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.
Ares leaned back on his chair, his face becoming serious. “I think it’s time we had a little talk.”
“Oh yeah?” said Cam, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “The last time we met, you told me that the reason why those wolfspawn had attacked and killed my friends was because of me. I was just twelve years old, I’d just seen my best friends brutally torn apart and I was still in shock. You dumped a crap load of blame on me, convincing me that it was my fault they were dead. Do you have any idea what that did to me?”
Folding his arms, Ares fixed his son with a hard and calculating look. “Wolfspawn are attracted to the divine essence given off by Scions and they’re used by the enemies of the Gods to track down and eliminate Scions who haven’t yet come into their powers. Those wolfspawn were hunting you, so what I said was true. If it wasn’t for you, those four people would still be alive today.”
Orin suddenly felt a shiver, causing him to back away from the table involuntarily. Waves of anger were flowing out of Cam, his father seemingly oblivious to them. The boy’s eyes positively burned with barely suppressed rage. The spirit had never seen his charge look like this. “That’s not what I’m talking about,” Cam said through gritted teeth. “You knew those things were in the area, you told me yourself back then that you’d been tracking them. But for some reason, you were just a little too late save my friends, a little too late to stop me from getting this,” Cam lifted up his hoody to show the scar across the chest, “but just in time to save my life by playing the big damn hero.”
“What are you saying?” Ares asked quietly.
“Cam…” Orin said carefully, worried about what the boy was going to say next.
“I’m saying that you could’ve stopped the wolfspawn if you wanted to but you didn’t. You wanted Andy, Ben, Toby and Mr Harris to die. You as good as killed them yourself. For all I know, you probably planned the whole thing!” By the end, Cam was on his feet yelling at Ares.
The god slammed his fist down on the table, the force of the blow reducing it to splinters. “Boy,” he roared, spittle flying from his mouth, “I could crush you like an insect. I am your father and you will treat me with respect or by Zeus, what I do to you will make Prometheus’s punishment look like a reward.”
“Just because you banged my mom fifteen years ago, don’t give the right to call yourself my father!” Cam yelled back. “I’ve known junkies that made better dead beat dads than you.”
“INSOLENT WHELP!” Ares jumped out of his seat and struck Cam across the face. The force of the god’s blow knocked the boy off his feet and sent him flying across the room. He crashed through the front window, landing in the car park and startling the gang members sitting on the bonnet of their car. They drew their guns, unsure of what was going on, but preparing for trouble all the same. Ares climbed through the window carrying his sword, the metal tip scraping across the concrete.
Cam lay dazed on the ground, blood dribbling from his mouth and missing a tooth. He opened his eyes to find his father standing over him, the features of his face distorted by a ferocious rage. “Dumbass,” he thought to himself, “you had to go and anger a war god didn’t you.”
At the broken window, Orin watched on, conflicted. Ares was his lord and master and he was honour bound to obey his orders and wishes. One of those orders was to stay with Cam and watch over him, protect the boy from harm. Now, Ares himself was threatening to harm Orin’s charge. If Orin did nothing, he would be disobeying an order to protect Cam. If he intervened, then he would be violating his oath to his master. The guardian spirit didn’t know what to do; then he remembered what Cam had said to him less than an hour earlier.
Ares raised his sword above his head, poised to strike at his son lying prone at his feet. “This is it,” Cam thought, his eyes closed and his arms shielding his face. The expected blow, however, never came. He opened his eyes to see Orin standing over his body, the wolf spirit’s fangs bared and growling at Ares. For a moment, no one moved. Then the expression on his father’s face softened. He lowered his sword and stepped back.
“Lord Ares,” one of the gang members said, “is everything okay?” The god waved his hand dismissively and the gang members stood down.
“Lord Ares? Since when did bangers talk like that?” A confused Cam asked, looking between Ares and what he had assumed were just simple gang members.
“Einherjar,” Ares said by way of explanation, an explanation that didn’t really explain anything as far as Cam was concerned. “A gift from my Norse counterpart. Wonderful warriors, loyal to a fault. Bit too fond of mead for my tastes but that’s Vikings for you.”
“They don’t look like Vikings,” Cam said glancing at the Hispanic-looking gang members.
“You don’t look Greek,” Ares replied with a raised eyebrow. Father and son watched other warily until Ares sighed and held out a hand. “It’s been a while since one of my children got me that mad, well done.”
“So,” Cam said cautiously before accepting the hand, “you’re not going to kill me then?”
“Heh, not today.” The god helped him to his feet and led the limping Cam back into the motel room. He sat him down on a chair as behind them the shattered window that Cam had been thrown through repaired itself. Orin padded over and sat at Cam’s side, keeping both eyes warily on the god. Ares sighed, “Let me have a look at that face.” He reached towards Cam, and just for a second, the boy flinched away before wincing in pain and finally allowing Ares to touch his face.
Cam sat in silence as “father” healed the wounds that he had inflicted and the tension between the two of them was palpable. Even though they were face to face, Cam refused to meet Ares eye to eye. It was Ares that finally broke the awkward quiet. “Do you really believe what you said before?”
Ares sat back and faced Cam, his expression unreadable. “You said that you believed I was responsible for the wolf spawn attack three years ago, that I had planned it.”
The boy settled back in the chair and sighed, suddenly very tired. “I don’t know, not any more anyway.” Cam yawned. “I don’t wanna get whacked in the face again, but was there something you wanted because I’m really tired.” His father reached over to the newly reconstructed table and grabbed a freshly chilled beer bottle, snapping the cap off on the side of the table. He offered a second bottle to his son. Cam shook his head. “It’s two AM, I gotta spend all day tomorrow finding a goblin market and I don’t fancy having to do it with another hangover.”
Ares roared with laughter. “With your constitution, you could drink an entire crate of these and not feel the effects!” The boy just folded his arms and fixed his father with a tired look. “Very well. There are things we should talk about; things I need to tell you but first, you hunted and killed a wolfspawn today didn’t you?” Cam nodded and the god allowed himself a brief smile. “Very good, you’ve certainly come a long way from that young boy I met three years ago.” There was just a hint of pride in his voice as he spoke but Cam was too tired to notice. “That wolfspawn you killed tonight, was it hunting you?”
“No,” Cam said after a moment’s thought, “Orin caught its scent a couple of nights ago not long after we arrived in town. It weren’t tracking me at that point; Orin has taught me to suppress my divine essence. I needed it to get my scent so I stopped suppressing it. After that, it was pretty easy to get him to come after me.”
“Not without incident I see,” Ares said gesturing to the bandage around his arm.
