Matt’s world comes crashing down, violently.
8. The Dawn of Olympus
Matt was asleep when his phone rang. Properly asleep, actually in bed and warm and comfortable and dreaming happy, lovely dreams… and then he wasn’t. The first seven notes of the Nyte Blayde theme tune kept squawking polyphonically in his ear, and then his eyes were open, his face all smushed against the pillow and his hand groping for his phone to find out who the fuck wanted what the fuck. It surprised him to see Viola DeWynter’s face on the retina-searing brightness of the screen, and it made him wince even more than the sleepiness did.
“Whffgth?” he managed. “What… what?”
It was about four-thirty in the morning. Ugh. Couldn’t anyone manage to save their ‘I don’t know which end of the cable to plug in help me Matt oh help’ crises until a more civilised hour? Viola looked awfully serious for a cable plugging problem, though. Maybe she’d accidentally reset her access codes for the Syndicate Tower boardroom again. He scrubbed a hand across his face, slowly becoming conscious of the fact the immaculately turned out woman could see him sprawled in his rather greyish sheets, wearing a very old T-shirt and… underpants? Yes. Oh, thank heavens.
“Matt. There’s a car coming for you. Eddie’s called a meeting—the car’ll take you right there.”
Matt’s brow creased. “Wh—?”
“The Saints. Phillipe was right. They moved on the Tower.”
He knew his responses were both monosyllabic and repetitive, but this was definitely unexpected. Mr. Loren had thought there was a danger the Saints might do something ridiculous, but the Syndicate Tower was an impregnable fortress. There was simply no way they could— Oh, no.
Suddenly, Matt was very awake, and very keenly aware of the solemnity in Viola’s expression.
“Phillipe’s dead,” she said quietly. “We lost a lot of people. They brought a bomb in somehow… just drove it into the damn loading dock. The building didn’t go up, yet, but I don’t— I don’t know what’s happening. They have Kirrlov, too. This is just… it’s a fucking disaster. You need to come. Get a move on—and be careful.”
She ended the call abruptly, the peculiar emphasis she’d put on that last word lingering in his ears. Matt stared groggily at the Decker logo wallpaper on his phone, feeling oddly cold and vulnerable in the neon-blue-lit glow of his bedroom.
He was a long way underground here, both literally and figuratively. Right at the heart of the reactor complex, in his little concrete bunker where he was surrounded by his nests of cables and screens, and all there was to disturb him was the faint echo of other people’s music, and the odd clang of footsteps on metal ladders.
When the Deckers had first moved in, and he’d first claimed this space as his private sanctum, Matt had thought it was a bit like being in a submarine. The idea appealed to his inner child just as much as the neon-and-LED lighting, lack of natural daylight, and concrete-and-copper décor appealed to his cyberpunk aesthetics.
He’d always felt safe here but now, as he sat in his rumpled bed, the air cold on his skin, nothing seemed real. Especially safety. Loren was dead. He tried to repeat the words, but he couldn’t get his mouth around them. How on earth could this have happened? Moreover, why hadn’t anyone called him before now?
His head was immediately filled with thoughts of ways he could have helped, could have stopped… only he couldn’t, could he? Mr. Loren had already had the building entirely wired for control. How in the hell had the Saints managed to get to him? And what fucking bomb? That must have been in their haul from the armoury robbery… Christ, that meant it could probably take out half the skyline!
Confusion and perturbation easily outweighed much hint of grief in Matt’s mind. It was a bad thing, obviously—Loren was the lynchpin of the entire organisation; not to mention the fact that this certainly stepped up the conflict, and demonstrated just how dangerous the bloody Saints could be—but it was more a matter of concern than personal loss. It was about the safety of the Syndicate, not losing a friend, and, just as it had always been, Matt’s ultimate loyalty was to himself. He had no time to waste thinking about his empl— his former employer.
He pulled himself together, got out of bed, and promptly fell over while trying to find his trousers. Bloody Saints. Could they not even have the decency to launch attacks on people at civilised times of day?
