Captain Paragon’s time in New Amsterdam may be coming to an end – the official story is that the transhuman threat has been defeated, but the reality is more complicated. As an old enemy makes his way to the city, Paragon and a young police officer prepare to make one last show of patrolling the streets, not knowing the danger that stalks them from the shadows.
‘Hell’s Hawk’ continues the twisted superhero tale of Captain Paragon.
The sun sank slowly over the mountains, setting the whole vast sky alight with reds, oranges, purples and finally the deep blue of the night sky directly overhead. Stars twinkled in the firmament, but Hellhawk saw none of it. He peered through his binoculars, adjusting them slightly to focus across the great alkali flats and tried to pick out signs of activity in the foothills that might indicate the Columbian soldiers were planning another counter-attack. He dropped the binoculars and frowned. Since their transhuman soldier – this Captain Paragon – had left, the whole theatre seemed to have cooled considerably. They should have been able to end this months ago with the planned strike across the flats, but they were rebuffed at every turn. Even without their super-powered commander, the Columbians were erstwhile foes. They’d learned from Paragon, he was beginning to realise, coming to understand how to counter his forces. Transhumans were no longer bogeymen now that they’d fought beside one and seen that he could sweat and bleed just as they did.
Making a disgusted sound in his throat, Hellhawk turned and stalked back to the cave complex that was currently serving as his headquarters. Weaponry of all kinds was stacked around the mouth of the tunnels and a few stoves crackled in the entrances to lean-tos. Supplies were starting to run short. His fellow transhumans didn’t require so much, but the majority of his forces were ordinary men and women, and they were starting to get hungry. They needed to end this soon.
He had no trouble seeing in the darkness of the caves as he ducked inside and he made his way quickly to the chamber he and his lieutenants used as their command room. There was a curtain draped across the entrance, and he was surprised to find Jackal, one of his best warriors, standing outside with a strange look on his face. “What’s going on?” Hellhawk asked, not bothering to keep the annoyance out of his voice.
“Someone to see you,” Jackal said.
“What? Who?” He wouldn’t say any more, so Hellhawk pushed the curtain aside and strode into the room. All the furniture – which was to say, a crate that served as a table and a handful of mismatched folding chairs and stools – had been pushed to one side. In the only remaining chair was seated a figure in an all-enclosing robe with a hood that covered his face. Hellhawk looked around. He and the stranger were the only people in the chamber. “What is this?” he growled.
“Hellhawk,” the figure said. He had a Columbian accent, but with a precise, clipped delivery. Educated, refined. It immediately made the transhuman suspicious.
“Do I know you?”
“No. But we share a mutual acquaintance.”
“Oh?” Hellhawk crossed the chamber and grabbed one of the chairs leaning against the rock wall. He was unconcerned by the stranger. He could tell he wasn’t a transhuman; he had nothing to fear. He unfolded the chair in front of the robed man and sat himself down directly opposite. “And who would that be?”
“Right. So you knew Red Dragon. So did a lot of people.”
“I more than knew him, Hellhawk. We worked together very closely, he and I.”
“Uh huh. So what can I help you with today? Or is this just a social call? ‘Cause no offence, but I’m a little busy.” He gestured around him at the cave.
“Yes, this is an interesting little war you’re attempting to prosecute.”
Hellhawk bristled at that, but pushed down his anger. This guy would get his comeuppance soon enough. He could snap him like a twig, even from where he was sitting now. “Just finishing what my ‘mentor’ started,” he said with a smile.
“Our ambition was a little grander than this.”
Hellhawk’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me how you knew Red Dragon again…?”
“I was with him in New Amsterdam twelve years ago. I helped him carry out the attack.”
“Funny, I thought only transhumans were involved in that.”
“Do you think I’m not a transhuman, Hellhawk?”
“I know you’re not a…” He felt his throat going dry and he tried to swallow, but his tongue felt too large for his mouth. He put a hand against his chest. He was starting to find it hard to breathe and he felt a numbness spreading from his mouth into his lungs. He coughed, but only a thin wheeze came out. Across the chamber, the stranger had one hand raised slightly. He tried to say something, but only a helpless croak escaped.
“I think that’s enough for now.” He dropped his hand, and Hellhawk felt a burning sensation as feeing rushed back into his body. He took a ragged, grateful breath.
“What…what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“A minor demonstration of one of my abilities. My apologies.”
“But you’re not transhuman! I can’t…I can’t sense your T-organ!”
“A simple matter, if you have the correct technology available.” He pulled his sleeve back revealing a narrow, silvery bracelet around one wrist. Hellhawk also noticed how pale his flesh was, and the unmistakable iridescent sheen of subtle scaling that caught the reflected light of the free-standing halogens. He’d seen that before, but only once, and they’d been red, not white.
“Who are you?”
“I am the man who will win your war, Hellhawk. Your leader is dead. It is time for his successor to make himself known.” He stood up and Hellhawk noted how he moved beneath his robes, how unfamiliar shapes rearranged themselves so that his gait remained roughly human.
“Red Dragon already has a successor,” Hellhawk protested as the strange man advanced on him.
“Yes. But not you.”
“This is my fight. This is…” His words died again as the stranger raised his hand.
“You are no match for me, Hellhawk. No living transhuman is. Now listen carefully to me, because I have a mission for you. This offensive is a dead end. You will not win victory for your people in this wasteland. You must return to Columbia, and meet the real threat head on.”
Hellhawk felt his power of speech return. “Real…real threat?”
“The one they call Paragon.”
“He was here! I’ve been trying to kill him for months!”
“I do not wish him to be killed. He must be captured.”
“Because he represents something extremely powerful. Did you know that he was not born transhuman?”
“He was manufactured, by human scientists. The first of his kind. Not cloned, like the bastard son of Iron Cross, not accelerated in an atomic chamber like you, and certainly not altered in the original T-Event. Once he was an ordinary man, and they turned him into one of us.”
“Technology. They achieved in a laboratory that which Red Dragon and I never could in the streets of New Amsterdam.”
Hellhawk frowned again at that. “Wait…is that were you were trying to do?”
He couldn’t see the man’s face beneath his hood, but as he loomed over him, Hellhawk had the impression that he was smiling condescendingly. “He never told you? We did not intend mindless destruction, Hellhawk. We sought to create a new order. We were attempting to replicate the T-Event. Our aim was nothing short of transforming the entire human race into transhumans.”
“Madness? Perhaps. But Captain Paragon holds the key to our future, Hellhawk. You must bring him to me.”
Hellhawk shook his head. “He’s too powerful. I could feel him from miles away. I’d never be able to stop him alone.” He’d never admitted that to any of his lieutenants, but something about the way the stranger spoke to him made him realise lying to him would be very dangerous. “He’ll squash me like a bug.”
“Indeed he would, were you to face him on an even playing field. But I would not force you into such a situation.” The man produced another of the silver bracelets from within his robe and held it out to Hellhawk. “This is but the most meagre example of the technology I have available. I will equip you with marvels of science that will more than compensate for the power imbalance between you and Captain Paragon. And, most importantly, I will give you the means to apprehend him.”
Hellhawk took the bracelet and stared at it greedily. “He’d never see me coming,” he said, snapping it to his wrist. Then his brain caught up with what the stranger had just said. “Wait, what did you say about the means to apprehend him?”
He held out another object. It was of a similar design to the bracelet, but larger and thicker, and it had a sophisticated-looking locking mechanism in place of the simple clasp. It was a collar. “With this, the abilities of any transhuman will be neutralised.”
