Abandon ship

This blog/serial is dead.

At least for the forseeable future.  I’m not a dedicated enough writer to keep this active.  Sorry folks.


Interlude 3 – Knuckle


“Welcome, everyone who joined us here today.  Your cooperation with these exercises is a vital cornerstone in our strategies against the enemies that threaten us all.”  The director opened his arms to encompass the audience, probably a move taken directly out of a public speaking guide.  He indicated the gigantic clock on the wall above him, it showed a countdown in numbers five feet high. 41 days:16hours:12 minutes: 41 seconds.
“As you all know our best and brightest minds work day and night to monitor and evaluate the movements and activities of the Forerunners.  However, despite what the clock says I must warn you all.  The countdown is not absolute, it is an approximation of many minute factors reduced to an average.  The danger of an incursion or an outbreak exists at all times.”  The director held up a small booklet of bright cheerful yellow, probably something else he learned about in ‘Introduction to public speaking’
“You should have all received a booklet when you signed in, on page one will be the team number you have been assigned.  Please keep the attached badge with you, you will need it to get access to the events and the catering service.  For the remainder of this course you will be working with your team.  Please refer to page two for the event schedule.  Some of you may notice that the special event is not listed on the schedule.  That is intentional.  It could occur at any time today or tomorrow.
“You will not be forced to participate in the scheduled events, if you opt out you can still join in the special event.  However, seeing as how you paid to be here you might as well take part because these are valuable skills that could one day save the lives of yourself or others.  
That’s all of your time that I will take.  The first item on your schedule will be starting in fifteen minutes, the signs on the doors will show the event within and the participating teams.  Look for the badges being worn by event staff if you require assistance.  Thank you.”
He gave a small bow and stepped back from the podium.  Immediately the dull roar of several hundred people talking at once swept the auditorium.
Steve checked his booklet.  Apparently he was on team six, and the first event was “Rope Use” in room B-7 and would be one hour in duration.
A look around the crowd revealed that there were at least ten teams, and that each team had it’s own schedule of a bewildering variety of events.  Team one would be testing their mettle in “Microgravity combat”, and team nine would be cutting their teeth on “Blades in confined spaces”.  
From a rough estimate of the people in the crowd it seemed like there would be maybe thirty people in each class.  Possibly more if there were latecomers or others who skipped the speech.
Quite a few attendees had come in groups, and were loudly expressing their opinions on the unclear pattern at which some groups were broken up into different teams and yet others were all given the same team.  A few enterprising individuals had started scalping badges, and seemed to be making a good bit of profit.
Steve didn’t bother trading his badge, he didn’t know anyone here so it didn’t really matter what team he was on.  He recognized a few of the mainstream folk, but none that he knew personally.  Closer to the podium a crowd had gathered around Mekzor, whose mechanized reptilian body had been downsized to fit into the auditorium, but still stood head and shoulders above the crowd.  Showoff.
The rest of the crowd was a motley mix of costumes, uniforms, and disguises.  The quality of such ran from one extreme to another. Some attendees looked like homeless beggars wrapped in unidentifiable garments, others clearly had professional tailors and fashion designers.  Steve’s uniform fell somewhere into the middle, being of a mass produced variety that was just good enough to look respectable but not so expensive you couldn’t throw it away and buy a new one.
Speculation was rampant about when the “incursion” would occur, with teams comparing past experiences from prior years.  Sometimes it happened first thing, one time it happened at 11:59 pm on sunday night and lasted fifteen hours straight, ruining travel plans for most participants.
The group responsible for hosting the special event consisted of Paraform, who could divide his body into multiple clones capable of limited independent action, Splice, who could selectively mutate the clones into an approximation of the Infected or various civilians, Constructzor, the brother of Mekzor who could create temporary constructs to fortify the battleground, and Rey-psy, whose powers of illusion could polish the performance until it appeared to be any environment imaginable.
The group would prepare an area, typically underground, and fortify it enough that the participants could get an approximation of the ferocity of an incursion.  Very rarely did the arena survive the battle, as often victory was won through scorched earth tactics.  The primary objective is to neutralize the Infected, secondary objectives are to rescue the “civilians” and to minimize damage to the battlefield.  Many of the real incursions have resulted in complete destruction of the battlefield or the creation of a Dead Zone considered unfit for future habitation.
The aim of the exercise was to help develop effective combat strategies beyond simply nuking the site and putting a wall around the rubble.
Others would be standing by, teleporters and healers, ensuring that no one suffered lethal harm, but short of preventing you from dying they would stand aside.  During the battle you had yourself and your team to rely upon, no guardian angel could be assumed to swoop down and save you.
Steve pocketed his booklet and badge and headed towards  his first event.  Maybe it would involve rappelling, that could be interesting. 
Room B-7 already had a small crowd outside, with some people loudly complaining that no one told them they would  need a badge to get in.  The group of complainers walked away, leaving about a dozen people loitering around outside.  Overall it was a fairly tame group, just a bunch of guys in varying types of camouflage uniforms, with the exception of a woman dressed in cowgirl leathers with a rope that coiled through the air around her.  Her badge marked her as event staff.  Naturally, she’d drawn a crowd, partly because of her obvious ability, and partly due to the tight leather outfit.  
“Oh, I think everyone should use rope a lot more often.  It’s pretty much one of the most useful things you can have, and it’s so easy to carry.”
“For you maybe, but do you really think we would get an benefit from carrying around some rope?”  The guy who spoke wore a small pack with an antenna that stuck up a foot above his head.  Some type of raygun was holstered on his thigh, with a variety of tools on his belt.
“Of course.  Just about everyone, from brawlers to tinkers, can benefit.  Now it’s time for the class, and I’ll show you exactly why.”
The staff at the door checked the badges of everyone trying to get in, turning away a few people from other teams, and telling them their class would be later.  The room was about fifty square feet, half occupied by chairs and half empty floor.  Various props were against the walls or dangling from the ceiling.  Sections of what looked like metal balconies, ladders, sections of stairs, and something that looked like a jungle gym.
“Good morning everyone, my name is Mariette, and I’m here to teach you about ropes. Good for more than just tying people up.”  The cowgirl opened a box and pulled out several loops of rope. 
“As you can see here, there’s more than one type of rope, or cordage,  and each has it’s own specialties.  What I will be using today is this green one, parachute cord.  Paracord, for short, is a very handy rope.  It’s small but strong, more than capable of holding five hundred pounds or more.”  The cord twitched and jumped upwards, the tip wrapping around a rafter and looping down to tie onto the other loose end.  To prove her point Mariette jumped up and grabbed the rope.  She flipped herself up and stood in the loop.
“As you can see, even a ten foot length can come in handy, as I’m sure you can all think of times when it’s good to not be touching the floor.”  She pulled a small device off her belt and brought a new cord out of a pouch.
“However, not everyone has my ability, so you need some way of getting your cord up there.  Something quicker than tying the cord to your shoe and trying to throw it over a rafter.  This is a magnet with a loop on it so I can attach a cord.   It has up to four hundred pounds of holding force, and it’s only two square inches.  Handy, right?  Just tie the cord onto it, or loop the cord through and throw it towards a magnetic surface.  Keep in mind that it is a magnet, it sticks to metals.”  
With that she spun the cord twice and threw it across the room.  With a clang it stuck to a rafter and she quickly pulled it taut and swung over, using her momentum to carry her within reach of the metal balcony.  Nimbly she climbed onto the balcony.
“Now you’re off the ground, and that’s great except when you need to exit.  Some people can just fly away, or jump down without worry, but the rest of us have to deal with things like gravity and breaking our legs when we hit the ground.”  She produced another length of cord, tying one end to the balcony and dropping the rest over the side.  A slightly larger gadget was produced from her belt, large enough to grab with both hands.
“This is a clamp, you can pull this small lever and it opens up, then you clamp it over the rope.”  She attached the clamp to to rope and hopped off the balcony.  The clamp held tight as she dangled from it.
“A good clamp like this will hold more than your body weight, and does it without needing to hold down a lever or anything, so you can hold on with only one hand if you need to.  Then when you want to descend you squeeze this large trigger and the clamp loosens.  Squeeze it lightly and you’ll slide slowly, squeeze it tight and you’ll slide faster.”  With increasing rapidity she slid down until the touched the floor.  A separate clamp was produced and she attached it to the rope as well.  
“One is fine for holding onto a rope, or descending, but two let you do something like this.”
By sliding the clamps up one at a time she started climbing the rope, supporting her weight with one while moving the other up.  Once on the balcony again she put the clamps away on her belt.
“That’s all good and all, but who even carries something like that, right?  Most people probably never see one of those, and fewer would carry them around.  So what do you do if you need to descend quickly and safely without any special tools?  You use the rope itself.  This involves friction, lots of it.  The leather is more than just a fashion statement, you’ve never had ropeburn until you’ve rappelled down a three hundred foot drop.  It’s better than flapping your arms on the way down, but not much.”
She wrapped the rope around her legs and body, then stepped off into the air.  Falling quickly, the rope rubbed loudly against the leather.  It wasn’t quite as fast as falling, but it was pretty close.  Nevertheless it was enough to let her get to the ground without injury.
“Don’t try that one without training, wrap the cord wrong and it’s useless, wrap it really wrong and it might end up around your neck and you’ll hang yourself, or it catches your foot and smashes you against the wall.
“One more demonstration, then I’ll teach you all how to actually do these things.”  She grabbed the cord and it untied itself from the balcony.  Another magnet was brought out of her belt and she attached it.  She started spinning it.
“Ropes are for more than just getting around, they can also be used for combat.  These magnets as well.  They don’t weigh much, but they do come in handy in a pinch.  Completing a spin she released the cord, the magnet shooting out to slap onto a metal box.  With a quick pull she brought the box sliding across the floor until she stopped it with her foot.
“Tada.  All of the tools used today are for sale.  I’ve got spools of cord or precut lengths, and a bunch of clamps and magnets. Let’s start with how the cord is made, as you can see from this cut section there are seven inner braids, each is made of three threads.  It’s lightweight and compact, very sturdy, but it’s not very cut resistant and it can be burned fairly easily.  For cut resistance I recommend this other type, but it’s not quite as flexible or as easy to tie.  This copper coloured one is conductive, like a wire. It has a rubber sheath but to be honest it cracks open more often than not.”
Steve left the class without buying anything, though he did take a product catalog.  It had been interesting, but the lineup to buy anything was pretty long and he wanted to look around before spending his money.
Next on the schedule was Pistols in Range 2, and then “Escape and Evasion” in A-3, then lunch.  On route to Range 2 he passed a crowd at the first range.  A man in combat fatigues was excitedly talking about exactly what a fifty cal does to a watermelon.
At range two there were four event staff members checking badges and distributing eye and ear protection for those who had not brought their own. 
“Hello, I am Turner.  For the next hour I am your supreme deity.  If you behave I will teach you some small bit about pistols.  If you’re acting like an idiot I’ll kick your ass out.  Yes that means you, chuckles, it’s not a joke.  That’s strike one for you, sit still like a good boy.”  He pointed at a guy towards the back of the room, who was miming shooting other people in the crowd for the amusement of his friends.
“Lesson the first, don’t point it at things you aren’t ready to shoot.  Aren’t many guns that can hit what they’re not pointed at.
“Lesson the second, keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.  Aren’t many guns that can shoot without having a finger on the trigger.  Some guns have safeties that prevent the trigger from moving, that is not an excuse to have your finger on the trigger!
“If you point the gun at anyone here, or especially me, I will kick your ass out so fast you’ll taste the back of your own head.  If you point the gun at someone with your finger on the trigger I will shoot you.”
The first forty five minutes of the class was devoted to safety, learning how to handle and how to not handle handguns, followed by how to operate them, and how to aim.  For the last fifteen minutes the class was split into four groups, each one taking a bay and giving everyone a chance to shoot a magazine worth of ammo.
It was a good time and passed quickly.  At the end of the class the instructor gave out business cards to everyone, and extended invitations for further classes.
Steve got a horrible feeling almost immediately upon walking into the Escape and Evasion class.  Hovering in the air was an urban model pacifier drone.  Lightweight and nimble, what the drone lacked in flight distance it made up for in agility.  A bright yellow stun gun was slung underneath the drone’s body.  The stun gun wouldn’t kill you, or knock you unconscious like in the movies, but it could make you wish it did.
The classroom was large, the size of a football stadium.  It was a wreck in all senses of the word.  At one point it appeared to have been modelled after a cluster of suburban houses, but now holes gaped in walls, windows had been smashed, and ruined vehicles lay strewn about.
Was it supposed to be like this, or had a previous class trashed the room?  The dozen new arrivals looked at each other suspiciously.  Where were the event staff?
“Hello.”  It wasn’t immediately apparent who spoke until the instructor waved.  He had been camouflaged so perfectly in the rubble as to be almost invisible.  Mottled grey paint covered his skin, and irregular clothing broke up the outlines of his body.  For all the world he looked like a pile of rubble until he waved.
“I know this must look odd, but it should be familiar to many of you.  The smashed windows, the collapsed buildings, the abandoned vehicles.  This scene has been repeated countless times in countless battlefields.”  The instructor stood up, sweeping his camouflaging poncho over his shoulders to reveal a uniform not much different than the average.  The camouflage pattern was a mix of exaggerated pixels and more organic splotches of colour in a range of earthy tones.
“My name is Timid.  Time is limited, so I’ll get right to it.  This is not a glamorous subject, this is not going to get you flashy headlines and movie deals.  A hour isn’t a very long time to teach these skills, but maybe you’ll learn something that can help you survive.  I’m going to teach you how to run away and hide.  We will make our way to the far side of the room, and then turn around and come back.  On the way back this drone will be looking for you.  If it sees you it will chase you.  If it catches you it will stun you.  The only rule for this class is to escape and evade.  Let’s go.” 
An hour later Steve slunk out of the room, legs still a bit wobbly from the stun.  As Timid had said, there wasn’t much that could be taught in an hour, and of that precious little would stick with you.  Being stalked by a superior opponent really taught you something about yourself.  Neutral AI be damned, that drone was sadistic.  It had come from all directions, using senses keener than a human’s and it’s ability to fly to the utmost advantage.
Even with twelve people in the class, it had seemed one sided.  Through it all, Timid had offered quiet advice telling them where to step, when to remain motionless, and when to throw caution aside and sprint for safety.  Two guys had made it back to the entrance without being caught by the drone, at the expense of letting the drone stun the rest.
There was no easy path.  Glass and gravel would crunch underfoot, metal sheeting would echo and screech, unstable rubble would topple over.  The course of crossing the room had left him muddy, smeared with soot, and generally sweaty.  For how little strenuous movement there had been his heart was still pounding.  Nothing like being electrocuted to get your blood going.
Out in the hall a steady stream of people was headed towards the food court.  Some were immaculate, not a hair out of place or a wrinkle in their clothing.  A few others, those with mud stains and sweat glanced at one another and maybe exchanged slight nods.
Steve cut across the crowd to get to a washroom and get cleaned up a bit.  After that he followed the masses to the food.  Seating was haphazard, the original layout of tables and chairs had not survive the arrival of several hundred people.  Some tables had been pushed together into groups, other had been separated further from the others.  Steve ended up sitting next to some sort of magician who was apparently trying to reanimate a chicken thigh.  He ate quickly, suspicious that the special event would happen during lunch, or that his lunch would become ambulatory.
A teenaged girl and young boy on a flying carpet floated above the crowd, hawking cans of pop for two dollars to support youth camps.
Steve’s schedule after lunch was “First Aid” in room A-2, “Physical Training” in B-1, “Duelling” in A-3, and “Public Relations” in C-1.
First Aid and Physical Training were both familiar subjects, as they were two of the core subjects recommended for contractors.  They went by quickly, leaving him anxious for some duelling.
There was a full group clustered outside room A-3.  It figured that a combat class would draw the largest crowds.  There were at least thirty five people in the crowd.  Inside the room was a number of circles painted on an otherwise bare floor.  Four circles in all, each twenty feet in diameter.  No less than six event staff with medical badges were present, some of whom he recognized from the first aid class.
“Hello, hello.  As you all should know my name is Buster, host of Midwest Physical Superiority.  Four rings here, I will be pairing you up and you will have ten minutes to defeat your opponent.  Winner stays in the ring along with the next two names, and they fight it out until only one remains.”  Immediately after that he began calling out names.  None of the names were familiar, until Steve heard his own.
“Knuckle, ring four, versus Suncrusher!”  Buster did a double take, as though he had read the wrong name, then he looked up and shrugged.  Steve followed his gaze into the crowd.  There at the back of the group was an unassuming middle aged guy in blue jeans and a button up plaid shirt.
“Guess I’m busted.”  He said with a chuckle.  Without his costume he hadn’t been recognizable at all, even though he was as big a name as Mekzor.
“I’m really just here to watch, we don’t actually have to duel.  Unless you want to?”
Steve thought about for a moment, then swallowed his heart from where it was trying to escape in a sudden surge of adrenaline.
“Sure.  Let’s do it.”
Suncrusher cocked an eyebrow, a slight grin on his face.
“Knuckle, was it?  Let’s see what happens, eh?”
The two entered the ring, followed by cheering and catcalls.  The other duels had been momentarily postponed by the proposition of seeing a celebrity like Suncrusher fight.
The two men took opposite sides of the ring, eying one another.  Steve’s blood thundered like lightning, sending faint pins and needles racing through his limbs.  Suddenly the hairs on his arms were brushed by an invisible wind and Suncrusher’s fist clenched.  Pouring every bit of energy he had into speed Steve dashed forwards.  In the space he occupied a second ago there was an inrush of air followed by a burst of heat.  The compression pulled at his clothes.
Another invisible force appeared ahead of him so he rolled to the side.  He saw this one, a visible sphere of subtly distorted air that compressed down to a point and exploded outwards with a burst of flame.  More appeared, blocking off forwards movement.  Steve leapt upwards, diving over the spheres.  Another sphere, the largest yet began to form in the center of the ring.  The inwards force pulled at him even as he sprinted around the periphery.  He dashed in, seeing Suncrusher’s eyes widen slightly.  Steve went into a flying tackle, and was only inches away from Suncrusher when the pull of the sphere dragged him back.  The explosion threw him out of the side of the ring.
Steve rolled to a stop, staring at the ceiling with his ears ringing.  Suncrusher came over and offered him a hand up.
“Pretty good go.  You almost had me there.  You’re faster than you look. “
The rest of the class resumed as Steve found a wall to lean against.  Damn if that wasn’t bringing a fist to a cannon barrage.  It highlighted the main weakness of being a brute.  All the strength in the world wouldn’t help you if you couldn’t get close enough to punch.
In short order Suncrusher dispatched the next few groups of opponents.  After the first group the others stopped fighting each other and focused only on him.  Through it all he scarcely had to move a single step.  Even though he was using the low end of his power, he still crushed thirty opponents with ease.  Steve watched every fight, tracking every move.  The divide between powers was enormous, unreal.  Unacceptable.  There had to be something missing, some knowledge, some training that Suncrusher and the others like him had.  Why would he have oceans of power when people like Steve hit such an early plateau?  Was it just experience, the benefit of having wealthy sponsors and personal trainers, or was it some secret wisdom?  Could anyone do it, was it just a matter of all the pegs lining up with all the holes, or was Steve stuck with a square peg and a round hole?
A voice broke his reverie, 
“You did pretty good kid.  Don’t feel too bad, he’s something else.”  Buster stepped over with a bottle of water in each hand.  He offered one.
“Thanks.  Did you ever go up against him?”
“Yeah.  Once.  About ten years ago, and it wasn’t pretty. He humiliated me.  I barely even made it one step before those damn bubbles of his pulled me off my feet and threw me clear through the roof.  I had some time to think, laying up there.  I realized something about him, and you look like you might have figured it out.”
“We’re missing something.  Me, them, even you.  There’s something different about him.  It’s too easy for him, too powerful, too natural.”
“I thought the same thing back then, but then I realized how it really was.  I’ve known him for almost two decades now, and most people will just say I have a sore ego, but he hasn’t gotten any stronger in all that time.  Maybe it is my ego, and sure he’s gotten worlds more skilled with his power.  He can lift a kitten out of a tree and put it gently on the ground, and then use that same power to rip the tree out of the ground and turn it into splinters.  That’s skill, not strength.  I’m talking about real potency.  Fifteen years ago he could create so much pressure and heat that he could create a new element on the periodic table.  Now he can think of a lot more uses for his power, but he can’t produce any more pressure or any more heat.
Fifteen years ago I thought I was strong when I lifted the back end of a car off a lady’s leg.  Now I can lift that car right over my head.
Maybe it is just me trying to make myself feel better about it, but I don’t think that they’ve got anything we can’t get.  They start out in the lead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t catch up.”
“You really think so?  That’s not just a line to sell more protein shakes?”
“It true, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sell some product at the same time.”  He laughed and took a swig of water.  “I get a good feeling from you.  You’ve got potential.  If you’re interested, I think you could really benefit from our program.  Maybe in fifteen years you’ll be able to throw that smug bastard through the roof.”
“I never really planned on beating up old men, but it’s something to look forward to.  Yeah, that sounds like a great opportunity.”
“Good to hear it.  I’ll get together a package for you at the end of class.  Now I’ve got to get back to it.”  Buster tossed his empty bottle into the can by the door, then jogged out into the centre of the room.
“Alright, you, enough showing off.  I’ve got a class to teach here.”


