Intercession Part One

From the Story Arc: Phoenyx Ascendant

Previous Story in the Arc: Retrieving Blaze by John Murdock (Tuesday, November 08, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: Season of Snow Pt 1 by Seraphic Flame (Thursday, December 29, 2005)

(posted Thursday, November 24, 2005)

It had been a long and frustrating series of patrols. It had begun when Thea Nagy introduced Ratt to the expert on Striga and the port, Stephanie Peebles. Peebles had sent Ratt, John Murdock and Thea first interrogating street thugs, to warehouses, to ships, to back to warehouses as their information trail led them in and around every inch of Port Noble. But finally, finally they had found Joey, in the hands of Tommy One-Eye, the biggest Family Boss in the port.

Tommy One-Eye didn't last long in battle with an angry vampire hunter, an angrier Kheldian, and a positively furious refugee from the Praetorian dimension. The Family thug ended up unconscious, hanging by an ankle from the rafters of the cargo ship he had once commanded. Right Hand Ratt combed the mountains of storage containers for some sign of his friend. It had been too long since Joey's last treatment and the clock was running out for him. Ratt knew that; the ticking clock kept bleeding out seconds in the back of his mind.

After scouring the ship front to back, the trio found Joey bound in a container full of packing crates. All told, he looked like he was already dead. His ribs, though Ratt knew they were somewhat visible even when he was comparatively healthy, were defined in a manner that even Dr. Vahzilok would have found unwholesome. Joey's breath came out in wheezes when it came out at all, and the lack of resistence his muscles gave when Ratt lifted him out of the crate unnerved the young hero. Exhaustion was one thing; this was horrifying.

"Ratt... you came back for..." Joey began, but Ratt shook his head. John stepped forward, focusing his energies toward healing the boy a few times. Nodding to Ratt, John left him to tend to Joey while he would police up the remaining thugs.

Thea left at that moment. Her powers were useless here. She needed an enemy to steal power from in order to heal, and by now most of the thugs were headed for the Zig. Except...Tommy; she hadn't tagged him. And she had some questions for him...nor did she have any intention of being gentle about asking those questions.

She dragged the Family boss down out of the rafters of the ship and dropped him, not at all carefully, on top of the stack of cargo containers below. She didn't want to kill him. She wanted to hurt him.

The Family had a long, long history of trafficking in drugs, and in fact, this ship was smuggling 'dyne. But now they were also trafficing in children. Thea had been following this lead since she had arrived on Striga...and it led to the Council and their vampiric allies. Whether these were the vampires her family had always hunted, or some new and hideous thing created by the Council, her sources said that they were somehow feeding on the stolen children. Thea was beyond angry now. She'd caught the Family red-handed, finally, and she was going to have some straight answers. She woke Tommy up with a series of kicks to his ribs.

Ratt looked up from tending to Joey, his eyes strained with worry. "Thea, you okay?"

John, who had been keeping watch over their exit, looked over his shoulder to see Thea standing atop of the Family Boss, murder in her eyes. They'd just been through a pitched fight, and everyone hadn't come down from it yet. It would be really easy to let go now. That wouldn't do. "Thea...time to get outta here. Roger?" His voice was firm, but not commanding. He wasn't 'bout to pull rank on her yet, but he wasn't opposed to it if things got out of hand. He was facing Thea now, his back to the corridor leading out.

Tommy groaned. She began asking her questions, punctuating each word with a kick. "You. Vill. Be. Tellink. Me. VY YOU TAKE CHILDS!"

He was not answering nearly quickly enough. She paused and pulled her hair out of her face so the boss could see the look in her eyes. "I haf learned from Red Saviour vays of makink talk," she said, with silken menace.

Joey, half-blind from malnutrition, rustled in Ratt's arms for a better look. Without saying a word, Ratt took to the air as gently as he could. He wanted to be out of the ship and back in Striga before the real interrogation began.

John stalked forward, firing off a heal for Joey as he passed the hovering Ratt. He stopped a few paces from the container Thea had the Boss pinned on.

The boss crnged at the expression on Thea's face. She smiled. "Oh now you vish to speak? Is goot. No more boot."