Hellhawk recoiled from it instinctively. “Are you serious? Who made that?”
“But with that you could enslave any transhuman you wanted to!”
“Indeed I could, Hellhawk.” The stranger tilted his head back slightly and, for the first time, Hellhawk saw his eyes, glowing red in the shadowy recesses of his hood. They flared brightly for an instant and the stink of brimstone filled the air. “Never forget that,” the pale man said, his voice taking on a darker tone now. “Bring me Paragon, and you may serve me on your own terms. Fail, and I will find another place for you.”
Hellhawk took the collar wordlessly and bowed his head. It seemed like the best option right then.
The officers at the facility were seated around the large conference table, with Janet Goodman joining them as was her custom when they discussed matters like this. Most of them didn’t like having her there, but how would they stop her? Colonel Black led the proceedings – as was his custom since General Hepburn had begun his mysterious extended leave of absence. “The Hexagon feels quite strongly that the time has come for Captain Paragon to return to the field,” he said, reading from the official looking report in front of him. “With budgets as tight as they are right now, we really need to be seeing results from this project as soon as possible. Right now, the buzz from Capitol Hill is that we aren’t providing a compelling reason for this project to continue in preference to more conventional methods of warfare.”
“He’s not a submarine you can mothball,” Goodman said.
“No one’s thinking of retiring the Captain just yet,” Black told her with a smile she knew was intended solely to placate her. The colonel was a particular breed of soldier she despised – a politician, not a warrior, but hawkish enough to cheerfully order other men into battle to die. Why were wars always prosecuted by those with no chance of being on the front line?
“You want to send him back to the field though?”
“It is a military project, Ms Goodman,” another colonel said from across the table.
“Quite right,” Black said with a nod. “The most expensive weapon in Columbia’s arsenal has no business patrolling New Amsterdam’s streets.”
“But that’s where the threat is. He was created to fight transhuman criminals, wasn’t he?”
“I think the Hexagon is happy with the situation in New Amsterdam right now.” Another one of his trademark smiles.
“Are they? And what about Mayor Boer? How does he feel?”
“The mayor doesn’t dictate national military policy. Paragon was loaned to New Amsterdam to deal with the gang problem.”
“There’s still a gang problem…”
A grey-haired major shook his head. She didn’t know the names of all these men. There had been a lot of personnel changes recently, it seemed. And tellingly, there wasn’t a woman or a non-white face amongst them. “My understanding of the situation is that Iron Hand has been neutralised and this other one…uh…what was he called?”
“Fenris,” Black filled in.
“He’s safely in The Tank.”
Goodman rolled her eyes. “Safely. Like Iron Hand was.”
Black closed the file in front of him. “Iron Hand was dealt with. Paragon excelled himself.”
“He won’t be able to deal with another jailbreak like that if he’s on the other side of the planet.”
“There’s not going to be another jailbreak. The Tank has new security measures in place. There’s really no need to be concerned. Paragon has been working closely with the NAPD to train them in dealing with transhuman threats. My sources on the ground are very confident that there is no longer a significant risk of a transhuman attack on the city. And if there is, it can be contained. Paragon needs to go back to war.” Everyone nodded in agreement and Black started to stand as if the discussion was over.
“Wait, so that’s it?” Goodman looked around at the officers she hardly knew. “He’s just going back into the field? Aren’t you concerned about what I said in my report?”
There were embarrassed glances around. Black cleared his throat. “Your report…yes. Could you summarise your findings briefly? I don’t think we’ve all had chance to absorb it all.”
Goodman kept herself composed, breathing in through her nose and placing her hands firmly on the table. She could tear it in two with barely a twitch of her muscles. She could twist their heads from their little necks and laugh as their bullets bounced off her. But no. That wasn’t the way. That wasn’t the answer. “I believe Paragon may be suffering from PTSD. He was on continuous active duty for over three months.”
“He’s built to fight, Ms Goodman,” the major said.
“He’s still a human being. He needs to be debriefed. Properly debriefed. And he needs down time. What happened with Iron Hand was unacceptable.”
Another major next to her exchanged a confused look with his colleagues. “I thought he killed him?”
“Exactly! He snapped his neck in cold blood, despite receiving specific orders to capture him alive!”
“Well, in the heat of battle…” Black started to say.
“What would you know about ‘the heat of battle’, colonel?” She gave him her most withering look and he visibly shrank back. Sometimes, even humans could sense her power. “I want to spend some time with him when he returns here before shipping out again. I need to observe him. I need to make sure…I need to know he’s okay before he goes back there. Do you understand that? He’s not a piece of military equipment: he’s a man.”
“We’ll see what we can do, Ms Goodman.”
As they filtered out of the conference room, Goodman caught up with Black. “Colonel, a moment?”
He made a show of looking at his watch, but when she grabbed his arm, she knew he understood he’d been staying to talk to her. She didn’t like to do that sort of thing, but she had to use everything she had right now. “Colonel, when’s General Hepburn coming back?”
He looked after the departing officers, and when they’d walked down the corridor out of earshot he turned back to her with his painted-on smile. “The general is moving on.”
“I really can’t say much more. It’s classified.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. He’s my friend. Where is he?”
“Ms Goodman,” Black said, leaning in, “I hope I don’t need to remind you of your status here. You were brought on as a civilian expert for the Paragon project. That project is now drawing to a close.”
“I was a bit more than a ‘civilian expert’, colonel,” she said a little more haughtily than she intended. “That’s my DNA in his cells, if you recall.”
“Amongst others. The point is, it’s probably time for you to move on too.”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous. I belong here. No one knows Paragon like I do.”
“If you know him so well, explain what happened with Iron Hand on that rooftop.”
She didn’t have an answer for that. “You need me,” she finally said.
“No, Ms Goodman. We don’t. Paragon has been deployed and we’re very happy with his progress. Your input is no longer necessary. Now, in deference to your hard work and your past history serving this great nation, I’ve indulged your presence in these meetings and allowed you to type your little reports using our computers, in our facilities, but I think it might be best if you starting packing your things. I’d rather avoid the embarrassment of having to order you to leave in front of the other staff.”
She stared at him. Was he crazy? “I want to talk to Hepburn…”
“Hepburn’s gone, Ms Goodman. He’s working on something new. Maybe you should do the same?” He was already starting to walk away. “Maybe write a book?” he suggested. “Someone might actually read that…”
She watched him go, struggling to contain her fury. Who did this small, weak man think he was to talk to her that way? She ought to go after him and remind him of exactly how she’d served this so-called great nation. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t because, if she did, they’d throw her in The Tank. They’d already leashed her with the Registration Act, and if they could put her in a cage they’d do that too. To men like Black, people like her would always be things to be used. She turned on her heel and stalked back to her rooms. She’d pack her things and leave all right, but she wouldn’t be going home just yet.
Officer Holman held up the odd-looking pistol and pointed it at the target experimentally. “I’m not sure I like the weight,” he murmured.
“Well it’s gotta be high calibre, ain’t it?” Sergeant Hendricks said in an exasperated tone. “Give it a try.”
“Okay.” Holman aimed the gun, squinted along the sight and pulled the trigger. There was a deafening roar as the bullet ripped from the chamber and demolished the faceless rubber torso at the other end of the range. “Jesus!”
“We should probably use these,” Hendricks observed as he handed Holman a pair of ear protectors.
