So yeah, no sex. My bad. Just couldn’t work it in. Too much plot to do. Enjoy! 😀
Europa and Exeter arrived at the SLA medical center together. She was wearing a pair of chinos, a dark sweater and a smart trenchcoat. Exeter was wearing a light colored suit that looked great even though he seemed like he hadn’t slept in some time.
We all got up to greet them: Zashir, Akma and I.
“How is Devon?” Europa asked.
“He’s stable. Thankfully. They’re not too worried about him, but his burns…well, it’s a good thing we have more than just science to rely on,” Zashir explained.
A medical shaman had been working in close conjunction with Devon’s surgeons to repair any damage that went beyond their immediate capabilities. Apparently this was fairly commonplace considering that heroes often needed to rebound quickly and miraculously from their injuries.
“Good,” Europa said. Her shoulders relaxed slightly.
“Director Evers. I want to apologize —”
Europa raised a hand and waved away Zashir’s apology before it could even start. “I should be apologizing to you, Mr. Saleh. I wish I could have been more forthright with you to begin with, but your ignorance of the true situation was my trump card.
“I did not lie to you, but I also didn’t explain all the details. I have suspected my nephew, Owen, was colluding with a group of radicals with abilities. This group, —”
“Sanctuary,” Akma finished.
Europa looked at her and nodded. “Yes, Sanctuary. You were a part of that group for some years, were you not?”
“I was raised in Sanctuary. My elder brother was a member. But I left as a teenager, I haven’t had contact with them in over a decade. As I’m sure you’re aware, director.”
There was a moment of tension between the two of them, but then Europa continued.
“I trusted no one with the information about my nephew. Not even Exeter was aware that I was setting this up. I allowed Owen to place himself in a position with sensitive information about the captive member of the quartet in order to see what he would do with it.
“A smarter operative would have laid low, but my nephew has never been the patient type. Ostensibly my plan had two favorable potential outcomes: that Owen was revealed as a traitor, or the quartet was apprehended.”
Zashir ran his hand through his hair and squinted at Europa. He was clearly trying to parse this new information; the struggle was evident on his features.
“I mean no disrespect madam director, but —”
“What’s done is done, Mr. Saleh. Your team faced an opponent under stacked odds and you all survived, that is good news. However it is hardly remarkable. You were not the first team, nor the last, to be sent into a loaded situation.” Europa took a deep breath and sighed it out. “It is my job to send you into danger and don’t think that is not a heavy burden.”
“I understand that, madam director. But there’s a difference between sending us blind into an ambush and leaving out a few facts.”
“I am sorry you feel that way, Mr. Saleh. If your objections render you unable to complete the next mission assigned to you, please let us know and we will find someone more suited. Until then, Exeter has been briefed…completely on where we stand and where I expect to go from here. I have to go deal with finding out all the details of Owen’s double-dealing and how much sensitive information he skipped off with. Best of luck to you all.”
Europa didn’t give any of us a chance to respond. She just turned and walked away. Exeter was left behind to deal with our collective anger and confusion which he did with admirable calm.
“First of all I want to say that I was not informed that this operation was going to explicitly put you all in danger. Nor was I told that Owen was a suspected mole or that Sanctuary would be involved. If I had, I would have at least suggested you arrive together as a team to the greenhouse rather than splitting your forces and making things easier for them,” Exeter explained. “And for what it’s worth: I’m sorry that Devon was hurt.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s just frustrating to be kept in the dark when crucial information can mean the difference between life or death,” Zashir said.
“Well, if it means anything I am authorized to tell you everything I know about this situation going forward. Though I can’t guarantee that that will be everything the director knows, at least it’s a start.”
“Alright, so what are we in for?”
“Owen wasn’t the only one with access to the captive. My ability, and this is…classified information. My ability involves memory. I can manipulate the memory of others and recall memories thought lost. I was able to, after a significant amount of work, uncover the location of the other three members of the quartet.”
“So you knew where they were all along?” I asked. “So we did all that for nothing?”
“You uncovered the traitor. That was something no one, not even the director herself, could prove until now,” Exeter replied.
“Funny how that doesn’t make up for our friend lying in a hospital bed,” Akma added.
