Warp vs Whip
Warp was skating fast and low over Interstate 80, approaching the accident site, when he saw the black SUV coming towards him.
It took him a second to realize what it was. The SUV that had been parked at the site, the one that had brought the colonel. It looked like he’d finally left the scene of the accident; perhaps with Bear and Mina as prisoners in the back. Or maybe the colonel was on his way to ambush Caspar and Two-Bug as they idled at the charging station. The vehicle was moving fast – too fast for road conditions.
Warp didn’t hesitate. He dive-bombed the SUV.
He made sure they saw him coming. He made an intimidating figure, racing towards them dead center in their lane, faceless and black. He was upright, arms outstretched, his features hidden behind a tightly-wound scarf. He was barely six feet even in thick boots and a jacket, but height didn’t matter so much when you hovered seven feet off the ground.
The SUV hurtled towards him. Impact was seconds away. Warp was gauging the timing, already raising his legs and readying the impulse that would bump him the inches he needed to sail safely over, when the driver pulled hard to the left.
Much too hard, it turned out. The SUV began to fishtail instantly. The driver overcompensated, the vehicle went into a spin, and the moment the front tires caught gravel on the side of the road, it tipped into a roll.
“No, no, no!” Kyle shouted. He pictured Bear and Mina being tossed about savagely in the back. He kicked out, braking as hard as he could, damn near ending up in an uncontrollable spin of his own. He fought for control and won, channeling his forward momentum into a tight arc that brought him racing back towards the SUV.
It had not fared as well. It had flipped twice before slamming into a mile marker. Warp heard the sounds of shattering glass and tortured metal from two hundred yards away.
The car deflected off the marker and spun violently into the ditch. It came up hard on the far side, plowing into snow-covered shrubs. The snow didn’t soften the final impact much; Warp heard the screech of metal as it slammed against an unyielding chunk of Iowa roadside scenery.
Warp raced forward, closing the distance in seconds. He overshot and swung back in a wide arc, eyes fixed on the vehicle. It was upright, or nearly. The hood had crumpled badly, but the windshield was intact. It looked like it had broken its front axle. The passenger door was buried in snow and inaccessible, but the driver’s side door was reachable.
There was no movement. The collision had been bad, very bad. Perhaps fatal for the driver. If Mina and Bear were inside…
Warp brought himself down right next to the SUV. He threw caution to the wind, pulling open the back door.
The back seat was empty. Relief flooded through him.
He stuck his head inside. There were only two occupants; both men. The driver seemed to have taken the worst of it. He was slumped against the steering wheel, unconscious. Warp couldn’t see most of his face, but he was sure it was the colonel. There was a trickle of blood on his chin.
The man in the passenger seat was semi-conscious. He groaned, said something unintelligible. It wasn’t anyone Warp recognized. If either of these guys were PIPs, they weren’t among the more notorious Villains.
Warp checked the row of seats in the back; they contained only gear. It had been thrown violently about in the crash; Warp saw a hard leather case that had split open. The contents, a pair of ruggedized tablets, had tumbled out.
The passenger muttered something. His eyes were open, staring at Warp. He was moving, or trying to. He pulled a sidearm from inside his jacket and made an effort to aim it, but the movement triggered a spasm of pain.
“Don’t be an idiot,’ Warp said. He took the gun from feeble fingers and tossed it a dozen feet into the snow.
Warp finished his visual inspection. Bear and Mina were not here, and nothing in the car looked dangerous. The two occupants weren’t going anywhere, and they wouldn’t freeze to death before medical attention arrived. He briefly contemplated taking one of the tablets for the Black Signal counterintelligence team to analyze later, but that wasn’t a priority right now. The priority was Bear and Mina.
Thirty seconds later, he was airborne.
The cold was beginning to numb him again, but he forced himself to take his time on the approach to Whisker’s rig. He kept his eyes open, coming in as low as he dared. The wind had dropped, and visibility had improved slightly. The moment he spotted the crash site he dog-legged left and swung around wide, flying across the open field, staying out of sight as he gained altitude. When he’d circled around he approached from the east at about 300 feet, barely able to see the ground, until he was over the rig.
The fire in the trailer had died down significantly. The rig still had power, and Bear’s headlights were still on, casting harsh light over the scene. As expected, the black SUV was gone. Nothing else seemed to have changed – nothing he could make out from this height, anyway.
