Sarah Tanner looked up as the front door opened and her son walked in. “There you are Deegan, dinners almost ready.”
“Yeah, sorry I’m late mum,” the boy said, closing the front door, “lost track of time. Is dad home yet?”
“He’ll be back in a minute,” she said turning back to the stove, “so go get washed up and then come down and set the table.”
The house where he and his parents lived was small and in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of the city. It wasn’t much but it was cosy and after moving around so much when he was younger, it was nice to have a place that was starting to feel like home. Deegan picked up his skyboard and started climbing the ladder into the attic. When they had first moved in, his parents had told him that he was too old to share a room with them anymore. At first, he hadn’t understood where he was supposed to sleep. Apart from the cellar and the attic, there was only the main room, a single bedroom and the pantry, all on the ground floor. Deegan was told that from now on he would be sleeping in the attic. That would be his room, his own personal space.
It had taken a bit of work, but between him and his father, they had managed to make it liveable if not comfortable. A small bed was pushed up against one side underneath the skylight. When he had first seen the window in the roof, his doubts about the attic were banished. The window let in a great deal of light and gave him a great view of the sky. Sleeping under the clouds and the stars, even if it was through a pane of glass, was oddly comforting to him. In the centre of the attic was a worktable covered in junk and tools. He cleared some space on the table and put his skyboard down; after using the boost earlier, he’d need to recharge its power crystals. From the ceiling hung a model of a dragon with a working, articulated skeleton. When the window was open and the breeze blew in, the wings gently flapped as if it was flying. Ever since he was young, Deegan had been fascinated by dragons and together, he and his father had built the model when he was eight. He reached under the worktable and pulled out a small chest. Inside, hidden underneath his clothes, were several tightly folded flags, all of them slightly ripped along one side where they had been torn from their masts. There were flags representing the Succession States, the city-state of Galatea, the Arcadian Commonwealth, the Sundered Kingdoms, even the Sky Marshalls. All of them stolen from a ship. Now he could add an Imperial flag to his collection. He took the stolen flag out from underneath his shirt where he had stowed it and hid it with the rest; he couldn’t wait to show it to the guys tomorrow.
Deegan closed the chest and pushed it back under the worktable. Remembering his mother’s words, he quickly washed his hands and face in the washbowl before heading back downstairs. By now, his father was home, sitting at the table and taking off his boots and the smell of the cooking was filling the room.
Robert Tanner worked at the city’s docks, operating a pilot skiff and helping larger ships into port. Deegan himself also worked at the docks three days a week when he wasn’t at school as a message courier. His father wasn’t happy with him working at the docks; Robert didn’t think it was safe for a boy his age even if they did need the extra money. “Watch out for pressgangs,” he had warned his son on more than one occasion, “Some ships don’t ask before recruiting new crewmembers.” Deegan wasn’t worried though, he had been thinking about joining the crew of a merchant ship for a while now; they were always on the lookout for new cabin boys and rope monkeys. Of course, there was no way his overprotective father would ever let him crew a ship. If he found the recruitment pamphlet for the Sky Marshals he had hidden under his bed, he’d probably throw a fit.
“How was work today? Anything interesting happen?” Robert asked while Deegan began laying out the cutlery and placemats.
“Same as usual dad,” Deegan replied, “ferrying messages and packages across town for sleaze ball captains too lazy or too smart to do it themselves”
“You remember what I told you?” His father asked him as Deegan sat down at the table.
“Never look inside a package or at the contents of a letter,” Deegan said, reciting his father’s words from memory, “in case the guards stop and search you.”
“And why is that?”
“Because if you don’t know you’re carrying something illegal then…” said Deegan.
“…you’re just an innocent delivery boy,” he and his father said together.
“That’s my boy.” Robert said, reaching across the table to ruffle his son’s hair in approval. Sarah walked over carrying the food and setting the stew pot down with some force, she didn’t exactly approve of the lesson her husband was teaching to their son. The conversation moved on to safer topics as dinner progressed.
“Oh hey,” Deegan said at one point, “I saw an Imperial ship coming into port on the way home.”
“Are you sure?” Robert asked. “Artaxis is pretty far from Eldala.”
“Pretty sure,” Deegan said smiling inwardly as he thought about the flag hidden upstairs, “big one too; Dragoon-class I think given the number of crystals, the lack of sails and the size of its big guns.” He decided not to mention that he had got close enough to see that there had been a Vigilant on board; that was an argument he could do without.
“I wish you would put as much effort into your schoolwork as you do watching ships and messing around with that board of yours.” His mother said as she refilled his bowl.
The rest of the evening went quietly. After tweaking the levitation crystals on his board, Deegan decided to have an early night; he had work tomorrow morning. That night, like almost every night before, he again dreamt of flying, of soaring through the clouds.
“Tanner,” the man behind the desk called out over the noise of the room, “you’re up.”
Deegan looked up from the card game. “Coming boss.” He turned back to the table, gulped down the last of his drink, and picked up his winnings. “Gotta go guys,” he said to the four other boys around the table, all of them message runners like him, “catch you later.” Deegan grabbed his board and backpack and trotted over to the desk. “What’s the job boss?”
“Merchant ship out of the Sundered Kingdoms, up by mooring post three,” his boss said shoving a piece of paper into his hand. “Basic courier run, you know the drill Tanner.”
“Gotcha boss, mooring post three.” He pulled on his goggles and headed out the door, making sure that his red armbands were showing. The left one had “Artaxis Port Authority” written on it in black paint, the right had “#46” written on the other. Together, they marked him as a message runner working for the city.
The weather was exceptionally fine with clear visibility and Deegan could see for miles as he stepped on to the balcony of the Port Authority building. In the distance, he could see a number floating platforms that had several ships moored to them. The mooring posts were made of the same rock as the island and drifted in the sky relative to it. Ships that didn’t want to dock with island directly could moor up at the platform; it wasn’t as convenient as docking with the island but it was considerably cheaper. Tying his bandana over his face and making sure that his backpack was securely fastened, he jumped off the balcony and took to the air.
Deegan carefully weaved his way through the crowded airspace above the port, heading for the mooring posts a few miles out. There were ships of almost every design and nationality in the skies around the port. Artaxis was a major trading hub as its neutrality made it a natural junction of several major trading routes. As he flew, he heard a familiar voice call out his name and he slowed down, turning to face the direction the voice had come from. It was his father, standing at the controls of a pilot skiff guiding a large water tanker in to dock. “Keeping you busy are they son?”
“You know it pops,” Deegan said pulling up alongside the skiff.
“Well, work hard and stay safe and maybe we’ll grab a drink in the pub after work,” Robert said leaning on the wheel. “Just don’t tell your mother,” he added, winking conspiratorially.
Deegan waved and continued on his way. As he approached mooring post three, he saw the ship that had signalled for a courier. The ship may have been flying the flag of the Sundered kingdoms, but Deegan doubted that it was nothing but a flag of convenience. Its hull was marred by repair patches and battle damage but at the same time its levitation crystals were in good repair and were ridiculously overpowered for a ship of its size. When he got close, the demeanour and general appearance of the ship’s crew screamed “pirate” to Deegan. With a sinking feeling, he realised that this job was probably going to involve him carrying something illegal. “Looks like it’s time to play the dumb kid again,” Deegan thought to himself as he approached the ship, stopping short of actually landing on the ship’s deck.
“Clear off kid,” one of the heavily armed crewmen yelled at him, “if you know what’s good for you.”
Deegan pushed up his goggles and pulled down his bandana. “Port Authority sent me,” he said to the crewman, “you called for a message runner?”
The crewman grunted. “Hmph, you’ll want to see the captain then.” He motioned for Deegan to land and the boy hopped off his skyboard next to the crewman. “Follow me,” the man said to him, “but don’t touch nothing.”
Deegan was led below deck towards the captain’s cabin at the rear of the ship. As they walked, they passed several crewmembers. They gave the boy glaring glances and suspicious looks, reminding Deegan of his father’s warning regarding certain recruiting practices. “Just try it,” he muttered under his breath, checking that he had his knife tucked into the back of his pants and hidden under his shirt, “I aint gonna get grabbed so easily.”
“Cap,” the crewman said as they entered the rear cabin, “runner’s here for the package.”
Deegan glanced around the cabin before finally looking at the man in front of him. The cabin was rather plainly attired, especially for what he assumed was a ship full of sky pirates. For a start, there were no chests overflowing with gold and jewels, no fine silks and fabrics. The captain himself was wearing rough and hardwearing clothes like the rest of his crew, although his were considerably cleaner.
“You’re the message courier?” The captain asked, his tone making it quite clear that he wasn’t exactly impressed by the boy standing before him. “You’re younger than I expected.”
“Are you sure we should be trusting the package to a kid?” The crewman asked. As he did so, something inside Deegan snapped and he forgot about pretending to be w more than a naive dumb kid.
“Aren’t you a little young,” Deegan said, his voice adopting a fake whining tone, “a little small? How can we trust a kid, how can a mere boy protect our oh so valuable package.” He crossed his arms and raised a defiant eyebrow. “Can it, I’ve heard it all before. Now, you got a package or a message for me to deliver or are we gonna just stand around here and comment on my age and height.”
The captain smiled. “No one said anything about your height. Looks like you have a real complex there, … shorty.” Deegan just grunted and gritted his teeth. “Very well then, let’s get down to business.” He walked over to his desk, unlocked one of the drawers and pulled out something wrapped in cloth and tied with twine. “Okay … erm … “
“Okay Deegan,” the captain said, handing the package and a piece of paper over to the boy, “this needs to be handed over to man waiting at that address. Now, I’m sure that a scrappy young man like you will be able to get it there quickly. But, can we trust you to protect it if you run in to any trouble?”
Deegan took the package and carefully placed it at the bottom of his backpack. “Since it’s illegal to hire a port authority message runner to carry any form of contraband,” he said smiling slyly, “or anything with a value greater than 50 gold pieces, what sort of trouble are we talking about?”
The captain chuckled. “Well, nothing you can’t handle I’m sure. So what do I owe you.”
“Standard rate is 2 coppers per mile. Black Street is on the other side of town, about four miles, so call it eight coppers.” The truth was that Black Street was only three miles away. Deegan, like all the other runners, routinely added a mile to the distance if they thought they could get away with it. Runners only earned a single copper per run, by adding an extra mile and pocketing the extra money, they tripled the money they took home.
The captain reached into his pocket and started counting out the coins. “Here you go; eight copper pieces.” He said handing Deegan the coins. “And here’s two extra for your trouble; I remember how lousy the wages were when I was your age.”
“Gee thanks,” Deegan said, reaching out to take the extra coppers. Before he could take them though, the captain’s hand closed tightly around his when he tried to pick up the coins.
“One thing,” the captain said, “you won’t be sneaking a peek at the package now will you?”
Deegan smirked. “Like I get paid enough to be curious.”
The captain released Deegan’s hand, allowing him to take and pocket the coins. “Good, now scat. I’ve got work to do.” Dismissed, Deegan was led up on to deck, took one last look around the ship and took off on his skyboard.
On the dockside, the Vigilant watched Deegan set off towards the city. “So this is where you’ve been hiding Arashi,” he muttered, “this time you won’t escape.”
A lone boy sat on a rocky ledge looking out at the sky. His feet dangled over the edge with the ground, a mile below, hidden by the dense cloud cover. The sun was approaching the horizon and the waning light of the day painted the clouds black and orange, in the setting sun they looked like rolling flames and smoke.
Leaning back and letting out a deep contented sigh, the boy closed his green eyes and let the warm breeze blow through his dark-red hair, which stuck out haphazardly from underneath his bandana. From here, a couple of hundred feet below the top of the floating island, he couldn’t hear the sounds of the bustling port city up above. Here, it was quiet and peaceful and for a short time, he could forget about the stresses of school and family.
A shadow passed over him as a skyship approached the docks and the boy opened his eyes to watch it. It was 75 feet from bow to stern, single-sailed with dual-levitation crystals, probably a courier or trader from the Succession States or Galatea. The ship wasn’t alone, there were at least half a dozen other skyships in the skies around the island, either arriving or departing. In the distance, he could just make out the silhouette of two more islands drifting serenely amongst the clouds.
