Four soldiers stood in grey digital camouflage with black ballistic armor, low construction lights over the late night at the diamond district tower project where the mercenaries had built the watchtower. They gathered at the edge of the project, looking over the city as one of them lit a cigarette, casually talking amongst each other.
“So… We’re seriously supposed to fight — Azrael?” One asked.
“That doesn’t concern you?”
“Why should it?”
“You haven’t heard?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about him.”
“You’re not worried?”
“Nah. Not like any of it’s true.”
“Can’t be, man. No way one guy can do that. The way I figure, it’s a bunch of kids with baseball bats or something beating people up for shits and giggles.”
“Nah, man. I was on leave in New Avalon for a few months before my last tour, and one of my buddies got drunk one night and got into it with some homeless guy… Found him at the hospital the next day with three different tubes in his face.”
“Yeah, man. Bunch of asshole kids against a drunk Marine? Doesn’t sound like any kind of fight to me.”
“I don’t know. I’ve heard some rough stuff.”
A third walked into the conversation from behind. “I heard he’s hardly even a person.”
“The hell does that mean?”
“One of my buddies did some security work for Kingston steel a while ago and saw him. Said he was like a phantom or something.”
“I’ve heard that.”
“I’ve heard he floats like a ghost and he can go through walls.”
“My brother said he’s like a cloud… Like a shadow or something.”
“I heard he’s eight feet tall.”
“That can’t be possible.”
“He hospitalized something like fifty people at the taxi company a few weeks ago.”
“I heard he can control people’s minds.”
“Yeah, and I bet he’s part vampire and he can fly and walk through nightmares! Come on, guys. I’m tellin’ ya. Maybe one guy at the top, but it’s just a buncha kids in leather jackets trying to get out the teenage angst. He’s nothing.”
The others fell silent.
“Besides, even if he was real, there ain’t even gonna be a fight. Manacle’s the best there is. When I worked with him in the corps, man, that guy could’ve won the war by himself, without all the fancy robot crap they gave him.”
“If you say so, man.” He replied. “But I’m keeping my safety off.”
“I heard you can’t shoot him. Like bullets just go straight throu-”
“Shut up, dummy.” He turned to look out over the edge of the city. “Easy money, then this city’s ours. Take whatever we want, nice and simple.”
The lights went out.
The mercenaries echoed in confusion for a few moments.
The lighting struck as a soldier disappeared.
“What the hell?”
“Not in Bastion.”
A sheet of plywood leaning against the construction scaffolding split as a second one was behind it.
One of them was pulled over the edge.
“Not in my chapel.”
“Woah, woah woah woah!”
“Not in this house of God.”
“Never in this holy place.”
Michael drifted through the opening in the side of the scaffolds, setting down gently on the floor. “It really is a pleasure watching you work.” He said.
“As much as it’s a pleasure watching you not?” I shot back.
“Figured you could handle this one.” He said.
I opened the security console and began going through the records.
“They don’t really believe that stuff about you, do they?”
“They believe whatever it takes for me to make sense to them.” I said.
“But eight feet tall? A ghost?” He said.
“Not all the rumors are entirely wrong.” I smiled.
“But do you think it’s good for them to think that way?”
“I do what it takes. They fill in the blanks.” I said. “Good people here don’t need to know who I am, and with the bad ones, it’s better that they don’t know for sure. Keeps me frightening.”
“They’re superstitious people. I’m not a person to them, I’m a fear.” I said. “One that makes them second guess everything they do to hurt this city.”
“If you say so.” He said. “Anything interesting?”
“Comms data that could be useful for David’s jammer.” I said. “Another few watchtower and dispatch stations to take down.”
“We need something better.” He said.
“You’re right.” I said. “Whaddaya got, Captain?”
“Taking down Manacle’s comms towers is one of the most important steps, but until David Fadi finishes his jammer tech, our time might be better spent elsewhere.” He said. “If we’re going to make progress, we need to hit Manacle where he lives.”
“Anything in mind?”
“Maybe it’s time to get a little less Azrael the Great and Terrible,” He smiled “and a little more Captain Michael Ford, Special Weapons and Tactics.”
“God, I’m not sure I want to know what that means.”
Vivian’s finest pearls remained around her neck. It had been a very successful few days, and this one would be no different. Not since Valentine’s Day.
With a newfound air of confidence, she threw open the door, emerging gracefully into the conference room amidst her council of peers. A series of well-manicured women lined either side of the table, waiting with intent at the prospects of Vivian’s sudden beckon, a call that would be out-of-character for someone who wasn’t the leader of the organization.
Little that they knew.
Vivian folded her arms behind her back. “Good evening, ladies.”
Scarlett stood up, concern splashed across her face before Vivian gestured to put her back in her place. Vivian had made her known of Mallory’s mysterious whereabouts in minimal detail, bolstering the message she’d prepared to deliver.
