Sam ignored the looks from the other people in the library. You’d think it was the first time they’d seen a scruffy street kid sitting at a computer. The fifteen-year-old boy thought they were probably surprised they couldn’t smell him from across the room. Sam wasn’t surprised though, thanks to his genetic alterations, his sweat gave off no scent and had odour neutralising properties. Even though the original purpose of the alteration was to enhance his stealth capabilities, he was probably the only teenage boy on the planet who never had to worry about deodorant and showers.
As he was tapping away at the keyboard, scrolling through another newspaper report on a missing teenage boy dated nine months ago, something made him look up. Two men stood at the front desk talking to a library assistant. They showed something to the assistant, a badge Sam assumed as they verbally identified themselves as NYPD detectives. Then, one of them asked if “she had seen this boy,” presumably showing her a photo at the same time. Sam knew he was in trouble when she glanced in his direction before pointing him out to the plainclothes detectives. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the two men approach, weapons still in holsters but ready to draw at a moment’s notice.
“NYPD,” said one of the men as he flashed a badge, “we need you to come down to the station with us to answer a few questions. We’ve had reports of a kid matching your description stealing bags and purses in the area.” The other man stood back, his hand by the holster on his belt.
Sam sized the two men up, calculating his chances. Slowly, he pushed his chair away from the desk and stood up. The two men took a step back. “I ‘aint done nothing,” Sam said, forcing a teenage whine into his voice, “I’ve been in here all day. Ask anyone.” He looked around at the other people in the library, as if looking for support. Not that he expected any; it seemed that he and the two men had developed the superpower of invisibility if the way that everyone was ignoring them was anything to go by.
“Don’t make this any harder than it has to be kid.” The man with a hand on his gun said.
“Fine,” Sam said with an exasperated sigh of defeat, “I could do with a warm place to sleep tonight anyway and a police cell is as good as any.” There was a pause as if the two men hadn’t expected Sam to give up so easily. They quickly recovered and the first man pulled out a pair of handcuffs, turned Sam around and cuffed his hands behind his back. Each taking an arm, they began to lead the unresisting boy out of the library. As they reached the front desk, way from the other library patrons, Sam made his move.
He effortlessly snapped the handcuffs as if they were made of cheap plastic; broken pieces of metal clattered noisily onto the tiled floor. Sam tore his arms from the men’s grip while they were still unprepared, surprising them with his strength. One of the men recovered quickly, reaching to draw his gun. That act designated him as the most immediate threat and Sam’s training took over. He jabbed upwards with the heel of his right hand, striking the man hard in his nose. The crunch of breaking bone and cartilage barely had time to sound before Sam followed up with a solid punch to the stomach with his left fist. Sam’s face betrayed no emotion as he pressed his attack, spinning around and kicking the man in his face while he doubled over from the punch. The man was sent sprawling across the front desk, knocked unconscious by the kick. A quiet click, the distinctive sound of a safety being disengaged, reminded him of the existence of the other man. In the reflection of a computer monitor on the desk, Sam saw the man had drawn his weapon and was taking aim at the back of his head. With split second reflexes, he span around, drew the unconscious man’s gun whilst knocking the other man’s gun out of his hands, and aimed between the startled man’s eyes, thumbing the safety. The force of Sam’s blow had shattered the bones in the man’s hand and the gun tomahawked across the library, embedding itself in the wall. It all happened so fast that the man didn’t get chance to react to the pain as he stared in shock down the barrel of the gun. In less than five seconds, the tables had been turned.
Sam blinked, his eyes seeming to refocus on the gun he was holding and his aim wavered slightly. If the man thought that he could take advantage of the boy’s hesitation, he was wrong. Flicking the safety back on, Sam tossed the gun into the air, caught the barrel and brought the grip smashing into the side of the man’s temple. At the last second, he pulled his blow, not wanting the shatter the man’s skull. The man was instantly knocked unconscious.
By this point, chaos had broken out amongst the few people in the library. Most were fleeing away from the scene of the fight as fast as they could and within a minute, the only conscious people left in the front were the Sam and library assistant.
She was standing frozen at the front desk, shocked into indecision about whether to flee or not. “You … you attacked those police officers.”
“Not cops,” Sam muttered as he knelt next to the man he had pistol-whipped and started to search him.
“I said, these men weren’t cops.” Sam said, holding the man’s wallet and pocketing the cash. There was no point in checking for and identification, he was certain that any he found would be fake. “Legitimate police officers don’t cuff you without reading your rights, at least the clean ones don’t. These men were armed with HK45 semi-automatic pistols firing .45 ACP rounds. Definitely not standard NYPD issue.” He found a cylindrical object in an inside jacket pocket which he pulled out and showed the women. “And what kind of cop carries a suppressor? If I’d gone with these two, I’d have ended up face down in an alleyway with a bullet to the back of my head. Just another dead street kid. Just another statistic.”
The woman watched as Sam removed the spare ammunition clips from both men and stuffed them along with the first man’s gun into his dirty backpack. “I don’t understand,” she said, “if those men weren’t police, then who were they?”
Sam laughed, “Trust me, you don’t want to know.” Shouldering his backpack, he began to hurry towards the door. He did not intend on being around when the real cops showed up; summoned no doubt by one of the terrified library patrons cowering in the back. With his luck, the local capes were probably less than a block away already.
Watching him leave, the woman’s eyes strayed towards the handgun embedded several inches into the brick wall. To embed it so deeply into the wall from across the room would’ve taken a great deal of strength. She looked back at the boy about to disappear on to the street. Even with his small but powerful build there was no way he should have been able to do that, unless … “Are you some sort of metahuman?”
Pausing at the door, Sam looked over his shoulder. “That’s one way of putting it.”
“Just who are you?”
“Huh,” Sam grunted, opening the door and leaving, “that’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“Commander Mayhew,” the soldier said as he approached the raised platform at the back of the control room whilst carrying a computer tablet, “we’ve had a confirmed sighting of Echo Three at a public library in Harlem.”
The man sitting at the desk looked down at the soldier. “Report.”
“Unit 7, posing as NYPD officers, located the target and they … uh ….” The soldier stammered to a stop as the Commander fixed him with a withering glare. “They attempted to apprehend the target but …”
“Let me guess,” the Commander interrupted, “they disobeyed orders, did not call for reinforcements, and the target neutralised them without breaking a sweat.”
“Um … yes,” the soldier said, glancing down at the tablet, “Unit 12 was able to intercept the ambulance taking Unit 7 to hospital for treatment. They’re bringing them in now. According to witness statements made to police who responded to a 911 call, an unidentified teenage boy attacked two men claiming to be NYPD officers when they tried to arrest him. Despite being handcuffed, he was able to defeat and disarm both of them within seconds displaying obvious metahuman talents. Apparently, even though he had a clear shot, the boy chose not to kill.”
Interesting, thought the Commander. Not only had Echo Three chosen not to kill the men who had tried to capture, but he hadn’t eliminated any of the witnesses. Evidence that the behavioural conditioning had broken down. Had that occurred over the last month Echo Three had been on the run or did the breakdown begin before his escape. Perhaps those scientists at Project Apex overestimated the effectiveness of their brainwashing techniques. Nonetheless, now he had yet another loose end to take care of. “Sergeant, once Unit 7 has arrived, escort them to the sick bay for debriefing. After they’ve made a complete report, instruct the medical team to process their bodies for organ harvesting.”
“But sir, their injuries are not life threatening!” Protested the soldier.
“They may as well be,” Mayhew said quietly. “One, they disobeyed a direct order to call for back up immediately upon locating Echo Three. Two, they attracted the attention of the authorities to what is supposed to be a covert retrieval operation. Finally, I’m going to have to explain to the Board of Directors why footage of an escaped supersoldier prototype has appeared on the news.” Mayhew turned the computer screen in front of him around to show the web stream of a local TV news channel. A heavily pixellated video, probably mobile phone footage, showed the blurred form of Echo Three effortlessly defeat the two mercenaries. “We are lucky that the quality of the footage is too poor for anyone to positively identify Echo Three. Nonetheless, The Armoury does not accommodate soldiers who do not follow orders and the Board will no doubt order Unit 7s execution for their part in this debacle. At least this way, their failure may have positive benefits for their comrades in the future.”
Mayhew dismissed the soldier and leant back in his chair, running his fingers through his hair. He needed some fresh air, the control room was becoming stuffy and he needed to work out what he was going to say to the Board.
Todd cursed as another wave of Zombie Ninja’s stormed the barricades. Glancing at the ammo counter, he saw that his weapon was almost empty. At this rate, they would breach the compound and overrun the small group of defenders within minutes.
“I’m out!” A J called out over the headset. His friend was in one of the watchtowers manning its turret-mounted machine gun. A J jumped out of the turret and switched back to his assault rifle, using the under slung grenade launcher to send a barrage of frag grenades into the enemy. Explosions ripped through their ranks, shredding the undead horde. It was never going to be enough though, there were just too many of them. Then, just as he was about to give up, he heard a cracking voice over the radio.
“November six-three-six incoming, prepare for evac.”
“Fall back!” Todd said over the sounds of gunfire, “Protect the helipad.” The soldiers retreated from the wall and surrounded the helipad at the centre of the compound. Almost immediately, the Zombie Ninjas scaled the wall and began to pour into the compound. They were met by the concentrated fire of the soldier’s weapons as a battered helicopter swooped into the valley hovering over the compound. Although the paint was peeling and its hull scarred by battle, Todd could just about make out the faded logo of Overwatch, the organisation that had tried and failed to save the world from the undead invasion. The arrival of the helicopter caused the remaining defenders to cheer.
That moment of celebration would cost them. One of the zombies leapt from the wall on to one of the soldiers, tearing his throat out before anyone could stop it. There was a screech of tearing metal as one of the watch towers began to collapse. Todd saw A J fall from the top, plummeting to the ground. Acting without thinking, Todd switched to the gravity gun and fired. The energy beam struck A J mid-fall, arresting his descent. “You gotta love the gravity gun,” Todd said swinging his friend around and setting him down gently. The helicopter landed and the soldiers began to back towards it, firing as they moved.
“This is just like the Battle of Pittsburgh,” A J said as they covered the retreating soldiers.
“We’re in the middle of the Nevada Rad-Lands, how is this anything like the ruins of Pittsburgh?”
“Hostile terrain, surrounded by the enemy, chopper evac while under attack? This is just like the last three missions.”
Todd sighed and took another bite of his lunch, the plate balanced precariously on his knee as he jigged the controller around. “You’re right, this new downloadable content sucks.” He fired the last of his ammunition at the zombies and boarded the helicopter, followed closely behind by A J’s character. As soon as they were both on board, the helicopter took off and the “Mission Complete” screen appeared.
“Yeah, the Broken Arrow mission pack was better,” A J said as soon as they were back to the online lobby screen, his voice crackled as he adjusted his headset. They had been playing Zombie Ninja Assault over the internet for the last hour ever since A J had instant messaged him about one of their homework assignments. “Hey, did you tell your dad about what happened at the gas station this morning?”
“Are you kidding?” Todd said laughing. “Dad’d go mental. After everything that’s happened already, if I told him some gang member nearly shot me this morning, he’d yank me out of school and pack me off to the same fancy boarding school my cousin goes to in Europe. We lived in New York for 12 years, and the only time I saw a gun was on a cop’s belt. I’ve only been here for two months and I’ve already been shot and got caught up in an armed robbery! I thought Key West was supposed to be a safer place to live.”
“It is, you’re just a magnet for bad luck.” Todd heard a muffled over the headset calling up to A J. “I gotta go, mom say’s dinner’s ready. See you at school tomorrow?”
“As long as I don’t have to stop a bank robbery on the way.” There was a beep as A J logged off and Todd switched off the console. He was about to get up and take his plate downstairs when the nanobots chose that moment to “speak.”
“ANALYSIS OF TACTICAL SIMULATION COMPLETE. 26 STRATEGIC ERRORS NOTED. A REPORT HAS BEEN MADE WITH RECOMMENDATIONS INTENDED TO INCREASE COMBAT EFFICIENCY. DO YOU WISH TO REVIEW THE REPORT?”
Sitting in front of a bank of computer screens, the man watched the house across the road as he eat the re-heated instant noodles, grimacing at the taste. Although he had not been able to enter the Marshall’s home, his boss had specifically forbidden that, he had managed to plant listening devices and hidden cameras in the grounds. The listening devices worked by bouncing an invisible laser off the house’s windows and measuring the vibrations caused by sounds from within. Sounds like people talking. Small cameras were also pointed at the windows so he could see as well as hear what was going on inside the house. He had also managed to tap the phones.
Although boring at first, he knew the assignment would soon become more interesting. While he was making his report earlier that evening, he mentioned the incident at the service station. His boss had found the information interesting and had decided to move the operation on to its next phase. He was to arrange an “accident” for Todd to test the boy’s newfound abilities. So far, he had it narrowed down to either a car accident or a fire at school. The car accident option would be the easiest, he would have no trouble making it look like a simple hit and run. A major fire at school would be a much more wide ranging test, testing more than just the boy’s resilience.
There was just one thing bothering him. So what if the kid was some sort of mutant with accelerated healing; it wasn’t as if they were rare. He couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about; or his boss’s fascination with the kid, not with their operation on Sentinel beginning to enter its most crucial stage. At least he didn’t have to spend all day babysitting a drugged kid in a basement like the rest of the team. As he thought about what he was going to do, he didn’t notice the women watching him from the shadows at the back of the room. There was little chance that he would have seen her even if he had been looking directly at her; she was only visible when she wanted to be seen. Had he been able to see her, he would have been surprised see that it was his target’s homeroom teacher.