Propped up against the cliff wall next to him was his skyboard. A smooth wooden board five feet long and one wide; its surface was painted a dark blue, almost black. Leather straps on the top were used to secure the riders feet to the board and along the sides were a series of levitation crystals mounted in metal brackets embedded into the wood of the board, three on each side. The board had a homemade look about it, its edges were rough and the paintwork chipped in places.
He spent several more minutes watching the sunset and enjoying the feel of the breeze before deciding it was time. Getting to his feet, the boy put on a pair of goggles, tightening the leather strip around the back of his head and positioning the thick glass lenses over his eyes. He untied the bandana and retied it over his face across his nose and mouth; wouldn’t want to swallow a bug now. The boy picked up his skyboard and placed it against his back as if sheathing a sword in a back-scabbard. The leather foot straps undid themselves without his help and fastened around loops on the back of his shirt, securing the board to his back like a rucksack. The boy took one last look around and launched himself into the sky.
The wind whipped at his hair and tore at his clothing as he fell, plummeting towards the clouds below. Behind the bandana, he was grinning. He felt alive, truly alive and free. Out here there was no one telling him what to do, what to say, what to think. There were no teachers trying to cram useless information into his head and no parents reminding him to do his chores. It was only him, the sky, and the rapidly approaching ground.
The boy reached behind him and pulled his skyboard loose, bringing it to his feet. The magic in the straps caused them to loop around his boots, pulling them down on to the board and securing them in place. As soon as the soles of his open-toed boots touched the skyboard, its levitation crystals flared into life. Brilliant blue energy lit up the crystals from within, creating a blue contrail of light as the skyboard accelerated in its dive.
Below him, the boy saw a large skyship rising up from the cloud layer. It was a massive ship, metal hulled with four huge levitation crystals. From up here, he could make out the cannon ports lining its side and the armoured men walking its decks. The ship was a warship from the Eldalan Empire far to the south and as he realised this, his grin changed to a mischievous smirk. The Imperial Navy was touchy about civilians getting close to their ships, especially foreigners. They had a nasty habit of firing on ships that got too close. Still, he thought, they wouldn’t shoot at a fourteen-year-old boy, would they?
Leaning forward, he swooped down towards the warship, flying along its portside. He left behind a glowing corkscrew-shaped contrail from stern to bow as he spiralled along the length of the ship. Men looked up from their work as the boy streaked past. A number of the soldiers pointed weapons at him threateningly, yelling at him to stay clear. Of course, he didn’t listen, assuming that the threats were idle. There was still one thing he wanted to do.
Looping back around, he flew straight for the rear of the ship, weaving between the massive forward guns. At the last second, he darted upwards and over the bridge, reaching out the grab the Imperial Flag flying proudly over the ship. The fabric easily tore in his grip and he whooped in triumph as he escaped with the flag. His whoop quickly became a yelp as a sickly-green bolt of magic ripped through the air just inches from his head. So much for not shooting at a kid! Glancing behind him, the boy saw a man standing on the deck pointing at him with an outstretched hand. Although he was dressed in average-looking tunic and pants, even from this distance the boy could make out the arcane runes tattooed onto his skin poking out from under the man’s clothing; runes that had started to glow again as the man gathered mana for another shot. The man was a Vigilant; Vigilants were bad news. They acted as if they were above the law, and although that was only true inside Eldala, it didn’t stop them from running roughshod over local laws in pursuit of their duties; protecting the Empire of Eldala from enemies both foreign and domestic using any methods they deemed necessary.
Hanging on to the stolen flag, the boy gritted his teeth and sent a mental command to his board. The levitation crystals flared brightly as magical energy began to surge them at a vastly increased rate and the board rocketed upwards, the sudden increase in speed accompanied by a sonic boom. Within seconds, he was hidden in the clouds. The Vigilant watched him escape through narrowed eyes before turning to the other men on deck and shouting orders.
The boy suddenly realised what he had just done and couldn’t help but laugh nervously. He had buzzed an imperial skyship, stolen their flag and angered a very powerful and very dangerous man. Although he had gotten away, he could have been killed. If that had happened, his father would’ve been angry, so angry in fact the old man would probably have killed himself just to give his son a good hiding in the afterlife.
Still grinning and clutching his prize, he swung the board around he began to head back to the island. It was getting late and dinner would be ready soon.
The doctor quietly closed the bedroom door, careful not to wake the sleeping boy. Throughout the doctor’s examination, the boy had mumbled incoherently in the grip of the fever. Mercifully, he had finally slipped into a deep sleep. He turned to face the boy’s foster father.
“Well?” Anthony asked. When the school had called to say that Ryan had been taken ill, he had thought that it was just a cold or a bad reaction to the school food but he had been shocked at the state that the boy had been in when he arrived to collect him from the dock. Ryan had barely been able to stand without assistance, let alone walk to the car.
“He’s running a high fever,” the doctor explained, “without any identifiable cause. I’ve given him something to help him sleep but we should seriously consider moving him to a hospital as soon as possible.”
“It’s that bad?”
“Well,” the doctor said carefully, trying to convey the seriousness of the situation whilst not overly alarming Anthony, “his temperature is currently 40.6 degrees Celsius. If it rises another half a degree, he’ll enter a condition known as hyperpyrexia which is life threatening. Even it doesn’t rise; a fever at this level without an obvious cause…” He left the sentence hanging; the implications didn’t need stating aloud. “He should have been sent straight to hospital.”
Anthony opened the bedroom door a crack and peered inside. Ryan lay on his bed, his sweat soaking through his shorts and t-shirt. “Hey, you’re drinking it!” The boy mumbled in his sleep, the words barely audible above his laboured breathing.
“I thought it was just a stomach bug,” Anthony said quietly.
The doctor gently laid his hand on Anthony’s shoulder and took out his mobile phone. “I’ll go make the arrangements for the hospital transfer.”
“Now, where were we?” Mark said looking down at his oblivious younger brother. Ryan was sitting on the floor, his back to Mark as he took the game out of the console.
“There’s a film on Sky we could watch,” Ryan said as he picked up the TV remote and tried to find the right channel amongst the hundreds of digital stations. Behind him, Mark picked up Ryan’s skateboard that had been propped against the wall be the door. He held it in his hands, testing its weight and balance. Satisfied that it would make a suitable makeshift weapon, he gripped it tightly and began to approach his brother from behind. Sitting in front of the TV, Ryan stopped channel flicking as the accidentally switched to a news channel and saw something on the screen that caught his attention. The headline running along the bottom read, “Bodies found in hunt for missing boys.” His finger left the remote as the reporter began to speak.
“The small Cornish town of Cliffport is today in shock after police confirmed that the remains found yesterday have been positively identified as those of Stewart Masterson aged 15 and Jake Matthews aged 14. The bodies of the two missing boys were found by a local farmer several miles outside town in the early hours of yesterday morning.” The TV screen showed an old stone bridge over a small stream, the arch concealed behind a white tent as forensic experts in white suits examined the area. “Missing since the 27th of April, a massive search by local people had been organised after the two boys failed to return home after going cycling at a nearby BMX track. Police have refused to comment on rumours as to the condition of the bodies, only to say that ‘the remains were found in an extremely distressed state’. A murder inquiry has now been launched. As the news broke this morning, the town was already reeling from the loss of two other boys. On the night before Jake Matthews and Stewart Masterson went missing, 14-year-old Benjamin Ford disappeared while exploring a beach behind the local school during stormy weather. Presumed drowned, his body has still not been recovered. A month earlier, 12-year-old Trey Bennett lost his life after he fell through a warehouse skylight whilst attempting to break into the premises along with a gang lead by 16-year-old youth the young boy had befriended while in foster care. This latest tragedy brings the number of deaths of young people in the small town over the last two months to four.” As the reporter read out the names of the boys, four pictures that had been taken from school photos were displayed on the screen, their names in captions underneath.
Ryan wasn’t the only one whose attention was caught by the news report. Mark had been about to bring the skateboard crashing down on the back his brother’s head but had stopped when the pictures of the four boys came on the screen. Although he didn’t have his brother’s photographic memory, he could still recognise his brother’s friends from Cliffport. He knew that with Ryan’s life taking a different path that there would be differences, but the deaths of Ryan’s friends wasn’t something that he had expected. Curious as to how Ryan would respond to learning of the deaths, if he responded at all, Mark lowered the skateboard.
“You ever noticed,” Ryan asked, “that the police only ever say ‘remains’ when they don’t want to admit that they only found body parts?” He looked at the photos on the screen; one of them in particular caught his eye. It was of the younger boy, Trey. As he looked at him, he realised that he was identical to the blond-haired boy that had briefly superimposed himself over Doug during dinner. Unable to see the expression on his brother’s face, Mark was concerned as to whether the spell that had used a considerable amount of his magic was as complete as he thought it was. Ryan whistled, “I am so glad I don’t live in THAT town.” He picked up the remote and started flicking through the channels again. It was at that point that Ryan noticed the reflection in the TV screen of Mark standing behind holding his skateboard. Whirling around, he looked at Mark fiercely. “What are you doing with my board?” He barked in an accusatory tone.
For a brief second, Mark almost thought that his brother suspected something. However, he then remembered, or rather the memories of the other Mark came to him, that Ryan was very protective over his skateboard. After all, he had saved up his pocket money for several months to afford it. It wasn’t a cheap model from a high street store, but an expensive designer model that the young boy had lusted over for months. There were splashes of red on the deck’s decal, intended to resemble blood splatters. An appropriate decoration now that he thought about it.
Deciding not to delay any long, he looked at Ryan blandly. “This,” he said, quickly whipping the skateboard back and smashing it into Ryan’s face. The boy didn’t even have time to look surprised as his nose was crushed by the blow, the crunching sound of the breaking bone and cartilage oddly satisfying to Mark. Thrown back by the force of the unexpected attack, the back of Ryan’s head struck the TV, cracking the LCD screen. A smear of blood was left behind as he slumped to the floor, crying out and holding up his hands in an attempt to ward off further blows.
Ryan looked up at his older brother in horror, blood streaming from his broken nose and from the cut across the back of his head where it had struck the TV. He didn’t understand what was happening and why his brother would attack him with such ferocity and without warning. There was no expression on Mark’s face as he struck Ryan twice with the skateboard in quick succession, both times hitting him on the side of the head. The first blow cutting off his screams of terror as it rendered him unconscious, the second added for good measure. Mark threw the skateboard aside and looked down at Ryan who lay there helpless. It would have been a mercy for him to finish his brother off right there and then. Unconscious, he would not be able to resist or escape, nor would he suffer any more than he had already. However, Mark was not feeling particularly merciful and he wanted his brother to suffer in his final moments. Picking up his brother’s unconscious body and slinging it over his shoulder, he smiled. He had been right; the boy had never seen it coming.
Susan walked hurriedly through the hospital, following the signs towards the intensive care unit. Anthony had phoned her while she was at work to tell her that Ryan had been taken to the hospital. Normally quite laid back, her husband has sounded worried over the phone, which meant that whatever was wrong, it had to be serious for it to shake him. She had tried to leave work early but her boss, an interfering oaf that took credit for all his department’s hard work, had made her stay until the end of the day; implying that because Ryan was only her foster son, he wasn’t worth enough to let her have the afternoon off. It wasn’t the first time that he had passively insulted one of her “charity cases” as called them, but this time she had had to restrain herself from punching the supercilious man in the face. Thankfully, Anthony had been able to get one of the neighbours to check on Trey when he got home from school so Susan could go straight to the hospital from work. Since she worked in Plymouth, it made sense to go to the hospital in Derriford on the way home from work.
She found Anthony looking through a window into one of the ICU rooms. He looked up as she approached, smiling weakly at her. “How is he?”
Anthony nodded through the window. Ryan was lying on a bed in the room, looking very pale. A heart monitor and an IV drip were connected to him, and he was breathing through a ventilator. His pulse, as displayed on the monitor, was fast and erratic. “He hasn’t woken up since he was sent home from school,” Anthony said to her, “and he started to have difficulty breathing about twenty minutes ago.”
“What did the doctors say?” She asked quietly.
There was a telling pause before he answered. When he did, she could hear the tiredness in his voice. “They’re doing everything they can but they don’t know what’s making him sick. All they can do at the moment is to try and control the fever.”
