There will be a shorter epilogue very soon to wrap up a few bits of the first season/arc of this story, but that’s pretty much how it all shakes out. If all goes well I’ll start working on the sequel this fall. What do you think’s next for Nick and the Checkers? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
It took a few hours for Arthur and his brothers to trace their captured fourth via his unique empathic signature. In that time I had my own trouble to sort out after the incident in the SLA fitness center so I was somewhat glad for the reprieve. It gave me time to find Devon and to apologize for losing control, but he just smiled at me and shrug.
“It was the most fun I’ve had in months. Don’t worry about. Don’t dwell over it.”
And that’s all he seemed to want to say about the matter. As for the other members of the Checkers, it was pretty much a given that they were aware of what had happened, but they were both too polite to mention it.
We didn’t have wait long before the call came down that the taken quartet member, Lance, had been tracked. Things began to move very quickly after that. According to Europa’s guidelines, The Checkers were to meet up at one of the SLA’s combat prep stations before the mission. Once there we were re-outfitted in our uniforms and given a proper cache of offensive and defensive items: Devon was equipped with a backpack holding cannisters of pressurized water vapor which he could convert into weapons at will. Akma was given a chemical cocktail that when injected directly into the blood-stream would act as a kind of Miracle Gro for her ability. Zashir received a hand air cannon that, if necessary, he could shoot himself with in order to store extra force. And me? I got a fancy armband with a spraying mechanism containing several unique cartridges each with some kind of human, plant, or animal pheromones, which when released into the air I would (theoretically) be able to manipulate to great effect. Nobody explained just how I would be able to do this, but figured that I’d be able to make it work on the fly. I also got a taser. Finally.
I don’t think I’m spoiling too much by saying I didn’t get to use it.
The four of us piled into one of the SLA transports, this time a fucking sweet mini cooper that Devon and Akma were explicitly forbidden by Zashir to drive. So I took the wheel and followed the navigation system in the dashboard while Zashir walked us through the details. Apparently Lance was being held in a Sanctuary safe house, one of the first that the SLA had ever been able to locate. It was way downtown in an apartment complex that had changed hands so many times in the past years that its ownership was a huge gray space. The local authorities were informed of our intent to go into the complex and our governmental immunity meant that as long as we didn’t unfairly detain or injure non-members of Sanctuary then we could act with a level of impunity. But Zash was clear that we had little idea of who, if anyone, was currently inhabiting the complex so we would have to be careful.
We arrived at the apartments just around sunset. It was a group of three plain looking apartments buildings surrounding a wide courtyard. Once there we found that the Ocelots had already parked their burly hatchback transport and were checking their gear in the parking lot. We parked nearby and as we climbed out, Akma pointed out each of Ocelots members: there was Justin of course, whose codename was Cancel for obvious reasons.
Shroud was not what I would have imagined him to be. Since his provenance was shadow and darkness I expected for some reason a thin, dark-eyed Rasputin like character, but instead he was muscular, broad-shouldered, deeply tanned, and militaristic in his bearing. His hair was buzzed short and his eyes were bright green, almost unnaturally so.
Silas Bloom, who code name and surname were the same, was curly-haired and moved with a carelessness that his eyes betrayed. Akma whispered to me that he was a snake, through and through. His ability was a wonder to behold, she said, but never had such a wonder filled so poor a vessel. He waved at us from his perch on a smooth black column. It took me a while to realize that he had raised the column from the parking lot itself.
And Ringo. Ringo was a leader. You could see it in the way he moved. The breast of his uniform bore five concentric golden rings and sure enough, there was a gold ring on each finger of his left hand. He had a white smile and he stood at least a head above every member of his team, including the tank-like Shroud. His hair was perfectly poised with just the right amount of shagginess to counteract any claims of vanity, but was perfect nonetheless. Until he spoke I couldn’t imagine why my fellow teammates found him insufferable.
