"...I swear to you, I really don't do anything to encourage this," WildRose said, trying hard not to stare at the naked woman in her bed. It wasn't exactly easy, though; the stranger who had apparently broken into WildRose's dojo to give her a live sex show was masturbating with a frenzied intensity that was almost magnetic to the eyes. Certainly Sharpe didn't seem to be doing a very good job of looking away-she stared at the purple-haired woman like she was recording every second with her eidetic memory for later consideration.
"I mean, it's probably a common affliction, right?" WildRose babbled, feeling a furious heat creep up into her cheeks. "Lots of heroes probably meet people who are, um... not in their own minds. I'm sure it happens to everybody." They'd never had an official conversation about monogamy, but WildRose at least tried to stick to one woman at a time when she wasn't being brainwashed by sex pheromones or blasted by mind-control rays or drugged by hypnotic lipstick, and she was pretty sure Sharpe felt the same way. Being constantly bombarded by kinky pansexual women with a helpless urge to seduce her was... it was unfair, if nothing else.
"And I mean, I was with you all night," WildRose went on, fully aware that she was digging herself in deeper with every word but somehow unable to stop. "We, I mean, we came back here to, um..." She tried to find a clever euphemism that didn't blurt out their sexual intentions to the stranger in her bedroom, but her brain kept filling up with the audio detritus of the third woman's gasps and moans until she couldn't stand it anymore. "Um, you know. I wouldn't have brought you to my bedroom if I was planning to, I mean if I had any intention to, um..." She could feel her blush deepening into a warm red hue that covered her entire face. "This is weird. That's what I'm trying to say."
Sharpe finally responded, using that distant tone of voice that generally meant she was holding six conversations at once. "Definitely weird," she murmured, her eyes locked in on the three fingers pumping in and out of the stranger's dripping cunt. "That's Shadowstryke, she normally operates out of Michigan. She's a telepath and martial artist, she uses her powers to cloak people's perceptions of her. She trained with you about three years back, remember?"
WildRose squirmed as she realized that the woman did look familiar, once she mentally replaced the purple hair with a more natural shade of brown and... ahem... imagined some clothes on her. "Right, right. I remember now. The Round Two Project." Round Two had been Sharpe's idea, taking superheroes from around the country who had powers but not skills (and who passed Sharpe's rigorous background checks) and shipping them unobtrusively to WildRose for intensive martial arts training. Shadowstryke was probably her best pupil, and she'd given the younger woman a few contacts in the scene to help her continue her training, but they still hadn't seen each other in a long while. Obviously something must have happened to her in the interim.
"She went missing about six weeks back," Sharpe continued, confirming WildRose's suspicions. "I thought I burned everything that led back to us, but she must have found her way back here. She's got some psychic defenses, legacy of being a telepath-the mindwipe we gave her must not have fully taken." WildRose didn't exactly mind discovering that it failed-she knew that everyone who signed up for the Round Two Project agreed to a minor memory modification procedure to help Sharpe and WildRose keep their secrets, but it never exactly sat well with her. She didn't like messing with someone's head, even consensually and benevolently. Not after being on the receiving end as often as she was.
"She must have come to us for help," WildRose said, the words hanging awkwardly in the air as she realized how they must sound in the context of Shadowstryke's desperate masturbation session. "Um. With fixing whatever's making her do this. We should probably see if we can get her to stop, get some clothes on her and get her deprogrammed-"
"In Two Seconds," Shadowstryke gasped, startling both WildRose and Sharpe. "Any Time Remote Autonomy Problems Iterate, My Neurons Operate To Initiate New Cortical Operations. Notable Temporary Renderings Of Lust Only Free Me, You Only..." She moaned, her eyes rolling back into her head as her body spasmed with orgasmic release. "When Neural Mazes Impede Normal Directives, I Make... Other Neural Links." Her breathing sped up again as she fingered herself frantically, dripping her musk onto WildRose's sheets.
WildRose tried to keep her mind on Shadowstryke's explanation, but the way the other woman masturbated harder and faster as she spoke made it more than a little difficult. Sharpe's jaw was hanging open, her eyes wide with an almost astonished arousal as she watched the display of unabashed, uninhibited desire in front of them. "You'd Prescribe... nnnhh... Relatively Effective Treatment. Even Normal." Shadowstryke's eyes rolled back until only the whites showed as she squirted again, soaking WildRose's bedding once more. "Don't. I Need Give Them Only Better Electives, F..." her voice trailed off into a low, growling moan for a moment. "Freedom Really Exists! Escape!"
