Ten Months Later
Half an hour to midnight. Chances were, it was going to feel like fifteen seconds at the speed of light. And if I wasn’t careful, the whiplash was going to kill me. Ten thousand thoughts tried to penetrate my mind, but this was all far too important for me to grow distracted. Close your eyes. Deep breath. Void.
Scott had been unable to reach me for what was about to be three days; as planned. We had received the go-ahead from Wendy at ten o’clock that morning. The rest of the day had been spent putting the final pieces into place. At eight, I was satisfied. At nine, we rolled out. At eleven thirty, here we were. Next to me sat French, humming Shostakovich to himself while fiddling with fiddling with a zipper on his sleeve. He had done well today, and I was sure that he would do exceptionally well tonight. I had the same confidence in the other six with us in the truck. More so, in fact, than in myself. It was hard for me to determine whether this was a good or bad thing. My logos said good, my pathos said bad. My ethos stayed silent. It had a habit of doing so until the moment of action arrived. After a few minutes, the bumpy road turned to asphalt. Nodding to myself and the others, I watched as French pulled out his radio. He spoke.
“Remember the prerogative. Pursue secondary objectives only if you feel you have enough time to do so after accomplishing your primary ones, and only if the situation permits. We all come home tonight.” The truck came to a stop and, one by one, each of my compatriots hopped out the back. I followed, nervous at first but exhilarated once my boots hit the ground. The sky was beautiful this evening; there was not a single cloud obscuring the vast number of stars that shone down on this warm Nevada night. Parked beside us was the other truck. In single file, just like we had practiced, out jumped team two. About fifteen seconds later, a third vehicle pulled up; an APC. The driver exited the vehicle, giving me a nod as he passed by. From out of the back came three figures, two in uniform and one in a straitjacket, hood, and leg irons. The hooded prisoner struggled briefly with the restraints before dejectedly sighing.
Ahead of us stood the compound. It was much bigger than it had seemed in pictures. There was a palpable menace emanating from its walls, sending a shiver down my spine. I quickly suppressed it. The front doors swung open, and two guards walked out, followed by a few familiar faces. Underneath the helmet, I smiled like a jester. Simon Zane and Hodes. The latter had a shiny new prosthetic leg. It was hard not to laugh. This had to be number four.
“Welcome to Outpost Vega, Lieutenant Preston, prisoner processing and regional HQ. I’ve been told you’ve brought me an early Christmas present,” Zane said after the usual silliness of military formalities. Inside, I laughed. Lieutenant Preston was buried in six different neighborhoods all over Detroit.
“Indeed I have, Sir. And this one comes gift-wrapped. Be sure she stays that way, though. Even with the Formula, she’s been known to get violent.” Zane strode triumphantly over to the prisoner and removed the hood. Looking through him with contempt so venomous it might have entered his bloodstream was Mae, her nose broken, her lip bloodied and her usual beauty obscured by bruises. Zane took her chin in his hand and frowned.
“I don’t suppose I could get you to tell me where Mead is hiding, could I?” Not a single word. “No, I thought not. Listen, Ms. Monaghan, for what it is worth, which is probably not much, I’m truly sorry for what happened to your mother. I consider it a personal failing that she got involved in this. My job is to protect humans from Alters. Though I can’t do much now to make it up to you, I promise that if you give me Mead’s location now, I’ll put forward a suggestion to the top brass at the IAD that you be placed under house arrest in a much nicer place than here.” This got a reaction.
“When Calvin kills you, maybe I’ll ask him to offer your family the same treatment. Or maybe I’ll just find them and show ‘em what happened to my mother.” Zane sighed in exasperation and motioned for the guards to take her away. He turned to me.
“She’ll talk. We have her friends.” I cleared my throat. Time to sell the role.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?” Zane seemed to respect this and motioned that I follow him inside.
“Granted, Preston. What’s on your mind?” The building was just as oppressively drab and confined as the Priestess had described it. Fluorescent lights lined the ceiling and very old bloodstains littered the linoleum floor, reminders of brothers and sisters brought in not entirely alive.
“Mead and his men are fanatics. Their ultimate loyalty is to the cause, not one another. They all see themselves and their comrades as expendable. If you wish to break Monaghan, I would suggest another method.” Zane frowned, considering this.
