Blog Archives

Scion: Part 1 – Wolfspawn

Tobin

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?”

Advertisements

Dragonstar – Part 8

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.”

“Exactly.”

“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.”

“Huh?”

“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.”

“And?”

“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.”

“What’s that?”

Trace looked Korodo in the eye as he spoke, his expression deadly serious. “Tell me why the snakeheads want you dead.”

Dragonstar – Part 07

Dragonstar Logo

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!”

“Too late!”

—-

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.

The Runaway and Other Stuff

Reference image found on net that Im using as inspiration for the fantasy setting

Reference image found on net that I'm using as inspiration for the fantasy setting

“The Runaway” is nearly finished. Just putting the last touches on the final scene and trying to work out the best point to end it.

Oh, and I’ve also written several pages on the next chapter of HJ as well as started work on a campaign setting for Savage Worlds. It’s an Aerial Fanatsy / Sky Pirates thing.

BetaForce – EchoCell 07

GridTime 2508752267 (12:37 July 7th, 2049)
Orbital Sixteen Communications Interconnect

The Presence looked down at the planet below through the satellite’s cameras, watching the patterns in the clouds before returning to work and sending it’s consciousness down the uplink towards the networks of the North American Zone. The Grid was busy at this time of day, a blizzard of blue lights streaking across the inky blackness, bouncing from one relay to the next until they reached their destination. Individual communication packets containing audio, video and computer data making up the cybernetic nervous system of the ECM.

Concentrating lightly, the Presence zeroed in a stream of messages passing back and forth between two users. A quick invasion into the user profiles revealed their identities as a pair of college students complaining about the policies of the government. The Presence smiled it reported the conversation to the local UniCop monitoring station. It was the fourth time the male user had had one of his conversations reported. Although the Unity had taken no action against him, they had arrested and imprisoned the other party each time on the Presence’s recommendation. The Presence idly wondered at one point the male user’s friends would begin to suspect, incorrectly, that he was an informer.

As the Presence hopped from system to system, it passed through the central dispatch computer for one of the local Sector PD’s. In a split second, it scanned the current service records of a squad of Sector Cops that had been involved in a disastrous UniCop snatch and grab operation a month earlier. Although nothing suspicious turned up, it decided that a round of random “interrogations” would do wonders for local UniCop morale.

A few seconds after entering the ECM grid, it had reached its target location. Sector 7, known before the Unification War as Boston. A group of so called “freedom fighters” was suspected to be operating in the area and local law enforcement had been characteristically lax in investigating the area. The only intelligence it had on the group was that it referred to itself as “Kilo Cell” and was part of the terrorist organisation BetaForce. The group had been a thorn in the Unity’s side for a number of years, most recently it was suspected that they were responsible for the theft of weapons and equipment from a Unity supply depot. They had become bold with the repeated successes, perhaps they had also become sloppy.

It gathered its thoughts and focused its energy in preparation for what it needed to do. The Presence opened itself up, flowing across the local network and invading the communication relays throughout the sector. Within minutes it had access to every communications signal sent within and through the sector. It scanned every message, and packet of computer data, looking for keywords and suspicious phrases. From inside the system it did not need to stop to accommodate the physical needs of a human body, it could remain in position for weeks at a time if necessary. Thankfully it did not come to that.

After an hour it detected a sloppily encrypted communique which when decoded revealed itself to be a message between two members of the target group. From there it infiltrated their computers and gained access to their messaging programs. They had been smart enough to keep no suspect addresses in their address books and had deleted all messages once read. However, they hadn’t erased the internal transceiver logs of their cell phones. When all the data was cross-referenced with information it gained from other sources, the Presence identified all the members and had identified their current locations. It dutifully noted the UniCops and an assault team was dispatched. Moving on to its next assignment, it was unaware that it had triggered a series of alarms which alerted the terrorists to its presence.

14:58 July 7th, 2049
Echo Cell Bunker, 200m below Sector 23

Tommy stretched as he entered the common room, scratching the back of his head. Toby was sitting at a desk on the far side of the room, his brow furrowed in concentration. Toby had been surprised when Talbot had handed him a fat workbook two weeks ago. “Just because you’re a wanted terrorist,” Talbot had told him, “it’s no reason to skip on your education.” He’d complained bitterly of course but had eventually relented. Jared was sitting on the couch, munching on a bowl of cornflakes while watching TV. Sarah, Talbot and Kai were nowhere to be seen.

After grabbing coke from the fridge, he plopped down on the sofa next to Jared.

“Hey sleepy,” Jared said in greeting, “you’re just in time for the next episode of Jake Danger.” Tommy grunted in response.

“Meh, the comic’s are better,” piped in Toby.

“Oh come on, the comic’s are nothing more than a cash-in like the computer games,” retorted Jared, “name one thing the comics have over the show.”

“The comic’s aren’t laced with subliminal messages,” said Tommy.

Jared’s mouth opened as he tried to formulate a response but he gave up as the opening credits started. He turned back to the screen, pointedly ignoring the sniggers from the two boys.

—-

Four green bubbles of energy floated above the console in the comm centre, contained inside each one was fluttering spark of white energy. Kai sat at the comm board with a dog eared and hand written journal on his lap, his face a mask of focused concentration as he muttered “kiryokuousei zaichuu no kouriki mewomukeru to houshutsu” repeatedly under his breath. When he mispronounced the final word in the phrase, the bubbles suddenly popped and the energy dissipated.

“Dammit dad, why Japanese, why couldn’t you have written your notes in a normal language like English?” Kai complained as he looked down at the book and tried to decode his father’s handwriting. He was about to try again when the comm-board started beeping alerting him to an incoming message.

“Bravo Foxtrot Echo, this is November Six Three Six incoming.”

“Er roger November Six Three Six, this is Bravo Foxtrot Echo receiving. Go ahead,” Kai responded into the headset.

“November Six Three Six on priority mission from Central Command Authority. Request bunker access and security lockdown. Authorisation code transmitting.”

As Kai checked the authorisation code against the most recent security, he comm’d Talbot. The request from November 636 was unusual and the invocation of Central Command Authority meant that something major was going down and that normally meant trouble.

“Authorisation code verified November Six Three Six, clear for access. Come on in, door’s open and the welcome mat’s out.”

—-

By the time the transport craft had arrived in the hanger, Talbot was already waiting for them. As its doors opened and the occupants stepped out, Talbot breathed in sharply. “Christ, not him,” he thought to himself as he eyed the leader of the group. The leader was an African-American male, mid 30’s and around 2 meters in height. He had blue eyes and short cropped black hair and he was wearing green combat trousers, black boots and a light blue khaki shirt. The man was armed with a pistol in a holster strapped to his thigh. Behind him stood two men in dark grey combat armour carrying assault rifles. Apart from their different faces, there were identical in hair and posture.

Talbot folded his arms as they approached, there was a tense moment when the leader held out his hand which Talbot refused to shake. “Grabowski,” he began, “knowing you, this isn’t a social visit.”

“I wish I was here under better circumstances, “Grabowski said grimly, although his eyes twinkled with amusement, “but I’m afraid we have a serious situation.”

“This better be good.”

“Is your team assembled?”

“They’re in the briefing room, this way.”

—-

“So Kai,” Sarah said as he entered the briefing room, “what’s going on?”

“Beat’s me. Some big shot from Central’s paying us a visit.” Kai sat down and Jared passed him a bowl of peanuts.

“Lucky us, the brass are gracing us with their presence,” Jared said sarcastically prompting laughter from the rest of the team. Toby’s and Tommy’s laughter was cut short when both boys grimaced in pain and began to rub the sides of their heads. Before anyone could say anything, the door opened and Talbot walked in leading the three men of November 636. When Tommy saw Grabowski, his eyes narrowed and his face hardened with his shoulders tensed. Grabowski merely smiled in return.

After being introduced, Grabowski began to address the team. “Over the last couple of months, a number of BetaForce operations and personnel have been compromised by a security leak. Myself and the rest of my team have been tasked with tracking down this leak and plugging it.” As he spoke, the two armed guards that had come with him surreptitiously disengaged the safety’s on their weapons. “We suspected that our communication encryptions had been broken or that someone was invading our computer systems so we set up a sting. We lulled the culprit into thinking that one of our cells, Kilo Cell, had been a little slack in the information security department.” The members of Echo Cell looked at each other slightly confused, each wondering just where this was going. Grabowski began to walk around the table as he continued, the two armed guards following discreetly behind. No one seemed to notice when they stopped behind Tommy. “When the hacker paid a visit we hoped to track him or her back to his terminal. Imagine our surprise when the tech’s told us that it wasn’t possible to trace the hacker as there didn’t seem to by any connection to an outside terminal during the invasion. Instead what we found was a curious electronic signature. One which is unique to one Thomas Preston.” As soon as Tommy’s name was mentioned, and before anyone could react, one of the guards slammed Tommy’s head on to the desk and started to cuff his hands behind his back. The other guard pointed his rifle at the back of the boy’s head.