Gargoyle 2.1


Blaithe looked around the room, Lucky was lounging on a couch while Steve and Kat were glaring at each other across the table.
“So, this is the plan.”  He clicked the remote and the projector displayed an image of girl in her mid teens, pale white skin, messy dark black hair, wearing an oversized sweater and clutching a black packpack.  She was stepping off a bus onto a littered sidewalk.
“This is Andree Nichell, age sixteen, she is to be considered extremely dangerous.  Her exact capabilities are unknown.  What is known is that approximately twenty five to thirty people have died in direct connection to her in the last few years.  Our mission tonight is to intercept her outside the soup kitchen on 68th Street and Midland.  Once we have her I would like to determine the nature of her ability, if she possesses one, and to offer her a spot on this team.
“Steve will be leading point on this one.  What questions do you have?”
“Equipment.  Lethal?” Steve asked
“Your discretion, but keep in mind that it might prompt a hostile reaction.”
“Okay.  Communication?  Preferably hands-free?  If the girl has a special friend I don’t want to get blindsided by it.”
“I can get headsets for your phones, plug and play.”
Steve leaned back and pondered.  What would happen if the girl attacked, or ran away, or transformed into a howling razorbeast?
“Suppose she runs?  Do we follow?”
“If you think it’s wise.  She’s been living on the streets, running might be her first instinct.  You might have to chase her to even get a chance to talk.”
“If she attacks?”
“Keep yourselves alive.  You’re not there to take her down, retreat if necessary.  Now, rundown.  Where do you want your people?”
Steve tapped his chin as he thought.  Three people.  Lucky was the obvious choice for point, she could probably only slow him down a bit, but two guys approaching might frighten the girl.  Having Kat approach might work, Andree might be slightly more inclined to trust her.  That would leave Lucky with the car.
“Lucky, can you drive?”
“Yes.”  He said, after slightly too long of a pause.
“Nevermind.  Okay, how about this.  Kat and I will approach the girl, Lucky I want you off to the side flanking her.  We can park the car, there’s not really much probability that we’ll need a car chase.  This is purely a talking mission, we don’t need to fight her.”  He couldn’t help glancing at Kat when he said it.”
“Don’t you look at me like that.” She glared at him and jabbed a finger at his face.
“I had a kink in my neck.  Sorry.  Any questions?”
“Can I have a taser?”  Lucky perked up, looking hopeful.
“Are you going to use it on me?”
“…no?”  He said with a complete failure to convince anyone.
“I’ll think about it.  Also, I’m sorry for tasering you the other day.  Please forgive me.”  Steve clasped his hands and bowed.  “Now, just so that everyone is on the same page, what will you be doing, Blaithe?”
“I will remain here, overseeing the team and monitoring the situation.”
“Okay, as soon as you have those headsets I’d like everyone to get familiar with them.  Other than that, you guys are contractors now, that means masks.  At the moment we just have generic balaclavas, in the future you can get something personalized.  The key idea is that you are not you, you are a nameless, faceless contractor.  If possible avoid the use of real names.  I’m Knuckle.  If anyone questions you, you refer them to me, and if necessary I will refer them to Blaithe. Anything you do directly reflects upon him, and this team as a whole.  Do you guys want me to go over the rules with you?”
“I’ve read them.” Kat said, sitting back and crossing her arms.
After a moment with no response, eyes turned to Lucky.
“What about you, Lucky?”
“What?”  The kid was lying on the couch, doing something with his phone.  He glanced up.
“Contractor handbook?  Want me to go over it with you?”
“Can I have a taser if I say yes?”
“No.  Just follow along and you’ll be fine.”  He looked around the room, “I think that’s everything.”
“That should be it.”  Blaithe checked his watch, “I’ll get those headsets, and let’s meet back here in one hour.  I want to be on site for seven.”  He switched off the projector and left.
“Good meeting.”  Lucky added, and then exited.
“Go team.”  Steve called after the two of them.
“Steve?” Kat asked as she stood up from the table.
“I regret this already.”  Then she left.
“I…uh.  Go team.”  Steve slumped forward, palming his face.
He spent a solid twenty minutes pondering if it would be worth just shooting Kat and burying her in the woods.  In the end he figured it probably wouldn’t kill her, and then she’d be even more unbearable after clawing her way out of a shallow grave.
With a deep sigh he slapped the table and went to take a shower.  Might as well look presentable when the others got back.  Kat was in the hallway outside the bedrooms, walking towards the stairs.  When she saw him coming she turned around and went back into her room.  At least she’d picked the one on the opposite side of the hall.  Sharing a wall with her would have been too much.  Suddenly he found himself really, desperately hoping that he’d slip in the shower and slowly drown.  That’d be fun.
What was it about her, that she managed to get inside his head?  Resolutely he marched over to her door.
“I know you can hear me.  I’m going to grow a moustache and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.  It’s going to be all patchy and make you neurotic and I’m never going to shave that one hair under my nose that vibrates when I breathe.”
She opened the door and glared at him.
“No you are not.”
“Yes I am.  I’m not going to shave it until you talk to me.”
“You are such an idiot.”  She shut the door in his face.
“Yeah, well…I can do what I want.”
Somehow she got the keys, probably from Blaithe, and she was sitting in the driver’s seat when the rest of them got to the garage.  She didn’t say anything to him the entire drive.
Steve stared out the window, watching traffic.  They passed a few other vehicles of masked people, exchanging wary glances.  A few polite nods, a few rude gestures, such was the life.  For the briefest of moments he met the eyes of a girl in a cheerleader outfit, wearing a stylized barbie mask, hugging a rocket launcher as she sat in the back of a bright red convertible mustang driven by a man in a gorilla suit.  Then they were gone, and he was left to wonder if it was worth ditching the mission to catch up to her.
Kat drove past the soup kitchen, then circled back around to park half a block east.
“I’ll be monitoring your progress, Knuckle, Ghoul, Red.  Keep me updated.” Blaithe said over the comms.
“Got your headsets working?” Steve asked.
“Let’s just get this done.” Kat got out of the car.
“I can hear you.” Lucky said.
“You’re a credit to the team.  I like you best.” Steve got out and followed Kat as she started walking towards the soup line.  It said something for their fortitude that the people there showed no real reaction to a group of  folks with masks walking up to them.  In short order, Steve spotted Andree towards the back of the line.  Their eyes met.  She took off running.
“What?  She doesn’t want to talk to me either?  Is this some kind of female conspiracy?”
Kat muttered something as she started the chase.  It sounded unpleasant.  Steve’s heart went out to that poor little girl, then he started running.  He needed to get their before Kat got violent.
“Where’d she go?” Lucky asked.
“She’s running north!”
Andree was fast, and she knew the area, but she lacked stamina.  Proper nutrition was likely hard to come by out here.  She ducked under some broken boards in a fence and rabbited into an apartment building.  Steve was feeling manly so he leaped over the fence.  Kat smashed through the hole in the fence, tearing it all the way open.  It made Steve feel decidedly less macho.
In all it took about five minutes to finally corner Andree in a derelict gas station.  She was slumped over, breathing hard.  A dark-skinned young man stood between her and the others.  He was as shabby as the others, but resolute.  Thick fog seeped out of his skin, rolling across the ground.  Already it was knee high, and rapidly spreading.
“Go away!” He shouted.
Steve held back from the fog.  Who knew what the guy could do with it.  Especially if this guy was the one turning people into sliced cold cuts when they got too close to Andree.
“Gas station.  She’s got a friend.” Steve said quietly for Lucky’s benefit, then continued a bit louder.  “We’re just here to talk.”
“What do you want?”  Andree asked.  She sounded terrified.  Steve knew that feeling.
“My boss is hiring, I’m here with a job offer.”
“For me?”  She didn’t sound like she believed it.
“Or for your friend, if he’s the one who caused the commotion at the asylum.”
“He had nothing to do with that!  Leave him out of this.”
“Don’t talk to them.  Let’s just go.”  The man tried to pull Andree towards the exit, but she shook him off.
“Why?  Why me?  What’s this job?”
“It’s good, solid pay.  Decent place to live.  The kind of contract to set you up for years.  From what we’ve seen you’ve got potential, and we want you on the team.”
“I can’t.”
“I’d like to try.  We can help you.”
“No!”  Andree stumbled, grunting in pain.  Steve looked at the fog guy, was he doing something?  The guy looked as surprised as the rest of them, so probably not.
“Are you hurt?  Is there anything I can do?  Something I can get you?”
“Just go.  Please just go.”  Andree tried to stand up, but fell to the floor again.
“I brought a phone for you.  It has my number programmed into it already.  If there’s anything I can do for you.  Just let me know, okay?”  Steve took the phone out of his pocket, and the fog guy immediately started screaming for him to drop it.  He obviously had no idea what was going on.
“Anything at all, doesn’t matter if it seems weird.  Used to work with a guy who needed to do yoga or he’d turn into a statue.  Even if you just want to talk.”  Steve put the phone on a shelf.
That was when Lucky walked in from the other door.
“Is she dead?”
The fog guy yelled, and a solid wall of fog rushed out in all directions.  In a second the room was filled, and visibility was reduced to inches.  Someone screamed from the far side of the room, and Steve stumbled as someone punched him in the side of the head.  The only person over there was Kat. Barely a second of reduced visibility and she hits him with a cheap shot? Really?
“You bitch!”  He dived at her murky form and crashed into the shelf.  She was nowhere to be found.  He flailed around, snagging a leg and dragging her down to the ground.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” She shouted as she elbowed him.
“You hit me.”
“Because you grabbed me, you spaz.”
“Daniel stop it!”  Andree shouted.  A moment later the fog began to fade.  Three sets of eyes turned to watch Steve and Kat thrash around and slap each other on the ground.
“What are you doing?” Lucky asked.
“You guys got some issues.”  The fog guy, Daniel, said as he stared at them.
Feeling self conscious, Steve stood up and brushed himself off.  Kat stalked away, rubbing the side of her head.
Andree was standing up again, looking amazed.  “This is better than cable.  So, about this job.  Is it going to be like this?  What would you want me to do?
“Well, you’d be working with us on whatever jobs the boss picks.  Working security, some investigations.  Maybe some fights.”
“You must be the good guys, right?  Because I’ve seen the bad guys, and their shit is a lot more together.”
“Uh, yeah.  We’re the good guys.”  Steve shrugged.
“Sorry for hitting you when you were in the fog.  I panicked.”  Daniel was now looking very uncomfortable.  On closer inspection he looked younger than at first glance, probably the same age as Andree or maybe a year older, but with a scruffy brown beard that made him look older.
“That was you?”  Steve froze, then glanced after Kat.  He swore quietly, and motioned for Lucky to follow her.  After a moment he turned back to Andree,
“Okay.  Our boss is interested in talking to you, if you would like we can drive you to the office to meet him.”
The girl glanced to the side, and then over at Daniel.
“It okay if I bring a friend?”
“That’s fine.” Blaithe said over the comms, and Steve echoed it.
The drive back to the office was extremely tense.  One glare from Kat was enough for Steve to let Lucky take the passenger seat.  Andree ended up sitting in the middle with Steve and Daniel on either side.
“You know who I am, so who are you?”  Andree asked.
“Knuckle.” The two teens shared a glance, failing to hide smirks.  “Yeah, I know.  It seemed cool when I was eighteen.”
“So do I get to pick my own costume name?”
“Sure.  You don’t have to, but there are many benefits to not using your real name.”
“Cool.  I was thinking something epic sounding like ‘Lady Phantasmo’ or something.”  She winced, and then muttered “Or not.”
Steve glanced over, had Daniel just jabbed her or had it been something else?  Carefully he looked around, maybe there was some credibility to the whole imaginary friend theory.  He couldn’t see any signs of someone invisible inside the car, not that there was any space for them unless they could pass through solid matter.  Slowly he glanced up towards the roof of the car.  Was some sort of murderous ghost perched up there, riding them back to the office?  That thought was almost as pleasant as the conversation he was going to have with Kat later on, regarding his massive overreaction earlier.
Blaithe was waiting for them in the parking garage.
“Good evening, my name is Blaithe Baggwell.”  They did introductions and shook hands.  Kat walked away and pulled off her mask as she was headed up the stairs.  Lucky lingered near Andree, eying her up in a very unsubtle fashion whenever he thought Daniel wasn’t looking at him.
“I should probably go after her, are you guys okay here?”
“Yes, I do believe we can handle it from here.”  Blaithe gave him a look indicating that he knew exactly what this was about.


