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Maniac’s Last Flight

May 12th, 2603
Ubanto Prime, Ubanto System

In the shadow of the wrecked carrier, five starfighters hung motionless in the darkness as beneath them a destroyer with blackened and scorched hull plates moved between them and the planet below. The cockpit of each fighter was in darkness, the pilots illuminated only by glow sticks taped to the canopy roof. The blackout was a mixture of necessities. Partly to reduce their sensor signature and remain undetected. Partly to conserve power as the power cell readout in each of the cockpits hovered just above the zero mark.

Using a handheld communicator, one of the pilots addressed the remains of the squadron. “This is it, we’ve been playing cat and mouse with these fuckers for two days. We’re almost out of fuel, O2 and ammo. The nearest help is 12 light years away and between us and a working jump drive is about an entire armada of … Darkers. Any questions?”

There was no response.

“Ok our first target is that destroyer. If we can disable it, it should cause enough of a distraction. Maniac, since you are the only one with missiles left, that’ll be your job.”

Two fighters over, private Carl “Maniac” Tyler acknowledged the orders.

“Lock weapons and accelerate to attack speed. Good luck everyone.”

With a flare of engine thrust, the fighters rocketed out from under cover, zeroing in on the destroyer. In a classic diamond formation, they approached from behind as the enemy sensors picked them up. Weapon batteries opened fire but their fire arcs couldn’t target the fighters as they approached. Holding his breath, Maniac painted the rear of the ship with a targeting laser as the lead fighter pealed upwards to give him a clear shot.

“Red 5. Fox 3,” he called as he fired his last remaining missile. The squadron broke formation and Maniac sent his fighter into a steep spiraling dive. He glanced up just as his missile struck the rear of the ship and vanished into the hole its impact made. For a second he feared the missile may have been a dud and the whole attack had been in vain but then the back end of the ship bulged outward. The missile must have detonated inside the ship! A ripple of flame washed out of the hole and the entire rear half of the destroyer suddenly exploded into a cloud of superheated fragments as its reactor exploded. Maniac howled in joy. “Take that you…”

“EYES FRONT MARINE!” Screamed the voice of the lieutenant.

Maniacs eyes snapped forwarded and widened in panic as an entire squadron of enemy fighters ahead of him opened fire.

Somehow, even with his eyes closed and screaming in panic, he managed to avoid every single shot and wall of fighters swept by as he shot right through the heart of their formation. Within seconds, half of the enemy fighters had split off the main formation and turned to engage Maniac. He hit his boosters and began to make his way to the wreckage of a commercial transport.

The enemy fighters were faster and better armed but his Raptor was much more maneuverable. Weaving in and out of the chunks of debris Maniac was able to evade most of their fire.

“Maniac, whats your sitrep.”

“I’ve got 6 … no wait 8 fighters on my tail, I can’t seem to shake em.”

“Eight! Shit, you must’ve pissed em off…”

“No shit!”

“… where are you.”

“By the wreckage of the Colonial Movers ship.”

“Crap, we’re on the other side of the battle from you. It’ll take time to get to you.”

“Oh, no hurry,” he said as piece of debris exploded showering his cockpit canopy with shrapnel.

“Just hang on.”

Finally free of the wreckage, Maniac had a clear view of the planet below. Not a single ship could be seen between him and the surface.

“I got an idea.”

“Don’t do nothing stupid kid.”

“You know me.”

“That’s what worries me.”

Maniac hit his thrusters once again and made a dash for the planet. He knew that his fighter was a transatmospheric. A type designed to operate equally well in space and in an atmosphere. The same could not be said for the enemy craft.

He hit the atmosphere with the enemy close on his tail. Wreathed in flames as he made atmospheric re-entry, all comms and sensors went down for nearly a minute. As the static and flames cleared he learned that three of the enemy fighters had burned up on reentry. Continuing the dive for as long as possible he pulled up just before impact and began to skim the surface at an insanely low altitude.

The enemy fighters began to fall behind and his flight took him towards the colonies spaceport. Once filled with commercial transports, private ships and government vessels, all that occupied it now were the landing craft of the enemy. The same enemy that had nearly wiped out the small defense force. The same enemy that had massacred the unarmed colonists. In rage he opened fire with his railguns stitching a path of destruction right through the heart of the enemy encampment. Men died, ships burned and fuel tanks exploded.