“Meh,” Cam said dismissively, “as I said to Orin earlier, I heal quickly and you know I’ve had worse. Plus I needed to look weak to lure it in.”
“Interesting strategy,” Ares glanced down at Orin and gave the wolf spirit a withering glare, displeased that he hadn’t put a stop to Cam’s reckless plan, “but anyway, the wolfspawn wasn’t tracking you, it was on the hunt for someone else.”
“You mean someone like me, another scion, except this one hasn’t learned to suppress its essence yet,” Cam said, remembering what Ares had said earlier.
“Bingo, as you kids say” Ares said snapping his fingers. Cam smirked, hiding his smile under the pretext of yawning. He’d never heard anyone his age say that, or anyone under the age of thirty for that matter. “Turns out this young Scion has ran into a spot of bother. I owe his father a favour so I said I’d get you to help.”
Cam sat up, this sounded serious. “Why me, and why can’t this guy’s dad help him out?”
“Fair question I suppose. There are rules about directly interfering in the lives of our children, ancient rules. I think Nezha is still doing the paperwork on the last time he ‘helped’ his son.” Cam laughed at the mention of paperwork. “I know, but Nezha is one of the Shen, an ancient Chinese pantheon. They don’t call them the ‘Celestial Bureaucracy’ for nothing. Anyway, he apparently doesn’t want to get in trouble again with his superiors. He mentioned something about having to spend time in the ‘hell for those who do not use block capitals on forms’ if he does. I swear, those Chinese have a hell for everything. Anyway, his kid’s in trouble and as much as he wants to help, his hands are tied. He sensed another Scion in the neighbourhood, you, and he called in a favour to get me to get you to help.” Ares’ eyes rolled in mock frustration. “Never play poker with a god of trickery.”
Sitting back in his chair again, Cam took a moment to think things over. He still didn’t see how this was problem and he wasn’t the type to snap to attention just because “daddy” said jump. Plus, things hadn’t exactly gone well the last time he had met another Scion. However, despite all that, was he okay with ignoring the fact that this kid needed help and that apparently he was the only person in the position to do something. Cam glanced down at Orin who had remained quiet throughout all of this. The wolf-spirit nodded; whatever Cam decided, Orin would back him. “So,” Cam said, his mind made up, “what sort of trouble is this kid in?”
Three Years Ago…
“Dylan, what on earth are you doing up in that tree?” The man said, looking up at the twelve-year-old boy sitting up in the tree’s branches, holding the map. Three other boys stood at the base of the tree, also looking up.
“I’m trying to see if I can find out where we are,” Dylan called back down.
“And you think you can do that in a tree, thirty feet above the ground?” The four boys were part of a seventh grade field trip from the nearby town of Altamont to Crater Lake National Park. Twenty five eleven to twelve-year-old kids spending a week camping and hiking in the woods; learning about geology, ecology and the natural world. Today was their last day and the children had been split into teams of four, driven to the other side of the park and given the challenge of finding their way back to camp using what they had learned over the week. To help them, they had been given a map and compass and in order to make sure they stayed out of trouble, an adult would accompany them with a radio and a GPS unit in case they needed to call for help.
“Don’t worry about DS Mr Harris,” one of the boys said, “he was like an eagle scout or something in a past life.” The three boys laughed.
“Laugh it up scuzz buckets,” Dylan said in mock indignation, “if it weren’t for Toby’s sucky map reading, we’d’ve been back at camp an hour ago.”
“Be that as it may, you better come down from there. You’ve already got a black eye from that fight the other day; I don’t want to have to explain to your parents when we get back how you broke your leg on a simple orienteering exercise as well.” The laughing stopped, and there was an awkward silence as Dylan reluctantly climbed down from the tree. “What?” Mr Harris asked, confused by the sudden change in the attitude from the four boys.
“DS ‘aint got no folks,” Toby said quietly to Mr Harris, “he’s an orphan.”
Mr Harris inhaled sharply. “Yikes, open mouth and insert foot.”
Dylan jumped down from the lower branches, wobbling slightly as he landed but remaining on his feet. “Christ Toby, you make it sound like I got a terminal disease for something.” He said rolling his eyes.
“Did ya see where we are?” Another boy, Andy, asked.
Dylan laid out the map on the ground. “We should be here, about five miles west of the Witch’s Tit.” His friends giggled at the name of the rocky formation as he pointed to it on the map. “Oh grow up. Anyway, we must’ve got totally lost because the mountains are on the wrong side, at least that’s what I think. The compass is playing up again.” He took the compass out from around his neck and showed it to his friends. The needle was spinning erratically, not settling on a specific direction for longer than a second. “I ‘aint got a clue where we are.”
The four boys looked over at Mr Harris expectantly. He knew what they wanted but he could only shrug. “Sorry guys, can’t help you there.” Taking the GPS out of his pocket, he switched it on and handed it to the boys. The screen was flickering, fritzing in and out before dying completely. “The radio’s dead too.” That little detail worried him; he had made a point of double-checking the batteries were fully charged and that both devices were working properly before setting out.
“So what now?” Dylan asked.
The Greek god of war sighed. “Just once, would it kill you to call me dad?”
Cam scowled and threw his backpack on to the bed. “Actually, yeah, I think it might.” Orin padded over to Ares and licked his outstretched hand. The god leaned down and scratched the wolf-spirit behind the ear.
“Hey there boy, you still taking care of the runt?”
“He can be handful sometimes m’lord,” Orin admitted whilst giving a Cam a glance letting the boy know he was just humouring the god, “but he shows promise.”
Ares laughed and looked over at Cam who was leaning against a wall, glaring at him with his arms crossed defensively in front of him. “Dylan, why don’t you sit down,” he said, gesturing to a chair across the table from him, “I brought pizza.” With a snap of his fingers, a pizza box appeared on the table. The logo on the box was of a pizza delivery restaurant that Cam used to visit back where he had lived before his life had turned upside down. Almost as soon as it appeared, the smell of pepperoni, shredded beef, extra cheese and barbeque sauce filled the room, all his son’s favourite pizza toppings.
Cam’s stomach rumbled and although and he was sorely tempted to give in and sit down. Instead, he just glared at Ares. “Dylan Smith died three years ago at Crater Lake, along with his friends. Don’t you watch the news on Olympus, or are you just too busy screwing with the lives of mortals.”
“Funny,” Ares said smiling, “because you’re the spitting image of young Dylan. Either you’re his twin or the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.”
