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Empty Quiver - Tales from the Crimson Son Universe

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FOREWORD

[* *]

This collection of short stories can be read as a primer to Crimson Son, as a background piece for both that novel and the upcoming sequel, or it can be enjoyed as a standalone. [*WARNING: *]Without Spencer’s snarky commentary, this is a bleak, bleak world. Jefferson Smith, on his review site Immerse or Die, perhaps best captures the tone and intent of these stories:

 

“Linton takes the horror of the atomic bomb’s emergence in WWII and transforms it into the emergence of laboratory-grown super soldiers — but with similarly horrific consequences and the same desperate global struggle to cram the genie back into the bottle afterward. It gives the entire story world a grittiness and gravitas that we rarely see in superhero stories. And that darkness makes it chilling.”

 

I hope you enjoy your read and as always, thanks for joining me on this journey.

 

Russ Linton

www.russlinton.com

 

THECANE TRAIN

[* *]

1968. Long Range Recon Patrol Alpha based out of Pleiku. Deep in-country, east of the North Vietnam, Cambodian border.

 

“Okay, don’t move. Stay calm.”

Private Ingalls looked down. Nothing to see but his boot and a mat of trampled grass. Was it grass? No, grass could be cut with a push reel mower. This waist-high brush was a job for a tractor or maybe a chainsaw.

“No problem with the first one, sir,” Ingalls replied. He licked his dry lips and wondered where all the moisture in the oppressive jungle air had gone. “But I’m way past the second part of that.”

“You’ll be fine.” The lieutenant’s voice was calm, insistent.

Ingalls had always felt uncertain at basic training and a month in Vietnam hadn’t changed that. His Drill Sargent back home had yelled at him like he’d signed up for this. Demanding to know why he wasn’t better at being a soldier. Always asking how he stayed so fat on military rations. Eventually he stopped listening but that voice never quite left his head.

The leader of Long Range Recon Alpha, a lieutenant everyone called Hound, wasn’t like that. You wanted to do exactly what he said. Right when he said it.

So when Hound had barked “Ingalls, stop!” he’d done precisely that.

Ingalls watched the rest of the patrol back away through the grass, getting their distance. Reggie, their point man, was the last one to go by. He gave a final nod … like a nice-knowing-ya, and faded away.

“You sure there’s something there, sir? I mean, I don’t see nothin’,” Ingalls called out. “Didn’t hear a click.”

Behind him, Hound gave more orders, directing the platoon through the clearing like they were blind sheep. Between commands, he heard him inhale through his nostrils. “Yeah, there’s something there alright. If you’d heard a click, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

He looked again. That damn thick-bladed grass. A little dirt visible. A shitty black boot that always felt too tight. Nothing else. He really wanted Hound to be wrong.

But he wasn’t. Ever.

Hound was an Augment, part of a top-secret super soldier program from WWII, but there was no keeping the lid on that program. Especially once those soldiers headed into battle. There were guys who could deflect bullets, bend tank cannons with their bare hands, or even walk away from a bomber downed from its perch thousands of feet in the air. Hell, there were rumors of guys who could fly formation with bombers—sans wings, engines and airframe.

Most of the Augments went freelance after that war. People thought governments shouldn’t have control of weapons like that. But Hound stayed on, flew under the radar with a more limited power set. He could smell stuff, and it was rumored he could hear dog whistles.

There’d been plenty of jokes on base. A few of the seasoned vets prided themselves on convincing new recruits that Hound would sniff their asses as part of inspection. That was one of the tamer ones. Out here, though, you came to appreciate what he could do. Unless you were the one standing on the mine.

“How long do I have to stand here, sir?”

“Hang on. Let me think.”

Ingalls strained to hear the conversation behind him. The wind had picked up, thrashing the giant grass. He tensed and wondered if that was enough to set the mine off. He tried to remember all the different kinds they’d taught him about in basic. Anti-personnel. Anti-tank. Bouncing Bettys and claymores. Charlie’d even improvise and trigger anti-tanks with anti-personnel mines to blow up as many Yankees as they could. None of this training was helping him stay calm. Sweat streamed down his face, but his mouth stayed dry and swollen.

“Relax. It’ll be fine, son.” Hound again. The guy not standing on a DH 5. Or 10. Or whatever they were called.

Fuck that drill sergeant in Basic. He could hear him yelling now: Ingalls! Get your head out of your ass! You looking to have a Betty put it up there for you?

Fuck him. Got to relax. Like Hound says.

While the wind drowned out the anxious chatter, the radio call wasn’t completely masked. You couldn’t whisper into the handsets and hope to be heard. Everyone had tried it out here, where death waited up every tree and under every open field, but it was no use.

Calm, in control, Hound rattled off the grid coordinate of their location. Great, mark the map so nobody else dies. Was that a call for medivac on standby?

They don’t make these mines to kill you, dumbfuck! They want to cut you off at the waist so we spend precious resources getting your bloody stump home!

God, that’s right. There wasn’t any way out of this.

More jabbering on the radio and he could only make out every other word. The patrol must’ve all moved back beyond the tree line. He was their scarecrow, like he’d helped his mom make for their little suburban vegetable garden back home. Only here the crows weren’t the ones afraid.

He heard Hound’s commanding voice fire a few curses. Then he could’ve sworn he heard him mention R&R. Okinawa. Was that iron-spined bastard planning his vacation?

Chatter fell silent. Ingalls heard Hound creep closer, inhaling and exhaling in short bursts while he moved.

“I’m dead, aren’t I.”

“Excuse me, private?”

“I’m dead, sir.”

“Son, if I talked to dead soldiers, I’d never have a minute of peace.” Hound came into view. He was low to the ground, nose twitching and his eyes roving the grass. “Truth be told, I’m surprised you’re here,” he muttered.

“What does that mean?”

Hound probed the ground with a stick, coming closer to Ingalls’ boots. His face scrunched and he held the stick up and sniffed the tip. He growled and shook his head.

“What?” First his chest, then his arms tensed as the word exploded from his lips and he only just stopped the tremor that ran down to his leg. Hound stood and gently touched his shoulder.

“Calm, remember?” The lieutenant took several measured breaths, and Ingalls tried to match his cadence. “Now, there ain’t any reason this mine hasn’t already exploded. A goddamn miracle.” Hound’s grip tightened and he locked on with his steely eyes set under tangled brows. “Could be a dud.”

Ingalls’ heart raced at the thought. Hound’s hand stayed firm.

“But don’t. Fucking. Move.”

He fought the urge to nod.

“A dud? Sir?”

“Maybe. All I’m sure of is that you’re standing on a mine that ain’t gone off yet. Best way to keep that from happening is to keep the situation static. Eyes forward, Private. Locked formation. You’re green but you’ve done this on the parade ground plenty of times.”

Yeah, plenty of times. That was another regular torture at Basic. He still had a scar from face-planting on the asphalt on a sweltering summer day.

You can’t even stand right, soldier! How do you expect to make it out of a warzone without being on your back?

“I can’t do it, sir.”

“‘Course you can.”

“I really can’t, sir.” Tears mingled with his sweat. He hoped the lieutenant couldn’t tell the difference.

You miss your mommy? You want a blankie? Sorry fat-ass, Airborne can’t spare a parachute and your mommy said she don’t want to see you until you become a soldier.

He did miss his mom. He missed building that stupid scarecrow that fought away the demons. Twenty years old, and he wasn’t anything but an overgrown kid.

“Son, I’ll be standing right here until help arrives.” Hound sighed and checked his watch. “No more yappin’. Keep quiet so I can hear. War going on around here and all.”

The breeze picked up again. He thought he heard the thwump of a helicopter in the distance but it was lost in the rush and cry of the surrounding jungle. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky. It was hot, humid, exactly like that day on the parade ground when he’d eaten the pavement. His legs felt numb and heavy.

He wanted to wiggle his toes, a trick his bunkmate had taught him to keep the circulation going, but he didn’t dare. In his mind, he started to build that scarecrow. An old shirt stuffed with straw, topped by a pillowcase on which he’d drawn a face. The eyebrows took on a thick, scruffy look as he dug into the memory.

Want to know your new name Private Ingalls? P.F.C Liable. Do you know why? ‘Cause you’re fucking liable to get everyone around you killed.

Ingalls realized he didn’t know much about Hound. He didn’t even know his real name. A man standing there close enough to share whatever fate had in store. After being shuffled around from unit to unit, Ingalls’d finally ended up on a Long Range Recon patrol, all because he’d made the mistake of mentioning he’d done some hunting back on his grandparent’s land. Once he’d said it, Hound just walked up, glared at him from under his intense brow and said, “You.”

“I can’t hunt real good, sir.” Given the situation, Ingalls felt an urge to tell Hound the truth.

“Goddammit, what now?” Hound looked him up and down before returning to scan the horizon.

“I said I hunted out on my grandpa’s land. I wasn’t any good at it. I shouldn’t be out here.”

“That ain’t why you’re here.”

“Then why?”

Hound checked over his shoulder, back toward the rest of the platoon. “I’ll tell you later.”

Later. Was there even going to be a later? He was going to die here or be mutilated. He’d rather it be the first one. He risked a look at Hound again. Stoic. Ice in his veins. That was a real soldier.

Ingalls swallowed. “Head back to the group, sir. I’ll step off—”

Hound stared at him, his gaze piercing. “You givin’ orders now, Private?”

“No, sir, I just—”

“You what? Want to be a hero? There ain’t no heroes. Only dead soldiers and live soldiers. I keep my soldiers alive, understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

Wind shifted again. The grass bent flat to the earth. A deep percussive rumble filled the clearing.

Hound leaned into him. “Steady, son.”

Ingalls checked the sky, looking for jets but it remained empty. Frantic, he scanned the edge of the clearing. A tank? Chances were it was theirs, but who knew? As quick as it came, the sound was gone and the grass sprang up. A voice called out behind them.

“What kinda mess you got yourself in now?” The voice sounded happy. Relaxed. Like they were shooting the shit at basecamp. He wanted to see who the hell this guy was, but he couldn’t turn.

“‘Cane!” replied Hound. “‘Bout time you got your scrawny ass over here.”

“Yes, sir!” Whoever it was moved in closer and Hound’s hand left his shoulder. “You know those damn maps. Coordinates ain’t always on target. Had to make a few passes to find you.”

“Are you from the plane I heard? Did you drop in from Airborne?” Ingalls asked, staying eyes forward.

“Hell no. Ain’t no flights outta Japan to this LZ.”

Behind him, he heard a light smack. A pat on the back, maybe a handshake, and Hound muttered, “All yours.” Then help stepped into view.

He was skinny; the lieutenant was right about that and it was damn easy to see. His face looked drawn, skin pulled tight across his bones. He was wearing an open Hawaiian shirt, holes where the buttons should’ve been, and below that, a pair of black speedos. He was looking Ingalls up and down, his tongue peeking out between his lips. Behind his eyes was a crazy sort of look.

“Whatcha weigh?” he asked.

“Umm. I …”

“Don’t be shy, ain’t nobody judging here.” He wagged a finger. “I’d bet two and a dime.”

Ingalls nodded and ‘Cane’s face lit up. “Pretty close. Two-oh-five without all the gear … sir?”

“Naw, none of that.” He leaned in and brought a hand up to hide his lips. Ingalls smelled the ocean and a distinct aroma of Vicks VapoRub. “I ain’t technically here, if you get my drift.”

He didn’t.

The man knelt to check the ground. “Yep, Hound’s right. A damn miracle. You’re one lucky S.O.B. Triggering mechanism musta jammed.” He stood and spit a foamy white blob into his hands and rubbed them together. “So, on the count of three, we’re gonna do this.”

“Do what?”

“One …” The man leaned forward, splaying his arms out to the side and rubbing his fingers together in anticipation. The crazy on his face went to full-blown mental patient, and Ingalls swallowed.

“The lieutenant said it might be a dud …”

“Two …”

“What exac—”

All the air left his lungs. The world changed. A moment that stretched and warped. A blur and the colors around him bled together and reversed.

Then he was standing at the edge of the clearing. That crazy face still right in front of him. The man held the same position. Waiting, anticipating this time, not spring-loaded for action. Ingalls felt the ground spin beneath him and the hands grabbed his upper arms, holding him steady.

In the clearing, a ball of fire plumed into the air. Heat and sound washed over them. The thick canopies surrounding the field came alive and unseen flocks took to the sky, their white bodies stark outside the shadows where they’d hidden. Ingalls could only stare. The man released his arms.

“Three.”

He stayed watching the clearing as the man stepped around him. A procession of hands clasped his shoulders and smacked his helmet, but he didn’t turn. A silent cheer from his platoon. He was vaguely aware of voices.

“Woo-hoo! That was a doozy. Musta been a goddamn bomb they rigged along with that AP. Y’all get on out of here. I’ll run interference.”

“Thanks, ‘Cane. I owe ya one.”

“One? That all? Psssh. Stop by Okinawa and buy me a beer sometime.”

“You got it.”

Another thump resonated through his chest and the wind rushed past, fanning the grass at the edge of the clearing. Hound issued hushed commands. His ears ringing, Ingalls heard them as a faraway buzz. A hand tapped his shoulder.

“Gotta move, Private.”

He mumbled agreement and took in the crater where he’d been standing one last time. The empty space belched a line of black smoke into the air. Everything else seemed clear and vibrant. He saw movement at the far side; Charlie coming to check out the commotion. He traced the trails in the grass where they’d first entered, saw where he’d wandered outside the footsteps of the man who’d gone ahead of him. He’d fucked up and been given a second chance.

“You said you’d tell me why, sir. Why you picked me.”

Hound didn’t turn around as they fell in with the patrol. “Son, you’ve been on the verge of doing something stupid ever since the first time I laid eyes on you. You needed to wake the fuck up. You’ll be okay now.”

Ingalls believed him.

 

***

 

1974. Transcript of an interview with Toshiko Aratani, survivor of the Augment Assault on Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. His account varies from official documents, which record only two members of Augment Force Zero taking part in the operation: Hurricane and Fat Boy. Both had been transported by the Augment B-52, who returned to Nagasaki days later with Tomahawk and Minuteman. Several times, the survivor is interrupted by an unknown interviewer, their voice muffled and difficult to hear.

[_ _]

Of every day in my life, this one is the most clear. Age doesn’t cloud it. They fell from the sky like ghosts on black wings.

I used to sleep with the doors open to the hallway and the courtyard beyond. The drone of the cicadas would put me to sleep. They were my friends—I never hunted them like the other boys. I let them have the courtyard as their sanctuary, and they gifted me with sleep.

None of the boys had time to hunt cicadas that year. We spent most of the day at school. The rest, we tore down houses. They said it would help stop the fires if bombs ever came to us. The cicadas called long and deep into those nights.

That night, I lay awake, hoping for the gift the cicadas used to bring, but it never came. They sounded urgent. There were so many more of them. Maybe they were lonely and uncomfortable, waiting to shed their robes until the boys could chase them again.

Our city dark to hide from planes and bombs, I thought I saw three stars floating to the ground. I crept out to the hall and watched them in the sky. Falling like leaves, I saw their black wings spread above them.

I ran to the courtyard to watch. It was late. My grandfather was asleep and I was supposed to be as well, but the cicadas wouldn’t let me. They wanted me to see this.

I climbed onto the top of the wall; there was a maple I could shimmy up which bent toward the ledge. There I sat, wondering why the three ghosts were here. When the ghosts disappeared behind the rooftops in the center of town, the cicadas fell silent. Orange light flared among the buildings.

Interviewer interrupts.

I understand. But when I say these were ghosts or spirits or demons, or that they spoke words men cannot comprehend, that is what I mean. That is what they were then, in that moment. That is what they are to me, even now.

I can’t say why, but I dropped to the path outside our home. Grandfather would be furious if he knew I’d left. His ghost is angry to this very day about how disobedient I was. My father had bade him look after me before he’d left to be a pilot in the war two years before. He never came home. My mother had recently killed herself. I was Grandfather’s responsibility. It was wrong of me to be so selfish.

Halfway to the city square, the orange light filled the night sky. You could no longer see the stars. I felt a heat on my skin, so intense, like sitting near the fire in winter. Hotter than the summer could ever be.

I ran toward the heat. All the work we had done. The soldiers had said it would keep the fire away, but here, there was fire, and I’d heard no bombs. No planes.

Flames whipped along the buildings, pulsing in an odd breeze. The orange glow worked down the streets quickly, almost faster than I could run. Shouts and screams came from all around, and I heard the wasted cry of a warning siren.

An explosion ripped the air, followed by laughter, and the light from the burning buildings paused where the narrow streets opened into the market. Fire spiraled skyward in a giant column and then struck down. Another shrill laugh pierced the roar of flames.

I don’t know why I didn’t run. People were fleeing on all sides. Those who ran by me were blackened. Many could only shuffle, their faces melted in terror, their clothes burnt from their bodies. I pressed into the heat and ran to the corner of a building. The cicadas hadn’t let me sleep. They wanted me to see this.

In the market stood two of the ghosts. The one at the center was large, like an elephant. He moved his shoulders and his head moved with them. Each step he took was cautious and deliberate. Sweat poured from his body and stained his skin-tight white suit. His eyes burned hotter than the fire.

Beside him the other ghost fed the inferno with his very hands. Flames streamed from his fingers at a fine, white point and blossomed into an orange head big enough to swallow buildings. His face shone in the intense heat, featureless except white teeth and jubilant eyes. He was the source of both the fire and the laughter.

Interviewer inquires about the third ghost.

I did not see the third. Yet.

A tank, one I knew to be a Chi Nu, defender of our homeland, sat blistered and smoking on the street across from them. This would be where the column of flame had lashed out. Why they had slowed. Soldiers had tried to fight back. But you don’t fight ghosts with tanks.

They stood across from the tank and spoke. I could not understand what they said. The smaller one spread his arms and fired flame from both palms high into the air. He laughed the laugh of demons and shouted a challenge to the city.

More tanks rumbled and creaked in the distance. The wind died, and the large one peered down the street where the tanks could be heard coming from.

He lifted a foot, high to his chest, and brought it to the ground like a sumo warding off spirits. But instead of driving them away, he’d called to the dead in the earth and they answered.

I watched the street split apart. It swallowed the smoking husk of the tank, and the fissure raced into the darkness. Buildings along the street crumbled. The faraway tanks fell silent. This ghost had no need of an iron club. He was the club.

The fire ghost cackled and shouted. He blasted a storefront only one building from where I crouched and the facade burst into flames. Glass dripped from the empty window. A figure ran from the doorway, a woman. I saw her hair shrivel under a cloak of flame. A joyous look overcame the fire ghost and he waved a hand. The fire became blinding white and when I could see again, she was gone. I never heard a scream.

He laughed and walked toward the building, pointing excitedly. The earth ghost at the center shook his head and kept his eyes on the streets.

Interviewer poses a question.

Many times I think back and try to understand how his intense gaze never saw me.

