A new threat has arisen in New Amsterdam: transhuman gangs are taking over the streets and one in particular is carrying out increasingly brutal attacks against their rivals. A powerful transhuman leads them, but he isn’t the only newcomer to the city and Captain Paragon will have to contend with not only this new enemy, but also an unlikely ally in his quest to restore order to Columbia’s greatest city.
‘The Huntress’ continues the twisted superhero tale of Captain Paragon.
She crouched low in the sparse undergrowth, using the dark eaves of the fir trees as cover as she peered out across the track that cut through the forest. The snow was two feet deep and more was drifting slowly from the leaden grey sky. Her breath steamed in the brittle, freezing air. She saw him labouring through the drifts. In summer, the track was well-used, beaten so hard it was as good a driving surface as a highway, but at this time of year, long after the rain had turned it to churned mud and the frost had frozen it hard into a jagged ruin and now winter had buried it under a blanket of crisp white snow, it was a torturous course. But better than trying to scramble through the forest when a hunter was on your trail. Her quarry glanced over his shoulder as he nearly fell again and then pulled his coat closer around him. He wasn’t dressed for the weather. Oh, he thought he was: his jacket was thick and he wore gloves, but that wasn’t enough. He wasn’t from here. He didn’t know.
She ghosted through the trees, treading lightly across the snow, picking her route carefully. She never took her eyes off him, although she barely needed to watch him. He breathed heavily and, of course, she could smell him. His fear was a distinct taste on the air, a rich, metallic aroma. She moved to the edge of the treeline.
She was so close now, she was sure he must be aware of her. They could sense each other of course, in a fundamental way neither of them really understood. If she was to stand next to an ordinary human, he’d be able to pick her out every time, and vice versa. It was nothing any transhuman she’d met could ever articulate, but it was there: a kinship, an odd sense of belonging. Which was not to say he could tell she was sneaking up on him. Rather, if he did hear her, he’d know what she was. It wasn’t a problem. He’d have to find out sooner or later.
He whirled around, holding his hands out to either side of him. He was a tall, muscular man with a shaved head and an ugly web of scars across one side of his face. He bared his teeth. “I know you’re there!” he called out. His breath steamed. She could hear how laboured his breathing was, the toll the sub-zero temperatures were taking.
She stepped out. To him, she must not have looked much of a threat. A short woman, pale, with long brown hair tied back simply, freckled skin and luminous green eyes. She held her hands out too, but in her case it was to show she carried no weapons. “I have no quarrel with you,” she told him.
They were maybe twenty yards apart. He relaxed his stance slightly, but his hands didn’t move. She wasn’t precisely sure what he was capable of, but she had no illusions that he was unarmed. “You,” he said.
She tilted her head as she walked slowly towards him, pushing through the thick snow. “You know me?”
“He said you’d come.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Who did?”
He smiled. His teeth were yellow and crooked. “Don’t play dumb with me, bitch. I know who you are. You’re hunting him.”
“I am,” she admitted. “So why don’t you make things easy for yourself?”
That made him laugh: a hollow, cheerless sound, deadened by the falling snow, by the dark trees looming up on either side. “I don’t care about your games, girl. I know you’ve been following me.”
“I have no quarrel with you. Tell me where to find Fenris.”
“I have no idea where he is. Sorry.”
“You worked with him.”
“So did a lot of people. You think he told me all his plans?”
Less than fifteen yards now. “I just need a direction.”
He snorted. She was close enough to see how he was shivering now, but he was putting on a good show. She’d give him that. “Some huntress you are…”
Ten yards. “Tell me. We’ve got no need to fight.”
“You think I’m scared of you, little lady?”
“I don’t care if you’re scared or not.”
“Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with?” His smile looked confident enough, but she was close enough to smell what he was really feeling now. There was a hard knot of panic there, buried under the layers of bravado. He was cold, and tired, and he wanted to go home. She couldn’t help him.
“Do you?” she asked. Five yards and, as he clenched his fists and she felt a surge of power within him, she reached into her jacket and pulled out two long knives. As the ground erupted around her and snow billowed into the air, she darted towards him and left two long, bloody gashes across his chest. She danced back, ducking a ball of telekinetic force that appeared as rippling distortion hurtling through the falling snowflakes.
He stumbled away, tugging at his ruined shirt. “Fenris is long gone,” he spat at her.
“I know. That’s why I’m talking to you.” She was crouched again, ready to strike, her bloodied knives held out, leaving dark red spots on the perfect white snowfall as they dripped slowly.
“You must know you’re no match for me,” he said, dabbing at one of the cuts she’d left across his torso, “we can both tell that. You’re natural, like him. I’m enhanced.” He tapped a gloved finger against the side of his head. “My T-organ is more developed than yours.”
“Then why are you the one bleeding?”
He laughed again as they circled each other. His fingers twitched. She could feel his power growing inside him, feel how it taxed his already depleted resources. He might indeed have been more powerful in a physiological sense, but he was out of his element, and had driven himself to the point of collapse. She licked her lips, tasting the cold air, getting a fix on his emotional state. He was desperate. He knew he only had enough for one more show of force, then they’d be on equal terms, grappling like ordinary humans. And while he might have been bigger, she was better armed, and he was so, so tired. “This doesn’t have to go any further,” he said.
“I agree. Tell me where he went.”
She met his dark eyes challengingly. Even without her abilities, that would have told her enough. “I can’t do that,” he said.
“Because you still think he’s scarier than me? He’s close then? Close enough to still hurt you?”
“New Amsterdam!” he screamed at her. “For all the fucking good it’ll do you!” He threw his arms out and clenched his fists. She could see every muscle in his body tense, see the veins on his neck stand out as his eyes bulged and he threw every ounce of power he had into one desperate hammer blow of psychic force. The invisible ball struck her directly in the chest and she was thrown onto her back, landing heavily in the wet snow. The breath was driven from her lungs and, for a moment, she was totally helpless. She’d dropped her knives. It took her a few seconds to crawl up to her knees and, when she did, she saw he was down too. A trickle of blood was coming from his nose, and another from one ear. He scrunched his eyes closed and shook his head, like he was trying to clear the world’s worst migraine. “I…just…want…to…get…warm…” he said to her through gritted teeth. There was a faint noise in the distance, and they both looked up, their eyes scanning the treeline. It came again. A wolf’s howl. Then another. “You hear that?” he asked as he dragged himself up to his feet. “I guess he left some friends behind.”
“Why did he go to New Amsterdam?” she demanded as she slowly stood up too.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “this is over.” Grey shapes began to emerge from the trees, closing in around them. He stepped backwards on unsteady legs. His whole scent had changed. The fear was gone. Now he was confident. Cocky. “I wish I could pay you back for this,” he said, gesturing to his bloodied chest, “but I guess Fenris has other plans.”
The snow was still falling as the wolves moved in. They formed a circle around the two of them, then came to a halt. They bared their fangs and pawed at the ground. They could be patient, but only for a little while longer. She could smell their emotions better than his. Wolves were simpler: they were hungry. They could smell blood. It would soon be time. “One last chance,” she whispered. He could hear her well enough.
“You’d better start running, bitch.”
“Is that what you think is going to happen here?”
His eyes narrowed slightly, and then he seemed to notice the subtle shift in their footing. The wolves weren’t looking at her: they were looking at him. And she knew he’d suddenly realised that this wasn’t the pack he thought it was. The self-assurance melted away instantly, replaced with a new terror. A moment of understanding passed between them, a kind of acknowledgement, and then he spun around and bolted away down the track. He stumbled in the snow for a second, but then he was away, sprinting as fast as his transhuman constitution and the treacherous footing would allow. The wolves were after him in an instant. For the first fifty yards or so, he was faster, his unnaturally powerful limbs and his blind panic pushing him forward to new feats of physical prowess, but he couldn’t sustain it. After twenty more yards, she could sense his last reserves of energy failing, his will to run sapping. The wolves felt it too, in a way that was different but also hauntingly similar, and began to gain on their prey.
She stood tall, shrugged off her jacket and reached behind her, taking out the folded frame of metal and wire that, with a jerk of her arm, snapped open into a compound bow. She pulled an arrow from the quiver on her back and set it to the rest. He must be eighty yards away now, with the pack gaining on him fast. She squinted through the falling snow, then raised the bow and drew the string back to her cheek.
My kill, she sent to the wolves.
She released, and the arrow was launched through the air, flying straight and true, to take her quarry through the neck with a spray of blood. He pirouetted jerkily as the force of the shot spun him around, then collapsed wretchedly into the snow. She could smell the blood pulsing from the fatal wound, and then felt the stink of his terror fade once and for all. The wolf pack had stopped before the corpse, and now they prowled impatiently around it. She had made the kill. He should be hers.
They didn’t need to be told twice. The wolves set upon his body, tearing him to shreds in a bloodthirsty orgy of hot, red glory. She turned aside, holding a hand to her stomach. Part of her wanted to give in. It got harder each time to resist the urge to slake the thirst of the beast within. But she had to be strong. She folded her bow back up and hooked it into her belt, then bent down to pick up her fallen knives. The blood glistened on the blades and, for just a moment, she wanted nothing more than to lick them clean and taste the rich, metallic tang of it. But she didn’t. She just looked up at the darkening sky, shutting out the sights, the sounds and, above all, the smells of her pack’s frenzied meal and thought about her next move.
