Janet Goodman, Columbian Woman, is missing, presumed dead in a mysterious plane crash. Captain Paragon, the transhuman hero she helped create, is also AWOL from his post protecting New Amsterdam from the super-powered gangs that now rule its streets. It falls to Freyja, The Huntress, to protect the city, but a mysterious newcomer is about to arrive, bringing with him the stench of death.
‘Mandrake’ continues the twisted superhero tale of Captain Paragon.
He opened his eyes with a start and an involuntary gurgle of saliva. Immediately he tried to move, but he found he was bound to a cold, metal surface of some kind. A bright light was shining in his eyes and even his head was held in place by straps. He rolled his eyes around, trying to supress the rising panic in his gut. He hadn’t felt helpless like this for years, not since he’d found out he was special. Instinctively, he reached out to the part of him that could deliver him from any threat, but then a shadow fell over him.
“No haría eso, señor,” a voice said in an American accent.
“I speak English,” he hissed back.
“Oh, sorry. I just assumed…” the shadowy figure held up something in his hand, and he knew from the shape it was the mask he wore.
“If you have any sense, you’ll let me go.”
“I’ll do nothing of the sort, Jesus.”
“Don’t call me that.”
The figure waggled his fingers. “Oh, sorry, am I not supposed to know your ‘secret identity’?”
“I’m tired of this…” he reached again, but stopped as he felt something sharp and metallic press against his temple.
“This drill,” his captor whispered, “will kill you before you’re able to use your powers, transhuman. I’ve studied your abilities very closely. ‘The Luchador’ is quite the hero in these parts. Capturing you wasn’t easy.”
“What do you want with me?” Jesus spat.
“I want what’s inside you.” The light that had been shining in his face was abruptly swung away and Jesus looked up to see racks of metal shelves just feet from the table he was bound to. They were in a very narrow, enclosed room, and the other man – slightly built, white, middle aged, with thinning black hair and a scraggly beard, wearing a stained white lab coat – sat on a stool just beside him. Jesus’s eyes focused on the shelves. There were rows of glass jars there, each filled with a colourless liquid and each playing host to a twisted, pink glob of flesh, floating eerily, transfixed in the bright light.
“What…what is that…?”
“T-organs, my friend,” the man grinned, “the source of all your kind’s power.”
Jesus recoiled. “Where did you get them?”
A gloved hand pressed against his face and he tried to flinch away, but couldn’t. “From living donors, Jesus. Men and women like you. With a mutation.”
“I’m so glad you asked that.” The man leant in close. “My name is Jonah Todtdrachen. My paternal grandparents, like so many others, were victims of one of the cruellest regimes in history. They were German Jews, first ghettoised, then taken to the camps to be worked to death. That would have been horrifying enough, but fate had something worse in mind for them. They were two of the unfortunate few deemed suitable to be experimental subjects in the laboratories run by Iron Cross, the most powerful transhuman ever to live. He was trying to replicate the conditions of the T-Event that created him and the other first generation transhumans. My grandparents were early failures or, perhaps it would be more correct to say that my father was an early failure. Conceived by violence and ghoulish science he was rightly abhorred as an abomination.”
Jesus’s gaze returned to the T-organs in their jars. There were dozens of them. Hundreds. “So what is this? Some kind of revenge against transhumans?”
“Not at all,” Todtdrachen laughed, “I am merely giving you some context. You see, while Iron Cross failed, others have been trying for years to replicate his techniques and create transhumans. In order to do that, they need raw material to study.” He took the closest jar from a shelf and held it in front of Jesus. The light reflected through it creepily and revealed the weird, wrinkled shape within. All of the T-organs were different sizes and slightly different shapes. They all developed differently. Up close, it was a nasty-looking thing, like a strange tumour. “Do you have any idea how much this is worth?” Todtdrachen whispered.
“You’re sick,” Jesus said, “no better than Iron Cross. How could you do this to us after what he did?”
“I am a pragmatist. I had nothing growing up. Less than nothing. The only talents I had were my intellect and a knack for spotting your kind. Perhaps my formative years with my father had something to do with that. So now I put that ability to use. I track you down, I harvest the material, and I sell it to those who are interested.”
“You’re a fool. Do you know how you track us? You’re one of us. Your grandparents were recessive and so are you most likely. We can all sense each other, us transhumans.”
“You’re not the first to tell me that.” Todtdrachen put the jar back. “But I don’t care. I’m no freak. At least not in that way.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Jesus asked. “Why wake me up at all?”
“Because you have to be conscious and using your T-organ for me to be able to extract it. You have to be alive when I cut it from your brain stem.” He leant very close. “This is going to hurt, Luchador.”
He laughed shortly. “Do you really think I’m going to just lie here and let you cut me open? I don’t care about your drill: I don’t have anything to lose, do I?”
“On the contrary.” Todtdrachen moved the lamp down the table and Jesus looked down at himself. His bonds weren’t just straps – there were devices attached to his wrists and ankles, his shoulders, thighs, groin. Saws and blades and drills, all connected by a bundle of wires that snaked up the table and then underneath near the top, by his head. “Remember that intellect I mentioned? I have spent a long time familiarising myself with the workings of the T-organ. If you try to use your powers, the feedback – the T-waves – will trigger these devices. They will shear your limbs from your torso, castrate you, leave you maimed and helpless. And then I will take your T-organ anyway, but it will be a much longer and much slower process. Here…” He swung a screen mounted on a bracket over his head and turned it on. A video began to play. “This is what happened to the last transhuman who resisted. Don’t look away now. My finger is on the trigger.” He held up the control.
“You’re a monster…” Jesus whispered.
“I’m a businessman. You’re the monster, freak. Now, please relax: this will hurt, but not as much as it could. Remember that.” Somewhere beneath Jesus’s head, a drill began to whirr.
Captain Paragon smashed heedlessly into the earth, scattering dirt all around and then scrambling up to his feet. His white cape got caught around his legs and he tore it aside with a snarl. Half stumbling, he ran towards the wreckage. It was blackened, charred, still smoking. A cordon had already been set up and a soldier moved to bar his way. He didn’t even hear the man’s words, just shoved him aside with a sweep of his arm that sent him flying six feet through the air. He tore through the cordon, into the ruin of the plane. “WHERE IS SHE?!” he bellowed.
The military paramedics and mechanics picking through the wreckage looked up, shocked, but no one else barred his way. He tore into the remnants of the fuselage, ripping it to pieces, looking for a body. She was strong and she could fly. There was no way something like this should be able kill her. He didn’t want to find anything, but he knew that he would. He knew that somewhere in all this torn and twisted metal, the broken corpse of Janet Goodman would be waiting for him. He knew because he’d felt her light go out. He hadn’t even known it was there until it disappeared, but the moment he felt it go, he’d known the truth. She was gone. Gone forever.
“We already searched the whole site,” a voice said.
He looked up. Colonel Black was standing over him, perched atop part of the wing, a sympathetic look in his eyes. “She’s dead,” Paragon replied blankly.
“There’s no body.”
“Then she must have been thrown clear.” Paragon straightened and looked around. He tried to imagine the plane going down, tried to use his superior transhuman intellect to picture the angle of its descent and see where she might have come to rest. He had to find her. He had to give her the burial she deserved. But he couldn’t think. His mind was a whirlwind of rage and grief.
“We’re still searching for the black box, trying to find out what happened.”
“Do what you want.”
“What do you want from me, Colonel?” he asked, whirling around. He towered over the soldier, but the man didn’t flinch from him.
“You’re still on duty, Captain. We need you back in the field.”
“After this?” He gestured around him. “Goodman’s dead.”
“We don’t know that for sure.”
“I do.” He put his white-gloved hands against his chest. “I can feel it. I know. She’s a part of me. She…she gave me life.” Janet Goodman was the closest thing he had to a mother. Her DNA had been used to bring him into being, to transform him from the ordinary human he’d once been into this, Columbia’s greatest weapon against the threat his kind posed. And she was the only one in the whole world who thought of him as a person.