From out of the wind, the third ghost appeared. He was thin and covered in soot. Hands on his knees, he stood bent, taking in labored breaths. The earth ghost glared at him, impatient.

The fire ghost kept waving excitedly at the place where the woman had been. At first, I couldn’t see why he was pointing. He danced up and down then froze and placed his hands in the air, a mocking look of fear on his face. He doubled over again in laughter. When he did, I saw the blackened shadow on the wall behind him. She had not completely disappeared.

For the first time, I wanted to run. Fear kept me rooted. Fear and what happened next.

The wind ghost stood upright. He vanished and then was next to the fire ghost in the same instant, his fist connecting with the grinning face. The fire ghost fell to the ground. Blood and one of his white teeth dropped to the blackened street. When he looked up, the laughter was gone. Flames from the storefront shot high into the night. He rose and the wind ghost crouched.

Then the earth shook.

The earth ghost was looking their way, tapping his foot on the ground in a measured beat. Beneath us, the earth rose and fell like the waves on the ocean. The others struggled to remain standing and I fell to my knees against the corner of the building.

The earth ghost shouted and the anger in his eyes filled his voice. He pointed to the fire ghost who spit more blood and stalked away, lighting buildings with a flick of his wrist as he went.

The earth ghost then stomped toward the wind ghost, never letting the ground beneath him rest. The wind ghost did his best to stand straight and tall.

Stabbing with his meaty finger, earth ghost shouted above the roaring flames and the cackling in the square. Spit flew into the wind ghost’s face and he didn’t flinch. When the reprimand was finished, the wind ghost saluted. Saluted and was gone.

Interviewer interrupts.

I could no longer see him, but the pulsing wind was back and the flames in the square rose higher and higher, devouring buildings in a hellish vortex. The front of the building where I hid burst into flames. Bricks cracked and I stumbled away. A sheet of flame cut me off from my escape and I fell. The fire was so hot the air became a weight, pressing down against my chest. Stones in the street popped and melted. I thought I heard the cicadas cry, but the roar of the fire was deafening.

Then the scorching wind stopped. Beside me, the wind ghost bent, coughing and sputtering again. He was blackened, head to toe. Fire on this side of the wall of flame had chased away all shadows. I lay there, in plain sight, unable to move.

He saw me.

It was as though he was the one who’d seen a ghost. And maybe that is what I was. My skin was reddened and flecked with ash. My clothes had swept away on the burning wind. I could smell my hair wilting in the intense heat. Everything was heat and flame and I knew I was going to die.

Then I was beneath a maple.

Not the tree at home in the garden. That one was kept trim and narrow. This one arced above and blotted out the sky.

Interviewer inquires about the location. Details.

I was on a hill. The wind was cold on my skin. Cicadas called in their steady song.

The wind ghost was there. Across the bay, the orange light of the burning city reflected off the ocean. From here, the smell wasn’t of death. A fire on a hearth, that was all.

He waited, watching me and looking over his shoulder. Our eyes met and he nodded. I asked him to go and get my grandfather, and he tilted his head and gave me the most sorrowful smile. I still see it, sometimes.

Through the night, the fires spread. Gunshots and artillery roared defiantly but were quickly silenced. I watched the fire grow and could see the outlines where it expanded around the firebreaks my friends and I had built. Homes demolished to be spared the burning.

More people showed up, as suddenly as I had. Two, then three. I caught fleeting glimpses of the wind ghost as he dropped them off and tore back down the hill, bending the maple in his wake. By morning there were fifteen of us on the hill. On the coast, nothing but a black and empty shell.

 

***

 

1982. Pentagon. Joint Special Operations Command Task Force.

 

Brigadier General Garren Rousch reclined in his desk chair. A local station belted out big-band classics from the radio on the shelf behind him. Count Basie was enough before Rousch’s time that the guys he served with in ‘Nam had given him plenty of grief for his taste in music. The songs of that war screeched out of an uncomfortable, electric atmosphere that he’d never understood. But he’d always appreciated the simple innocence of the music of a bygone era. An era he was about to reconnect with, any second now.

A gale of air blasted his office. Behind a screen of falling papers that had once been neatly stacked on his desk, he saw him. Rousch cricked his neck and let the papers settle before turning off the radio.

There stood the legend himself, Hurricane. Average height. Thin. His skin had an almost glossy look; it clung to his face like plastic wrap, tight across his cheek bones and brow but crinkled in his jowls. His face seemed frozen in a permanent smile.

According to his service records, he’d be sixty years old in two months, so a few wrinkles weren’t odd. What was odd was where the wrinkles were. He looked like an obese man that had lost a lot of weight, fast, but the same records showed he’d consistently checked in at one hundred and forty seven pounds from his first day in the service at age nineteen.

Then there was the kilt. A kilt and a tattered shirt. Rousch didn’t care how much of a legend the man was, that wouldn’t do. He ignored Hurricane’s extended hand.

“You’re out of uniform, soldier,” Rousch said, as he began sorting and stacking the papers that had fallen within reach.

Hurricane gritted his teeth. “Sorry, sir. Been a while since I had this kind of meeting.” He saluted and disappeared. The windowed office door slammed behind him as the air sucked out of the room. Frosted glass showered the floor. Rousch dove atop his paperwork like he was falling on a grenade.

“Motherf…”

Before the last piece of Brigadier General Rousch’s stenciled name hit the floor, the door swung open.

“Reporting for duty, sir!”

Hurricane stood in the doorway at full attention. His dress uniform pressed, his insignia, nameplate, service ribbons and badges all in place. He raised an arm in salute and his shoe crunched the glass under his feet. Chagrin crossed his eyes and Rousch watched him fight off the urge to look down.

“You don’t want to look. But if you did, you’d see your fly’s down, soldier.”

The uncomfortable look returned, but to his credit, Hurricane didn’t flinch. Rousch decided he’d let him sweat it out. He gathered his papers from the floor and returned to his chair.

Once back at his desk he straightened his blazer, tugging at the sleeves to place them within one inch of his wrists as regulations required. He smoothed the lapel and sat up straight. He then set about reorganizing the papers and placing Hurricane’s personnel folder back atop the stack. Only when that was done did he stare down one of the most dangerous weapons ever created.

He looked like any other soldier. His salute was picture perfect. Maintained eye contact. Despite his entrance, there was genuine respect there. Rousch needed to know exactly how much.

Rousch had been given the questionable honor of providing his input on which direction to take the Augment program. Personally, he credited men like Hurricane with ending that last great war. As far as he was concerned, he was looking at a bona fide hero.

That was a time when reducing cities to ash meant victory. Not anymore. Rousch hadn’t been too bothered by Cuba like the rest of the world. Those Communists had gotten what was coming to them, trying to set up strike teams in spitting distance of the Everglades.

No, the problem was everything that came after the outrage surrounding Cuba: skulking in shadows and the covert wars nobody won. For many of these Augments, all the subterfuge had eroded their discipline—or so the program review claimed. Weapons were meant to be used on the battlefield, not wielded in back alleys. Rousch needed to assess the damage. He owed this hero a chance.

“At ease.” He pointed to a chair across from him.

“Sorry, sir, had to change in the hallway there. Uniform wouldn’t have made the trip.” Hurricane turned away while he carefully zipped his pants. “Ever had a poly-blend melt to your thighs? I don’t recommend it.” He cringed as glass crackled under his feet again. His eyes dropped to the floor. “I could—”

“Have a seat.”

“Yes, sir.”

Rousch tapped a finger on his desk. He opened the top folder to a newspaper clipping, “Hurricane Battles Namesake”, dated only two days ago. A major atmospheric event had occurred in the South China Sea. Worldwide weather bureaus had been watching the situation for days. So had a high-altitude surveillance plane. Rousch held up the clipping.

Hurricane squinted.

“You realize that hurricane would have hit Zhanjiang Harbor?”

“Oh yeah. Lots of people there.”

“And a naval base.”

Hurricane popped his neck. He propped his elbows on the arms of the chair and scooted closer, squinting one eye and glancing over his shoulder at the jagged hole in the door. “We at war with China, sir?”

“No,” said Rousch. “But we could be one day.” He set the clipping down and tapped his finger on the desk.

“Phew!” Hurricane slouched into the chair. “Can’t say I fancy any more wars in or around Asia, sir. Think I’ve had my fill.”

There was no sense in drawing this out. Rousch had a dozen other reports all from the last week, Hurricane’s name prominent in each. “The United States government needs you to reel in your freelance activities.”

Hurricane pursed his lips, and his eye, still squinted, twitched. “Not sure I understand, sir. Ain’t that what I’m supposed to be doin’?”

Rousch started to feel like he was giving orders to the wind. “These activities aren’t in the strategic interests of the United States. Take China. They don’t have Augments. There’s no reason to deploy you there for their benefit.”

“Well, if we ain’t at war, can’t I keep people alive so we can kill ‘em later, sir?”

“We need to let nature take its course, and right now, God has blessed the United States military—”

HOORAH!”

“…has blessed us with the best fighting force on the planet. We tried to comfort the hippies by telling them the Augment program was done. I need you to keep out of the limelight while they believe that. The only freelancing you need to be doing should come straight from Langley.”

Exuberance faded from the stretched face and his brow knitted without managing to form any wrinkles. “I can’t say I like them spooks much, sir. If I can say that.”

“You did and duly noted.” Rousch sighed. “Hell, I don’t like them either. But that’s what needs to be done. Your cover is freelancing. But they call the shots. All of them. Speaking of which, they’ll be in touch soon. Their normal methods.”

“Yes, sir.” Hurricane gave a sharp nod. He held perched on the edge of his chair and chewed his lip. That one eye seemed permanently squinted now. There was a macabre look in the grin plastered on his face. The more Rousch looked, the more he felt something wasn’t quite right.

Here sat a living weapon. A man who’d gone in with a small strike force and leveled an entire city in minutes. A retiree who had figured out how to reverse the winds of a hurricane. To utterly spoil God’s will. A shiver ran up his spine.

Rousch checked his fear.

No, this man was a hero. Not a broken arrow, but a soldier. He’d gotten a bit eccentric in his old age, maybe, but he would be perfectly willing to follow orders from a military man and not the shadow-loving spooks. Rousch leaned forward. “I need you to do this. For God, your country, and yourself.”

Hurricane stood and saluted, slow and deliberately. His odd face scrunched in determination. “Yes, sir!”

“Dismissed.”

Then he was gone. The door stayed open this time. Fragments of the glass pane had been swept neatly into a pile. Rousch breathed a sigh and picked up the phone to call base maintenance to see about a new office door.

He settled back into his work, thankful to clear his desk and move on to more mundane matters. He flicked on the radio and tried to let the blaring trumpet notes and snappy beats focus his mind. Fifteen minutes later, a newscaster interrupted a Glenn Miller classic.

“Mitch Jefferson reporting live from the 304 Causeway, where a man has been miraculously saved after a failed suicide attempt. Firefighters and local police had unsuccessfully tried to talk the man down. With daylight disappearing, they raised a ladder and the man jumped. Here’s witness Audra Coyle.”

“I saw the whole thing!” came a woman’s voice. “He was falling, straight toward the river. Then I felt a rush of wind and he was gone. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but I could see a glowing trail running straight down the support he’d jumped off!”

Rousch propped his elbows on his desk and rested his chin against folded hands. The reporter interrupted the woman.

“Glowing?”

“Yeah, like a stove burner. Straight down the beam there. I think he caught the guy about halfway.”

“Who?”

“Looked like he was in a military uniform of some kind but it was all torn up. He dropped the man off by the firetrucks and he was all hopping around, his pants smoking. While they were treating some burns, I heard him say, ‘Call me Tornado or you’re gonna get me in trouble’. But that was Hurricane, I’d bet on it!”

Brigadier General Rousch turned off the radio. He scribbled an entry into the folder that had been open on his desk minutes ago. He worked in silence late into the night.

 

***

 

1987. 305 Causeway.

 

Five years later and I don’t understand why I’m here. I come every year. They’ve got a barrier along the pedestrian walk now, not that it would stop a determined person. Someone wanting to die, not just seeking attention—they’ve got the drive to make it happen.

I reach out and place a hand on the bridge support. Five years. I’m thankful every day.

When the firetruck put the ladder up, I knew I didn’t want to face them. That I’d waited too long. I stepped off and suddenly realized I would hit the concrete foundation at the base of the support. All this time I’d had ideas of dying on the water. At this height, the river might as well be concrete, but with the wind rushing by and my life over, that detail mattered for that long moment.

Enough to make me want to stop the freefall. To try again. Not the jump, but everything else.

My failed marriage. My midlevel management job, lost to overseas restructuring. My daughter and her coke habit.

“That’s where he grabbed me.” I press against the chain-link and point to a spot along the beam. I could count the rivets and know.

My daughter squeezes my arm when I lean forward. She’s too far back to actually see. “That’s amazing, Daddy.”

I’ve never brought her here before. Her mom and I never reconciled, but I like to think I helped turn my little girl’s life around once I got mine back in order. She made it through rehab. College. She’s got a good job. We both do. She’ll be getting married next week, and for reasons I can’t explain, I wanted to share this with her.

“He changed me and I never knew him,” I say.

“Do you think you’ll ever get to meet Hurricane? He’s always showing up somewhere or another.”

I scuff my shoe on the walkway and tear my eyes off the beam. That point where he redirected my life. He must’ve timed everything perfectly. Running fast enough to defy gravity and slowing down at the precise fraction of a second to pluck me from the air without breaking my neck.

“I hope so,” I say. “I know people fear these Augments, I get why. But I want to thank him one day.”

I pull her tight and turn to leave. Now that she’s seen this place that we never speak about, the space between us feels strange. I want to ask about the wedding and talk about her plans. Bother her about grandkids and listen to her go on and on about dresses and flowers and invitations. Her eyes get wide when she talks about the upcoming day and she looks exactly like she used to at Christmas.

But everything goes black.

She screams and the cry is distant and after that a sharp report breaks above the sound of cars and buses streaming by. A backfire? A gunshot? I’m falling. The only thing I think this time is that this is how people die.

 

***

 

1988. Outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

 

One dollar and twenty five cent gas was going to put him right out of business. The van drank gallons of the stuff, but he’d chosen to live out in the country for some peace and quiet. Ingalls paid the store owner, Frank, and headed back out to the pump.

His time overseas had gifted him with a newfound appreciation of the things that kept getting paved over. Sure, the brush in ‘Nam had hidden untold dangers, but it had also hidden him and his patrol. Nature itself was rarely the threat to worry about. People were what killed you.

He unhooked the nozzle and flipped the lever. The lettering on the side of his paneled van had faded over the years. “Ingalls Electric” had gone from a glossy yellow to the dull pastel shade of an Easter egg. Everything was legible, so it wasn’t a concern, but the faded American flag next to the phone number bugged him the most. He’d need to get that touched up. Maybe next week. The gallons and dollars ticked by on the pump.

Even the suburbs had gotten too crowded for his tastes. That surprised him when he’d come home from ‘Nam. When he first got out there, all he wanted to do was get back home. When he finally did, the tightly-packed houses with their little white fences might as well have been an alien planet. The broad streets offered no cover, same with the carpet-like grass, the very stuff he used to trim at his mom’s house. In the jungle, that shit grew wild until they decided it was a nuisance and burned it the fuck away from low altitude.

People burned too.

“Shit.”

He’d overfilled the tank. Gas belched out around the nozzle, splashing his hand. He released the handle and stooped. As he bent, a wave of pressure zipped across his scalp and a sharp crack sounded from the woods across the street. He fell flat, gas fumes burning his throat.

Fifty caliber. Seven or eight hundred yards. He scrambled under his van.

How many years again since the jungle? Since he put his foot on a defective landmine? However long, it all melted away.

Frank appeared at the glass door of the convenience store. All Ingalls could see were the man’s tattered jeans and steel-toed boots.

“Get down!” Ingalls shouted.

Glass shattered and Ingalls caught a glimpse of Frank’s plaid shirt, spattered with blood, as the man crumpled, the stretched coils of a phone receiver held taut near his body.

Metal ricocheted in the engine compartment of the van, followed by the gurgle of a hose and fluid dripping to the pavement. Then he heard the crack of the shot, catching up to the supersonic rounds.

Man down. Evac disabled. He envisioned a field of four-foot-high brush and a wiry-browed scarecrow, plain as day. He’d survived then and learned to keep on living.

No more rounds incoming. Ingalls knew he was being stalked. If he stayed pinned down, he was as good as dead. He needed to call for support.

He scooted out from under the van at the back, away from the direction of fire. He shimmied into a crouch and pressed close to the rear bumper. The building offered his only real cover. The phone was there and he knew Frank well enough to know he had a twelve-gauge squirreled away behind the counter.

Biggest problem was the distance. Ten yards of open pavement. If he was lucky, the shooter was on the move, trying to close in and finish him off. Unlucky, and a more patient sniper would be waiting to put a bullet in him.

You needed to wake the fuck up. You’ll be okay now.

“I’ll be okay.” He huffed and rose on the balls of his feet, one hand on the bumper. He breathed again, sharp and hard. “I can do this.”

He let his hand slip from the cool chrome. His eyes fixed on the shattered door. He could see himself, leaping through the dangling remnants of glass, grabbing the receiver cord and sliding toward the counter where a solid brick wall blocked off the outside. A round that caliber might penetrate the wall, but it would be a blind shot. No way anyone could make a shot like that.

He launched into a sprint, trying to channel that speed he’d been a part of so long ago, which had whipped him to safety across a broad jungle plain.

Ingalls never made it to the door.

 

***

 

1989. Mount Misen, across the bay from Hiroshima.

 

For obvious reasons the last one was the hardest to pin down. No matter. Balor knew this was a tortoise-and-hare kind of thing. In time, the hare always loses.

He shimmied into position on the ridge. No cross wind. Visibility was crystal clear. Today he’d make up for that bullshit in Central America.

Little Boy had burned himself out in the jungles there, added a smack addiction to his unhealthy fascination with fire. Bastard had wound up dead in a steaming pile of excrement in a whorehouse in Nicaragua. The ladies he’d hired were there too. Police didn’t bother with the chalk outlines. That was his final mission for the U. S. of A.

Figuring out that Little Boy was even part of Augment Force Zero had taken Balor two years. Nobody knew that shit. Story was, he’d been such a psychopath that any mention of him had been scrubbed from official records.

Balor should’ve been satisfied, but it felt wrong to know he hadn’t been there. Hadn’t pulled the trigger, like with Fat Man. Plus, he didn’t get a dime if they offed themselves.

He settled into the rifle and centered the tree in the sights. He focused his eye, and the distance melted away. Maybe eight hundred yards out. If the conditions held, the shot itself wouldn’t be a problem. He’d dropped targets at twice that range, but if he missed, the extra distance didn’t matter. His hare was too damn fast. This close, though, his quarry would drop dead before the sound of the shot told the speedster to move.

The Augment program was supposed to be a gentleman’s game, and that’s how they’d played it since Cuba. A dance or a sideshow to draw attention away from the obvious fact that these broken former people were still on active duty. But almost overnight, all of those rules had changed.

