The concrete walkway Miles’ group meandered down was shadowy and dull, shrouded by the rusted undersides of the countless other tunnels and boulevards that crisscrossed above them. Despite the spotless, almost barren nature of the walkway, pitting and scratches left by all the various pedestrians that had used it since it’s construction still managed to make everything look filthy. A few posters or advertisements would have gone a long way toward dampening the industrial feeling of the massive concrete half-pipe, but nobody bothered. The Sweepers always got those, along with the dirt and the dust.
None of the five spoke. That could wait until they’d arrived. Instead they all focused on ignoring the other travellers passing them by. Those with weapons wore them openly. Those without tried to act as if they were only hiding theirs. The best way to avoid getting yourself killed or robbed was to look tough enough that no one would attack you in the first place. Only an idiot expected help from strangers, least of all the cops, this far from one of the TRA checkpoints. And only an even bigger idiot travelled alone if it could be helped. Well, unless you were a Talent. But then, most rules didn’t apply to them.
James jerked his head toward an upcoming side path. Miles would have never even considered the alleyway if his friend hadn’t pointed it out. The group followed James as the tall, wiry man turned down the indicated turn-off. Miles was the last one through. He couldn’t help but feel a little claustrophobic, as the walls of the alley were barely wide enough for him to walk forward without brushing his shoulders against the concrete on either side.
Half a minute later the group exited the alley into a dull courtyard. Several other entrances were scattered around the concrete square. The only source of illumination was a single halogen strip-light hanging from the low ceiling, jutting out from a network of pipes and wires. A door was set into the only wall of the square that didn’t open into a multitude of alleyways.
Mile’s wasn’t looking at any of that, however. His eyes were glued to the jagged red symbols plastering the walls on either side of the door, done in red spray-paint. The Sweepers mustn’t come through a place like this very often, if ever. Or perhaps whichever gang used this particular icon as their calling card was simply willing to reapply the paint every day or so.
None of his friends reacted to the gang markings, so Mile’s shrugged it off and followed the others through the door. Inside was another enclosed space, filled only by a pair of seated men holding guns casually across their laps. Neither of them got up as Miles’ group entered.
“Don’t care if you lot head on in, but if you can’t pay you’ll be kicked right back out and none too gently. Watch yourselves.” One of the pair grumbled.
James, who was still standing at the head of the group, nodded. With no one seeming interested in saying anything further, the newcomers shuffled by the guards and passed forward through yet another door.
The music was the first thing Mile’s noticed, loud but still quiet enough that it hadn’t passed through the thick concrete walls of the building. Judging by the shape of the large room they were in and the flight of stairs occupying the furthest rightmost corner, he guessed the place had used to be an apartment block. The new owners had clearly made some rather rough renovations. Several walls had been inexpertly knocked down and reduced to crude support pillars, leaving the first level of the building Mile’s and his friends now stood in as one large, open area. An L-shaped bar had been set up, bolted to the floor by the stairs, and more than a dozen mismatched tables were scattered throughout the rest of the room. Apart from Miles’ group there were perhaps twenty or so others scattered throughout the area, mostly keeping to small groups of three or four.
James spoke for the first time since they’d met up in front of Prisha’s place. “You guys go grab us one of the bigger tables. I’ll fetch the first round.”
The tall man walked off toward the bar before anyone could respond. The others milled about, slightly uncertain and now lacking their apparent leader. Caleb leaned over toward Miles’ slightly. “Saying it out loud feels bloody stupid, but did you happen to notice the paint out front?”
“Yeah. What’s that about? James part of gang now, is he?”
Caleb just shrugged. Miles’ was about to ask if either of the girls knew what was going on, but Prisha chose that moment to seize the initiative and start making her way toward a scratched wooden counter sitting by one of the room’s jagged pillars, and Anna immediately followed. Caleb shrugged again at Miles’ raised eyebrow. Lacking much of an alternative, they followed the girls.
The ramshackle bar was quiet; an impression strengthened by the fact that James was already back with a tray of drink-filled, dented pewter cups by the time Miles and Caleb had taken their seats. A single bartender was apparently having no trouble keeping up with the demands of the pubs drinkers.
