Forty thousand feet above the swamplands of Southwest Florida, a private jet flanked by two fighter aircraft cruised towards Blackburn. A weathered woman sat alone in the back of the commercial plane, dirty and torn gray combat fatigues covering her worn flak jacket. Ice clinked against glass as she absentmindedly spun her half-drunk whiskey in one hand while nestling a cell phone against her ear with the other.
“Yes ma’am, the albino, Sonrisa and the Russian have acquired the guns. The second shipment has been processed on your personal database and is ready for transportation as soon as you give the order.”
“Good.” Rebecca took a long sip from her glass, savoring the sweet fire in her throat. “I’m going to give the mayor a few more days to become more accommodating. If he continues to dance to the tune of that foolish woman, then I expect you to be prepared, Commander.”
“I’ll have the troops ready when you are ma’am.” The Field Commander hung up the phone and returned to his work, leaving Rebecca with her thoughts. She turned to the window, taking in the bird’s eye view of the approaching metropolis. Towering, crystalline skyscrapers overlooked the blue-green waters of Blackburn Bay. Parallel beaches ran along Vicio Island and mainland Blackburn, packed full of tourists from all over the world. Thousands bustled in and out of businesses, clubs, casinos and ports. Prolific greenery blessed the city as far as the eye could see until it reached the suburbs and into Watkins County. What a beautiful place it should be, she mused with a frown.
As the plane approached a private airport not far from the bay’s waterside, the fighter jets screeched to a halt on the tarmac, pulling into a hangar on the far side. Rebecca’s aircraft rolled to a smooth stop in the center.
“Ms. Napier, you have a visitor,” announced the pilot, flicking switches and pressing buttons on the control panel. One of them dropped the airstairs. “Congressman Suarez.”
Rebecca ducked out of the plane, spotting her guest standing by her personal SUV, briefcase in hand. The founder of Cerberus Security Corporation offered her hand, but did not smile.
“Enrique, it’s been a while. I’m sure you must be as busy as I am. What brings you to my foxhole?”
The congressman seemed to hesitate before returning the gesture. “You know me, Rebecca, it’s only polite to actually talk to your donors.”
Rebecca opened the door of her vehicle and gestured Suarez inside.
“Perhaps you should consider donating back to Cerberus?” she began, following the man inside. She signaled for her driver to head to town. “The value of our stocks has hit an all-time high, and believe me, they’re only going to rise.”
Suarez snickered, but his smile only lasted for a brief second before thinning out. With a deep breath he folded his glasses and stuck them in his breast pocket.
“Unfortunately, Rebecca, I didn’t come to discuss the stock market.”
“As Chairman of the House Budget Committee, it’s my responsibility to audit federal agencies in the interest of the taxpayer.” He paused. “Including those that make use of the DoD’s black budget. Ms. Napier, I’d like you to take a look at this spreadsheet.”
Suarez retrieved a document headlined Project Jupiter and handed it to her. Rebecca’s regarded it coolly, the corners of her mouth turning down slightly. She flipped through the pages, breathing growing slightly louder every time she did.
“DARPA is up to some very nasty things. Moisture seeding, ocean heating, alteration of wind and sea currents. Ms. Napier, if what I’ve uncovered is correct, it seems we have deep state operatives and their benefactors developing a weather weapon. Benefactors including…”
He handed Rebecca another spreadsheet. This time, the Cerberus CEO’s name was the top donor.
“You. Rebecca, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to testify before Congress.”
The corners of her mouth twitched, her lips now forming a deep scowl. She felt her pupils vibrate with anger, not looking at anything until they settled on the papers. In one swift motion she tore them all in two.
“What are you-?!”
Rebecca threw the scraps to the wind. The congressman watched as they tumbled across the pavement, heading to the deep cool waters of the gulf.
“Councillor, I have been planning this project very meticulously. You might say it’s my life’s work.” The congressman began to fidget with his seatbelt clip. Rebecca slammed his neck against the window, snarling. “Look at me! My life’s! Work! I crawled from the gutter to get here, councillor, and I am not going to let some thankless bureaucrat spit all over it!”