Gargoyle 1.7

The armoury was still pretty barren, with only two scoped Remington 700 bolt action rifles, and two cheap surplus AR-15s.
On the plus side, he had counted six ammo cans of 7.62×51, and six cans of 5.56×45.  Assuming they were all still full, that put the inventory at slightly more than six thousand each.  It seemed like a lot, but in an emergency Steve had seen people go through several hundred rounds per minute.  Even a couple hours of practicing could almost empty an ammo can.
It was a popular statistic that an estimated twenty thousand pounds of bullets were shot during the siege of Montreal in 2014.
The corner of the room closest to the door was occupied by the lockers, and a low privacy wall.  Two rows of four lockers each were back to back, with benches in front of them.  The rest of that was was divided between a long workbench and some toolboxes.
Boxes of ammunition components were scattered around, a quick glance over gave him the impression that there was  enough here for several thousand each of the popular military cartridges.
Steve debated bringing his own person guns down for a cleaning, but he knew if he did he would end up spending all day in here.  He could already feel his wallet aching at all the things he was getting the idea to buy.  Regretfully he left the armoury and grabbed his jacket.  The team environment was making him a bit nostalgic, and it was as good an excuse as any to head to the city’s contractor depot.
The train platform was mostly empty at the moment, only a handful of other people.  Steve tapped his ID card against the scanner and pushed his way through the turnstile.  The waiting area was partitioned into five sections, corresponding to the cars of the train and separated by two inch thick reinforced glass.  Outbreak prevention protocols limited how many people were allowed into each section to reduce the number of possible contamination vectors.
Long gone were the days where everyone would stand in a big crowd.  Steve remember what that had been like, the mob instinct to stampede that flared up every time someone coughed.  Some places had calmed down, others had stuck with it and never removed the “emergency measures”.  For a while there had been mandatory curfews and rumblings about outlawing unauthorized gatherings.  That had lasted not very long at all.  Public transit was one of the major holdouts, due to massively inflated budgets thanks to efforts to reduce road congestion.   The upside was that the trains didn’t stink like vomit anymore, they now smelled like bleach and disinfectant.
The depot was located on the north side of the river, clustered into several groups of large buildings.  The face of the ravine revealed how far underground it extended, descending all the way to the river bank two hundred feet below.  Various landing pads and balconies dotted the exposed face of the complex, with a small dock for water craft below.
As the train crossed the bridge a small flock of UAVs fluttered around it, observing in a multitude of visual spectrums from every possible angle.   Their data was being transmitted to the server clusters deep underground, compared against archived information to search for threats and hazards.
The entrance of the tunnel was surrounded by nozzles that sprayed disinfectant onto the train as it passed through.  Even though the train was sealed airtight Steve held his breath.  Those things freaked him out.
The tunnel was well lit, no shadows for anything to hide, let alone an Infected.  Cameras, motion detectors, thermal sensors, and pressure plates set into the floor all worked together to ensure that nothing entered unannounced.  Other, less visible devices would ensure that nothing uninvited ever left either.
As the train coasted into position at the station red, green, and yellow lights began flashing above the doors.  After a few seconds only green remained, and the doors opened with a puff of air as the positive pressure inside the train vented out.
A few years ago Steve had been on a train and the light stayed yellow.  It had taken almost two hours for the trouble to be sorted out and anyone was allowed off the train.  Red lights didn’t stay on very often, when they did very bad things tended to happen.
The depot itself was separated from the station by a wall of reinforced glass doors.  As normal, only the centre two were open, leading to a vacant hundred foot perimeter.  In an emergency, the entire chamber could be hermetically sealed, and filled with any number of things from aerosolized bleach to fast-hardening liquid cement.
Beyond all the security precautions the interior was almost disappointingly normal.  A few groups of people lounged around the reception area.  Some of them paid no attention to the outside world, a few paid too much attention.  As soon as Steve walked in a loose cluster of three guys started eyeing him up.  Freelancers, new ones by the look of them.  They were wearing immaculate uniforms and masks, painfully blatant in how cleanly groomed they were.  Steve had found that two types of contractors obsessed over their appearance that much, those with no experience, and the ones who were truly terrifying because they were proficient enough that they could afford to spend all that time making sure every crease and fold was perfect.
The trio were ever so casually resting hands on their holstered pistols, as if they needed constant reassurance that they were in fact allowed to do it.
Steve remembered back when he bothered with all that posturing and presentation, it had been a singularly unpleasant period of time.  Leaving those memories behind he walked into the depot armoury.  He tried not to come here while he didn’t have a contract, it was too cruel to look at all the things he couldn’t buy, and too expensive to afford the things he could buy.  Today he had a mission though, so he went straight through the public retail area and into the restricted access section at the back.  He needed to scan in with his ID, and the door’s camera squinted at his face for almost long enough to seem suspicious.  Then the door slid open, and gave everyone behind him a glimpse at the hidden treasure inside.
“Hello, somefink I help you with?”  An elderly man loomed behind the counter, stooped with age yet still head and shoulders above most men.  He spoke with a think Russian accent and wore glasses that were only marginally thinner.  After a moment of scrutiny he scowled, “Oh.  It you.  What you want?”
“Do you not love me anymore?”  Steve was genuinely concerned.
“You leave me alone.”
“I didn’t have a contract.  Or money.”
“Why you no have money?”
“You know damn well since I gave it all to you.”
“Yes.  You did.”  Then the old man smiled, showing as many missing teeth as a jack o’ lantern.  “It has been long time, even for me.  Come here.”
Already the old man was reaching across the counter and with his deceptively thin hands clamped onto Steve’s jacket and pulled him in.
“I could stab you, old man.”  Steve wheezed as the elderly giant hugged him.
“You no have enough balls, little boy.”  Then the old man let him go and clapped him on the shoulder. “You will marry my daughter, Nika.”
“Nika is older than my mother, I’m not going to marry her.  Isn’t she still married to that Brian guy anyways?”
“Yeah, but I no like him.  You much better husband for Nika.”
“Okay, Ivan, I’ll think about it.”
Steve stepped back out of reach and glanced around.  This section hadn’t really changed much, the quantity of individual brands had changed but the overall amount of equipment was still here.  Guns, ammunition, body armour, and just about every other type of equipment a discerning contractor might need.
A few other folks were looking around, nowhere near the crush of the retail area.
“What you like?  You have money for me, yes?”
“Yeah, I found a new job.”
“Doing what?”
“Saving the world.”
Ivan made a disgusted noise and waved the idea away, “Okay hero, let me know how that works for you.  You need this.”  He pointed to a large beltfed machinegun displayed on the counter farther into the room.  A sign proclaimed that an extra crate of .50 caliber ammunition would get 25% off if purchased as a package, all for the low, low price of $7500.
Steve inspected it, and then hefted it at Ivan’s prompting, it had to weigh at least 30 pounds, and that was with no ammunition.
“I could save the whole goddamn world with this thing.”
“Is good.  You buy?”
Steve carefully set the rifle back down.
“Unfortunately not.  I need pistols, six of them, I’m thinking those trade in Glocks if you’re still selling those.”
“Why you want six?”
“One for each hand.  For some reason I’m team leader with this group, I need to get them equipped.  I’m thinking about taking them out for some team bonding.”
“You should kill Nazi.  Is good team bonding.  Will save world for sure.”
Steve had to stop and give Ivan a look.
“Have you been holding out on me?”
“Spill it, old man.”
“My memory is foggy.  I forget so many things.”  His eyes drifted over to the machinegun and he waggled his eyebrows.
“You are despicable.  I’ll call my boss.”
He got out his phone and called Blaithe.
“So, I have a possible source of information.  He says it has something to do with your line of interests.  Except he’s not going to talk unless he gets some money.”
“About how much money?”
Steve glanced around the armoury, “Umm, nine thousand? Yeah, nine.”
“Do you think the information is worth it?”
“I’ve known this guy a long time, we can trust him.”
“Okay.  Give me a minute and I’ll send you the money.  When I get back to the office I’ll need to talk to you.”
“Okay, thanks.”
Ivan laughed and clapped Steve on the back.
“Ah ha, nine thousand!  I like you.  Is good thing you don’t work for me.”
He waved over to one of the other men behind a different section of counter. “Come, come.  Put this in box, he is buying it!  I will get you lots of toy gun.”
Ivan went off into the back room to collect the pistols, and the other man began packing up the machinegun.
“Wow, I didn’t think he’d ever sell this.  What are you going to use it for, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I have no idea.”
After the money changed hands and the guns were packed up Ivan led the way to a small side office.  The walls of the office were covered in mementos from the past.  Mounted in a position of honour on the wall behind his desk was a life-scale poster of a much younger and superhumanly muscular Ivan standing triumphant above a battered and broken android.  The poster was signed by the photographer, Lens, and dated August 15th, 1962.
The old man rummaged through the shelves for a few moments before finding a ring with an eagle crest and an occult symbol on it.  He handed it to Steve, who held it up to the light.
“Okay, now I’m curious.  This was from The Thousand, right?
“Da.  Die Tausend.”  He indicated the poster behind him. “Not make me as famous as robots, but good fight.  They mostly all dead after fifties, but some move away so I not kill them.  By then The Thousand  mostly just hang in mother’s basement praying to devil.  No fun beating up wimp so I move to Canada to wrestle bear.
“Anyway I talk to my friend Dan last month and he says grandson Anton coming to visit.  Anton is in The Thousand, he some kind of supervillain or something now and want to summon devil and kill everyone.  Is stupid plan, not going to work anyways.”
“Why not?”
“Devil not going to come.  I already beat him up in Russia.”
“You beat up the Devil?”
“Da.  He not so tough.”
“Okay.  So do you know where this Anton kid is?”
“Da.  I will send you email.  Have good pictures.”  Ivan began typing on his computer.
“Who is this Dan guy you mentioned?  Is he German?”
“Is Nazi.”
“So why didn’t you kill him?”
“I retire.”  He shrugged,   “We play squash now.”
Steve just had to laugh. “Alright.  Thanks for the information.  I should get back to the office now.  It’s been good seeing you.”
“Da.  Come back soon, tell me about beating up Nazi.  If you see devil tell him I willing to do rematch, give him fair fight.”
Just then, Steve’s phone chimed, the email had arrived.  He opened the message, and contained within the various photos of soldiers and scientists and sorcerers were a few candid shots of a nude woman.  When Steve glanced over at Ivan the old man gave him a thumbs up.
“Is Anton’s mom.”