The tree in his sights was a veiny thing holding up an umbrella of leaves. A Japanese maple, right on top of a hill. The primordial forest offered the dense kind of concealment that was a sniper’s dream and the field of view around the hilltop was uncluttered. He’d think this was too easy if not for all the work it had taken to get this far.

Hurricane traveled a lot. One minute he’d be in the Eastern U.S., and the next he was in Eastern Europe. Trying to catch up to him was pointless.

Balor really did think the old codger was legit. A freelancer who sat around watching the news, waiting for places to swoop in and help. Maybe the only one of these guys that could actually pull off the superhero schtick. For the others, unless that breaking news was in their backyard, all they could do was help pick up the pieces. That was, if they were ignoring their Agency handlers.

Too many were, nowadays.

Even so, he’d been surprised when his own handler recommended his current Chinese employer. He’d been even more surprised by the job.

They wanted him to find them all—all six of the members of Augment Force Zero. At first he wasn’t sure if his handler understood what the Chinese were asking. He never tried to verify though, the money was too good.

From what he could tell, the People’s Republic was jealous. They didn’t have any Augments, and even though the world powers swore no more had been created, it probably didn’t help that the procedure had slowed the aging process for the ones in circulation. That must’ve been like salt in the wound.

Balor wasn’t sure how he felt about that little anti-aging perk either. There was a chance his nest egg could stretch thin. One more shot, though, and he’d retire. Disappear before the sights were on him.

To find them all, he’d kept a record of Augment Force Zero’s former team member’s movements. He had even considered one of those insanity maps, where you plaster clippings on the wall and tie them all together with colored string. That was too much work. In the end, he’d made a simple list. Only one place kept showing up over and over for Hurricane: Japan.

Made sense he’d come back. Balor had killed a lot of people, one hundred and twelve to be exact, and people called him cold, heartless. In the space of a few hours, the mighty Hurricane had ended more lives than Balor could ever hope to snuff out. And that son of a bitch had done it for free. A genuine hero-type might even feel guilty.

Movement caught his eye and he focused again, drawing the world closer. Balor knew being able to telescope his vision wasn’t something that made him too wildly different from everybody else. Augments are people, he reminded himself. People are animals. All it would take to draw his hare out was a piece of bait.

A man climbed the hill, working his way up a game trail toward the maple. He was old and bent but moved steadily enough. Balor watched him stop and stare out toward the harbor before continuing his climb. When he reached the top, he parted the drooping limbs and worked his way to the trunk of the tree, where he sat. Balor kept him firmly in the sights.

Not everyone had died in Hiroshima that night. About a dozen people had reported being carried away. All but seven were dead now, six as of twenty-four hours ago.

Nobody ever believed the survivors’ stories when the government finally allowed people to talk about that day in Hiroshima. But Balor had studied those stories. Tracked down survivors and even posed as a reporter to interview them. Then he’d hiked every damn trail on Mount Misen. He’d found a lone tree and a hill with an unobstructed view of the city across the bay where the sun rose directly behind him.

Hurricane was good at keeping things unpredictable. He always came back to Japan, but never at the same time. He might’ve lived there long term, even, but his trail would always disappear like so much wind. However, this place and the man under the maple tree were a certainty.

The two hadn’t met in several months, but with the body count rising, it was only a matter of time. They’d feel safe here, the secret place where they’d met all these years. Less than a second of conversation. Balor knew that was all he needed.

Hare, meet the tortoise.

The wind shifted. Slight, but enough to make Balor readjust for the shot. The variables had become second nature to him, and he always wondered if that too weren’t a gift of the Augmentation process. As soon as he thought he had everything dialed in, the wind changed again.

He stared at the hillside. A dozen crosswinds picked up, all going different directions. They shook the trees and ferns in violent bursts, working outward in a spiral from the maple.

With each pass, the wind grew closer. It was a typical search pattern; a platoon could scour the surrounding forest that way in a few hours. Hurricane could do it in a few seconds. Balor had hoped the speedster would be too anxious to take such precautions. Now he could only hope his ghillie suit did the trick.

As soon as it started, the wind stopped. Balor scanned the hillside. The old man was looking about too, but he stayed seated under the tree. Balor watched his eyes for a sign that he’d found something so he could follow his gaze.

Then he heard a cough and a wheeze off his right shoulder.

Balor held his breath. Focused to slow his heart rate. All good things when taking a shot and even better when his target wasn’t more than a few yards away.

He couldn’t hope to wheel the heavy rifle fast enough to get a shot off. That would be suicide. This man could move faster than anyone could think. He needed his target downrange.

Another sputtering cough then the wet sound of phlegm, hacked up and spit. He felt it land near his elbow. All it would take was the Augment’s eyes idly following the trail of spit and seeing the outline of his form, or more likely, the barrel of his fifty. Sure, every inch of his gun and his ghillie suit, had been camouflaged using the native plant life. The tricks he knew worked for hiding from enemies at range, and in sniper school he’d gotten within ten yards of his instructor over the span of a day spent inching his way across an open field.

This was closer.

Camo wouldn’t save him. None of his so-called powers. He’d barely gotten anything out of the Augmentation. But Hurricane…

Best news was, his death would be quick and painless. Hurricane wasn’t ruthless, but as a soldier he’d perfected his technique. Balor’d seen footage of the bodies, enemy soldiers lying on their backs with their heads twisted into the dirt. Entire squads in one go.

No, the thing behind him wasn’t a man at all.

He heard a hiss and a sharp intake of breath which rattled out after a long pause. Footsteps, slow and measured, crunched closer toward the ridge. He’d be spotted soon. He couldn’t die with his eyes in the dirt.

He lined up the old man beneath the tree and pulled the trigger.

A gasp and flash of movement erupted beside him. Two explosive bursts of sound flattened the brush in successive waves, the larger one fractions of a second behind the other. A small object tumbled toward the ground where Hurricane had stood.

Balor flicked the bolt upward.

Air shattered around the wake of the bullet, forming a trail like hot sun off desert sand. Back and to the left of the spiraling shot, a spearhead of dirt and ferns raced along the uneven, rugged terrain.

Balor slid the bolt back.

An empty casing twirled from the rifle. It struck the ground next to the tumbling object Hurricane had dropped. The asthma inhaler canister and the hollow brass collided with a metallic ring. Balor barely registered the oddity.

He chambered a second round.

The bullet trace neared the hill. The old man sat unaware, deaf yet to the reaping wind. At the base of the hill, Hurricane, a streak of dust and color, exploded upward, the distance from the hypersonic bullet closing faster now that the terrain offered a straight path of interception.

Balor reached for the trigger.

Under the maple there was a sudden blur of dust and men. He thought, in that fraction of a second, he saw Hurricane pause and scoop the man up, unable to collide with him at the fantastic rate of speed that had carried him up the hill ahead of the bullet. Then the tree canopy reeled in like a collapsed lung, sheltering the scene. Blood sprayed into the air. Branches sprung out and the twin outbursts of sound, Augment and bullet, finally echoed across the valley.

The old man was gone. Something fleshy and rigid, like a fallen branch, tumbled to the ground.

Balor reached out with his sight. No, not a branch but a limb. A calf and foot pumping blood into the earth beneath the tree.

A shadow twitched behind the tree trunk. An anguished cry filled the valley and quieted. More shadows danced frantically and Balor knew the two, Augment and man, were pinned down behind the tree. He sighted for the distance and waited. The tortoise wins.

The ground erupted beside the trunk. Balor fired his shot but realized he was shooting too high. The cloud of dirt and debris tore low across the valley floor toward him. He chambered another round, but the wave of movement washed over him first. He fired, and the shot buried into the ground in front of him.

Hurricane was there, his hand pushing the rifle away. His taut face looked drained. Stems and twigs perforated his cheeks and chest. His front half was bathed in soil, head to toe, his forearms and hands torn into raw meat. Blood pulsed from his shattered leg. The man on the hill, so far away, rose from behind the tree and rushed toward them along a trail of blood and flattened brush.

For a split second, Balor saw dirt, then darkness.

 

FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY

[* *]

Eldon stood in the gravel driveway, feeling the vehicle coming toward his house. Four tires on the ground, no tracks, lightweight. Closer, and he could tell by the resonance of the V-8 that it was a sedan. Probably the government-issue kind.

A Ford De Luxe crested the hill. Black, coated in road dust like a layer of ash. Ash, falling like snowflakes.

He turned and raised an arm, motioning toward the house. Small. White. A two-bedroom farmhouse his grandparents had built. He’d grown up here, and to this day, every time he laid eyes on it, he was amazed it was still standing.

He climbed the porch, walking gingerly from heel to toe. An awkward thing, but the house needed to last a lot longer. On the wooden porch, above the floating foundation, the tingle of the car on gravel left the soles of his feet.

Pointed ears and cheeks trotted into view through the haze of the screen door. A pink tongue lolled. Eldon opened the door and reached down to pet the dog’s velvet fur.

“Keep your ears open, Nip. This could get ugly.” The dog nuzzled his hand with a damp, black nose.

Eldon glanced over his shoulder toward the car and waved again. The dust-streaked sedan crunched to a stop. He stepped inside, leaving the door open and letting the screen door fall partly ajar as it was wont to do. He’d fix that. Someday.

He crossed through the living room, light spilling in through the picture window. On good days, he’d sit on the porch. On bad, he’d sit on the couch. He could watch the world outside, a dusty road and a stand of trees, mountains painted in the distance. Birds and smaller critters foraged in the abandoned garden out front. Several times, he’d shot a deer or a squirrel right from the porch.

He didn’t need to go far from here to live. Never again. They couldn’t make him.

Nip whined.

Eldon took a breath. “It’s all right.”

He continued into the kitchen and pulled open the fridge. He grabbed a beer from the shelf and started to close the door, then stopped before reaching for another. He felt the wood under his feet vibrate with each step on the porch stairs. Felt the motion ride the coils in the fridge and through the handle.

“Come in.”

The screen door creaked open.

Eldon walked into the living room, his head low. He motioned with one of the beers toward the recliner closest to the door. The young man, dark suit, baby-face, closed the screen door with great care. The boy, why’d they send a boy, was still standing when Eldon settled into the couch.

“Beer?”

His visitor was trying to look anywhere but his direction. He wouldn’t find much. Nothing on the walls. Grandma’s plate collection, family photos, everything was packed away. That was how it had to be. Just the furniture, the old upright piano his mother used to play, and a television covered in dust and foil.

Eldon motioned again. “Have a seat.”

The young man sat. Eldon waved the beer again and the man shook his head, his cheeks coloring. All men acted differently when they were scared. Flushed. Tongue tied. Fidgeting. Screaming to their false god. Eldon shrugged and opened his beer to take a long swig. Nip padded into the room and curled at his feet.

“Don’t worry about him. He don’t bite.”

The young man licked his lips. “What kind of dog is he?”

“Akita.”

“What’s his name?”

“Nip.”

He went quiet again but at least he made eye contact. “Sargent Griffin, I’m Special Agent Crawford. I’m here to talk to you about an … incident.”

“Not in the Army anymore.” He took another swig. “Neither were you.”

“Okay, sir.” Crawford cleared his throat and paused. Now that he was finally looking, Eldon saw doubt cross his face. “You are Eldon Griffin, correct?”

“That I am,” said Eldon. The doubt lingered in Crawford’s eyes. “Expecting someone fatter?”

Crawford’s face flushed again. “No, sir.”

“Don’t you G-men travel in twos? You know, for safety.”

Eye contact wavered. Crawford ran his fingers through his hair and reached into his jacket. Nip whined. The floorboards creaked and groaned. A resonance rode through the strings of the piano.

Crawford froze and withdrew his hand from his coat inches at a time, his pale fingers vivid against the suit. He held a small notepad. The room settled and the dog flattened to the floor with its muzzle on its paws. With two fingers, Crawford carefully produced a pen from his front pocket.

“My partner called in sick.”

Eldon huffed. “You sure you don’t want that beer?”

“No. Thank you. I won’t be long, sir. I don’t want to take up your time.”

“Suit yourself.”

“I was wondering if you’d heard what happened down near Kooskia.”

“Oh?” Eldon kept his eyes on the man and tilted the beer bottle to his lips. “Don’t keep up much with people.”

“I was told given the proximity, you might’ve known.” He hesitated. “Might’ve felt it.”

“That so.” Eldon looked long and hard at the young man. Sweat dimpled his brow. Pupils dilated. Rookie with the short straw—he hadn’t pissed himself yet. But he was asking questions. Engaging. The fear was more about what he didn’t know, Eldon decided.

“Sir, one quick question is all I need to ask. Where were you on the night of October 14th?”

“Why do you need to know?”

“There was an earthquake. Out near an internment camp. On the books the camp was closed, but there were families out there caught up in the transfer.”

Eldon leaned forward, dangling the beer bottle between his fingers. “Mother Nature can be unpredictable.”

USGS said there weren’t any fault lines in that area. No previous activity.”

“What do they know?” He drank the last of his bottle and reached for the second. “You think their little boxes and spools of paper can tell you shit about what’s under there? Do you?”

He felt a wet muzzle on his hand. Nip was standing, his face pressed between Eldon’s arm and knee. Coal black eyes looked up at him, pleading. He forced the swelling back down into the earth.

“I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. That’s just what they told us.”

“Then what are you? What do you think you are?”

“A guy trying to do his job. That’s all.” The young man set the pen down and reached for his breast pocket, raising his eyebrows in askance as his shaking hand revealed a pack of cigarettes. He shifted and drew a lighter from his pants. “You mind?”

“Yeah. I mind.”

The man let the pack disappear into his pocket and raised his palms, clutching the lighter under a thumb. “One answer and I’m gone, sir.”

“I was a guy doing a job once.” Eldon stared at the chrome lighter. Light from the picture window flared on the surface. “We both were.” He tried not to imagine the flame clicking from the top. “You ever serve?”

“No, sir. War ended too soon.” Crawford swallowed. “Thanks to you and the rest of Augment Force Zero.”

“Thanks?” Eldon snorted and dug his hands into Nip’s tawny fur. “I already had my parade. Streets burning. People running out of their paper fucking houses with the skin melting from their backs.” He released the fur. His gaze drifted out the window to the car powdered in gravel dust. Whole city blocks had been like that. People. Ankle-deep in the slough of whatever had been sent up in the air, consumed by flame. “Little Boy, that’s all he could say. Laughing the whole damn time. ‘Them’s houses made of paper!’”

Nip started to nudge his leg but Eldon ignored him.

His guest looked confused. “Little Boy?”

“Your clearance not enough for that intel?” Eldon huffed, they had sent the greenest of greenhorns. “Don’t go running your mouth, they’ll find a special camp in the woods for you if they know I told you this.” Eldon licked his lips. “I was codename Fat Man. Fat Boy was a name ‘Cane made up after they removed Little Boy from active duty and the psyops at the OSS ran with it to explain the records discrepancies. Little Boy was one of the original Augment Force members and they wanted him erased from the history books, ‘cause the OSS thought they could use him and he had no business being in the public eye.” He focused on the young man. “Little Boy burned them, Hurricane stoked the fires, I buried what was left. That was my job. Why’d they hire you for your job?”

“I guess I had the right education.”

“I bet you did.” Eldon smirked. “So did we. Little Boy burned his way through his childhood too. Hell, he was wetter behind the ears than you when they took him into the program. They say the Augmentation process is random, you never know what kind of powers you’ll get. That’s what your scientists say, the ones who want to tell me what’s in the earth.”

“Maybe I can come back another time.”

Eldon jerked forward, the room rocked, the dog whined. “You ain’t coming back here.” Crawford sunk into the chair. “You gonna do your job? Get your answers?”

Crawford nodded.

A damn kid, like Little Boy had been. But this one was scared shitless, unlike Little Boy. Joy had burned in that pint-sized monster’s eyes as the city burned to ash around them. A terrible fire consuming something inside of him, fueling him, eating him alive. Eldon understood the hate and anger. The kid had been God’s own righteous fire that night, whipped into a frenzy by Hurricane’s winds, but Eldon had always felt that kid would’ve have scorched every inch of the planet if given the go-ahead.

“Let me tell you why they hired me.” He stared up at the ceiling and blew out a fermented breath. “I hated every last one of those slanty-eyed cocksuckers. Watched them feed a naked G.I. to dogs. Saw them cane a strung up Chinaman until his flesh was a foamy mess of blood and dangling skin. They were goddamn animals and they all needed to die. And I was ready to cleanse the motherfucking earth of their kind. That’s what they wanted me to do when we dropped into those city streets. Men. Women. Children. Buried and gone until they knew their tiny god couldn’t save them. Until they were ready to understand who the real rulers of this earth were, and which God they needed to answer to.”

The foundation shook again. Nip whined and pawed at Eldon’s leg. He sank his teeth into Eldon’s pants and tugged, his whine turning into desperate growls. A cacophony of notes rattled from the piano. Crawford stood, eyes wide, and the patches of red had drained completely from his cheeks. He backed toward the door and stumbled on the recliner.

“You gonna ask me where I was?” Eldon stood, letting his bottle fall. It bounced and rolled, leaving a trail of beer to seep through the hardwood. He took a step and the house swayed. “Are you?”

 

***

Special Agent Crawford arrived at the office late. He’d missed the briefing with his supervisor, which wasn’t uncommon when doing field work in the boonies—an agent got back when he got back. What he didn’t know was if his supervisor would smell the bourbon on his breath. He’d made a stop on the way from the Eldon Griffin lead and and had a drink, or two.

He didn’t have any doubts about Eldon—he’d made his role clear. All the stuff the Augment had spouted could’ve been the ramblings of a broken man returned from combat. He’d heard that happened sometimes, but all the facts pointed to him. Then there was that Little Boy stuff. He’d never heard of him. Why would the government cover up a member of the team that ended the worst war in world history? Crawford thought he knew. Maybe this was all too much for him. Or maybe it was the bourbon talking. He wasn’t sure about his next move.

Even this late, the offices were lit up. Supervisory Agent Jerry McDonald’s door was open. Crawford leaned on the frame and knocked.

“Crawford!” A cigarette dangled from McDonald’s mouth as he spoke. He waved a folder at a chair next to the door. “Come on in, have a seat.”

Crawford pressed further into the frame. “No thanks. Been driving all day.”

His supervisor set down the paper and ground his cigarette in the ashtray on his desk. “What’d you find out?”

“Nothing.” Crawford watched the stem of ash smolder in the tray. He risked taking a step into the room and slid his report across the desk. “He wasn’t home.”

“You wait for him?” McDonald flipped the report jacket open.

“Awhile.”

“Let’s see. Survivors talking about buildings falling, trees swaying. One mentioned a dog barking. Why the hell’s that in there?”

“They don’t allow pets at the camp, and no guard dogs either.”