“Why don’t you go home and get some rest?” Sue said. “Trey’ll be worried and hungry.” Anthony turned to his wife, torn between staying and going home. “Don’t worry; I’ll call if there’s any news.”
Ryan groaned as he came to, his eyes opening slowly. His head was pounding and there was a ringing in his ears. Still groggy from the vicious assault, it took several minutes for him to become fully aware of his situation. Blood covered his face, spilling out from his broken nose and the gash above his eye; the hair at the back of his head was matted with blood from a similar cut. He was lying spread-eagled on his back on the large table in the kitchen, his ankles and wrists tied to its four legs by short lengths of rope. A rolled up sock had been shoved into his mouth, gagging him. It was difficult to breathe around it, especially with the airways in his nose blocked. Ryan tugged at the ropes binding him to the table but it was no use, there was no strength in his limbs. Since waking up, the headache had only gotten worse and he felt nauseous too. “I’ve got concussion,” he thought to himself dully. Ryan slowly lifted his head and looked around the kitchen, squinting because of the darkness. The kitchen lights were off and he was alone, the only illumination coming from the living room lights that were filtering in from the hallway.
It was at the point that he noticed something disturbing. Embedded in the wood of the table by the side of his head was a large knife, the light glinting off its blade, stained with old dried blood. Something about the knife that was familiar to him, almost as if it was from a half-remembered dream. The more he looked at it the more it unnerved him. Mark had undoubtedly left it there for him to see. Looking around the kitchen, trying to see any sign of where his brother had gone, he noticed the clock on the microwave flashing 22:15. He’d been unconscious for a good two hours; mum and dad would be home any minute.
By now, the funk in his head had begun to clear and he slowly started to realise just how much danger he was facing. “Okay Ryan,” he thought to himself, “think, what the fuck is going on?” There was no reason for any of this; no hint that his brother would turn on him or that he was even capable of something like this. Then, out of nowhere, it hit him. Ryan knew with total clarity, that unless he escaped Mark was going to kill him; and not just him but Mum, Dad and Sarah too. He didn’t question how he knew this, he just did and he wasn’t going to let it happen again. “Wait,” he suddenly thought to himself, “where had THAT come from?” An image of his parents lying dead on the living room floor with their throats cut pushed its way into his mind. He blocked it out, along with the sudden paralysing fear that was associated with it. Right now, he couldn’t afford to think about something like that. The only thing he needed to do be thinking about was finding a way to free himself from these ropes.
Tugging on the ropes again, he shifted his weight. As he did so, the table creaked and an idea began to form in his head.
Mark was in the attic, standing in front of a large mirror that had been covered by a dustsheet. He hadn’t been much older than Ryan was now when he had first found it. Running his finger along the Latin inscription on the lead frame, he remembered how he had been strangely drawn to the dusty mirror hidden away in the corner of the attic all those years ago. There had been an argument with his parents over his performance at school, his behaviour and the sort of friends he had been hanging around with. Angry at constantly being compared to his eight-year-old brother, he had found himself in the attic sitting by the window and tomahawking his penknife at an old wooden crate. The side of the crate was scarred by dozens of knife slits, the frequent victim of his frustration and anger. Perhaps sensing his anger, a whispering in his mind had drawn him across the attic until he was kneeling in front of the mirror and reciting a phrase in Latin. Some would say that the fifteen-year-old’s mind had been corrupted by the demon lord’s whispers and promises of power; but Mark saw it as being liberated from having to lead a mundane life.
So here he was all these years later, in front of the same mirror. He spoke the Latin phrase, this time without hesitation, and waited as the surface of the mirror began to bubble; flames of liquid mirror glass lapping at the sides of the frame. Soon, a familiar demonic face began to form in the rippling surface.
“So, the spell worked,” Azarin said, the demon’s voice distorted as if speaking underwater.
Mark folded his arms and raised an eyebrow. “You had doubts?”
Azarin grunted, “Frankly, considering your past performance, I was expecting you to have fried your own brain casting that spell.”
“Well,” Mark said sounding slightly put out, “your lack of confidence notwithstanding, I’ve got everything under control. Ryan is currently downstairs tied to a table and ready for the ritual.” He held up his hand, forestalling Azarin’s expected interruption. “Yes, I know that I don’t need to repeat the ritual, his soul still being pledged and all that, but I hate leaving anything unfinished.”
“If you had just done your job properly with your brother in the first place, instead of fucking around with him, then you wouldn’t be in this mess,” Azarin said harshly.
Mark didn’t seem to hear him; there was a gleam in his eyes as he continued. “Unlike last time, mum and dad will get to watch me gut the little fucker before I kill them.” If Azarin’s image had arms, they would have been folded in disgust as Mark described in intimate detail what he had planned. Puns aside, Azarin knew that he was no angel. Far from it, he had done some truly despicable things in service to his Lord; he had even enjoyed some of it. Yet he had never taken as much pleasure as the human before him in the torture and murder of innocents. Mark’s fantasy was interrupted by an almighty crash from downstairs. He jumped to his feet, looking over towards the ladder. “What the hell was that?”
“That?” Azarin said wryly. “That would be the sound of your habitual incompetence striking again.”
Downstairs in the kitchen, Ryan picked himself up of the floor. By shifting his weight and rocking back, the old table had creaked and groaned until finally the legs on one side collapsed releasing one of his leg and one of his hands. Wasting no time, Ryan quickly freed his other hand and leg and clambered to his feet. There was a thump from above, the sound of someone jumping down from the attic onto the first floor landing. It had to be Mark; there was no one else it could be. Quickly Ryan ran to the back door, fumbling with the lock and wrenching the door open as he heard the pounding footsteps of someone running down the stairs. However, the boy didn’t run out into the night, instead of trying to escape, he ran towards the door that led into the kitchen from the hallway. He couldn’t run away, not with his sister still in the house, he couldn’t just leave her alone with Mark. Ryan hid behind the door, crouching down and making himself as small as possible.
With a crash, Mark kicked the door open and burst in to the room. Concealed behind the now open door, Ryan quickly grasped the door handle to prevent the door from rebounding closed. “Shit, he’s gone!” He heard his brother curse as he ran outside. Waiting until he was sure that Mark was gone, Ryan slipped out from his hiding place and ran upstairs. At the back of his mind since he had woken up, there had been a fear in the back of his mind that he had refused to dwell on. He had been unconscious for over two hours, leaving Sarah alone in with his brother. There was no telling what Mark could have done to her in that time. As he ran up the stairs, every terrible possibility ran through his mind. However, as he threw open the door to Sarah’s bedroom, all those fears turned out to be groundless when he saw his sister sleeping peacefully in her bed.
Sarah woke up as Ryan lifted her out of the bed. “Shh, it’s okay, mum and dad just want us to go next door to the Wilson’s for a bit.” With her harms wrapped around his neck, Ryan gently cradled the little girl against him, her head resting against his shoulder.
“You’re face is all sticky,” Sarah said sleepily. At first, Ryan was confused, but then he realised that she was talking about the blood that was still on his face and clothes. He couldn’t think of anything he could say to explain its presence to the three-year-old, so he left her comment unanswered as he carried her down the stairs to the front door. Glancing over his shoulder towards the kitchen as he reached the bottom of the stairs, Ryan reached over and opened the front door.
“Didn’t think you could get away that easily did you?” Mark growled as he stood outside barring the way. Ryan backed away from the door, holding Sarah tightly. His eyes flicked between the knife that Mark has holding and the murderous look in his older brother’s eyes.
“Mark,” Ryan asked desperately, “why are you doing this?”
Mark smiled as he advanced forward, relishing his brother’s fear. As he stepped into the hallway, the front door slammed shut on its own, the door chain rising and locking into place as if lifted by an invisible hand. The chain briefly glowed red as the individual links fused together and melded with the metal catch on the door. A wisp of smoke drifted from the side of the door where the locking mechanism was located, the wood around it become blackened and warped. At the same time, the doors into the living room and kitchen also slammed shut. “Why? Because I can.”
The look on Mark’s eyes, the knife that looked so familiar even though Ryan had never seen it before, the doors closing on their own; all of it was too much for the young boy and his courage broke. He bolted back up the stairs, the sudden burst of speed startling Mark. Ryan raced into his room, dropping Sarah onto his bed and turning to lock the bedroom door and push the chest of drawers in front of it. His older brother was only seconds behind him and as soon as had he barricaded his door, Mark was pounding on it demanding to be let in.
Sarah was sniffling, her eyes red with confused tears. Even though she was young, she could tell that something was dreadfully wrong with her oldest brother, both from the sound of pure anger and hatred in Mark’s voice as he yelled through the door, and from the fear evident in Ryan’s eyes. Ryan picked Sarah up, attempting to comfort her by telling her that everything was going to be all right. However, the words sounded hollow even to him. He cursed himself for his stupidity; he should have run into his brother’s bedroom. Mark had a phone in there that he could have used to call for help.
There was a loud crack as the thin wood of the door splintered and cracked under the force of one of Mark’s blows. It would not hold for long under such an assault. Realising this, Ryan went over to his bedroom window, unlocked the security bolt and opened the window. Still holding his sister, Ryan climbed onto his desk and started to climb out of the window. Behind him, the door finally broke open and Mark forced his way into the room, leaping over Ryan’s bed and grabbing his brother by the hair. Ryan screamed as he was yanked back and he lost his grip on his sister, dropping her to the floor. He desperately twisted around to face Mark, his arm swinging out in a wild and uncoordinated punch. His attack was cut short and his cries silenced by sharp pain in the side of his stomach. The boy stumbled forward, falling against his brother who gripped the back of his hair tightly. Mark grunted as he thrust the knife into his brother’s abdomen a second and third time. He looked down at Ryan as the smaller boy collapsed against, held up only by Mark’s strong grip on him. Mark pulled back on Ryan’s hair, forcing the boy to look at him in the eye. As their eyes met, Ryan’s mouth quivered as he tried to muster enough strength to speak. Mark smiled cruelly, holding his brother against and leaned down, bringing his mouth close to Ryan’s ear.
“Just so you know,” Mark said, “all this is your fault.”
Using every ounce of strength he had left, Ryan managed to whisper one solitary word, “Please.” His voice was laced with pain, confusion and fear. Behind them, Sarah was screaming in terror. There was nothing he could do to stop Mark; the pain was too great, his strength was rapidly leaving his punctured body. Thin rivulets of blood dribbled from the corners of his mouth as he began to cough and splutter. Mark shoved the knife right up to the hilt in to Ryan’s chest. He gasped and forced out one last breathless cry of pain as he slumped to the floor, clutching his chest. He lay on the floor gasping for breath, his blood soaking into the carpet. It was getting difficult for him to breathe, his chest felt tight and there was a metallic taste in his mouth. Ryan could feel his strength draining away, along with his blood, and his vision was beginning to fade. He felt cold, so very cold, yet strangely, he no longer felt any pain.
Looking down at his younger brother, Mark watched as the boy’s eyes slowly closed and his movements ceased. Satisfied that his brother was either dead or soon would be, he turned his back on Ryan and faced his sister. Sarah was rooted to the spot in terror, tears streaming silently down her face. Mark reached down and grabbed Sarah by the front of her bedclothes, lifting her up and sitting her on the edge of the desk. She started crying again, bawling loudly and calling out for mum, dad and Ryan. “Heh, they can’t help you,” Mark said holding the knife in front of her terrified face, “and don’t bother calling for your brother, it’s too late for him.”
The sound of his sister’s voice calling out his name broke through the blackness, pulling Ryan back from the brink. Suddenly, images began to appear in his mind, flashing rapidly in sequence. Memories of events that could not possibly have happened. Seeing his parents butchered in front of him, escaping a burning house, being sent to one uncaring foster home after another, always looking over his shoulder, crying himself to sleep after being bullied at school and ignored by his foster parents, moving to a small town on the coast, meeting the Johnson’s and Trey for the first time, making friends for the first time in years. Four years worth of memories from a different life, but the strongest of all were the ones of him risking his life repeatedly for everyone that had come to matter to him. In an instant, he remembered every detail of his previous life; what his brother had done to him and their parents. He didn’t know what was going on, or how he could have memories of two separate lives, he just knew that he wasn’t going to let Mark do it all over again. That thought, and the anger behind it, gave him the strength he needed to force his eyes open. His hand reached out to the side of him, its fingers grasping the shaft of his old hockey stick that was under the bed. Using it as a crutch, he slowly got to his feet and faced his brother’s back.