If she stayed any longer, she knew that she would be tempted to interfere, to stop him from putting his plan into motion. That was against the rules. In fact, interfering in such a way would violate one of the highest rules of the oath she had sworn. Miss Gunderson sighed and closed her eyes. The darkened room shifted and blurred until it was replaced by a tranquil scene. Rolling hills covered in green grass stretched from horizon to horizon, dappled here and there with white snowflake-like flowers. The blue sky above was flawless, broken by streaks of wispy high clouds that only seemed to cement its perfection, not detract from it. A short distance away was a small folly resembling an idealised version of a small Ancient Greek temple.
Her surroundings weren’t the only thing that had changed. Gone was her short brown hair and green eyes and in their place was long blond hair and blue eyes. Everything about her had changed, her appearance, her height and build; in every way she was a different person.
As she walked towards the folly, she saw that she was not alone. Sitting down inside the folly on a stone chair was a Hispanic man in his late thirties. He was hunched over a chessboard on a marble plinth, his brow furrowed in concentration. When she walked into the folly, a second stone chair materialised on the other side of the plinth. One of the unique features of the folly was that it automatically adjusted its layout and the amount of seating in order to accommodate as many people as were inside it. The man looked up as the appearance of the chair broke his concentration. “Hola Helen,” he said smiling until he saw the clouded expression on her face and winced sympathetically, “bad day huh?”
Helen slumped down onto the chair. “You have no idea. Some sweaty, over-muscled brute plans to test my son’s abilities by either burning down his middle school with him inside or running him over in a car. I’m supposed to just stand aside and watch.”
“It’s difficult when your charge is your own kid. Trust me, I know how you feel; but you can’t interfere or act on their behalf.” He knew that there was little that he could say that he hadn’t already said over the last few months.
“I know I know, we’re only supposed give ‘advice and guidance’ and allow our charges to ‘fulfil their destinies’ on their own terms.” She said testily, “I swore the same oath as you did Matthew, remember? But it’s not that easy. My first charge was an eleven-year-old English boy who had just discovered his mutant abilities. He was a good kid with a loving family, and I gave him all the advice I could. But none of that helped when the soldiers came for him in the middle of the night. I did nothing as his family was murdered and he was whisked away. What can you say to a scared little boy, locked away in a government research lab to be experimented on like a lab animal?”
“He escaped in the end though.”
“Two years later, with blood on his hands from fighting his way out. Just a kid and he had to kill half-dozen people with his bare hands. He’s fifteen-years-old now and a wanted criminal on the Overwatch list of suspected terrorists, accused of stealing government research data because the British government didn’t want to admit to what they did to him. I feel useless just watching the same chain of events happen again, this time to my own son.”
Matthew got up, walked over to the edge of the folly and looked out over the green fields. He reached in to his pocket and took out a small photo from inside his wallet. It was of a young boy in dirty overalls sitting astride a battered dirt bike. There was a proud grin on his oil-streaked face as he started its motor. “Do you know why The Watch was created?”
Helen turned around in her seat and looked over at him. “To guide the next generation of heroes.”
“Well, yes, that’s the ‘party line.’ But do you know the real reason?” Helen shook her head in confusion, wondering where he was going with this. “It’s because they’re getting younger.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your brother was what, twenty four, twenty five when he volunteered for the Paragon programme?” Helen nodded. “That’s the average age when most heroes become active. I was a few weeks short of my eighteenth birthday when my father had his accident and passed on the role of Defender to me. I was one of the youngest of our generation.” He sat back down opposite her. “But now, mutants are getting their abilities at a younger age, metaprodigies get enrolled in accelerated learning programs before they’re even out of pre-school. My son was only 14 when he found the prototype battlesuit that I’d been working on just before I died and decided to use it himself. I would’ve killed dad for not stopping him if I was still alive. Ask any other member and they’ll tell you the same thing. They’re getting assigned to younger and younger charges. Our living peers may not have realised it yet, and when they do they certainly won’t like it, but the next generation of heroes are barely into their teens and Destiny is already picking them out.”
Neither of them spoke following Matthew’s speech. “How’s Jared doing?” Sarah asked, changing the subject.
“He’s doing great.” Matthew said turning back around. “He turned sixteen this summer, and he’s got his first girlfriend. No one has any idea that for the last year and a half, LA’s most prominent superhero has been a high school kid in a suit of power armour.” The smile on his face showed how proud he was of how much his son had accomplished, but is also showed a hint of sadness. He knew that his son was growing up without him and that soon, he would no longer need the advice of ‘Mr Cooper’ who had shown up mysteriously a few months after his father had died. When that happened his son would no longer be his charge, Mr Cooper would vanish and no one would remember he even existed.
Todd sighed and pinched the brow of his nose in annoyance. “It’s not a ‘tactical simulation’, it’s a video game.”
“WHAT IS A ‘VIDEO GAME’?”
“You know what?” Todd said sitting down at his desk and opening one of his textbooks, “it’s getting late and I’ve got homework to do. Go look it up yourself.”
There was a noticeable pause before the nanobots responded. “UNTIL BIOHOST INTEGRATION IS COMPLETE, UNIT IS UNABLE TO ACCESS THE PLANETARY COMPUTER NETWORK TO UPDATE LANGUAGE LEXICON.”
“Yeah, and we call it the Internet, not ‘planetary computer network’.”
Again there was a pause before the nanobots responded. “UNTIL BIOHOST INTEGRATION IS COMPLETED, UNIT WILL NOT BE ABLE TO OPERATE AT MAXIMUM CAPABILITY.”
“Don’t get snippy with me,” Todd snapped, using one of his father’s favourite phrases. Despite the fact that the nanobots only “talked” to him through text, he definitely detected an attitude, a faint insistent tone in its “voice.” He got up from the desk and flopped facedown onto his bed. Todd screamed into his pillow, his cry of frustration muffled by the material pressing into his face. “You really think I’m gonna let some alien nano crud hack apart my insides? How do I know you know what you’re doing? You weren’t even designed for a human being!” That, as far as Todd was concerned, was the end of discussion on the matter. Until he better understood what the nanobots had planned, and until he was sure that they were capable of doing it without turning him into a pile of twitching organic goo, there was no way that he was going to give the nanobots the permission they needed to proceed.
“I should probably tell dad about all this,” he thought to himself as he flipped over and lay on his bed staring at the ceiling. “He’d probably freak out though.”
Moored a little way off shore, the man watched the bridge from a small powerboat, squinting in the morning sunshine as it reflected of the water. After following Todd for several days, keeping him under surveillance, the man now had a good grasp on the boy’s movements and habits. He knew that after school, he had a habit of stopping off at a local electronics store to drool over the latest video games. On the odd morning that he was running late, he would get the school bus and when he didn’t, he usually met up with a friend as he cycled in. Whether on bike or on bus, Todd entered the city from the same direction; crossing the bridge in to Key West from Stock Island.
The man checked a handheld computer, looking at a series of status indicators on its screen. All of them glowed green; the explosive devices attached to the bridge’s supports were armed and ready. With a single button push, he could send the bridge crashing into the waters of the channel.
After a great deal of consideration, this was where he had decided to stage the “test” his boss wanted. In the end, both a simple car “accident” and a fire at Todd’s school might appear to be targeted attacks aimed at the boy. This way, it will appear that the boy was caught up in a terrorist attack just like everyone else.
As Todd looked out of the window, he sighed; today wasn’t exactly turning out to be a good day. He’d woken up to find that vandals had gone down their road during the night and slashed the tyres of the resident’s cars. Even his bike hadn’t been spared with both its front and back tyres slashed. The depth and variety of his language when he had found out had surprised even him, it had certainly shocked his father when he came stomping back into the house, cursing the vandals with every insult that he knew. He had been forced to head down to the main road to catch the school bus.
The bus lurched again as the traffic moved slowly forward. With Key West being located on an island at the end of the Florida Keys, the Overseas Highway was the only road in or out of town. Crossing over the deep channel that separated Stock Island from Key West, traffic often crawled to stand still during rush hour. The junction across the bridge where the highway met Roosevelt Boulevard, the road that encircled the island of Key West, was often gridlocked. Today was no different and a queue had formed, tailing back across the bridge.
Todd hated the school bus; it was slow, noisy, stuffy, and even with the windows open, it was always hot. The seat belts that they had to wear were tight and uncomfortable. He turned away from the window and looked around the bus. There were only a dozen or so other children on the bus, most of the students at Horace O’bryant lived in Key West itself. This school bus was for those children like Todd who lived outside the city limits.
His mobile started vibrating in his pocket, its small speaker pumping out a tinny rendition of his favourite song. He took the device out of his pocket, looked down at the small screen and smiled; it was a text from A J.
From his vantage point offshore, the man watched as the distinctive yellow school bus inched its way onto the bridge. His fingered hovered over the red “detonate” button. “Just a few more feet,” he muttered as he started to sweat.
Todd jumped as a series of bangs rocked the bus, the loud retorts causing him to flash back for an instant to the night he had been shot. Clouds of smoke billowed up from beneath the bridge, enveloping the bus. Before anyone could react, the bus driver cursed as he looked out of the front window. A crack was racing across the width of the road where the join between two sections of the roadbed was failing. The bridge creaked; there was a moment of stillness as if time itself had paused and held its breath. Then with a loud snap, the last piece of steel reinforcement broke sending the road section crashing into the channel below at a steep angle. The bus driver threw the bus into reverse gear and slammed down on the accelerator in an attempt to prevent the bus sliding down the slope into the water. Its tires squealed and the children on board screamed. An SUV behind the bus lost traction and crashed hard into the back. Todd was frozen in fear; he was gripping on to the seat in front of him, his knuckles turning white with the pressure. He was thrown forward as the bus was shoved off the end of the broken road and only the tight seatbelt around his waist prevented him and the other children from being thrown out of their seats. The driver wasn’t so lucky, slamming forward and striking his head on windscreen as the bus pitched into the water.
The front of the bus sank into the channel, its rear sticking out and resting against the bridge. Water started to pour in, rapidly flooding the front of the bus. The other children started to panic and scramble over each other to get to the emergency exit at the back, but the incline the bus was leaning at was steep, almost 90 degrees. A shrill cry jolted Todd back to reality and he turned around just in time to catch one his classmates who had lost their grip and was sliding towards the water. “Thanks,” the boy said holding onto Todd tightly as he pulled him up.
Todd looked around the bus and realised with a start that he couldn’t see the bus driver. “Hey, where’s Jeffers?” The boy glanced towards the front of the bus; the driver was slumped over the wheel, the water already over his head. He unbuckled his seat belt and dropped into the water. The water was cold and the salt stung his eyes as he struggled to remove the driver’s belt. Just as his lungs began to scream for oxygen, the belt popped open and he dragged the unconscious driver to the surface, gasping for air.
The water was rising fast, pouring in through open windows and around the door seal. There was a shudder as the bus shifted, settling further into the channel’s silt bed as it slipped against the shattered bridge support. “Someone give me a hand,” he yelled out over the screaming. Someone, he didn’t know who, helped him drag the unconscious driver up the aisle. As they did so, a green wireframe representation of the school bus appeared in his field vision. Complex calculations began to flash by until the familiar green text appeared.
“AT PRESENT RATE OF WATER INGRESS, VEHICLE WILL BE COMPLETELY SUBMERGED IN APPROXIMATELY 63 SECONDS.”
Todd looked up at the emergency door, which still hadn’t been opened. Through the glass, he could see the SUV perched precariously on the edge of the bridge, threatening to fall onto the bus at any second. “If that car falls, we won’t even have that!” He muttered out loud.
The boy helping him with the driver looked at him confused, “You what?”
“Nothing,” Todd answered, “we gotta get that door opened.”
“It’s jammed,” said one of the younger kids, crying in panic. “It won’t open!” Once Todd got to the back of the bus, he could see why. The frame was buckled and warped, the metal damaged by the earlier impact with the SUV. “We’re gonna drown!” The panic spread as the bus shifted again, the water coming in even faster, already filling half the bus. His own pulse was racing as panic threatened to overwhelm him too but he took a deep breath and looked around, this wasn’t the time to lose control; he needed to remain calm.
“Maybe if we tried together,” he said trying to sound optimistic, “we can force it open.” However, even with four of them, the door wouldn’t budge. He thumped the glass in frustration.
“UNIT CAN ENHANCE BIOHOST’S STRENGTH TO THE NECESSARY LEVEL REQUIRED TO FACILITATE ESCAPE.” Todd could tell there was a “but” coming. “HOWEVER, ENHANCEMENT CAN ONLY BE PERFORMED AS PART OF FULL BIOHOST INTEGRATION.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Todd thought at the nanobots.
“MUSCLE AUGMENTATION OF UPPER LIMBS CAN BE PRIORITISED AHEAD OF ALL OTHER PROCEDURES. NECESSARY ENHANCEMENT LEVEL CAN BE ACHIEVED IN APPROXIMATELY 5 SECONDS.”
Five seconds. In just five seconds he could be able to get the door open and they could all escape. The only catch was that he would have to agree to something that he had been resisting since the nanobots had first started “talking” to him. Looking around at the fearful, desperate faces of the others, he realised that there was really no choice about it. He had to do this; he was the only one that could. Closing his eyes, he silently gave the nanobots the consent that they had been pestering him for.
