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Heya, Indy; heya, Ex; heya, armored dude; I’m really glad to see you too because I was with Eye and we were tracking clues on that Mackenzie dude and then Rachel called so I tore treads back here and then Ex called so I got here!” the Human Tank enthused. “How bad are you banged up, not too bad I hope, and anyway who’s the new guy, I don’t recognize him, so is he a new local or an out-of-towner?”

Ex managed to get a word in as the excitable cyborg paused for breath. “Tank, take Indy to the infirmary. I’ll show our ‘guest’ to where he needs to go.” He was very unhappy with the situation and I couldn’t blame him. Just because I was willing to put up with a Crusader for the moment didn’t mean I was jumping for joy about it. Of course, right then, I didn’t feel like jumping at all. Fortunately, Archer, having landed down beside us in the loading area, kept his lips sealed in what had to be a rare burst of common sense.

“Okay, here we go!” Tank called out behind him.

I gave him a clap on the back with my good arm as we rolled up through the loading dock doors. The Foundation didn’t often need the dock for conventional purposes but how else would a kid with tank treads for legs get into the place?

“You’ve gotta stop getting beat up so much, Indy, I get all worried about you because you’re not a Pushed even if you’re kinda like one but you seem to get hurt a lot more than we do and you’re like my best bud!”

I grumbled some kind of complaint but, in essence, Tank was correct. I didn’t have a sheath of unreality covering my body to protect the squishy bits. Even the physically weakest of the Pushed had inhuman durability for that one reason. I had … skin.

Even my one “super power” sent my body into overdrive to such a degree that my metabolism ate through my body’s calorie reserves fast. If I used it for too long, it was potentially lethal in and of itself. So why was I doing this again? It was a question I asked myself more every day.

“Here we are,” the treaded teen announced. Even facedown, I could tell by the antiseptic white light that we were in the infirmary, so I pushed myself onto my feet.

Duane Brooks, the other half of my favorite pair of FBI-agents-turned-private-investigators, was already there, snapping rubber gloves over his meaty hands. “Good afternoon, Doc,” he nodded. “Glad to see you’re still in one piece.”

“Not for lack of trying,” I argued. “I need you to work on me as fast as you can. Ex is keeping an eye on our Crusader friend—”

“Crusader?!” Tank’s engines revved and energy started to crackle down his forearms. “Why didn’t you say that guy was a Crusader because I would have whomped him right—”

“Tank! He’s helping out. This whole mess is something bigger than our two sides squabbling. For now, he’s cool, got it?”

“If you say so,” he replied, “but I still better go find Ex and help watch the dude because you can’t trust those Crusaders but at least they aren’t Hogs or Pushcrooks so there’s that but still … those guys!”

“Then get on out of here and stop agitating my patient, kiddo,” Brooks advised. “Shit, who knows what injuries you have her opening up every time you make her shout like that?”

“I’m not a delicate, wilting flower, you know.” My protest was patently ignored by both of them.

“Okie dokie, Duane, I’m gone!” The Human Tank left a gouge in the floor behind him as he trundled off to find Ex. With the Five almost constantly in a mind-link courtesy of Mind’s Eye, Tank was surely heading straight to him.

Brooks shook his head and slapped the examination table. “Now, you, get up here and let’s see what you’ve mangled this week.”

* * *

“Real vampires, huh?” Brooks said as he dug grenade fragments out of the hole in my back. I had waved off any kind of pain-killer for the moment, instead focusing the pain away. I needed to be clear-headed for a bit longer; there was too much important information to get across.

“Well, as real as anything else these days,” I said, chin propped up by my good forearm. “It was like Reaper: the Pushed shell was controlling the, well, corpse. Really gruesome. What worries me is not knowing what spawned it.” There was a pulling feeling and a sickening sound in my back.

“There you go, you little bastard,” Duane shouted triumphantly. “You’re lucky as hell. Small bugger managed to wriggle deep, but it missed the more vital spots.” There was a small clink of metal as he continued. “I think it’s best to assume that every Hog is a bloodsucker now. What about this Archer dude?”

