My muscles tensed, fighting me as a bead of sweat rolled down my forehead. My eyes darted across the area, surveying each item as carefully as I could. I had to get this right.
“Could I have a closer look at this one here?” I asked, pointing toward a necklace in the glass case as I inquired to the woman on the other side of the counter.
“She must be a pretty special lady.”
“And then some.” I said. I looked the necklace over, examining it in further detail as my cell began to ring.
“Speak of the devil.” I said. “Or angel, more accurately.” The woman behind the counter laughed, no understanding of my statement’s literalism.
“Hey there, pretty lady.” I said.
“Hey there, handsome.”
“I found something you might be interested in.” She said. “David Fadi says he’s working to find us some information on Aperture, but Albright isn’t being too forthcoming with the information.
“Not that there isn’t an… Extrajudicial solution.”
“And where would we start there?” I asked.
“He’s provided me a few names that might be useful in that regard.”
“Then we may have to work in a few important meetings.”
“My thoughts exactly.” She replied.
“I think the auto-timer for the Christmas lights is broken.”
“I told you I was going to put those up myself when I got home.”
“And I elected to ignore you.” She laughed. “The girls were pretty excited about it. I’m having a hard enough time keeping them from decorating this place until you get the tree here.”
“Well then I guess I’ll hurry home.” I smiled.
“Not before you buy me that present, I hope.”
“Hey now.” I protested.
“I see you when you’re sleeping…” She laughed.
“Well you’d best be good, for goodness sake.” I said. “I’d hate to see you shaking the boxes before Christmas.”
“You know that’s-“
“Exactly your style.” I said. “It’s half a miracle you’re still on my nice list.”
“Well you better hurry down the chimney soon, Santa.” She laughed. “Or you might hard a hard time finding your name on my nice list.”
“Be home soon, gorgeous.”
I’d hoped David Fadi could deliver. Even without his mayoral candidacy and the utility it would bring were he to win, his position as the head of Albright Industries’ technological development center had proven useful over the past few months, especially with the dispersal units he was able to build to spread the airborne cure when I fought the Rat King on Halloween. David was proving to be an invaluable resource, and he certainly was the best suited candidate for the office. He loved this city like I did.
I still worried about “Jewel”. Cloak and Dagger’s appearances had interesting implication considering where we’d found them. It was clear that the woman in the black coat had a relation to Amour, but her appearance immediately following my discovery of whatever Aperture was was suspicious to say the least. Everything hinged on what Aperture meant, and David Fadi was my foot in the door to figuring it out.
Mark Davin scanned his keycard into the door, stepping into the robotics technology development lab on the seventh floor of the Albright building. His colleagues had all left earlier to get home on time through the falling snow, yet after almost leaving himself, he’d realized he’d forgotten his active projects folder.
He shuffled through the papers on his desk, eager to find the folder, turning to the drawers after little success. The lab was dark in the fading light of the early winter evening, and his computer monitor illuminated the fading area behind him, leaving the rest of the lab in darkness.
The shadow spoke back to him.
He jumped. “Who are you?”
“Azrael.” I said.
He scowled. “So you’re real.”
“And I have some questions.” I said. “I need information on something called Aperture.”
“Absolutely not.” He said. “You shouldn’t even know that name.”
“Someone very dangerous may be taking advantage of it, and I need to stop them.”
“Someone like you?” He said. “You’re not above the law. I’ve seen your game. The people you damage, the minds you shatter, controlling the city through fear.”
“There are people who would do far worse to control this city, and I need to stop them.”
“I refuse to give a project like Aperture to a terrorist like you.” He sneered.
“I’m not using Aperture for myself, I’m trying to stop someone else who might use it for evil.”
“I won’t help you.”
“Then you would watch as someone else kills everyone here?” I said. “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, Mark. I need you to help me save Bastion.”
“By destroying it?” He asked. “No. Aperture is too dangerous for men like you.”
“I’m only dangerous to people who would hurt this city.” I said. “And if you’re going to stand by and watch as someone uses your project to burn it to the ground…”
“Do your worst.” He said. “I’m not afraid of you.”
My hands lit up with a negative black energy.
“Then that’s exactly the thing we’ll start with.”
The lightning came out of nowhere, blinding me. By the time the color faded back in, I found myself standing in a brick alley, walls coated with illegible graffiti tags, the asphalt covered in leaves and discarded newspapers. The rain fell softly over me as I struggled to remember where I was. I looked down at the blue suit I was wearing. I felt like I was wearing it earlier, but I couldn’t place when.
Come to think of it, I couldn’t place anything. Like the last three days just disappeared.
Where the hell am I?
I felt like I’d just at just been checking into work at the Albright building.
I looked forward into the alley, shaking off the rain. I stood in front of a dumpster, a high window up above it on what looked to be the second floor. It was open, with a large air conditioning unit hanging out into the alley.
I moved around the corner and the alley opened up a few feet, only to reveal a large box truck blocking the exit. A door stood open on the right side.