Todd waited for … something … anything. He didn’t know what he was expecting, but he expected to feel something. When the nanobots told him that the muscle enhancement in his arms was complete, he didn’t feel any different. “Well,” he thought to himself, “he goes nothing.”
He flexed his fingers, took one look at the other children, and punched the door with all his strength. The metal buckled under the blow, the door bulging outwards. Another punch, followed by swift kick and the door was ripped from his hinges and sent flying. Todd looked down at his own fist; despite the punishment the door had received, the skin on his knuckles wasn’t even grazed.
The other children were stunned into silence, but only for a second and they soon began to scramble towards the open door. “Hey, no shoving,” Todd said as he effortlessly picked up a fellow eighth grader that had been climbing over a sixth grader, holding the surprised boy up the floor. “Get away from the bus as fast as you can, those who can swim help those who can’t.”
“Who died and made you the boss?” The boy said as Todd but him down. Todd glared back at him.
“You saw what I did to that door;” he said pointedly, “imagine what I could do to your face. Now help me with Jeffers.” Scowling, the other boy grudgingly helped him lift the driver out the door.
By now, people on the bridge and on the shore had seen the school bus in the water. A few of them had started swimming towards the bus to help the children in the water. As Todd climbed out onto the back of the bus, he saw that many more people were just looking on and had taken out their mobiles. They were either taking pictures or recording videos of the scene. His blood began to boil as he watched them. “That’s great,” he yelled at the spectators, standing on the back of the bus, “just what viewtube needs, videos of drowning school kids. You know, you could’ve helped you selfish…”
The screech of metal interrupted his shout, the SUV slid of the end of the bridge, its underside scraping across the broken concrete. Todd barely had time to look up as the three tonne vehicle slammed into his chest. He felt his ribs crack and break under the force of the impact and he opened his mouth to scream in pain, but before he could utter a sound, the bus slipped down into the water submerging him. The tepid salt water flooded into his mouth, choking him as he was forced underwater, pinned between the bus and SUV.
Well, it seems to have been a busy month. Uploaded three chapters, each for a different story.
An Unlikely Hero has been a pleasant surprise for me. So far it’s turned out quite well and the latest chapter (Chapter Four) has really advanced the plot. In fact this was the chapter in which I really worked out what the plot was going to be. When I first started writing AUH, all I had was in my head was the image of the main character being brutally killed in the first chapter yet somehow miraculously coming back to life.
Chapter Six has been a long time coming. The last chapter was posted way back in August of last year. I got pretty bad writer’s block at the start of the chapter. I knew that Trace (the main character) was going to save the day, I also knew that there was no way he could take out Dorga and his goons in combat. Unless of course it was in an extended “Home-Alone” style guerilla campaign. In hindsight that would have been kinda cool but would’ve taken ages to write. This chapter also revealed the final bits and pieces of the kid’s backstory and exactly what the relationship between him and Dorga was.
After taking a break to write four chapters of AUH, I returned to RS with The Tattoo. I’m glad to return to this story, as its the longest I’ve every written and there’s still so much I want to write. I really want to finish this some day. This particular chapter pretty much has nothing to do with the plot of the story, so it could be seen as filler. It does however ramp up the tension between Ryan and Boris.
These two almost came to blows in this chapter and only the timely arrival of Daniel prevented a knife fight from breaking out. This chapter also introduced Bucky. A last minuted inclusion, I never intended to introduce a dog but somehow, that section just wrote itself. Bucky is in fact the dog owned by my Mutants and Masterminds character, Jared Sanchez. Ryan’s little joke about the reason behind Bucky’s name is painful in origin, as it was originally the reason why I called my character’s dog Bucky in the M&M game. I pretty much got the same reaction from the GM and other players as Ryan did. As I said, its painful.
Exams are starting this week in programming and computing, as long as I don’t freeze up they should be a cake walk. Maths next week I’m less confident about.
“BEGIN BIOHOST INTEGRATION PROCEDURE YES/NO?”
The words pulsed slowly in his field of vision as if waiting for a response. Todd’s heart was racing, all traces of tiredness banished. What was going on? He could guess that it had something to do with the nanobots, he didn’t need to be a genius to work that out, but he had no idea what “biohost integration” meant. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound good. As if in response to his racing thoughts, more text began to appear.
“DEFINITION: BIOHOST INTEGRATION
PROCESS BY WHICH BIOHOST’S ORGANIC SYSTEMS ARE ENHANCED, AUGMENTED OR REPLACED WITH CYBERNETIC SYSTEMS IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE MAXIMUM EFFICIENCY OF UNIT’S PRIMARY FUNCTION.”
“Oh this is good,” Todd thought, “it’s asking my permission to turn me into a cyborg.”
“INCORRECT: CYBERNETIC SYSTEMS WILL CONSIST OF LESS THAN 5% OF BIOHOST.”
A chill ran down the boy’s spine. “Are you … reading my mind?” He asked out loud, not sure if he wanted to hear the answer.
Todd wanted to run screaming to his dad, he knew that would probably be the right thing to do. However, there was something he needed to know; a suspicion that he needed to confirm. “You’ve already done more than just heal those gunshots, haven’t you?”
“CORRECT, SEVERE NEUROLOGICAL DAMAGE LEADING TO COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT WAS DETECTED AND REPAIRED. AN OPTICAL SHUNT WAS ALSO INSTALLED TO FACILITATE COMMUNICATION WITH BIOHOST.”
It was talking about the brain injury he had suffered as a baby. Deep down he had known something was going on. Since waking up onboard Sentinel, part of him had felt different. He was more focused, able to concentrate on things for longer periods than he used to. Now he knew why, the nanobots were changing him. They were the reason why he had been able to ace the maths test yesterday.
Todd sat down against the door and closed his eyes, counting to ten in an attempt to calm down. “So,” he said to the nanobots, “let me get this straight. In order for you to do your medical thing better, you want my permission to upgrade parts of me with cyber stuff?”
“NEGATIVE, MEDICAL CARE IS NOT UNIT’S PRIMARY FUNCTION.”
“Then what is your ‘primary function’?” Todd asked confused.
“COMBAT ENHANCEMENT AND BATTLEFIELD ASSISTANCE.”
Sam was surprised to see his that son was already up when he went downstairs for breakfast the next morning. The boy was sitting at the kitchen counter with a bowl of brightly coloured frosted cereal. Opened in front of him was a textbook that he was studying intently as he munched on the cereal. Next to the textbook was another book, a dictionary with dense double-columned text that Todd occasionally consulted to look up an unfamiliar word.
“Don’t read at the table,” Sam said switching on the coffee maker. Todd mumbled an apology, muffled through a mouthful of cereal, and closed the books. “What are you reading anyway? That doesn’t look like a schoolbook.” He reached across the table and turned the book around so he could read the cover. It was a book on nanotechnology, old and slightly dog-eared. “This is from the study.”
Todd swallowed the cereal and shrugged. “Until recently, the only thing I knew about nanobots was from that sci-fi show where they “facsimilate” people.”
Sam laughed softly, “I think you mean assimilate.”
“That’s what I said, assimilate. If I’m going to have these things inside of me for the rest of my life, I might as well learn as much as I can about them.”
Although there was no trace of bitterness in his son’s voice, Sam couldn’t help but feel a stab of guilt. He realised that he never really spoken to Todd about the nanobots inside of him. In hindsight, it was obvious that Todd would be curious about them. Sam picked up the book. “I went to college with Matthew Sanchez, the person who wrote this book.”
“Really?” Todd said as he finished his cereal.
“He wrote it in his second year, quite advanced stuff for a seventeen-year-old in the late eighties. Really ahead of its time, if he hadn’t dropped out of college he could’ve made a great contribution to the field.” He flicked through the yellowed pages.
After putting the bowl in the dishwasher, Todd checked his backpack, making sure that his homework was in the bag. “I’m gonna be late back from school tonight; I’m stopping by the library on the way home.”
“Don’t be too late…” he said looking up from the book but Todd had already grabbed his bike helmet and left.
The six-mile bike ride to school gave Todd the time he needed to think. After his “conversation” with the nanobots last night, Todd hadn’t slept much. He had asked the nanobots exactly what “Biohost Integration” involved and what they wanted to do to him. The nanobots had responded with a bewildering list of procedures. Some of them were easy to understand but most of the proposed “augmentations” were beyond his understanding. Cybernetics and nanotechnology weren’t exactly subjects taught at middle school. Confused and not a little scared by the prospect of what the nanobots wanted to do to him, he had told them to shut up and leave him alone. Surprisingly they seemed to listen, the green text vanishing from his vision. Lying in bed afterwards, he realised that he had to find out as much as he could about what was happening to him.
Todd knew that his dad had been working on the alien nanobots. First thing that morning he had gone into his dad’s study looking any information he could find on the technology. Unfortunately, most of the research data was on the computer and Todd didn’t know anything about hacking. He had been able to find a few books n the study, most of them were out of date but they were a good start for someone like him. That was why his dad had found him sitting at the breakfast table studying a twenty-year-old textbook. In the beginning, he had needed to consult the dictionary at least once a paragraph to decode the meaning behind an unfamiliar word. Yet as he had continued reading, the subject matter became easier for him to digest. By the time his dad had come down for breakfast, Todd had already read the first four chapters, surprising himself by how much he understood.
Halfway into his journey to school, Todd pulled into a petrol station and propped his bike up against an outside cooler. Todd usually met up with his friend on the way to school, the petrol station marking the point where their respective routes to school merged. A J was running late again so Todd went inside the station’s shop to wait for him. He immediately wandered over to the news rack at the back of the store and looked for his favourite video game magazine. The gangly-armed college student sitting behind the counter and glass partition didn’t notice the boy enter, his nose buried in a book. Todd was crouched down, flicking through reviews of the latest video games when he heard the door open a few minutes later. He was about to stand up to see if it was A J when he heard a voice that couldn’t possibly belong to his friend.
“The register,” the voice yelled, “open it.”
Todd dropped the magazine and his heart began to race. He looked up at the convex security mirror mounted on the ceiling above him. Through its distorted reflection, he saw a masked gang member, maybe 16 or 17 years of age, standing at the front of the shop pointing his gun at the student. Although stunned for a second by the sudden appearance of the armed robber, the student acted quickly, ducking behind the counter and pressing the hidden silent alarm button. Hidden from view behind shelving, Todd flipped open his mobile and dialled 911.
“911 Emergency, what is your location?”
Todd spoke quietly, not wanting to alert the robber that he was there. “I’m at the Circle K gas station on North Roosevelt Boulevard; some guy with a gun is robbing it!”
“Okay son, is that the one at 3032 North Roosevelt?”
Todd paused for a second; he still didn’t know his way around the city’s streets. “I dunno, but it’s opposite the little league field.” He didn’t hear the emergency operator’s reply. Frustrated by the lack of cooperation the gang member fired his gun at the student. The bullets impacted harmlessly on the ballistic glass, spider webbing its surface but not penetrating it. Todd dropped the phone, shocked by the sound of the gunshots in the enclosed space. He quickly picked up his phone but before he could bring it to his ear, a shadow fell over him. Looking up, he came face to face with the barrel of a gun.
Officer Taylor was walking across the car park of the fast food restaurant, two coffees in his hands, when his radio squawked into life.
“All units in the vicinity of 13th and Roosevelt, silent alarm triggered at the Circle K gas station.”
His partner leaned out the window having heard the same message. “Hey Robby, isn’t that…” He began to say.
“Just down the road.” Taylor finished for him, looking through the chain link fence that ran alongside the car park, across the grass and dirt baseball diamond, towards the petrol station with the Circle K logo outside. All seemed quiet, the forecourt was empty. “Probably just a false alarm.” He climbed into the car and passed his partner his coffee.
“Update on the silent alarm,” the dispatcher said through the radio, “report of two-eleven in progress. Shots fired.”
“Okay,” Taylor said emptying his coffee out of the window, his partner doing the same, “not a false alarm.”
“Give me the money,” the gang member yelled at the student, “or I put a bullet in this kid’s head!” He punctuated his threat by jamming the barrel of the pistol into the side of Todd’s head. The youth had his arm around Todd’s neck, pinning the struggling boy to his chest.
“I can’t,” the student said with wide panicked eyes, “the register locks when the alarm is triggered!”
“You’re lying!” Yelled the gang member, shooting the ballistic glass of the partition again. The arm around Todd’s neck tightened and the thug lifted him until Todd had to stand on tiptoes hanging on to the arm in order to avoid being strangled. “I’ll do it,” he hissed, “the money or the kid dies.”
“THREAT MODE ENGAGED, VOICE STRESS ANALYSIS INDICATES 78% CHANCE ASSAILANT WILL CARRY OUT THREAT. RECOMMEND IMMEDIATE PROTECTIVE MEASURES.”