“I almost punched the hell out of him,” I confessed. “Just the gall of Epic teleporting his goons here almost made me lose my cool, but … this vampire thing. This is new. This is bad. If he’s willing to follow the rules, I couldn’t turn down the help.” I could feel the spray of liquid as Duane cleaned the wound to pack and dress it.

“I can feel you. Hogs are one thing, but vampire terrorists? That’s the kind of shit that’ll give you nightmares.” There was the tearing of medical tape and, a few moments later, Duane tapped my shoulder. “You can get up, all done.” As I got up off the table, he was already scrubbing his hands in the sink. “There isn’t a thing I can do for the arm, though. There’s no break, just a lot of damaged muscle and nasty bruising. The best advice I can give you is to try not to use it much until it heals.”

“Okay, I’ll try.” I pulled my t-shirt back on. “Uh, Duane, I know it’s probably early yet but—”

“Hell no, Irene.” Brooks had turned off the water but was still facing the sink, leaning on it with both hands. “If you need to take that many each day just to deal with the pain, you need to scale this shit back. It’s not healthy; this shit is addictive.”

“Sure, Duane, I’ll do that.” That frustration was building up inside me. No matter who I talked to these days, no matter what good I was doing, I was always the villain of the argument. “I’ll sit back, take a day off, and let, who knows, a dozen people die? Maybe we’ll be lucky and it’ll only be five.”

“You keep this up, Doc,” he replied, “and you’ll only be responsible for one death: your own. Even with how fast you heal, you’re getting hurt faster than you get patched back together.” He turned towards me, a deep frown etched on his features. “Nobody here wants to see the day when someone brings you home in a body bag.”

I wanted to shout something, to make a clever retort, to demand he give me the pain-killers and muscle relaxants that I swore I needed to keep doing my job. Staring into his eyes, though, I couldn’t. I could almost see what I was turning into reflected back at me. My stomach flipped as I lost my focus, bringing all the physical pain rushing back in one giant wave.

Duane was there, catching me by my good arm before I crashed to the floor. The world lurched for a moment and then stabilized. I was still in agony and my stomach was tossing and turning, but I could stand. Even so, I didn’t push Brooks away.

“What the hell am I doing, Duane?”

“Doc, let me get Tank or Ex to get you to your room. Just get some rest and shit will sort itself out.”

“Look, keep the team on task.” I poked Duane with a finger. “This is a plague and—”

“I can do the damn math, Irene.” Duane gave me a hard look. “But there isn’t anything you can do until your shit is together.” He put me into a chair. “Now sit.”

“Like I have a choice?”

I tried to find a position that didn’t aggravate the wound in my back. I had to concede one thing, for certain. I was in no condition to go back out in the field. Plotting with myself, I conspired to get a few hours rest, then be back up and ready before sundown. That would be when things would get scary and I would have to be ready for it.

* * *

“I didn’t even know you were back,” I remarked as Medusa helped me through the door to my apartment.

The Latina snake-woman smiled, unable to conceal a hint of fang. “When Rachel put out the call, well, my leadsss weren’t panning out anyway,” she replied, her snake hair twisting and writhing. If Ex was my actual ex and Tank my younger brother, Medusa would be my best friend. She was the most inhuman in appearance of the Atlanta Five, but perhaps the most human underneath the shell. “A call to armsss ssseemed more important than quessstioning the sssame men for the tenth time, especially when it wasss you in trouble.”

I was able to walk all right, but Duane had been insistent that someone help me up to the room. Now that the pain wasn’t crashing down in one sudden lump, I could manage it. That didn’t stop me from letting Medusa help me down to the side of my bed.

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” I said honestly. “With everything going on, I don’t want to be in the way, so if you want to catch up with everyone down at the lab—”

Medusa waved a scaled hand to cut me off. “No way, chica. From what I’m getting over the mind link, I don’t need to be around to watch thisss Crusssader and Ex puff up like cobrasss at each other.” Her snakes hissed. “Men, right?”