I stepped through, either due to a desire to escape the rain, or an odd presence in the back of my head telling me to keep going forward.
Like there was something behind me.
I moved up the staircase, entering a dark hallway like an apartment complex. The wood floors creaked beneath my footsteps as I moved past each door, shaking each locked knob in attempts to find shelter within one of the rooms. I walked further down, taking notice of a radio alarm clock sitting on a table in an alcove before the third door.
It had been tuned to the wrong channel, emitting waves of static from the lack of signal. The specter of a voice floated through the white noise, delivering the unintelligible sound of speech beneath the static, like it was coming from a channel of a nearby frequency.
I shrugged it off, checking the third door. It swung open slowly with my push and I entered. There were two connected rooms, both empty with simple wood floors.
I stepped through the second room and into an attached bathroom, splashing cold water into my face and taking a moment to breathe. I opened up the medicine cabinet behind the mirror, not searching for anything specific.
I swung the mirrored cabinet door closed, jumping as it turned with the sound of crashing metal.
I stared through the doorway for a moment into the room outside.
I swear I saw something.
In the mirror, as it was closing. Something black.
I walked out slowly, sticking my head through the open window and gazing down into the street. I stood above the dumpster where I’d started, the pavement now covered in the wreckage of the fallen air conditioner.
I stared at it for a moment in confusion before I felt it.
Right behind me.
It pushed me through the window.
I closed my eyes tight in the few terrifying seconds as I fell headfirst to the street.
His eyes opened as I gripped a hand on his collarbone.
Mark hesitated. “How did you do that?”
“Tell me about Aperture.”
Azrael threw me over his shoulder, the world evolving between blinks of an eye as I stumbled yet again into the dark alley.
I looked behind me to find the wreckage of the fallen air conditioner as I struggled to catch my breath.
The presence was still there.
It followed me.
I had to move.
I walked to wider end of the alley blocked by the box truck, turning toward a door.
It was further down than it should’ve been.
I threw it open anyway, stepping into the hallway and moving up the stairs quickly. The thing was following me. I could feel it.
I looked down the hallway again, feeling a sense of familiarity with the third door. I moved to it and twisted the knob.
I stepped back in consideration for a moment. Why was it locked? I swear I knew this door. I’d been here before.
I looked around, walking toward the second door in the hallway. The clock radio sat in the alcove, white noise playing from an in-between frequency.
I turned the knob on the second door, swinging it open slowly.
There were two empty rooms, simple wood floors with an open window in each one.
I turned to close the door behind me, the air split by the sound of metal crashing to the pavement outside.
I rushed to the window, looking out into the street below.
A man in a blue suit sat on the pavement below, blood seeping slowly from his head and forming an expanding pool on the asphalt.
It was me.
I stumbled back from the window in horror, closing the door to the apartment quickly.
I felt the presence that had followed me here, standing in the street over the corpse.
I ran all the way down the hall to the end opposite the staircase, past at least a dozen different doors.
I rammed my shoulder into the last one on the end, forcing it open and running into the room behind it. There had to be something in here. Somewhere I could hide, somewhere I could escape, something I could use to fight.
I ran through the empty rooms, shooting my eyes around, desperate for anything. The bathroom was just as empty as the two rooms before it, a bare medicine cabinet yet again.
I ran out of the apartment to the end of the hallway, hiding behind the wall of an alcove like the one before.
The radio spewed white noise like the one before it.
It grew louder as I felt the presence grow closer, reaching a fevered pitch and changing in tone and sound as it escalated.
A metal door closing at the foot of the staircase at the opposite end of the hall, echoing through the darkness.
It was here.
It stepped slowly up the stairs.
I peeked around the corner as it reached the top to view an empty hallway.
Oh god, where was it?
I rifled through my pockets, searching desperately for anything I could use.
I touched the left side of my chest for the pocket on the inside of my jacket.
There was something in it.
I pulled it out.
A nine millimeter pistol sat in my hand.
I stood up against the wall at the end of the hallway, steadying the weapon in my hands and focusing it down into the darkness.
A silhouette stepped from the shadows.
A hooded man in armor.
I steadied the weapon as he inched closer, his features slowly coming into focus.
Every inch of him was like a shiny black energy, fluid and constantly in motion like a cloud.
Dear god, what the hell is that?
I squared the weapon and pulled the trigger.
He continued walking, unphased as the round struck the outside of his leg. The black energy disintegrated around where the round hit, revealing a twisted, frayed red fabric beneath.
I emptied the magazine, shattering the blackness from his form with every shot as he moved ever closer.
I pulled the trigger repeatedly until every round was spent.
His foot landed square in my chest.
He stood over me, the red fabric twisting around his terrible form.
He lowered his head to me, staring face to face.
The fabric of his flesh twisted and moved, fraying and tearing over him. His cheeks were sunken like the flesh was stretched narrowly across his bones, sunken eyes and mouth black holes of oblivion.