BetaForce – EchoCell 06

11:30 March 12th, 2040
Somewhere in North Africa

As the boy came round the bend, the two men sitting on the boulder looked up. The boy was small, probably no more than seven years old, and dressed in dark grey shorts and a sleeveless black vest. A black peaked cap was also worn in a futile attempt to keep the burning north African sun off his neck which, like his arms, was already red raw with sunburn. Even through the heat-haze they could see the sweat pouring off him as he staggered forward trying to carry the oversized pack on his back.

Both men were dressed in light coloured, loose fitting clothing unlike the cadets they oversaw. They each carried a combat knife and sidearm as well as a police-style baton. The taller man looked at his watch. “He’s five minutes behind,” he said to his shorter companion in an English accent.

“We’ll have to do something about that.” His companion stated in a French accent as he sharpened his knife.

The boy glanced nervously at the two instructors without lifting his head as he trudged past them. He knew he was in trouble, the rest of the squad had left him behind and he’d lost sight of them a half a kilometre back. He had got about 5 meters beyond them when the Englishmen ordered him to halt.

“What’s you’re name cadet?”

“Er, Two-seventeen gamma. Sir.” He answered nervously, standing to attention despite the crushing ache in his back caused by the pack.

“217 Gamma, do you have any explanation as to why you have yet again fallen behind?” The Frenchman questioned as he came up behind the boy. The boy knew better than to answer such a question.

“Perhaps he’s just lazy,” the Englishman said conversationally, “look at that fat. He could do with loosing a few kilos.” He continued prodding the boy’s chest which was conspicuously lacking anything even close to puppy fat. “Note that down, meal privileges revoked for the day.” The boy silently groaned when he heard that, he hadn’t eaten for nearly two days now.

“There’s still another 5 klicks left on the run, do you think that you are going to make it if you continue in this fashion? … Well, answer boy.” The Frenchmen barked at him.

“N-no sir.”

“If we let him continue, he’ll probably end up dead … He wouldn’t be our problem any more.” The Englishman said as he gulped down some water from a canteen.

“True,” the Frenchman began as he reached for the water, “it would bring the squads overall performance rating up.” He looked at the boy as if appraising a pack animal with a broken leg. “However you heard the techs. This boy is special and we should be careful that we don’t overwork him.” The Frenchman said, putting a mocking emphasis on the word special.

“I guess we can’t have him dying from exhaustion or heat-stroke then.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “We should take him back to base in the Jeep,” he said nodding at the vehicle parked behind the rocks.

“I could do with a beer,” the Frenchman agreed, “the boy looks like he could do with a drink.”

The Englishman held out the canteen to the boy, “Drop that pack and take a drink before you drop yourself.”

The boy paused, uncertain how to proceed. The Unity instructors were not known for any sort of compassion or kindness and he was sure that this was some sort of trick. However, disobeying an order always resulted in harsh punishment. He unbuckled the backpack and carefully reached out for the canteen. As his fingers neared it, the Englishman reached forwards and grabbed his wrist. “A thought occurs,” be began, “if we take you back to camp now, that would just be rewarding you for failing to complete the run.”

“He should be punished first.” The Frenchman agreed and the young could sense the the man’s anticipation in his voice.

The Englishman pushed him roughly down onto the dirt. “Hold him down will you.” He said as he pulled out his knife. The Frenchman grabbed his arms and forced back down on the ground. He pushed down with all his weight on the boys arms, immobilising them. The Englishmen knelt on the boy’s legs and between the two of them, he couldn’t move. “Now you’re file says that you have some limited regeneration,” he said holding the knife in front of the boy’s eyes, the sun glinting of the metal blade. “Even so, I can guarantee that this will hurt and it will teach you to not fall behind in the future.”

He brought the knife to just below the boy’s left eye and began to slowly cut across the face, crossing the bridge of the nose. White hot pain flooded his senses as the blade cut deep into the skin and flesh. His screams echoed across the vacant desert.

—-

09:15 July 7th, 2049
Echo Cell Comm Centre, 200m Below Sector 23

Tommy woke with a start as someone shook his shoulder, almost falling off his chair. Kai stood beside him crunching on an apple with a concerned look on his face.

“Tommy man, you all right? You were nearly screaming in your sleep.”

“It was nothing,” Tommy muttered, “just a bad dream.” The nightmare was fresh enough in his mind that he could still feel the desert heat, the dirt under his back and the pain from that day nine years ago. His hand went to his face, fingers tracing across the scar that stretched across his face. Despite his regeneration, the wound had never properly healed and was still visible all these years later.

Kai pulled a chair over and sat next to him. “Seriously, you look exhausted. You’ve been on comm watch for over 12 hours, you need to take a break.”

“I would but no one else knows how to monitor the board properly.” Tommy shifted in his seat, rubbing his neck and yawning.

“We’ll manage, do I have to pull rank on you.”

Tommy looked at Kai’s stern look. For a few seconds neither of them said anything then Kai’s frown crumbled and Tommy laughed and pushed his chair back from the console. “Ok, I get the message. Anyway, technically we don’t have ranks but I do have seniority on you.”

“It’ll be a cold day in hell,” Kai called out as Tommy left the comm centre, “when I let some punk ass hacker outrank me.” Tommy’s tired laughter could be heard echoing in the corridor outside. He turned back to the comm console and eyed the Great Wall of Pepsi along the top of the monitors. “There’s enough caffeine and sugar here to fuel the Tank for a week, where does he put it all.” Carefully he placed the dozen or so cans in the recycling bin at the back of the room.

—-

As Toby sat on his bed, fastening the laces on his shoes, Tommy walked in and flopped onto his bed on the other side of the room.

“Jeez,” Toby began yawning, “you been up all night?”

Tommy just yawned in response. He pulled off his top and kicked of his shoes and began to climb into bed. The younger boy got up and headed to the door, summoned by the smell of bacon and eggs wafting in from the common room outside. He turned and looked back at Tommy.

“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask. Where’d you get that tattoo on your shoulder?”

Tommy looked up and pulled the sleeve of his t-shirt back down covering it. “Don’t remember,” he rolled over, his back to Toby and pulled the blanket around him. “Do me a favour will you? Turn off the lights on the way out.” Toby recognised a “drop the subject” when he heard it and left Tommy alone in the room. Tommy sighed and closed his eyes, dropping into a restless sleep.

BetaForce – EchoCell 05

16:48 June 19th, 2049
Hudson Arco Complex, Sector 23

“GET AWAY FROM MY LITTLE SISTER!”

Toby leapt forward and grabbed Travis around the waist and right shoulder. He lifted the shocked UniCop as if he was made of nothing more than paper. With a scream of rage Toby threw Travis out of the back of the van and over the heads of Sarah and Tommy. Travis sailed through the air for nearly 12 meters before smashing into a concrete pillar and landing on the roof of a nearby skycar. The roof of the car buckled shattering the windscreen and triggering its alarm.

Tommy had to duck as Toby bounded out of the van almost like an animal, landing on all fours. He watched the boy race after the UniCop dumbfounded. When they had sparred before, Toby had not moved as fast as that, nor had he seemed that strong. Sarah climbed into the back of the van, pulling out a first aid kit.

“Three,” she called out to Tommy, “go after the kid and stop him from doing anything stupid. I’ll take care of the family.” He nodded and turned to follow Toby.

With a grunt, Travis pulled the combat knife from his shoulder and recognised it as the one he had lost earlier that day. At least now he knew where it had gone. He looked up and saw the crazed young mutant charging towards him, pure rage visible in his eyes. Travis quickly sprang to his feet and into a combat crouch, knife held out before him. As Toby got in close he lashed out to strike Travis’s head. The UniCop ducked under the blow, barely, and grabbed Toby’s arm. Using the mutants own momentum he tossed him over his shoulder sending him sprawling to the floor. Travis span round and slashed at the boy with the knife as he got up. The knife sliced across Toby’s chest leaving a ragged cut in his sweatshirt. A spurt of blood, cast off from the knife, splashed across the ground and the boy clutched his chest.

