

Four steps later she caught a broad yellow movement out of the corner of her eye, and a blaring tumult assaulted her ears. Shocked, she caught her toe under her foot and stumbled -- before she could even think about reacting something rammed into her hard enough to lift her feet right off of the ground. She had a dizzy spinning glimpse of headlights and rusty chrome before she crumpled into something hard and the lights went out.



"SHIT!" The woman ran hard on the balls of her feet like a trained sprinter, binoculars banging against her hip in the inside pocket of her jacket with every stride. When she hit the crowd she didn't even slow down; instead, she plowed against the tide of fleeing human cattle with one elbow in front of her like a wedge, further clearing her path by lashing out indiscriminately with invisible bursts of mental power. People spun away from her on both sides gasping, clutching at their throats or chests, but she paid them no heed.

She broke through the crowd just in time to see the taxi screech to a halt a moment too late -- she caught sight of Vertigo just as the Marauder was thrown against a parked car several yards away, obviously knocked out cold the moment her head struck the car door hard enough to leave a dent. Even as Vertigo's unconscious body slid to the asphalt, however, her pursuer was at her side, crouching down and slapping something onto her target's chest even as she tapped an identical device looped around her own wrist.

In a shimmer, both women disappeared into thin air.

When the police took control of the chaotic intersection a moment later, there was no evidence that either had ever existed.



In actuality, neither had ever left.

As confused and suspicious officers double-checked the area, covering all exits and searching for clues as to their target's mysterious "escape," the woman rested one palm on the parked car and let out a huge soundless exhalation of relief. She glanced around to confirm the situation and nodded to herself with satisfaction. The modified image inducers were working perfectly; as far as anyone could tell, there was nothing at the base of the parked car in question but a spot of nondescript pavement.

They couldn't stay there for long, however. At any moment someone was going to question the driver of the taxi who'd struck Vertigo, and someone was inevitably going to walk over to that very spot to look for evidence. There was blood on the door of the parked car, which was unfortunately a clean well-maintained cream color and practically showcased the new dent and the scarlet smear.

Don't know if she can be moved, she thought, checking Vertigo quickly for pulse and then for signs of neck or back injuries. Not being a doctor, she couldn't really be sure, but nothing seemed alarmingly floppy... Damn amateur! Was I ever that stupid? Bloody hell. Should I move her? They want her alive...

As a cop made the taxi driver step out of his vehicle and point out where he'd last seen the girl who'd bounced off of his bumper, she made her decision. Well, it's either this or get both of us caught. Don't you dare die on me, babe. Carefully, she gathered Vertigo up in both arms and edged away just as two cops strode over, treading on the very place where she'd just been crouched down.

Slowly...carefully... Smoothly sidling around a business owner who'd come out to see the show, she took one step at a time, not making any sudden moves. Not for Vertigo's sake, but rather to allow the straining image inducers to adjust to the changing scenery and maintain a sharp match. The devices really weren't designed for this -- their primary function was to create human facades for inhuman mutants -- but more could be coaxed from them in an emergency, and they only had to keep her cover until she could reach the nearest alley...

She had to make do with the deep recess of a shop entry, luckily one that was temporarily out of business. With a grunt she set Vertigo's limp body down on the pavement in the shadowed alcove, checking again to make sure that she was still breathing. Other than some painful-looking abrasions and the blood staining a stripe of fine silver hair at the back of her head, she seemed to be in surprisingly good shape.

Other than smelling like she hasn't showered in a week, the woman thought, wrinkling her nose fastidiously. Lucky girl -- nothing broken, she'll live. Anyone else and she'd belong in a hospital right now, considering what just happened to her. Sinister may have bad taste in choosing his pets but he sure builds 'em to last, she added wryly as she settled back on her haunches. Keeping her eye on the street, she pulled out her cellphone and dialed.

"You there? 'Kay. This is 184030. I have her. On East Baltimore Street near the Charles North -- track the phone. And keep it low-key, we're practically right in the middle of the action. The little moron almost got her sorry ass caught."

A pause -- she listened, one eyebrow raised. "Carlton's after her too? Christ, why didn't you tell me--? No. No. Yes, for cryin' out loud! I'll stay on my toes. Out."



NEXT: The plot thickens, eh? All shall be revealed next chapter, though frankly I think I've already given you all the clues you need to make an educated guess! :) And finally, the origin of Vertigo...not like you ever wondered before, but if you've come this far in this particular story then surely you're just the least little bit curious...

~~~~~~~~~~
Part Seven
~~~~~~~~~~

Do you trust what I trust?
Me, myself, and I
Penetrate the smokescreen
I see through the selfish lie...