Gargoyle 1.6

Morning broke with the sound of shattering glass.  Steve groaned and flailed at the noise before realizing it was coming from the next room.  The girl must be awake.
Still dressed, it didn’t take him long to get to the door.
She was shouting something, pounding on the inside of the door.  Steve grabbed his phone and sent a message to Blaithe.
When the door swung open she jumped back.
“It’s you!  You…guy!”
“You remember me, that’s good.  My name is Steve.  Last night you were pretty out of it, falling asleep in the hallway.  I brought you here because…well it’s safer than leaving you there.  What’s your name?”
“Let me out of here.  I want to go home.”
“Okay, do you have a bus pass, or cab money?”
She looked even more unsure than before, thinking hard about it.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s alright, I can give you a ride.  You didn’t have a bag or anything with you when I saw you last night, did you lose your purse?”
“If you want we can go back to the warehouse and look for it later.  I’m about to make some breakfast now, are you hungry?”
She looked like she was, very much so by her violent nod.
“There’s a washroom and showers down the hall on the right if you want to get cleaned up.   There’s…something in your hair.  Should be some spare clothes in there as well, if you wanted to get out of whatever it is you’re wearing.  Is that a wetsuit?”
She rubbed a finger on the fabric over her stomach, “No.”
“Okay.  Down the hall, on the right.  I’m going to go put some food together.  Come down the stairs when you’re ready.”
Slowly he backed away from the door.  When he was out of the way she darted past and ran into the bathroom.
“I’m going downstairs. Okay?”  She didn’t answer, so Steve left.
He went down to the kitchen and started to make some toast.  After a moment’s consideration he also put on a pot of oatmeal and a pan of bacon and eggs.  Probably best to cover all bases here.  His phone chimed, showing a message from Blaithe.
“On my way, keep her busy.”
A few minutes later Lucky came walking down the stairs.
“So, uh.  Apparently there’s naked girl in the shower.”
“Yes.  I probably should have mentioned that.”
“You completely forgot I was here, didn’t you?”
“A little.  I’m not used to having people around.”
“I figured that out, what with you being down here and her up there.  Naked.”
“So why’d you come down here if you saw her in there?”
“That makes sense, I suppose.  So why did you go into the bathroom if you didn’t know she was in there?  Did you think I was in there?”
Lucky didn’t have a chance to respond before the girl came down the stairs.  She was wearing one of the grey and black uniforms, her hair slick with water.  In the baggy clothes she looked even younger than before, definitely teens.
“I didn’t say I didn’t know she was in there.”  Lucky said and grabbed a piece of bacon.  He stood up and pulled out a chair for her.
“Hi!”  He said enthusiastically. 
She echoed the greeting but sounded rather less confident about it.
“I wasn’t sure what you’d like so I’ve got a bit of everything here.  Just grab what you want.”  Steve set the dishes on the countertop.
She took a piece of toast and nibbled at it, sitting at the stool farthest away.
“So, I’m Lucky.  What’s your name?”
“Yeah, on account of me being so lucky.  Well my name’s actually Shui, but that just confuses everyone since I’m not Chinese.”
An awkward silence stretched on, until Steve  finally broke it.
“So, what do you remember from last night?  I don’t think I’d seen you around the Pits before.”
“I heard the noise.  It was so loud.  Bright.  Everything was dizzy.”  She was unsure, hesitant.
“Did you take something?  Did someone give you a drink?  You looked like someone had slipped you a roofie.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m sorry to badger you like this, but I don’t like seeing girls in trouble.  Last night could have gone very wrong.  I’ll stop asking now, but you can let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”
“So, what’s your name?”  Lucky asked while nibbling from a crisp piece of bacon.
“Mhh…”  She murmured indecisively as she contemplated the countertop.  “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?  What do you remember?”
“Lights and sounds.  Then the cold dark.  People, crowds.  You.”
“Do you know where you are?  What city?  What year?  When you were born?  Your parents?”
“I don’t know!” She shouted, then sank against the countertop.  “I should know, but I don’t.”
“I suppose it could be an aftereffect of whatever drug you were on last night.  Give it some time and everything might come back to you.”  Steve said, trying to be reassuring.
“Well, we should start with the important things first.”  Lucky said, holding up a piece of bacon.  “Do you know what this is?”
“Bacon.  I’m not an idiot.”
“But what is it made of?”
“It’s…meat.  Yeah, it’s…”  She trailed off, eyes wide”It’s made of people!”
Lucky was stunned into silence.  He looked at Steve for support.  The girl snorted, head buried in her arms.  Steve laughed.
“What?”  Lucky asked.
“It’s a joke.  Soylent Green.  Old movie about people getting turned into food pills?”
“I must have missed that movie while I was growing up in an apocalyptic wasteland where even the gods fear to enter.  I was right, though.  She does remember something, if she remembers some old movie.”
“You’re right.  Good thinking.”
“Well anyways we need a name for you until you remember your real one.  What do you want to pick?”
“That’s not the worst name I’ve ever heard of.  I suppose it will have to do.”
She glared at him but didn’t lift her head from where it rested on her arms on the countertop.
“You got something better in mind?” 
“As a matter of fact I do.  Lien.”  He pronounced it as two distinct syllables
“What kind of name is that supposed to be?  I’m not Chinese.”
Lucky wordlessly got up and walked away, headed for the stairs.
She stared after him, “What?”  Then she looked at Steve, “I’m not Chinese.  Am I?”
“A little.  I dunno?”
Some time later they finished eating and Steve started clearing away the dishes.
“So what is this place?”  Lien asked, with a curious look around.
“Our office.  Well, Lucky and I live here.  The guy who owns the building, our boss, lives at his own house.”
“What do you do.”
“Private security, more or less.  Do you know what Contractors do?  The Corporation?”
“Well, basically it’s slavery with benefits.  We sign up for specific jobs, and in return we get exemption from normal laws when doing those jobs.  The downside is that we don’t get to claim the protection of certain laws that “people” can.  We’re corporate property.”
“Is it worth it?”
Just then the basement door opened and Blaithe arrived.
“Good morning.  I see our guest is awake.  How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine.”
“Good to hear.  Any good news for me, Steve?”
“Not really.  She doesn’t remember much , whatever happened last night really took it’s toll.”
“Well, miss, I’d be happy to give you any help I can.  You’re welcome to stay here for as long as you like.  My name is Blaithe Baggwell.”
“Thanks.  I’m, uh, Lien, I guess.”
“You don’t sound very sure of that.”
“I’m not very sure of anything.”
“If you would like, I could get my doctor to run some tests and see if they can figure out what happened to you.  If it was a drug, there could be other people in the same situation right now.  Except they might not have anyone helping them.”
“I’m going to run upstairs for a minute.  Are you going to be okay with him?”  Steve asked Lien.
“I guess.”  
As he headed for the stairs the Blaithe started talking about his doctor friend.  Lucky was up in his room, sitting in the corner.  Steve walked over and sat down beside him.
“Go away.” The boy said.
“In a minute.  Give it time.  She’s confused and I’m sure she didn’t mean any insult.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The name you chose, Lien.  It’s like your name, Shui, because she’s like you.  She doesn’t remember who her parents were, she doesn’t know what name they picked for her.  It was a very nice thing to do, but it’s a bit above her head at the moment.”
Lucky picked at his sleeve.  Steve continued.
“There’s going to be someone coming over, today or tomorrow.  A new member of the group.  Her name’s Katherine Red, a pit fighter if you haven’t heard of her.  She’s generally a decent person, but she’s got some control issues, so don’t get too worked up if she starts getting in your face.
“Tomorrow night I’d like to go talk to another prospective member.  She’s sixteen, a bit closer to your age.  Goes by the name of Andree Nichelle.  I’m going to be honest here, it sounds like she’s dangerous.  We don’t know exactly what she does or how she does it, but people have died near her. I’m not going to force you to come.  If you want to stay here with Lien that’s fine.”
“What’s her deal?”
“Things around her tend to get damaged, people tend to get hurt.  There’s a lot that’s not clear.  According to psychiatrist’s reports she’s got an imaginary friend of the violent sort, but we aren’t quite sure if she’s crazy, or haunted, or if that’s her ability.  Or all of the above at the same time, that’s possible too.  Maybe she doesn’t have powers but some secret admirer is following her around attacking things they think threaten her. The key point is that approximately two dozen people have died near her in the last few years under suspicious circumstances.”
“So why aren’t we leaving her alone?
“Blaithe feels the need to stack his deck.  You’re just about invulnerable from what I’ve seen, but we need offence.  If Andree does what it says on the tin, she has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares.  Her therapist was torn apart while she was in a different city, and she has a perfect alibi with a handful of people to say she never left, but she knew exactly how the scene looked.  That’s what is making me suspect that it’s not her with the power, maybe she’s got an evil fairy godmother,  but if she can do that I want her on my side.”
“How many people are getting invited to the team?”
“Well, Blaithe gave me about ten nominations, but there’s only five spots on the team.  So, the two of us plus Katherine, plus two others.  You want to take a look at the files?”
“Nah.”  Lucky stood up and stretched.  “You know, you’re not so bad at this.  I’m going to take a walk.”
Steve stayed sitting for a while longer, pondering.  After a few minutes he pulled out his phone and called Kat.  
“Do you want me to drop your car off at your house?”
“I moved.”
“Oh.  So, where do you want me to leave it?”
“I’ll come by in a few hours.”
“Do you want to meet for lunch?  I can tell you about the rest of this job?”  By the end of the sentence he was talking to a dead line after she hung up on him.
Blaithe and Lien were gone by the time he went downstairs, so he just went back upstairs to read through the other files.  
Since it was the first one he looked at, he started reading the file for the soldier.
Richard Dunn had been 18 when the Red Spring started on January 11th, 2001.  That afternoon he went to his local army recruiting station and enlisted in the infantry.  After basic training he was selected for Red Company, which was being specifically trained to combat the infected.  He was front line during the First Incursion, and for the next fourteen years he was among the first in and last out during all major combat operations against the Infected in Canada.
Much of the exact details were redacted, but the general gist was there.  Through the riots, the relocations, the sieges, the counter offences,  Dunn was there for it all and he got it done.  Regardless of his personal skill, there’s only so many times you can jump into a fire without getting burned, and his entire left leg had to be amputated as well as his third, forth, and fifth fingers on his right hand.
In 2015 he was honourably discharged, and spent a few months in rehab.  From there he spent some years in university and in 2020 he opened his own business, travelling around and hosting training courses relating to first aid, marksmanship, survivalism, and combat.
Steve set the file aside.  Altogether, Dunn looked like a solid candidate, it didn’t sound like losing parts of himself had slowed him down much, and his experience training others would more than pay for itself.  The real question would be if he willing to actually sign on to the team, or if he’d only be available for certain occasions to conduct training sessions.
Suddenly in the mood, Steve went down to the armory to get a proper idea of exactly what Blaithe already had in stock.


Gargoyle 1.5

She was awoken by blinding light.  Everything was warm and thick and hazy.  Something hard covered her mouth and gripped her tight around her neck.  It pumped air into her, forcing her to breathe. Indistinct clusters of light and shadow moved in front of her.  Vibrations tickled her skin.  She was curious, but so tired.  Gradually the distractions went away and she fell asleep again.
The next time she awoke was in darkness.  Everything was cold and still.  She did not know what had awoken her, there were no lights, no movement, no vibration.  Even the thing on her face had stopped pumping air.  Yes, that was it.  There was no more air.  With growing alarm she struggled her way to awareness, trying to breathe but the dead mask clung tight to her face.  Everything was thick, movement was slow, was she underwater?  Something pulled at her back, keeping her floating.  Her fingertips brushed something hard and unyielding in front of her, glass?
Desperate, she clawed at her restraints, unable to see her own hands.  Cylindrical, smooth, tubes?  They were stuck, resisted being pulled out until they were twisted.  One by one she pulled out the six tubes connected to her back.  As she did, light blossomed around her.  It blinded her, but showed that the liquid around her was draining.  Quickly she pulled the mask off and gulped the air.  The air was disgusting, thick with an indescribably foul stench.
She retched a single time before the glass in front of her slid open and she fell forwards.  A hard metal grate caught her, and she watched the last of the liquid drip through it.  The air down here was better, only a faint trace of whatever that stench had been.
She lay there for a long while, slowly becoming more alert.  How had she gotten here?  Where was here?   Who was she?
As her awareness grew, she became more alarmed.   She knew nothing about herself, but had fragments of knowledge about the world around her.  She knew that she was lying on a metal grate.  She knew that she had been in a tank of liquid.  She knew that she was cold.  She knew that shivering like this was bad.  She knew she needed to move and stay warm, but how?