Oblivious to his brother’s actions, Mark held Sarah tightly, wondering how to kill her. “GET AWAY FROM HER!” Ryan’s screamed from behind. Mark span around and was struck in the face by the blade of the hockey stick, the brightly coloured plastic shattering on impact. Thrown aside by the force of the strike, Mark stumbled over a chair and crashed to the floor, the knife falling out of his hand. With all of his strength, Ryan span the hockey stick around, bringing it down across Mark’s back. Mark grunted as it struck him, still dazed from the earlier blow. He raised the stick again and it whistled as it sliced through the air. This time it struck Mark in the groin, eliciting a howl of pain and causing white stars to flash across his vision. Dropping the stick, Ryan quickly picked up his sister and staggered out of the bedroom.
It took nearly a minute for Mark to regain enough of his wits to pick up the knife and pull himself up off the floor, groaning as he did so.
“I’ve got everything under control,” Azarin mocked, his face appearing in the reflective screen of Ryan’s portable TV. “There are no words in any human language that convey the full depth and breadth of your incompetence. What sort of fool fails twice at killing a defenceless human child?”
“Shut it,” Mark snarled picking up a photo frame from the desk and hurled it at the TV. The frame cracked as the screen shattered and the photo, a picture of a younger Ryan flanked by his brother and father, all of them decked out in paintballing gear, fluttered to the floor. “I’M GOING TEAR YOUR FUCKING HEAD OFF RYAN!” He yelled as he ran out of the room, leaving a bloody boot print on the photo as he ran. At the bottom of the stairs, he found smears of blood on the front door where Ryan had tried and failed to open it. Looking around, Mark noticed a trail of blood on the carpet leading into the kitchen and out of the back door. There was a lot of it Mark realised; Ryan must be bleeding quite heavily. There was another smear of blood by the open back gate.
Ryan nearly stumbled several times as he ran down the dirt path. He was acting on pure instinct and adrenaline; and he was rapidly running out of the latter. The path ran across the meadows behind the house until it met the dual carriageway. There, he hoped, he would be able to flag down some help. If not, the police station was not far from the carriageway. He didn’t feel comfortable until he reached the tree-lined embankment and looked down at the well-lit road.
“Get back here you little shit!” He heard Mark yell from behind. Turning, he saw his brother running down the path towards them, the bloodstained knife still in his hands. Ryan didn’t answer; he turned and skidded down the embankment through the trees and onto the road. Legs pumping, he ran as fast as he could across the tarmac. Mark reached the top of the embankment and ran down the slope at speed. He erupted through the trees just a few meters behind Ryan. His eyes were focused on his brother’s back and he smiled. With his injuries, Ryan would never be able to outrun him. Too late, Mark noticed the glare of rapidly approaching headlights. The lorry slammed into him at nearly 50 miles per hour.
The blaring of the horn and the screeching of the tyres was deafening; Ryan turned involuntary and looked towards the source of the noise. Mark was lying by the side of the road, a mangled and bloody mess. His sightless eyes were still fixed on Ryan. At the sight of his brother’s dead body, the last of Ryan’s strength faded and he collapsed against the central reservation, overcome by a wave of sudden exhaustion. He looked over at Sarah and smiled. “It’s alright,” he whispered, “you’re safe now.” Unable to stay upright any longer, he slumped to the floor, lying on his side. As his eyes closed, a stray thought entered his mind. “I wonder if this is how mum and dad felt.”
“Hey there sleepy head,” Susan said as Ryan woke up, “you had us worried there for a while.” She put the magazine that she had been reading down and moved over to the side of his bed. “You’re in hospital,” she said as she saw the confused look on the boy’s face, “you took ill while at school and you had to go to hospital.” However, Ryan wasn’t confused about waking up in a strange place like she thought. Had everything he had experienced been nothing more than a fever-induced dream? No, he didn’t know how, but something told him that it hadn’t been a dream. That something deeper had been going on.
His illness subsided as quickly as it had appeared, leaving the doctors none the wiser as to its origins. They kept him in overnight for a few more tests, but by the next morning, there was no reason for him to stay so he was released. Returning home was strange. That evening, his friends paid him a visit after school bringing him up to speed with what he had happened at school, even though he had only missed a day and a half. Boris had been suspended from school, and word had that he was out to get Ryan. He’d been completely humiliated in front of half the school; the fact that Ryan had been ill when he had beaten Boris had made the humiliation even worse. Jake told him that he could expect a little more respect around school when he returned, few had people ever stood up to Boris before. “And lived to tell about it,” Jake added laughing. Ryan managed a weak laugh in response.
It felt good having his friends over, but always at the back of his mind was what had happened whilst he had been suffering from the “fever.” Once they had gone, he got the cordless phone from downstairs and went back to his bedroom. Making sure that Trey was still downstairs helping Anthony set the table for dinner; he retrieved a small piece of paper from inside one of his textbooks and dialled the number written on it. “Daniel, its Ryan. I need to talk.”
The days following the kidnap attempt were thankfully peaceful for Ryan. Monday was a Bank Holiday, which meant there was no school. This turned out to be fortunate for him as he discovered on the Sunday that he was a bit of lightweight when it came to alcohol. A couple of beers, it seemed, were all it took to put him well on the path to being drunk. Thankfully, Ben had noticed the state his friend was getting in and had intervened before Ryan had gotten too drunk. However Ryan looked like, and acted as if, he had been drinking, something that he wouldn’t be able to hide from his foster parents. Normally quite relaxed and understanding towards the children under their care, underage drinking was one of the things they drew the line at. If he had gone home in that state, he would have been in for a world of trouble. This was where the Bank Holiday saved his skin. Through nothing less than a small miracle, Ryan had been able to convince his foster parents over the phone to let him stay the night at Ben’s without tipping them off to his inebriated condition. The next morning, Ryan was introduced to that wonderful condition known as “a hangover.” It was a new experience for the boy, and one that made him swear off alcohol for life.
Being back at school on Tuesday was a welcome return to mundane everyday life. The predictable school routine, normally stifling and restrictive, almost made him forget about his life outside of school, homework and avoiding the attention of the teacher.
With its usual shrill buzzing, the alarm clock roused Ryan from a dreamless sleep. Ever since his encounter with the vampire, the nightly nightmares that usually troubled his sleep had been absent. Still, he wasn’t a morning person and he groaned as he pulled himself out of bed, tripping over the tangled blankets that had twisted themselves around his legs. With a grunt, he crashed to floor, roughly landing face first. A giggle from across the bedroom heralded Trey’s return to the land of the awake.
“Laugh it up squirt,” Ryan mumbled, “if you’re not out of bed by the time I’m free, I’m so gonna kick your ass.” It was an idle threat and Trey knew it. Ryan wouldn’t lay a finger on the younger boy in anger. It just wasn’t Ryan’s style to pick on or beat up kids younger than him. Nonetheless, the twelve-year-old found the energy from somewhere to get to the bathroom before Ryan could untangle the blankets.
Unlike every other morning, Trey seemed to have found more energy this morning than Ryan. Being washed and changed before the older boy, and even joining their foster parents for breakfast before Ryan had even left the bedroom. In a reversal of the normal routine that his foster parents found mildly amusing, it was Ryan that trudged grumpily down the stairs into the kitchen instead of Trey. Blearily keeping his eyes opened, he gulped down a glass of milk, refusing an offer of breakfast saying he wasn’t hungry.
The good weather from the Bank Holiday weekend had finally broken and a cold drizzle fell out of the grey sky. It was that annoying sort of rain, light enough so that you didn’t know you were getting wet until you were already soaked to the bone. The sea was calm for boat ride to school, and a sullen Ryan walked wearily up the stone path to the school buildings.
Throughout the morning lessons, he struggled to keep his eyes open and could barely concentrate on his work. Although tired, he knew that it wasn’t from lack of sleep. He had gone to bed early last night so he should have been properly rested. As the morning drew on, he began to develop a headache that was seemingly exacerbated by the buzzing of the fluorescent lights overhead. He could almost hear and feel every beat of his heart within his head. It didn’t take a genius to work out that he was sick; something that his friends pointed out more than once as the day went on. As usual however, Ryan didn’t want to make any fuss or draw attention to himself.
Lunchtime finally came and Ryan sat at a table forcing himself to eat some food. He still wasn’t hungry but he knew that he’d only feel worse on an empty stomach. So there he was, sitting by himself in the corner of the small dining hall, forcing a few chips into his mouth. Normally he would be making a pig of himself, enthusiastically scoffing down the ketchup-drenched chips but today the smell of them was making him nauseous. He pushed the plate back and rested his head in his folded arms, his hood pulled over his head. “Maybe I should go to the nurse’s office,” Ryan said as he closed his eyes.
Suddenly, the chair was pulled out from under him and he crashed to the floor. “Get up Henderson!” A very familiar voice said harshly. He opened his eyes to see Boris standing over him, scowling angrily. “When I’m done with you, they’ll have to CARRY you to the nurse’s office.” The sounds of conversation died as everyone turned to look at the brewing confrontation in the corner. Boris didn’t wait for Ryan to get up, reaching down and pulling the younger boy to his feet. Holding on to his collar, he shoved Ryan against the table, its legs screeching as they scraped across the floor.
Ryan shrugged off Boris’s grip but stopped short of pushing Boris back. The thug was already angry for some reason and he didn’t want to provoke him further. As it was, he had to hold on to the table with one hand to steady himself. “What’ve I done this time?” Ryan asked tiredly. He looked behind Boris and saw that the several of the boy’s cronies had joined him, forming a rough group itching for a fight.
“I know it was you,” Boris said, “that night in the alleyway. You told the police which way I went.”
“Oh … that,” Ryan said suddenly remembering the night clearly.
“It’s your fault that I got fucking community service. I gotta go to some stupid community music shit because of you.”
He wanted to say, “I didn’t make you steal that dirt bike, seems to me that getting caught was your own stupid fault.” However, he knew that would be a mistake so he said nothing, studying the situation and looking for a way out other than fighting.
Boris misread his silence. Unaware that Ryan was feeling ill, he took the boy’s pale complexion, the beads of sweat on his forehead and unsteadiness as fear. Sneering, Boris shoved Ryan hard in the shoulder. “What’s the matter, nothing to say?” Ryan didn’t answer.
By now, a crowd had gathered around them, some of the more callous members of which were starting to jeer and call the traditional playground chant of “fight fight fight!” Out of the corner of his eye, Ryan saw Trey run out of the dining hall. Emboldened by the chant, Boris threw a punch at Ryan. The jab struck the side of Ryan’s mouth and forcing the younger boy back a step. Despite drawing blood, Ryan could tell that the punch had been an attempt to injure him, but to provoke a response.
“This is only going to end when one of us is on the floor isn’t it?” Ryan asked wiping blood from his split lip.
The chants had gotten louder and the crowd bigger. Boris’s friends yelling “pound him into the floor.” The bully grabbed Ryan by the hair and pulled his fist back ready to punch. This time, judging by the expression on Boris’s face, Ryan knew that this one was going to be full force. If Boris wanted a fight, then a fight he was going to get. Before Boris could throw his punch, Ryan lashed out with one of his own, the heel of his hand striking upwards at the taller boy’s nose. Surprised by the strike, Boris cried out and lost his grip as blood started streaming from his nose. Ryan quickly dropped into a crouch, ducking under a wild retaliatory swing. With his arm outstretched, Boris had left himself open. Ryan scooted around behind him and punched him twice while still crouched, once behind each knee. Boris’s legs buckled and he collapsed to his knees. Standing up, Ryan wrapped his arm around Boris’s neck and applied pressure.
The crowd of schoolchildren had fallen into a stunned silence. Only a few seconds had passed since the start of the fight and no one had expected it to end so quickly or in this way. That the smaller boy had so quickly and completely overpowered the sixteen year old was a shock, even Boris’s friends had been surprised. Ryan had been their favourite target amongst the lower years for the last month or so. His small number of friends made it easy for them to get him alone. Boris had particularly enjoyed bullying the passive loner. However, there was no trace of passivity in the boy’s eyes now; only blind rage. Normally Boris friends would have stepped in by now, but the look in Ryan’s eyes chilled even them.
