Category Archives: Fiction
Leaving the hectic docks behind, Deegan climbed into the sky above Artaxis until the city lay beneath him. Spreading away from the docks and the sprawling lower city, Artaxis rose up on a series of terraces carved in to the northern face of the island’s central mountain. Seventy-five thousand people crowded its streets while above them the skies were filled with ships from every nation bringing in produce and commodities from across the world.
Having lived in the city for five years now, Deegan knew its streets well, his skyboard giving him a view of the city that few of its inhabitants could enjoy. At the same time, the skyboard had turned more than a few heads. As far as he could tell, his board was one of a kind; he’d never seen anything like it. Deegan assumed that was because no one other than him was crazy enough to build and operate such a device. His father, proud of his son’s accomplishment, had said as much on more than one occasion.
After taking a second to enjoy the view, he swooped down towards the second terrace, looking for Black Street. The second terrace was home to a number of merchant districts mixed in with middle class residential streets. It was a much nicer and cleaner place than down in the lower city where Deegan and his family lived.
It didn’t take him long to find it and he set down in a small square a short distance from his destination; his sudden appearance drawing more than a few startled and curious looks which the young boy ignored. Jogging the last dozen or so yards, Deegan couldn’t help but smile. From the Docks to the Second Terrace in under five minutes without using the board’s booster, that had to be a personal best. Handing over the package didn’t take much longer; “Port Authority Messenger service sir, got a package for you … sign here … here’s your package sir, have a nice day.” With the package delivered, Deegan made his way back to the docks to wait for his next job.
His skyboard strapped to the back of his shirt underneath his backpack, Deegan walked through the marketplace, his mind on food. It had been a long day for him, seeing him run ragged scooting back and forth across the city on over a dozen deliveries. He was exhausted and the heat of the summer day had left him parched, his skin red from the harsh sun. In hindsight, skipping breakfast this morning to get to work early had probably been a mistake; he was starving.
He stopped at one of the stalls, attracted by the smell of fresh fruit. “Hey there Little Thief,” the stall owner said as he saw Deegan approach, “anything catch your eye?” Deegan blushed; he hated that nickname even if there was no malice behind its use. He wasn’t a thief; it had all been just a misunderstanding.
Not long after moving to Artaxis, his father had taken him to the market. Deegan, nine-years-old and wide-eyed with amazement at being in such a big city for the first time, had wandered away from his father. He had stopped in front of a fruit-seller’s stand and studied the fruit on offer. There were so many colours, textures and scents; so many varieties of fruit that he had never seen before. Picking up one that had looked particularly tasty; he had glanced around looking for his father. Seeing him just a couple of stalls down, Deegan had started to run over to ask him for the money to buy it. Before he could get more than a couple of steps, his arm was grabbed and he was nearly lifted clear of the floor by the irate trader. “Not so fast you little thief,” the trader growled down at him, “I’ve had enough of you thieving little punks.” Deegan looked down in horror at his hand still holding the fruit and realised what this must look like. He knew what happened to thieves, if they thought he was trying to steal the fruit he’d be thrown in jail if not hanged. Tears streaming down his face, he had loudly protested his innocence. Luckily, his father had heard the commotion and strode over, demanding to know what the man was doing to his son. The trader had eventually been convinced by the boy’s terrified tears and his father’s calm words but ever since that day, the trader had taken to calling him by that nickname.
“Hey Jayden, you still got any kumo fruit in?” Deegan asked scanning the stalls wares.
The trader smiled and reached under the stall. “I always keep one back for you.” He held the succulent fruit just out of Deegan’s reach. “You got money?”
Deegan rolled his eyes and fished out a couple of coins, dropping them into the trader’s hand. “Thanks Jayden,” he said as the trader handed him the kumo and he took a deep bite, savouring the taste of the juices. “See you tomorrow.”
He continued on his way, chewing on the fruit, lost in thought. It wasn’t far to the pub where his father would be waiting for him. It had been a hot day and he was looking forward to the promised drink; he certainly felt that he deserved it. Tomorrow was one of the days that he was at school and if tomorrow was as hot as today, then sitting in that stuffy classroom was going to be torture. At least he wouldn’t be there all day and he’d be free in the afternoon to hang out with his friends or just mess around on his skyboard.
Not paying attention to where he was going, he almost walked into someone standing in his way. “Excuse me,” he started to say but stopped when he looked up and saw the Imperial uniform hidden underneath the man’s cloak. The man looked down at him, one hand on the sword on his belt. He wasn’t alone either; two other similarly attired men were with him. Before Deegan knew what to do, the two other men had positioned themselves behind him. He swallowed nervously and held his hands up. “Umm, guys, if this is about the flag, you can have it back. It was just a stupid prank. No need to get nasty about it, right?”
The Imperial soldiers looked at each other in confusion for a second. “This is that kid from last night?” One of the soldiers said.
“Talk about coincidence” another said.
“Wait up,” Deegan thought to himself, “if they’re not here for … and if I’ve just said … awww crud.”
“Quiet!” The soldier in front of Deegan barked. “Arashi, Vigilant Fletcher would like a word with you.”
He barely contained a sigh of relief. “Sorry guys, I think you got the wrong guy, my name’s …”
“Vigilant Fletcher was specific.” The soldier said firmly, “He said ‘Bring me the boy with unkempt wine-coloured hair under a blue bandana, a red armband on his arm with the number 46 written on it and a strange plank-like object strapped to his back.’” That certainly described him. “He was most insistent.”
“Okay … creepy … but I’ve had a long day at work so I’ll think I’ll give talking to a crazy sorcerer a pass.” Deegan tried move away, but he was surrounded, and from the way they were standing, they weren’t about to let him just walk away. This was bad, really bad. He stuffed the rest of the kumo into his mouth.
“You ‘aint going nowhere ‘cept with us kid.” One of the soldiers behind him said.
“And if I say no?” Deegan said, chewing on the remains on the fruit as fast as he could, the juices dribbling out of the corner of his mouth.
“Then,” the soldier said sneering and unsheathing his sword an inch, “we’ll make you and I can’t guarantee that you won’t get hurt in the process. In fact, I can guarantee that you will.”
Deegan nodded. “Uh huh, are you allergic to kumo fruit?” Confused by the sudden non-sequitur, the soldier could only stammer that he wasn’t. “Good.” Before the soldier could respond, Deegan spat the pulped fruit into the man’s face. He screamed as the kumo’s juices blinded him; the men behind Deegan were too stunned to react as he pushed past their blinded captain and took off running down the narrow street. They recovered quickly and soon began chasing the fleeing boy.
Weaving through the crowded streets whilst being chased by three Imperial soldiers was not how he wanted to spend his evening. Especially since he didn’t have the energy for it. He had no idea who this “Arashi” person was, but the Vigilant had described him with near perfection and he had no intention of finding out what the man wanted with him.
“Stop thief!” The lead soldier yelled as he pushed his way down the street.
“Great,” Deegan muttered through gritted teeth, “a smart soldier, just what I need.” Yelling that while chasing a kid down the street increased the chance that someone might help them catch him. Luckily, most of the merchants knew the local street rats and pickpockets by sight and Deegan wasn’t one of them. However, all it would take is one meddling do-gooder and those soldiers would get him; he also needed to avoid any city guardsmen.
A hand reached out and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt as he ran past an alleyway, pulling him inside. His own momentum took his feet out from under him and he would have fallen to the floor if not for the tight grip on his shirt. “Lemme go!” He yelled, trying to twist out of the grip holding him.
“Quiet!” A voice hissed as he was span round, pressed against a wall and a hand clamped across his mouth. Deegan looked up with wide, panicked eyes, at the person restraining him. It was a boy a couple of years older looking down at him with harsh grey eyes. “If you know what’s good for you you’ll keep still and shut up.” The boy pressed himself against Deegan and glanced towards the street. Shadows seemed to flow like water from where they were situated as Deegan watched, pooling around them both. A tingle ran down his spine, his hairs stood on end; this was magic.
“I think he ducked into this alley,” a voice yelled from the street. The three soldiers charged into the alley heading straight for where Deegan was being held against the wall. Deegan suddenly started struggling with the boy holding him, convinced he was working with the soldiers.
The boy glanced back at him with a pleading look in his eyes. “Do you want to get us both caught?” It took a second for Deegan to realise that the words had been spoken without the boy moving his lips. Somehow, the boy had projected the words directly telepathically into Deegan’s head.
Deegan watched with a growing sense of panic as the soldiers neared them. However, instead of trying to grab them, they ran straight past as if they didn’t see the two boys at all, disappearing around the corner. The boy stepped back, releasing Deegan and letting out a sigh of relief. “That was close.” He said aloud. As he spoke, the shadows receded from around them, returning to their place. “You’re welcome by the way.” Deegan stood against the wall, staring at the boy in front of him, his so-called saviour. The boy’s eyes looked out from under a fringe of black hair, and despite the cocky smirk on his face, they were harsh and cold. There was something about him, something familiar almost as if Deegan knew him somehow even though he knew that they’d never met. It must be magic he thought, something to “help” him trust the strange boy. However, after the run in with the soldier’s he wasn’t about to take anything or anyone on faith right now, especially a strange magic-user who coincidentally shows up to save him from being dragged to an Imperial Vigilant. “You’re younger than I thought you’d be Arashi, and shorter. Come on, we better get going.”
If the boy had wanted to convince Deegan to trust him, then using the name “Arashi” was bad mistake. Deegan took a step toward the boy until they were almost chest-to-chest. “I’m not going anywhere with you or anyone else.” The boy opened his mouth to say something but he was cut off as Deegan glared at him. “And my name is Deegan.” He reached forward and grabbed the boy’s arms, moving too fast for the startled boy to respond. Deegan’s knee shot up and crashed into the boy’s groin causing him to double over and groan in pain.
“Stupid brat,” the boy hissed as he rolled around on the floor, “I’m trying to help you.” However, Deegan had already gone.
Robert leaned back on his chair, sipping at his pint. The cold ale was a welcome relief from the heat. He didn’t envy his son working today, he had the benefit of the tug’s cab for shade, but Deegan would have had no protection from the burning sun. He looked forward to sharing a drink with his son, a drink Deegan would surely need. Robert smiled sadly; perhaps things could have been different if his own father had tried a little father-son bonding, but such basic human interaction was probably beyond that man’s understanding.
His train of thought was interrupted as Deegan burst into the tavern, looking around frantically. Deegan’s face was flushed and dripping with sweat; he’d obviously been running. “Deegan, over here,” Robert called out over the din of the pub, waving him over. At the sound of his voice, Deegan’s head whipped around to face him and for the first time he saw the panicked look in his son’s eyes; something was wrong.
“DadsomeguysareaftermeimperialsoldiersIthinksomeVigilantsentthemexcepttheykeepcallingme…” he said without stopping to breathe before his father cut him off.
“Hey, calm down and take a deep breath,” Robert said, standing up and grabbing Deegan by the shoulders; the boy looked about ready to collapse. “Start from the beginning, what’s wrong?”
Deegan reached across the table, picked up his father’s nearly full pint mug and gulped down the drink thirstily. “These guys, Imperial soldiers, just tried to grab me off the street.”
“They said a Vigilant sent them,” Deegan said, still out of breath. “A Vigilant Fletcher.”
Robert’s grip on his son’s shoulders tightened to an almost painful degree. “What was that name you just said?” He demanded sharply. Deegan repeated the name and Robert closed his eyes, grimacing.
“Dad,” Deegan said, confused by his father’s sudden reaction, “what’s wrong?”
Forcing a smile, Robert relaxed his grip and began propelling Deegan towards the back door. “Nothing, let’s get you home.” Refusing to answer any more questions, Robert hurried through the streets, half dragging Deegan behind him.
Sam ignored the looks from the other people in the library. You’d think it was the first time they’d seen a scruffy street kid sitting at a computer. The fifteen-year-old boy thought they were probably surprised they couldn’t smell him from across the room. Sam wasn’t surprised though, thanks to his genetic alterations, his sweat gave off no scent and had odour neutralising properties. Even though the original purpose of the alteration was to enhance his stealth capabilities, he was probably the only teenage boy on the planet who never had to worry about deodorant and showers.
As he was tapping away at the keyboard, scrolling through another newspaper report on a missing teenage boy dated nine months ago, something made him look up. Two men stood at the front desk talking to a library assistant. They showed something to the assistant, a badge Sam assumed as they verbally identified themselves as NYPD detectives. Then, one of them asked if “she had seen this boy,” presumably showing her a photo at the same time. Sam knew he was in trouble when she glanced in his direction before pointing him out to the plainclothes detectives. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the two men approach, weapons still in holsters but ready to draw at a moment’s notice.
“NYPD,” said one of the men as he flashed a badge, “we need you to come down to the station with us to answer a few questions. We’ve had reports of a kid matching your description stealing bags and purses in the area.” The other man stood back, his hand by the holster on his belt.
Sam sized the two men up, calculating his chances. Slowly, he pushed his chair away from the desk and stood up. The two men took a step back. “I ‘aint done nothing,” Sam said, forcing a teenage whine into his voice, “I’ve been in here all day. Ask anyone.” He looked around at the other people in the library, as if looking for support. Not that he expected any; it seemed that he and the two men had developed the superpower of invisibility if the way that everyone was ignoring them was anything to go by.
“Don’t make this any harder than it has to be kid.” The man with a hand on his gun said.
“Fine,” Sam said with an exasperated sigh of defeat, “I could do with a warm place to sleep tonight anyway and a police cell is as good as any.” There was a pause as if the two men hadn’t expected Sam to give up so easily. They quickly recovered and the first man pulled out a pair of handcuffs, turned Sam around and cuffed his hands behind his back. Each taking an arm, they began to lead the unresisting boy out of the library. As they reached the front desk, way from the other library patrons, Sam made his move.
He effortlessly snapped the handcuffs as if they were made of cheap plastic; broken pieces of metal clattered noisily onto the tiled floor. Sam tore his arms from the men’s grip while they were still unprepared, surprising them with his strength. One of the men recovered quickly, reaching to draw his gun. That act designated him as the most immediate threat and Sam’s training took over. He jabbed upwards with the heel of his right hand, striking the man hard in his nose. The crunch of breaking bone and cartilage barely had time to sound before Sam followed up with a solid punch to the stomach with his left fist. Sam’s face betrayed no emotion as he pressed his attack, spinning around and kicking the man in his face while he doubled over from the punch. The man was sent sprawling across the front desk, knocked unconscious by the kick. A quiet click, the distinctive sound of a safety being disengaged, reminded him of the existence of the other man. In the reflection of a computer monitor on the desk, Sam saw the man had drawn his weapon and was taking aim at the back of his head. With split second reflexes, he span around, drew the unconscious man’s gun whilst knocking the other man’s gun out of his hands, and aimed between the startled man’s eyes, thumbing the safety. The force of Sam’s blow had shattered the bones in the man’s hand and the gun tomahawked across the library, embedding itself in the wall. It all happened so fast that the man didn’t get chance to react to the pain as he stared in shock down the barrel of the gun. In less than five seconds, the tables had been turned.