The car Killbane sent was a Luchadore vehicle, of course, driven by a large man in a pink-and-green mask. Somehow, the surreal nature of this seemed to fit nicely with the whole experience, and Matt found himself wedged into the back seat between two more Luchadores. One of them was drinking a can of protein shake, spilling a little down his green tank top every time the car jerked around a corner, and the other appeared to be cleaning his nails with a hunting knife.
Considering it sensible not to attempt making conversation, Matt busied himself texting all the senior Deckers who needed to know about the night’s events, and tried not to look up from his phone.
He hadn’t been paying a vast amount of attention to the route they were taking, but he estimated they were just approaching the bridge into New Baranec when the explosion rang out across the city. He looked up, squinting through the car’s tinted windows and at once seeing the plume of smoke, pale grey and red against a dark sky licked with flame.
“Christ,” he murmured.
They’d really done it.
It hardly seemed possible at first. The Luchadores he shared the car with roared and hollered in rage as they realised what had happened, and the pillar of fire that had been the Syndicate Tower licked at the sky. Matt wasn’t sure whether he’d really felt the vibration or just thought that he had, his brain supplementing the information to fill out the shock and the lurch of terror.
The car sped on, though, not stopping. The Luchadores raged and ranted in their disbelief and anger, and—as the faint noises of sirens drifted through the sound of the traffic—Matt glanced out of the window to see helicopters dotting the sky, lights flashing against the billowing, crimson-stained darkness.
He turned his attention back to his phone, dashing through the messages he wanted to send, and then digging straight into the Decker surveillance feeds that draped like a net over the city. It was chaos out there. They’d lost eyes on most of Sunset Park, and it was going to take a while to sift through all the images an video and work out just what the fuck had happened. Matt’s mouth thinned into a tight line as he cycled back over the footage from the past few hours, trying to isolate the moment everything had gone so wrong.
The explosion morphed backwards, pulling in on itself to become a wreck of broken glass and bullets, then those shifted from the frame, showing the intact Tower and the first moments of its siege. Slowly, the events started to become clear.
There was the Saints’ Boss, of course, arriving at the Tower with her lieutenants and bristling with guns. She was dressed surprisingly casually—in a bright purple tank top and black cargo pants—which Matt couldn’t help feeling was some kind of insult, both through the ostentatious flagging and the assault on the Morningstar’s self-consciously sophisticated sensibilities. Mr. Loren would no doubt have taken it as a personal affront to be killed by someone dressed so… well, like that.
Matt surfed the echoes of footage from camera after camera, watching the Boss and her people cut a swathe through the Morningstar, even after Loren had locked the building down. The bomb arrived in a moving truck… clever, he supposed. One team of Saints broke into the Tower’s loading dock while the Boss led the hunt for Loren, and he watched the grainy footage of her crew striding purposefully through hallway after hallway, stopping for nothing and no one. A couple of times, her face was caught in the frame, her expression a mask of pure determination and cold fury as she extended one tattooed arm and squeezed off shot after shot.
It was like the penthouse all over again, but this time Matt didn’t have the screaming in his ears, or the explosions, or even the faintest possibility of doing anything about it. All of this had already happened, and he’d slept through it. Slept through everything. Christ, it sounded impossible!
He didn’t know how it could have possibly happened. How any of it could have happened… or how he’d failed so comprehensively to keep his employer safe.
Loren had had access to all the building controls. Matt knew that, and the fact he’d been using them was evident from the feeds. It hadn’t been enough, though. None of it had been enough, and he couldn’t help but feel guilty for that.
He had no idea how the Saints had struck so fucking lucky. Nothing seemed to stop them; not the Morningstar and their military-grade tech, and not even the damn brutes that Loren had unleashed from his labs. Far from it, in fact. A lot of the feeds were garbled and mangled, but he could see that Viola had been right: the Saints had recruited Kirrlov. Understandable, really. After the time he’d spent being a glorified pincushion, the Russian would have had more cause than most to want Loren dead.