As Boris kicked and struggled in a vain attempt to free himself, a stray thought forced its way to the front of Ryan’s mind. It would be so simple to break Boris’s neck, just apply pressure and twist in a certain way. For several long seconds, Ryan actually weighed the pros and cons of killing Boris. Then a pair of strong arms grabbed him from behind. Two teachers had forced their way through the crowd to break up the fight. As one of the teachers tried to pry him off Boris, Ryan suddenly realised in horror that he had actually been considering murdering Boris. In the shock of the realisation, he released his grip, falling back into the teacher’s arms. He stared at Boris, contemplating what he may have almost done.
The other teacher bent down in front of Boris, who was still whimpering, and checked the boy’s bleeding nose. “I don’t think it’s broken but I should take him to the nurse’s office.” He helped Boris stand up.
“I’ll take this one to the principal’s office,” said the teacher hold Ryan by the arm. His grip was strong, almost hard enough to leave a bruise. “You’re not going to cause any more trouble, are you.” It was a statement, not a question. He was one of the PE teachers, a tall muscle-bound mountain of a man. As well as teaching at the school, he coached the local rugby team that Ben, Jake and Spud were members of. He was also very strict, a true believer in discipline and harsh punishment and the type of PE teacher that thought nothing of forcing children to play football or rugby in the most arctic of conditions. Most of the kids at the school were scared of him to some degree, even bullies like Boris. The other children parted as he dragged Ryan out of the dining hall. As they left, Jake came running around the corner, closely followed by Trey. The twelve-year-old must have gone for help when he saw the fight brewing.
“What happened?” Jake asked as the teacher led him down the corridor towards the principal’s office.
“Boris tried to pick a fight with him,” Ryan heard another student say to Jake, “but he ended up getting floored. You should’ve seen it man, Ryan took him down like he was nothing!”
Principal Winters was in his office, happily munching on a sandwich and enjoying his lunch break when there was a knock on his door. He sighed, bidding goodbye to the peaceful lunch he had been hoping to have. “Come in.” The door was opened and he looked over the top of his glasses as Ryan Henderson was pushed into the office by one of the PE teachers. There was a smear of blood by his lip and a stain on the sleeve of his top.
“Let me guess,” the principal said, “fighting?” It wasn’t the first time that the boy had been involved in a fight. Although to his credit, he had always been on the receiving end and had yet to start one. The PE teacher told him what he had seen after he had been summoned to the dining hall. Having not seen the start of the fight, only Boris being put in a chokehold, what he said to the principal didn’t exactly put Ryan in a good light. “So, what’s your version?” The principal asked Ryan, not expecting anything other than the usual protestations of innocence that most students made when in this position. Ryan looked up from the spot on the floor he had been staring at, pausing for several seconds as if he hadn’t heard the question. He finally opened his mouth as if to say something but instead stumbled slightly. For the first time, Principal Winters noticed that Ryan did not look well at all. He was about to ask if he was all right when the boy’s eyes suddenly rolled back and he collapsed. Only the quick reflexes of the PE teacher prevented Ryan from falling forward and striking his head against the desk.
The PE teacher gently laid the unconscious boy on the floor of the office as the Principal tried to wake him. “Quickly, get the nurse,” he said urgently as he placed a hand on the boy’s forehead, “he’s burning up.”
The wooden ruler slapped on to the desk next to his head, its harsh “crack” causing the boy to jerk upright. “I’m awake!” He said hastily by reflex, causing several of his classmates to snigger. Ryan looked up; Ms Harris was standing in front of him with her arms crossed, a look of annoyance on her face.
“Mr Henderson, since you feel that class time is an appropriate time to catch up on your sleep, perhaps you would prefer to complete your work after school?”
Under the piercing stare of his teacher, Ryan shank back in his seat. “Yes miss.” The teacher snorted and returned to the whiteboard at the front of the class, continuing with the lesson.
Ryan groaned inwardly and looked down at his desk at his already completed work. Science should be his favourite lesson; it was his best subject after all. However, in his first year of high school he had made a terrible mistake and in his first week no less. Ms Harris had been at the front of the class, sucking all the life out of a supposedly fun subject, when Ryan noticed that she had made a mistake when writing something on the board. Seeing this, he had made the fatal mistake of pointing out her error. Ms Harris was unfortunately not the sort of teacher that took being corrected well. As far as she was concerned, this snot-nosed brat had had the audacity to correct her in front of the entire class, to humiliate her. It didn’t matter that he had been right. For the rest of the year she had gone out of her way to make life difficult for him. Calling on him every time she asked the class question, whether he put his hand up or not, she was ready to pounce on him if he gave the wrong answer, which he rarely did. She was always critical of his work when marking it, finding some way to deduct marks even if it was for the most pettiest of reasons. At the start of Year 8, his form had had a different teacher for science and his grades had improved considerably but last September, he had learnt that Ms Harris would be his science teacher for Year 9 and his grades in the subject had since taken a nosedive.
When her attention was back on the rest of the class, Doug elbowed him. “Why do you let her get away with talking to you like that? Just because she’s the teacher don’t mean she’s got the right to treat you like shit.”
Ryan glanced towards the front of the class before whispering. “Because my mum and dad said that if she gave me any trouble this year, and if the headmaster didn’t do anything about it this time, they’d pull me out of school and teach me at home.”
“Home schooling?” Doug said a little too loudly, “no way!”
“Mr Roberts,” the teacher said from the front of the class, “do you want to join your friend in detention?”
“Then I suggest you pay attention and focus on your work. And Ryan, unlike you, Douglas has a chance of doing well on his SATS next week so please don’t disturb him or any other members of the class.” Looking down at the desk, Doug snickered quietly, earning him a kick and a hard stare from Ryan.
The rest of the school day was uneventful, the other classes passing much more smoothly. During detention, Ms Harris had him repeating the day’s class work as punishment for falling asleep. Ryan again finished the work quickly and surreptitiously started on his Spanish homework. She didn’t pay attention to him as she marked the last night’s homework. After an hour, he had served his sentence and Ms Harris let him go home.
Doug was waiting for him outside the school gates with their bikes. He looked up as Ryan walked out of the school building taking off his school tie and loosening the top button of his shirt. “Hey look,” Doug said grinning, “it’s the Truro One. Someone call the press, the political prisoner has been released.”
Ryan gave his friend a sidelong glance. “Very funny.” He knelt down and took his school shoes off, putting his trainers on in their place.
The two boys mounted their bikes and rode off through the town. As they hit the park that lay between their school and the road they both lived on, they accelerated down the bike path and raced through the park at breakneck speed. They had raced each other through the park almost every day since starting high school three years ago. It had become a kind of ritual, a way for them both to unwind. Eventually, the two boys erupted out of the park gates, skidding on to the road; the back wheels leaving lines of black rubber on the tarmac as they screeched around to rocket down the road. An irate driver beeped the horn of his car as he was cut up by the two hooded youths.
Doug reached their race’s finish post first, skidding to a halt outside Ryan’s house. The older boy was only seconds behind him but Doug still had enough time to dismount and turn to gloat at Ryan. “Beat you again Ryebread!”
“Yeah … well,” Ryan said getting off his bike and pushing it up the driveway, “one of these days.” Ryan opened the side door to the garage and they wheeled their bikes in, locking their bikes inside. As walked through the kitchen into the living room, Doug still gloating over his victory, they were ambushed by a three-foot tall, blond-haired assassin.
“Wyan home!” The little girl threw herself at Ryan, hugging his legs.
Laughing, Ryan picked up his three-year-old sister. “Hi Sarah, had fun today?” Her toys were scattered across the living room floor and the coffee table was covered in paper and Sarah’s crayons.
“Yep,” the little girl said, filling in her older brother on what she had done. As she did so, she noticed Ryan’s friend standing behind him. Scrunching up her face, she tried to remember his name. “Hi Dog.”
“It’s Doug,” said Doug.
“Dog!” She said triumphantly. He gave up trying to correct her as Ryan stifled a snigger. Sarah squirmed out of Ryan’s grip and scampered over to the table, picking up one of her drawings that she enthusiastically showed him.
Unseen by the children, Ryan’s older brother walked out of his father’s study and paused at the doorway to the living room. He had been trying to finish an essay on Celtic myths and religion for his university degree for several hours. After working all day on it, he had decided to take a break when he heard his brother come in. He stood at the door, watching his younger siblings at play. Behind him, their mother came down the stairs carrying a washing basket. “Did I hear Ryan come in,” she asked as she got to the bottom of the stairs. Mark nodded towards the living room. She popped her head round the door to ask her younger son about school but stopped as she saw Ryan and Sarah and smiled. “What?” Mark asked as he noticed her smile.
“Ryan and Sarah remind me of you and Ryan when he was that age,” she said quietly not wanting to disturb the scene. “Thanks again for staying in tonight and looking after your brother and sister; your father and I have been looking forward to this night for months.”
“No problem, me and the squirt’ll order some pizza and play some Xbox or something,” Mark said. “We’ll have a blast. It’s been a while since we’ve had a night in together and you and dad deserve a night out on your anniversary.”
At that moment, the front door opened. “Hey everyone, I’m home,” Paul said as he walked in.
“Daddy home!” Squealed Sarah as Ryan carried her on his shoulders into the hallway.
As usual, Doug joined them for dinner that evening. Ever since his father had walked on him and his mother two years ago, Doug and spent the evenings of most school nights at Ryan’s waiting for his mother to pick him up on her way home from work. Doug’s mother had been forced to take on a second job in order to make ends meet, often working late into the evening. When his father walked out, the eleven-year-old Doug had sunk into an angry depression. Instead of letting Doug go home to an empty house or hang around on the streets, Ryan had persuaded his mum to let Doug stay at theirs until his mum was finished with work. It was a good arrangement and if it hadn’t been for Ryan, Doug would have definitely gone off the rails.
Tracy had made pasta for dinner and the family plus one sat down and tucked in. Ryan’s father was a youth court judge and during the course of dinner, conversation turned to his work. At one point, he pointed his fork at his younger son in mock-seriousness. “I better not ever catch you in court in front of me,” he warned, “If I do, I will find a way to bring capital punishment back.”
“Never going to happen,” Ryan said through a mouthful of pasta. Swallowing, he smiled slyly. “I’m way too smart to get caught and besides, they’d never let you preside over my case. It’d be a conflict of interest me being a family member.” Laughter rippled across the table. Ryan looked over at Doug across the table from him and froze. For a split second, he couldn’t recognise the boy sitting opposite him. He looked a good year or two younger and his normally short and spiky brown hair, had become scruffily blond. At the same time, the food on the dinner table was not pasta, but the most succulent beef chilli that Ryan had ever smelt. Ryan blinked in confusion; Doug and the food were as they were.
“Pass the garlic bread squirt,” Mark said nudging his brother with his elbow. Distracted, Ryan passed Mark the wicker basket. As he turned to Mark, he suddenly felt a stab of irrational and intense hatred towards his brother as he looked at his face. The emotion was fleeting, gone in an instant and Ryan couldn’t work where it had come from “What?” Mark asked noting the slightly confused expression on Ryan’s face.
“You were home late from school today,” Ryan’s mum said conversationally.
Ryan shrugged. “Yeah, we stopped at HMV on the way home.” They ate in silence for several moments until his dad spoke.
Reluctantly, Ryan nodded. His mother put her fork down. “Was it Ms Harris again?” Ryan again hesitated before nodding. “Paul! I thought you said you talked with the headmaster.”
Ryan’s parents started to argue. When Ryan refused to answer, Doug was put on the spot by Paul and was forced to admit that Ryan had been having trouble with Ms Harris since September. Tracy was livid that her son had kept this to himself, especially after all the trouble they’d had in Year 7 with that teacher. As his parents tried to “discuss” the problem with him, Ryan kept his head down, pushing the pasta noodles around on his plate. Across the table, Doug could see Ryan was quietly seething, gripping his fork tightly enough to make the metal bend.
“It’s just one stupid teacher that has it in for me, not the whole fucking school,” Ryan muttered under his breath. Unfortunately, for him, Tracy had a mother’s hearing and she easily heard what Ryan said.
“Ryan Michael Henderson, that’s not the point and don’t you dare use that language in front of your sister.” She turned to face her husband across the table, “You’ll just have to talk to the headmaster, tell him we’ll have no choice but to withdraw Ryan from school if he lets that women’s behaviour continue.”