John pulled his scarf down from around his face. "Thea. We're outta here. Now." There wasn't any room for questions in his voice; this was going in the completely wrong direction. They were here to rescue a hostage, not to punish the hostage takers.

Thea heard the steel in John Murdock's voice, and stopped for a moment. Some of the fury left her. But--hmm--there was a verbal weapon she could use. "Da. Let Zig haf dis filth. I make sure dey know in dere dat he steals children. Dat he sends dem to Council. Let dem t'ink--" She let the implications lie. There weren't many things that the hardened criminals in the Zig found unacceptable, but...potential child-trafficing...for certain purposes...not even Tommy's standing in the Family would save him. Ratt, though still floating towards the exit, made no attempt to clear hearing distance. Joey had long since given up trying to see what was going on, though thanks to John's healing, he was starting to look less like a wilted sapling.

The implied threat worked. Tommy broke down, sweating. "I swear, it wasn't my idea!"

Thea smiled again. It was the sort of smile that you saw on the face of a shark after it has bitten someone in half. "Da? WHose idea den? Speak! Boot is least uff your problems!" John stood there, his arms crossed. While he wasn't about to see this piece of trash tortured, he wasn't opposed to gleaning a bit of information from their encounter.

Tommy wasn't just sweating now. The look on his face was one of sheer terror. "The Don got a suitcase fulla money t'take the kid! I dunno who, he was some freak that looked like a robot!"

Robot--the only robots here on Striga that Thea knew of were Council robots. "Robot? Like perhaps Mech Men? Dat kind uff robot?"

Tommy shook his head wildly. "Naw, he looked like that Positron freak, but he wasn't the same, y'know? Like a wannabe or somethin'!"

Ratt's eyes widened in a look of primal fear. The description alone sent waves of fear seething down his throat and into his gut. He somehow managed to keep flying without dropping Joey or accidentally crushing him in his arms.

It was the habit of the upper ranks of the CCCP to take the junior members of the group along on highly dangerous missions, even Portal missions, to season them and get them used to the kinds of foes they would face down the road. Althea Nagy knew far, far more about some of the greater enemies of Paragon and the earth than anyone of her level of expertise really had any right to know. A Positron wannabe? Oh, there was only one person--creature--that could be. " .....Anti-Matter....." she said, slowly, then began cursing in Russian, using words Alexei had no notion she knew. Ratt had lost any altitude his flying abilities afforded him. The youth was standing still in the next corridor, though his legs were shivering beneath him. To speak of Anti-Matter was, to Ratt, like speaking of the Rikti to almost anyone living in Paragon City.

Tommy was shaking now. If he had been afraid of Thea before--well from the fact that his face was as white as his suit had once been, he would rather not be in the same country with her ever again if he could help it. "Whatever, he didn't say who he was. He just said to take the kid and give him to Recluse."

John cursed under his breath. "We've thought that the Praetorians could come over to our Earth, despite the barriers and protections that Portal Corp has up. Every now an' then, we even find a few of their cronies stalking around Peregrine. To have one on our side of the portal, though...damn." John had been part of a campaigne against the Praetorians, before he had changed. Their world was ravaged, utterly destroyed. He didn't care to think about what would happen should they actually be able to gain a foothold in this one.

Althea stopped cursing and started thinking. "Chonny, Lord Recluse may be haffink own Portals." If so--then someone needed a very, very, pointed lesson here. One he would never be able to forget. She took a tiny pen-knife, that she usually used to defuse bombs, out of her belt.

"That's another point. That guy is gettin' to be a headache, fast," said John as he scratched the scruff on his chin. The recent break from the Zig had been giving a lot of Paragon problems.

"Moment please," she said distantly.

"That's all I know, I swear!" Tommy wailed, before Thea bent and with surgical precision, cut a neat little wedge out of the cartilage of his ear, taking care to avoid places where there were a lot of blood vessels.

Predictably, as she stole his own energy to heal the wound, Tommy screamed like an hysterical girl.

She narrowed her eyes, and stood up. "Not beink such baby," she said coldly. "Svinya, I only notch your ear, not take it. You look in mirror now, effry day, you remember vat Althea Nagy say about stealink children." Now she slapped a teleporter tag on him and let the Zig techs whisk him away. It had all happened too fast for John to react, lost in his own morbid thoughts about threats abroad. Before he could step in, Thea had finished her work.