The vehicle filled with noise. Suarez attempted feebly to kick out the bulletproof windows as Rebecca held his neck in a vice grip, hissing as she pushed flesh and sinew into bone. Even squeaks and groans were denied life, and, in a minute, eyes reddened and fingers curled, so was the congressman. The mercenary let go with shaking fingers, slumping against her seat.
“Selfish, thankless bastards, all of them…” She wiped the sweat from her forehead before fumbling for a bottle of whiskey in the car seat pouch. “Oh dear, it seems the poor man has suffered a heart attack. Jones, I’m sure you can get us to the hospital on time, can’t you?”
“ – was pronounced dead at the scene. Cerberus Security CEO Rebecca Napier did everything to resuscitate the congressman, but the sudden onset of cardiac arrest claimed his life in just a few minutes, BPD officers told reporters. Suarez was one of Florida’s longest serving representatives, known for his support of the military and -”
A short, blond man in combat fatigues sat behind the restaurant’s bar, taking a sip of his caipirinha and shaking his head at the sound of the news. He reached up to wipe at his mouth with a wiry arm. Sharp, green eyes were glued on the television hanging on the wall, but his leg twitched like he wanted to be moving around. Harsh Floridian sun filtered in, shedding light on the colorful, Brazilian-flavored décor riddling the walls. It wasn’t an amazing spot, as far as Fritz was concerned, but the Cachaça Cafe was leaps and bounds better than many other Blackburn restaurants and bars. The food was edible and the drinks didn’t taste like paint thinner.
“More dead people, who’d’a thought?” Fritz said, rolling his eyes. “You think things have ever not been shit?”
“Yeah, back when the American Spirits were still around,” replied a tall, lightly tanned man from behind the bar. He packed far more muscle than his counterpart, perhaps weighing twice as much, but his soft chocolate eyes and hair belied his strength. Even in body armor, Alex finds himself cleaning glasses for his old man, Fritz reflected with a smirk. What a cub.
“Hey, at least the boss tried to save the guy, right?” Alex continued.
“Didn’t work, did it?” Fritz asked, resting his chin in his palm. “Maybe she shoulda just let the guy die, reserved her energy and done something better with it than save politicians.”
Alex frowned. “And also before people started having that attitude. Besides, you shouldn’t be drinking before we get back to work, Fritz.”
“You’re such a killjoy. It’s not like anyone’s gonna notice, stuff reeks like lime.”
“Uh huh.” Alex set a dried mug down on the counter before turning to the back. “Ola, pai, we’re heading out now. Give Fritz the tab.”
“He better pay in full this time!” Judd called from the kitchen.
“Of course, making the Jew pay for everything,” Fritz said, standing up and giving Alex a half-grin.
The walk back to HQ was a short one. Just ten minutes hiding under the palm trees, though it might have been shorter had Alex, the spoilsport, not dragged Fritz away from ogling the local women. Marble steps led up to series of glass entrances, armed mercenaries posted by each door. The duo flashed their ID cards and, with a nod, the guards waved them inside.
“So, how’s your formal cyber warfare training going?” Alex asked as they made their way up to Fritz’s office on the third floor. Though both of them possessed anomalous abilities – the politically correct term for superpowers – Rebecca only seemed to value Fritz as more than a glorified grunt. Not that Alex ever complained to him about the occasional stare-at-the-wall hallway posting; every day he wasn’t patrolling the African savannah or small towns in Mexico, it was one less worried phone call from his father.
“Not as good as my informal training. Think I learned more cracking an image board than I have from these corporate tools. But it sure pays a lot better here.” Fritz laughed to himself as he opened his door. “And to think they were gonna press charges.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re very scared of the neckbeard army.” Alex’s voice faded as took his post next to the armory door, which was, conveniently, adjacent to Fritz’s. “You still dating that French guy?”
“God, no,” Fritz gagged, booting up his work PC. “He talked the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk, if you know what I’m saying.”
Once he passed his log-in screen, Fritz reopened the web browser and restored his previous session. In other words, the cyber security online seminar he was in the middle of. Yawn. He moved the window to the side.