Eventually the cold became too much to bear and she struggled to stand.  Weakness prevented her from standing by herself so she used the tank for support.  The room was small, crowded with machines.  Some clothing hung from a peg on the wall near the door.  Duplicates of what she wore.  It was a dark grey one-piece bodysuit with a zipper up the front, covering everything except her head, hands, and feet.  Despite being thin it was tough.
When the novelty of being upright faded she began to explore.  Her room connected to a hallway.  The hallway connected to other rooms.  They were dark, and cold, and still.   Some faint sound drew her down the hallway.  She came to the end of the hall, arriving at a door.  It swung open when she pushed it.  There were some more lights out here, the sound was louder too.  Behind her the door swung shut with a click.
The sound led her through some hallways to a large room with a crowd.  So much sound and light and motion, dazzling her.  It was too much, she bumped into people and stumbled into walls.
Some people made noises at her, but she didn’t have time to listen.  She had to get out, but the way back had been lost in the crowd.  Someone yelling drew her attention to a doorway, and she ran for it. 
She reached the blessed dark and relative quiet, falling against the wall.  Someone approached her, making noises.  Gradually they started making sense.  He helped her sit up.
“Hey, Space Cadet?  You okay?”
“Fishbowl.”  It was the first word that came to mind.
“You is just all fucked up, aren’t you?  Did you take some bad acid or something?
“I am a fish.”
“Yes you are.  Shit I don’t need this right now.  Do you need a ride, do you want me to call you a cab?”
“I’m not a cab.  I’m tired.”
“Right. Is there someone I can call for you?  Do you have any friends here?”
“You’re here.” 
“Well at least you’re not an angry drunk.”  From outside the crowd roared deafeningly loud.  She tried to pull him closer to block out the sound.  “Okay, that’s my cue.  You are nice and all, but you are way too far gone.”  He tried to move away but she held on.  “Come on, let go, and you can have a nice sleep all by yourself.”  
The crowd roared again, and he sighed, “Hell, I can’t leave you here with these animals.  Let’s get you outside. Upsy daisy.”  He helped her to her feet and she leaned heavily on him.  Staying awake was too much effort. 
He picked her head up from where it was lolling against his shoulder.   All of a sudden his hand froze on the back of her head.
“What exactly is attached to the back of your head?”
“Amoeba.”  It made sense when she decided to say it.
He put one of her arms over his shoulder, “Yup.  Now I’m curious.  And we’re walking. That’s right.”
Gradually they made their way outside, making it all the way to the car before she fell asleep.  He unlocked the door and got her more or less situated onto the back seat.  A long moment passed while he stared at her, then he shut the door and stepped away from the car.  He got out his phone and tapped through a few menus. 
“Hey, it’s Steve.  You ever hear of people with metal ports on the back of their heads?  Yeah, like that.  On a girl, maybe still in her teens, wearing some kind of bodysuit.  Kinda looks like a wetsuit.  Didn’t say.  Trust me, there are no pockets on it, and she’s far too young and drunk for me to be looking at anywhere else she might be hiding some ID.  She’s passed out on the backseat of Kat’s car.  I’ll bring her in.  Gotta go, fight’s almost over.”
Steve hung up.  He looked at the girl sprawled in the car, brown hair still wet and clinging to the upholstery, mouth open and drool dripping down her cheek.
“What a night.”  He went inside, with no idea at all how he’d explain this.
He found Kat on the floor of the storage room, whimpering and twitching.  Her power may have healed the injuries, but the pain lingered even after the flesh was whole again.  Steve hated to see her hurt, the same as she felt about him.  He knelt down and grabbed her hands.
“Give it to me.”
“I…need it.”  She moaned and writhed.
“Don’t do this to yourself.  Give it to me.”
“Just shut up and do it!”
Agony raced up his hands where he touched her, the pain smashing into him like a full-body explosion.  He felt every punch, every kick, the distinct feeling of his ribs breaking and the wet sucking of a punctured lung.  Kat shuddered in the sudden absence of the pain.
He grunted and bore it down, crushing it with force of will and long practice.  After a moment they were both breathing easier.  He patted himself down, verifying that he wasn’t actually hurt even though his brain was screaming that he was.  Already the sensation was fading, it was as brief as it was intense.
“I want a smoke.”  Kat said after a long while.
“That stuff’s bad for you.”
She snorted, “Didn’t say I was going to have one.  We don’t always get what we want, do we?”  
They stood up, and she grabbed her bag.
“Listen, I should tell you…uh, well.  There’s a girl in your car.  I kind of need you to give us a ride to the office.”
“What?  You show up like this…and we…and you want me to give your girlfriend a ride?”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know her name.”
“You didn’t ask her?”
“She’s unconscious.  Drugged.”
“You drugged a girl and you want me to help you kidnap her?”
“No!  Well yes.  But someone else drugged her, or maybe she drugged herself, but I do want you to drive us.  Just come out to the car and I’ll show you.”
They went out to the car, and Steve showed Kat the equipment attached to the back of the girl’s head.  
“How did you even get her in there?”
“I still have the key.  I never really thought of a good way to give it back.”
“Just take the car.  I need time to think right now.  I’ll call you tomorrow.”  She turned  and started walking away.  Steve started after her, then glanced back at the sleeping girl.  He couldn’t leave her defenceless in this neighbourhood, within an hour someone would likely smash the window to get at her.  Kat could take care of herself, when she had a mind to.
He looked at the sleeping girl, “Better get you tucked away before you wake up.  That would just be awkward.”
Back at the office, they were met by Blaithe in the garage. 
“Back of her head, take a look at it.” Steve turned on the overhead light for better illumination.
Blaithe swept the girl’s hair to the side, peering at the hardware on her skull.  He frowned thoughtfully.
“The surrounding skin does not show any signs of damage or inflammation.  No scars.  If I had to guess I would say it’s been in there a long time, or it has been healed by some advanced method.  Certainly does look like something plugs into here, I think you were right about that.”  He tilted her head one way, and then the other, tracing a fingertip over her skin before examining the collar of her bodysuit.  “Markings on her neck and behind her ear. Maybe from a strap of some kind?  A mask?  That would seem to match this suit.  I’m not familiar with it, but it does have the general styling of a dive suit.  Curious.  Let’s take her upstairs, see if a few hours on a bed will wake her up.”
 They carried the unconscious girl up to the third floor and put her in the room beside Steve’s.
“Almost makes me feel young again.  I haven’t done that since college.” Blaithe chuckled. “I’m going to go knock on some doors, see if anyone has some information about this young lady.  Give me a call when she wakes up.”  He left, dialling a number on his phone.
“Will do.”
Steve shut the door and went to find Lucky, best to let the kid know what was going on.  He found the boy on the second floor, lounging on the couch and playing a videogame.
“Hey, we’ve got an unexpected  visitor upstairs.  She’s sleeping in the room next to mine for now.  Pretty significant chance that she’s going to freak out when she wakes up so I wanted to let you know.”
“It’s not the girl you went looking for?  Who is she?”
“No idea.  I found her tripping out on something at the pits and brought her back here.  Yeah, that sentence sounds perfectly normal.”
“Does she know you brought her here?”
“Probably not.  It was a bit rushed, wasn’t expecting on picking up any strays.”
“So, you kidnapped her?”
“Pretty much.”
“Okay.  Wanna do some co-op?”  He gestured towards the tv, where the game was paused in the middle of massacring a mob of sword-wielding enemies.
Several hours later, Steve checked on the girl.  She was still sleeping.  He left a glass of water and an energy bar on the desk, and that more or less exhausted his bedside manner.  On second thought he grabbed a bucket and a pack of tissues and left it by the bed.
Back in his room he examined the drywall he had put up earlier, the paint was dried.  A professional looking job, if he had any say in it.  For a few minutes he toyed with his phone, debating calling Kat.  Part of him was disappointed she hadn’t called him yet, another part hoped she never did.
He hated this feeling, knowing that any choice he made would be the wrong one.  The ceiling didn’t offer any wisdom, but he stared at it anyways.  Underneath the bandaid his nose throbbed in time with his pulse.
After some time he admitted that he wasn’t going to fall asleep yet.  Heaving a sigh he grabbed the stack of personnel files and picked one he hadn’t read yet.
Gunn Mawai was born in 2001 in Vancouver, but left home at a young age.   Exactly when this happened is unclear because his parents took several years before filing a missing person’s report, and they only did that after being questioned by police in connection to a drug bust.  Neither of them was entirely sure when they had last seen their son.
In 2018 Gunn was arrested in connection with a series of robberies near Banff.  At first it was typical snatch and grab robberies, but he escalated to a bank robbery and got trapped inside the bank when the doors locked and he was caught inside the vestibule.  Police arrived and arrested him, but he escaped once they brought him outside the building.  Officers on the scene reported that the kid somehow got out of his handcuffs in the back of a locked patrol car and escaped on foot.
Six months later Gunn struck it big when he successfully robs a different bank, in Canmore.  Camera footage shows him apparently turning invisible and entering the vault during business hours.  Only on later investigation was he even spotted, as he was still casting a shadow on his way into and out of the vault.  In an amateur mistake he was also caught on camera as he reappeared outside the bank and removed his mask.
In the five years since then Gunn has been spotted often and caught seldom, gradually accumulating the experience and tricks to smoothen his life of crime.  Because no one has managed to pin him down for long enough to get a good look at how his power works it’s unsure how it works.  No one can confirm if it is unreliable invisibility, or infrequent short range teleportation.  Or both, or neither, or some other strange power.
Steve lay back and pondered that one.  Unusual powers were hard to quantify, they could have ultimate utility or futility, all depending on a few minor details.  If Gunn could become invisible but still have a shadow some of the time that was quite a bit less useful than if he could partially shift into other dimensions or something along those lines.
It was an interesting possibility, but it was just one of several things to consider.  He closed the file and tossed it back on the pile.
Deciding to make it somewhat more organized, he moved the ones he had already read into a separate pile.  That left him with four files.  Skimming through them he saw a soldier, a veteran of the Red War who had been discharged last year on disability because of an amputated leg.  Second was a convict, currently in jail for drug possession and due for release next week, who was skilled with computer systems.  Third was supposed to be a magician of some kind, he apparently knew some spells for information gathering and protection.  Fourth was another pit fighter, with physical enhancement powers.  Fifth was a former college athlete who’d switched careers to bodyguarding.
Steve leaned back and tapped his chin.  The first guy, the ex-soldier would be an asset in training the others, even he didn’t have both feet on the ground.  The third, the magician, could potentially be a vital trump card, if his powers were actually worthwhile.  Beyond that, only the second guy would really be bringing any new capability to the table, the others were just more muscles.
Tonight was feeling like a night for the weird so he took the file for the magician.
Tristram, real name unknown, has gotten a reputation as an eccentric information broker and freelance contractor specializing in subterfuge and stealth. His first appearance was during the spring of 2020, when he approached the families of some missing persons and used his powers to uncover their whereabouts.
From there he went on a nation wide hunt to track and destroy a cult seeking to start their own outbreak.  That got him quite a bit of positive reputation, and he was able to secure himself a position as a freelance contractor.
His exact power is unknown, though evidence indicates that he can effect various beneficial traits at one time or another.  Regularly he has had access to information that should not have been available to him, such as the contents of documents encrypted on a server, and he has a knack for knowing names of people he has never met.  On several occasions he has exhibited a superhuman sense of smell, sufficient to track and identify a specific person.  On at least one other case he has used some type of sorcery to locate a missing person via their personal possessions.  On one notable occasion he created a magical barrier to contain an infectious outbreak.
When questioned about the nature of his power, he has claimed to have been granted many boons by the queen of the Fey.  The exact nature of this queen is not known, nor is her identity.
Steve put the file aside and pondered.  Information could be a powerful tool, if used correctly.  He hadn’t met many magicians, they tended to either be rare or secretive.  Often their versatile powers came at the cost of some special vulnerability.  It was something to consider, whether or not it would be worth bringing him in.  Some times what a magician could do for you was less important than what you could prevent him from doing against you.  Controlling information could be a decisive strategy. 