Sam blinked, his eyes seeming to refocus on the gun he was holding and his aim wavered slightly. If the man thought that he could take advantage of the boy’s hesitation, he was wrong. Flicking the safety back on, Sam tossed the gun into the air, caught the barrel and brought the grip smashing into the side of the man’s temple. At the last second, he pulled his blow, not wanting the shatter the man’s skull. The man was instantly knocked unconscious.
By this point, chaos had broken out amongst the few people in the library. Most were fleeing away from the scene of the fight as fast as they could and within a minute, the only conscious people left in the front were the Sam and library assistant.
She was standing frozen at the front desk, shocked into indecision about whether to flee or not. “You … you attacked those police officers.”
“Not cops,” Sam muttered as he knelt next to the man he had pistol-whipped and started to search him.
“I said, these men weren’t cops.” Sam said, holding the man’s wallet and pocketing the cash. There was no point in checking for and identification, he was certain that any he found would be fake. “Legitimate police officers don’t cuff you without reading your rights, at least the clean ones don’t. These men were armed with HK45 semi-automatic pistols firing .45 ACP rounds. Definitely not standard NYPD issue.” He found a cylindrical object in an inside jacket pocket which he pulled out and showed the women. “And what kind of cop carries a suppressor? If I’d gone with these two, I’d have ended up face down in an alleyway with a bullet to the back of my head. Just another dead street kid. Just another statistic.”
The woman watched as Sam removed the spare ammunition clips from both men and stuffed them along with the first man’s gun into his dirty backpack. “I don’t understand,” she said, “if those men weren’t police, then who were they?”
Sam laughed, “Trust me, you don’t want to know.” Shouldering his backpack, he began to hurry towards the door. He did not intend on being around when the real cops showed up; summoned no doubt by one of the terrified library patrons cowering in the back. With his luck, the local capes were probably less than a block away already.
Watching him leave, the woman’s eyes strayed towards the handgun embedded several inches into the brick wall. To embed it so deeply into the wall from across the room would’ve taken a great deal of strength. She looked back at the boy about to disappear on to the street. Even with his small but powerful build there was no way he should have been able to do that, unless … “Are you some sort of metahuman?”
Pausing at the door, Sam looked over his shoulder. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“Just who are you?”
“Huh,” Sam grunted, opening the door and leaving, “that’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“Commander Mayhew,” the soldier said as he approached the raised platform at the back of the control room whilst carrying a computer tablet, “we’ve had a confirmed sighting of Echo Three at a public library in Harlem.”
The man sitting at the desk looked down at the soldier. “Report.”
“Unit 7, posing as NYPD officers, located the target and they … uh ….” The soldier stammered to a stop as the Commander fixed him with a withering glare. “They attempted to apprehend the target but …”
“Let me guess,” the Commander interrupted, “they disobeyed orders, did not call for reinforcements, and the target neutralised them without breaking a sweat.”
“Um … yes,” the soldier said, glancing down at the tablet, “Unit 12 was able to intercept the ambulance taking Unit 7 to hospital for treatment. They’re bringing them in now. According to witness statements made to police who responded to a 911 call, an unidentified teenage boy attacked two men claiming to be NYPD officers when they tried to arrest him. Despite being handcuffed, he was able to defeat and disarm both of them within seconds displaying obvious metahuman talents. Apparently, even though he had a clear shot, the boy chose not to kill.”
Interesting, thought the Commander. Not only had Echo Three chosen not to kill the men who had tried to capture, but he hadn’t eliminated any of the witnesses. Evidence that the behavioural conditioning had broken down. Had that occurred over the last month Echo Three had been on the run or did the breakdown begin before his escape. Perhaps those scientists at Project Apex overestimated the effectiveness of their brainwashing techniques. Nonetheless, now he had yet another loose end to take care of. “Sergeant, once Unit 7 has arrived, escort them to the sick bay for debriefing. After they’ve made a complete report, instruct the medical team to process their bodies for organ harvesting.”
“But sir, their injuries are not life threatening!” Protested the soldier.
“They may as well be,” Mayhew said quietly. “One, they disobeyed a direct order to call for back up immediately upon locating Echo Three. Two, they attracted the attention of the authorities to what is supposed to be a covert retrieval operation. Finally, I’m going to have to explain to the Board of Directors why footage of an escaped supersoldier prototype has appeared on the news.” Mayhew turned the computer screen in front of him around to show the web stream of a local TV news channel. A heavily pixellated video, probably mobile phone footage, showed the blurred form of Echo Three effortlessly defeat the two mercenaries. “We are lucky that the quality of the footage is too poor for anyone to positively identify Echo Three. Nonetheless, The Armoury does not accommodate soldiers who do not follow orders and the Board will no doubt order Unit 7s execution for their part in this debacle. At least this way, their failure may have positive benefits for their comrades in the future.”
Mayhew dismissed the soldier and leant back in his chair, running his fingers through his hair. He needed some fresh air, the control room was becoming stuffy and he needed to work out what he was going to say to the Board.
Ares leaned back on his chair, his face becoming serious. “I think it’s time we had a little talk.”
“Oh yeah?” said Cam, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “The last time we met, you told me that the reason why those wolfspawn had attacked and killed my friends was because of me. I was just twelve years old, I’d just seen my best friends brutally torn apart and I was still in shock. You dumped a crap load of blame on me, convincing me that it was my fault they were dead. Do you have any idea what that did to me?”
Folding his arms, Ares fixed his son with a hard and calculating look. “Wolfspawn are attracted to the divine essence given off by Scions and they’re used by the enemies of the Gods to track down and eliminate Scions who haven’t yet come into their powers. Those wolfspawn were hunting you, so what I said was true. If it wasn’t for you, those four people would still be alive today.”
Orin suddenly felt a shiver, causing him to back away from the table involuntarily. Waves of anger were flowing out of Cam, his father seemingly oblivious to them. The boy’s eyes positively burned with barely suppressed rage. The spirit had never seen his charge look like this. “That’s not what I’m talking about,” Cam said through gritted teeth. “You knew those things were in the area, you told me yourself back then that you’d been tracking them. But for some reason, you were just a little too late save my friends, a little too late to stop me from getting this,” Cam lifted up his hoody to show the scar across the chest, “but just in time to save my life by playing the big damn hero.”
“What are you saying?” Ares asked quietly.
“Cam…” Orin said carefully, worried about what the boy was going to say next.
“I’m saying that you could’ve stopped the wolfspawn if you wanted to but you didn’t. You wanted Andy, Ben, Toby and Mr Harris to die. You as good as killed them yourself. For all I know, you probably planned the whole thing!” By the end, Cam was on his feet yelling at Ares.
The god slammed his fist down on the table, the force of the blow reducing it to splinters. “Boy,” he roared, spittle flying from his mouth, “I could crush you like an insect. I am your father and you will treat me with respect or by Zeus, what I do to you will make Prometheus’s punishment look like a reward.”
“Just because you banged my mom fifteen years ago, don’t give the right to call yourself my father!” Cam yelled back. “I’ve known junkies that made better dead beat dads than you.”
“INSOLENT WHELP!” Ares jumped out of his seat and struck Cam across the face. The force of the god’s blow knocked the boy off his feet and sent him flying across the room. He crashed through the front window, landing in the car park and startling the gang members sitting on the bonnet of their car. They drew their guns, unsure of what was going on, but preparing for trouble all the same. Ares climbed through the window carrying his sword, the metal tip scraping across the concrete.
Cam lay dazed on the ground, blood dribbling from his mouth and missing a tooth. He opened his eyes to find his father standing over him, the features of his face distorted by a ferocious rage. “Dumbass,” he thought to himself, “you had to go and anger a war god didn’t you.”
At the broken window, Orin watched on, conflicted. Ares was his lord and master and he was honour bound to obey his orders and wishes. One of those orders was to stay with Cam and watch over him, protect the boy from harm. Now, Ares himself was threatening to harm Orin’s charge. If Orin did nothing, he would be disobeying an order to protect Cam. If he intervened, then he would be violating his oath to his master. The guardian spirit didn’t know what to do; then he remembered what Cam had said to him less than an hour earlier.
Ares raised his sword above his head, poised to strike at his son lying prone at his feet. “This is it,” Cam thought, his eyes closed and his arms shielding his face. The expected blow, however, never came. He opened his eyes to see Orin standing over his body, the wolf spirit’s fangs bared and growling at Ares. For a moment, no one moved. Then the expression on his father’s face softened. He lowered his sword and stepped back.
“Lord Ares,” one of the gang members said, “is everything okay?” The god waved his hand dismissively and the gang members stood down.
“Lord Ares? Since when did bangers talk like that?” A confused Cam asked, looking between Ares and what he had assumed were just simple gang members.
“Einherjar,” Ares said by way of explanation, an explanation that didn’t really explain anything as far as Cam was concerned. “A gift from my Norse counterpart. Wonderful warriors, loyal to a fault. Bit too fond of mead for my tastes but that’s Vikings for you.”
“They don’t look like Vikings,” Cam said glancing at the Hispanic-looking gang members.
“You don’t look Greek,” Ares replied with a raised eyebrow. Father and son watched other warily until Ares sighed and held out a hand. “It’s been a while since one of my children got me that mad, well done.”
“So,” Cam said cautiously before accepting the hand, “you’re not going to kill me then?”
“Heh, not today.” The god helped him to his feet and led the limping Cam back into the motel room. He sat him down on a chair as behind them the shattered window that Cam had been thrown through repaired itself. Orin padded over and sat at Cam’s side, keeping both eyes warily on the god. Ares sighed, “Let me have a look at that face.” He reached towards Cam, and just for a second, the boy flinched away before wincing in pain and finally allowing Ares to touch his face.
Cam sat in silence as “father” healed the wounds that he had inflicted and the tension between the two of them was palpable. Even though they were face to face, Cam refused to meet Ares eye to eye. It was Ares that finally broke the awkward quiet. “Do you really believe what you said before?”
Ares sat back and faced Cam, his expression unreadable. “You said that you believed I was responsible for the wolf spawn attack three years ago, that I had planned it.”
The boy settled back in the chair and sighed, suddenly very tired. “I don’t know, not any more anyway.” Cam yawned. “I don’t wanna get whacked in the face again, but was there something you wanted because I’m really tired.” His father reached over to the newly reconstructed table and grabbed a freshly chilled beer bottle, snapping the cap off on the side of the table. He offered a second bottle to his son. Cam shook his head. “It’s two AM, I gotta spend all day tomorrow finding a goblin market and I don’t fancy having to do it with another hangover.”
Ares roared with laughter. “With your constitution, you could drink an entire crate of these and not feel the effects!” The boy just folded his arms and fixed his father with a tired look. “Very well. There are things we should talk about; things I need to tell you but first, you hunted and killed a wolfspawn today didn’t you?” Cam nodded and the god allowed himself a brief smile. “Very good, you’ve certainly come a long way from that young boy I met three years ago.” There was just a hint of pride in his voice as he spoke but Cam was too tired to notice. “That wolfspawn you killed tonight, was it hunting you?”
“No,” Cam said after a moment’s thought, “Orin caught its scent a couple of nights ago not long after we arrived in town. It weren’t tracking me at that point; Orin has taught me to suppress my divine essence. I needed it to get my scent so I stopped suppressing it. After that, it was pretty easy to get him to come after me.”
“Not without incident I see,” Ares said gesturing to the bandage around his arm.
“Meh,” Cam said dismissively, “as I said to Orin earlier, I heal quickly and you know I’ve had worse. Plus I needed to look weak to lure it in.”
“Interesting strategy,” Ares glanced down at Orin and gave the wolf spirit a withering glare, displeased that he hadn’t put a stop to Cam’s reckless plan, “but anyway, the wolfspawn wasn’t tracking you, it was on the hunt for someone else.”
“You mean someone like me, another scion, except this one hasn’t learned to suppress its essence yet,” Cam said, remembering what Ares had said earlier.
“Bingo, as you kids say” Ares said snapping his fingers. Cam smirked, hiding his smile under the pretext of yawning. He’d never heard anyone his age say that, or anyone under the age of thirty for that matter. “Turns out this young Scion has ran into a spot of bother. I owe his father a favour so I said I’d get you to help.”
Cam sat up, this sounded serious. “Why me, and why can’t this guy’s dad help him out?”
“Fair question I suppose. There are rules about directly interfering in the lives of our children, ancient rules. I think Nezha is still doing the paperwork on the last time he ‘helped’ his son.” Cam laughed at the mention of paperwork. “I know, but Nezha is one of the Shen, an ancient Chinese pantheon. They don’t call them the ‘Celestial Bureaucracy’ for nothing. Anyway, he apparently doesn’t want to get in trouble again with his superiors. He mentioned something about having to spend time in the ‘hell for those who do not use block capitals on forms’ if he does. I swear, those Chinese have a hell for everything. Anyway, his kid’s in trouble and as much as he wants to help, his hands are tied. He sensed another Scion in the neighbourhood, you, and he called in a favour to get me to get you to help.” Ares’ eyes rolled in mock frustration. “Never play poker with a god of trickery.”
Sitting back in his chair again, Cam took a moment to think things over. He still didn’t see how this was problem and he wasn’t the type to snap to attention just because “daddy” said jump. Plus, things hadn’t exactly gone well the last time he had met another Scion. However, despite all that, was he okay with ignoring the fact that this kid needed help and that apparently he was the only person in the position to do something. Cam glanced down at Orin who had remained quiet throughout all of this. The wolf-spirit nodded; whatever Cam decided, Orin would back him. “So,” Cam said, his mind made up, “what sort of trouble is this kid in?”
Three Years Ago…
“Dylan, what on earth are you doing up in that tree?” The man said, looking up at the twelve-year-old boy sitting up in the tree’s branches, holding the map. Three other boys stood at the base of the tree, also looking up.
“I’m trying to see if I can find out where we are,” Dylan called back down.
“And you think you can do that in a tree, thirty feet above the ground?” The four boys were part of a seventh grade field trip from the nearby town of Altamont to Crater Lake National Park. Twenty five eleven to twelve-year-old kids spending a week camping and hiking in the woods; learning about geology, ecology and the natural world. Today was their last day and the children had been split into teams of four, driven to the other side of the park and given the challenge of finding their way back to camp using what they had learned over the week. To help them, they had been given a map and compass and in order to make sure they stayed out of trouble, an adult would accompany them with a radio and a GPS unit in case they needed to call for help.
“Don’t worry about DS Mr Harris,” one of the boys said, “he was like an eagle scout or something in a past life.” The three boys laughed.
“Laugh it up scuzz buckets,” Dylan said in mock indignation, “if it weren’t for Toby’s sucky map reading, we’d’ve been back at camp an hour ago.”
“Be that as it may, you better come down from there. You’ve already got a black eye from that fight the other day; I don’t want to have to explain to your parents when we get back how you broke your leg on a simple orienteering exercise as well.” The laughing stopped, and there was an awkward silence as Dylan reluctantly climbed down from the tree. “What?” Mr Harris asked, confused by the sudden change in the attitude from the four boys.
“DS ‘aint got no folks,” Toby said quietly to Mr Harris, “he’s an orphan.”
Mr Harris inhaled sharply. “Yikes, open mouth and insert foot.”
Dylan jumped down from the lower branches, wobbling slightly as he landed but remaining on his feet. “Christ Toby, you make it sound like I got a terminal disease for something.” He said rolling his eyes.
