Little Dresden is the way it is for a number of reasons, but the biggest is that is has a reputation for being destroyed by metahumans. Once upon a time it was just another part of the East Village, with all the baggage that came with it—thought of, primarily, as a haven for beatnicks, hippies, artists, and other unsavory people. But in the 70s it bore the brunt of some of the most vicious fights between metahuman hero and villain groups. Eventually people stopped trying to rebuild, and simply moved away. New York City gave up on the neighborhood, and the neighborhood became a wasteland of empty, crumbling buildings. 8BC is the first legitimate business to open there in at least six or seven years.
No one knows why Little Dresden was the focus of so much fighting, but it left its mark. Standard procedure for rescue services was to wait until the fighting was over before sending in personnel and equipment, a tactic learned the hard way after a criminal that went by the handle “Backbreaker” tried to use a fire engine as a club against Liberty. It wound up collapsing the building the firemen had hoped to save. The building still has a piece of the fire engine in it, as far as anyone knows, buried under a ton of bricks.
Only the outer edge of Little Dresden has working street lights. The further in you go, the darker it gets, until the only light comes from whatever fires the inhabitants have decided to make for themselves—mostly in the form of burning trash cans set along the road, where the homeless and squatters gather to talk about whatever it is they talk about. CB doesn’t actually know.
There’s a thriving squatting community in Little Dresden. A number of groups have staked out various buildings for their own use, fixing them up as best they can. CB hears that some of them are almost bona-fide homes—no electricity or plumbing, but with oil lamps, wood burning stoves, and outhouses. Turn of the century living right in the middle of the most modern city on earth. But there were other parts of Little Dresden where you just didn’t go: parts that were claimed by very dangerous people. Drug dealers, mostly, but there were whispers of worse things. Terrorists, psychopaths, even the occasional rumor of a metahuman villain in hiding. Most people stayed away from that part, even the homeless.
That’s where CB winds up.
He isn’t walking with any particular direction in mind, and he isn’t paying attention to where he’s going. He can’t shake the memory of Joan’s words coming out of his mouth. What bothers him most is how utterly natural it felt. It wasn’t until after he’d spoken that he realized what happened.
Mind control. That had to have been mind control.
If he had more distance from the event, he might be amused that his revulsion over the way Joan offered to “help” has driven all thoughts of pool from his mind entirely—the very thing he’d been trying to achieve all night. But CB isn’t in the mood for analysis at the moment. He’s trapped in the horror and the disgust of the realization that Joan casually reached out into his brain and made him her mannequin, without so much as breaking a sweat.
It isn’t until he finishes his last cigarette that he finally looks up and realizes where he is. He swears softly, and looks around uneasily, trying to get his bearings. It’s futile—he’s never been in the part of Little Dresden you’re not supposed to be in, primarily because he agrees with the reasons you’re not supposed to be there.
The sky is overcast. The glow from the rest of the city seems oddly muted here, and doesn’t do much to light the sky at all. There are no fires burning in trashcans. He stands in the middle of the street, ankle-deep in snow, and can only barely make out the outlines of buildings. He has no idea where he is, or where he needs to go in order to get out. Everything looks the same… that is to say, everything looks like nothing at all.
He stands completely still, listening intently. He doesn’t hear anything, but the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up. He feels like he’s being watched. He squints, willing himself to peer through the darkness, but his eyes aren’t adjusting.
I need light. I need the moon.
All at once the clouds part, the moon shines down, and he can see. He blinks in surprise at the sudden change, but he’s grateful. The light is weak, but he can see the buildings clearly now. That’s good.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?”
CB spins around. He sees a group of people about a half a block down the street. He can’t make out who they are—all he sees are dark silhouettes.
“I gotta give you credit. You got a pair, coming to find me all by yourself. And how the hell did you know I was here? I haven’t even unpacked.”
CB finally recognizes the voice. He forces himself to sound casual, even dismissive. “Oh, hey. It’s Plaque, right?”
“Very funny. Look, boys, we got ourselves a race traitor and a comedian.”
His “boys” don’t respond other than to spread out across the street. CB looks over his shoulder and sees more silhouettes fanning out behind him. He’s surrounded.
There’s no way this isn’t going to hurt.
“You interest me.” Plague’s voice is easygoing, almost friendly. “You’re the only guy I know who doesn’t get sick when I want him to. That makes you a one of a kind. Maybe when my boys are done with you I’ll cut you open to see what makes you tick. See if you have a mysterious extra organ, or something like that.”
“No need,” CB says. “I can already tell you about the organ I have that you don’t. It’s called a brain.”
The easygoing, friendly facade drops immediately. “Go get him, boys.”