“Whatever the situation, there’s nothing you can do here.”
“I have to find her.”
“You have to go back to work.”
“Is this how you deal with grieving soldiers?”
“There isn’t time for grief in war, Captain. You know that. Cry your tears later. You have a job to do.”
He grabbed Black around the throat and lifted him off his feet. “My job is to find whatever’s left of Janet Goodman. And then I’ll find out who did this and I’ll make them wish they were never born. Do you understand that, human?”
“You’re out of line, soldier,” Black croaked.
Paragon released him and he fell onto the broken wing and rolled over onto his stomach. He massaged his throat. “You have nothing in your arsenal that can stop me, Black. Stay out of my way.”
The Colonel coughed. “We built you to fight for us,” he said.
“She built me. Not you.” He looked around the bare landscape. Night was falling, although the cloud cover was so thick it was hard to tell. He breathed in the smell of smoke on the air. There was something else too – a rotten, sulphurous smell. A word came to him. Brimstone. What was that? No matter. He had to find Goodman. He had to do this thing. Picking a direction at random, he launched into the air, leaving the cowering Black behind and, around him, the dozen soldiers who’d been aiming their rifles at Paragon throughout the confrontation.
The Wolf lifted the blade in his hand and then dropped it with a surprisingly high-pitched scream as he stared up at the arrow now protruding from his palm. Blood gushed from the wound down his wrist as the barbed tip glinted in the moonlight. He dropped to his knees, then another arrow took him in the back and he slumped over to the floor of the filthy alley. His friend shoved their victim away and stepped towards the fire escape. He pointed. “You! The She-Wolf!”
“It’s The Huntress actually,” she said calmly, notching another arrow. She was in the shadows, but they could both see each other perfectly well, in a manner of speaking. This Wolf was a transhuman too, albeit a very weak one. A member of one of the splinter packs left after she’d finally vanquished Fenris that were now reduced to petty crime in New Amsterdam’s underbelly.
“Why are you hunting us, sister? You should be running with us.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Don’t you miss having a pack?”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re no wolf. You’re just a little man looking for a direction.”
“Not so little, sister…” He grinned, and she could see how he’d filed his canines. Pathetic.
“I’m not your sister.” She released the arrow and planted it straight through his chest. He stared down at it in disbelief, took two stumbling steps forward and fell face-first into a pile of garbage. Blood pooled beneath him, and she could smell it on the air, a hot, metallic tang that made her mouth water. No. She wouldn’t give in to that. Not tonight.
She jumped nimbly down from her perch and hooked her bow back over her shoulder. The man the two thugs had been beating up scrambled out of his hiding place behind a dumpster and stared at her. “Who are you?” he asked. He was an ordinary looking guy, perhaps a little down on his luck, but that was hardly unusual in this city.
“My name’s Freyja. Some call me The Huntress.”
“You…you saved me…”
She looked down at the two dead men. “I was just cleaning up the mess I found here. Don’t let it go to your head.”
The man licked his lips nervously. “This city’s gone to hell. It needs a hero.”
“I thought it had one – your boy scout with the cape.”
“He ain’t around anymore. Gone back to fight his war, or that’s what everyone’s saying.”
“Well, that’s his prerogative I guess.” She heard a distant sound. Her hearing was much more acute than this ordinary human’s and she turned slightly. “I have to go,” she said.
“What is it? More of them?” He smelt scared.
“No. Cops. I’d get out of here if I were you.” She turned, but he was already running. “Smart man.” She dashed back to the fire escape and swung herself up. The cars were still a few blocks away, but you couldn’t be too careful in this town. Paragon may have decided to leave her alone, but she was still an unregistered transhuman: a threat to the social order. Back where she was from, no one cared about that kind of thing, but this was Columbia. As she clambered up the ladder, she thought about this city and the ever-present threat of the transhuman gangs. Her brother had been part of that, and that’s what had drawn her here in the first place, but nothing much had changed even now he was in the Tank upstate. She felt, somewhere deep down, a sense of duty to this place somehow. To clean up his mess once and for all. That was supposed to be the good Captain’s job, not hers, but if he wasn’t around…
As she reached the roof of the building, she heard car doors slamming and could see the lights reflecting off the opposite wall. She sprinted underneath the moon as the clouds parted again and unhooked her bow. There was still hunting to do.
Officer Holman squinted down the line of traffic as he waved the next car through the checkpoint at the end of the bridge. A big Winnebago rumbled towards them and he gestured for the driver to roll down his window. It was a hot, smoking morning, and a bad day to be on traffic duty. This was the hardly the best use of his time, but the Commissioner felt that as the force’s number one expert on transhumans, he was valuable here. Mostly he just got abuse from all the folks held up by the random checks on their way into the city. The Winnebago pulled to a stop and the blacked window on the driver’s side slowly slid down. A short white man with dark, thinning hair and an unkempt beard peered at him over a pair of lowered shades. “Everything okay, officer?”
“Checkpoint, sir. We’ll have you on your way in just a minute.”
“I’m an American citizen…”
“That’s not what we’re checking for.” Holman’s partner was performing a quick scout around the vehicle. She nodded to him as she walked around the back. Nothing unusual. “Could I see some ID, sir?”
“Sure.” The driver took out his wallet and held it open with his license showing.
Holman took it and peered down at the card. It was a Texas license, but the man’s accent was milder, more Midwest than anything else. “Okay, Mr Todtdrachen. What brings you to New Amsterdam?”
“Just coming to see the sights.”
“So a vacation?”
Todtdrachen tapped the wheel. “Touring the whole country in this baby. Childhood dream, you know?”
Holman smiled faintly. “Sounds nice.” He handed the wallet back. “Are you transhuman?”
Todtdrachen laughed and shook his head. “No, sir.”
“Do you or have you ever associated with any transhumans?”
“Not that I know of. Why?”
“As I’m sure you know,” Holman said, like he was reading from a script, “there are a number of unregistered transhumans currently resident in New Amsterdam. We would advise you to stay indoors after dark where possible and, if you must leave your place of residence, please try not to do so alone and remain in well-lit and crowded areas. If you see any sign of suspicious activity, please report it to the NAPD.”
“Is it really that bad in there?” Todtdrachen asked, nodding towards the world’s most famous skyline.
“Not if you’re sensible.” Holman looked at the Winnebago. “Are you traveling alone?”
“Pretty big vehicle for one guy.”
“I like my creature comforts.”
“Mind if I take a look in the back?”
Todtdrachen smiled. “I don’t know how you do things on the East Coast, but where I’m from the cops need a license to search a man’s home.”
Holman narrowed his eyes. “That’d be Texas, would it?”
“At the moment. I was a military brat though.”
It was a good answer. Everything made perfect sense. “Well, enjoy your stay in New Amsterdam, Mr Todtdrachen. Hopefully, you won’t be seeing me again.”
“Thanks, officer.” He flicked a little salute and then pulled back into the road again to join the slow moving traffic.
Holman walked towards his partner, Suarez. “Anything suspicious on his plates?”
She shook her head. “Nope. Registered to him. No priors.”
“Well then.” He looked at the back of the Winnebago as it turned off along the access road that would take it deeper into the city.
“Everything okay?” Suarez asked him.
“I don’t know…just got a strange vibe off that guy. I might keep an eye on him. Who the heck brings an RV into a city anyway?”
“Someone who likes his creature comforts?”