Three years ago…
They had been walking through woods now for several hours. With the boys thoroughly lost, Harris had decided to take charge. Dylan and others had no problem with the experienced outdoorsman taking over; they were all getting tired and hungry. Harris had decided to take the group uphill, climbing the mountain trails up the extinct volcanic peak towards Crater Lake itself. Lake View Drive ran around the rim of the crater, once they found the road, they could use it to find the camp. It would be taking the long way around, but at least they would eventually find it.
Harris was starting to get worried. It was only six in the afternoon and it was already getting dark; sunset this time of year wasn’t for another two hours. They also should have reached the caldera rim hours ago but it didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. However, he didn’t let those worries show, trying to keep the boys spirits up.
He stopped to take a swig from his water bottle and noticed Dylan lagging behind the group, limping slightly. He waited for the boy to catch up. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” Dylan said, shrugging. “My ankle’s a little sore,” he added when he saw Harris’s questioning look.
“Are you okay to walk on it?” Harris asked looking down at Dylan’s feet. The boy was wearing beat-up trainers, definitely the wrong type of footwear for hiking. He mentally cursed the school that had organised the trip; they should have made sure that every child had a pair of strong hiking boots.
Dylan nodded, “I’ll be fine.”
The two of them started walking again, catching up with Toby, Andy and Ben. As they walked, Harris looked down at Dylan again and noticed the black eye he was sporting. “So,” he asked, “what were you and that boy ‘Spud’ fighting about the other day anyway.”
“He … er …” Dylan began uncertainly, “he said some stuff about my mom.”
“Ah,” he could understand how that could be a touchy subject and one that bullies would easily choose to exploit; children, after all, were amongst the cruellest creatures in creation.
“It shouldn’t bother me,” Dylan went on to say, “but I never knew my mom, she died when I was born and no one knew who my dad was. It’s bad enough at that school being an Applegate Kid, but when Spud found out about my mom, he starting saying that I killed her; that it was my fault mom died giving birth to me.”
Harris whistled. “I’m surprised you didn’t punch his lights out for saying that.”
Dylan grinned and looked up, pointing to his eye. “How do you think I got this?”
He knew how Dylan must feel, having lost his own parents as a boy himself. “So you live at the Applegate Care Home?” Harris asked after walking in silence for a few minutes, “Is Mrs Sanders still an old battleaxe?” Before Dylan could reply though, a howl echoed through the forest.
The group froze. “Was … was that a wolf?” Toby asked, the fear evident in his voice.
“There aren’t any wolves in Crater Lake,” Harris said, suddenly questioning everything he knew about the area’s wildlife. Another howl sounded in the night.
A strange look passed over Dylan’s face, his eyes glazing over for a second. “That’s no wolf,” he said quietly, almost inaudibly, “it’s too big to be a wolf.” In his mind, he could sense a presence in the woods, something large and evil. It was watching them, stalking them; and it was hungry. Dylan was rooted to the spot; the sense of the presence was overwhelming. He had never felt anything like this before, he couldn’t move, he could barely breathe.
“What are you…” Andy started to ask, turning to face Dylan. However, he stopped when he saw his friend’s terror-stricken face. In all the years he had known him, he had never seen Dylan show any fear. Andy supposed that his friend’s “tough guy” attitude was a consequence of growing up in a care home environment, always having to prove himself to tougher, older, more messed-up kids. Because of that, Dylan had always been the tough kid in their little circle; always eager to show how brave he was. He never backed down from a fight, getting himself suspended from school a number of times for fighting with Spud and his cronies. What could scare him so much that he was struck white with terror?
It didn’t take long for Andy’s question to be answered. With a flash of fur and claws, something leapt into the clearing. It was massive, much larger than a wolf but it moved too fast for anyone to get a good look at it. The wolfspawn charged into Harris, dragging the man into the bushes on the other side of the clearing as the four boys watched in horror. There was a scream, quickly choked off to a gurgled cry, then the sound of flesh and born being torn. It was silent for several long seconds and then, one by one, four sets of red eyes slowly appeared in the darkness around them.
“Mr … Mr Harris?” Ben asked meekly.
An object the size of a soccer ball rolled into the clearing, bouncing along the uneven ground before coming to a stop at Dylan’s feet; it was the severed head of Mr Harris. The four boys screamed in terror and this seemed to be a signal for the wolfspawn, who charged into the clearing.
Ben was the first die, the spawn tearing out his throat. Screaming in terror, Andy made a break for the trees. Two of the spawn gave chase. One of them jumped on Andy’s back, driving him to the ground, while the other sank its teeth into his arm. “Help me,” he screamed, his eyes screwed shut in pain. The wolfspawn locked its jaws and pulled, ripping Andy’s arm from its socket. Andy shrieked, long and loud, and the other spawn bent down and tore off the remaining arm. Piece by piece, they tore him apart and somewhere between his left and right legs, the boy stopped his struggles and became still.
“Don’t just stand there Dylan!” Toby yelled as he picked up a stout branch. However, Dylan was frozen in terror, a wet patch spreading from his groin and could only watch as his friends fought for their lives and were torn apart in front of him. A wolfspawn, Harris’s blood dripping from its jaws leapt at Toby. The boy got a lucky swing in, the branch connecting with the side of the wolfspawn’s head with a crunch. If he thought that would save him, he was sorely mistaken. The other three wolfspawn converged on him, making short work of the young boy.
The first wolfspawn began slowly walking towards Dylan, growling and baring its fangs. “Run little scion, it’s not a hunt without chase.” Hearing the creature speak was too much and Dylan turned and fled, running into the woods.
Stumbling in the undergrowth, which seemed to conspire against him, Dylan ran in pure panic. His clothes became torn and his skin scratched and bloodied by branches and thorns. The wolfspawn were never far behind him, darting to forward to strike at him with fang and claw only to miss by a matter of inches. Dylan knew that they could easily catch up with him if they wanted too. They were herding him, toying with him, taunting him. Eventually, after what seemed like hours, Dylan was nearing complete exhaustion and could barely take another step.
That was the moment the wolfspawn decided to end their game. The pack leader charged into Dylan, sending him sprawling to the floor. He scrambled to his feet just as another wolfspawn slashed at his chest. Dylan fell back against a tree, screaming in pain. He looked down, the front of his hoody and t-short and been ripped open and three tears in his flesh across his chest and belly were gushing blood.
The wolfspawn began to close in for the kill and as his blood drained out of him, Dylan could only lie there and wait for the end to come, either from the claws of the wolfspawn or the horrific injury to his chest.
