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Freedom's Finest #5: Shadow of the Leviathan


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September 16, 2016


With the summer months come and gone sundown was coming earlier to Freedom City with each passing day. Even in the dim dusk the lamps flanking the monorail track cast stark shadows on the cement ravine below, the pillars that held the track aloft creating even bars of light and darkness. Marring that pattern came a pair of headlights, accompanied by screeching tires and unmistakable bursts of gunfire. The rust red sedan crashed through the steel link fence, hanging in the air briefly before slamming down onto the sloped cement with a great crash and screech of protesting metal.


Almost lost in that cacophony was the whisper quiet purr of the inky black motorcycle in pursuit. Clad similarly in black its rider practically melted into the bike's silhouette in the dim light, a crimson wing pattern up its sides the only detail separating it from a black brushstroke across the scene. It easily followed through the path opened in the fence and sped after the sedan, wearing back and forth to avoid the increasingly panicked fire from the car's occupants.

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Tristan hadn't come out tonight planning to patrol.  He'd just had a hectic month, what with deadlines at the Institute, being abducted by a trickster-god, and so on.  Mostly out of habit, he put on a new face before going to a quiet cafe a few blocks from the university; tonight he kept his slim figure, but turned his hair blond, lengthened his nose and chin, and added a dusting of facial hair.  The disguised scientist spent his early evening sipping coffee and chatting about the upcoming election with a few college kids; he was in the process of paying his bill, ready to accompany his new friends to a nightclub, when they all turned at the sound of distant gunfire. 


"Should...we call the police?" one of the students wondered aloud.  "Those sounded like shots, right?"


"Maybe," Tristan slowly said, feeling more confident in the call than he admitted.  "I'll...yeah, I'll call.  I really shouldn't be staying out tonight anyway.  I've, ah, got a thing tomorrow."


He wasn't a very good liar.  "Pfft, no you don't.  What, are you scared now?  It's a safe neighborhood, man.  Besides, even if something is going on, I guarantee you some hero will jump on it before the cops have a chance."


"You're probably right," Tristan agreed.  That, at least, was honest, and his smile had a sparkle to it.  "But still.  I should go."


"Whatever, man.  Your loss."


They split apart at the door, a cluster of people heading one way, and a lone figure in the dark leaving toward the other.  He tried to keep a casual pace until he was out of sight, then darted hastily to the back of a closed computer store.  Tristan went into the shadows by the rear door.  Leviathan came back out.


A short run and a long jump landed the beast onto the monorail, and from this vantage point he began the hunt.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Leviathan reached his perch moments before the sedan flew past below him, overtaxed rubber squealing as the driver hastily compensated for a panicked spin of the wheel. The cement ditch ended a little less than a quarter mile ahead of them but the slope was just barely shallow enough that he judged that at their current speed they could probably make it back up to the street at the far end. The pursuing motorcycle would have still had ample time to catch up if it hadn't begun to lag behind at some point while he was transforming. Had some of the wild gunfire spewing from the smashed rear window of the car struck and damaged the bike? Whatever the cause it seemed to be struggling to do more than keep pace with its quarry; at this rate the gunmen were going to get away!

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In the poor lighting and with his attention focused on the fleeing vehicle, Leviathan barely noticed its other pursuer--and in any case, at a glance he likely wouldn't realize who rode the sleek black bike.  He sprinted forward; at an all-out run, the beast could outpace virtually any regular car, especially with tonight's motivation.  He might not know who was in the sedan or why they were in such a hurry, but like a dog, sometimes the only reason he needed to chase was someone to chase. 


