Stop touching it… Stop touching it.
Yet she did it anyways, only stopping to keep blood from trickling into her eye. It kept her focus off the pain, the shame of letting herself be kicked around by a couple of mouth-breathing bullies. Who had she wronged by walking down the street for a smoothie? What was wrong with this city?
She pushed open the door to her mother’s office with a bloodied hand, regarding the scene with a scowl. On the chair across from Rebecca sat a well-dressed man who looked more than a little shook.
“I’m going to make myself perfectly clear, Lev. We’re done. Working with Moscow is bad optics these days. And if I see you flying your fucking recon planes over Warsaw again, you’re going to have something worse than the Kremlin up your ass.” She glanced over his shoulder, shot Jessica a look of worry, then turned back and scowled. “Get the hell out of my office.”
The Russian scurried out of the room, not looking at Jessica once. When he was gone, Rebecca’s facial features melted.
“Jessica, honey, what the hell happened to you?” she asked, getting up and kneeling down in front of her for a better look.
“Got mugged outside the smoothie place. Some creep put his hand in pocket and took my wallet. I tried to fight back, but…”
Rebecca wet her thumb with her tongue and wiped away some of the congealed blood on her forehead. Her lips pursed as Jessica recounted her story.
“Hmph. You’re my girl, alright. I bet you wish you could’ve busted their heads open.”
“But you couldn’t’ve.”
Jessica huffed and stared at the floor. “Because I wasn’t strong enough.”
Rebecca shook her head. “They had the jump on you, and the numbers. Don’t be too hard on yourself, there’s nothing you could’ve done to stop them. All you can control is your reaction to it. You’re not going to skip training today, are you?”
She snorted. “What kind of question is that?”
“Exactly. You’re not going to let this get you down. It’s not in our blood. This is going to make you stronger. I wish I could have taught those brats a lesson, but this is why I do what I do. So one day, my daughter can go get a smoothie without getting her ass beat.”
Rebecca got up and led her by the arm to the bathroom. “You’re not too old to let momma patch you up, are you?”
Jessica said nothing, stifling a laugh by pretending to sniff, and let her wound be dressed.
“Hey?” a faint yet familiar voice said. “Hey, Shade, are you dead?”
Shade twitched violently, throwing a hand up at her forehead until she remembered it was her shoulder that ached.
“No, it’s just – bad dream. What is it?”
“Chiro’s calling, that’s what’s it,” Prism chirped. “Better get up before she chews you out.”
She pushed herself off the wall with a groan. Now she was really feeling it.
“Shit… Alright.” Fetching her radio from her belt, she took a breath before dialing it to Chiro’s channel. “Shade here.”
“Shade, where are you?” Chiro demanded, and the urgency in her voice made her wonder if the shit had hit the fan somewhere else. “Are you getting your shoulder patched up? Did she hurt you anywhere else?”
“The EMT’s took a look at it last night. It’s just a muscle wound. I’m fine.”
“You better be, or I’m gonna kill your mother myself,” Quinn said. “Are Onyx and Prism fine, too? Are you resting? You better be resting.”
“Everything’s fine,” Shade insisted, testing the dexterity of her shoulder. As unlucky as she was to have gotten hit by the knife, at least it wouldn’t leave her with any long term damage. Besides pain. “I just – can’t believe she made a throw like that. I only have a few inches uncovered there. If I bump into her again, you best believe I’m running.”
“Good, good. That’s all I needed to hear. Stay safe out there. Call me if you need anything. And don’t make me fly my ass over to Vicio. You know I’ll do it.” And she hung up.
On that, Shade believed her.
“Hey, guys,” Prism called from his corner. “I think I found what we’re looking for.”
He tapped a few more keys on his laptop as the others approached him, a solemn frown on his face.
“Well, from the looks of it, the encryption got an upgrade. Custom, so none of my software is much help, and I’d need either a lot of time or a big computer to get it untangled,” he explained. “All I found was a description note on the Phoenix file: ‘the worst case scenario plan of action.’ Whatever the hell that means.”
“Phoenix?” Onyx questioned. “That’s weird. You mean like the bird, right?”
“Spelled the same way. Name hasn’t been changed since I opened it last. But don’t ask me about the symbolism, ‘cause I dunno.”
Shade brought a finger to her chin, recalling the cryptic words of Rebecca from jail. “Mother mentioned fire and brimstone when she visited, but this isn’t exactly either of those things,” she said, gesturing out into the street. A hundred miles an hour winds were tearing through the park, bringing torrents of rain that obscured the line of police cars. Every once in awhile a gunshot could be heard ringing out.
“Your mother sounds like a real articulate woman,” Prism said, despite his continued frown.
“Hmph. Underestimate her at your own peril.”
“I’m not underestimating her, I’m making fun of her,” Prism corrected her with a harumph. “Honestly, some people, so serious.”
Shade rolled her eyes before turning to Onyx. “Well, I almost lost my arm for nothing it seems. Any ideas?”