“Funny, that’s just what he said.” He waved another car through. This duty was onerous and kind of ridiculous – all it did as far as he was concerned was antagonise people and turn them against transhumans, but he didn’t call the shots. Mayor Boer had lodged an official complaint about it too, but these orders came from Homeland Security. The government was getting increasingly concerned about the gangs in New Amsterdam and was trying to curtail the influx of unlicensed transhumans into the city. But they wouldn’t come riding in cars. There were other border patrols – Coastguard scouring the docks after dark, FBI teams checking imported goods, his colleagues in the NAPD conducting strategic raids. It was all pointless though. Only the weakest transhumans would be taken by such means. It was all for show: a demonstration of force. Like Captain Paragon. As Holman returned to the booth by the road and took a sip of his long-cold coffee, he thought about the Captain, whose life he’d saved just days ago. But now he was gone, back to his war across the ocean, even though Hellhawk was now safely in the Tank. There was no information.
Holman only knew one thing: they weren’t going to clean up this city with checkpoints and midnight raids. The world was changing. They had to adapt to it, not try to fight it. Transhumans would stop fighting them the day humans stopped treating them like mutants who had to be controlled. Paragon, if he stood for anything, stood for the trust Columbia placed in one of their kind. He had the power to change everything. But for now, they seemed to be on their own.
“I’ll be glad when this shift is done, Nick,” Suarez said as she walked up to him.
“Hm, tell me about it.”
“I didn’t become a cop to get shit from pissed off drivers. I’m no parking attendant.”
Holman cracked a smile. “Once this latest scare dies down, we’ll be back doing our jobs.”
She leant against the wall of the booth and folded her arms. “Or, when they finish that new bridge, we’ll be doing even more of this shit.”
Holman followed her gaze to the half-built bridge that spanned the river to the north. More traffic coming into the city, more business, more money. “They can’t keep doing this kind of thing. How long until we’re searching every car for transhumans? It’s crazy.”
“You tell that to Homeland Security.”
“I wish I could.”
“Well, you’re a celebrity now,” she said with a smile, “they might even listen to you.”
“Don’t remind me…” The line of cars stretched out along the bridge, each one home to an angry, hot person who was getting more and more pissed off at transhumans. Holman sighed and stepped out of the booth so he could wave a station wagon over.
For as long as she could remember, Freyja had been more or less nocturnal. Back home, it had barely made a difference to anything, especially after snow had fallen, but in the city it was more a matter of survival. The reek of all those people, their sweat and their smoke, their greasy, processed street food, their belching cars, it was almost unbearable. Only at night, when it was quiet, could she go about her business without a headache. That’s why it was so frustrating for her to wake up with the late afternoon sun filtering in through the cheap curtains of the one-room apartment she rented. She rolled over in the fold-down bed and peered up at the light resentfully. Then the stink hit her. She growled deep in her throat as she climbed up onto her hands and knees on the bed, more beast than woman for a moment.
She shook some sense back into herself as her brain snapped back into gear and looked around for the source of the repulsive smell. It was like carrion. Something rotting and vile, like a dead thing jammed behind a radiator, but there was nothing around to make it. She’d been extremely vigilant cleaning out the foul apartment when she’d moved in and ensured there was no way for vermin to crawl its way into her territory. With a nose as sensitive as hers, you couldn’t be too careful.
She crept over to the window and looked out at the street. There were the usual stationary ranks of traffic trying to get to wherever they were going, but nothing she could immediately identify as the cause of the smell. It was strong, so it should be close. She craned her neck to look down at the sidewalk, but she hoped there wasn’t any human vagrant who stank as bad as that. It was like someone had hung a chunk of putrefying meat out of their window, and though she could well believe that of her neighbours, she saw nothing like that. The traffic moved forward imperceptibly, and the nose of a big, ugly vehicle poked its way out of a side street. Her gaze locked onto it. That’s where the smell was coming from. It was an unusual thing to see in downtown New Amsterdam, a Winnebago, but unless it was packed with weeks-old animal carcasses, she couldn’t imagine how or why it would smell like that.
Without thinking, she started picking the cleanest clothes she could find from the piles strewn around the room. It was daylight: she couldn’t just wander around in her usual gear, even in this city, so she pulled on a pretty horrible t-shirt she’d bought recently and some jeans. She glanced down at her arms and the tattoos that spiralled their way from her wrists to her shoulders. Again, nothing too odd about that around here, but they were distinctive and would make her easy to identify. She found a hoodie and wriggled into it, even though it was a hot, muggy day.
It didn’t take her long to track down the Winnebago, not just because it hadn’t gotten far in the heavy traffic: the smell was like a beacon for her. She kept her head down as she walked along the sidewalk, dodging through the crowds of pedestrians and only pausing to lift a wallet or two from some folks who looked like they wouldn’t miss them. She stopped on a corner by the entrance to the subway and ducked behind a billboard to extract bills from the wallets and throw away any cards or other crap she didn’t need. While she did that, she watched the Winnebago and tried to figure out what was going on. Its windows were blacked, but otherwise it was just an ordinary, fat RV. Not new, but not that old either. What was it even doing here? She kept following, walking a few blocks before it turned off down a side street and made its way into the back streets of New Amsterdam. Its pace was still sluggish, if only because navigating the narrow roads in such a lumbering vehicle wasn’t easy. Freyja slipped down an alley and found a fire escape so she could take to the rooftops and follow it unobserved.
It was early evening by the time the RV pulled into an empty construction site. It was sheltered on all sides by high fence panels and most of the buildings around it were blank-faced, the back ends of stores or factories. It was a miserable area of the city, and Freyja wondered what a vacationer would be doing there. She sprinted along the parapet of a rooftop overlooking the construction site and skidded into a perch between a couple of jutting pipes that emerged from within the building, taking who knew what who knew where. She was able to clamber down and secrete herself in that nook, watching the Winnebago directly below. It was quiet, and she was confident she’d be able to see or hear anything that went on.
After maybe ten or fifteen minutes, a black sedan rolled into the site, coming from somewhere uptown. Like the RV, its windows were blacked-out. It parked up near the Winnebago and a man climbed out of the back seat. He was a slender, middle-aged white man, nondescript in a charcoal-grey suit, but with a buzz cut and a certain rigidness in his posture that suggested he was military. He turned his back and fumbled inside his jacket. After a few seconds, the distinctive whiff of cigar smoke made its way up to her.
The Winnebago’s door was facing away from her, but she heard it slam shut and another man joined the first. He was shorter, less sure of himself, and he stank as bad as his vehicle. “You’re not my usual contact,” she heard him say.
“Mandrake, right?” the military man said, turning smartly on his heel.
The Winnebago-owner – Mandrake, apparently – started. “You?” he asked after a few seconds, and she could smell his surprise even from five storeys up.
“You recognise my voice,” the man said with a nod, “so you understand how important this is.”
“I never thought you’d meet me in person…”
“Why do you think I brought you all the way here? I have places I’m supposed to be right now, and I can’t just travel out to some hick town.”
“You had to come yourself? I know this shipment’s bigger than usual, but…”
“Forget the material,” military said dismissively, “something’s happened. I couldn’t trust this to an underling, or even to electronic means. A lot of people are listening; trust me on that. There are signals even I can’t have encrypted to the highest levels.”
Mandrake was moving nervously. “Look, if there’s a problem with the deal…”
“There’s no problem. I’ve already sent you co-ordinates for the drop. It’s way out of town. No, this is something else. Something I need your particular skills for.”
“You know what I mean.” Military tapped a finger against his forehead, sending cigar smoke twirling skyward. “Your knack for finding the freaks.”
“Are you enjoying New Amsterdam?”
Mandrake didn’t seem fazed by the apparent non-sequitur. “They’re everywhere here, did you know that? There’s one no more than a hundred yards from us. Don’t ask me where. Probably in some basement, doing whatever it is they do. I can’t even tell with all the noise they’re making in my head right now.”
Freyja shrank back in her hiding place. Mandrake was no transhuman, but he seemed to share their ability to sense each other somehow. Military grinned. It wasn’t a nice grin. “Don’t worry, I have a nice easy target for you.”
“A target? You’ve never sent me after anyone specific before…”
“No. And this time, I don’t even want you to kill her. Just find out where she went.”
“Who are we talking about here?”