-- Eye Of The Beholder by Metallica

~~~~~~~~~~

INTERLUDE
An indeterminate number of years ago...

She AWOKE to searing pain, pain in every cell of her body, in her very bones, licking through her like cold fire. She tried to scream and then realized that she'd actually been screaming for some time -- her throat was so sore that she could only let out a strangled rasp. She tried to struggle free only to find that her wrists and neck and ankles were already scraped raw under unforgiving metal restraints.

She would have wondered how long she'd been fighting the agony...except that she had no language or concept of time in which to express herself. So she simply subsided, panting like a trapped animal, grateful merely that the pain was ebbing into an aching soreness all over her body. Her head was pounding, both with pain and the sudden influx of...thoughts? Every effort to figure out what was happening to and around her felt unfamiliar, sharp-edged -- like something entirely new.

She could hear gutteral sounds at the edge of her hearing, and she tensed all over. Only the gangly, ugly Fall People made sounds like that-- "Fall People"? Where had she gotten that term? That wasn't what they were called...

She realized with a cold start that she was, indeed, thinking. In sounds just like the ones she was hearing. What was going on? What had they DONE to her?!

Now that she concentrated (which sent a fresh wake of pain ricocheting between her temples) she found to her dumb astonishment that she could understand the grunting, hissing noises. They were TALKING. She listened, lagging a word or two behind as her newfound power of cognition struggled mightily to match words to meaning. And succeeded.

"...should be a success," the one voice was saying. "And, more to the point, she's from the same genetic pool as Equilibrius, so there shouldn't be much adjustment necessary for you and the others."

"But...a she?" This was a deep, heavy voice. As the writhing light faded away from around her she chanced a peek from under her eyelids and almost gasped at the size of the man. And...he had four arms! An abomination!

"Bah. Male, female -- it's hard to tell with those dirty little primates. At least she's still breathing after the process, unlike the last two you brought in. Good enough for me. You'll survive, Barbarus." The first voice was brittle and querulous, the voice of a man who disdained speaking to his inferiors...yet one who saw no being as his equal. "Unfortunately, I'll have to thoroughly study the readings on this particular case and recalibrate the entire system before attempting to upgrade another Mutate into our ranks... Gaza?"

Someone else was already moving into the room, heading straight for the upright table she was strapped to. Another giant. She closed her eyes tightly, playing possum, but not before she noticed his eyes were pure white; his head did not track in response to his surroundings. Blind. She swallowed hard, unnerved by that glimpse of empty stare. What kind of place was this, that allowed monsters and the crippled to live...?

A cool hand brushed across her brow. "She seems unharmed, and sentient. Probably awake, too." This voice was right above her head, deep and unhurried and perhaps a little sad, but she could sense a smile in his last sentence. The straps loosened--

With a defiant howl she propelled herself off of the cold metal, scratching and clawing. She caught a tantalizing glimpse of an open door not four meters away before the blind giant effortlessly pinned her arms to her sides and set her feet not ungently on the stone floor.

"That's not going to work on a psi, child. And don't worry, you're not the first one to feel that way about Brainchild's genetic transformer," he said softly. To her dismay, he was still holding her arms clamped down. Discarding the new bank of language which had been forced into her head, she merely snarled eloquently in reply. She could feel him chuckle against her half-bare back.

The unpleasant voice -- she glanced up and now saw that it was attached to a bearded, weak-limbed little man with a repulsively swollen head -- called out, "She's your responsibility for now, Gaza. See that she learns the ropes, but don't give her the run of the Savage Land yet, you understand? And find her something to wear before Lupo catches sight of her."

But what's wrong with what I--? For the first time she glanced down at her body...and nearly choked in horror. The rough fur tunic which had always fit her strong, barrel-like body now hung limply over the stretched frame of a pale, spindly, hairless...thing. Her knees were grotesquely bowed inward -- by the Stones, they were actually TOUCHING each other! And to view them at all, she had to lean slightly forward to see over breasts the size of a nursing mother's.

Frozen with shock, she glanced sideways into a vague reflection on the metal table from which she'd just been released. Wide sky-blue eyes, eyes which meant blindness to the Swamp People to whom she'd been born, stared back at her out of a narrow white face supported only by a frighteningly fragile-looking neck. The entire apparition was topped off by a high, flat forehead and surrounded by a ragged froth of silver-green hair.

Even the tall, mohawked Fall People didn't look THIS horrible.

W-what have they DONE to me...?

Even as she realized that she could never go home to her people, she found to her sick dismay that she no longer had a clear concept of "home"...or of "her people." Primal thoughts and memories which had dwelt comfortably in a small brain with a large hindbrain were vanishing like morning mist into the chasms of a much larger mind which was organized in neatly labelled "words" and "facts" rather than in wordless "feelings" and "concepts."

She barely noticed as the blind Gaza coaxed her into walking -- rather, wobbling dangerously on stiff-kneed legs as she fought to come to terms with her new elevated center of gravity -- and led her from Brainchild's high-domed laboratory.

END INTERLUDE



Vertigo was having that nightmare again: of the table and the light, of the rapid wrenching restructuring of bone and muscle and the hideous indescribable beyond-pain sensation of the expansion of her very skull itself...

This time, she knew that it was no dream but, rather, an actual memory.

This time, she fought it.

You're not really happening! You're over, you're done, you're gone! You happened a long time ago and I--will--not--RELIVE--YOU!!!

The pain broke like water over a surfacing swimmer's head. She gasped, flailing for consciousness, as other images kaleidoscoped past--

-- the lessons in teamwork and obedience drilled into her by the other Savage Land Mutates, the endless watch for a godlike magnetic creator who never returned --

-- her first real battle, her first taste of power and triumph, and then her first defeat against Ka-Zar and that spider-guy and the mutants she would later know as the X-Men --

-- a blank murky period of reversion to her original primitive state, followed inevitably by the agonizing return to "human" form as her genetic programming restabilized --

-- her first sight of Sinister, as he offered his gloved hand and the world in exchange for her service in his new team of assassins --

-- the night she'd finally overheard the month-old news that the Savage Land had been destroyed, the night she'd spent curled up in a lonely bunk weeping at the memory of waterfalls and jungle sunsets --

Grimly, Vertigo shoved past the crowding memories, forcing them back down. A shred of consciousness fluttered past and she grabbed onto it for dear life, pulling herself hand over hand back into the real world.

She was first aware of cold concrete against her back. Then, as she reflexively struggled to sit up, the pain rippled down her back and over one hip and flared white-hot from the back of her head. She cried out and clutched her throbbing skull as the world spun and rocked around her.

When reality once more settled out into a queasy solidity around her, she became aware of a steadying hand on her shoulder. Her stomach spasmodically clenched into a hard knot as she looked up, tensed for a fight.

Her first impression was relief. The woman was obviously not one of the Marauders. Judging by her nondescript jeans and the battered brown bomber jacket, she was no police officer either -- although for a moment Vertigo glimpsed the blue-steel butt of a most expensive revolver glinting under the woman's arm.

Her second impression, as clear cobalt-blue eyes met clear cobalt-blue eyes, was that she was looking into a mirror.

She jerked back, shaking the hand off of her arm. All she seemed to be able to manage was a feeble, stupid "W-what -- who...?"

The other woman sat back on her heels, politely keeping both of her hands palm-up and in plain sight. On second impression the differences were more apparent: her rescuer (?) looked slightly older, with a keen clear wary look around her eyes that Vertigo was more accustomed to seeing on Arclight's features. The woman's own green-and-silver hair was cut to a short haphazard pageboy; most of it was stuffed under a black woolen cap but for a few errant locks and a spray of bangs.

"What do YOU think?" she said with a wry smile. "You tell me."

Vertigo was unable to stop staring, though she knew that she must look like a fool. Her aching bruises (what happened to me?) could be shoved behind her curiosity for the moment. "I'd say that you're me. Or--" it dawned "--you're another me. A clone. Did Sinister...no, he didn't, did he? You're not his."

"Very good. No, I'm not, though I once was, just like you. I WAS you." Vertigo felt a bit better when she noticed that her more blase "twin" was obviously striving mightily to keep from staring right back at her. "Now isn't the time, but just between you and me I am going to want to know everything that happened after I...left."

Vertigo blinked and tried to avoid asking the obvious. To her relief, the woman sighed and added, "All right, the Cliff Notes version, okay? I was the 'you' they lost in the Mutant Massacre."

"The what?"

"Oh yeah, that's right, how would you know...? That's what the government called our...your strike on the Morlock tunnels way back in the Eighties."

It was starting to make sense. "Oh. The time I died...the first time, anyway."

"What? Oh, I see, that's how it would seem to you, wouldn't it? Yes, that's exactly it. But I, you, whatever -- I didn't die. They caught me." Her expression was studiously blank. "I've been in...custody, ever since. Looks like Sinister just wrote me off and kept going, huh?"

As she listened, Vertigo carefully leaned back against the storefront, hissing between her teeth as the ripple of bruises down her back shifted. Under the other's words she was silently appraising her condition, preparing for the inevitable trouble. Doesn't seem like anything's broken -- I've taken worse in sparring matches with the guys. Get it together, girl, get it under control...

"Why are you telling me this? Did you escape--?" The look in her other self's eyes told it all. "No. You didn't. But you're here...so you're working for them, aren't you. The government."

A flat statement, not a question. The woman didn't bother to even consider lying. She merely nodded, once.

"Uh...huh. So you didn't rescue me out of the goodness of your heart, did you? I--owwww, dammit, what happened, anyway? There was a, a noise..."

"You were hit by a taxi. Actually, the way you went running out into the street, I'd say that YOU hit IT. Didn't anyone ever teach you how to cross a street?" She continued without pause, changing topics without giving Vertigo a chance to protest angrily. "Yeah, you're right again. The people I work for...they'd like for you to work for them too. Two assassins are better than one, you know -- and they can train you pretty quickly, too, considering that they got all of that trial-and-error stuff out of the way with me." There was a trace of bitterness at that, smoothly hidden a moment later.

However, Vertigo caught it. She scowled as even as she wriggled in a rather undignified manner, trying to ease the pressure on her sore tailbone. "Sorry, but in case you hadn't noticed, I'm getting out of the assassin business. 'Sides, I'm no good solo."

"That's what you think. If they could teach me, they can teach you. You haven't even touched the true extent of your power, did you know that? 'Vertigo' my ass!" Her "sister" tapped the side of her own head knowingly. "What you -- what WE do is more than that, as if it hasn't been obvious all these years! Whether you understand it or not, to mess up the inner ear like we do involves screwing around with nerve signals, body electricity, that sort of thing. Complicated scientific stuff. All you and I need to know is that with some effort and some focus, we can cause a stroke...trigger a seizure...stop a heart."

She smiled again, this time a cold humorless smile. "Why else do you think they're willing to hide us away from Carlton's taskforce, to keep us out of the hands of the law? Why do you think they call me Misfire?"

Vertigo was fascinated despite herself, eyes wide and her tumbling thoughts hanging on to every word. Is this true? Could *I* do THAT?! Her heart leapt with hope. If I could do that I could stop the rest of the Marauders in their tracks, single-handed. I could escape for good.

But work for the GOVERNMENT...?! I don't think I like this...

And who the hell's 'Carlton'?

Misfire was watching her face carefully, as if reading the war between belief and doubt. "Hey, don't worry about it too much. The decision's already been made for you."

"Oh has it," Vertigo said flatly. That clinches it. I DO NOT like this.

Her doppleganger was checking her watch, careful to keep one eye on her prisoner -- for that, Vertigo now understood, was exactly what she was despite the lack of handcuffs. "Back-up's a little late, but you really have no choice in the matter. The street is still swarming with cops--" as if on cue, a police car cruised by at that very moment with its lights silently flashing "--and if your life hasn't changed drastically from when I was living it, I'll bet that your former teammates are hot on your trail even as we speak."

Her voice softened a bit. "Really, it's not so bad. It's not like going to prison; they ask a lot of stupid questions but the food is great and the training facilities are something else. You'll finally have real control over your powers -- over your LIFE. Isn't that what you want? You ran away, didn't you?"

The last line hit Vertigo sidelong, surprising her. She nodded before she could stop herself.

Something odd flickered in Misfire's eyes for just a moment. "They've asked me why I didn't do that. Run away from Sinister, I mean. Leave the Marauders," she explained very quietly. "I told them that I didn't want to, I was too young, too dependent. That even if I had wanted to leave, I was incapable of trying something like that...that I was too weak-willed and obedient to even think of such a thing. In an odd way, it's kinda nice to know that eventually I would have...grown up...and figured it out on my own."

It's now or never, Vertigo thought tersely as a momentarily deep-in-thought Misfire pushed off her wool cap and raked a hand through her freed hair. Ignoring the stiffening soreness all down her body and the fleeting thought that this woman could kill her with a thought, the Marauder rolled forward and rammed into her captor, bowling her over onto her back.

Vertigo had no intention of letting the woman get a good grip on her -- or focus her attention to scramble her nerves with her (their?) power! When Misfire caught her arm and lunged up, obviously aiming to flip her over and pin her down, Vertigo snarled and slapped her in the face with a flare of her power. Her supremely confident doppleganger had obviously not expected her weaker counterpart to attempt something so simple -- caught totally off-guard, Misfire let go and crashed flat back onto the pavement, disoriented and retching.

A brief, fleeting advantage; the desperate Marauder pounced upon it, blindly grabbing for whatever she could steal from the assassin and then single-mindedly clawing to her feet by way of the rough brick storefront. Her fingertips were scraped raw in an instant, but an instant was all she needed. One knee snapped into Misfire's chin on the way up -- then her leg came back down, searching for purchase. She stamped down without hesitation, her bare foot planting itself viciously hard in the woman's solar plexus, finishing the job that her flash of mutation-induced nausea had began. Then her other foot hit pavement and she was away!



Misfire rolled over onto her knees, hunched over double with her arms wrapped around her ribs, gasping for breath as darkness surged around the fringes of her vision. Her training was screaming at her to get up, to DO something, but the bitch had nearly cracked her ribs with that last...kick? No, she'd actually STOMPED on her!

...aw bleeding christ...how humiliating...

Sternly, Misfire ordered her panicking body to relax, forced the tight muscles to unknot. By the time she could suck a decent amount of air in over the protests of her abused diaphragm and the dizziness cleared, her captive was nowhere in sight.

And neither, still, was her back-up.

Perhaps the area's cordoned off, she thought grimly, maybe Carlton's people have finally wised up to the game and headed them off...or maybe they're just too chicken-shit to get in here to give me a hand. DAMMIT! I don't believe this! They were probably still expecting me to lug her back to the rendezvous point... That had been the FIRST plan, before she'd specifically requested for them to come meet up with HER when she'd made contact. It would have been so simple -- just play friendly, coax the new Vertigo into the van before she caught on...

And they call ME the loose cannon.

She reached for her belt only to find that her cellphone was gone. Swearing like a sailor under her breath, Misfire staggered to her feet and stared down the street, first one way and then the other. Nothing. Not that she'd expected anything. She mused for a moment and then set off in the direction that felt "right" to her. She was, after all, tracking herself.

She had nothing against her other self, really. She would have done the same in the girl's place -- probably worse. But if she ever wanted to walk the streets as a free mutant again...

The government really had nothing on Misfire's previous life as "Vertigo" to convict her of any crimes: no photos, no fingerprints, no witnesses, not even any solid evidence that she'd ever belonged to the Marauders. In fact, they barely had any proof that the Marauders even existed, other than circumstantial telltales and the word of a few "heroes" who were deemed outlaws themselves more often than not. Only with the recent formation of the new X-Factor -- more specifically, the inclusion of Polaris, a former Marauder herself -- had anyone been able to identify her positively at all.

However, even with Lorna Dane's vengefully detailed report now on official record, nobody had ANY proof that "Vertigo" had ever harmed anybody at all. In a way it was true, as she'd never actually killed another living being with her own hands. Or, before the Program had shown her how to "upgrade" her powers and coerced her into serving as their own pet assassin, with her own so-called genetic gifts.

None of that mattered. From the moment that Special Agent John Carlton's taskforce brought her in from the Morlock Tunnels and been promptly forced to relinquish her into government custody, the law no longer applied. She'd vanished through a loophole; "right down the black-ops rabbit-hole, Alice m'dear," as her favorite training coach had once joked, "straight into Spook Wonderland." She no longer existed.

Not that I ever really did to begin with.

It wasn't a bad life, really. She didn't regret anything she'd done. However, now that she'd had a taste of what lay beyond the Savage Land and the all-consuming "teamwork" of the Marauders, she wanted more.

And as long as she was the only "Vertigo" in the Program, they'd never let her go...



Driven by sheer adrenaline, Vertigo didn't stop running until she was a good two blocks away. By a miracle no one on the now sparsely populated street looked in her direction; the image inducer still crookedly tagged to her dirty sweater was functioning, but at the speed she was moving its vain flickering efforts to camouflage her were worse than no cover at all. She wasn't really aware of that part of her situation anyhow. Only when she stopped to pant for air, doubled over and cursing the racking pain which was now overriding her surge of survival-driven energy, did she finally notice the small device. Fearing some trick of Misfire's, she hastily yanked it off.

Next to her, something moved. She jumped and whirled, only to find that the movement had been nothing more than her reflection in a restaurant window as it...reappeared?

She cautiously clipped the inducer to her sweater once more, braced for anything, ready to hurl the little chunk of hard plastic away at the slightest sign of foul play. In the window, her image winked out. Delighted, she flapped her hand in front of the glass; she could almost see something, then. A jerky blur of waving arm. She thought for a moment and then tried the same motion again, only far more slowly.

Nothing. No sign that she even existed.

Despite the situation, despite the fact that the Marauders, that Misfire woman, someone named "Carlton," and half of the Baltimore PD were out gunning for her hide, a grin spread slowly but surely across her dirt-smudged face.

Between whatever that thing is and what that Misfire creature said about what I can do with my powers... Still wearing that blissful smile of satisfaction, she examined the OTHER two pieces of equipment she'd managed to snatch from Misfire's jacket in passing. With a small pleased sound, she possessively stuffed the more interesting of the two devices into her waistband, under her sweater's trailing edge. Not to mention THIS little ace in the hole...yes, things are finally looking up, I think.

The second item she'd grabbed didn't seem as useful -- what the hell was she supposed to do with a high-tech cellphone? -- but hell, when you were in as deep a pit as she was, you didn't look a gift horse in the mouth. With a shrug, she folded it up and jammed it into a pocket.

Bravado expended, Vertigo finally allowed herself to sag forehead-first against the storefront. After a moment's thought, she then tried to contort herself in such a way that she could touch-examine her aching back and her scraped butt. Failing, she instead put her weight on her right leg and gingerly probed her outer left thigh. Damn thing felt like one giant bruise, and her knee had that shaky feeling it always did after it was narrowly avoided being dislocated -- must be where the taxi hit me, she surmised. She wasn't sure if she WANTED to touch the back of her head yet. At least she wasn't seeing double. Her clothes were a complete ruin, though.

She winced with embarrassment as she touched her aching ribs, right where that goddamn clumsy businessman had hit her with his briefcase in the crowd. Scalphunter would laugh his ass off if he could see me now...

Right after he blew my head off, anyway.

She bit her lip. Okay. Focus, woman. First things first, then. Can I walk? Yeah, I'd better -- this is all going to be a real bitch when I stiffen up. Keep moving, get as far out of this area as I can, then hole up somewhere to rest...find some clean water...something to wear...and something to eat.

I wonder if pizza places around here deliver this late at night...?



Vertigo wasn't usually much for foresight, but thanks to the countless batterings she'd taken in practice sessions at the hands of her teammates she was absolutely right this time about how she'd feel the next day. When she woke up the next morning, curled up on her side in a nest of discarded cloth and cardboard on the embankment under an overpass, she was so stiff and sore that she couldn't uncurl or sit up. Her back screamed if she even thought about trying to roll over, her thigh felt terrible, and her knee was completely useless.

She groaned in utter misery and buried her head under a tattered blanket -- then moaned again as the movement awoke a whole new throbbing in the hot, tight lump on the back of her skull. OooOOOooooo...god, at this point, I almost wish the guys WOULD show up to put me out of my misery, she thought hazily, glad that she'd had enough brains to fill up a discarded bottle with tap water before crawling into this new bolthole. She clutched the heavy plastic bottle against the pit of her stomach and tried to go back to sleep amid the rumble of traffic on the concrete overhead.

It was going to be a long few days.



NEXT: T'ain't looking good at all for our so-called heroine, is it? Well, *I* wanted to plunge right ahead with the story, but sigh let's face it, after what I put her through she's going to HURT too much to move for a bit. Hey, like Misfire noted, I let her off easy enough as it is! Will one of Vertigo's myriad enemies catch up to her while she's helpless, or will she survive to run again? You'll see. Is this story actually going somewhere? You bet it is.

~~~~~~~~~~
Part Eight
~~~~~~~~~~

Head over heels I've fit in before
Now I don't want to do it no more
I've held it all in with blood on my face
Built it up man so bad you can taste....
Head over heels I've fit in before
Now I don't want to do it no more
I just want to be who I want to be
Guess that's hard for others to see

-- Smash by the Offspring

~~~~~~~~~~

INTERLUDE

"You canNOT be serious, boss-man. The trail's probably ice-cold by now, and you held us back for...that?!"

Sinister merely raised an eyebrow and stared icily at Arclight until the woman averted her eyes, shifting nervously and wishing that she could swallow the sassy comment of a moment before. The rest of the team was gathered loosely in the sterile cavern of Sinister's east-coast lair, itching to be out on the hunt. They knew that their quarry was loose in Baltimore, lost and helpless. It should have been the work of a few hours -- no, of a few MINUTES -- to pinpoint the treasonous little bitch and bring her down like a pack of wolves on a fawn.

Instead, they were being detained here. Underground. Useless. And getting more irritated by the hour, though only Arclight had the temerity to voice it aloud. Briefly. Now she too stood tensely but quietly, waiting for their master's explanation.

And it had better be a good one, most of them were thinking sourly.

Satisfied that he had once again curbed his feral dogs to heel, Sinister turned and beckoned to the focus of their discontent. The young woman stepped forward immediately with the unquestioning obedience that he so preferred, and as he faced the Marauders once more he set a surprisingly gentle hand on her shoulder. The message was silent but clear: She is MINE and not to be harmed, is that understood?

Aloud, he informed the gathering of assassins, "This is your new teammate -- you may call her Maelstrom. She will be accompanying you on your hunt for your former comrade." His cold gaze tracked from Marauder to Marauder, silently cowing them one by one until he was satisfied that he held their complete attention. He took his time. "I understand your concerns, that this does not seem like the appropriate time for you to be forced to acclimatize to working with a new element. However, while I have tinkered extensively with her genetic structure -- thereby widening the scope of her natural gifts and increasing the performance levels of her physical form -- I assure you that in many respects she is quite similar to her prototype."

"That's what we're afraid of," Scalphunter said, low but quite venomously clear. "What's the point of this? She's no Marauder." Behind him, the others grumbled a general agreement.

Sinister's expression did not change. Then again, it would have been hard for a man to look more glacial than he already did at that moment, majestic and utterly unforgiving in armor and a dark sweeping cloak. "Before you forget yourselves, let me remind you that it is *I* who decides who and who is not a Marauder. Not you. She IS your teammate now. Get used to it.

"And I also wish to make it perfectly clear right now that young Maelstrom here is YOUR personal responsibility now, Scalphunter. See to it that, unlike your last two failures, she receives proper training and conditioning to forestall any more sloppy 'accidents' in battle."

Scalphunter bristled at the implications. "But--"

The master geneticist waved his hand dismissingly. "Yes, yes, of course, after your little bloodhunt. You are all under strict orders to keep this little outing absolutely low-key, so I've arranged transportation and an allowance for food to prevent another string of messy robberies, but other than that you are on your own."

He paused as if finished but then added in a deceivingly offhand manner, "Oh, yes, and in case I neglected to mention it, you are to bring Vertigo back alive."

Every Marauder snapped up straight at that, protesting in a confused angry babble. Sinister merely waited until he had silence once more, which didn't take long under his razor-edged glare. Only then did he continue, calmly, ignoring the sullen growling state of his audience.