A spray of gun fire narrowly missed Kai as he dived across the gap between two skycars to join Talbot. The remaining UniCop in the rear escort was proving to be a tough opponent. “We need to end to this,” Talbot spoke as he peeked over the top of the skycar using a snapped off wing mirror, “cover me.” Slapping a fresh magazine into his rifle, he passed the weapon to Kai. “This should do the trick,” he muttered as he pulled a grenade from a strap. A sharp pain suddenly struck his head and he inhaled sharply between his teeth.

“What’s wrong?” Kai asked worriedly.

“Nothing,” he answered rubbing his temple, “just a headache.”

It was no ordinary pain but an empathic flash. Talbot usually kept his telepathic and empathic abilities in a dormant state. Most people constantly broadcast their surface thoughts and unless he focused his control, when his abilities were active it was akin to having a thousand rock concerts taking place simultaneously in his head. However, occasionally a powerful empathic flash would break through his mental defences. That was what was happening now. He could sense a powerful, almost feral rage. Like an enraged animal. Talbot looked round the side of the skycar just in time to see a UniCop slash at Toby with a combat knife.

As Travis prepared to slash the boy again, Toby growled dropped into a one handed hand stand. His left leg lashing out and striking the combat knife sending it spinning and clattering to the ground. Travis drew his sidearm only to have kicked out of his hands by Toby’s right foot as the boy flipped upright. Toby now had his back to Travis but if the UniCop thought that gave him an advantage he was mistaken. The boy thrust his right elbow into Travis’s armoured chest and then span round to deliver a vicious follow up punch with his left fist to the same location. The armoured plate buckled and cracked under the force of the blow. Travis coughed and blood splattered Toby’s face.

“Shit,” Talbot thought as he watched the fight across the garage, “he’s gonna kill him.” He signalled Kai, and leapt out from behind the skycar. Kai opened up with the assault rifle, spraying the cab of the escort. The UniCop inside ducked down as the bullets riddled the windscreen. Talbot charged towards the vehicle, readying the grenade. At the last second he pulled the pin and tossed it through the side window throwing himself to the floor in preparation for the blast. The grenade bounced of the helmet of the UniCop before landing between his feet. He had just enough time to utter a resigned curse before it detonated.

In the back of the prisoner transport Sarah had begun to treat the gunshot wound. The mother was clutching the daughter, as if afraid to let go. “Who … What…” stammered the father.

“Hold still Mr Smith, I need to bandage this before you loose to much blood.” Sarah said as she searched for the exit wound. “And before you ask, you’re safe with us. We’re here to get you to safety.”

“Was that…”

“Your son? Yes.”

The mother looked up hopefully. “Toby? but they told us he was dead.”

“Don’t worry, he’s very much alive and my team mate is taking care of him.” Sarah said as she found the exit wound and began to bandage. “I hope,” she added silently under her breath.”

Travis staggered back, winded by the blow to his chest with his hands held out in surrender. The boy grabbed hold of his head and screamed in a guttural voice, “This is for shooting me,” into his face as he head butted him. The UniCop’s nose crumpled in a spray of blood and he collapsed to his knees. “This is for trying to stab me in the alley.” He smashed his fists into Travis’s face sending him to the floor. “This is for hurting my family.” A savage kick to the groin caused Travis to groan meekly, pleading for mercy. Toby sat on his chest, repeatedly punching him in the face. “And this is for my sister.” He clenched both his fists together above his head and prepared to smash them down on Travis’s face. The semi concious UniCop lay beneath him unable to resist.

Tommy charged into Toby, body tackling him off the UniCop. The two boys slid across the floor in a tangle of flailing limbs. Toby landed face down next to the discarded combat knife. As he rose to a crouch, his back to Tommy, he grasped the knife. Before Tommy could call out, Toby span round and leapt through the air. He landed on Tommy, forcing the older boy to the floor as he sat on his chest, the combat knife to Tommy’s throat. Tommy looked at Toby’s face, he almost couldn’t recognise the boy. Toby was snarling through gritted teeth that almost had fangs and Tommy was sure that his eyes used to be blue, not orange. His entire body seemed to have altered as well, he felt heavier and definitely looked more muscular. After a few seconds, Toby’s eyes seemed to refocus and see for the first time what he was doing. He glanced at the knife he was holding and his eyes widened in shock. Dropping the knife, he scrambled off Tommy’s chest and fell back against a concrete pillar. Toby looked at his hands which were covered with blood and down at his blood soaked sweatshirt. Tommy looked at him carefully and was relieved to see that he seemed to be back to the blue-eyed, freckle faced kid he had met in the briefing room.

“Jeez, I’m sorry, I … I … God what was I doing?” Toby struggled to apologise as Tommy got up and walked over. Tommy held out his hand to Toby.

“Well, er, you kinda lost it.” Tommy answered as he helped him up. Toby glanced warily over towards the UniCop and gulped.

“Did I … is he … you know, dead?” He asked quietly.

Tommy walked over and checked the body. “No, the bastard is still very much alive.” Toby came up behind him and looked down at the UniCop. Tommy stood up and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Look, go and see to your folks. I’ll take care of this guy.” Toby sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve before turning and running over to the prisoner transport.

As Tommy watched him climb into the back of the transport only to be engulfed by his parents, he heard a noise behind him.

“Thank you.” Travis barely managed to whisper. Tommy knelt down and looked at the man’s face. It was a mass of bruises, one eye swollen shut, his noise broken and his skin covered in blood.

“Don’t thank me,” he began to whisper to Travis, “I didn’t do it for you. I could quite happily have let him do it. He would have smashed down and with his strength he would’ve crushed your skull, splattering your brains all over this floor. Given what I just saw, he might’ve even enjoyed it too. But here’s what makes him different from you and me. Later, when he calmed down. He would have regretted it, he would’ve felt guilty about. It’d probably destroy him.” Travis opened his mouth to speak but Tommy clamped his hand over his mouth cutting him off. “You call people like me terrorists, monsters even. You don’t see us fucking each other over because of a few differences in DNA. How many people have you sent off to their deaths? How many of them were kids, and how many of them even knew why they were being executed?” He paused and looked around. The others were by the prisoner transport helping Toby’s family into the Tank. None of them were paying him any attention. “If I was someone else, I’d just leave you here for the medtechs. But unfortunately for you,” with his free hand he rolled up his right sleeve revealing a tattoo consisting of the number “217” with the word “Gamma” underneath. When Travis saw it, his eyes widened in fear and he tied to call out. His cries muffled by Tommy’s Hand “I’m just following the training you people gave me.” He shifted his grip to cover Travis’s nose and held on tight as Travis tried in vain to twist out from under his grip. The struggling became weaker as Travis suffocated and eventually they stopped altogether. He got up, took one last look at the body and joined the others.

BetaForce – EchoCell 04

16:45 June 19th, 2049
Hudson Arco Complex, Sector 23

“We’re approaching the rendezvous point, you ready Sarah?” Jared called over his shoulder as he swooped the Tank down towards the roof of the Westgate Arcology.

Sarah stood at the Tank’s side door, clipping on a safety harness. “Just about,” she said into the headset microphone. She slapped the release button and the door slid open, the wind buffeting the interior the craft. On the rapidly approaching roof she could just make out a figure in dark grey camo’s similar to hers, hunched by a graffiti strewn ventilation grill. It was Kai, waiting for them at the usual rendezvous point. Sarah focused on the figure and held the microphone to her mouth. “I’ve got visual, keep her steady Jared. I don’t want Kai materialising upside down again.” As the Tank streaked over Kai she held out her hand and pointed at him. He was enveloped in a white light and vanished only to reappear at the back of the Tank’s cabin. She closed the door while Talbot gave Jared the go ahead to continue on to the Hudson Arco Complex.

—-

Tommy’s digital form coalesced next to a chandelier-like structure of blue light. It represented one of the many cell towers in quadrant three that served the residents of the Hudson Arco Complex. In the distance, he could see the glow of the rest clearly against the inky blackness. Flashes of blue light connected them while others raced out into the ether. Each mote of light represented a communication packet or computer instruction. Tommy was never sure whether this was what communication networks really looked like from the inside or whether this was simply how his mind decided to interpret the sensory information he received while in digital form. Either way, he thought it was beautiful, a universe of stars and fireworks that only he could perceive.