“And so arrives the little league,” he said, so mildly that it took a moment to register as an insult. “I’m Ringo. I’m the field lead on this mission, so follow my instructions to the letter and hopefully none of you will die.”
He looked over at me with near complete indifference. “We haven’t met. You the one who set off the sex bomb in the showers earlier?”
I blushed and tried to stumble through an answer, but he cut me off.
“I hope you can control those powers of yours, because if I find you can’t I’ll have Justin shut them off for you.”
“We’ve never had a problem with Spot’s work in the field, which you would know if you’d read his personnel report,” Zash interjected. “Now are you going to brief us or do you want to work through the rest of your routine?”
It looked for a moment like Ringo was going to respond, but Cancel gave him a loaded look and he swallowed whatever venom he was preparing.
“Right. Well the operation, of Cancel’s devising, should be fairly simple. We’ll break into three teams. Shroud will take Stream and Zash into that building over there.” Ringo pointed. “In the sub-basement, according to our schematics, are the generators for the entire complex. Take them out and the apartments will be without power. That will allow the three of you to slip through the shadows up to the fourteenth floor where it’s most likely that our target is being held.
“Thumb, Bloom, and I will be beta team. We’ll go straight through the front door and create as big a distraction as we can. Hopefully that’ll draw off enough attention so that when the power goes out, it’ll give alpha team time to complete their work.
“Cancel and the newbie will stay here and form gamma team. If anything goes wrong with alpha or beta teams, you two will be responsible for calling in the other groups on standby. Furthermore, Cancel will keep us all linked using this.” Ringo slid a ring off of his little finger and handed it to Cancel. “This ring grants the bearer significant, but limited psychic abilities. It should be just enough for Justin to keep us all chattering happily into each others’ heads. Each of us will experience everything that the others do, but in a somewhat muted fashion. It’s hard to explain, but there is no more secure form of communication in the world. It would take an enormously talented psychic to intrude. However the strain of keeping the lines open will be a serious burden and prevent him from being too active, that means that you’ll have to watch his back, newbie.
“Does anyone have any questions?”
“Do we know what kind of resistance to expect?” Thumb asked.
Ringo shrugged. “No one knows. Sanctuary has been annoyingly efficient at staying off of the SLA radar. Before this we didn’t know the locations of even one of their safehouses. So maybe as a former Sanctuary member, I should be asking you that question.”
If Thumb perceived the slight mockery in his voice, she didn’t rise to it. “Each safehouse will be guarded by at least a couple of Vanguards. They’ll be well trained. Only people with the highest degree of combat potential are selected. Wyrm was with the group that ambushed us at the greenhouse, so we can probably expect that she’ll be here now with the target. Her scales can take an insane amount of punishment and they cover her body entirely, even in the places where it looks like there’s normal flesh. She can spit a viscous fluid that burns insanely hot which is about as disgusting as it is effective. I don’t know any of the other Vanguards, but be careful around them. I can’t stress that enough.”
“Good intel. Thanks, Thumb,” Cancel said before Ringo could add anything cutting.
“Anything else?” Ringo followed.
No one had anything to add.
“Then we’re ready,” Ringo said.
In retrospect it’s hard to imagine how any of us could know how messed up things would get, but thanks to the psychic link that Justin established — I got to experience the entire clusterfuck first-hand.
Shroud, Zash, and Stream gathered together under a half-broken lamp-post and the three of them joined hands. I could feel Stream’s moment of apprehension, Zash’s cool focus and the strain that Shroud exerted for a long moment as his shadow shifted, snapped like the jaws of a rabid dog and then they were gone. At least, gone from my vision, I could sense their motion though, almost track it as they reappeared elsewhere.
The three of them ended up in the laundry room of one of the buildings in the complex and Shroud sent back a query to Justin to find if he had jumped to the right place. Justin confirmed that he had, but they hadn’t gone far enough. There was still another floor to descend before they could access the area with the generators.