He was swinging around for another attack run when a high pitched tone alerted him to imminent danger. From the ruins of the city below a surface to air missile rocketed upwards and struck the rear of the fighter. The entire engine housing sheared off and the front of the fighter began to violently spiral to the ground below. Automatic systems kicked in and ejected the cockpit. Two explosions marked the impact points of the front of the fighter and the engine housing. The cockpit struck the ground before the retro thrusters could fire. It rolled over and over, crashing through several buildings before finally coming to a rest in a side street.

A few minutes passed and then a gunshot from inside the cockpit blew a hole in the canopy. A bloodied hand poked out and operated the manual release catch. The canopy came off with a crash and Maniac stumbled out. The air was filled with the crackling of still burning fires and the muffled whump of explosions. He reached back into the cockpit and pulled an SMG from a storage space and moved out.

The streets were a mess. Vehicles abandoned in the chaos of the evacuation blocked the roads and littered everywhere were the bodies of those that hadn’t made it out. Maniac carefully picked his way through the ruins, heading for the outskirts of town. A patrol would soon discover the wreckage of the fighter and it was in his best interest that he was as far away from …

Suddenly a sharp pain in his leg interrupted his train of thought. He fell to the ground in agony. Looking down, he saw the vice-like jaws of a man-trap clamped around his left leg. Blood dribbling from the wound. He tried to open the jaws but they were too strong and he couldn’t move them even an inch. A whoop from down the street caught his attention. Figures began to clamber over the debris towards him. Armed with clubs, knives, axes and a few nasty looking firearms they were definitely NOT friendlies. Maniac brought his weapon up and opened fire.

The mantra, “short controlled bursts. Short controlled bursts” ran through his head as his heart rate shot through the roof. One after another the figures fell in a spray of blood and a gurgled scream but for every one that fell two more took its place. Soon the SMG was out of ammunition and Maniac drew his sidearm. Round after round was fired but they kept coming. He had heard the stories. Everyone who lived in the Boondocks did. He would not be taken alive. Pointing the pistol at his own temple he closed his eyes and pulled the trigger.

Click. Out of ammunition. In disgust he threw the pistol at the nearest figure and pulled out his combat knife. From out of nowhere a shot rang out. The bullet struck the knife sending it flying to his left. It hit a wall and rebounded back towards him. It was just within reach. He stretched out as far as he could, straining against the chain of the man trap. He could feel the flesh on his leg tearing as his fingertips brushed against the hilt of the weapon.

Then they were on him. Someone sat on his back, its weight forcing the air out of his lungs. The person bent down to whisper into his ear.

“Why are you so eager to leave us flyboy?” He felt the Darkers fingers lift his hair back exposing he MindJack socket. “We have such wonders to show you.” A plug was inserted into the socket and  white hot blade of pain shot straight into his cerebral cortex.

Three Years Later…

February 14th, 2606
New Port Dillion, Agamemnon System

Tyler woke up sitting bolt upright, drenched sweat. The cabin was empty and Samson’s bed was already made. He stumbled towards the wash room, rinsed his face in cold water and looked at his reflection in the mirror. His hand unconsciously went to the socket at the base of his neck.

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BetaForce – EchoCell 07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

“This better be good.”

“Is your team assembled?”

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

—-

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

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

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

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

BetaForce – EchoCell 06

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s you’re name cadet?”

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

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

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

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

“N-no sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

BetaForce – EchoCell 05

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

“GET AWAY FROM MY LITTLE SISTER!”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” Kai asked worriedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was that…”

“Your son? Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BetaForce – EchoCell 04

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“GET AWAY FROM MY LITTLE SISTER!”

BetaForce – EchoCell 03

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

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

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

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

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

“Play uncle’s message.”

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

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

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

“No, I’ll listen to them later.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

—-

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

“And in English?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

BetaForce – EchoCell 02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the Cold War?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Kai?” asked Jared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah, welcome to BetaForce.”

BetaForce – EchoCell 01

12:45 June 19th, 2049
North American Zone, East Coast Metroplex, Sector 23 (Old NYC)

A bullet ricocheted off the road sign just centimetres from the boy’s head. Biting down a curse he jumped over the footbridge’s safety barrier and onto the hard shoulder of the road below. “Bullets,” he thought, “they’re shooting ACTUAL bullets at me!” Darting between the slow moving traffic, he glanced behind him as the armoured thugs of the Unity’s enforcement division reached the side of the road. The first shot had probably been a warning shot, probably. The next one though would definitely be aimed at his head, as would the next 20 or 30 in the burst; UniCops were not known for subtlety or conserving ammunition.