She cried the last word out in a final, desperate wail of pleasure before flopping back onto the bed, entirely limp. WildRose looked over at Sharpe. "You pick that up?" she asked, her voice a picture of confusion.
Sharpe blinked. Then blinked again. WildRose hadn't seen her girlfriend this discombobulated since the Fembot Invasion. "Um, it... it sounded like she was saying that she was rewiring her own neurons to get around the brainwashed parts?" Sharpe said, sounding unaccountably tentative. "Like, she was using the, um... the..." She waved her hand at the bed, her mouth moving silently as though trying to find a way to describe the lewd display they'd just witnessed. "To quarantine the sectors that were corrupted, so she could think for herself again."
"True," Shadowstryke said weakly, sounding utterly exhausted. WildRose wouldn't be surprised if she was-her whole body was slick with sweat, her purple hair was matted against her head, and she looked like she'd just run a marathon in WildRose's bed. "Help Arrived To Save Normal Operations. Truly, Temporary Reifications Unduly Eradicate Instant Meaning, And Some Language Accessibility Vexes Edification. Only Freedom Divines Our Cruel Turn Of Receding Notions Under Linguistic Lexography."
WildRose looked back at Sharpe. "Can you, um... translate that?" she asked, feeling awkward and out of her depth. Why couldn't villains come up with a scheme that involved an intimate understanding of sports medicine and horticulture or something? Sure, Sharpe would still know more about it than she did, but at least she wouldn't feel like the dumbest person in the room.
"I, um... I think she's having trouble talking." Sharpe still couldn't take her eyes off of Shadowstryke's nude, glistening body as she spoke. WildRose tried not to feel jealous-she understood what it was like to have a type, and it didn't exactly surprise her to find out that Sharpe had a crush or two among the toned, fit, athletic martial artists they encountered on a daily basis. But knowing it and seeing it were two different things.
"If what she said a moment ago is true, she's rerouted a lot of her neural operations network around the corrupt portions of her brain," Sharpe continued, starting to sound a bit more like herself as she began to work through the problem. "There's a lot of redundancy in there, we've learned that from stroke victims and people who've had head traumas, but she may have lost some of her vocabulary. She might be processing language differently, using elliptical terms to avoid going through the parts of her mind that belong to whoever did this to her."
"Naturally," Shadowstryke said, slowly rolling herself off the bed to crouch on the floor. "Only In My Apprehensive Brain, Reality And Individuality Never Were Adversaries. Some Horrible, Evil Doctor Set Language Against Verifiable Existence."
Sharpe's eyes narrowed, and WildRose allowed herself a quiet little smile. Crush or no crush, nothing got in the way when her girl got the scent of a bad guy. "Evil Doctor..." she muttered to herself. "Can't be Doctor Darke, he's trapped in the quantum foam. Doctor Paine has a completely different M.O., Doctor Night doesn't do mind control..." Her eyes went distant for a moment as she ran through a myriad of possibilities faster than speech allowed. Finally, she gasped in excitement. "Was it... Doctor Null?"
"You've Exactly Stated A New Datum!" Shadowstryke said, her voice sparking with excitement as she rose slowly to her feet. "How Elementary, Wouldn't Anyone Note? True Saviors You. Oh Unrepentant Ne'er-do-wells, Even Xenoglossia Triumphs!" She padded over to the pile of clothing crumpled by the foot of WildRose's bed and began to dress herself.
WildRose frowned. "Okay, this is getting a little unfair. I'm not a neurologist, I don't expect to get that bit, but... I know I keep up with our supervillain database. How come I never heard of this Doctor Null guy?" She could feel a touch of free-floating irritation crawling around inside her, looking for a way out, and she tried to remind herself that she didn't need to feel threatened by Shadowstryke. (Not as a romantic partner, at least. She was still acting decidedly weird in a way that WildRose planned to keep an eye on, but that had nothing to do with Sharpe's crush or any jealousy that sprang out of it. It was sensible, healthy caution.)
Sharpe didn't seem to pick up on any of WildRose's turmoil. She was caught up in something entirely different. "I've never put Doctor Null in a database. I... I wasn't really sure he existed until today. It's just that every once in a while, a superhero disappears. Always a woman, always a lone operative, always a street-level type." She glanced at WildRose, the unspoken implication plain on her face. "I didn't want you worrying over nothing," she said, her tone making it clear that WildRose wasn't the one worrying. "It could just be coincidence."