They left the laundry room and moved as quietly and quickly as they could to the stairwell. The door was locked, but Shroud stretched, molded and solidified the darkness inside the lock into the proper shape of the key and the door opened. Stream and Zash were clearly impressed. Inside the sub-basement they followed Justin’s telepathic directions as he read from the schematics. Some of his information betrayed the age of his maps and the three had to make some minor adjustments, but soon enough they found the generator room and it was simply a matter of breaking the thing down. Stream called up a long, thin line of water and was about to stab it into the generator when Zash politely mentioned that the resulting electricity might just shock him to death. Instead Shroud slowly and carefully stretched his own shadow over the massive series of generators and with a grunt, he moved them into the hallway. It was easier, he explained, that moving them further away or destroying them outright and he had to save his strength for at least two more trips.
The effect was immediate. The lights in the basement went out abruptly and because of the link, the three of them could see through our eyes how effective they’d been. Most of the lights in the windows of the apartment buildings switched off with a few exceptions, leading Cancel to believe that there were backup generators sprinkled throughout. Obviously we didn’t have time to deal with those. The next phase of the plan started after that. Beta team made for the central building and Shroud once again began the process of wrapping his shadows around the other members of alpha team and stretching toward the fourteenth floor.
As soon as the lights went out, Ringo started forward, flanked on both sides by Thumb and Bloom. Thumb thought for a moment that she should have been called Bloom instead of him considering what she could do and because of the link, her irritation flashed across us all. Bloom just looked at her with condescension behind his lidded eyes and feathery lashes.
“Listen, Thumb because I’m only saying this once,” Ringo started. “My rings…each of them has a unique ability, but I can only activate one at a time. Invulnerability, Enhanced strength, Enhanced Speed, Enhanced Coordination, and of course, there’s the psychic ring that Cancel is holding. Whenever I switch from one ring to another there’s a ten second cool-down. I’ve tried to get it lower, but switching too quickly means absorbing the strain of both rings and the human body physically can’t manage it. Trust me, former ring-bearers have tried. During that window I’m at my most vulnerable. That’s why I wanted two environmental-control abilities with me. You two can create barriers, slow down our opponents, things like that. I’m going to start with the strength ring and switch as necessary. Understood?”
She did and so did Bloom. Ringo made a tight fist and the ring on his thumb began to pulse. Almost as if it were alive. There was something clearly organic about it, but Thumb didn’t have a chance to ask. They entered the courtyard of the apartment complex: it was a wide area, slightly recessed, with a children’s playground in the dead center and paths all around leading to each individual building. There were a few trees lining the paths, solar-powered lamp-posts just clicking on in the early evening, and some neatly tended bushes. But what drew the eyes of Beta team were the two women sitting on the swing set. One of them wore dark leggings and a white blouse with a chain at the waist. Undulating scales covered half of her face. She tilted her head and waved at the three members of Beta team. The other woman, dressed in jeans with a hood up over her head, didn’t move.
“Welcome to Sanctuary, boys and girls,” Wyrm said loudly from the swingset, still some distance away. “Can’t say we were expecting you to get here so quick, and we probably should have realized you’d go for the generators, but…no matter. You three won’t go any further.”
“If you stay out of our way and allow us to conduct a proper inspection of the premises then no harm will come to you. If not then you will be formally charged with the obstruction of a peacekeeping force and will therefore be held until such time as law enforcement arrives to arrest you,” Ringo recited. “Do you understand these terms as they have been explained to you?”
“Are you so without pride that you believe the nonsense that you just spouted?” Wyrm asked. “Are you really that ignorant about what’s going on in this world? If we don’t band together then this country, whose laws you recite so nobly, is going to keep trying to crush us under its boot heel. But I don’t expect a government lackey to understand that. If we’re going to mix it up then let’s go, I was getting bored anyway. Vic?”
“Yeah?” the other woman responded.
“Let’s do this.”