Immediately the other silhouettes crouch, their arms rising into formal, defensive positions. They look like extras in a Kung Fu movie.
“Ninja skinheads?” CB laughs in spite of his situation. “Seriously?”
“Kill him!” Plague screams. “I want to hang his corpse on my wall!”
CB abandons his smart-assed comeback when it becomes clear that the “ninja skinheads” are taking their leader very seriously. They rush him en masse, shadowy figures flowing toward him like a silent, deadly wave. The only sound comes from the crunch of snow beneath their boots.
He’s playing pool again. All of a sudden he’s lining up shot after shot after shot, all in the blink of an eye, option after option presenting itself to him. But they’re useless. He can’t pull them off. He’s too weak. He’s too slow. He’s too clumsy. He can’t bend like that…
Seriously, why would I ever consider trying to move like that? I’d break something halfway through. It doesn’t make sense.
Too many ideas, all of them ridiculous. His head is killing him, and in moments the skinheads will be killing him as well.
He hears a sharp intake of breath behind him. CB turns. A lone skinhead has broken ahead of the rest. His arm is drawn back, he’s inches from CB, and that fist is going to hurt. CB instinctively jerks back, and in a moment of panic he feels his back leg lose traction. He world spins, he falls, twisting, just managing to land on his hands and knees instead of on his face. The skinhead grunts in surprise, tries to stop, slips, and trips over CB’s hunched form, falling face-first onto the snowy street…
…and in that moment, the possibilities end. He smiles. “Thanks, crazy me,” he says. He doesn’t try to stand. He looks at the fallen skinhead next to him, grins, and winks.
Somewhere in the distance, CB thinks he hears a small popping sound.
The fallen skinhead rolls away from CB and gets to his feet just as the others close in. It’s bad timing on his part: he stands just as two of his comrades try to step over him, and they crash into him, propelling him forward. CB rolls out of his way, and the skinhead smashes head-first into a third, closing in from the other side.
CB doesn’t waste time admiring the folly. He’s busy.
He crouches in the snow, one hand on the ground for balance. The snow is freezing, and he isn’t wearing gloves. He tries not to think about it. The other skinheads are slowing down now, because they’re not completely stupid, but CB launches himself toward the closest one he can find, aiming for the knees. It’s not a graceful move—nothing like what he saw Liberty do when he was fighting that weird fire thing six years ago. It’s ugly, and clumsy, and if he saw someone trying to do it he’d probably double over laughing. But it works: he smashes into the skinhead’s knees, and while it doesn’t actually hurt the guy, he can’t keep his balance in the snow. He falls, CB rolls out of the way, and kicks out backward, hitting the shin of another.
That kick hurts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make him fall.
The skinhead swears angrily, and kicks back, hitting CB in the back of his thigh. It’s only a glancing blow, but he’s wearing steel toed boots. That hurts a lot. CB grunts and forces himself to roll away, putting himself in the path of another, who trips—which is good—but winds up landing on top of him… which is very, very bad.
CB and the skinhead swear simultaneously. CB struggles to push him off, but the skinhead locks an arm around his neck, then stands, hauling CB up with him.
“Got him,” the skinhead says, sounding smug.
Smart skinhead. Strong skinhead. CB’s vision is swimming. He can’t breathe. Someone slams a fist into his stomach, and suddenly he can’t breathe even more. A fist hits him full in the nose. He hears something crunch, and his face goes numb. Another fist to the jaw, and his head snaps back. His ears are ringing. He vaguely hears taunting, but he can’t make any of it out.
So much for playing pool.
CB struggles to get free of the arm. He feels his captor rumbling in laughter—he can’t hear anything at this point, but he knows what that is. He grimaces, and tries to dig his fingernails into the skinheads arm. That just makes his grip tighten. Fists keep pounding into his face, his stomach, his ribs… occasionally someone knees him in the groin, which is usually followed by what he assumes is a round of laughter.
Eventually the guy holding him lets go. CB drops to the ground, suddenly able to breathe. A moment of relief is followed by the defeated realization of what’s going to happen next. They surround him, and they start kicking. They’re all wearing steel toed boots, and they’re all kicking hard. He can feel his bones breaking. It doesn’t hurt as much as he thought it would, which he thinks is probably a bad sign.
Suddenly he wishes he was back in the club, still talking to Joan. He wonders if she was actually on the level—if she was really trying to help him. He won’t find out now.
“Do you want to live?”
He can’t actually hear himself talking at this point, but he can feel his mouth moving, and he hears it in his mind. The kicking stops; apparently he spoke very clearly, and they weren’t expecting that.
“Just nod yes or no.”