New Amsterdam. Across the border. That’s where Fenris had gone. And she would find him, because she was Freyja. The Huntress.
Goodman looked out at the city through the blacked-out windows as their car inched imperceptibly forward in the horrendous traffic. It seemed to have changed a lot in the last twelve years or so and yet, in many ways, it was exactly the same. She hadn’t been here since the transhuman attack, and then only briefly, to investigate and advise, to help them find out who did it. Red Dragon was dead now but the world still seemed a scarier place than it ever had been. This was a city that had joined the likes of Hiroshima, Kyoto and Leningrad in witnessing the full horror of an attack by the creatures that now lurked invisibly amongst humanity. Such an event changes people.
“Sorry about the traffic, Ms Goodman,” Colonel Black said. He was peering out of the window on his side too, but he looked more agitated than she did. She didn’t know him well, but he seemed an impatient man.
“It’s fine. I’m enjoying seeing some of New Amsterdam.”
“We aren’t here to sightsee…” he murmured, almost to himself.
She overlooked his rudeness. It wasn’t worth the time and effort to spar with boys. She was probably twice his age, although she didn’t look it, and she could literally crush him like a bug if she wanted. It was hard sometimes not to think of humanity’s struggles as somehow…insignificant. Goodman often worried about her transhumanism setting her apart. One question no one had managed to answer yet was how long she might live. She was of the first generation of transhumans, and though many of her peers had been killed in battle or, like Steven, eventually succumbed to certain side-effects of the T-event, it wasn’t clear whether old age might take them. Certainly she didn’t feel old but then, what did that feel like anyway? But if immortality turned out to be another transhuman trait…
“Finally,” Black said as the traffic shifted and they began to move forward. Their destination was only a few blocks away and she’d have been quite happy to walk if their visit wasn’t a closely-guarded secret. She settled back in the seat and composed her thoughts ahead of the meeting.
Less than ten minutes later they were being shown into a large, well-furnished office. Panes of glass covering most of one wall gave a beautiful view of New Amsterdam. It was a cold, cloudy day, but that did nothing to diminish the splendour of Columbia’s greatest city. As they walked into the room, the man behind the desk stood up and walked around it to greet them. He was middle-aged, white, greying at the temples, but with a solid physique and a firmness about his manner that inspired confidence. Goodman found herself liking him immediately, and she had to remind herself that he was a politician and therefore not to be trusted. “Ms Goodman,” he said, coming to her first and shaking her firmly by the hand.
“Mr Boer,” she said, inclining her head slightly.
“And Colonel Black, I assume.” He shook the officer’s hand too. “Such a pleasure to meet you both. Please, sit.” There were two comfortable leather armchairs set out in front of the desk and they did as he asked. “Can I get you coffee? Tea? Anything at all?”
“I’m afraid there probably won’t be time for that, Mr Mayor,” Black answered shortly, “we have to return to our facility as soon as possible.”
“Of course. But you don’t know what I’m going to ask yet…”
Goodman smiled slightly. Lance Boer, the mayor of New Amsterdam, had asked for this meeting. Not with them specifically – the details of those working in the facility were strictly classified – but for some representatives of Project Paragon to talk over a proposal with him. And they knew exactly what that proposal would be. “Mr Boer,” she said, “let’s not dance around the subject. Unless you want an autograph from Captain Paragon for your son, there’s only one reason we might be here.”
“I have two daughters actually,” Boer said, “but all right. Three months ago, your man did some impressive work in my city. Any kind of situation involving transhumans makes people touchy, and the fact that Iron Hand was dealt with so swiftly and efficiently went a long way to assuring New Amsterdam that there won’t be a repeat of the events of twelve years ago.”
“Captain Paragon was designed for the specific purpose of combating transhuman threats both overseas and domestically,” Black said, “and his performance was indeed exemplary. Despite the tragic but unavoidable loss of life, we believe he exceeded all expectations.”
Goodman held her tongue. She had her own issues with the events surrounding Iron Hand’s attack and the way Paragon had dealt with it, but now wasn’t the time. “We’re also aware of the growing situation on the streets here,” she told Boer.
“I’m glad. At the time, the White House told me Iron Hand was an isolated incident. Now…it seems that was wrong…”
Black smiled tightly. “There’s still no evidence transhumans are behind the recent spate of crimes.”
“No hard evidence, but plenty of witness reports of people with strange abilities leading these gangs that are turning my city into a warzone.”
“The Tank has weaponry specifically designed to…” Goodman began.
“You want me to deploy armoured vehicles on the street, Ms Goodman?” His friendly facade dropped as he spoke, and she saw the tension in his eyes, the many sleepless nights building up and taking their gradual toll. “You want the people of New Amsterdam to see armed soldiers marching through the streets, going block to block, fighting these things with weaponry they can’t even understand?”
“They’re not things,” Goodman said pointedly, “they’re people. Criminals, maybe, but still people.”
“I’m sorry,” the mayor said, “but I’m only giving you a taste of the mood of the city right now. The perception is that the NAPD has lost control, and I’m not willing to declare martial law.”
“What do you think deploying Captain Paragon would be?” Black asked in a quiet voice. His fingers were steepled before him and he was giving Boer a hard, searching look.
“Captain Paragon is a…a…”
“Weapon,” Black finished off. “A piece of military technology, property of the federal government. Unleashing him on New Amsterdam is no different from sending in the Tank’s units.”
“But he is one man,” Boer pointed out, “and people have latched on to what he represents. They remember the President’s address last year, they see the news reports from the Middle-East. And above all that, they saw him fight and kill Iron Hand before he could destroy their city. New Amsterdam needs a hero. You want him to counter the transhuman threat? Forget the insurgents on the other side of the planet – the threat is here.”
“Transhumans in Columbia are licensed, Mr Mayor,” Black said, his tone growing a little short, “I hope I don’t have to remind you that the government already has a policy for dealing with these kinds of situations, and we will not countenance the deployment of a transhuman deterrent in amongst a civilian population to deal with something that the legislation should be handling. If your police officers are having trouble enforcing the registration laws…”
“Registration is meaningless,” Boer said, slamming his fist down on the desk. “According to the database, there are two-hundred thousand registered transhumans in the metropolitan area, but the police are telling me over and over that that is a gross underestimate of the true number. They’re flocking here from all over, colonel, in their thousands, and no one is monitoring them. The legislation isn’t working.”
“I think you’re overreacting,” Black insisted, “transhuman registration is robust and…”
“It isn’t,” Goodman said. She let both men fall silent as they turned to look at her. “Sorry, but I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. The registrations don’t work.”
“Maybe we should talk about this another time?” Black said to her with a significant look.
“I don’t think so, colonel.” She turned back to Boer. “It’s just simple mathematics. When the T-event happened around eighty years ago, it affected millions. A few died immediately or soon after. An even smaller number were transformed overnight into transhumans – I was one such. But the vast majority of those irradiated seemed unaffected. What we didn’t discover until years later of course was that all of these individuals carried in their mutated DNA the potential for the creation of a new generation of transhumans. It was still a relative minority of offspring, but some of the children of those affected began to develop T-organs as they reached adolescence.”
“That’s precisely why mandatory registration was introduced,” Black said impatiently.
“I know. But what about the children who didn’t become transhumans themselves but still carried the mutation? We’re now three generations from the T-event, and we’re finding more and more descendants of those originally exposed are mutating too. We have no numbers for how many of these there might be. A fourth generation is just being born now. What of them? It seems likely that they would need several people carrying the mutation in their ancestry for them to become full transhumans, but who knows? This trait isn’t going away, gentlemen, and we can’t register everyone – there’s no way to detect a transhuman before their T-organ develops. And not every country has legislation as robust as ours. The T-event affected all nations indiscriminately, or I never would have had to hunt down Iron Cross. People are coming from abroad, people who carry the potential to bear transhuman offspring. They come to Columbia, they mingle with our population – with others who have the mutation – and more and more transhumans spring up like daisies. We long assumed that because later transhumans were less powerful than the first generation the trait would eventually simply breed itself out, but what if an individual’s entire lineage carries the mutation? Why should they be any less powerful? What of isolated communities, far from the eyes of the federal government? What happens when their sons and daughters begin flying or moving furniture around the room with their minds?”
Black looked uncomfortable, Boer thoughtful. “You see the dilemma then,” the mayor said.
“Even so…” Black said.
“My recommendation is that Paragon be deployed in New Amsterdam,” Goodman said.
“What? We agreed that…”
“We agreed nothing,” she snapped. “I know what the official decision regarding this is. I’m advising a different option.”
“If we start using Paragon whenever a gang of transhuman thugs starts causing havoc, where does it end?”
“Where indeed?” she asked him with an arched eyebrow. “This isn’t a threat you can contain, colonel. Except with another transhuman. The genie is out of the bottle. Either Paragon serves his purpose or we should abandon this project right now. Or was it not the intention that he be the first of many?”
The mayor raised his eyebrows at that and Black gave him the most calming smile he could manage. “Ms Goodman, I think maybe we ought to talk outside.”