“How ‘bout you?” he continued, glancing away from the monitor. “Anything new for your love life? Or is it still a lack thereof?”
“Nothing,” Alex replied with a shrug. “Turns out it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a cool job that has you getting a shot at – chicks can sense when you’re a dweeb at heart.”
“I like that word. Sums up everything about you all at once.” Fritz opened up the file explorer as he spoke, idly poking around in public folders that the less technologically literate employees had created. “How ‘bout your sister, how’s she doing? Or, your dad, for that matter.”
“She’s in seventh grade and hasn’t fallen into a gang, so she can’t be doing that bad,” Alex replied. “As for my dad, well, tourist season is coming up. He’ll be making good money – except when the Brazilians don’t tip.”
“Brazilians, am I right? Just the worst,” Fritz quipped.
Nothing interesting in the public folders today. He moved on to the network tab, checking over the available wi-fi networks. An unfamiliar connection popped up, just a jumble of text and letters. Kinda odd, but it wasn’t the first time it had happened. He clicked to connect.
As soon as he connected, a command prompt popped up for a split second. He narrowed his eyes and opened his own command prompt and, with a few keystrokes, retrieved the network’s credentials. Instead of anything coherent, however, a string of what was definitely encrypted data came through. Then another. Then another.
It didn’t look all that complicated. Standard software encryption, probably from Tortoise Defense Tech, if modified a little. With another few taps at his keyboard, Fritz started up a decryption algorithm.
“People need to stop leaving their stuff open,” Fritz said, just loud enough so Alex could hear. “I swear, everyday, I find porn on someone’s cloud. Some people just can’t control themselves.”
“Yeah, you’re one to talk,” Alex mumbled. Then, after a pause, snapped “Hey wait a minute, why are you burgling people’s porn stashes? Get back to work.”
“This is my work,” Fritz wheedled, putting on a lilting tone. “If I’m gonna do cyber security, I need to know all the cracks in the system, and, believe me, there’s a lot.”
It took a good few minutes for the algorithm to finish, but it dumped a few files on Fritz’s desktop when it did. The largest was titled Phoenix.pdf, which he double clicked. He leaned back in his chair as it loaded. The more it loaded, though, the more he sat up, his expression turning from a squint to a wide-eyed stare. He paused the seminar and minimized it, whipping his head around.
“Alex,” he said, controlling his voice. “Can you come in here? I need some – help. Close the door.”
“Me?” Alex glanced down the hall to make sure none of his superiors were present, then shut Fritz’s door behind him, scratching his head. “You know I can’t run my anti-virus without calling you up, right?”
“This- well, this ain’t no anti-virus.” Fritz waved him over to the computer, sweating more and more with every passing second. “Read this. I- I need to be sure I’m not seeing things.”
A spreadsheet stretched across the screen, detailing what looked to be a weapons deal of some kind. The chart gave information on a ‘special purposes’ shipment of 2,000 guns, 400 combat knives, and 100 grenades. At the very bottom, a note had been left about the anonymous donation being accepted by ‘the syndicates’. A Cerberus logo was stamped at the top left of the page. Fritz turned to Alex, teeth gritted.
“Oh dear…” Alex chewed on his lower lip. They had never seen anything like that quantity, let alone to bonafide supervillains. After a few moments, Alex asked “Fritz, where did you find this?”
“I opened up a network, decrypted the data it gave me, and this came up!” Fritz was desperately trying to keep his voice down, despite his panic. “Maybe it’s a set-up, a ruse from some company competition.”
“Fritz, what competition?”
By now, Alex had begun to pace. He balled his fists impotently, a tic that told Fritz he was fighting with himself. Eventually, the boy scout won out. “Fritz, download this. We have to show this to someone.”
“Download it?!” Fritz cried. “They probably already know we have it! What if they decide to use one of those grenades on us?!”
“Then you can sue!”
Fritz opened his mouth to rant, but his words were snuffed in his throat as the intercom crackled to life.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it appears we’ve had a security breach regarding confidential company materials.” The Commander’s words appeared to weigh Alex’s face down, twisting his eyes and mouth into an expression of abject terror. “And it appears to have come from one of our own. All operatives on the third floor are to detain Friedrich Kravitz immediately.”