“You’ll excuse the lack of propriety” She said “but this is a fairly significant matter.
“Two nights ago, I unfortunately fell out of contact with Madame Mallory Malveaux.” She said. “After this long a period in my mother’s disappearance, I must begrudgingly take up the reigns until we relocate her. That said, you’ll know that I am doing everything in my power to find her again. Until then, I will remain the acting head of operations in accordance with the second contract of Mallory’s contingency outliner, and as such, in the stead of my temporary change of position, Miss Clarke shall shoulder all my former duties to this organization.”
She rolled her shoulders. “All that in mind, I’ll be doing some immediately effective reassignments.
“We believe that my mother’s disappearance may have come in connection with the recent targeting of our organization by the vigilante known as Azrael. Given both of these factors, I’ve elected to do what my mother would not in circumstance dire as these, and several of you shall be promptly reassigned under Miss Clarke’s task force to find Mallory,
“Everything else will be covered in the upcoming briefings with myself, Miss Clarke, and Miss Toussaint.” She said. “I trust we won’t have any… further complications.”
The women of the organization talked among each other upon Vivian’s conclusion of the meeting as she quietly withdrew to the office down the hall. She placed both her hands on the solid oak desk and smiled, canines glinting as she stifled a laugh.
There was a knock on the oak door behind her as she straightened her expression. “Come in.”
A beautiful red-headed woman in a crimson dress stepped through. “You mind?”
Scarlett stepped in. “How are you?”
Vivian sighed, preparing to say something without knowing what.
Scarlett put her arms around Vivian softly. “I get that this can’t be easy for you, but if anybody can bring this place together, it’d be you.” She said. “Mallory would be more than right to choose you.”
Vivian closed her eyes. “Thank you, Scarlett.” She said. “But I’m sure you’d do us even more proud. Couture could be a magnificent organization with you at the reins.”
“Well I’ll be here for whatever you need in the meantime.” She said. “I’ll have all my assignments put up until Mallory comes back.”
“Thank you for all your help, Scarlett.” Vivian said. “I’m lucky to have a friend like you.”
“So am I.” She said. “I’ll be down at the shop with an extra glass if you need.”
“That sounds nice.” She said. “I’ll have a word with Zoe and be right down.”
“Sure thing.” She said. “Take it easy, sweetie.”
Zoe stepped in after her. “That went well.” She said. “The agents are rallying behind you for support.”
“That means it’s already started.” She said. “The transition will be a lot easier this way.”
“My transition into power.” She said.
“When we tell them that Mallory isn’t coming back.”
“Do you think it’ll work?”
“Odds are.” I said quietly into my cell phone. “Michael literally does stuff like this for a living.”
“Well.” Iris said. “Maybe not this exactly.”
“In case you forgot, we do this kind of stuff a lot.”I said.
“I guess we do have some experience.” She said. “Are you sure you’re alright without my help?”
“Keep running interference and finding us more points of interest.” I said. “The more info we have on Manacle’s forces, the harder we can push back.”
“Aye aye, captain.” She said.
I laughed. “I’m the wrong one to say that to.”
“I guess you’re right.” She said. “How’s handsome work?”
“Just fine for me, pretty bird.”
“I’ll see you in a bit, hero.”
“See you soon, gorgeous.”
I hung up the phone and rounded the corner to find Michael waiting at the side of the alley. “Anytime you’re ready, Casanova.” He said.
“Like you and Chrissy are any better.” I said. “Let’s get to it.”
“According to the work we’ve done so far, Manacle should have a transport coming through this way any minute now.” He said. “You know how the rest goes.”
“Got it.” I said. I opened the weapons case I brought, folding out a crossbow and loading up the tracer bolt.
We waited a few minutes longer before the transport truck came around the street corner.
The soldiers in the vehicle sat in silence as it rolled down the street.
“You know, I’m not really into these things.” One said, indicating the mask he wore over his head.
“It’s called a balaclava, dumbass.” Another replied. “And haven’t you been a merc for like, six years?”
“Yeah, I just haven’t really worn one before.”
A third one scoffed. “Well maybe you guys can get some that match your purses.”
“Just saying, man.” He said. “Seems like everybody in this business has one.”
They heard a small thud.
“You hear that?”
“Probably just a bump or something.”
“If you say so man.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Why can’t we wear cool masks like Manacle?”
“Just shut up, man.”
The van rolled into the garage at Manacle’s improvised dispatch station, the four soldiers in the back hopping off the gate and into the facility.
There were two vehicle maintenance pits at the front of the facility, an open concrete space behind it amidst steel pillars with about five soldiers in the area. The group of new arrivals went into the room at the back, a windowed office with a large computer sitting at the back.
