“Shar- ahem, Shard?” Erin asked, her voice catching in her throat. “Have you heard about him before?”
“I haven’t,” Ian said quietly. He looked like it was taking all his willpower to keep his stomach from revolting as he glanced around the scene.
“Neither has Argus,” Hollands added. “And this doesn’t seem to fit the MO of any of the villainous telekinetics we’ve run into in the past. I think it’s safe to assume this is someone new.”
“This is horrible,” Whitney murmured to herself.
Yeah it was. But it was far from the only gruesome ways metas could kill. Burning, electrocution, suffocation…
Sometimes there weren’t bodies to find.
“Any visions, Nate?” James asked, noticing me lost in thought.
“Great,” Ian muttered under his breath, walking though the carnage towards the door with bent bars.
We were all ready to get through the sea of mangled corpses, so we didn’t waste any time following our teammate deeper into the facility. Now we were in the actual cell blocks. It took me by surprise when I noticed the cells still had occupants. I suppose I shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t like they had limitless cells to shuffle prisoners around in. People of every walk of life, some that looked human and others that were clearly metas stared at us as we went by.
I thought about how close I had been to joining them. Just one choice, just one fork in the road. Albeit when I reached the fork, my choice vanished. How strange was that? The Gold Diggers kept me out of jail only to make me their inside man.
Should I be locked up here? The thought hit me like a freight train. It wasn’t a question of whether some lawyer would say so or not, but did I deserve to be? With everything that I’d done… People could argue one way or another, but what did I think?
I didn’t know.
“This was briefly the cell of Isaiah Cooke. He was the one with the purple bubble from Chicago. He registered as a meta, flagged at birth by a blood test, though he wasn’t reported as having manifested powers. It looked like he was going to be a Sleeper, that was until he made the morning news,” James explained.
“That’s not totally common, but it happens, right?” Corey asked.
“No, but the chance of manifesting powers drops to almost zero after the age of eighteen or twenty. We have records of one or two metas older than that getting powers every year, but we’ve never recorded a meta older than forty-three manifesting. “
Ian was the first one to step into the cell and start looking around. I stole a glimpse of the drab interior from the doorway. It was pretty small; we couldn’t all fit inside it comfortably. The cell door was embedded into the rear wall of the cell, a sign of brute force. Other than that, there wasn’t anything else notable in the cramped space.
“So once this guy kicked in the door, where did he and Cooke go?” Erin asked.
“Nowhere,” James said, presenting her with a tablet. “’Shard’ or whoever this guy is had access to some advanced tech.”
We all crowded around to watch the security footage taken from the camera in the cell. The feed cut out in a blast of static once or twice before it showed Cooke practically jumping out of the way as the door few inward off its hinges. Cooke and… Shard exchanged a few words before the monster revealed something in his hand.
“What is that?” Whitney asked, straining her eyes.
“Just watch,” James shushed her.
Whatever it was exploded in a giant mass. The tar-like material enveloped Cooke, oozing up his arms and around his torso. It strangely reminded me of a video of an amoeba that I saw in my high school biology class.
“Oh my God,” Erin said as the amorphous lump began to shrink before melting into a puddle. Then the puddle pulled itself together into a small shape on the ground
“I thought you said they escaped?” Erin questioned, looking confused.
“I think they did,” I answered for James. “In Chicago, I saw the Gold Giggers escaped the Regents with goo that looked something like that.”
“So, its some kind of advanced tech?” Ian asked, leaning closer to the screen.
“If it is, it isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen,” Hollands began. “At first, we all thought it was a means of execution: a way of destroying the body, but the way that the object seemed to change in mass and shape made us suspicious. We think it was some kind of teleportation device.”
“What would make you think that?” Erin asked.
“Weight sensors,” Ian said. “I can hear them. Took me a minute to figure out what they were.”
“That’s right,” Hollands confirmed. “With numerous inmates capable of matter generation and conversion, its an important metric we monitor in all cells. If this was some way of destroying Mr. Cooke’s body, the weight would still be here. That, however, wasn’t the case. After the unidentified man entered the cell, the mass rapidly increased in junction with the expanding amorphous object, and then decreased to nearly ninety-two kilograms lighter than the initial reading after Cooke was apparently consumed.”
“So where did he go?” Corey asked.
“If we knew that, you wouldn’t be here,” Hollands remined him.
Ian looked like he was deep in thought, glancing around occasionally. “This would be the first confirmed use of teleportation tech. This is huge!”
“If that’s what it is,” Erin reminded him.
“After the attacker finished up here, he did the same thing to Cooke’s accomplice, Ricardo Morales. He was in Cell Block ‘E’ across the facility. Shard left a string of bodies, and nothing the guards threw at him seemed to really hold him back. But after Morales disappeared into the goo, ‘Shard’ simply teleported to an unknown location and hasn’t resurfaced since,” James reported
“Wait, so if he could teleport like that, why didn’t he just teleport in and out with Cooke and Morales?” Erin asked.