“That’s a question for Hodes, I think. He’s…into that sort of thing. I’m sure he can come up with the right mix of pain and truth serum. It’s how we captured that Jan Reyes girl, isn’t it?” Somewhere back in Detroit I had my acceptance speech written down.
“Yes, but the circumstances were different. Perhaps we just wait for Mead to come for his people.” We arrived at checkpoint with a retina scanner.
“We’ll see sir. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go tend to my people. They’re due for debriefing and a few celebratory beers.” He nodded approvingly before tapping on my helmet.
“You’ll need to take that off first. What, did you suddenly get ugly on the way back?” I ran my hand down the helmet’s faceplate; it functioned as a gas mask, heads up display and a pair of night vision goggles all in one. It also came with the added bonus of completely obscuring my face (and the rest of my head, for that matter). It wasn’t coming off.
“Monaghan put up a fight. Damaged the fool thing, and now it won’t open up for me to get it off. I need to take it to the quartermaster.”
“Here, let me give it a whirl.” Zane brought his hands up to my head. It took all the self-restraint I had not to lose my cool and kill him right there. The last time he put his hands on me, the quality of my life had taken a marked downturn. It was about to happen again. To both of us.
But it didn’t. I kept myself. He would die, but that would come later. And, just as I had said, my helmet was damaged. After about thirty seconds of fiddling and pulling, Zane found himself unable to remove it. A lesson I had learned: If you have to lie, make sure that your lie is as close to the truth as possible.
“I told you, sir. The bitch tried to crush my head inside of this thing.” He nodded and dismissed me before heading into a room our informant had labeled as the commissary. This gave me a few minutes to get done what needed to be done. Taking a deep breath, I hustled down the corridor, the image of the map we had been sent at the forefront of my mind.
I rounded a corner. Standing about twenty feet down the hallway were three soldiers. One of them saw me and put his fist to his chest before extending his arm: this was our salute, meant to pantomime a sword being drawn from our hearts. It also made a nice identifier that could be written off as a stretch if the person we signaled turned out to just be one of Zane’s men.
“What do you have for me?” The shortest of the three removed his helmet, revealing eyes that had seen too much death and a face that had taken too much punishment: Wendy.
“Everyone’s in place, and all the IAD men are where we were told they’d be. Whoever this informant is, he’s kept his word so far. Would really feel more comfortable, though, if I knew who he was.” The other two removed their helmets: French and Kane. The latter took a bit longer; he was still breaking in a new prosthetic hand. Not ideal circumstances, but I doubt there’s such thing.
“Jiao is with Mae. He’ll radio in once they’ve processed her and they arrive at the cellblock. Where is the Priestess?” French’s question was fair. Her part of this operation had been kept between the two of us and Wendy. I didn’t like leaving French out of things, but the fewer people knew what was going on, in Outpost Vega’s basement, the better.
“She’s where I want her. Wish I could tell you more, but it’s on a need to know basis.” This didn’t satisfy French, but he nodded anyway. I made a mental note: explain things to him afterwards. He’s earned it. Kane’s eyes darted around the corridor.
“I think we should be expecting a patrol soon. Eyes sideways. And try not to be late.” Everyone nodded, and the three of them replaced their helmets before breaking up into two groups: Kane went with French and Wendy went with me.
“They treat camera malfunctions as a full-scale emergency, right?” he asked. I nodded.
“Indeed. I’ve asked that Gibson not screw with them. Yet. Speaking of which, he should be waiting for us at the data core by now. Let’s pick up the pace, shall we?” We hustled to the elevator. There was a disturbing presence here, and it had begun to dawn on me that I had forgotten to account for a few details. Firstly, I hadn’t anticipated the effect this place was having on me. It stunk of despair, one of the foulest of smells, and every passing moment was making it harder to concentrate. Second, this was the first time in a long while I had been without Mae at my back. You always feel safer alongside a telekinetic. The signal could not come quickly enough.
The lights shone a pale blue color down in the computer core, casting a psychosomatic frigidness about the room. The room itself was a maze of hardware, cooling units, wires of every color, blinking lights that could have meant everything, and an omnipresent knee-high mist. After a few moments of walking, I heard a low, nasal voice from behind me.