At least Leviathan had the presence of mind to consider how he might safely stop the car.  His first temptation was to simply come down heels-first on the hood, but then he might be the only survivor of the ensuing wreck.  In the past, a different tactic had served him well (only once, but even so, no one died!).  He ran along the monorail until he more or less caught up to the sedan, then dropped over the side, crunched footprints into the cement, and used what remained of his momentum for a flying leap toward the rear bumper.  One enormous hand swung in from either side to grab the back wheels (last time he went in through the trunk and directly grasped the axle, but what if a kidnapping victim was being held inside?), dug his heels in, and used his own weight and strength as an anchor.  At least until he could simply rip the tires off.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Leviathan's forethought and knowledge of applied physics was rewarded with strangled sounds of surprise and confusion from within the sedan as he brought it abruptly to a halt. One of the gunmen lost his grip on his weapon as he was hurled about the back seat, the firearm clattering noisily as it tumbled end over end across the cement. The other had better luck keeping his wits about him and unloaded his remaining ammunition into the hulking form filling the shattered remains of the rear window but he may as well have been using harsh language for all the good it did against Leviathan's thick hide. If he squinted in the low light the size-changing hero could make out a groaning silhouette slumped over the steering wheel while the fourth occupant struggled with the door handle on the passenger side, his fingers made clumsy by panic.


Behind them all the sleek motorcycle pulled to an almost casual stop, tires whisper quiet despite the sudden deceleration. The black clad rider remained astride his vehicle, watching the proceedings with eyes that reflected the illumination of the car's taillights in deep crimson.

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"Well this looks like a party!" Leviathan laughed as one of the thugs sprayed him with bullets.  Any superficial scuffs to his scales smoothed back over almost immediately.  He leaned down to look through the back window with a terrible, toothy grin; one thick finger pointed to the other passenger who attempted to flee, and tilted back and forth chastisingly. 


"I wouldn't," he warned.  "I'll just have to chase you down.  ...Which could be fun.  Feel free to surrender, but if you just want some bruises..."


Leviathan's ears weren't too impressive, and focused forward on the car as he was, he didn't immediately notice the other participant to this event behind him.

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The lean featured man in the passenger seat looked back at Leviathan, taking a slack-jawed moment to fully process the implied threat. Swallowing thickly he reached over and very deliberately pushed the button on the door down into its locked position before turning around to sit quietly with his hands in his lap.


Though seemingly less traumatized his compatriots likewise made their surrender clear and the faint sound of police sirens grew louder over the rattle of the monorail running overhead. Behind the hulking hero the man in black finally spoke up. "What," the voice came, low and calm but with a quality like gravel being ground underfoot, "do you think you're doing?"

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Leviathan practically squirmed with glee; his low chuckles and the way he lightly bounced on the balls of his feet seemed wholly at odds with his monstrous appearance.  Sure, lately he'd started taking down bigger fish than these, but everything went off so nicely that he couldn't help but--


"Whaaaghu?!" he exclaimed, leaping and spinning to face the voice.  He immediately assumed a defensive fighting pose.  Then, as he settled his eyes on his accuser, cogs in his brain clicking slowly, recognition dawned in his eyes...as well as something more.


His voice started and ended in its usual inhumanly-deep bass, but in the middle was a (comparatively) high squeak: "Mmmmiiiiiidniiiiighttt?"  Awestruck, Leviathan seemed to forget the question for several seconds.  When he did register it, his demeanor changed to confusion and worried shame.  He gestured helplessly toward the car.


"Criminals," he protested vaguely.  "They...they were shooting, so...I know because I heard it, so...?" 


It's Midnight!  The real Midnight!  Is he mad?  He looks mad!  Why would he be mad?  Did I mess something up?  Oh God, did I ruin a sting operation or something?  Am I in his territory?  Why am I still waving my hands?  What do I do with my hands?

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  • 2 weeks later...