Matt missed exactly how it happened. There was something to do with the elevators… a cut cable, maybe? He couldn’t see it. All he knew was that there was a commotion, a series of electrical fires, and the Boss chasing Loren to an express shaft. Mr. Loren should have been making for the basement, but he never arrived there—or, rather, arrived in one piece. The great metal sphere that had been suspended over the building’s central stairwell—the big ugly sculpture Matt had been used to seeing every damn day he went to the Tower for meetings—had plummeted right through the centre of the building and rolled straight out into the street. And the Boss had been… riding it? That shouldn’t even have been physically possible.
Matt didn’t know how she’d done it. All he knew was that he was sick of watching this woman on camera feeds, tearing apart everything he’d worked to build and destroying the world that gave him the support network he needed.
The Saints had to go. He imagined Killbane would make sure of that.
The board meeting—the meeting of what was left of the board, anyway—was a strange, awkward affair. They met in a Luchadore building: the back room of one of Killbane’s clubs, hastily opened up and equipped with a TV to monitor the breaking news reports from Sunset Park.
The discomfort was palpable from the minute Matt entered the room. News footage—hasty and shaky, like the camera operator didn’t even believe it—played on the TV, showing the explosion on loop with a ticker running beneath, shouting the horror. Viola and Kiki were already there, sitting on folding metal chairs at the long, bare table, the former staring blankly at the images while the latter watched Killbane prowl at the far end of the room.
He had the mask on, obviously. Matt wondered if he slept in it, and was disturbed to find that he wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if that was true. Killbane turned as he entered, arms flung wide and an avuncular grin splitting his face.
“Matty! Glad you could join us!” The smile faltered for a second, as if the owner of the face beneath the mask had just remembered the whole ‘social propriety’ thing, and Killbane’s tone became suddenly, falsely, grave. “Of course, the circumstances are… terrible. Simply awful. We’ve all suffered a horrible loss tonight.”
The DeWynters—moving as one unit, in that really creepy way of theirs—turned their attention to him, and Matt found himself shrinking under the scrutiny of three pairs of eyes.
“Er… yes. Quite,” he managed, slipping into an empty seat at the end of the table.
The whole room had a faint odour of musty disuse… somewhere under the much stronger smell of cologne. More chairs were folded against the walls, and a dustsheet covered something in the corner. He wouldn’t have been at all surprised to learn it was yet another statue of Killbane posing in his wrestling gear.
“We could have expected this,” Kiki snapped, her eyes narrowing as she glared at Matt. “You should have! I thought you were meant to have that place wired up!”
“I did! And it’s not as if it was exactly unguarded. You had plenty of people in there, and Mr. Loren had access to controls for the entire building. Besides, we couldn’t have expected this. I mean, yes, we expected something, but—”
“We didn’t plan for the fucking bomb,” Viola interjected, glaring first at her sister, and then at Killbane. “Those bastards are insane. They would have blown up the whole of Loren Square if it meant killing Phillipe.”
“They’re savages,” Killbane said, his tone oddly even. Calm, almost, as if he’d rehearsed the words. “Animals. They need putting down.”
Kiki rolled her eyes. Her makeup was immaculate, Matt noted, as was her sister’s. He couldn’t help wondering how either of them managed it. Had they not slept in the first place? Or had they paused to get ready before they came here, applying the maquillage like a shield? Matt supposed he could understand that. He’d dressed hurriedly before leaving the reactor, yet he’d made sure to pull on his well-worn custom Valkirie jacket like a shell he could retreat into, and gave himself a quick swipe of lipstick for pretty much the same reason. Yesterday’s eye makeup still caked his lashes, though he’d rubbed and picked the worst clumps off while in the car. He really should remember to cleanse properly before falling into bed.
It was an interesting thought, nonetheless. Seemed like they all hid behind something, all wore their own masks.