“NO!” Ryan yelled thumping the table. “You’ll only make it worse!”
“But…” Ryan’s mother started before she was interrupting.
“I like going to that school with my friends, you’re not taking that away from me. You’re not taking me out of school!” With that, Ryan got up from the table and stormed out of the room. There was an uncomfortable silence, broken only by Doug excusing himself from the table and going after his friend. It took Doug nearly half an hour to calm Ryan down. The older boy went back downstairs and apologised awkwardly to his parents for his outburst. Thankfully, they were understanding enough to let it slide this time, realising now how strongly he felt about the matter. They did warn him that if he still wanted to take his GCSE’s early as planned, then some things would have to change; he would have to get a weekend studies tutor. A fact that he didn’t exactly fill him with enthusiasm.
Ryan’s parents went out at seven that evening and with Sarah already in bed, the boys broke out the console, ordered a pizza and sat down to an impromptu video game tournament. Doug’s mum picked him up an hour later, not long after the pizza had arrived but giving him enough time to scarf down a couple of slices before he left leaving Mark and Ryan to clear up. As Mark tore up the cardboard pizza box before he put it in to the bin, he looked over his shoulder as Ryan came into the kitchen. “Your friend never seems to be around when there’s cleaning up to do.”
“That’s Doug for you,” Ryan said opening the fridge. He reached into the fridge took a can of beer from the shelf inside. As he moved to open it, Mark came up behind him and quickly took the can out of his hand and replaced it with a can of cola. “Give that back!”
“If mum and dad find out I let you drink beer, they’ll kill me.” As Ryan pouted, Mark opened the can and took a swig.
“Hey, you’re drinking it!”
“Yes,” Mark said ruffling the annoyed boy’s hair, “but the difference between us, little brother, is that I’m 20 and you’re only 14. You’ve another two years Squirt before you can legally enjoy this. Which reminds me, doesn’t Doug turn 14 on Saturday? You two got plans?”
Ryan sat down at the kitchen table drinking his fizzy drink as an evil thought wormed its way into his head. “We’re going to the cinema, see Iron Man. Neither of us has seen it yet, Doug made me promise to wait until his birthday. Then we’ll probably go back to his.”
“Sounds good,” Mark said sitting opposite him.
“His mum won’t be back from work till late so we’ll have the house to ourselves.” Ryan waited until he saw his brother raise the can to his lips to take another sip. “I guess I’ll get Doug hammered than have hot naked butt sex with the boy I’ve been lusting over for the last two years.” Mark spluttered into the can, coughing up the mouthful of beer he had been about to swallow, and looked at his brother in shock. A second later, Ryan’s face crumpled as he burst out laughing hard enough to draw tears of amusement. “Oh man, you should see your face! I wish I had a camera, it’s priceless.”
Mark glared at Ryan. “Ryebread,” he said using the nickname that he had given to his brother when they were younger, “I still think of you as my little baby brother; I don’t want the image of you and ‘hot naked butt sex’ anywhere near my brain.”
Grinning evilly, Ryan leaned forward. “Hey, you’re just jealous that I’m secure enough in my own sexuality to be able to make jokes like that.”
Rolling his eyes, Mark groaned. The two brothers went back to the living room, Ryan giggling and laughing. It took him a full five minutes for him to stop sniggering. When he did so, he paused the game they were playing and looked up at his older brother, a serious expression on his face. “You’re gonna have to tell them at some point you know.”
“I know,” Mark finally said. Ryan had known that Mark was gay for at least a year and a half after coming home from school early one day and stumbling across Mark and his boyfriend. Fearing the worst, Mark had panicked when his twelve-year-old brother had walked in on him and his boyfriend kissing. However, Ryan had just stood there surprised for a second before going upstairs to do his homework. After getting rid of his boyfriend, he had gone upstairs to try to convince his brother to keep what he saw a secret. Ryan had simply told him that it didn’t matter to him whether he was gay, straight, bi or other; he’d still be his brother. He had also promised not to tell their parents. Since then though, the two brother’s had been a little distant from one another. Ryan hadn’t enjoyed keeping the secret, feeling like he was lying to his parents. A small part of him resented his brother for putting him in that position. Yet he had meant what he said that day, Mark was his brother and he’d always be his brother, nothing could ever change that.
“Are you still worried that they won’t understand?” Ryan asked.
Mark shrugged in answer. “I don’t know.”
Ryan elbowed Mark in the side. “Hey, you’re talking to the guy that memorised all 177 elements on the periodic table just for fun. If they’ll accept a freak like me they’ll have no problems with you.” He ducked under a cushion thrown at him. “Pendejo,” he said throwing the cushion back at Mark and the smaller boy leapt across the sofa, knocking them both to the floor. The brothers play-wrestled on the floor, rolling around for several minutes before Ryan ended up on his back with Mark sitting on his chest, pinning his hands to the floor above his head.
“You never learn do you Squirt?” Mark said as he leaned over Ryan, “I’m bigger and stronger than you.”
Grinning, Ryan looked back up at his brother. “I won’t be weaker than you forever then I’ll be able to kick YOUR ass for once.”
“Never going to happen little brother.”
There was a knock on the front door, three sharp raps followed by the chime of the doorbell. Mark sighed and got up off Ryan. “We’ll finish this when I get back.” Mark walked into the hallway and saw the shape of a man silhouetted against the frosted glass of the front door. Wondering who it could be, Mark opened the front door and was confronted by a mirror image of himself. As he stood there, speechless in confusion, the corners of the other Mark’s mouth curled upwards slightly.
“Hello … me,” the other Mark said as he slammed his open palm against Mark’s chest. Mark struggled to speak as a sudden and intense cold flooded out from the hand, engulfing every corner of his body. His body was frozen, locked in place. The hand began to push at Mark’s chest, sinking into it as if the flesh and bones were no obstacle. “I’d say this won’t hurt, but I make it a point never to lie to myself.” He thrust his hand forward, right up to his elbow and beyond. Far further than he ought to have been able to. Taking a deep breath, he stepped forward into the twitching body of his double, merging with it completely. The body shook in the throes of a seizure as the two Mark’s battled for control. However, it was a one sided struggle. Within seconds, Mark had destroyed the original owner of the body, gaining access to his the memories and experiences. “I’m doing a degree in Celtic mythology?” Mark said in surprise, “I turned out to be such a tool.”
“Who’s at the door?” Ryan called from the other room.
“No one,” Mark said smiling as he closed the front door, “just a bunch of kids playing knock a door run.” Slowly, Mark walked back in to the living room. He looked down at his oblivious younger brother. “Now, where were we?”
Had a geography exam on Monday, finished early so started doodling in my notebook. One of the doodles caught my eye and when I got home I decided to do a proper version.
It was of the main character Ryan Henderson the Ryan’s Story series. Until now, I’ve pretty much drawn him in warm bulky clothing. Decided to try something more “summery.” Like this, I suppose he looks more like a skater and less like an emo kid. This particular version of the character is taken from a future point in the story after he gets a new skateboard and tattoo. The tattoo (which since he is only fourteen was done illegally) is a ritual tattoo. Its magic protects Ryan from hostile magics like curses. He gets it sometime after part 9 (which is the part after the one I’m currently writing). His foster parents weren’t exactly pleased when they found out.
I’m also planning on using it for a supers game. In that game, the character (Alex McCendrick) will have the ability to “summon” a magical sword by pulling the image of it off the bottom of his skateboard which also becomes a shield in the process. Not thought too much about THIS character apart from whats written above. That said, I may use the sword idea for Ryan as well.
Click for the full version
“Jake Matthews please report to the principal’s office.” Jake looked up from his workbook as the message came over the PA. Suddenly everyone in the class was looking at him.
“Dude,” Spud whispered sitting next to him, “whatever you did you are so busted for it.”
“There’s no way they could’ve found out about that,” Jake whispered out of the side of his mouth.
“Well, you heard the disembodied voice,” the teacher said at the front of the class with little enthusiasm, “better take your things in case you’re not back before the end of the lesson.” Jake quickly packed away his workbook and pen, picked up his school bag and walked the dead-man’s walk across the classroom, every pair of eyes in the room following him as he walked through the door.
As he jogged across the quad separating the classroom blocks with the main building, keeping to the trees in a vain attempt to stay dry despite the rain, Jake mentally ticked off a list of things that he had done recently. He shrugged of the raindrops as he entered the main building and arrived at the principal’s office. Ms Cunningham, the principal’s secretary showed him into the office. Sitting there, waiting for him was the principal and a policeman.
“Relax; you’re not in any trouble.” Was that a hint of sarcasm Jake was detecting? “Officer Ballard here just wants to ask you a few questions.” Jake nervously sat down in the other chair.
“Good afternoon son,” Ballard said by way of greeting, “I understand from Mr and Mrs Johnson that you’re friends with one of their foster children, Ryan. Is that correct?”
Jake nodded, “uh huh.”
“When did you last see him?”
“Erm, I think it was on the boat after school yesterday.”
“Are you sure,” Jake nodded, “how was he.”
“Well, he was a little distant, like he was preoccupied with something. We usually meet up at lunch but I couldn’t find him.”
Officer Ballard jotted some notes on his notepad. “And what about before yesterday?”
“What’s with all the questions about Ryan, he’s not in any trouble is he.” Jake was more than a little concerned now. He had only known Ryan for two months and only been friends with him for half that time. There was still a lot he didn’t know about the younger boy but he did know one thing. Ryan had a strong moral compass and he knew right from wrong. Jake found it hard to believe that Ryan had done anything worthy of police attention. A look passed between Ballard and the principal.
“Ryan’s gone missing.”
Early last night…
As Trey and his friends continued their game, Ryan watched from the bedroom window. In one respect at least, Mark had kept his word, Trey had no memory what Ryan’s older brother had done to him. Turning away from the window, he went back to his bed and pulled a large bag from underneath it. Scared that his brother might one day find him, he had always kept an “emergency bag” packed in case he ever needed to leave in a hurry. The events of the last 24 hours had shown Ryan that Mark knew where he was living. It was only a matter of time before Mark showed up in one form or another to finish the job he started four years ago. It was because of this that he had made his decision to leave.
He knew that leaving would be dangerous, he had no childish illusions that it would turn out to be a Grand Adventure like it always was in the storybooks and movies. However, if he stayed, he would be putting the people he had come to care about at risk. Mark had already proven once with Trey that he was perfectly willing to get at Ryan using those around him.
Ryan opened up the bag and checked the contents. As always, the clothes were packed tightly in the bottom of the bag. Tough, hard wearing and weather proof, with luck they should be warm enough. On top of the clothes sat an envelope inside of which was nearly two hundred pounds in cash that he had saved over the years. As well as the money, there were several leaflets; timetables for the local train and bus services which he had gathered shortly after arriving in Cliffport. Everything was set, as it had been for the past two months. He popped off the PC’s side cover and took out the antistatic bag. He had a feeling that he might need the book within so he carefully packed it in the bag. With everything packed and ready, he stowed the bag back under the bed, hidden behind a roll of spare blankets.
He sat down on his bed, wondering whether he should write a note to his foster parents. When he suddenly disappears during the night, Ryan knew that they would worry. Lying back on the bed, mentally composing a hypothetical note, he felt a lump under the bedcovers. It was the flick knife that Mark had used when threatening to cut Trey’s wrist. Attached to the knife was a note. It read, “See you soon” and it was signed “Mark.” Obviously, a parting gift left behind by Mark before he released the possession on Trey’s body. Ryan picked up the knife and the note. “Not if I have anything to say about it,” he said looking at the knife thoughtfully.
That night Ryan slept lightly, pretending to be ill so he could go to bed early wearing his street clothes before Trey turned in. At around two in the morning, he was woken by his watch’s vibrating alarm and he quietly slipped out of bed. Carefully picking up the bag, Ryan tiptoed across the bedroom carrying his trainers, making sure not to wake Trey as he opened the bedroom door. Only when he got downstairs did he stop to pull on his trainers. Before he did so, he took out the flick knife he had hidden in the left shoe. After he put his shoes on, he tucked the knife into his sock, hiding it under the bottom of his trousers. Ryan had never carried a knife before, he was all too intimately aware of the type of injury that they could inflict. However, tonight was different. He knew from the other children that he had met in the children’s home or in foster care that the streets were not a safe place for kids. Somehow, he knew the he was probably going to need some protection.