"Let me make this perfectly clear, children," he ordered, enuciating every syllable. "Until I can thoroughly examine, test, and if necessary dissect your wayward teammate, I cannot be certain that Vertigo's 'desertion' was NOT the result of psionic coercion. With that in mind, the rest of you are all technically under observation. If you lose any members of the team under mysterious circumstances, you are to drop the hunt IMMEDIATELY and report back to me with all due haste. Understood?"

This ultimatum was greeted by a ragged set of nods, grouchy "uh-huhs," and sulky "yah sures." It would have to do. Despite their indignation and their frustrated bloodlust, he was utterly confident that he would, in the end, be obeyed. He always was. "Well then. You are free to depart for Maryland. Go. But Blockbuster -- a word with you first?"

The Marauders, including their newest addition, were already dashing out of the room by the word "Maryland." For a few moments it seemed as if Sinister's thinly veiled command had fallen upon deaf ears...but then Blockbuster reluctantly lumbered back in. His massive shoulders barely cleared the archway which was the only access to his master's underground laboratory. "Yeah boss?"

Sinister was utterly expressionless. "About what happened at the Baltimore Seaport...?"

The behemoth shrugged. "I already toldja, sir, I got to unloading the crates an' when I turned around she was jus' gone. I woulda gone after her but hell, I thought she'd just wandered off t'take a piss or somethin', an' anyhow I knew you wouldn't want me ta leave the crates all unguarded-like on the dock like that..."

"Yes, Michael, I know all of that." Sinister studied Blockbuster's slab-sided face intently for what must have been the twentieth time since his biggest lackey had reported in with four full crates and one empty one. As always, the man's expression was a study in stupid innocence. Sinister's eyes narrowed. He was almost positive that he'd had something to do with...

But no. Not Blockbuster. The very idea was absurd.

He sighed inwardly and gestured toward the door. "Never mind. Go join your team."



"Hey, Vertigo. Toss me those gloves, willya?"

While Sinister spoke to their biggest teammate, the rest of the Marauders were already busy in the antechamber beyond the laboratory, suiting up and stowing their gear for travel.

"Hey. Babe. I'm talking to you."

The voice held a definite sneer, the words specifically chosen to needle her into doing something rash. The newest addition to the team sighed under her breath but didn't reply as she finished stuffing a few things into an overnight bag.

"Vertigo...are you deaf or or what?"

"My name," she said softly but clearly without turning around, "is Maelstrom. I'd appreciate it if you'd keep that in mind."

"You look the same to me. Probably think the same, too. Ready to run off or turn on us given the slightest chance. I don't think I like the idea of having you behind me in the field."

Maelstrom gritted her teeth and turned to face Arclight, her fists clenched. Truth be told, Arclight was right: as far as she could tell, her every memory stretching back to the blank dead end that was her "birth" told her that yes, she WAS Vertigo. However, the moment she'd stepped from her tube her master had sat her down and explained in plain English what he had done to this, her new body -- and, in the first sign of...kindness?...she could ever remember seeing from Sinister, he'd actually taken the time to lay to rest her fears of being replaced or abandoned. He'd given her new confidence, a new name, and a new trust to live up to. As far as she was concerned, despite the head full of memories that said otherwise, she was a new person.

The faster she could prove her new worth and lay her previous life to rest, the better.

"I don't care what you think, Arclight," she said sharply, secretly marvelling at her own newfound courage. "I'm not the person you've obviously mistaken me for. I'm me. I know perfectly well that you're planning to make my life hell from this point forward, and yeah, normally I'd just duck my head and take it, right? Wrong. Not any more. I'm not going to put up with this bullshit from you for the rest of the mission. Or ever again."

"Ex...cuse me?" Arclight seemed to loom over her. For a moment she'd looked surprised, but then the glint of emotion was gone, locked behind a thundercloud expression and the shades she always wore. Her eyes were thus masked, but Maelstrom could feel the glare like razors. She didn't flinch. Out of the edges of her senses she could tell that the rest of the room had fallen still and silent; the pack of wolves scenting a brewing confrontation. "Is that a challenge...Vertigo?"

"You're damn right it is, you overbearing bitch."

With a silent snarl, Arclight eased back a step and locked her hands together, as if gaining room for a power strike. Instead of pounding her hands into the ground and setting off her trademark shockwave, however, she abruptly lunged forward, aiming that combined fist for the side of Maelstrom's head in a "disciplinary cuff" which could shatter concrete.

Maelstrom, however, had expected this bluff. She knew perfectly well that Arclight wouldn't dare set off an earthtremor this close to Sinister's laboratory. She was already ducking forward, rolling under the blow and coming nimbly back up onto her feet behind her opponent. As Arclight whirled, her hands apart now and one fist drawn back, Maelstrom...merely narrowed her eyes.

Something crackled in the air, raising the hair on the backs of arms and necks throughout the stone chamber. Arclight suddenly cried out and stumbled, her face twisted in shock, and her momentum carried her forward into a heavy undignified bellyflop. The rest of the Marauders stared in open astonishment as Arclight fought down a whimper of pain (pain?!?) and weakly tried to push herself up on her hands, but her legs would not cooperate. Would not move.

Maelstrom had not budged from where she'd been standing. "That was just a few major nerves in your back and hips, Sontag. And it's just temporary. Next time I'll go for your heart," she said coldly, her words falling one by one into the astounded silence. She glanced around at the others, from Scalphunter to Riptide to Scrambler to Harpoon to Blockbuster, who just moments before had ambled in from his "interview" with their master. "I told her and I'll tell you, and I won't repeat it again: I'm NOT Vertigo."

As she looked back down at Arclight she found that the downed Marauder was staring up at her, struck completely speechless for the first time she could ever recall. It was then that Maelstrom finally realized the true extent of her new "self"...and it also occurred to her just how far she could take this newfound status.

Without breaking eye contact with Arclight, she casually walked over to stand at Scalphunter's side...right where Arclight usually stood.

The implications were clear. Maelstrom was certain that she could see an incandescent fury flash into life behind Arclight's shades. With exaggerated nonchalance, she looked away just in time to catch just the smallest nod of amused approval from Scalphunter as he calmly announced (as if nothing had happened), "All right, people, enough dawdling. Let's move out."

END INTERLUDE



Though overcast throughout the morning, the day had waxed bright and surprisingly warm for Baltimore at that time of year. That, in turn, had prompted her to take the chance of getting wet with only an old blanket to dry off with afterward. Having to air-dry in the cool Maryland air wasn't very appealing; however, she'd always been fairly hardy in regards to cold and heat, and frankly, if she'd had to go another day without a bath...

Not much of a bath, more of a dunk in an unguarded and VERY cold duck pond, but it was better than nothing. It was good to feel human again. Damp and chilly but contented in her leotard, Vertigo ruffled one appraising hand through her makeshift clothes where they were spread over the back of a park bench. Dry enough. She tugged them back on, noticing a lingering scent but nothing more than she was used to when out on the trail for a few days with the team.

Of the last four days, the first three had been awful. The stiff soreness of her injuries had kept her nearly immobile under that underpass for two days, trapping and her pitifully growling stomach in a miasma of traffic fumes. When she'd finally been able to put weight on her leg towards the end of the second day, she'd swallowed her squeamishness and gone rummaging through trash cans for food. Luckily, she'd hit the jackpot almost immediately, in the form of a sausage-and-cheese chain store which threw out literally pounds of only slightly defective food every night. The cheese was of no use to her, but among the pile of paper refuse she'd found enough meat and even a sealed carton of still-hot soup to banish the cramps from her empty stomach. In fact, over the last two nights she'd felt rather well fed indeed. And with the use of the "invisibility device" she'd swiped from Misfire, she'd slept comfortably enough under a table at the park without fear of being attacked or arrested in the night.

Vertigo couldn't believe her luck, and not just in regards to the food and the "accommodations." Either she'd been fortunate enough to shake her pursuers, or they'd given up. She liked the sound of the latter...but she wasn't about to believe it. Not just yet.

Still, though, she felt better than she had in days.

She stretched lazily and then got up; still favoring her bruised leg, she limped towards the border of the park. She was going to have to move on soon, she knew. She didn't want to be out on the street, not after what had nearly happened with the police and Misfire three days before, but neither could she afford to stay in one place for long. She thought longingly of the hot soup. Well, maybe one more night...

She took her time, wandering aimlessly through the little park; it was after sunset by the time she cautiously joined the thin scattering of humanity on the sidewalks, keeping her head low. She avoided contact of any kind, and luckily for her no one was even remotely interested in getting too close the "street person" she appeared to be. Maybe I should start muttering or carrying around a dead animal or something, really spook the flatscans, she thought mischieviously as she slipped into the alley and crouched in the shadows behind a small mountain of cardboard, waiting for one of the bored-looking maroon-aproned salegirls to carry out the day's trash. Apparently they liked to try to close up early; she didn't have long to wait.

Dinner thus secured, she ambled back to her grassy haunt at a casual pace with a bag under her arm, chewing happily on a piece of perfectly-good beef jerky. There was a confident lift to her step as she crossed the curb into the park, secure in the knowledge that the place was quite deserted after sundown...

Except tonight.

She stopped dead, staring, as another slim female figure stepped out on the grass several yards ahead of her. Even from behind and lit only by starlight, the glimmer of silver-green hair was like a flashing neon beacon to Vertigo's frightened eyes.

Misfire!

Before the brief thought completed its trek across her mind she'd already ghosted to the side of the path, her limp forgotten, to place the wide trunk of a tree squarely between herself and the huntress. The bark was rough and steadying against her suddenly hot cheek; she frowned an instant later as she forced herself to calm down and think beyond "ohmigoditsherimdead!"

Something didn't match up...

She spared a heartbeat or two to examine the brief glimpse which had been stamped into her mind by fear. Despite the telltale color, the woman had long loose hair, not hacked short like Misfire's...and instead of the distinctive bulk of jeans and a jacket, she'd been lithely outlined by starlight, meaning that she'd been wearing a leotard. Just like Vertigo's own.

Of course. How stupid of me! That wasn't...

Then it hit her.

So...who WAS it...?!

Only a moment had passed. She dared to peek out again, and was relieved to see that she had not been spotted. The other woman, she now saw, was carrying a good-sized brown paper sack in each hand. She passed close enough to Vertigo's hiding place for the ex-Marauder to spot the distinctive golden arches on the nearest bag...and to confirm that yes, the young woman was an exact duplicate of herself. Even more so than Misfire.

Vertigo's head was spinning. How...? What did this mean? What the hell--

She clapped a hand over her mouth to muffle a horrified moan as it all fell into place. It was perfectly obvious. The girl WAS her. She was the new Vertigo, the new clone, the new "official edition." SINISTER HADN'T BEEN PLANNING TO TAKE HER OUT OF COMMISSION AFTER ALL.

Vertigo cursed herself bitterly, nails biting into her palms as she leaned against the tree for support. Like the stupid cow she was, she'd panicked and run -- abandoned her team, the man to whom she'd vowed her life -- for no good reason.

The pain, the hunger, the fear, the humiliation...it'd all been for nothing.

There was no going back, though. Not now. Not ever. She was still as good as dead for desertion, nothing had really changed...it was the new understanding that she'd dug her own grave that was making her pulse pound dizzily in her temples and her eyes blur with hot tears.

If SHE'S here, she realized belatedly, then the rest of them are here too. They've tracked me down! If I hadn't left to find dinner...

Calm down. Deep breath. Think, dammit.

Judging by what their new "Vertigo" was carrying, the team had obviously decided to break for eats -- Vertigo remembered being sent on numerous identical fast-food runs during her years on the team, when Scrambler couldn't be roused into doing it instead. Not that she'd never really minded. She could even envision exactly what orders had been stuffed inside those greasy bags; her teammates were nothing if not predictable in their respective tastes. For a moment she entertained the wild hope that she could use the time it took for them to eat, to put enough distance behind herself to lose them...but then reality set back in, hard and final. There was nowhere to go. If they were that close, there was no escape.

A twig cracked in the underbrush, in the trees which lined the north side of the park. Vertigo glanced out of her hiding place just in time to see her new namesake freeze in the center of the grassy expanse. She, too, was staring at the treeline.

"Mike...?" The girl's call was barely audible, worried, but with an edge of surety as if she expected an affirmative answer. As if she was fairly certain that her teammate was keeping an eye on her from just out of sight. Vertigo couldn't help a small smile. Yeah, he'd had a tendency to do that...come to think of it, so had Riptide, sometimes, when the madman was in a rare "brotherly" mood...

Something flashed in the bushes. Her "younger" version out in the meadow flinched, one hand flying to her belly. The paper bags plumped to the ground at her feet, forgotten. From her hiding place, Vertigo had a brief glimpse of the feathered fletching of a dart under her otherself's hand just another one appeared in the girl's upper arm.

The clone cried out, half in surprise, half in rage, and an unsettling tingle rippled through every nerve in Vertigo's body as her otherself instinctively activated her power to lash out at her unseen enemy. Behind her tree Vertigo gasped involuntarily at the strength of that pulse, far above anything she could ever have summoned herself...what did Sinister DO to her?!...

And then the girl sighed and collapsed to the grass in a boneless heap.

Her mystery attacker didn't waste any time. The bushes shifted almost soundlessly and then out stepped the wary jacket-clad form of the real Misfire.

From her hidden vantage point, Vertigo's eyes went almost impossibly wide. She'd been far, far luckier than anyone in her situation deserved to be. The Marauders weren't the only ones who'd pinpointed her location with ease!

As she watched, holding her breath, Misfire loped across the meadow like a hunting cat, pausing to peer intently in every direction before she stooped to gather up her quarry. With the girl's limp body slung over her shoulder, she hurried out of the park as swiftly as she had appeared, this time heading for the street to the west. Right past Vertigo. The ex-Marauder hastily pressed herself back against and then around the tree as the government assassin raced past, bearing her unconscious burden with ease, her pounding sneakers almost silent despite the dusting of dead leaves over the path. In a moment she was gone.

Hopefully for good.

Vertigo counted backwards from ten and then gustily released the breath she'd been holding for who-knows-how-long. A wide silly smile of relief was creeping unbidden onto her face. Yeah, okay, so she was still dead meat when the Marauders caught up. But if Misfire thought that she'd finally taken her down -- surely she'd mistaken the new clone for the fugitive she'd attempted to capture on the street four days before! -- then at least that was one hound off of her trail...