It’s Joan. It has to be. He can’t speak on his own, but he forces himself to nod.
“Good.” He feels himself speaking out loud again. “I can’t take them all on. I can help, but you have to do whatever it is you do, and you have to do it now.”
CB tries to pull himself up, but the most he can do is twitch on the ground. He shakes his head. He can’t do it.
“You have to!” He can feel himself shouting at the top of his lungs. His vision clears slightly, and he can see the skinheads backing up and milling around nervously. His head buzzes, his body goes numb, and all of a sudden his body jerks up, his arms push himself off the ground, and he’s sitting upright on his knees. It hurts, God it hurts, but he does it. He feels himself screaming, and he can see the skinheads backing away slowly in alarm.
“You can do this!” He’s essentially shouting at himself, and for a moment he feels a strange kinship with some of the homeless crazies he’s seen wandering Times Square at night. “I can’t make you move if you really can’t move. I don’t care if it hurts, do what you have to do to live!”
He actually heard himself that time. His voice is hoarse and shrill. He sounds more like a screeching parrot than a human being.
“It’s that bitch!” That’s definitely the voice of Plague. “Come out where I can see you, so I can kill you proper!”
“Properly. Asshole.” CB feels his head turn to look at a semi-splotched shadowy figure standing behind the rows of other splotchy shadows that he assumes are the gentlemen who were kicking the crap out of him seconds before. That must be Plague.
“You! Take your boys and find her! You know where to look!” Plague is livid. He’s lost all pretense of self-control now. CB’s vision clears more, and he can see the man grabbing one of his people by his flight jacket, shouting into his face, then shoving him away roughly. About a third of the skinheads move off, scanning the rooftops.
CB hasn’t moved since Joan propped him up on his knees. He sees Plague turn to face him.
“As for you,” Plague snarls, “I can’t stop hitting myself!”
Plague makes a fist and smacks himself in the face.
CB frowns. He’s pretty sure that wasn’t where the conversation was going.
“Why do I keep doing this? Why do I keep hitting myself? I just can’t stop doing it!” Plague continues to punch himself in the face, over and over again. His nose is bloody now, and his cheek is starting to bruise.
“God damn it, when I find that bitch I’m going to poke myself in the eye!” Plague pokes himself in the eye. He staggers back, covering his face with his hands, shouting in wordless agony.
“No wait, I have a better idea.” A look of undisguised panic settles over Plague’s face as he sees his hand make a fist and rise up in front of him. “I wasn’t using this anyway…”
His fist slams straight into his own crotch. Plague bends over in wordless agony. Even CB winces.
“Hurry up, OK? They’re going to find me soon, and then I’m going to be—shit! You’re on your own. Back when I can.” CB hears himself talking this time. His voice sounds better. The world seems steadier. If he’s going to do anything at all, it’s going to have to be now.
How did he do it last time? He saved Sin’s life. He stopped Plague’s gun from firing. How? Suddenly the world starts spinning again, too fast for him to focus. He can see Plague writhing on the ground, trying to speak, his people crowded around him, trying to see if he’s OK. Off in the distance, above and to his left, he hears other skinheads shouting in challenge and alarm. Nobody’s paying any attention to CB at the moment. There has to be some way he can use this.
Now would be a great time to play pool, he thinks, but he’s not getting anything. He sees little pieces of things, but he can’t put them together. It’s not working.
“Leave me alone!” Plague snaps, shoving off one of his men. “She’s trying to save that assholes life. She can’t control us all. So kill him, then focus on killing her.”
The skinheads turn to face CB. Suddenly, he’s the center of attention again.
CB sets his jaw. Fine. If whatever it is that’s been tormenting him all week wants to cut and run right when it would be most useful, there’s nothing he can do about that. But he’s not going to roll over and die. He struggles to his feet—it hurts like hell, his ribs are screaming at him, but he shoves all that aside and stands up.
“Fuck you,” he says. “Give it your best shot, assholes.” His voice, his words: this time, nobody’s talking for him.
The skinheads spread out, advancing cautiously. They aren’t going to be tripped up by slippery snow this time. CB doesn’t care; he doesn’t want to trip them. He wants to hurt them. He wants to hurt all of them.
And then, all at once, the world snaps into place, and CB moves.
The skinheads are being cautious; he isn’t. He leaps across the snow, body outstretched, launching himself at one of the bigger ones—he recognizes him as the one who put him in the choke hold earlier. The skinhead’s eyes widen in surprise, and he takes a hesitant step back, but he doesn’t expect CB to be able to move like this—he probably doesn’t expect CB to be able to move much at all.