He watched the pattern of lights inside the structure for a few seconds, studying the flow of data through the cell tower’s system. Then, carefully, he reached between the threads of light and grasped the core of the system’s programming. Squeezing hard, he restricted and blocked the flow of data through the core, overwhelming its programming and security software. Almost as if he were throttling the life out of it. The light within spluttered and died leaving only a few flickering embers.

Now for the tricky part. Tommy reached within his pocket and pulled out a glowing red spark. He gently placed the spark on the now dark core and pressed down on it, pushing it deep into the system. Finally he leaned forwards and breathed gently on it. Slowly, a red glow spread throughout the core and into the matrix of data conduits around it. Soon he was standing in front of a red version of the blue structure that had been present before. He shielded his eyes in preparation for the next move. With a mental command, he instructed the cell tower to transmit the new system software to the other cell towers in quadrant three. It complied instantly and several jagged bolts of red lightning lashed out and struck the other towers which soon took on the same red hue. Once all the towers were infected, instead of relaying the motes of light they began to repeatedly emit a bright red flash that swept outwards extinguishing all the other lights. “That should hold for a couple of hours,” he thought to himself. His work done, Tommy closed his eyes and shifted back to the real world.

—-

Kai buckled himself and looked around the cabin. “Isn’t the new kid coming along?”

Talbot loaded a clip into an assault rifle before responding. “No, he’s staying behind.”

Kai looked surprised at this. “Huh? If I was him no force on Earth could stop…” he stopped mid sentence and looked at Talbot as he suddenly realised the situation. “Jesus Talbot, you didn’t tell him did you? You didn’t tell him who the targets were.”

“I felt it best that for the time being that he not know. It’d only worry him unduly.”

“The kid has a right to know that …” Kai began before he was interrupted by Talbot.

“The last thing I need is an emotionally unstable teenager panicking and screwing this mission up.”

Tommy reappeared back in his seat. “All the cell towers in quadrant three are now emitting a broad spectrum jamming field which should render all communication devices in the area unusable. It should also play havoc with sat scan as well.”

Talbot nodded at Tommy before turning back to Kai, his voice slightly softer. “Besides, he still needs to process what’s already happened to him. At the end of the day, BetaForce does not put minors in combat situations unless we are sure they can handle it.” He glanced at Tommy who was busy checking his equipment before continuing. “Unlike the Unity, we don’t like training children to be soldiers.”

“ETA 30 seconds,” stated Jared from the cockpit as they banked left and descended until they were flying down an artificial canyon formed by skyscrapers. Their target, the massive Hudson Arco Complex stood directly ahead. Its five arcology towers standing tall, their upper stories hidden by the low cloud.

—-

Travis was whistling when he shoved the last of the prisoners, a little girl, into the van. The operation had gone off without a hitch. Although the father had managed to get a lucky hit in before he was stunned. For his troubles he had earned a nasty head wound and a concussion. Travis had particularly enjoyed administering the post stun beating.

The squad’s three vehicles, a prisoner transport van and two escort vehicles were parked in the sky garage on the 50th floor of the tower, a quarter of the way up. Surrounding the convoy was a detachment of police officers from the local Sector PD. None of them looked happy to be there as there was little love lost between the two forces. The chronically underfunded Sector PD are responsible for law enforcement, keeping the peace and providing a public service. On the other hand the UniCops solely concerned themselves with enforcing the authority of the Unity, frequently breaking the law themselves in the pursuit of their duty. Something which Sector PD can do nothing about and causes much resentment towards the UniCops on the part of Sector PD officers.

Travis and the other UniCops ignored the police officers as they congratulated themselves. Suddenly, a squeal of static caused UniCop and sector cop alike to clutch their earpieces. The commander of the UniCops tried in vain to get in touch with central but received nothing but static in response. “Let’s pack up and move out boys. Comms are down which probably means trouble’s coming.” The commander got into the lead escort vehicle with one of the UniCops, two others into the rear escort, while Travis rode in back of the prisoner van with the remaining two UniCops in the front.

As Sector PD began to quietly disperse the crowd of onlookers, heavy metal grates began to lower across the vehicle access ways preventing exit to the outside. The UniCop from the lead escort vehicle hopped out and jogged over to a control box beside the entrance in front of the convoy. After inspecting the panel inside he turned and called out to the commander. “It’s no good sir, the manual override has been overridden. Someone has taken control of the system and locked us out.”

The commander’s response was drowned out as the Tank rose up behind UniCop at the grate, its autocannon spraying bullets through the grate and tearing into the UniCop’s body. The bullets continued onwards, ricocheting off the armour of the lead escort vehicle causing the UniCop commander to duck. Using the gun fire as a cover, Sarah teleported Kai and Talbot behind some skycars to the side of the prisoner van and the rear escort. Talbot disengaged the safety on his assault rifle, selected burst fire mode and turned to Kai. Kai nodded, confirming he was ready and both of them simultaneously popped out from behind cover and took aim.

Drawing his hands back as if getting ready to pitch a baseball, Kai touched the seal he had drawn on his hands with a marker pen and uttered a word in a long forgotten language. The word activated the seal’s magic and a ball of electricity formed which with a grunt he hurled forwards at the UniCop in the passenger side of the prisoner transport. A bolt of lightning arced between him and his target which took the full brunt of the strike. The UniCop howled in pain as several million volts of electricity coursed through his nervous system. Talbot ducked as gun fire from the UniCops in the rear escort vehicle peppered the skycar he was crouching behind.

As the Tank’s bullets sprayed the lead escort vehicle, shattering the front windscreen, the commander sheltered in the foot well. Cursing his bad luck, he clambered over to the passenger side where the weapons console was located. He armed a missile and launched it at the enemy craft ahead of him. The missile leapt out of the launcher and streaked across the garage towards the Tank on the far side of the grate. Inside the Tank, alarms screamed their warning as Jared swore as he saw the incoming missile. “Hang on Sarah,” he yelled as he threw the Tank into a deep spiralling dive. The missile tore through the security grate leaving a gaping hole and sending jagged pieces of metal tumbling to the ground some 180 meters below.

Sarah unbuckled her harness and opened the side door. “The other’s might need me!” With that she leapt out of the door and into the air. As she fell silvery ethereal wings, glowing with a soft light, formed behind her.

As Jared watched her soar back up to the garage level, he sighed. “I hate it when she does that … but boy does she look good when she does.”

—-

By the emergency stairwells, the last of the civilians were being evacuated by the sector police officers. One of the officers turned at looked back towards the combat.

“Sarge, shouldn’t we go back and help?”

“No,” the sergeant in charge of the detachment responded as he pulled the young recruit into the stairwell, “let the Uni’s take care of themselves.”

—-

Seeing the missile tear the security gate apart, the commander sat up and leant out the side window. Looking back towards the other vehicles he surveyed the scene. The sound of static attracted his attention and he turned back round. He was shocked to see a youth in grey camo’s sitting in the passenger seat. Tommy slammed his left elbow into the commanders chest causing him to double over. He followed this off with a savage blow to the side of the head with his right fist which was wearing a knuckle duster. The commander fell forward unconscious.

Meanwhile the other two vehicles had fired up their thrusters and begun to hover. The rear escort vehicle rotated on the spot to bring its weapons in line with Kai and Talbot. The pilot of the prisoner van, after seeing his partner literally cooked alive, was panicking and moving the van around the front escort towards the opening.

Laser target designators painted Kai and Talbot as the escort vehicle brought its weapon systems online. “Tommy, pulse the garage NOW!” screamed Kai as he saw Tommy jump out of the lead escort.

Tommy closed his eyes and focused his concentration. With a howl, he flooded the control systems of the three UniCop vehicles with enough electromagnetic energy to fry their circuits. Tommy collapsed to the floor panting, covered in sweat and bleeding slighty from the nose. Generating an EMP was incredibly painful and consequently he didn’t do it very often, but when he did the effects on the enemy could be catastrophic.

—-

The anti-aircraft missile streaked after the Tank as Jared threw the vehicle through a series of reckless evasive manoeuvres. He nearly collided with a hover bike almost knocking its young rider off. Concerned for the safety of other motorists, he pulled the Tank away from the traffic lanes and up into the sky. The missile was getting closer and the digital range counter was rapidly approaching zero when he spotted the break he had been looking for. With the lock on warning tone nearly a continuous screech he headed for the cluster of communications antennas on top of one of the Hudson arcology towers. Jared jinked and threaded the Tank between the antennas clipping one or two on the way. The missile however couldn’t keep up and smashed into one of the relays and exploded in a massive ball of flame.