However, just as the wolfspawn were poised to strike, fate intervened. The spectral form of a wolf leapt through the tree that Dylan was leaning against, passing through it like a ghost, and tackled the lead wolfspawn. Just as he finally passed out from the blood loss, a man stepped into the clearing; dual-wielding a sawn-off shotgun in one hand and a two-meter long sword, he laid into the wolfspawn, hacking and blasting at them.
The pair made short work of the wolfspawn. Once they were all dead, Ares stood over the unconscious boy. “Humph,” he grunted as he bent down to inspect the wound, “I would’ve thought he would’ve put up more of a fight than that.” The wound was deep; even if by some miracle he lived long enough to get to hospital, it would prove fatal. Thankfully, being a god had its perks; one of which was not having to rely on mortal medicine. He picked the boy up, throwing him over his shoulder. “Come on Orin, we should leave while the veil is still shielding this area from mortal eyes.”
Yawning, Cam gave in and walked over to the table. He reluctantly took one of the slices of pizza and crammed it hungrily into his mouth. “It’s one in morning, I’m starving, exhausted, and I’m not in the mood for this shit,” he said through a mouthful of pizza, “what are you doing here?”
Ares leaned back on his chair, his face becoming serious. “I think it’s time we had a little talk.”
Sarah Tanner looked up as the front door opened and her son walked in. “There you are Deegan, dinners almost ready.”
“Yeah, sorry I’m late mum,” the boy said, closing the front door, “lost track of time. Is dad home yet?”
“He’ll be back in a minute,” she said turning back to the stove, “so go get washed up and then come down and set the table.”
The house where he and his parents lived was small and in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of the city. It wasn’t much but it was cosy and after moving around so much when he was younger, it was nice to have a place that was starting to feel like home. Deegan picked up his skyboard and started climbing the ladder into the attic. When they had first moved in, his parents had told him that he was too old to share a room with them anymore. At first, he hadn’t understood where he was supposed to sleep. Apart from the cellar and the attic, there was only the main room, a single bedroom and the pantry, all on the ground floor. Deegan was told that from now on he would be sleeping in the attic. That would be his room, his own personal space.
It had taken a bit of work, but between him and his father, they had managed to make it liveable if not comfortable. A small bed was pushed up against one side underneath the skylight. When he had first seen the window in the roof, his doubts about the attic were banished. The window let in a great deal of light and gave him a great view of the sky. Sleeping under the clouds and the stars, even if it was through a pane of glass, was oddly comforting to him. In the centre of the attic was a worktable covered in junk and tools. He cleared some space on the table and put his skyboard down; after using the boost earlier, he’d need to recharge its power crystals. From the ceiling hung a model of a dragon with a working, articulated skeleton. When the window was open and the breeze blew in, the wings gently flapped as if it was flying. Ever since he was young, Deegan had been fascinated by dragons and together, he and his father had built the model when he was eight. He reached under the worktable and pulled out a small chest. Inside, hidden underneath his clothes, were several tightly folded flags, all of them slightly ripped along one side where they had been torn from their masts. There were flags representing the Succession States, the city-state of Galatea, the Arcadian Commonwealth, the Sundered Kingdoms, even the Sky Marshalls. All of them stolen from a ship. Now he could add an Imperial flag to his collection. He took the stolen flag out from underneath his shirt where he had stowed it and hid it with the rest; he couldn’t wait to show it to the guys tomorrow.
Deegan closed the chest and pushed it back under the worktable. Remembering his mother’s words, he quickly washed his hands and face in the washbowl before heading back downstairs. By now, his father was home, sitting at the table and taking off his boots and the smell of the cooking was filling the room.
Robert Tanner worked at the city’s docks, operating a pilot skiff and helping larger ships into port. Deegan himself also worked at the docks three days a week when he wasn’t at school as a message courier. His father wasn’t happy with him working at the docks; Robert didn’t think it was safe for a boy his age even if they did need the extra money. “Watch out for pressgangs,” he had warned his son on more than one occasion, “Some ships don’t ask before recruiting new crewmembers.” Deegan wasn’t worried though, he had been thinking about joining the crew of a merchant ship for a while now; they were always on the lookout for new cabin boys and rope monkeys. Of course, there was no way his overprotective father would ever let him crew a ship. If he found the recruitment pamphlet for the Sky Marshals he had hidden under his bed, he’d probably throw a fit.
“How was work today? Anything interesting happen?” Robert asked while Deegan began laying out the cutlery and placemats.
“Same as usual dad,” Deegan replied, “ferrying messages and packages across town for sleaze ball captains too lazy or too smart to do it themselves”
“You remember what I told you?” His father asked him as Deegan sat down at the table.
“Never look inside a package or at the contents of a letter,” Deegan said, reciting his father’s words from memory, “in case the guards stop and search you.”
“And why is that?”
“Because if you don’t know you’re carrying something illegal then…” said Deegan.
“…you’re just an innocent delivery boy,” he and his father said together.
“That’s my boy.” Robert said, reaching across the table to ruffle his son’s hair in approval. Sarah walked over carrying the food and setting the stew pot down with some force, she didn’t exactly approve of the lesson her husband was teaching to their son. The conversation moved on to safer topics as dinner progressed.
“Oh hey,” Deegan said at one point, “I saw an Imperial ship coming into port on the way home.”
“Are you sure?” Robert asked. “Artaxis is pretty far from Eldala.”
“Pretty sure,” Deegan said smiling inwardly as he thought about the flag hidden upstairs, “big one too; Dragoon-class I think given the number of crystals, the lack of sails and the size of its big guns.” He decided not to mention that he had got close enough to see that there had been a Vigilant on board; that was an argument he could do without.
“I wish you would put as much effort into your schoolwork as you do watching ships and messing around with that board of yours.” His mother said as she refilled his bowl.
The rest of the evening went quietly. After tweaking the levitation crystals on his board, Deegan decided to have an early night; he had work tomorrow morning. That night, like almost every night before, he again dreamt of flying, of soaring through the clouds.
“Tanner,” the man behind the desk called out over the noise of the room, “you’re up.”
Deegan looked up from the card game. “Coming boss.” He turned back to the table, gulped down the last of his drink, and picked up his winnings. “Gotta go guys,” he said to the four other boys around the table, all of them message runners like him, “catch you later.” Deegan grabbed his board and backpack and trotted over to the desk. “What’s the job boss?”
“Merchant ship out of the Sundered Kingdoms, up by mooring post three,” his boss said shoving a piece of paper into his hand. “Basic courier run, you know the drill Tanner.”
“Gotcha boss, mooring post three.” He pulled on his goggles and headed out the door, making sure that his red armbands were showing. The left one had “Artaxis Port Authority” written on it in black paint, the right had “#46” written on the other. Together, they marked him as a message runner working for the city.
