Batch sat on the stage, crooning to himself as the flurry of people crowded around him. From backstage, Ash watched the crowds assemble. It was all rather low-key, compared to the sorts of places that this persona was used to performing.
“So how’s this going to go down?” whispered Batch as the song wound down.
“Let me worry about that,” said Ash, peering over the crowd. He was watching the proceedings from the rafters behind the stage, out of sight of the crowds. “Just keep playing and wait for the signal.”
“You’re the boss, babe,” he said quietly as he pulled from a bottle of water and started to talk it up with the audience.
Ash tapped his earpiece. “What do you think? Another set?”
“Definitely another set,” Jayna replied. She was stationed outside, keeping watch. “There’s still people filing in. We want witnesses.”
“You heard the lady, prettyboy,” said Ash. “Knock ’em dead.”
Batch chuckled, settling down on the floor at the front of the stage, moving into another song. He seemed to feel at ease here, and as his fingers flew over the strings in a complicated rhythm, Ash shook his head. “It’s so easy for him.”
“We all have our talents,” came Zane’s voice. Zane was in the nosebleed section, observing the crowds.
“I know, I just wish you guys didn’t have to suffer so much for them,” Jayna said.
Batch faltered over the strings for a moment.
“Keep it up, Batch,” Zane cut in quickly. “It’s just like any other show. This’ll be the performance of a lifetime. So to speak.”
Batch flashed a smile, and segued into a more sedate number.
Ash checked his watch, and then looked down at his tablet. “Looks like we’re right on time.”
He touched his earpiece quickly. “Mari… were you able to get that device on those security cameras?”
“Yeah, it’s all set up,” said Mari. She was manning the security room. “It was really easy, too. I just had to smile and talk about how Mr. Harris wanted everything just so.”
“Right,” said Ash. “Get ready, Zane. On my mark.”
The song started to pick up, and several audience members started to profess their undying love.
The unmistakable sound of a plasma weapon being discharged filled the air. A huge blackened patch appeared on Batch’s chest, accompanied by the smell of smoldering clothing and seared flesh.
The screams started immediately, and Ash quickly shimmied up into the catwalk, tucking the blaster close to his chest. They’d had to make the gun really small, and somehow make the blast look really large so that Ash wouldn’t be immediately spotted. They’d be looking for someone closer to the stage.
Luckily, chaos did most of the work for them as Ben staggered back.
The crowd was quickly turning into a mob as people tried to either rush the stage or get out. Within moments, an amplified voice rang out.
“InPoCo! Everybody step aside!”
“Fuck,” hissed Ash. They weren’t supposed to be here yet.
He tucked himself tighter into the space. Green uniforms swarmed through, dividing the crowd into quadrants as they cleared a path for the EMTs. “Guys, get me the fuck out of here,” he hissed.
“Make a break for the back,” said Zane. “There’s a delivery entrance, but be careful.”
Ash nodded and hurried to push himself upward and towards the back of the hall.
The Pokers were already flooding into the place. Sure, somebody had tipped them (and that somebody had been Mari), but he hadn’t expected this dramatic a response.
“Must be nice to be rich,” Ash muttered, before he hopped down and out to the street below, joining into the throng and tucking his gun back into its holster under his jacket.
Looking as nonchalant as he could, Ash made his way out, careful to avoid any prying eyes. But judging by the noise, the media vultures were already circling.
“What do we got? Is everyone watching this at home?” Ash asked, working his way through the crowd.
“Oh yes,” said Jayna. “It’s already hitting social media. Give it half an hour and the whole city will know what happened here.”
“Fantastic. Now it’s just time to perch outside the hospital. We’ll see if this guy is desperate enough to show his face.”
“We made sure to bug the cameras so they couldn’t use the footage, right?” chimed in Zane.
“Yeah, the footage’ll be useless,” said Mari. “And it’ll be really obvious that it was sabotaged, too.”
“Perfect,” replied Ash. “Now we just sit back and hope this works.”
The hospital was, of course, no different… on the outside, at least. The staff were good enough to keep the media at a safe distance, and the Pokers were only allowed a token security detail inside. At this point, nobody outside of the hospital even knew if Ben was dead or alive.