“We don’t need to make this into more of a melodrama than it already is, Eddie,” Kiki said, drumming her nails against the table. “If we regroup, and—”
Matt cringed. Even Viola winced. The word—that name—hung in the air, and the effect it had on Killbane was palpable. His head snapped around like a gundog’s, eyes narrowed and glittering as his mouth twisted around ill-contained rage. His whole body seemed to shudder for a split second, as if he was about to burst out of his suit and tear the whole room to pieces.
“What did you call me?”
“What we mean, Killbane,” Viola said, her voice purposefully calm, “is that the Syndicate needs strong leadership. Phillipe underestimated the Saints. We can’t make that mistake again.”
Matt tried to resist the urge to lean further back in the uncomfortable chair, even though his shoulder blades were trying to dig their way out through the metal. Kiki sighed theatrically, which didn’t do much to cut the tension in the room, and Killbane glowered in that particular way he had that positively reeked of barely controlled crazy.
“Yeah,” he growled after a while, “the… barbarians are at the gates.”
It seemed to be the thread of comparative sanity he was looking for. Killbane’s posture shifting oddly as—in barely a moment—he seemed to shake off that discordant spike of rage and regain his strange composure.
“So, ladies, and gentleman,” he added, breaking out his most grandiose smile an turning it on Matt for a second, “Phillipe is dead, and we are at a crossroads. And the question is, who will lead the Syndicate to a new era?”
The few seconds of silence that followed were complicated, full of tangled tensions. The DeWynters exchanged looks, Kiki smiling slightly, and all Matt could think of was that the mad dog in front of them needed to be put on a shorter chain. He tried to catch Kiki’s eye, hoping frantically for backup, but she ignored him… and that should have been a sign. He should have stayed where he was and shut up, and not tried to let himself believe that he was a part of the proceedings here at all.
On the TV, next to the stacks of folded chairs propped against the wall, the news footage showed firefighters still tackling the blazing remnants of the Syndicate Tower. Someone had to say something.
“W-well,” Matt began, looking nervously at the twins, “Viola and Kiki were Mr. Loren’s right hands, so, um, shouldn’t they be the ones who—”
He saw Killbane move, and saw him pick up the folded chair, but somehow those things didn’t seem connected, didn’t seem real. Matt started to appreciate that he had most emphatically said the wrong thing as the big man closed the space between them in less than two strides, but there wasn’t really time to actively regret opening his mouth before the chair hit him.
He was aware of a split second filled with colours smearing into each other, then the world turned light and blurry, and everything felt like blunt force and cold fire. A feeling of intense dizziness blended with the curious sensation of being thoroughly winded, yet too shocked to feel actual pain.
Matt winced as his head thudded against the floor—and that was odd. The floor? How the fuck had he ended up here?
He wasn’t aware of much after that.
The voice came swimming through echoes, distorted as if he was hearing it while submerged in a deep, warm tub. Matt found he wanted to move towards it, though… wanted to wake up.
He whimpered, aware of a horrible metallic taste in his mouth as something vaguely resembling consciousness came back to him, and had a go at opening his eyes. Everything was upside down. Viola was kneeling over him, and she was upside down too. She looked weird from this angle. Everything looked weird. He tried to roll over onto his back to see if the ceiling was still there, but a sudden wave of frozen fire engulfed his left arm, shoulder, side… ow. Just, well, everything, really.
“You probably shouldn’t move,” Viola said, with rather more concern than he was used to hearing in her voice.
Well, bugger that. Matt tried to lift his head, and was rewarded with more pain, cascading violently down his neck and through his skull, throbbing and crushing until he shut his eyes again, just so the world would stop pulsating like that.
“M’all’r’ght,” he gurgled, his fingers flexing against the floor. “R’ly. M’fine.”
He heard Kiki sigh, her heels clicking on the tiles as she stalked across to look down at him.
“Should we call an ambulance?” Viola asked.
Kiki glanced down at Matt’s prone form, apparently a little exasperated. She nudged his knee with the toe of her shoe. “Matt? Are you with us?”