He reached into his jacket again and took something out. Freyja leant forward, trying to make out what it was. All she could see was it was a glossy picture of some kind, a photograph, but it was too distant for even her eyes to make out any details. “This is who you’ll be hunting.” Military’s voice had dropped low, but she could still make out what he was saying.
“Her? You’ve got to be crazy, man…”
“You won’t be engaging her, just locating her. We’ll do the rest.” Mandrake reached for the photo, but military pulled it back. “No, you know who she is.”
“Okay…but…weren’t you keeping tabs on her? I thought she was involved in one of your projects.”
“You don’t know shit, Mandrake.” He put the photo back inside his jacket. “She’s missing, and we have reason to think she’s still alive. Find her, and report back to us. That’s all.”
“Fine. And what sort of payment plan were you thinking about, Colonel?”
“Mind your mouth, kid,” military growled, “you never know who might be listening, even here. This is your payment plan: you find her, you get to stay out of the Tank.”
“I’m no freak…”
“Sure you’re not. But I wonder what we’d find if we cut that giant brain of yours open, huh? I know what sewer you crawled from, Todtdrachen, I know what your daddy was. So you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, capiche?”
“I’ve got dirt on you too…”
“I bet. Difference is, some people dirt sticks to, and some people it doesn’t.” He took one last draw on his cigar and then flicked the stub at Mandrake’s chest. “Make the drop. Your money’s waiting for you, along with coordinates to start your search. You find her and maybe I’ll forget we were even business partners and you can carry on with your miserable little life.”
“Nothing’d make me happier.”
“I bet.” He turned and climbed back into his car. Mandrake stood there with the smouldering cigar butt still smoking at his feet and watched the sedan drive away. Then he got back into his stinking Winnebago. Freyja watched for a few more minutes, then headed back to her apartment. She had a lot to think about.
Paragon ignored the chimes coming from the radio bead embedded in his cowl as he approached the facility’s landing strip. Eventually they became so insistent that he deactivated the thing altogether with an angry jab to the side of his head. It messed with his attitude and he came in a little off balance, skipping to an awkward halt before sprinting straight for the entrance. A squad of soldiers were there to meet him. “This is my home,” he told them without pausing.
The facility was exactly how he remembered it: shabby, military-grey, aging, but he saw none of it. They tried to stop him at checkpoints, demand ID, despite knowing perfectly well who he was – the blue uniform and the white cape ought to have been enough clearance to get him anywhere. But here he wasn’t in charge; here he’d been a subject, an experiment, not someone who was free to come and go as he pleased. They didn’t want him asking questions, looking into things that weren’t his business. At the last door before the personnel quarters, a sergeant tried to bar his way, but he simply shoved past her and tore the door off its hinges.
About a quarter of an hour later, Dr Guttenberg found him in the room that had been hers, but which was now stripped bare of any kind of adornment, as Spartan as the rest of the facility. He held up his hands as the doctor walked in and leant against the doorframe, watching him. “She’s only been gone a day.”
“We didn’t move her stuff out: she did.”
Guttenberg smiled. “You know, you can take your cowl off here, Paragon. We’ve all seen your face.”
“I prefer to leave it on.” What did that say about him? He knew he wasn’t even supposed to think introspectively like that. The process of his transformation and the subsequent training he’d undergone should have killed that part of his brain. And yet here he was, asking questions like that of himself.
“She was asked to leave the project a few days ago,” Guttenberg explained, walking into the small room and sitting on the bed beside Paragon.
“It came from above. They don’t tell me about these things.”
“Hepburn?” The General had been the man who masterminded this entire operation.
“Hepburn’s off the project too. Almost all of the original staff are now – Goodman and I were two of the only senior team members remaining as of last week.”
“So they sent her away, put her on a plane and…”
Guttenberg pushed his glasses up his nose. “We heard about the accident.”
“She’s dead, Doctor.”
“I heard missing.”
“I know she’s gone. I can feel that she’s gone.”
He nodded. “Right. You know, you two formed a very fundamental connection during your time here. I know that she certainly felt like she had a responsibility towards you. We all did, of course, but with her it was different.”
“Her DNA is inside me. It makes me what I am.”
“Hers and others. Don’t forget that.”
“Paragon,” Guttenberg said, “I saw the footage of what happened in New Amsterdam the other day.”
He drew back warily. “I’m not happy about that doing the rounds.”
“I can understand that. The device Hellhawk used to suppress your abilities…”
“What about it?”
“Do you know where he might have got it? We’ve done research along those avenues here, but we never came close to building a working prototype.”
“Research?” Acid dripped from his voice.
“It never got out of the earliest test phases,” Guttenberg said defensively, “we didn’t exactly have a lot of volunteers lining up to help us try it out.”
“That sort of thing never stopped you before.”
“Goodman stopped us, actually. She was…the moral centre of this facility. I think you know that. Some of the higher-ups here, they wanted to have you stripped of any sense of ethics, turn you into nothing more than a biological machine that could take and follow orders. Goodman wouldn’t allow that. If you were to be a symbol, you had to be one that meant something. Those were her words.”
“And now she’s gone,” Paragon said, bowing his head.
“Gone, yes, but dead? Do you really believe that?”
“No, but…” He thought about it. “They make her leave, they put her on a plane home, and she just happens to have an accident?”
“She can fly, Paragon, like you. She doesn’t like to do it much, but I’m finding it really hard to imagine how a plane crash could kill Janet Goodman.”
“Unless someone found a way to stop her using her powers.”
“And we know someone has that technology,” Guttenberg said softly.
“I destroyed the one used to collar me.”
“You think whoever made it only produced one?”
Paragon stood up slowly. “Promise me something, Doctor,” he said.
“Promise me that thing didn’t come from this facility.”
“I can only tell you that, if it did, I had no part in it. I’m a doctor, Paragon. Harming anyone – even a transhuman – goes against every belief I hold.”
But you harmed me, he thought. You took whoever I was and you ripped him open and rebuilt him from the skeleton outwards. You turned a human being into a transhuman for the first time since the T-Event, and I only have your word that I volunteered for it.
“If she lives, I’ll find her,” he said.
“I can’t think of anyone else I’d trust to do it.”
Paragon thought of something. “Who’s in charge here now?”
“He was at the crash site with a team.”
“Probably on his way to New Amsterdam. I believe he was meeting Senator Katz to discuss the situation in the Middle-East now that Jordan are claiming to have produced their own transhuman soldier.”
“Tell him I called.”
Guttenberg looked out of the door at the trail of destruction Paragon had left. “I think he’ll know, son.”
No one could move more silently than Freyja. She crept along the same rooftop she’d used as a hiding place earlier, but now under the yellow gaze of a fat full moon. Wispy clouds scudded across the otherwise clear sky, driven by a cold wind off the sea. It had been hot during the day, but it was still only spring and the air was cooler than it seemed when the sun was beating down on the crowded streets. Freyja preferred it like this, with natural smells of salt and seaweed just lingering on the breeze, taking away some of the stink of the city. It couldn’t do much about that Winnebago though. She couldn’t imagine what was causing the smell, but she reasoned it must have something to do with whatever clandestine business this Mandrake character was conducting with his friend the Colonel. She broke into a run as she reached the edge of the building and jumped out into thin air, holding out her arms as she fell into a graceful swan dive. She tucked her legs in as she plummeted to earth and landed in an easy roll that took her back up to her feet with an agile spring. She turned in the dirt of the construction site, sending up a small plume of dust, then jogged towards the Winnebago.
It was dark and silent, exactly where it had been before. Mandrake seemed to have closed up for the night. That was the advantage of an RV, she supposed. It seemed such a waste to travel across the countryside and then shut yourself away in another box at night though. Wasn’t the whole point of being outdoors to be out of doors? She’d never understand city folks. She crouched by the door and tried the handle. Locked. She reached into her pocket and took out a pair of crooked wires which she slipped into the keyhole and eased around for a moment, working the hidden mechanism. There was a click as it came open and she smiled a little smugly to herself. Pocketing her lockpicks, she reached for the handle again and this time it turned, but the door still didn’t open. There was a deadbolt on the inside. She swore under her breath and tried to think of a solution that didn’t involve just bashing the door in. She was strong enough to break in by force if she wanted to, but that would wake up Mandrake, and she wanted to snoop around and figure out what he was up to, not put an arrow through his throat.
