Chuck’s challenge: A three-author anonymous collaboration, concluded.
Matthew X. Gomez began the tale. His bit lasts up until the first asterisk.
Mickie continued the tale. Her bit lasts up until the second asterisk.
My bit concludes the tale. I wish I’d been able to “end” it properly, but there’s just so much here. I hope I’ve done their work justice.
A Recipe For Disaster
I’m sitting on a rooftop across from a bank robbery in process when I feel that tingle at the base of my spine telling me someone’s trying to get into my head. I brush it off at first, a minor annoyance as I gaze down the scope of my highpowered rifle, mentally daring one of the jokers inside to show their face.
Then the tingle gets more persistent, a buzz in my ear, an itch at the bottom of my foot. The probe is turning into an attack.
“Control, do the tangoes have a ‘path on record?” I don’t have to talk loud, the microphone taped to my jaw will pick up every whisper, just as the camera mounted on my helmet is picking up and broadcasting in high res.
“Negative, Ballista, no ‘path on record.”
I bite the inside of my cheek as the buzz turns into a drill. I smile, scanning the windows. If the ‘path is any good he could be anywhere, even halfway across the city, running overwatch on their gig. Still, I’ve got to wonder what a group of Ascended are doing robbing a bank. Aren’t there better things they could be doing? More profitable gigs? The ‘path they’ve got probably thinks he’s being subtle, but given how long I’ve been at this he might as well be marching a brass band down Main Street.
I start simple, throwing mental images to shock and dismay. Goatse. An exploded head. That time I caught my mom blowing my uncle, along with all the associated hatred and disgust that went with it. Finding out my wife was cheating on me with her best friend. That time I woke up covered in vomit with no recollection of how I got there, but there was dried blood under my nails, and blood on my shoes. All of it.
The drill disappears as rapidly as it started.
“We have confirmation that one of the tangos is down.” Control’s voice is always the same. Cool, collected, and with as much emotion as discussing this week’s corn futures.
The corner of my mouth twitches up into a smile. Maybe I pushed a bit harder than I should have. Maybe the asshole shouldn’t have gone around poking where he shouldn’t have.
“How many confirmed tangos still standing, Control?”
“Whisper confirms four tangos still active. All are confirmed Ascended.”
Bile rises up in my mouth and I fight to swallow it back down. I should have figured it was the case. They don’t bring us out for your run-of-the-mill robbers. No, we get saved for the special cases. Lucky us.
“Ballista, we have confirmation of movement. Looks like they are coming out the front door.”
I swing the gun around, get a bead on the door. It swings open. I don’t have the best angle where I am, but I bite down on my lip and concentrate. Hostages start walking out, hands on their heads, eyes a bit glassy looking. I curse when I see what walks out next.
What follows is a moment of disbelief and I feel as though I am falling through infinite blackness.Not dead. It’s the only thought I cling to. Not dead, not dead. Then horror-stricken, I am consumed with guilt. How could I have known! It was as if she had been here in this very building for those lost ten years with these psychos, held at gunpoint and waiting patiently for daddy to save her.
Then my heart freezes over as I realize there is no gun to her head. In fact, she cocks a rifle of her own with skinny arms. Her expression, upon which I once placed sweet kisses, is stony and grim. Then there are other things I should have noticed first off— the sharpness of her cheekbones, jutting hard against her flesh, chestnut hair gleaming like liquid bronze. Characteristics of all the Ascended. I groan in despair. Christ, Ixa, what did they do to you?
Her head whips in my direction as if she somehow heard me and I gasp. The blue of her eyes is piercing and I know she sees me through the darkness. Sees me clearer than anyone possibly ever has and I feel weak. My finger loosens on the trigger. She smiles then, a slow and knowing leer and the mental barrage begins again and I nearly collapse from the onslaught of the white noise that fills my head.
