Buzzards in the Sun

by Gary Weller

The first thing that hit Special Agent Benjamin Franklin Baxter was the fact that the sprawls in Texas were just different. There were the same neon colored skylines, the same Corporate Zones, the same kinds of gangs; there were always the Goths, the Fashionistas, the Ethnicios (no matter what the flavor) and the Themers. No matter which metroplex you happened to be standing in, they were all represented in one way or another. One of the favorites that Baxter had once had to deal with was a gang out of Arlington in the heart of DFW. Their leader had the inane idea to revamp old Batman villains from over a century ago.

He couldn't count how many times he had put down a Themer decked out in a purple suit, painted face and wielding a great big titanium mallet. Baxter swore that if he heard, "Riddle me this," just once more from a moron who thought he was clever, he would twist the Themer's body into a question mark and leave him there for the DFWPD to collect " meta or not. The thing that struck Baxter most about the Seattle Sprawl though was the lack of authentic barbecue.

There were altogether too many Asian barbecue restaurants and street vendors, but they didn't really know how to properly cook a slab of beef. Most of the food in Seattle was geared towards the Asian lifestyle; it was all chopsticks, rice wine and dim sum. Mainly it was finger foods wrapped in wax paper or plastic boxes made up to look like cardboard cartons for those up-and-comings on the go. There was always a meeting to go to, or a new haute place to meet your chums. The sheer speed of the Seattle Sprawl was a lot faster than what he was used to in the Dallas Metroplex.

Business was business everywhere in the world, but the overall feel of the Dallas Metroplex, locals still called it DFW even though the metro extended far beyond Dallas, Arlington, and Fort Worth was one of what Special Agent Baxter called home. It was familiar in its particular strangeness. It always reminded him that he was a part of something bigger. DFW was big enough on its own, but Baxter knew where his family was and where he was from. He knew the streets in DFW and the surrounding megasuburbs that were once cities in their own right. Waco and Austin were incorporated as part of the metroplex in the early 80's. Sweetwater and Abilene followed soon after. Wichita Falls, Gainesville and Paris were incorporated into the 'Plex just before 2099. Mt. Pleasant and Longview followed the next year and the feather in the Dallas Metroplex's proverbial hat was Palestine.

Palestine was special for the DFW 'Plex for a variety of reasons. It was one of the best places to get grits and secondly it held the only private facility to house and rehabilitate metahumans. The guards there were trained through much of the same programs that were in place with Project SILVER, but the facility wasn't funded through any kind of government subsidizing and overseen by a Senate Committee. The Cornell-GEO Group bought the old Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility and revamped it to hold metahumans in 2075. It was a huge success and revitalized the economy of Palestine. The only drawback was that sometimes Palestine was sometimes called 'Little Gotham' because it seemed that all of the crazies centralized there for some reason. Baxter really hated doing jobs in Palestine, but it was better than being in Seattle.

Even though DFW was huge and impressive, the people there still remembered where they came from. For nearly eight hours on every Sunday, the entire sprawl shut down for Sunday dinner. It was a revamp from an old state Blue Law that required business to be closed on Sundays. It was family time then. It was time for real barbecues and sitting with your Grammy to understand where you came from and who you were and mostly where you were going. You could always count on your family for that kind of advice.

Those were the times that Baxter held onto when he had to be away from his home in DFW. When his aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and other extended family members would get together at Grammy Baxter's condominium out on her veranda on the 45th floor, the time was more than magical, it was family time. Baxter felt that he could see the entire Metroplex on those Sundays. He later learned that his fantasy was an impossible dream, but the memory was awe inspiring at the time. The crisp neon glowed with the warmth that was unusual for a cityscape that size. What made it special for Baxter was his Grammy.

Grammy Baxter would tell him about how in the early part of the century that all of the skyscrapers that he saw weren't even in existence. He couldn't believe it at the time. This was home. It was eternal and constant. It couldn't have been any different. He didn't know at that time how frightening and exciting change could be. He didn't know how often change occurred. It was too far into the future for him to imagine. His own change was waiting for him around the proverbial corner.

His father would fire up the barbecue grill on those special Sundays and plop down the Argentinean ground beef patties and spice them with chili powder, paprika, garlic, black pepper and then top it all off with Texas chili and pepper-jack cheese. What made the burger special was the pretzel roll he used to finish off the sandwich. It was the best hamburger that Baxter ever remembered having. Nothing could compare to his father's Black Sabbath burger " nothing that he had found anyway. Much like DFW, the memory of the taste and smell of his father's Black Sabbath Burger reminded him of home and how far he was away from it

Special Agent Baxter frowned from underneath the neon that lit up the Seattle Sprawl. He wanted to be in Texas, away from all of the Asians that infested the Pacific Northwest. They didn't know anything about the Black Sabbath burger or why one wanted to cook a steak medium rare in butter and not some sort of sesame-soy oil combination with an accompaniment of ginger and wasabi. The chefs didn't understand why he wanted to have a fork and a knife with his steak instead of chopsticks and sake. He wanted a cold Texan beer with a steak fried in butter.

"Butter, you know, from a flippin cow?" he explained once to a slant-eyed server fresh into the Corporate Zone. The Korean just looked at him as if he had grown a third head, which wasn't that unusual, but Baxter's manifestation didn't work that way.