He couldn’t immediately spot Zone or U07 – the big brute whom Zone had called Whip – but that didn’t alarm him. The last time he’d seen them, they’d been digging through the snow where he’d vanished. When he’d been hovering there, the glare from the headlights had prevented him from seeing anything past the rig. He was counting on the same thing being true for them.
He took a deep breath, and let himself fall.
It didn’t matter how long he’d been flying – and it was eight years now – uncontrolled falls always unnerved him. He plummeted through the cold night air, wind tearing at his jacket, his scarf. He locked his arms, fought the urge to flail as his heart leapt into his throat. He forced himself to keep his eyes fixed on the rig as the ground hurtled towards him.
What if his abilities failed? What if they vanished, as quickly and mysteriously as they’d come? Oh Jesus –
He arrested his fall in perfect silence, decelerating smoothly until he dropped perfectly into the slot. He came to a stop twenty feet behind and ten feet above the roof of Bear’s rig. His heart hammered in his chest, but he kept his breathing even. The drop had taken less than five seconds.
He was right where he wanted to be – the vantage with the best view of the accident site, and shielded from view by the glare of the lights. The rig’s headlights illuminated the stage like theater lights. It took only a second to spot Kollerwip, aka Whip, and then Gleeson, the PIP known as Zone. He couldn’t believe it – they were still searching the snow where he’d vanished.
Searching, and arguing. He could hear their raised voices from here.
“Over by them bushes,” Zone was saying.
Whip responded, his speech like grinding rocks. He was speaking German, Warp decided, but with a pretty pronounced impediment. He was on the verge of comprehending a few words when Zone interrupted.
“Dig, you fucking idiot,” he snapped.
Zone himself was doing nothing of the sort. He stood in knee-deep snow, his dinner jacket clenched tightly, his bare hands jammed into his armpits. His thin dress pants snapped in the wind. Warp couldn’t make it out at this distance, but he would have bet that Zone’s lips were a lovely shade of blue by now.
Whip obeyed, plunging his claws deep into the trench into which Warp had flown. He dug like a terrier, tossing massive handfuls of snow and dirt thirty feet into the air. Warp saw great gouges in the ditch where Whip had worked with no apparent plan or system. He’d dug right down to the frozen earth in more than a few spots.
Zone had long ago lost his patience, probably at the same time he’d lost all feeling in his extremities. “Jesus, no, you goddamn ape. Follow the ditch.“ He thrust his finger into the air like he was stabbing a blackboard. “It ain’t that fuckin’ hard. Right there.”
Whip stopped digging and roared a complaint. He raised a great hairy arm and pointed back to the rig. Zone glanced in that direction and for a split second locked eyes with Warp.
Oh shit, thought Kyle, holding his breath.
A moment later they were back to bickering. Whatever Zone had seen, it wasn’t Warp. He remained invisible behind the lights.
“I don’t give a shit,” said Gleeson. He had resumed hugging himself, and sounding miserable. “He’s in there somewhere. Just find me his head. His fucking shoes. I don’t give a rat’s ass.”
Whip growled an assent, and resumed digging.
Zone suffered in silence for another minute, before he turned away and started trudging towards the road.
Whip raised his head, growled a question.
“I’m fucking freezing,” spat Zone. “This is bullshit. We were told we'd be here five goddamn minutes before Ops would secure the site. And now they’re forty minutes out? I’m not dressed for this shit.”
Whip growled again.
“Because I didn’t expect a bloody blizzard, that’s why!” said Zone. “I dress for the damn job. If he’s going to create this kind of weather, that should have been in the briefing. If Ops had done one fucking thing right with this job, neither of us would be digging through snow with our goddamn hands.”
Warp couldn’t stifle a small gasp of surprise. He should’ve known something was unnatural about this savage weather. There were a small number of Villains who could create weather like this. The enigmatic Rime. Shard, possibly. Both worked with large Villain organizations.
But who was the mysterious “he” Zone was talking about? Who had issued the order to create a blizzard? That was the real question. Unconsciously, Warp drifted a few feet closer, eager to hear more.
Zone didn’t elaborate further, however. Instead he kept walking. He emerged out of the deep powder, stopping for a few seconds to stomp snow out of his shoes. He cursed extravagantly, then continued towards the road. Whip went back to digging.
Where the hell is he headed? thought Warp, watching Zone go. He was tempted to follow, make sure there wasn’t another vehicle or support team nearby, but he resisted the urge.
He turned his eyes back to Whip, who was now rooting through drifts apparently at random, dutifully throwing snow in the air. No, this was an unexpected opportunity, and one he couldn’t ignore.