Ratt started walking again, oddly focused on way to the ship's entrance. He didn't react to anything that was going on behind him, at least visibly. The mention of Anti-Matter having anything to do with this dimension was more than enough to numb him to whatever Althea decided to do to Tommy One-Eye. Joey squirmed in Ratt's arms, wrapping his gaunt little limbs around Ratt's chest. Despite his habit of physically assaulting just about any man who touched him, Ratt merely squeezed Joey gently in response.

"Thea, that ain't the way we do things...you know that, better'n anyone." John reached out to take her by the arm, ushering Thea toward the exit. There was a time when John wouldn't have been bothered by torture; he would've likely been actively involved in the interrogation, in fact. But now...now was different. He was different. And this whole thing made him sick.

Thea was still wrapped in cold fury. She had been weeks here. Weeks, following lead after lead, following children first, drugs second. Now...it was worse than she had thought. If such a thing could be worse. Children given over to vampires were only dead. Children given over to Lord Recluse? Dear god and his saints...Tommy was lucky she had only notched his ear. But where she wanted to mark him--would not have been visible. "I am givvink him reminder he understand. Do. Not. Touch. Children. He is beink baby, like svinya."

John wasn't going to have torture rationalized to him. Everything he stood for, that his friends stood for, was against it. He couldn't renege on that, not a bit. "G'damnit, we don't torture folks, Thea." He wasn't angry with Thea, but with the situation. This should have been far simpler than it had turned out to be.

Torture? That wasn't torture. She knew torture when she saw it. "Piff, Chonny, he screams for nossink. I put tiny notch in ear, and I heal it after. I vant him to look in mirror and remember. Not to be effer touchink child again."

John shook his head, his shoulders squared. "All the same, the pain is felt, no? In what the government calls 'torture lite', prisoners are hurt, but no marks are left. The pain is there, though." He sighed, looking down at the filthy decking beneath his feet. "I should know. I've gone through it."

Thea felt as if she had suddenly slammed into a wall. All her anger ran out of her at once, and her shoulders sagged.

John saw Thea fold, and sighed again. They were done here; time to go home. Everything that needed sorting --- and there were things unfinished--- could be done later. "Come on, let's get Joey outta here...don't want to wait for their back-up to show." He turned to leave, passing Ratt and Joey as he made his way for the exit.

When Ratt spoke, his mouth felt like he had been gargling with dust. "I'll be right back," he whispered. His voice cracked a little as he opened the ship's doors and took to the sky. "Gotta get Joey to a hospital."

"Da," Thea said remotely, her anger being replaced by deflated melancholy. This should have been a good moment. The child was safe. Why was it so empty?

"Go for it, Ratt." John flicked his comm off, stepping into the daylight.

"I goink back on patrol," she sighed. "Council is cleaner dan dis filth."

"Thea...I'm sorry, but I just can't abide any of that sort of thing. I just can't. Do you understand?" John turned to face her, his voice sympathetic. He hadn't meant to be harsh with Thea. But there wasn't any way that he would allow one of his friends to descend to that level.

"Da....." she said, slowly. And it wasn't as if she wanted to justify herself and her actions but--she wanted him to understand this hadn't come out of nowhere. "Chonny....is not first time dey take child. I follow rumors dey are sellink children to upyr. To eat."

"I know, Thea. And it doesn't make things any less horrid that this happens constantly..." But it doesn't mean we should compromise ourselves, compromise everything that we do, to take vengence. If only it were that simple, to make that choice and be done with it. This was draining him; these sort of talks always did.

She shook her head. "Is only first time I catch dem," she said, and added, feeling hopeless, "I vant to stop it. I vant it to be stopped. I tink maybe I giff him sometink to remind him, it maybe stop. Here, anyvay."

Ratt descended upon the duo, letting his bare feet brush the ship's hull. "Okay, Joey's safe... for now." He turned away from John and Althea. A lump was caught in his throat and no matter how he tried to put it to himself, there was no pleasant way to put it. "Doc says he's gonna have a rough night, though... He hasn't eaten a full meal in weeks."