“Whew,” Jared smirked, “that was close.” As he brought the Tank around his eyes widened in realisation. “Wait, wasn’t that…”

—-

The engines on the UniCop vehicles spluttered and cut out as their control systems died. With a shower of sparks the prisoner transport fell to the garage floor and scraped to a halt and the rear escort fell unceremoniously to the floor with a bone jarring crunch.

Talbot exchanged fire with one of the UniCops in the escort vehicle, rounds spraying in both directions. Kai reached into one of the pockets on his tactical vest. He pulled out a white golf ball that had a series of runes drawn on it in black ink. From another pocket he pulled out a slingshot. Placing the ball delicately in the slingshot’s pocket he took a deep breath and in one fluid motion, popped up from behind the skycar, fired the projectile at the escort vehicle and ducked back down again.

As the ball left the slingshot it became enveloped in a veil of green energy leaving a trail of sparks behind it as it flew through the air, its runes clearly visible burning with a fierce green light. On impact the ball erupted into a green explosion which left retina burns in the eyes of anyone looking directly at it. One of the UniCops, the driver, howled and clutched his eyes. Dropping his weapon on the outside of the vehicle.

Talbot turned and looked at Kai who was grinning and loading another ball. “Does your cousin know you’re borrowing his slingshot?” Kai just laughed and prepared to fire again. “And are those MY golf balls your enchanting?”

Sarah landed at the hole in the grate and dismissed her wings. She ran past the escort vehicle towards the back of the prisoner transport. When she got there she found Tommy repeatedly pounding on the door. “Door’s locked from the inside,” he explained frustratedly, “and I already fried the frigging electronic lock!”

“Echo One should have some C4,” Sarah suggested using Talbot’s codename now that they were on mission, “we could blow the door lock.”

“No good,” Tommy began, “the Aerodyne AV5 Prisoner Transport Craft used by the Unity has a titanium-carbon fibre pseudo-alloy fuselage. A charge powerful enough to pierce its armour will SARAH BEHIND YOU!”

Sarah span round as Tommy called out his warning to see a UniCop standing behind her pointing a gun at point-blank range at her head. Tommy cursed, how could he have forgotten about the prisoner transports driver, as he tried to pull Sarah out of the line of fire.

Before any of them could react a hover bike flew in through the hole in the grate and round the side of the lead escort and prisoner transport. A helmet held outstretched smashed into the head of the UniCop as the bike shot past the three of them at maximum speed. There was a loud crack and the UniCop collapsed to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut. The young rider of the bike jumped off the vehicle and ran over to Sarah and Tommy.

The two of them were a little stunned by what had just happened. Tommy was the first to snap to when he recognised the person running towards them. “Toby, what the hell are you doing here?” The younger boy didn’t answer, he just glared at Tommy.

Inside the back of the van, officer Travis was now getting very worried indeed. First comms had gone down leaving him unable to contact any of his fellow UniCops, then gunfire and explosions had erupted outside. The lights in he back had died at the same time as the engines and the inside of the van was only lit by his helmet light. Then someone had started pounding on the doors. Taking advantage of the distraction the father, still with his hands bound behind his back, shoulder barged Travis. The man merely bounced off Travis’s armour. Travis punched the man in the chest, drew his sidearm and shot the man in the leg. He went down, hissing in pain through gritted teeth.

Travis grabbed the little girl by her hair and lifted her off the floor. She screamed as she dangled and her mother moved to get up. “One more move and I cut the brats head off!” He threatened, putting a knife to her throat. A terrific wrenching sound made him turn as the armoured doors of the van were torn of their hinges and thrown across the garage smashing into a pillar. Before Travis could act a combat knife, standard UniCop issue, hurled into his right shoulder burying itself up to its hilt. He dropped the little girl, who scrambled back to her parents, and his own knife as he clutched at the wound. His attacker, whom he recognised as the young mutant that had escaped him earlier that day, climbed into the back of the van. Blood was dripping from cuts on Toby’s palms where he had torn at the metal and his entire body shook with rage

“GET AWAY FROM MY LITTLE SISTER!”

BetaForce – EchoCell 03

16:30 June 19th, 2049
Westgate Arcology, Sector 23

The door to the 65th floor apartment flew open as a pint sized, dark haired ball of energy shot in the direction of the living room. Shoes and coat dumped unceremoniously onto the floor. A few seconds later, an older boy entered carrying bags of groceries blocking his view and he stumbled forward dropping the bags. A quick wave of his hand and the bags halted in mid fall. “Lee, how many times have I told you about those damn shoes!” he yelled half-heartedly. “Hey Kai, what’s for dinner?” was the response he got.

Kai had a slight but not scrawny build, with dark skin. Darker than his cousin’s. He was clean shaven but with scruffy murky blond hair. His unkempt, almost uncontrollable hair, was kept back by a red bandanna style headband. The long baggy blue jeans trailed on the floor and he wore a white short sleeved t-shirt underneath a black basketball vest. Tattooed on his forearms was the kanji symbol for courage and as he shrugged his backpack to the floor, the metal karabiners attached to it clinked noisily.

Picking up the groceries from mid air, he back kicked the door close. “I swear that boy is going to kill me one of these days,” he muttered as he dodged the skateboard and bike lying on the floor in the middle of the entryway. “And you better get this lot cleaned up before your dad gets home.”

As he entered the apartment proper, a feminine electronic voice made itself known. “Welcome back Kai. You have five new messages one of which is from Kiba. You also asked me to remind you to complete the college application form by Monday the 21st of this month.”

“Play uncle’s message.”

“Message received today at fourteen oh nine. Message begins.”

“Kai, I’ve got to work late again tonight. There’s a couple of frozen pizza’s in the freezer for you and Lee. Make sure Lee does his homework and gets to bed by nine if I’m not back before then. See you tonight.”

“Message ends. Do you wish to review the other four messages?”

“No, I’ll listen to them later.”

The lights came in in the kitchen as he entered, the motion sensor registering his presence. He dropped the groceries on the metal counter and reached for the freezer door. An electronic post-it note on the freezer’s smart display caught his attention. “Oven’s bust. Money on the counter for take out.” Uncle Kiba must have forgot about that when he left the message earlier. Ignoring it, he pulled a large pepperoni out out of the freezer. “Oi, sprocket, pepperoni ok with you?” he yelled in the direction of his cousin in the living room. Over the din of the latest episode of Jake Danger: Mutant Hunter he got a vague affirmative response.

After unwrapping the pizza, he placed it on a baking tray and pulled out a silver permanent marker. As he etched a series of glyphs on the black surface of the tray he called out to Lee. “Anything happen in school today?”

“Nah, not much ‘cept a bunch a Uni’s running around.”

The glyphs faded from sight as he reached for the emergency flash light in the cupboard above the counter. “UniCops? What did they want?”

“Miss Anderson said that it was just a routine visit checking up on security but she was lying.”

“How do you know she was lying?” As he listened to his cousin’s answer, he checked the battery in the flash light. Satisfied that there was enough juice, he bit the end of his finger and traced a complex diagram on the lens in his own blood.

“She always scratches her nose and fiddles with her glasses every time she tells us something she knows isn’t true. Like the time she taught us about the bioterror attack on Africa and the quarantine afterwards. ‘sides Billy said they were after some 9th grader who jumped the school fence and ran off.”

Kai held the torch over the frozen pizza and turned it on. As the light passed through the blood diagram, it was converted into heat and magnified several times. The now invisible silver glyphs on the baking tray acted as a temporal compression circle increasing the speed of time on the tray and its contents. The effect was to turn the flash light and the baking tray into a jury-rigged microwave. After a couple of minutes, he had to swap the hand holding heavy flash light. He may be able to violate the fundamental laws of the universe but he couldn’t do anything about stopping his arm from getting tired.

As the pizza quickly cooked, he thought on what his cousin had told him. That 9th grader was probably the one his team had tried to get to ahead of the cops. From what Lee had said, it sounded like they had cut it pretty close. He asked the apartment’s computer to show him the text of the other four messages on the freezer’s smart display. As he expected, the last one was a coded message from Virus, Tommy’s online handle. “Package received intact, little wear and tear but nothing serious.” Relieved he went back to quizzing Lee on the rest of his day.