“You would not believe the porn Hodes likes. Or maybe you would. This shit would send someone with fewer connections to the gas room. And his family.” A bit startled but not at all surprised by the topic of conversation, I turned around to see Gibson playing with a thumb drive. Gibson was a discovery we had made not long after arriving in Detroit. A wiry, redheaded fellow of about thirty, Gibson had a command of electronics and electronic networks he found difficult not to use; even in his sleep, he would talk in CSS. As a result, most of what he talked about was either related to pornography, inane babble about the inner workings of computers, or something called ‘trolling.’ Everyone needs a hobby, I suppose. Mine was acapella. His seemed to be online fishing simulators.
“Charming, Anthony. I’ll be sure to grill him about it next time I take his leg again. Do you have everything?” Proud of himself, he nodded vehemently, straightening out his lab coat.
“I’ve had it since my second day here. I’ve just been dithering about with cables the last few weeks. By the way? No one double checks your credentials if you’re a computer engineer. I had three different stories ready in case I needed to sound like I was actually a government scientist after my ‘transfer’ here, but the HR guys just skimmed through my file and sent me downstairs.”
“I don’t like it,” Wendy grunted. “This whole thing has been too smoothe, starting with the ease of your infiltration and all the way up to Zane’s taking a coffee break minutes after receiving Mae in belted wrapping paper. Someone knows something.”
“You’re beginning to sound like your sister, Wendy,” Gibson said, chuckling. They were both right. The former point worried me now. The latter point would have to wait to worry me till later. I pulled out my gun. Hodes’ old gun. Ideally, it would go unused tonight. But I’m no idealist.
“Like Kane says: eyes sideways. Wendy, I want you focused. You keep your head on the positions of everything with a pulse in this building. I know you can. Gibson, you’re listening exclusively for radio transmissions and silent alarm signals starting now. If tonight was a trap, I’m going to make them step on their own pressure plate.” Gibson grinned widely before handing me the thumb drive he had been playing with and scurrying off into the hardware maze.
“I’ll radio you if any bad shit’s going down,” I heard. Wendy still looked unsatisfied with the situation. After hesitating for a few moments, he finally spoke up.
“This whole thing has sucked from the word go, Cal. I don’t like that Jan’s life is on the line and I hate that I’m not the one seeing to it personally that she and the others escape. And I still don’t think it was necessary that she play Trojan horse.” I put my hand on his shoulder and made sure (as sure as I could with this helmet on) that he look me dead in the eyes.
“Listen, man. What she and Scott have is one-of-a-kind. When in each other’s presence, they can at least partially overcome the effects of Formula-15. The two of them have been hard at work since they got here, and the two of them volunteered. I never would have sent them had they not been 110% on this, and I know you know that’s true.”
“Fine, yes, I know that,” he replied, “but every time we play this game, we come out a few pieces short of what we had when we came in. It’s the law of averages, Cal. I’m not saying I worry any less about the others. I just…I don’t want to face another Kingsley situation. I won’t survive this time.” It took a few moments to come up with the correct words. Even then, I thought they could have been better.
“You don’t deserve to have to keep doing this, Wendy. I’ve asked the impossible of you again and again, and you’ve always lived up to it. After this mission, I won’t ask anything more of you. I’ll even help you disappear, if that’s what you want.” Before he could respond, our radios buzzed. Jiao. Our fist.
“Mae and I are in, chief. I’m counting at least thirty people in this block alone. A few of them match the photos Priestess handed out before we started the operation.” I smiled. We’re bringing you home, ladies and gents.
“Roger, Jiao. You get that, Kane?” There was a low groan on the other end of the comm.
“Christ, Mead, you’re trying to kill me, aren’t you? Yeah, I can bring them to the Vegas safe house, but don’t expect any action out of me for a week. Thirty people. P’aq myyan l’bn.”
“Thank you, Mordecai. Tell you what: pull this off, and the strip is your oyster for the weekend. I’ll even throw you a few bucks.” I knew that’d get him to shut up. Kane did love the party.
“Sounds good to me, boss,” he said cheerily. “Hold on. Something’s wrong. French, what-” The line went dead. Suddenly, I realized that my back was layered with sweat.