Holman shook his head in a vain attempt to stop the ringing in his ears. “Look at that,” he said, gesturing to the smoking ruins with the weird gun. “The recoil threw my aim right off and it still shredded it to pieces. This thing’s a beast!”
“Yeah, well the things we’re gonna use it are gonna be a darn sight tougher than that dummy.”
“I bet.” Holman looked down at the weapon in his hand doubtfully. It was extremely experimental, adapted from some of the weapons the units up at The Tank used. Captain Paragon had helped them to develop it too. All of the beat cops in New Amsterdam had been put through extensive field training in dealing with transhumans. The new gear was part of that. Light Kevlar vests were replaced with bulky armour that covered shoulders, crotch and face. Their old pistols were next to go, hopefully in favour of these things. “What happens if we come up against regular criminals anyway?”
“How’d you mean?” Hendricks already had his ear protectors on and had to pull one side up to hear what Holman was saying.
“I mean, what if we go out expecting to run into some transhumans and it turns out it’s just a gang of kids or something.”
“It ain’t like these bullets only work on freaks, son!”
“No, but if we shoot a human with one of these, we’re going to rip them to shreds.” He nodded at the smoking dummy again. It was already moving away down the conveyer belt, replaced by a fresh one, a human simulacra staring sightlessly at them.
“That’s kinda the idea. It’s a gun.”
“Yeah, but…” Holman hadn’t ever had to shoot anyone before. He knew Hendricks had seen his share of action though, knew he’d been put in that situation where he held someone’s life in his hands. He wanted to ask him what went through his head in that moment. He wanted to know how you decided, how you could ever be really sure it was the right thing to do, or whether you just waited until it was you or him, and it just came down to simple survival. He wondered what it would be like knowing you had the power not to just to hurt or kill, but to destroy, to rend to pieces anyone foolish enough to stand in your way. With weapons like this, they wouldn’t be cops any more: they’d be soldiers. He hadn’t signed up to fight a war. He just wanted to help people.
“You gonna just stare at that thing all day, kid?” Hendricks asked.
Holman licked his lips, then put the gun down. “You know what? My ears are ringing. I’m gonna go see if the nurse can give me something.”
“Suit yourself.” Hendricks picked up the gun. “I been itching to have a go with this baby…”
Holman walked out into the corridor and stopped by the coffee machine. He was due to go on patrol in a short while and he hadn’t been sleeping well recently. The news talked as if the threat from the transhuman gangs was over, but he’d never known the streets so tough. There was a lot of violence out there right now. As the grey-brown machine coffee gurgled unappetisingly into the Styrofoam cup, he became aware of someone hovering behind him. He turned and came face to face with Commissioner Trent. “Nick,” the commissioner said with his usual wisp of a smile.
“Oh…uh…hi, sir. Sorry, just a second…” He could hear the coffee spilling over – the machine had a habit of doing that. He spun around quickly and grabbed the cup, then nearly spilt it all over the commissioner’s shirt as he turned back. “Uh…sorry…”
“Relax,” Trent said. He nodded back towards the shooting range. “What did you think?”
“You tried out the new gun, right?”
“Oh, yeah. Uh…it’s pretty powerful, sir.”
“Well it’s supposed to be.” Trent put an arm around the young cop and started to lead him away down the corridor. “Walk with me a moment, Nick.”
“Is everything okay, sir?”
“It’s fine. You’re due to go on patrol in a minute, right?”
Holman glanced at his watch. “Yeah…”
“There’s been a change of plans.”
“I’ve just received word from City Hall that our illustrious colleague from the military is leaving us.”
“Really?” Holman was surprised by that. “Is that a good idea?”
“It’s not really up to us now, is it? No one asked my opinion.”
“But, the point is, Boer thinks that it might be beneficial to…shall we say, troop the colours one last time.”
“What I mean, Nick,” Trent said, rapping him gently on the chest as they stopped in front of his office, “is we want there to be one last, public appearance by the good Captain before he flies back to that hellhole in the Middle East.”
“Is…uh…is that wise, sir?”
Trent frowned. “How do you mean?”
“Well, do we really want to advertise that he’s leaving?”
“Nick, they’re going to know he’s gone pretty soon. But this way the people get to see him one last time, watch him working.”
Holman didn’t like the sound of that. “Watch?”
“Yeah, didn’t I mention that?” Trent pushed his door open and Holman stared at the television crew unpacking equipment from crates all over the office. “Like I said, trooping the colours.”
“They asked for someone young to go along with him. Someone photogenic, with a good face for TV. Said it’d play better.”
“I’m…I’m not so sure about this…”
“Heh…maybe I didn’t make myself clear…”
Holman sighed. “It’s no problem, sir. I’ll do it. Where’s Paragon?”
“Where he always is: patrolling the streets.”
He watched, and he listened, and he searched out with the bit of his mind he didn’t have words to describe. How could transhumans sense others of their kind? It was just one more mystery that the T-organ held. Research was ongoing, but the only subjects available were the ones held in The Tank, and they weren’t cooperative. So for now, it would have to remain one of life’s puzzles. Paragon felt it as a tingling, an itch somewhere in the back of his head that was always difficult to focus on unless you had other senses to aid concentration. When you could see the source of it, it all made a lot more sense. For now, he just knew they were out there. Maybe hundreds of them, like him. Some licensed, no doubt, others running free. He wasn’t supposed to bring them in unless they caused a problem. Trying to track down unregistered transhumans was a job for bureaucrats, not soldiers.
Captain Paragon was perched high above the city, watching as evening turned slowly to dusk behind a seemingly-impenetrable layer of grey clouds. Lights came on in the skyscrapers, the streets were orange-lit ribbons far below, and above it all was the faint hum of tension. There was always crime. This was the world’s greatest city: New Amsterdam, the Big Orange, and part of him wanted to work out his anger on the endless tide of criminal scum that seemed to pour out of the drains. But they were just humans. He wasn’t here to fight them. He was a disproportionate response to a problem as petty as simple thuggery. But still, he itched, and not just because of the sensation of transhumans whirring away in his brain. He wanted to fight. He always wanted to fight. He had to keep moving, because if he didn’t, he’d have time to think. Think about who he was, how he’d come to be. Think about the things he’d seen and done in the short months he’d been cognisant. Think about what he might have lost in the dim past before he became Captain Paragon, a part of his life that was now less than a dream.
He touched his hand to the radio bead in his ear. “I copy you. What is it?”
“You’re to rendezvous with Officer Holman on Fifth Street.”
“Uh…those are just the orders, sir.”
“Is there a situation?”
“I don’t believe so…”
He considered just ignoring it. He was supposed to be unswervingly loyal, but already he’d found it was sometimes easier to make his own decisions. He’d done that with Iron Hand, for better or worse, and with The Huntress – Freyja – when he’d let her go. What did that make him? A traitor? He didn’t know. But he thought, somewhere deep within, that if they’d wanted a mindless machine, they should really have built one. “I’ll be right there,” he said into the radio.
“I’ll give you his exact location and…”
“I’ll find him.” He stepped off the edge of the building and plummeted to earth, his white cape streaming out behind him, but then he altered his pitch, shifted his balance somehow in a way he didn’t truly understand and swept upwards in a wide arc. He held his arms behind him, feeling the air rush past him, catch the cape again so that he streaked across the sky like a pale comet. They could see him down there. They craned their necks and pointed. They called out to him. He could hear them, even from this height. He was a symbol of something: a man, like them, but not like them, dressed in the blue and white of Columbia. An ideal. A paragon.