“I think we’ve had enough talking.” She stood up and smoothed her skirt, then held out a hand. The pen on the mayor’s desk flew across the intervening space and she flicked open the binder in her other hand and quickly scribbled something on the page of her notebook. “For your daughters, Mr Boer. An autograph. I’m not sure if this generation still remembers Columbian Woman, but maybe they could Google me? I patrolled these streets once, when the War was done, and I like to think I left behind a safer city. At least for a while.” She ripped off the sheet of paper, left it on the chair and walked out of the office briskly.
Officer Holman approached the taped off crime-scene with a feeling of glum resignation. Sergeant Hendricks was already there waiting for him with the same expression on his face. Together, they silently surveyed the carnage. There were three of them, all torn to shreds like they’d been attacked by a wild beast. They were barely recognisable, so wanton was the bloodshed. They looked like ordinary street thugs though – maybe rivals of whoever did this – but this wasn’t like any gangland violence Holman had seen before. At least, not before these past months. “What do you make of that, sergeant?” he asked Hendricks, pointing at the graffiti on the wall of the alleyway above where the slaughter had taken place. It was a crude, black daubing of what looked like a wolf’s head. The paint was still running down the brickwork.
“Beats me, but it’s been showing up a lot lately, always at scenes like this.”
Holman nodded thoughtfully. He looked down at the bodies. It was hard, but he liked to think he’d seen some things since joining the NAPD, not that it ever got much easier. It actually almost helped that they’d been ripped apart like this – he could pretend they hadn’t once been people. He pointed. “Is that the same?”
Hendricks frowned. “What about their hands?”
“They’re missing. Each body has its right hand missing.”
“That isn’t the only thing they’ve got missing,” the sergeant grunted.
“No, but it’s the only thing they all have missing.”
Hendricks scratched his forehead and sighed. “I guess homicide will look into it.”
Holman looked around. “Where are they anyway?”
“Busy dealing with the rest of the murders in this city. I tell you, kid, this whole place is going to shit.”
Holman found it hard to disagree as he looked down at the butchered bodies. There was blood everywhere. Whoever had done this was more animal than man, and it was hard to disagree with his sergeant’s pessimistic assessment. “Are they…you know…”
“A specialist team’s on the way,” Hendricks said, “but if these killings are related to the others with that mark on the wall, they’ll all be freaks all right.”
“Who could do something like this to three transhumans?”
“Only another one of the bastards.” Hendricks spat reflexively. “It boils me up, seeing this, but at least they’re doing it to their own. If you ask me, them slaughtering each other in the streets is the answer to all our problems. The sooner they all kill each other, the better.”
Holman didn’t agree with that, and he was about to offer a counter-point when a loud noise like a sudden expulsion of air followed by a dull impact and a sound like concrete cracking came from behind them. They both turned around slowly.
“You may get your wish, sergeant,” Captain Paragon told them as he rose to his feet from the shallow impact blast his landing had created. He strode towards the crime scene and looked dispassionately at the bloody mess. “Do you have any leads, officers?”
“Uh…well, we really just got here…” Hendricks said. “Homicide should be on the way soon, and…”
“Time is of the essence,” Paragon said, cutting him off in a way that brooked no argument at all. “I will be assisting your department in its investigations of the transhuman gangs currently at large.”
“Assisting…?” Holman said, exchanging a glance with the sergeant. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“It means,” Paragon said, looking down at the three ruined bodies and slowly clenching his fists, “that I will hunt down whoever did this and bring them to justice.”
Holman didn’t press him for what he meant by ‘justice’. He thought he probably knew already.
Freyja had never been to a city before, and so far she disliked the experience intensely. She shoved in the last mouthful of the grey, unappetising burger in its sweet, stodgy bread that she’d bought and then wondered what to do with the greasy paper that was left over. On her first day in New Amsterdam, the ubiquitous littering had horrified her, but then she’d realised that if people threw the trash away it would just get taken away to somewhere nice and dumped there, to befoul another part of the world. It was actually better to just leave it here in the existing cesspool. She held the paper up and let a gust of cold wind take it from her fingers to flutter away and join the rest. She sat on the edge of a tall building, her legs dangling over a fall of maybe fifty feet. She’d been higher lots of times. It didn’t really bother her. What bothered her was everything else: it was a shock to the system coming to a place like this. The smell was the worst part. An all-pervading reek of petrol fumes, sewage, garbage and humans. There were so many people that it was like a constant shouting match in her head trying to sort out all their different scents. They mostly stank of soap and sweat, but powerful emotions like anger, fear, occasional joy and, beneath it all, a constant sense of low-level frustration and ennui that seemed to underpin all their lives. It was profoundly depressing. If they drove for an hour, they’d be out of this concrete labyrinth, but she guessed they’d probably find mountains and forests as uncomfortable as she found this place.
She stood up. “It’s not for long,” she told herself. She was having to get used to that too. Out in the wild, she always had her pack close by to communicate with. Not that they were much for conversation, but a wolf’s simple worldview was always a refreshing counterpoint to her own confused human emotions. They’d rightly refused to come into the city though and she’d left them to find territory upstate until she returned. So she was alone. And talking to herself.
She walked along the low parapet that surrounded the rooftop. Tracking Fenris should have been easy – she knew his smell very well indeed – but there was so much else going on in New Amsterdam that it was impossible. Instead, she was reduced to just randomly wandering, trying to find any sign of him. Fortunately, he was all over the news, even if they didn’t have a name for him. All she had to do was find a recent example of one of his massacres before the police got there first. Why didn’t they just leave the transhumans to their private war? That’s how it worked back home.
She scrambled down a fire escape and made her way down to street level. She’d tried using the subway to get around at first, but she didn’t have enough currency and there was a limit to how many crimes she was willing to commit while she was here. That would get her the wrong kind of attention, and the police were already looking for transhumans. She dropped to the ground and dusted herself down.
“Hey,” someone called from further down the alley. She ignored it and kept walking in the opposite direction. “Hey!” they called again.
She turned to face them. There were three men, and they looked big and dangerous. She put her hands on her hips. “What?”
Their leader, a blonde man with a lot of tattoos, tapped one of his buddies on the arm. “See, I told you I felt something. Hey,” he nodded at her, “you want some action?”
“I don’t know what you mean by that. But no. I don’t think I do.”
“C’mon,” he grinned. They were all coming closer. “You’re one of us, right? I can tell.”
She’d known they were other transhumans immediately. They weren’t powerful though. They were naturals, the same as she was, but their bloodline wasn’t so pure. They weren’t worth her time. “Yeah, I’m one of you. What of it?”
“Who’re you with?” one of the men asked.
“Which gang,” the leader clarified. “Reich, Demons, Wolves, what?”
“I’m not with…wait, did you say wolves?”
“Maybe she’s new in town,” the third man suggested. His head was shaved bald, and he looked like he’d been in more than a few fights from his scars.
“Oh, fresh meat, huh?” the leader said. “We get a lot of that. Here’s a tip, sweetie, if you’re hauling a T-organ around, you might wanna find a team. It’s dangerous to walk these streets alone these days, capiche?”
“Sorry,” she said as she turned away, “I’m not interested.”
“Hey,” he called out again, “don’t turn your back on me, bitch.”
She spun around with a knife in her hand. The mood in the alley changed as the three men tensed up. She didn’t smell any fear from them, but that would change. “You said Wolves. Is that one of the transhuman gangs?”
“Jeez, you really are new,” the skinhead snorted.
“Are you members?”
“We’re Reich,” the leader told her. “Y’know, skins.”
“I don’t know, no. Where can I find the Wolves?”
“Pretty girl like you shouldn’t be wasting her time with those animals,” he said with another grin. “Transhumans like us should stick together. We’re gonna inherit the Earth. Don’t you wanna be on the winning team?”
“I’m not much for teams,” she said, “more packs.” She waved the knife. “The Wolves. Tell me where to find them.”
“It ain’t exactly that simple, honey. They don’t exactly got a base of operations.”
“Tell me,” she growled. That shifted the tension too. There was something subliminal in the sound emanating from her throat, something that spoke directly to an animal part of their brains.
The skinhead stepped forward. “I’m getting pretty tired of…” His words turned to a helpless gurgle as her knife spun through the air end over end and buried itself in his throat. He dropped to his knees as blood pumped from the wound, then collapsed to the ground. His friends stared down at him.
“You just made your last mistake, bitch,” the leader said. He held out his hand, but Freyja had already pulled out her bow and was aiming an arrow directly at the centre of his forehead.
“Try it,” she whispered.
“You think I’m scar…” There was a thunk and he let out a strangled gasp as his eyes rolled up and tried to focus on the arrow that was now sticking out of his skull. He only had a second to stagger backwards before he keeled over. She already had another arrow nocked and she moved her aim to the remaining thug. He held his hands up.
“Tell me where to find the Wolves.”
“It…it ain’t that simple…”
“Your friend already told me that, and now he’s dead. Where do they hang out? A bar, a club, something like that.”
“Why you wanna get involved with them anyway, huh? They ain’t no good.”
“That’s why I want to get involved. Tell me what I want to know and you get to walk out of this alleyway alive.”