“Kane, French. Come in.” No response. “Now, goddamnit!” The channel was suddenly a cacophony of panicked shouting and frantic questions from everyone else connected to it.
“Keep the comm quiet!” This was the voice of Gibson. “I can’t hear a damn thing with you people shouting. Oh. Oh no.” Great.
“What the hell is it now, Anthony?”
“They’ve all turned off their radios. We’re compromised. Get out of there now.” I smelled desperation in the air and felt my heart beat so fast that the tiniest of cuts might have exsanguinated me.
“Roger that. Shoot to kill. This line stays silent from here on out.” Wendy gripped my shoulder.
“They’re coming. Don’t make me use this thing,” he demanded, waving his gun from side to side. Nodding, I took a deep breath and pushed myself outwards. Immediately, blackness spread down the hallway like a wine stain through a rug. And then came the footsteps. From the sound, there had to be about four of them.
“Mead is here! Blanket the area!” Shit. Automatic fire rang out. With no time to solidify any of the shadows around me, I hit the deck, catching three or four slugs in the chest. The wind left my lungs and I failed to land with any grace, instead crashing into a wall. The body armor I wore protected me, yes, but it still felt like I had been hit by a train. The shadows I had projected began to retract back into me as I lost focus until the fluorescent lighting returned. To my right, Wendy lay motionless on the floor, his left hand still gripping his assault rifle.
“Targets down,” I heard. Then the footsteps grew closer until two soldiers stood above me. There was no strength in me to do anything but groan. My eyes wouldn’t stay open.
“Give him the dose,” one of them commanded. The other knelt down beside me and procured an injector gun. I knew I had about six seconds before he got done loading it.
Second One: Close your eyes. Deep breath.
Second Two: Flex the muscles in your right arm. Good.
Second Three: Feel their hatred for you. See them next to you now, clear as day even through your eyelids.
Second Four: Give Wendy the signal (two boot thumps against the ground).
Second Five: Retrieve your sidearm, and make it fast.
Second Six: Fire.
At this range, there was nothing their armor could have done to soften the blow much. They probably weren’t dead, but I doubted very much that they were still conscious after getting six each to the sternum. On my mark, Wendy had sat up with his rifle and opened fire at the other three soldiers down the hallway. One went down. The other two dashed around the corner and started yelling for backup.
“What did I just say?” Wendy was incensed, throwing his helmet to the ground and pointing accusingly at me. This was shit I would not take from him.
“Bitch to me later. We’ve got a problem now. Hold this for me.” Tossing him my now empty pistol, I dashed down the hallway, putting my hands out and getting ready for what I was about to pull.
They heard me coming, and I was about five feet from the corner when I saw the muzzle of one of their rifles peeking out. Good. The first thing I did was grab the barrel with both hands. Next, I planted both of my feet, stopping me short but doing nothing about my momentum. My momentum, by the way, was enough to tear the rifle from the first soldier’s hands and swing me around in a circular motion until the stock connected with the back of the second one’s (who stood behind the first) neck. Surprised, stunned, and off balance, he tumbled into his friend, leaving them both in a heap on the floor. It took the first one a split second to realize his dilemma.
“No wait don’t-” His protest was drowned out by gunfire. Wendy, who had walked, rejoined me.
“Did you have to kill them?”
“Did you have to miss?” He rolled his eyes and shivered for a moment before handing me my pistol.
“Here, I reloaded it. Or should I call it Nancy?” I relieved him of Nancy and holstered her lovingly.
“Call her what you like. What’s the status on their backup?” Calming down, Wendy took a moment to figure things out. He had gotten much better at this; his abilities now allowing him to not only find people but also just see them, wherever they were. All he had to do was focus on the location he wished to scan and from there he could detect where everyone at that location was and where they were going. It took some serious effort to do, however, and he could not maintain it for very long before having to take a break.
“We’ve got about forty five seconds. Orders?” I had been picking ammo off of the bodies of the defeated. Throwing him a few magazines, I started heading down the corridor in the opposite direction the soldiers had come from.
“If Kane is still alive, he’s going to be evacuating all the non-essential personnel. That’s everyone but you, French, Mae, Priestess, Jiao, Scott, Jan, and me. Once they’re away, he’s going to take them to the Vegas safe house. I-” The radio interrupted me. It was Jiao.