Michael drew a pair of pistols, spinning them in his hands as a series of steel curves folded out from the grips, coming together to form a composite bow. He set an ammunition cartridge into a slot on the underside of his forearms, a telescopic arrow extending into his hand as he nocked the arrow on the transparent blue string.
He made a few gestures accompanied by codewords to express our plan of attack as I nodded in agreement.
Time to move.
He fired an arrow and reloaded the bow in a mere microsecond as the second round extended into place as he drew back the string. The two arrows fired a set of steel cables, the first moving a steel tool chest to block the window and the view of the soldiers behind it, the second arrow holding the door closed to isolate the two areas. I came momentarily into the view of the five men in the main room as I threw a smokebomb, the cloud filling the front part of the room as they fired into the haze.
The glass to the computer room shattered as it filled with smoke when I made my way in, fighting back the four men sealed in the second room.
The smoke in the main room faded the five soldiers reloaded their rifles, a shining blue shield appearing out of the haze. They stared for a moment in awe of the shielded figure, blue fabric fluttering as he floated just off the ground. The shield flew forward into one of them, ricocheting to the one across from him as Michael shot forward through the air. He peeled into the first one, instantly incapacitating his target as he doubled back for the next. One of them dared to throw a punch, a decision he’d regret as Michael twisted their arms together, pulling the force out of the hit and placing his pistol in front of the kneeling man’s face. He fired off a round, using the flash and the noise of the shot to halt his senses as the recoil sent the pistol flying into the bridge of his nose.
Michael pulled one of them up by his collar, tossing him up with one hand and immediately sending it into his gut, knocking him breathless into the corner.
He turned to face the last soldier, a man who leveled a shotgun from his shaky position on the floor.
Michael pressed a button on the hilt of his sheathed sword, using the folding curve of the shield to cause it to jump into the air, absorbing the shotgun blast and sending it back toward him. He kicked it hard out of the air, sending the broad end flying hard into the gunman to render him unconscious.
From the moment the glass shattered the four soldiers in the computer room saw their fate. I shot under the legs of the first, knocking him face first into the floor as I threw a punch back up toward the one behind him, striking him multiple times to pound him into the wall. I pulled the floored one from behind and struck him into the ground, firing into the third and fourth to break the first aggressor’s arm, flipping him back against the wall before finishing the final one as the smoke cleared.
I kicked the door open to view Michael’s expert handiwork. “Nice work.” I said.
“You too.” He replied. “What’s next?”
I gestured to lead him into the computer room. “This is what we want.”
I pulled the tablet out of my jacket and plugged it into the computer, sequencing the password to unlock the machine.
“What’s this?” He asked.
“A fairly basic lockup disarm function and a cryptograph sequencer that randomizes codes to get through passwords.” I said. “Carolynn helped me build it.”
“Well, some of those are words.” He said. “What have we got?”
I did my best to navigate the interface. “I don’t have a lot of experience with new military hardware, but I can probably find some rout tracking information in here.”
“So we can use the troop routing information to find the points of concentration like watchtowers, dispatch stations.”
“Base of operations.” I said. “Exactly.”
I pulled up the map of the soldier transport data. The geography of the city appeared in green, red dots appearing across the screen to represent troop routing and personnel concentrations.
The screen lit up in red.
“My god.” I said. “There’s… I didn’t expect this many.”
“They’re everywhere.” He said.
“There’s no way we can take down that many. Look at them.” I said. “The police department, the stations…”
“There’s too many for us to take them all down individually.” He said. “They have enough troops to lock down this whole city. It’d take more months and people than we have to stop this, plus the fact that they’re indistinguishable from the real police wouldn’t mean good things for you, me, or Iris. We need something else.”
“You got any ideas?”
He put a hand on his chin, gazing into the monitor. “Wars aren’t won with weapons or numbers, it’s about the soldiers. Psychology is the greatest weapon there is.” He said. “My guard is made up of some of the most skilled soldiers I’ve worked with, but their reputation makes them near invincible.”
“You said it yourself. The good people don’t need to know you, but the bad ones fear the worst.” He said. “If we can’t fight them out of the city, we’ll have to do what you do best.
“You’ll have to scare them out.”
I smiled. “So what’s next?”
“You have to do this yourself. Manacle’s soldiers aren’t going to fear me the same way, and even if they did, this is your city.” He said. “You have to give the soldiers a reason to leave.”
“Manacle.” I said.
“Exactly.” He said, pointing to a concentration of red points in the center of the monitor. “Right here.”
I looked at the map, a hotel in the diamond district. “The Sterling.”
“Makes sense that he’d pick the hotel. Central location, ideal data connectivity, and the penthouse suite would be a great location for command.”
“Then we hit them there.” I said.
“Right.” He said.
“And I have just the plan.”
Copyright © Josiah Delnay 2016.