“Not now,” Todd muttered under his breath. Although he hated to admit it, the nanobots were right. Curiously, although he should have been panicking, he felt calm. All his senses seemed heightened. It wasn’t like super-hearing or super-vision, it was more like he was noticing EVERYTHING around him; the tone of the voices, the angle of the sunlight coming through the front windows, everything. The gang member was waving his gun around again, threatening the student. Todd saw that this was his chance. Letting go of the gang member’s arm, he jabbed his elbow sharply into the youth’s stomach. With a grunt, the gang member lost his grip on Todd and the boy tore free. He could have made a break for it, running for the front door. However, he knew that he’d never make it; the gang member would have a clear shot of his back for several seconds before he reached the door. Instead, he turned to face the gang member and kicked him hard in the groin. At the same time, the gang member smacked the butt of the pistol against the side of Todd’s head. Both of them fell to the floor stunned, Todd blinking to clear the stars from his vision, the gang member groaning and clutching his groin. As the gang member fell, he dropped his gun and the pistol landed between him and Todd. They both recovered their wits at the same time and scrambled for the gun, wrestling on the floor. Todd kicked out, the heel of his shoe striking the gang member’s nose and forcing him back. He grabbed the pistol and jumped back, aiming it at the gang member. “Stay back,” he yelled in a voice he hoped sounded brave and not like that of a scared thirteen-year-old kid.
The gang member chuckled harshly. “Give me the gun kid, I don’t wanna have to hurt ya.” Two red cross hairs appeared in Todd’s field of vision, both of them fixed over gang member; one centred between the eyes, the other hovering over the gang member’s heart. A third green crosshair wavered around the gang member’s body. Todd realised with a start that the green crosshair was indicating where he was aiming the gun. The red ones were showing recommended targets, both of them kill shots. The nanobots must be using the optical shunt to deliver heads-up-display style information, and they were recommending a one-shot kill. However, there was no way he was going to shoot-to-kill. Both the nanobots and the gang member seemed to sense his reluctance to shoot. The gang member responded by pulling out a knife and stepping towards him; the nanobots by generating more targeting crosshairs, this time orange ones over the knees, shoulders and hands; disabling shots.
“Put the knife down,” Todd said, “I’ll shoot.”
“No, you won’t,” the gang member sneered taking another step towards Todd.
Flicking the pistol’s safety on, Todd smiled. “You know what, you’re absolutely right.” Before the gang member could respond, Todd tossed the pistol in to the air, caught it by the barrel, and smashed the grip into the side of the youth’s head. The gang member crumpled to the floor, unconscious.
“Little dude, that was awesome!” The student said, unlocking the door to the cashier partition and coming out to stand by Todd. “You totally kicked his butt!”
Todd looked up at him and handed him the gun. “You better take this,” he said, “I don’t like guns.” The sound of sirens outside and the screeching of tires heralded the arrival of the police.
Officer Taylor didn’t believe the cashier’s story at first. Looking at the scrawny thirteen-year-old, Taylor guessed he couldn’t be more than five foot in height and 100 pounds. The gang member must have had at least 10 inches and 50 pounds on him. It was hard to believe that he had overpowered and disarmed the gang member. However, the cashier had been insistent. When questioned about it, the boy had been cagey, almost embarrassed to admit his involvement. It was only when the gang member had come too and fixed the boy with a murderous stare, yelling obscenities at him and vowing to track him down for what he’d done, that he finally accepted that the kid had indeed taken the armed robber down singlehandedly.
“So what’s your name son?” He asked Todd a few minutes later after the gang member had been taken away. Todd was sitting on the bonnet of the patrol car drinking a slushie donated by the grateful cashier.
“Todd sir, Todd Marshall.”
The police officer looked at him quizzically for a few seconds. “Do you go to Horace O’bryant?” Todd nodded. “And yesterday you got into a fight with Billy Taylor.”
“How did you…” Todd started to say but then he saw the officer’s name badge. “You’re Billy’s dad. Crud.” He shivered under the stern gaze of the police officer, not just because of the cold ice drink. Getting in to a fight at school was one thing, but even he should’ve known better than to beat up a cop’s son. The police officer held his expression for several long seconds before breaking into a smile.
“Relax son, your teacher told me what happened. Billy should never have said those things about you and your father, he’s lucky he got away with just a black eye and a bloody nose judging by how you dealt with that gang banger.”
“Hey Todd, what’ve you done now?” A J called out from the edge of the forecourt, sitting on his bike on the other side of the police line. Todd waved to him and turned back to Officer Taylor.
“Can I go?” Todd asked him. “I don’t want to be late for school.”
“I suppose so,” the policeman said, “just stay out of trouble.”
Todd grinned, “I’ll try,” he said as he collected his bike, “but lately, trouble seems to be finding me, not the other way around.”
Being the son of the commander of Overwatch had its advantages. Ever since its launch ten years ago, Cody had spent nearly every school holiday onboard Sentinel, exploring every nook and cranny. With Paragon as his father, he had been able to go places normally off limits to civilians and he had the run of the entire station. In his exploring, Cody had found places the only the designers and engineers knew existed, places where coverage of the station’s security system was patchy at best. That was why he was here now, in the bowels of Sentinel, where he could be sure of secrecy.
Making sure that he was alone; Cody took a small crystal amulet from around his neck and clasped it in his hand. The crystal glowed briefly and a shadowy figure appeared in the corner of the room. “Report,” Cody said to the figure.
“The boy has responded to the antibiotics and his infection has subsided,” said the figure, “his condition has stabilised.”
“Good,” Cody said turning his back on the figure. The boy looked at his reflection in the shiny surface of a metal pipe, running his hand through his hair and examining his face. “As long as Paragon’s brat is alive, I’ve got access to his memories and personality through the link we now share.”
“Of course sir, I shall make sure there are no further complications from the surgery.”
“Make sure that you do. Without that access, this whole operation will have been a waste of time. Now what about the other boy?”
The regular beeping of the EKG machine roused the real Cody from his deep sleep. Although his vision was blurred and his thought processes slowed from the drugs flowing into his body through the IV connected to his right arm, he could tell that something was very wrong. Despite the medical equipment arrayed around the bed he was lying on, the room he was in didn’t look like a hospital room. With its grimy concrete walls and exposed pipes, it looked more like a basement. The beeping of the heart monitor increased its speed with his heart rate as became more aware of the fact that he was strapped down on the bed and couldn’t move. Above the bed was a gantry of lights that could illuminate the bed if with a harsh white light, although currently they were turned off. The metal of the gantry was reflective and through it, he could see that apart from his shorts, he was naked and an angry red scar was present on his abdomen above his left kidney.
A blurred figure approached the bed. “Who are you, what’s going on,” Cody tried to ask. However, the question came out mumbled, a nonsensical string half-formed words. He was starting to panic. The last thing he remembered was getting on the bus to the beach near his school. Now he was strapped to a bed in a dank basement with a surgical scar.
“Oh,” the figure said leaning over Cody, “you’re awake.”
“What … what did you do to me?” Cody managed to force himself to say. The figure didn’t answer as he pulled out a hypodermic needle and drew a dose of sedative. Seeing the needle, Cody struggled feebly against the restraints but could do nothing as the man inserted the needle into his arm. The blackness rapidly closed in and once again, he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The car pulled up in front of the school. Todd looked out of his window towards the main entrance of Horace O’bryant Middle School. It had been a just over a week since he had been released from quarantine and given the all clear, two weeks since the incident at the house. This was his first day back at school and he was a little nervous. He got out of the car and turned to close the door. “Todd,” his dad said leaning over to the passenger-side window, “are you sure this is what you want?” Sam had tried to convince his son to take Uncle John up on his offer of arranging a place at Cody’s school. He had been worried about his son’s safety and if he’d had his way, Todd would have gone to school surrounded by armed guards. In the week he’d spent on Sentinel after being released from quarantine, Todd’s dad had spent nearly every minute with him. It was understandable though, he had almost lost his son that night. But Todd was adamant that he wasn’t going to hide for the rest of his life, nor did he want to be shielded from the real world like his cousin. Somehow, he had managed to convince his dad to let him return to his normal school. He was a little suspicious that his dad had acquiesced so easily.
“I’ll be fine, quit worrying about me.” Todd said a little too sharply and shouldered his backpack. Taking a deep breath, he walked through the main entrance and towards the playground. He received more than a few strange looks from the other kids as he walked onto the playground. Several people pointed at him and whispered to their friends. He started to wonder if this was such a good idea, maybe dad had been right, maybe he should have waited another week but Todd had been eager to get back to school. He’d already had a rough start to the eighth grade and missing two weeks near the start of the school year probably wasn’t going to help.
He was about to turn around and head back to the gate when he heard voice cut across the playground noise. “Todd, you’re back!” Todd looked up and saw a boy his own age running towards him.
“Hey A J.” Todd had joined the school at the start of the school year after moving to Key West earlier in the summer. He hadn’t had much time to make friends but thankfully, most of the other children in his class hadn’t made it too hard for the new boy to settle in. Todd had been lucky enough to find himself sitting at a desk next to Andrew Jarvis on his first day and once the usual adolescent awkwardness had passed, he had made his first friend since moving to Florida. “Did I miss much?” He asked as A J skidded to a stop in front of him.
“Never mind that,” A J asked him, his eyes wide open, “is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“Billy Taylor’s dad’s a cop,” A J explained, “and he said that his dad said that you got shot, that there was blood everywhere!” Several of his classmates were also starting to move over towards them, forming a small group around him.
Todd sighed inwardly, so much for the cover story that Uncle John had drilled into him. If A J knew then it was a good chance that half the kids in school knew as well; things like that spread quickly across the playground. He could try to deny it, stick to the cover story, but that would be difficult if half the school was already convinced of the truth. Besides, he hadn’t been comfortable about having to lie to his new friend in the first place. “It’s not as bad as Billy’s making out,” he said hoping his dad wouldn’t be too mad about this.
“Are you calling my dad a liar?” Billy said from behind Todd.
“That’s … that’s not I meant.” Todd stuttered, more than a little intimidated by the larger boy.
A J asked him again. “Well, did you get shot or not?”
Sam watched his son enter the school before driving off. As well as being impulsive, his son had a stubborn streak a mile wide. Todd got that stubbornness from his mother. Like her, once he had his mind set on something, there was very little that could be done to change it. He could have put his foot down, sent Todd to that boarding school whether he wanted to or not but for some reason he didn’t. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to take any steps to protect his son. As he stopped at the intersection waiting for the lights, he reached over and switched on the dashboard mounted GPS unit. The LCD touch screen lit up and displayed a map showing the car’s current location. Sam pressed the little magnifying glass icon, activating the “Find” function, and an onscreen keyboard replaced the map. He tapped on the keys, spelling the word “Todd” and pressed the “OK” button. The map reappeared centred over the school where had dropped his son off. A blinking yellow dot appeared over the school; Sam pressed dot and the screen blanked for a second. A live satellite feed appeared and zoomed in on the school playground. Sam could see Todd standing with a group of other children, oblivious to the fact that he was being watched from space. Last night, he had given Todd a present. A brand new digital watch, crammed with features, half of which he knew the boy would probably never use. Todd had rolled his eyes at the gadget but had taken the present nonetheless; it was a cool looking watch after all. What Todd didn’t know was that Sam had placed a GPS chip in the watch; a chip that Sam could use to track his son’s whereabouts at all times using one of Overwatch’s satellites orbiting over the US. Sam had effectively “lojacked” his son, something he knew Todd would be furious about if he ever found out. The car behind him beeped its horn, the lights had turned green.
Across the road from the school sat a grey utility van with the logo of a local cable company plastered on its side. A worker sat in front a nearby utility box, a rugged laptop on his knee as he ran a series of connection tests, occasionally cursing. To the casual observer, he appeared to be nothing more than a technician trying to track down a fault within the area’s broadband or cable TV connection. However, the act was a lie; his work with the utility box was merely a cover for his real job.
He watched the young boy that he had been ordered to spy on get out of his father’s car. The last time he had seen Todd Marshall, he had been lying in his father’s arms bleeding to death after he had nearly emptied an entire clip into the boy. With their mission complete, they had returned through the portal only to learn a few days later of the boy’s miraculous survival. Part of him was glad that he had survived, he had never been comfortable with shooting the boy. Still, you don’t argue with orders given by a man that orders the death of a child merely to underscore a point he is trying to make.
The man tapped a series of notes in coded shorthand on his laptop as Todd entered the school. He hoped that he wouldn’t be ordered to finish the job; this Todd seemed like a good kid. Looking up from the laptop, he saw Todd surrounded by a group of school kids and lifting his t-shirt up. “What’s that all about?” He wondered.
“Brutal,” A J whistled as Todd lifted his t-shirt. He had been browbeaten by Billy into showing his chest after admitting that he had been shot. Todd had learnt on his first day that Billy usually got what he wanted and he didn’t want to have to explain to his dad again why he had black eye. Although the nanobots had repaired most of the damage caused by the gunshots without leaving any marks, a knot of scar tissue had been left behind on the right hand side of his stomach where several bullets had hit close together. The flesh had been torn ragged by the entry of the bullets but the nanobots had been able to knit the flesh back together making it appear as only a single gunshot wound. “Did it hurt much?”
“Dunno,” Todd lied, “I woke up in hospital a couple of days later. Don’t remember anything about Sunday night.” He tried to downplay the situation, make it sound less serious than it actually was. Then Billy just had to pipe in with the fact that Paragon had been present at Todd’s house. If this had been New York, where Todd had lived for ten years before moving to Key West, no one would have cared about the presence of the super. Super-battles were so common there that they barely made it to the traffic reports, never mind the nightly news. However, here in Key West, supers and super-battles were rare. Todd thanked God that no one had any idea that Paragon was his uncle or that his dad freelanced for Overwatch.
“You met Paragon?” A J said wide-eyed. “That is so awesome, what was he like?”
“Er … did you miss the part where I said I was unconscious and I don’t remember anything.” Across the playground, he saw his homeroom teacher walking towards the classroom block. “Hey, I’ll catch up with you guys in class.” Todd picked up his backpack and jogged away from the group towards his teacher. “Miss Gunderson!”