Not wanting to risk anyone bringing up other topics and derailing the conversation he and Caleb had been having, Miles’ spoke up as soon as James sat down.
“You joined a gang, have you James?”
The taller man shook his head. “Nah. But the Ouroboros are a decent bunch. They’ll deal with anyone who’s willing to pay, and they don’t bother the people around their territory much. I wouldn’t have brought us here if I thought there would be trouble.”
Anna snorted. “Ouro-what? What the fuck? There are some crappy groups out there, but at least most of them have names that fucking mean something.”
“Maybe it does mean something.” Prisha replied. “Sounds Latin, right Miles?”
Miles coughed awkwardly. “Actually, I’m fairly certain it’s Ancient Greek. It means something like, ‘the snake which eats its own tail.’ Has to do with rebirth or coming back from the dead or something.”
“Interesting as that is,” Caleb butted in, “I doubt the kind of people looking to join a gang have the same interest in history that you do, Miles.”
“Yeah. Jesus, I forget sometimes that while I was pissing away my time at school you lot actually managed to learn a few things.” James grunted.
Caleb shook his head. “Don’t lump me with Miles. I didn’t learn shit. And I certainly don’t need the pressure of having to entertain you guys with my endless knowledge and useless factoids.”
Prisha rolled her eyes. “Ooooooh, ‘factoids.’ Nice.”
Mile’s laughed along with the rest of his friends, but he couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed. Ever since he’d noticed that none of the other kids at his school had shared his interest in learning, he’d tried to downplay the amount of effort he’d put into his classes. Even so, he’d still managed to stand out, and standing out was almost never a good idea. Miles certainly didn’t want the kind of attention it could bring down on him. Overachievers got offered jobs by the TRA, and then you were a pariah whether you took them up on their offer or not.
He gulped from the cup James had placed in front of him. Something harsh and spicy, mixed with flat cola. Across the table Anna had started to cough.
“What the hell is this?” The brawny redhead asked. She took another hearty swig before anyone had a chance to answer. Besides her Prisha winced.
James just shrugged. Prisha peered into her own glass before speaking up. “I think it’s rum. Spiced rum and cola.”
“They don’t grow much sugarcane anymore.” Caleb noted. “And rum is usually made from sugarcane juice or molasses.”
“Could they make it out of whatever people use for sweets nowadays?”
“No idea. Miles?”
“Don’t look to me, I don’t know anything about drinks.”
“Hey James. What’s up with this place? If it’s really run by a gang, where are the gang members? Where are the guards? Apart from those two guys out the front and the bartender, it looks like everyone here is a customer.” Prisha asked.
James nodded sagely at the question and took a long slurp from the mug in front of him before continuing. “Yeah, I thought the same thing when Gerard showed me this place. Now, no one look, but there’s a girl sitting at the far end of the bar wearing a black cap. To answer your question Prisha, she’s a gang member. And she’s a Talent.”
Miles’ necked itched. Around the table each of his friends deliberately looked at James, or their drinks, or the ceiling. Anywhere except the bar. Despite obviously sharing the same nervousness as everyone else, Prisha still managed to look sceptical.
“Seriously? Because you know tons of people claiming to be one, or saying that someone they know is one, are usually just talking shit, right?”
“Another guy I know, he’s not part of the Oroborous so I can’t see why he’d lie to me, he said he once saw that chick kill some unlucky fuckers from another gang with her bare hands. Just ripped them apart.”
After that titbit of information there was several tense moments of silence. Painfully aware of the tension, Mile’s forced himself to speak.
“It makes sense. You’re right Prisha, there aren’t enough guns in this place. Either whoever owns it doesn’t care if someone wrecks their bar, or James’ guy was telling the truth.”
Anna grunted. “Or that girl’s a decoy and it’s actually the bartender who’s a Talent. Or there’s a bunch more gangsters hiding upstairs.”
“You’re goddamn paranoid, you know that?”
“You think I’m paranoid. I think I’m smart.”