Officer Holman’s patrol car was parked down a side street and as Paragon banked around and saw his face bent upwards, watching him, he noticed some people he didn’t recognise taking equipment of some kind out of the back seat. He landed smoothly, dropping down to one knee and then rose to his feet. “Officer Holman,” he said.
The police officer saluted. “Captain.”
“Wow,” a woman said, “that was great. Shame we didn’t have the camera running!”
“Excuse me?” He turned to see a young black woman with short hair and an infectious smile approaching him, hand outstretched.
“Uh…Captain, this is Daisy Satler. She’s…well…she’s a reporter.”
“For Channel Eight. It’s an honour to meet you, Captain.”
“A reporter?” He shook her hand reflexively and looked over her shoulder where two men were struggling with television equipment. “What is this?”
Holman cleared his throat. “Well, Mayor Boer said something about trooping the colours…”
“I see,” Paragon said mildly. “You’re filming us?”
“Yeah,” Satler smiled, “so could you maybe do that landing again? Just give Mike a second to set up the camera.” A short, balding white man fiddling with a camera waved at him.
“I don’t think so.” He turned back to Holman. “A PR stunt?”
“Uh…not exactly. We are going on patrol.”
Paragon pointed at the car. “With a TV crew in the backseat? I hope you’re not planning to arrest anyone…”
“It’s okay, we’ll get a cab back to the station if we have to,” Satler answered brightly.
“I don’t want civilians getting in my way.”
“We won’t get in your way.” She looked a little put out by his dismissive tone.
He turned to her. “Have you been in many battles, Ms Satler?”
“I was a war correspondent for three years, actually.” She wasn’t cowed by him in the slightest.
“Then you’ll know to keep your head down when the bullets start flying.” He beckoned Holman a little way down the side street. It was a quiet area, with shops that shut at sensible hours and there was no one passing by. “I assume your department is responsible for their safety?”
“I don’t like this any more than you do, Captain. If we run into something, there’s going to be chaos.”
“I presume the intention is that we don’t run into anything. If you believe Ms Satler and her ilk, my work in this city is done.”
“This gun says otherwise,” Holman said, patting the weapon on his hip.
“How did the field testing go?”
“I wouldn’t like to come up against it, let’s put it that way.”
“I hope tonight won’t be the night you have to use it for real, officer.” He looked up at the buildings that loomed over the street. “No point me riding shotgun with you. I’ll watch the skies and let you know when I pick up something worth investigating.”
He glanced back over his shoulder. “Do they have the camera running yet?”
“Looks like it…”
“Good.” He dropped down to one knee and held his arms to either side, fists clenched. He felt the surge of power within him and then, with a burst of compressed air that sent litter flying in all directions, he launched himself up into the air as fast as he could. The sonic boom hit before he made the cloud layer above the city. If Boer wanted the colours trooped, he’d oblige. For now.
“Is he always like that?” Satler asked as she climbed into the passenger seat beside Holman.
“Huh? Oh, well, yeah I suppose. I mean, I don’t exactly know him that well.”
“He seems kind of angry about something.”
“You think so?”
Holman looked at the camera lens, just inches away from his face behind the mesh that separated them from the backseat. Mike gave him a thumbs up and Jose, the sound guy, grinned. “Is this all going to be on camera, ma’am?”
“We’ll probably cut it out. Unless you say something interesting.” She had a playful smile on her face. “Perhaps we should save tape for the action though?”
“There’s not going to be any action,” Holman said as he started the engine and backed the car out of the side street. “Not if I can help it.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
“Ms Satler, this city is a warzone after dark. A good patrol is one where I don’t run into any ‘action’.”
“I’ve been in a warzone,” Satler said, “this is a city, in Columbia.”
“A city with a transhuman problem.” They were driving down Fifth Street now, following the blip on his GPS that showed him where Paragon was. He was zig-zagging from block to block high above their heads, keeping ahead of them, but not too far.
“I thought Paragon solved the problem.”
“He took out a couple of ringleaders, but there’s always more where they came from.”
“Oh really? In the President’s speech last month, he estimated there were only a few thousand unregistered transhumans at large in Columbia. Are you saying that was inaccurate?”
Holman was about to smile and make a joke, but then he remembered the camera. “If that’s what the President says, then I guess that’s how it is. All I know is, there are a lot of people out there the NAPD isn’t yet equipped to stop.”
“So you think Paragon should stay here?”
“I think we need all the help we can get, ma’am.”
“You’re saying the NAPD is under-resourced?”
“Officer Holman,” the stern voice of Paragon said through his radio. “Do you copy?”
“I copy. What is it, Captain?”
“Could you…uh…could you be a bit more specific?”
“No. It would be hard for me to describe it to you. Follow me.”
“Okay, I’ll try…” The blip on the GPS shot away in a straight line across the city and Holman cursed under his breath as he activated the sirens and took a sharp right across two lanes of screeching traffic.
“Does he do this a lot?” Satler asked as she braced herself against the dash.
“Well, you know, he’s pretty single-minded. I guess being military and all.”
“He’s a little more than military, officer. Why do you think he’s so angry?”
“Huh?” Holman was concentrating on keeping up with Paragon. He was cutting through the city in as direct a route as possible and not exactly making many friends along the way.
“They say he’s been deployed in the Middle East, hunting the remains of Red Dragon’s terrorist cell.”
“That’s what I hear.”
“Does he ever talk to you about that?”
“What? No, why would he?”
“What does he talk about?”
Holman glanced at her, then got his eyes back on the road just as quickly. “He doesn’t talk about anything. You met him: he’s all business.”
“You’ve never spoken to him when he’s off-duty?”
“Um…I don’t think he really goes off-duty.”
“Not that I’ve seen.”
“So you don’t know what he looks like under the mask?”
“What?” Holman looked at her again. The question had never even occurred to him. “Under the mask? I guess…I don’t know. Why does it matter?”
“Well he’s a man under there, isn’t he? Aren’t you curious to know what he really looks like?”
“I think…I guess the mask is him. I don’t think he’s anyone else underneath.”
“So you don’t think he has a secret identity?”
“A what?” Some instinct kicked in and Holman slammed on the brakes as a semi screamed past them, less than a foot from their front bumper. “Shit!” He took a breath. “Maybe we can save the questions for when we’re not speeding through traffic in downtown New Amsterdam, okay?”
“Okay,” Satler said, apparently unfazed by this brush with death. “You can let me know who you think Captain Paragon really is in the interview afterwards.”
“Commissioner Trent didn’t mention that?”
“He said I had a good face for TV. He didn’t say I’d be auditioning for my own spot on Channel Eight.”
“Good face for TV, huh? Yeah, I can see what he means. You’ve got a certain something.”
Holman kept his eyes on the road now. “No more questions,” he told the reporter.
The insistent blip on the GPS display led them to a cramped parking lot behind a boarded-up liquor store. They were well outside the vibrant bright lights of the city now, in the no-man’s-land between affluent downtown and the teeming boroughs. This was the sort of once-thriving area now made obsolete by the growing suburbs and the ease of commuting from outside New Amsterdam – small businesses that used to support local communities, now long extinguished. Holman still had the sirens on as he pulled up beside an overflowing dumpster and the lights bounced off the cracked asphalt and graffiti-covered brick walls. He climbed out of the car, followed swiftly by Satler and her crew. “Paragon?”