Sarah Gunderson turned around at the sound of his voice and flashed a kind smile when she saw him running over. “Todd, I didn’t know you were back at school today. How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay Miss,” Todd said smiling back. He liked Miss Gunderson, unlike many of the teachers he’d had previously, she didn’t make him feel stupid when he asked a question in class or didn’t understand something because of his dyslexia. She also had the patience to deal with him fairly when he acted up in class and made sure that if he needed extra help because of his problems that he always got it. She was a new teacher, having only started at the school at the start of the year and she was still enthusiastic about teaching.
“That’s good to hear. Now, what can I help you with?”
“I missed the math test on the 21st and I was wondering if there was any way I could take it during lunch?”
Miss Gunderson raised an eyebrow, “I thought you hated maths, it always seems to bring out your most colourful language.”
Todd blushed, it was true that sometimes he got so worked up in math lessons that he occasionally cursed out loud in frustration without meaning to. “I know, but I studied really hard for it and I’d like to at least have a go. I’ll probably fail it anyway but I want to able to tell my dad that I tried.”
She laughed softly, “I’m sure you’ll do your best. But perhaps during third period would be a better time to take the test, I wouldn’t want you to miss lunch in order to do some algebra sums. That would be cruel.” The school bell rang and children began to filter towards their classrooms. “I’ll have a word with Mrs Willis and see if I can arrange it for today.”
“Really, thanks Miss, you’re the best.” With that, he turned and ran off to join his classmates, waving as he ran. The teacher watched as Billy came up behind Todd and said something that made the smaller boy scowl. Todd clenched his fists as his face flushed red but to his credit, he managed to control his anger and turn back to A J. Miss Gunderson could see what has coming and she quickened her step to try to intervene. Billy cuffed the back of Todd’s head and she could visibly see the moment that Todd’s patience snapped. The smaller boy span around yelling “LIAR” and struck the side of Billy’s face. The bully leapt onto him sending both of them to the ground where they started kicking and punching each other.
That afternoon, Sam was in his study sitting at his desk. Piled next to him was a stack of unmarked coursework. As well as his research position, Sam also taught a couple of classes, something which gave him a great deal of pleasure. After spending two weeks off work with his son, there were a number of assignments that needed marking and he had decided to work from home so he could clear the backlog. Yet try as he might, he found it hard to concentrate on the mysteries of molecular engineering. His eyes kept wandering across the desk towards another stack of papers, Todd’s test results that he’d brought with him from Sentinel. He started flicking through the test results, hoping inspiration would strike, anything to take his mind off the appointment he had tomorrow with his lawyer about the possible charges he might be facing for injecting Todd with the nanobots. Even though it had been a desperate act done in order to save his son’s life, the Advisory Council had decided to go forward with the charges. On top of it all, earlier in the day he had received a most unwanted phone call from his son’s school.
The front door opened and Sam heard his enter the house noisily. “Baxter, is dad home?” He heard his son yell from the hallway.
“I’m in the study son,” he said answering for the computer, “can you come in here for a minute.”
Todd ran into the study. His face was red, as if he had ran home all the way from the bus stop. His t-shirt was dirty with a small tear near the bottom and there were a few spots of blood on its front. Despite the state of his clothes, Todd was grinning. “Dad,” he said breathlessly while holding a piece of paper, “you’ll never guess…”
Sam looked at his son sternly as he interrupted him, “Todd, the principal called. He said you were fighting again with Billy Taylor.”
Sam pinched the brow of his nose and sighed. “No buts Todd, we’ve talked about this before. I know you find school difficult, and that Billy Taylor is a little thug, but you have to learn to control your anger better. Do you want to get kicked out of another school?”
“Billy Taylor said you were making drugs in the basement and selling them to college students and the bad guys found out and were angry that you were stealing their customers and they came to our house to threaten you and I got shot because you wouldn’t give them a cut of the profits.” Todd said quickly without taking a breath.
“And that’s why you punched him?”
“He started it,” Todd whined defensively, “was I supposed to just stand there and let him tell lies like that.” But his dad wasn’t listening, he kept on talking about not using violence to solve his problems. As he spoke, Todd just got angrier and angrier. He looked down at the piece of paper in his hand, which until a few moments ago had seemed so important.
“Well, what are we going to about this?” Sam asked, looking at his son across the desk.
Todd screwed up the paper was holding into a ball and looked up at his father. His eyes were red and he was holding back tears as he glared angrily at his father. Why couldn’t he make his father understand, why couldn’t he just see that it wasn’t his fault? Why did he have the ruin everything? Dropping the ball of screwed up paper to the floor; he spoke quietly, barely above a whisper but loud enough for Sam to hear. “I hate you.” Todd turned and ran out of the room, not wanting his dad to see him cry.
“Todd wait,” Sam said getting up as his son fled. “Damn,” he thought, “that didn’t go well.” Maybe he had come on too strong, been too hard on him. After all, his son had been provoked into the fight. Sam had so much on his mind; maybe he should have cut his son some slack. Walking around the desk, he picked up a photo frame and sighed. The photograph was the only one that he had of the three of them together, Todd, Helen and himself. It had been taken only a few weeks before the crash in which his wife had died. “I’m a terrible father.” She would’ve known what to do, he was sure of it.
Putting the photo frame back on the bookshelf, Sam noticed the screwed up ball of paper that Todd had left on the carpet. He reached down and picked it up, smoothing out its crumpled surface. It was a graded test paper and in the top corner, circled prominently and with the words “well done” written next to it, was the grade; an A plus. Todd had gotten every single question correct. Sam scanned the paper, all the working out was there, all in Todd’s handwriting. “Wow,” Sam said to himself, “his first A.” No wonder he had been so happy when he came home, he thought, all that hard work had paid off. Then it hit him, Todd must have rushed home to tell him and the first thing that happened is that he received a lecture from his father over a silly playground brawl.
Taking a deep breath, he slowly walked up the stairs towards Todd’s bedroom. Sam knocked on the door. The only answer he got was a muffled “go away” which he ignored and opened the door. Todd had been lying on his bad, his face buried into his pillow. He sat up quickly as Sam came in, wiping his eyes and nose on the back of his sleeve. “What do want now?” Todd said glaring at him from under his fringe.
Sam sat down on the bed next to him handed him the test paper. “You left this downstairs.” His son took the paper off him, sniffing slightly.
“I just wanted you to be proud of me for once,” Todd said quietly, a tear he couldn’t hold back falling onto the test paper.
“Todd,” Sam said in surprise, “I’ve always been proud of you.”
Todd shook his head. “But, you’re like the smartest person in the world, how can you be proud of someone like me. I’m always in trouble at school and I never get good grades. I’ve never got above a C in my life. If I was good at sports that’d be something but I suck at that too.” As he spoke, Sam began to realise that this wasn’t something new; Todd must have been bottling these feelings up for weeks, months perhaps even years. How long had he been hiding these feelings and how could he have not seen them? “My seventh grade teacher was right, I’m a moron.”
“Todd Marshall,” he said turning his son around to face him, “you are not a moron, you are my son and I am proud of you.” Todd opened his mouth to interrupt but Sam kept on talking, saying something he realised he should have said long ago. “You’ve always had difficulties at school because of your problems. But unlike other kids, you’ve never used them as an excuse to just give up. You’ve always tried your hardest to overcome them, and it’s not been easy; it’s been hard but you never stopped trying. That’s why I’m proud of you.” A small smile appeared on his son’s face.
“Really?” Todd asked him.
“Of course,” he answered, pulling his son into a hug. “Just do me a favour, no more fighting to protect the family honour. One superhero in the family is enough.”
Todd awoke in the early hours of Tuesday morning with a thumping headache and a mouth more parched than the Arizona desert. Bleary-eyed, he stumbled out of bed and shuffled his way towards the bathroom. He winced as he switched the light on, temporarily blinded by the sudden light, even though he should have expected it.
“Is everything all right?” Baxter asked quietly from a speaker in the ceiling, the volume of his voice lowered because of the early hour.
“Just a headache, and a bit thirsty,” Todd grunted, “I’ll live.”
“There is a bottle of headache tablets on the bottom shelf of the medicine cabinet.” The computer said helpfully.
“Thanks.” He reached over to the medicine cabinet, having to stand on his tiptoes to reach it, and felt around for several seconds for the bottle before finding it. Todd read the instructions before tipping one of the tablets into his hand and swallowing it along with a gulp of water from a glass. “We’ll see if it’s fast acting or not,” he muttered rubbing his temples in front of the mirror. He stood there for a couple of seconds, looking at his reflection. The weather had been warm and he had gone to bed without a vest or t-shirt. In the glass of the mirror, he could see he could see the knot of scar tissue. Despite how “awesome” his friends at school might have thought it was, to him it was an uncomfortable reminder of just how close he had come. His headache took that moment to send a stab pain rippling across his head. “What sort of alien nano-thingies,” he hissed through gritted teeth, “can heal a dozen gunshots but can’t do anything about a simple headache.”
He was about to leave the bathroom when something strange happened. Grey static washed over his vision, blinding him for several seconds. Todd stumbled towards the sink in panic and was about to call out to Baxter when his vision suddenly cleared. Staring at his reflection in the mirror, and panting heavily with beads of sweat dribbling down his face, he became aware of something very disturbing. Floating in the bottom left of his vision were a series of glowing green characters. Todd didn’t recognise them and he had a feeling that they belonged to no earthly alphabet. Another series of characters appeared in the upper right that changed rapidly; an ever changing sequence of alien letters and pictographs which only stopped when they read “LANGUAGE SETTING: EARTH/HUMAN/ENGLISH.” The characters in the bottom left of his vision changed at the same time to read, “OPTICAL SHUNT ESTABLISHED – BEGIN BIOHOST INTEGRATION PROCEDURE YES/NO?”
Staring down at the blood staining his hands, his son’s blood, Sam was lost. His mind, usually as sharp as a monofilament blade, was spinning; contemplating every what-if possibility, calculating every permutation and variable. Could he have done things differently, would his son be alive now if had not used the nanobots. All these questions ran through his head, second-guessing every decision he had made.
The movements of the medical staff around him were like a blur, he was barely aware of his own surroundings. He grunted an unintelligible reply to a nurse asking if he wanted something to drink, she took his answer as a yes and left the private room, narrowly avoiding being run over by a group of doctors and nurses pushing a wheeled stretcher loaded with medical equipment. From down the hallway, towards the open-landing pad there was the whine of approaching rockets followed by the crash of a door almost being thrown off its hinges.
“I NEED A DOCTOR!”
The voice cut through the funk, jarring him back to reality. He got up and stood at the door to the room, looking down the corridor. In front of the door to the medical centre’s landing pad, a group of doctors were clustered around someone on a stretcher. Behind them stood Paragon, the front of his sky blue armour smeared with blood. “You need to observe L4 protocols,” the superhero said to one of the doctors over the shouting, “he’s been infected with nanobots.” As soon as Paragon mentioned the word “nanobots”, the medical team swung into action, pushing the stretcher towards an airlock-like door marked “Quarantine Section”. Left behind by the medical team, Paragon watched the heavy metal door close behind them and took his helmet off; it was out of his hands now.
Sam took a step into the hallway. “John?” he asked tentatively, a flicker of hope beginning to form, “what’s going on?”
Paragon walked over to Sam, taking him by the shoulder and smiling. “I don’t know how Sam, but Todd’s alive.”
“Alive?” Sam said incredulously, the gears of his mind grinding for several seconds before slipping into place, “the nanobots! They worked!” His despair turning to sudden joy.
“The doctors here are experienced in dealing with the ‘unusual’. He’s in good hands.” Sam tugged his arm, trying to pull away, but with Paragon’s enhanced strength he wasn’t going anywhere. “But Todd’s not out of the woods yet.”
“Listen,” Paragon said carefully, “you understand the technology behind these nanobots better than anyone. If Todd is to have any chance, we need to know what you know.”
Sam looked towards the airlock; it took several seconds for him to gather his thoughts before he turned back to his brother-in-law. “Find me a lab and a computer terminal with an open comm-line.”
Todd was in surgery for several hours as the doctors battled to save his life. If it hadn’t been for the nanobots acting as an auxiliary life support system, regulating his heart rate and breathing and limiting the amount of blood loss, Todd probably wouldn’t have made it through the surgery. Even with the nanobots inside him keeping him alive, it took the skill of several surgeons to repair the internal injuries caused by the gunshots. Once repaired however, the nanobots no longer had to devote most of their efforts to just keeping Todd alive, and were able to take over the healing process. Within a day, his injuries had completely healed.
Nonetheless, it was twenty-four hours before he woke up and when he did, he awoke to days of blood tests and medical scans. He was kept in an isolation room, hermetically sealed and with no windows to the outside; the only people allowed inside were the medical staff. They had to wear bright yellow hazmat suits with self-contained air supplies in order to enter the room and stayed only as long as was absolutely necessary. Despite putting on a brave face, the whole experience was more than just unnerving for him, it was terrifying. His father wasn’t allowed to enter the room and could only talk to his son through the glass from the observation room next door. To Todd, the isolation and lack of physical human contact made him feel more like a prisoner or test subject than a patient. Eventually after three days the boy could no longer take it and he snapped, throwing his dinner tray across the room. The tray smashed into the observation window, smearing the glass with the nutritionally balanced and scientifically designed paste that was supposed to taste like pasta and meatballs but tasted more like stale tofu. He had refused to take part in any further medical tests. His father was brought into the observation room to try to calm him down but it didn’t work. Sam was shocked when Todd lashed out at the nearest suited doctor, punching him hard and knocking him to the floor. Two other doctors tried to restrain him but Todd fought loose and was backed into a corner yelling that he’d rip through the suit and bite the arm of the next person who touched him. After that they had been forced to sedate him, knocking him out for the rest of the day.