The night sky outside was clear and cloudless, the moon shining brightly amongst the twinkling stars. Closing the front door quietly, Ryan stepped out into the cold night air. There was no traffic on the walls and the only sound that could be heard was the surf washing against the base of the cliffs. Ryan hopped over the front gate, avoiding the horrendous squeal of its rusty hinges, stood on the pavement looking back at the darkened house. After a few moments of contemplation, Ryan set off towards the main road.
The alarm clock buzzed incessantly, rousing Trey from a dreamless sleep. “Ryan, shut off the damn alarm clock!” When there was no answer, the boy lifted his head and looked across the bedroom. The bedcovers of Ryan’s bed were thrown aside but there was no sign of the bed’s former occupant. Glancing around the room, Trey could see that Ryan’s shoes were gone as was his coat. Assuming that Ryan was up and had already gotten ready for school, a reasonable assumption given that the older boy was often up before him, he grumpily got out of bed and began to get ready. As he pulled on a sweatshirt, he noticed a folded piece of paper on his desk with his name on it written in Ryan’s handwriting. Curious, he picked up the piece of paper and unfolded it. As he read the note, his eyes widened in shock and bolted out of the room.
Trey thundered down the stairs and skidded into the kitchen, narrowly avoiding Susan. “Trey, what have I told you about running in the house?” She said, almost dropping the cup of tea she was carrying.
“Ryan’s gone!” Trey blurted out.
“What do you mean gone?” She asked slightly confused, “has he left for school already?”
“No, he’s run away and he says he’s not coming back!” He cried, shoving the note into Susan’s hand.
During morning lessons…
“What do you mean he’s gone missing?” Jake said, only just resisting the urge to jump to his feet.
The Principal cleared his throat, “The indications are that he has run away. Of course we’re very concerned for his safety.”
Jake slumped back into the chair. “I knew he’d been a little depressed lately, and he was acting funny yesterday but I didn’t think he’d do something like this.” Ballard jotted something down in his notepad as Jake spoke.
“Do you know if he was depressed about something in particular?” Before Jake could respond, Ballard’s radio squawked.
“Control to two-six-zero, come in.”
“Two-six-zero to control, go ahead.”
“Bill, we’ve just had a report forwarded to us from Liskeard saying that a youth matching the description of the Henderson boy was seen hitchhiking on the A38 earlier this morning.”
“Do we have any indication where he might be going?”
“No, the sighting was a couple of hours old by the time it was reported and he was already gone by the time a patrol car arrived but according to the report, he was by the westbound lane.”
At that moment…
“Thanks mister,” Ryan said closing the car door and waving as it drove off down the road. He pulled up his hood and started walking into Truro, his hometown and the smallest city in the UK. This was where he had been born and lived up until that night four years ago. As he walked through the town, memories rose unbidden to the surface. He had bought his first skateboard from that sports shop. The restaurant over there had been where he had had his ninth birthday party. His friends had used to play in that playground. Now it was a block of luxury apartments.
After walking almost all the way across the town through the rain, he reached his destination, Truro’s cemetery. With some apprehension, he walked through the gate and began to make his way through the cemetery. It took nearly an hour of searching but he eventually found what he was looking for. Sitting down in front of the grave, he traced his fingers across the engraving on the tombstone. “In loving memory of Paul and Tracy Henderson, died 14th March 2004, along with their son Mark aged 16.” As his fingers crossed his brother’s name, Ryan felt the anger rise in him. Taking out the flick knife, he spent several minutes obliterating his brother’s name. The body buried in the grave was not his brother like everyone believed. Even if it was, after what Mark had done, he did not deserve to be buried with the parents he had murdered.
“Hi mum, dad, it’s been a long time. I should’ve come sooner, I know, but they wouldn’t let me out of hospital to come to the funeral and afterwards they moved me out of the area. I could’ve asked to visit, but I could never bring myself too. Guess I couldn’t face it you know? As long as I didn’t have to see a grave, I guess I could pretend, at least to myself that what happened that night didn’t really happen. But it did happen; I have to accept that because nothing is going to change it.” Ryan shivered and pulled his coat tighter around him in an attempt to ward off the rain. “I came here to say goodbye, I’ve got to go away and I don’t think I’ll ever have a chance to come here again. Mark’s found me and it’s only a matter of time before he comes for me. If it was just me it’d be bad enough but the people I’m staying with are good people. They’re the closest I’ve had to a family since, well, you know. Mark’s already used one of them to get to me. He didn’t hurt him but I can’t take the chance that he won’t next time. I’m going to head to London. It’s big enough that he won’t be able to find me there. It’s not going to be easy, but I have to do it.” He stood up, wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve and wiped away a few tears that had mixed with the raindrops on his face. “I’d ask you to watch over me, but if what I’ve learned over the last month is true, then you’re probably not in a position to help.” He picked up his backpack and fastened the waist strap. “I swear I will find out what Mark did and I’ll find a way to reverse it, that’s a promise.” Ryan turned to leave but he stopped himself. He turned back to the grave and knelt down. “And you,” he whispered addressing the body of his brother’s anonymous accomplice, “when I find a way to lift the pledge, I’m gonna make sure that you’re left burning in hell where you belong.”
After leaving the cemetery, Ryan was walking through town with his head down on his way towards the bus station when a hooded teenage boy riding a BMX careened out of an alleyway, almost colliding with him. “Watch where you’re going dickhead,” the boy spat as he righted his bike.
“You watch it, you almost ran me over,” Ryan retorted stepping back. Anger briefly flashed across the other boy’s face, but it was quickly displaced by a quizzical expression, eyes narrowed.
“Ryan? Ryan Henderson?”
Ryan leaned forward, “Do I know … wait a minute, Doug?”
Doug jumped of his bike staring at Ryan incredulously, “Jesus, Ryan, I can’t believe it’s you!” Douglas Roberts had been Ryan’s best friend at primary school; the two boys had grown up together living on the same street. Ryan was the oldest of the pair by four months.
Ten minutes later they were sitting in a fast food restaurant. The man behind the counter had sneered disapprovingly at the two boys as they entered but had said nothing. “So where’ve you been? It’s been like four years.”
Ryan crammed a handful of fries into his mouth. “After the fire, social services thought it would be best if they moved me out of the area. Been bouncing around the foster care system ever since.” He pointed at Doug’s half-eaten box of chicken strips. “You gonna finish them?”
“Err, no, help yourself,” Doug said shrugging and pushing the box over to Ryan’s side of the table. “That sucks…” he paused as he leaned forward across the table and pushed the collar of Ryan’s jacket aside, ignoring the boy’s protest. Seeing the scar on Ryan’s neck, Doug whistled. “Whoa, that is an awesome looking scar. Did you get that from the guy that killed your family? Looks like he tried to take you head clean off!”
Ryan grimaced at his friend’s lack of tact. “Yes, the person that killed my parents gave me this scar. Now, can we change the subject?”
“Um sorry,” Doug said realising that he had broached a taboo subject, “So where’re you living now then?”
“A small town just down the coast from Plymouth called Cliffport.”
Doug snorted, “Cliffport, that boring little shit hole? Hang on; if you’re supposed to be in Cliffport what’re you doing here?”
“Erm…” Ryan began, as he struggled to come up with a believable excuse. Doug’s eyes strayed towards the oversized backpack on the seat next to Ryan. He suddenly understood the situation and started laughing.
“No way, you’ve pulled a runner haven’t you!” Ryan tried to quieten Doug down whose loud voice had started to draw unwanted attention. “So what’re you planning to do now?”
“Haven’t decided yet,” Ryan lied, “just had to hit the road for a while. I got some stuff I need to sort out in my head and I need some space to do it.”
“You need a place to crash or something ‘cos mine’s free?” Doug offered.
“What about your parents?”
“Nah, they’re not a problem. My old man split couple of years back, and mum works nights. She’d never notice. She don’t notice anything anymore.”
Ryan thought about the offer, it was tempting. “Sorry, but I’m not planning on being in town that long. You caught me on the way to the bus station.”
They eventually left the fast food restaurant; Ryan was getting uncomfortable at the looks they were getting from the few staff and customers. The two boys walked through the town catching and reminiscing about all the scrapes they used to get into. Talking to Doug, he was almost able to forget his problems.
As they were walking down a street, Doug suddenly shoved Ryan into an alleyway, a hand clamped over his mouth. Surprised by the sudden movement, yelled a muffled protest from behind Doug’s hand. “Shhh!” Doug hissed, indicated with a nod of his head towards the street. A police car leisurely cruised past the alleyway. When it disappeared from view, Doug removed his hand and breathed a sigh of relief.
“What the hell was all that about?” Ryan asked angrily.
“You finally fried that oversized brain of yours or something?” Doug responded, “The police have probably got your description already.”
“Dude, you’re the like the poster child for a ‘vulnerable youth’ what with your history and everything. Cliffport plod probably sent your picture out as soon as they realised you’d gone.” Doug’s words caused Ryan to pause; he had assumed that he would have at least 24 hours grace before the police officially considered him missing.
“You think so?” Ryan asked, then a thought struck him, “and the fact that you should be in school had nothing to do with us ducking into an alley?”
Doug grinned. “School’s for muppets or brainiacs like you.”
Ryan’s face became serious and he placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Look Doug, I gotta go. I don’t wanna miss the last bus.”
“Take care of yourself buddy, ok,” Doug said pulling Ryan into an awkward adolescent hug, “see you around someday.”
“You too Doug, and stay out of trouble,” he said playfully pointing an accusatory finger, “I know you.”
By the time Ryan had arrived at the bus station, the last National Express coach to London and the South East had already left. The next coach was not due to leave until the morning and it appeared that Ryan was stuck in Truro overnight.
Wandering through the town, he looked for somewhere to stay the night. Obviously commercial accommodation was out of the question. What kind of hotel or bed and breakfast would rent a room to an unaccompanied fourteen-year-old who paid in cash? His meandering route through Truro’s streets eventually brought him to a small industrial estate on the outskirts of town. In one corner of the estate, lying forgotten and fronted by a weed-ridden car park was a vacant warehouse. The company that used to own the industrial unit had gone bankrupt years before Ryan had moved away leaving behind an empty warehouse.
Ryan climbed through a hole in the chain-link fence surrounding the warehouse and quickly jogged across the cracked concrete heading for the loading dock. The fire door next to the dock was ajar, its lock still broken even after all these years. Slowly he walked inside, waiting a moment as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. The fire door led into a warren of corridors and partitioned offices that had once housed the company’s non-warehouse staff. Apart from the extra graffiti, the interior was just as he remembered it had been that one summer he and Doug had explored the derelict warehouse.
He ventured further into the offices, eventually reaching the former manager’s office. The room was dry and its roof was intact. It wasn’t much but it would have to do. Unrolling his sleeping bag under the abandoned desk, Ryan prepared to settle down for the night.
That night, his dreams were disturbed by images of fire and blood. A sinister hooded figure dominated the nightmare, its inhuman size and proportions causing the ground to tremble with every one of its steps. Ryan woke drenched in sweat still feeling the heat of the flames. “It’s just a dream,” he told himself, “get a grip.” He lay there, tossing and turning, unable to get back to sleep.
Not long after his watch beeped midnight, Ryan began to hear voices coming from nearby. The voices were punctuated by a scream, a high-pitched and desperate cry for help. She sounded young, probably not much older than Ryan. Her cry was cut short by the sound of flesh striking flesh. “Shut it bitch,” an angry male voice yelled. A door somewhere in the complex of offices slammed open and harsh laughter could be heard. From the noise they were making, Ryan could tell that there were at least three people with the girl.
With a cold feeling growing in his stomach, he realised that he was probably about to hear the girl being raped. He had to do something but charging in there like some sort of hero would be virtual suicide, it would be three against one and he was no Jackie Chan. There was a voice in the back of his mind. The same voice he had ignored four years ago, telling him to be quiet, stay hidden, to play it safe. As he stood up, he realised that just as before, he was going to ignore it.