Sure, his connection to the Kurtzberg Dimension did change his body, but he couldn't grow extra appendages like some of the other metahumans tuned into the K-D could. As a K-Type Changling, Baxter's body radically changed. Great Granddad Baxter explained it to him at one time before he died in 95, "It's not that you yourself change, it's just your body." Young Baxter didn't understand what he said at the time, but that was nearly twenty years ago and half a country away from where he was now. As he grew older Special Agent Baxter had a completely different understanding. Baxter and his alter ego vied for control of the one body they were both granted. There were times that they didn't share well.

Now, in the rain, in the Seattle 'Plex, under the undeniably oppressive grayness and thick as mud cloud cover reflecting a veritable electric and neon rainbow from the prolific use of brightness used to advertise anything from acid washes for your skin to overcooked ziti sold on rancid little street corners by Ukrainian refugees, looking for an unregistered metahuman, Special Agent Baxter waited. He was a hunter and his trail had gone cold.

The reports were initially difficult to confirm due to the constant mutilation and dehumanization that the general populace of the world was undergoing, but when the scanners picked up unusually high K-D activity in the area, Baxter knew that he had to board a parabolic from DFW to SeaTac. There really was no other choice in the matter. It was his duty to his country and his fellow metahumans. It was better that Project SILVER find the skimmer than one of the other various organizations and private corporations. To them, the skimmer was nothing but a test subject.

The Local Enforcement Officers in the 'Plex could have handled the unregistered metahuman, but Baxter and his handlers higher up in the chain knew that Project SILVER had to have a presence on the scene before the Seattle Police Department mysteriously "found" a dead unregistered meta. It was Special Agent Baxter's job to find the metahuman and save them from society. They just didn't understand. There was no way they could.

If it wasn't the LEO's that were going to kill the skimmer, then it might be the private corporate armies that would freak out and shoot before asking questions. They were all paid goons anyway. Many with freakish cybernetic implants to enhance themselves up to Metahuman standards or underwent some zoomorphic procedure to give them an advantage. Sure, they were trained in the arts of paranoia and paramilitary maneuvers and tactics, but they were also amped up with too much emotion and just a smidgeon of skill. In short, they were dangerous not only to themselves, but any metahuman they came across.

Yeah, they were all card-carrying and registered in the Project SILVER database, but that didn't stop them from using their acquired "powers" to make a grease spot of an unexpected, unregistered intruder on private property. They were wannabes in a world of genuine articles like him. It was sad, really.

A chime sounded off in Baxter's ear. He knew it was his handler. Adjusting the brownish black Stetson that had seen better days, he hit the small stud on the earpiece he wore to extend the small holographic screen in front of his right eye. Due to his particular relationship with the K-D, he couldn't use many of the normal implants that many of the Special Agents used within Project Silver. The metamorphosis he underwent would rip apart any machinery that was normally installed. Minor implants such as a subcutaneous cell phone were even out of the question. Some K-Type Changlings could channel their inherent power linked from the K-D to store things for them, like clothes, but Baxter had never learned that particular skill. Too often he wound up naked after a job. He didn't mind thought, he was all natural, well as natural as any metahuman could be.

"What's the status, Rictus?" Gina Grey's tiny little voice flew into his brain. She was emphasizing the importance of finding the skimmer through her own talents as a P-Type Telepath. Her psychic ability was registered at over 7 Polchinski Units. The standard had been developed at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1999 by Dr. Joseph Polchinski when he was studying the connection and theories related to metahuman connections to the K-D and its relationship to his take on M-Theory. Baxter knew she was holding back when she was tested. Special Agent Baxter frowned darkly; paying homage to the codename he had been given (it is what the Beast had always called itself). Quickly he ran through a montage of the latest pornography he had been subjected to on the parabolic flight from DFW to SeaTac. "Good God," she squawked over the earpiece, and only the earpiece, "did you have to do that?"

"Yes." Baxter replied. "I had his scent, but I lost it. And he is a 'he.' What's scanning on your end Blue?" Baxter knew it wasn't the most creative name in the world, but he liked it. It described her eyes when she went into her P-Type show. A blue aura surrounded her eyes like nothing you've ever seen. No neon lamplight could ever match that. No cyberspace media junkie or digital software wizard could ever capture it correctly. It defied the normal parameters of the color. It just was, and so was she " Blue.

"There's cross-talk with the LEO's and the Kitsume's over at Nin-Ban," her clear voice was as calm as any other handler that Baxter had had before, but there was that something extra that she had always put into every conversation that she had. Perhaps that was why he loved her. "Aw, you're sweet too," she giggled.

"Let's keep this nice and professional-like, okay Blue?" Baxter sent another image of the professional-grade hentai from the plane. "And then maybe we can get together later for some steaks and beers at Ruth's Cris." Just the mention of the steakhouse caused internal pangs of homesickness. "God, I hate Seattle!" Baxter yelled at the top of his lungs.

"No need to yell Rictus." Immediately he could feel mental fingers sliding down the various pressure points, calming him instantly, "We don't need him just yet. Save him for the Kitsume's over at Nin-Ban. Local chatter says the LEO's just lost about half a dozen down there in the Corporate Zone. Your skimmer has been busy. The blue brotherhood is going to be out for blood and the Kitsume's are going to be down on the ground level soon. You'd better hustle down there Rictus, because that's where your skimmer's at!"