“No comment. I had to keep them from an all-out brawl when Extinguisher showed up in the first place. Not that I would have blamed him too much, considering the situation.” I hadn’t even put my jacket back on down in the infirmary, so I tossed it haphazardly in the direction of my laundry bin.

Medusa flipped a chair around, sitting down with that sinewy grace that couldn’t be duplicated by a mere mortal. “Irene?” I was just starting to settle on my side when the use of my actual name caught my attention. “Forget everything going on down there.” Medusa’s reptilian eyes remained impassive, but I could see the eyes of the actual woman underneath grow concerned. “There’sss been sssomething eating at you, and I am ssseriousssly worried.”

“There’s nothing wrong that putting Epic and Mackenzie behind bars won’t fix.” I was feeling horrible enough at the moment; why did everyone suddenly decide it was “dissect-Irene’s-emotional-state” day? “Until then, there’s not going to be much time for anything else.”

“None of that isss going to happen overnight or we would have already done it,” she astutely noted. “None of it isss going to happen without you, either.”

I let out a sigh. I didn’t want to get into the same argument I almost got into with Duane just minutes before. “I’m not trying to get killed, Meds. At the same time, though, what do you think the real bad guys out there are doing? I bet none of them are stopping to take a few days off to rest up or to enjoy the weather.”

Medusa stroked her chin with a long finger. “Well, maybe you sssshould asssk the one perssson who could tell you about that. You might be sssurprissed by the ansswer.” I really had been a step behind my usual self all day; we had a source of information we never had before, a semi-friendly font of insights into how the Crusaders operated from the inside out.

I started to force myself up off the bed until she shot me a reproachful look. “When I ssaid later, I meant it. Doctor’sss ordersss are for you to get sssome ressst and heal.”

With a sigh, I relented and tried to relax. I was really showing my ass today and I knew it. Maybe the stress of bearing all this responsibility was starting to make me crack. There was no relief; the one outlet I had tried to make for myself ended horribly. I rubbed my hands over my face and realized I had yet to take the mask off. I was beginning to wonder if, one day, it wouldn’t come off, that it would be a permanent part of my face.

A gentle, scaled hand pulled first one, then the other arm away. In the time I had been lost in those thoughts; Medusa had gotten the acetone solution from my dresser and come back. She dabbed at the edges of my mask with a soaked cotton ball and peeled away at the loosened spirit gum.

“Meds, I’m sorry.” Taking off that mask was like taking a thousand-pound weight off of my shoulders. “I’ve really been—”

Her snake hair collectively hissed for silence. “Ssshut it, amiga.” She shook her head slightly. “Apology accepted and let’sss not make more out of thisss. We might not be like you, whatever you are, but we’re not ssstupid either.” She laughed, accompanied by a chorus of snakes. “Not that I think you think we’re ssstupid, but let’sss be real, you know thingsss we don’t.”

“Well …” She was, of course, right. Her job before the Whiteout was social work and Meds had a very good eye for people. Seeing what had happened when I brazenly told Ex the whole truth, I was certainly never going to tell it to the rest of my Pushed friends.

“I don’t want to know,” she said, sitting back down. “If you aren’t telling usss, there’sss a good reassson. The important thing isss that we know it’sss a burden on you. We all make allowancesss for that. Jussst lisssten to usss when we tell you to ssslow down.”

“All right,” I acquiesced, “I’ll honestly try.” I glanced at her sidelong. “Just promise that someone will get me up before sunset.”

Medusa let out a put-upon sigh. “Even now, you are alwaysss thinking about the misssion,” she said as she threw up her hands, her snakes writhing in concert. “Fine, Irene, you win. I’ll make sssure.”

“Thanks, Meds, I owe you.” I absently kicked off my boots and rolled over to a more comfortable position. The fatigue of using my abilities was beating out the pain now. Sleep was coming on unbeckoned.

The last thing I was conscious of was Medusa pulling a blanket over me as I completely passed out.


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