Ratt had left out the doctor's prognosis, of course. It was never a good sign when the doctor looked defeated before he even began to operate. It wasn't something Althea or John seemed like they wanted to hear at the moment, anyway. Right now, it was his problem. Besides, there was still supposed to be a ten percent chance for Joey to pull through on his own. The odds of Ratt being rescued from Anti-Matter's clutches had to have been less than that.

Well, now she did feel defensive. Or maybe it was all the bruises from the bullets that had hit her flack-jacket uniform. Certainly she was irritated to think that her friend, her comrade, was more concerned about a little nick in a felon's ear than what even she had just been through--not to mention that poor child. "Chonny, vun uff the bullets dat hit me hurt much vorse can ear. I am healer, I know dis."

"Thea, this isn't a road y'wanna go down. It's our job to be here, to defend others. That doesn't include punishin' folks." John shook his head wearily. "It'll never stop. There'll always be people...people that do disgusting and dispicable things to their fellow man. We have to remain inviolate, though, if there's ever to remain something good in this world." He really wished Flame was here. This was her territory, counseling others about remaining strong in the face of temptation. She was stronger than him, and John loved her for it; they were able to stand together, supporting each other.

Thea looked up into John's eyes, so kind, so concerned...

Blin.

He was worried about hurts than went deeper than bruises. She rubbed her head, which suddenly ached, and felt a burden settle on her shoulders. Striga was...soul-numbing. It made you lose yourself. Especially since she had started patrolling there to take her mind off Alexei's absence in the first place. "You....are right. And I am still not sorry." She shrugged. "Vat can I say?"

John's lips quirked into a slight grin. "Never asked for ya to be, kiddo."

But she was willing to make a promise to him and to herself. "I vill not do it again, but I am not sorry I did it dis time."

"I understand," he said, nodding. "I'm not a guy for guilt trips; I just try and help folks remember their own consciences, sometimes." Things---this issue---had been settled. Thea was a good person, a good hero. John knew this, and so did she.

Ratt kept quiet while the two of them debated. He just stared at his feet hanging precariously over the freezing bay below. At that moment, he couldn't care less about guilt, consciences, or torture. He just wanted his friend to live through the night...

She looked at the distant, smoking mountain. Her next goals. They were sending her to infiltrate Council bases. "I....vill be glad to get off Striga patrols."

"Speakin' of," John groaned as he stretched his arms over his head, "do we have anything else to do on this chunk of rock?" He tied his scarf back over his mouth, ready to head out for more tasks.

Now, more than ever, she understood how Saviour had become what she had become where the Council was concerned. Well, perhaps with this warning, she could keep from happeing as much to herself. "Dese svinyas....dey make me more like dem," she said to herself, then shook off her melancholy. She had work, important work, not that least of which was to make sure she became less like them, not more. "I do, you do not. Go home. Go to vife."

"Kiddo, you'll never be anythin' like these bastards. None of us will letcha." John rested one hand on her shoulder, allowing reassurance and pride pour empathically from him.

She sensed what he was trying to "send" her, and allowed a little smile to touch her lips.

John nodded curtly, allowing his hand to fall back to his side. "That, Thea, is a plan alright." His smile shifted his scarf a bit; they had ended on good terms tonight.

Thea thought about Flame a moment, and nodded decisively. "Go to Vife, perhaps she can help Joey," she said, and made a shooing motion at both of them.

He took the que. "She'll be glad to. You comin', Ratt?" John looked over to Ratt.

Ratt nodded, grinning emphatically at the prospect of his adoptive mother's potential involvement with Joey's condition. She managed to get ol' Johnny back from death and amnesia with enough power left over to fight crime on a daily basis. If anyone could tip the scales in Joey's favor, it was her.

"Alright. Let's split." John turned back to Thea. "Thea, give a call if you need anythin', anythin' at all. Stay safe, and good journies."

Whatever else had happened...there was this, Ratt's little friend was out of the hands of the svinyas. Thea smiled. "Be vell, my friends," she said, already thinking of the next task ahead of her. "Do Svedanya."

"G'night, Thea!" John kicked off from the ship's deck, shooting into the afternoon sky. Ratt followed close behind, both of them speeding off towards the tram that would take them back to Steel Canyon, and home.

((Co-written by Ratt Murdock, John Murdock, and Althea Nagy))