“Fritz, download that file now!” Alex shouted, tossing a USB drive from his desk onto the keyboard. “I’ll hold the door!”
Fritz’s heart was beating out his chest, but he did as he was told. He shoved the thumb stick into the keyboard port and dragged the file right into it. It copied fast; thank God no one had thought to bloat the file. He ejected the drive and shoved it into his pocket. “Okay, okay,” he muttered to himself as he glanced around, doing everything he could to think clearly.
Alex concentrated on the door, keeping it upright with a wall of solidified shadow as several soldiers pounded their fists against it. “We know you’re in there Fritz, come out with your hands up or we’ll kick this door down and drag you out!”
“Shit, shit, I can’t hold ‘em forever man!”
Fritz ran through every object in the room, every fixture, the filing cabinets, the desk, the rug, the dirty old window – the window!
“Alex, smash through that window and jump!” he ordered.
“You want me to kill myself?!”
“There’s no time, just trust me!”
“It’s my job, he says. I need your help, he says. Trust me, he says. I hate you, Fritz!”
Alex took a deep breath and, with an accompanying gesture, tore the door from its hinges, sending wood, splinter and shade into the soldiers. As they scrambled for their guns he charged the window shoulder first, yelping as he met the air.
Fritz ran after him, grabbing some waves of light as he went and rapidly weaving them together. As he reached the window, he projected them beneath Alex. It was an abrupt stop, but he had survived harder falls when he landed on the light. Just as he heard security barking from behind him, he hopped out as well. He projected steps in front of himself as he made a break for the ground.
“Come on!” he shouted as he passed Alex. “We’ve got places to be!”
Fritz was about a story from the ground when he saw the shadows near the HQ’s steps begin to churn, dark matter swirling upwards. An impossibly black figure of a man emerged before the shadows retreated to their natural place. Alex’s dark matter shell dissipated into nothing.
“Got anywhere in mind?!” he shouted, sirens beginning to wail from a parking garage behind them.
“Run,” Fritz said. “Run very fast.”
The sound of cars revving their engines, people bantering loudly, bottles of alcohol clinking; all the little ambient noises that went along with a race were like meditative chimes to Mouse. She had two great passions, after all: drugs and racing. Getting to indulge the latter while high on the former just made things that much sweeter.
“Hey, man, it’s cool of you to organize a meet so soon. We’re makin’ a killing in business alluva sudden. What’s the occasion?” Mouse didn’t respond at first, busy wiping at the hood of her unholy monster of a muscle car with a rag. It was her pride and joy, a completely custom matte black, twelve cylinder behemoth she’d affectionately nicknamed ‘Abaddon’. The vehicle was almost completely engine, all wheel drive, seven speed manual with a massive clutch, and produced nearly a thousand horsepower at the tires. Mouse couldn’t even use normal gasoline to fuel it, instead manufacturing her own fuel, which was closer to nitroglycerin than ethanol. Suffice it to say, she rarely raced other people anymore. They were too scared to try.
“You writing a book?” she finally quipped, giggling to herself. “It’s never too soon to do more business, Mr. Vincenzo. I didn’t think the others would show up, but these idiots never seem to learn. Do me a favor, see if you can ‘do some work’ on the competition’s cars for us? Not that I doubt my driver, but the less chances for something to go wrong, the better.” Mouse wiped her hands off on an oily rag, tucking it into a pocket. “That, and I may have had a spat with my driver. It’s a show of good faith and an apology of sorts.”
Adjusting the collar of his leather jacket, Vincenzo smirked. The Oil Barons, Blackburn’s finest hot-rodder gang, were one of the few groups that got a pass from her. Their mechanics were experts, and having a wealth of parts for her to look at brought them into her good graces years ago. Plus, she found the whole ‘greaser’ motif very quaint and charming. “I dig, Ms. Verion. I’ll see what we can do. No promises, you know how Bernouli is, but after that Russian nosebleed dipped out of paying his bill, I think he’ll look the other way.”