The day had started pretty normal all things considered. Waking up at seven, washed and changed by half seven, at school by eight fifteen ready to begin another day of indoctrination and training. He had never stood out at school, keeping his head down and avoiding trouble; the standard survival tactic for anyone growing up under the Unity’s watchful gaze. During lunch break, a pair of UniCops had turned up at his school. Now Toby Smith, or Tobs to his friends, had never done anything to even warrant the attention of Sector PD, let alone Unity’s very own “secret police.” When one of his friends ran up to him on the playground and told him that the UniCops were looking for him, he knew that he was in serious trouble. Everyone knew that if the UniCops came looking you got lost; anyone they took in “for questioning” was usually never seen again. That’s Toby had vaulted over the school fence and ran. That’s when they had begun chasing him. Overall, the day was turning out pretty lousy.

Down here, at street level, the congested traffic and crowded buildings might give him an advantage. Ground vehicles would be hard pressed to make it through the traffic and flyers would be unable to manoeuvre between the towering skyscrapers and arcologies. After the Unification War, the Unity had rebuilt the devastated Manhattan Island in order to house the refugees from the continent’s interior, fleeing the ecological devastation being inflicted on the former US heartlands. It had meant to be a showcase for the new regime but like most things the Unity promised, the reality was different from the newscasts. Forty years after the original was destroyed, Manhattan Island was once again a towering collection of buildings cramped together on a small and overcrowded island.

All that stood between Toby and relative safety was the drone lane. A section of road reserved for the sole use of automated cargo drones. Huge articulated lorries, often three or four trailers long, and travelling at up to 100 kph. Controlled entirely by computers and using satellite navigation, they stopped for nothing, even if a pedestrian was in their path. Only the largest corporations could afford to operate the behemoths, and even then, licenses were only granted to those corps that were on good terms with the Unity. Taking a deep breath, Toby launched himself in to a gap between a pair of Allied Technologies trucks. Legs pumping furiously, he was halfway across when he realised he was not going to make it.

Time seemed to slow down to a crawl and in crystal clarity he could make out every detail of the truck’s grill rushing towards him at bone crunching speed. Instead of leaping out of the way in a futile attempt to get clear, he boy jumped up. His left foot planted itself firmly on the front of the bonnet, thrusting downwards and propelling him up and over the front cab, onto the trailer behind and landing on all fours. Toby looked at his hands in amazement as he crouched on the roof, scarcely believing what he had just done. He’d always been athletic at school but jumping over the cab of a truck moving nearly a hundred kilometres per hour to land safely on the trailer behind was practically impossible. He was still trying to process the thought when a spray of bullets caught him directly in the leg. Losing his footing, he slipped off the side of the fast moving truck and sailed through the air. His head connected with the concrete wall of a building with a snap of breaking bone and his limp body rebounded into a side alley. It landed in a dumpster, half filled with stagnant water and trash, quickly sinking below the murky surface as the dumpster’s lid slammed down, nudged with the force of the body’s fall in to the dumpster.

“Did you see that shot?” One of the UniCops asked as they forced their way across the road stopping traffic, “sent that punk flying.”

“Our orders were to take the kid in alive, dipshit. Not in a body bag,” his older partner retorted, obviously not impressed by the rookie’s over-enthusiasm.

“The brat resisted arrest; you know what these muties are like.”

His partner did not respond, he had already reached the pavement near where they had seen the body hit the wall. There was no sign of the kid, not even a blood splatter or trail to follow. He pressed a stud on the collar of his helmet, activated the built-in communicator. “Central, unit 219 reporting; we’ve lost track of the target.”

“Unit 219, sat scan reports that his ID implant is still transmitting in your vicinity.” The operator on the other end said after a few seconds. “We put it within 50 meters of your current location. Can’t narrow it down any further, we’ve got some interference from the buildings.”

“Received Central,” he responded with a sigh. “You check that way, I’ll go this way. Stay in radio contact and for chrissakes, use your damn blaster. We need him alive.” As his partner stalked off, he muttered “damn rookie” under his breath.