He stepped out of the shadows and looked up at the dark sky. “There was something…”
“Something?” Holman was gripping the handle of the new gun already. He could feel his heart beat faster as he walked towards Paragon’s towering shadow. The transhuman sounded confused, and that didn’t please Holman one bit. He could hear Satler following him, and feel the camera’s lens watching him. This wasn’t going out live. Everything would be okay. If something went wrong, they’d all just head back to the station and let Paragon handle it. “Could you be a little more specific?” he asked in a voice pitched low enough to make things difficult for Jose and his microphone.
“I thought…I thought for a second…” He was murmuring to himself and holding his head.
“Is everything okay, Captain?”
“It’s hard to explain, Officer Holman. Transhumans are able to…sense one another, in a way.”
He nodded. “I’d heard that.”
“It’s a kind of sixth sense, like the feeling you’re being stared at.”
Holman shifted his shoulders a little, very aware of Mike hovering just behind him. “Yeah, I know what that’s like…”
“And for a second, I was sure I felt a powerful transhuman nearby, but then it disappeared.”
“Maybe he went indoors?”
“It isn’t like that. And there was no way he could have left the area that quickly.”
“Well, you just went supersonic back there, Cap’. Maybe he can do the same thing?”
Paragon shook his head firmly. “No: a feat like that would cause me to sense even more power. Flight is one of the most intensive exertions of our T-organ. Only powerful transhumans can even attempt it. I’d have felt him flying, Officer Holman.”
Holman looked up at the sky, as if he’d be able to spot anyone zooming around in the darkness. “Are you sure it was a transhuman?”
Paragon got a strange look on his face – or at least the part of it Holman could see. He’d never given much thought to how Paragon’s mask covered everything except his mouth and jaw, hiding anything distinctive about him until Satler had mentioned it. The blue cowl was just part of him. “It was a transhuman,” Paragon said firmly, “and there was something…familiar about it too…as if it’s someone I’ve encountered before…”
“But there isn’t anyone left in the city who could…”
There was a strangled cry from behind them and Holman turned, not quite managing to pull out the pistol from its holster due to its unfamiliar weight. Paragon of course was much quicker, and he’d already darted forward to catch Jose as he started to fall to the ground, a stunned expression on his face. “What just happened?” Satler demanded, staring around.
“Someone shot your sound man,” Paragon said calmly.
“What? I didn’t hear a gun!”
“Neither did I,” Holman said. He finally had his own weapon out and was pointing it ineffectually upwards. He couldn’t see anyone.
Paragon cradled the man in his arms and pressed one white glove across a bloody wound in his side. Jose was already turning pale. Mike, channelling his cameraman instincts, had the lens trained right on his colleague. “I didn’t hear anything either,” Paragon said calmly, “and my hearing is vastly superior to all of yours. But he has a bullet wound.”
Satler looked wary. “A sniper?”
“Possibly. I suggest you all return to the car. I’m afraid this excursion will need to be cut short. Holman, please radio for an ambulance. I’d fly him to a hospital, but he’d be unlikely to survive such a rigorous journey in this condition.”
Holman shouldn’t have been surprised at how deadly calm Paragon was, but he still found himself impressed by it. “I’ll get the first aid kit,” he said, now amazed at his own composure.
“That would be a good idea. I have some basic training in field medicine.”
“I took an advanced course,” Satler said.
Paragon looked up at her. “Excuse me?”
“When I was a war correspondent. I took an advanced field medicine course. Let me handle this.”
Holman came back with the first aid kit, then tried to use his radio. He only got static though. “What’s wrong with this thing?”
Satler started rummaging around in the kit as Paragon frowned at Holman. “Is there a problem?”
“Can’t reach anyone on this thing.”
“Let me try.” Paragon touched a finger to the bead in his ear, then visibly winced at something.
Paragon grimaced. “I don’t understand.”
“Here.” Satler pulled her phone from her pocket and tossed it to Holman without looking up.
He touched the screen and then shook his head at what he saw. “No signal.”
“Don’t be stupid; we’re in the middle of the fucking city.”
He held it out to her. “See for yourself.”
She took it from him and stared at the screen in disbelief. “I don’t believe it. No bars. Not even emergency calls. What the hell is going on?”
Holman was starting to get a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. He turned around slowly. “Someone’s blocking the signals somehow. We have to get out of here.”
“Agreed,” Paragon said. “Miss Satler, help me carry this man to the patrol car. We’ll take him to the hospital ourselves.”
“Let me bandage him up first and…”
She didn’t get any further than that, because the deafening explosion swallowed up whatever she was about to say and sent them all sprawling to the ground. Holman rolled onto his back and stared in disbelief at the flaming wreck that had been his patrol car just a moment earlier. His ears were ringing again.
“This is a trap,” came the stern voice of Captain Paragon. He felt a firm grip on his shoulder and was hauled roughly to his feet. Paragon’s glove left a bloody smear on his shoulder.
He blinked at the transhuman. “What do we do?”
“These people are in danger and I can’t protect them all myself, not against an adversary I can’t see or sense.”
“I understand. What’s the plan? All these buildings look deserted.”
“If they aren’t, I’m sure whoever’s led us here made sure they were emptied. We have no choice but to try and make our way back to safety on foot.”
“Do you think this is the transhuman you sensed?”
“If it was, I’d still be able to sense him.”
“So who is it?”
“I don’t know,” Paragon admitted, casting his eyes skyward, “but if he could destroy your car like that, he could have killed us at his leisure. We’re being toyed with, Officer Holman.”
Goodman sat back in the seat on the private jet and watched the clouds skim past outside the window. This high up, the air was clear and the moon shone down on the ephemeral mountains that completely hid the ground far below. She could be anywhere. She remembered seeing this once, years ago now, flying under her own power for the first time. She and Steven had been together then, launching themselves into the air, both amazed to discover that newfound freedom, bursting through the cloud layer and spiralling around each other beneath an endless dome of stars. Magical days, somehow completely divorced in her mind from the horror that had swept across the world. But the tingling memories of those first tentative steps into realising her transhuman potential would always be inextricably linked with the carnage of a World War and the grinning spectre of Iron Cross, a transhuman more powerful than any of them, looming over it all. She had wanted a different life for Paragon. He was supposed to represent something better, not be a tool for men who, in some ways, were as reprehensible as the Nazis she’d helped to destroy. And then there was that other thought that crept into the back of her mind when she let her guard down, the thought that she had worked with those men and delved into science every bit as black as Iron Cross had. He’d been trying to create transhumans too. She and the scientists and officers at the base might one day be judged as harshly as him, unless something could be salvaged from the project. Unless some good could come of what she’d done.
“Would you like a drink, Ms Goodman?” an attendant asked, bringing her out of her reverie.
She smiled up at the young man and shook her head. “No, thank you. I’m afraid alcohol disagrees with me.”
“We have tea, coffee…”
“Tea would be lovely, actually.”
“I’ll get it for you right away, ma’am.” He was a handsome boy, but about sixty years too young for her.
She gazed out of the window again. She didn’t like throwing her weight around, getting favours like the use of this jet, but there was no denying it was a better way to travel than flying in a commercial airliner. Not as good as just flying herself of course, but even with the cloud cover that probably wouldn’t have been a very smart move. She hoped she wouldn’t need to be in New Amsterdam for long – she wasn’t supposed to be there at all – but she was looking forward to seeing Paragon again. Since he’d been sent on deployment, she’d barely spent more than a few hours with him.
The attendant came back with her tea, but a sudden lurch sent him stumbling to one side and the pot clattered to the floor. “Shoot!” he said.