Gargoyle 1.4

Alone in the old storage room Kat hopped up and down, getting amped up for the imminent fight. The need was building inside her, growing hotter and more powerful the longer she waited. She needed to fight, to hurt, to feel that oh so glorious rush of violence and the absolute certainty that she was still alive.

From behind her came a chirping, her cellphone laying atop a gym bag. She’d already changed into suitable clothes, an old tanktop and sweatpants. Nothing to restrict movement or be grabbed by her opponent.
Grabbing the phone she read the message and bared her teeth, it was time.

The crowd was already producing a dull roar from the main room. The sound felt like a physical force as she opened the door. The current combatants were just finishing up, one man flopping ineffectually on the mat while the other was only marginally more hale, leaning forward with hands on thighs for support. Money was changing hands all around, people were screaming in celebration or derision.
This was it, this was the life.

“Kat!” Just like that her good mood crashed down. That damned voice. She whipped around. It was him. For a moment she had hoped it had been a cruel trick of her imagination.
“Just hear me out! I need to talk to you for a minute, please.” He held his hands up.

Kat grabbed him by the collar of his grungy denim jacket and hauled him into the storage room. She slammed him against the wall and then slammed the door. For a few moments they stared at each other.
“Forty seconds left.” She broke the silence.
“I want you. For a job. A good job, proper contracts, good pay.”
“Why exactly should I even consider it, coming from you?”
“Because…it will…if the boss is right, we stand a better than average chance of getting gangraped by demons.”
“Two to five year contract, fifty grand salary plus a share of forty percent of all gains from jobs, most expenses paid, plus a live-in office, apocalypse prophecy. If it doesn’t come true, that’s still a damn good option and it gives you a way into the industry. If it is true then we all die painful, fiery death. That’s pretty much exactly what you said you wanted, right?”
“Well there’s a prophecy about the Harbingers and apparently they’ve been spotted and–”
“That’s not what I meant!” She cut him off, “Why did you come back? Why do you keep doing this?”
“I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? That didn’t stop you from abandoning me! You left!” She shoved him back into the wall.
“You know damn well why I left. I didn’t want to hurt you, I still don’t.”
“But you did anyways, you hurt me more than anything I wanted you to do would.”
“I can’t do that for you. I care about you too much.”
“Yeah, you care so much that you walked the fuck away when I needed you most. Why the hell do you keep lying to yourself? You liked it.”
“I left because I do care. What you want…I can’t. I just can’t. Nobody deserves that.”
“I deserve it!” She screamed and slapped him, then looked at his face in confusion as though seeing him for the first time. “What the hell? Why do you have a bandaid, why is your nose busted up?”
“I hit my face on a window yesterday.”
The glare she gave him could have peeled paint off the wall.
“So what, you’re masochistic now?”
“I’m trying to stay low profile.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“No. You know what, just forget this. Enjoy the apocalypse.”

Steve turned around and started to open the door. Kat kicked the door shut, crushing his hand. Bone snapped audibly. Steve roared and spun around, backhanding her with his other hand. They fell to the ground, punching and clawing at each other. He was stronger, forcing her arms aside and grabbing her throat.
“Stop…lying…to…yourself!” She gasped out as he choked her.
“Fuck you!” He screamed in her face. With disgust he rolled off her and stood up.

“Heal it. Please.” She gasped, staring at his broken hand with conflicted anguish and hunger in her eyes. He looked down at his hand, the bone bent and giving his index finger an extra joint. The skin was torn open, exposing glistening muscle underneath. The wound was not bleeding, giving it an oddly artificial appearance.
“No.” He said, and turned to leave.
“Heal it. I’ll take the damned job just heal it!” She cried.

Slowly the blood flowed over the wound, ignoring gravity and the broken blood vessels. Gradually the wound closed and the bone straightened itself. In a few moments no trace remained.
Steve extended the hand to Kat, pulling her up off the ground, pulling her into a hug.
“I’m trying to keep some things private. This group doesn’t know about me. They don’t know about us. Not everything anyways, they know we fought in the pit, but that’s it. I’d like to keep it that way, I don’t need any complications right now.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t be who you want, who you think you need. You deserve better than that.” His head perked up, “They’re calling your name. Go. We can talk later.”
Kat threw the door open and stomped away, pushing through the crowd. She needed to hit something.

Steve leaned against the wall, banging his head. A moment later he did it again, harder. He was being stupid again. One minute with her and the entire last year fell apart. As soon as he saw her all the lies crumpled and he turned into an animal.
Before he knew what he was doing he punched the wall. Something in his hand snapped, probably the same bone that had just healed. Everything he had went into the next punch, no time to think except to punch until it stopped hurting.

Time gets a little weird when you’re experiencing mind-altering pain. It felt like hours later when he slumped to the ground. He was exhausted and his hands throbbed with a persistent dull ache. Even despite all his efforts to heal it the pain lingered. It was…clarifying. Everything was reduced down to a single issue. Things were simplified again, at least for a while.