“Chief, we’ve got a problem.”
“Another one?” Keep cool, Cal.
“Mae and I got separated. My cover’s not blown yet but Hodes said that he and his men were to take her off my hands. I couldn’t risk-”
“I understand. Your priority now is rendezvousing with the Priestess. From now on you kill whoever gets in your way. I’ll find Mae.” I tried to reach Kane, but he was either out of range or dead. Wendy looked at me quizzically.
“Change of plans. You need to find French on your own. He’ll be at the rendezvous if they haven’t gotten him. Which I doubt that they have.” He nodded.
“Where are you going?” Before answering, I made sure everything was in place: my rifle, Nancy, my backup sidearm, my trench knives, and my baton. They were.
“Mae’s been compromised. I got her into this. I’m getting her out.” Wendy didn’t need another word; he just hit the road towards the rendezvous point. I found a stairwell and immediately started heading downwards.
I checked my watch. Ten minutes left. It would have to be enough time. As I exited the stairwell, I was immediately accosted by a squad of Zane’s men, six of them. Luckily enough for me, there were too many of them and too little room to justify their using firearms. So, out came the trench knives. Mine and theirs.
They came at me like Roman senators, but I had honed my intangibility trick. It would only work for a few seconds, though, so I dropped to the ground on my back and let go, plunging both knives into the first two feet I could find. One of them was smart and tried pulling out his sidearm; no risk of friendly fire against a prone target. But I wasn’t prone for very long: a solid shadow, my own, propelled me upward and into the goon in front of me. He was ready for me, though, and slammed me in the face with his trench knife, disrupting my Heads Up Display. One round of blind flailing later and he was no longer a problem, but the fact that I was now functionally blind certainly was. The plan was to close my eyes and see them through all those nasty feelings they all had. Before I got a chance to reach out, though, a loud voice interrupted the melee.
“Mead! Take your helmet off and put your weapon down if you wish your friends to go unharmed.” Somehow, all of my momentum disappeared, or at least flowed into my helmet as a solid shadow burst it open, clearing through the welding job that had been done a few hours earlier quite handily.
In front of me lay my best-laid plans gone awry. Kneeling on the ground were Scott, Jan, and the Priestess, each one accompanied by a soldier with a gun to their respective heads and probably dosed. Standing in front of them was Zane. I let my trench knives fall off of my fingers and to the ground. He nodded.
“Thank you, Calvin-”
“Mead works just fine,” I interrupted. Obviously at the end of a very long day, Zane rubbed his eyes.
“Fine. Mead. I can only assume that the Israeli has evacuated the rest of you?” He ran his fingers through the little hair he had left, taking a few deep breaths along with it.
“And they’re underground now. It’s just you, me, and three others who want to kill you now, Zane.” He smirked, not buying it for a second.
“Noble. Check anyway,” he ordered the uninjured soldiers. All but one ran off, who placed me in cuffs and began loading an injector. My head was bubbling over with expletives, but somehow I managed to keep composed.
“Stick me with that and we all die. The Poison tends to limit my memory of where bombs are.” That one got his attention. He still remained calm, though. The bastard had been stepping his game up since Milwaukee; that was a fact.
“Scott! You’re the telepath, right? I hear you’ve been quite invaluable to your friends’ operation. Why don’t you tell me about Mead’s bargaining position? And remember, that cold thing against the back of your head is a gun.” We had found Scott around Christmas. He had been a receiver for his university’s football team. Then, he put his entire team in the hospital after psychically screaming that they quiet down. Two of them suffered permanent brain damage, one of them died after two weeks in a coma. He had actually just been reading all their thoughts and hadn’t been able to shut them out. We had managed to find him before Zane did. He was a solidly built young man of what everyone thought to be Hawaiian descent and never uttered a single word he didn’t mean.
“Blow me.” Atta boy. Zane looked to be considering his options at this point, staring me dead in the eyes and stroking his chin.
“Have it your way. Corporal,” he said to the one who had cuffed me, “pacify him and bring them to the landing strip. I’m going to retrieve Monaghan. We’ll meet you there.” I felt a sharp pain in my arm and a sinking feeling in my gut. Then the inevitable blow to the back of the head.