Five minutes later the pizza was cooked, and after letting stand for a minute to cool he took it into the living room with a couple of plates. Jake Danger was leading a squad of valiant Unity Soldiers against a mutant stronghold, gunning down the evil terrorists with his twin Pacifier assault rifles. “How can you watch this shit?” Kai mumbled between mouthfuls of pizza.

—-

Toby had been left alone with Talbot in his office. “So, history lesson 101,” Talbot began as he walked over to the fridge in the corner, “a long time ago in a galaxy far away there was a super team called Alpha Force.” He opened the fridge and pulled out two bottles of beer and tossed one at Toby who was now sitting down at the table.

“You do realise I’m only 14 right?” He asked the older man as he held the beer.

“Oh please, you’re a 14 year old teenage boy living in the big city. I’m sure you know of at least four stores that don’t ask for ID when buying a six pack of Bud. Besides, after what you’ve been through today you deserve something a little stronger than fizzy pop.” Talbot took a swig from his bottle as he sat down.

“Now where was I … ah, Alpha Force. Before the Unification War, Unifer’s victory and the rise of the Unity, Alpha Force were the worlds greatest team of superheroes. Along with the EU’s EuroForce, the UN’s Overwatch, and independent teams like Legion and the Army of Light, they kept the world safe from supervillains and global disasters. They were good at their jobs too.” Talbot paused for a second, with a distant expression as if remembering something. “A little too good perhaps. You see whenever some major league bad guy showed up, the hero teams would take them down. When some tin-pot dictatorship started ethnic cleansing or invaded a neighbouring country, by the time the international community had decided on the wording of their statement of condemnation, the heroes had already gone and sorted it out. Even on a local level, the indie heroes helped keep crime levels down.” As Talbot got up and began pacing, Toby began to suspect that this was a common rant of his.

“When Unifer took out Alpha Force with a single shot and shut down the world’s infrastructure, his minions were taking out the other teams as well. With our protectors gone, everything started to fall apart and we realised how dependent we were on them. You see, we’d gotten complacent and started relying on them. By the time Unifer made his play in Washington the world didn’t really know how to deal with a crisis on that scale any more. Some tried to fight, to resist Unifer’s new regime. But for most, survival was the priority. After the pulse, supplies in the cites ran out pretty quickly. There was looting and rioting everywhere, what was left of the government folded within a couple weeks. Then came the collapse of the biosphere in the central states. The Unity blamed it on biological and chemical attacks by terrorists and massive climatic upheavals. With the grain belt gone, people began to starve. So called relief efforts were confined to the coastal cities where the Unity had total control and as the centre of the continent became uninhabitable that’s where everyone fled. A similar thing happened to Africa. They had a quite successful resistance going until Unifer just got tired and ordered the entire continent dusted with bioweapons wiping out the entire population. Sure it was blamed on a terrorist’s bioattack gone horribly wrong but nobody back then bought it. The message was clear, fuck with the Unity and they gang bang back.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” Toby asked a little confuse as to where Talbot was going. Talbot sat back down and looked at Toby.

“To make you understand what it is that we face. After Africa everybody was terrified at what the Unity would do if people tried to rebel. Now, after 30 years of propaganda filled with subliminal programming and chemicals like G26 Paxilon-Hydrochlorate in the food and water, people don’t want to rebel.”

“Can you blame them? Pollution levels in the ECM are less than 10% of New York’s before Unification. The ECM has a population of 200 million compared to New York’s 10 which makes that reduction all the more impressive. Thanks to synthetic food stuffs and urban AgroTowers, famine has all but been abolished and climate modification technology has repaired most of the damage done by the polynational era. The planet’s not been in better shape in the last hundred years!”

—-

“Unit Delta Six, sat scan confirms that the targets are still located in their apartment.”

Officer Travis rubbed his nose as his commander talked with central. His nose had only recently been healed by the med techs after the run in with a mutant earlier in the day. A run in that had cost the life of his elder partner. He was itching for some “occupational therapy” as his instructor had once put it.

“Be careful men,” the squad commander advised, “as far as we know our targets do not possess any metahuman abilities but take no chances.” With a flick of his finger, the commander ordered the six man squad of UniCops to move out and they began to approach the target’s apartment. As they positioned themselves around the door, he signalled one of his men stationed at the building security centre to override the locking mechanism and grant them access. He held his hand up, fingers outstretched and began a silent countdown.

—-

“Are you seriously going to try and defend a government that tried to have you gunned down on the street less than three hours ago? … Thought not. The fact is that all that ‘progress’ was done with a gun to our heads.” Talbot sighed. “But in a way you’re right. Over half the population believe the lie. Most of the rest know they’re being lied to and either don’t believe anything can be done about it or think returning to the chaos of the Unification War is not an option. Only a tiny minority can see that there is something terribly wrong with the world and have the courage to do anything about it. Someone once said, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, envinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and provide new guards for their future security.”

“And in English?”

“When there’s something wrong, those with the ability to do something about it have the responsibility to act.”

Toby looked down at the table and took a deep gulp from the beer bottle in front of him. “Let’s cut the crap, the only reason you’re telling me any of this is you want me to sign up with your little rebellion.” He stood up, leaning forward with both hands planted firmly on the table glaring at Talbot. “Thanks for saving my ass and everything, but what help could I be? I’m still in school for chrissakes! ”

Talbot looked at him for a second, the silence hanging between them. Then, in one swift motion, he reached behind him and pulled out a handgun aiming at Toby’s forehead. The end of the muzzle just a few centimetres from his face. “Despite the fact that you’re still just a kid you are the strongest person on this base, not to mention the fastest and most agile. If I pulled this trigger you’d be back up and in my face within 15 seconds max.” Putting the gun on the table he continued. “Plus you didn’t even flinch when a near stranger pointed a gun straight at your face. You’ve got the guts and the ability and I know you’re not stupid.”

Toby sat back down, let out the breath he’d been subconsciously holding and took an even bigger gulp from the bottle. “Interesting recruitment technique you get there,” he paused while he tried to think, “say I wanted in. What would …”

He was interrupted when a wall mounted phone started to ring. “Hold that thought,” Talbot said holding up a finger as he walked over and picked up the handset. “This is Talbot, go ahead.” Toby couldn’t hear who was on the other end but from Talbot’s expression it wasn’t good news. Talbot looked at Toby, his face was grim. After a couple of minutes he hung up and pulled out a hand held communicator. “Just got a message from Spectre, we need to intercept a UniCop snatch squad ASAP. Everyone to the hanger bay on the double. Tommy, do your thing and get Kai down here.” He turned to Toby as started to leave. “Looks like we’ll have to continue this conversation later.”

As he got to the door, Toby stood up and caught up with him. “Look, if you need a hand I could…”

Before he could finish, Talbot turned around and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Maybe next time Toby. This time I really need you to stay here until we get back.” With that he turned and began running down the corridor towards the hanger.

Toby watched him leave, a little angry. “So much for having the ability.”

—-

Mercifully, Kai’s mobile rang giving him a convenient excuse to slip out and not endure any more of Jake Danger: Mutant Hunter. He went to his bedroom in order to not disturb his cousin and also to ensure that the conversation was not overheard.

“S’up Tommy … Ok, see you as soon as I can.” As he ended the call he heard the front door open.

—-

On zero, Travis opened the door and quietly entered the apartment. He was taking point partly because of the screw up that happened when he and his partner and been sent to apprehend an unregistered mutant at the local school earlier that day. Travis had also volunteered for this operation and had asked to to take point. He had a score to settle.

Advancing into the apartment, he could hear the sounds of the TV in the living room. Raising his stunner, he took aim at the small figure silhouetted by the screen.

Kai stepped out into the hallway just as his uncle Kiba walked in the door. His cousin ran out of the living room and into his fathers waiting arms. Kai waited a second as his uncle said hello to his son before interrupting. After saying hello himself, he got down to business.

“Stacy just called,” Lee wrinkled his nose and made puking sounds as he heard what he assumed was the name of Kai’s girlfriend, “her computer’s down again and she needs my help.” His uncle on the other hand recognised the code phrase and simply nodded.

“Don’t be out too late, I need some help with the shop’s inventory tomorrow.”

“I won’t,” Kai responded before closing the front door behind him. He hurried down the corridor towards the emergency stair. The door on this level had thankfully had its alarm disabled by an enterprising young mutant with technopathic powers, as had the security cameras on either side. Making sure that nobody was watching he quickly opened the door and slipped through.