“Uh.” Onyx rubbed the back of his neck. “Hmm. I mean, whatever she does is bad news, so why not make sure there isn’t a worst case scenario for her to do anything about? We took care of Blueshift, at least for now, and Mouse is kinda jumpy, so why not take the Russian or the creepy smile guy out of the game?”
Shade blinked. “That’s – actually a well reasoned plan.”
Onyx laughed. “Hey, you asked.”
“I was just being polite.”
At that point, a small girl in a ragged raincoat marched up to them. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen, and at best five foot three, but still she came right up to Onyx.
“Alex, what are you doing here?” she asked. “And why’re you wearing that dumb outfit?”
Onyx, helpless, looked between his companions, then threw his hands up. “I thought people weren’t supposed to know who we are!”
“I’ve known you since I was in diapers, you big doofus,” she said. “You think I can’t tell it’s you just because you put on a silly mask?”
“Come on, it’s not silly. And I’m here to make sure you don’t get hit with a missile or something. Look, just keep it in the family, okay? I don’t want mercs showing up on our doorstep.”
“I’m not stupid,” she said, rolling her eyes. “And it didn’t look like the missiles were aimed at me.”
“Let’s keep it that way.” He turned her towards Shade. “This is Shade. And – I’m sure you know who that is. Say hi.”
“Hi, Shade,” Dawn said, giving a little wave. “You Alex’s new girlfriend?”
“New?” She snorted. “I’m surprised he ever had one.”
“Hey, I had a girlfriend in high school! She left me after I washed out of college, but still.”
“I told you she wasn’t any good,” Dawn said, shaking her head like she’d repeated the same many times.
“Yeah, you probably should have had a back-up plan outside of football,” Prism piped up. “Like. Finances. Or programming. Or acting. Maybe not that last one.”
“It’s not my fault I’m an idiot!” Onyx protested. “Besides, I’m the only one here who hasn’t gone to jail. Over something actually bad, I mean.”
“Hey, I’ve met some of my best friends in jail.” He glanced to Shade. “Well. Maybe not best, but you know. Circumstantially close acquaintances.”
Shade crinkled her nose. “Whatever. When this storm blows over, you know where to find me.” And with that she retreated further into the metro, in the hopes of finding some momentary peace.
When Jeff finally stepped outside again after three days, it was like traversing an alien world. The rain had stopped, for the most part anyway, and it was quiet. The kind of quiet that came with bleak misery and death.
Jeff was surveying the wreckage not too far from the tunnel they’d all been hunkered down in. Power lines were down, rainwater flooded through the streets, and a lot of storefront windows were shattered with no trace of their products. Jeff was used to the looting, but he marveled at the idea of anyone looting out in hurricane weather. It was Blackburn, sure, but people couldn’t be that crazy. Could they?
He continued on the path of destruction through the commercial district, finding it all much the same. Jeff recognized the layout of it all, but everything seemed so different now. The only life he encountered were the occasional Cerberus patrols, and he did his best to stay out of their sightlines.
As he reached a junction leading to a residential area, Jeff took pause at an odd sight in the mud. Printed there, clear as day, was what looked like a huge hoofprint. It was waterlogged and probably wouldn’t last long, but it was big enough, more than a foot across both ways, that the details were clear as day. It was almost like a horse’s print, but wider set and with tiny, circular impressions on the sole, like a cleat. Jeff felt a chill run down his spine.
The print seemed to be pointing farther ahead, and he followed its apparent path. It didn’t take long to find a few more stamped in the ground. Whatever this thing was, it was big and it was heavy and it was like nothing Jeff had ever seen before.
He kept following the tracks through the city until he spotted a few gun-toting gang members. Jeff slipped into an alleyway to peer out at them. Either they weren’t talking or Jeff was too far away to hear, as they shuffled along quietly. They turned a corner and disappeared, and Jeff made to keep going. He jumped back as a second group treaded into view. Jeff waited a while longer, and sure enough, more packs of thugs circled around the same building. Something was going on in there, or his name wasn’t Jefferson Elijah Higgins.
With that in mind, Jeff took off back the way he came. He wasn’t going to get any further, but he knew a couple others who might be able to.
“So I followed these massive tracks – I mean huge! – right to this warehouse-y building,” Jeff explained, arms flailing around for emphasis. “I couldn’t investigate further, the place was swarming with gangsters, but someone’s gotta check this out.”
“Gangsters?” Shade asked. “Were they white or hispanic?” But she was already forming a suspect in her mind, and it wasn’t either. Or human.
“Just about all white,” Jeff said.
“Shit.” She clicked on her belt and made for the exit, gesturing for Onyx and Prism to follow. “Martin’s made a bug monster. Yes, that sounds crazy, but just trust me on this one. We’ve gotta stop it before it tears the whole island up.”
“A- a bug monster?” Jeff’s arms dropped to his sides. “How’s that even possible?”
“I’m a soldier, not a biologist,” she replied. “Where did you find the trail?”
“Down by Helix Avenue, right down the road.”