The world shattered back into place as I shook Mark back into it.
I threw him aside.
“What… What did you do?”
“Why did you do it?”
I stepped forward as he shrunk back. “You sold it out. Aperture was stolen from the company and the information was erased, then you chalked it up to a loss and discontinued the production.”
“How did you –”
“You take their money and call it square, then you have the audacity to call yourself a man of principle and pretend like you’re the morally superior?”
He started to speak.
“Shut the hell up.” I spat, turning toward the window. “If you can manage to live with yourself, go ahead. But if you have any shred of the dignity you claim, you’ll turn yourself in and tell them what you did.
“But if this city dies, Mark…”
I turned back to him, fronting on him as he shrunk into the floor.
“You will remember what you did.”
I opened the window, flooding the lab with the frozen winter air.
“And so will I.”
Iris and I sorted through the boxes in the living room, setting up the pieces atop the mantle. The girls worked jovially to help, hanging ornaments on the tree in the living room.
Iris placed a candle on the mantle. “Did you make time for that meeting?”
“I did.” I replied.
“How’d it go?”
“About as well as I could’ve hoped.” I said. “But he did take some convincing.”
“Is he going to be okay?”
“He’ll be fine, but I gave him some things to think about.” I said.
“The thing he saw… He won’t forget it. There will be moments when he thinks he’s alone, and just as soon as he’s forgotten about me, he’ll see it in a passing glimpse. Hiding in a shadow. Just a flourish, but enough to know.
“Beyond that?” I said. “He’ll have to live with what he did, or turn himself in. And after seeing me in action? I don’t think he wants me remembering what he did.”
“What did he do?” She asked.
“Mark Davin sold the Aperture project data. They made it look like a break-in to steal the prototypes and info and erase the backups, and Davin took their money, played it off like an accident, and cancelled the project.”
“What did you find out about the project?”
“I saw a few of his memories about it. Some specs info, a few glimpses of the prototype.” I said. “It looks like some kind of power armor, a little bit like the arm augmentation that the kid from the Pharaoh heist was wearing, but a complete suit.”
“What’s even more interesting is how familiar it looks.” I said.
“Because it resembles the haute couture of a certain woman in white.”
“I think she prefers ‘Jewel’.”
“What’s our next move?” She asked.
“That’s the best part. I have information on the comms and telemetric outputs of the suit.” I said. “We can use the informational data to track her.”
“Perfect.” She said.
“We might even have this done in time for Christmas.” I said.
“Here’s hoping.” She agreed.
“Then I guess we have some work to do.”
“So how’s this one working?”
“I want you to keep Dagger busy.” I said. “My objective is to capture Cloak so I can get some answers, but if we can get our hands on Jewel, we’re in good shape.”
“Don’t be afraid to get a bit rough with Jewel.” I said. “She’s durable. Last time we fought I broke her elbow and she just shook it off like it never even happened.”
“You think I can handle it?” She asked. “I’m not the martial artist you are.”
“Personally? I think you could handle damn near anything.” I said. “But Jewel is no exception. Just stay sharp and keep your eyes on her.”
“Understood.” She said.
“Then let’s get to it.”
We stood on a rooftop looking at a peaked glass roof. Iris raised her fist to the side and looked at me, steeling her gaze. I placed the back of my fist up against hers, locking our forearms together. The window shattered as we fell into the room below, landing with our fists still together as they’d been on the rooftop.
Cloak stood at the back of the room, Dagger standing in her wake.
Iris threw a broad roundhouse kick that cracked against the back of Dagger’s skull, knocking her to the floor. Her head hit the wall as she crashed to the ground while I shot low, scythes in hand for Cloak.
In the moment she turned around, I drove the heads into her ribcage, shocking her before she could bark a command to Jewel. She hit the floor hard as I followed her down, knocking her unconscious as I slammed the back of her head into the floor.
Iris steadied herself, ready for Jewel to strike.
She didn’t move.
Iris knelt down, rolling Jewel over onto her back and looking her in the face. She slapped a few times at the black lining of the white helmet, shouting. She had to have broken her neck.
She placed her hands on Jewel’s collar, straightening her neck and waiting for her hands to light up with the healing power. Iris could still save her.
But the magic never came.
Iris stared at her hands for a moment before turning them back to the woman in white, struggling to bring her power back. She closed her eyes, prayed to God that something would happen.
Then it occurred to me.
I grabbed Iris’s shoulder, pulling her up slowly, much to her protest.
She yelled for a moment about how she had to save Jewel before it was too late as I took Jewel’s hand in mine, staring momentarily at her limp wrist.
I pulled it slowly back before twisting it to the outside. It would’ve shattered the joint on any normal woman.
The hand broke off, exposing a matrix of metal framework and wiring.
“Aperture isn’t a battle suit.” I said.
“Aperture is a robot.”
Copyright ©Josiah Delnay 2016.