“Did ya see where we are?” Another boy, Andy, asked.
Dylan laid out the map on the ground. “We should be here, about five miles west of the Witch’s Tit.” His friends giggled at the name of the rocky formation as he pointed to it on the map. “Oh grow up. Anyway, we must’ve got totally lost because the mountains are on the wrong side, at least that’s what I think. The compass is playing up again.” He took the compass out from around his neck and showed it to his friends. The needle was spinning erratically, not settling on a specific direction for longer than a second. “I ‘aint got a clue where we are.”
The four boys looked over at Mr Harris expectantly. He knew what they wanted but he could only shrug. “Sorry guys, can’t help you there.” Taking the GPS out of his pocket, he switched it on and handed it to the boys. The screen was flickering, fritzing in and out before dying completely. “The radio’s dead too.” That little detail worried him; he had made a point of double-checking the batteries were fully charged and that both devices were working properly before setting out.
“So what now?” Dylan asked.
The Greek god of war sighed. “Just once, would it kill you to call me dad?”
Cam scowled and threw his backpack on to the bed. “Actually, yeah, I think it might.” Orin padded over to Ares and licked his outstretched hand. The god leaned down and scratched the wolf-spirit behind the ear.
“Hey there boy, you still taking care of the runt?”
“He can be handful sometimes m’lord,” Orin admitted whilst giving a Cam a glance letting the boy know he was just humouring the god, “but he shows promise.”
Ares laughed and looked over at Cam who was leaning against a wall, glaring at him with his arms crossed defensively in front of him. “Dylan, why don’t you sit down,” he said, gesturing to a chair across the table from him, “I brought pizza.” With a snap of his fingers, a pizza box appeared on the table. The logo on the box was of a pizza delivery restaurant that Cam used to visit back where he had lived before his life had turned upside down. Almost as soon as it appeared, the smell of pepperoni, shredded beef, extra cheese and barbeque sauce filled the room, all his son’s favourite pizza toppings.
Cam’s stomach rumbled and although and he was sorely tempted to give in and sit down. Instead, he just glared at Ares. “Dylan Smith died three years ago at Crater Lake, along with his friends. Don’t you watch the news on Olympus, or are you just too busy screwing with the lives of mortals.”
“Funny,” Ares said smiling, “because you’re the spitting image of young Dylan. Either you’re his twin or the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.”
Three years ago…
They had been walking through woods now for several hours. With the boys thoroughly lost, Harris had decided to take charge. Dylan and others had no problem with the experienced outdoorsman taking over; they were all getting tired and hungry. Harris had decided to take the group uphill, climbing the mountain trails up the extinct volcanic peak towards Crater Lake itself. Lake View Drive ran around the rim of the crater, once they found the road, they could use it to find the camp. It would be taking the long way around, but at least they would eventually find it.
Harris was starting to get worried. It was only six in the afternoon and it was already getting dark; sunset this time of year wasn’t for another two hours. They also should have reached the caldera rim hours ago but it didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. However, he didn’t let those worries show, trying to keep the boys spirits up.
He stopped to take a swig from his water bottle and noticed Dylan lagging behind the group, limping slightly. He waited for the boy to catch up. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” Dylan said, shrugging. “My ankle’s a little sore,” he added when he saw Harris’s questioning look.
“Are you okay to walk on it?” Harris asked looking down at Dylan’s feet. The boy was wearing beat-up trainers, definitely the wrong type of footwear for hiking. He mentally cursed the school that had organised the trip; they should have made sure that every child had a pair of strong hiking boots.
Dylan nodded, “I’ll be fine.”
The two of them started walking again, catching up with Toby, Andy and Ben. As they walked, Harris looked down at Dylan again and noticed the black eye he was sporting. “So,” he asked, “what were you and that boy ‘Spud’ fighting about the other day anyway.”
“He … er …” Dylan began uncertainly, “he said some stuff about my mom.”
“Ah,” he could understand how that could be a touchy subject and one that bullies would easily choose to exploit; children, after all, were amongst the cruellest creatures in creation.
“It shouldn’t bother me,” Dylan went on to say, “but I never knew my mom, she died when I was born and no one knew who my dad was. It’s bad enough at that school being an Applegate Kid, but when Spud found out about my mom, he starting saying that I killed her; that it was my fault mom died giving birth to me.”
Harris whistled. “I’m surprised you didn’t punch his lights out for saying that.”
Dylan grinned and looked up, pointing to his eye. “How do you think I got this?”
He knew how Dylan must feel, having lost his own parents as a boy himself. “So you live at the Applegate Care Home?” Harris asked after walking in silence for a few minutes, “Is Mrs Sanders still an old battleaxe?” Before Dylan could reply though, a howl echoed through the forest.
The group froze. “Was … was that a wolf?” Toby asked, the fear evident in his voice.
“There aren’t any wolves in Crater Lake,” Harris said, suddenly questioning everything he knew about the area’s wildlife. Another howl sounded in the night.
A strange look passed over Dylan’s face, his eyes glazing over for a second. “That’s no wolf,” he said quietly, almost inaudibly, “it’s too big to be a wolf.” In his mind, he could sense a presence in the woods, something large and evil. It was watching them, stalking them; and it was hungry. Dylan was rooted to the spot; the sense of the presence was overwhelming. He had never felt anything like this before, he couldn’t move, he could barely breathe.
“What are you…” Andy started to ask, turning to face Dylan. However, he stopped when he saw his friend’s terror-stricken face. In all the years he had known him, he had never seen Dylan show any fear. Andy supposed that his friend’s “tough guy” attitude was a consequence of growing up in a care home environment, always having to prove himself to tougher, older, more messed-up kids. Because of that, Dylan had always been the tough kid in their little circle; always eager to show how brave he was. He never backed down from a fight, getting himself suspended from school a number of times for fighting with Spud and his cronies. What could scare him so much that he was struck white with terror?
It didn’t take long for Andy’s question to be answered. With a flash of fur and claws, something leapt into the clearing. It was massive, much larger than a wolf but it moved too fast for anyone to get a good look at it. The wolfspawn charged into Harris, dragging the man into the bushes on the other side of the clearing as the four boys watched in horror. There was a scream, quickly choked off to a gurgled cry, then the sound of flesh and born being torn. It was silent for several long seconds and then, one by one, four sets of red eyes slowly appeared in the darkness around them.
“Mr … Mr Harris?” Ben asked meekly.
An object the size of a soccer ball rolled into the clearing, bouncing along the uneven ground before coming to a stop at Dylan’s feet; it was the severed head of Mr Harris. The four boys screamed in terror and this seemed to be a signal for the wolfspawn, who charged into the clearing.
Ben was the first die, the spawn tearing out his throat. Screaming in terror, Andy made a break for the trees. Two of the spawn gave chase. One of them jumped on Andy’s back, driving him to the ground, while the other sank its teeth into his arm. “Help me,” he screamed, his eyes screwed shut in pain. The wolfspawn locked its jaws and pulled, ripping Andy’s arm from its socket. Andy shrieked, long and loud, and the other spawn bent down and tore off the remaining arm. Piece by piece, they tore him apart and somewhere between his left and right legs, the boy stopped his struggles and became still.
“Don’t just stand there Dylan!” Toby yelled as he picked up a stout branch. However, Dylan was frozen in terror, a wet patch spreading from his groin and could only watch as his friends fought for their lives and were torn apart in front of him. A wolfspawn, Harris’s blood dripping from its jaws leapt at Toby. The boy got a lucky swing in, the branch connecting with the side of the wolfspawn’s head with a crunch. If he thought that would save him, he was sorely mistaken. The other three wolfspawn converged on him, making short work of the young boy.
The first wolfspawn began slowly walking towards Dylan, growling and baring its fangs. “Run little scion, it’s not a hunt without chase.” Hearing the creature speak was too much and Dylan turned and fled, running into the woods.
Stumbling in the undergrowth, which seemed to conspire against him, Dylan ran in pure panic. His clothes became torn and his skin scratched and bloodied by branches and thorns. The wolfspawn were never far behind him, darting to forward to strike at him with fang and claw only to miss by a matter of inches. Dylan knew that they could easily catch up with him if they wanted too. They were herding him, toying with him, taunting him. Eventually, after what seemed like hours, Dylan was nearing complete exhaustion and could barely take another step.
That was the moment the wolfspawn decided to end their game. The pack leader charged into Dylan, sending him sprawling to the floor. He scrambled to his feet just as another wolfspawn slashed at his chest. Dylan fell back against a tree, screaming in pain. He looked down, the front of his hoody and t-short and been ripped open and three tears in his flesh across his chest and belly were gushing blood.
The wolfspawn began to close in for the kill and as his blood drained out of him, Dylan could only lie there and wait for the end to come, either from the claws of the wolfspawn or the horrific injury to his chest.
However, just as the wolfspawn were poised to strike, fate intervened. The spectral form of a wolf leapt through the tree that Dylan was leaning against, passing through it like a ghost, and tackled the lead wolfspawn. Just as he finally passed out from the blood loss, a man stepped into the clearing; dual-wielding a sawn-off shotgun in one hand and a two-meter long sword, he laid into the wolfspawn, hacking and blasting at them.
The pair made short work of the wolfspawn. Once they were all dead, Ares stood over the unconscious boy. “Humph,” he grunted as he bent down to inspect the wound, “I would’ve thought he would’ve put up more of a fight than that.” The wound was deep; even if by some miracle he lived long enough to get to hospital, it would prove fatal. Thankfully, being a god had its perks; one of which was not having to rely on mortal medicine. He picked the boy up, throwing him over his shoulder. “Come on Orin, we should leave while the veil is still shielding this area from mortal eyes.”
Yawning, Cam gave in and walked over to the table. He reluctantly took one of the slices of pizza and crammed it hungrily into his mouth. “It’s one in morning, I’m starving, exhausted, and I’m not in the mood for this shit,” he said through a mouthful of pizza, “what are you doing here?”
Ares leaned back on his chair, his face becoming serious. “I think it’s time we had a little talk.”
Sarah Tanner looked up as the front door opened and her son walked in. “There you are Deegan, dinners almost ready.”
“Yeah, sorry I’m late mum,” the boy said, closing the front door, “lost track of time. Is dad home yet?”
“He’ll be back in a minute,” she said turning back to the stove, “so go get washed up and then come down and set the table.”
The house where he and his parents lived was small and in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of the city. It wasn’t much but it was cosy and after moving around so much when he was younger, it was nice to have a place that was starting to feel like home. Deegan picked up his skyboard and started climbing the ladder into the attic. When they had first moved in, his parents had told him that he was too old to share a room with them anymore. At first, he hadn’t understood where he was supposed to sleep. Apart from the cellar and the attic, there was only the main room, a single bedroom and the pantry, all on the ground floor. Deegan was told that from now on he would be sleeping in the attic. That would be his room, his own personal space.
It had taken a bit of work, but between him and his father, they had managed to make it liveable if not comfortable. A small bed was pushed up against one side underneath the skylight. When he had first seen the window in the roof, his doubts about the attic were banished. The window let in a great deal of light and gave him a great view of the sky. Sleeping under the clouds and the stars, even if it was through a pane of glass, was oddly comforting to him. In the centre of the attic was a worktable covered in junk and tools. He cleared some space on the table and put his skyboard down; after using the boost earlier, he’d need to recharge its power crystals. From the ceiling hung a model of a dragon with a working, articulated skeleton. When the window was open and the breeze blew in, the wings gently flapped as if it was flying. Ever since he was young, Deegan had been fascinated by dragons and together, he and his father had built the model when he was eight. He reached under the worktable and pulled out a small chest. Inside, hidden underneath his clothes, were several tightly folded flags, all of them slightly ripped along one side where they had been torn from their masts. There were flags representing the Succession States, the city-state of Galatea, the Arcadian Commonwealth, the Sundered Kingdoms, even the Sky Marshalls. All of them stolen from a ship. Now he could add an Imperial flag to his collection. He took the stolen flag out from underneath his shirt where he had stowed it and hid it with the rest; he couldn’t wait to show it to the guys tomorrow.
Deegan closed the chest and pushed it back under the worktable. Remembering his mother’s words, he quickly washed his hands and face in the washbowl before heading back downstairs. By now, his father was home, sitting at the table and taking off his boots and the smell of the cooking was filling the room.
Robert Tanner worked at the city’s docks, operating a pilot skiff and helping larger ships into port. Deegan himself also worked at the docks three days a week when he wasn’t at school as a message courier. His father wasn’t happy with him working at the docks; Robert didn’t think it was safe for a boy his age even if they did need the extra money. “Watch out for pressgangs,” he had warned his son on more than one occasion, “Some ships don’t ask before recruiting new crewmembers.” Deegan wasn’t worried though, he had been thinking about joining the crew of a merchant ship for a while now; they were always on the lookout for new cabin boys and rope monkeys. Of course, there was no way his overprotective father would ever let him crew a ship. If he found the recruitment pamphlet for the Sky Marshals he had hidden under his bed, he’d probably throw a fit.
“How was work today? Anything interesting happen?” Robert asked while Deegan began laying out the cutlery and placemats.
“Same as usual dad,” Deegan replied, “ferrying messages and packages across town for sleaze ball captains too lazy or too smart to do it themselves”
“You remember what I told you?” His father asked him as Deegan sat down at the table.
“Never look inside a package or at the contents of a letter,” Deegan said, reciting his father’s words from memory, “in case the guards stop and search you.”
“And why is that?”
“Because if you don’t know you’re carrying something illegal then…” said Deegan.
“…you’re just an innocent delivery boy,” he and his father said together.
“That’s my boy.” Robert said, reaching across the table to ruffle his son’s hair in approval. Sarah walked over carrying the food and setting the stew pot down with some force, she didn’t exactly approve of the lesson her husband was teaching to their son. The conversation moved on to safer topics as dinner progressed.
“Oh hey,” Deegan said at one point, “I saw an Imperial ship coming into port on the way home.”
“Are you sure?” Robert asked. “Artaxis is pretty far from Eldala.”
“Pretty sure,” Deegan said smiling inwardly as he thought about the flag hidden upstairs, “big one too; Dragoon-class I think given the number of crystals, the lack of sails and the size of its big guns.” He decided not to mention that he had got close enough to see that there had been a Vigilant on board; that was an argument he could do without.
“I wish you would put as much effort into your schoolwork as you do watching ships and messing around with that board of yours.” His mother said as she refilled his bowl.
The rest of the evening went quietly. After tweaking the levitation crystals on his board, Deegan decided to have an early night; he had work tomorrow morning. That night, like almost every night before, he again dreamt of flying, of soaring through the clouds.
“Tanner,” the man behind the desk called out over the noise of the room, “you’re up.”
Deegan looked up from the card game. “Coming boss.” He turned back to the table, gulped down the last of his drink, and picked up his winnings. “Gotta go guys,” he said to the four other boys around the table, all of them message runners like him, “catch you later.” Deegan grabbed his board and backpack and trotted over to the desk. “What’s the job boss?”
“Merchant ship out of the Sundered Kingdoms, up by mooring post three,” his boss said shoving a piece of paper into his hand. “Basic courier run, you know the drill Tanner.”