Interlude 2 – Samurai pt. 1

Gargoyle Interlude 2-Samurai pt. 1

Colin wiped sweat out of his eyes, grimacing as two soldiers died in the split second his hand was off the controls.  Smoothly he grabbed the joystick again as his left hand danced across the keyboard.  Finely tuned settings let him control the mechsuit with the precision of a surgeon.  His enemy was hiding behind a cluster of houses at the far side of the valley.  They had the high ground, and in a deft maneuver had stolen the artillery that had been abandoned in the town.  Now those guns pounded rhythmically, launching explosive shells at the forces struggling their way up the hill.
He had joined late, a brief power failure had forced him to wait breathlessly until he could deploy.  Thankfully a fresh mechsuit had been available, sparing him the fate of the infantry that now tried to huddle behind him for cover.
“Davies, Turner, I’m launching smoke, go right!”
At his command smoke grenades shot out of launchers on his back and bounced onto the ground a few meters ahead.  In a few seconds grey smoke billowed thickly and obscured sight.  The artillery fell silent, conserving ammunition.
Heavy support teams ran forwards, diving into cover and readying their anti-tank rifles.  When the smoke cleared, that artillery would learn a thing or two about taking potshots at the enemy.
Colin ran left, hoping that the others were flanking right.  If they weren’t he would be opening himself to a full artillery barrage.  The smoke was already clearing and a few scattered shots were sounding.  One lucky shot hit Colin in the face only to ricochet off the suit’s visor.  They’d need something bigger than that to do any damage.
In a concussive volley the heavy support teams opened fire, tearing apart the artillery. A mobile launcher platform exploded, setting off a chain reaction as the crates of extra ordinance caught fire.
Colin cycled through optical filters, scanning the area and trying to pinpoint movement or heat signatures.  Something was wrong, where had they all gone?
“Where are they?”  He radioed.
“No idea.”  Davies called back.
“Vehicle coming down the hill!” Turner called, opening fire on it.  The driver was hit, slumping over, but the jeep continued speeding down the hill.  Momentum carried it into the midst of the heavy support teams, where it exploded thunderously.
A second later Colin found the enemy when he ran around a corner and stepped on one.  The man screamed as he was crushed.  His comrades opened fire, but their rifles barely scratched the mechsuit.  Desperately one threw a grenade.   In the confined space the explosion did more harm to his allies.  Still, the mechsuit was damaged.  Alarms blared and warnings flashed, his legs were damaged and movement was impaired.
“They’re here!” He called.  It was a suicidal move, abandoning the artillery and making a mad dash into the valley.  Clever.
At this range he could hear their radio chatter as the remaining enemy took cover.
“Shit!  Colin, that you?”  One of the enemy soldiers called.
“Yeah, ‘sup Brad?”
“Did you get a chopper?  I saw the news.  Crazy shit.”
“No fraternizing with the enemy.” A new voice cut in.
“This is serious, he lives in Southbrook.  Evacuation order was called two hours ago.  Forerunner incursion.”
“Shit man.  I didn’t know. You’re at the shelter?”
“No.” Colin’s finger caught on the mic button and he forced himself to move the finger.
“Where you at?” Brad asked.  In the distance an explosion rattled the windows.
“I didn’t leave.”  Colin wiped his face again.  Damn it was hot.
“Don’t even joke, man.” Brad said.
“Bullshit” someone else called
“I’m not lying.” As Colin spoke an explosion, much closer, shook the earth.  He felt the concussive force in his chest.
“Was that an explosion?” Brad asked.
“Oh fuck.  I’ve got the news on.  Mekazor just crashed.” Someone else cut in.
“You’re actually there, you crazy bastard.  I can see your house on the news chopper feed.  Why the hell didn’t you leave?”
Colin pushed back from his desk, the lights flickered briefly but stayed on.  The combat had fallen still as word spread among the others.  
“I stayed.  I thought maybe I could…do something.”  Colin glanced at the sword that leaned against his computer desk.  What had once looked exceptional now just seemed tacky in comparison to reality.  Outside, very close, someone screamed.  Gunshots cut through the air. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  The heroes are supposed to win.”  He grabbed his pop and took a drink, leaving his mic on.  The others were talking but be couldn’t hear them over the shouting outside.  Human screams and bestial roars.  Someone was calling for help.  A girl.
“Not like this.  Not like this!”  His hands clenched, crushing the can and spilling pop.
“They’re in your yard!”Brad screamed, barely audible as Colin pulled off his headset.
“I’m going outside.” 
He stood and grabbed the bathrobe off his bed, after all it wouldn’t do to die in his underwear.  Tying the robe he, grabbed his sword, a reproduction katana he had bought online for a hundred dollars.
“Not like this.” He chanted the mantra as he walked out of the room.
Each step broke his composure a little bit more.  He felt surreal, like he was watching himself through a screen.  The tip of the sword scratched along the wall as he walked down the stairs.  He could smell the stink from here, a foulness that thickened the hot air and billowed up like smoke.  Something crashed through the living room window  and left a bloody trail across the carpet.  It mewled weakly and tried to drag it’s broken body towards him.
Colin pulled the front door open and stepped back as the sight hit him like a physical shock.  Dozens, hundreds of Infected swarmed the street.  They surged like ants, burying something, or someone, under a pile of writhing bodies.  A man crouched in the flowerbed, holding an action figure cobbled together from different parts.  It had the body of a typical solider, but the parts didn’t match, cobbled together from spare parts.  The man brought the toy to his mouth and kissed it, or maybe whispered something.  The toy shuddered and then jumped out of his hands, it grabbed an exacto knife and hefted it like a spear before charging towards the Infected with a shrill battlecry.  The little soldier began stabbing ankles furiously, but was crushed in the sweep of bodies.
The man in the flower bed looked over in shock and despair as Colin stepped out of the house. His face was spattered with blood, eyes wet with tears.
“My sword will cut the heavens!”  Screaming, Colin charged into the fray and swung his sword.  If he was going to die, he would at least make one of these monsters bleed.
Lightning coursed through him, and he cut the horde.  A shock ran up his arm as the blade hit the tough flesh, and the lightning in his head shot out through the blade.  He saw it so clearly, his eyes sweeping across the mob and his cutting blade following.
Those nearest were thrown back, limbs flying through the air as the blade cleaved through them.  The ones at the back froze, and looked over.  They bared jagged teeth and started to rush forwards only to have their movement cut short as body parts separated.  The cut had been so fine they hadn’t even noticed.
Silence fell so suddenly that the sound of the shards of Colin’s sword hitting the concrete rang out like windchimes.  The cheap blade had broken into pieces with the first hit.  He fell to his knees, panting, exhausted.
From amid the pile of corpses a woman struggled free, hurling pieces of Infected aside.  She stared around speechlessly.  On the far side of the street, the neighbour’s door split into two pieces, followed by his windows in a delayed reaction to being cut through the middle.
“What the shit?”  The man in the flower bed crawled out, covered with flower petals.
Another man dropped out of the sky, sliding down a wall and rolling onto the ground.  He looked familiar, Flip, the leader of the group.  He nudged a corpse experimentally.
“Did you do that?  Who are you?”  He asked.
“I’m going to be sick.”  Colin groaned as be collapsed to the ground.



Gargoyle 1.3


Later that night Blaithe had just finished programming the scanners to accept Steve’s and Lucky’s handprints. The boy wandered off with a smartphone Blaithe had given him.
“Who do you want to recruit next?”
“I will leave that decision to you. Take some time to review the files and we can make a decision tomorrow morning. “. Blaithe checked his watch, “That’s all the time I have tonight. I’ll be back at eight. Goodnight.”

Just like that Steve was left alone. He grabbed a cup of water and made his way up up the stairs. On the third floor he was headed to his room when a shadow moved in the corner of his eye.
“Agh! Damn it kid, that’s seriously creepy.”
Lucky was sitting in the dark, his door open. The light from his phone illuminated his head blue amid the darkness.
“I’m about to turn in. Is there anything you need?”
Lucky shook his head.
“Alrighty. We can get this organized tomorrow, get you some furniture. If you need anything just knock.”
Steve couldn’t help but shake his head as he locked his bedroom door behind him, he wasn’t sure how to deal with that kid.

He grabbed the files off the desk and flopped onto his bed. Picking one at random he opened it. A photograph of a young girl stared at him from a hospital bed. Pale white skin, messy black hair, shadows under her eyes so dark that they looked like bruises. She didn’t look much older than fifteen, with brown eyes staring wide. If anyone could have been said to be haunted it was her.
The caption under the picture said “Andree Nichell”. Something about the picture just plain looked odd. Very uncanny valley, like a photoshop with incomplete alterations.
After a few moments he realized what the difference was. The girl’s reflection on a nearby cup of water had inverted colours. Black skin, white hair
“Weird.” Tossing the other files aside he started to read.

Starting as a young child, Andree had an imaginary friend, named Aimee. A harmless figment of imagination her parents thought. A normal occurrence for an only child. The figment persisted through the years, growing stronger rather than fading away. It became clear that this figment was a dark and violent thing, as evidenced when she was five years old and her parents found her having butchered a cat. Andree insisted that it was Aimee who killed the cat.

Andree was taken to a therapist, and after months of treatment Aimee faded away. Andree was pronounced as healthy and normal as could be expected.

Two years later, while she was seven, Andree began suffering nightmares. While she slept she would be held captive by terrifying dreams, and awaken having scratched herself until she bled.
Again she was taken to a therapist, and prescribed medication to ease the anxiety and nightmares.

Six months later an elderly neighbour was found dead in their home, by all accounts mauled violently by some sort of animal. Suspiciously, the home was locked tight with no open doors or windows and no evidence of any animal or intruder.

Afterwards, once per month, there would be another attack. Pets, stray animals, mailboxes, vehicles. There was no discernible pattern to the attacks, save that they occurred in the vicinity of Andree. Dawn would rise and reveal some new violence that had occurred during the night. Scratches and claw marks were the only trace left behind, no fingerprints or hair or any of the usual evidence. After several months the attacks began occurring more frequently, until they reached a rate of once every fourteen days. Some neighbours reported hearing scratching at their doors during the night, or even footsteps scampering over their rooftops.

Andree’s parents confided in their therapist that they suspected she might be sleepwalking, or otherwise responsible. It was agreed to place cameras around the house, to monitor if the girl was leaving the house during the night.
The cameras did not detect anything, and still the attacks continued. Relieved and guilty, her parents confessed about the cameras. Starting that night the pattern changed, over the period of the next month every camera in a five hundred meter radius was destroyed.

The neighbours were growing suspicious, and a few filed complaints with the police. The family therapist recommended taking Andree into a hospital for observation and testing. Fearful, the family fled to stay with relatives a few hours away.
For a week there were no more attacks in the old neighbourhood, or in the area they were visiting. At the end of the week the therapist was found dead in his home. He had been mauled horribly, torn apart and scattered throughout the house.

This was taken as proof, albeit gruesome, that Andree was innocent, as she was a hundred and thirty kilometres away from the crime scene and had been awake all night watching a movie marathon with her cousins.

The family did not realize this until they saw it in the news the day after.

When they arrived back home they were questioned by the police, but it was clear that they were not even in the city, let alone near the crime scene.

Three days later they receive a call from their relatives, one of Andree’s books had been left behind. In it was a detailed drawing of a mauled body, which matched the dead therapist. Details were included in the drawing that were never released to the public, the smearing of blood on the walls, the exact layout of the room. It was a detailed recreation of a room Andree had never been in. Even at that age she was a talented artist.
The police again came to visit, revealing that they had a witness, who briefly saw a young girl through the window of the therapist’s house.

The details were damning, and Andree was taken to a psychiatric hospital for review. She was put on new medication, and for a time there were no more attacks. Her parents were distraught, exhausted by the unceasing barrage of hope and horror, and decided it was best for Andree to remain in the hospital, at least for a while.

The night Andree found out that she would be forced to stay, her parents died in a car crash on the way home. It was never officially linked to her, but traffic camera footage shows her father suddenly swerving directly in front of oncoming traffic.

Andree stayed in that hospital for the next four years, and there were no more attacks. However her nightmares returned, with force. Every morning she would awake with bleeding cuts. New medication would only be effective for a few weeks at a time. Any restraints on her would cause a panic attack, and she would relapse with more hallucinations. The only solution was to leave her free to hurt herself, and desperately try to find some medication that would help her.
At twelve years old she was transferred to a different facility. This new clinic was better equipped to treat her, the doctors were more specialized. She stayed there for two years, until the night when two dozen of the staff and patients were slaughtered. Andree escaped that night, fleeing into the city.

Over the next two years there were sporadic sightings of her, but keeping track of a single teenaged girl in the city was problematic at best. Now, at sixteen years old she was living on the streets.

The most recent photograph was dated one week ago, a cellphone picture showing a scruffy teenaged girl wearing an oversized hoodie and carrying a backpack.