“I’m afraid that’s not on the cards for him, actually.” A big hand reached out from the shadows behind the remaining gangster, enveloping his head and then another reached out to take a grip on his throat. With a twist of muscle, his neck snapped and he collapsed to the ground with a shocked expression on his face. A hulking figure stepped from the darkness.
Freyja’s eyes went wide. How had she missed him? It was this city. She was constantly being assailed by the horrible stink of it that, even up close, she couldn’t pick him out. Fenris grinned at her, showing his jagged, chiselled teeth. He was a massive, grotesquely muscled man with a mane of black, matted hair that spilled down his wide back. An unruly scrub of beard besmirched his pale, angular face, but his most disturbing features were his eyes – pale and green, almost glowing in the dim, early-evening light of the alley. He was wearing the same dark furs he always wore, like a long coat that dragged on the ground, cut so they bared his thick, scarred arms. His clothes reeked of old blood. It was the pelt of the wolf that had once led his pack, and he’d never cleaned it properly, but the smell mostly came from the trophies that festooned it – the severed hands of those he’d killed, hanging like strings of grotesque onions around his neck. She knew the smell of some of those hands. She’d known the people they’d once belonged to. Fenris was flanked by a gang of other men and women, all transhumans like them. They looked ordinary enough, but their smell was strange. The things they’d been shown recently had turned them feral. Fenris had that affect on people.
“I see you found a new pack.” She hadn’t dropped her bow yet.
“My wolves didn’t like the smell of this place.”
“Mine neither. Can’t say I blame them.”
“I don’t know,” he said, looking around and taking in an extravagant breath, “it has a certain…something…”
“It smells like a slaughterhouse.”
He pointed. His fingernails were long and filthy. “That must be it.”
“I’m here to kill you,” she told him.
“No, you’re here to be killed by me.” He jerked his head. “Bring her to me.” His pack of transhumans advanced. The one at the front, a young woman, got two steps towards her before she stopped and stared down at the arrow now protruding from her chest. Fenris roared with laughter as she fell. “I bet you run out of arrows before I run out of Wolves, Freyja…”
Paragon was perched high on the corner of a towering skyscraper, casting his gaze across the darkening city. Radio signals crackled in his ear as he cycled through the police frequencies, tracking the movements of his new allies. Most of the crimes were ordinary enough – these didn’t concern him. Perhaps, one day, he’d be in a position to protect the city from mundane threats but for now his business was with the transhuman gangs that ran the streets. Over the past few days he’d familiarised himself with the shape of the war. The gangs were many and varied, but the Reich, the neo-Nazi gang that had coalesced from those brought together by Iron Hand three months ago were the largest and most powerful. Relatively few of them were transhumans, but naturally the others gathered around the so-called Übermenschen, venerating them as paragons of Aryan perfection. There were also the Demons, followers of a shadowy figure known only as Portal, a renewed Mafia led by a new transhuman godfather whose identity was unknown and most of the rest were miscellaneous scrapings, a few thugs under the sway of a powerful mutant leader – powerful compared to them anyway. No one knew why so many transhumans had gathered there, but the presence of so many here in New Amsterdam was like a constant buzz in the back of his head. When they fought down there, he almost felt he could home in on the signal as they stretched their abilities to the limit. Sometimes, when he got close enough, it seemed to rattle the universe, like the fabric of reality was starting to fray around the edges. In truth, no one knew what the abilities granted by the T-organ truly did, why they’d manifested, why they demonstrated such variety, or what the long-term effects of bending physics so much might be. These were questions that had begun to occur to Paragon more and more often. Goodman had told him he had an amazing mind as well as amazing physical abilities. It seemed to be true. He was curious, which he knew he wasn’t supposed to be. He’d been designed to be loyal: nothing more.
He flicked past another police channel, and then heard something that interested him. Wolves. They were one of the other new gangs, one of the smallest and newest, but they were gaining ground. No one knew quite where they’d come from – they weren’t formed from any existing organisations as far as the NAPD knew, and they were responsible for brutal attacks on members of other gangs. They’d started with the smaller ones whose territories were close to theirs, but now they were going after the big boys. And their leader…
“We are in pursuit of a group of…seven…no eight…individuals. Gang markings indicate they’re Wolves. Repeat, Wolves. They’re up on the roofs, just passing 51st and 52nd, chasing someone. Request backup. Repeat, we need backup…”
Paragon straightened and looked around. It was only a few blocks away and, when he closed his eyes, he thought he could feel them out there. There was something powerful moving closer and closer, a transhuman as impressive as any he’d encountered. It must be their leader, the mysterious newcomer who cut the hands from all his victims. He silenced the radio and leapt into the air.
Freyja threw herself across the gap between two buildings and then landed in an awkward roll. She limped up to her feet and looked back over her shoulder. They were still chasing her, but she wasn’t sure if any of them besides Fenris would be able to make the jump. She ducked behind a vent and took a second to catch her breath. Normally she could keep running for hours, but endless feats of aerial acrobatics were starting to eat into her reserves. She checked her quiver – only one arrow left, and she’d counted at least seven chasing her. So Fenris was right, which annoyed her for some reason. She’d have to make the last shot count.
She could hear Fenris shouting something. It sounded like his pack didn’t like their chances of leaping across the gap as she had. She was more powerful than all of them, except possibly Fenris, so for a moment she was safe. But safe wasn’t good enough. She liked nothing less than being hunted. She had to turn the tables back in her favour. She glanced around the battered metal vent. As she’d suspected, the Wolves were milling around on the edge of the other building, trying to figure out a way over. She could make out Fenris standing on the parapet, gesturing furiously towards her. He could come after her, but it was reassuring to realise he didn’t want to take her on alone. He had to know where she was – he could smell the same as her.
She crept out from her hiding place, sticking to the shadows. The Wolves were going to have to go down the fire escape of their building and come back up hers if they wanted to reach her. That would make them vulnerable. There was a water tower on the roof and she looked up at it, doing some quick calculations. She should have a good view of the other building’s fire escape from up on the tower’s scaffolding. She’d be able to make a good shot from there. It would have to be Fenris. It wasn’t how she’d wanted to take him down, but it would have to do. One chance. That was all she had. It was all she’d need. And if she missed…
She risked a sprint across the open area to the tower, trusting the Wolves would be distracted. It was getting dark, the overcast sky simply transforming into a black, moonless night without bothering with a sunset. She threw herself against the struts and started climbing straight away, judging that speed was more important than stealth now. She couldn’t afford to miss this opportunity.
There was a narrow metal shelf around the edge of the water tower, presumably for maintenance purposes and she knelt down on it, bracing her back against the curving metal bulk of the container. It felt cold to the touch. Why live in a place where you had to build things like this just to drink water? “Soon it won’t matter,” she whispered to herself, “soon I’ll be long gone.”
The Wolves were pounding down the metal fire escape quickly, but Fenris was hanging back. He was a savage beast, a bloodthirsty monster with no fear of his own mortality when it came to combat, but there was still some sly animal instinct in him that made him a coward. He valued his own skin too highly. He wasn’t capable of true bravery, of selflessness. He just wanted to kill and rend. So he sent them first, to soak up whatever arrows she had left. Well not this time. She nocked her last arrow and lifted the bow. She pulled the string taut and took aim. He wasn’t far away, not by her standards, but she felt more tense than she ever had before when taking a shot. Freyja had been waiting for this moment for years. Somehow, she knew it shouldn’t be this easy, not after all this time.
Fenris turned around. He couldn’t possibly see her, but his glowing green eyes were fixed right on her. The point of her arrow steadied, aimed squarely between his eyes and, calming her breathing, centring herself, she whispered a silent prayer and released.
Two things happened in the space of less than a second. First, a pale blue blur flew in from the left of her field of vision, and then resolved itself into the shape of a man wearing a tight-fitting blue suit with a billowing white cape standing directly in the path of her shot. Secondly, that same man whirled around and caught her arrow right out of the air before it hit him in the back. He looked down at it curiously.
Frejya gaped. Fenris was staring across the gap between the buildings. He knew she was there now. The man with the cape turned back, and that was his cue to turn tail. Leaving his loyal Wolves to their fate, he fled back across the other roof and was soon lost in the shadows. The Wolves leapt from the fire escape and the strange man seemed in two minds about whether to chase after them or not. He looked down at the arrow still in his hand and then back up at the water tower. She couldn’t make out his expression under the cowl he wore, but she could sense faint emotions from him. He was…confused.
Frejya folded her bow away. Without arrows it’d just encumber her. She was also down a knife, and she was tired from a chase across New Amsterdam’s rooftops. She wasn’t in any shape to start another fight. She should run but…did this guy just fly in?
She slid down the struts and landed on the roof with a grunt. The Wolves were gone now, and the newcomer walked towards her, holding out her arrow. As he got a little closer to her, she was almost bowled over. He was a transhuman, and by far the most powerful she’d ever met. He was first generation, surely, but how was that possible?
“Come out from the shadows,” he said. His voice was deep, commanding, but she had no intention of obeying it. Now he was close, she got a better look at his outfit. It was a tight blue one-piece that outlined an impressive, lean physique. His cowl covered everything except his mouth and jaw and his alabaster cape matched his gloves, boots and a plain symbol on his chest the same shape as a cut diamond.