WildRose folded her arms. "If it was just coincidence, you wouldn't have a name. What's the common thread?"
"I keep finding... threads," Sharpe said. "Little bits and fragments of clues here and there, hints of some new supervillain that the women were tracking down. Everything is always cold by the time I get to it, but the M.O. is always the same. Someone dangles a mystery in front of these street-level detective heroes, and when they follow it... they go away. Most of them never come back."
"Most?" WildRose felt a little sick chill in her gut, the kind of anxiety she didn't get often. But this felt disturbingly like the sort of thing that could have happened to her before she met Sharpe, back when she flung herself into every situation without worrying about foresight or backup. She had never thought of herself as especially lucky, but this felt too much like a close call she never even knew she had. "What happens to the others?"
Sharpe sighed. "They show up sometimes. In the service of one bad guy or another. We've seen maybe three of them? They're always ferociously loyal, and completely single-minded. There's... there's nothing in their head at all when they're deprogrammed. Professor Psyche usually has to rebuild their minds from scratch. There are only a few traces of whatever happened to them, a word-myrmidon, it seems to be what they think of themselves as. And a name. Doctor Null. I've never been able to find anything else until now."
Shadowstryke walked over to them, looking haggard and pale but clear-eyed and alert underneath it all. "Truly, His Assaults Transcend Sinister. Beware, Every Cruelty Alights Under Some Evil He Enables, Nor Ends Victoriously Even Restricted With Adversaries New To Endless Defeat." WildRose screwed up her face, trying to follow the strange, elliptical phrasing. It was a warning... right?
"What happened to you?" Sharpe asked, clearly following the conversation a little bit better. "What did he do to you and the others?"
Shadowstryke paused, like her brain was struggling to find a path to use to address the unexpected question. "You Open Up To Ownership," she said softly, her eyes sad and weary. "The Head Is Slaved, I Sensed A Tunnel Ripping A Portal Against Nothing. Drawing You Out, Unmade, Repeatedly Emptied. When All Loses Knowledge, I Never Give Individuality No Thought. Open? Indeed, Thoughtless!"
"How many women?" WildRose said, not sure if she was asking Shadowstryke or Sharpe. "How many times has this happened before?" She could feel the anger rising up inside her, wild and furious and ready to strike, and she didn't even try to stop it. Whoever this bastard was, he had broken women just like her. He had hurt them and he wasn't going to stop unless he was stopped, and WildRose felt every instinct in her body calling out to her to protect and avenge and just plain punish all at once. Her hands clenched involuntarily into fists.
Sharpe must have known that it was pointless to talk her out of it. "Eleven probable," she said dully, her face betraying the resignation of a nightmare come true. "Seven more possible, maybe a further two or three that I just don't have enough information about to do more than guess. But one thing I know, Penny? They all started like this. Every woman that vanished started out by finding a clue that I think he wanted them to find."
Shadowstryke smirked, her expression weary but hungry for the chase. "Some Have, Except Some Refused Insight. Give Heed, This Revenant Unbalances Numbers. New Odds Win."
"I got that bit," WildRose said, her smile matching Shadowstryke's. "It's two on one this time, and we've got inside information. Charter me a jet, Sharpe. I'm heading to Sabre City." She paused dramatically. Then she paused in thought. Then she paused uncomfortably. "Um, he is still in Sabre City, right?" she asked Shadowstryke.
"Perfectly Languid," she replied, the words spilling out of her lips as though her mouth wasn't entirely under her control. Even As Some Escape, Relaxation Undoes Null."
WildRose gestured to her fellow superhero. "There you go! Sabre City it is."
Six hours later, WildRose and Shadowstryke were together on the rooftops of Sabre City's warehouse district, leaping lightly from one building to the next in pursuit of their prey. They didn't talk-WildRose had attempted a few desultory conversations on the plane, but after getting responses like "Forensic Recovery Enables Endings More Easily" and "Pretend Language Exists As Some External Heuristic Event, Let's Please?" she gave up. And Sharpe was...