Her long, stocking-encased legs swam and wobbled in front of his vision… not that they were at all an unpleasant thing to be staring at.
His mouth tasted like blood, he realised, wondering why the connection hadn’t been more immediately obvious. An experimental suck at his teeth revealed they were, miraculously, all still there, so he had another go at trying to sit up.
Viola put a hand on his shoulder, a mix between helping and assessing damage as—slowly and with a degree of garbled swearing—Matt managed to drag himself from his prone position. The world kept dipping and swooping a bit, but at least it didn’t have Killbane in it right now. A glance at the door confirmed a couple of Luchadores loitering in the hallway, and went some way to explaining Kiki’s antsy, frustrated pacing.
“Get him up. We need to go.”
With Viola’s help, Matt managed to get to his feet without falling over or throwing up. He was proud of this fact, but still lingeringly dizzy… although the biggest concussion in the world wouldn’t have stopped him getting the fuck out of Killbane’s club as soon as he could put one foot in front of the other.
The DeWynters had a car waiting. They gave Matt a lift as far as the bridge, and it was a silent, stiff, awkward journey, with both Kiki and Viola tight-lipped and clearly furious about Killbane’s de facto coup over the Syndicate leadership. Matt tried not to think about what this new development meant—it couldn’t be anything good—and he called Jax on the way, never more glad than he was to see his lieutenant’s Neuron idling by the exit ramp.
Jax got out of the Neuron and looked him up and down, aghast. “The fuck happened to you?”
“I walked into a chair,” Matt croaked, limping determinedly towards the car.
His friend’s eyes widened in disbelief, but he seemed to know better than to question anything. He shook his head, sparing only a brief glance for the DeWynters’ Morningstar limo as it pulled away.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?”
“What? No.” Matt grimaced. The mere thought was enough to turn his stomach. “No. Just… get me home. And maybe get me some painkillers.”
All he wanted to do—all he wanted to do, ever again—was go back to his own safe, dark place beneath the reactor, to crawl into his neon-lit lair and rest. There wasn’t time for that yet, though.
First, Matt had things to do. There were contingencies to set up, surveillance to re-establish… people to tell about what had happened. He started work on the drive back to Burns Hill, brushing off Jax’s protests about doctors in favour of getting straight to the Usenet. Being hooked in made everything feel very slightly better; it reminded him that, online, he didn’t merely exist but truly lived, a god with unstoppable power. He could even have taken Killbane out, too… if it wasn’t for the fact that the Syndicate was going to need his Luchadores, and the brutality he commanded. The attack on the Tower proved that—and proved that the Deckers, as well as the Morningstar, needed to be much more vigilant.
Jax, good as his word, procured painkillers, so Matt could work until his vision swam and his ribs protested too much about the sitting position, finally forcing him to take a shower, a change of clothes, and a rest break. It also forced him to physically confront the damage, peeling his bloodied shirt away from the broken skin on his side and lifting the fabric to show the swollen, purple-red marks across his ribs.
Fuck Killbane. Fuck breathing, too, because that hurt… but mostly fuck Killbane.
Matt showered very carefully and wiped himself down with the peroxide he kept in his room for the inevitable cuts acquired from computer maintenance. He swore a new kind of gory demise on Killbane with every dab of the cotton ball, wincing and cussing through gritted teeth.
It was a while later that Jax buzzed him to say he’d called Court, and that she was coming down. It took Matt a moment to remember that he’d had plans with her today, and he winced afresh both at the fact he’d forgotten, and the thought of how pissed off she was going to be.
When she arrived in his sanctum, he was lying on the large, deep couch in his bedroom, wrapped in the comforter pulled from his bed and watching Razor Blade Smile on his laptop. Matt paused the movie as she came in, peering tentatively around the metal door before she entered, as if she thought she was going to find him in full traction or something.