Vertigo sobered abruptly, realizing that her surge of unthinking relief was rather ridiculous. Yeah, but at least that particular "hound" would have let me live.

She shrugged, starting to feel rather numb and fatalistic at this point in the game. Hell, maybe I can have one last good meal before I die -- that's fair enough, isn't it? she thought as she pushed herself off of the tree and set resolutely out into the meadow. The bags of cheap fast-food burgers still lay in the grass where their courier had dropped them. She didn't bother to peek at the contents; she merely picked them up and set off towards where she knew there was a fairly secluded bench under cover of a stand of evergreen shrubs.

She didn't notice the tall shadow gliding across the grass behind her until it was practically upon her.

At the last possible instant she felt a presence at her back and whirled to find herself staring straight at a pair of sleekly-muscled arms -- one bare, one armored -- which were in turn folded over a sickeningly familiar metal-sheathed chest.

By all rights Vertigo should have struck then, struck hard, and then seized that moment of distraction to run -- to cling, scratching and clawing, to a last few precious seconds of life. However, the moment had already passed...and anyway, there was nowhere to run. So instead, Vertigo gulped and clenched her hands tight on the paper bags and looked defiantly up into an unforgiving obsidian glare.

"And just where," Arclight said icily, "have YOU been?"



NEXT: Whew! I promise, that's the clone limit -- no more than three Vertigos per story. Yipe! Arclight! Which means that the rest of the remaining Marauders aren't far behind. Gulp. Now what? Either something really interesting is going to happen, or Part Nine is going to be tragically short...

~~~~~~~~~
Part Nine
~~~~~~~~~

And if you're running blind / On a refueled mind
Better watch the time / And careful you don't go too far
Never burn the bridges before you
If you've burned the bridges behind
And never burn the one that you're walking upon
Or you're sure to hit the water, in time
Don't believe in expectations
Don't believe in shooting stars
And if you make a stand on a dead empty hand
Never let them see your cards...

-- New York City Don't Mean Nothing by Savatage

~~~~~~~~~

"And just where," Arclight said icily, "have YOU been?"

For a long moment Vertigo stood frozen in terror, unable to think of a word in defense. Then, slowly, it dawned upon her that Arclight should simply have chopped her down from behind -- there was no "Marauder code of honor" when it came to killing. Especially in the case of a traitor. Especially when it came to the hot-tempered Arclight.

Of course. She thinks I'm my other self! The one Misfire just dragged off! She doesn't know--!

With that realization she finally found her tongue, and the paper crinkling in her hands gave her an out. "Who cares how long it took? You wanna eat or what?" she retorted boldly, hefting the bags of junkfood and shaking them in a rattle of loose fries. "I appreciate the...concern...but there's no one following me. I made sure of that -- s'why I'm a bit late, okay? Everything's cool."

Arclight scowled at her but then turned on one heel, stalking away towards the heart of the park. Breathing a sigh of relief, Vertigo hesitantly followed, dragging her feet and casting a longing glance over her shoulder towards the leaf-shrouded lights of the city. So much for getting out of the Marauders, she sighed inwardly. At least I know now that Sinister's not going to get rid of me any time soon...

No. That's not true. The minute he figures out that I'm the one that got away, not his new-and-improved version...or if the others figure it out first... She gulped hard at the thought. I don't know which would be worse...

"What's with the rags?" Arclight's sharp voice cut into her thoughts. With a start, Vertigo glanced down at the patchwork of castoffs she was wearing over her leotard for warmth and camouflage. Shit! Of COURSE the other Vertigo hadn't been walking around looking like a bag lady! Good thing I washed up, at least...no way to explain away the smell...

"Oh, this...? Just some old junk I picked up in an alley. I, uh, didn't want to walk into the restaurant in just my costume," she replied quickly, pleased at her own rapid thinking. Fear of imminent death tended to sharpen her mind right up, it seemed!

Arclight glanced back at her without breaking her long stride. Her expression was hard to read in the starlight. "Oh? Seems like a lot of effort for a load of mcburgers."

Vertigo shrugged carelessly as they reached the Marauders' temporary encampment -- the others were indistinct shapes lounging around a childrens' wooden fort. "Ah well, it's best to be careful -- there's someone in the area looking for us, you know..."

She could have bitten her tongue off but it was too late.

"How do you know that?" Scalphunter. He loomed seemingly out of nowhere, a massive weapon of some sort cradled in his broad sure callused hands. Vertigo had to fight the suicidal impulse to simply drop the bags and run.

Think FAST, girl...

"The, th, there was some old wino back in the alley where I found these clothes," she blurted, fleetingly wishing that she believed in something so she could pray to it. "He recognized me, or at least my costume. Said that some guy named--" what was that name Misfire had mentioned? "--uh, Carlton had been showing pictures of us around the neighborhood. That's how he, the bum I mean, that's how he knew who I was."

Scalphunter narrowed his eyes. "Mmm. And the bum--?"

"Dead now, of course," she said promptly. "Where do you think I got the clothes?"

For a moment she didn't think he'd bought it. Then the team leader hrumphed thoughtfully, deep in his throat "Why didn't you report directly back with this information?"

He bought it! Her fight-or-flight tension drained away and she actually managed a genuine grin. "And show up without the food? Mike 'n' Rip would kill me."

"Speaking of," Riptide drawled behind her, "where the hell IS Blockbuster?"



This time her backup was exactly where she'd expected it to be, and Misfire allowed herself a broad smug grin. In retrospect, sitting stubbornly on her ass for two days and refusing to release any details of her encounter with the Marauder Vertigo until she was assured of full cooperation from the Program's human secondary agents had been a good idea after all.

The back doors of the van were swinging open even as she approached. Without the slightest hesitation, she dumped the woman's limp body into the orderlies' waiting arms; as she turned away they were already strapping down and sedating their new acquisition. Misfire, however, was more interested in heading towards the front of the plain gray vehicle. She rapped on the driver's side door with one knuckle, and a moment later a neatly-groomed young man poked his head out of the open window. "Yes'm?" he asked politely.

Respect. God, she loved it. It was the one thing she'd never had in her previous life as Vertigo, and certainly something she didn't get in the "mental hospital" safehouse where they usually insisted on keeping her between missions. Oh, they were polite enough, and painfully cautious of her abilities even when she was wearing an inhibitor collar, but that wasn't the same...

She beamed up at the driver, a genuine smile which gave her wide blue eyes a momentary shimmer of false innocence. "Hey, Tran. Anything from HQ or are they going to pull us in now?" Though she had a special personal interest in capturing Vertigo, it wouldn't be altogether unpleasant to finally get the chance to see if she could, indeed, now take down any of the other Marauders...

Tran shook his head. He looked surprisingly young and fresh-faced to be an agent, but she knew better: he'd been on one of her previous "outings" as a sniper. A good one. Program agents, mutant or human, were few in number and so they often had to double up in their duties. "I think you've about wrapped this one up, ma'am. I'm all for clearing out before her buddies show up."

"EX-buddies, remember, they want her ass worse than we do for running out on them...but yeah, you're basically right. They're probably around somewhere and it'd get pretty messy if they dropped in on us." Misfire moved forward, planning to round the front of the truck and claim shotgun, but then someone called her name from the back of the vehicle.

"Misfire, ma'am? Er...we could use your help..." One of the orderlies, if she remembered right. He sounded terrified but controlled -- not in immediate danger but far out of his depth. Without pausing to wonder what was going on she was already striding back there, bracing herself for anything, her power surging through her head like a tide and bringing a metallic taste to the back of her throat...

When she reached the open van door three steps later, however, she stopped in her tracks both physically and mentally.

"--the hell--?!"

One of the orderlies, a woman, was pressed up against on the other side of the door. She looked frightened but unharmed. A quick glance confirmed that the second medic was still safely inside the van, as was Vertigo's insensate body.

Misfire stood perfectly still, staring up at the intruder in disbelief, unconsciously poised for a fight for her life. Consciously, she wasn't sure what to think. She hadn't seen him for years. And as it was now apparant that he was making no move to rescue his captive teammate, she had no idea what he wanted -- none at all.

It was the female orderly who broke the taut silence in a shaky voice. "He, uh, he says that he wants to defect."

Huh?!?

"He"...was Blockbuster.

"Yeah, I've been thinkin'," the huge Marauder rumbled almost genially. He was eying Misfire carefully from head to toe; his gaze then lingered thoughtfully on her shoulder-cropped hair. The scrutiny made her fight the urge to fidget.

"If YOU could leave, why not me?" he continued. "I mean, sure, I have nuthin' against Sinister, but when I signed up it wasn't f'r life or nuthin'. An' I'm startin' ta see that that's what HE thinks. He thinks he owns me. Well, that ain't how I work. I've done this kinda merc work before. An' I know a sour job when I see it. I'm out before he decides ta scrap the whole Marauder thing. An' unlike with you, there's not a damn thing they can do to stop me once they find out. Haw! I'd like ta see 'em try."

Under his words, Misfire was thinking furiously. "If you could leave"...? I didn't leave, I was arrested! Kidnapped! Didn't they know that? I thought Sinister knew everything! What is he talking about...? Does he think I'm HER? Well then, if so, who does he think SHE is--?

She decided to piece it together later, when they were safely away from the Marauders. Speaking of... "Where are the rest of the team?"

"No worries, they're all still back at the camp. I jus' was followin' Maelstrom here--"

Misfire couldn't help shooting a sidelong glance at their green-and-silver-haired prisoner. MAELSTROM?! What the blue FUCK is going on here?

He was still speaking over her inner confusion. "An' when you showed up, well..." He spread his hammy hands in a shrug. "Eh, I missed you, kid. Think yer new employer c'n find room for a muscleman?"

"I'm sure," she said. And suddenly she was surprised to find that she was genuinely glad to see him -- and not on the other side of a battle, either. Not the mention the fact that my superiors will be ecstatic! They don't get many willing recruits on the mutant side; they'll probably treat him like a king, the lucky bastard.

She relaxed and grinned and gestured courteously to the van, when the orderlies had already anticipated her and were wedging themselves and their "patient" up against one wall of the interior. "Hop on in, buddy ol' pal."



Scalphunter was furious. Arclight was beyond fury. Scrambler and Harpoon were thoughtfully silent and Riptide...well, he didn't seem to care, really. But after searching for three hours, the facts were crystal clear: Blockbuster had walked out of the park and simply...vanished.

Which meant that the mission had to be aborted. Immediately.

Frankly, Vertigo was more than happy to be taken off of the trail. After all, it would have been awkward to have to accompany the team on a wild goosechase in search of herself! Not to mention that it would have been only a matter of time before someone caught on to the fact that she wasn't who she was supposed to be -- someone, she now gathered, who looked and thought just like her but was now going under the name of "Maelstrom." And who, though of course she couldn't ask for details, was definitely a few levels above her predecessor in terms of power. Arclight had been surly but almost polite to her during the search, and twice -- twice! -- Scalphunter had actually dropped back to Vertigo's side and asked her opinion.

Vertigo shook her head. I wonder what "Maelstrom" was capable of? What DID she do to Arclight?

"And why," she added bitterly under her breath, "didn't Sinister do whatever he did to her -- to ME -- years ago?"

The long ride home in the back of the rented van had been spent in an unnervingly taut silence. Vertigo wasn't one hundred percent sure WHY they were being forced back to base just because Mike had wandered off...but everyone else seemed to be taking their orders for granted, so of course she couldn't ask. What she WAS sure of was that the Marauders had been very much looking forward to taking her down...hard.

She swallowed with a dry throat as the van finally pulled to a halt, jostling her shoulder-to-shoulder with people who would cheerfully rip her to bloody scraps the instant they figured out who she really was.

It's only a matter of time now -- minutes maybe, she thought, biting her lip nervously as Harpoon shoved the back doors open and climbed down. Sinister won't be fooled for a moment.

Schooling her features into the same expression of disgruntled disinterest as the others, she jumped out of the van, almost stepping on Scrambler's heels. The van was parked in a vaulted stone chamber, dimly lit from an unseen source and crisscrossed with watery ditches which smelled like clean rainwater rather than sewage. With a sinking sensation she recognized their surroundings: they were back at Sinister's main lair -- at least, the one he preferred this year.

She was the the second-to-last Marauder out of the vehicle. The instant Riptide's feet hit concrete Sinister was there, appearing almost out of nowhere, his arms folded and a glower darkening his normally impassive expression. He was obviously not bothering to wait for his assassins to drag their feet into his inner sanctum for the usual debriefing.

Vertigo sternly quelled the urge to cross her fingers. This is NOT good...

"Blockbuster," their master said slowly, deliberately, almost as if bemused. "How on God's green earth did you bloodcrazed fools manage to misplace BLOCKBUSTER?"



NEXT: I would NOT want to be a Marauder right now. If Vertigo can get through Sinister's initial team interrogation, can she really expect to escape detection for long? She's really cornered, folks, but there might be a slim chance of a way out...if she's brave enough and smart enough to take it. Errr..."brave"? "Smart"? Vertigo--?! Uh oh.

~~~~~~~~
Part Ten
~~~~~~~~

Master of puppets, I'm pulling your strings
Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams
Blinded by me, you can't see a thing
Just call my name 'cuz I'll hear you scream
Master, master...

-- Master Of Puppets by Metallica

~~~~~~~~

An hour later, Vertigo was amazed to find herself still alive and unscathed.

Sinister had been furious, of course -- he still was -- and even the boldest of the Marauders had withered and squirmed under his scorching rebuke. The subsequent lash of interrogation had left almost no Marauder ungrilled...except for Vertigo.

(Maelstrom, I'm supposed to be Maelstrom, she had to keep reminding herself.)

Oh, she'd had to field her share of questions, sure, but the level of scrutiny she'd been placed under had been nowhere NEAR the third-degree aimed at the others. Before, she might have attributed this to the unhappy feeling that Sinister regarded her as he would a mildly retarded child -- bright enough to send out to play with the "big kids," maybe even useful in her own way, but certainly not mature enough to be expected to bear any of the responsibility.

Now, though...

She hadn't missed the dirty looks slung in her direction by some of the others. Jealous looks, she could almost say. It was then that she realized that Sinister held this new "Maelstrom" version in a far higher regard than the "old" Vertigo. Almost...trusted. Though it intensified her hurt anger over the fact that her master had never bothered to "upgrade" her before, the realization lifted her heart just a bit. If she had more leeway as Maelstrom, maybe she could bide her time and make a second break for it before the next battle or the next brain-drain gave her secret away...