The weather was exceptionally fine with clear visibility and Deegan could see for miles as he stepped on to the balcony of the Port Authority building. In the distance, he could see a number floating platforms that had several ships moored to them. The mooring posts were made of the same rock as the island and drifted in the sky relative to it. Ships that didn’t want to dock with island directly could moor up at the platform; it wasn’t as convenient as docking with the island but it was considerably cheaper. Tying his bandana over his face and making sure that his backpack was securely fastened, he jumped off the balcony and took to the air.
Deegan carefully weaved his way through the crowded airspace above the port, heading for the mooring posts a few miles out. There were ships of almost every design and nationality in the skies around the port. Artaxis was a major trading hub as its neutrality made it a natural junction of several major trading routes. As he flew, he heard a familiar voice call out his name and he slowed down, turning to face the direction the voice had come from. It was his father, standing at the controls of a pilot skiff guiding a large water tanker in to dock. “Keeping you busy are they son?”
“You know it pops,” Deegan said pulling up alongside the skiff.
“Well, work hard and stay safe and maybe we’ll grab a drink in the pub after work,” Robert said leaning on the wheel. “Just don’t tell your mother,” he added, winking conspiratorially.
Deegan waved and continued on his way. As he approached mooring post three, he saw the ship that had signalled for a courier. The ship may have been flying the flag of the Sundered kingdoms, but Deegan doubted that it was nothing but a flag of convenience. Its hull was marred by repair patches and battle damage but at the same time its levitation crystals were in good repair and were ridiculously overpowered for a ship of its size. When he got close, the demeanour and general appearance of the ship’s crew screamed “pirate” to Deegan. With a sinking feeling, he realised that this job was probably going to involve him carrying something illegal. “Looks like it’s time to play the dumb kid again,” Deegan thought to himself as he approached the ship, stopping short of actually landing on the ship’s deck.
“Clear off kid,” one of the heavily armed crewmen yelled at him, “if you know what’s good for you.”
Deegan pushed up his goggles and pulled down his bandana. “Port Authority sent me,” he said to the crewman, “you called for a message runner?”
The crewman grunted. “Hmph, you’ll want to see the captain then.” He motioned for Deegan to land and the boy hopped off his skyboard next to the crewman. “Follow me,” the man said to him, “but don’t touch nothing.”
Deegan was led below deck towards the captain’s cabin at the rear of the ship. As they walked, they passed several crewmembers. They gave the boy glaring glances and suspicious looks, reminding Deegan of his father’s warning regarding certain recruiting practices. “Just try it,” he muttered under his breath, checking that he had his knife tucked into the back of his pants and hidden under his shirt, “I aint gonna get grabbed so easily.”
“Cap,” the crewman said as they entered the rear cabin, “runner’s here for the package.”
Deegan glanced around the cabin before finally looking at the man in front of him. The cabin was rather plainly attired, especially for what he assumed was a ship full of sky pirates. For a start, there were no chests overflowing with gold and jewels, no fine silks and fabrics. The captain himself was wearing rough and hardwearing clothes like the rest of his crew, although his were considerably cleaner.
“You’re the message courier?” The captain asked, his tone making it quite clear that he wasn’t exactly impressed by the boy standing before him. “You’re younger than I expected.”
“Are you sure we should be trusting the package to a kid?” The crewman asked. As he did so, something inside Deegan snapped and he forgot about pretending to be w more than a naive dumb kid.
“Aren’t you a little young,” Deegan said, his voice adopting a fake whining tone, “a little small? How can we trust a kid, how can a mere boy protect our oh so valuable package.” He crossed his arms and raised a defiant eyebrow. “Can it, I’ve heard it all before. Now, you got a package or a message for me to deliver or are we gonna just stand around here and comment on my age and height.”
The captain smiled. “No one said anything about your height. Looks like you have a real complex there, … shorty.” Deegan just grunted and gritted his teeth. “Very well then, let’s get down to business.” He walked over to his desk, unlocked one of the drawers and pulled out something wrapped in cloth and tied with twine. “Okay … erm … “
“Okay Deegan,” the captain said, handing the package and a piece of paper over to the boy, “this needs to be handed over to man waiting at that address. Now, I’m sure that a scrappy young man like you will be able to get it there quickly. But, can we trust you to protect it if you run in to any trouble?”
Deegan took the package and carefully placed it at the bottom of his backpack. “Since it’s illegal to hire a port authority message runner to carry any form of contraband,” he said smiling slyly, “or anything with a value greater than 50 gold pieces, what sort of trouble are we talking about?”
The captain chuckled. “Well, nothing you can’t handle I’m sure. So what do I owe you.”
“Standard rate is 2 coppers per mile. Black Street is on the other side of town, about four miles, so call it eight coppers.” The truth was that Black Street was only three miles away. Deegan, like all the other runners, routinely added a mile to the distance if they thought they could get away with it. Runners only earned a single copper per run, by adding an extra mile and pocketing the extra money, they tripled the money they took home.
The captain reached into his pocket and started counting out the coins. “Here you go; eight copper pieces.” He said handing Deegan the coins. “And here’s two extra for your trouble; I remember how lousy the wages were when I was your age.”
“Gee thanks,” Deegan said, reaching out to take the extra coppers. Before he could take them though, the captain’s hand closed tightly around his when he tried to pick up the coins.
“One thing,” the captain said, “you won’t be sneaking a peek at the package now will you?”
Deegan smirked. “Like I get paid enough to be curious.”
The captain released Deegan’s hand, allowing him to take and pocket the coins. “Good, now scat. I’ve got work to do.” Dismissed, Deegan was led up on to deck, took one last look around the ship and took off on his skyboard.
On the dockside, the Vigilant watched Deegan set off towards the city. “So this is where you’ve been hiding Arashi,” he muttered, “this time you won’t escape.”
A lone boy sat on a rocky ledge looking out at the sky. His feet dangled over the edge with the ground, a mile below, hidden by the dense cloud cover. The sun was approaching the horizon and the waning light of the day painted the clouds black and orange, in the setting sun they looked like rolling flames and smoke.
Leaning back and letting out a deep contented sigh, the boy closed his green eyes and let the warm breeze blow through his dark-red hair, which stuck out haphazardly from underneath his bandana. From here, a couple of hundred feet below the top of the floating island, he couldn’t hear the sounds of the bustling port city up above. Here, it was quiet and peaceful and for a short time, he could forget about the stresses of school and family.