She smiled at that. She didn’t think they raised boys that polite any more. “Here,” she said, getting out of the chair, “let me help…” The plane lurched again though and she went flying across the cabin. Only her transhuman reflexes kept her upright. “Are you all right?” she asked the attendant as he scrambled up to his knees.
“I’m fine,” he said. He glanced up at her and she saw how pale his face was. “This is my first time flying.”
Goodman smiled again. “We’ve all been there, dear. I’ll go and ask the pilot if everything’s okay.” She walked gingerly across the spacious cabin up to the cockpit door. She knocked politely, more out of habit than anything else, and then peeked inside. “Gentlemen? Is something wrong?”
The co-pilot craned his neck around the seat and gave her a reassuring smile, but she saw the tension in his eyes. “Just a little turbulence, ma’am.”
“The air looked pretty clear out there to me.” The plane shook and she braced herself against the doorframe. “That wasn’t turbulence.”
“I’m radioing weather control in New Amsterdam”, the pilot said, “see if they’ve got any air pockets on their radar. Huh…”
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“We’ve lost radio contact…”
“That’s impossible. We’re still in Columbian airspace.”
“Maybe if we try…” The plane shuddered alarmingly and then Goodman felt herself being lifted off her feet and she knew the aircraft was falling suddenly. They dipped into the clouds and everything went was dark through the cockpit windows. Lights were blinking all over the instrument panel.
Goodman steadied herself again and looked behind her into the cabin. The attendant was staring out of the nearest window with his mouth open. “What are you looking at?” She turned and could only stare in horror as the fuselage began to buckle and tear right where he was standing. Something was shearing the plane apart… No; as she watched, she saw it was something ripping it apart, forcing its way into the cabin. The decompression was explosive as the plane tore itself apart and the poor attendant was sucked out into the night sky, leaving only the echo of a faint scream behind. But she couldn’t think about that, because, as alarms sounded and the air whipped her greying hair around her face, she saw what had stepped inside and now stood in the rapidly disintegrating remains of the plane, heedless of the chaos around him. He was transhuman, that was clear enough, but she could sense nothing from him.
“Who are you?” she screamed at the robed figure that advanced on her. If he answered her, she didn’t hear it over the roar of air as they plummeted to Earth.
Paragon led Holman and the TV crew through the eerily silent streets. They’d barely gone a block, but their progress was slow with Satler and Mike carrying the unconscious Jose between them. The reporter had done a good job patching up her sound man – better than Paragon would have managed – but Mike had been very vocal about having to leave his camera behind. “What the hell’s the point of being a cameraman without a camera?” he’d whined.
“If anything good happens I’ll get it on my phone,” Satler had said.
“Great – why am I even here?”
Paragon wondered the same. If he and Holman had been on patrol alone, as he’d assumed they would be, this wouldn’t be happening. He’d have been able to fly both of them to safety. As it was, they all had to crawl through the city on foot, hoping they’d eventually reach the edge of this cordon of darkness their unseen assailant had somehow thrown up in the centre of New Amsterdam. “You sense anything yet?” Holman asked him in a low voice as they ducked around a corner.
“No. I must have been mistaken.”
“That ever happened before?”
“No.” It was disquieting thought.
“Could someone…you know…fake that?”
“I have no idea. Anything’s possible.” And that too was disquieting. What could he trust, if not the evidence of his own senses?
“If this isn’t transhumans,” Holman went on, “what happens?”
Paragon thought about it. “We still need to bring criminals to justice.”
“You weren’t brought here to stop ordinary criminals.”
“So what happens?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ve fought ordinary humans before,” Paragon snapped. His voice had come out a little harsher than he intended, but he was tense. Understandably. “On deployment.”
“Really? I thought you were fighting the remnants of Red Dragon’s terrorist cell.”
“I was. But…they use human combatants too.”
“So…you killed people? Normal humans, like me?”
“I…yes. They were terrorists, Officer Holman. Enemies of freedom.”
“But against you…”
“This probably isn’t a good time to discuss this,” Paragon said quietly.
“Sorry.” Holman pointed across the street. “I just saw a car’s lights on the other side of that construction site. We can go around, but there must be a way to cut through. It’s no more than five-hundred yards and then we’re back in civilisation.”
Paragon looked up at the looming concrete skeleton of a half-built building, stark against the cloudy night sky. It was hard to say whether work was still ongoing or whether economic hardship had brought it to a halt, leaving this unfinished hulk behind in the middle of the city like this. There was indeed a route through the girders, concrete pillars and piles of rubble at ground level, but it looked treacherous. “Do you think they can carry Jose through there?”
Holman looked over his shoulder at the TV crew, then back at Paragon. “He’s losing a lot of blood,” he said in a low voice. “We need to get him to safety fast.”
“Agreed. Let’s go through the construction site.”
Paragon stepped out into the road and then stopped. There was a sound, just a thin whistle right on the edge of hearing. The others hadn’t picked up on it yet, naturally. It was getting louder. He squinted into the darkness and then saw them, glimmering in what little light there was, flying towards them. He stepped in front of Holman and the others and put his arm up in the path of whatever the objects were. He felt the thud as they hit and then…pain. He gasped at the sensation – both unfamiliar and horribly familiar at the same time – and stared down at his arm. Embedded in his flesh were two metal discs with blinking domes in their centres, no more than an inch and a half across. The edges of the discs were razor-sharp and cruelly barbed. If they’d hit the humans, they’d have been sliced to ribbons.
“Paragon?” Holman had his gun up, but he was staring at the discs too.
Pain. He remembered this. Not from Before, not exactly, but from something else…something he’d forgotten. It came back to him now though. A time when he was formless. A time when he was alone, blind and terrified, in agony. It thudded into his mind all at once and his knees buckled beneath him.
“Jesus, are you okay?” Satler rushed over and crouched down beside him. She grabbed his arm and held it up. “Are you…are you bleeding?”
Holman looked scared. “What could make Captain Paragon bleed?”
“I’m still a man,” Paragon said through gritted teeth. His heart was beating so fast he thought it was going to force his way through his chest. “I bleed just like you,” he said, rising shakily to his feet. His forearm was slick with blood where it was pulsing from the two wounds in his normally impervious flesh.
“These must have been going fast to hurt you,” Satler said. She still held onto his arm, looking at the strange weapons. She was nearly two feet shorter than him. “What are they?”
“Drones of some kind,” Paragon guessed. He felt like he was going to be sick. He felt weak, helpless. Every time he closed his eyes, he felt like he was enclosed in a tank, floating weightlessly in infinite darkness, not knowing who or what he was. He couldn’t shake it. He didn’t fully understand what it was, but he’d realised he’d always had that memory lurking just below the surface, waiting to be triggered at any moment by this most human of sensations.
“Get me the first aid kit,” she said, “I’ll try to remove them.”
“No.” Paragon took one in his other hand and crunched its central dome between his fingertips. The lights went out. Then he pulled it gently out of his flesh and dropped it to the ground. He did the same with the second and, without pause, squashed both beneath his boots. He rolled his shoulder experimentally.
“Are you going to be okay?” Satler asked.
“I heal fast.”
“Those wounds look deep.”
“Not as deep as Jose’s. Let’s go.”
“Captain,” Holman said as he stepped up beside him, “what are we dealing with here? I’ve never seen anything like those drone things.”
“Whoever’s playing this game has some pretty high-tech toys.”
“Let’s hope those were all he had in his box then.”