However, even as she was beginning to tentatively consider making a second attempt at escape, her hopes were dashed to shards by Sinister's final decision on the Blockbuster "problem."

"...should have done this before you were allowed to venture back into the field," he had been saying as she'd belatedly tuned back in to the stinging lecture which followed his barrage of questions. "I will admit, perhaps this...incident is partially my fault for being too lenient upon you. It was foolish of me to allow your personal, uneducated opinions upon your own respective states of mind to sway my judgment.

"I think it would be best, therefore, if I were to conduct full mental examinations upon each of you before any more of you suddenly develop the urge to wander off on an unannounced sabbatical. You will remain here until I summon you. Scalphunter, you are first. Accompany me if you will."

That was a command, not an request. Sinister's tone was implacable and his eyes flashed black fire as he pronounced his decision, and this time none of the willful assassins dared to protest. Vertigo's heart sank. Well, there goes that. For a moment she wistfully eyed the four entrances to the Manhattan tunnels which ringed the chamber; then she dragged her feet after the rest of the momentarily cowed Marauders.

Outside of the electronic door which led to Sinister's own living area and laboratories was a raised traingular concete "platform" about twenty feet across, one of four which ringed the huge channel-crossed chamber. This particular quadrant was littered with salvage -- old furniture, blankets, clothes, and dirty magazines -- to serve as a temporary makeshift camp of sorts, used when the Marauders weren't out on the road or passing a dull few months in the tubes. The others were already propping up an old table and trying to put together a full set of cards to pass the time. Feeling trapped and miserable, Vertigo claimed a worn stuffed paisley chair at the farthest corner, well away from her "teammates," and curled up in it to concentrate on gnawing off one of the few remaining nails she hadn't already bitten to the quick.



Ten minutes later Sinister emerged to round up Harpoon. Scalphunter did not return. Neither did Harpoon when Riptide was called in for his examination ten minutes after that. Knowing Sinister, that meant that whatever he was doing to gather the information he wanted involved something which required recuperation time. Vertigo gulped hard at the thought -- if she hadn't already been at her "fear" limit she would have been petrified merely by the thought of whatever procedure lay in store for her beyond the laboratory door. Sinister could be frighteningly subtle in his words and manner, but when it came to medical procedures he was brutally direct and supremely unsympathetic...

Deep in thought, she almost leaped out of her skin as Scrambler appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to crouch down next to her chair. He'd carelessly dropped one hand onto the overstuffed arm of the old piece of furniture, close enough to her own arm to raise hairs all over her skin. She withdrew it without trying to look anxious and met his gaze unflinchingly. He was just staring up at her, saying nothing. It was unnerving, to say the least.

"Well? What?" she snapped at last, frazzled to the breaking point. "Have I grown a beard or something?"

He grinned, but his eyes did not smile. They were still tracking across her face, looking for...something. "Nah, I'd expect THAT from Arc." He jerked a thumb back at the other woman, who was now boredly gathering up the cards and stuffing them into the nearest jacket pocket. Of course, though, he'd cracked the impertinent joke far too quietly for the temperamental killer to overhear.

"Y'know, there's something weird about you," he added almost without pause, changing subjects with alarming speed before she could come up with an appropriate reply. She was suddenly glad that he'd already lowered his voice. "Something 'not-right.' And I finally figured out what it is. Y'see, we've only known Maelstrom for a day or so...but we've known Vertigo for years."

She went cold from head to toe, every muscle tensing rock-hard. So this is it, huh? "What the hell are you implying?" she hissed, unable to stop herself from chancing a glance over at Arclight.

"I'm not implying anything. I KNOW. If you're Maelstrom, you'd be over there with us, trying to pretend that you're the new top dog on the block."

"Oh, for crying out-- Look, I was carsick and I just felt like getting in some rest before Sinister starts sticking probes into me," she protested angrily.

Without warning he made a sudden move to touch her shoulder. She jerked back, almost rolling out of the chair, and he grinned as he let his arm fall back to his side. "There's not as much raw power in you as there should be. I can tell."

"Look, this is ridiculous. I don't have to defend myself to you. It's perfectly obvious: I AM Maelstrom."

"Oh yeah?" Scrambler spread his hands invitingly. "Come on, then, prove it. Do something to me. I dare you."

Vertigo stared at him angrily but helplessly, at a complete loss. A moment later he dropped both hands onto his knees with a flat smack. "Uh huh. I thought so."

So this really IS it, her mind whispered fatalistically. Her heart was pounding so loud that she was amazed that he couldn't hear it, too. Already. It's not fair...

"So go on then, Sung, tell everyone," she snapped bitterly. "What are you waiting for? I don't stand a chance and you know it. Get it over with."

The Korean-American waved one hand dismissively. "Not yet."

"Oh sure, drag it out..."

"No, no, that's not my intention. If I tell the others, I won't ever know. What made you do it, I mean."

"Run away?"

"Yep."

Vertigo sighed and examined her nails as if they were the most fascinating things in the universe. "Look, you guys have it all wrong," she muttered without looking up at him. "I wasn't trying to betray you or Sinister. I just...I thought he was going to get rid of me. Like Prism."

Scrambler sucked in a breath as if he was about to say something but then he exhaled and gestured for her to continue. She sighed and finally looked right into his eyes. "There really isn't much more to it than that, okay? I didn't...I just didn't want to die, you know? Not permanently."

"But you were wrong."

"No shit, Sherlock, I know that NOW!" She had to forcibly stop herself from yelling, dragging her voice back down to a murmur. Arclight was pacing restlessly along the edge of the concrete platform like a caged tigress, but she did not appear to be moving within earshot. Yet. "I panicked, okay?" Vertigo hissed, her whisper laced with venomous disgust with her own faulty choices. "I'm sorry! I was stupid!"

"Yeah, well, I was on the verge of doing the same exact thing," Scrambler said very, very quietly.

Vertigo's train of thought was abruptly, violently derailed. Her eyes went wide as she stared at him, momentarily at a loss for words. "YOU--?! But...but you...the team needs you!"

He shrugged carelessly. "Sure, yeah, for only one thing, and I can only do that if I can get in close and touch someone. At least you have a distance attack -- you can hit several targets at once. But me...well, my range pretty much makes me a one-target wonder. Prism and I, we'd been talking about working together in battle to stay in one piece longer. To 'up' our efficiency rating, like. He said he was going try to convince you to join us..."

Though her view of the world was now reeling with the revelation that someone had actually considered her valuable to the team, it was starting to make a twisted kind of sense. "Uh...yes. Yes, he did start to say something to me, the night before his last mission. In Paris. Something that didn't make sense to me at the time, something about 'sticking together'..."

Scrambler nodded. "Right. And then the next thing I knew, he was...gone. It was a bit of a shock, Vee. I'd thought it was going to be me first. After that... Well, before I could make up my mind about it, we were decanted here in New York and you were missing." He flashed her a quick lopsided grin. "And as you can guess, we've been kinda busy ever since."

Vertigo didn't return the smile. She was watching his face carefully, her pulse no longer a fight-or-flight thunder in her ears. "ARE you going to tell the others about me?" she asked in a very small voice.

He hesitated then shook his head. "No. No point, really. Unlike some folks I could name, I'm not really big on killing teammates. You haven't got much time left anyway."

"Yeah. Sinister."

They were both quiet for a minute. Vertigo wasn't sure what to make of the whole conversation. Scrambler had rarely ever been actively cruel to her, but they'd never really had anything in common, either -- at best, he made her feel like a clumsy country mouse.

"Hey, Scrambler." That was Arclight's voice, slicing unexpectedly into the uncomfortable silence. "Quit kissing up to the new girl. Sinister's ready for you. Better get moving."

With a sigh, Scrambler pushed against his knees and rose from his crouch beside Vertigo's chair. "Good luck," he said, even though they both knew that the phrase was nothing more than two meaningless words...that her luck had finally run out. "Don't worry about Sinister getting it from me, about you being here I mean -- I seriously doubt that he'll be looking for THAT particular piece of information in my head, and I don't plan on volunteering it. I'm afraid that's all I can do for you, though. If there's a hunt, I...well..." He spread his hands helplessly. "You understand, right?"

She gave him a brief but genuine smile. "Yeah. Thanks."

"SOMETIME TODAY, SUNG!"

Scrambler winced at the sheer volume of the shout as it echoed and reverberated around the stone chamber. "Yeah, yeah, Arc, keep your panties on," he grumbled as he ambled off towards his appointment with Sinister.

At a complete loss, Vertigo pulled her knees up to her chin and stared steadfastly at the paisley pattern on the chair arm...



At her master's signal, Arclight sauntered casually into the inner sanctum. Now all alone in the Marauders' haphazard outer living area, Vertigo sat hunched up in a ball on her worn chair, nervously gnawing at the shreds of one thumbnail. She was the last one. She was next. Unless something went drastically wrong with Arclight -- and she seriously doubted THAT was going to happen -- in ten or so minutes she, Vertigo, would be called in by Sinister for a thorough mental examination, just like the others...except that she'd fail. It was over. She was trapped. There was nowhere else to go...

Or maybe there was.

It had taken every scrap of what little courage she thought she possessed to run away the first time, and that had been the single bravest act of her entire pointless life. In a way, though, she'd still taken the coward's path. She'd made her break for it when the others were locked away, when Sinister had been hundreds of miles to the north.

If she tried to run now, it'd be quicker to just slit her wrists...but not by much.

And yet...

Either way, I'm dead, she thought as she uncurled and rose to her feet. May as well go all-out and improve my chances with a distraction...

She felt surprisingly steady as she walked across the deserted "camp" and picked up the sweater she'd worn during her brief sojourn out in the real world. There were three hard objects wrapped up in it, all three stolen from Misfire. It had been a real bitch to keep them hidden from the other Marauders, but they trusted "Maelstrom" -- or were afraid of her, imagine that! -- and she hadn't been searched in any way. Her luck had held.

Sitting back on her haunches and trying to keep a wary eye on all of the exits to the stone chamber at once, Vertigo fished out the stolen cellphone and flipped it open, noting with relief that after several days lying idle it still held a charge. She was about to dial when her fingers paused over the buttons. An idea had struck her -- a surprisingly good idea considering MY track record, she admitted ruefully. Instead of going with her first idea, therefore, she pushed the redial button.

For a moment she was worried that the signal wouldn't make it out of the underground lair, but luckily for her this particular phone hadn't been designed with your average freeway-cruising businessman in mind. When she cautiously put the phone to her ear there was no answer but there was definitely someone there. Silent. Listening.

Spooky government types, she thought with a shrug. Just do it.

"Hey, I dunno who you guys are," she stated confidentally, "but I know you work with that Misfire chick, and I'll bet she's told you all about me. Yeah, this is Vertigo, the real one. You might want to know that if you trace this phone -- and I'm betting you can -- there's a whole nest of murderin' mutie Marauders down here. This isn't a trap; I hate 'em just about as much as I bet you guys do. So come and get 'em."

With a wicked grin, she hung up and dialed 911 and told the police the exact same thing...plus explicit directions, both above- and below-ground.

Then she yanked on a pair of hacked-off jeans, stuck her other stolen "toy" in the waistband, clipped the imager to her leotard collar, and took off running for the tunnels.



Somewhere in Virginia, in a room mostly lit by computer screens and blinking electronic telltales, a woman sat up in surprise. She pressed her headset closer to her ear as if that would make the message come in clearer than it already was, but it was about as clear as daylight anyhow.

"Sir? Excuse me, SIR--?"

"Yes, Mayfaire?"

She tapped in a command to store and rewind the message, then held her headset out to her boss. "You're not going to believe what just we just picked up from the police lines in New York..."



Twenty minutes later, when Maelstrom didn't answer his summons not once but three times, Sinister set down his electronic clipboard with a gusty sigh and strode towards the laboratory archway to handle the situation himself. Perhaps she'd wandered off...she'd always been a bit flighty that way. Something he should breed out of the next clone. Could a short attention span be remedied genetically? It was a stretch of the imagination, yes, but most of his best ideas started out that way...like the mildly entertaining "metamorph-as-a-living-breeding-creche" hobby he'd pursued for a while last year...or that useful little boarding school he'd acquired in Oklahoma...

Hmm. If nothing else, it'd be a distraction. Making a mental note of the new idea, Sinister set aside his equipment with an exasperated sigh and strode out of his lab.

A quick look around the mess which served as the Marauders' temporary lair revealed two key details: the somewhat expected lack of Maelstrom, and the completely unexpected presence of a discarded cellphone.

His annoyance chilled into suspicion. He bent to pick up the phone, and as he turned it over in his hand it was immediately apparant that this was no ordinary piece of technology.

Government issue. I...see.

And with that, his suspicion hardened into certainty.



Less than one minute later the rest of his assassins were assembled once more, clad in full battle gear. Scenting a spur-of-the-moment hunt, they were curious and restless, but the thunderous look on Sinister's face kept them respectfully silent. Something had the boss-man major-pissed, as Riptide would have put it.

And it did not escape any of them that their newest teammate was conspiciously absent.

Sinister glared sidelong at Arclight until she caught herself and wiped the broad "I-told-you-so" smirk off of her face. Only then did he inform them curtly, "It appears that we've had a breach of security. We may be expecting visitors within the hour, I suspect. I want you all out on perimeter alert. Nothing and nobody is to get through, am I making myself perfectly clear?"

An assortment of nods and shuffles met this, as well as a few exchanged glances. There were questions burning in their eyes but none had the nerve to...

"Hey boss, where's Maelstrom?"

Sinister raised an eyebrow and regarded the Marauder who'd spoken so insolently and yet was so completely casual under his master's sudden scrutiny. Sinister resisted the urge to shake his head like an exasperated father. Even HE couldn't predict Riptide.

'Where's Maelstrom,' indeed...

For a moment he considered lying to them. Then he decided that yes, he WOULD lie to them. No point in having them go baying off on their grudge hunt again, not when there was a possibility of leaving his base open to discovery by the outside world. There was more than a good chance that he'd lose all control over the motley pack of assassins if they knew that they'd been infiltrated in the field by Vertigo, the very woman they'd gone hunting for...

Which means that I have not one but TWO missing Marauders to contend with, Sinister thought grimly. He was not stupid. The government-issue phone had been all he'd needed to put two and two together. It was obvious: the runaway Vertigo had found herself a new employer, and she was more than eager to sell out her previous master AND as many of her former teammates as she could to secure her new life.