“Nice uniform, boy scout,” she said.
“Who are you?”
“Nobody. This is none of your business.”
“You were firing an arrow at that transhuman.” He looked down at it again. More confusion. “Why?”
“Like I said: none of your business.”
“I’m trying to clean up these streets.”
“That’s fine. I don’t care about your streets. I only care about him.”
The man looked back over his shoulder, even though Fenris was long gone. “The wolf?”
“This is getting old, blue…”
“Don’t you know who I am?”
“I have no idea. And I don’t really care. Can I have my arrow back?”
“May name is Captain Paragon.”
“Cute. Arrow?” She held out her hand. This Captain Paragon smelled odd. Every now and then she got a hint of some emotion, but mostly it was like trying to get something from a brick wall. He obviously kept a tight rein on his feelings, or he somehow lacked sweat glands.
“This is evidence,” Paragon announced, pulling the arrow towards him protectively. “I’m guessing you don’t have a license for that bow. Or for yourself.”
“I’m not from around here.”
“Well you’re here now. I need to arrest you.”
She laughed. “Where I’m from, we don’t like leashes.”
“Leashes?” That vague sense of confusion again. He reminded her of a child, but without the raging id.
“Licenses,” she explained, “it’s a leash. A collar. It means they own you.”
“It’s to keep ordinary people safe. From people like us, who might fire bows in a built-up area.”
“Right. Do you have one?”
He put a hand on his chest. “I don’t need one. I have this uniform. I’m Captain Paragon.”
“Still a leash, just an unusually pretty one.”
“If I have to subdue you with force, I will,” he said sternly.
“You can try.”
He advanced, and she picked up the first hints of real emotions. So that’s what he was: a born soldier. He wasn’t used to negotiating and it made him uncomfortable. She wondered who put a man as damaged as this in a situation where he’d have to be a spokesman for whatever organisation it was he stood for. She weighed up her odds. She was gripping the handle of her knife, but she had no doubt he was quicker than she was, and stronger too. Plus he could fly. Still, there was something there, just a slight ghost of doubt coming from him, a slight shift in his stance that spoke to her of a tiny chink in his armour. He reached out to grab her and she ducked beneath his arm, rolled away and then up to one knee. Her knife flashed out and she thrust forward, inside his guard where he was still reaching out, plunging it into the side of his abdomen that he’d been unconsciously favouring. He staggered backwards with the knife still stuck in him. That was the other one gone then, unless she planned to stick around until he bled out. Blood pulsed slowly from the wound.
“Sorry,” she said, “really.”
Paragon dropped to one knee, holding his side, head bowed. She really did consider staying to make sure he was okay, but from his smell she knew he’d be dangerous. He had the stink of a psychopath about him. She jogged backwards, keeping her eye on him, then turned and ran. He’d be okay. He was tough. She was certain he’d gotten over worse than this.
Goodman approached Colonel Black who stood stiffly by the window, watching Paragon sleeping peacefully in the bed. This was a specialist medical facility, the very same in which much of the science used to craft Columbia’s mightiest hero had first been performed. They knew what they were doing. “I don’t understand it,” the colonel murmured. The knife, recently removed from Paragon’s abdomen, still coated with his blood, was in the plastic evidence bag he was holding. He held it up, almost accusingly. “Ordinary metal. How did it puncture his flesh?”
Goodman gestured to her own abdomen. “He has a slight flaw, here.”
Black turned to her. “A flaw?”
“Yes. His skeleton has been augmented by a biosynthetic honeycomb lattice, grown organically outside his body and then implanted later in the process.”
“I’ve seen his schematics, Goodman. What went wrong?”
She sighed and folded her arms. “Nothing. But as I said, it was grown. There was a slight fissure in the lattice. We repaired it, but it’s always going to undermine the structure of his enhanced skeleton. He’s been on duty non-stop for the past – what? – six months? He’s taken a few knocks, not least his fight with Iron Hand. It’s…a war wound. You should know about that.”
“He’s supposed to be a weapon. If he malfunctions…”
“It’s not a malfunction.” She watched Paragon through the glass. He was hooked up to a number of machines that monitored his enhanced physiology. The wound had been repaired – he healed extraordinarily fast – but the doctor had insisted he rest. Months ago, she’d told Paragon he could keep going until his body physically shut down, until his flesh tore apart and his bones ground to dust. It had been a joke, but she wondered how literally he’d taken it. He’d never suggested to any of his superiors that he might need time to rest. He’d just fought on, uncomplainingly, and they’d used him and used him and now…now he’d run into a roadblock and stumbled. Goodman took the knife from Black. “The transhuman that stabbed him – this unidentified woman – was able to tell he had that vulnerability somehow. She exploited it and made her escape. Without that knowledge, he would never have been defeated.”
Black narrowed his eyes. “When he wakes, I want his full report on this woman. He was supposed to be intercepting a gang of Wolves. Who is she, and how is she involved in this?”
“I don’t know.”
“He’ll have to go back out there and find her. She’s clearly dangerous.”
Goodman glanced down at the bloody knife in her hands. “She could’ve killed him if she’d wanted to. With that wound, he was helpless.”
“Let me make this clear, Ms Goodman,” Black said, leaning closer, “when someone incapacitates the most powerful and expensive weapon in Columbia’s arsenal, the government considers that person to be an extremely dangerous terrorist. As of right now, the priority for Captain Paragon is bringing her in or, if necessary, taking her out. Understand?”
“You give him his orders, colonel,” she said calmly, “I just advise.” She handed him back the knife. He stood there for a moment, but she didn’t say anything else, just kept her eyes on Paragon as he lay there, breathing slowly in and out. After a short while, he left. Goodman took a breath and put her hand against the glass. “Who did this to you?” she asked the dreaming Paragon, “and how can I find her?”
Fenris paced in the shadows, his breath steaming in the frigid air. The dim light filtering through the slowly rotating fans high in the wall made odd patterns on the frost-rimed floor. Huge, hanging cuts of meat swayed gently in the artificial breeze. He found the temperature quite comfortable but his pack, these Wolves, shivered in the chill of the cavernous meat locker. Those who had returned from the ill-fated adventure were battered, bruised and exhausted. “Who was he?” Fenris demanded, pointing a claw at a woman with her face covered in bruises and one arm in a makeshift sling. She’d jumped thirty feet from the fire escape. He’d forgotten what she called herself and what she could do. She wasn’t very powerful, so it hardly mattered. She was low in the pack. “He’s…he’s Captain Paragon…”
Fenris pushed a side of beef out of his way and stalked towards her. “What?”
“Paragon,” another Wolf said, a man this time. “He’s like…well…sort of a masked vigilante. Like in the old days. Except he works for the government.”
Fenris scratched at his beard. “Why would he do that? He’s even more powerful than me. He could have anything he wanted. He could rule the world.”
“They made him themselves,” the woman explained.
“Made him? How?” He stared at her, but she just shrugged. “Hm…” he picked at his teeth. He was in the mood to make an example out of someone, but it was hardly worth butchering one so low in the hierarchy. Maybe the one who called himself Blackout? He was almost as powerful as him. Killing him would certainly shake things up, keep the others hungry. But now wasn’t the time. He had to save his fury for the man in the cape. “Paragon is the alpha,” he said, returning to his pacing, “if we want to rule his city, he’s the one we have to kill.”
The Wolves shuffled uncomfortably. The man who’d spoken before seemed to have been nominated as a spokesperson. “Paragon is…he’s a government transhuman. We can’t just kill him. They’ll come after us. They’ll send in the army. He’s off-limits. Even if we could do it…”
Fenris leapt at him with a roar. The man tried to save himself, raising his hands and giving off a pitiful electrostatic charge that might have inconvenienced his attacker had he not been exhausted, but which now didn’t even make Fenris wince. He wrapped his hands around his henchman’s throat and then leaned in and ripped a chunk out of his face with his sharpened teeth. The man screamed as blood splashed everywhere. He clawed desperately at Fenris, but he was as physically unimpressive at the moment as he was telekinetically and soon he was on his knees as the breath was choked out of him. Fenris let him fall to the floor and then spat the gob of bloody flesh out. “My kill,” he breathed, wiping at his beard and then instinctively licking at his bloodied lips. “But,” he added, turning away, “I’m not hungry. Enjoy yourselves.” He waved a hand dismissively.
The sounds of frenzied butchery followed him as he stalked back into the shadows at the other end of the room. His feet crunched in the frost. Transhumans manifested their abilities in many different ways. It was one thing to be able to communicate with wolves, to be able to smell the wind like them, to feel the beating heart of a predator in a weak, ostensibly human body, but to discover that one could also impose the soul of a wolf on another, and turn a civilised man or woman into a ravening pack animal…well, that was something quite remarkable. Fenris crouched in the darkness, considering his next move. He had spent his life taking whatever he desired, running with the pack, living in the moment. He had ghosted across the freezing tundra beneath a cold moon, naked with the scent of prey in his nostrils, his brothers and sisters racing by his side, all focused on a single goal: to make the kill, to slake the thirst for blood. The kill was all that mattered. The next prize. He had raped and killed across a continent, satisfying whatever animal whim occurred to him, and then focused on a grander prize. A city of riches. A city ruled by crime and fear. New Amsterdam would be his. If he still thought as a man, it would have been a vow, but wolves did not need to separate thought from deed that way. A wolf simply acted. And so he had come here and begun to assert his dominance over the other packs. This was the way of the alpha. Kill the current leader, take over the pack. It was the way of the world. Now New Amsterdam’s alpha had come forward, and so Fenris would kill Captain Paragon. It was a simple thing.