“Cut it out, both of you,” Zashir snapped. “Let him finish.”
“The trio is holed up in an old distillery downtown. If we leave now we will probably be able to get to them before Owen works through the presents I’ve left for him.”
“Presents?” Zashir and Akma asked almost simultaneously.
I followed up a second later with: “We?”
Exeter looked mildly abashed. “Well, I wasn’t privy to the details of the operation, like I said, but I was given instructions to place certain caches of extremely vivid memory in the captive’s subconscious. If, or should I say when, Owen next tries to make an empathic connection, the captive will recall these memories and have an extremely vivid, extremely unpleasant recall. That should trip up any empath or telepath up for a while.”
He turned to me. “And yes, ‘we.’ I spent some time as a field agent before I was recruited to my current position so I’m combat ready. The director would probably prefer I take a more restrained position, but in light of the fact that you’re a man down and —” He paused. “— I feel somewhat responsible for what you all have been through. I didn’t have much to do with the director’s decision to keep you in the dark, but I was a part of this operation. I would like to see it through, if that’s alright with you all.”
Akma’s eyes were narrowed, but she didn’t object. I didn’t see the point in denying him considering he seemed to have more information about the situation than we did and I’m assuming Zashir didn’t have many qualms either because eventually he nodded.
“We’d be happy to have you,” Zashir said, and added, “but we’ve got to go now, I don’t want to give Sanctuary a minute longer to regroup and come back at us again. Akma, Exeter, on the way downtown I want to know everything the both of you know about these people.”
We left headquarters shortly after that. Exeter changed into a standard field uniform and we gave a nurse instructions to contact us if there were any updates on Stream’s condition. The four of us piled in a company SUV and headed out. On the way Akma told us about her time in Sanctuary.
It had seemed like a refuge at first. A group of individuals with powers who operated like a second family. Akma and her brother, Jasni, had found the group after they had lost their parents, or rather Sanctuary had found them. Under Sanctuary’s tutelage they learned how to weaponize their powers, how to become soldiers for a cause they barely understood. Eventually Akma left, she didn’t like what she was becoming. Her brother however had opted to stay and take on an increasing slate of responsibilities.
“He was a Steward when I left. In charge of procuring shelter for new recruits and making sure there was enough food to go around. He was always a softer touch than me. Even still, he was taught how to harm, how to kill if necessary. Sanctuary had me on the Vanguard track. I was to be one of their marines, so to speak. That’s how I knew about Wyrm, the fire-spitter. She was going through the program a few years before me. A genuine headcase. Jasni said Sanctuary needed people like us to balance out people like her. That’s why he stayed. I think the only thing that could balance her would be a shotgun blast to the fucking fore—”
“Akma, I think we get it,” Zashir said, effectively cutting her off.
“Anyway, I’m not sure why Sanctuary would want the quartet. Maybe Exeter can answer that question.”
On cue Exeter adjusted his glasses and coughed. All eyes were on him now and he chafed a bit under the attention.
“As the director has said, the quartet possesses numerous abilities working in concert. Most individuals manifest one or two abilities. Perhaps they’re looking for a way to expand their repertoires? Or it could be even simpler, maybe they just want some new soldiers on their side.”
“On their side of what though?” Zashir asked. “What is their goal, ultimately?”
“Hard question to answer,” Akma said. “Sanctuary’s reach has grown larger every year since it was established. At this point it has so many heads that even pinpointing who’s in charge of the whole thing is near impossible.”
“Any ideas about their intended targets would be pure speculation,” Exeter agreed. “The best we can do is keep these assets away from them.”
“People,” Zashir corrected. “Whatever else they are, the quartet are still people.”
Exeter didn’t say anything after that, but I didn’t necessarily get the sense that he agreed.
The distillery was just a huge broken down warehouse from the outside. It was located at the dusty edge of the old downtown factory district. When the city had taken an economic dip those factories were among the first to close. The area had become crime ridden for some time, but a few initiatives in the past years had cleaned things up metaphorically speaking. It was still as dirty and decaying as it had ever been.
We climbed out of the SUV and approached the warehouse entrance where Zash stopped us.
“Thumb, can you get a read on the place?” he asked.