“Maybe he’s just a psycho,” Whitney said, still visibly shaken from having seen the bodies.
“At this point we don’t know,” James said.
“So, what do we do now?” Erin asked, looking between James and Hollands.
“Argus has alerted all of its field offices of ‘Shard’s’ appearance and a preliminary power classification. If he turns up, you’ll be the first ones to know,” Hollands said, checking his watch and pressing a button on the side to silence a notification bell. “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to keep an eye on you all any longer. ASET has hit a snag that I need to deal with. James, I want an update of the team’s movements on my desk once you’re done here. Best of luck,” he said, walking off without any further pleasantries.
“Okay, I think It’s time to turn you all loose. Is there anything else here you guys want to look at, or should we plan our next move?” James asked.
I couldn’t help but hear the Anarchist in my head. Somehow, I had to throw them off, but how?
“I think I’ve seen the transportation device that took Cooke and Morales before. Well, not me, but I’ve read it in an Argus report,” Ian said.
“Really, where?” Erin asked, looking doubtful.
“It was in a report from two weeks ago. The URH responded to a distress call from a storage facility out in the middle of Russia. It was one of those private super-secure places that are supposed to be able to keep even metas out. Anyway, the thieves were gone by the time the Union arrived. They only raided one storage unit, but they stripped the place clean. Guards and security footage reported a dark, liquid mass flooded the room, and when it receded, the room was empty. They figured it was a meta’s powers at play at first, but the power dampeners at the facility made that unlikely.”
Unlike most places that had several major teams and dozens of minor groups, Russia only had one team: The Union of Russian Heroes. It definitely wasn’t a flashy name, but the team was pretty cool, no pun intended. They had their man group set up in Moscow, and then dozens of smaller teams split up over the former Soviet Union and surrounding areas.
“The place had power dampeners? How expansive was this place?” Corey asked, voicing our mutual surprise.
Dampeners were useful tech, but they were extremely expensive, especially if you wanted to lock down a large area. It was unusual for private companies to be able to afford them and get the necessary permission. I knew DT had some in the lower floors of the building to discourage any attempted meta assaults, but still, they were one of the most profitable tech companies in the world.
“It cost an arm and a leg; not somewhere you’d use to hide something away unless you reeeally didn’t want it to go missing.”
“What was stolen?” Erin inquired, trying to keep us on track.
“It was listed as Obyek 41.”
“Obyek?” I asked, not recognizing the word despite my extremely limited Russian.
“Object, basically,” Ian replied. “I think we should check it out. We might be able to find a link, or at least figure out what Obyekt 41 is.”
“I agree. James, can you contact the Union and maybe see if they can send out one or two of the heroes who responded to the break in and see if we can ask them some questions?” Erin asked.
James lit up, “Absolutely, great plan.”
My time was running out, I needed to think of a way to slow this down. Maybe they wouldn’t find anything, but they could. Come on, think! I couldn’t believe I was doing this. Not only was I a “hero”, I was a traitor. What I did here could get people hurt. Was I just being selfish, just keeping my own family safe?
I hated myself for it, but thinking about Paul and Janet gave me an idea. I reached out to my power and psyched myself up. Drawing in a deep breath, I suddenly forced energy to form around my face, and let out a yell. I wasn’t exactly sure what I looked like when I had my visions, but neither did they.
“Nate, are you alright?” I heard someone ask. I think it was Whitney, but I wasn’t sure. Whoever it was, it felt like it drove a guilt-ridden stake through my heart. They sounded like they cared. Shit. I was going to find away out of this. Somehow.
After a few seconds I let the energy fade away, and I staggered a bit. Adam caught me and held me up; I didn’t really need him to, but damnit, why did he have to do that?
“It was a vision,” I lied. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
“What did you see?” Clyff asked, staring at me.
He knows, I thought to myself. Shit he knows. No, he couldn’t, I was just overreacting. Calm down, I chided myself.
“I saw a building, a room, an apartment. I… saw a glimpse out the window and saw Millennium Park, I think. We were in the apartment looking for things…”
I was terrible at this, but it was the only thing I could think of.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Adam asked.
“Maybe Ricardo and Morales?” I asked, looking at Erin. “They’re from Chicago, right? Maybe we could find their apartments and figure out how they were tied to Shard.”
“Do you mean we should split up?” Whitney asked.
“It’s not a bad idea, but who are we going to send where?” Erin asked.
“If I can interject, Nate knows his way around the city, and as the team’s leader, you should be the ones to coordinate with the Union,” James suggested.
“Corey and I can go with Nate, the Russian wilderness doesn’t sound all that appealing,” Whitney said.
A suspicious look quickly passed over Ian’s face, but he quickly subdued it. “Well, I was thinking I should go with Nate so we can capitalize on any more visions he has.”
“Are you serious, Ian?” Whitney said. “It was your idea to Russia, my powers don’t like the cold, and Corey is already wearing a winter coat in South Africa. We’ll take Chicago with our friendly tour guide and you can tramp through Siberia with out fearless leader and the gun nut. Alright?”