Mari was sitting nearby some of the corporate executives. They were doing more pacing than sitting as they made calls and trying to get something, anything out of the doctors.
Ash and Zane were doing their own patrols, and Jayna was being inconspicuous the only way she knew how… by being someplace else.
None of them noticed the man who walked in with the cleaning crew later that day. His credentials all seemed legitimate, after all, and it wasn’t like the janitorial staff were allowed anywhere secure.
…or at least, not if they hadn’t had their ID given clearance by one of the administrators. Which, by sheer coincidence, one of them had on this day.
Soon, the man was dressed not as a janitor, but as an orderly, making his way through the halls of the hospital to change Mr. Harris’s dressings. He was on the rota, see? And so he was let through.
And there he was. Lying back on the bed, strapped in with an IV and breathing tubes and monitors. Ben Harris’ face was pale, eyes half-lidded, doped up on cosmos knew what.
The man stepped forward, and slowly, Ben’s eyes focused onto him.
“Hello, Bradley,” he said.
He looked up, his eyes narrowing as he started to slowly reach for the nurse button.
“Don’t bother, it’s been disconnected,” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Can you speak? This will be so much better if you can speak.”
He shifted gently, and slowly moved into a sitting position. “J… Jeffrey,” he said, every word clearly paining him. “W… What do you want from me?”
“From you, Bradley? Nothing,” said Jeffrey, not looking at him. “What I want is for the whole universe to know what you really are.”
“Is that all?” rasped Batch. “Who do you think I am?”
“Nobody,” he said, shaking his head. “You’re not a person at all. You’re a parasite, integrating yourself into people’s lives, sucking them dry, and then moving on to a new host, heedless of the pestilence you spread in your wake.”
“Symbiote, at best,” Batch said, coughing. “I made you thousands of chits… you could’ve gone off and bought your own planet… why do this to me?”
Now Jeffrey turned and looked.
“Chits?” he said. “This was never about the money.”
Batch groaned. “You’re not in love with me, are you?”
His assailant scoffed. “Please,” he said. “Do you even know what happened in the wake of your disappearance? Do you care?” He shook his head. “Without you there to keep covering your tracks, everything you did – we did – was brought to light. The company’s reputation was ruined. As was mine. And since there was not a shred of evidence that you’d ever existed, who do you think got caught holding the bag?”
Batch groaned. “You got greedy and went in for another job and everything fell out from under you.”
His hands tightened into fists. “I know you never thought I was as good as you were,” he said. “Maybe I wasn’t. But don’t look at me like that. I was plenty good. And if you hadn’t left in your backdoors, it wouldn’t have happened. And all I’m here to do is make sure that you face the consequences that you are due.”
Batch sighed reaching for his breathing tube. “So what are you going to do now? Finish what you started at the theater? Keep shooting at me?”
“We both know that wasn’t me,” said Jeffrey. “Maybe one of your so-called fans went crazy. Maybe you just wanted to die on stage. I don’t even care anymore.” He shook his head.. “You had better hope you die here. Because I am going to dedicate my existence to ruining you.”
Batch smiled. “So who did you hire to shoot at me from the street? Who gave you all of these coins to rub together. How long can you afford to ruin me?” he asked.
“As long as it takes,” snapped Jeffrey, pounding at the railing. “I will drown you in my own blood if I have to!”
Batch shook his head. “Well… that’s a little dramatic. It won’t make you feel better, killing me. It won’t solve all of your problems. The real reason you’re mad at me is that you’re stuck in your own shitty life and you don’t know how to make it any better.”
He threw up his hands. “Well them, now that you’ve solved my problems, suddenly I don’t want to destroy you anymore!” Then he folded his arms. He leaned forward and yanked the breathing tube out of the oxygen distributor.
Batch shrugged. “I was topped up anyway,” he said, slowly sitting up a bit higher and pulling a pocket tablet out of the folds of his gown.
Jeffrey stared in shock as Batch peeled off the IV and the breathing tubes, neither of which were actually attached, and the bandages, revealing skin that was reddened but definitely lacking plasma burns.
“I had to do some creative stops and starts,” said Batch, looking at the tablet. “But I definitely got some good stuff. ‘Drown you in my own blood’ was a bit over the top, to be honest.”