And it had plainly been child's play for her to take the place of her new doppleganger.

Sinister winced, unable to believe the gullibility of his Marauders. Damnation! Must I lean over their shoulders every second of every day...?!

Matters were rapidly clicking into place, and he didn't like the big picture. Not one bit. The very thought of Maelstrom AND Blockbuster in government custody -- his new masterpiece and the man who knew the inner nuts-and-bolts of too many of his master's machinations... Quite frankly, it made him want to grind his teeth together. He'd OWNED Vertigo's absolute terrified loyalty, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Where did he go wrong? What glitch had set in during the last cloning process to make her go so far awry?

No matter. No matter, now. Forget letting the Marauders track that little turncoat down, he thought darkly. If he had his way (and he usually did), he would personally recapture Vertigo, flay her slowly, and then break her neck with his bare hands.

"I am still completing my examination upon Maelstrom," he lied smoothly. "She'll join you later. I need you out there NOW. Get going." And in a dramatic skirl of cape Sinister turned on one heel and stalked back regally into his sanctum sanctorum, brooking no further questions.



The Marauders stayed right where they were for a few moments, waiting with surprising patience until the tapping of Sinister's bootheels faded away and a distant door hummed shut.

Then Scalphunter deliberately cocked his gun, a metallic beast fully half the size of his torso, with a rachetting k-kKk-klick! that echoed quite satisfactorily in the vaulted stone chamber. "So. Did any of you guys buy that one?"

"Heh! You saw the look on his face when I said 'Maelstrom' -- I thought he was gonna have an stroke!" Riptide gloated, elbowing Harpoon in the ribs. The Inuit hunter glared at him but nodded in agreement, as did Scrambler. Scrambler seemed a little distracted, but then again that was normal for him and no one paid any heed to his slightly delayed reaction.

"I KNEW something was wrong," Arclight growled. She was still somewhat pale from her "examination," but of course it was nothing that she couldn't handle. "I knew it! Ever since I met her coming back from Mickie D's, back at that park in Baltimore. I couldn't put my finger on it, an' I figured it was just 'cause I didn't have a full handle on her yet. I'm thinking she's not so different from her old self after all."

Scalphunter looked thoughtful at that and seemed about to say something, but then he rubbed his chin and kept it to himself.

"I say screw guarding the perimeter -- Sinister's just tryin' to keep us busy an' 'out of the way,'" Arclight spat viciously, insulted. "It's obvious that the damn girl's run off just like the last one, an' Sinny's just trying to cover his ass. He's a scientist, he's living in a dream world. He doesn't know anything about the way a team works. WE know what's good for the Marauders, not HIM."

She punched one fist forcefully into her other palm. "*I* say let's bring her down and END this like we should have, right from the beginning. New powers or NO new fucking powers. You all in?"

"Of course," Scrambler replied promptly. Harpoon nodded, and Scalphunter snorted as if to say "you have to ask?" Riptide merely grinned bloodthirstily from ear to ear, flipping a shuriken idly from hand to hand. With a momentary blur of his power and a careless flick of a finger, he sent the sharp flake of metal deep into the nearest stone wall.

"So what are we waiting for?" he drawled.



NEXT: Could this be rounding into a home stretch? I won't lie to you -- maybe! Come back for part eleven: Vertigo versus the Marauders (or what's left of them, anyway)! Is this the end of our, er, heroine? Could be. With THESE characters, all bets are off and there's no guarantees until the final curtain...

~~~~~~~~~~~
Part Eleven
~~~~~~~~~~~

Well, the villain is the hero
And I'm torn, dirty, and mad...

-- We Got The Power by Lizzy Borden

~~~~~~~~~~~

Well, like it or not, she had to admit it:

She was lost.

Vertigo paused to catch her breath, leaning back against a cold damp wall with her hands on her knees. She cast a glare around the dark chamber; the only scraps of light for as far as she could see streamed in ribbons from a street grate some ten feet about her head. At least it wasn't a wet night up aboveground -- if it had been raining, she'd be running through oily waterfalls, on top of everything else.

She'd been fairly confident of her ability to get through the New York sub-sewer system on her own, as she'd been through them many times with the team. But there were miles of tunnels, and it was dark, and somewhere in her hurry to put enough distance behind her she'd made a crucial wrong turn.

Guess the only thing to do is to keep moving, she sighed to herself. She had no idea how much time had passed, but it had been more than enough time for her absence to be noticed...

Vertigo straightened up with a grunt but then paused, listening to some distant scratch of debris on concrete. The last three times had been false alarms, so she didn't tense up immediately. When the next sound she heard was the click of metal on stone, however...

Without hesitation she whirled and ran -- well, she couldn't exactly run in the near total darkness, not on damp concrete that could drop away into a channel at any moment, but she certainly MOVED. With only spandex and thin tough soles between her feet and the cold ground, she was able to feel her way along as quietly as a cat, and her eyes were now well adjusted to the echoing dimness. No more looking for a convenient way out -- she was out of time. ANY way out of the sewers would do now. When it came to being pursued by the Marauders, underground tunnels were a deathtrap.

There! A glimpse out of the corner of her eye, a flash of darkness to her right that wasn't quite the same texture as the darkness all around her. She leaped over the water channel down the center of the tunnel and thrust her hand forward and up, into the mismatched patch. She met no resistance until her fingertips touched a rusty bar. An access! Quickly (for she could swear that she'd just heard a whisper in the tunnels not far away) she jumped up, bracing herself against the sides of the pipe. It was a little slippery but before she lost her precarious grip she lunged forward and caught two of the bars. None of them were loose or missing (nnnnoooo, because that would be convenient! she grumbled to herself) but she was pretty sure that if she really wriggled, she could get through...



Not far away, Harpoon lifted his head and listened intently. For a moment he'd heard something...something like the rattle of loosely anchored iron. A grate, perhaps? Too far ahead to be a sound made any of his teammates; although they were currently all out of his line of sight, busy scouring the neighboring tunnels, he knew their patterns and habits as well as he knew his own heartbeat.

Confident but with the wary silent tread of a well-armed man on the trail of dangerous game, he changed direction, following that faint sound. Within moments he came across the obvious trail of scuff-marks in the dried scum which coated many of the tunnels. He crouched down for a better look, and he thoughtfully ran one calloused finger around the telltale outline of a small, practically bare foot.

The hunter allowed himself a grim smile then raised his hand to his lips and let out a barely audible series of whistles.

~~Harpoon~~ / ~~Target located~~ / ~~Meet here~~ / ~~Harpoon~~

It would only be a matter of moments before the spread-out team reconvened on his location.



Vertigo scrambled up the side of the concrete drainage ditch in one determined rush, using her momentum to practically throw herself up the steep incline. Only when she reached the top did she pause to catch her breath, wrapping her arms around herself and wincing ruefully. She'd squeezed through the bars, all right, but probably at the expense of a cup size or two. And her injured leg, which was now a fine angry yellow of fading taxi-induced bruises under her leotard, was throbbing unhappily all over again.

She allowed herself a moment to favor her scrapes and then firmly shoved the distraction away. Instead, she let her arms fall to her sides and spared a few precious moments to survey her prospects. The ditch seemed to mark the border of a vast expanse of grass, silent and unbroken save for the occasional scattered tree. Behind her were streetlights and the shifting concealing motion of humanity, but a high chain-link fence and a roaringly busy stream of traffic lay between her and that comparative safety...

Before she could decide properly, there was a clank of metal as someone tested one of the iron bars of the grate below.

Her heart thudded up into the back of her throat. Without wasting a moment longer, she whirled and took off sprinting across the damp grass...away from the lights of New York City and straight into the dark.



Impatiently, Scalphunter motioned Harpoon aside and blasted two of the iron bars right out of their sockets. He didn't need Harpoon to confirm that their prey had used this accessway to escape to the upper world; now that they were in the right tunnel, the signs of her passage were as obvious to his trained eye as they were to the Inuit hunter. He could have kicked himself for not being the one to find the trail first.

I must be getting old, he chided himself, only half-seriously.

Arclight had already boosted Scrambler up through the grate and was jumping up after him, one hundred percent fixated upon their goal. This close to the end of the hunt, both she and Riptide were practically vibrating with ferocious energy. It was at times like this that Scalphunter was glad that he could count on cooler heads like Scrambler and Harpoon to prevail -- to keep matters quiet. The prey had led the chase far closer to the fringes of the human world than he liked...

Either the girl's running blind, he thought as he holstered his rifle and reached up for the smoking grate himself, or she's got a lot more guts than I gave her credit for.



The footing was uneven in an oddly regular way...and ahead she could now make out loose groupings of strangely-shaped protrusions. Tree stumps, maybe? But why?

Vertigo finally spared a moment to look down just as her right foot kicked straight through a withered bundle of flowers, scattering petals over the grass. The dim starlight glinted off of small metal plaques set every few feet. For a moment she frowned, wondering -- then she realized that what lay ahead were actually rows of gravestones.

Which meant that she was in a cemetery, and that the plaques under her flying feet marked more modern graves.

Vertigo snorted softly to herself as she ran, not wasting breath on words. Oh, lovely. How appropriate. She strained her eyes, trying to see the other side of the grassy expanse, but trees and distance foiled her attempt to gauge the distance to safety. As she passed the first of the knee-high stone markers at an alert jog, she was forced to admit that the place looked huge, and she had no guarantee that there was civilization on the far side.

She came across a driveway; the blacktop was still slightly warm underfoot as she paused thoughtfully in the middle of the miniature road. In one direction it wound away behind a stand of greenery, but in the other direction it led straight to a rather Gothic brick building of some kind. She fumbled for the right word and then she had it: "mortuary." That building was a mortuary.

It meant very little to her.

After a brief moment of consideration she shrugged and lit out in that direction. Either way, her trail would be much harder to pick up on the asphalt; hopefully the Marauders would assume that she'd set off in the other direction, towards civilization.

And it all else failed, the building would provide better cover than the gravestones and the scattered trees.



Vertigo had barely reached the mortuary when the hair on the back of her neck stood straight up. Without pausing to think, she threw herself aside just as a crackling energy harpoon sliced past close enough to sever a lock of her hair. The harpoon thudded into the ground several yards ahead of her but she had already changed course again, hugging the bushes at the side of the building and darting around the corner as a second spear thunked into the bricks themselves.

Now that the moment of truth was upon her, she was mildly surprised to find that she was no longer afraid. She was no longer thinking but, rather, acting on pure adrenaline. Every second seemed slow and crystal clear, and she suddenly knew exactly what they expected her to do: to keep running, or to use the bushes as cover. So she didn't. Three steps after she turned the corner she whirled and planted her feet and raised her hands and summoned up her own inner strength.

When Harpoon and Riptide rounded the back of the mortuary they ran straight into an invisible miasma of disorienting nausea.

Already spinning like a dervish in anticipation of the kill, Riptide instead found himself swerving wildly aside, choking and completely out of control. His tangled feet struck the steps of the mortuary's back "porch" and his incredible momentum threw him head-first to the stone landing with a sickeningly final crack.

However, Vertigo didn't have time to decide whether she felt elated or regretful. To her dismay, she found that after a brief moment of obvious dizziness Harpoon crouched low to regain his balance, shook his head, and then glared directly up at her. In one swift fluid movement he retrieved a harpoon haft from the quiver slung across his broad back.

...oh no immune to my power of course after all those missions he's built up a resistance to it oh my what now...? She only had seconds to act, and she certainly couldn't tackle him physically OR try to make a break for it -- either way she'd be impaled and gutted before she could take a step.

Only one thing left to try, she thought fleetingly, remembering then what her other two selves could do. Remembering how deadly they both could be. It was ironic, really; not only was she not a very good person, and not only was she not the best Marauder, but she wasn't even the best VERTIGO in existence! Pathetic. But if Misfire and Maelstrom could do it, then why not her? If she really, REALLY tried...? They were her, she was them -- triplets warped by their environments but intrinsically the same person. Maybe she just hadn't pushed herself hard enough before. Didn't many mutations manifest or mutate under stress? She was certainly desperate enough now!

Concentrate...focus...focus beyond the simple "strike," focus on the nerves themselves, summon up the strength, hurt him, STOP him, come ON, you can do it...

Nothing.

Her stomach sank like a stone.

She couldn't.

SHE COULDN'T DO IT.

Only a second or two had passed as these thoughts flickered across her frantic mind. In Harpoon's hand a deadly energy blade now hummed into life atop the metal butt of the lethal spear. Completely, hopelessly cornered, she clenched her fists, preparing to...

Suddenly the harpoon blade flared so bright that the bushes cast stark black shadows against the bricks and the nearest gravestones streamed darkness across the grass. Harpoon barked out an inarticulate shout of horror and desperately tried to drop his weapon, to hurl it away, but it was too late: the pulsing glare suddenly REVERSED FLOW, channeling back into his hand, up his arm--

Vertigo was forced to fling up one arm to shield her eyes from the writhing brilliance as the hunter blazed incandescent with his own deadly energy. There was a hoarse gurgling scream and then abrupt silence, completely dark except for the afterimages dancing upon Vertigo's retinas.

She blinked hard, edging back, struggling to regain her vision before the others arrived in response to the commotion. As her sight returned she found that she could see Harpoon's body lying twisted on the driveway, still steaming gently into the cold night air.

And standing over him, grinning sheepishly from ear to ear, was Scrambler.

Of course. Amplify and reverse, she thought wonderingly, staring at him in complete amazement. But...why? Does this mean...

She cleared her throat. Her mouth felt almost too dry to speak. "But...the hunt. I...I thought you said..."

He shrugged and looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Yeah, well, I, uh, changed my mind on the spur of the moment. I'll probably REALLY regret it later. Go on, get moving! I've only bought you a few moments. The others went the other way, towards the main street, but they'll be here any minute."

"Scr...Kim. Thank you." The team was down to almost nothing and off on a false trail. Once more, she had a chance! Her heart lifted for the first time in hours...

Then something moved behind Scrambler.

Soundlessly, Arclight stepped out of the night, moving right past the young man before he realized that she was even there. Without breaking stride or taking her eyes off of Vertigo, the tall woman lashed out with a brutally indifferent backhand, connecting with the side of Scrambler's head hard enough to fracture stone.

Bone crunched like eggshell. Lifted clean off of his feet by the force of the almost careless blow, Scrambler was flung back several feet in a spray of blood, landing in a limp heap half on the curb and half on the grass.

He didn't move again.

"That's what we do to traitors," Arclight growled. Her eyes were ablaze with hatred as she glared at Vertigo. "That's what we should have done to you days ago. That's what I'm going to do to you RIGHT NOW."

Vertigo resisted the urge to glance over at Scrambler's body in the irrational hope that he was still breathing. No time to think about it! her mind screamed at her. SAVE YOURSELF! Almost unconsciously she fell into a wary mirror of Arclight's battle-ready stance, and just in time -- the woman was already charging before her last words had faded from the air. Obviously, she was not about to give "Maelstrom" the moment of concentration she needed to trigger off her own deadly powers.

Vertigo flung herself forward and down at the last second, letting the lethal punch swish right over her head as she rolled and scrambled back to her feet. It was a move she'd been thinking about using for a while, and one that should have surprised Arclight.

To her horror, it didn't.

The hammer blow which fell across her shoulders wasn't quite enough to break anything but it did sent her stumbling forward over Harpoon's remains, driving the air out of her lungs and knocking her to her hands and knees. On pure instinct, she jerked aside as a fist smashed down where her head had been an instant before. Shards of concrete flew in every direction as Arclight's hand smashed the curb of the driveway into powder.

Vertigo yelped as one sharp chip of cement bulleted right into her calf, but she was already back up on her feet as Arclight straightened up and lunged for her with both hands, obviously intent upon wringing her out like a rag. Vertigo threw herself back frantically along the curve of the curb, windmilling for balance -- she barely managed to stumble to a halt in time to avoid tripping over Scrambler's body.

She knew that she couldn't hold out much longer. She shouldn't have lasted this long! If her luck held out, she gave herself three more seconds, tops...

To her amazement, though, Arclight had stopped. Stopped dead, just out of arms' reach. Just...staring at her. And there was something dawning in her expression, around the expressionless shades which hid her eyes even at night. Something which was not pleasant at all.

"You're not Maelstrom," she said flatly.

Vertigo didn't reply; she couldn't, not really, for she was too busy gasping for air and seizing this brief unexpected respite to brace herself for one last hurrah.

I'd rather die here, quickly, than go back under Sinister's machines, she realized then, and she was amazed to find that it was absolutely true. So she merely raised her chin defiantly, as if daring the woman to finish her off.

Arclight was nodding slowly, as if to herself. "Of course...of course, why didn't I see it before? You're Vertigo. And you've been under my nose, RIGHT under all of our noses, for hours now. Do you have any idea how badly I've been wanting to kill you? And now...now I have that pleasure all to myself."

She broke into a sadistic grin and cracked all of her knuckles deliberately, practically in Vertigo's face. "Go ahead, try your little tricks on me. I'm too close now. You can't outrun me, and you can't stop me." And she began to move forward...

Well, what ELSE am I supposed to do? Vertigo fumed inwardly, gritting her teeth. It was hopeless, but she didn't plan to let Arclight take her out without a fight. There wasn't much she could do; the woman wouldn't feel even her strongest blow and would shrug off anything else she could fling at her. So at a loss for anything else, Vertigo sighed and drew herself up and one last time focused her pitiful power...

Which suddenly blasted through her every nerve like rushing water, taking her breath away with a sheer singing surge of strength. It washed away her surroundings and sluiced away her emotions, leaving her completely calm. Time seemed to hover in place for a long moment. Wonderingly, without any real thought, she closed her eyes to better "see"; almost dreamily, she raised a hand. In her mind's eye she grabbed and twisted...something. Hard.

When she jerked back to herself a moment (?) later and snapped her eyes open in a near panic, Arclight was no longer standing in front of her. Without stopping to wonder why, she looked down and was stunned then exhilarated to find that she was staring at Arclight's contorted body.

...it worked it worked I don't believe it oh it WORKED...

The woman's face was drawn with agony and her hands were locked claw-like at her chest and throat, and although her eyes were open she was quite clearly dead.

She was also quite clearly NOT touching Vertigo's ankle.

But something was.

Vertigo almost bit her tongue in alarm as she whipped her gaze around. Belatedly she recalled that she'd been backed up against the curb, right smack against Scrambler's corpse...only perhaps he hadn't been quite as dead as she'd thought. Although the entire right side of his face -- the side that gleamed wetly up at her in the starlight -- was now a terrible crushed ruin of bone and brain, somehow he'd managed to move one last time.

The fingers of his right hand was loosely curled around the back of her heel.

It was then that she finally understood where her sudden timely surge of incredibly amplified power had come from.

Even as she whirled and dropped to her knees beside her dying teammate, however, he let out one last small bubbling breath and was still. He hadn't opened his eyes or said a single word. A pity...she would never know if he'd made that final heroic effort to help her or simply to avenge himself on the woman who'd killed him. Vertigo wasn't sure whether she should be sorry for him or proud of him.

Either way, she'd won. She was in the clear now. She'd done it!

Almost wobbly with relief, Vertigo stood reluctantly up, dusting off her hands and wincing at the spreading ache across her upper back from Arclight's last blow. That chip of cement embedded in her lower leg wasn't unbearable, but she really would have to dig it out as soon as possible. She wondered if...

It was then that the ruby-red laser beam silently punched right through her right shoulder from behind, instantly cauterizing the hole with a hiss of vaporized blood.



NEXT: At long last, the startling (well, *I* sure hope so) conclusion. Heh. You'll have to read it and find out, won't you?