"Shit!" he began to run. He wasn't that far from the Corporate Zone, but getting into the zone when it was hot was another thing all together. He didn't want to tap into the K-D and release the Beast sooner than he absolutely had to. There was always hell to pay afterwards. "Ok Blue," Special Agent Baxter yelled into his microphone, "I need..."

"Already on it, love." And she was. Immediately street maps and schematics popped up and ran across the holographic field in front of his eye mapping out the quickest route to the Nin-Ban tower. A news feed scrolling along the bottom of his field of vision gave Baxter the transcribed updates to what was going on down in the Corporate Zone.

Looking up, he could see the one-man Dragonfly Gyros thundering overhead. Their floodlights cut through the grey skies as they flittered around the tall superstructures that began the Corporate Zone. The LEO's were already out for blood. They were of a pack mentality, like buzzards in the sun; they circled around the Corporate Zone. They were following the trail of carnage and blood that had welled up from the gutters of the street. The floodlights on the Dragonflies were scanning the darkened corners and alleyways leading up to the Corporate Zone. The place was soon lit up like a main event. Everyone knew what it was though, it was streaming death. People always loved a good manhunt. It was in their nature to be voyeuristic; they couldn't help but watch the train wreck streaming into their consoles and vidscreens.

Ratings and web hits jumped through the roof according to the ticker scrolling along his holographic screen. Anytime that there is a police action or any other egregiously publicized event that the media caught wind of, everyone seemed to sit down and jack into the net or watch the streaming video on their console walls. It made Baxter sick. They were all opportunists just waiting for the chance to watch their city and people die. Waiting for the rotting remains to just hunker down and shake for the last time.

Street corners raced through Baxter's field of vision overlaid with the holographic maps that Blue had been feeding into the unit. Long trails of reds and greens from the neon signs streaked by as he channeled and focused on his connection with the K-D. A snarl plastered itself across his face. It was an aftereffect of letting the Beast within gain a little control over his body. He bumped into people sending them careening into walls and bouncing off of the reinforced bulletproof plexi that lined the unidentifiable store fronts. They yelled, he growled in response. The Beast wanted out to play with the meat sacks. It was going to be a red letter day, an E-ticket ride paid in blood.

Baxter could just see the reports that would filter up the chain of command from the Seattle Police Department to Project SILVER. Phrases like, 'resisting arrest,' and 'public endangerment' came to mind. Already he could feel his anger building. 'Failure to uphold the Federal Vigilance Act,' was prevalent in those reports. In his mind they were all just wannabe's taking potshots at the real heroes that were left holding the responsibility for all of humanity. Some of them still had the hero mentality, but they were few and far between.

"Those fleshbags wouldn't know what to do if a fully trained metahuman actually advanced into their city and started to take control." Baxter growled into the microphone. He could already feel the Beast trying to claw its way out.

"Not just yet, Rictus," he could hear Blue's voice coming from the earpiece, keeping him calm for the moment. "Tech reports that Nin-Ban has K-D Nullifiers in place. Scans from the media hounds confirm that our boy has been pacified for the moment. I've got the techs working on how to disable the K-D Nullifiers in place. They're telling me it's not impossible, but you know what that means coming from the techs."

"Yeah," Special Agent Baxter agreed sourly, "it means I'm on my own with my dick hanging in the wind until they figure out how to drop the firewalls at Nin-Ban, and then the fun begins!"

"Strike Team Seven is prepped and ready. ETA is about ten." Blue informed him. "And save that pillow talk for later, lover boy."

"It'll be over in five, and you know it." Baxter blew her a mental kiss as he leapt up over a 40 foot wall that blocked off the Corporate Zone from the rest of the 'Plex. "See you on the flipside Blue." Static filled his ear and small holographic screen as the jamming frequency broadcast throughout the Corporate Zone took effect. They were officially on lockdown and he was officially cut off.

Immediately he felt the nausea and pain overtake him as his own connection with the K-D was simply cut off. It was the worst feeling. Like being cut off from your own body, or being really rip-roaring drunk. Clear thoughts came, but enacting those thoughts into actions was a different story. His nerves tingled with the sudden loss of communication to the K-D. Out of the corner of his eye he could see small cameras tracking his path downward from the wall.

Baxter hit the small metal stud on his earpiece and turned it off. The holographic projection rod retracted before he landed on the ground. Baxter knew he had to keep moving, but his body didn't want to respond. The Dragonfly Gyros were lighting up the area in harsh floodlights like huge ghetto birds wanting to get to the kill first. He could feel the downdraft of the titanium blades whipping the air, dust and other detritus into assault vectors for anyone on the ground. His eyes stung from the blast of wind and dirt.

"Well, we're in it now," Baxter said to himself knowing that his connection with Blue had been cut off. The Beast heard him though, Baxter could feel him chuckling inside. Silently he hoped the techs found a way past the Nin-Ban firewalls to shut off the K-D Nullifiers. He felt like hammered shit and there was a whole heap of work to do yet.

The floods from the LEO gyros spotlighted the target. Fighting off a particularly nasty wave of nausea that caused his gut to wrench as if it were being ripped out with a vise and twisted through a hole the size of a quarter, he drew his sidearm and opened fire on Seattle's Finest. Sweat began to form on Baxter's brow as he steadied the pistol more through force of will rather than combat training. A few shots missed their mark, but soon the floods were out and he could see again.