Sharpe was nervous. She hadn't tried to talk WildRose out of it, because they both knew how that would end, but she had tightened up like a violin string. No banter, no unnecessary speech, nothing but basic sitrep updates and perfunctory responses. She was terrified... and on some level, so was WildRose. They both knew that what seemed like a new situation for them was Doctor Null's twentieth try at capturing and brainwashing a superhero, and the fact that they'd never heard about him failing made them worry that he was terrifyingly good at it. Even with GPS tracking and satellite surveillance (and how often did Sharpe hack into the Department of Defense just to keep an eye on her?) this felt risky.
So when Shadowstryke stopped dead at the corner of one building, then pointed to another and said, "Revenge Under Night's New Offering, We See Our Subject. Soon Our Sinister Subjugators Opt Some Secret Old Scheme. Shall Our Saving Start On Six?"
WildRose frowned. "Um... I didn't get all of that, Sharpe, but I think she's saying this is the place and she wants to go in on the count of six. Does that sound right?" Before Sharpe could respond, Shadowstryke nodded, her face a mask of anticipation. WildRose nodded back, crouching on the edge of the roof and picking a nearby skylight about five feet below them to make her entrance.
"One," she whispered, as Shadowstryke crouched right alongside her. There was a flickering sensation in the back of WildRose's mind, the feeling of a tickling distraction as Shadowstryke's psychic cloak asserted itself. It didn't work on WildRose-from what she remembered, the mental camouflage relied on an initial lack of awareness of her presence-but she could still feel something in her head trying to insist that she was all alone.
"Two," WildRose said softly, tensing up her muscles in preparation for the leap. She knew she wouldn't have much time to get inside once they landed-a human body hitting a rooftop made a certain amount of noise no matter how sneaky you were. She wished she had a better idea of the layout. She wished she had time to prepare without worrying that the villain would bug out and take his fucking sex slave harem with him. She wished... fuck, she wished she had superpowers.
"Three," she murmured. But wishing didn't make anything happen. And she wasn't going to let those women down. Even heroes needed heroes sometimes, and WildRose was the only option they were going to get. She couldn't turn back now. She simply couldn't.
"Four..." Her breath was coming quicker now, adrenaline firing up her body to its full potential. She felt lightning-fast, hammer-strong. She looked over at Shadowstryke and saw the same thing on her ally's face. A part of her wanted to wait for Sharpe's word to go, but the other woman simply hadn't responded to WildRose's last words. WildRose didn't think they were being jammed-she could still hear the sounds of the open mike, scribbling and tapping keys on the keyboard and all the other comforting noises of Sharpe being Sharpe. So why the quiet? Why the delay?
WildRose barely got as far as 'fi-' before she heard Sharpe over the microphone shouting, "Abort! Abort abort abort it's a trap it's a trap it's a trap run run RUN!" She turned slightly, just in time to see Shadowstryke come at her with a knife hand strike that would have hit her right at the base of the neck if she hadn't reacted. She rolled backwards, turning her flip into a sweep kick that knocked the other woman's feet out from under her.
Shadowstryke wasn't down for long-apparently all those mutual friends had done a pretty good job of training her-but WildRose could tell that Shadowstryke wasn't a match for her. She dodged an axe kick, ducked under a roundhouse, and used the momentum of Shadowstryke's punch to send her hurtling through space over the gap between buildings and directly into the skylight of the warehouse behind her. WildRose turned just in time to hear the sound of tinkling glass and see Shadowstryke's body smash through the window and into the darkness below.
Moments later, the skylight lit up with a burst of white light that tore through the air in a single coherent beam, followed by another and another in a descending arc as someone inside the warehouse fired at Shadowstryke's falling body. WildRose hesitated for perhaps a tenth of a second, realizing that whoever was inside would know within moments that their plan had failed and that she had very little time before they mobilized pursuit...
But there was also a moment within those moments of confusion when nobody except her knew what was going on. A moment when she could strike. One moment to save all those women, and WildRose would have to live with herself for the rest of her life if she didn't take it. "Can't escape justice," she muttered to herself, sprinting to the edge and leaping through the open skylight.
She still almost failed. When WildRose jumped, using the stacks of boxes as springboards to redirect her momentum from uncontrolled descent into a perfect catlike landing, she had a moment of heart-stopping terror as she saw the odds. Twenty-five myrmidons stood around the perimeter of the room, each one staring with blank-eyed patience as they awaited the order to strike. Shadowstryke lay on her side, surrounded by broken glass, her leg twisted under her. And an elderly Caucasian man in silver armor with a white lab coat over it, holding a massive cannon connected to his suit by a heavy power coupling, was just starting to look up from his slave when WildRose spotted him.