Through ruby red lenses Midnight maintained eye contact with Leviathan for another long beat and the towering mass of muscle couldn't shake the uncanny feeling that the smaller man was somehow managing to look down at him. Without a word he strode forward in three long steps and reached under the sedan's back bumper. A little black disk about the size of a quarter came loose in his gloved hand and he held it up for Leviathan to see, an off-centre diode blinking dimly. The tracking device went back into Midnight's belt while the flat edge of a weighted throwing disk suddenly appeared in his other hand. Pressing the edge into the gap left by the lid of the trunk he pried it open in a single smooth motion. Inside were messily packed bundles of wire and electronics, what might have been a handful of cheap digital displays and pack after pack of wrapped explosives. Leviathan needn't have worried about a hostage but his presence of mind had at least prevented the chase from ending much more abruptly for all involved. Chillingly, however, he couldn't help but notice quite a lot of empty space presumably left by additional bomb making materials after they had been used.

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"...Oh," Leviathan hung his head shamefully.  It was as he feared, then; Midnight already had a plan for the men here, and he ruined it spectacularly.  Now the more experienced hero would have more trouble finding their hideout, the rest of their crew, or whatever he--


"...Ohhh," he stared at the contents of the trunk.  That wasn't good.  The suspects weren't merely thieves or something so minor, but a serious threat to whoever they targeted, perhaps even the whole city.  At least he caught them before they had the chance to--


"...Ohhhhh."  Wide-eyed, he turned back to Midnight.  Leviathan doubted that these bomb-makers were heading back to wherever they stashed their first devices, but nonetheless, Midnight might've had some plan to obtain the data stealthily.  Now they'd have to be coerced, unless clues could be found in the car.  Meanwhile, the devices might be armed already!


"I didn't know!"

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  • 3 weeks later...

Midnight regarded Leviathan silently for a long moment, unnervingly still throughout the towering hero's gradual realization. The sirens in the distance grew steadily louder until the flashing blue and red could be faintly seen reflecting on the street above the concrete ravine. Finally the black clad vigilante tipped his head back slightly and made a quiet, gravelly sound; it took a moment for Leviathan to recognize it as a soft sigh filtered through whatever equipment was built into Midnight's mask. Turning on his heel he remounted his motorcycle, calling back to instruct, "Monorail service platform. Quarter mile east." Without further explanation the vehicle was peeling away from the scene and fading into the night's shadows, headed in the direction he'd indicated just as two patrol cars pulled to a stop by the damaged fence.

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When Midnight turned away, Leviathan's spirits flattened.  He almost had to hold back tears, until the famed hero spoke softly.


Then he soared


The reptile fought to suppress his wide grin so hard that it hurt his jaws, until he thought Midnight was too far away to see.  He then broke into a clumsy little dance.


I'm going to work with Midnight!  I'm going to work with Miiiiiidniiiiiiight!


When a twirl brought him back to face the car, he remembered that he wasn't entirely alone, and sharply regained his stoic pose.  Maybe these criminals had information they could use; he could grab one before the police arrived, and...no, no, improvising hadn't gone well for him thus far tonight.  If Midnight wanted someone to interrogate, he would've done it himself.  Best to follow the lead of the professional.  Oh, the things he could learn!


Leviathan leaned down to glare through the rear window and made one last threat: "Stop making bombs.  You should be ashamed of yourselves!"  Then he stepped away and jumped far through the air, disappearing into the night sky.


By the time he landed and ran at top speeds, he was laughing joyfully.  Might as well get it out of his system on the way to the rendezvous.

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It was simple enough to find the platform Midnight had described and at a horse's gallop it wasn't long before Leviathan had arrived. Disappointingly there didn't seem to be any sign of the detective in black and after a moment of looking about the reptilian hero had to squeeze his substantial frame onto the unlit service area to avoid the train rumbling down the track. He watched as the last car sped away and the moment the rumble and rattle had begun to die down a flat voice behind him demanded, "Name?"


Midnight was balanced on the guard rail in a low crouch, nothing behind him but empty air and the chill of a night breeze. It was difficult to make out his outline in the dark, particularly with wisps of inky black mist rolling from him like brimstone from a creature of nightmare. The ruby lenses of his mask reflected the faint light from the lamppost a dozen yards or so further down the track as they stared unblinkingly at Leviathan.