She pressed her hand against a wall and furrowed her brow in deep concentration. “There’s not much to go on. Sorry. Mold has the run of the place. But I can tell you that there’s life in there. Non plant-life.”
“Thanks, Thumb. Alright, we’ll move in. Exeter…er…what’s your codename?”
“Officially? Blank. As in Blank Slate,” he explained.
“What range does your power work at?”
“With eye contact I can start producing some trippy effects, maybe about ten feet? But in order to fully dive into memory antics I need direct contact.”
“Alright then, you stay on me. Spot, Thumb, you follow behind. Thumb you’ll watch our back and Spot, once you get a hostile in your sights I want you to push the fuck out of them.”
Once we all knew what we were doing, we entered the distillery. All the equipment had been removed long ago, so it was mostly just a long empty space with concrete floors and a catwalk up above us.
“I took a digital tour of this place and I have it memorized, I’ll give you each a copy,” Exeter…Blank, said.
He touched each of us lightly just above the neck . Zash first, then Thumb, then myself. I watched each of their expressions as he did so. It was as if something had just occurred to them, something they had suddenly recalled. It was no different for me. At his touch there was a moment like the one you have when someone asks you the name of a friend you haven’t spoken to in some time: a moment of searching then a satisfying rush of remembrance. In that flash of an instant I knew the entire layout of the distillery as if I’d been there before.
“That is fucking amazing,” I said.
Exeter shrugged off the compliment. “It’s nothing, it’s —”
“Get down!” Zash screamed.
If only Exeter had imparted instructions on how to follow commands promptly. Instead of dropping to the floor, I looked around to see what Zash had seen and for my trouble I caught an arrow in the shoulder. It didn’t even hurt at first. The momentum caused my body to jerk awkwardly and in surprise and shock I lost my balance and fell down. It wasn’t until I looked over at the arrow, a pale glittering shaft sticking out of my shoulder and the spreading wetness under my uniform, that I started to feel the pain.
By then Thumb was already growing a small copse of trees around us for cover. The trees weren’t towering by any means, but they blocked more than a few of the arrows that were raining down on us.
“The shooter is above us on the catwalk,” Zash explained. He hadn’t realized that I’d been hit, no one had.
“Guys, there’s an arrow in my shoulder,” I said, more casually than I would have thought possible considering.
The three of them looked around and saw the arrow sticking out of me. And I’m glad they did because a second later it started to fade out of existence. The wound remained, but the arrow disappeared.
“The fuck —” I muttered.
“They can summon and unsummon their weapons at will. At least the others could, I guess that counts for arrows, too. How bad is it?” Zash asked. He was only half paying attention to me though, the archer was still shooting at us and the trees hadn’t stopped some of them from getting awful close.
“It hurts, but —” I tried to move the arm. The pain was excruciating. “— I’m fine.”
“Don’t push yourself,” Exeter offered, before turning back to the action.
“None of us really have long-range powers except you, Spot. Can you push the archer from here?” Zashir asked as he caught an arrow out of the air and used his power to send it flying back to its sender. It missed, he swore.
Thumb was growing the limbs of the trees into a lattice above us and flowering them with leaves to extend our cover. If the archer couldn’t see us from above then we’d make difficult targets. I was trying to get a handle on the searing pain in my shoulder so I could target the archer with some choice pheromones.
“We have trouble, guys.”
Blank pointed. There were two more members of the quartet coming at us across the distillery ground floor. One was the same from before, with a long sword at his side, but the other carried a huge hammer as if it were a child’s toy.
“I have to get out of cover to take them on,” Zash said. “But I need to know I’m not going to catch an arrow in the back, Spot. Are you on this?”
“I’m trying, but my arm…I…it’s hard to focus,” I explained.
Blank leaned over and touched my head. “How’s that? Better?”
It was, actually. I could dimly feel the ache of my wound, but the worst of the pain was gone. “Yeah, much better. Thanks.”
“I’ve slowed your sensory recall to a crawl. The pain is still there, you’re just getting it extremely slowly. But when it kicks it’ll kick hard, so do this now. You might not have this focus long.”
I nodded and turned my attention to the catwalk. I could see the archer casually loading and firing from his perch. He seemed to be as dispassionate as the others. I questioned, for a moment, whether or not my power would work on him, but I didn’t have time to doubt myself. I pushed him with exhaustion. It didn’t work.