Wyrm hopped off the swing and Vic followed after her. The members of Beta team just waited for them to get closer.
“Is that you, little Akma? The spirited planter. I thought that was you last time at the greenhouse. Jasni would be bummed to see you in lock-step with the repressive agenda. You know that, right?”
“Don’t call his name,” Thumb said smoothly.
“You’ve embarrassed your family, Akma, but we’re forgiving. Come back and all is forgiven. I can’t say you’ll get this chance again.”
“Thumb. I need you focused,” Ringo said without taking his eyes off of Wyrm.
“Oh, I’m focused.” Thumb slipped a sliver of wood down through her sleeve and into her palm, she let it fall to the ground and instantly it took root, digging down between the cracks in the concrete.
Seeing Thumb in motion, Wyrm moved as well, inhaling deeply and pushing her shoulders back. Bloom saw the danger and dropped to one knee with both hands on the ground. By the time the burning fluid spewed from Wyrm’s mouth, Bloom had raised a five foot wall up from the concrete in a half-circle around his teammates. The wave of liquid fire splashed against the concrete and began softening it, melting it. All three heroes had to step away from the intense heat and the plant that Thumb had started growing began to blacken and whither.
Using the power of his strength-ring, the Beta team leader reached down into the concrete and ripped a chunk of it out of the ground. He chucked it at Wyrm before she had a chance to regurgitate another gout of fire. She dodged nimbly, but not nimbly enough. The side of the chunk clipped her shoulder and took her down.
Vic, the hooded woman, raised both hands and tendrils of smoke rising from the burning concrete started to coalesce. That was all the warning anyone had before they started launching. Each smoke-barb was only a few inches, but Thumb caught one across her midsection and it drew blood. Another one flashed across Bloom’s palm and he recoiled in surprise which quickly turned into irritation. But the majority of them seemed to be pointed at Ringo who, despite his superior strength, was defenseless against them. They sliced through his uniform and across his face in a barrage while Wyrm shook off her daze and got back up on her feet.
“I need to switch, cover me,” Ringo commanded as he raised a futile hand to protect his eyes from the smoke-barbs.
Bloom went back down on his knees and Vic switched her focus over to him, sending more barbs in his direction, but then she stopped abruptly and looked down. There was a little green vine wrapped around her ankle. Apparently she hadn’t noticed it before.
“Plants grow up and down, idiot,” Thumb said, right before hundreds of whipping vines burst up through the ground and started lashing wildly at the smoke-user. The barbs stopped for a moment and Bloom was able to complete his action: wrapping Ringo in a concrete egg. With that done he turned his attention back to Wyrm who was coming toward him.
“More concrete? Are you joking?” she asked.
Bloom shrugged. “I’m incorrigible.”
The ground beneath Wyrm’s feet simply dissolved. Well, not entirely. It just became a different kind of substance altogether. Instead of being hard and sturdy, it became loose like sand and she had to stop and correct her balance, which was becoming increasingly precarious. Every time she moved her feet to a place that looked solid, it gave way and threatened to tip her over. Angry now, Wyrm inhaled deeply and spewed liquid fire into an arc in the air. Bloom abandoned his position and fled from raining heat, but Ringo’s egg was caught in the dead center of it. It melted right through the concrete.
From the popping, burning, now molten rock, Ringo stood. His skin dripped the burning stuff and his uniform was entirely melted away, but he was unharmed. Naked, he brushed the flaming liquid out of his eyes and said:
“Alright, now let’s try this again.”
For the first few minutes Justin seemed unaffected by the strain of the ring, but as the mission wore on, I could see that he wasn’t having an easy time of it.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
He shook his head. Sweat covered his forehead and his upper lip. He had his eyes closed and he was breathing heavily. We were still in the parking lot, he was sitting in the back of the hatchback.
“It’s…difficult but I’m Ringo’s second so I’ve trained with some of his rings. I can…I’ll be fine.”