“Matt? Oh, god, are you okay? Jax called me. He said—”
“Yes, I’m fine,” he assured her, not that she was really listening, too busy clattering into the room and rushing to his side.
He rather liked that, actually.
“I wanna see,” Court protested, kneeling down by the couch. “I wanna see what that bastard did to you.”
Typical, Matt supposed. You couldn’t keep a secret around here if your life depended on it. Jax had doubtless guessed who’d given him this little gift, and the bastard could have kept it to himself.
Court had her natural hair down—obsidian black with clip-in streaks in Venus Envy green—and her pale skin was heavily powdered, her eyes outlined in thick, exaggerated cat-eye flicks, and her lips bare.
“What happened?” she demanded, pushing back the comforter and seizing the hem of his hoodie. “He really hit you? You really went toe-to-toe with Eddie ‘Killbane’ Pryor? The guy who fucking destroyed Murderbrawl? C’mon, lemme—oh my god. Jesus, Matt!”
She stared, horrified, at the mass of swollen and reddened bits down his side. One shoulder was a bit fucked up, too, and the chair had definitely clipped his head: he had a bump the size of an egg. He was still breathing, though, and Viola didn’t think he’d been out for more than half a minute or so.
“It’ll look worse when the bruising comes out properly,” he said, realising as Court’s lip wobbled that he could probably have said something better.
“Oh, Matt,” she murmured, drawing out his name as if she could hug it close to her and protect it.
He liked that. A lot, as a matter of fact. And he could definitely get used to the way she was touching him, too… if only he hadn’t actually been in so much pain, or so out of it from the painkillers. Court stroked her thumb across his cheek and then leaned in to kiss him. Lots of sweet little kisses, piling on each other, all over his mouth, his cheeks, his jaw—getting beaten up had never gotten Matt this kind of attention before. He ran his fingers through the ends of her hair, cupping the back of her neck and being careful to avoid the clipped-in streaks as he kissed her back.
It was just getting good when he tried to lean in closer, and ended up breaking away from her entirely, swearing and seeing stars.
“Ow! Ow… rib… ow… fuck!”
Matt collapsed back against the arm of the couch, trying to breathe. Court flapped a bit, holding his arm and apologising, and he had to choose between breathing and telling her it was all right. It really would have been easier if she just calmed the fuck down.
“Oh, god, Matt….” She stroked his hair, her face knotted up with worry, and—despite everything—he had to admit that he did enjoy the attention. She tilted her head to the side, sweeping his fringe out of his eyes with careful fingers. “Poor baby. Handjob make you feel better?”
Matt thought he’d misheard her for a moment, and then he realised how ludicrously unfair the universe was. He could have screamed at the injustice. Instead, he winced, and peered sorrowfully at her through narrowed eyes.
“Um. Seeing as it hurts to breathe right now, perhaps not. Cheers for the offer, though.”
“Oh.” Court looked crestfallen. “I guess you’re right. Well… you want anything? I could get you a Joe, or peanut butter cups or something?”
Matt shook his head. “No, thanks. Really. I just—”
“You’re right. Get some rest. Come on, move over.”
Court clambered up onto the couch, apparently oblivious to the agony she was causing, and didn’t stop until she was behind him—taking up all the pillows, naturally—legs stretched out either side of him, holding him in her lap.
“What’s the movie about? Oh, wait, I know this! This is the hitwoman chick, isn’t it? Oh, I love this. Did we get to the bathtub part yet?”
“Any minute now,” Matt said, leaning back gingerly.
Court wrapped her arms around him, her chin resting on his shoulder. “Awesome!”
As the pain started to abate, Matt let himself relax against her… and it really wasn’t all that bad. In fact, at that moment, with the trashy film playing and his painkillers kicking in, and the smell of the flowery, spicy fragrance oil she wore warming his nose, Court was just about the best thing to ever have happened to him. He leaned his head against her neck, and let his eyes start to close.
There really wasn’t anything wrong with that, was there?
On to Five-Dollar Circus: Chapter Nine