The officers in the Dragonfly Gyros responded. Within the Seattle 'Plex, they were used to being assaulted with small arms fire. The armored cockpit protected them with a 90% efficiency rating from the random potshots coming up from the streets. Baxter watched almost in slow motion as their weapon systems came online. Short burps of 10mm rounds opened up from the nose of the Dragonflies, chewing up the concrete in the courtyard.

Baxter forced himself to run. His legs felt sluggish and his stomach wanted to heave itself out of his throat. Stumbling from the sudden bout of vertigo that penetrated his brain, he saw the skimmer. The boy couldn't have been more than 17 or 18. He was a new manifestation in the world. Baxter could see the look on his face. It was a mixture of wide-eyed fear, confusion and embarrassment akin to being walked in on when you're masturbating. It was frightening and exciting all at the same time. It was change.

With a supreme force of will, Baxter rushed the boy who accidentally found himself in the Corporate Zone. The boy's clothes were a wreck. They were disheveled as if they had been ripped off of his body. Nearly naked skin glistened with sweat and fear. Special Agent Baxter knew what that was like. He knew all too well. He was pacified for the moment. The skimmer wasn't used to the effect of the K-D Nullifiers that had cut his natural connection off. He was bent over vomiting on the ground. Baxter felt a slight pang inside. The boy wasn't going to be a virgin for long. The first time was always the worst when being disconnected from something that is vital. Nullifiers were bitch no matter how many times you were exposed to them.

An ear-splitting tone blasted out from the loudspeakers set into the walls of the Nin-Ban Tower. It fluctuated up and down the hertz scale. Special Agent Baxter knew this game. It was designed as a deterrent and helped to induce fear and terror. Often, victims of such a sonic attack couldn't think clearly. It was a non-lethal prelude to what was going to happen next.

Seattle's Finest in the Dragonflies lifted out of the area. Through the undulating frequencies, Baxter frowned at them. It was called plausible deniability. The gambit was always the same. Once the algorithmic harmonies started, the LEO's would scatter. When it came to Corporate Law, the legal eagles employed by the Seattle Police Department didn't have the chutzpah to contest criminal trespassing and the subsequent use of deadly force.

There was a break within the piercing sounds. "This is private property," a recorded voice came over the loudspeaker first in English and then in Japanese. "Use of deadly force has been authorized. You have exactly ten seconds to vacate the premises." There was a two second delay and then the whine continued from the loudspeakers. The target had curled up on the ground in a fetal position with his hands pressed firmly to his ears. The sonic attack was quite effective for most, but Baxter had learned long ago how to deal with that kind of attack. For him, it was mostly a mental exercise. If Baxter had not learned to calm himself and combat this kind of attack, the Beast would have a great deal more time to cause the mayhem that he loved so much.

Special Agent Baxter pushed through the waves of nausea and pain and took his mind into the mental model that he had built over the years to avoid the screeching tones coming from the loudspeakers. First he visualized the chess board. Each of the 64 tiles was made of alternating ivory and ebony. He could see the smoothed tiles; see the imperfections in the flat stone squares. He placed the tiles one by one into the mahogany setting that held them in place. Small strands of gold inlay separated the tiles from the wooden frame. Next, he brought the chess pieces into existence, placing them one at at time onto the board. Slowly they were carved into the model from his memory beginning with the White King and placing each piece onto the board. By the time Baxter had gotten to the King's side knight, he did not hear the tone anymore. Baxter did hear the boy screaming, rolling on the ground while holding his ears.

Grabbing the boys face, Baxter locked eyes with him. "It's going to be all right," he yelled at the boy. Baxter knew the boy couldn't hear him, but he formed the words slowly enough to hope that the boy could read his lips. "I'm with Project SILVER. Hang in there, kid and we'll get through this." Special Agent Baxter flashed the boy one of what Blue would have called his most endearing smiles to try to ease the boy's discomfort. The boy nodded, Baxter didn't know if he understood the words, but just hoped that he did.

The huge glass doors of the Nin-Ban's Seattle office building opened unleashing nearly a dozen of their own private army. The Kitsumes were decked out in battle dress armor that looked as if they were designed by an engineer who had read too much manga as a child. It was all shiny and red with bulky looking plates that accentuated where muscle groups were on the human body. What was worse was the head and toe. Their boots looked something like combat high heels and all of them had a twin antenna array on their helmets. Baxter couldn't help but chuckle to himself at the sight of them. There was no doubt in his mind that they were dangerous and well trained, but not everything in this world had to be about style over function.

"This is private property," one of the trooper's amplified voices came through both on the main loudspeaker as well as through their communications array built into their demonic looking helmets. "You are in violation of publicly posted notifications and are subject to deadly force if you do not vacate in five," Baxter knew that the Nin-Ban lawyers required the five-second countdown.

Baxter grabbed the boy up with his free hand and brought him up to his feet. There wouldn't be much time to find cover within the courtyard. Looking up to the sky, he wondered if Strike Team Seven was going to show before this was already over.

"Four," the trooper continued. They had separated into three squads. It was a classic pincer maneuver. They were going to surround them both and then try to take them down in crossfire. Baxter quickly calculated his inventory. He had four clips of 10mm armor-piercing tunguskium jacketed ammunition. That was nearly 60 rounds. He had an inexperienced and incapacitated civilian at his side. He had no backup and no access to the Beast that dwelled within him. Overall, Baxter knew that he was hooped seven different ways from Sunday.