“Gotcha boss, mooring post three.” He pulled on his goggles and headed out the door, making sure that his red armbands were showing. The left one had “Artaxis Port Authority” written on it in black paint, the right had “#46” written on the other. Together, they marked him as a message runner working for the city.
The weather was exceptionally fine with clear visibility and Deegan could see for miles as he stepped on to the balcony of the Port Authority building. In the distance, he could see a number floating platforms that had several ships moored to them. The mooring posts were made of the same rock as the island and drifted in the sky relative to it. Ships that didn’t want to dock with island directly could moor up at the platform; it wasn’t as convenient as docking with the island but it was considerably cheaper. Tying his bandana over his face and making sure that his backpack was securely fastened, he jumped off the balcony and took to the air.
Deegan carefully weaved his way through the crowded airspace above the port, heading for the mooring posts a few miles out. There were ships of almost every design and nationality in the skies around the port. Artaxis was a major trading hub as its neutrality made it a natural junction of several major trading routes. As he flew, he heard a familiar voice call out his name and he slowed down, turning to face the direction the voice had come from. It was his father, standing at the controls of a pilot skiff guiding a large water tanker in to dock. “Keeping you busy are they son?”
“You know it pops,” Deegan said pulling up alongside the skiff.
“Well, work hard and stay safe and maybe we’ll grab a drink in the pub after work,” Robert said leaning on the wheel. “Just don’t tell your mother,” he added, winking conspiratorially.
Deegan waved and continued on his way. As he approached mooring post three, he saw the ship that had signalled for a courier. The ship may have been flying the flag of the Sundered kingdoms, but Deegan doubted that it was nothing but a flag of convenience. Its hull was marred by repair patches and battle damage but at the same time its levitation crystals were in good repair and were ridiculously overpowered for a ship of its size. When he got close, the demeanour and general appearance of the ship’s crew screamed “pirate” to Deegan. With a sinking feeling, he realised that this job was probably going to involve him carrying something illegal. “Looks like it’s time to play the dumb kid again,” Deegan thought to himself as he approached the ship, stopping short of actually landing on the ship’s deck.
“Clear off kid,” one of the heavily armed crewmen yelled at him, “if you know what’s good for you.”
Deegan pushed up his goggles and pulled down his bandana. “Port Authority sent me,” he said to the crewman, “you called for a message runner?”
The crewman grunted. “Hmph, you’ll want to see the captain then.” He motioned for Deegan to land and the boy hopped off his skyboard next to the crewman. “Follow me,” the man said to him, “but don’t touch nothing.”
Deegan was led below deck towards the captain’s cabin at the rear of the ship. As they walked, they passed several crewmembers. They gave the boy glaring glances and suspicious looks, reminding Deegan of his father’s warning regarding certain recruiting practices. “Just try it,” he muttered under his breath, checking that he had his knife tucked into the back of his pants and hidden under his shirt, “I aint gonna get grabbed so easily.”
“Cap,” the crewman said as they entered the rear cabin, “runner’s here for the package.”
Deegan glanced around the cabin before finally looking at the man in front of him. The cabin was rather plainly attired, especially for what he assumed was a ship full of sky pirates. For a start, there were no chests overflowing with gold and jewels, no fine silks and fabrics. The captain himself was wearing rough and hardwearing clothes like the rest of his crew, although his were considerably cleaner.
“You’re the message courier?” The captain asked, his tone making it quite clear that he wasn’t exactly impressed by the boy standing before him. “You’re younger than I expected.”
“Are you sure we should be trusting the package to a kid?” The crewman asked. As he did so, something inside Deegan snapped and he forgot about pretending to be w more than a naive dumb kid.
“Aren’t you a little young,” Deegan said, his voice adopting a fake whining tone, “a little small? How can we trust a kid, how can a mere boy protect our oh so valuable package.” He crossed his arms and raised a defiant eyebrow. “Can it, I’ve heard it all before. Now, you got a package or a message for me to deliver or are we gonna just stand around here and comment on my age and height.”
The captain smiled. “No one said anything about your height. Looks like you have a real complex there, … shorty.” Deegan just grunted and gritted his teeth. “Very well then, let’s get down to business.” He walked over to his desk, unlocked one of the drawers and pulled out something wrapped in cloth and tied with twine. “Okay … erm … “
“Okay Deegan,” the captain said, handing the package and a piece of paper over to the boy, “this needs to be handed over to man waiting at that address. Now, I’m sure that a scrappy young man like you will be able to get it there quickly. But, can we trust you to protect it if you run in to any trouble?”
Deegan took the package and carefully placed it at the bottom of his backpack. “Since it’s illegal to hire a port authority message runner to carry any form of contraband,” he said smiling slyly, “or anything with a value greater than 50 gold pieces, what sort of trouble are we talking about?”
The captain chuckled. “Well, nothing you can’t handle I’m sure. So what do I owe you.”
“Standard rate is 2 coppers per mile. Black Street is on the other side of town, about four miles, so call it eight coppers.” The truth was that Black Street was only three miles away. Deegan, like all the other runners, routinely added a mile to the distance if they thought they could get away with it. Runners only earned a single copper per run, by adding an extra mile and pocketing the extra money, they tripled the money they took home.
The captain reached into his pocket and started counting out the coins. “Here you go; eight copper pieces.” He said handing Deegan the coins. “And here’s two extra for your trouble; I remember how lousy the wages were when I was your age.”
“Gee thanks,” Deegan said, reaching out to take the extra coppers. Before he could take them though, the captain’s hand closed tightly around his when he tried to pick up the coins.
“One thing,” the captain said, “you won’t be sneaking a peek at the package now will you?”
Deegan smirked. “Like I get paid enough to be curious.”
The captain released Deegan’s hand, allowing him to take and pocket the coins. “Good, now scat. I’ve got work to do.” Dismissed, Deegan was led up on to deck, took one last look around the ship and took off on his skyboard.
On the dockside, the Vigilant watched Deegan set off towards the city. “So this is where you’ve been hiding Arashi,” he muttered, “this time you won’t escape.”
A lone boy sat on a rocky ledge looking out at the sky. His feet dangled over the edge with the ground, a mile below, hidden by the dense cloud cover. The sun was approaching the horizon and the waning light of the day painted the clouds black and orange, in the setting sun they looked like rolling flames and smoke.
Leaning back and letting out a deep contented sigh, the boy closed his green eyes and let the warm breeze blow through his dark-red hair, which stuck out haphazardly from underneath his bandana. From here, a couple of hundred feet below the top of the floating island, he couldn’t hear the sounds of the bustling port city up above. Here, it was quiet and peaceful and for a short time, he could forget about the stresses of school and family.
A shadow passed over him as a skyship approached the docks and the boy opened his eyes to watch it. It was 75 feet from bow to stern, single-sailed with dual-levitation crystals, probably a courier or trader from the Succession States or Galatea. The ship wasn’t alone, there were at least half a dozen other skyships in the skies around the island, either arriving or departing. In the distance, he could just make out the silhouette of two more islands drifting serenely amongst the clouds.
Propped up against the cliff wall next to him was his skyboard. A smooth wooden board five feet long and one wide; its surface was painted a dark blue, almost black. Leather straps on the top were used to secure the riders feet to the board and along the sides were a series of levitation crystals mounted in metal brackets embedded into the wood of the board, three on each side. The board had a homemade look about it, its edges were rough and the paintwork chipped in places.
He spent several more minutes watching the sunset and enjoying the feel of the breeze before deciding it was time. Getting to his feet, the boy put on a pair of goggles, tightening the leather strip around the back of his head and positioning the thick glass lenses over his eyes. He untied the bandana and retied it over his face across his nose and mouth; wouldn’t want to swallow a bug now. The boy picked up his skyboard and placed it against his back as if sheathing a sword in a back-scabbard. The leather foot straps undid themselves without his help and fastened around loops on the back of his shirt, securing the board to his back like a rucksack. The boy took one last look around and launched himself into the sky.
The wind whipped at his hair and tore at his clothing as he fell, plummeting towards the clouds below. Behind the bandana, he was grinning. He felt alive, truly alive and free. Out here there was no one telling him what to do, what to say, what to think. There were no teachers trying to cram useless information into his head and no parents reminding him to do his chores. It was only him, the sky, and the rapidly approaching ground.
The boy reached behind him and pulled his skyboard loose, bringing it to his feet. The magic in the straps caused them to loop around his boots, pulling them down on to the board and securing them in place. As soon as the soles of his open-toed boots touched the skyboard, its levitation crystals flared into life. Brilliant blue energy lit up the crystals from within, creating a blue contrail of light as the skyboard accelerated in its dive.
Below him, the boy saw a large skyship rising up from the cloud layer. It was a massive ship, metal hulled with four huge levitation crystals. From up here, he could make out the cannon ports lining its side and the armoured men walking its decks. The ship was a warship from the Eldalan Empire far to the south and as he realised this, his grin changed to a mischievous smirk. The Imperial Navy was touchy about civilians getting close to their ships, especially foreigners. They had a nasty habit of firing on ships that got too close. Still, he thought, they wouldn’t shoot at a fourteen-year-old boy, would they?
Leaning forward, he swooped down towards the warship, flying along its portside. He left behind a glowing corkscrew-shaped contrail from stern to bow as he spiralled along the length of the ship. Men looked up from their work as the boy streaked past. A number of the soldiers pointed weapons at him threateningly, yelling at him to stay clear. Of course, he didn’t listen, assuming that the threats were idle. There was still one thing he wanted to do.
Looping back around, he flew straight for the rear of the ship, weaving between the massive forward guns. At the last second, he darted upwards and over the bridge, reaching out the grab the Imperial Flag flying proudly over the ship. The fabric easily tore in his grip and he whooped in triumph as he escaped with the flag. His whoop quickly became a yelp as a sickly-green bolt of magic ripped through the air just inches from his head. So much for not shooting at a kid! Glancing behind him, the boy saw a man standing on the deck pointing at him with an outstretched hand. Although he was dressed in average-looking tunic and pants, even from this distance the boy could make out the arcane runes tattooed onto his skin poking out from under the man’s clothing; runes that had started to glow again as the man gathered mana for another shot. The man was a Vigilant; Vigilants were bad news. They acted as if they were above the law, and although that was only true inside Eldala, it didn’t stop them from running roughshod over local laws in pursuit of their duties; protecting the Empire of Eldala from enemies both foreign and domestic using any methods they deemed necessary.
Hanging on to the stolen flag, the boy gritted his teeth and sent a mental command to his board. The levitation crystals flared brightly as magical energy began to surge them at a vastly increased rate and the board rocketed upwards, the sudden increase in speed accompanied by a sonic boom. Within seconds, he was hidden in the clouds. The Vigilant watched him escape through narrowed eyes before turning to the other men on deck and shouting orders.
The boy suddenly realised what he had just done and couldn’t help but laugh nervously. He had buzzed an imperial skyship, stolen their flag and angered a very powerful and very dangerous man. Although he had gotten away, he could have been killed. If that had happened, his father would’ve been angry, so angry in fact the old man would probably have killed himself just to give his son a good hiding in the afterlife.
Still grinning and clutching his prize, he swung the board around he began to head back to the island. It was getting late and dinner would be ready soon.
With glowing red eyes, the wolfspawn slowly stalked down the darkened corridor, sniffing at the air. “Come out little boy, I know you’re in here. I can smell you.” The creature’s gravelly voice echoed through the abandoned apartment building, it’s six-foot form nearly filling the width of the rubbish-filled corridor. Suddenly his quarry, a teenage boy in ragged clothes, burst out of one the rooms and began running down the corridor. He was clutching his arm, blood trickling from between his fingers. Baring its fangs in a smile, the wolfspawn began running after him, its paws pounding on the floor; the hunt was on.
The boy darted down the corridor, leaping over obstacles and gaps in the floor. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that the wolfspawn was rapidly gaining ground. He appeared to change his mind, instead of continuing to run towards the stairwell, he jumped through a hole in the plasterboard walls into one of the apartments. The wolfspawn followed, making a hole of its own as it ran straight through the thin walls in pursuit of the boy. The boy scrambled across the floor, shielding his eyes from the flying wall fragments. “Why can’t you just leave me alone?” He yelled desperately.
The wolfspawn didn’t answer and instead paced back and forth in front of the boy, savouring the smell of his blood. Without warning, it launched itself at the boy, its fangs bared and ready to strike. However, the boy quickly rolled out of the way, ducking under the wolfspawn and evading its jaws by a matter of inches. As the wolfspawn landed on the floor, the boy jumped to his feet and ran towards the boarded up windows. He brought both his arms up and leapt through the window, splintering the wooden planks. Sailing out the window, he plummeted towards the alleyway five stories below. The boy reached out and grabbed a telephone cable strung between the apartment building and its nearby neighbour. He grunted in pain as it arrested his fall but the strength of the cable wasn’t strong enough to take his weight and it snapped. Still holding onto it, the boy was swung down against the neighbouring building, slamming into the wall. The impact was hard, and try as he might he couldn’t stifle the yell of pain as he hit his injured arm. Watching from the window, the wolfspawn snarled as the boy let go of the cable, kicked off the wall, and somersaulted through the air before landing crouched on the floor. “You can run boy,” the wolfspawn called out, “but you can’t hide. I can smell your blood from a hundred miles away.” They locked eyes for several seconds, the boy panting heavily.
“I’ve gotten pretty good at running the last couple of years,” he yelled back before bolting down the alley.
Running into the deserted street, the boy jumped onto the bonnet of an abandoned car and used it as a launching point to leap clear over a chain link fence topped with razor wire. Landing on his feet, he quickly disappeared into the darkness of the junk yard beyond.
The wolfspawn howled in delight; this quarry was proving to be a little more elusive than he had first suspected. This was going to be fun. As the last echoes of the howl were lost to the wind, the wolfspawn leapt out of the window, bouncing from wall to wall on its way down to the ground. It ran across the road and used the same trick as the boy, using the abandoned car to leap over the fence. The immense weight of the wolfspawn crushed the car, causing the still unbroken side windows to explode outwards. It failed to clear the fence but the flimsy steel wire was no obstacle to the wolfspawn as it tore through it, buckling the fence as it chased the boy into the junk yard.
The air in the junk yard was a jumble of smells, oil, petrol and diesel, rusting metal, decaying rubber, decomposing body parts. From the smells, the wolfspawn knew that somebody had been busy in this yard, and not just in the scrap metal business. However, the many overlapping smells obscured the boy’s scent; he’d have to track the boy the old-fashioned way, by following his footprints.
Slowly, it began to creep between the mounds of scrap metal, keeping an eye on the piles of rusting cars. Any of them would make a good hiding place for the boy. A clatter of metal on metal echoed through the night, the sound bouncing around the junk yard like pulses of sonar. The wolfspawn could almost see the waves of sound as they swept past, tracking them back to their source and locking on to the boy’s location. It bounded up a pile of scrap, sliding down the far side into a cul-de-sac formed by three overflowing piles of scrap. As it landed, a miniature avalanche of scrap caused by its slide blocked the exit behind it and it looked over at the terrified boy, grinning a fang-filled smile.