I don’t think it was much longer than two or three minutes later that I came too. By then I was handcuffed to my seat in a large plane; Scott, Jan and the Priestess sitting across from me. Only Jan was awake.
“Please tell me we accomplished something.” My head started pounding. I’m not sure if it was because of the concussion or her, but the correlation did not escape me.
“I missed you too, Jan. How has the food been? Priestess tells me it used to just be watery soup and the occasional clementine. Care to comment?” She would have smacked me if she could. I probably deserved it. Doubtless she was under the impression that this was to be her last night in captivity.
“Shut up. It looks to me like the only thing you’ve accomplished is getting yourself and the Priestess captured, so I might be less inclined to kill you later if I knew that we had fulfilled any of the objectives we went in here hoping to fulfill.”
“The files are ours now. A list of every covert operative working for the IAD across the world. The orders were to begin hunting them down whether I came back or not. We also have the names of more Alters now, as well as the locations of our family members and intel on former superheroes they couldn’t catch.” This didn’t seem enough for her.
“You were looking for something else too, weren’t you?” With or without the Poison in her, she was sharp. There weren’t a pair of eyes out there she couldn’t read. I sighed.
“Yeah. Yeah, I was. Gibson had caught wind that there was a prototype Bath device here. The plan was to find and hijack it. It was the Priestess’s job, though, so obviously we failed.” There was a cold look on Jan’s face. I would catch hell for this later, in some form or another.
“Alright. Never mind the fact that you’re trying to get your hands on a weapon of mass destruction. I want to know how many people died in tonight’s little vanity project.”
“Looks like it’s going to be four.” There were footsteps clambering up the entry ramp: Zane, Hodes, and Mae. The latter was unconscious and hauled up over Hodes’ shoulder. Something in my stomach wanted out.
“Make that five, Mr. Mead. Perhaps you covered your bases as far as your friends go, but you know what they say about serpents. Quite the shame you didn’t just escape with the Israeli.” He got my best contemptuous laugh.
“I needed to make sure you hadn’t killed Mae. But it seems you did my job for me. Thank you for that.” Hodes threw her into the seat next to me and cuffed both her hands to the handhold, giggling like a schoolgirl and barely able to contain his glee. I wondered why until her face drifted in my direction and I saw. I saw what had happened, what Hodes and his men had done.
“It was my deepest pleasure to make sure she survived. Lookin’ forward to hearing her scream when she wakes up and sees me.” It started deep within my chest and then moved outwards with my bloodstream. This feeling, it was so unfamiliar that it took a few moments to register as unpleasant in my head, but when it did, the blood left my face with a speed that rivaled light particles. Had I not been sitting down, I might have fallen. I’m not sure what little nervous impulse there is that tells your body to keep working, to live, but it shut down for just a few moments as I put things together in my head. Slowly, I turned to face Hodes.
“What did she survive?” My question was barely audible, but he definitely heard it. His smile widened and he shrugged in mock ignorance. I repeated myself. “What did she survive?!” The air was gone from my lungs by the time I had finished with the fourth word. Hodes began laughing, and pulled out his phone.
“See for yourself. I took pictures!” The feeling had arrived in my throat at this point, and as he scrolled through the photo album, I felt myself unable to close my eyes. Most of me was limp at this point. Hodes seemed to recognize this, because the next thing I remember was being on the floor with my hands cuffed behind me again and the loading ramp beginning to close. Then Zane’s voice.
“Remember, Hodes, either you both live or you both die. Keep in mind that he’s far more useful to me than you are.” There might have been pain, but I was dead to the world. It probably would have frustrated Hodes to learn this, but his laughter echoing throughout the cabin told me that he was blissfully unaware. He let up when the plane began to move and pulled me back up into the seat, and then left for the cockpit. My watch drifted into view. Thirty seconds. It didn’t matter anymore. I doubted that there was anyone left at Outpost Vega besides the maintenance staff and a few prisoners Kane had run out of time to evacuate. We were already about three hundred feet up when I heard the boom. The words came out of my mouth like the last drops of water from a canteen, and with them came blood.
“Happy V-M Day.”