And yet…and yet… He twined a claw around a strand of his ragged beard, thinking. For the first time in many years, doubt had entered his mind. Freyja had found him at last. He had not anticipated that. She was a complication. She was not a rival he could simply kill; her pack would never follow him. She would get in his way. She always got in his way. But this would be the last time. He clenched his fist and rested his knuckles on the freezing floor. No vow. Others might say could, or should, or would. Fenris said nothing. A thing was or was not. That was how wolves lived. That was how he lived and now, how the others lived too. The sound of raw flesh being rent apart by desperate hands and teeth continued from the other end of the locker, and Fenris slowly smiled to himself through bloodstained teeth.
Goodman could have taken to the sky, but she didn’t think drawing attention to herself that way was a particularly good idea – and besides, her old uniform was packed away in her closet in Jefferson DA and zipping through the air in a pantsuit just seemed somehow undignified. So she walked, keeping her head down and hoping no one would recognise her. She soon realised there was no risk of that. As Columbian Woman she’d worn a mask like the rest of her comrades from those strange days and, although her unmasking had been public when the Registration Act came in, there was little chance anyone still remembered her face. And that was years ago – she’d aged. It took a little while to get a fix on what she was looking for, but once she had it her aim was unerring. She stalked through back streets that had hardly changed since she’d been the one keeping this city clean, felt the familiar rush that came with dodging around dumpsters, scrambling up fire escapes and climbing walls and chain-link fences. If any of the gangs that thought they ran this town felt her coming, they were wise enough to stay away. Finally, when the feeling was strongest, she threw caution to the wind and leapt skywards, hurtling up the side of an apartment block and alighting smoothly on the roof. She adjusted her jacket primly and looked around.
She could feel her somewhere close by. No doubt she was being watched. She strode out into the middle of the rooftop and held up what she’d brought with her. “I have your arrow,” she announced.
“Thanks,” a voice said from behind her.
Goodman whirled. The girl was standing in the shadow of an air conditioning unit, just a few yards away. She wasn’t sure how she’d sneaked up on her like that, but it didn’t matter. “Come out and talk.”
“I want to know who you are and why you stabbed Paragon.”
“Are you his mommy?”
“You smell like him,” the strange woman said.
“I…smell like him…?”
“Yeah. Except, you know, with actual emotions. Why did you make him like that?”
“I don’t understand,” Goodman said, “you can read emotions? Is that your ability? I didn’t know there were any transhumans that could do that.”
The girl walked out of the shadows. She was quite short, but with a lean, robust frame, pale and quite pretty with startling green eyes. She wore a practical leather outfit that left her arms bare – tribal tattoos snaked all the way from her wrists to her shoulders. She tapped her nose. “It’s all here.”
“You mean it’s a secret?”
She rolled her eyes. “No. I smell. You’d be amazed what your pheromones tell me about you. Did you bring my knife back too?”
“Who are you?”
“That’s not important.”
Goodman held the arrow away from her. “You want your arrow back, don’t you?”
“I can get more arrows.”
“You stabbed a government operative. You could be in serious trouble unless you start giving me some information, girl.”
“Is that what he is?”
“Yes. And when you attack him, certain people get a little panicky. They think you’re a bigger threat than the thugs who are taking over this city.”
The girl put her hands on her hips and tilted her head. “And what do you think?”
“I think you had the opportunity to kill Paragon, but didn’t. I don’t think your quarrel was with him, and I don’t think you’re a member of any gang. So who are you?”
“I’m just a hunter.”
“Someone already used that codename, sweetie. And, believe me; you don’t want to emulate him.”
“Huntress then. Like I care about your bullshit masked hero kick.”
“Do you know who I am then?”
“I can guess. My grandfather told me about the costumed vigilantes who fought in the War. You’d be Columbian Woman, right?”
“I’m just Janet Goodman now.”
“But still flying up buildings now and then, Ms Goodman?”
Goodman smiled slightly. “You said ‘grandfather’? I’d say you’re a third-generation transhuman. Would that be right?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
Goodman couldn’t tell if she was lying or not, but she had a horrible feeling the reverse might not be true. She had to be careful around this one. “Your grandfather – maybe all your grandparents, judging by what I can tell about your power level – were mutated by the T-event. And their children, your parents, carried the same trait, right? So third generation. Why aren’t you registered?”
“I’m not from around here. We don’t have registrations back home.”
“What? In Canada? Don’t look so surprised, sweetie – I’ve been around a long time. Your accent gives you away.”
“I’m not from…”
Goodman waved a hand. “From the way you’re dressed, your general attitude and the way you keep glancing around like this city might decide to come to life and eat you at any moment, I can guess you’re from somewhere out west, somewhere cold and far from any cities. Would that be right?”
“More or less.”
“Uh huh. A little community where, I’m guessing, people like you are pretty common? I thought so. And you came here hunting someone, didn’t you? One of your own?”
The girl pursed her lips, but then nodded. “That’s about the size of it.”
“Relax,” Goodman said. “Use your brain, girl: I could’ve brought an entire unit of specialist soldiers here to take you down, even if I wasn’t more than capable of it myself. I just want to talk.” She tossed the arrow across to the girl, who caught it deftly out of the air. “Tell me your name.”
“Just Freyja? You don’t have a second name?”
“Never needed one. People know who I am.”
“Of course. And the one you’re hunting? Is he something to do with these Wolves?”
“He’s called Fenris.”
“Ah…that makes sense. I hear he takes his victims’ hands as trophies.”
“That’s the least of what he does.”
Goodman looked at Freyja. She was a determined young woman, but there was something behind her eyes, a smouldering rage. She’d tracked this man across a continent, come to an unfamiliar city and brought down one of the most powerful transhumans in the world just because he was in her way. “What did he do to you?” she asked softly.
The girl’s eyes flashed. “He hurt a lot of people that I loved.”
“He burned down my village. He killed almost my entire family. He’s a thief, a rapist and a murderer. He’s nothing more than a beast in a man’s body. I have to kill him.”
“Revenge is not the answer, child.”
“It’s not revenge – he’s a beast. He should be put down.”
“I understand.” She knew that feeling. When they’d discovered Iron Cross’s laboratories, she and Steven had made a similar pronouncement. Only luck had saved that war criminal’s life in the end. If they’d had their way…
“What’s making you so angry?” Freyja asked.
Goodman looked up sharply. “You can tell that just from the way I smell?”
“That’s an unusual power.”
“Not where I’m from.”
“Others have it?”
“A lot of my family did.”
“Can you do anything else? Flight? Telekinesis? Regeneration?”
“No. We don’t have any of that.”
“Just the sense of smell? Because I can tell how powerful you are, Freyja, and you didn’t come this far just by following your nose. What makes you special? What can you do?”
“It isn’t important.” She held up the arrow. “Thanks for this. It was nice talking to you, Janet, but if you don’t intend to arrest me, I have a hunt to finish.”
“Wait – we can help each other.”
“You and Paragon want the same thing; to stop this crime spree. The one you hunt, this Fenris, he’s the target. Is he as powerful as you?”
“And…what can he do?”
“The same as me.”
“So he’s from the same place you are?”
Frejya was already melting back into the shadows and Goodman advanced on her, but there was the sound of something snapping together and suddenly she was looking straight at the point of the arrow she’d just handed over, nocked in a bow.
“You think that’s going to hurt me?”
“At this range? Yeah, it’ll punch right through your skull. You think I’ve never killed a transhuman with this? I designed these arrows myself.”
“All right,” Goodman said holding up her hands, “all I want to do is propose an…alliance…between you and Paragon.”
“Do you have that authority? I thought he worked for the Columbian government.”
“It would only be temporary, until you get what you want. Fenris is a threat, even to Paragon. But together, you should be able to neutralise him easily.”
“I don’t need any help.”
“How long have you been hunting Fenris now?”
“A long time,” Freyja answered carefully.
“Uh huh. You’re a huntress, right? Don’t hunters use every weapon in their arsenal? Paragon can bring this monster down once and for all, but we’re going to need your knowledge of him to do that. You know how he thinks, where he’ll strike. Let’s pool our resources, Freyja.”
“Who makes the kill?” she asked.
Goodman shook her head. “No kill. Fenris must be brought to justice. He’s murdered a lot of people since coming to New Amsterdam.”
“He murdered a lot of people before that, and no one ever cared. He dies with this arrow in his throat.”
“Wouldn’t you rather see him imprisoned? I can assure you, he’ll never be released, and the Tank is quite secure.”
“A containment facility upstate for transhuman terrorists.”
“Yes. A cage.”
“A cage is worse than death for us. You don’t cage wolves.”
“Not even wolves who’ve slaughtered their own pack?”