“I take offense to that,” Adam muttered.
“Fine, I suppose my talents will be better at finding useful information where we’re less likely to find any.”
“Sure.” Erin said, looking at Ian quizzically. “What about you?” She asked James.
“I’ll finish up the paperwork here and then head back to HQ to coordinate you all and offer any support you might need.”
“Once you get us transport, we’ll be on our way.”
I felt sick, and not just because we had to walk past all the dead bodies again on the way out of the prison.
The word swam through my mind every time I looked at Corey and Whitney. What if people died because the team didn’t stop Cooke and Morales? What if one of the team died? Fuck this. I wanted to scream, to come clean and tell them, but I couldn’t. I had to keep a stupid fake smile plastered on my face and pretend everything was alright.
I hardly noticed the two additional drop ships waiting for us when we made it back to the small airport near the prison, but before Whitney could drag me on, my phone buzzed in my pocket.
“Hold on, I need to take this,” I said.
“Sure, just hurry up. I wanna get out of here,” Whitney said.
I nodded and walked until I thought I was out of earshot.
“Careful, Soot. Seems like you’re wearing a bit thin.”
“What the fuck did you get me into?” I hissed into the receiver, feeling a minor amount of catharsis by being able to focus my frustration on someone.
“Hey, watch your tone, glowstick. And your mental tone; it hurts you know? It hurts my heart, Nate. Besides, it was you who got your dumb ass mixed up in all this. You could have let me use Wrath, make a small crater in the River District, but noooo.”
Something was off. Her front was still there, but her demeanor was different than it had been the other times she’d called. She was stressed.
“I am not!” She objected, clearly agitated.
“How are you still reading my mind? I’ve gone halfway around the world in less than two days.”
“That’s none of your business, I’m just keeping an eye on you. Though, I have to say, nice work with the fake vision about Chicago, you complete fucking idiot. I said throw them off, not lead them to Dumb and Dumber. And before you ask, yes, I’m talking about Cooke and Morales.”
“I’m trying! I-”
“-Try harder! We can’t have your little play pals catching on too fast.”
“Maybe I could help you better if I knew what was going on.”
“Look, I know you know something about Shard, or whatever his name is. Just give me a little information so we can get a lead.”
“What part of ‘throw them off’ don’t you understand?” She asked, sounding annoyed.
“If I don’t help on the case, you’ll lose your man on the inside, so give me something!”
The line went silent for so long I thought she’d hung up.
“No, I’m still here. I’m just weighing how much I don’t like someone. Fine, yes, the guy’s name is Shard. Edgy, I know, but he had a bit of a test-tube childhood. He was the only reason we were in Chicago. Hellequin got us the job to distract the heroes that be so some people we didn’t have direct contact with could steal him from Gencore.”
“The pharmaceutical company?”
“Biotech,” She corrected me. “They have their silicone-gloved fingers in every pie that has to do with living things. One of those fingers happens to be jammed into the illegal bio-weapon pies under the table.”
I shook my head after trying to picture her analogy took me nowhere. “So, he was from Gencore’s Chicago building?”
“Mhm. That’s all I can tell you, now hurry up, your blonde bimbo friend is getting antsy. Oh, and remember to behave, or the Butcher will make an evening snack out of your fake mommy and daddy, bye!”
With a beep, the call ended. “Come on, Nate, lets go!” Whitney shouted from the rear of the plane, waving me over.
“Coming,” I said, jogging over. I didn’t know how to process what the Anarchist said, much less how I could use it. There had to be some way to me to find a connection between Shard and Gencore, but all the ways I ran though my head seemed too suspicious. At least now I knew what direction the investigation should be headed.
What I couldn’t figure out was how Cooke and Morales fit into everything. They were just street thugs with powers, nowhere near the level of the Gold Diggers or Shard, apparently. Someone had gone to great lengths to break them out of prison, but why? They weren’t that powerful, and on top of that, their powers weren’t even extremely unique.
“Sooo,” Whitney began as I walked up the loading ramp and made my way to a seat across from her and Corey.
“Who were you talking to?” Whitney asked, a cheeky smile on her face. “Your girlfriend?”
I felt my face flush, not that the idea itself was all that embarrassing, but her tone and smile combined with the truth made me really uncomfortable all of a sudden.
“No, it was my- sister,” I lied, trying to strap myself in as quickly as possible without being suspicious.
Whitney jabbed Corey in the ribs as the winged boy rolled his eyes. “See, I told you,” She laughed as Corey looked uncomfortable too.
“Fine, you win,” He said with a grin, fishing a small wad of money from his pocket. Whitney snatched it away and quickly counted it before putting it in her own pocket.
“You took bets on me?” I asked.
“Yeah, hope you don’t mind,” Whitney said, strapping herself in. “You’re just new and this is going to be a long flight. We want to know more about you, and this is the perfect opportunity, so I hope you’re ready to play lots of icebreaking games.”
“Can’t wait,” I lied again…