Shade ran out without another word. She found the Poltergeist practically unscathed where she had left it, other than a little mud and greenery. When the car’s computer booted up, she fiddled on the screen.
“So, are we going to be tracking this thing by car, or…?” Prism asked as he followed up behind here.
“Yes. There’s a chemical scanner on board, I just need to figure out which chemical to scan for…” She pulled up an internet browser. Digging through articles on insect physiology, she found a compound that couldn’t have been more perfect.
“Acetosyringone. It’s an insect pheromone in leaf-footed bugs most likely used for mating. A little niche, but it should do the trick.” She inputted the name of the compound and, to her mild surprise, after a short jingle, a trail to follow appeared on the dash.
The Poltergeist slogged through deluged streets, kicking up water as it went. The prints appeared sporadically, and she often had to get back on the path through trial and error. The closer they got to its destination, the more evident its destruction became. Chunks of walls were torn out, bodily impressions made in the street, vehicles had been torn apart like a child’s LEGO set. Then the bodies began to pile up.
“Ulgh, what on earth?” Onyx sucked air through his teeth. “That guy, his guts are all… Oh God.”
“Oh, oh that’s just horrible,” Prism said, vocally wincing at the sight.
Shade slammed on the brakes, then threw up a hand to signal silence. A few yards ahead was a puddle where the water flowed around some unseen object. After a thermal quick scan for hostiles, she climbed out and kneeled in front of the puddle, squinting.
“Hmph. Land mine. Grigori’s men booby-trapped their turf. We’re going to have to proceed on foot. Be very attentive to your surroundings.”
“Oh, great,” Onyx grumbled. “They got machine guns too?”
“Well.” She picked up a rock and took a few steps back. “We’re about to find out.”
She hurled it into the puddle, which erupted into fire and earth.
“Get into defensive positions, now.”
“What?!” Prism squawked. “Why would you do that?!”
“Because,” she said with an unseen smirk, “Now we can fight them on our terms.”
Onyx shrugged and teleported to the roof of a gas station. Shade grappled into the third floor of an apartment building. Or at least, what was once an apartment building. The room she ascended into had been trashed beyond use, rainwater and tree leaves mixed with shattered glass and torn fabrics. A television screen lay shattered in the corner, sparking infrequently. She only took a few steps before crushing a picture frame underfoot. That’s when she frowned. This had been somebody’s home. She didn’t dare look at the picture, and instead moved out into the hall.
The air drafted between rooms softly, whispering to her. No, that wasn’t just the air. She slowed her breath.
“<Artyom, why the hell are we going after that monster? Have you seen what it did to our patrols?>”
“<It’s not the monster, we’d know if it was by now. It’s probably Cerberus. Either way, keep your mouth shut and eyes peeled.>”
She felt for the belt pocket with the explosive charges. There was one left.
“<Hold up. Do you hear footsteps above?>”
An eruption of shouts burst through the new hole in the floor. She tossed a flash grenade into the opening and the voices became disoriented. Hopping down, she grabbed the nearest Russian and drove the stock of his rifle into his gut, brought it onto his chin then tossed him over her shoulder. She tomahawked the rifle at nearest grunt’s head before charging the one further. As she dug her boots into the ground and strained her knees, she realized he was stronger than he looked. His deceptively quick arms hoisted her into the air, squeezing the wind from her chest before slamming her to the ground.
She could feel every fiber in her right shoulder tense up, so she pushed herself onto her back with her left. His boot came crashing down on her stomach. Her coughs grew dry. When his boot came down a second time, she pushed him back and kicked herself to her feet. She ducked under his swing and kicked him into the room. She yanked the drawer from a dresser and bashed him over the head until he stopped moving.
Down the stairwell was another grunt, searching desperately for his comrades. With a running leap she wrapped her legs around his neck and tossed him down the stairs. At the end of the hall a man with a rifle was charging her way. She got her tranq pistol out, but her shot only hit the chest as she was slammed into the wall by a thug bursting through the door.
Thud. Thud. She couldn’t help but scream when he pounded her shoulder. Her hand slid into a back belt pocket and set off a knockout gas pellet. Her assailant staggered back, appearing almost frightened for a moment. When he realized what was happening, he punished her with a barrage of punches and a kick to the gut. She started violently, but little did he know he had given her a blessing. The stomach churning pain saw her through the ordeal, giving her the will to stumble away and let the man crumple behind her.
The man with a dart in his stomach kept coming, crawling along the ground. She fell on top of him, trying to disable him with nerve strikes. It didn’t stop him from landing a gut punch, then grabbing ahold of her cape and tugging with all his might. A look of bewilderment spread across his face as he curled the empty cloth in his hands. She punched the look right off.
The next few minutes passed with her vomiting her guts out in the street.
The glow from some disembodied light nearby approached before promptly disappearing. With its disappearance came footsteps right up beside her.
“What the hell happened to you?” Prism asked.
“Life,” she groaned.
“Better than death,” Prism offered. “I think.”