“Told you this place was perfect,” one of the voices said, “no one knows about this place but me.” Ryan froze at the sound of Doug’s voice. He could not believe it, there was no way that his old friend would be involved in something like this. Maybe he did not know him as well as he had thought. After all, people can change a lot in four years.
The voices were getting nearer, heading towards the back office. Ryan reached down to take the knife out from under his sock when he stopped himself. “No,” he thought to himself, “using this is the sort of thing that Mark would do.” He instead put the knife into one of his pockets and looked around the room. Picking up a length of metal pipe, he took up position against the wall beside the door.
The door crashed open, kicked with such force that it almost broke the doorstop embedded in the floor. Any harder and it would have smashed into Ryan. Hidden behind the open door, Ryan watched as the girl was pushed into the room. Three thugs burst into the office behind her, two of them carrying flashlights. Two of them were teenagers in their late teens but the third, the one without a flashlight, was around Ryan’s age. All of them had the faces hidden behind hoods and bandanas but Ryan didn’t need to see his face to recognise his old friend. As one of the older boys held the girl down, Doug hurriedly unfastened his pants, egged on by his two friends. “Come on D,” the other older boy said, “if you want in, you gotta make her scream.” He was holding a mobile phone recording the scene using the phone’s camera as he addressed Doug who was now straddling the girl and struggling to undress her.
With everyone’s attention focused on the girl, Ryan decided that now was the best time to act. Stepping out from his hiding place, the pipe held above his head, he approached the group. With his back to Ryan, the impromptu cameraman didn’t see Ryan approach him, the pipe held above his head. He brought the pipe crashing down on the thug’s back. With a grunt, he dropped the cameraphone and stumbled forward, crashing into Doug. Before they had a chance to react to his sudden appearance, Ryan had slid across the top of the desk kicking the other older boy in the chest. Channelling his favourite freerunning comic book superhero, he used his momentum to carry him off the desk, rolling into a crouch spinning the pipe like a martial arts staff. “Ryan, what the fuck!” Doug yelled as he scrambled off the girl pulling his pants up.
His two friends quickly recovered from Ryan’s surprise attack. “Get him!” one of them yelled, Ryan couldn’t tell which, and the two older boys charged at him. He swung the pipe like a baseball bat, striking the arm of one of the boys when he tried to block it. The sound of bone cracking reverberated through the room and the attacker fell to the floor, cradling his now broken forearm and screaming in pain. The other boy charged into Ryan, knocking the pipe out of his hand and pushing him on to the floor. Sitting across Ryan’s waist and pinning the smaller boy to the floor, he punched Ryan several times in the face. Ryan grunted as the older boy hit him, the punches dazing him with their sledgehammer-like impacts. He started to panic; he was already starting to feel woozy from the first few blows, any more and he would be in serious danger of being knocked unconscious.
“Kill him Chris!” someone yelled. To his horror, he realised it was Doug.
“Little bastard broke my fucking arm,” the wounded teenager muttered.
Ryan saw the teenager sitting across his waist reach into his pocket and pull out a slotted screwdriver. As the teenager attempted to stab him, Ryan wrestled with him, desperately trying to disarm the screwdriver-wielding thug. For several tense seconds, the blade of the screwdriver hovered over his chest. Slowly, Ryan forced the screwdriver back, wrenching it out of the boy’s grip. Still holding the shaft, Ryan slammed the screwdriver handle first into the boy’s eye. The boy squealed in pain, tumbling off Ryan clutching his eye. Ryan wasted no time, springing to his feet and delivering a vicious kick to the boy’s side. He was relieved when the two injured boys scrambled to their feet and fled the room leaving Doug behind. His plan had not exactly been thorough, he didn’t know what he would have done if they hadn’t ran.
There was a scream from across the room. Doug had drawn a knife and was holding it to her throat, using her as a human shield.
“Jesus Christ Doug,” he yelled in frustration, “give it up already.”
“Shut the fuck up, get away from me!” Doug yelled backing in to a wall, still holding the girl.
Ryan placed the screwdriver on the desk and stepped away, his hands held out in what he hoped was a placating gesture. “Come on Doug, just let her go.” In the light from the discarded flashlights, Ryan could see Doug’s eyes, wide with panic, dart from side to side looking for an escape route. He deliberately took several steps away from the door, hoping that his former friend would take the opportunity to flee but he didn’t. “You don’t want to do this…”
“Shut up; don’t tell me what to do!”
“This isn’t you, you’re not like this,” Ryan pleaded although he knew at the back of his mind that he wasn’t getting through.
“And how would you know!”
“You’re right, people change. But you’re better than this; the Doug I knew would never be involved in something like this.”
“Fuck you Ryan! You disappeared for four years, don’t you dare think you got the right to judge me!”
“My parents were murdered, it’s not like I had a choice!” Ryan snapped. The two boys stared at each other across the room, each waiting for the other to make the next move. “Fine, if that’s what you want,” he said reaching down and picking up the mobile phone dropped by one of the thugs and forgotten, “we’ll just let the police sort this out.”
“You wouldn’t,” Doug said, his voice not as confident or arrogant as before.
“Abduction, attempted rape, possession of a weapon with intent to wound, you want me to add any more? Even at 13, they’ll bang you up for crap like that for sure.” Ryan pressed a few buttons on the phone and turned it around so Doug could see the screen. “Especially when they’ve got video evidence. Face it, you’re finished.”
The fight seemed to drain out of Doug as he watched the video footage. It was blurry but unmistakably him. “But,” he said pathetically, “we’re friends.”
“We were. I might not have many friends after moving around so much, but ones that yell ‘Kill him Chris’ are ones I can do without.” As Ryan’s words sank in, his grip on the girl faltered and the knife moved away from her neck. Taking advantage of Doug’s inattention, she grabbed his hand and bit down on it hard. He yelped and dropped the knife. Ryan surged forwards, slamming his fist into Doug’s face. Doug reeled backwards with the force of the punch, blood pouring from his nose. He stumbled against the wall next to a closet. “Open the door,” he yelled at the girl. She opened the door and Ryan shoved a stunned Doug into the closet slamming to the door shut and jamming it closed with a chair.
Ryan slid down the wall in to a sitting position as Doug banged on the door cursing at Ryan. He rubbed his aching jaw. His face was already starting to swell up. By tomorrow morning, he would probably have an impressive set of bruises.
He got up and crouched in front of the girl. She was bleeding slightly from the neck where Doug’s knife had nicked the skin. Apart from that and a few cuts and bruises, she appeared physically unharmed. Slowly, he put her coat around the shivering girl’s shoulders. He moved carefully, not wanting to frighten her; she’d already been through enough tonight. “It’s alright,” he said trying to reassure her, “they’ve gone and no one’s going to be able to hurt you. My name’s Ryan, what’s yours?”
“Megan,” she said in a very small voice.
“Okay Megan, I’m going to phone the cops so that they can arrest this bastard,” he said banging the closet door with his fist, “and an ambulance so they can make sure you’re alright.” She nodded weakly in response, still in shock. Ryan dialled 999 on the mobile and was quickly connected to the emergency operator. He gave the operator their location and told her what had happened before hanging up. Turning his back on the girl, he retrieved his things from where he had hidden them, quickly repacking the sleeping bag.
“Will you stay with me until they arrive?”
Ryan turned around and looking at her, found that he couldn’t say no even if it meant having to answer awkward questions. Making sure that the closet door was securely jammed; he picked up his backpack and led the girl outside to the car park. It didn’t take long for the sound of police sirens to be heard. They screeched to halt in front of the hole in the fence, an ambulance following close behind. A policewoman approached the two teenagers; she guided Megan towards the waiting ambulance while her colleague came over to Ryan. Two other officers went in to the warehouse He looked up at the policeman. When he asked Ryan to come over to the police car so that he could take a statement, Ryan knew that he was in trouble.
The policeman took one look at the nervous boy in the passenger seat next to him, glanced at the bag Ryan was holding in his lap and asked the question Ryan had been dreading. “Is your name Ryan Henderson?” Ryan nodded. “You do know that there’s quite a few people worried about you back in Cliffport?” Ryan looked at the floor, unwilling to look at the policeman or answer him. A shout from outside attracted his attention and he watched as two officers dragged a handcuffed Doug out of the warehouse and into a waiting police car. “So, do you want to tell me what happened tonight?”
After handing over the mobile phone to the officer and describing what he had seen, Ryan had been taken to the police station. He sat opposite the officer as he phoned Ryan’s foster parents. Half asleep, Ryan only paid the vaguest attention to the conversation whilst stifling his yawns. When the officer put phone down, he looked at the bleary-eyed boy.
“Was he … was he angry?” Ryan asked tentatively.
“Of course, but he was also worried.” Ryan could not hold it in any longer. He let out a long, exhausted yawn followed by a muffled apology. “Someone will take you home in the morning. Until then,” the officer continued, “you can wait in the first aid room and get some rest.”
Within minutes of him lying down on the hard bed, he was fast asleep.
Later next morning…
A sullen Ryan got out of the police car. Shouldering his backpack, he followed the police officer towards the house. Anthony answered the door and he looked at Ryan. “Get inside,” Anthony said tersely. Ryan did as he was told, not meeting his eyes. “Wait for me in the kitchen.”
Ryan sat down at the kitchen table, his heart racing and a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. He couldn’t hear what was being said between Anthony and the police officer. After a few minutes, the police officer left and Anthony came into the kitchen.
“Sorry,” Ryan said, “for making you worry.” Anthony remained silent. “Guess I screwed everything up. You’ll be phoning social services tomorrow to get them to take me back.”
“That depends,” Anthony said after a moment’s further silence.
“On what?” Ryan asked looking at him for the first time.
“On what the hell you were thinking,” he said looking at the fresh bruises on Ryan’s face. “You were lucky you didn’t get yourself seriously hurt, or worse.”
Ryan looked down at the table, gazing at his own reflection in the shiny surface. His eyes drifted to the scar on his neck. “How much did they tell you about what happened to my parents?”
Anthony glanced at the top of the boy’s head. Ryan had never spoken a word about his family before. “Just the basics, that there was a home invasion, a fire and that you were the only one that survived. They never caught the people responsible.”
“That’s mostly true,” Ryan said quietly, barely above a whisper.
“What do you mean?” Anthony asked, sitting down opposite Ryan. He had the feeling that this was going to be one of those conversations.
Still looking down at the table, his finger traced along the line of scar tissue. “He didn’t die in the fire.”
Anthony thought for a moment, thinking back to what the social worker had told them before they had agreed to take Ryan on as a foster child. “Wasn’t Mark your brother?”
Ryan shot out of the chair, glaring across the table at his foster father. “He’s not my fucking brother, not after what he did,” Ryan yelled. Anthony jumped back slightly, shocked at the sudden outburst. “He killed mum, he killed dad, he cut my throat and he … he…” his voice faltered and he stormed out of the room, thundering up the stairs and slamming his bedroom door. Anthony sat there stunned, he’d known that talking about his past had always been a touchy subject for Ryan, but there had never been anything in the information given to them by social services that his brother had been responsible for the deaths of his parents.
After a moment, he got up from the table and slowly walked up the stairs. Carefully he opened the door to the boys’ bedroom. Ryan was sitting on the floor with his back to the wall hugging his knees and hiding his face. Anthony sat down next to Ryan. “Do you want to talk?” Ryan shook his head.
“I can’t,” said a muffled voice.
“You have too,” Anthony said softly, “it’s obviously eating you up inside.”
“No,” he said.
“Look, I promise whatever you say stays between us. If it’s affecting you this much, then you HAVE to tell someone.”
“You won’t believe me; no one did about what he did to mum and dad.”
Anthony laid a hand on Ryan’s shoulder and simply said, “Trust me.” Ryan looked up at him, his eyes red and puffy. Anthony realised that Ryan had been crying.
“I couldn’t stop him; I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough. I could’ve fought back but I ran to my room. He chased and caught me. As he tied me up, I can remember wishing that Mark would come and save me.” Tears were beginning to spill down Ryan’s face. “I didn’t know that my brother was the one… the one who was… he raped me.” Ryan once again buried his head against his knees.
“It’s wasn’t your fault,” Anthony began pulling Ryan into a hug, “you were only ten years old, there was nothing you could have done.” Ryan broke down, sobbing uncontrollably against Anthony’s chest. “Everything’s going to be alright.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
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!”