There was a makeshift chain link fence around the construction site and Paragon shouldered one end out of the way to make an opening. His injured arm hung limply by his side, throbbing painfully. Every pulse of agony brought with it a wave of memory of an earlier, more thorough torture. He was starting to find it hard to breathe. He pushed it down though as they made their way underneath the half-finished building. Satler and Mike struggled to keep up over the uneven ground with Jose between them. Holman had naturally volunteered to help, but Paragon needed him and his weapon to be able to react to danger. The going was desperately slow, and they were only halfway through the shadowy maze of concrete pillars and scaffolding when Paragon heard the whistling sound again. “Get down!” he roared.
Sparks flew as the bladed drones bounced all around them. Mike screamed as one skimmed his leg and he fell to the ground. Paragon pushed Holman down as one whipped past at head height. It left a burning ribbon across his cheek before turning in the air and heading right back for him.
“Someone’s controlling them!” Satler called out. She was sheltering beneath a girder that was partially covering a shallow ditch. Jose was with her, but Mike was on the ground a few yards away, holding his leg and letting out a low groan.
“We’re going to die down here!” Holman shouted. The drones still bounced around, coming at them from all directions. Paragon couldn’t keep count of how many there were. One managed to embed itself in a concrete column less than a foot from his head and he reached out to smash it with his fist.
“We have to find who’s doing this,” he said.
“This is a game,” Paragon said, “and there’s no point winning a game if you don’t see the losers get beaten.” He looked up at the shell of the building above them, criss-crossed by girders and scaffolding. There, high above, he saw something moving. “Stay here and watch them, Holman. If you get the chance to escape, take it.” A drone spun past him and he reached out and grabbed it from the air, crunching it to scrap in his fist.
Holman ducked behind a sheet of metal just as a second drone sparked off it and pirouetted to the ground with a strangled whirr as its lights went off. “Are you crazy?”
“Stay here,” he repeated. He crouched and then threw himself into the air, surging past the obstacles that stretched between the gaping holes in the unfinished building’s structure. He put his fist out in front of him, smiling silently as a drone glanced off it and tumbled harmlessly to the ground that was now rapidly falling away behind him. He bounced onto the top level of the structure. A fragmented concrete floor had been laid, and most of the ceiling was open to the sky. Plastic sheeting whipped back and forth in the wind and, beyond that, he saw lights – the lights of the city, and the safety they promised.
For now though, he only had eyes for the figure crouching in the shadows, watching him. He couldn’t make out much, except he was wearing a long coat and his face was covered by a hood. He walked towards the mysterious attacker, and then found himself encountering resistance, like the air had turned to syrup. He looked up as the near-invisible web he’d been caught in collapsed around him. It was some sort of polymer net, very fine, weighted at the ends. But, as he tried to fight free, he saw they weren’t weights – they were devices of some kind, blinking like the drones. They flashed red and then he bellowed in agony as a jolt of electricity went through his body. He tried to fight his way out, but each attempt to free himself only constricted him even more and sent another shock through him. He fell shuddering to the floor, grasping feebly at the net.
“So nice to finally meet you in person, Captain,” the figure said as he walked towards the flailing Paragon.
“Who are you?”
“I’m actually a little offended. After all the months we spent chasing each other around those mountains, you really don’t recognise me?” He pulled back his hood and Paragon stared into a face he’d only seen in a military dossier before.
“Hellhawk?” It was the last person he’d been expecting.
“The very same.” The terrorist crouched down next to the helpless Paragon. He was a slightly built man, with pale skin and black hair. He had a prominent nose, a wide grin but dark eyes that were completely empty of emotion. “I was expecting a more satisfying fight, to be honest, but I did have a big advantage this time.”
“I can’t sense you,” Paragon said. He was starting to panic again as he felt the net pull tighter and another electric shock made his body jerk. Helpless, in pain, alone in the dark. Just like before.
“Yeah. That’s what I mean.” He held up his arm and showed Paragon the bracelet he was wearing. “Neat, huh?”
“Don’t ask me: I didn’t build it. But that’s not even the best thing I brought with me.” He took something out of his pocket and held it up for Paragon. It was a circle of metal. “Wait ’till you see what this does…”
The drones had worn themselves out, damaged by ricocheting off concrete and metal and now lay inert and smashed on the ground. Holman looked upwards. “Something’s happened.”
Satler grimaced. “That scream sounded like Paragon.”
“I know. I’ve got to help him.”
“What can you do?”
“I’ve got this.” He held up the gun.
“What good will that do?”
“It’s designed to stop transhumans.”
“This isn’t a transhuman, remember? You heard Paragon.”
Holman looked down at the gun and thought back to the firing range and the smoking dummy. “It’ll work on humans too,” he said grimly. He stood up tentatively, ready for another barrage of the drones, but nothing happened. Whatever was going on up there, it was keeping their puppet master busy. “Stay here,” he told Satler. Without waiting for her to reply with something sarcastic he jogged off through the building. There had to be a ladder up the scaffolding somewhere. He eventually found one on the other side, a rickety looking thing leaning up against one half-built wall. He holstered his pistol and climbed it carefully, then when he was on the next layer of scaffolding he went looking for the way to the floor above. He made his way up the building like that, zig-zagging his way higher and higher, at one point having to shimmy up a rusty scaffolding pipe and jumping over holes in the unfinished floors. Finally, he pulled himself wearily up to the top floor, now back on the far side of the building. He crouched in the shadows and tried to see where Paragon and their mysterious attacker had gone.
The wind snapped at plastic sheeting that protecting the yawning holes in the walls as he made his way across the wide open space, ducking behind pillars. There, near the gap Paragon had flown through, a man was crouching. He was talking to a heap of something on the floor and, after a moment, Holman realised it was the prone form of the Captain. He swallowed. This was no time to get second thoughts, but the sight of the transhuman hero apparently incapacitated made his stomach turn somersaults. His heart thudded in his ears as he crept closer. The man he didn’t recognise in the long coat was dragging something off Paragon now, and it looked like a transparent sheet of some kind. He tossed it to one side and Paragon climbed up to his knees. He was alive then, that was something. But why wasn’t he fighting back? Holman frowned into the darkness, trying to make out what was happening. Paragon had his head bowed. He looked defeated. The man stood over him. He was still talking, but Holman couldn’t make out the words. There was a distance of some five yards to the next pillar, and the concrete floor gave way to scaffolding there. The boards looked old and creaky. It was risky, but he needed to get closer. He stepped out and very, very carefully, placed his foot on the scaffolding. The stranger was too busy crowing over Paragon to hear him it seemed, and he took another agonising step. Still nothing. He kept going and, after what felt like hours, he found himself flattened against the column on the other side, breathing hard and inwardly begging his body to keep calm, or at least quiet. He peered out of his hiding place. He could see things a lot more clearly from here – Paragon was slumped down, and he had something around his neck. It looked like a collar of some kind. What the hell was going on?
“Now you understand, Captain,” the man said. “How does it feel to be human again?”
Paragon didn’t reply.
“Answer me! How does it feel?”
Holman frowned. Human again? But there was something about Paragon in that moment. Something diminished about him, like a light had gone out. Was it possible? Did that collar somehow rob him of his powers? Holman wet his lips as he took out the gun. His palms were slick with sweat, but now wasn’t the time to hesitate.
“Answer me, you piece of shit!” the man bellowed. “You hunted me for months! Have you nothing to say to me?! Has the mighty Captain Paragon no words for his greatest enemy, the man who defeated him, the Hellhawk himself? No?”