“Interesting. But look, kid, you gotta focus on relevant facts. You don’t gotta write down every damn thing.” McDonald smirked. “Don’t burn yourself out.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Nobody saw Fat Boy there?” McDonald muttered the question as he flipped through the pages. When he reached the last page he peered at Crawford over the red folder. “Earthquake then? Legit?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Sweet Jesus, that’s a relief.” McDonald tossed the report to his desk. He popped the mangled cigarette back into his mouth and leaned back. “Gotta wonder, with the way he left the service as soon as he landed on American soil. We owe them boys of Augment Force Zero a hell of a debt but by God, one of them goes off the reservation, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Crawford nodded. He didn’t know, either. “Gonna head home. Long day.”

“You do that.” McDonald fished another cigarette out of his desk. Crawford reached into his pocket and tossed him his lighter. “Thanks.” He flicked the lighter and Crawford watched the flame swell. Thought he could feel the earth beneath him shift. His supervisor started to return it.

“Keep it. I’m trying to quit.”

 

CODENAME: DANGER

[* *]

Fear soaked Reggie’s shirt. Well, humidity was mostly to blame, but the fear was there. He’d traveled the world on the government’s dime. Of the places he’d been, the humid ones were his least favorite. Remote ones, his second least. This place was both. But the fear was a regular hazard of the job.

Sweat. Jitters. A tug at his stomach which could be anything from a threaded knot to a clenching fist. Right now it was a steady pressure.

“What are we at? Two brownstar? Five?” Winston asked Reggie.

Winston, which wasn’t his real name, knelt in front of a pile of canvas bags to the side of the runway. A pair of bug-eyed mirror sunglasses rested on his forehead and he squinted at Reggie scrunching a nose caked with sunscreen. An open guayabera and a t-shirt underneath, he looked exactly like a white dude in Central America who was trying too hard.

“I don’t know. Two. Maybe three.” Reggie had worked with his CIA handler long enough to develop something of a code to describe his danger sense. When they were in deep shit, brownstar ten. An annoyance, something that might slow them down but was not likely to get them killed, a three or less.

“Only the one bag?” Winston stooped and dug for the bottom. “Only this one set you off?”

Standing before the pile, he wasn’t sure. Every last canvas lump tugged at his gut. A steady pull—nothing mortal, but palpable. Winston dragged a bag from the bottom and unzipped it slowly.

Inside were stacks and stacks of white bricks.

Reggie knew exactly what it was. He’d seen it before, outside the neatly taped and stamped rectangles. Powder. Stuff you could cook into little white stones like shattered sugar cubes and melt in a spoon. Wedge in a glass pipe.

Winston dug through the bag, lifting each brick like he were delivering a newborn and placing it on the ground. He tested the weight of each in his hands and examined the lining of the bag. “You sure? There’s nothing here.”

“What the fuck do you mean, ‘nothing here’?”

His handler squinted into the blazing sun behind Reggie. “Nothing that isn’t supposed to be.”

“It’s a pile of coke, motherfucker!” Reggie looked at the dirt road leading to the airstrip. The clearing was edged by rolling hills braided with crops. Further out, he could see the deeper green of a jungle canopy rising along smooth peaks. The dust had settled and the Soviet truck loaded with rebels was already out of sight. “We just gave a bunch of kids some machine guns for a pile of coke. You don’t see a problem?”

Winston sighed and started returning the bricks to the bag. “What are you, MacGruff the Crime Dog? We lost the last shipment and nobody can say what happened. I brought you to make sure the delivery wasn’t dangerous. Like a bomb or tracking device.”

“Looks plenty dangerous.”

Winston stood. “Getting soft on me, Danger?”

“Soft? You ain’t seen what this shit does to people. Where’s this going?”

“On the plane.” Winston lugged a bag off the ground with two hands and shuffled toward the DC-3 on the runway. Earlier, when Reggie’s danger sense got a “hit”, Winston had convinced the rebels to drop the bags away from the plane. They didn’t seem to care—less work for them and more for the stupid Americans. “C’mon, give me a hand.”

“Fuck this,” Reggie muttered as he hoisted a bag over his shoulder.

The fear tingled under his skin and he pushed it into the background like a radio station between decent tracks. All things considered, this had been an easy mission. Not even the truck full of thugs with rifles and rocket launchers had set him off. They didn’t care. This was business as usual for them.

He dumped the bag inside the plane and headed for another. What choice did he have? Refuse to load the damn covert plane with drugs? Then what? They’d sit here and argue and spend more time swimming in this weather. Winston had never pulled his piece on him, probably knew he’d sense before it happened, so he didn’t think it would ever go that far. But the best thing now was to get home.

Several trips later, Reggie was halfway to the plane with another bag when the sensation he’d so easily stuffed into the background leapt in his chest and hammered his diaphragm. He sucked in a breath and straightened against the weight of the overloaded rucksack.

“Danger?” Winston was stepping out of the plane, the cargo door low to the ground on the tail-dragger. He reached behind him to the .45 holstered against the small of his back. “Everything okay?”

“Six … maybe seven.” Eyes wide, Reggie scanned the horizon. A plume of dust crested the hills opposite the road.

Winston jogged out from the shadow of the wing to stand next to Reggie. He followed his gaze. “Keep loading. I’ll get the plane fired up.”

Reggie didn’t pull his eyes from the horizon until Winston disappeared into the plane. He checked the pile—they’d whittled it down from a waist-high mound to a single layer of half a dozen bags. Reggie dropped the one in his hands and ran for the open cargo door.

The wing mounted engine on the far side sputtered and smoked before buzzing into a steady spin. Reggie leapt into the hold. An aging beast used for military cargo, the inside of the plane was a spartan, un-partitioned tube. The canvas bags lined the walls, leaving a single walkway open straight into the cockpit. Winston sat at the controls running through his preflight. Reggie settled into the copilot seat as the second engine spun up.

“You get all the bags?” Winston shouted.

Reggie figured it was best not to answer. He leaned forward to look out the window. In the distance, the trail of dust stretched closer. A beat-up pickup bounced over the open terrain. He couldn’t say for sure, but there were men riding in the bed, rifle barrels sticking up beside them.

Winston backhanded Reggie’s arm. “The bags, how many left?”

Reggie gave him a slow one count with his middle finger. “I’m not dying in the jungle for a bunch of blow. I can do that shit back home!”

Broad mirror glasses reflecting the finger, Winston jumped up and slung his headphones over the back of the seat. Outside the cockpit window, the truck was nearing the edge of the runway. In the hold, Winston had disappeared through the blinding gap of the cargo door. Reggie cursed and raced after him.

“Are you crazy?” he yelled, making the short hop to the ground.

Ahead of him, Winston was grabbing two of the large canvas bags, one in each hand and waddling toward the plane like a duck in traffic. Following Winston’s lead he hefted two of the bags off the ground.

The tightness in his gut moved to his chest.

A round sparked off the fuselage. Through the dicing propeller blades he could see the truck racing up the runway. A gunner stood in the bed trying to steady his rifle on the roof. It all seemed like a dumb exercise they’d have done in Basic and later, at the farm. Live fire, carrying weight no human being should carry; execute the mission, screw personal safety.

Reggie had never been all about that. It only got worse after the Augmentation. Now, when his body told him to run, he fucking ran. Fighting the ache in his shoulders, he reached the door as Winston got ready to swing down for more. With a grunt, he tossed a bag in front of Winston, nearly knocking him off his feet.

“Stow that one!” he shouted. His senses flared and dust kicked only a few feet away, the roar of the engines drowning the shot and the impact. He tossed the other bag in and rolled into the cargo area. Winston tried to step around him to the open door.

“Hell, no! You really need me to say?” Reggie held up all ten fingers.

Goddamnit. He could read Winston’s lips above the engines. He turned to secure the cargo door as Winston raced to the cockpit.

Full throttle, and Reggie stumbled drunkenly into the copilot’s seat. They raced toward the pickup. Winston sat back, tight-lipped, lost in the trance of instruments and the feel of the plane through the yoke. Another sudden pull in his gut, closer this time. Reggie ducked in his seat, his hands in front of him. Muzzles flashed from the oncoming truck and the cockpit window spider-webbed.

“Short flight to the Caribbean, we’ll touch down at fifteen hundred,” Winston spoke with all the concern of a commercial pilot over an intercom. Reggie closed his eyes and sank back into the cold dampness of his shirt—the humidity no longer to blame.

 

***

Reggie stepped into his house and let his bug-out bag hit the tile with a satisfying crack. He closed the door on the white middle-class fakery behind him. Picket fences and station wagons dressed up to make people appear more civilized.

Only reason he didn’t mind living here was because the nice white folk usually perpetrated their crazy shit behind closed doors. Once you closed your door, you became part of that illusion.

That wasn’t so where he grew up. You lived there. The people, the streets, they demanded it and there was no avoiding it. After the Augmentation, he couldn’t go back.

Fear ruled him. Controlled his every thought. Those streets would drive him crazy.

Reggie had known plenty of fear before. Growing up in North Lawndale, that was a daily medicine. You never showed it to nobody because fear was weakness and the gangs there weeded that shit out like a pack of dogs. Guns, drugs. He had left all that behind.

Or so he’d thought.

He slid the top bolt on the door into the harness. Routine cargo flight, my ass. He fumbled the chain into the slot and levered the deadbolt. Finally, he flicked the latch closed and thumbed the lock on the doorknob.

That was the last damn time he was answering that fucking pager.

He sighed and shuffled to the refrigerator. Door open, he stared at the white takeout boxes piled on the shelves. When his eyes fell on the Kung Pao, third from the left, he felt that feeling. He groped toward the back and slid the box out, tossing it in the trash.

“No Chinese tonight.” He pried open a box of pizza and dragged out a slice.

A week in the fridge had left it dense and spongy, but he ate it anyway. He slipped a coke out of the door and let it close.

Years ago, Reggie’s father had talked him into volunteering for the service. There had been tests to develop the next generation of Augment long before Force Zero. Those tests had paid his grandfather well, and his dad, trying to find steady work before he gave up, remembered. “Get some honest work,” his dad had said. “Keep off the streets.”

“Too bad you couldn’t take your own damn advice” Reggie mumbled.

He stood in the darkness, washing down the pizza with his coke. He relished every syrupy, rich mouthful. A week on MREs, waiting for orders in a burned out warehouse, would do that to you. He got another slice.

He wondered what would happen if he didn’t go. Forget wondering. Next time they called, he’d refuse to answer. Or he’d answer and tell them to find another nigger to save their sorry asses.

He ate while watching the front door in the wedge of light offered by the fridge. When he was done, he slammed the rest of his coke and crossed the room. They’d call again. And he didn’t care.

 

***

Reggie woke up staring into the pitch black of his bedroom. That feeling was building in his stomach and prodding at his chest. He held his breath and waited for the sensation to solidify. Outside the house? Front door? Hall? Maybe someone had seen him out on his run and called the cops. A lump of coal in their snowflakes.

As the sensation danced in his gut, he found himself focused on a familiar point on his nightstand.

He’d learned to sleep through most things. He’d grown up downtown with a siren lullaby and the shouts of neighbors with nowhere to be in the mornings. Even here in the deathly quiet of suburbia, the neighbor’s dog often felt the urge to yap incessantly at all hours. He wondered what the mutt felt was so damn important. “I’m shittin’! I’m shittin’ in the yard!”

Still, he could tune out all that noise and get his sleep, no problem.

But nothing could tune out the danger sense.

His pager danced across the nightstand. As always, impending doom had woken him long before the call. He kept the pager on vibrate because the terror burst like a bubble if the ringer sounded.

Naw, he was done with that mess. For good. He rolled over on his side. The pager rumbled a few more angry bursts then fell silent.

His bed was warm. Outside, winter was clinging to the spring nights, and regardless how safe and boring his neighborhood was, there wasn’t any good that would come from him wandering around out there after dark.

The pager rattled again. He spun and swiped it from the nightstand. A new number, always a new number. He picked up the phone and dialed.

“What?”

“We have to talk.”

This time though, he had a reply other than his scripted answer. “So let’s talk, then. I’m not coming in. I quit.”

“We’ll have brunch.” Winston’s voice sounded mildly irritated as he continued with the usual script.

“Brunch” was his whiter-than-white code for “You must leave your house and visit the dead drop site under the bridge in the park.”

“Have your brunch with your damn self.” Reggie said. “I’m not going.”

Silence and the scripted conversation was gone. “Reggie, don’t do this. You’ve got to go.”

“Hell to the motherfucking no. You deaf? I’m done. I want out.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“Then tell me how it works. You snap your fingers and I come? I ain’t your dog.”

“You don’t understand. They need you to come in or—”

“Or what?”

“I’ll have to file a report.”

“File it.”

He slammed the phone onto the cradle and tossed the pager across the room to shatter in the darkness. He jerked the covers back over himself. Bullshit. No way he was getting out of bed this time. They’d just need to mix up a new danger detector.

He lay there staring into the dark searching for a feeling of satisfaction that never came. Scenes of those bags full of coke haunted him. Kids unloading a damn arsenal from the plane. Not kids, they were all at least teenagers—“old enough to ride” his friends back in the day would say. Or maybe dumb enough to. His dad had made him promise to keep away from drugs, but he owed it to his mom to follow through.

It swelled in his chest again.

He thought of the pager. It had to be in pieces on the floor. No more requests for him to throw himself into war zones, or in front of assassin’s bullets, or check a damn drug plane for bombs before takeoff.

He’d gotten used to the freelancing life, as much of a lie as that was. He could shut out the crazy world, order decent food over the phone, and collect his pay in non-sequential hundred dollar bills. Only worry about going active a few times a month. Clench his cheeks and ride it out. He couldn’t do that anymore after the last mission.

The tension in his chest continued to rise.

At first it was a steady tug, not more than a two—shopping under the scrutinizing eyes of the pasty dude at the record store. The tug became a pull. A visit to the old neighborhood, where he didn’t know the signs or the right colors to wear. Danger on the cusp of violence. Next, his heart skipped like scratched vinyl and began pounding a ferocious beat. His breaths came quick and shallow.

He needed air.

Ten. Eleven. Worse than any mission he’d ever been asked to go on. Reggie felt like the world was closing in around him. He couldn’t trace the fear to any particular point in space. It was big. Everywhere.

He needed air.

Half-dressed, he stumbled down the hall to the entryway. He pressed damp palms on the door and checked the bottled view of his porch through the peephole. Dark and empty, he tried to see the sky. A plane on a collision course? A damn meteor come to wipe out him and all the quiet, crazy white folks in the neighborhood? He couldn’t see.

He tore open the locks and latches and burst into the night. Cold air seared his lungs and he drank it in with deep mouthfuls. The sky was empty and while the danger sense still squeezed at his core, he was no longer suffocating under the weight.

He rushed inside, leaving the door wide open. Tearing through his nightstand, he threw on a pair of sweats and a hooded pullover. He jammed his bare feet into his sneakers and raced outside, slamming the door behind him.

By the time he reached the dead drop, the place where he’d find the coded instructions for his next mission, the crushing fear had all but faded. When the container with the message touched his hand, the fear was gone.

Sunlight splashed the sky, making a thin line beneath the stars. Other people were out now, getting in their morning run, and he cinched his hood tight around his face so only the white fog of his breath stuck out. He fell in with the foot traffic and began to jog.

He took a different route back home, like they’d taught him. He was supposed to be looking for surveillance, making sure he hadn’t been followed by reporters, spies, or enemy Augments. Normally he didn’t bother, because he’d know if he’d been followed, but he needed the time to clear his head.

The street he turned onto was starting to wake with the rest of the city. More commuters began to fill the sidewalks and roadways, all trying to get a jump on a day spent behind desks or crowding around conference tables. He couldn’t do that shit. Dad was right, the Army had been his only way off the streets.

Once the Army figured out who his grandfather was, they were after him to sign up for the program.

It wasn’t like Gramps ever got powers from all the time he spent with the Army, not that Reggie knew of anyway. The cancer took him early, and he’d always thought it was because of the process. Is that what the overwhelming fear was about? Would the program kill him just as fast as the streets he’d left behind?

Reggie headed back home to decode the message. A flight out in the early morning. He had time. He left for the bus station to catch the line uptown.

 

***

The charged sensation under his skin started the minute he stepped off the L. A steady two, maybe a three. He’d transferred from the bus to the train and watched the old neighborhood crawl by his window. Not much had changed. Empty lots littered with trash. Warehouses, factories, businesses from a forgotten other age sat derelict and hollow against the sky, their walls painted with scrawled letters and signs to mark territory or declare a freedom offered in name alone.

He recognized a few of the signs. Most were new. He tried mapping the boundaries as the train pulled into the station and panic set in. The borders made no sense. Everything must be worse than when he left, so when his senses took hold, told him to get back on the train, he nearly did.

Knowing the only thing he had to go back to was a job that wasn’t really far from these streets was what got him off to leave the platform.. Besides, he only needed to go a few blocks.

He kept his hood up and his eyes on his feet when he left the platform. Being a stranger or being recognized could be bad. Residents were suspicious of strangers and, in the other case, he was his father’s son.

Curious stares fell on him from passing cars and people out on their stoops. The neighborhood around his suburban house became a ghost town from nine to five. Here, there was nowhere to work, but these guys weren’t unemployed. With every passing look, his danger sense grew.

A block in and it spiked. The driver of a passing car stared hard. Reggie kept walking with his head up now to find alleys or doorways where he could duck and hide. He couldn’t run yet. You’d trigger instincts much older than the cracked graystone buildings that lined the streets.

Brakes squeaked and he heard the car whine into reverse. His senses stayed steady, maybe a four, so he kept his cool. No bullets from this car. Not yet.

“Soldier boy.”

Reggie thought he recognized the voice. Richer and heavier than when he’d last heard it, he wanted to turn his head but resisted.

“Don’t know what you talking about.” Reggie let the drawl of the street creep into his words. It came back like a reflex.

“You Reggie, Playboy’s kid.”

He didn’t let his feet shuffle like they might when a person was caught off-guard but kept smooth steps, eyes straight ahead. Still no imminent danger, just the building feeling. This guy wouldn’t do the damage but he might report it to someone who would. He kept trying to match that grown-up voice to a name, and the past finally answered.

“Easy P.”

“The one and only.”

Easy was slung out the open window with one hand on the wheel. Tongue dragging, he craned his neck to the rear as he wove his way down the street. Reggie stopped and Easy overshot him. He disappeared through the window to slip the car in drive and pull up to the curb.

“I hear you was in the Army or some shit.”

“Been outta that for a while.”

“Long time for you to be coming back. Why you here? Family reunion?”

Reggie knew he was digging for information, stuff he’d report back to whoever ran his gang, and didn’t see a reason not to tell him the truth. Only family he had here was his mom. They all knew where she lived. “Just visiting.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

Reggie shrugged. Easy was looking everywhere but him. Dark skin and glassy eyes, the kid he remembered looked worn and ragged. Easy’d been an athletic teenager with a smile the ladies loved. None of that was left.