Freyja stepped away from the Winnebago and looked for another way in. There were no windows along the side, oddly, something she hadn’t noticed before, but as she stepped back she saw a skylight poking up from the top. She didn’t need much in the way of handholds to climb, and the ridged sides of the RV were enough for her to scramble up onto the flat roof. The skylight was set in a raised frame and, unlike the other windows, wasn’t blacked out. She knelt over it and tried to make out anything inside, but it was all dark. She took out her lockpicks again and jimmied the latch open. It lifted easily – no bolts on the inside here – and she cracked it open wide enough for her to slide through. She dropped down into the vehicle’s dark interior and looked this way and that, trying to get her bearings. The inside was furnished like a 1970s trailer, with a narrow Formica table and a little patterned seating area, a functional little kitchenette and a door off to what was probably a tiny bathroom and another that presumably led to the cab at the front. Perfectly normal, if a little smaller than she’d imagined. In fact, the space was distinctly narrower that it had appeared from outside, and the lack of windows was even stranger in here. The walls were just featureless panels. But, as she took all this in, the smell hit her again and she wrinkled her nose reflexively. It was truly disgusting, and it was coming from all around her.
She crept through the cramped, narrow space, trying to find the source. The whole place was clean, and there was nowhere to hide anything that unpleasant. She opened a couple of cupboards that were at head-height in the kitchen area. There were just dozens of identical packs of dried noodles and a few jars of cheap instant coffee. An inspection of the fridge revealed only microwave meals. “Maybe the smell’s coming from the bathroom,” she said under her breath.
Idly, she ran a hand across one of the close walls and then stopped. There was something odd about it. She pushed against it, and realised it was flexible, like a sheet of metal fitted across something, only secured at either end. She looked, and saw the brackets screwed into place, holding it on. The wall on the other side was the same – there was something behind them, something hidden.
Hardly daring to breath, Freyja quickly worked at the screws at one end, deftly unfastening them and then easing the panel away to look behind it. She couldn’t make anything out behind there. She went to the other end and did the same, now carefully lowering the panel – a sheet of metal seven or eight feet across and half the height of the Winnebago – to the floor. Behind it were…shelves. Ordinary wooden shelves, holding jars. She could see perfectly well in the dark, but the stench almost overwhelmed her senses and she stepped back, holding a hand across her face. Breathing slowly to stop herself puking, she reached for one of the jars and held it up to the faint moonlight that filtered through the open skylight. There was something in there, preserved in formaldehyde. It shouldn’t smell, but it did. She didn’t know how anyone, even a human, could bear to be this close to whatever it was. As she turned it this way and that in the light, she tried to figure out what it was. It was organic, certainly, an oddly-shaped fleshy lump, but not any sort of body part she recognised. She put it back and reached for another. It was the same, albeit it a slightly different size and shape. Each jar contained the same type of thing. She thought back to the overheard conversation earlier. Mandrake had talked about a shipment, and the Colonel had used the nebulous term ‘material’. Was this what they’d meant? Some sort of illegal trade in…what? Meat? Organs? But what organs could these be?
Realisation dawned. Mandrake and his talent. His contempt for ‘freaks’. His assumption that his latest target would need to be killed. Her face was grim as she put the latest jar back. There must have been hundreds lining the shelves, and each one surely represented a person, a person Mandrake, or some associate of his, had carved up like a science project. No wonder this place stank. Her skin crawled at the thought of what might have taken place in this very room. And it wasn’t just people, she thought, it was transhumans. How had an ordinary human managed to kill this many of her kind? Even the weakest of them should have been able to overpower him. It didn’t make any sense.
“I think you’ve seen enough, don’t you?”
Freyja turned slowly and looked right into the barrel of a gun. She raised her hands over her head and cracked a smile. “All right, no need to do anything stupid here, Mandrake.”
He narrowed his eyes at her, then reached across and flicked the light switch. Harsh fluorescent light filled the interior of the Winnebago and Freyja blinked to adjust to it as quickly as possible. “How’d you know who I am?”
“Oh I know all about you. About your little experiments on transhumans, about your deals with the Colonel, even about your new mission.” He hoped his ability to sense transhumans wasn’t as acute as her sense of smell. She’d have been able to smell the deception on herself from half a mile away.
“You don’t know shit.” The weapon he carried was a revolver, a real hand cannon, and he looked like he knew how to use it. She knew she was faster than him, but he could blow a hole the size of a watermelon in her at this range, no matter how quickly she moved. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“My name’s Freyja.”
She inclined her head. “You’ve got a knack for spotting us.”
“I track you down. That’s what I do.”
“And you harvest our T-organs, right?” Her eyes flicked towards the jars.
“That’s right. They don’t belong to you anyway.”
She frowned. “How’s that?”
“You’re not natural. The T-Event put those things inside humans, made you into freaks.”
She replayed the conversation from earlier over in her head. She had a good memory, and even with a gun pointed at her, she could dredge up a few interesting nuggets. “What about your father? Wasn’t he one of us?”
Mandrake’s eyes widened and the gun dropped slightly. “Who are you?”
“I already told you that.” She darted forward and made a grab for the barrel of the gun, pushing it downwards and punching Mandrake right in the nose before he could react. He let go of the gun and staggered backwards, holding his face. Blood poured between his fingers. Freyja flicked out the revolver’s barrel with a quick movement and shook the bullets onto the floor. “Nasty things,” she said, “no point ruining a kill by filling it with lead shot.”
“You fucking bitch!” Mandrake yelled, wiping at his bloody nose with the back of his sleeve.
“You have no idea how right you are.” She unhooked her bow from where it had been folded into her belt and, with one shake of her wrist, it snapped to its full length with the cord stretched taut between the arms. She flicked an arrow from her quiver and notched it, pointing it straight at his face. “Talk, little man.”
“I don’t owe a freak like you any kind of explanation.” He slammed his fist into a panel filled with buttons beside the microwave and the wall opposite the one she’d taken off suddenly dropped down from the top, smacking her on the head. She let go of the arrow as she fell and it embedded itself in the wall above Mandrake’s head. “There are over two-hundred specimens there, whore, and every one of them thought they could beat me in a straight fight. But mutant physiology is no match for human ingenuity. You’re all going to learn that eventually.”
“Ingenuity?” She pushed the fallen panel up on its bottom hinge and got to her feet. “Dropping a sheet of metal on me is ingenuity now?”
“It’s not the sheet of metal you should be worried about – it’s what’s behind it.”
She turned and saw, hanging up opposite the shelves full of jars, a rack of implements and machines she couldn’t begin to fathom. Things with motors and wires connected to crude blades, drills and saws, like a mix between modern surgical tools and some breed of high-tech torture equipment. The panel she was still holding, she now saw, was designed to fold down into a gurney, complete with straps. An operating table. She pulled a knife from her belt and made to throw it, but Mandrake’s hands were already on the controls and suddenly the machines sparked to life and a wall of whirring death was clawing towards her, mounted on hanging wires and robotic arms, reaching out for her. She slashed desperately at it, but she couldn’t fight them all. In her desperation to avoid a spinning buzzsaw blade and a collection of half a dozen drills mounted on connecting pistons that came at her at head height she didn’t notice Mandrake sneak up behind her and shove a needle into her neck. The world went dark as she collapsed back into his waiting arms.
Holman was on his way home, a bag full of takeout in one hand, his cell in the other. He was trying to text and walk as he took a backstreet on the way to his apartment, but eventually he gave it up. He was out of uniform, but everyone knew he was a cop now, and he had to keep his eyes open in this part of town. A teenager walked past him and narrowed his eyes slightly. Holman tensed, ready to defend himself if necessary, but the kid pointed. “Hey, you’re that cop,” he said with a wide grin, “from the internet.”