~~~~~~~~~~~
Part Twelve
~~~~~~~~~~~

Call off the attack 'cuz if you look deep
Dreams are nothing that I lack
And all I seek
A final chance to speak
And I would let the whole thing keep
If I could just sleep...

-- Sleep by Savatage

~~~~~~~~~~~

Vertigo screamed in shock and surprise more than in pain. Before any vestige of conscious thought could even begin to set in, she was already flinging herself frantically backward to put the mortuary at her back. Unfortunately, a second later agony flared through her laser-pierced shoulder, sending fingers of sympathetic fire across her chest and up the side of her neck. Her knees gave out and she sat down abruptly on the ground, her back crashing into the well-trimmed bushes which ringed the building. They were too thick for her to squirm into or under. She was trapped.

When she looked up, Scalphunter was standing over her, rifle slung casually over one brawny arm.

His expression was completely unreadable as he studied her from head to toe, taking his time. She didn't bother saying anything either as she clutched her shoulder and tried to stop gasping like a drowning fish. To tell the truth, she was quite busy enough kicking herself for forgetting about him -- or for letting herself believe for even an instant that the master assassin would be distracted for long by a false lead.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. And dead.

"Well, Vertigo," he said at last. His voice was rough-edged but measured, as always. "Yes, don't look so surprised. I believed you for a while when you mentioned Carlton -- that spook's been a good three steps behind us for years now -- but I figured out the truth when you first went missing, back at the lair. I'll give you credit for a damn good try. You really gave us a run for our money."

She blinked up at him, amazed. He was dead serious. He rarely bothered to speak to a target. And he certainly never complimented one!

His expression was still unreadable but his voice was almost...gentle? "In fact, I'd have to say that I'm actually kinda proud of you. I always thought you had something better in you, kid. A pity it has to end this way."

...proud...of...me...?! Vertigo swallowed hard and dared to answer. "So why DOES it have to end this way? The only reason I ran away was because I thought you guys wanted me dead. Because I was useless. Now that I'm obviously NOT useless..." Her voice cracked and she cursed herself silently. Don't show weakness. Don't show weakness! "Well, why not let me come back? None of the others will remember any of this once Sinister reclones 'em. I...we can start over."

Scalphunter grunted thoughtfully and actually seemed to be considering her logic. Then he regretfully shook his head. "No can do. The boss never forgets. Speak of the devil, I really should bring you back to Sinister, you know. He was quite put out by your desertion...he'd probably just LOVE to find out what made you go rogue. You know that that means, don't you?"

"Y-yeah. Sure. Vivisection."

"Right. And worse." The Marauders' leader hefted his gun slightly, idly checking the setting with his fingertips and a glance. "So consider this a mercy killing, because I think you've earned the right to die cleanly rather than under the scalpel...or at Arclight's hands, if you know what I mean. Fair enough?"

For a moment Vertigo almost gave in, almost hung her head and meekly agreed. By Scalphunter's standards, he truly was affording her far more mercy than she deserved. He was right. A clean death was the best she could hope for, really. Even if by some miracle she DID manage to escape from Scalphunter, there'd be yet another fresh-out-of-the-tube royally-pissed-off team of Marauders hot on her trail by noon tomorrow. She couldn't go on like this...she was so tired...

Her hand had fallen away from her throbbing shoulder and had come to rest against something hard and cold at her side. Almost of their own volition her fingers crept around it and gripped it tightly, as if searching for something solid to cling to.

And then she realized that despite her near-paralyzing fear of Sinister's retribution, she DID still want to take the risk of living.

"Sure, fair enough, I suppose...but that doesn't mean that I have to like it," she replied quietly, stalling for a few more seconds. She flicked a switch on the device which she'd jammed deep into her pocket before leaving the lair. For a moment a new anxiety fluttered in her mind: Left-handed...I'll have to do it left-handed...AND unbraced...

She firmly pushed the doubt back down. You'll only get one chance, gal. Make it count.

In answer to her weak protest, she could hear Scalphunter shrug. The killing tools of his trade shifted with a faint metallic sound on the belts which criss-crossed his broad-chested body. "Nobody likes to die."

She took a deep breath and looked bravely up. "Yeah. You're right. Absolutely right. I DON'T want to die. Thanks but no thanks."

And with that she raised the cobalt-steel revolver that she'd grabbed (so long ago) from Misfire's shoulder-holster. And she aimed. And, as Scalphunter's normally neutral eyes went wide and he began too late to muscle his heavy rifle back up into position, she pulled the trigger.

The recoil sent a powerful jolt through her abused body, painfully jamming her hand and forcing her to drop the gun a moment later, but although she didn't regularly use weapons she HAD been taught the basics of handling firearms at an early point in her career as a Marauder. The shot was true. Scalphunter went down like a felled ox, heavily, without a sound; his rifle clattered across the pavement and rebounded slightly off of the curb.

Then the night was truly silent. And she was truly safe. Unless Sinister himself showed up, in which case she wasn't going to bother any more. She simply didn't have any more tricks in her bag.

Now well beyond any attempt at elation, Vertigo tilted her head back and wearily closed her eyes. She didn't really know if she could stand up at that point, so she elected instead to remain right where she was for the time being.

As an afterthought she activated the image inducer clipped to her collar. She was fairly sure that there was no one else on her trail right now, but she'd been wrong before and she'd paid the price. It couldn't hurt to be sheltered by invisibility while she lay helpless. Pity the thing didn't work well while she was moving...it would have come in handy over the last ten minutes or so...

Only about ten minutes? Feels kinda anti-climactic...

Anti-climactic?! What is WRONG with me? I just took out all, well, almost all of the Marauders. They're DEAD. I'm ALIVE.

But was it worth it...? something whispered fatalistically at the back of her mind. Oh, they'd be back. Within hours or days, the Marauders would be back. For as long as it suited Sinister, his pet assassins were without number...but there was only one of her. (Only one of her that counted in HER book, at least.) And she was in no shape to keep running. Hell, at this point, she was barely in any kind of shape to be walking.

Vertigo sighed and glanced around at the remains of the Marauders. Can't stay here. MOVE! She exhorted her muscles to get working, but now that the chase was concluded (...can't believe I beat them...) her legs didn't want to obey her at all. Her knees seemed to be terribly shaky and her fingers and toes were ice-cold and her eyes felt hot and wet, but she gritted her teeth and absolutely refused to give in to shock. To get her head back together, she took deep breaths -- or at least she tried to. Instead, she found that she had to breathe in short careful catches, as any attempt to actually fill her lungs shifted her shoulder and hurt like a bitch. Hell, at least she was still breathing.

Vertigo picked up the gun and stuffed it into the pocket of her jeans shorts again. She relaxed completely to fool her body into thinking that she was giving in to its insistant demand for rest...then she abruptly dragged herself to her feet. For a moment a painful pulse roared in her ears and shoulder, but then it cleared and she was still standing. A good start. Now to get the hell out of the cemetery, find somewhere to hole up, pray that her shoulder didn't get too badly infected...

She took two steps forward before she heard it: a small rasp of breath, between two of her own. She froze and stared about wildly, first regarding the silent cemetery and then the bodies of her former compatriots. It was then that she caught sight of the slight movement of Scalphunter's chest, rising and falling in a shallow but steady series of hitching breaths. He wasn't dead. She hadn't killed him after all.

Should have known that it would take more than one bullet to stop HIM, she thought grimly, already drawing the revolver from her pocket again. It was plain what she had to do, and she had to do it quickly, before he had any more time to possibly regain consciousness. After a wary few moments spent assuring herself that he wasn't playing possum, she crouched awkwardly down to press the muzzle of the gun squarely against his temple.

But then she paused. For a long moment she stayed there, staring down at the injured killer, frowning slightly. Thinking hard.

Then with a sigh she stood up, stuffing the unused revolver back into her shorts.

It wasn't that she suddenly felt any remorse for shooting a helpless enemy in the head -- not at all. It was the realization that if she killed Scalphunter, then none of the Marauders would remember this night. None of them would remember that she, Vertigo, had beaten the entire team, right down to the last man.

None of them would remember that she was worth something, after all.

Carefully, she skirted around Scalphunter's sprawled body and plodded towards the grass. After a moment's consideration, however, she changed her mind and headed back towards the mortuary. If there was a driveway, it had to lead to a street, and in New York a street meant quiet deserted alleys where she could go to ground.

It was then that the applause started...a lazily even chain of light claps. The very sound was heavy with irony.

Vertigo closed her eyes in momentary pain and then turned slowly, regarding the dark cemetery through tired blue eyes. She didn't even bother to tense up this time. There was no point.

Sinister.

Sure enough, a shrouded figure now stepped from beneath the nearest ornamental tree, cloak whisking across the close-cropped grass. He deliberately clapped a few more times and...

Drained and resigned as she was, it took Vertigo this long to notice several basic discrepancies. For one, she'd never known her master to completely envelope himself in a simple long black cloak before -- he was fond of his gleaming armor and his dramatic entrances. Secondly, the black-gloved hands which were now reaching up to push back the cloak's hood were definitely far more fine-boned than Sinister's own.

Thirdly, Sinister was at least a foot taller.