Then it stops as quickly as it started and leaves my ears ringing. I look to her again and her face darkens. Her message is loud and clear: She can kill me where I stand. Tears sting my eyes.Baby, please forgive me! How could I have known?
Then, Control over the earpiece, “All four tangoes in sight, please confirm.”
I say nothing.
“Ballista, targets are four adults: three males, one female. All confirmed Ascended. Confirm that you are in shooting range and take the shots.”
I swallow hard, my throat sandpaper. I breathe, “Control, I have reason to believe the female target is Ixa Manning, the subject of a missing persons case.”
I am met with the sound of fingers flying across a keyboard as Control checks the case file. “The case for Ixa Manning was closed nearly ten years ago, Ballista. She was legally declared dead.”
“Fuck that, you think I wouldn’t recognize my own daughter?” I hiss into the mic.
“Ballista…” a hint of warning tinges the cool indifference in the voice. “This is no time to lose your head. That woman is not your daughter. She is a traitor and a terrorist. Now, take. The. Shot.”
My mind races. The girl I am sure is Ixa never takes her eyes off me as she grabs a fistful of hair of one of the hostages, a wailing woman shaking so badly she cannot remain on her feet. Unfazed eyes shine challengingly at me as she positions the nose of her weapon beneath her captive’s ear.
I see it unfold in slow motion as the training takes over. Neutralize the threat. The scope comes to my eye and I squeeze the trigger. Ixa’s eyes track my bullet and it freezes, floating ponderous in the air an inch from her nose, still spiraling, whispering interrupted death. She hurls the woman to the pavement, and with her free hand plucks the bullet from the air. Her eyes fix me through the scope, crystal-blue and glowing. I know what’s coming; I throw the rifle aside and reach for my sidearm, but she steps the distance in a heartbeat. Her sharp, seeking fingers bury themselves in my throat as she lifts me from the ground.
Control is barking in my earpiece, but her face is mere inches from mine, contorted into a mask of too-perfect cheekbones and too-blue eyes gone vivid in the colors swimming in at the edges of my vision, and I’m lost. I don’t struggle. What good would it do?
In a flash, it’s ten years ago, Ixa is swinging with the careless abandon of a ten-year-old on a peppermint-red swingset in Glaston Park. She shouts, “I’m flying, daddy!” and my perspective shifts. I see through Ixa’s eyes, now; see Daddy turn and draw a previously unseen pistol and dart into traffic, forgetting about his daughter at the call from Control. Rough hands yank me from the swing and hurry me to a waiting car, and I scream and cry for my Daddy, Daddy who always saves me and will follow me anywhere, but Daddy doesn’t come.
Another flash. I’m still Ixa. The transformation is taking hold; my eyes grow brighter in the mirror, the spectrum of previously invisible colors explodes in my vision, my mother’s obituary incinerates in my hands, my father — me — weeps behind a dusty windowpane.
Flash. Ixa’s body, laid out before me, peppered with gunshots, blood pooled and congealed. Ixa’s voice in my mouth. “Looks good.” Flash. Planning the heist of this meaningless bank. Flash. Myself — Daddy — looks back at me through the scope of the rifle. It’s time.
She’s given me this gift before she kills me; the gift of knowing. It’s enough. My eyes focus on hers and she’s my baby again, precious, harmless, innocent. I smile, cough up a mouthful of blood. The gun slides from my grasp. Then her black-hole pupils erupt with blue flame.
“Ballista! Three Ascended are down. We’ve lost the fourth. What is your situation? Ballista??”
On the street, it’s pandemonium, but up here, it’s silent, just for us.
“Sweetheart,” I say.
Her eyes are almost piteous. She yanks me upwards, hard, and I look down and see my body topple over the railing, see my head dashed to bits on the pavement, hear Control chattering away in the shattered earpiece. But I’m weightless, effortless, floating in my daughter’s unearthly embrace. She peers into my eyes like she’s weighing my soul. “Will you come with me?”
What else can I say? “Anywhere.”