Steve rubbed at his eyes and tossed the file down. Where the hell had Blaith found these candidates, and why the hell would he want to be anywhere near them? Ghoul was bad enough, with the risk that he’d spaz out and be unstoppable, or infect them with some plague he didn’t even know he was carrying. Now the old man wanted to invite in a little emo girl who appeared to have amassed a body count in the low thirties before she even hit adulthood.
“Sure, why not. She’ll fit right in with Kat.”
That thought made him realize that at some point during his reading he’d decided to recruit Katherine next. If anyone was suited to tangle with ghost girl it would be her and Ghoul, between the two of them they should be able to survive anything she threw at them. Maybe.
Sighing, he shut off the light. For a long while he stared at the ceiling, maybe it was a bad idea to be reading about the murderous little girl who kills people at night.

Eventually he sighed and grabbed his phone. Opening the browser he started searching for medical supplies, odds were pretty good that they would be necessary in the near future.


Steve had spent a few hours that morning putting up drywall in his room and was sitting at the kitchen counter eating a bowl of cereal when Blaithe arrived. Katherine’s file was opened in front of him, Steve had been browsing it as he ate. Most of it he already knew. Ghoul was asleep on the couch, he had apparently decided it was a bit more comfortable than the floor in his room upstairs. The older man picked his own stool.
“Hey. I’m thinking we should get Katherine next.”
Blaithe cocked an eyebrow, so Steve continued, “She’s not very friendly, but neither are the people you’ve got your eye on. This Andree girl, I’m not sure I could survive it if she decides to get violent. Kat probably could.”
“How altruistic.”
“I look for the best in people, getting beat up is what Kat’s good at.”
“You’re a real gentleman. It’s a sound plan, let’s do it.”
“We should try to get her before she fights tonight. She tends to get a little crazy afterwards. I think it might be best if I go alone.”
“I would have thought you’d want Lucky there, he is eminently suited for emerging unscathed.”
“Well yes. Sending him in is the smart move, but I don’t think we should play that card yet. Hopefully not too many people know we have him, and I’d like to keep it that way. If we announce that he’s with us, people are going to act against us. Fame, money, or just for the challenge. He’s got so much reputation that fielding him will escalate things.
Or even if nothing happens, and he we get Kat and everything is rainbows and hand holding, he loses some of his mystique just from being spotted without doing something impressive.

“You have a point. We still have not discovered who it was that initially abducted him either. What is your next move?”

“Andree. From the sounds of it she is essentially the opposite of Lucky, pure offence. Much like with Kat, I’d prefer to be on her good side. Even if her abilities turn out to be less than advertised, she comes with some reputation. If we play it right, we can use that to our advantage. Spin it so she looks weak, play up the mystery surrounding her and spread the word that it’s just hype, or work her reputation so she sounds like the angel of death. Both plans have their drawbacks, we won’t know which is best until we get there. Do you have a lead on her location?”

“I’m told she frequents the shelter on 68th and Midland. Should be able to find her in the dinner line for the soup kitchen.”

On the couch, Lucky muttered and rolled over. He slid right off the cushion and sprawled onto the floor.

“Morning.” Steve waved a spoon in salute.
Lucky took a moment to get his bearings, then heaved himself upwards. “I need a beer.”
“Sorry, kid. Last call was at midnight.”

The teenager grumbled unintelligibly and trudged off up the stairs.
“I’ve got corn flakes!” Steve yelled after him.

“What are your plans today, before going to see Kat?”
“Got some more files to read. Still some renovating to do. Could use some more furniture, beds and such for the last three rooms.”

“I can do that last one, I’ll bring Lucky with me as well. Oak and Yew are taking the day off so you’ll have the place to yourself.”
“Just give me a call when you’re back so I can put some pants on.”

As soon as the others left, Steve was out the door as well, but out the fire escape at the back. He had already investigated the door, and the building’s alarm system, and it only recorded when the door was opened when the alarm was engaged. Since the garage door was also being opened, he had a few seconds before the alarm would activate. It was a bit of a security weakness, but it was coming in handy.

Not wanting to leave any evidence, he couldn’t use the fire escape ladder, because it was an older style that would need to be manually pulled back up. No point making it too easy for someone to get into the building.

The ground was a good thirty foot drop onto hard pavement. Not exactly the kind of thing he made a point to do very often, his power didn’t make him that durable. Still, a few risks were called for in the pursuit of secrecy. He stepped off into the air and plummeted down.

Interlude 1 – Blackeyes

Gargoyle Interlude 3-Blackeyes

9.1.2017 Friday.

Naitlyn clutched the strap of her purse tighter and chanced a glance over at the group of guys walking out of gym.  Shirts stretched tight over muscles, the faint hint of abs.  The group’s eyes passed over her as they walked by, none even registering her presence.  What she wouldn’t give to have them actually see her.

“Oh, Daniel, harder!.” A voice from behind her breathily moaned.  Naitlyn jumped and spun around, seeing one of team member’s girlfriends, Jessica leaning close.
“What!? I didn’t say that!”
“You wanted to, don’t deny it.  I saw you looking with your puppydog eyes.  You were about to melt.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Naitlyn shut her locker and started to walk away.
“He likes you too.  He’s got a thing for the whole librarian chic…” Jessica waved her hand, indicating the whole of Naitlyn, “thing you’ve got going on.”
“Uh, yeah.  You should come by after the game, at about seven.  We’re going to go hang out.”
“Okay…” Jessica was already walking away.

Collapsing against the locker her head spun.  This was almost exactly the way she had imagined.  It was like something out a fanfic.  Perking up at the thought, she ran to the bathroom.  She had to write this down, it was gold.

Later that night she nervously clutched the hem of her coat as she hurried towards the school.  She had gone all out for this, skirt, heels, and tie.  Daniel was going to get all the librarian chic he could handle.

Only a few other people were nearby, leaving the gym and heading for the dorms or parking lot.  By the time Naitlyn got to the gym there was no one else in sight.  The doors were locked, though light shone through the cracks.
“Hello?”  She called, knocking on the door.  No one responded, so she checked her phone to see the time. 7:06, she was pretty sure this was the time Jessica had said.  Or had it been the latest they were staying, or had they left and were planning on coming back shortly after seven?  Had they ever planned on being here?  Had it been a joke?  Had they forgotten about her?

Only now did she realize that she didn’t know the phone numbers of any of them, and wasn’t sure who she could call that did have their numbers.

In the distance a door burst open loudly, and hope blossomed anew.  She ran around the corner of the building to see a pair of tail lights speeding out of the parking lot.  Probably not them, right?  They were probably just taking their time.

At eight thirty Naitlyn was forced to admit that the only hanging out that she’d be a part of was by herself in the increasingly cold night.

She wasn’t going to get upset, this wasn’t a big deal anyways.  It’s not like she wanted to be their friends anyway.  Stuck up skinny bitch.

She wasn’t going to cry.  Kicking the door she stomped away towards the bus stop.  The last bus would be coming through at eight thirty five, then she’d just go home and spend some time with people who actually appreciated her. Even if they only knew each other through the internet.

The bus stop was empty, no busses or people waiting.  She sat on a bench to wait and then hopped back up, the metal bench was freezing.

Eight fifty rolled around without any sign of the bus.  Was it late?  Or had it been early?  It had been stupid to wait so long by the gym, she could have been home by now.
“Screw this.” She muttered and started walking, it was only a half hour walk.

A few minutes into the walk someone stepped up beside her.  Naitlyn shrieked and nearly tripped, leaving a very confused man staring at her.
“Are you okay?” He asked
“I’m fine!” She tried to regain some composure but didn’t feel like it was working.
“Okay.  You probably don’t want to hear it, but you don’t look fine.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Jerk.
“Well, you’re walking down the sidewalk in a naughty schoolgirl outfit, crying.  Or is the running mascara supposed to be part of the look?  I’m really not sure.  I mean it kind of works for you, yeah, but I don’t know if that’s what you were going for. Am I talking too much, I am aren’t I? I don’t get out much.  I’m Steve.  I’ll stop talking now”. He moved away a few steps, muttering “Too much.  Probably too much.”  Then he glanced over, “Oh, you’re crying again. Or still crying.  Are you cold?”
“I’m fine!  I’m not crying! I’m walking home because I want to! I’m not alone!”
“Well yes you’re not alone, if you were I wouldn’t be here. Or you wouldn’t.  Or neither of us would be.  You look cold, do you want my jacket?”  Before she could say anything he was taking off his jacket and holding it out.
“Go away, I’ve got mace!  I know….the death touch!”
“I don’t have to follow you.  I won’t, take the jacket and, um…”  He pulled out a notepad from his pocket and scribbled on it, “you can call me and return the jacket later.  Or don’t call me, but still please return the jacket it has important sentimental value.  I bought it for eight dollars.  It was on sale.  Please just take the jacket.”  He thrust the jacket and paper at her, then spun around and hurried off, muttering “Oh, sure, smooth.  Totally not coming off as a psycho, but she did stop crying so that’s a benefit.  You’re really horrible at talking to girls, aren’t you?  What do you expect, I’m nervous.  I’m talking out loud aren’t I. Yes I am.  Don’t look back.  She’s not screaming, so I think it went pretty well all things considered.”

“What the fuck just happened?”  Naitlyn asked as the guy disappeared into the night.  She looked at the paper on which he’d written his name and number.  Just dropping it and the jacket here on the sidewalk was a tempting option, but his kind of crazy probably wasn’t contagious, and the night was cold. Hesitantly she inspected the jacket, it wasn’t too bad, even if it did have a junior hoarder collection of things in the pockets.  Chapstick, facial tissues, a flashlight, a notepad and pen, a lighter, a folded map of the city, and multiple other things in various other pockets.

Pulling the jacket on she wrapped her arms around herself and hurried home.  All the way she kept glancing around, trying to see if he was following her.

9.2.2017 Saturday

Working up her nerves, she held her phone and waffled about dialling the number so she could return the jacket.
She was grateful for it, it had been a genuinely nice thing to do, and even if the guy had been talking to himself he seemed to have that handled.  Only after she had gotten home had she realized how badly the night could have been. Horror movies started with scenes like that.

On the other hand, he was a nutjob that she wasn’t sure she wanted to ever see again.

On the third hand, he was a nutjob who might go completely crazy and stalk her to get back his precious jacket.  Or stalk her anyways.  Was this all an elaborate setup?  Would he really have passed up his chance last night only to get all rapey today?

She couldn’t take advantage of the poor guy.  She hit dial.  After a few second the jacket started ringing.
“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me.”  She dug through the pockets and found a cellphone showing an incoming call from her phone.  Steve had forgotten his phone in his jacket pocket.
She ended the call and examined his phone, no password required.  Flipping through menus she found his contact list and started looking for something reasonably likely.
Narrowing down the contact list didn’t take long, as he only had a few dozen entries. “Work” was the most dialled number.  In fact it was the only dialled number in the last month, for a grand total of two calls. The runner up was a “Tim” with one call yesterday.  Busy guy.

Before she could think twice she hit the button to redial “Tim”.  The line rang for a while before cutting to a generic voicemail service.  She ended the call before it could start recording.  There was no history of text messages, and the email client showed only generic spam.  What did this guy do if not use his phone?  The notebook, maybe he actually wrote things down.

Boy did he ever write things down.  Each entry was dated, and it started weird and got worse.  Either this guy was insane, or…the alternative was even more scary.
On 2.9.2016 Steve had started fighting in the Pits, the quasi-illegal underground fighting organization.  That continued for months until he fought a woman named Kat on 9.14.2016.  During the fight Steve almost died after Kat broke the rules and tried to gouge out his eye before she hit him in the face with a piece of rebar.
The notebook included a picture, presumably taken at the hospital, showing a battered slightly younger Steve with a shaved head and fresh stitches.

From there, the story got worse.  Describing the slow healing process and evident descent into insanity because he started talking about his blood being alive. The entries over the next couple months involve him cutting himself to try to access the power in the blood.

In the middle of all that, he started working a few odd jobs, though never lasting very long.  After a string of jobs that barely lasted a week each, he became homeless.
Desperate, broke, and facing down the dim prospects of living on the streets he went to Kat.  The woman who “started it all”.

A bloody thumbprint was smeared across the next page, which was otherwise blank.

The last entry in the notebook was dated 8.25.2017, a week ago.  It said only a few words.  “Tim. 6pm @ 1307 Saint street. 9.2.2017”

“Tonight?” She asked, double checking the date.  A search of the address showed an old medical clinic that had closed down a few years ago.

Naitlyn heaved a sigh.  Was this real?  Should she call the cops?  This was crazy.  It was a stupid idea.  It was…exciting.

Thinking about it got her heart racing, she was almost short of breath at the idea of it.  An adventure.  Something forbidden, maybe even dangerous.   This was the kind of thing that happened to other people, it was going to be great.