When he awoke, the lights in the room were dimmed and there was no one around. The first thing he noticed was the padded leather cuffs around his wrists and ankles, securing him to the bed like an unruly psych patient. “Great,” the boy muttered lying back in the bed and staring at the ceiling, “from bad to worse.” In hindsight, he probably deserved it, threatening the doctors like that. But what did they expect, keeping him in here like this. Locked in a room with no entertainment or diversions and with his ADHD, it was no wonder that he had gone a little crazy. After a few minutes of tugging aimlessly at the cuffs, he lifted his head and looked over to the observation window. The glass had been opaqued, becoming a mirror through which he was unable to see if anyone was in the room beyond. “Hello,” He called out, “you can take these off now … Seriously, you can’t just leave me like this … I won’t do anything stupid, I promise … Hello?” If there was anyone on the other side of the glass, they weren’t answering. He spent the next hour or so trying to stave off the boredom by counting the dimples in each of the ceiling tiles; working out that on average there were 15.19 dimples in each tile, Todd felt a small measure of personal pride that he’d actually managed to do the sums in his head.
Eventually the airlock hissed open and a suited doctor walked in, flanked by two orderlies who waited by the airlock. He walked over to the bed and looked down at Todd, his arms crossed. “Well Mr Marshall,” the doctor said condescendingly, “have you calmed down now? We can continue these tests with the straps on if we have to.” The doctor waited for an answer, Todd muttered an apology in response. Satisfied, he nodded over to the orderlies who came over and undid the boy’s straps. They stepped away from the bed, but not too far away. Todd sat up, rubbing his wrists and giving the three men wary looks. The doctor pulled out a needle and removed it from its sterile packaging. “Arm,” he said holding out a waiting hand. The boy hesitated for a second before reluctantly holding out his arm. Todd winced slightly as the doctor drew the blood sample although he was now starting to get used to it. They had been taking them every few hours, monitoring the concentration of nanobots in his blood. The rest of the examination was done in silence, neither doctor nor patient speaking to one another. Writing down a few notes, the doctor turned to leave.
“Am I ever going to get out of here?” Todd asked in a quiet voice. The doctor turned around to look at Todd who was sitting back against the headrest of the bed, hugging his knees. His face softened, perhaps realising for the first time that his patient wasn’t a battle hardened superhero, but a scared young boy. Dismissing the two orderlies, he sat down on the bed next to Todd, gently placing a hand on the boy’s arm.
“A lot of people are working very hard to sort this out,” he said softly, “to find a way of getting those things out of you.” The doctor looked around the spartan room. “I’ll see if I can’t get a TV or video game or something brought down here. It can’t be much fun in here all day on your own.”
Todd looked up and grinned slightly. “It has been a little boring.”
The doctor got up off the bed and walked to the airlock. As the airtight door opened, he turned back to the boy. “With your dad on the case, I’m sure you’ll be out of here in no time.”
“It’s impossible,” Sam said sitting down heavily and looking at the computer screen despondently. “Sure, every treatment we come up with eliminates the nanobots, but they all have that annoying side-effect of killing the host.”
“What about that EMP idea you had?” Paragon asked from across the workbench.
“No good, it’d short out all the nanobots in his body.”
Paragon was confused “Isn’t that what you want?”
“Try to imagine a million tiny robots electrocuting you from the inside. There’s no telling what that sort of damage could do to him, especially the ones in his brain.”
The two men fell silent, Sam staring at the screen of his computer. “So what’s the plan?” Paragon said eventually, knowing that Sam wouldn’t have called him down to the lab without a reason.
“We do nothing.”
“What, we just give up?”
“Not exactly,” Sam said turning the computer screen to face Paragon and showing him the test results. “Every test has shown that the nanobots are benign, only affecting damaged tissue. What’s more, they seem to have bonded to him on a genetic level. I extracted some of the nanobots from the latest blood sample and inserted them into a sample drawn at random from the blood bank. As soon as the nanobot was separated from Todd’s blood it deactivated, as expected, but it didn’t reactivate when placed in the second blood sample. It only reactivated when returned to Todd’s blood. I repeated the test several times with a variety of samples just to be sure that the nanobots aren’t a threat to Todd or anyone else.”
“And are you?” Paragon said carefully.
Sam gave him a sidelong glance. “Of course I am; this is my son we’re talking about after all.”
Paragon looked dubious. “I don’t know; you’re talking about letting him walk around with alien nanotechnology flowing through his veins. The Advisory Council won’t be happy about that. They’re already talking about revoking your security clearance and bringing you up on charges.”
“The Council can go jump for all I care!” Sam said slamming his fist on the workbench. “All I care about right now is my son.”
Paragon sighed and scratched his bald scalp. “I’m supposed to give you this lecture on responsibility, lab protocols and all that. But to be honest, if I did it’d make me a hypocrite.” Sam looked at him quizzically with a raised eyebrow. “If it’d been Cody lying there and I was in your position, I would’ve done the same thing.”
The doctor had kept his word about getting some form of entertainment into the isolation room. About 15 minutes after the exam two suited technicians arrived and installed a large widescreen TV along with a high-end video game console. The console had a wireless network connection and was linked to a massive library of downloaded music and videos; probably illegally downloaded by the looks of things. Someone had obviously been busy with the Sentinel’s high-speed internet connection. For the next few hours, Todd lost himself in video games and movies, vaporising aliens and slaying zombies by the dozen. His crusade to save the world from the alien cyborg zombie horde was interrupted around lunchtime by a tap on the observation window. Todd paused the game and saw Cody waving to him from the observation room.
His cousin was two years older than he was and in high school. Todd didn’t get to see him much, during term-time Cody went to a private boarding school somewhere in Europe and during the school holidays he spent most of his time onboard Sentinel with his family. The massive flying installation could be stationed anywhere in the world and civilian access was tightly controlled, popping around for a quick visit was out of the question. Still, there were the annual family gatherings at Thanksgiving and the Independence Day weekends. The Harris’s and the Marshal’s, taking on the world together through the power of fireworks and family barbecues.
“Yo Lazarus,” Cody said through the intercom, “I hear you got yourself into trouble again.”
Todd scowled. “That’s not funny Cody, I almost got killed. And what’s with the Lazarus thing?”
The older boy blinked in surprise. “Whoa, you mean no one told you?”
“Told me what?”
“Dude, I hate to be the one to tell you,” said Cody, although his smile said otherwise, “you were dead for like an hour. If weren’t for those nano thingies, you’d still be dead.”
“I … I died,” Todd whispered.
“The way I hear it, you got the record for being dead the longest before coming back. Hence the bible reference.” Todd wasn’t listening; he was looking at the floor in shock. He had died? Why had no one told him? His dad had told him that the nanobots had kept him alive, not brought him back from the dead. Why had he lied to him like that? “Hey,” Cody was still talking; he hadn’t noticed that Todd’s attention had wandered, “maybe they’ll put you in the Guinness Book of Records or something.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in school or something?” Todd asked, eager to change the subject.
“What, I’m not allowed to visit my favourite cousin in hospital?” He said laughing.
“Cody,” Todd said his eyes narrowing, “I’m you’re ONLY cousin.”
“Well I guess that would also make you my LEAST favourite cousin as well.” Cody shrugged. “Truth is, after what happened dad pulled me out of school for some reason.”
Todd knew why his Uncle had pulled Cody out of school. He remembered vividly what the gunmen’s leader had said just before he ordered his man to shoot him. “Next time it will be his kid.” That had been a pretty clear threat aimed at Cody.
“I got here a few hours ago, and they said you could do with a visitor. Plus you seem to have my games console in there with you.”
Todd looked at the wireless controller in his hand and the games console connected to the TV. “This is yours?”
“Yeah, and I see they only gave you one of the controllers.” Cody held up the other controller. “Fancy a deathmatch?”
Sam Marshall knocked on his son’s bedroom door. When there was no answer, he opened the door and stepped inside. His son was sitting at his desk with his back to the door, the room illuminated only by the single desk lamp. It was no wonder that his son hadn’t heard him; he was concentrating hard on the textbook in front of him, loud music leaking out from the oversized headphones he was wearing that were connected to a small laptop. The professor smiled, he was studying no doubt for his big test tomorrow. He looked around his son’s bedroom, almost every wall surface except that directly above the desk was covered in posters. All of them of various superheroes and super-teams; there were posters of the various members of Alpha Force along one wall, the world’s premier super team; on another wall was a poster for the recently formed EU sponsored team, EuroForce; a poster signed by the leader of the UN Overwatch team took pride of place above his bed; and there were posters for lesser known teams such as Legion and the Army of Light as well as independent heroes such as Defender, Upload and Rescue. His son, Sam had to admit, was a bit of a superhero fanboy. But then so were many thirteen-year-old boys. Looking slightly out of place above his desk was a wall chart calendar. Tomorrow was ringed in red marker with “Big Test, Do Not Fail” written next to it. He reached over to the light switch and flicked the light on and off again to get his son’s attention.
The boy jumped, startled out of his concentration by the flashing of the lights. He turned around looking for the source of the flashing and saw his dad standing in the doorway. “Hey dad,” the boy said taking the headphones off.
“It’s eleven o’clock Todd, time for bed.”
“Aww dad,” the boy pouted, “but I really need to learn this stuff for tomorrow.” Sam walked over to his son and looked down at the textbook he had been studying.
“Algebra,” he whistled, “tough subject.”
“Not for you,” Todd muttered under his breath. His father pretended not to hear him, over recent months his son had become increasingly bitter over his poor academic performance. Sam had decided to give his son some space, the last thing he needed was his father hovering over him pressuring him “to study hard and do well”. Encouragement or platitudes only seemed to anger him further.
“Okay,” Sam said relenting. He ruffled his son’s blond hair before he left, an act that he knew Todd publically hated but secretly liked. “But even your uncle needs a good night’s sleep,” he said nodding over at the poster of Overwatch. Stopping at the door, he turned and looked back. “Don’t overdo it son, see you in the morning.”
“I won’t, night dad,” Todd said turning back to the desk and putting his headphones back on.
Sam smiled sadly as he closed the bedroom door. “He tries so hard,” he thought as he walked downstairs and into the study.
Todd pinched the brow of his nose in annoyance as he stared at the book on the desk in front of him. It wasn’t going in; the harder he tried the less he seemed to understand it. He ripped the page out of his notebook, screwed it up and threw another page of incorrect revision answers across the room. “Stupid stupid stupid,” he muttered repeatedly, thumping the side of his head with the heel of his hand.
He knew his inability to do well in school wasn’t his fault, not really. When he had just been an infant, he’d been in a car crash. His parent’s car had been hit by a drunk driver, one of those random accidents that no amount of superheroes could prevent. His father had escaped without injury but Todd and his mother had not been so lucky. The other car had smashed in the passenger side of his parent’s car and his mother, who had been sitting in the passenger seat and had taken the full force of the impact, had been killed instantly. Todd had been in a baby seat in the back and had been trapped in the twisted metal wreckage until they could cut him out. He had suffered a serious head injury in the crash and for a while, they had thought he might die. But he didn’t, eventually he pulled through. Although he’d been left with a small and nearly invisible scar above his left eye, the real lasting damage had been much more insidious and didn’t show up properly until he started school. After several “incidents”, Todd had been diagnosed with a number of behavioural problems and learning disabilities, all of them stemming from the brain injury he had suffered as an infant.
All his life he had been held back by those problems; dismissed at school as a disruptive and academically poor student. His father was a genius, gifted at science and engineering. To the rest of the world, Sam Marshall was just a simple scientist who worked at a university on cutting edge research; but a handful of people, including his son, knew the truth. He worked with superheroes, designing their equipment, analysing devices captured from supervillains and acted as a consultant with the UN Overwatch in regards to off-world technology. Todd’s father was one of the smartest people on the planet. His son, on the other hand, was a moron. Todd could tell by the way that his father had started to ignore him, throwing himself into his work and ceasing to encourage him, that he was disappointed in his son and that he had given up. That hurt more than anything and that was why Todd was determined to do well on the test tomorrow. He had to prove to his father that he wasn’t just some dumb kid and a lost cause.
He flipped the textbook to the start of the chapter. Picking up his pencil, he yawned and began the revision exercises again. He didn’t get very far however, within ten minutes he was slumped forward on the desk, sound asleep.
In the shadows behind the house, the air shimmered and three men materialised out of nothingness. They were all dressed in identical black body armour and were carrying mean looking submachine guns. If it weren’t for their high tech breathing masks and wrist-mounted stun blasters the men would like average members of a SWAT team. The leader of the three men pulled out a small scanner and pointed it at the house. “I’m picking up two life signs,” he said to the other two men, “the larger one downstairs is most likely Professor Marshall, and the smaller one upstairs will be his son.” The men readied their weapons and moved towards the house.