The man walked away, leaving Mouse to her thoughts until a massive hand dropped onto her shoulder. “That was not very nice, malyshka.”
“What wasn’t very nice, pridurok?” Mouse asked, sighing heavily as she shook Grigori’s hand off her shoulder.
“You killed the good doctor’s best man.” She was quiet, staring at him for a moment before bursting into raucous laughter. Grigori quirked a brow at her, put off by the unusual behavior.
The albino wiped tears of mirth from her eyes, shaking her head. “Ya znal, chto ty glup, no ya ne znal, chto ty takoy glupyy. Do you have any proof of this or…? You’re always going on and on about the might of Russian intelligence, but I’ve yet to see any.”
“He was alive before he raced your little toy, and now he is mysteriously gone. Who else would risk Sonrisa’s wrath but nemnogo razdrazhayushchaya sobaka like you?” Mouse scoffed at him, though when he shoved her backwards with one meaty finger, she instantly had a hand at her hip in warning.
“Rules be damned, you touch me again, I put you in the dirt!” Grigori understood then what he was dealing with. He’d never really met Mouse when she was high, and he clearly didn’t like it. He backed up a couple steps, arms crossed. “Until you have damning proof, take your wild accusations elsewhere. I’ve got a drag race to win.”
Four cars lined up along the end of Emerald Street, intersection cordoned off by three lines of spectators. Jessica’s Lancer was flanked by the Supra and Challenger from before, and on the end was another of Grigori’s grunts in a BMW M3.
Jessica shifted into drive, engine screaming as she tapped the pedal. Grigori’s men were staring holes in her helmet, but she wasn’t paying attention to them. Her eyes were on LaDarius. The race director walked between the Lancer and the Challenger, holding up five fingers. Four. Three. Two.
LaDarius jumped back, heat from the Challenger’s engine singeing his suit. Jessica caught the driver exiting his vehicle, screaming every profanity at his failed machine, then wincing as intense heat was blown onto him by the other racers. That your way of apologizing, Nisa?
Jessica let the chassis guide her, feeling it vacillating ever so slightly around her. The engine’s pitch climbed to a steady whine, and at its apex she shifted into second gear. She was trailing just behind the M3. She tracked it briefly, watching the sedan hug the side of the road. A wonderful piece of German design. Too bad its driver wasn’t designed so well.
A chorus of sirens sounded from the west. No, there shouldn’t have been cops. Jessica slammed the breaks, letting the M3 pull ahead, ready to turn around and flee.
Several patrol vehicles plowed into the inattentive BMW, sending it flying into a lamppost. Glass and sparks rained everywhere, drivers strained to undo their seatbelts. Drivers wearing the patch of a triple-headed hound.
“No, no, no, no, no! Not them!”
Against her better judgement, Jessica sent her Lancer after the rest of the mercenaries, leaving a very confused Supra driver to cruise to victory.
Incoming Call: Mouse, said the HUD. She blindly fumbled for the accept button. “Jessica, you have two seconds to explain what the fuck you’re doing before I come after your ass!”
“You know, I’m not sure yet, Nisa. I’m about to find out.”
“… If you fuck up that car, I am going to be very upset with you. Do I have to follow you?”
“No.” Jessica slammed a fist on her dashboard, cutting out the feed. Four Cerberus patrol cars were tearing up the roads, chasing… something. Her eyes trained on the lead vehicle, taking wide corner turns at nearly every intersection. About ten meters ahead of it was some sort of light show zig zagging down the the street. Glowing beams seemed to bend and weave under the form of a man, allowing him to swap from skating to jogging across it. If Blackburn were anywhere but Florida, she might have thought he was gliding across ice. Another man looked to be phasing in and out of the light.
As the pursuers made another turn, Jessica barreled her Lancer into the nearest car’s left taillight, propelling it into the driver’s side door of another. She rode the curb for a moment to get around the wreck. Yet another turn saw a pursuer attempt a sort of reverse PIT maneuver with the rear of his car. Jessica let him overcompensate, then shoved the car by the bumper into an empty building lobby.