So for a while we just stayed silent and tried to follow the action between the two other teams. Alpha team had made it to the fourteenth floor only to encounter another Vanguard. A man who called himself Fete, the agile fucker whose ability seemed to be crippling the central nervous system of anyone he touched. I remembered back to the greenhouse when he’d grabbed me and everything went dark. Along with another person who was completely covered in sharp, dangerous spines. Beta on the other hand was dealing with Wyrm and the smoke-thrower. I think a part of Justin’s struggle came from feeling powerless to help with the execution of the mission. I tried to tell him that he had done his job to the best of his ability, now it was up to the field leader to bring everybody back safe. If Justin was cheered by anything I said he didn’t show it. He just kept working on keeping his breath steady.
I was so focused on what was going on with Justin and the other teams that I didn’t notice when Owen arrived. He was smiling his smug fucking smile.
“Nick, I’m glad we could have some time to talk alone.”
I gestured to Justin. “We’re not alone.”
“Oh, him? He’s busy trying to keep your little psychic link open and he’s concentrating so very hard on his feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure that I really don’t think he has much attention left to butt into our conversation.”
“You’ve been using your ability on him, to fuck with his head. God, you’re such a dick.”
I was getting ready to push something onto Owen, but he raised his hands and shook his head. I don’t know why, but I hesitated.
“I just want to talk to you, Nick.”
“Then talk fast.”
“Europa is lying to you. All of you. She has no intention of letting the quartet live peacefully, not when they can be of use to her. You’re doing all this for nothing.”
“And how would you know that?” I asked. “And why the hell would I believe you?”
“Because I know what she’s scared off. I know what keeps her up at night and drives her to make the SLA stronger and more autonomous every year. She sees something coming and her problem is, has always been, that she thinks she has to do it alone. Sanctuary offered her their help once. Everything would have been different had she accepted.”
“What are you talking about?”
I could hear Ringo chattering in a corner of my mind, telling me not to listen to him, to bring him down. In another place there was Zash who didn’t say anything, was busy focusing on fighting, but wanted the conversation to continue. He didn’t trust Europa completely.
“A few weeks ago a woman was killed by a group advocating the protection of humans against what they called ‘genetic abominations.’ A week before that it was a child. A week before that an elderly man and a teenager. This week, a member of the SLA on a discreet mission in Norway. These people are growing stronger and they are growing bolder. And they have friends, Nick. Friends in high places. And so Europa finds herself balanced between needing to protect the beneficent public face of the SLA and preparing for a potential war. Sanctuary has no such compunctions.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.
“Because I like you, Nick. And because your power is amazing. Because I see potential in you. Combined, we could sway the hearts and minds of many many allies and rip out the souls of our enemies. You could make eunuchs of them and I could make sure they never feel joy again. And before you refuse me with your high-minded ethics, I can prove to you that Europa is just as interested in weaponizing you for the coming travails.”
“I’m sending Bloom your way for backup. He’ll help you knock that punk on his ass,” Ringo sent to me directly.
“You said you have proof? What is it?” I said, ignoring Ringo’s chatter. “Quickly.”
Owen produced a manila folder with some papers in them and handed it to me. I opened it and started scanning through. It was clearly an SLA internal document. It detailed my abilities and their potential: crowd-control, mass impulse manipulation, forced suicide. The list went on and as it did, I felt increasingly sicker.
“And Sanctuary is different?” I asked, throwing the folder to the ground.
Owen made a thoughtful face, then broke into a smile and shook his head. He was about to speak when Bloom came up at the far end of the parking lot. As I caught sight of him, Owen tracked my eye motion and looked over as well. Bloom took one step forward and then stopped.
“Right now your backup is emotionally reliving the trauma of a loved one’s violent death. He won’t be any good to you,” Owen said as he turned back to me. “Do you want the truth, Nick? Yes, Sanctuary does want to use you. But at least we’re honest about it. At least you can live with a little dignity. You’ll be an equal among us with responsibilities, yes, but also rewards. Do you remember how hot we were together? We can be just like that. Always.”