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Midnight's sneakiness once again made Leviathan jump.  Need to put a bell on this guy, he thought nervously.  For a long moment he could only stare in admiration.  That pose!  That image!


This is so cool!


He lacked the practice and natural grace, and spooked as he was to boot, the lizard stumbled over his introduction.  His hands opened and closed, unsure again where to put them--the traditional fists-on-hips position now seemed inadequate, when Midnight perched there like a demonic vulture in a nice hat--and his feet couldn't seem to stop shuffling.




Damn it, what's my name?!


"L...Leviathan.  Yeah.  Ahh, Leviathan."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Midnight seemed to consider for a moment before carefully stepping down from the railing and onto the platform. With his straight-backed posture he wasn't much less imposing that way but at least his silhouette became something more recognizably human. It didn't hurt that Leviathan had more than three feet on him.


"Diffused explosives at two medical research labs tonight," the taciturn tactician explained. It was the most consecutive syllables the towering lizard had heard out of him yet and Leviathan got the impression that it was Midnight's attempt at taking a gentler tone. "Given materials, size of trunk, assume two additional targets, maybe more." He placed both  gloved hands on the railing and looked over over the city. "Timers were set for less than two hours from now."

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"Two hours?"  Leviathan balked at the news.  "How will we find them?  We should've talked to the guys in the car!"  He regretted not grabbing one of them when he had the chance; by now, the police were probably all over that scene. 


...Wait, he thought.  Medical research labs?  Which labs?  My phone's back at my apartment; if these bombers went after the FCI, I might have messages about it by now and not even know...


Even more rattled now that he might have a personal stake in this matter, the huge lizard clenched his hands in concern.  "What do we do?"

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  • 2 weeks later...

"Identified from security footage," Midnight explained with a small shake of his head, raising one forearm. A red-tinted projection of grainy footage popped into the air between them, flipped around to face Leviathan by a gesture from the detective. An overlay picked out the faces of the men who could be seen planting the bomb and provided names along with a scrolling list of past convictions. "Hired muscle, one electrician with gambling debts. Unlikely to know full plan, hence tailing." The dispassionate way in which he laid out the information brought to mind a university lecturer.


The projection changed to a short list of scientific research facilities in the city including the Freedom Cross Institute. Two of them were already highlighted, the sites of the explosives with which Midnight had already dealt. "Motivation unknown. Need to reach other labs, either locate additional bombs or expert who can detect pattern in targets." If each of the facilities being targeted were working on parts of a larger project or had received funding from the same source, if they had some connection they might be able to discern the culprit behind the attack and predict their next move but two data point weren't much to work with without an insider's insight.

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That's smart, that's smart.  I feel like I should be taking notes...


Midnight's calm voice did a lot to soothe Leviathan; listening to the more experienced hero made him feel that the situation maybe wasn't so horrible after all, and if it was, then they nonetheless had it under control.  A small part of him viewed this very skeptically, but it spoke softly next to his excitement: Midnight needed someone with lab experience in this city, and that's just what Leviathan was!


...Ok, but how do I tell him that without looking suspicious?  ...Which isn't as important as stopping a major bombing.  I guess.  But still...


He leaned down to get a closer look at that list, thinking over his options while he also tried to remember what he could about these facilities.  They all probably had a number of projects running at any given time, some or all of them well-guarded, but secrets had a way of getting out.  Even rumors or guesses could help them now; any common threads between the two known bomb-sites would at least offer a starting point. 

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While both of the facilities that had already been targeted were medical research labs they were only competitors in the loosest sense given their specialities. The first was familiar to Dr. Delacroix as the city's go-to for large scale delivery solutions, such as vaccinations. While the local research community liked to joke that they were more engineers than doctors the truth was without planning for proper transportation and storage even the most brilliant cure was nothing but theoretical. In a city where needle-proof skin and other complications were a very real consideration that was more challenging that it sounded. 