The bow dropped slightly. “What?”
“He’s your brother, isn’t he, Freyja? Fenris, I mean. You share the same powers, you said he only killed ‘almost’ all of your family. And this vendetta is about more than revenge, or even protecting the world from a rabid dog. This is about escaping a fate you’ve feared since you were a child, isn’t it? Which of your relatives gave into it? Which of them became a beast and had to be killed?”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Freyja said, spinning around and darting back into the shadows. Goodman could hear her sprinting away.
“Wait!” she called out. “Tell us how to find Fenris! Let Paragon help you bring him down, then you can decide what to do with him!”
The clouds parted and moonlight filtered over the rooftop. Frejya was standing on the edge of the building, bow still in her hand, ready to leap away. Goodman could catch her, but the last thing she wanted was to fight this girl. “You want Fenris gone? Stay away. Let me finish my job.”
“And then what, Freyja? What happens when he’s dead?”
“Nothing matters beyond that,” she said, looking away. “The kill is everything.” She leapt off the roof and landed in a roll on the next building before racing away into the darkness.
Paragon had no memory of being in New Amsterdam before his encounter with Iron Hand three months ago, but somehow he knew the city. Whenever he flew past a landmark – the Orange State Building, the statue of Lady Columbia with her feathered headdress and blazing sword in the harbour – there was a vague sense of familiarity, a memory tickling at the back of his mind. Even ordinary street corners and certain restaurants and stores seemed to evoke the same odd feelings. It was like living inside déjà vu. He didn’t have time to dwell on such things though as he patrolled the rooftops, leaping from building to building, watching the streets and listening in to the police radio transmissions. If anything, the senseless gang warfare seemed to have died down since his unexpected trip to the hospital. It was as if the city held its breath. As the weather worsened and rain and wind turned to snow, Paragon became restless and overcome by a sense of foreboding. He searched for days with few leads on the man who, according to Goodman, was known as Fenris. Of Frejya, the strange huntress who’d stabbed him, he heard even less.
He explored every alley, every filthy backstreet. He came to know every block of the vast metropolis, but the Wolves had gone silent. He fought and subdued members of the Reich, the Demons and others. He kept the streets clean, but still the real target of his wrath eluded him. One night he was patrolling the docks, following a rumour about a meat-packing plant where strange activity had been observed a few nights ago. He crouched high on a crane, looking out over the industrial wasteland of warehouses, parking lots, chain link fences and labyrinthine storage yards. Then something caught his attention. He turned slowly to see her standing just a short way away from him, further up the crane’s arm, holding on with one hand and looking out across the docks. She smiled at him. “How’s hunting?”
“I might ask you the same question.”
Freyja barked a laugh. “Someone told me a little while ago we should pool our resources.”
“Can you help me find Fenris?”
“Maybe. Why don’t we meet and talk things over?”
Paragon held out a hand. “We’re meeting now.”
“It’s too dangerous here. You’re close, you know.”
“If you know where he is, why aren’t you going after him?”
“Because I realised I can’t do it alone. He’s too powerful, and he has his Wolves. They nearly beat me last time. If you hadn’t distracted him, I’d probably be dead – or still alive and wishing I was.”
“Then let’s attack now.”
“No.” She peered out across the river. Snow was starting to fall softly around them. “The time’s not right,” she said. “But soon. The day after tomorrow.”
“That’s when you want to meet?”
“No. City Hall.”
He raised his eyebrows, not that she would have seen it under his cowl, although she seemed to register his surprise anyway. “Isn’t that a little…public?”
“Maybe I don’t trust you yet.”
“Fine. It hardly matters. When?”
“Be there, boy scout. I’ll be waiting.” She ducked under the railing closest to her and dropped out through the metal latticework of the huge crane, down into the darkness. He heard the noise of her landing further down and then she gradually faded from his awareness. He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. He couldn’t imagine why she’d want to meet then and there, but her reasoning was sound. Fenris was a serious threat, especially with his henchmen at his side. And, from what Goodman had told him, Freyja knew this man very well indeed. She was a valuable ally. He placed his hand against his side. The wound had healed, but it still felt fragile. She’d known about it somehow. He hadn’t even told Dr Guttenberg, but she’d seen it and exploited the weakness. She was dangerous too, but maybe in a different way from Fenris. He’d take her up on her offer, but he’d keep his guard up.
Fenris rubbed the grime from the window of the meat-packing plant’s office and bared his teeth at the tiny figure he could make out high on the crane just across the parking lot from them. With a flash of white he was gone again, off into the night. He stalked back into the room where one of his Wolves, the one called Blackout, was watching him. “He was right there,” Fenris growled.
“What are we waiting for?”
“The right time. What’s the point of killing him here, or in some deserted alleyway?”
Blackout shrugged. “All I know is, I’m tired of lurking in the shadows.”
Fenris smiled. Blackout was one of the few Wolves who seemed to truly share his vision. They’d all started wanting nothing more than to sow havoc, but he’d moulded them into true predators. Most hadn’t even noticed their slow devolution, but by the time they’d been bent to his will it was too late for them to go back. Blackout, by contrast, had embraced it willingly. He wanted blood. “I just need to know where he’ll be,” he told his henchman, “Get out on the streets and listen for any rumours about public appearances or anything like that. It’s time to stop avoiding Captain Paragon; it’s time to make the kill.”
A slow, sly smile spread across Blackout’s face and he inclined his head before striding out of the room. Fenris considered his lieutenant. Blackout was big and powerful, but his abilities were limited – globes of darkness. Good for theft and sowing chaos, but not particularly dangerous in and of themselves. The man was a good fighter, but it might soon be necessary to kill him. He couldn’t allow any threat to his position as leader of the pack. But that was for another day. For now, all his attention must be focused on Paragon.
It was a clear day and the sun was high as Paragon swept down Broadway. The snow hadn’t stuck, but there was a light dusting on the ground and the air was chilly. People pointed upwards and called out to him as he dropped lower and then alighted in the plaza in front of City Hall. The area was gated off to either side, but passersby stopped to watch as he looked around, gathering at the gates. Paragon shifted uncomfortably. He stood out in his bright blue uniform and he wondered what Freyja had been thinking wanting to meet here. He wasn’t even sure how she’d get in here, although he didn’t put anything past her. He walked towards the steps that led up to the City Hall itself and then became aware of something. He turned and looked at the bare coppice that marked off the side of the plaza opposite the building. Someone was coming. A transhuman. Freyja? He held up a hand to shield his eyes from the sun’s glare and then saw a towering figure shouldering his way through the trees. Not Freyja. He leapt down into the plaza. “You!” he shouted.
Fenris threw out his arms. “Me.”
“What is this?” Paragon looked this way and that, trying to see if he’d walked into some kind of trap.
“This is the end,” Fenris said. He gestured out at the crowds congregating at the gates on either side. “And they have come to see you die.”
Paragon folded his arms and slowly lifted into the air, until he was floating at head height, looking down on Fenris. “You can’t possibly believe you can beat me. You know I’m more powerful.”
Fenris shrugged off the long furs he wore, letting them and his grisly trophies spill to the ground and revealing a scarred torso corded with muscle. Tribal tattoos like Freyja’s covered almost his entire body, and his skin was criss-crossed with scars. “We’ll see.” He let out an animalistic roar and leapt up into the air, slamming into Paragon and bringing him down onto the concrete paving slabs with an almighty crash. He tried to get a grip on his throat with his filthy claws, but Paragon grabbed him by the wrists and threw him off. Both men jumped up to their feet and squared off. Fenris laughed. “You killed that Reich leader, didn’t you? Snapped his neck in two, I heard.”
“That’s right,” Paragon said. They were circling one another warily.
“Will you do the same to me?”
“You’ll answer for your crimes.”
“Is that a yes or a no?”
“You’ll have to wait and see.” Paragon charged, and bowled into Fenris. They grappled and Paragon got the upper hand, hooking Fenris below one arm and hauling him into the air to throw him into the ground with a loud crack. He went to stamp on him but Fenris grabbed his boot and unbalanced him, then kicked him in his side. Paragon staggered sideways. It was the same place Freyja had stabbed him. How did he know about that?
Fenris was up again and he jabbed him in the ribs with a right hand then headbutted him in the bridge of his nose. Paragon felt bone give way and stumbled backwards. He shook his head to clear the stars, but now Fenris was on him again. He lifted him onto his shoulder without apparent effort and then threw him across the plaza and into the steps leading up to the doors to City Hall. Paragon arched his back in agony. Dust floated down around him. The step had shattered from the impact. He clambered up to his feet just as Fenris charged again, spearing him in the midsection and driving him back into the stairs. There was a crunch of stone and more cracks snaking their way up the steps. Paragon gritted his teeth and battered Fenris on his beck until he let him go, then bounded up two steps and kicked him in the face. The Wolf snarled and spat out a jagged, bloody tooth. Paragon grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked him up, then got a grip around his torso and hurled him up and over to smash into the wall that ran alongside the steps. The stonework collapsed under the weight of the transhuman monster and Fenris tumbled down to the ground on the other side in a shower of debris.