Caleb laughed. “I think I want some more of whatever was in this cup. Everyone else?”
A chorus of ‘yeah’ greeted that announcement and Caleb hauled himself to his feet before shambling on over to the bar. Miles noticed he took a slightly curved route to the bartender, so as to stay as far away from the woman James had pointed out as possible. For a few moments, a comfortable quiet drifted over the table and its occupants.
“I don’t mind this place.” Anna said. Her left hand tapped idly against the tabletop, matching the beat of the slow rock song currently filling the room.
James nodded. “Right? I’ve been here a couple of times and it’s never too busy either. I’ve never had to wait for drinks.”
“Hang on. Does anyone else hear that?”
Miles immediately looked toward Prisha, noting the worried tone of her words. “What?”
Before anyone else had the chance to speak, the air suddenly shook and the back wall of the bar vanished in a violent flash and the thump of displaced air. Screaming almost immediately filled the bar, weirdly muted and warped. Miles wasn’t able to see what had caused it. Before the commotion had started, as soon as the wall had violently crumbled into chunks of masonry and dust, a flash of dull orange had filled his vision. Pain ripped through Miles’ retinas and face. His shoulder slammed against the floor as he fell from his chair. He screamed.
When he reopened his eyes, Miles couldn’t see.
“Tentative code 2 in Quadrant 3, sector 7 – sub-sector 3. Expected to escalate. Team One to the Jumper Pods.”
George was hurling himself to his feet before the last echoes of the Administrator’s semi-robotic voice had finished. Harriet and Alan were already up, pulling on their helmets and gloves. George murdered the sense of worry he always felt before a mission as he strapped on his own visored headpiece. Once the gear was on they weren’t his friends anymore.
“Ready?” Husk asked, going through a final adjustment of his visor. His HUD flickered to life, painting his two fellow agents in a faint neon glow and filling Husk’s peripheral vision with data. Gale (Harriet Anderson: Class B speed-type with minor aerokinesis) gave him a thumbs up. Spearhead (Alan Smith: Class C Strength type with a host of other powers too numerous for him to read without paying more attention to the display) just grunted.
Husk took off without another word, the pounding footsteps of his team close behind him. The few staff members standing between Team One and the transport hanger took one look at the approaching Talents and got out of the way, many running back the way they had come in their haste to clear a path. No one ever employed by the TRA in the history of the organization was stupid enough to hold up a Response Team.
The transport hanger was cavernous, easily the largest open space in headquarters. Most of that space was filled by a fleet of airships and skimmers. More stylish than the Jump Pods, such airborne transport was only good for reaching the topmost layers of New Horizon. Conventional travel was simply too slow for emergency forays into the lower levels.
Thus the Jump Pods.
“Hate these things.” Spearhead grumbled. The other two ignored him.
The pods were deceptively cramped, with their bulky, electronics covered exterior giving the illusion of a much larger interior. As soon as all three members of the team were inside their own pod Husk opened his direct communication channel to Administrator.
“Team One ready for deployment.”
“Acknowledged. Field agents and medical personal are nearly assembled, waiting for your signal to move in. Good luck.”
The machinery surrounding them hummed and then, suddenly, the Response Team was no longer in the hanger. The identical but different pods they now stood inside opened with a hiss. None of the three stopped to talk or examine their surroundings, though Spearhead did lurch slightly as he stepped out of his still hissing tube. They would be inside one of the tiny TRA checkpoints scattered throughout New Horizon’s lower levels.
A bright neon arrow pulsed to life on the wall of the Transport Chamber, indicating one of the room’s two exits. Team One took off running.
New arrows continued to appear as they ran. The red markings were really just a production of Husk’s visor. Rigging up every wall in New Horizon as a display surface would undoubtedly be useful, but the resources required would be of a magnitude Husk doubted he could even comprehend.
Before long the trio had left the checkpoint’s interior and made it out into the city proper. Here and there they caught glimpses of a few inhabitants, all vanishing into the warren that was New Horizon’s lower levels down various side paths. The fleeing figures seemed to be moving directly away from the direction Administrator’s arrows were leading his team.