He was afraid, Reggie could see that much. Nice day, windows down on the beat-up Olds, and he was sweating through his T-shirt. His hands gripped the wheel, tight. He’d guess a four or a five, even, but if Easy was really in mortal danger, Reggie was close enough that he’d be in the line of fire. He would’ve sensed it too.

He’d forgotten what that was like. To be ruled by a fear you couldn’t sense.

“How long you gonna be around?” asked Easy.

“Don’t know.”

“We always looking for soldiers.”

“Who’s we?” Reggie’s question finally got Easy to fix on him.

“Vice Lords.” His eyes returned to roving the streets. “Don’t listen to any of that other shit. Place be crawling with wannabe thugs and gang bangers. You only bang with us, you hear? Tell your family you with us.”

Reggie nodded and tried to hide the confusion. Tell his mom? Everyone knew she had no love for the gangs.

A three-fingered sign and Easy sped away. Reggie’s skin maintained that constant hum. If he was swimming in fear, Easy was drowning.

 

***

Dark water stains streaked the graystone house and cracks fissured the porch. It could’ve been one of the derelict structures he’d seen from the train, not the house where he grew up. Instead of boards, iron bars covered the windows.

Reggie raised a hand to rap on the screen door but stopped. He wasn’t sure the best way to go about this. How he could keep from telling her, well, anything. He wasn’t supposed to mention the program, but she’d drag it out of him like she always did. You didn’t say no to Momma, you said yes, ma’am.

Curtains shifted in the house across the street. Everyone always in everyone else’s business. He couldn’t stand out here any longer. The screen door rattled as he knocked. “Momma, it’s me.”

A few moments passed, long and silent, and the floor creaked inside. The peephole shadowed and he heard the lock slide. When the door opened, it caught on the chain.

“Reggie?” his Momma called through the crack.

The door slammed again and he heard the chain fumble and click before swinging open.

She stared for a moment. Reggie smiled, a slow crawl he didn’t mean to appear pained. At first, she didn’t return the smile. Her dark eyes held a suspicion, an odd expression he couldn’t read. Her hair, always curled nice and tight to her scalp, had grayed at the temples and grew in an uneven frizz. She looked tired. Her thoughts far away. He’d been wrong to come here after so long.

In the next instant, a grin split her face and her eyes lit. “Reggie!” she said again, this time in a voice he recognized. He sighed as she flung herself toward him and he stumbled under her embrace.

“Whoa, hold on Momma, you gonna knock me off this porch.”

She stepped away, her hands on his arms. “You come in here,” she said. She stepped inside, guiding him as though he might not cross the threshold. “How long you been in town?” She let the screen door slam before punching him in the arm. “Where you been?” she asked, her eyes smiling but her mouth set in a frown.

Reggie put his hands up. “Hold up, give me a second to answer, Momma.”

She squinted at him. “It better be good. You better be going to give me a reason not to knock you upside your head.” She walked toward the living room, dragging him behind her. “You come sit down and you tell me why I haven’t seen you in years.”

Reggie didn’t fight as she led him to the recliner. “I’m gonna bring you something to eat, and you think about what you gonna tell me.” She wagged a finger and disappeared toward the kitchen. “It better be good.”

“It be good,” he called.

No, it wasn’t. He sunk into the chair and for a minute, he could smell his dad. A mix of aftershave and hand-rolled cigarettes, sweet and acrid. His eyes went to the urn on the mantle and lingered before he took in the room.

Nothing had changed inside. The battered recliner, the thin-footed provincial French sofa, at least that’s what the salesman had called it, sealed in plastic; even the old cabinet television, a black and white tube encased in oak and crowned with picture frames. His gramps in his Army uniform. His Dad, before he lost his job and the factory closed down.

Danger sense released him and he slunk further into the recliner.

“You gonna want some eggs? I got eggs and grits. I’ll whip them up right quick so you better get your story straight.”

“Yeah, Momma,” he muttered. Fear unraveling, his head dipped and he fought to right it. Eyelids fluttered. He breathed in the lingering smoke infused in the chair and slipped into sleep.

 

***

Bleary, the room came into focus under a damp haze. Momma sat on the couch across from him with a mug in her hand. “Those eggs be cold as stones by now.”

He followed her gaze to the tray setup next to the recliner. Eggs and grits, he didn’t realize how hungry he was. “I’d eat them on ice, Momma, if you made them.”

His mom shivered and half-smiled. “I can warm them.”

“No,” Reggie said and reached for the plate. “Don’t bother yourself.” Even room temperature it was better than week-old takeout. Much better. He didn’t dare tell her about what he ate at home.

“So where you been?” She asked while she stared into her mug.

“Around.” He shoveled in another mouthful.

“Don’t you give me that,” she took a sip. “You go in the Army, I get a few letters, then nothing.”

He shoveled faster to let the food keep his mouth busy. She continued to stare. Keeping his mouthful was a good way to avoid the conversation, even though he knew she’d still cuff him for manners, but the plate was nearly empty. He set it aside and scooted to the edge of the chair. “I went and done something stupid.”

Her eyes closed and her head wagged back and forth. When she opened them again, they fell on the mantle. “You get involved with drugs?”

“No, nothing like …” he stopped. “Maybe.”

She clasped the mug in both hands and peered into it again. Her head rocked and her lips pursed into a tight knot. If he were younger, this is the point he’d try to run.

She didn’t move. Her voice was a hoarse whisper, “Reggie.”

He stood and walked across the room so he wouldn’t have to see her. He propped his forearm on the mantle and pressed his forehead against it right below the urn. “Nothing like that.

“I ain’t putting you on that mantle, Reggie.”

Neither of them spoke and the sounds of the outside world drifted through the screen door, through the drafty windows, echoed in the hollow space beneath the house. Cars prowling on the street, the whoop of sirens, angry shouts, all layered above a stereo out there thumping and thumping. Away from the quiet neighborhood where he’d bought a fake house under a fake name, he wasn’t sure what exactly he’d been doing for the past five years.

“Did Gramps really die of cancer?”

There was a quiet, as quiet as this place could be and Reggie heard the mug gently settle on the coffee table. “You gone and joined that program.”

Reggie didn’t answer. He didn’t need to.

“Lord, why’d you go and do a thing like that?”

“Did he? Gramps, do you know?” He faced the couch and made eye contact. He wasn’t sure why he thought she’d have any more information, but he needed to understand what happened. Was it a natural death? Had the tests done him in? Were they going to come for him? What had that fear been about when he refused to answer the call?

“I never knew him, Reggie. You were born. Your daddy kept bouncing between home and the streets. Your daddy didn’t say much but he did keep running his mouth about the checks Grandpa used to get from the government. I never wanted him to encourage you for that, but it was better than where he ended up.”

Reggie squeaked onto the couch. The cloying smell of plastic was not, as his Momma always argued, better than the cheap cigarettes and aftershave.

“He musta said something about Gramps.”

“Cancer, they said,” she folded her hands and rubbed her fingers together. “But your daddy did tell me a story once. At the funeral he said he remembered the coffin. A simple pine box with a flag folded on top. A few black soldiers showed up to play ‘Taps’ on a trumpet. After that he remembered racing to the coffin to throw it open. He had a little Army man, one of them green ones, that he and his daddy used to play with. He wanted him to have it. Those soldiers were busy trying to calm his momma down, nobody was paying any attention. When he threw that lid back,” she paused and shook her head, “the coffin was empty.”

“What?”

“That’s what he said. Empty. One of the soldiers shut it up real quick. He went running to his momma saying, ‘He ain’t in there! He ain’t!’ and she only cried harder. Tell him ‘that’s right, he with Jesus.’ Nobody listened.”

Reggie stopped fighting the slippery pull of the plastic and fell limp against the sofa. “He’s alive?”

“No, no, I didn’t say that. We all die.” She pursed her lips again and she spoke with fire and conviction. “It ain’t right if you don’t. If you put an empty coffin in the ground.” Her eyes went bloodshot and tears pooled in the corners. She shuddered. “Why you let them do that to you?”

He covered her fidgeting hands with his own. “I thought it’d be better. Why didn’t you tell me?”

She fell against his shoulder, her body heaving in great sobs. “Tell you what? To stay here? Tell you not to go? What are you gonna do here? Sit on the porch and watch the other boys get rich beating and killing each other? Your daddy made his money selling dope and smoked every damn penny. There weren’t nothing for college. Nicest thing he ever bought me, with clean money, from his factory job, was this couch. A lousy piece of furniture. That’s all I got, not even a funeral for him neither. Donated his body for the white folk at the hospital to cut and learn on so they’d burn it up cheap.” She fell into him with all her weight, her fist pounding his chest. “And now they got you. They got you!”

Her words turned to incoherent screams and Reggie held her tight. Grief poured out. Grief and fear. She was afraid for him, her blows trembled with it and her strangled cry rattled with the same clenching pull in his own chest.

They sat together for a long time. He felt her tears soak through his shirt, damp on his skin. He pulled her tighter, trying to take that helplessness from her and onto himself, where he could manage it like he always did, but she never let go until she’d worn herself out and the sobs turned to exhausted whimpers.

“I’m okay, Momma. I’m not dying. They try to hurt me, I’ll know.”

She sat up and sought truth through tear-stained eyes. “You need to leave, Reggie. Leave here and don’t come back.” Her voice trembled again.

Reggie hadn’t thought that far ahead. When he came here, he wasn’t even sure what he’d find. The flight out for his next mission left in less than twelve hours. He hadn’t thought again of running, mostly because he didn’t want to face that overwhelming hit to his senses. He’d destroyed the pager but he knew they’d check the drop site to confirm he’d picked up the message. Winston wouldn’t have filed whatever report; if he had, Reggie felt sure his sense would have told him.

“I don’t need to be in a hurry, why you want me to leave?”

“Can’t you see? It’s dangerous here. Things have only gotten worse since your daddy died and his crew fell apart. These gangs are all fighting, all split up. Their leaders keep dyin’, but that don’t help. It only make things worse. They can’t stop him …” She looked away as if aware that her fevered warnings had released words which she’d never intended to say.

“Stop who?” Reggie gripped her arms. “Who, Momma?”

“Reggie, I can’t.”

“Yes. Yes you can.” He knew the slip wasn’t innocent, he could tell by the tone of her voice. More fear.

She looked away. “Your daddy, Reggie. They say he come back. Come back to kill the ones that killed him.”

 

***

It wasn’t hard to track Easy down. As much as the neighborhood had changed, old habits died hard. Only a few blocks away there was a park with a decent hoop. Close to a school, the court was neutral ground and always had been. Reggie guessed Easy went there more and more, trying to find those younger days. He’d only half-expected that was the case, but he found him there all the same.

What he didn’t expect was how the whole court cleared out when he arrived.

Easy dribbled the ball a few times and almost lost it. He tucked it under his arm and with effort, raised his chin to look Reggie square in the eye. “Shit, Soldier Boy. You look like your old man.”

That’s when Reggie understood. This wasn’t just the fear of the street. They were afraid of him.

Less than five minutes and Easy’d told him what he wanted to know. Where he needed to go to find him.

“You with us, right? You gonna tell him that?”

Reggie didn’t answer.

He left and headed for the east side of town, toward the burnt-out factories he’d watched from the train.

The sun was low in the sky. Light blazed off the patchwork of square window panes, each reflecting a different shade of gold. Bricks ran alongside the columns of windows in thin pillars that arched at the roof. On the ground floor, the windows stopped, replaced with rolling doors and smooth concrete walls, all of which were a solid mural of color and flowing shapes—a canvas made from the empty shell.

At one time, the chain-link fence might’ve kept people out. Now bent and buckled, there were places where you didn’t so much climb as walk into the property. Weeds tore through the concrete lot and bordered the factory walls in low clumps. Reggie walked toward the building, looking for a way inside, his senses calm and steady.

He circled the outside and spotted several ways in, gaps under the bent loading dock doors and holes in shattered windows. He kept these in mind as he continued his walk of the perimeter. Even if his senses were steady, he saw no reason to abandon caution.

On the far side, a matching building flanked the first. Here, the concrete had completely given way to layer upon layer of weeds and grasses. Thin saplings grew toward the center. A carpet of wild vine ran along one corner all the way to the roof several stories above. Light from the sun cut through the upper windows and fell like a volley of spears on the green ground.

Reggie walked into the courtyard and watched in silence. Small birds hopped between window sills, ignorant of the desolation. The shafts of light roved the ground as the sun fell in the sky.

“My Lord, you look like your daddy.”

Reggie jumped. Nothing had alerted him to the fact he was being watched. It took several heart beats for him to convince himself this was a good thing.

Behind him, in the shadow of the building, stood a man. There had been a familiarity in the voice, an inflection or tone, but he couldn’t be certain. “Come out of there so I can see you.”

His grandfather stepped into the light.

He’d never met the man. All he’d ever seen was the military picture sitting on the television. Reggie had always asked his dad if he’d been in the Army, the resemblance was so strong. His dad, before he’d turned to the streets anyway, would laugh and say, “That could just as well be you.”

The man facing him had hardly aged from that picture taken forty years ago. No uniform, just a pair of jeans, a soiled shirt, and a denim coat with a flared collar. But he looked the same. How did that make any sense? The Augmentation slowed aging, but not this much.

“Daddy?” Reggie breathed.

His grandfather bowed his head and took another step closer. “Your daddy’s gone on to heaven. You know that.”

Hope shriveled in his chest. He shook off the disappointment. “Gramps. Why are you here? How?”

Gramps smiled and Reggie fought back a shiver. The resemblance was so strong, but Dad had stopped smiling when Reggie was still a kid.

“The Lord Jesus gave me his gift.”

“What gift is that?”

“Life eternal.”

Reggie narrowed his eyes. “You mean the program?”

Gramps chuckled and moved closer. Reggie flinched as he placed a hand on his shoulder. “All they did was try their best to kill me. I was their guinea pig. But little did they know, I couldn’t die.”

“Where have you been all these years?”

“Hiding mostly.” His grandfather pulled away and wandered toward the middle of the courtyard where the rays of sunlight laced the buildings together above him. “They juiced me up real good once. My spirit left and they thought I was gone. Kept cutting on me to find out why. When they were done, they left my body on a cold slab.” He turned and his smile broadened. “My friend came to scoop the pieces into a pine box to send home. The war was on by then, easy enough to say I died overseas. But when he got there …” The smile remained but pain flashed in his eyes. “Well, I was whole.”

Reggie shook his head in disbelief. “So you weren’t in the coffin.”

His grandfather nodded. “That was easy. They kept us separate from the whites. A few close friends in the service helped.”

“You’ve been here all that time?”

“Oh no. Lord, no. I’ve been all over the world. Spent a lot of time in Africa, where a black man is nothing more than another black man. I wanted to hide and forget all about what happened.” He walked to a concrete bench, choked by the weeds. He sat and gestured beside him, but Reggie stood firm. He shrugged. “Then I found Jesus and I understood.”

“What is there to understand? They killed you, or tried. Stole your life. Forced you to run and hide.”

His grandfather raised a palm. “Nobody took nothing from me. I was given a gift. I needed to use it.”

“They say you’re killing folks.”

“That what they say?” He chuckled. Actually laughed, and his straight, white teeth parted. “God’s will ain’t murder, Reggie.”

He knew his gramps had gone to church. A regular Sunday ritual with the rest of the neighborhood. His dad had even taken him for a while, to the same church, where the ministers spoke in fiery tones and the parishioners exclaimed their agreement for the whole room to hear. That was before the factory closed. But all this talk about God felt wrong.

“Why? You trying avenge your son? He chose that life, you should know.”

The smile faded. “I know. And every day I wish he hadn’t. I’m not here for revenge. God gave his only Son to save the wicked. That’s what I’m trying to do, save them.”

“You ain’t killing them?”

Discomfort wrinkled the elder’s brow. “They all repent, Reggie, one way or another. They repent of their sins.”

“None of that is helping. Can’t you see? I don’t agree with what Daddy did, but at least when he was in charge, he protected the neighborhood. He was a leader. Yeah, he was a criminal, but he held some kind of order. With these drugs fueling things and nobody to take charge, this place is a warzone.”

“It was that way long before I came back. Drugs. Booze. What’s the difference? And crime is crime. Sin is sin.”

“You don’t understand,” Reggie said as he closed the distance and took a seat next to his grandfather. “I went through the Augmentation too. I’m part of that program, and the things I’ve seen …”

A strong hand gripped his knee and that smile blinded him again. “I know. I heard a thing or two. It’s okay.”

Feeling that hand on his knee and the knowing gaze that scrutinized him, Reggie could almost see his father sitting there, counseling, speaking to him, like a child. He wanted to believe the illusion, but he shook his head and stood.

“It ain’t okay.” He looked around the overgrown brick space, saw the fading rays disappear against the sky. “Listen, the government is out there, trading drugs for guns in a damn jungle.” He waited to see the reaction in his grandfather’s face.

He considered Reggie’s words for what felt like a long time time before he finally answered. “Satan’s always out to tempt the children of the Lord, Reggie.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I don’t think the source matters. If people weren’t giving in to temptation, these drugs would show up and nobody would care.”

“But the government … they’re only making it worse.” Reggie couldn’t follow the broken train of thought. “If you’re gonna punish anyone, it should be them.”

“Reggie, I know firsthand the terrible things they’re capable of. And hear me, their day of judgment will come.” His grandfather looked up at him and the courtyard seemed to tilt. The light dipped behind the building, the last rays reflecting into a darkening sky then gone. Shadow drew across his face, and the age of his years settled into the creases of his forehead and cheeks. “On the black wings of locusts, they will be consumed and cast into the infernal pit, but not before each of us has been called to answer for what we have done. And when I’m called, I will proclaim to Him that I have spent my last days saving the souls of those who can be saved and dispatching the wicked. What can you say you’ve done?”

Reggie stared blankly. His danger sense had remained quiet. There was no danger here, to him, from this man or lurking in the deepening shadows of the building. Yet he felt his familiar companion: fear.

“Aren’t you afraid?” he whispered. “You said you used to be in hiding. Now you’ve come back for … this. Won’t the government find you?”

The smile returned. “I hid many a year because of that fear. But the Lord showed me the way. They already tried to kill me, Reggie. I got nothing to fear but God’s vengeance.”

“I don’t understand.”

His grandfather rose and stood in front of him, toe to toe. “Find Him and you will.”

Reggie stepped away.

“You best be getting on.” His grandfather cast a glance at the sky. “Nighttime, things can get dicey around here. The dark gives these thugs a place to hide. They come for me, every now and then.”

Reggie shook his head. “Not tonight. Not now at least.” His grandfather raised an eyebrow and Reggie pointed to his gut. “The Augmentation. I can tell.”

“Oh.” That was all he said, he understood immediately. “You need to stay for a while? I’ve got a room upstairs. Most the comforts of a home but ain’t got no plumbing.”

He considered the invitation. Eyes, the eyes of his father, waited patiently for an answer. Again, he felt that cloak of familiarity draping across a shoulder, the grip on his knee and a carefree smile not burdened by the streets. Part of him wanted nothing more than to find a way to return there.