A blistering rod of light materialized in the path of the final car. It swerved off the road with a screech, the smell of burned rubber fuming into the air. It was only a brick wall that finally stopped the car’s forward motion.
The man who had been sliding around on his light hopped back to the ground then, breathing hard, followed by his buddy. Jessica stopped the Lancer a few feet in front of them, and then stuck her head out the window. She flinched when she saw that they were wearing Cerberus uniforms themselves, and fought the urge to smear them across the road.
“Hey dumbasses, don’t just stare at me, get in!”
With a shrug, Alex did as he was told. Fritz scrambled not to get left behind.
“Would you like to tell me why Cerberus is tearing the city apart to catch its own agents?” Jessica demanded, following the roads to the highway.
“Well, see, that’s kind of a long story,” Fritz started. “We, uh, we might have found some incriminating information. By accident. It wasn’t me.”
“Screw you, man!” Alex shouted. He jerked a thumb at his partner. “This guy is a professional liar. He was digging on the boss’ network. For fun!”
“For fun? What the hell is wrong with you? Ugh, never mind. What’d you find?”
“Emphasis on professional,” Fritz added, wagging a finger. “Long story short, Cerberus is dealing in wa-ay more weapons than anyone has any right to. Guns, knives, ‘nades, and, you know, where there’s smoke there’s fire so we got out of that burning building.”
“Guns, knives…” Jessica muttered to herself. “Oh no…” Why did it have to be her? “Leftovers from the War on Terror, right? M4’s and M67’s? I’ve seen them in the Lodge. Why?”
“Well, how should I know?” Fritz asked. “I just got the transaction document, it doesn’t say any hows or whys.”
Jessica drove in silence for some time, slowing her speed to civilian levels. Alex rapped his fingers against the window, and she saw his face twitch once or twice. Either he was far too nervous, or the other man wasn’t nervous enough.
“So uh, how about you lady?” Alex asked. “You really don’t like Cerberus, do ya?”
“It’s…” Jessica huffed. “It’s complicated.”
“So let’s start simple then.” Alex straightened and turned to the rearview mirror, offering a friendly expression that was far less urbane than he likely intended. “What’s your name?”
“Jessica, nice name. Are you a white girl? It’s the voice. Not that, you know, there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that there’s not a lot of white chicks living the thug life. Nothing wrong with white chicks.”
Jessica tilted her head slightly. Alex recoiled at Fritz’s snicker.
“My name’s Alex,” he continued quickly. “This is Fritz. Say hi Fritz.”
“Hi, Fritz,” Fritz repeated, shaking his head. “So where are we heading anyway?”
“You tell me,” Jessica said as the Kennedy Bridge came into sight. “You’ve got a plan, don’t you?”
“Uh, no, not really. I wasn’t exactly planning on stumbling across sensitive information and nearly getting assassinated.”
If only that were the worst news. As the Lancer approached the midway point of the bridge, she noticed a line of Cerberus vehicles had blocked off the road, spike strips in front of them and armed mercenaries behind. The sports car screeched to a halt, turning halfway around before being met with a half dozen BPD cruisers.
“Freeze!” Shouted a plain-clothed detective with a megaphone. “Let me see those hands!”
“Shit, shit!” Jessica pounded the steering wheel in frustration, accidently blaring the car horn. Defeated, she saw a second detective begin approaching the passenger’s side door, ten uniformed officers backing him up.
“I know my rights!” Fritz shouted, refusing to move even as the door opened. The detective reached in and wrestled him out, cuffing him in the process. Fritz whined at that manhandling.
“What are you, some kind of Nazi?!” he asked. “I have my lawyer on speed-dial, I’m warning you!”
“I didn’t know you were a Nazi, Jeff,” The detective with the megaphone said with a laugh. “Jamaican Nazis. Almost as believable as your threats.”
The raven-haired officer leaned into the car.
“Do you mind making less of a fuss, buddy?”
“Officer, you don’t understand!” Alex pleaded, exiting with his hands on his head.
“Well let’s come to a mutual understanding then.” The detective twirled cuffs in his hands before making the arrest. “You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can be used against you in a court of law,” he said with a hum.