The figure's stern voice broke unexpectedly into her thoughts. "I'd appreciate it if you would refrain from thinking that name in my presence. If you do not cease and desist, I might just change my mind about what I am about to offer you."

The ex-Marauder blinked. The voice confirmed that this was certainly NOT Sinister: it was quite female, a precise husky contralto, silk over steel. And as the hood slid back, a cascade of long straight red hair gleamed in the first glow of the rising moon.

Vertigo knew this woman, though she'd never expected to see her again. This woman was dangerous -- VERY dangerous. And she hated the Marauders more than even the X-Men ever had.

Stiffly, she nodded to the other woman in recognition. "Madelyne."

"You remember me?"

Vertigo cleared her throat uncomfortably. It had been years, but she was impossible to forget. Like I'd forget Sinister's favorite pet project? Like I'd forget nearly getting demolished by the X-Men when we were sent to bring you back after you escaped from us that first time? She quickly squelched that thought, wary of the rogue telekinetipath's temper. "Uh...yes. Um, look, there's no polite way to say this, but--"

"--'Aren't you supposed to be dead,' you mean?" Madelyne Pryor smiled humorlessly. As was already blatantly apparant, her telepathy enabled her to gaze straight at Vertigo despite the makeshift "invisibility" projected by the activated image inducer. And although she was the mirror image of the sweet-tempered X-Woman Jean Grey, there was something behind her intense luminescent green eyes which gave Vertigo the screaming creeps. "I had some 'help' from a young man you're familiar with yourself, I believe? Hmmm...no...I suppose not."

Vertigo sighed. "Look, can you please just cut right through the 'gloating villainess' bit and get to the point? I've already had my fill of that from Arclight. Either tell me what you want to tell me or get whatever it is you have planned over with, okay? I'd had a REALLY bad day."

Madelyne looked taken aback at that for a moment. Then she actually chuckled -- a genuine, human chuckle -- and the stiff mannerisms fell aside. "All right, then, since you insist. Here it is, pure and simple: I have a proposition for you. I've recently joined a certain organization--"

"Who?"

"I can't say until after you accept. You understand, of course? Good, thank you. My point is, the former Qu...mmm, the previous 'holder of my current status' is not one to take my 'intrusion' lightly. I need to establish my own power base, and quickly. I need to have my own people around me, people I can trust."

Frankly, Vertigo was more than a little skeptical...and more than a little afraid that she wasn't going to make it through the conversation. She tried to keep her posture casual and her breathing normal, but the pain in her shoulder was becoming a serious distraction. She could hardly pull in enough oxygen to think clearly. "Uh...huh. And you think you can trust me?"

"Of course." Madelyne was absolutely serious. "I know that you are admirably loyal when treated properly. I can get you the medical attention you need -- do you seriously think that shoulder is going to heal without massive infection? And I have more than enough power to protect you from the Marauders AND--" she grimaced with distaste "--from HIM."

It WAS tempting. "All right, you have a few good points...but how the hell did you find me?" Vertigo was proud of herself for keeping her voice rock-steady. There were now red spots swimming at the edges of her vision. Hold it together. You've been hurt worse.

Madelyne made a vague dismissive gesture with one hand. "Oh, my new 'employer' has his ways. And his contacts. Your phone call to the police helped. Frankly, it sounded too interesting to pass up. Only three people I know of have had the guts to turn their backs on Sinister. I'm one. You're another. And you need me now. Tell me that I'm wrong."

Vertigo opened her mouth in automatic defiance and then discovered that she couldn't deny it. She closed her mouth and shook her head mutely.

Madelyne sensed her victory close at hand. Her voice was at its sweetest and most reasonable as she coaxed, "Come on, girl. Come with me. I'll take you out of here, away from here. Serve me and you'll have a future...serve us well and you'll be able to control your own life. Just reach out and take it..."

Vertigo's head was a spinning tumble of conflicting thoughts -- hope versus suspicion, dreams versus memory, surrender versus a newfound fierce independence. It sounds good...it sounds like my only chance...can I trust her...? This is a woman who almost handed the whole freakin' WORLD over to a bunch of DEMONS just because she felt a little neglected -- and would have killed her own kid to do it!

Ohhhh, but what other choice do I have?

Madelyne simply stood quietly, watching her intently but holding her peace; her shoulders were bare and her black cloak rippled clear down to the grass. The cemetery was as quiet as death, gravestones now faintly silvered by the crescent moon. Time waited.

Vertigo decided.

Eh, what the hell. I just hope that this turns out to be the lesser of two evils. And anyway, my feet are starting to get cold out here.

The ex-Marauder set her jaw stubbornly and pressed one hand to her shoulder -- she was just about at her limit, it felt like the entire arm was about to fall off -- and stepped unsteadily forward to join the Hellfire Club.



NEXT: The curtain has indeed gone down on our heroine, but the fat lady has not yet sung. Come back for the epilogues, folks. Yes, "epilogues," plural -- there are still a few loose ends to be tied up. You might yet be surprised.

~~~~~~~~~~~
EPILOGUES
~~~~~~~~~~~

Feel no pain, but my life ain't easy
I know I'm my best friend
No one cares but I'm so much stronger
I'll fight till the end
To escape from the true false world
Undamaged destiny
Can't get caught in the endless circle...

-- Escape by Metallica

~~~~~~~~~

EPILOGUE THE FIRST

Meanwhile:

The first clue Sinister had that his day had been shot all to hell was, of course, the discarded cellphone.

The second clue was the creak and grind of crumbling mortar at the back of his lab.

He had to admit later, grudgingly, that his unexpected visitors were sneaky and clever and they knew their business. And they were far, FAR faster than he would have given them credit for. He'd expected that unfortunate phone call from Vertigo to have tied them up for at least another hour, maybe two. However, even as he looked up from the last of his evacuation preparations, the rear wall came down with a thunderous crash and there were invaders in his lab. HIS LAB! And with a mere sidelong glance he found that a similar stream of laughably serious kevlar-clad commandos were staking out the entrance, too.

Sinister sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward, irritated but resigned. And I'd just finally arranged to have this location properly air-conditioned, too. With a flick of his wrist he primed the explosives strategically placed around the premises and teleported away to a suitable secondary lair.

At least, that was how it was supposed to work.

He was understandably more than irritated a few moments later to find himself still standing in the middle of his distinctly un-blown-up main laboratory. His irritation escalated towards outright annoyance as he found himself at the center of a pugnacious ring of rifles. He snorted to himself. As if bullets would...

...actually, those rifles didn't look QUITE standard...

Footsteps and the occasional echoing shout carried in from outside where other soldiers were securing the tunnels, but inside the lab itself it was very, very quiet. A grey-haired, grey-suited human man stepped through the ring of aimed weapons. The geneticist merely eyed him disdainfully. Quite definitely angry now, he tried to DO something, but nothing happened. He began to experience the first faint stirrings of something resembling astonishment

Were those fairly sophisticated power dampers that they'd set up at the four corners of the room...?

I do believe that these aren't NYPD officers after all, he realized. His astonishment was becoming something more than a faint stirring. So who--? Ah. The government phone. Of course.

"And you would be the so-called 'Mr. Sinister,' would you not?" the man stated quite calmly, moving face-to-face with Sinister. Without pausing for a reply, he added matter-of-factly, "I've been wanting to meet you for quite some time; a shame your assassins are out on the warpath, as they were our true target, but nonetheless it's quite a pleasure to find you here at home. I'm FBI Special Agent John Carlton, and you--" he held up a piece of paper and a badge in one hand, "--are under arrest for crimes against humanity."

Carlton then turned aside and remarked almost casually, "Cuff him."

Sinister was so astonished at the man's suicidal audacity that he couldn't come up with a suitable retort for several long moments. I do NOT believe this. This is intolerable. I REFUSE to believe this. He crossed his arms and drew himself up to his full imperious height and opened his mouth...

There was a minor commotion at the door. Sinister could easily look over the heads of the sea of human soldiers, and his eyes narrowed to see a very familiar face at the head of a wedge of commandos in mostly-black togs. She was tossing curt orders left and right, forcing Carlton's men to clear a path for her people.

"So. You ARE working with the traitor Vertigo," he said icily down at Carlton. The accusation in his remark cut through the room like a whip crack.

The FBI agent was openly staring at the mutant woman. She'd stopped only a few yards into the room and was now staring right back at him, her orders dying on her lips.

"Actually," Carlton said, sounding slightly shaken, "I haven't seen her for years...I thought she was in jail."

"And *I*," the woman retorted in a loud clear angry voice, "am NOT Vertigo. Not any more. The name is Misfire...and I obviously got here just a little too late." She insolently doffed an imaginary cap to Carlton. "I guess he's all yours, John -- for now. Nice to see you two again. Have fun."

And with that, she turned and swept regally out with her own squad in tow.

...Misfire...? I don't...but...WHO...?! Sinister was so astonished at this new twist that he didn't even notice when they snapped on the inhibitor cuffs.



Several days later:

In a nondescript apartment somewhere in America, the remaining members of the failed team of petty crooks known collectively (and, most agreed, rather ridiculously) as the Nasty Boys were lounging around a messy living room in front of a television, taking in the afternoon football game.

Frankly, Gorgeous George couldn't think of anything more stultifyingly dull. So when the phone rang, he was right on it -- even if it was a crank call or a sales pitch, it would SURELY be more interesting than watching a bunch of heavily-padded pantywaists prance up and down a field jumping up and down on each other at every opportunity.

"Hello? Yes? Uh huh. Uh...huh. You're kidding. Really? Oh. Um. So what are we supposed to do about...uh huh. Errrr...yeah. I guess. Yeah, I'm writing it down...okay, got it. Bye."

He hung up, slowly shaking his head in total disbelief. Then the full humor of the situation struck him sidelong and he had to fight down a serious case of the whooping giggles.

"Um...guys?" he shouted towards the front room. "You'll never guess who that was on the phone."

"No, we won't," Slab growled, eyes glued to the screen, "so tell us already."

George cleared his throat and tried to keep a straight face. "That...was the boss."

NOW the others sat up and paid attention. The boss hadn't bothered to contact them since their last crushingly humiliating defeat at the hands of the government mutie team X-Factor. Some of their number were STILL in custody.

Ruckus hastily hit the "mute" button on the remote. "Really? Has he got a job for us?"

George couldn't contain his wide grin for a moment longer. "Naaah. He got his pasty butt arrested and we're his 'one phone call.' He wants us to either raise bail or break him out." He made little "quotemarks" with his fingers. 'Or else.'"

The Nasty Boys exchanged a round of utterly dumbfounded glances.

Then they all had a good long laugh about it and turned the sound back up on the football game.



EPILOGUE THE SECOND

A indeterminate number of months later:

The litter of paperweights and pens and in-boxes jumped en masse like a living thing as the woman slammed her fists down onto the desk. "Dammit, Niemand, you promised! I've held up my side of the bargain. Hell, I even did BETTER than you asked! She's already three times as good as I am. You can't lie to me, I was there for the training, remember? You. Don't. Need me any more. And you don't have any legal way to hold me here."

Niemand's face was impassive as he sat back in his leather chair, unruffled by the irate agent's burst of temper. "Misfire, please. Calm down. I was just about to say that you're absolutely right. Your prodigy has far surpassed our wildest expectations, but while admittedly most projections show that she WILL be able to shoulder the majority of your responsibilities, the fact remains that she's only been with us for a few months. She's raw, untested. We still need you--"

"Bullshit." Misfire spat the word, still leaning over the director's desk. "I know that you have her slated for her first field mission today. Nobody told me, no, but I've been there enough times myself; I know the routine, I know the signs. After today you'll have your proof that she's the best damn assassin you could possibly want, and between her and Baer..."

She cut herself off and stood up straight, and when she spoke again her demeanor was much more controlled. Almost contrite. "Look. I'm sorry. You promised after the initial results when I brought her in that this time you might actually consider letting me resign from the Program. IF she worked out, you said. And as you already know, she's been working out like a dream. But..."

When she hesitated, Niemand gestured magnanimously for her to continue. She sighed and ran a hand through her short particolored hair. "Well, I'm TRYING to be polite here, so pardon me for saying this, but if you were in my shoes I think you'd be going crazy too. Because I've been getting the royal runaround for two long months now, and frankly I think that you had something to do with it. I'm a little surprised that you let me in to see you today on so little notice. Sir."

"I understand your...feelings about this situation," Niemand said, quietly. Very quietly. She stiffened, sensing danger on the wind. "And under normal circumstances I would be more than happy to assist you with your request. But I'm afraid that this is NOT a normal situation, and you are most certainly NOT a normal government employee. We simply cannot let you return to the civilian sector. But if you are unwilling to back down on this particular issue--"

Misfire's fists were clenched at her sides and her eyes were starting to glow a faint green. "No. I'm not. Not this time."

"--Then you're right. We'll simply have to let you go. No hard feelings, of course."

With his hands neatly interlaced on his desk before him, Niemand didn't make a move or a gesture. However, she didn't have to look to know that the pair of guards who had escorted her into the room were now raising their decidedly non-ceremonial rifles.

Trying to take me down -- I don't believe the nerve! Misfire contemptiously shoved backwards with a wave of her power, intent upon shutting down every neuron in the two flatscans' bodies. The room was completely without powerblockers or gas jets or sniper slots; this she'd known before she'd agreed to meet him there. She was his best agent. He trusted her. It was too easy. She'd simply take Niemand hostage and...

...and...

...something was (...what...?!) wrong...

It struck her somewhat incongruously then that you never noticed your own pulse until you stopped having one.

One hand fluttered ineffectually to her chest; she fell heavily onto both knees even as she tried to turn around. However, the world was going dark around the edges of her vision with alarming swiftness; she didn't even have a chance to cry out as she crumpled sideways onto the rich maroon carpet, unable to move a muscle.

The last thing she managed to register before the blackness closed over her head was the sight of Maelstrom standing in the doorway between the two soldiers, her arms folded and her expression grimly satisfied.

And the last thing Misfire heard before her brain ground to a complete halt was Niemand's impersonal voice:

"It's odd how such a good agent can be so slow on the uptake. She already knew that no one leaves the Program...after all, she spent enough time tracking down and killing those who tried...

"Agent Sennvik, please inform Command that Maelstrom's first mission is a complete success."


~~~~~~~~~~~~~
.-= FINIS =-.
4-8-97
~~~~~~~~~~~~~


NOTE: Psst! This and every other Marauder story on the
net is now archived at my own Blood In The Gutter!