“You know what…” I started.
“What?” Owen asked.
With that I pushed him. It was cold, clean and driven by a feeling so bound up in anger and disgust that I couldn’t name it now if I tried. There was no build-up from the gut. Just one controlled, magnificent push that depressed his system so completely that he collapsed to the ground noiselessly.
Once Bloom was able to move again, he shook off the grisly emotional weight cast on him and came over. As Bloom set about restraining and securing Owen, I just stared off into space. There were too many thoughts crowding, fighting for dominance in my head. The SLA was using me. All of us. That was obvious enough, but was it worth it?
Suddenly alarm flooded through the psychic link. Shroud had been badly injured, but they’d secured the target. Fete, the tumbler, was likely dead. Zash had force-punched him out of a fourteenth story window.
Less than a minute later there was motion in the shadow of the hatchback and Devon’s upper torso emerged. He was gasping for breath as if coming up from water. He tried to grasp at the edge of the shadow and his fingers struggled for purchase as he slipped back into the murky darkness. I ran over and gave him my arm, together we pulled him up through the shadow. As more of him began to emerge I saw that he was pulling Shroud up with him. Hauling the shadow-manipulator’s bulk was no mean feat for either of us. Bloom conjured up a post from the blacktop and I grabbed onto it with one hand while pulling Devon up with the other. Bloom then constructed a post for himself and started pulling Shroud up from the shadow separately. Once the two of them were out, Zash surfaced from the shadow with Lance, the final quartet member, in tow. We pulled them out with greater ease than the first two. The moment that all four men were safely on the blacktop, the shadow once again became two dimensional. Shroud was pale, bloodied and even though his grasp on his ability was tenuous considering his state, he had been able to bring everyone through safely. It said a lot about his control and his resolve. Zash quickly set about seeing to his wounds.
Ringo, realizing that the main objective of the mission had been accomplished signaled a retreat for himself and Thumb. He allowed her to flee first before following. They had come to a stalemate with Wyrm, even after Thumb was able to remove the smoke-user from play by slapping her against the ground with the accumulated strength of her whipping vines. Using his invulnerability ring, Ringo was able to easily stand up to Wyrm’s’ flame-spewing, but without his strength ring he was unable to damage her. The two of them went in circles with each other, incapable of anything more than frustrating one another. Thumb’s plants couldn’t get anywhere near them without burning and she’d already played her underground trick once.
So it was a relief when Thumb and Ringo simultaneously became aware that the target had been acquired, the two of them were more than willing to leave the fight.
As Wyrm saw Thumb fleeing, she grinned. “Too much for you to take, friends? Should I tone it down for you?”
“We’ll finish this some other time, miss. I promise you that,” Ringo said as he turned to leave.
“Don’t you dare walk away from me!” Wyrm shouted, and spewed another round of her now ineffective fire on Ringo’s bare back as he walked away.
Ringo made his way back to the group and Wyrm was foolish enough to chase after him. Justin, who was newly free of the ring’s weight, simply shut off her ability once she was in range. Realizing that she couldn’t take us all on without her powers, she narrowed her eyes at us and slunk back toward the decimated playground.
And that’s how we rescued the last member of the quartet, apprehended Owen the traitor, and how I closed the first chapter of my time as bonafide superhero. But as we made our way back to SLA headquarters, it didn’t feel like the ebullient victory it was supposed to. None of us spoke to each other. Devon, Akma, and Zash were bone-weary from the fighting and likely rehashing everything they’d overheard through the psychic link about the SLA and Europa specifically. I know I had my own concerns.
As the bright crystal buildings of the SLA came into view on the highway, I couldn’t help but see something a little sinister in them for the first time. Something dark hidden among all the clean lines, bright light, glass and iron.