The boy looked around, desperately searching for an exit and the wolfspawn watched as a look of terror passed over the boy’s face when he realised that he was trapped. He backed up against the pile of scrap behind him, trying to get as far away from the wolfspawn as possible. “Little boy, scared and all alone in the night,” the wolfspawn taunted as the boy nervously fiddled with an amulet around his neck, “got any last words before I feast on your heart?”
Taking down his hood, the boy looked up at the wolfspawn, smirking slightly. He grasped the amulet firmly, a wolf talon on an old leather string, the fear in his blue eyes gone and replaced by a mischievous twinkle. “Who said I was alone?” There was a burst of white light and a spectral form erupted from the talon, landing in front of the boy. The spectral form coalesced into that of a wolf, smaller than the wolfspawn, but no less impressive, it’s white and brown fur a stark contrast to the wolfspawn’s blood spattered grey. “Say hello to partner, Orin,” the boy said cracking his knuckles. A tattoo in the shape of a twisted four-pointed star on his right shoulder briefly glowed, its blue light shining faintly through the material of his hooded top. The light spread down the veins of his right arm before racing over the rest of his body, fading moments later. “You’ve hunted scions for the last time, spawn breath.”
Snarling, the wolfspawn charged at the pair, he wasn’t going to let some whelp and his mutt get the better of him. It was time to end this game.
“How’s the arm Cam?” Orin asked, walking over to the boy as he sat on a pile of tyres with a small backpack at his feet.
“Meh, I heal quickly enough.” Cam took off his hooded top and inspected the gash on his arm. It had been hurt when he had allowed the wolfspawn to slash him with its claws whilst it chased him. He had done this in an attempt to appear weak and helpless. It had been a calculated ploy, luring the wolfspawn into the ambush; one that Orin had not accepted without argument. Cam could tell that his friend and guardian was still a little mad at him for not listening. The gash wasn’t deep and it was still bleeding. He reached into the bag and pulled a strip of “clean” cloth that he used as a makeshift bandage, wrapping it around the wound. A little bit of blood soaked through but the material stopped the bleeding. The gash would probably leave a scar, but it wouldn’t be his first; he had a few already. With his top off, the scar he had received from a wolfspawn three years ago was clearly visible, slashing across his belly and left side. It was the first time he’d seen a monster and it was a night he’d like to forget, if only the nightmares would let him.
Satisfied that his arm was okay for the moment, he put his top back on, hopped off the tyres and walked over to the corpse of the wolfspawn. The beast hadn’t taken long to defeat, little more than five minutes. Between the two of them, they had managed to do it without sustaining any injuries more serious than a few grazes and bruises.
Taking out a small knife tucked into his sock, he reached down and cut off the long central talon from each of the wolfspawn’s claws. The creature’s eyes had also solidified in its death becoming red crystals. “These should be worth a bit on the market,” Cam said digging them out with the knife, “this city does have a goblin market, right?”
“As far as I know.”
There was a squelching sound from the corpse and it started to sag. It had only been dead for a couple of minutes but it was already starting to dissolve into a black, oil-like ichor. In a matter of seconds, there was nothing left of the wolfspawn except a pool of ichor. Cam knew that too would soon disappear, evaporating in the dawn sun. “Let’s get out of here Orin, I’m beat,” he said, putting the talons and eyes into the backpack.
What a sight they must make, Cam thought as they walked down the street. A scruffy homeless kid with dirty and ripped clothes, a blood soaked makeshift bandage around his upper arm visible through the torn sleeve of his stop, a scar on his face, and a large wolf-like dog following him like a loyal pet. Lucky for them it was past midnight and there was no one around to see them, at least no one who cared that is.
“You need to be more careful,” Orin said cautiously, coming up alongside him.
“What do you mean?” Cam asked innocently, knowing full well what Orin was going to say.
“Using yourself as bait like that, it’s reckless and stupid.” The wolf hopped in front of Cam, forcing him to stop. “The last time you faced a wolfspawn you were almost killed! This time you got lucky.”
“Last time,” Cam snapped, “there were four of them and I was just a kid.”
“You’re still a child Cam, and the only reason you survived before is that your father saved your life.”
“I’m not a kid anymore, I’m fifteen. And I asked you never to talk about that man!” Cam was almost yelling; his face flushed red with anger. He pushed past Orin and continued walking briskly down the street; his shoulders and back tensed.
Orin walked behind him for several minutes before Cam broke the awkward silence. “Sorry for yelling at you like that. You’re my oldest friend Orin; I know you’re only looking out for me.”
“You know, if you had been born in Ancient Greece, you would be considered a man by now,” Orin said, “and you would have been trained from birth in how to use your abilities.”
“Yeah,” Cam said smiling, “but the nearest I’ve been to Ancient Greece is Athens in Ohio. I guess I’ll just have to make do with what I learned in Ms McKenna’s seventh grade history lessons and watching way too many Jackie Chan movies as a kid.”
Orin laughed, which was a disturbing sight to those not used to the large wolf spirit. “I suppose that would explain your terrible form and lack of technique.”
“Did you just insult the fists?” Cam asked in mock indignation. “You do not insult the fists.”
Eventually, after nearly an hour of walking, they arrived at a sleazy motel. The sort of motel frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers and didn’t think twice about renting a room to an unaccompanied fifteen-year-old boy who paid in cash. He was sure the manager thought that he was some runaway kid or gang member and if wasn’t already involved in business of its two main group of clients, he soon would be. It was a dangerous place to stay, marginally safer than sleeping on the street, but only just. On his first night, he’d been accosted by a junkie attempting to steal what little money he had, probably trying to get his next fix. All that the man got of it though was a broken nose and a few bruises. Not long afterwards, he had been approached been a group of men decked out in bling and carrying poorly concealed handguns; their get up screamed gang members. They’d offered him a job, saying they could use a “scrappy little punk” like him. Cam had refused, politely but firmly; there was no way he was going to get involved with the drugs trade; or the sex trade for that matter, they had been disturbingly vague on what they wanted him for. He hoped they had gotten the message; he didn’t want any trouble from them.
With Orin close behind, Cam walked across the parking lot towards their room. The lot wasn’t deserted, even at this time of night; two men sat on the bonnet of a car, watching Cam closely. He kept his head down, watching the two men out of the corner of his eye. They were probably just lookouts for the gang that used the motel as a drug den and whorehouse, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Cam had been on the run for three years, hunted and tracked by monsters and individuals who wanted to kill him for what he was or wanted to use him for that same reason. He hadn’t survived this long by being complacent.
Cam didn’t relax until he was safely in his room; the door closed and jammed shut with a baseball bat. “I’m telling you Orin, if it weren’t for the fact that this is the only place we can stay without attracting too much attention, I’d seriously consider finding somewhere else.”
“Pity,” a voice said from the darkness, “this place has character.”
Cam span round, slapping the light switch and dropping into a combat crouch. Why hadn’t Orin detected someone was in the room? His heart was pounding, adrenaline coursing through his system. Then, he saw who the intruder was.
Sitting in a chair, with a bottle of beer in his hand, was a gruff middle-aged man in a leather jacket. Leaning against a wall shotgun and massive sword, its blade at least two meters hilt to tip. Cam stood up and fixed the man with a smouldering glare. “Ares, what the hell do you want?”
The Greek god of war sighed. “Just once, would it kill you to call me dad?”
For the second time in less than a day, Trace awoke in the ship’s medbay. This time however, he wasn’t handcuffed to the bed’s side rail and he didn’t have Tsukiko leaning over him, inadvertently giving the teenage boy a clear view down her top. If she had noticed his embarrassed stammering and red-faced nervousness, she had tactfully decided not to comment on it. At least this time he was fully clothed.
He sat up in the bed, wincing at the grenade-like explosion of pain in his head that the movement caused. The bright overhead lights made the pain worse as he squinted. Trace clutched the side of his head and felt the presence of a bump where his head had struck the cockpit window. He cursed himself over his stupidity. Forgetting to fasten the safety harness, how could he have made such a rookie mistake?
Opposite the bed was a large window running the full length of the medbay. Normally it would provide an impressive view of the space outside the ship, but right now all Trace could see through it was a featureless grey void. “I really hope that’s astral space.” Trace said quietly to himself, referring to the medium that ships using a starcaster travelled through, “and not limbo or something.”
His leg, although no longer broken thanks to his earlier healing attempt, was still sore and a little tender. A twinge would shoot up it every time he moved or shifted his weight. There was probably still a hairline fracture in the bone and running around the ship and crawling through maintenance ducts hadn’t helped it any. Concentrating, Trace was able to summon a little bit of his healing energy, the blue glow repairing the last of the injuries he had suffered in the jumper crash and at the hands of the ISPD agent. There was even a little left to soothe the headache.
Trace slid off the bed and moved over to the window, pressing his face up to the glass. He knew they were only skimming across the “surface” of astral space, rather than entering it completely. The starcaster, like nearly all forms of teleportation magic, converted the ship into a mana stream and transmitted it through astral space much like a radio signal. This way they could take advantage of the astral plane’s tenuous connection with time and space to travel vast distances in the material plane, the plane in which the “real world” existed. Although it would seem to take several hours to travel a few dozen light years, to an outside observer on the material plane it would appear instantaneous. Long ago, mages had believed that all teleportation spells and rituals were instantaneous. However, back then they never travelled more than a few tens of thousands of kilometres across the surface of a planet. As the distance travelled increased, the time delay became more pronounced and noticeable; a few minutes for journeys across a solar system, a few hours for interstellar trips.
Outside the ship, Trace could see nothing. It was as if the ship was enclosed by a sphere of uniform light grey. Ambient light filtered in from all directions casting soft diffused shadows and there was no sense of movement. The lack of anything to focus on out there unnerved him.
Spacer legends had it that astral space was full isolated planetoids and the remains of forgotten, dead gods. Some also said that entire worlds that had been thought destroyed by the release of apocalyptic magical weapons during the Dragon War could be found here. There were rumours that the Imperial Navy and some megacorps had developed astral drives that allowed ships to physically cross the barrier between planes and enter astral space. If any of these experimental ships actually existed, no one was talking about them.
He shivered as he recalled some of the stories about astral marauders he’d heard told at the guild when he was younger. Huge beasts, the size of in Imperial Dreadnaught that inhabited astral space and could attack unwary travellers in mid-starcast. Trace laughed nervously and turned away from the window. He was too old to believe in those sorts of stories, only children were scared of phantom monsters that don’t exist, right?
Thinking about the stories he had heard as a child at the guild brought the recent events back to the front of Trace’s mind. He could barely remember his life before he was brought to Jurrika by Dorga; even remembering the faces of his family had become difficult in the last few years. They only seemed to come to him now in nightmares. Ten years of threats, beatings and worse was finally over, he was free. Dorga had never been much of a father and now he was dead, killed by the son he had abused and mistreated.
Trace still wasn’t sure how he felt about that. That Dorga had been an evil man was without question. In a universe where good and evil, order and chaos were definable and quantifiable aspects instead of vague philosophical concepts, that much was clear to him. His death was certainly deserved; he had caused a great deal of suffering. Not just to Trace either; many other people had had their lives destroyed by Dorga’s pursuit for power and wealth. Innocents like Toby and Samantha. Although again he’d had no choice about it, he had taken another life and the words that his “father” had said to him in that dream were ringing in his ears.
His train of thought was interrupted by a rumbling, this time not from the ship but from his own stomach. Trace became acutely aware at just how long it had been since he’d had a proper meal. “I’m not going to get anywhere on an empty stomach,” he said to himself. Pulling himself together and pushing the images of Dorga’s death from his mind, he left the medbay in search of something to eat.
“This is a noble’s ship, there ought to be some decent scram on board somewhere.” If he remembered the layout of the ship correctly, the galley should be just off the midship foyer. The foyer was a chamber located at the centre of the ship with a number of corridors and doors leading off from it. The stairs to the lower and upper decks also connected to it, making it the hub of the ship’s layout. Forward of the foyer was the ship’s forward lounge and the corridor to the rear lead to the crew quarters, the launch bay and the engine room. There were four doors leading out of the foyer. One led to the medbay he had just left and another opened into the storeroom that had been used as makeshift cell to lock him up in earlier. Of the other two, one had the universal sign for a washroom. Through a process of elimination, that meant that the remaining door must lead to the galley.
The galley door was unlocked and it opened onto a room of gleaming metal work-surfaces, lit by soft overhead lights. Trace looked around with a small amount of awe. The state-of-the-art galley was a far cry from the rusty and ancient appliances in the apartment he had shared with Toby and Sarah, and even further from the filthy kitchen at Dorga’s bar. In the corner of the galley was an autochef nestled in its standby alcove; a robotic cook that hung from a track fixed to the galley’s ceiling; it could prepare any dish whose recipe was programmed into its databanks as long as the ingredients were available. At the far end of the galley was a set of metal roller shutters covering a serving alcove that Trace suspected opened on to the forward lounge.
Eagerly, Trace opened one of the cupboards in search of food. His face fell as he saw that it was full of plain white cardboard boxes containing generic brand ration bars. “Aww come on, there’s gotta be better stuff than this.” After a minute of searching he found what he was looking for, opening up the door to the huge walk-in fridge that was home to a veritable grocery store’s worth of fresh food.
Trace’s eyes lit up and he grinned. He’d never seen so much fresh food in one place before, not at such high quality either. “Jackpot”
Korodo found him ten minutes later, sitting on one of the kitchen counters and stuffing his face with fresh fruit and cold cuts of cooked meat. The half-dragon looked at the boy with a raised eyebrow as he walked into the galley and headed towards the fridge. He took a cold bottle of beer from the fridge and closed to the door, leaning against it and twisting the bottle’s cap off. Trace sat opposite him, a chicken drumstick sticking out of his mouth and looking back with suspicious eyes.
“So,” Korodo said, breaking the awkward silence, “I see you’re feeling better.” He gestured at the bloodstains on Trace’s borrowed t-shirt. “You had us worried there for a while.”
“Meh, I’ve had worse,” Trace said around the drumstick in his mouth.
“And it seems you certainly got your appetite back.”
Trace shrugged. “Dorga threw me out on to the streets when I was eight to ‘toughen me up’. Back then, I’d go without food for days at a time while I tried to beg and steal enough to survive. I nearly died of starvation more than once. I guess because of that I don’t like feeling hungry, it brings back bad memories.” Embarrassed at what he had said, he looked away for a second. He didn’t know what had made him admit to that. “How’s everyone else?” He asked anxious to change the subject.
“Thanks to you, the only other thing that got damaged was the ship.”
“Erm, thanks, I think.” Trace blushed, unused to hearing sincere praise or gratitude directed at him. “How bad was the damage?”
“Well, the hull breach in the port cargo bay has been repaired, but the breach in the launch bay can only be patched. The spaceframe in that area was buckled so we’ll need to get to proper dock facilities to repair it. But, that’s the least of our problems. Apparently, the fuel transfer intermixer was destroyed by the missile blast and without it, both the main drives and the combat drives are out of action; we’re down to just our manoeuvring thrusters. Our only spare was in the port cargo bay.”
“Ah,” Trace said, realising what Korodo was getting at, “the one that got breached.”
“So what happens now?”
“Actually,” Korodo said, smiling a little, “I wanted to have a word with you about that. While you were out, we programmed a jump to the Primogen system where we’re going to put in for some repairs.”