He made sure Zone was out of sight first. Zone had reached the highway and dashed across the westbound lanes, and was now clumsily climbing over the divider. His movements were slow. Probably close to hypothermia, Warp decided. A minute later Zone cleared the eastbound lanes and vanished, likely headed towards a hidden vehicle.
Whip, now thoroughly unsupervised, gave up any semblance of an organized search. He began sniffing in the ditch and pawing under bushes, gradually wandering further and further from the spot where Warp had feigned his landing. Whip paused and urinated on a tall bush, then scattered snow and ice on the bush like a fastidious cat.
Warp began to drift forward again, careful to maintain altitude and stay out of the glare of the headlights. He was on the hunt, and he found what he was looking for almost immediately. It lay halfway between him and Whip, at the bottom of one of the deep furrows the creature had clawed out of the ditch.
A rock. It was on the heavy side for what he needed, but he could make it work. The only problem was that, to get to it, he’d have to drop into the light, and he’d be awfully close to Whip when he did.
Whip was snuffling around some bushes ninety feet further along the ditch. Warp had no doubt that, if Whip spotted him, he’d clear that distance and be on top of him in seconds. Warp would have to time his drop into the ditch just right. He’d have to wait for exactly the right moment.
Unfortunately, waiting took a lot longer than expected. There was no predictability to Whip’s movements, and nothing he did – digging in the ditch, sniffing in shadowy corners, testing the depth of the powder with his talons – commanded his attention for more than a few seconds. Worse, he seemed tethered to the spot where Zone had told him to dig, even if he didn’t have the patience to root in the snow for more than a few moments. Every time he wandered too far afield, he soon corrected and came loping back.
Warp glanced back to the road, his apprehension mounting. Zone was sure to return soon. He was wasting time. There was no way to do this without risk. He’d simply have to take a chance.
He willed himself higher, still safely in the shadows, and positioned himself over the dark side of the ditch. He waited until Whip was preoccupied, tearing a juniper out of the ground, and dropped.
There was no reaction when he fell into the light. Whip was in an escalating argument with the juniper’s root system, screaming at it in a rage. Warp dropped quietly into the ditch and quickly flattened, out of Whip’s line of sight.
Wasting no time, he crawled to the rock. For a nervous moment he was unable to pry it out of the frozen ground, but when he braced his leg against a thin root and got his fingers under it, it came up reluctantly.
Satisfied, Warp raised himself up, inch by inch, until he could see the top of Whip’s ugly head, fifty feet away. Whip was ripping the juniper’s deep root system out of the ground with his bare hands, still screaming at it. Yeah – you show that stupid plant, big guy.
Warp squatted and wrapped his hands around the stone. He braced himself, straightened his back, and lifted.
The stone was heavier than he thought – a lot heavier. It was very nearly at the upper limit of what he could lift. He held it stiffly, cradling it against his groin. He wobbled badly as his feet left the ground. But once he was airborne, he found he could accelerate more or less normally.
He rose as fast as he was able, back into the light. No point being stealthy now. Warp felt like a beacon in the bright glare of the headlights, visible for a mile in every direction.
He wasn’t thirty feet up when the stone, still slick with snow, began to slide through his fingers.
He slowed, bent his knees to try and catch it, but it was no good. He was going to lose it. He let himself drop, anxious to get back down as quickly and quietly as possible. Straight ahead, Whip yanked the last stubborn root out of the ground and raised the juniper above his head, triumphant.
When Warp was still fifteen feet in the air the stone slipped through his hands, bounced painfully off his ankles, and tumbled to the frozen ground with a spectacular thud.
For a moment, Warp just hovered in place, unable to move, unable to breathe. He stared wide-eyed at Whip’s back, watched as he started to turn.
Warp slammed himself into the ditch.
It was ungracefully done. Also, extraordinarily painful. He hit the packed snow so fast it knocked the wind out of him, and a broken branch, half-buried in the powder, sliced into his left ankle.
Oowwww, he thought. Seriously, shitballs.
But Whip was not on him immediately. Warp counted to three and then dared to raise his head out of the snow.
His aim had been fair enough. He was deep on the shadowy side of the ditch, where Whip couldn’t see him. The rig’s headlights illuminated the ditch to his left, but not the deep powder where he lay. He blinked away the snowflakes on his eyelids.
Whip might not have seen him fall, but he was definitely alerted. Warp heard him shuffling closer, sniffing the air. He heard a speculative growl.