Paragon held his side and then jumped onto the remains of the wall. There were a lot of people watching now. This was far from ideal. He could hear sirens in the distance too. Somehow he didn’t think that was going to help anything. Fenris was just picking himself up and Paragon jumped down onto him, balling his fists, but his enemy rolled clear of the attack and threw a chunk stone at the side of his head with sufficient force to send him reeling. Fenris got up and shook the pale dust from his long hair. His body was covered in small cuts and lacerations and trickles of blood made their way down his muscular chest. “It’s going to be a pleasure tearing out your throat, Captain,” he spat.
Paragon blinked more stars from his vision. “You won’t…won’t get…” He didn’t get the chance to finish his thought as Fenris barrelled into him again, aiming a withering series of blows at him. He clawed out with his ragged nails, tearing at Paragon’s uniform like a wild beast, fighting him to the walls of City Hall, then grabbing his head and smashing it straight into the pale grey stones and knocking a chunk out of them in the process. Paragon barely knew where he was. He tried to organise his thoughts as he felt Fenris pick him up again and hurl him across the plaza. He bounced off the concrete slabs and skidded to a halt, tangled in his cape and spitting blood. He could feel the wound in his side throbbing and, as he touched his hand to it, he felt the blood pooling beneath his Kevlar-compound suit. Fenris leapt across the space between them, lifting maybe five feet in the air before landing with enough force to buckle the flagstones. He aimed a kick at Paragon’s side and sent him rolling away. “Having problems, cap?”
“This is never going to be your city,” Paragon said through gasps as he got up to his knees.
“It already is. Look – they’re watching you get ripped apart. In the minds of your people, you’re already beaten.”
“This isn’t the jungle!” Paragon yelled.
“It’s all the fucking jungle.” Fenris smashed him in the back of the head with one meaty hand and then ground his face into the dust. Paragon reached out wildly and grabbed Fenris’s leg. He upended him, bringing him down to the ground with a crash then used the last of his reserves to throw himself up into the air. He managed to make ten feet before he felt gravity reclaim him, then hurtled down towards the prone form of Fenris with his fist outstretched. The Wolf rolled clear a split second before he landed and Paragon smashed into the ground with a thunderous impact. The shockwave reverberated across the plaza, but he was left motionless for a second as his muscles rearranged themselves. It was all the opportunity Fenris needed to rake his claws down his back, leaving bloody rents in his flesh and then grab him from behind and dump him bodily to the ground.
“This was too easy,” he crowed. He put a foot on Paragon’s back as he tried to stand and forced him back down. “Do you see?!” he bellowed out to the terrified crowd. “Do you see who rules this city?!” He kicked Paragon over onto his back and then planted his foot on his chest. He bent down. “I’ll make this quick. No one is served by prolonging the inevitability of natural selection.”
He bared his teeth and then Paragon became aware of something else. Fenris felt it too and his head jerked up. He looked around. Paragon saw it before he did – there, on the other side of the road, past the gates on the eastern side of the plaza, perched on top of the modern university building opposite, a kneeling figure, pulling a bow back and taking aim at the man now standing over him, in the open, in broad daylight. The arrow would take Fenris straight in the back of the neck. He felt a surge of power, a release, and knew he only had a heartbeat to act. Fenris turned and Paragon kicked out, tripping him. The Wolf stumbled sideways holding his arms out for balance and the arrow impaled his right hand, sticking there through his flesh, the barbed head glistening red. He stared at it dumbly for a moment, then let out a roar of pain.
Paragon leapt up to his feet in one smooth motion and slammed his palm up into Fenris’s jaw. The man reeled and Paragon threw an elbow into his temple with enough force to stop a car in motion. Fenris didn’t go down though; it took another crushing blow to the stomach to finally send him crashing down to his knees. He slumped to the floor and rolled over onto his back, unconscious. Blood pooled beneath his injured hand. The arrow had broken in two. Paragon planted his foot on his vanquished enemy’s chest. “Mine,” he roared. He looked up at the building across the street, but there was no sign of Freyja.
The weather had been good recently, but winter was setting in and there was a fierce wind coming in off the ocean, sending the clouds scudding across the sky and leaving a bright, moonlit night. Paragon stood by the water tower where he’d first met Freyja, waiting. After a little while, he felt someone coming. She stayed in the shadows at first, but he could make out the light reflecting from her eyes. “Did you come here to arrest me?” she asked eventually.
“Good. I got some more arrows.”
“Glad to hear it.” He looked up at the moon, then back at her. “It was a trap, wasn’t it?”
“For him, not you.”
“No…I was just the bait.”
“A huntress uses everything in her arsenal, boy scout. Fenris could have hidden from me forever in this city. I had to draw him out somehow. Thankfully there was someone in his gang who was more than happy to feed him my information about where you’d be. Watch out for that one.”
“How did you know he’d come for me?”
“You’re the alpha, at least in his head. In his world, you take over a pack by killing the leader. You were his key to ruling New Amsterdam.”
Paragon snorted. “That’s ridiculous. I just enforce the law. I’m not in charge of anything.”
“Well you are ‘Captain’ Paragon. But yes. Fenris looks at the world differently to some people. And while it might not have handed him the city, you have to admit it would’ve sent a message.”
“True.” He watched her shadow. “Kind of a big risk then.”
“I don’t care about New Amsterdam. I just wanted him.”
“And are you angry about not getting him?”
She didn’t say anything for a few seconds. “No,” she finally answered.
“No,” she said more firmly. “He’s going to…what was it? The Tank?”
“A cage. The only thing worse than a leash. I’ve decided it’s what he deserves. It’s worse than just killing him. He wants to run under the moon, with his pack.” She pointed up at the sky to emphasise her point.
“You’re crueller than I thought.”
“I’m pragmatic. Besides, you don’t know what he did.”
“I think I have some idea.”
“No, you really don’t.”
Paragon felt his hand straying to his injured side. His wounds had been patched up, but that one was taking a little longer to heal. “I’m actually surprised you’re still here. Fenris is dealt with – don’t you want to go back home?”
“Home is long gone. All I’ve been doing is hunting him for what feels like forever. I don’t know what to do now.”
“If you stay…you’ll need to register.”
“Right, yeah, no thanks.”
“So leave. I’m supposed to hunt down unlicensed transhumans. You’re dangerous.”
“Finally: something we can agree on.” She stepped out of the shadows and crossed the rooftop, not taking her eyes off him. She held her bow over her shoulder. “You still owe me a knife.”
“We’re keeping it as evidence. It might come in handy if I have to hunt you.”
“You, hunt me?” She hopped onto the parapet on the edge of the building. “Now that I’d like to see. You know, maybe I will stick around for a while. This place grows on you.”
“I can’t guarantee your safety, Freyja.”
She looked at him like he was crazy. “Who asked you to, boy scout?” Then she was gone, dropping smoothly off the side of the building. Paragon frowned at the spot where she’d been standing before turning and walking away.
Some two-hundred-and-fifty miles away, in a secret facility beneath the Hexagon in Jefferson DA, Colonel Black placed his hand on a palm reader. After a few seconds, the metal blast doors opened with a mechanical whine and he walked into the frigid chamber beyond. A soldier stood on guard, one of the black-uniformed members of the special ops units that dealt with threats of this kind. He wasn’t really required down here – the equipment in the chamber was a better guard that he could ever be. He threw a sharp salute. “Colonel.”
“At ease, soldier.” Black shivered as he looked around the huge room with its banks of whirring computers and, at its heart, the blue, steaming cylinder. “Is it always this cold in here?”
“It has to be, sir,” the guard shrugged.
“All this for one man…”
The soldier looked a little uncomfortable. “Not just a man, sir.”
“No,” Black acknowledged. “Much more than a man. They’re dangerous, aren’t they, these transhumans?”
“Wouldn’t know about that, sir.”
“C’mon, son, I said ‘at ease’, didn’t I? Speak your mind. You’re down here every day, staring at that human popsicle, knowing what he did, how many he killed and tortured. Don’t tell me you’re never tempted to just aim that gun at his pod and let rip.”
The soldier licked his lips nervously and looked down at the automatic weapon he carried. The bullets were specially designed to stop transhumans; laced with anticoagulant chemicals and fragmentation warheads that would punch through even their mutant skeletons. “Sometimes…at night…”
“Sure. I understand. I work with some of them myself, you know. And, from what I hear, there’s more and more of them being discovered every day. Makes you wonder what’s happening to the world, doesn’t it?”
“I…I guess so, sir…”
“You got a family?”
“I got married last year, sir.”
Black smiled. “I wonder what the world will be like for your sons and daughters, soldier. Will they be able to compete? Doesn’t seem fair, does it, all these transhumans, these freaks, taking over.” He eyed the glowing cryogenic pod. “Say what you like about that bastard in there, but at least he had the right idea.”
“Purity, soldier. Human purity. Iron Cross didn’t want to breed transhumans – quite the opposite. He believed in segregation.”
The soldier glanced at the pod. “I don’t think I understa…”
Black yanked the silenced pistol from his jacket and put a bullet in the man’s head without even looking at him. As his body tumbled to the floor he put the gun away calmly and walked to the main control console. “Now, let’s see if I can figure this out.” His finger hovered over the large button marked ‘Revive’. “Ah, that should do it…”