Completely blinded by rage at this point, Jeffrey lunged forward, reaching for Batch’s neck.
The curtain next to the bed drew back, revealing Zane, casually aiming a gun.
“I wouldn’t,” he said. “I’d take a deep breath and think very carefully about what you’d like to do next.”
Jeffrey blanched as he looked at the gun. “You… You knew I’d come.”
“Oh, yes,” said Batch. “The one place media can’t follow.”
“He wanted to use a blood pack,” said Zane shrugging. “But those are really hard to make look convincing. No matter what you do, the fake blood just doesn’t look right when it starts to dry. But we have a guy who knows explosives really well.”
“The fake plasma shot stung a bit, but I can’t argue with its effectiveness,” said Batch.
Jeffrey was absolutely dumbstruck.
“So this can go one of two ways,” said Batch. “Either you can leave and never bother me again, or we’ll just have to see what happens when this gets leaked.”
Jeffrey blinked. “You… you can’t be serious.”
“Dead serious,” said Batch. “This whole mess has just been too much trouble. So leave now, vanish, change your name, go find some distant moon and pick up farming or something, and I’ll forget any of this ever happened. I’ll tell the Pokers that this was a publicity stunt gone horribly wrong and sweep it under the rug.”
Jeffrey’s face twisted. Batch smiled. “So you’re thinking to yourself, “Okay, I’ll take the deal, what’s the catch?”If I leave, will he trail me? The short answer to that is ‘not if I don’t have to’. If you make me? If I sniff at this again? I will make sure that you end up in the deepest darkest hole in the universe.”
“And if I catch wind of you first, I’ll just kill you,” said Zane, shrugging. “I don’t like making that sort of threat, but… y’know.”
Batch gave him a warm smile. “I’m sorry Bradley was an asshole to you. But you need to move on.”
Jeffrey said nothing. Zane flicked the safety catch off on his gun.
“One more thing,” he said. “How did you find out that Bradley was off being somebody else? For the sake of my curiosity.”
Jeffrey hesitated. Then he looked into Zane’s eyes. “I… got a tip,” he said. “They never identified themselves. Just told me to look into this.”
Zane nodded. “That’ll do. Skedaddle.”
Jeffrey sighed and, after a moment turned around and walked off. Batch shook his head. “God, I hope that was a one-time thing,” Batch said sitting up and letting his legs hang over the side of the bed.
“Me too,” said Zane. “We really need to make ourselves scarce, it wouldn’t do to be hanging around here with all this publicity going around, but…” He walked over to the bed and put a hand on Batch’s shoulder. “Please, if you ever need help with anything again, wherever you are, whoever you are… just call me. No need to jump through any hoops.”
Batch nodded. “I know… I know. I’m just used to doing this stuff on my own.”
Zane smirked at him. “Well, just remember,” he said. “No matter how much you change, the one thing you can’t erase is your family.” They shared a glance, then both burst out laughing.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “That was terrible.”
“Jesus. And I thought I was the actor. Get out. I’m going to sit in this hospital bed and think about that awful joke.”
“I hope you do,” said Zane, grinning. “Take care of yourself, alright? And give Mama a call. You know she worries.”
“I will, I will. As soon as I figure out what face I’m going to wear next.”
“Maybe something a bit out of the spotlight for awhile,” said Zane.
“Yeah, good idea,” said Batch, as he sat up and stretched. “Maybe I’ll be a woman again for awhile. People tend not to expect that.”
Zane nodded. “Be good, alright?” he said, offering Batch his hand. Batch smiled and pulled Zane close for a hug.
“Now go on, get out of here,” he said. “You big softie.”
Zane made his way out of the room, and subsequently, out of the hospital, where the rest of the crew was waiting for him.
“All good, then?” said Ash. “I want to get back into space as quickly as possible.”
“Yeah,” said Zane. “I’m just… one thing’s still bugging me. The guy said he got a tip as to Batch’s identity. Who would have known?”
Jayna shrugged. “Can’t always have all the answers,” she said. “That’s just life.”
“I guess,” said Zane.
But even as they left Hyacinth in their wake, the question niggled at Zane.
Who would have known? The list of people who could have recognized Batch was quite short, and none of them would have wanted to do this to him.
Or at least, Zane hoped so.