The lights were flickering in the stairwell, more off than on, and the air smelt stale. Using the flash light on his mobile he located a patch of graffiti on the wall. A stylised leopard with tiny Japanese characters in place of spots. Kai placed the fingers of both hands very carefully on a set of specific spots and uttered the word “Kendra”. A split second later he was sucked into the wall.

—-

Jared sat behind the controls of The Tank, the teams primary vehicle. It resembled the bastard love child of an APC and and stubby winged aircraft with two swivel mounted thrusters mounted on each side of its lifting body fuselage. Small folding wings, insufficient to provide any lift, acted as stabilizers as did a pair of vertical fins at the rear. The ten meter long body was covered in dark grey armour plates, hexagon in shape. The plates themselves were in turn coated in chameleon paint providing reduced visibility and limited stealth capabilities. Two pods on the roof contained micromissiles and a large autocannon mounted beneath the cockpit completed its armaments. As the craft completed its boot up sequence, he quickly pulled on a set of charcoal grey camouflaged fatigues. Behind him Sarah was pulling a set of her own from a storage locker.

A console flickered and Tommy appeared in his seat in a burst of static, already in uniform. Seconds later Talbot bounded up the rear loading ramp, hitting the close button as he passed it. “Kai’s on his way, he’ll be here as soon as he can,” he reported as Talbot passed him.

“Good,” Talbot responded as he sat down and fastened his safety harness, “I need you to go the Hudson Arcoplex in quadrant 3 and see if you can shut down comms in that area.”

“You got it boss.” Without bothering to unbuckle, he shifted to digital form and and vanished.

“Jared, let’s get this hunk of metal on the road so to speak, as soon as we’re airborne I’ll fill you too in on our target’s.”

—-

All by himself, Toby began to pace up and down the briefing room. Talbot had made this big speech about responsibility and making a stand, had tried to persuade him to join up. However, the moment he offered his help he was back to being treated like a kid. Balling his fists, he finished off the beer and started down the corridor that Talbot had ran down. He got to the hanger bay just in time to see the dust left behind as a large vehicle accelerated up the exit ramp.

Looking around he saw that the hanger bay contained several vehicles. A couple of generic commercial vehicles, two ground cars, a long range cargo plane and even a familiar looking two trailer cargo drone complete with blood stains on the front grill. Nestled between these, Toby saw exactly what he was looking for, a hover cycle complete. The keys were even in the ignition. Without a moments hesitation he leapt aboard, gunned the engine, and roared off.

BetaForce – EchoCell 02

16:22 June 19th, 2049
200m below Sector 23

Toby woke with a pounding headache and a ringing in his ears. Cracking open an eye and groaning slightly, he looked around. He was lying in a bed surrounded by beeping equipment, and judging by the vague antiseptic smell, it was in some sort of hospital room. Along with from the bed he was lying in and the medical equipment, the room contained two other unoccupied beds and several computer displays which were currently turned off. A clock mounted on the wall opposite the bed indicated that he had been unconscious for over three hours. As he propped himself up on his elbows, he tried to recall what he was doing in hospital. Had he been in some sort of accident? Looking at himself, he didn’t seem to be injured, although he did notice that under the blanket he was stark naked.

As he tried to process what was going on, he began to remember the last few hours in flashes. Fragments of memory barely connected to one another. The UniCops at school. Vaulting over a four-meter barbed wire fence. Being chased through the streets. Being shot in the leg. Surviving a broken neck and crushed skull. The cop with the knife. Being stunned and paralysed. A cargo drone swerving off the road. The wet crunch as it hit the cop. The red smear being left behind then a flash of blinding white light.

Toby was now sitting bolt upright in near panic, his mind racing from one worst case scenario to the next. One of the two doors into the room opened and a young woman, no older than twenty backed into the room carrying something. She was wearing black jeans, black trainers and a loose-fitting white shirt. Her long blond hair was tied back into a ponytail. As she turned, Toby could see that she was wearing a silver chain around her neck and was carrying a digital clipboard with two cans of cola balanced on it in one hand and two shrink-wrapped sandwiches in the other. Whoever she was, she certainly didn’t fit the picture of the stereotypical UniCop.

Seeing that he was awake, the woman smiled and tossed one of the sandwiches over to him. “Thought you might be hungry. Didn’t know what you might like but cheese seemed the safest choice.” She followed up the sandwich with the cola can. “And you can never have too much liquid sugar in your system.”

“Er,” Toby began, “no offence, but who the hell are you, where the hell am I, and what the fuck happened to my clothes!”

She laughed as she pulled up a chair and began to munch on her sandwich. “Ok, in that order, my names Sarah and I’m the one who brought you here. You’re in a safe place where the Unity can’t find you and you’re clothes are in a plastic bag under the bed. You were soaking wet after that dumpster dive of yours. They were filthy and you’d have probably caught pneumonia or worse if we’d left them on you so I had them dried out.”

Toby sat back, only partially satisfied by Sarah’s answer. “Safe? One minute I’m being chased by Uni’s who want to kill for some reason, there’s a flash of light and then there’s a guy standing over me with a tranq gun. Before I can do anything he shoots me and then I wake up naked in a hospital bad. Lady, you got a funny idea of safe.”

“Sorry about that,” Sarah said apologetically, “we didn’t know the full extent of your abilities and Talbot didn’t want you panicking; you could’ve done serious damage to the base and yourself.”

“Huh?” Toby said, his forehead furrowed in confusion, “what do you mean abilities? And what am I doing here?”

Sarah looked at him carefully for a few seconds, then her eyes widened in realisation. “He doesn’t know,” she thought to himself, “he has no idea.”

The way she was looking at him unnerved Toby. “What?”

“When you arrived at school this morning, your attendance was registered by scanning your ID implant as you entered the classroom.”

“So?”

She went to explain how the implants that every citizen of the Unity received shortly after their birth had a hidden function. They had the ability to test the blood of the host and look for certain genetic markers. They weren’t capable of a full DNA scan; all they were capable of was detecting the presence of active mutant genes. One in four people are born in dormant mutant genes, another fact that few people were aware of, and only in tiny majority were they ever activated. She paused and studied Toby’s confused expression. At first Sarah thought he didn’t get what she was trying to tell him, but she slowly began to realise that wasn’t it. Toby knew, or at least he suspected, the boy just didn’t want to admit it, especially to himself.

“There’s no easy way to say this,” she said, deciding to come straight to the point, “at eight fifteen this morning, as you entered your classroom, your implant was instructed to perform a routine genetic scan. Later that morning, the results were sent back to the Unity reporting that active mutant genes had been detected and a two man UniCop snatch squad was sent to arrest you.”

“I’m a … a mutant?” Toby asked, whispering and looking down at his hands, “but I can’t be.”

“Trust me; removing the implant from someone who regenerates as fast as you is not easy. As soon as I made an incision, you healed it back up.” Toby’s eyes widened as what she was telling him started to sink in. “It was a real hack job, I had to get someone to hold the hole open with their hands while I cut the implant out from under your heart.”

“You cut me open!” he shouted, staring at her in indignant shock.

“Of course,” Sarah said shrugging. “We put a fake implant in to replace the one we took out. You can’t reprogram the ones the Unity put in, but the one that’s in there now can be reprogrammed with a new ID with the right tools.”

Toby looked down again, his hand running across his bare chest where there no sign of a surgical scar. Deep down, as much as he might want to deny it, he knew that it was true. The fast healing cuts, leaping on to that cargo drone, recovering from a broken neck and a crushed skull, all of it made sense if he was a mutant; no normal human being could have done those things. “I feel sick,” he said quietly, looking pale.

Sarah consulted the display next to the bed and tapped a few things on the clipboard. “That’s a normal side-effect of the drugs. It should pass in an hour or two. We didn’t want you to wake up mid-op. THAT would have been messy.” She laughed at the last bit. Toby just grimaced meekly.

He sat in silence looking down, not even touching the unopened sandwich. Sarah got up and threw her empty wrapper in the trash before turning back to the boy. “Look kid, get dressed. Talbot, that big mean man who tranqed you, wants to talk to you and he can probably explain things better than I can. I’ll be waiting outside when you’re done.” She left him alone in the room, closing the door behind her.

His head was swimming with a thousand unasked and unanswered questions. Reaching under the bed, he pulled out the plastic bag containing his clothes. The dirty marks from the stagnant water were gone but there was still a slight discolouration around the bullet holes in his shorts, dried remnants of blood. At least they were dry. Still feeling a little numb, he pulled on the knee-length grey shorts and his red hooded top.