CB’s face twists into a snarl as the fingers of his left hand close around the skinhead’s neck. The skinhead grabs CB’s arm, and CB immediately reaches out with his right, grabs a wrist, and twists, shifting his weight, and pulling hard. The skinhead falls forward; CB uses him as a counterweight to flip around and propel himself, feet first, into the face of the guy standing next to him. CB hears a jaw break. The skinhead shouts in agony, then crumples to the ground, passed out from the pain.
A tiny voice in the back of CB’s mind is urgently trying to tell him that what he just did was completely impossible. That voice is ignored. CB lands on his feet, crouches, and catches a third skinhead’s fist. He pulls, letting the momentum of the blow carry Number Three forward, then twists sharply, breaking his arm. The man yells in pain. CB lets go, delivers a quick elbow to the ribs, then turns to face Number Four, dodges to one side, and knees him in the gut. He half-turns to grab Number Five, and throws him over his shoulder into Number Four. They both collapse in the snow.
The tiny voice in the back of CB’s mind reminds him that he has broken ribs, and there’s no possible way he should be able to throw a man over his shoulder with broken ribs. The voice adds that it doubts CB could do it even with his ribs intact.
“Shut up!” CB snarls, then drives his fist into the solar plexus of Number Six. Six doubles over, the wind driven out of him, and CB smashes his knee into Six’s face. As Six collapses to the ground on his hands and knees, CB steps on his back, launches into the air, and kicks skinhead number Seven in the face as hard as he can.
CB is also wearing steel toed boots. It’s not a pretty sight.
Seven falls backwards, blood spraying everywhere. Number Eight immediately turns his head to the side and steps back—he has blood in his eyes and he can’t see.
In a matter of seconds, seven skinheads are down, and an eighth is blinded. CB spins to face the rest.
“Volunteers! I’m looking for volunteers!” There’s something strange about his voice. He knows it’s his, but he doesn’t quite recognize it. It sounds threatening. The remaining skinheads seem to agree: they turn around and run away.
“No! God damn it, come back here, you fucking cowards!” Plague is up now, and apparently in control of his own body again. “I’m going to kill each and every one of you! I swear it!” He turns back to face CB.
CB tenses and waits.
Plague studies CB carefully. He’s calculating his odds, and even after what CB managed to pull off, he thinks Plague’s odds are probably pretty good. A moment later both CB and Plague turn in surprise as they hear a strangled yell coming from a nearby rooftop, then hear a heavy, wet thud. A skinhead is lying in the snow in front of one of the burnt-out tenement houses, motionless. A second later they see a dark silhouette on the roof the tenement, and see the silhouette deliberately leap off the roof, utter a sudden cry of terror, and then hit the ground like the first. And then it happens a third time.
CB turns back to face Plague. “I think they found Joan.”
Plague narrows his eyes. “This isn’t over.” With that he turns and runs off, deeper into the ruins of Little Dresden, disappearing from sight.
CB looks on impassively as two more skinheads add to the growing pile of bodies on the ground. A minute later someone peers over the edge, down at the scene below.
“CB.” It’s Joan. “Are you OK?”
“Uh…” CB looks around him, and is suddenly aware of a dull ache in his chest that is steadily growing stronger. “I’m alive. But I think I’m going to be in excruciating pain in… oh shit.”
CB sinks to his knees as he suddenly feels every ounce of pain he should have felt during that fight but didn’t. The tiny voice in the back of CB’s mind is repeating I told you so, I told you so in a sing-song manner and sounding very smug. He tries to scream, but the best he can manage is a soft whimper.
“Hold on!” Joan says. “Just hold on…”
CB tries to hold on, but he’s not entirely sure what that means right now. He falls backward, which turns out to be less helpful than he hoped, and he manages a strangled yell as his ribs remind him, once and for all, that are genuinely broken. The tiny voice continues singing I told you so, I told you so…
CB sees Joan’s blurred face leaning over him. “Guh,” he says.
“Hey, it’s OK, you did pretty good back there, all things considered. I’m going to get you out of here, OK? Are you ready to get out of here?”
“Uh…” CB tries remember how to talk. He feels it should be easier than it is. “I don’t think I can walk.”
“You don’t have to,” Joan says. “You just have to trust me. Do you?”
CB thinks it over.
“God damn it, CB, make up your mind, now.”
CB tries to laugh, but can’t. He nods weakly.
Blurry-Joan relaxes a little. “OK. I’m going to take you to get help. It’s going to hurt a lot at first, but you’ll pass out. After that everything will be OK.”
“What do you—”
“Shut up,” Joan says. “You’ll find out. Sorry.”
She places both hands on his head, one hand over each temple, and closes her eyes. White-hot pain races through him, his brain tries to scream, and then—thankfully—he passes out.