Harsh strips of luminescence glared from overhead, insufficient for the task of illuminating the twisting mass of roofless tunnels and walkways despite their intensity. Husk couldn’t help but feel a small sliver of disgust toward his squalid surroundings, but he squashed the sentiment as soon as it appeared. Such sneering condescension had been a failing of his during as old life. As a TRA agent, as Husk, it was more than that. It was simply unacceptable.
“Requesting status report.” Husk whispered into his microphone. His appeal was directed toward Administrator, but Spearhead and Gale would be able to hear him through their own helmets. There was no need to give away the team’s position by shouting as they ran.
“Concrete data is lacking. The only live feed from the unlicensed bar where the altercation occurred is a shaky cell phone video that lasted for less than a minute before connection was lost. Two Talents are believed to be involved, one unranked Strength type and a second aggressor possessing some form of ranged energy emission. Extreme caution is advised.” Administrator paused, before continuing. “Non-Talent individuals with firearms are also involved.”
That last part had been added as if it were an afterthought. Which it probably was, Husk conceded. Only the most advanced small arms would be capable of injuring any of his team through their suits. Hell, Spearhead could be stark naked and bullets wouldn’t slow him down any more than a strong breeze.
“Approaching destination. Your current course places you at the breach point the second involved Talent created upon attacking the structure. Current speed will result in Team One reaching their destination within 30 seconds. Ceasing communication.”
Administrator’s voice vanished with a quiet snap. For a brief moment the only sound was the breathing of the various team members and their footsteps.
“Standard procedure?” Spearhead inquired.
“Yep. Spearhead first and I’ll move up behind him. Gale, you hang back before coming in a holding our flank.”
“So standard procedure.” Gale confirmed, her voice dry.
The corridor the trio was running down terminated in a sharp, right angle turn. A massive X was painted across the wall by Husk’s HUD. Only Gale slowed slightly, with the other two continuing the charge forward.
Once the neon-illuminated wall was roughly half a dozen meters away Husk threw his right hand forward and activated his Power.
The air stretched, seeming to recede into the palm of his hand. Looking through the effect was like looking through warped glass. The strange shifting of space lasted only a fraction of a second before terminating with a pop. A large oval section of wall vanished along with it.
As soon as he’d created the breach point Husk stepped to the left, pressing himself against the wall of the corridor. Spearhead barrelled past, the bulky, armour clad man’s upper body covered with the swirling visual signs of his own power. Once Spearhead was through the hole, Husk followed.
The hole he had made led through to a small junction of tight corridors. Someone appeared to have been using the area as a storage closet, with various mops, buckets and grimy cardboard boxes full of cleaning materials lying about. A second hole was present in the left wall, much more roughly cut around the edges than the fissure Husk had created. Spearhead continued on through without pausing, with Husk right behind him.
The pub was strewn with rubble as well as the bodies of the wounded and the dead. Large blackened gashes ran along the wall opposite the two TRA agents. A wooden bar by the building’s stairwell burned viciously. In front of them, a single man stood amongst all the chaos, tall and bald and wrapped up in a ragged brown coat. Several eye-catching tattoos ran along the sides of the man’s exposed neck, visible membership of some gang. The fact that Husk didn’t know which at a glance meant that they must have been fairly small time.
Lying across from the bald man was a woman so covered in burns and blood that anyone with half a brain would have pronounced her dead without a second thought. Despite this, she continued to move, propping herself up with one arm. Her other limb was little more than an uneven stump.
Throughout the bar, shadows flickered, twisting in on themselves and seeming almost solid. The unnatural phenomenon was concrete proof there was at least one Talent besides the members of Team One present.
“Come to die as well, have you?” The bald man crowed, leering at the two newcomers. His booming, overacted shout was almost comical. Husk would let himself have a laugh about it later.
Spearhead didn’t reply, continuing the sprint forward toward the bald man. Husk’s comrade was wreathed in a swirling vortex, the furiously spinning helix of compressed air running over the big man’s arms and shoulders. The air around him seemed to twist along with Spearhead’s Power.