Hellhawk? It seemed impossible, but nothing could surprise Holman now. He stepped out from behind the pillar and levelled the gun at Hellhawk’s back. It was an easy shot – he was less than twenty yards away. The wind had died down. It was like being back at the range. But he’d never shot anyone before. He’d never been in this situation, with the life of another human being in his hands like this. Even a human being like this. Even with everything on the line. His hands shook.
Paragon looked up and, for a moment, their eyes met. He saw the defeat there. The terror. He saw the human beneath the mask.
Hellhawk turned around. “Who the fuck are you?”
Holman pulled the trigger. The force of the impact sent Hellhawk staggering backwards. He gaped down at the ragged wound in his midsection and tried to regain his balance, but he was right on the edge of the hole and he fell back with a wordless cry of rage and tumbled down into the abyss. It seemed a long time until the sound of him hitting the ground floated back up to them.
“Paragon,” Holman said, rushing towards him. “Are you okay?”
“Take this off me,” he whispered.
“How? I don’t know…”
“The lock’s at the back. I’m not strong enough to break it.”
“Then why would I be?”
Paragon looked up at him. “I’m as weak as you’d be with these wounds, Nick,” he said. “I can barely lift my arms.”
“What is this thing?”
“I don’t know.”
Holman stepped behind Paragon, careful to avoid the hole in the floor Hellhawk had so recently fallen foul of and examined the locking mechanism. It looked secure, so he lifted his gun. “Brace yourself,” he told Paragon. He brought the handle of the pistol down as hard as he could. It dented the lock. He did it again, and again, and finally it broke and the collar fell open and dropped to the floor. Paragon sank down, placing his hands on the concrete and visibly shaking. Holman knelt beside him. “You all right, Cap’?”
“Yes,” Paragon replied through ragged breaths, “I think so…”
“Smile,” a voice said from across the huge open room. They looked up to see Satler walking towards them, phone turned on its side, recording the whole scene.
“What did you see?” Paragon asked as he climbed slowly to his feet.
“I saw New Amsterdam’s newest hero – Police Officer Nick Holman.”
“You saved Captain Paragon. It’s all right here.” She pointed the phone’s camera lens at him. “Any comments?”
“I was just doing my job…”
“You need to delete that recording,” Paragon told her.
“Sorry, I’m sending this live. We got our signal back a couple minutes ago.”
“Hellhawk must have been carrying whatever was blocking it,” Holman said, looking down the hole. He turned back to Satler. “I told you to stay where you were.”
“And Paragon told you the same. Good job you ignored him, huh? Now what was that collar thing? I didn’t catch everything you said, but it sounded like it somehow controlled your powers? Who has the technology to build something like that?”
“It doesn’t exist,” Paragon said, stooping down and picking it up.
“But we all saw what it did. With collars like that, transhumans could be brought under control and…”
“It doesn’t exist,” Paragon repeated, snapping it apart in his hands. “This interview is over. I suggest you use that phone to call an ambulance for your friends instead of land a scoop.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job…”
“Don’t tell me how to do mine. I am Columbia’s answer to the transhuman threat.”
His tone silenced the reporter and she finally turned off the camera and stepped away to call the ambulance. Holman looked at Paragon. “Where did that thing come from?” he asked.
“I have no idea, but Hellhawk’s no inventor.”
“He’s no anything now…”
“He’s alive. I can sense him down there, faintly.”
“Why did he come after you?”
“I don’t know. Even with his technology, he only just beat me. If we hadn’t been with the TV crew, he’d never have had a chance. He spent months evading me – why reveal himself now, in my own territory?”
“It’s almost like…” Holman scratched his jaw. “No…forget it.”
“Like…well, like he was set up to fail. What was he even planning to do to you afterwards?”
“I have no idea.”
“I wonder, what if this was just a distraction or something?”
Paragon looked around, his gaze searching out the night sky. “A distraction? For what?”
“Beats me,” Holman shrugged, “But somehow, I don’t think this ends with Hellhawk.”
“You might be right.” He was already moving, jogging towards the edge of the building.
“Wait! Is this it? Are you leaving?”
Paragon looked back. “Leaving? Hellhawk’s lying unconscious down there. Who would I leave to fight now?” He pushed back one of the plastic sheets and leapt out into the darkness.
Holman watched him soar into the sky and heard the boom as he went supersonic again. “One thing’s for sure,” he said to himself as he stood on the edge, holding onto a scaffolding pipe and letting the cold wind tousle his hair, “I wouldn’t like to be the guy who sent Hellhawk here when he gets hold of him…”
Goodman opened her eyes slowly. She felt groggy. It took her a second to get a fix on her surroundings. She was staring up at the ceiling of what looked like an upscale hotel room. She was in a comfortable bed, dressed in the clothes she’d been wearing when the plane…when the plane…
She sat bolt upright, then immediately rolled onto her side with a groan. She felt so weak. Weaker than she’d ever felt before. The only time she could remember feeling like this was…well…decades ago, before…before… What was going on? She tried to move her arms, but they felt like lead. Had she been drugged? Impossible: she was transhuman. She tried to push herself out of bed, but her legs felt as useless as her arms and she only managed to flop out onto the floor, landing in an ungainly sprawl. She managed to roll up to her knees, pawing at the bedside table and then propping herself up against the wall. Her head throbbed. She touched a hand to her temple and then became aware of something unusual. Slowly, her fingers went down to her neck and there she felt something secured around her throat – a metal collar of some kind. “Wha…?”
“I must apologise, Ms Goodman,” a voice said from the other end of the room.
Her head spun round, too fast, and she nearly fell to the ground again. She managed to shuffle around and peered into the shadows. She was indeed in a hotel room, and a nice one too. By the far wall, a robed figure sat on a couch, watching her.
“You…you attacked my plane…”
“Yes. I’m sorry for that too.”
“The crew…the attendant…”
“I don’t understand.” She touched the collar again, flinching away from its cool metal surface. “What is this?”
“An ingenious device of my own invention,” the stranger said, standing up and walking toward her with an odd gait. “It is for use against transhumans like us, numbing the T-organ to make us just as we once were.”
“We? Us?” She shook her head. She had to focus on something else besides what he’d just told her, it was too hateful. “You’re not transhuman. I can’t sense you.”
“Ah, bear with me a moment.” He lifted his arm and unfastened a bracelet he was wearing. “Better?”
The force of his presence almost bowled her over. He was, by some margin, the most powerful transhuman she’d ever encountered. She stared at him. “You…you took my powers,” she said, finally managing to get the words out. “Why?”
“Because, Ms Goodman, you have certain knowledge and skills I require.”
“What kind of knowledge and skills?”
“You created Captain Paragon, did you not?”
“I helped create him, yes.”
“Then you will be most useful in my efforts to replicate that process…with certain modifications…”
“Why would I help you do something like that?”
“You have no choice.”
“I’d sooner die than help you.”
“Dying would be the least of your problems if you were to defy me, Ms Goodman.”
She swallowed. She felt so helpless. Was this what being a human was like? She’d forgotten. It had been so long. “Who are you?” she asked him. “Why are you doing this?”
“I think I both of those questions have the same answer, Ms Goodman.” He reached up and pulled back his hood and she recoiled at what she saw. “My name is Dante,” the monster told her, his forked tongue flicking between his scaled lips as his glowing red eyes burned through her, “But you may call me White Dragon.”