“I’m from real life as well.”
“You shot that dude, the terrorist.”
Holman bobbed his head. “Sure did.”
“You saved Paragon, man!”
“Well, I don’t know about that…”
“Hey, do you know where he went?”
Holman shrugged apologetically. “You’re asking the wrong guy, kid.”
“I guess we got The Huntress in the meantime, huh?”
He frowned. “Huntress?”
The teenager grinned and mimed firing a bow and arrow. “You know.”
He did know, now that he thought about it. The fight between Paragon and Fenris, the Wolf, in front of City Hall. It had ended with an arrow shot from across the street, and no one knew who was responsible, or that was the official line. Maybe there was more than one transhuman hero protecting this city. “I guess so,” he murmured.
The boy was still smiling as Holman walked away. This sort of thing was happening more and more often now – the hero worship that was – and he wished he was the type of person who enjoyed it. But he didn’t get into law enforcement to go viral online, just like Suarez didn’t get into it to man a checkpoint and ask innocent people invasive questions. He wanted to stop people getting shot, not shoot them. Maybe that wasn’t how he should be thinking as a police officer – after all, they gave him a gun for a reason – but he’d never shot anyone before a few days ago. He didn’t regret shooting Hellhawk and, yes, saving Captain Paragon, but that didn’t help him sleep any better. This transhuman situation was complex enough, but now he was involved, his face indelibly linked to the apprehending of a terrorist leader. He felt like he had a target on his back; he hoped he wouldn’t find an arrow sticking out of it one day courtesy of this Huntress person.
All this was going through his head as he crossed the street and walked past an abandoned construction site. No work had been done there for months, but in this part of town that was hardly unusual. He glanced up and caught sight of something through the open gates: a Winnebago, parked alone, no lights, no engine running. He blinked. There could be any number of vehicles like that in New Amsterdam, and any number of legitimate reasons one of them could be parked there. But some instinct in him tickled at the back of his mind. He looked down at the takeout he was carrying. Thai. His favourite. But it would have to wait. He sighed and took out his cell again to call the station.
Freyja came to and immediately tried to sit up. She could already feel she was tied down: it hammered into her brain instantly, driving out any lingering grogginess. Mandrake, sitting on a stool next to her in the darkened Winnebago and fully absorbed in the screen of a glowing tablet, looked up in surprise. “That was fast,” he said.
“Let me go,” she growled.
“Remarkable. You’re not suffering any ill effects from the anaesthetic at all.” He turned the tablet around so she could see it. It was displaying a series of moving graphs. “Your vitals. You’ve got one hell of a metabolism.”
“Fuck off.” She spat in his face.
“Very nice,” he said mildly, pulling a tissue from a box next to him and wiping his cheek. “You should really surrender yourself to the inevitable.”
“You expect me to lie here and let you kill me?”
“You’re a smart woman, I’m certain of that. Look behind me, at all these jars. You think the Luchador wanted to die? Sparkplug? The Masked Knight? They all struggled, they all fought, and in the end they died on this table.” He rapped his knuckles against the smooth metal gurney.
Freyja’s gaze rolled up to the wall opposite him, with its bank of gleaming blades and saws, ready to bear down on her. “Is this how you get your kicks? Torturing transhumans to death?”
“You have to be conscious when I remove your T-organ. And I learned early on that I have to take extreme measures to control your kind. Most of you could kill me in the blink of an eye, so it’s necessary to protect myself. Want to know what happened to the last one who tried to go down fighting?”
“It wouldn’t stop me.”
“Don’t be so sure.” He smiled as he tapped at the tablet. “There’s something else though,” he said. “I’m a scientist. I built all this equipment myself. At first I was just trying to make a quick buck with this stuff, but I started to notice how different all the T-organs I harvested were, and how different you all were from one another. Your mutations are all subtly unique, although there seems to be a genetic component. Siblings often share abilities. Do you have any brothers or sisters, Freyja?”
“And is he like you?”
She showed her elongated canines. “He’s in the Tank.”
Mandrake blanched at that slightly, but then recovered himself. “Here’s what I’m wondering,” he said, putting the tablet to one side, “what makes you special? How did you find me so easily? Are you like me?”
“All transhumans can sense each other.”
“I’m not transhuman.”
“Keep telling yourself that.”
“I’m better than you, freak…”
“No: you’re worse. You’re subhuman.”
He slapped her across the face. It didn’t hurt much, but she hated being helpless like this. As she looked down at herself, she could see her bonds were hooked up to some of his nasty little devices. He could probably dismember her with the touch of a button. “Are you going to keep me alive to study me then?”
“For a little while, yes. Not long. I’m getting readings from your T-waves even now. Normally I set this up so any attempt to use your abilities turns you into a bleeding potato, but I wanted to see what made you tick first.” He held up a warning finger and showed her the controls in his other hand. “Any funny business, and I’ll pull the trigger though.”
“You think you’re faster than me?”
“I think you’re not dumb enough to risk it.” He leant closer to her and peered into her face like she was a fascinating lab specimen. “So…stronger…faster…tougher, that’s all pretty normal. But what’s your power profile? What’s the theme?” He smiled. “That’s been my observation: most transhumans seem to fit their abilities around a particular image of some kind. My theory is that T-organs change over time, depending on how they’re used. Perhaps all you freaks are born the same, and you just evolve differently as you come into your abilities? So, I see the teeth, and I see the bow,” he nodded to where her weapon was hanging from a hook in the kitchenette, “but what else is there?” He leant very close to her face and her nostrils flared as his stink filled the air. “Ah…interesting…an unusually sensitive nose, is it? Do we have a she-wolf on our hands?”
“Why don’t you go fu…”
A knock on the door of the Winnebago made Mandrake’s head snap ‘round. He looked back at her and tilted his head. “Did you call someone? I didn’t find a cell phone…”
“Why don’t you answer it and find out?”
Mandrake looked around and made a face. “Stay here,” he said, then scrambled towards the cab, shutting the door behind him. As Freyja strained to hear what was going on, she picked something else up – the sound of sirens. It was always somewhere in the city, but this was close by. She realised then that the walls of the Winnebago must have been soundproofed, but not enough to fox her acute senses. There was the muffled sound of conversation from the cab. She could hear Mandrake protesting about something, then a stern voice repeating the same thing over and over. A cop, asking to look in the back. She thought about shouting out, but before she could even open her mouth, there was a gunshot, followed by a yawning silence. She clamped her mouth shut. After a few seconds, the door opened, and a pale-faced Mandrake stared down at her. He had his gun in his hand again. “Stay there,” he told her before returning to the cab. He didn’t close the door fully behind him.
The Winnebago started moving and Freyja craned her beck to try and see where they were going. “Did you just shoot a cop?” she called out.
“What’s your friend the Colonel going to think about you causing trouble here, huh?”
“I said shut up!” He turned and tried to slam the door shut, but she could see the flashing lights through the windshield and he had to turn his attention back to what was going on in front of him. He must have put his foot down, because they suddenly lurched forward, and Freyja could hear more sirens and shouts.
“You’re going to try to outrun the police in an RV, Mandrake?”
“I told you I was a scientist, you fucking bitch…” There was another surge of forward momentum, and Freyja could feel the engine thrum beneath her. Apparently this particular Winnebago was happy to give the police a run for their money.
Holman checked the pulse of the officer lying on the ground as the Winnebago roared away into the night. He was still alive, but bleeding heavily from the wound in his chest. He grabbed his radio and shouted into it. “We have a 10-53 at the intersection of 8th and 23rd! Officer down! Suspect is in a tan and white Winnebago – seems to be modified – heading north up 23rd, armed and dangerous! Repeat: officer down!” He looked down at the cop. “It’s gonna be okay, pal” he reassured him, “help’s on the way.”