Trace scratched his head. “What’s that got to do with me?”
Korodo finished off the rest of his drink before continuing. “When we land, I want you to stay on board. No ‘going exploring,’ no sneaking out or running off.”
“Even after saving their butts,” Trace thought to himself, “he’s still going to treat me like a prisoner.” Trace narrowed his eyes and glared at the half dragon. “And what if I don’t?” He said aloud, taking the drumstick out of his mouth and using it to point at Korodo.
“Simple, you’ll get arrested for illegally crossing into Domain Noros.”
“No disrespect intended Trace, but commoners like you are not allowed to cross Domain borders without proper transit papers. The Primogen system is in Domain Noros; if you leave the ship, they’ll arrest you. You’ll be charged with illegal entry into Domain Noros and if I remember correctly, that’s at least five years hard labour. That’s assuming that those black dragons don’t make up a few charges just for fun. Afterwards, they’ll send you straight back Mazorgrim where you’ll face similar charges for leaving their Domain illegally plus the fallout for that chaos back on Jurrika.” Korodo walked over to Trace and placed a hand on his shoulder, which the boy quickly shrugged off. “I know you don’t have a reason to trust us, but please, don’t go running off just yet.” He stepped away from Trace and turned to leave.
“After everything I’ve done,” said Trace, “why do you care if I get arrested or not?”
Korodo stopped at the door. “Well,” he said, speaking over his shoulder, “I can’t have my new pilot getting himself thrown in prison now, can I?” With his back to Trace, the confused boy couldn’t see the smirk on the half dragons face as he left.
“Well, that was weird,” Trace thought. One minute the noble was threatening to hand him over to the cops, the next he was trying to keep him out of jail. Not to mention the fact he had actually paid him a compliment; he couldn’t figure the guy out. It was also the first time that Korodo had called him by his name since they had met, instead of just calling him “kid” or “elf boy.” Trace laughed and stuck the drumstick back into his mouth. Crossing Domain borders without transit papers was the least of the things they could charge him with; with his rap sheet, especially after fleeing Jurrika and skipping out on certain legal restrictions, he would be lucky if he got less than twenty years. Trace hopped off the counter and went over to the fridge, searching for one of the bottles of beer he had seen. “Wait a minute,” he said, spitting out the drumstick as his eyes widened in sudden realisation, “what did he mean by ‘new pilot’?”
Standing over the body of the guild member, Caldrin wiped the blood off his knife. It’s clear crystal blade briefly assuming a red hue as it absorbed some of the blood of the victim. The second assassination attempt on the noble had failed. Unfortunately, his ploy to convince the guildmaster that the boy had betrayed him and was working with Lord Korodo to bring down the guild had backfired. He had fundamentally misunderstood the connection between Dorga and Trace; the guildmaster had been more concerned with getting personal revenge on the boy for some reason, than on killing him and the noble by simply destroying the ship as the drow had suggested. It seemed that the intelligence on the Jurrika Thieves Guild was not as complete as the ISPD had believed.
Nonetheless, the damage was already done. The assault on the noble’s apartment, the chase and fire fight through the skies of Jurrika City and the battle in orbit around Seastyl, all of it had attracted too much attention. It was time to burn everything and cover their tracks, literally.
The men under his command had stormed the bar the guildmaster had used as a cover for his activities. At the same time, strike teams had assaulted several other known guild locations. Along with a bombing campaign against guild-affiliated business, the assassination attempt would be masked by the apparent wave of violence sweeping across the city. Already the media was portraying it as a coordinated series of strikes by one underworld organisation against another, a dirty “black-war” spilling out onto the city streets. That another criminal syndicate would undoubtedly move in take advantage of the decimated guild would only add to the believability of the cover story.
“Sir,” his assistant said holding a communicator to his ear, “the probe team has returned from tracking the Chimera’s mana stream.”
“They were able to track the noble’s yacht to a position two light years outside this system,” the assistant said, relaying the report from the probe team on the other end of the communicator, “but there was no sign of the ship… There was a mana stream heading galactic east… but it was too faint to get a fix on their starcast destination.”
Caldrin looked around as his men mopped up the last of the guild members. “Set up a domainwide watch alert for the Chimera, Korodo and his staff. Extend it to the neighbouring Domains of Esmer of Osorus, they have to show up eventually. In the meantime, we’ll evacuate the staff from the office and set the demolition charges. When you’ve finished up here, I’ll meet you onboard the Nodachi.”
“Will the patch hold?” Barak asked Bolts as they studied the ship schematics being displayed by the holographic projector embedded into the centre of the table.
“It should last for one atmospheric re-entry,” the soulmech said, “but I wouldn’t want to chance a second. We really need to get that breach properly sealed when we get to Primogen.”
Tsukiko reached into a pocket and pulled out a small computer chip that she slid into a slot on the table. There was a beep as the built in computer read the data from the chip and a window opened up in the holographic display. The window showed a scrolling list of items, some of which flashed in red. “We’re running low on some supplies, mainly because we left port early but that breach in the cargo bay didn’t help. The ones in red are the ones I’m really worried about though.” She looked at the two men. “If we get into any more trouble, we’ll start running out of critical supplies, especially medical supplies.”
As she spoke, the door opened and Korodo walked in, a smile on his face. The half dragon held up three fingers and slowly began to count down. “Three … two … one …”
On one, Trace ran in through the open doorway. The boy looked at Korodo and then at the three adults sitting around the table. “Just what did you mean by ‘new pilot’?” He asked carefully.
Korodo walked over to the table and pretended to inspect the holographic projection. “Well, we need a pilot. Barak and Bolts both have a license and can handle basic manoeuvres, but if we get in to trouble again, we’re going to need more than just someone with a little training and a piece of paper; we’re going to need someone talented at piloting. Until we’re able to get in touch with our allies, you’re the best candidate.”
“Are. You. Insane?” Trace asked, striding over and turning the half-dragon around to face him, “there’s no way that I can be your pilot!”
Tsukiko smiled and leaned forward. “Are you saying that you can’t do it?”
“Yes … no wait, no … argh! I don’t know.”
Korodo placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. Unlike last time, Trace was too confused to shrug it off. “I saw the way you threw this ship around during combat; and the way you handled that jumper beforehand. We don’t need a ‘by-the-book’ chauffeur, we need someone one can pull off moves that the manual says this ship shouldn’t be capable of doing. That certainly describes you, doesn’t it?”
“Not having a little piece of paper didn’t stop you earlier,” said Bolts.
Trace sighed and took a deep breath before responding. “That was different; people were trying to kill us. Even if I wanted too, and I’m not saying I do or don’t, I can’t be a pilot for you; I’m only fifteen. I’ve got another year before I can get a provisional license and even then, I’m limited to non-commercial shuttles and orbital transfer pods for two years. If I was caught landing this thing at a starport, you’d just get a fine but I’d get arrested. I’ve been in prison enough times because of someone else that I never want to have to go through that again.”
Korodo looked at him for a few seconds before turning to the others. “Guys, do you mind giving us the room for a few minutes?” Once they were alone, he motioned for the boy to sit down. Trace hesitated, torn between staying to hear the man out or storming off. Then he realised that until they landed at Primogen, he couldn’t just keep avoiding him. The ship was small and there were only so many hiding places. Reluctantly, he sat down.
“I don’t need charity if that’s what you’re thinking,” Trace said, “I can take care of myself.”
The half dragon smiled. “I can see that,” he said before his face fell serious. “How are you doing though? It’s been a rough couple of days.”
Trace looked out of the window opposite; but it wasn’t the featureless grey void of astral space that he was seeing but the moment that Dorga’s shuttle had exploded. Korodo didn’t notice his faraway look, or the shudder that passed through his body. Trace blinked his eyes and shook his head, banishing the image from his mind. “I’m doing fine, why shouldn’t I be?” He forced a cocky smile, hiding his unease as he changed the subject. “Look, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m ungrateful or anything. Like I said before, you guys saved my life and if I’d never met you, I’d probably still be working for Dorga. He’s controlled my life for so long but now I’m finally free. Free to do whatever I want, free to decide what my future will be, everything. I might not know what I wanna do with my life now, but I know that I want to be one in control of it from now on.”
“I can respect that,” Korodo said. “I guess if I was in your position, I’d be hesitant too. Although I meant it when I said we could use you, I don’t want you to do it out of a sense of misplaced obligation.” He got up and leant against the table. “How about this? It’s going to be at least a week or two before we get to our final destination. Depending on how long it takes to get repairs on Primogen that is. If you’ll give us a hand with the piloting until then, I promise that if you still want to go your own way after that, none of us will stop you.”
Trace cocked his head for a couple of seconds, thinking it over. “Kinda like a trial run thing?”
“Precisely,” Korodo said, nodding, “for both of us. In addition, the people we’re going to see might be able to help set you up with a place to stay and a legitimate job. Or transit papers to wherever you want to go if that’s what you want.”
“Okay,” Trace said standing up and walking over to Korodo, “I’ll do it on one condition.”
Trace looked Korodo in the eye as he spoke, his expression deadly serious. “Tell me why the snakeheads want you dead.”
Trace scanned the controls trying to hide how much he was impressed. Rotational control thrusters, multi-vector tactile control sticks, holographic heads-up display, is that an overburn supercharger? Nice. There were a few controls he didn’t recognise though; like the arcane oscillator, his grandfather’s old dropship hadn’t had one of those, neither did any of Dorga’s shuttles. Still, the layout was identical just as he said it would be; he could do this.
Grasping the twin control sticks, Trace felt the ship respond to his command. Compared to a jumpcraft or one of Dorga’s shuttles, the Chimera was a lumbering giant. Looking at the readouts though, he could tell that the Chimera was faster in straight-line flight.
“Stop drooling over the controls and get with it!” Korodo’s voice focused his attention back on Dorga’s shuttles. Remembering how his grandfather had shown him, Trace jabbed at the holographic controls and brought up the ship’s external cameras. A series of windows appeared in the HUD showing the video feeds from the cameras and giving Trace the ability to view what was happening around the ship.
“Where are they?” Korodo said as he cycled through the various sensor systems at his station. “They’re not showing up on the sensors.”
“I know; they’re Guild shuttles, they’ve all got stealth mesh on their outer hulls.” Glancing at the various camera views, he spotted three shuttles. They may be masked on radar, but they couldn’t hide from the visual cameras without major technological and magical assistance. “Got ‘em, seven o’clock high, four o’clock low and six o’clock level. Each of ‘em are armed with twin laser cannons and four externally mounted missiles, radar guided. Top combat speed 22 thousand kph, but they don’t have starcasters. We can outrun them on our main engines, but on combat drives they’re faster and more manoeuvrable than us.” Trace knew they couldn’t switch to their main engines whilst they were still engaged; their manoeuvrability would drop drastically and they would be sitting duck for the shuttles who would have a clear shot at them for a least a minute. If they tried to take evasive action while accelerating, the immense stresses involved in the violent manoeuvres would tear the Chimera apart. “They’ve got no shields, and their polymeric armour plating is weak around the thrusters.”
“And how do you know all that?” Korodo asked, slightly impressed that the boy could rattle off such information so calmly in the middle of combat.
Trace glanced over his shoulder at the half-dragon and smiled. “Heh, you forgotten who I used to work for?”
“Okay, since you’re the expert at this, what do you suggest?”
Trace was thrown for a second, expecting to detect a hint of sarcasm in what Korodo had said; but there wasn’t any. Was that actually a compliment from the noble? “Erm … give me a second. This isn’t like getting away from police jumpers, it ‘aint as if I can dodge between skyscrapers and loose ‘em in the sprawl.” Glancing at the camera feeds, he saw one of the shuttles dart forward, aiming a strafing run at the Chimera’s side.
Korodo nodded and pulled on a headset. “Bolts, what’s the status of the starcaster?”
The soulmech braced himself against an overhead beam as the ship rocked. He was in the small engineering compartment at the rear of the ship. On either side of the cramped room lay the ship’s main engines. Although currently idling, the hum from the giant electromagnetic coils around their particle impulse chambers created a charged atmosphere, the air smelling of ionised oxygen molecules.
“Bolts, what’s the status of the starcaster?” Korodo’s voice crackled over the intercom. The engineer glanced over at the transparent crystal sphere nearly a metre across at the back of the room. Smaller, fist-sized hexagonal crystals orbited it, sparks of magical energy drifting from them and into the central crystal.
Bolts activated his internal transceiver and connected to the ship’s internal communication network. “It’s going to take some time,” he said looking at the holographic readouts encircling the starcaster, “when main power was shut down, the caster dumped its charge. It’ll be a few minutes before the mana levels are restored.”
“Is there any way you can speed it up?” The ship shook as another round of laser fire struck the ship and alarms starting to wail.
“I’ll try,” Bolts said, “even if I have to shovel mana into the caster myself.”
Tsukiko stumbled as the ship rocked, almost dropping the dermal regenerator she had been using. Barak caught her as she stumbled, catching her with his arm. “Careful Suki,” he said playfully, “I’ve got enough battle scars as it is without a new one on my forehead.”
“Pity,” Tsukiko said as she passed the regenerator over the orc’s head wound, knitting the flesh back together, “I like some of those scars.”
A particularly violent jolt shook the ship; the two of them felt the ship shudder as it sustained a direct hit. The deck plates beneath their feet transmitted the vibration of something exploding elsewhere in the ship and alarms started to sound. “Alert, hull breach in port cargo bay. Decompression contained.”
Barak sat up. “Please tell me we didn’t leave Korodo in charge of the ship?” The orc swung his legs of the side of the medical bed. “And don’t give any me any of that ‘you need rest’ doctor-speak.” He said when he saw the look that Tsukiko was giving him as he clipped his sidearm holster to his belt.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Tsukiko said handing him his pistol, “but I need to give you something first.” She reached forward as Barak looked up and kissed him.
“Echo two,” the shuttle pilot said into his headset, “swing around and attack the left flank. Echo three drop back and execute a flip six three in case the Chimera gets past echo two.” Dorga watched the man at work, manoeuvring the various shuttles around in an effort to engage the rapidly evading ship. Grinding his teeth in anger, he recognised the flying style of Chimera’s pilot. Although it appeared wild, chaotic and undisciplined, it was anything but random. He should know; he had watched as the young boy had developed his piloting skills over the years.
Earlier, Dorga had told Trace that the boy had been born to be a thief; that it came to him naturally. However, the guildmaster knew that he had been lying when he had said this. Trace may have been a good thief, but he was a better pilot. It was in his blood; this was what he had been born to do.
As the alarms rang, Trace scanned the video feeds, committing the position and flight path of each shuttle to memory. “Hang on,” he said over his shoulder, “this might get … a little rough.” He jammed the left control stick forward and pulled the right stick all the way back. In response, the starboard engines went into full reverse as the port engine went to full thrust; the Chimera began to swing around. At the same time, Trace rotated the control sticks within their gyroscopic mounts, triggering the rotational control thrusters. The Chimera twisted and turned, rotating in all three dimensions and scattering the three shuttles, its superstructure groaning in protest over the violent stresses.