“I can’t stay. I’ve got somewhere to be.”

“Okay. Okay.” His grandfather pulled him close and then held him at arm’s length. “You ever need anything, you know where to find me.”

“Yeah. Guess so.”

He turned to leave and Gramps stopped him. “And find Him, Reggie. Before it’s too late.”

Reggie nodded vacantly and walked further out into the lot. Fear God’s vengeance? He stared into the twilight sky and tried to find a source for his danger sense. His chest remained cold and empty like the night.

“Shit,” he muttered, walking away. His grandfather had gone off the deep end. Died and come back. True, the man didn’t fear a damn thing on this Earth, but what did he give up to get that way? How was he any different than the thugs killing each other over street corners and blow?

Reggie knew then that he wanted to live with his fear. It let him know he was alive.

Let Winston file his report. Let them come. He’d use that fear and stay one step ahead, as long as he could.

 

AURORA

[* *]

“You’re Peyton?” Andre checked the authorization form for the third time. “Peyton Saunders?”

The woman sat board straight across from him, her hands folded in her lap. Her narrow frame fit loosely between the chrome arms of the office chair. She nodded. “Yes, sir.”

He checked her name patch, also for the third time. His eyes went to the paper again after he noted the slight curve of her breast—an odd thing beneath the camouflage uniform. Not that he’d never seen a woman in uniform. He’d just never seen one here.

“Is everything okay, sir?”

Andre stood and headed for his office door. “Just one moment, please.”

She gave a tight nod, her eyes fixed straight ahead. He noted a flush in her cheeks and her hands clenched. Nervous. The smart ones always were.

“I’ll be right back.”

He tugged at a fistful of his hair as he stepped into the antiseptic-white corridors of the facility. Long, loping strides carried him down the hall, his lab coat billowing. He whipped past a soldier with a grunt of apology. This had to be a mistake.

Of course, coming to work here in the first place had been a mistake. He never figured he’d be another cog in the wheel of the defense industry, let alone have access to their most closely guarded secret. College ideals and the crushing interest rates on his loans didn’t go hand in hand.

At one time, he’d been convinced like everyone else that the Augment program was dead. Five years working his way up from an assistant lab tech and processing unlabeled samples proved otherwise. Even with his current clearance, though, he and his fellow scientists were often the last to know about any changes. He always had the feeling that the guys with guns only tolerated them because someone with bigger guns said to.He paused outside the foyer to the major general’s office. The guard at the desk beside the open office door eyed him. Andre took a step, turned on his heel and turned again, tugging at his hair.

No, this had to be a mistake. As far as he could tell, there was no reason to return to an operational status. Their program audit remained unresolved. The recent incident, a fresh stain. Then there was the female candidate waiting in his office.

Probably a mindless government employee flying their desk into retirement mixed up any number of the unnecessary forms that made up the maze of paper and good intentions this place was built on. A mistake, that was the only explanation.

He stepped into the foyer.

The guard rose and adjusted the submachine gun slung over his shoulder. Lost in thought, Andre ignored him and fixed on the major general’s office. He’d been inside once before. He could see a lamp glowing under a green shade on the one visible desk corner. Behind that, a plaque hung above a metal shelf stuffed with red-jacketed files.

“Can I help you, sir?” The guard sounded annoyed as he moved to block the office door.

“I need to speak with—”

“Send him in.” Major General Cooper sounded distracted but his voice carried easily into the foyer.

“Yes, sir.”

“And get the door.”

Andre whisked by the guard. He kept his eyes on the desk lamp and tilted his head in the closest thing he’d ever give to a salute. Behind him, the security door closed with a finality that made him cringe.

Bent over his work, the major general’s coat was slung across his chair and his sleeves rolled up. An archaic oddity sat on his desk, a combination monitor and terminal, the result of an infrastructure slightly older than their current work indicated. More notable was the mostly full decanter of scotch next to it and the half-empty glass.

Andre didn’t want to interrupt, but momentum hadn’t completely left him. Pacing back and forth didn’t solve the problem as he tried to find the right way to phrase his question. He wanted to sound confident, like he’d come here for a reason; a reason which began to fade the more he paced. In fact, he no longer knew why he’d come here. Didn’t understand why he’d marched into the commanding officer’s presence as if he and his white coat were anything more than a means to an end.

He examined the plaque above the metal shelf. Last time he was here, it had been the centerpiece of their conversation. No names, only stars. Dozens of them. He stared at the last one on the list and had an urge to scrawl a name beneath it. He was fighting that urge when the major general finally spoke.

“Yes, she’s the right one.”

The words didn’t register but the sound told him he’d been recognized. Andre swatted the hair from his eyes.

“It’s about this Peyton. Peyton Saunders,” Andre said, tugging on a lock of hair. “The form doesn’t say. I mean, it never says, of course, but I don’t know if you knew that maybe she … yes, she, Peyton is actually a woman.”

Cooper planted his hand on the desk and stood.

“I know a woman when I see one. Any reason you didn’t go to Doctor Craft first?”

That’s right. Doctor Craft had been here last time too. A debriefing, they’d called it.

Cooper pushed an empty tumbler toward Andre’s side of the desk and poured a thin layer of scotch. “Go ahead.”

Andre stared at the tumbler. Hard liquor wasn’t his thing. He worked with chemicals in the lab that smelled better and he’d never had an urge to drink those. But this felt like a rite of passage or other manly thing which he needed to accept. Cooper’s square chin and heavy brow, softened only slightly by what might be a smile, made a silent demand. Andre grabbed the glass and knocked it back.

The scotch burned and lodged in a fiery knot in his gut. Cooper crossed to the front of the desk and sat on the edge.

“A new era.” Cooper tilted the glass and swallowed with a click of his tongue.

Andre’s throat continued to burn and his eyes watered. He raised his own glass and tried to repeat the toast but only choked out a muffled “New.”

Cooper took the empty glass and motioned toward the decanter. Andre raised a palm.

“You’re no doubt aware of the changes in the field?”

Andre cleared his throat. He’d recently been asked to provide a complete accounting of his work. An internal review of the entire Augment program was underway. They never said why, but he knew Augment activities were becoming chaotic.

“Yes. We’re offline, pending the review.”

Cooper grimaced and poured another glass. “I was handed this program fifteen years ago. We’ve had successes. Crimson Mask. That was a beaut.” He sipped the scotch and his lip curled as it went down. “That one’s a true soldier. Won’t ask questions. Stays on the straight and narrow.”

They didn’t always go that well, Andre knew from experience.

“Why are we returning to operational status?”

“Uncle Sam isn’t about to give up the Augment program just yet. We need to clean up our mess.” Cooper set the glass down and stared into the crystal base. “Plans have been set in motion to do that. Throwing away everything we’ve worked for isn’t an option. We need a new approach.”

“With Ms. Saunders?”

The Major General nodded but didn’t look up. “We’re working on a source for a more discreet supply of volunteers.”

“You read my reports, right?” Andre felt the heat in his stomach rising. “I know it wasn’t a popular opinion, but I don’t think there’s any clear metric that points to why—”

“I read your reports. They were passed on to greater minds up in D.C. They decided we should try working with a different physiology.”

Andre thought for a moment. “Women? Why?”

“I just need Augments I can control. Can you make that happen?”

Always a simple, brute force answer for them. On the surface, the idea sounded absurd. He desperately wanted to find fault, but the more he considered the science, the more he wondered exactly how the new variable would affect the process.

“Control? Nobody can guarantee that. Granted, the genetic differences could provide radically different results. We’d need to start tests…”

Cooper moved away from the desk with the gait of a predator unwinding after a rest in the hot sun. He stood over Andre, much like the last time he’d been in this office. Only then, the major general had been flexing his command presence to encourage and bolster in the face of disaster. This time, when his eyes flashed to the plaque on the wall they were full of warning and not lament.

“Then start with the candidate in your office. Next time you have a question, remember your chain of command.”

Andre looked at his shoes. Right. Doctor Craft.

 

***

The lab was an open space built to be observed and recorded. At the center was the operating table, standing like a stainless steel altar. On every side were lights and cabinets, workspaces and machines, all dwarfed by the tall ceiling.

A single exit led into the decontamination chamber. Guards posted there could keep watch through a six-inch thick transparent sliding door. Up and to the side of the chamber was an observation deck, a crow’s nest where the white coats would record observations at their individual stations. Today, science had become embarrassingly popular.

Overall, the facility wasn’t a place for privacy. Secure rooms, like Cooper’s office, offered rare places for solace or conspiracy depending on your rank and intent. If necessary, the lab where Andre stood with Peyton could be sealed off by blast doors. This was not done for privacy.

“You understand, there’s no turning back once we start?” Andre avoided eye contact, choosing to focus on the clipboard in his hand.

“Yes, sir. I read the paperwork. Pretty sure when I boarded the transport was the point of no return.”

She was right.

“We just need to start with an examination. If you could please remove your uniform.”

Through his tangled hair he saw her glance at the viewing chamber windows and give the same tight nod he’d seen in his office. She started with her hat. Her hair beneath spiraled into a bun and she gave a questioning look as she reached for the pins. Andre imagined the hair cascading down and faces pressing to the glass. He shook his head and turned to survey the gathering behind him.

Men clustered in both the observation deck and the decontamination chamber. Instead of the single guard required for the examination stage there were half a dozen soldiers. His own colleagues crowded the observation window deep in conversation punctuated by furtive glances. There was no need to have them monitoring their stations today.

Andre sighed and walked to the intercom.

“Could all unnecessary personnel please leave the examination room.” He had no real rank or say over such things, but he hoped the exasperation in his voice would count for something. Doctor Craft used to be able to get the white coats to jump, but he hadn’t been inside the lab since the accident.

The knot of white coats sheepishly unraveled, most likely headed for the monitor feeds in an adjoining room. In the decon chamber, the camouflaged soldiers kept up their animated vigil.

“Lieutenant? Lieutenant?” Andre figured he’d keep calling out the ranking officer until something happened. Being an awkward nuisance was his only real defense here. Soon all eyes were on him. “How many men do you need on guard pre-procedure?” Their response was a group of vacant stares.

“It’s okay, sir,” she said. Andre turned to her voice.

Peyton was naked.

Andre’s eyes searched for the clipboard but found it tumbling out of his grasp. He bent to chase it along the smooth concrete as he tried to wedge a fingertip between the board and the floor. Her toes slid into view ahead of his chase. She reached down to pick up the board by the metal clip.

He let his hair dangle into his eyes, maintaining a focus on the clipboard as she handed it to him. Once in hand, he swept his hair from his face and locked eyes with her.

“Thank you. Please.” He motioned to the operating table and she sat, wincing at the cool metal.

Behind him the guard post cleared in a flurry of stiff salutes as Major General Cooper stepped into view.

“I’m sorry. We don’t have gowns here. We need gowns.” He pulled a rolling work table closer to the bedside.

“Really, it’s fine.” She sounded more relaxed and much less flustered than he was. “Just a body, right?”

Andre half-smiled but focused on the instruments lined up on the rolling table. He didn’t need most of them. A routine physical, nothing more. He looked at her face and observed the same physiological signs of nervousness he’d seen in his office.

“You’re a doctor,” her voice tightened, “I imagine you’ve seen plenty of people naked.”

Andre looked away and reached for a stethoscope. “I have a PhD. Doctor Craft asked me to handle the routine work.”

“Oh,” she said. When he turned back she was sitting comfortably, her legs sprawled and one elbow on the table.

“I’ve seen lots of naked men,” he said, trying to fill the silence. “What about you?” All of those words sounded better before he’d said them.

“I don’t know. Quite a few more since I joined.” She answered the question with a sincerity that covered his own idiotic babbling.

Her demeanor felt comfortable and familiar and Andre fell into his routine. When he was done checking her breathing she exhaled and asked. “Is there really that big of a difference? Aside from the obvious. We’re all hairless monkeys, right?”

“I suppose.” Andre smiled and grabbed a rubber hammer from the tray. He tapped it in the air next to his temple, glad for the change in topic. “Cross your legs please. In a manner of speaking, there’s a broader genetic gap between you and I than between humans and chimpanzees.” As he spoke, he began to feel excited again about his work. Maybe this time would be different.

“What do you mean, genetic gap?”

Andre tapped her knee. Satisfied with the reaction, he moved on to the next. “One could say there are two genomes for humans, not just one. The differences between male and female go far beyond a single chromosome. Lie down, please.”

As she reclined, her eyes chased whatever thought she clung to. She was back to her tight little nod. It was, in fact, just a body. He’d seen bodies here before. Andre’s compartmentalized thoughts began to slip.

“Is everything okay?” he asked, not sure who needed to answer the question.

She gave a tight nod again.

“Good. Let me know if you feel any pain.” He probed her abdomen with his fingertips. She barely reacted to his touch, staying focused on that faraway thought.

“When do we start?” she asked.

He stopped with his hand on her belly. She wasn’t afraid or nervous – he’d miscalculated. She was anxious. Ready to begin.

“You’re here so most of the paperwork and prep work has been done. We’ll start in the morning.”

“Will it hurt?”

“Honestly? I don’t know.” He wanted to tell her she’d be okay, but she must’ve heard about the dangers in the briefings prior to her arrival. The armed guards were there for a reason. The ventilation system rigged in its particular way, for a reason.

 

***

Red light bathed the room. Klaxons whined and Andre shouted over the noise. He couldn’t hear the beep of the cardiogram but the lines spiked in needled peaks. “He’s crashing!”

[_“Get out of here!” Doctor Craft grabbed his sleeve, dragging him away from the table. _]

Andre fought. They’d lost men before, but not in the middle of the procedure. It was usually after, when their broken bodies rejected whatever power had been thrust inside of them. They burned out. Unspooled like a tossed ball of twine. This was condition red territory, where the power had started to manifest and they had not yet regained control. Anything could happen.

Andre fought for the crash cart. He needed to save this soldier—Steven. He couldn’t even remember his last name or rank. Just Steven.

Steven’s body jerked and he screamed. His IV line ripped from his arm. Andre yanked against Doctor Craft’s hands and he heard the seam of an environment suit rip.

_Tortured metal rose above the siren wail and the operating table buckled. Soldiers pushed past as Steven tumbled. Where his head crashed into the floor, a divot of concrete leapt out. _

Doctor Craft dragged Andre toward the decontamination chamber as he fought, hurling muffled shouts at the soldiers. The visor of Andre’s suit fogged with his breath, and his view of the room became cloudy.

A soldier knelt and put his rifle to Steven’s temple.

“No!” The gunshot echoed in the lab, and Andre reached out. The soldier stumbled backward, smoke streaming from his rifle and blood dotting the floor beneath him.

“They’re locking down!” Doctor Craft’s face appeared in the haze of Andre’s visor. “Get up!”

_Andre clawed his way to his feet. _

Doctor Craft raced ahead of him into the decontamination room, where steel plates began to lace across the chamber door. He frantically waved Andre into the room while his eyes tracked whatever horror was taking place in the lab.

Andre didn’t look back as more gunshots sounded and a rifle skidded ahead of him. He didn’t look back as he leapt sideways through the closing teeth of the barrier. Only when he fell against the far wall of the chamber, hunched and breathless, did he turn and see Steven one last time.

Steven’s head was marred with a black powder stain where the gun barrel had been pressed. His pupils were dilated. His face twisted in pain and rage.

_The mangled bodies of soldiers smeared the floor. As the last bars of the interlocking barrier slid into place, Steven charged, his feet crunching the concrete floor like fresh fallen snow. _

The bars locked and the decontamination chamber rattled, as the mass of what later tests determined to be fifteen tons impacted the door, leaving a blister of extruding steel.

A hiss of gas filled the lab on the other side. Andre huddled against the wall. Doctor Craft clutched his torn suit and hammered on the door into the facility, begging the soldiers outside to open it. A hazy cloud trickled in around the dented steel barrier. It would be hours before they were cleared to be released.

[_ _]

***

Andre stared into his coffee as he sat in the empty break room. His reflection looked alien, a dark, tentacled blob stretched on the surface. He sucked in the bitter aroma, hoping to chase a sleepless night out of his mind even before he’d taken a sip. It didn’t work.

He heard a swish of cloth above the ever-present fluorescent buzz, and didn’t bother checking to see who was approaching from the hall. This early, it would be a soldier making his rounds. All his fellow white coats would be getting their rest before the big day.

The sound stopped in the doorway. This was enough to pique his interest. Head down, he glanced toward the entry and saw, not tightly laced combat boots, but a pair of loafers and plaid pants.

Doctor Craft.

Andre turned back to his coffee and the odd reflection. “Good morning.”

The lights hummed for several heartbeats before he heard an answer.

“Morning.”

Doctor Craft crossed the break room and stopped at the coffee maker. An odd medicinal smell wafted after him, like hot upholstery. Mugs rattled. The Doctor grunted a few times and Andre winced at the discomfort in each ragged plea. A mug came down on the counter and set into a wobble, oscillating in long turns before the space between the swish and clunk shortened to a steady vibration and melted into silence. He watched Doctor Craft’s arm flop toward the mug and hold it steady while his free hand poured.

Andre grasped his cup with cold hands, drawing as much warmth as he could. He took a deep drink of the steaming coffee without raising his eyes. Doctor Craft returned the pot to the machine, sliding it in place after several failed attempts.

Harsh medicine combined with bitter coffee to form a smell Andre knew distinctly as Doctor Craft. A cloud of it assailed him as the man shuffled by and his lab coat opened. Andre saw a lump of pink, blistered flesh, and closed his eyes to gulp from his mug again.

“See you at the procedure.”

He’d said the words and left before Andre finished his cup.

“See you,” Andre whispered to the hallway behind him.

 

***

Peyton was on the table, naked, when Andre entered the lab. Whether it was her nonchalant attitude, or maybe her boyish figure, the guards had lost interest. The observation deck, however, was filled with his colleagues, their awkward banter replaced by a focus on their individual stations.

Doctor Craft sat closest to the window. His aloof presence had always given him a barrier, a palpable aura that the rest of the team accepted as his own space. That was no longer the case. The empty space was for other reasons.

“Nice suit, sir.” Her voice sounded faraway through the visored helmet.

“Only a precaution,” he said as he approached.

“Why, you don’t want to be Augmented?”

He forced a smile and grabbed an IV tree, pushing it across the lab with him.

“Not for me. I’m not a soldier.” He hoped, through the layer of plastic and shadow, that she’d accept his smile as genuine. She only nodded again and focused on the ceiling while he buckled the restraints.

He went to work. Alone. Ever since the accident with Doctor Craft, that’s how it had been. The others didn’t seem to mind that he’d volunteered. They thought it was proper even, given how everything had happened. Andre didn’t argue.

There was nothing to the procedure that a single set of hands couldn’t do anyway. The other white coats had all finished their tests and prepped the equipment each was responsible for, leaving it ready by the operating table. A combination of drugs and radiation would be fed into her body over the next several hours. He would stay and monitor her vitals, check the infusions, and run samples as the change took place.