At least it felt like it didn’t work, then I thought of Blank slowing my sensory recall — maybe it was possible that the physical signifier (my stomach heaving) of using my power was muted too.
My theory was confirmed a moment later when the archer’s bow dropped out of his hand, phasing out of existence before it hit the ground. Then the archer collapsed himself.
Once Zash saw the archer drop he left the copse in order to engage the other two. The sword-twin was faster than the hammer-twin (yes, yes, I know technically they should be quadruplets, but this is my story so fuck off) so he got to Zash first. The sword flashed so fast that I could barely keep up with it, but Zash seemed just fast enough to avoid getting hit. Then the hammer-twin caught up. The sword-twin took a step back and allowed his partner (sibling?) room to swing his enormous hammer at Zash. I could see just the merest grin on Zash’s face as he blocked the blow with his left forearm. The hammer-twin registered a moment of confusion, the blow should have demolished him. Zash in turn unleashed all that stolen force in a right-handed punch that knocked the hammer-twin off his feet and several back. His hammer, like the bow-twin’s weapon before him, disappeared.
The sword-twin looked at the hammer-twin lying on the floor, out cold, and then up at the bow-twin slumped over on the catwalk. His sword shifted out of his right hand and into a sheath at his hip. He was turning away from Zash, presumably to escape, when Blank let out a loud whistle with his fingers in his mouth. The sword-twin looked over and they locked eyes. The distance was over his proscribed ten feet, but Blank was able to stop the sword-twin dead somehow. He kept a level gaze, but spoke to us.
“I’ll hold him while you guys subdue him. Hurry, if I blink we’re screwed.”
Zash and Thumb went to it. The sword-twin was docile as a lamb while Akma grew a long, thick vine and Zash wrapped it about his arms. She also called up a big bunch of creeping moss that grew over his feet and legs to keep him from bolting. Watching it grow made me shiver. It was kind of gross.
Anyway, once the sword-twin was secure, Blank finally let himself blink and lifted his glasses so he could rub his eyes.
“God that hurts,” he said.
Once their eye contact was broken the sword-twin snapped back to his senses. He struggled, but seemed to be aware that he was caught. Before long he stopped struggling. He just stood there with his hands bound behind him and his legs tethered to the floor by plants.
We spent the next few minutes similarly securing the other two. At least Zash and Thumb did. I personally just sat and waited for them to do all the work while Blank saw to my wound. He assured me, as he tore strips from his own uniform and wrapped my arm, that I didn’t want to disturb the wound too badly considering that I was still injured and we’d only just managed to stop the bleeding. He kept explaining that the kickback, when it came, would amplify the pain in a way that would make me regret every jostle.
“You’re a lifesaver,” I said to him once my arm was all bound up.
He smiled and rolled his eyes. “You’re not the first hero I’ve had to bandage up on the fly. Probably not the last. Maybe one day you’ll return the favor.”
I realized I was staring at him when I watched him unintentionally lick his lips. I quickly looked away.
“Blank. Can you help us out here?” Zash called. Blank patted me on my shoulder and went over. I hoisted myself up carefully and followed.
Zash and Thumb were standing over by the sword-twin again who still hadn’t moved and hadn’t said a word. I was under the assumption that the quartet was incapable of speech and they didn’t do anything to dispel that notion.
“Our attempts to communicate with them has clearly failed, can you maybe read their memories? See if there’s anything in there that might indicate why Sanctuary might want them?”
Blank hesitated. “I…yes, I could. Technically. However whether or not I could share anything I found is a gray space.”
“What happened to being authorized to tell us everything you know going forward?” Zash asked, clearly growing irritated.
“Yes, everything that I know currently. That’s to say nothing of learning new information using my ability. You have to understand that I can’t do anything that would potentially damage the organization.”
“Potentially damage the organization?” Zash said. “What are you not telling us? What are you hiding?”
“I can’t say. Please, Zash —”
“He can’t say, but I can,” the sword-twin said. We all stared at him. I would have been less surprised if he had sprouted a second head. “I can tell you what the SLA has been hiding.”