Korodo gripped tightly onto the armrests of his seat, thrown about by the rapid and wild manoeuvres. The gravity field generated by the starcaster could barely keep up. The half-dragon could only watch as young boy in the pilot’s seat threw his ship through a series of seemingly random manoeuvres. Earlier, he had accused Trace of being reckless and insane. But watching him now, he had to admit that he had been wrong. In the reflection in the glass, Korodo could see the determined expression on the boy’s face, the depth of his concentration visible in the motion of his eyes and the set of his shoulders as he gripped the controls, a bead of sweat forming on his forehead.
Trace’s eyes flicked from the video feeds to the various system readouts to the view outside the cockpit window, all in rapid succession. Taking in all the information and processing it rapidly, he integrated all of it into a series of quick-fire manoeuvres. He wasn’t even consciously aware of what he was doing, barely even aware of the presence of Korodo. Trace was “in the zone,” a place he always went to in these situations, a place where all conscious consideration was replaced by acting on pure instinct and adrenaline. However, this time was different; this time he wasn’t trying to evade police jumpers who just wanted to stop and arrest him. This time people were actively trying to kill. His heart was thundering in his chest.
Jerking on the control sticks, Trace fired the RCS thrusters and halted the Chimera’s movements, its bow pointing directly at one of the guild shuttles. A single tone sounded and a flashing targeting box appeared over the shuttle in the HUD, the ship’s forward cannons had locked on using the visual cameras for targeting.
Trace hesitated; he knew that the shuttle in his sights was the one that Dorga was on, the one containing his father. There was no way he could possibly have known this, each of the shuttles was identical, but it was as if he could feel Dorga’s presence aboard it. His thumbs hovered over the firing switches on the control sticks. With just a push of a button, he could fire the cannons and destroy the shuttle. They were locked on, at this range there was no way that he would miss, no way that the shuttle would survive. All he had to do was push the switch.
“FIRE!” Korodo yelled from behind him, seeing the same targeting information as Trace.
The sweat dribbled from Trace’s brow, his knuckles white from his grip on the sticks. Even after everything that Dorga had done to him, the things that he had forced him to do over the years, the hatred he felt for the man, he hesitated.
Closing his eyes, he remembered the piercing sound of the alarm as the airlock on his family’s colony was breeched; watching from the balcony of the main house where he had been playing as men poured into the grounds of the compound, gunning down everyone they came across; men, women, children, it didn’t seem to make any difference to them. There was an acrid smell of gunfire in the air and the dull thumps of subsonic ammunition designed not to pierce the colony’s dome seemed to be everywhere. There was a crack and a white streak of tracer fire as a spray of gunfire lanced up from the men towards the balcony. Something warm and wet splattered across the side of his face, followed by the thud of something hitting the floor. Turning around he saw his cousin Carric lying on the floor, blood pooling around his bullet-mangled head. Killed instantly by the burst, he hadn’t even had time to scream as the bullets tore through his face, spraying his blood on to Trace; they had been best friends, the same age, sharing the same birthday, they had done everything together. He just stood there, staring at the body in shock, even as the men began storming the house. His mother came onto the balcony, scooping him up and carrying him into the house, holding him tightly. She tried to shield him from seeing the bodies, but there were too many of them. Cut off from garage and small hanger, they were forced to retreat to the bedrooms. She made him hide under his bed, telling him to be quiet and that it would be all right. Although he was scared, he nodded and tried to smile bravely. If she told him that he would be safe and that the bad men wouldn’t find him, then that’s what would happen; she wouldn’t lie to him. There were gunshots from outside his room and he heard voices, his mother and another man. He couldn’t understand what they were saying. They were speaking in the human language Common, but he only spoke Elven, the language of his mother and her family. She was begging with the man, pleading with him. There was a single gunshot; he didn’t hear his mother speak again. The door opened; from underneath the bed he saw his mother’s dead body lying on the other side of the doorway. A man walked into the bedroom and knelt by the side of the bed. The human looked under the bed and saw him cowering in the shadows. His mother’s blood was still on the man’s face, a face he would grow to hate over the next ten years; a gloved and bloody hand reached towards him as the man smiled cruelly.
“What are you waiting for?” Korodo yelled out, his voice breaking Trace out of the flashback. “Fire the cannons!”
Trace’s eyes snapped open and he retightened his grip on the controls. Screaming a wordless cry of rage and long suppressed grief, he jammed his thumbs onto the firing switches and opened fire.
Red warning lights flashed, a shrill alarm filled the shuttle. “Lock on warning!” The pilot yelled, “we’re being targeted!”
Dorga stumbled as the pilot rolled the ship to the side. “Evade, get us out of here!”
The railgun rounds from the Chimera’s forward guns tore into the shuttle, the hyper-accelerated metal slugs vaporising on impact and obliterating the target. Trace didn’t turn away as the shuttle’s power cells detonated, the flames of the explosion reflected in his tear-streaked eyes. Hull fragments scattered away from the explosion, pattering like hailstones on the hull of the Chimera. The other two shuttles peeled away to regroup.
Korodo leaned over and slapped him on the shoulder. “Great shot kid, you got them!”
Trace swallowed. “Yeah … I … I got him, them.” He sniffed and wiped his eyes.
The half-dragon heard the shakiness in the boy’s voice and saw the glisten of moisture on the boy’s arm, where he’d wiped his eyes. It was at that moment that Korodo realised who might have been onboard that shuttle. “Are you okay?” He asked carefully.
There was a pause before Trace responded, his voice still a little unsteady. “I … I’m …” Before he could finish the cockpit door and Barak walked in, stopping when he saw the boy sitting in the pilot’s seat.
“Okay,” the orc said scratching his head, “can someone explain why the kid’s sitting at the controls?”
“There’s still two of them out there,” Trace said quietly, focusing on the video feeds and the controls. The other two shuttles had fallen back but hadn’t left completely. Trace had a feeling that they were going to retreat to missile range and attempt to destroy the Chimera while staying out of range of the ships guns.
Korodo turned around and fixed the orc with a firm look. “Barak, can you take the other station and man the guns.” His eyes were saying “drop the subject and leave the kid to get on with his job.” The orc shrugged and sat down, fastening his safety harness.
Trace sat at the flight controls, staring rigidly forward and ignored the two men behind him as he piloted the ship.
“Bring us around to heading one eight zero mark six,” Barak said diverting weapons control to his station. “Did you hear me kid?” He added when Trace didn’t answer.
“I heard you,” Trace muttered, “and my name’s Trace, not kid.” Cutting the engines, he used the RCS thrusters to swing the ship around before reengaging the engines to reverse their heading. The two surviving shuttles had regrouped and were charging towards them. Another tone sounded, this time accompanied by a warning message.
“Alert, missile lock.”
Both of the shuttles fired their entire missile complement and eight missiles began to streak their way towards the Chimera. The missiles shot away from the two shuttles, scattering in all directions before arcing around to attack the Chimera from multiple directions. “Not good,” Trace said, twisting the control sticks and sending the ship into a barrel roll. Barak set the railguns to rapid-fire mode, targeting the heat blooms caused by the missile’s rocket engines. A barrage of hypervelocity slugs struck out at the missiles as the guns automatically tracked the incoming targets. First one, then two missiles were shredded by the guns. One after another, the missiles were intercepted and destroyed.
As the Chimera was buffeted by the exploding missiles, Trace struggled with the controls trying to keep the ship clear of the detonations. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the flare of rocket exhaust as missile broke through the railgun barrage. “Hang on!” He yelled yanking desperately at the controls in an attempt to twist the ship out of the way but it was too late, the missile was already locked on and struck the rear of the ship. It penetrated the hull punching through the metal and ceramic hull plating into the launch bay before detonating. The blast shook the ship, destroying the small shuttle in the launch bay, rupturing fuel and power lines and triggering secondary explosions.
Alarms screamed and the ship rocked violently. Only their safety harnesses kept Korodo and Barak in their seats as the ship was thrown to the side by the force of the explosion, the extreme g-forces created completely overwhelming the starcaster’s ability to compensate. “Shiv!” cursed the orc when the ship stopped spinning as the RCS thrusters automatically stabilised the ship, “weapons control is out, the combat drives are offline, we’ve got a decompression in the launch bay and the damage control system is down.”
“My board’s down too,” Korodo added, readjusting his headset. “Bolts, Suki, you two okay?” He received affirmatives from both of them, although the engineer had some strong words in regards to Korodo’s flying skills. The half-dragon smiled as Bolts continued his tirade, wondering what the soulmech would say when he found out that Korodo hadn’t been at the controls. “Kid, what about you?” When there was no immediate answer, he turned around in his seat and looked over at Trace.
The boy was slumped over the controls, lying bodily on top of them with his upper body resting at an uncomfortable angle against the cockpit window. His was face covered in blood, streaming from a gash on the side of his head; the hair around the wound matted with blood. On the glass of the cockpit window was a bloody mark where his head had struck it violently. The safety harness, which Trace had forgotten to fasten, dangled uselessly at the side of the seat.
“Suki, get up here now!” Korodo said into his headset as he slapped the release button on his harness. He jumped out of his seat and reached over to Trace, pulling him gently back into his seat. The boy was unconscious and the head wound probably looked worse than it actually was. Still, he was bleeding quite heavily. Korodo tore of the sleeve of his shirt and pressed the material against Trace’s wound in an attempt to stem the bleeding, checking the video feeds. The two remaining shuttles were circling around for another attack run. This time, with the Chimera a sitting duck, it would be a killing blow. “Bolts, we could really do with that starcaster right now!”
“Field strength is at 87 percent,” Bolts said of the internal comms, his voice crackling over the bad connection, “and the mana flow is at six point two gans per second. That’s as good as we’re going to get until I make some repairs.”
“It’ll have to do,” Barak said, “punch it!”
Korodo leaned over the pilot controls, accessing the starcaster controls and programming the jump. There was no time to select a destination, all he could do was programme a blind jump and hope they didn’t emerge inside a planet or sun. Setting the starcaster for a 2 light year jump, he uttered a small prayer to the gods and pressed the jump button.
Todd cursed as another wave of Zombie Ninja’s stormed the barricades. Glancing at the ammo counter, he saw that his weapon was almost empty. At this rate, they would breach the compound and overrun the small group of defenders within minutes.
“I’m out!” A J called out over the headset. His friend was in one of the watchtowers manning its turret-mounted machine gun. A J jumped out of the turret and switched back to his assault rifle, using the under slung grenade launcher to send a barrage of frag grenades into the enemy. Explosions ripped through their ranks, shredding the undead horde. It was never going to be enough though, there were just too many of them. Then, just as he was about to give up, he heard a cracking voice over the radio.
“November six-three-six incoming, prepare for evac.”
“Fall back!” Todd said over the sounds of gunfire, “Protect the helipad.” The soldiers retreated from the wall and surrounded the helipad at the centre of the compound. Almost immediately, the Zombie Ninjas scaled the wall and began to pour into the compound. They were met by the concentrated fire of the soldier’s weapons as a battered helicopter swooped into the valley hovering over the compound. Although the paint was peeling and its hull scarred by battle, Todd could just about make out the faded logo of Overwatch, the organisation that had tried and failed to save the world from the undead invasion. The arrival of the helicopter caused the remaining defenders to cheer.
That moment of celebration would cost them. One of the zombies leapt from the wall on to one of the soldiers, tearing his throat out before anyone could stop it. There was a screech of tearing metal as one of the watch towers began to collapse. Todd saw A J fall from the top, plummeting to the ground. Acting without thinking, Todd switched to the gravity gun and fired. The energy beam struck A J mid-fall, arresting his descent. “You gotta love the gravity gun,” Todd said swinging his friend around and setting him down gently. The helicopter landed and the soldiers began to back towards it, firing as they moved.
“This is just like the Battle of Pittsburgh,” A J said as they covered the retreating soldiers.
“We’re in the middle of the Nevada Rad-Lands, how is this anything like the ruins of Pittsburgh?”
“Hostile terrain, surrounded by the enemy, chopper evac while under attack? This is just like the last three missions.”
Todd sighed and took another bite of his lunch, the plate balanced precariously on his knee as he jigged the controller around. “You’re right, this new downloadable content sucks.” He fired the last of his ammunition at the zombies and boarded the helicopter, followed closely behind by A J’s character. As soon as they were both on board, the helicopter took off and the “Mission Complete” screen appeared.
“Yeah, the Broken Arrow mission pack was better,” A J said as soon as they were back to the online lobby screen, his voice crackled as he adjusted his headset. They had been playing Zombie Ninja Assault over the internet for the last hour ever since A J had instant messaged him about one of their homework assignments. “Hey, did you tell your dad about what happened at the gas station this morning?”
“Are you kidding?” Todd said laughing. “Dad’d go mental. After everything that’s happened already, if I told him some gang member nearly shot me this morning, he’d yank me out of school and pack me off to the same fancy boarding school my cousin goes to in Europe. We lived in New York for 12 years, and the only time I saw a gun was on a cop’s belt. I’ve only been here for two months and I’ve already been shot and got caught up in an armed robbery! I thought Key West was supposed to be a safer place to live.”
“It is, you’re just a magnet for bad luck.” Todd heard a muffled over the headset calling up to A J. “I gotta go, mom say’s dinner’s ready. See you at school tomorrow?”
“As long as I don’t have to stop a bank robbery on the way.” There was a beep as A J logged off and Todd switched off the console. He was about to get up and take his plate downstairs when the nanobots chose that moment to “speak.”
“ANALYSIS OF TACTICAL SIMULATION COMPLETE. 26 STRATEGIC ERRORS NOTED. A REPORT HAS BEEN MADE WITH RECOMMENDATIONS INTENDED TO INCREASE COMBAT EFFICIENCY. DO YOU WISH TO REVIEW THE REPORT?”
Sitting in front of a bank of computer screens, the man watched the house across the road as he eat the re-heated instant noodles, grimacing at the taste. Although he had not been able to enter the Marshall’s home, his boss had specifically forbidden that, he had managed to plant listening devices and hidden cameras in the grounds. The listening devices worked by bouncing an invisible laser off the house’s windows and measuring the vibrations caused by sounds from within. Sounds like people talking. Small cameras were also pointed at the windows so he could see as well as hear what was going on inside the house. He had also managed to tap the phones.
Although boring at first, he knew the assignment would soon become more interesting. While he was making his report earlier that evening, he mentioned the incident at the service station. His boss had found the information interesting and had decided to move the operation on to its next phase. He was to arrange an “accident” for Todd to test the boy’s newfound abilities. So far, he had it narrowed down to either a car accident or a fire at school. The car accident option would be the easiest, he would have no trouble making it look like a simple hit and run. A major fire at school would be a much more wide ranging test, testing more than just the boy’s resilience.
There was just one thing bothering him. So what if the kid was some sort of mutant with accelerated healing; it wasn’t as if they were rare. He couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about; or his boss’s fascination with the kid, not with their operation on Sentinel beginning to enter its most crucial stage. At least he didn’t have to spend all day babysitting a drugged kid in a basement like the rest of the team. As he thought about what he was going to do, he didn’t notice the women watching him from the shadows at the back of the room. There was little chance that he would have seen her even if he had been looking directly at her; she was only visible when she wanted to be seen. Had he been able to see her, he would have been surprised see that it was his target’s homeroom teacher.