A shadow passed over him as a skyship approached the docks and the boy opened his eyes to watch it. It was 75 feet from bow to stern, single-sailed with dual-levitation crystals, probably a courier or trader from the Succession States or Galatea. The ship wasn’t alone, there were at least half a dozen other skyships in the skies around the island, either arriving or departing. In the distance, he could just make out the silhouette of two more islands drifting serenely amongst the clouds.
Propped up against the cliff wall next to him was his skyboard. A smooth wooden board five feet long and one wide; its surface was painted a dark blue, almost black. Leather straps on the top were used to secure the riders feet to the board and along the sides were a series of levitation crystals mounted in metal brackets embedded into the wood of the board, three on each side. The board had a homemade look about it, its edges were rough and the paintwork chipped in places.
He spent several more minutes watching the sunset and enjoying the feel of the breeze before deciding it was time. Getting to his feet, the boy put on a pair of goggles, tightening the leather strip around the back of his head and positioning the thick glass lenses over his eyes. He untied the bandana and retied it over his face across his nose and mouth; wouldn’t want to swallow a bug now. The boy picked up his skyboard and placed it against his back as if sheathing a sword in a back-scabbard. The leather foot straps undid themselves without his help and fastened around loops on the back of his shirt, securing the board to his back like a rucksack. The boy took one last look around and launched himself into the sky.
The wind whipped at his hair and tore at his clothing as he fell, plummeting towards the clouds below. Behind the bandana, he was grinning. He felt alive, truly alive and free. Out here there was no one telling him what to do, what to say, what to think. There were no teachers trying to cram useless information into his head and no parents reminding him to do his chores. It was only him, the sky, and the rapidly approaching ground.
The boy reached behind him and pulled his skyboard loose, bringing it to his feet. The magic in the straps caused them to loop around his boots, pulling them down on to the board and securing them in place. As soon as the soles of his open-toed boots touched the skyboard, its levitation crystals flared into life. Brilliant blue energy lit up the crystals from within, creating a blue contrail of light as the skyboard accelerated in its dive.
Below him, the boy saw a large skyship rising up from the cloud layer. It was a massive ship, metal hulled with four huge levitation crystals. From up here, he could make out the cannon ports lining its side and the armoured men walking its decks. The ship was a warship from the Eldalan Empire far to the south and as he realised this, his grin changed to a mischievous smirk. The Imperial Navy was touchy about civilians getting close to their ships, especially foreigners. They had a nasty habit of firing on ships that got too close. Still, he thought, they wouldn’t shoot at a fourteen-year-old boy, would they?
Leaning forward, he swooped down towards the warship, flying along its portside. He left behind a glowing corkscrew-shaped contrail from stern to bow as he spiralled along the length of the ship. Men looked up from their work as the boy streaked past. A number of the soldiers pointed weapons at him threateningly, yelling at him to stay clear. Of course, he didn’t listen, assuming that the threats were idle. There was still one thing he wanted to do.
Looping back around, he flew straight for the rear of the ship, weaving between the massive forward guns. At the last second, he darted upwards and over the bridge, reaching out the grab the Imperial Flag flying proudly over the ship. The fabric easily tore in his grip and he whooped in triumph as he escaped with the flag. His whoop quickly became a yelp as a sickly-green bolt of magic ripped through the air just inches from his head. So much for not shooting at a kid! Glancing behind him, the boy saw a man standing on the deck pointing at him with an outstretched hand. Although he was dressed in average-looking tunic and pants, even from this distance the boy could make out the arcane runes tattooed onto his skin poking out from under the man’s clothing; runes that had started to glow again as the man gathered mana for another shot. The man was a Vigilant; Vigilants were bad news. They acted as if they were above the law, and although that was only true inside Eldala, it didn’t stop them from running roughshod over local laws in pursuit of their duties; protecting the Empire of Eldala from enemies both foreign and domestic using any methods they deemed necessary.
Hanging on to the stolen flag, the boy gritted his teeth and sent a mental command to his board. The levitation crystals flared brightly as magical energy began to surge them at a vastly increased rate and the board rocketed upwards, the sudden increase in speed accompanied by a sonic boom. Within seconds, he was hidden in the clouds. The Vigilant watched him escape through narrowed eyes before turning to the other men on deck and shouting orders.
The boy suddenly realised what he had just done and couldn’t help but laugh nervously. He had buzzed an imperial skyship, stolen their flag and angered a very powerful and very dangerous man. Although he had gotten away, he could have been killed. If that had happened, his father would’ve been angry, so angry in fact the old man would probably have killed himself just to give his son a good hiding in the afterlife.
Still grinning and clutching his prize, he swung the board around he began to head back to the island. It was getting late and dinner would be ready soon.
With glowing red eyes, the wolfspawn slowly stalked down the darkened corridor, sniffing at the air. “Come out little boy, I know you’re in here. I can smell you.” The creature’s gravelly voice echoed through the abandoned apartment building, it’s six-foot form nearly filling the width of the rubbish-filled corridor. Suddenly his quarry, a teenage boy in ragged clothes, burst out of one the rooms and began running down the corridor. He was clutching his arm, blood trickling from between his fingers. Baring its fangs in a smile, the wolfspawn began running after him, its paws pounding on the floor; the hunt was on.
The boy darted down the corridor, leaping over obstacles and gaps in the floor. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that the wolfspawn was rapidly gaining ground. He appeared to change his mind, instead of continuing to run towards the stairwell, he jumped through a hole in the plasterboard walls into one of the apartments. The wolfspawn followed, making a hole of its own as it ran straight through the thin walls in pursuit of the boy. The boy scrambled across the floor, shielding his eyes from the flying wall fragments. “Why can’t you just leave me alone?” He yelled desperately.
The wolfspawn didn’t answer and instead paced back and forth in front of the boy, savouring the smell of his blood. Without warning, it launched itself at the boy, its fangs bared and ready to strike. However, the boy quickly rolled out of the way, ducking under the wolfspawn and evading its jaws by a matter of inches. As the wolfspawn landed on the floor, the boy jumped to his feet and ran towards the boarded up windows. He brought both his arms up and leapt through the window, splintering the wooden planks. Sailing out the window, he plummeted towards the alleyway five stories below. The boy reached out and grabbed a telephone cable strung between the apartment building and its nearby neighbour. He grunted in pain as it arrested his fall but the strength of the cable wasn’t strong enough to take his weight and it snapped. Still holding onto it, the boy was swung down against the neighbouring building, slamming into the wall. The impact was hard, and try as he might he couldn’t stifle the yell of pain as he hit his injured arm. Watching from the window, the wolfspawn snarled as the boy let go of the cable, kicked off the wall, and somersaulted through the air before landing crouched on the floor. “You can run boy,” the wolfspawn called out, “but you can’t hide. I can smell your blood from a hundred miles away.” They locked eyes for several seconds, the boy panting heavily.
