Ch. 16.1 – Max

*We’re in,* Alex reported, Maracanã Stadium’s enormous concrete hallway stretching out before and behind the team. It was surprisingly bright, the walls and ceiling near-white with various bits of arts along the sides. *Small numbers topside, normal crews inside. Our corridor’s clear. Victor, are you locked on?*

*Five by five,* Victor replied, a hint of a smile echoing through the group’s psychic bond. *I don’t know about this Skeptic of yours, but if anything else happens, I can pull out anyone who needs it.*

Max gasped, an unfamiliar feeling rippling through the Reanimate. What I am doesn’t matter to them, Max realized. Man or woman or both or neither, they don’t care. True, there were small, subconscious bubbles of dominant reality programming in all of them, but that was the world. Go to school, get a job, Hell, just watch TV for a day, and it gets into you, Max mused.

*We love you too,* Alex quipped, only half-joking, *but right now the only thing I care about you being is badass.*

Max laughed and transformed, the alchemy of Adapted Anima transforming the androgynous figure into punk Maxine. *Ready to rumble, boss,* she sent, flexing wiry, muscular arms. Her whole body became whipcord speed and power, deceptively-average size concealing compact, phenomenal strength. Her garb had become sleeveless shirt and biker pants, the killer boots smaller but otherwise unchanged.

*Welcome to the gun show,* Sara sent, gentle chuckle rippling through the Vision.

Alex shook his head, but was still grinning. *Cut the chatter, you two,* he insisted. *We weren’t ambushed, so he may not even be here yet. After all, the Games aren’t for months yet. For now, we’re doing recon. If we’re lucky, we got here ahead of him. It’s time to break into teams. Molly, we’re with Sara. Rose, Akira, Max, head north. Eve, Marie, John, you’re south. Heather?*

*Am I really helping?* Heather asked wryly. *I feel like I’m just wasting bandwidth.*

Max couldn’t help a grin of her own at the wave of love and passion that rippled from Powerstar. *Vision doesn’t work like that, hon,* Rose explained. *At this depth of oneness, every mind and spirit gives us strength.*

*Anyone else sensing our targets?* Eve sent, tone even. *I’m picking up signs of them here in the depths, equidistant around the circle.*

Alex’s jaw tightened, cape twitching like the tail of a nervous cat. *Already? This ritual he’s planning must be huge if he’s going to be Weaving it for this long.*

Molly nodded, glancing around. *Ekaida’s here, too.* Maxine’s insides clenched, as if someone had passed through her skin and made a huge fist around her guts. *Several Complex agents, branches unknown, and at least one fist of Quadrum.* She grimaced. *No sign of West, the bollix, but with this much heat around us, he’s got to be around somewhere.*

Alex kept his features placid, but Max felt the Bastion’s worry and frustration ripple through his soul-self. *Stick to the plan,* he insisted. *Split up, find the ‘Fates,’ pull them out. Then we meet up to free Ekaida and get out of Dodge.*

In moments, the three groups had gone their separate ways, Maxine racing alongside Alice and the Anshin. “Huh,” she muttered. “An angel and a Reanimate.”

Alice chuckled. “So?”

“Think of it as a good omen,” Akira added. The corridor blurred past, the Anshin using a subtle Rift Conduction effect to speed them through the stadium.

“Stop,” Alice blurted, and the trio came to a halt. She turned around, drawing Life Blossom and waving it like a scanner. “We went past where ‘Lachesis’ should be.'”

Akira and Max looked at each other, then at their brilliant companion. Wonder Rose grimaced. *Something’s wrong, team. Has anyone else reached their targets?*

*Yes,* Sara replied, the Weaver’s case of nerves mirroring Maxine’s own, *and we haven’t found anything either.*

Rose clenched her teeth in spite of herself, then invoked a Weave of Vision, Conducting and Adapting it at the same time. A dim, translucent afterimage of a matronly woman hanging from the ceiling by her wrists formed before them. *Psychometry?* Akira asked, though Max felt the Anshin suspecting the same answer she did.

*No,* Rose admitted, slashing the wand savagely through the air. The image blurred and vanished. *It’s a forgery.*

Captain Bastion’s subconscious leaked a brief string of invective before he shut it down. *Well, it’s definitely a trap, then,* he reported instead. *Can we confirm Ekaida?*

*She’s here,* Molly insisted. *Daimani power like hers can’t be faked by anything human.*

Maxine let her own senses flow out, seeking the primordial force of the Daimani. Ekaida’s sheer presence made the Reanimate shudder. *Seconded,* Max sent, swallowing.

Then everything went sideways.

Four Gray Company agents appeared around them, immediately followed by two Quadrum soldiers. Moving the instant they Rifted in, they charged at the three Allies, one agent and one soldier each going after Rose and Akira, while the last two humans hit Max with a combined Vision blow.

Through the psychic assault, Max felt their friends come under fire. Eve’s team was hit by a force identical to the one they faced, while a smaller group hit Sara’s. Wait, what? That’s not right. Then the Vision attack started reaching into Maxine’s Reanimate cracks, seeping into the places where Daimani gifts had restored her to life. NO! Panic turned into power, and a unity unlike anything she’d known filled those weak places with strength. Victor’s love, Sara’s friendship, camaraderie and trust and hope, they all united to shatter the agents’ twin effort to enslave Max again.

Fury roared out to replace the terror. “You dare!” Maxine snarled, leaping onto both, her hands clamping over the men’s faces before they could react to her resistance. “You goons and your master turned me against my friends once! Never again!” Her shadow-borne blend of Weaving and Anima drained both agents, empowering Max and leaving both Grayboys shaking.

Fear gave sudden way to shame, and Max let them go. No. I’m not a vampire. I’m not a monster. She let them drop. And even if I have to kill some day, I will never let them turn me into a murderer. The Reanimate turned, eyes darting from Rose to Akira. Huh. Angel-boy’s having more trouble than magic girl. Maxine’s smile was cold and predatory as she leaped onto the Quadrum firing its cold gray suppressor beam at the Anshin. The alien screamed as velvet shadow ripped through its shields of hard circuit and cold arrogance. *We need to finish this fast,* Max sent to her two partners. *There’s no way Travesty’s underestimating Team Weaver.*

Even as Max sent her assessment, a wave of relentless denial rippled through the stadium. *Indeed not,* Akira agreed, expression grim as he cold-cocked the sole human he faced.

For the first time since they’d met, Max saw Rose look genuinely afraid. *The Skeptic’s here,* she sent.

*So much for good omens,* Max retorted, turning to face her alien foe…

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Written by Peter Flanagan

Peter Flanagan was born in the Bronx, New York, giving him the right to root for the Yankees while making less than six figures. After a long, largely pleasant interregnum in suburban Connecticut, he moved to the Inland Empire, California to be with his wonderful wife and muse, a stepson, and a crazed feline. An occasionally too-avid player of and writer for tabletop roleplaying games, his other passion is metaphysics, which informs most of his fiction.

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