If she stayed any longer, she knew that she would be tempted to interfere, to stop him from putting his plan into motion. That was against the rules. In fact, interfering in such a way would violate one of the highest rules of the oath she had sworn. Miss Gunderson sighed and closed her eyes. The darkened room shifted and blurred until it was replaced by a tranquil scene. Rolling hills covered in green grass stretched from horizon to horizon, dappled here and there with white snowflake-like flowers. The blue sky above was flawless, broken by streaks of wispy high clouds that only seemed to cement its perfection, not detract from it. A short distance away was a small folly resembling an idealised version of a small Ancient Greek temple.
Her surroundings weren’t the only thing that had changed. Gone was her short brown hair and green eyes and in their place was long blond hair and blue eyes. Everything about her had changed, her appearance, her height and build; in every way she was a different person.
As she walked towards the folly, she saw that she was not alone. Sitting down inside the folly on a stone chair was a Hispanic man in his late thirties. He was hunched over a chessboard on a marble plinth, his brow furrowed in concentration. When she walked into the folly, a second stone chair materialised on the other side of the plinth. One of the unique features of the folly was that it automatically adjusted its layout and the amount of seating in order to accommodate as many people as were inside it. The man looked up as the appearance of the chair broke his concentration. “Hola Helen,” he said smiling until he saw the clouded expression on her face and winced sympathetically, “bad day huh?”
Helen slumped down onto the chair. “You have no idea. Some sweaty, over-muscled brute plans to test my son’s abilities by either burning down his middle school with him inside or running him over in a car. I’m supposed to just stand aside and watch.”
“It’s difficult when your charge is your own kid. Trust me, I know how you feel; but you can’t interfere or act on their behalf.” He knew that there was little that he could say that he hadn’t already said over the last few months.
“I know I know, we’re only supposed give ‘advice and guidance’ and allow our charges to ‘fulfil their destinies’ on their own terms.” She said testily, “I swore the same oath as you did Matthew, remember? But it’s not that easy. My first charge was an eleven-year-old English boy who had just discovered his mutant abilities. He was a good kid with a loving family, and I gave him all the advice I could. But none of that helped when the soldiers came for him in the middle of the night. I did nothing as his family was murdered and he was whisked away. What can you say to a scared little boy, locked away in a government research lab to be experimented on like a lab animal?”
“He escaped in the end though.”
“Two years later, with blood on his hands from fighting his way out. Just a kid and he had to kill half-dozen people with his bare hands. He’s fifteen-years-old now and a wanted criminal on the Overwatch list of suspected terrorists, accused of stealing government research data because the British government didn’t want to admit to what they did to him. I feel useless just watching the same chain of events happen again, this time to my own son.”
Matthew got up, walked over to the edge of the folly and looked out over the green fields. He reached in to his pocket and took out a small photo from inside his wallet. It was of a young boy in dirty overalls sitting astride a battered dirt bike. There was a proud grin on his oil-streaked face as he started its motor. “Do you know why The Watch was created?”
Helen turned around in her seat and looked over at him. “To guide the next generation of heroes.”
“Well, yes, that’s the ‘party line.’ But do you know the real reason?” Helen shook her head in confusion, wondering where he was going with this. “It’s because they’re getting younger.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your brother was what, twenty four, twenty five when he volunteered for the Paragon programme?” Helen nodded. “That’s the average age when most heroes become active. I was a few weeks short of my eighteenth birthday when my father had his accident and passed on the role of Defender to me. I was one of the youngest of our generation.” He sat back down opposite her. “But now, mutants are getting their abilities at a younger age, metaprodigies get enrolled in accelerated learning programs before they’re even out of pre-school. My son was only 14 when he found the prototype battlesuit that I’d been working on just before I died and decided to use it himself. I would’ve killed dad for not stopping him if I was still alive. Ask any other member and they’ll tell you the same thing. They’re getting assigned to younger and younger charges. Our living peers may not have realised it yet, and when they do they certainly won’t like it, but the next generation of heroes are barely into their teens and Destiny is already picking them out.”
Neither of them spoke following Matthew’s speech. “How’s Jared doing?” Sarah asked, changing the subject.
“He’s doing great.” Matthew said turning back around. “He turned sixteen this summer, and he’s got his first girlfriend. No one has any idea that for the last year and a half, LA’s most prominent superhero has been a high school kid in a suit of power armour.” The smile on his face showed how proud he was of how much his son had accomplished, but is also showed a hint of sadness. He knew that his son was growing up without him and that soon, he would no longer need the advice of ‘Mr Cooper’ who had shown up mysteriously a few months after his father had died. When that happened his son would no longer be his charge, Mr Cooper would vanish and no one would remember he even existed.
Todd sighed and pinched the brow of his nose in annoyance. “It’s not a ‘tactical simulation’, it’s a video game.”
“WHAT IS A ‘VIDEO GAME’?”
“You know what?” Todd said sitting down at his desk and opening one of his textbooks, “it’s getting late and I’ve got homework to do. Go look it up yourself.”
There was a noticeable pause before the nanobots responded. “UNTIL BIOHOST INTEGRATION IS COMPLETE, UNIT IS UNABLE TO ACCESS THE PLANETARY COMPUTER NETWORK TO UPDATE LANGUAGE LEXICON.”
“Yeah, and we call it the Internet, not ‘planetary computer network’.”
Again there was a pause before the nanobots responded. “UNTIL BIOHOST INTEGRATION IS COMPLETED, UNIT WILL NOT BE ABLE TO OPERATE AT MAXIMUM CAPABILITY.”
“Don’t get snippy with me,” Todd snapped, using one of his father’s favourite phrases. Despite the fact that the nanobots only “talked” to him through text, he definitely detected an attitude, a faint insistent tone in its “voice.” He got up from the desk and flopped facedown onto his bed. Todd screamed into his pillow, his cry of frustration muffled by the material pressing into his face. “You really think I’m gonna let some alien nano crud hack apart my insides? How do I know you know what you’re doing? You weren’t even designed for a human being!” That, as far as Todd was concerned, was the end of discussion on the matter. Until he better understood what the nanobots had planned, and until he was sure that they were capable of doing it without turning him into a pile of twitching organic goo, there was no way that he was going to give the nanobots the permission they needed to proceed.
“I should probably tell dad about all this,” he thought to himself as he flipped over and lay on his bed staring at the ceiling. “He’d probably freak out though.”
Moored a little way off shore, the man watched the bridge from a small powerboat, squinting in the morning sunshine as it reflected of the water. After following Todd for several days, keeping him under surveillance, the man now had a good grasp on the boy’s movements and habits. He knew that after school, he had a habit of stopping off at a local electronics store to drool over the latest video games. On the odd morning that he was running late, he would get the school bus and when he didn’t, he usually met up with a friend as he cycled in. Whether on bike or on bus, Todd entered the city from the same direction; crossing the bridge in to Key West from Stock Island.
The man checked a handheld computer, looking at a series of status indicators on its screen. All of them glowed green; the explosive devices attached to the bridge’s supports were armed and ready. With a single button push, he could send the bridge crashing into the waters of the channel.
After a great deal of consideration, this was where he had decided to stage the “test” his boss wanted. In the end, both a simple car “accident” and a fire at Todd’s school might appear to be targeted attacks aimed at the boy. This way, it will appear that the boy was caught up in a terrorist attack just like everyone else.
As Todd looked out of the window, he sighed; today wasn’t exactly turning out to be a good day. He’d woken up to find that vandals had gone down their road during the night and slashed the tyres of the resident’s cars. Even his bike hadn’t been spared with both its front and back tyres slashed. The depth and variety of his language when he had found out had surprised even him, it had certainly shocked his father when he came stomping back into the house, cursing the vandals with every insult that he knew. He had been forced to head down to the main road to catch the school bus.
The bus lurched again as the traffic moved slowly forward. With Key West being located on an island at the end of the Florida Keys, the Overseas Highway was the only road in or out of town. Crossing over the deep channel that separated Stock Island from Key West, traffic often crawled to stand still during rush hour. The junction across the bridge where the highway met Roosevelt Boulevard, the road that encircled the island of Key West, was often gridlocked. Today was no different and a queue had formed, tailing back across the bridge.
Todd hated the school bus; it was slow, noisy, stuffy, and even with the windows open, it was always hot. The seat belts that they had to wear were tight and uncomfortable. He turned away from the window and looked around the bus. There were only a dozen or so other children on the bus, most of the students at Horace O’bryant lived in Key West itself. This school bus was for those children like Todd who lived outside the city limits.
His mobile started vibrating in his pocket, its small speaker pumping out a tinny rendition of his favourite song. He took the device out of his pocket, looked down at the small screen and smiled; it was a text from A J.
From his vantage point offshore, the man watched as the distinctive yellow school bus inched its way onto the bridge. His fingered hovered over the red “detonate” button. “Just a few more feet,” he muttered as he started to sweat.
Todd jumped as a series of bangs rocked the bus, the loud retorts causing him to flash back for an instant to the night he had been shot. Clouds of smoke billowed up from beneath the bridge, enveloping the bus. Before anyone could react, the bus driver cursed as he looked out of the front window. A crack was racing across the width of the road where the join between two sections of the roadbed was failing. The bridge creaked; there was a moment of stillness as if time itself had paused and held its breath. Then with a loud snap, the last piece of steel reinforcement broke sending the road section crashing into the channel below at a steep angle. The bus driver threw the bus into reverse gear and slammed down on the accelerator in an attempt to prevent the bus sliding down the slope into the water. Its tires squealed and the children on board screamed. An SUV behind the bus lost traction and crashed hard into the back. Todd was frozen in fear; he was gripping on to the seat in front of him, his knuckles turning white with the pressure. He was thrown forward as the bus was shoved off the end of the broken road and only the tight seatbelt around his waist prevented him and the other children from being thrown out of their seats. The driver wasn’t so lucky, slamming forward and striking his head on windscreen as the bus pitched into the water.
The front of the bus sank into the channel, its rear sticking out and resting against the bridge. Water started to pour in, rapidly flooding the front of the bus. The other children started to panic and scramble over each other to get to the emergency exit at the back, but the incline the bus was leaning at was steep, almost 90 degrees. A shrill cry jolted Todd back to reality and he turned around just in time to catch one his classmates who had lost their grip and was sliding towards the water. “Thanks,” the boy said holding onto Todd tightly as he pulled him up.
Todd looked around the bus and realised with a start that he couldn’t see the bus driver. “Hey, where’s Jeffers?” The boy glanced towards the front of the bus; the driver was slumped over the wheel, the water already over his head. He unbuckled his seat belt and dropped into the water. The water was cold and the salt stung his eyes as he struggled to remove the driver’s belt. Just as his lungs began to scream for oxygen, the belt popped open and he dragged the unconscious driver to the surface, gasping for air.
The water was rising fast, pouring in through open windows and around the door seal. There was a shudder as the bus shifted, settling further into the channel’s silt bed as it slipped against the shattered bridge support. “Someone give me a hand,” he yelled out over the screaming. Someone, he didn’t know who, helped him drag the unconscious driver up the aisle. As they did so, a green wireframe representation of the school bus appeared in his field vision. Complex calculations began to flash by until the familiar green text appeared.
“AT PRESENT RATE OF WATER INGRESS, VEHICLE WILL BE COMPLETELY SUBMERGED IN APPROXIMATELY 63 SECONDS.”
Todd looked up at the emergency door, which still hadn’t been opened. Through the glass, he could see the SUV perched precariously on the edge of the bridge, threatening to fall onto the bus at any second. “If that car falls, we won’t even have that!” He muttered out loud.
The boy helping him with the driver looked at him confused, “You what?”
“Nothing,” Todd answered, “we gotta get that door opened.”
“It’s jammed,” said one of the younger kids, crying in panic. “It won’t open!” Once Todd got to the back of the bus, he could see why. The frame was buckled and warped, the metal damaged by the earlier impact with the SUV. “We’re gonna drown!” The panic spread as the bus shifted again, the water coming in even faster, already filling half the bus. His own pulse was racing as panic threatened to overwhelm him too but he took a deep breath and looked around, this wasn’t the time to lose control; he needed to remain calm.
“Maybe if we tried together,” he said trying to sound optimistic, “we can force it open.” However, even with four of them, the door wouldn’t budge. He thumped the glass in frustration.
“UNIT CAN ENHANCE BIOHOST’S STRENGTH TO THE NECESSARY LEVEL REQUIRED TO FACILITATE ESCAPE.” Todd could tell there was a “but” coming. “HOWEVER, ENHANCEMENT CAN ONLY BE PERFORMED AS PART OF FULL BIOHOST INTEGRATION.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Todd thought at the nanobots.
“MUSCLE AUGMENTATION OF UPPER LIMBS CAN BE PRIORITISED AHEAD OF ALL OTHER PROCEDURES. NECESSARY ENHANCEMENT LEVEL CAN BE ACHIEVED IN APPROXIMATELY 5 SECONDS.”
Five seconds. In just five seconds he could be able to get the door open and they could all escape. The only catch was that he would have to agree to something that he had been resisting since the nanobots had first started “talking” to him. Looking around at the fearful, desperate faces of the others, he realised that there was really no choice about it. He had to do this; he was the only one that could. Closing his eyes, he silently gave the nanobots the consent that they had been pestering him for.
Todd waited for … something … anything. He didn’t know what he was expecting, but he expected to feel something. When the nanobots told him that the muscle enhancement in his arms was complete, he didn’t feel any different. “Well,” he thought to himself, “he goes nothing.”
He flexed his fingers, took one look at the other children, and punched the door with all his strength. The metal buckled under the blow, the door bulging outwards. Another punch, followed by swift kick and the door was ripped from his hinges and sent flying. Todd looked down at his own fist; despite the punishment the door had received, the skin on his knuckles wasn’t even grazed.
The other children were stunned into silence, but only for a second and they soon began to scramble towards the open door. “Hey, no shoving,” Todd said as he effortlessly picked up a fellow eighth grader that had been climbing over a sixth grader, holding the surprised boy up the floor. “Get away from the bus as fast as you can, those who can swim help those who can’t.”
“Who died and made you the boss?” The boy said as Todd but him down. Todd glared back at him.
“You saw what I did to that door;” he said pointedly, “imagine what I could do to your face. Now help me with Jeffers.” Scowling, the other boy grudgingly helped him lift the driver out the door.
By now, people on the bridge and on the shore had seen the school bus in the water. A few of them had started swimming towards the bus to help the children in the water. As Todd climbed out onto the back of the bus, he saw that many more people were just looking on and had taken out their mobiles. They were either taking pictures or recording videos of the scene. His blood began to boil as he watched them. “That’s great,” he yelled at the spectators, standing on the back of the bus, “just what viewtube needs, videos of drowning school kids. You know, you could’ve helped you selfish…”
The screech of metal interrupted his shout, the SUV slid of the end of the bridge, its underside scraping across the broken concrete. Todd barely had time to look up as the three tonne vehicle slammed into his chest. He felt his ribs crack and break under the force of the impact and he opened his mouth to scream in pain, but before he could utter a sound, the bus slipped down into the water submerging him. The tepid salt water flooded into his mouth, choking him as he was forced underwater, pinned between the bus and SUV.