"Three," Special Agent Baxter drug his package along. They both stumbled as the Nin-Ban Kitsumes flanked them. A Zen park was in the middle of the courtyard. Big rocks were surrounded by pebbles. A koi pond added to the serenity of it all. Somewhere he heard a fountain trickling water. The boy still covered his ears as best he could. Baxter frowned deeply. It didn't make moving him any easier. Baxter watched the troopers in their armor. They moved with practiced precision. None of them were stumbling as he and the boy were.

Baxter knew that the sound dampeners in the Kitsume armor were defending them from the amplified sonic waves coming from the tower. That and they were naturals. They didn't have a connection to the K-D. It was the definitive way to level the playing field. He had to give it to Nin-Ban, they did their homework.

"Two," Baxter moved towards the pond. His stomach heaved. The energy he had was tapped. Moving his eyes to the left and right, he sensed more than saw the Kitsumes keeping track of the two of them with ease.

"This aint gonna be pretty," Baxter growled.

"One!" Special Agent Baxter pushed through the weakness overtaking his body and threw the boy into the koi pond as he dived for cover.

"Open fire!" Muzzle flash erupted from the Kitsume troopers that were lined up behind the huge rocks in the middle of the rock garden. The smaller rocks lined up in patterns became not much more than dust as the caseless rounds impacted near where Baxter landed. "Go, go go!" the command came from the lead Kitsume on Baxter's left flank. Baxter's frown deepened as he drew a bead on the mercenary and gently squeezed the trigger. Three rounds burst out of the Colt and landed in a neat one-inch pyramid in the lead trooper's chest. Baxter knew that even with the tunguskium casing, the bullets wouldn't penetrate their armor, but he also knew that the mercenary felt every shot. He went down cursing. His squad scattered for cover waiting for a better opportunity.

Baxter rolled and crawled to the pond where the boy was. To the right, the backup was coming. It was going to get thick soon if Blue and Strike Team Seven didn't arrive soon. Sinking down into the water, he waited for the Kitsumes to choose the new tactic. Scanning across from the koi pond to the rock garden, he saw the two remaining squads taking up positions. Eight troopers were fully functional and heading towards them. One was down for a little bit, Baxter knew he wasn't dead, just bruised and possibly broken a little bit. One trooper would stay with the leader. That left two others unaccounted for. This was sizing up to be one hell of a day. Baxter shook his head as he thought about the godforsaken piece of neon hell that he was in, "At least the tourist intel wasn't wrong, something amazing always happens in Seattle."

Two Kitsumes rushed the koi pond as the others opened fire. Ducking down further, he let his body float in the four feet of water and held his Colt out and fired at the incoming troopers. He knew he didn't have a snowball's chance in hell in hitting them with any accuracy, but one tended to try to dodge random gunfire heading your way.

White-hot pain lanced up through Baxter's body. The muscles in his legs cramped from the intensity of the shock running through his system. Baxter's back arched painfully as the electricity ran through it and up to his chest. The reflex trigger on his Colt reacted to the constant pressure and emptied the rest of his magazine into the air in a fully automatic spread aimed at the sky. Forcing the muscles in his neck to move where he wanted them to, Baxter found the two missing troopers. They had regrouped and shoved their shock sticks into the pond. He hadn't counted on that.

The boy was screaming in pain, not only from the sonic attack coming from the Nin-Ban Tower but also the electrocution that he was undergoing. Baxter yelled as the arcing electricity flowed through the water and into his legs and spine. He couldn't let go of the Colt and his other arm was slowly losing grip on the edge of the koi pond. The smell of boiled fish permeated the water as steam wafted off of the surface. Large koi bobbed to the surface like huge orange and white turds.

Baxter's hand convulsed briefly and he sank into the pond. Brackish water followed his path and slid easily into his mouth. Baxter tried to cough, but more water rushed into his lungs. Through the murky green water, Baxter saw the boy going through convulsions. Through the blackness that was coming over Baxter, he felt the slight change in the universe around him.

The earpiece lodged in Baxter's ear squelched an inane frequency in response to the Nin-Ban jamming going down. The techs also knocked out the K-D Nullifiers. Baxter could feel his skin reacting to the electric attack. The Beast's presence announced itself.

"Let me out!" it screamed at him at the same time Blue was chiding the techs on her end.

"...or I'll make sure that you'll remember your third birthday as the one where you dressed up as a little girl and danced a strip tease to the 'Macarena' as the boys threw dollar bills up on the table!"

"Connection is live, Ma'am!" came another voice over the earpiece.

"Confirmed, Nin-Ban auto-defenses are down."

"Initiating ramp up on tube transport. ETA in four minutes."

"Rictus, come in." her voice came through the earpiece. Baxter could hear her concern coming through. "Rictus, respond!"

"Can't respond." Baxter sent the message to Blue. He could feel her in his mind along with the Beast. "Busy with not drowning."

"Let me out of this shell!" the Beast screamed again. Tapping into the Beast's strength, Baxter fought against the shocks coming through the water and stood up. His chest was feeling tighter. Immediately Baxter puked out the water, took in a deep breath and puked again. Inside he could feel the Beast clawing at him. It wanted out.

Looking around the pond for his target, he saw the already changing body of the boy leap from the water and grab the two Kitsumes that had their shock sticks dipped into the water. His now massive arms came down on the two troopers causing them to buckle at the knees. Claws raked the red armor leaving behind deep furrows in the kevlar and tunguskium plates. Shavings coiled down as the boy dragged his claws down the front of the two unsuspecting mercenaries. In a flash, the boy grabbed an ankle from each of the troopers and dragged them into the murky water.