The second he he recognized as a leading name in allergen research, mainly the usual perennial cash cows like pollens and pet dander but always with a few higher profile, more esoteric cases that kept them in the medical journals. Leviathan recalled something about metal dust from ships shot down in the last failed Grue invasion but that had turned out to have affected all of a half dozen people with only minor symptoms. The more interesting work was working on negative reactions to other medicines but that was neither as lucrative nor as headline worthy.


The last time he could think of seeing the two names together was more than a year prior when the Freedom Cross Institute had been contracted along with a handful of other labs on a government project. A toxin that targeted metahumans as well as those with the latent potential to develop superhuman abilities had nearly been released into the city's water supply and the mayor's office had wanted a vaccine ready in case of future attempts. The challenge, of course, had been coming up with something that would be effective on a wildly diverse set of physiologies; it was much easier to tear a biological system down than shore up its defences. The lion's share of that work had fallen to the FCI and progress had been steady if without any dramatic breakthroughs.

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...Ohh, that's not good.


Leviathan's face turned grim, surprisingly human in its expression, even with the snout and lack of eyebrows.  Despite his hesitation, this wasn't just work anymore; now that he had a personal stake in the matter, he had to point Midnight in the right direction, suspicious or not.  The monster took a moment to regret his selfishness; if only he could feel the same emotional drive even when his own fortunes weren't involved.  His envy for the other hero swelled to new heights.  Midnight, surely, wouldn't be wavering with indecision over protecting his identity versus saving lives. 


He took a deep breath.  "Ok, this, ahh...it sounds weird, but I think I know where at least one other bomb might be.  I've, ahh...heard some things?" 


Wow, great poker face there, Tristan. 


"Or, ahh, kind of a hunch, I guess.  But I think we should check out the Freedom Cross Institute's local lab.  It, ahh...well, if you don't have other leads.  Could be that one.  ...Yeah."


Oh Goddddddd, this is so embarrassing!  He's going to think I'm dumb, or in on the crime, or both.  Please don't let me get beaten down by the Midnight; that's really not the kind of press that I need right now. 

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Midnight impassively studied the discomfited lizard's face for what could have only been a few moments but which certainly felt longer to Leviathan. Finally the dark detective let out a flat grunt and turned on his heel toward the railing at the edge of the platform. "Let's go." Without further debate he vaulted over the side and into the empty air.


By the time Leviathan could look over the railing Midnight had landed silently next to his motorcycle, parked next to one of the massive pillars holding up the track, having somehow navigated the intervening distance without injury. "That was not very convincing," a female voice opined from a speaker somewhere on the vehicle, the resounding timbre suggesting a stature not much smaller than that of the less experienced hero.


"Learning," Midnight replied as he mounted the bike and set out in the direction of the FCI.

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Leviathan wasn't sure how Midnight would react, but this would've been his last guess.  He walked to the railing and just watched the famed Cowl for a moment.


"...What just happened?"


I just teamed up, that's what happened!  Now go, before Midnight changes his mind and handles this without me!


Leviathan's own jump wasn't nearly as graceful or quiet, but it got him to the pavement anyway, and from there he shot off.  Even his impressive running speed couldn't hope to match the Night Cycle, but if he lost track of his temporary partner, then, well, at least he already knew where they were going. 

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  • 2 months later...

The Freedom Cross Institute was still standing as the unlikely pair arrived, vaguely monolithic in the uneven lighting of the surrounding city and the few windows still illuminated from within. Even the custodial staff would have already gone home for the night - some of the rooms housing more sensitive projects couldn't be cleaned without a project lead present anyway - leaving only the security night shift and the inevitable smattering of researchers too engrossed in their work to be shackled by the concept of 'business hours'. From the outside, at least, all appeared peaceful.


Astride his motorcycle, Midnight took in the building with a silence that somehow managed to suggest coolly detached study and analysis. Without turning to look at Leviathan he gestured for the less experienced hero to take the lead. He didn't need to know the specifics of the 'hunch'; if Leviathan was familiar with the FCI, better to use that to their advantage. 

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