“I’ve gotten pretty good at running the last couple of years,” he yelled back before bolting down the alley.
Running into the deserted street, the boy jumped onto the bonnet of an abandoned car and used it as a launching point to leap clear over a chain link fence topped with razor wire. Landing on his feet, he quickly disappeared into the darkness of the junk yard beyond.
The wolfspawn howled in delight; this quarry was proving to be a little more elusive than he had first suspected. This was going to be fun. As the last echoes of the howl were lost to the wind, the wolfspawn leapt out of the window, bouncing from wall to wall on its way down to the ground. It ran across the road and used the same trick as the boy, using the abandoned car to leap over the fence. The immense weight of the wolfspawn crushed the car, causing the still unbroken side windows to explode outwards. It failed to clear the fence but the flimsy steel wire was no obstacle to the wolfspawn as it tore through it, buckling the fence as it chased the boy into the junk yard.
The air in the junk yard was a jumble of smells, oil, petrol and diesel, rusting metal, decaying rubber, decomposing body parts. From the smells, the wolfspawn knew that somebody had been busy in this yard, and not just in the scrap metal business. However, the many overlapping smells obscured the boy’s scent; he’d have to track the boy the old-fashioned way, by following his footprints.
Slowly, it began to creep between the mounds of scrap metal, keeping an eye on the piles of rusting cars. Any of them would make a good hiding place for the boy. A clatter of metal on metal echoed through the night, the sound bouncing around the junk yard like pulses of sonar. The wolfspawn could almost see the waves of sound as they swept past, tracking them back to their source and locking on to the boy’s location. It bounded up a pile of scrap, sliding down the far side into a cul-de-sac formed by three overflowing piles of scrap. As it landed, a miniature avalanche of scrap caused by its slide blocked the exit behind it and it looked over at the terrified boy, grinning a fang-filled smile.
The boy looked around, desperately searching for an exit and the wolfspawn watched as a look of terror passed over the boy’s face when he realised that he was trapped. He backed up against the pile of scrap behind him, trying to get as far away from the wolfspawn as possible. “Little boy, scared and all alone in the night,” the wolfspawn taunted as the boy nervously fiddled with an amulet around his neck, “got any last words before I feast on your heart?”
Taking down his hood, the boy looked up at the wolfspawn, smirking slightly. He grasped the amulet firmly, a wolf talon on an old leather string, the fear in his blue eyes gone and replaced by a mischievous twinkle. “Who said I was alone?” There was a burst of white light and a spectral form erupted from the talon, landing in front of the boy. The spectral form coalesced into that of a wolf, smaller than the wolfspawn, but no less impressive, it’s white and brown fur a stark contrast to the wolfspawn’s blood spattered grey. “Say hello to partner, Orin,” the boy said cracking his knuckles. A tattoo in the shape of a twisted four-pointed star on his right shoulder briefly glowed, its blue light shining faintly through the material of his hooded top. The light spread down the veins of his right arm before racing over the rest of his body, fading moments later. “You’ve hunted scions for the last time, spawn breath.”
Snarling, the wolfspawn charged at the pair, he wasn’t going to let some whelp and his mutt get the better of him. It was time to end this game.
“How’s the arm Cam?” Orin asked, walking over to the boy as he sat on a pile of tyres with a small backpack at his feet.
“Meh, I heal quickly enough.” Cam took off his hooded top and inspected the gash on his arm. It had been hurt when he had allowed the wolfspawn to slash him with its claws whilst it chased him. He had done this in an attempt to appear weak and helpless. It had been a calculated ploy, luring the wolfspawn into the ambush; one that Orin had not accepted without argument. Cam could tell that his friend and guardian was still a little mad at him for not listening. The gash wasn’t deep and it was still bleeding. He reached into the bag and pulled a strip of “clean” cloth that he used as a makeshift bandage, wrapping it around the wound. A little bit of blood soaked through but the material stopped the bleeding. The gash would probably leave a scar, but it wouldn’t be his first; he had a few already. With his top off, the scar he had received from a wolfspawn three years ago was clearly visible, slashing across his belly and left side. It was the first time he’d seen a monster and it was a night he’d like to forget, if only the nightmares would let him.
Satisfied that his arm was okay for the moment, he put his top back on, hopped off the tyres and walked over to the corpse of the wolfspawn. The beast hadn’t taken long to defeat, little more than five minutes. Between the two of them, they had managed to do it without sustaining any injuries more serious than a few grazes and bruises.
Taking out a small knife tucked into his sock, he reached down and cut off the long central talon from each of the wolfspawn’s claws. The creature’s eyes had also solidified in its death becoming red crystals. “These should be worth a bit on the market,” Cam said digging them out with the knife, “this city does have a goblin market, right?”
“As far as I know.”
There was a squelching sound from the corpse and it started to sag. It had only been dead for a couple of minutes but it was already starting to dissolve into a black, oil-like ichor. In a matter of seconds, there was nothing left of the wolfspawn except a pool of ichor. Cam knew that too would soon disappear, evaporating in the dawn sun. “Let’s get out of here Orin, I’m beat,” he said, putting the talons and eyes into the backpack.
What a sight they must make, Cam thought as they walked down the street. A scruffy homeless kid with dirty and ripped clothes, a blood soaked makeshift bandage around his upper arm visible through the torn sleeve of his stop, a scar on his face, and a large wolf-like dog following him like a loyal pet. Lucky for them it was past midnight and there was no one around to see them, at least no one who cared that is.
“You need to be more careful,” Orin said cautiously, coming up alongside him.
“What do you mean?” Cam asked innocently, knowing full well what Orin was going to say.
“Using yourself as bait like that, it’s reckless and stupid.” The wolf hopped in front of Cam, forcing him to stop. “The last time you faced a wolfspawn you were almost killed! This time you got lucky.”
“Last time,” Cam snapped, “there were four of them and I was just a kid.”
“You’re still a child Cam, and the only reason you survived before is that your father saved your life.”
“I’m not a kid anymore, I’m fifteen. And I asked you never to talk about that man!” Cam was almost yelling; his face flushed red with anger. He pushed past Orin and continued walking briskly down the street; his shoulders and back tensed.
Orin walked behind him for several minutes before Cam broke the awkward silence. “Sorry for yelling at you like that. You’re my oldest friend Orin; I know you’re only looking out for me.”