"Spread out!" Baxter heard the yelling from the Kitsumes. "Nullifiers are down, repeat, nullifiers are down. The metas are active! I repeat the metas are active! Set Condition One throughout the compound! Take them down!"

"This aint gonna be pretty," Baxter coughed.

Baxter watched the water foam up from where the boy had taken down the two troopers. Through the brackish water he could see the boy twisting and turning keeping the bodies together underneath the small area. Baxter could smell the blood coming up through the water. Baxter rushed the boy and the two dying Kitsumes in a half leap, half dive as the rest of their team opened fire on the koi pond.

The 10mm rifle rounds hit Baxter in the back and lodged into his armor. Baxter yelled as the impacts from the Kitsume rifles hit the tunguskium weave. The impact knocked him face first into the water on top of the boy. The two Kitsume bodies floated up as the boy targeted Special Agent Baxter. The boy growled in response to Baxter's presence and the loss of the two troopers. Baxter grabbed him and could feel what was left of the soft flesh of the boy change into roped and knotted muscle underneath his fingers.

"Rictus?" the earpiece squawked again. "Rictus, respond!" Baxter could feel the boy changing in his wet grasp; he was slowly loosing grip. Skin was changing into scale the young face and jaw was changing into an angular shape. The boy's change in girth was beginning to force Baxter to lose hold. A tail began to flail around splashing the blood-infused water from underneath the two metahumans that locked in deadly embrace.

"No time Blue," Baxter yelled between gritted teeth. "Aw shit!" he screamed into the microphone, "He's like me, Blue!" Baxter struggled with the last of his will to hold onto the new reptilian beast that was writhing underneath him. "He's like me!"

"Roger, Rictus." Blue responded with a professional coolness in her voice. Baxter knew what she was thinking. She couldn't help but broadcast it. She was keeping her emotions in check. Operation: Duck Hunt was in full gear.

"Get that tube online but quick, Blue." Baxter struggled with the boy-beast tearing at his long coat and armor with razor sharp claws. With a great roar, his mouth came down on Baxter's neck. "This aint gonna be pretty." He informed as warm blood flowed from his neck. "Aw shit, Blue. This aint gonna be pretty!"

More gunfire from the Kitsumes flashed through the air at the two combatants grappling in the water. Baxter screamed as every impact hit. Quickly he brought his focus and training into play. More chess pieces formed in his mind, but they weren't helping. The warm blood flowed openly from the impossibly sharp teeth still lodged in his neck. He could feel his armor beginning to tighten around his body. Everything felt small.

"Fleshbags got you down, Benji." Baxter could hear his sardonic voice. "Let me take care of them." From deep down in his belly, he could feel the Beast laughing. "Aw, come on man. You know I live for this."

Special Agent Baxter fought for control of his mind. He could hear the tunguskium weave rip as his own body changed. The Alligator-Boy's teeth scraped and tore his new grey-mottled flesh as the metamorphosis took place. The wound stung worse than anything that Baxter could remember.

"He shouldn't have done that, Benji." The Beast raged in his mind. "That hurt us."

"He doesn't know what he's doing." Baxter yelled. "You know what that's like."

"Yeah, I do," the Beast chuckled, "but the difference between you and me Benji, is that I don't care."

"Well I do care!" Baxter seethed. The pain of the manifestation from his normal body into the Beast was always new. It didn't matter how many times he had made the change. Something about the knitting of bone and the growth of new muscles and fusing of thousands of yards of tendons and ligaments was just something he couldn't get used to doing. "This is my body that we share, you're just a guest. A parasite at best."

"I'll show you a parasite, you waste of flesh!" the Beast roared in his mind as the final snap of flesh and bones took to the new body. "Your great grand Baxter told me the same thing. You see how that played out, don't you Benji? I am as eternal as the night bucko, so get over yourself, fleshbag!"

Gammaplasm secreted through glands in the Beast's body as he gained his full connection to the K-D, giving him a slimy texture. The giant grey face was twisted into a permanent scowl. Black eyes underneath a huge brow burned with hatred. Special Agent Baxter withdrew into the tiny hole that he knew was waiting for him. The Beast was loose again. God help them, the Beast was loose.

"Foxes will die and the fleshbags will bleed! Angels will cry as Rictus is freed!" the Beast roared as the final transformation took effect. The Beast sniffed the air, "Ah, Seattle! Something amazing always happens in Seattle!" The Beast chuckled evilly as he put his attention to the Alligator-Boy that was attached onto his neck.

"Kid," the Beast growled in deep rumbling voice that echoed his hatred for the world at large, "you should never bite off more than you can chew." The Beast let loose of the scaly hide and grabbed the angular head that was latched onto his neck and pressed. Thick fingers found their way towards yellow eyes. The boy howled in pain as the pressure built. The Beast could feel the boy's eyes pressing inward towards the small reptilian brain that was in control.

Howling in pain, the boy let go of the Beast's neck. Thick black blood mixed with the natural secretions flowed down the Beast's neck and onto his arm. Still the Beast pressed in and down on the boy's head. Methodically, he began to pound the boy's head into the ledge of the koi pond smashing the decorative rock to dust.

Great hammer blows forced the angular head inches into the ground with every strike. The water of the pond rippled and shook as the Beast ground down his enemy with every strike. Wails of pain were let loose from the Alligator-Boy. The Beast could feel him writhing and undulating in panic and pain. Powerful claws raked across the Beast's body collecting gammaplasm and blood as they drew across his grey flesh.