As he stood up, a sudden wave of nausea flooded over him. Looking around frantically, he saw the other door in the room was marked toilet. Clutching his mouth, he leapt over the bed and sprinted across the room. He threw the door open and just made it to the sink in time before he could no longer hold the contents of his stomach down, vomiting up his lunch. After a few heaves his stomach was empty and he gulped down some water from the sink tap to get rid of the acrid taste. Wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve, he looked in the mirror. His face was pale and his eyes puffy and red.

It was at that point that everything that he had been suppressing and avoided thinking about since all this had started finally came crashing down on to him. Toby Smith was a mutant and an enemy of the state; a freak and a traitor. The Unity would be looking for him now, and if they found him, they would probably kill him. He could never go home, that would be the first place they would look for. As far as his family was concerned, he might as well be dead. Knowing the Unity, they had probably already told his family that he’d been executed and his body incinerated in the city’s waste incinerator. His life, as he had known it, was over. His legs buckled at the knees and the tears that he could no longer contain finally burst free; he lay on the floor sobbing.

Sarah stood outside the door listening to the boy crying. “Poor kid,” she thought, “it’s not every day that you learn the authorities want you dead.” Thinking back, she remembered when the Unity had come for her five years ago. She hadn’t been much older than him and she’d cried for days, prepared to give anything to see her friends or her parents again.

After a few minutes, he seemed to calm down and he opened the door, joining her in the corridor. He’d cleaned himself up but he still seemed a little delicate. Sarah knew better than to push him about what had happened after she’d left him alone.

Sarah started walking down the corridor, Toby following silently behind. He glanced curiously at the walls as they walked. Unlike the clean and white walls of the infirmary, the walls out here were dirty and grey. The cracked concrete looked old and in places, faded and illegible markings were still visible on the wall. “Just where are we?”

“In a bunker 200 meters below ground,” said Sarah. “Apparently, this place was some sort of bomb shelter during the Cold War or something.”

“What’s the Cold War?”

“It was this big war between two countries. It happened before the Unification War but there was no actual fighting.”

“Hmph, don’t sound like much of a war,” Toby mumbled.

They passed several doors marked unsafe “Unsafe: Do Not Enter”. One corridor branching off from the one they were walking down was barred with wire mesh, beyond which Toby could see the rubble of a collapsed ceiling. The general state of repair didn’t exactly fill Toby with confidence about the bunkers structural stability.

Eventually, after a climbing flight of stairs, they emerged into a large and well lit room. The room was dominated by a large table in its centre surrounded by several chairs. At one end, a large video screen was mounted on the wall. It was currently showing what Toby assumed to be a dozen feeds from security cameras. Disks and data chips were scattered over the table. They were also not alone, two other people in the room waiting for them.

Sitting at the table was a boy not much older than Toby wearing ratty blue jeans, a white long sleeved t-shirt and an orange sweatshirt with cut-off sleeves. A deep scar crossed the brow of his nose, spanning the full width of his face just under his eyes. He was glaring at Toby for some reason, hostility in his eyes.

From across the room, a young Hispanic man waved and walked over. He looked to be about twenty and his long dark-red hair was held out of his face by a headband. Unlike Sarah and the boy at the table, he was dressed in a more militant style; wearing combat pants with an urban camouflage pattern, black trainers, a grey shirt and a tan coloured military style utility vest over the top. Tribal style sleeve tattoos covered his arms and he had a single gold earring in his left ear.

Sarah smiled and greeted him with a brief hug before turning back to Toby and introducing him. “Toby, this is Jared. He’s what you might call our wheelman.” Jared smiled and grasped Toby’s hand. “He’s also our resident mechanical genius. Pretty much keeps everything here running.”

“If it’s got wings, I can fly it. If it has wheels, I can drive. If it ‘aint got neither I can still make it break the speed limit and evade the cops.” Jared boasted with a slight grin. “I saw how you handled that UniCop in the alleyway. Pretty cool. You ever play baseball? You’ve got a great pitching arm kid, nailed that cop right in the face with that rock.”

“Not really, I’m more into combat hockey,” Toby replied, still a little bewildered.

“Great, another one. Does no one on the East Coast play baseball anymore?”

While Jared and Toby talked, the boy at the table pushed his chair back and moved over to the group. As he approached, Sarah rolled her eyes. “And this charming young man is…”

“So this is the little runt whose arse we saved?” the boy interrupted looking Toby right in the eye, an obvious challenge. To Toby’s surprise, he had a British accent.

“As I was saying, this is Tommy and…” Sarah attempted to continue.

“What’s your problem huh?” Toby countered, squaring up to Tommy. The two boys now stood only a few inches apart.

“I can’t believe we risked our lives for this … this runt.” Tommy spat dismissively. “I mean he’s nothing more than some brainwashed arco-brat; force fed that subliminal shit they shovel out in the schools.”

“Hey, maybe you should leave him…”Jared began, although there was little chance he would finish the sentence before one of the two boys cut him off.

“I don’t have to stand here and listen to this.” Toby turned and started to walk away.

Tommy laughed before continuing in a fake American accent. “Yeah, why don’t go home and cry to mommy?”

Toby stopped in his tracks; his shoulders hunched and his fists balled. He turned and faced the Tommy, his face flushed red. “What did you say?” He said slowly and deliberately.

“You heard me, why don’t you just curl up on the floor again and cry.” He punctuated his statement with a sharp shove to Toby’s shoulder.

Jared looked at Sarah and mouthed “here we go” before looking over at the man that had quietly entered the room at the start of the argument. The man appeared to be in his late twenties with short brown hair and brown stubble on his chin. He wore dark grey cargo pants, black combat boots and an open dark grey khaki jacket. On the right shoulder was a patch of the old US flag. Underneath the jacket was a simple white t-shirt. Leaning against the wall, he was watching the confrontation with bemused interest.

“Touch me again,” Toby said calmly but with a hint of menace “and you’ll be sorry.”

Tommy tried to shove him in the shoulder again but Toby batted the hand away. “Ooh, tough guy.”

“Back off scar face.” The instant Toby uttered those words he regretted them. Tommy’s face flashed red with anger and he lashed, aiming a punch to at Toby’s face. The younger boy instantly caught Tommy’s fist in a blur of motion. With his free hand he shoved Tommy in the chest, forcing him back a meter. Without hesitation, Tommy leapt forward kicking out at Toby’s left side. Toby span to the side, avoiding the blow, using the momentum to respond with a spin kick of his own. Tommy, the more experienced fighter, stopped the spin dead by grabbing on to Toby’s foot with both hands. He lost his grip when Toby jumped back, landing in a crouch. Tommy adopted a martial arts stance as Toby charged forward.

As the two boys fought Sarah and Jared moved over to the man. “So Talbot,” Sarah began, “can those two actually hurt each other?”

Talbot shrugged, “Short answer no. Long answer yes but not permanently.”

“Where’s Kai?” asked Jared.

“He’s out getting supplies. It’s handy being the only one not wanted by the government for being a terrorist.”

Toby and Tommy exchanged a flurry of punches and kicks; both seemed evenly matched. Tommy seemed to rely on pure hitting power whereas Toby was the more agile of the two. After a few minutes, both boys were sporting rapidly fading bruises but surprisingly few blows had connected.

Talbot stepped away from the wall, put two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly. “Ok you two, that’s enough. Break it up.” Instantly, Tommy somersaulted back from the fight, obviously showing off. His entire demeanour changed, all trace of hostility vanished and He held his hands up in a placating gesture.

“Easy there mate, just testing ya,” he managed between breaths. Unlike Toby, Tommy was still trying to catch his breath. “Haven’t had a work out like that in a long while.” Toby, a little confused, looked at the other boy who was now grinning. “Sorry about that whole cry baby thing, no hard feelings right?” He took a step forward holding his hand out.

Toby, still a little wary, stepped forward and took the hand. “If you can forget about scar face thing then I guess we can call it even.”

“Sure. Looks like I’ve finally found someone in this group worth sparring with. Now, if I’m not mistaken,” he continued while flicking a look at Talbot, “I’m about to be told to go and clean the hydroponic waste vats.” In response, Talbot just raised an eyebrow in an unspoken order. Without complaint, he made his way to the door. As he backed out, he turned to Toby and raised his hand in mock salute.

“Oh yeah, welcome to BetaForce.”