And he heard something else. A voice near the road. Zone.
Damn it. Zone's arrival could spoil everything. I only need another twenty seconds.
Warp started to rise, then quickly dropped back into the shadows. Whip had loped into sight, not forty feet ahead. He was scanning the landscape, his small eyes probing the shadows.
Zone called again from the road.
Whip turned, let out a roar. Warp couldn’t hear Zone's response, but the plaintive tone in his voice was obvious.
Come on, Whip. Go see what that whiny asshole wants.
Whip gave the ditch one more cursory scan, and then turned to the road.
Warp wasted no more time. He rose to his hands and knees, and scrambled in the darkness for the rock.
“What are you looking at?” came Zone’s voice. “Did you find that fucker’s head?”
Warp’s knee bumped something hard. He cleared away the snow and exposed the rock.
He squatted next to it, making sure his grip was more secure this time. He took a deep breath, rolled the heavy stone into his lap, and leaned back. He was rocking on his heels, the stone settled painfully in his lap.
He willed himself into the air.
It was a bumpy take off. The rock began to slide between his legs as soon as he left the ground; his desperate attempt to regain control stole all his focus. He began to drop immediately, and for panicked seconds he was fighting to secure the stone and simultaneously stop himself from slamming back to earth with a one hundred and forty-pound rock on his groin.
He halted his fall with inches to spare. He stabilized in the air, making sure he had a firm grip before starting to rise again.
He elevated out of the ditch, emerging into light.
Whip was closer than Warp expected. He’d followed the ditch and was now barely forty feet to his right. Almost directly ahead of him was Zone, just stepping off the road. His thin attire hadn’t changed, though now he had a blanket draped over his shoulders and he was clutching a steaming thermos.
He was speaking to Whip. “Coffee’s still warm if you want – Christ.” He stopped walking, staring straight at Warp.
Shit, thought Kyle. Move move move —
He continued his rise, accelerating as fast as he dared. In seconds he cleared the rig’s headlights, slipping into the darkness overhead. He shifted direction, moving towards Whip, still gaining altitude.
Zone had thrown the thermos aside, spraying coffee over the snow. He was pointing into the air and shouting. “He’s there. He’s right there!”
Whip turned, alarmed and confused. He looked down, scanning the terrain, but saw nothing. He took a few steps towards the ditch, started digging obediently.
“No – no, you fucking idiot. He’s alive. He’s alive! He’s right there!” Zone started running, plunging into the drifts. He was undone by his leather shoes almost immediately, losing his footing and sprawling on his ass.
Whip erupted in laughter. It sounded like a donkey braying. He dug as he laughed, throwing great handfuls of hard-packed snow in the air.
Zone rose on all fours. His face was bright red. “Whip!” he bellowed.
Whip stopped digging. He looked over his shoulder at Zone.
“Look,” said Zone. He pointed with a shaky finger. “Look up, over your damn head.”
Whip glanced up. Hovering forty feet above him was Warp. His mouth fell open.
“Move!” shouted Zone.
Warp dropped the stone.
“Move, you stupid ape!”
As Zone spoke, Whip vanished. Everything in a twenty-foot circle below Warp became a white blur, a paint-smear version of reality, as Zone desperately used his abilities to hide Whip from him. As the stone dropped towards its target it vanished as well, disappearing into the blur. There was a muffled crack.
Whip tumbled to the ground without a sound. He fell partly out of the radius of the blur, so that his head and shoulders were visible, and his hips and legs remained inside the field of Gleeson’s illusionary power.
Whip’s eyes were still open, but he lay unmoving. There was the faintest smear of blood on his face, across his cheek and his shoulder. It was hard to tell from above, but it looked like he was breathing shallowly. His right shoulder spasmed, then stilled.
Gleeson remained on his hands and knees. The blanket lay crumpled in the snow at his side. He stared unblinking at Whip. His own breathing was ragged and loud.
Warp skated towards him, hands behind his back. He lost altitude as he approached, until he was barely ten feet above ground. He kept his pace unhurried.
He came to a stop thirty feet from Zone. He hovered there quietly.
Zone wiped spit from his mouth. Eventually he tore his eyes from the fallen giant and raised them to the man before him.
“You should run,” Warp said.
Zone didn’t answer. He climbed slowly to his feet, brushing snow off his pants. He checked his cufflinks and straightened his jacket with dignity, though Warp noticed he couldn’t control a sudden shiver in his hands. Zone nodded grimly.
Then he ran.