Underneath the Beast, something shifted. In a flash, the Beast found himself flying through the air spraying the courtyard with the irradiated slime that naturally secreted from his body. Arms flailing in the air, the Beast twisted and tried to maneuver his body and brace for the impending impact. Twisting his head, he saw the building a microsecond before he face planted into the fourth story.

"Aw sh"" the Beast uttered the words as the reinforced bulletproof plexi gave underneath both the force in which he was thrown and his own great weight. Insulation, steel, concrete rebar, several office chairs and a reverse-osmosis water cooler followed his path into the building as the Beast's impact created a great rent in the side of the building.

"So, that's how you want to play it, huh kid?" the Beast shook off the concrete chunks that had stuck to the slime covering his body as he stood up. "All right then, no more Mr. Nice Rictus." The Beast growled as he drew his energy inward, forcing more of the slimy gammaplasm out of his body. "Get ready for the beat down of a lifetime. Cuz it's time to play!" he roared as he felt his power increasing through the connection to the K-D.

With more speed that should have been possible, the Beast released the stored energy he was building and launched himself back through the hole he had just created in the side of the building. To watch the Beast move was similar to a speed skater on ice. Legs pumped and glided easily on the gammaplasm covering the floor. The thick viscous fluid that had bonded with the rubble created the slick frictionless surface in which he could slide with ease.

The Beast became a grey muscled blur as he launched himself out of the fissure in the fourth floor. An arcing trail of slime followed him out of the rent in the fourth floor. The Beast howled in vengeance as he drew his feet together. The Alligator-Boy had already escaped from the hole that the Beast had slammed his head into. The boy had already engaged what was left of the Kitsume squads in the rock garden. He was holding one of the troopers up above his head as the Kitsumes fired upon him.

Smiling through the permanent scowl imprinted on his face, the Beast angled his body and landed on the Alligator-Boy's back causing the younger metahuman to throw the Kitsume trooper. The impact of the Beast landing on the equally large scaly Alligator-Boy sent out a shockwave that caused the ground to ripple in response. The Beast jumped up and down, pounding the Alligator-Boy into the small rocks.

"Stay down," the Beast yelled at the now slime covered scaly hide of his opponent, "and you won't get hurt. Damned kids, never know respect for their elders. Never know when to stop testing the boundaries. Devastation is my game." The Beast smiled again, or what passed for a smile with the perpetual grimace tagged on his face.

"Go, go, go!" the Beast heard the Kitsume's commander yelling. Weapons fire burst out in his direction. The snaps and cracks of the automatic rifles reminded the Beast of breaking bones. He felt the impacts of the 10mm rounds, they were an annoyance. The gammaplasm on his body caught them before they could be fatal. Turning to face the corporate mercenaries, he let loose a bellow that screamed the echoes of all that were long dead and demanded retribution for their misgivings in life.

"You've had your shots," the Beast chuckled maniacally, "my turn now!" The Beast leapt up from the impact crater he had created from landing on the boy and brought his huge hands together in the air. Linking his fingers, he arched his back and brought his clenched fists forward as he landed. The lead Kitsume Trooper died before the pain could even register. His body was rendered into what looked like a dark chunky salsa from the force of the blow from Rictus.

Breathing hard through clenched teeth and his perpetual scowl, the Beast roared again in glee. He swung out at another trooper in his proximity and felt the soft flesh and armor crumple as if anyone else were swatting a plastic bag. The now dead meat sack flew across the courtyard landing in an impossible angle on one of the bamboo trees that decorated the perimeter of the koi pond. Gammaplasm and blood dripped off of the corpse, pooling at the base of the tree as if it were hot wax.

"Stupid fleshbag wannabes!" the Beast screamed. "You have no idea of what pain is!" The Beast spun around bringing his leg down and smashed another of the soldiers underneath his foot. Blood, slime, bits of bone and the flesh of his internal organs sprayed out like a ripe tomato, covering his companions and the rock garden in the gore.

From somewhere higher up in the building the telltale sound of the air being ripped asunder from the rotation and expulsion of .50 calibre rounds started. The twin stream of tracer fire of the hot lead lanced the air as if it were paint. The twin guns angled their lines of fire and chewed up the concrete, mowed down trees and decimated the rest of the Kitsume troopers facing off against Rictus.

The Beast felt the sting of the twin cannons and reeled from the impacts. The gammaplasm was strong, but not that strong. Howling more out of anger than pain, the Beast pushed off against the ground and leapt up to the side of the building forcing his huge hands into the face of the exposed wall. With a cat's grace and impossible strength, the Beast kept leaping up and up creating his own hand and foot holds until he found the gun mounts on the side of the building, some eighty floors up.

"Getting smarter," the Beast chuckled. Nin-Ban was using unmanned drones to lay down the weapons fire. The drones couldn't get an angle on the Beast from the side of the building, the arc was too drastic. The Beast could see them, hidden in a little nook. Growling, he reached into the side of the building with a massive hand and grabbed a chunk of concrete and rebar and threw it at the gun nest some ten floors above him. In an instant the whine of the rotary guns ceased as the lump from the building smashed into the guns, destroying them.