“You know, if you had been born in Ancient Greece, you would be considered a man by now,” Orin said, “and you would have been trained from birth in how to use your abilities.”
“Yeah,” Cam said smiling, “but the nearest I’ve been to Ancient Greece is Athens in Ohio. I guess I’ll just have to make do with what I learned in Ms McKenna’s seventh grade history lessons and watching way too many Jackie Chan movies as a kid.”
Orin laughed, which was a disturbing sight to those not used to the large wolf spirit. “I suppose that would explain your terrible form and lack of technique.”
“Did you just insult the fists?” Cam asked in mock indignation. “You do not insult the fists.”
Eventually, after nearly an hour of walking, they arrived at a sleazy motel. The sort of motel frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers and didn’t think twice about renting a room to an unaccompanied fifteen-year-old boy who paid in cash. He was sure the manager thought that he was some runaway kid or gang member and if wasn’t already involved in business of its two main group of clients, he soon would be. It was a dangerous place to stay, marginally safer than sleeping on the street, but only just. On his first night, he’d been accosted by a junkie attempting to steal what little money he had, probably trying to get his next fix. All that the man got of it though was a broken nose and a few bruises. Not long afterwards, he had been approached been a group of men decked out in bling and carrying poorly concealed handguns; their get up screamed gang members. They’d offered him a job, saying they could use a “scrappy little punk” like him. Cam had refused, politely but firmly; there was no way he was going to get involved with the drugs trade; or the sex trade for that matter, they had been disturbingly vague on what they wanted him for. He hoped they had gotten the message; he didn’t want any trouble from them.
With Orin close behind, Cam walked across the parking lot towards their room. The lot wasn’t deserted, even at this time of night; two men sat on the bonnet of a car, watching Cam closely. He kept his head down, watching the two men out of the corner of his eye. They were probably just lookouts for the gang that used the motel as a drug den and whorehouse, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Cam had been on the run for three years, hunted and tracked by monsters and individuals who wanted to kill him for what he was or wanted to use him for that same reason. He hadn’t survived this long by being complacent.
Cam didn’t relax until he was safely in his room; the door closed and jammed shut with a baseball bat. “I’m telling you Orin, if it weren’t for the fact that this is the only place we can stay without attracting too much attention, I’d seriously consider finding somewhere else.”
“Pity,” a voice said from the darkness, “this place has character.”
Cam span round, slapping the light switch and dropping into a combat crouch. Why hadn’t Orin detected someone was in the room? His heart was pounding, adrenaline coursing through his system. Then, he saw who the intruder was.
Sitting in a chair, with a bottle of beer in his hand, was a gruff middle-aged man in a leather jacket. Leaning against a wall shotgun and massive sword, its blade at least two meters hilt to tip. Cam stood up and fixed the man with a smouldering glare. “Ares, what the hell do you want?”
The Greek god of war sighed. “Just once, would it kill you to call me dad?”
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?”
Me and Cody played well in to the evening. Mostly on Zombie Ninja Storm 2. Personally I’ve always preferred the first one, better story line, but Cody said the second had a better multiplayer mode. Eventually, he had to go. Dinner with his mom and dad; I was left alone in my room again with the astronaut food stuff which I couldn’t eat. I didn’t have to wait long though for my next visitor because the airlock opened soon after Cody left. I was expecting it to be the doctor coming in for another blood sample since I hadn’t seen him since just before lunch; I reckoned I was overdue for another nanobot count. But it wasn’t the doctor, it was dad.
I’d never been so happy to see him in my life and I threw myself across the room into his arms. It took me a while to realise that he wasn’t wearing a suit, we held each other for several minutes. I hate to admit it, but I cried, I think we both did. Dad told me that I was going to be alright, that it was safe for me to leave now since they knew the nanobots weren’t going to infect anyone else. I think that’s when I first realised just how scared everyone must’ve been. They must’ve been worried that I was going to unleash some terrible nanotech plague on the world or something. Part of me wondered what would have happened if there had been a danger. Would I have ever got out of that room? I think we’ve all seen the movies where there’s some dangerous virus about to wipe out all human life, and what the government tends to do those situations. Another part of me wondered if I would even have been allowed to live. But I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind, no way was I gonna let myself worry about that stuff now.
Dad had brought me some clothes he’d had brought up from the house. I was glad to get out of that hospital issued set of PJs and into something more human. Looking like a regular thirteen-year-old kid again and not some patient with a terminal illness, we left the medical centre. Walking down the corridors I got my first look outside. It was night time and there was full moon. We were over the ocean, hovering about a couple of thousand feet above the water. On the horizon I could see the lights of a city. I didn’t need dad to tell me it was Key West, our home town. I thought about making some joke about being able to see our house from here, but I couldn’t. It was just starting to hit me; I was on board Sentinel, the pride of the United Nations Overwatch. I’d seen pictures of it; watched documentaries and even built a model of it (getting superglue all over my desk). But here I was, actually standing on it. Dad pulled me away from the railing, saying we didn’t want to be late.
We had dinner that night with Uncle John, Aunt Susan and Cody. I’m not a great lover of Mexican food, that’s more Cody’s thing but I would have eaten fried rattlesnake if it meant I could have real food at a table with real people to talk to. Four days cooped up in that room meant I was kinda starved for any real human contact.
After dinner, Uncle John took me to one side as dad helped Aunt Susan with the dishes. I asked him if it was true what Cody had said, that I’d actually died. If looks could kill, then the one he gave his son could’ve killed a supervillain stone dead. That look was all I needed to know that Cody had been telling the truth. To be honest, I was kinda angry that I had to hear it from my annoying cousin. Everyone was treating me like a kid when it came to talking about it. I mean c’mon, I’m thirteen-years-old, I’m not a baby anymore. I just got shot seventeen times and pumped full of alien nanotech, I think I deserve a little respect.
But you know what really ticked me off? Those men hadn’t killed me for something I’d done or something my dad had done. I’d been shot to make a point to someone else, that they were serious about their threat towards Cody. I used to think having the world’s greatest superhero as an uncle was pretty cool, even if I couldn’t tell anyone about it. Now I was wondering just how dangerous it was having him as an uncle. Then I wondered how much Uncle John had told Cody about the death threat, I don’t know if I’d be as cocky as him if I knew that someone had gunned down him and said that I was next.
That night I couldn’t sleep, there was too much going on in my head and I had headache. What no one realised at the time, including me, was that the nanobots had gone beyond just fixing the bullet wounds. They had started to change me in other ways. The signs were already there, if you knew where to look, but so far the changes had been subtle. Over the coming weeks though, my life was going to get interesting. Chinese curse interesting.