Freyja could hear the sirens loudly now, even through the soundproofed walls. The door to the cab had fallen open and she could see Mandrake at the wheel, moving his hands nervously and looking this way and that. They were out on the main streets now, moving fast through the city. She could see the lights flicking past, hear the sound of horns blaring as they blazed through traffic. “Where are you planning to go, Mandrake?” she called out.
“I told you to shut up!”
“They’ve got your plates by now. You’ll have to dump this van. How can you carry out your little mission when you have every police officer in the state on your tail?”
“Stop talking! I have to think!”
“I thought you were some kind of genius? What’s the problem?”
He turned in his chair. “I should come back there and kill you!”
“Why don’t you then?”
Something crashed into the side of the Winnebago and they lurched to one side. Mandrake yelled something incoherent and fired a handful of shots through the still-open drivers’ side window. He wrestled the wheel around and they surged forward again.
“You already killed a cop. Do you know what they do to people like you in jail, Mandrake? That’s if they don’t just send you to the Tank.”
“No one’s sending me to the Tank.” He manoeuvred around something.
“Why not? You’re a freak, aren’t you?”
“I’m not a freak!”
“Then how come you can find us so easily, huh? How come you’ve been asked to track your target down? What makes you special if not that?”
“I’m not transhuman,” he said.
“Then I guess you won’t be able to carry out your mission.”
“I’ll find her,” he said, “I always find who I’m looking for.”
“Oh yeah? What makes you so sure?”
“She’s powerful.” He was distracted, looking this way and that as he turned another corner. “It’s easier when they’re powerful.”
“Funny, that’s how it works for us too. Did you know that?”
“Shut up!” They were heading up a long, straight road now. She could hear screams and shots all around, and the sirens were very loud. It was probably a full-fledged car chase now. Mandrake was fingering his pistol again.
“She’s powerful, your target,” Freyja said, “you sure you can bring her down?”
He looked at her in the rear-view mirror. “What do you know about it?”
“I know a lot about you, Mandrake.”
“You don’t know shit.”
“She could eat you for breakfast, you know.”
“You don’t even know her.”
“You sure about that?” She didn’t have the first idea who his target was, but she was determined to goad him into telling her more than he intended.
Mandrake shook his head as he spun the wheel again and she could feel the weight of the vehicle as it swung around a tight corner. “You’ll be dead soon anyway,” he said, as if he was talking to himself. “I’ll get good money for what’s inside you.” She could smell his emotions, even over the stink of his grisly harvest – he was motivated by more than money. Could she use that? “But she’d be one hell of a payday…and one hell of a challenge…”
Freyja racked her brains. There were thousands of transhumans in the world, maybe more, and this Colonel character could have sent Mandrake after any of them. But no, there was a connection, she recalled. What had Mandrake said about them working together? “I’m surprised your employer turned his back on her, you know,” she called out.
“I told you to shut up,” Mandrake replied absently. The sound of sirens had faded now, and he turned the Winnebago once more before slamming his foot down with a grunt. There was a burst of acceleration and Freyja gritted her teeth as she was rocked back and forth on the unsteady gurney. Something smashed into the front of the cab, a barrier, and there were sirens again. A roadblock. And now they were racing forward. Mandrake glanced in his rear view mirror, smiled, and fiddled with something on the dash. To her alarm he stood up and left the driver’s seat. He laughed a little manically at her expression. “I told you I was a scientist – every car in the world’ll have cruise control this sophisticated in a few years.” He pointed skyward. “GPS. Very clever.”
“I’m full of admiration for your genius,” she told him sardonically, “but will your gadgets help against your target?”
“I’m not supposed to kill her, more’s the pity,” Mandrake said as he rummaged in one of his cupboards, retrieving a pack of noodles. There was something grotesque about him eating while she was strapped down like this, as if it was just a normal day. This man was clearly deeply disturbed.
“You couldn’t anyway. Plus, you know, the Colonel wouldn’t like it. Even if they have parted ways, I’m sure he feels some sort of affection for her still…”
“Affection? For a transhuman?” Mandrake snorted derisively. He poured the dried noodles into a plastic bowl. “I suppose I should be grateful to her though. If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably never have been born.”
Freyja tried to work that one out. “She saved you…?”
Everything fell together in that moment. Mandrake was just his alias, but the Colonel had called him by his real name – Todtdrachen – and she wasn’t the best at languages, but she thought that was just German for Mandrake. A German surname, a transhuman parent, grandparents who owed their lives to another transhuman: Mandrake owed his heritage to Nazi science, to Iron Cross and his ghoulish laboratories. And that meant there was only one person he was hunting, decorated war hero and liberator of Iron Cross’s victims, Columbian Woman, aka Janet Goodman. A woman Freyja knew. And the Colonel had told Mandrake she was missing…
Her captor was looking at her. “When we get clear of the city, I’ll finish this.”
She feigned indifference and closed her eyes. “Just remember to wake me up.”
Holman gunned the patrol car down the street as fast as he could. An entire fleet of police vehicles were following behind, sirens blaring. He wasn’t even supposed to be here, he reminded himself, he was off-duty, out of uniform, and he ought to be at home in front of the TV eating takeout. But one cop was in the hospital already, and this creep had hurt a couple more with his erratic shooting. More than that though, Holman felt personally responsible for this situation. After all, he’d let Todtdrachen and his Winnebago slip right past them at the checkpoint. They should have double-checked the plates. They should have asked better questions. If they weren’t so obsessed with finding transhumans, maybe they’d have paid more attention to the warning signs, or insisted they look in the back of the RV.
Too late now. All he wanted to do was be an ordinary police officer, not chase after mutants and superheroes. This was his chance to do some real police work. The Winnebago, moving faster than it had any right to, was hurtling down the wide road ahead. The streets had been cleared. A high speed chase in the middle of New Amsterdam, like something out of a movie. A chopper flew past high above, throwing its searchlight across the street. He could see the weaponry bristling from its belly as well – the whole of the NAPD had been up-gunned since the heightening of the transhuman threat. Well, they wouldn’t need that tonight, he hoped.
Holman willed his car to move faster, but he was being outpaced by his quarry. The helicopter swooped low and closed in, trying to get a clean shot. They’d have him soon, of course – if he kept going this way, he’d head right onto the partially constructed bridge across the harbour. When he turned, they’d head him off. But, Holman realised suddenly, he was running out of time for that now. The bridge was right ahead.
Something else hit the front of the Winnebago, and the noodles spilled from the bowl in Mandrake’s hand. Freyja watched him with half an eye open as he cursed and put his meal down before returning to the cab. “Fuck…” she heard him say.
“Something wrong?” she asked mildly.
He didn’t answer, but she could smell the panic rising in him. She tried to crane her neck to look out of the windscreen and she saw what he’d seen: warning lights and barriers and, stretching off ahead in the moonlight, a bridge that ended abruptly less than a mile ahead. Mandrake hadn’t been watching where he was going. Some genius. He was terrified now, she could smell, looking this way and that. A searchlight shone through the window and he swerved across the road, almost sending them flying off into thin air. He regained control and hit the gas again, but he couldn’t possibly hope to jump the gap – the bridge wasn’t even half finished. The wide, black river was below, flowing out into New Amsterdam’s harbour. There was no way out of this.