An explosion rocked the Nin-Ban tower sending the Beast flying outward. Shaking his head in mid-flight, the Beast focused his black eyes and found the side of the building he had been attached to suddenly decompose into rubble. The hole in the side of the building spanned three floors. Twisting, the Beast saw the ground rushing towards him in a hurry.

"This aint gonna be pretty," he said as the ground rushed towards him.

"Rictus, come in!" came the voice in his ear. It was the fleshbag's girl. "Lookit Benji, she cares, she really cares!"

"Shut the hell up!" Baxter growled at the Beast.

"I'm in the middle of something, fleshbag," the Beast growled. "Why don't you call us later?"

"Strike Team Seven is deployed. They'll be..."

"Don't bother sweetness," the Beast chuckled, "They're dead."

"Oh God!" Blue sent.

"See Benji, she really does care about them. Why did you have to fall for her?"

"Asshole."

Arcs of lightning flashed as the Beast sped towards the ground. From inside his hole within, Baxter counted silently. Four seconds had already passed; the Texan knew that 50% terminal velocity was usually reached in about three seconds. The Beast was right; it wasn't going to be pretty.

More lighting coagulated in the form of a ring as the Beast fell under the control of gravity towards the ground. Bringing his massive forearms in front of his face and moving his knees up, the Beast became an insanely sized metahuman projectile curled up in a fetal position. The impact was going to be horrendous. Closing his black eyes, the Beast waited for the ground to meet him.

The crash felt differently than what the Beast was expecting. Sure it was hard, but it had more of a fluidic feel rather than the solidity that he was expecting. The Beast felt his forearms, wrists, knees and shins break though the force of the impact. The vacuum collapsed on his head as he fell through whatever he had hit. The Beast felt every tiny micro fracture in his skull.

It was the splashing that he heard that clued him in on the fact that he was no longer in Seattle, no longer in the Corporate Zone and no longer facing off against any of the fleshbags at Nin-Ban. Opening his black eyes, the Beast saw he was in an impact tank that was commonly used for K-Type Teleporters who had lost their control or connectionto the K-D. Letting his arms and legs relax, the Beast let go.

"Sure, leave me holding the bag," Baxter scowled at the Beast.

"Like you said," the Beast chuckled evilly, "I'm a parasite at best. And we parasites know when to abandon the host."

Pain rocked through Baxter's senses as he took control of the massive body they both shared. Arms and legs broken, he let them flop around causing more throbs of lancing hot pain as he undulated upwards, moving the massive body towards the top of the tank, towards the surface where he could breathe again. Everything hurt.

The medical team rushed towards the impact tank and immediately stuck tunguskium needles filled with specially calibrated tranquilizers into his system. It was often the only way to tame the Beast once it got loose. The massive gurney used to haul his malformed body was reinforced to take the weight, but getting Baxter into the thing was more than a task in and of itself. Somehow the team managed and Baxter found himself floating in and out of consciousness. The lights created patterns that were beautiful.

"Body count?" Baxter asked. "The boy?"

"Try not to talk Agent Baxter," one of the medical staff replied calmly. His eyes were wide. He was new to the unit. The medic had no idea what he was in for. "Your jaw has been broken in three places." Baxter struggled through the new pain he was feeling. His body had been broken and bruised before, but it was something that he never gotten used to.

"Blue?" Baxter's voice was ragged and broken. Something else must have been broken.

"I'm here, lover," her voice was cool and composed. She had closed off. She wasn't broadcasting. Baxter knew it had to be bad. He really couldn't tell how bad it was, everything hurt. Seeing the look in her eyes told him everything he needed to know " the Beast left him holding damaged goods, too damaged to be repaired.

"The boy?"

"Safe. He'll be treated and trained."

"Body count?"

"Oh Benji," her voice cracked. Baxter knew that it was really bad now. She never called him 'Benji' unless it was serious.

"Body count?" Baxter forced his voice out from whatever was broken in his throat sounding more like the Beast than he wanted to.

"A dozen on the ground at Nin-Ban and another ten within the building," Baxter sighed at the news, "The boy took out four cops." Rolling his eyes was painful. "The next of kin are being notified."

"Blue," Baxter moved a massive hand through the pain of broken bones and bruised muscle, "I'm going to sleep now."

"You sleep Benji," she sobbed, "you've earned it." Baxter let the blackness take him. He found it oddly silent as the darkness took over his senses. A cold sensation permeated throughout his consciousness.

"Where the hell are you?" Baxter screamed inside of his head. There was no answer.

Days later, the group gathered in Arlington National Cemetery. It was an unusually sunny day in Virginia. A mild breeze touched the flags that the Honor Guard carried. A massive flock of men and women in black were gathered around a central location within the field.

Putting a hand on her belly, Gina Grey felt the baby kick. It was going to leave a bruise again. The baby was unhappy with all of the commotion that was going on. Gina reached out mentally to check, the boy's consciousness was just beginning to form. There were dreams, disjointed, but dreams never-the-less. She tickled the forming mind and withdrew in surprise. Something had stopped her.

"Hello Mummy," a familiar voice growled back at her. Gina's eyes went wide.

The group created pathways to line up to hug and touch the pregnant woman near the casket. The conversations and condolences were a blur for her. "I'm sorry for your loss," and "He was a hero to his nation," and "God, he was so full of life," echoed throughout the line wishing her well. Gina couldn't respond, all she heard was the chuckling coming from deep within her womb. All the people circled her like too many buzzards in the sun as the Beast waited to be born into the world again.

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