Back in the alleyway, a head bobbed up out of the water gasping for breath. Toby lifted the lit and pulled himself out of the dumpster, sitting slumped against it on the floor. Gingerly, he felt his forehead, where only moments before the bones of his skull had been crushed inwards, and let out a shudder. “Ok, that was new.” Things like that had been happening recently. Cuts healing faster than they should, not being burned when touching a hot pan. But nothing like getting his neck broken and his skull crushed in yet still being able to walk away from it just a few minutes later.

“Hey you!” Zap! A blue bolt of energy struck the ground at his feet. “Freeze!” One of the cops, the rookie, stood at the entrance to the alley with his hand blaster drawn. Toby was beginning to suspect that he could take a bullet but he wasn’t so sure about the stunning energy of a blaster and he had no intention of finding out. As the cop began to advance, Toby reached for the nearest object, a lump of stone, and hurled it at the cop’s helmet. The stone shot through the air and smashed into the visor which shattered with the impact. Screaming in pain, and clutching his now broken nose, the cop looked at the boy with murderous intent in his eyes.

“You little shit, I’m gonna enjoy making you pay for that!” He howled as he drew a combat knife and charged at the boy. The two grappled in the mud, the knife at the boy’s throat. Momentarily stunned by the ferocity of the attack, Toby locked eyes with the cop as he tried to hold him back.

The look in someone’s eyes that wants nothing more than you to be dead is a cold thing, something that can chill you to the bone the first time you see it. This was it; this was where he was going to die. Alone, sopping wet in a filthy alley; murdered by a psychotic cop at age fourteen. It was at that point that Toby snapped. “Fuck that,” he thought, “I am not going to let it end like this.” With a howl of rage, he hurled cop against the wall as if he was nothing more than a rag doll. The cop struck the wall hard and fell to the floor, dazed, dropping the knife.

As the cop groaned, Toby stood up and grabbed the knife, holding it awkwardly. Logically, he knew that his only chance to escape was to make sure that the cop couldn’t follow him. However, for a fourteen-year-old boy, even one in his situation, that was an option that was difficult for him to choose. Pausing for only a few seconds, he tucked the combat knife into the back of his pants under his sweatshirt and ran. The guns he left behind because he knew they could be tracked and they most likely could only be fired by their authorised owner anyway.

A figure in combat fatigues watched the fleeing boy through a pair of old binoculars from a nearby fire escape. “Echo Four to Echo Two, target is heading your way.” He said into a headset microphone. “He’s going to run into some trouble before then. Is your distraction ready?”

Toby ran out into the next street and raced down the pavement trying to put as much distance as he could between him and the cop. As he turned the corner, he glanced behind him to make sure the cop wasn’t following him and ran headlong into the cop’s partner. The boy was knocked to the floor by a vicious punch to the head. “That’s enough running for you kid,” the cop muttered as he shot Toby with the blaster. Toby screamed as the electrical energy coursed through his system, paralysing his muscles.

“Toby Smith, citizen ID 7115202 dash beta, you are charged with violation of the genetic security act,” the cop began as he drew out a set of manacles. “You will be taken into custody where your mutations will be analysed. Once your abilities have been catalogued, you will be terminated.” He crouched down to look the boy in the eye, his tone softening slightly. “I’m sorry; your file says you’re a good kid. Maybe if you hadn’t ran you could have been recruited, but the law says runners get executed. Them’s the breaks unfortunately.”

The cop was reaching down to cuff Toby’s hands behind his back when the blast of a horn caused him to turn around just in time to see a cargo drone swerve from its assigned lane, through the safety barrier and onto the pavement. Toby, still paralysed, was unable to move as the hulk bore down upon them and he could only watch as the cop leapt to safety, leaving him in the path of the runaway behemoth. At the last moment however, the truck swerved to the side following the cop. With a sickening crunch, it ran headlong into him, leaving behind a bloody smear on the pavement. With another blast of its horn, the drone crashed back through the barrier and rejoined the flow of traffic as if nothing had happened.

He was still trying to make sense of what had just happened when he was enveloped by a white glow. A fraction of a second later he vanished leaving behind no trace that he was ever there.

A figure watching the scene from a nearby footbridge spoke into a throat mike. “Echo One, this is Echo Two, package is delivered did you get him?”

Several kilometres away and over two hundred meters underground, a man stood over an unconscious Toby, a tranquillizer gun in his hand. “Package received Echo Two. Good work people, everyone get back to base. Oh, an Echo Three, we need to have a word about that distraction of yours.”