Finally, they’d introduce the genetic material. Crimson Mask Alpha was their current go-to injection but they all knew they couldn’t expect those same results, only a measure of stability. The mutations that took place, the alterations, were unpredictable and seemingly endless. With Peyton, they were in further uncharted territory.

The one certainty—no two Augments had ever been the same.

“Am I supposed to feel anything yet?” she asked.

Andre glanced at the countdown clock above the observation room. “It’s only been a few hours. We’re still administering the process.”

“How long before I notice anything?”

“We’ll need to monitor you. Could be a day or so.”

“A day? Maybe a sedative, huh? I mean laying here that long … I can’t wait.”

“We need you awake. Responsive.”

Andre checked the maze of screens around them and turned to her. He’d lost sight of the girl on the table as he went about the routine. She was naked and small under the dangling tubes and hoses. He noted again that her expression was determined and anxious.

At this stage, fear often set in. Even the burliest of soldiers began to rethink the decision. Not many truly wanted the power for the sake of it. They’d been explained the risks. They’d been disabused of their notions of grandeur. With Peyton, something felt different.

“Ms. Saunders, if I can ask, did you undergo the psychological briefing?”

She took her eyes off her focal point and glanced at him. “I took a test, if that’s what you mean.”

“Yes, that’s part of it. But were you briefed on the risks?”

She frowned. “Well, I know everybody’s different. I’m just hoping this will …” She paused and looked at the equipment surrounding her. “I’m hoping this can help me become, well, me.”

He scrunched his face in confusion.

“Not that I don’t know who that is. I mean, that sounds weird. But I heard that the process gives you powers based on who you are. It changes you … turns you into what you really are. Right?”

Andre stared, slack-jawed. He motioned stiffly then turned to the monitors to give his brain time to process.

Once the candidates signed on, they were given information about the program. Nothing about the classified process, but clear, detailed reports about their chances of survival and what they could, or mostly, should not, expect. Her level of understanding was about the same as the gossip at the local officer’s clubs over beer and pretzels.

He headed to the intercom. His eyes went to the observation deck where both Doctor Craft and Major General Cooper now stood. Another glance over his shoulder confirmed Peyton was eyeing him from the metal slab, not back to her determined focus as he’d hoped. He’d have to yell in the damn suit to be heard.

“Question for you, Doctor Craft.” He released the intercom button and cast about as if he’d find the best way to frame the question lying on the lab floor.

Doctor Craft shambled to the wall and picked up the handset. “Yes?”

“The candidate. I don’t think she was properly briefed.”

Doctor Craft clutched the receiver in his one good hand. The other hung in a fleshy lump at his side, partly concealed by the lab coat. He stared vacantly out over the lab. “Were any of us?”

Cooper leaned across the doctor and pulled the receiver from his loose grip. “You’ll proceed as normal.” He returned the receiver to the cradle, his eyes never leaving Andre.

Andre looked to his colleagues and followed their confused glances. As he watched realization dawning on each face, he worked his way toward the back row. Armed soldiers stood along the wall. The decontamination chamber was the only place they were needed. He waited to see what would happen. If one of his colleagues would ask a question, or if maybe Doctor Craft would uncover a shred of who he used to be.

Cooper’s stare burned through him. The major general reached for the receiver again. “You will continue with the procedure.”

Andre pressed the intercom button. He held it down until static whispered across the lab. “What’s going on here?”

“Sir?” Peyton’s voice drifted to him from the table but he couldn’t face her.

With a careful motion, the major general returned the receiver to the cradle, then disappeared into the adjoining hallway.

Out of habit, Andre wiped uselessly at his visor, the moisture trapped inside. He stared at the door into the decontamination chamber until he saw the soldiers there snap to attention and Major General Cooper step into view.

He wanted to run. A fight-or-flight response; whether it was necessary or not, he didn’t know. His wild eyes fell on Peyton, who was watching him from the table. She definitely looked worried now.

He swallowed. “One minute, please.” He held up a gloved finger and made his way toward the door.

Cooper stepped into the room and Andre stopped in his tracks. The officer stalked forward, alternating his gaze between him and the table.

Had he gone mad? Short-term exposure to the chemicals, the radiation in the lab, might not outright kill him, but the air was toxic at this stage. Safety parameters required the suit because there were never any guarantees. Extended exposure, well, they had plain evidence for all to see.

Andre fought back his urge to flee and placed himself directly in the predator’s path, between Cooper and Peyton. “We can’t do this,” he pleaded. “I can’t let this happen again.”

Cooper stopped short. “Again?”

“We can’t treat her like this. She’s a person.”

Cooper grabbed the suit and yanked Andre to the side where a bank of monitors and equipment obscured them from the table. “You can and you will.”

“Why? The program is still offline, isn’t it? The review? Augments not responding to command in the field? Our accident?”

The grip tightened and the bigger man shook him as he reeled Andre in by a fistful of his suit. “There was no accident. We’ve all been told the risks, remember? We’ve lost one hundred and sixty-seven men here, over forty years. I look at each and every one of them, every goddamn day. This place has been here since long before you ever showed up and will be here longer if I have anything to say about it.”

“But … your superiors … the guys in Washington. You said …”

“They are planning to re-launch the program,” Cooper’s eyes lost focus. “Testing on women, just like I said. But not here, where it all started.” He released his grip on Andre’s suit and smoothed it out, inspecting the crumpled front. “They’ve got a new facility with a new directive. I’m out of the loop. Need-to-know only.”

“Then stay out. What we’re doing here is wrong. She doesn’t even know what could happen!”

Cooper’s eyes turned up. “Can you even reverse things at this stage?”

Andre’s heart went into a freefall in his chest. “No.”

“Then finish. This is your last warning.” Cooper turned and headed for the exit.

As the major general reached the door, Andre slipped out of his stunned silence. “Why?”

Cooper stood in profile, waiting for the glass door to slide open. “Because they need to know this place is still relevant. That you can’t just mothball decades of service. You can’t cover up those stars on that goddamn wall.”

Andre watched him disappear between the saluting guards and through the door. Where did this end? Fine, the program had plenty of successes. Mathematically, those outweighed the tragedies like Steven’s. But the girl on the table, she’d been lured here. Lied to and kept in the dark. The worst part—Cooper was right. If they aborted the process now, she would surely die.

 

***

“So I can’t control any of this? What I want doesn’t affect the Augmentation?”

Andre shook his head.

He’d given Peyton the briefing she was supposed to have while he administered the rest of the procedure. She’d listened in silence, giving her small nods. A tear had streaked her cheek. She’d been so excited for whatever change she imagined. He’d stopped at the final step, the introduction of the genetic material. The one thing that would begin the chain reaction among the forces already at work in her body.

“And I can either choose to die or finish this?”

“That’s pretty much it,” Andre sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

She exhaled, her chest falling away from the restraints. “Will it hurt?”

“The transformation?”

“No. When I die.”

“I … well …” He checked the monitors. She was flooded with toxic levels of prepping agents. They’d never terminated the process midstream. He could only imagine she would die painfully. Slowly. Of the few he’d seen die after the final stage, he was mostly sure they’d lost their minds. Or, he wanted to believe that in their black stares, they were no longer themselves. “Yes. It will be painful.”

Another tear ran down her cheek. Andre awkwardly grabbed a cotton swab and dabbed at the trail. She blinked and held back more.

“Can you make it less painful?”

He frantically ran through the inventory of dangerous chemicals. Instantly a lethal cocktail sprang to mind, but he fought back the formula swimming in his head. There were also the containment measures. They could gas the chamber but he didn’t have control over that. “Why?”

“I’m ready to die.” She wasn’t crying anymore. “I wanted this process because I thought I could change myself. Have some control.”

“But, why? I mean despite the risks, the Augmentation process has a decent success rate. I’ll be here monitoring. I’ll do everything I can to make it go smoothly.”

“No.” Her hand tightened into a fist. “I’m ready. I wanted to change who I was, not be a super version of what I already am.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You wouldn’t.” She looked away. “Nobody does.”

“I can’t—well … I won’t just …”

“Kill me.”

“Is there a problem?” The major general’s voice echoed over the intercom.

Andre pulled himself away from the table and faced the observation window. Cooper stood pressed to the glass, the receiver in his hand and an armed soldier at his side. Doctor Craft was no longer in the room. His colleagues stared, breathless, into the lab and soldiers stood ready in the background. Andre meekly raised a hand and turned back to Peyton. He moved to her side and pretended to check the straps.

“Are you sure?” he whispered.

The tight nod.

Andre moved toward the stand where a syringe prepped with Crimson Mask Alpha waited. He glanced up at the window. All eyes were on him. He could swap the syringe and prep a different chemical quickly, but they’d see it later on the video feed. The longer he stood there, thinking, the more suspicious Cooper would get. With trembling fingers, he loaded a new syringe.

Then he heard the door to the decontamination chamber slide open.

Doctor Craft shuffled into the lab. Under the full protection of the environmental suit he looked normal, restored to that very day Andre had last seen him in the lab. He remembered fighting when he should’ve just left. He should’ve followed the drill and evacuated to let the soldiers deal with the problem. He couldn’t save Steven. And Peyton was right, he couldn’t save her.

Craft was beside him.

“Cooper sent me to assist.”

Andre held the syringe in front of him, unmoving. Assist with what? Murder? Craft reached out and took it from his limp hand.

He watched the doctor shuffle toward the table, carrying the syringe like it were a fragile, delicate thing, guarded against the impending moment where a tiny misstep or quirk of fate would send it tumbling from his hands. Craft stood staring at the needle point long after he’d reached the table. Peyton ignored him, lost again in her thoughts.

Andre watched as the doctor plunged the syringe into his own arm.

“What on earth are you doing?”

Craft doubled over. He fought to breathe. His airways would be collapsing and his veins shriveling into narrow threads. But he wouldn’t feel it, not until he was dead. Andre had made sure it would be painless. Peyton was wide-eyed with fear and stared at the syringe bobbing from Craft’s arm.

“Finishing what was started,” croaked the doctor.

“That’s not the vector! Not CM Alpha!” He dropped next to Craft, who hunched over on the floor, his body seizing and twisting in the amorphous mass of the suit. “I’m sorry.”

Had Craft been watching him mix the syringe? Did he know it would kill him, or was he insanely hoping that his exposure to the prepping agents had made him a candidate? The entire base had gone mad. Cooper, Doctor Craft, this new recruit lying on the table.

He heard the doors open again. Boots. Peyton’s fear shifted to the incoming soldiers then back to Andre. “Do it. Hurry!” She leaned against the restraints and her eyes fell on the far station, where the unused syringe of Crimson Mask Alpha waited. Fear flooded out of her expression and her jaw set. The quick nod.

Andre scrambled to the table and the guards closed in, their guns at the ready. He grabbed the syringe. He turned and heard gunfire, but raced to the table and jammed the needle into Peyton’s arm, only belatedly hoping he’d hit a vein.

The transformation was instantaneous.

Brightness flooded the room, turning even the sterile operating table light into a dark shadow; then, nothing. Andre felt warmth in his suit, trickling down his side. Blackness descended, and he fell to the ground. More gunfire and confused shouts. The klaxons engaged and with their shattering wail, he could only assume, the red flashing lights. He began to feel dizzy and he put both palms on the concrete floor to try and stabilize.

Glass shattered, and screams came from the observation room. The major general roared commands between bursts of weapons fire. Waves pulsed through him, he couldn’t say of what. Sound? Heat? Andre only knew the dark, the hard floor under his knees and palms, and the warm trickle of blood down his stomach.

He heard a hiss which he’d heard once before. They were all dead. The exit may be sealed, but he was sure he’d heard the protective glass of the observation room shatter. The final failsafe, the gas, would kill everyone in the base. He slipped to his elbows, then lowered himself to the concrete. Maybe things were better this way.

As the world fell away, he felt strong arms pull him off the ground.

 

***

Andre woke. Fresh air rushed into his lungs and he gasped for more. Crisp, verdant air that opened his throat, unlike the stale atmosphere of the facility. He didn’t realize how long he’d been without that.

With the breath, pain lanced through his side. He felt not only pain, but an envelope of cool air on his exposed skin. The suit was gone. His shirt was open, and strips of what used to be his lab coat feathered out from under a band tied around his abdomen. No, the suit wasn’t entirely gone; a leg had been torn from it and tied around his waist to hold the makeshift bandage. Dried blood crusted his skin.

Beneath him, the ground was smooth rock, bedded with pine boughs. Tall trees speared the sky on all sides.

“I can take you to a hospital.”

He looked over his shoulder. A wispy figure hovered there. So thin, he couldn’t ever imagine her beneath the straps of the operating table. Why they’d ever tried such a thing. He was certain it was Peyton, but couldn’t say why.

It gave a tight nod.

The body was featureless. A humanoid shape, suggested by a cascade of energy coursing through the lower end of the visible spectrum. The unearthly fringes of a magnetic disturbance in the atmosphere. An aurora. That was all it was.

He sat up and winced at the pain. He heard the being sigh wistfully, then a pair of hands found his arm and helped him rise. The grip was strong, yet strange. There were no physical sensations on his skin, more like the field of static on a sweater during an arid winter day. He tried to find eyes on the blank, shifting face.

“I’m sorry,” was all he could say.

“Don’t be.” It said with a voice that called from the same faraway place she used to peer into. “I know who I am now. And the body that held me back, the people that prevented me from being who I am, they don’t matter anymore.”

Andre stared. He understood now. Not entirely, but enough. Those college ideals he’d abandoned, they were who he was. He’d been overwhelmed. Another cog in a wheel. Never again.

Andre stood. “I have a friend. George Walker. We went to school together, and he went through the program. I think he can help me. Maybe you, too. Can you take me to him?”

The face didn’t react, but the voice crackled with excitement. “I can go anywhere.”

 

ALTER EGO

[* *]

Jackie asked to dye her hair orange during the summer of seventh grade. Her father stared, mouth half-open, eyes seeing through her for what seemed like a long time. But he finally agreed with a silent nod of his head.

She reached up and wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. Frozen in whatever mental fog gripped him, there were too many heartbeats before she felt him caress the back of her head. He’d probably never expected her to ask for something so, well, crazy, but he had to know she’d at least considered it.

A few years ago, her father had decided to give her an allowance. Even then, at ten years old, she’d grown tired of living in a weed-choked laundry basket of a house slated for a dust-bunny breeding program. After long hours at work, her father was exhausted. Most often, he’d drop down on the sofa with a beer and tune out everything but the television.

She understood.

So, she started cleaning—learned how, after a few dozen shrunken t-shirts and pink socks, to do the laundry. The dishes. She even conquered her fear of the vacuum cleaner. Sure, she’d screamed the entire time, racing around the house as if she held a live animal, but she’d gotten the job done. After that, she took on the lawnmower, an even scarier monster. But she was brave. Brave, because that’s what Ember would be.

Once she’d saved enough money and gotten up the nerve to let her dad in on her secret desire, she raced triumphantly to her room and launched into the air. She always clung to the moment when her feet left the ground, pretending she could control the thermals, change their density to let her tiny frame float. She never could, of course, but she landed on her bed, giddy with excitement about her coming change.

Above her, the ceiling was papered with news clippings and magazine pages. There, in those spaces, Jackie did fly. One of the pictures in particular always held her attention.

Ember, the flame wielding Augment, soaring through the skies of Chicago on a pillar of fire.

Her costume was made of thick, shimmery material which could withstand the intense heat. A heat that could set the air on fire, burn through the outer shell of a battle tank, and melt guns into puddles.

If Jackie could have any power, it would be Ember’s.

But the fireproof costume didn’t explain the hair. Ember’s mask covered her entire face. A sleek visor, sort of like a medieval knight, but no holes for her eyes. Behind that, a brilliant orange mane flowed in a stripe down her head. Her powers kept her from frying her head, Jackie thought. Precise control of the heat. Too bad Dad hadn’t also agreed to the mohawk.

“Are you ready?” her dad stood in the doorway of her bedroom, keys in hand. He was trying to smile, but his eyes were worried. He always looked like that.

“Yep, yep!” She leapt to her feet on the bed and bounded toward him.

Excitement coursed through her and she knew her face was plastered in the world’s goofiest grin, but she didn’t care. And exactly like she hoped, he snatched her off the ground as she got to the door, his distant expression transformed by her joy.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

She smacked his shoulder. “Of course I want to do this.” He laughed and lowered her to the ground. “Besides,” she added, “this is your fault.”

The distant look returned. “Why do you say that?”

“You’re the one that watches Ember all the time.”

“Do not.” He forced a smile.

“Do, too! Every time she’s on the news you can’t look away.” She poked a finger in his chest. “Somebody has a crush.”

“Come on, now.” He started down the hall, fidgeting with the keys.

“Admit it! You do!”

“Stop. Let’s go before I change my mind.”

They hopped in the truck and made their way into town. They stopped at the grocery store first. Jackie complained, but Dad was right, they actually did have things like hair coloring kits. But the shelf held only an autumn sort of red, nothing like Ember orange. She even asked a bald, sullen looking employee if they had the color, exactly like that, “Ember orange”. He shook his head and went back to pushing a ragged mop across the floor.

They tried several stores and were about to give up when Jackie spotted a salon. She’d never been in one. Her and her dad both went to the Clip Shack, which she didn’t mind. The stylists were always excited to see her. She felt a bit like Ember, those days—a touch of the famous Augment’s celebrity. She swelled with pride as they fawned over her, the only other girl in the place. The excitement always waned when she asked for something “easy”.

“A phase,” they’d say sympathetically. “She’ll grow out of it.”

“Aren’t there any boys you like?”

Gross. Ember didn’t like boys. At least, Jackie didn’t think so.

The salon looked fancy. With cursive letters on the windows, she couldn’t even read the name. The posters with models pointing their chins at the sky made her cringe. Their hair was all silky and smooth and perfectly colored.

“There!” Jackie pointed, before they’d driven past.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded.

When Jackie and her father walked in, they weren’t staring down a row of barber’s chairs facing little TVs looping Sportscenter. She didn’t even see any chairs. A reception desk decorated with smooth, turquoise stones all down the front and a blank, brown wall behind the desk, displaying the same cursive lettering as the windows. A girl with perfect hair, like the posters, and razor-sharp lips and eyebrows pulled herself away from a cell phone.

“Welcome to Sante. Do you have an appointment?”

“Nope.” Jackie said before her dad could speak. “I want my hair colored. Maybe you have a kit?”

“We don’t sell ‘kits’,” the girl’s sky-pointed chin dipped to her collarbone when she said the word. “But we might have a stylist available.” She rose and disappeared around the wall. Jackie walked toward the partition, swinging her shoulders like the receptionist.

“Jackie.” Her dad sounded stern, but maybe partly amused.

“What?”

The receptionist rounded the corner with another girl behind her. She was young, and her hair was silky too, but a broad swath of it was deep purple on one side and shaved tight to her scalp on the other. Somehow, Jackie thought, the snooty receptionist had found the right person.