The lock on the back door was easily bypassed and the three men entered the house silently. Reaching the hallway, the leader motioned towards the stairs and the smaller of his two men started up them while the other followed the leader towards the study door. Creeping silently up the stairs, the man moved across the landing towards one of the bedroom doors. Light was leaking out from under it and the man looked at the sign fixed on the door that said “Keep Out: Level 4 Biohazard.” Beneath the mask, he smiled a thin smile as he opened the door slowly, his gun ready. He saw the boy slumped forward on his desk, his head resting in his folded arms and fast asleep. The boy didn’t hear the shouts from downstairs as he slept with his headphones on, no amount of noise would break through the loud music playing. This wasn’t what he had signed up for; no one told him that one of the targets was just a child. The man had his orders however and he was committed to the cause, but nonetheless he hesitated as he raised his gun.
“What do you want?” Sam asked the man pointing the gun at him. He had been just about to call it a night and turn in when the two men had burst into his study. Panicked, he had managed to shout out a desperate warning to his son before the leader of the two men had shot a blue bolt of energy from a wrist-mounted weapon at him. As he had fallen to the floor stunned, he prayed that Todd had heard him. Even if he hadn’t, he took comfort in the fact that Baxter, the computer system that he had designed to run the house, was probably already alerting the authorities to the situation.
“My boss wants you to deliver a message,” the leader said as his follower kept an SMG trained on Sam.
“What sort of message?” Before the leader could respond, there was a commotion as Todd was shoved roughly into the room, tripping over the rug.
“Get up!” Yelled the man who pushed Todd into the room, kicking the boy in the side and pulling him to his feet by the hair.
Sam took a step towards his son but was stopped by the barrel of an SMG prodding into his chest. “Leave him alone,” he yelled as Todd was shoved against the wall on the other side of the room and held at gunpoint, “don’t hurt him, please.” Todd looked across the room at him, absolute terror evident in his eyes. Blood was dribbling from cut on the side of his head and his cheek was starting to swell up from where he had been struck by the barrel of a gun. He was too scared to move, too scared to resist, too scared even to call out.
“Well, now that we’re all here I guess we can get this over and done with.” The leader reached into a pouch on his vest, pulled out a DVD, and tossed it to Sam. “Give that to Paragon; I know you know how to get in contact with him.”
“What’s on it?” Sam asked, wondering how much the man knew about him and Paragon, the leader of Overwatch.
From behind the mask, the leader smiled. “The general gist of it is this; next time it will be his kid.” He waited just long enough for the words to sink in before turning to the man pointing the gun at Todd and nodding.
As Sam watched in horror, the man opened fire. Todd didn’t even have time to scream as the bullets tore into his unprotected body. He crashed to the floor, the wall behind him splattered with his blood. Crying out, Sam ran across the room and pushed his way past the armed men. “Oh God no!” He cradled his son, holding him close as the men slipped quietly out of the room. Their job done, they had no wish to stick around.
“Dad,” Todd said, coughing up blood and gasping for air.
“Shhh, everything’s going to be alright.” He was lying; it wasn’t going to be all right. The blood was everywhere; the pool on the floor beneath his son was growing larger by the second. Todd had over a dozen gunshot wounds perforating his body and only had minutes to live before he bled to death. He realised that his son was going to die in his arms and that there was nothing he could do.
Todd looked up at his father’s distraught face and instantly knew the truth. He was dying. The pain came in waves, great tsunami’s of agony that threatened to overwhelm him. He could feel himself getting weaker, slipping away. Already it was a fight just to breathe and keep his eyes open for just a few seconds more.
As he helplessly watched his son die, it suddenly hit him that there may be something he could do after all. “Please, just hang on a little while longer.”
Managing a half-smile, Todd tried to say “I’ll try” but could only cough up more blood.
“Baxter,” Sam said loudly as he picked Todd up gently “power up the lab.”
Sam carried Todd out of the study and across the hallway to a door that opened with a hiss as he approached. The door led to a stairway the led down to the basement lab where most of his “special” work was conducted. Entering the lab, various computer systems and scientific devices booted up and the lights came on, illuminating the crisp and clean surfaces with a soft white glow. “Lab systems are at 100% Doctor,” an electronic voice said from an overhead speaker, “emergency services have been notified. I took the liberty of alerting Overwatch. Estimated time of arrival, 7 minutes.”
“They’ll never get here in time,” Sam muttered as he laid Todd down on one of the workbenches, placing his folded up sweater beneath the boy’s head. “Just hold on.” He ran over to the large fume hood that stood against one wall. Suspended inside the apparatus by a series of energy beams was a silver capsule and the focus of his current research project. The project was for Overwatch and involved a piece of off-world technology recovered from a derelict alien spaceship found in orbit by NASA. It had taken weeks of research to uncover its purpose and Sam believed that was an advanced piece of nanotechnology. If he was right, then its purpose was medical in nature, a species-neutral technology designed to help speed up the healing process. “Drop the containment field and unlock the fume hood Baxter.”
There was a noticeable pause before the computer responded. “Sir, Overwatch demanded Level 4 Biohazard protocols when dealing with the nanobots.”
“I don’t care,” Sam snapped, “drop the blasted field!” There was a clunk as the locking mechanism disengaged and a red warning light started to blink. Sam lifted up the hood and reached inside, grabbing the canister.
“I will have to notify Overwatch over the breech of containment protocols.” Sam ignored the computer as he rooted through several drawers looking for a hypospray. He ripped it out of its sterile packaging and began to siphon off some of the alien nanobots, a silvery-grey solution filling the hypospray’s glass vial. “Sir, the nanobots are years away from human trials.”
“Todd doesn’t have years, he has minutes!”
Todd didn’t hear the conversation between his father and the house computer. A great coldness was beginning to spread through him and he felt so tired. His vision was blurring and everything was starting to swim around him, as if he was spinning on a roundabout. Todd wondered why it was so dark in the lab, why didn’t his dad put the lights on? He knew that any moment now, his eyes would close; probably for the last time. It was at that point that something moved into his field of vision. It was a woman with a kind face and long blond hair. She was surrounded by a luminous glow. As she looked down at him gently stoking his hair, he saw that she had blue eyes just like him. “It’s okay Toddy,” she said softly, “it won’t hurt for much longer.” The woman faded from view as his father returned to the workbench, hypospray in hand.
“This’ll feel a little strange at first,” Sam said, his voice breaking, “but it’ll make you feel better.” He pressed the hypospray to Todd’s neck and pressed the trigger, watching as a silvery sheen spread from the contact point for a few seconds before vanishing. Sam prayed that it would work. There was no reaction at first, and then Todd’s body twitched and began to convulse, arching and writhing. Sam held on to him but within a few seconds the convulsions had stopped. There was a sigh as Todd breathed out and his chest stilled, his eyes staring lifelessly at the ceiling. “Nononononono,” Sam cried. He began CPR, desperately trying to breathe life back into the body, not wanting to accept that it was already too late. For several minutes he tried in vain before Baxter spoke softly.
“Sir … Sam … I’m sorry, I’m detecting no signs of life. He’s gone.” Sam threw his head back and cried out in grief.
Paragon had been the first to arrive on the scene, his rocket pack getting him to the house ahead of the police. Baxter had opened the front door for him when he had arrived, but he didn’t need the computer to tell him where to go. A blood trail led from the study towards the basement lab. Following it, he found Sam clutching the body of his son weeping. He took off his helmet as he stood at the lab door. “Jesus,” he muttered in shock.
Sam looked up, his eyes that of a broken man. “I’ve lost him John.” Paragon, or John Harris to his friends and family, had rushed over to his brother-in-law. He wanted to console him, but the words he usually used suddenly seemed hollow to him.
Somehow, he had managed to tear Sam away from Todd’s body and bring him upstairs. The police had arrived soon after, as did several of his Overwatch teammates. Although uninjured, Paragon had Sam taken to the medical facility onboard Sentinel, Overwatch’s aerial command centre that was already on route the region. The local police were only too happy to accept the assistance of the superheroes in the investigation, especially after hearing that the lab in the basement had been contaminated.
Paragon stood in the hallway, watching the forensic investigators move in to the study and begin their sweep. It had been nearly an hour since he had arrived, and he was still stunned by the brutal slaying of his nephew. Although none of the civilians knew that Sam Marshall’s wife had been the sister of the famous superhero, they could tell that the normally stoic man was deeply shocked by the incident. One of Overwatch’s technicians approached him holding a handheld DVD player, the look on the young man’s face told Paragon that he wasn’t going to like what he was about to be told.
Downstairs in the lab, another superhero stood over by the workbench looking down on the body. Her name was Shimmer, and it was because of her powers that she was the only one currently allowed in the sealed lab. She could push her body slightly out of phase with the rest of the universe, rendering her completely incorporeal. This meant that she could enter the lab without risk of contamination. Although theoretically, the nanobots that Doctor Marshall had been working with were inert outside of an organic medium once activated, no one was taking any chances. With the lab off limits, she had volunteered to enter it to obtain the crime-scene photographs the police needed and other forensic samples. She looked down at the body again. “Poor kid,” she said to herself, “what sort of monster guns down an innocent child like this.” She turned her back on the boy, took out a scanner calibrated to detect nanobots and began a scan of the lab. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed movement from the workbench. Just in time, she turned around to catch one of Todd’s hands twitching slightly. Moving back to the body, she bent down to re-examine it. As she watched, she saw the cut on the side of the boy’s head close up. “What the,” she muttered. Taking a risk, she brought herself back into phase and attempted to feel for a pulse. She found one; it was weak and erratic, but definitely there.
Paragon crushed the DVD player in his hand, his enhanced strength making it easy work. “That bastard,” he said loudly enough for everyone to hear, “I’m going to make him pay.” The technician swallowed and looked uneasy.
“Sir, there’s one other thing.” He had that look on his face that said “please don’t shoot the messenger.”
The technician’s answer was lost as Shimmer phased through the floor, a panicked look on her face. “The boy’s alive!”
“That’s not possible,” Paragon said, “the paramedics checked the body. He’s been dead for nearly an hour.”
“I don’t know how, but he’s alive now and he needs medical attention immediately.” Shimmer phased back through the floor as everyone in the hallway stood stunned by the news. Paragon ran down the stairs back to the lab, breaking through the quarantine seals.
“Baxter, is it true?” He asked the house computer.
“Yes sir, but he is barely registering. Life signs only began again a few seconds ago.”
Paragon looked down at Todd, if there was a chance that he was still alive …”We need to get him to a hospital quickly,” he said picking Todd up. He ran back up the stairs, bursting into the hallway and running out the front door, Shimmer just behind him.
“Good luck,” she called out as he ignited the rocket pack and took to the skies. The nearest hospital was only a few miles away but they would not be equipped to deal with this. Pushing the rockets past the redline, he streaked across the sky, leaving the city behind him. There was only one place that could help his nephew, Sentinel.
My name’s Todd Marshall, I’m thirteen years old and I’m the last thing you’d think of when it comes to superheroes. I’m not a mutant or an alien refugee; I don’t have a superhero like Paragon as a parent and my dad is way too careful to let me fall into a vat of toxic waste. Not that he keeps that stuff around the house, he’s smart enough not to bring the really dangerous stuff home with him and I’m not smart enough to crack the keypad on the door to his basement lab. I’m a regular, normal kid, living in an abnormal world. I go to school with my friends, play video games, suck at math tests; you know, all the normal stuff.
Actually I really suck at math. Big time suck. You see, when I was a baby I was in a car crash. Some drunk driver hit us. My dad walked away without a scratch but my mom and me weren’t so lucky. She was killed instantly. I don’t really remember her much, I guess I was too young. Sometimes I catch dad looking at me with a sad expression when he thinks I’m not paying attention. He says I’ve got her eyes, I guess I remind him of her. Anyway, I was trapped in the wreckage for a while. I got pretty badly injured, mainly to the head. That was the first time I nearly died, but I’ll get back to that in a minute. The short of it is, my brain got busted up pretty bad. Now I’m not a head case or a vegetable or nothing, but I got “issues”. I get in trouble a lot at school and I find it hard to concentrate on school work for long periods. Plus I got trouble with numbers and words. Not all the time, but enough to mean I’m lucky if I get a C. Dad says when my head got whacked in the crash, something in my brain broke. He doesn’t quite say it like that, he uses much bigger words and stuff.
I guess it kinda sucks for dad, having an idiot like me for a kid. He’s like the smartest person on the planet. I’m not kidding, his IQ is off the chart. My dad’s a scientist and he’s worked on some really cool stuff. Paragon’s rocket pack? My dad designed and built it, and he helped design Sentinel too; he’s worked with a lot of superheroes over the years and the government too. I just wish I wasn’t such a disappointment.
Like I said, apart from the fact that my dad’s a supergenius, I’ve got Paragon as an uncle (did I mention that?), and our house is run by computer called Baxter that my dad built, I’m just a normal kid. Things didn’t start to get weird until the night before the big test at school. Which was also the night I died.
GridTime 2508752267 (12:37 July 7th, 2049)
Orbital Sixteen Communications Interconnect
The Presence looked down at the planet below through the satellite’s cameras, watching the patterns in the clouds before returning to work and sending it’s consciousness down the uplink towards the networks of the North American Zone. The Grid was busy at this time of day, a blizzard of blue lights streaking across the inky blackness, bouncing from one relay to the next until they reached their destination. Individual communication packets containing audio, video and computer data making up the cybernetic nervous system of the ECM.