The brown-cloaked gangster raised a single finger, every movement of his body imperious and confident. A blazing orange star soared forth, howling toward Spearhead and igniting the ground it passed over.
The bald man’s smile vanished when his fiery attack was torn apart upon contact with Spearhead’s vortex. Streamers of whatever energy had comprised the orb were diffused and flung away from the TRA agent in all directions, their light quickly fading. Spearhead still failed to react, continuing onward and swiftly closing the distance between himself and the gangster.
Despite everything, Husk couldn’t help but be impressed by the bald man’s quick thinking. With only a few meters left between him and Spearhead, the man fired off another one of his orange projectiles. Not at his attacker, but at the floor between him and the charging figure. The resulting explosion tore a sizable crater into the concrete surface and sent Husk’s friend tumbling to the ground, unhurt but stalled.
Unfortunately for baldy, it didn’t matter. Spearhead hadn’t been the threat; he’d merely been protecting Husk as Team One’s leader advanced behind him.
Husk fired off a burst of his Power, the shimmering effect extending in front of him in a cone. As soon as the gangster had seen the new threat he’d tried to turn his aim toward Husk. If he’d been smart, he would have used his remaining time to get out of the way.
Most of the bald man’s extended arm vanished, disappearing as quickly as the wall Husk had targeted earlier. What was left of the limb terminated in fragile tatters of greying flesh, bloodless and frail.
The man screamed, a high warbling, animal sound. Before Husk had a chance to fire again and end the fight, his opponent suddenly dissolved into a pillar of the same orange light he had been flinging at Spearhead. The pillar flickered directly away from Husk, travelling nearly half the length of the bar before coalescing back into the gangster. He began to stagger toward the bar’s exit, his ability to quickly get around using his Power apparently spent.
Gale choose that moment to stop skirting around the outskirts of the battle. The final member of Team One zipped toward the criminal, flying across the floor as little more than a blur. Before the man could figure out what was going on, Gale had leapt forward into a spinning roundhouse kick, looking like a character straight out of an action flick. The left side of the gangster’s chest collapsed around the blow, and he was sent flying through the air, whiplash causing his head to flop back and forth bonelessly.
Husk raised his arm, still pumped up from the short fight and intending to shoot the mangled Talent out of the air. He stopped himself at the last second. In the unlikely case that the enemy wasn’t already dead, he was still in no condition to be continuing any sort of attack. And the researchers back at HQ would want the body intact, though hardly anything had ever been learned from the corpse of a Talent regardless of how many scientists had been thrown at the problem. Still, there was no reason for Husk to obliterate the body.
Team One’s leader sighed and lowered his arm. Now that the actual fighting was over, the only thing he could hear was his own blood pounding in his ears. Adrenaline raced through him. Behind Husk, Spearhead hauled himself back to his feet, the larger man’s swirling, spectral armour vanishing into nothing.
“That’s that.” Gale remarked. Spearhead nodded. They both looked toward their leader.
Husk allowed them all a few seconds of immobility before he began barking out orders.
“Gale, head upstairs and sweep the building. Spearhead, you help me sift through the bodies, find any survivors and administer first aid.”
Spearhead grunted. “Starting with the burnt girl?”
“No, she goes last. She has to be the other Talent Administrator mentioned, and if she hasn’t died yet she can wait until the follow up team gets here.” Administrator would no doubt have been watching the fight through the helmets of Team One, and would have alerted more mundane members of the TRA to come in and set up a perimeter as soon as the commotion was over.
Husk waved his hand wearily. “She appears to have passed out anyway. If she wakes up, keep an eye on her and don’t let move about too much. Get to it.”
The others set off, Hurricane vanishing up the stairwell while Spearhead began turning over bodies, his armoured hands surprisingly gentle.
Husk’s eyes swept over the bar, confirming what he’d suspected as soon as he’d seen what the bald man’s Power had been. One rogue Talent dead, the other unconscious with seven kinds of hell beaten out of her.
And yet the shadows throughout the bar continued to dance, less intense than before but still present.
He sighed, before moving over to join Spearhead. Husk wondered which of these poor bastards had chosen tonight to Awaken.