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.
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.