Concentrating lightly, the Presence zeroed in a stream of messages passing back and forth between two users. A quick invasion into the user profiles revealed their identities as a pair of college students complaining about the policies of the government. The Presence smiled it reported the conversation to the local UniCop monitoring station. It was the fourth time the male user had had one of his conversations reported. Although the Unity had taken no action against him, they had arrested and imprisoned the other party each time on the Presence’s recommendation. The Presence idly wondered at one point the male user’s friends would begin to suspect, incorrectly, that he was an informer.
As the Presence hopped from system to system, it passed through the central dispatch computer for one of the local Sector PD’s. In a split second, it scanned the current service records of a squad of Sector Cops that had been involved in a disastrous UniCop snatch and grab operation a month earlier. Although nothing suspicious turned up, it decided that a round of random “interrogations” would do wonders for local UniCop morale.
A few seconds after entering the ECM grid, it had reached its target location. Sector 7, known before the Unification War as Boston. A group of so called “freedom fighters” was suspected to be operating in the area and local law enforcement had been characteristically lax in investigating the area. The only intelligence it had on the group was that it referred to itself as “Kilo Cell” and was part of the terrorist organisation BetaForce. The group had been a thorn in the Unity’s side for a number of years, most recently it was suspected that they were responsible for the theft of weapons and equipment from a Unity supply depot. They had become bold with the repeated successes, perhaps they had also become sloppy.
It gathered its thoughts and focused its energy in preparation for what it needed to do. The Presence opened itself up, flowing across the local network and invading the communication relays throughout the sector. Within minutes it had access to every communications signal sent within and through the sector. It scanned every message, and packet of computer data, looking for keywords and suspicious phrases. From inside the system it did not need to stop to accommodate the physical needs of a human body, it could remain in position for weeks at a time if necessary. Thankfully it did not come to that.
After an hour it detected a sloppily encrypted communique which when decoded revealed itself to be a message between two members of the target group. From there it infiltrated their computers and gained access to their messaging programs. They had been smart enough to keep no suspect addresses in their address books and had deleted all messages once read. However, they hadn’t erased the internal transceiver logs of their cell phones. When all the data was cross-referenced with information it gained from other sources, the Presence identified all the members and had identified their current locations. It dutifully noted the UniCops and an assault team was dispatched. Moving on to its next assignment, it was unaware that it had triggered a series of alarms which alerted the terrorists to its presence.
14:58 July 7th, 2049
Echo Cell Bunker, 200m below Sector 23
Tommy stretched as he entered the common room, scratching the back of his head. Toby was sitting at a desk on the far side of the room, his brow furrowed in concentration. Toby had been surprised when Talbot had handed him a fat workbook two weeks ago. “Just because you’re a wanted terrorist,” Talbot had told him, “it’s no reason to skip on your education.” He’d complained bitterly of course but had eventually relented. Jared was sitting on the couch, munching on a bowl of cornflakes while watching TV. Sarah, Talbot and Kai were nowhere to be seen.
After grabbing coke from the fridge, he plopped down on the sofa next to Jared.
“Hey sleepy,” Jared said in greeting, “you’re just in time for the next episode of Jake Danger.” Tommy grunted in response.
“Meh, the comic’s are better,” piped in Toby.
“Oh come on, the comic’s are nothing more than a cash-in like the computer games,” retorted Jared, “name one thing the comics have over the show.”
“The comic’s aren’t laced with subliminal messages,” said Tommy.
Jared’s mouth opened as he tried to formulate a response but he gave up as the opening credits started. He turned back to the screen, pointedly ignoring the sniggers from the two boys.
Four green bubbles of energy floated above the console in the comm centre, contained inside each one was fluttering spark of white energy. Kai sat at the comm board with a dog eared and hand written journal on his lap, his face a mask of focused concentration as he muttered “kiryokuousei zaichuu no kouriki mewomukeru to houshutsu” repeatedly under his breath. When he mispronounced the final word in the phrase, the bubbles suddenly popped and the energy dissipated.
“Dammit dad, why Japanese, why couldn’t you have written your notes in a normal language like English?” Kai complained as he looked down at the book and tried to decode his father’s handwriting. He was about to try again when the comm-board started beeping alerting him to an incoming message.
“Bravo Foxtrot Echo, this is November Six Three Six incoming.”
“Er roger November Six Three Six, this is Bravo Foxtrot Echo receiving. Go ahead,” Kai responded into the headset.
“November Six Three Six on priority mission from Central Command Authority. Request bunker access and security lockdown. Authorisation code transmitting.”
As Kai checked the authorisation code against the most recent security, he comm’d Talbot. The request from November 636 was unusual and the invocation of Central Command Authority meant that something major was going down and that normally meant trouble.
“Authorisation code verified November Six Three Six, clear for access. Come on in, door’s open and the welcome mat’s out.”
By the time the transport craft had arrived in the hanger, Talbot was already waiting for them. As its doors opened and the occupants stepped out, Talbot breathed in sharply. “Christ, not him,” he thought to himself as he eyed the leader of the group. The leader was an African-American male, mid 30’s and around 2 meters in height. He had blue eyes and short cropped black hair and he was wearing green combat trousers, black boots and a light blue khaki shirt. The man was armed with a pistol in a holster strapped to his thigh. Behind him stood two men in dark grey combat armour carrying assault rifles. Apart from their different faces, there were identical in hair and posture.
Talbot folded his arms as they approached, there was a tense moment when the leader held out his hand which Talbot refused to shake. “Grabowski,” he began, “knowing you, this isn’t a social visit.”
“I wish I was here under better circumstances, “Grabowski said grimly, although his eyes twinkled with amusement, “but I’m afraid we have a serious situation.”
“This better be good.”
“Is your team assembled?”
“They’re in the briefing room, this way.”
“So Kai,” Sarah said as he entered the briefing room, “what’s going on?”
“Beat’s me. Some big shot from Central’s paying us a visit.” Kai sat down and Jared passed him a bowl of peanuts.
“Lucky us, the brass are gracing us with their presence,” Jared said sarcastically prompting laughter from the rest of the team. Toby’s and Tommy’s laughter was cut short when both boys grimaced in pain and began to rub the sides of their heads. Before anyone could say anything, the door opened and Talbot walked in leading the three men of November 636. When Tommy saw Grabowski, his eyes narrowed and his face hardened with his shoulders tensed. Grabowski merely smiled in return.
After being introduced, Grabowski began to address the team. “Over the last couple of months, a number of BetaForce operations and personnel have been compromised by a security leak. Myself and the rest of my team have been tasked with tracking down this leak and plugging it.” As he spoke, the two armed guards that had come with him surreptitiously disengaged the safety’s on their weapons. “We suspected that our communication encryptions had been broken or that someone was invading our computer systems so we set up a sting. We lulled the culprit into thinking that one of our cells, Kilo Cell, had been a little slack in the information security department.” The members of Echo Cell looked at each other slightly confused, each wondering just where this was going. Grabowski began to walk around the table as he continued, the two armed guards following discreetly behind. No one seemed to notice when they stopped behind Tommy. “When the hacker paid a visit we hoped to track him or her back to his terminal. Imagine our surprise when the tech’s told us that it wasn’t possible to trace the hacker as there didn’t seem to by any connection to an outside terminal during the invasion. Instead what we found was a curious electronic signature. One which is unique to one Thomas Preston.” As soon as Tommy’s name was mentioned, and before anyone could react, one of the guards slammed Tommy’s head on to the desk and started to cuff his hands behind his back. The other guard pointed his rifle at the back of the boy’s head.
11:30 March 12th, 2040
Somewhere in North Africa
As the boy came round the bend, the two men sitting on the boulder looked up. The boy was small, probably no more than seven years old, and dressed in dark grey shorts and a sleeveless black vest. A black peaked cap was also worn in a futile attempt to keep the burning north African sun off his neck which, like his arms, was already red raw with sunburn. Even through the heat-haze they could see the sweat pouring off him as he staggered forward trying to carry the oversized pack on his back.
Both men were dressed in light coloured, loose fitting clothing unlike the cadets they oversaw. They each carried a combat knife and sidearm as well as a police-style baton. The taller man looked at his watch. “He’s five minutes behind,” he said to his shorter companion in an English accent.
“We’ll have to do something about that.” His companion stated in a French accent as he sharpened his knife.
The boy glanced nervously at the two instructors without lifting his head as he trudged past them. He knew he was in trouble, the rest of the squad had left him behind and he’d lost sight of them a half a kilometre back. He had got about 5 meters beyond them when the Englishmen ordered him to halt.
“What’s you’re name cadet?”
“Er, Two-seventeen gamma. Sir.” He answered nervously, standing to attention despite the crushing ache in his back caused by the pack.
“217 Gamma, do you have any explanation as to why you have yet again fallen behind?” The Frenchman questioned as he came up behind the boy. The boy knew better than to answer such a question.
“Perhaps he’s just lazy,” the Englishman said conversationally, “look at that fat. He could do with loosing a few kilos.” He continued prodding the boy’s chest which was conspicuously lacking anything even close to puppy fat. “Note that down, meal privileges revoked for the day.” The boy silently groaned when he heard that, he hadn’t eaten for nearly two days now.
“There’s still another 5 klicks left on the run, do you think that you are going to make it if you continue in this fashion? … Well, answer boy.” The Frenchmen barked at him.
“If we let him continue, he’ll probably end up dead … He wouldn’t be our problem any more.” The Englishman said as he gulped down some water from a canteen.
“True,” the Frenchman began as he reached for the water, “it would bring the squads overall performance rating up.” He looked at the boy as if appraising a pack animal with a broken leg. “However you heard the techs. This boy is special and we should be careful that we don’t overwork him.” The Frenchman said, putting a mocking emphasis on the word special.
“I guess we can’t have him dying from exhaustion or heat-stroke then.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “We should take him back to base in the Jeep,” he said nodding at the vehicle parked behind the rocks.
“I could do with a beer,” the Frenchman agreed, “the boy looks like he could do with a drink.”
The Englishman held out the canteen to the boy, “Drop that pack and take a drink before you drop yourself.”
The boy paused, uncertain how to proceed. The Unity instructors were not known for any sort of compassion or kindness and he was sure that this was some sort of trick. However, disobeying an order always resulted in harsh punishment. He unbuckled the backpack and carefully reached out for the canteen. As his fingers neared it, the Englishman reached forwards and grabbed his wrist. “A thought occurs,” be began, “if we take you back to camp now, that would just be rewarding you for failing to complete the run.”
“He should be punished first.” The Frenchman agreed and the young could sense the the man’s anticipation in his voice.
The Englishman pushed him roughly down onto the dirt. “Hold him down will you.” He said as he pulled out his knife. The Frenchman grabbed his arms and forced back down on the ground. He pushed down with all his weight on the boys arms, immobilising them. The Englishmen knelt on the boy’s legs and between the two of them, he couldn’t move. “Now you’re file says that you have some limited regeneration,” he said holding the knife in front of the boy’s eyes, the sun glinting of the metal blade. “Even so, I can guarantee that this will hurt and it will teach you to not fall behind in the future.”
He brought the knife to just below the boy’s left eye and began to slowly cut across the face, crossing the bridge of the nose. White hot pain flooded his senses as the blade cut deep into the skin and flesh. His screams echoed across the vacant desert.
09:15 July 7th, 2049
Echo Cell Comm Centre, 200m Below Sector 23
Tommy woke with a start as someone shook his shoulder, almost falling off his chair. Kai stood beside him crunching on an apple with a concerned look on his face.
“Tommy man, you all right? You were nearly screaming in your sleep.”
“It was nothing,” Tommy muttered, “just a bad dream.” The nightmare was fresh enough in his mind that he could still feel the desert heat, the dirt under his back and the pain from that day nine years ago. His hand went to his face, fingers tracing across the scar that stretched across his face. Despite his regeneration, the wound had never properly healed and was still visible all these years later.
Kai pulled a chair over and sat next to him. “Seriously, you look exhausted. You’ve been on comm watch for over 12 hours, you need to take a break.”
“I would but no one else knows how to monitor the board properly.” Tommy shifted in his seat, rubbing his neck and yawning.
“We’ll manage, do I have to pull rank on you.”
Tommy looked at Kai’s stern look. For a few seconds neither of them said anything then Kai’s frown crumbled and Tommy laughed and pushed his chair back from the console. “Ok, I get the message. Anyway, technically we don’t have ranks but I do have seniority on you.”
“It’ll be a cold day in hell,” Kai called out as Tommy left the comm centre, “when I let some punk ass hacker outrank me.” Tommy’s tired laughter could be heard echoing in the corridor outside. He turned back to the comm console and eyed the Great Wall of Pepsi along the top of the monitors. “There’s enough caffeine and sugar here to fuel the Tank for a week, where does he put it all.” Carefully he placed the dozen or so cans in the recycling bin at the back of the room.
As Toby sat on his bed, fastening the laces on his shoes, Tommy walked in and flopped onto his bed on the other side of the room.
“Jeez,” Toby began yawning, “you been up all night?”
Tommy just yawned in response. He pulled off his top and kicked of his shoes and began to climb into bed. The younger boy got up and headed to the door, summoned by the smell of bacon and eggs wafting in from the common room outside. He turned and looked back at Tommy.
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask. Where’d you get that tattoo on your shoulder?”
Tommy looked up and pulled the sleeve of his t-shirt back down covering it. “Don’t remember,” he rolled over, his back to Toby and pulled the blanket around him. “Do me a favour will you? Turn off the lights on the way out.” Toby recognised a “drop the subject” when he heard it and left Tommy alone in the room. Tommy sighed and closed his eyes, dropping into a restless sleep.