“Hello.” The girl extended a hand and Jackie took hold. She wasn’t much taller than Jackie, but the tight lines of her jeans made her legs appear endless. Her white sleeveless t-shirt hung like a shredded rag and black lace peeked through the holes alongside bare skin.

Jackie realized she’d been staring when the girl raised her eyebrows. “I’m Becca. You are?”

Becca didn’t paint on her eyebrows or her lips. The natural lines suggested perfection enough. That and her smile made Jackie’s cheeks flush.

“This is Jackie.” She felt her father’s hand on her shoulder. “She wants to color her hair.”

“That so.” Becca eyed Jackie and tapped her lip with her finger. “I can probably help you out. What were you thinking?”

It was the finger on her lip. Jackie couldn’t erase the image.

“Well?”

“Ember orange,” said her father. Becca’s face twisted in confusion and he stuttered out an explanation. “Like the Augment, Ember.”

“Ah, so this is like an ‘I’m not fucking around’ orange?”

Jackie nodded.

Her father choked out a reply. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Got it. Come with me.”

Jackie followed, her father close behind. At the corner, Becca wheeled and brandished a finger in his direction. “Girls only,” she said with a wink.

Her father raised his hands in surrender and half-smiled. “All right. But no mohawks.”

Becca ran a hand through Jackie’s hair and pursed her lips. The touch made her scalp tingle and she swore she could feel it all the way down to her toes. “Yeah, no problem.”

They entered an open room with stylist’s stations peppering the space, each made up of a floating wall with mirror and fancy wood cabinets facing a barber’s chair. Everything matched the earthy tones of the reception area. At each station. stylists hovered around their customers, silver blades flickering between their fingers. This was not the humming assembly line of electric clippers like the Clip Shack. Here, women spoke and laughed. A few sat alone reading magazines, oblivious to strange bubbles mounted to the chairs and floating over their heads. Jackie almost asked what they were, but she hoped she wouldn’t have to speak. Normally, according to her teachers at school, she didn’t have a problem with speaking, but Becca had left Jackie tongue-tied.

Becca motioned to a chair, and Jackie sat.

“Sure you don’t want a mohawk?”

“No.” Jackie wished Becca would stop smiling, but at the same time, she knew she’d miss it. “My dad.”

“Yeah, I know.” Becca pouted and whipped an apron around Jackie’s neck. “You’d look kickass with one.”

Jackie felt her cheeks flush and she checked the mirror in time to watch them blossom. A hand lightly touched her chin and kept her from hiding her face. Those unadorned eyes were examining her again and Jackie looked up at the ceiling to avoid contact.

“Orange, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool. Let’s get started.”

From that moment, Jackie was lost in a world of odd sensations. The warm water from the faucet as Becca washed her hair was exhilarating, but not nearly as much as the pull of slender fingers along her scalp. All the while, Becca hovered over her, her loose shirt dangling open. Things stirred inside Jackie—things that made her drive her stubby nails into the arm of the chair.

Next, they returned to the station, and Becca brushed on globs of dye that looked nothing like orange, but Jackie didn’t protest. Becca worked while wrapping strands of hair in foil slips, like leftover pizza. Her playful side tucked away, Becca took to her job with a laser-guided stare. So focused, Jackie finally started to relax. All the staring and examining had been part of the process, she told herself. Checking her hair out, not her.

“Your mom cool with this?” Becca muttered as she brushed on more of the dye.

“My mom’s not really around.” Jackie didn’t normally tell people this—it was really none of their business, but despite her awkwardness around Becca, she felt she could trust her.

“Oh, sorry.”

“Not a big deal,” said Jackie. She had an urge to sound grown up. “Long time ago.”

Becca nodded and fixed on a palette of foil. “What’s it with this Ember chick? You into Augments?”

“I guess. Well, not really.” Augments weren’t a “girl thing” and Jackie was always stumbling with what to say when people asked. If Mrs. Curren, her history teacher, were to be believed, they were weapons. Living weapons created by the world’s superpowers. Only boys thought weapons were cool.

As she watched a skull-shaped ring on Becca’s finger move in and out of her field of vision, she thought of how stupid she was being. Becca wasn’t about to pass judgment.

“I just think she’s, well, great,” Jackie sputtered.

“Great, huh?” Becca sounded unimpressed.

“Well, my dad thinks so, too. He’s always reading about her, watching her on the news.”

“Not creepy,” Becca mumbled, lost in her work. Jackie waited to see if she was going to apologize, but she didn’t, so Jackie took it in stride.

“No, nothing like that. He’s got a crush.” She stopped at telling Becca about the news clippings on the ceiling of her room. How half of them had come from the trash Dad set out late one night after he’d had too many beers. The next morning, Jackie found the box full of pictures and stories by the curb. So carefully clipped and kept flat with crisp edges, they felt like something he cared about. He never asked what happened to the box. Even when he saw the clippings on her ceiling months later, he still didn’t say a word, only stared.

Becca nodded, biting her lip as she applied another stroke. “Okay, so, he’s got a crush. What about you?”

“I don’t know. I sorta get her, you know? She’s always standing up to the rogue Augments, helping people. I want to be like that.” She almost added “when I grow up”, but stopped herself.

Several more coats of color went on before Becca pulled out of her work to ask another question. “So, say Crimson Mask and Ember get in a fight, who wins?”

Now Becca was being stupid. Crimson Mask was maybe the most powerful Augment ever. “They don’t fight. But if they did, Ember all the way.”

“Yup,” Becca barked. “Girl power, baby.” She extended her fist for a bump then slumped back to examine her work. “Okay, I think we got it.”

“Now what?”

“I clean this up, you get to sit and wait,” Becca said, gathering her supplies. “I’ll be right back.”

Jackie felt the tension drain from her body. She almost wished it had stuck around.

She didn’t have to wait long. Before she knew it, Becca was back and they were at the sink again, rinsing her hair. Fast and efficient, the earlier exhilaration was lost and Jackie began to feel anxious about seeing her hair free from the foil nest. When they got back to the station, Jackie stood in front of the mirror.

“Can we dry it?”

“Let it air dry. I promise, you’ll love it.”

“Oh, I love it now!”

Becca moved up behind her, gathering Jackie’s hair into a sculpted ridge. “Yep, that would be hot. Want me to talk to your dad?”

Jackie felt her cheeks burn again. “No, thanks. He’ll need to get used to this first.”

He’d been shocked when she returned to the waiting room, but not half as shocked as when the receptionist rang them up. Jackie spread her allowance on the counter to fill the silence, and he eventually paid the difference, even leaving Becca a tip that earned them both a wink. This time, Dad blushed too, and she understood.

Later that day, when the breeze from the open windows on the jeep and Jackie’s rushing around the house jumping across the furniture or leaping onto her bed had dried the last strand of hair, she dropped next to him on the couch and shook his arm to pry him from the glow of the television.

“Well, do I look like her?”

Jackie didn’t understand why his red eyes grew damp. He took a swig of his beer before answering. “Yeah, baby. Just like her.”

SNEAK PEEK: CRIMSON SON 2

[* *]

“Narcissistic Personality Disorder is diagnosed between two percent and sixteen percent of the population in clinical settings. Most narcissists are men, and the diagnosis is often co-morbid with other disorders …”

Fuck, I’m hearing it again. That “wa-wa” sound replacing the professor’s voice. I scrunch my eyes and try to concentrate. I’d thought college was for me; a quiet life of books and papers and beer. Well, technically it’s next year for the beer. Technically.

Weren’t the Giants playing tonight? I’ve got a paper due in Intro to Philosophy, but I can manage a few thousand words of bullshit while I watch the guys pick blades of Astroturf in the outfield. Probably be another no-hitter.

Buzz-buzz … disorder … buzz-buzz …”

Wait. That’s my phone.

When Professor Ingram turns to scrawl whatever hieroglyphics he’s putting on the whiteboard, I sneak my phone from my bag. It vibrates again. Incoming text.

One good thing about these auditorium seats is the solid sheet of metal wrapping in front of the rows. Ingram hates cell phones. Pretty sure he still uses a rotary in his office. The text scrolls across my screen.

What up jint!

Eric. Man, I haven’t heard from him since the “event”. I’m not sure what else to call it in my head. I’d use the “Happening”, but that’s already been taken and the little twist it put in my life was decidedly more interesting than apocalyptic shrubbery.

[_*Class. Learning about Dad*, _]I reply.

History?

Psych.

Yeah? How’s the major?

You’d better be referring to leagues.

No-hitter! The Doc is definitely an Augment.

Okay, so the pitcher this season is a beast. Some seven-foot guy named Hu out of a remote province in China. The nicknames had been relentless until “The Doctor” finally stuck. He’d been leading the Giants to one scoreless game after another, but he wasn’t an Augment. Or was he? When Eric of all people said stuff like that, you had to listen.

Augment, really?

Naw, I’m shittin’ ya.

The guy in the seat directly to my right raises his hand and asks a question. A whole auditorium, and he can’t leave a buffer seat. I look up from the phone and stroke my chin like something profound has been said.

“Funny you should use that terminology, Peter,” says Professor Ingram. “A personality disorder is a mental disorder, but there are loads of questions regarding whether that should be the case.” He says “loads” and stretches out the vowels like he’s been watching too much BBC. “What do you think, Mister Alexander?”

The professor’s scraggly white eyebrows are knitting behind the wire-rimmed specs. I’ve been made. Ingram’s honed in on me, and I have this No-Personal-Space Peter guy to thank for it.

“I think if you’re messed up, I’m not sure debating the terminology matters,” I say.

“I’d prefer we didn’t use terms like ‘messed up’ to refer to those with psychological disorders.”

The phone vibrates in my palm. I press the damn thing into my thigh to try and muffle the sound. I’m sure it isn’t near as loud as I think it is, but the prof has that look in his eye that usually proceeds his favorite activity, above even the whole teaching thing. I heard he grabbed a freshman’s phone mid-text and spiked it like a game-winning touchdown. I’d rather not have that happen to my Qualfor Unity 5 Delta. Not only would I lose the recording of this lecture I haven’t been listening to, but I’d have to reload six months’ worth of apps and hacks.

He goes back to talking about the mentally disordered in the most mind-numbing way possible. I check the screen.

Hey, something’s up.

Man, it’s important.

You there?

Pretty sure I want to say, no. Of course Eric has probably already dismantled any security on my phone, dialed in on my exact GPS coordinates, and has control of the camera, the display …

“Spence?”

… and the speaker. My lap is talking to me. Nice.

Only Peter seems to have heard. The rest of the class is verging on comatose, and Ingram just hit his stride with a rousing discussion on anger management issues associated with some other disorder. My guess is he won’t be mentioning his phone spiking credentials.

[_*In class. STFU*, _]I type. I subtly flip-off the camera for good measure.

His next message includes a middle finger emoji and the words, Dude, this is important.

More important than school? I know that statement will translate into sarcasm over the monotone rantings of the net, but I mean it.

Way more.

Augment stuff?

Yep.

I told you, I’m out. Me normal. Me live normal life.

It’s about your Mom.

I’m dumbstruck by the words. Or typestruck. Mom? How could there be anything to do with her? I’d left her on a beach in some psychic freak show’s idea of a family playground. And I do mean freak show, no matter how insensitive Professor Ingram might find the term.

A hand snatches the phone.

Ingram managed a sneak attack along the empty row behind me, despite those god-awful, swishing, corduroy pants. I see a glint of triumph in his eyes. He twists the phone under the pale flood lights like he’s inspecting a precious gemstone.

“You know, Mister Alexander,” he purrs as he walks back toward the outer aisle, “I don’t allow phones during class. Texting. Twerking. Vining. Facing. Whatever it is you do. I find it highly disrespectful.”

I try to control my breathing and restrain myself from a twerking demonstration. Maybe I should’ve been listening to the anger management stuff, though, because I can feel veins throbbing in my temple. Eric had mentioned Mom. He wouldn’t be joking about that.

“I’m sorry,” I say, though I don’t think it comes out as believable. “It was an emergency call. If you’ll just give it back, I can take it outside.”

“An emergency? Hmmm,” says Ingram. He reaches the podium and props an elbow on the lectern. Pushing his glasses up his nose, he begins thumbing across the screen. “Ah yes, the Giants. Major emergency.” He smiles at what he thinks is a joke.

This is about the point where I wish I’d been given superpowers. Augmented, like my dad. I don’t think anyone would grab his phone. An undersized college freshman like me, who constantly gets asked if he graduated high school early? Sure. But not a six-foot tangle of muscle who looks more CGI than real, and who can take a tank shell in the chest and live to throw the offending weapon into orbit. No. He keeps his phone.

“Augment stuff,” says Professor Ingram, reading from the phone.

“Look, Prof, I’m sorry.”

He raises his arm.

I’m out of my seat before I even know it. “Don’t you dare—”

“It’s cool, I backed you up,” comes Eric’s voice. “Phone’s toast soon, anyway.”

Ingram looks startled. He recovers quickly and starts speaking into the wrong end of the phone, a smug look spreading to all corners of his face. “Well, hello, and who may I ask is this?”

“Sorry, but that’s classified,” says Eric. “I need you to hand the phone back to Spence.”

“Classified? Really, now? Are baseball matches top secret, hmm?”

Silence. Ingram really thinks he’s gotten one over on me, but the dead air only tells me that Eric is busy typing and looking at whatever monitor he’s glued to at this particular moment.

“Professor Reginald Ingram, right?” Eric says.

It’s started.

The prof purses his lips and gives me a nod like he’s ready for what’s coming. Ready to show up the impudent freshman and his buddy on the talkie box. I almost feel sorry for him.

“Yes, my reputation precedes me.”

More silence.

“Oh, boy,” says Eric. “You give that lecture on sexual deviancy yet?”

There’s the first sign of confusion from the once-game professor. “Are you a student? Because if you are—”

“Aw, no! Nooo!” Eric warbles over the tinny speaker. “Whoa, Spence, you might want to warn the others in the class. Too late to drop?”

“Professor, really, just give me the phone back,” I say.

He narrows his eyes, the bushy brows sinking behind his glasses. “I demand to know who this is.”

“Man, no way I’m telling you. Not after what your porn downloads look like. Holy shit! I mean actual [_Scheizers, _]Prof, you are one sick dude.”

His face is whiter than those eyebrows which unfurl from behind the glasses as he gapes.

“I don’t … never …”

“Eric, stop,” I say.

A few giggles spread across the room but mostly there’s a stunned silence. Everyone’s eyes are flicking back and forth like a hungry lizard’s between me and the spectacle up front. This isn’t how this was supposed to be. I walked away from the crazy in my life so I could be who I am—normal—and forget my dad was an indestructible, weaponized human. Forget that I spent the better part of my high school years in an Arctic bunker, hiding from a psychopathic super villain. I’d made a new identity and created accounts all the way from banks to a brand-new Steam profile. We’d even hacked the Social Security office and issued a worry-free card—no need to steal one from a dead guy. Spencer Alexander, not Spencer Harrington, had enrolled for the spring semester at GWU. Spencer Alexander had a job in the microbiology lab. A future.

What made me think it would ever be that easy?

The professor raises the phone high, his arm trembling.

“I’m sending someone to get you,” says Eric. “Like I said, don’t worry, the phone’s already—”

Crashing into the tiled floor. Dammit.

I’d seriously considered a military-grade phone case, given my previous life … a life I apparently can’t ever escape.

Light wraps the room like colored cellophane. It crawls through different shades of green and gold in wispy streamers until it ribbons into a form. She? He? is standing at the front of the auditorium, next to the remains of the phone. Ingram staggers into the podium and falls straight on his ass, but continues to stare.

The newcomer is the light. Translucent wisps smoke from the body and trail the head as it scans the room.

“Spencer?” the form asks.

Peter cringes and points at me.

“Thanks, Petey.”

“I need you to accompany me.”

I know a lot of Augments, but I don’t know this one. I used to track them back in the day, after I found out my dad was one. In the lead-up to the insanity of my “event” last year, Eric and I went through his files on every known Augment. They’d all been rounded up by the Black Beetle, who, turns out, might’ve actually been doing the world a favor. I might not have cared what he’d been up to, had he not been the one who kidnapped my mom.

I don’t want to relive those events. I can’t. But how could this have anything to do with Mom? I’d already tried to save her and failed. She was nothing but a psychic afterimage, and one I promised I’d find a way to release, but a year in college hasn’t been enough. A lifetime might not be enough.

“Do I have a choice?” I ask.

It waits before answering, the voice a strange mix of reverb and the distant sounds you hear at the bottom of a pool. “I was not told to give you one.”

This is it. Not even one year of normal. Whatever this is, I know my dad is behind it. His bullshit is always more important than my life.

I climb over Peter, who’s frozen in his seat. Everywhere else, the once-banned smartphones are coming out. People are staring into the screens, aimed toward the front of the room, as though what they might see will be different, more real than what’s actually there. Pretty soon they’re all tapping and mashing power buttons with confused looks. At least I wasn’t the only one short a phone.

Eric better have backed up every byte.

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Empty Quiver

They were never designed to be heroes. Hurricane. Ember. Aurora. Danger. State-sponsored superhumans known as Augments. Weapons created to end a war.

Empty Quiver takes a dark dive into the Crimson Son universe. Not your typical superhero tales, this short collection pulls no punches as it examines the clandestine program that changed Spencer’s world.

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Can the powerless son of a superhero do what his father couldn’t?

With no superpowers of his own, Spencer stumbles through a web of conspiracies and top secret facilities armed only with his multi-tool and an arsenal of weapons grade smart-assery. Along the way he rallies a team of everyday people and cast-off Augments, but soon discovers that his father’s nemesis, the Black Beetle, isn’t his only enemy or even his worst.

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This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialog are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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Edited by – Heather Bungard-Janney

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Contents

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FOREWORD

THECANE TRAIN

FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY

CODENAME: DANGER

AURORA

ALTER EGO

SNEAK PEEK: CRIMSON SON 2

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COPYRIGHT


Empty Quiver - Tales from the Crimson Son Universe

Empty Quiver (n) – A U.S. Military term to identify and report the seizure, theft, or loss of a nuclear weapon. They were never designed to be heroes. Hurricane. Ember. Aurora. Danger. State-sponsored superhumans known as Augments. Weapons created to end a war. With the war over, their creators couldn't surrender the power and sought to hide it in the shadows. They forged ahead with covert operations and proxy wars despite growing condemnation. But one by one, Augments begin to ignore their handlers or disappear altogether. The quiver emptied. Empty Quiver takes a dark dive into the Crimson Son universe. Not your typical superhero tales, this short collection pulls no punches as it examines the clandestine program that changed Spencer’s world. If you think you'd like thrilling action and conspiracy set in a gritty superhero world like no other, then this is the book for you.

  • Author: Russ Linton
  • Published: 2017-04-11 16:20:11
  • Words: 32415
Empty Quiver - Tales from the Crimson Son Universe Empty Quiver - Tales from the Crimson Son Universe