She had no time to lose. She thought she could talk Mandrake around if it came to it, but even she couldn’t snark her way out of a hundred foot fall into freezing cold water while strapped to a gurney inside a Winnebago. This was a desperate situation, and she knew she had to resort to desperate measures. She looked down at her left wrist. The device poised over the strap that held her down was festooned with serrated blades and was mounted on a spring-loaded piston that she knew would cause those gleaming barbs to saw right through bone if Mandrake activated it. Well, she wasn’t going to let him do that, but this was still going to be mighty uncomfortable. She worked her hand in the strap, pulling it out towards her. She felt the saw cut into her flesh and gritted her teeth against the pain. There was no way to avoid the teeth of the blade as she squeezed her wrist through the tight strap and it bit deeply into her flesh. Blood began to gush down her arm and her nostrils flared at the tangy metallic smell. In spite of herself, her mouth watered – there was never much logic to transhuman mutations, which made her think suddenly that there might be something in Mandrake’s insistence that she was somehow unnatural. She squeezed her eyes tight shut as she wriggled her hand free and the saws raked across her wrist. Blood was pulsing from the ragged wounds left behind now and she could feel the strength ebbing from her but, with a last yank, she pulled her hand free.
Mandrake still had his eyes fixed on the rapidly disappearing road and she worked quickly, unfastening the other straps that held her down with her bloody hand. She sat up, cradling her wrist in her lap. It throbbed in agony and she had already lost almost a pint of blood by the looks of things. She’d severed her radial artery, and without immediate treatment, she’d bleed to death very soon. There was little chance of that though. She lifted her wrist and clamped her mouth over the wound. She’d never tried this before, but she’d seen her father do it years ago. She just hoped Mandrake’s hunch about transhuman genetics was right.
There was a gasp from the cab and she saw Mandrake looking at her in the mirror. “You bitch!”
She spat out a gob of blood. Her wrist still hurt, but the wound was clotting and actually starting to scab over where she’d liberally applied her saliva. She looked down at it in wonder.
“I’ll kill you!” Mandrake screeched. He turned the chair and lunged towards her. As weak as she felt, she kicked out and caught him hard on the jaw. She rolled off the gurney and grabbed her bow from the hook on the wall of the kitchenette and an arrow from the quiver on the unit next to it. He was on his feet, but she snapped the bow into place and nocked an arrow in one swift movement and he stopped, slowly raising his hands.
“Stop the fucking van, Mandrake.”
“I…” They crashed through another barrier and Freyja looked over his shoulder and saw the gap looming before them, less than three-hundred yards away. Mandrake tried to take advantage of her distraction, pushing the arrow out of his face and reaching for her again, but she threw her elbow into his larynx and he dropped to the floor, holding his throat and croaking feebly. She looked down at him, scrambling pathetically down there, and wished she could take some real revenge on him for all his crimes. There was no time though. Hooking her bow onto her shoulder and grabbing her quiver, she leapt up at the skylight and started to clamber out onto the roof.
Holman was still in pursuit. The helicopter couldn’t get a clear shot through the scaffolding that enclosed the partially-constructed bridge. He was closing on the Winnebago though as it hurtled towards the abyss. Then he saw something – a figure, climbing out onto the roof. It straightened as the searchlight focused on it and he saw a slim woman dressed in black with her hair in a long braid. She had a bow slung over her shoulder and his eyes went wide as he remembered his conversation with the teenager earlier. “This is Holman,” he yelled into the radio, “tell that chopper to hold its fire! I think we have a more complicated situation here than we realised!”
The woman – The Huntress, whoever she was – turned and looked at him. Even from this distance he could see her piercing green eyes and his heart skipped a beat. Then she unslung her bow and levelled an arrow straight at him.
Freyja tried to stay as still as she could on the shaking roof of the Winnebago. That cop car was getting closer, and she could see others behind. She was feeling light headed from the blood loss and the light on that helicopter had messed with her night vision. She should just jump clear, but what then? The police would catch up to her, for there was nowhere to run from this bridge, and then when they pulled up the wreck of the RV they’d find what was inside. She was already unregistered, and why would they believe her when she told them she wasn’t anything to do with this Mandrake creep? She had no evidence connecting the Colonel to all this, and less to the Goodman situation.
Goodman. She was important. And she was missing. That meant Paragon would be going crazy somewhere, and maybe that explained his mysterious disappearance too. But why would Goodman have just left like this? More likely, it wasn’t voluntary, and in that case who had the power to capture a transhuman that powerful? She’d never solve that mystery from inside the Tank and, as skilled a tracker as she was, she didn’t even know where to start. But one man did.
Freyja levelled her bow and loosed her arrow. It took out the tyre of the car pursuing her and she just got a look at the stunned face of the driver, a handsome young man with blonde hair, before he swerved in the road and hit a crash barrier side on before coming to a halt. The Winnebago lurched underneath her and she turned just in time to see the last barriers, festooned with yellow flashing warning lights, fly away into the empty night as they hurtled off the edge of the bridge. She jumped clear, falling into another long swan dive, bracing herself for the freezing water far below.
Mandrake’s world was murky, black, cold. He felt helpless, weightless, weak and alone. He moved his arms slowly, not sure what was going on. Was he dead? Was this how it felt? He hadn’t imagined it would be this cold. He thought the pain would stop, the endless nagging in his head, the pull of the freaks on him, the burning desire to feel them flounder and scream under his knives. He wasn’t proud of what he’d done in his life, but what choice had he had? His father had been a monster, and had left him with nothing. He’d had to survive. Well, now it meant nothing. Now it was over. He thought he saw a light above him somewhere. A light? This must be the end then. Maybe everything would be okay after all. Maybe he’d been doing the right thing. The warm, welcoming light. He’d always assumed, if there was an afterlife, he’d end up somewhere bad. But maybe…maybe…
He felt something grab him. A stern, insistent grip yanking him away from the light, towards darkness and pain. He tried to open his mouth to scream, but his mouth was filled with water and he realised how his lungs were burning. It couldn’t end this way! He didn’t believe in divine retribution! He didn’t believe in…
He suddenly surfaced and sound returned. The roar of water, the squelch of mud and birds singing distantly. He coughed and water spilled out of his mouth. He wasn’t dying. Not yet. Relief surged through him, but then he felt that tug on his collar again and panic returned. He was dumped ungracefully onto the muddy bank of a river and he flopped down like a fish, coughing and spluttering. He squirmed against the cool earth for long minutes, trying to pull in as much air as he could.
“Oh stop it,” a voice said over him, “you weren’t under for that long.”
His vision cleared and he looked up at Freyja standing over him, fiddling with her bow. He tried to say something, but nothing came out. His throat still hurt where she’d hit him.
“My bow string’s ruined,” she said matter of factly. Like him, she was dripping wet, but she looked much less perturbed by it.
“Where are we?” he managed to croak.
“See for yourself,” she said with a nod across the river.
Dawn was breaking across New Amsterdam’s harbour, but they were on the other side from the city. Its lights filled the entire horizon across the water, a vast, living organism. On this side it was wilderness though. Dark trees loomed over their heads. He looked around for his Winnebago, then saw a dark, blocky shape sinking into the river, far out of his depth. He sighed to himself.
“You saved me,” he said.
He turned to her. “Why?”
“Because I need you.”
She squatted down next to him. The wound on her wrist, miraculously, seemed totally healed. “Because something’s happened to Janet Goodman, and you know something about it.”
“I don’t know anything…”
“You know more than me.”
“But you said…”
She smiled grimly and he realised how she’d played him. “You can find her.”
“They’ll kill me,” he said hoarsely. “I exposed myself. And if I help you…”
“If you don’t help me, you’ll die sooner.”
He stared at her. His instinct was to scoff, to tell her she was just a freak, that she’d die on his table. But his table was sinking to the bottom of the harbour right now, and he had nothing. He was alone with this woman, and everyone thought he was dead. “Do you really think I’d trust you?” he sneered.
“I don’t give a shit if you do or not, but if you value your worthless life at all, you’ll help me find Goodman.”
“She’s probably dead…”
“Then we’ll find out who killed her. And figure out how to stop them.” She grabbed his collar again and hauled him roughly up to his feet. He could feel the strength in her arm and he shied away from her.
“You should just kill me now,” he whimpered.
“You’re right. But I’m not going to.” She shoved him forward. “Walk. I know your Colonel friend told you where to start looking.”
“It’s miles away,” he said.
“So walk fast.” She prodded him with the end of her bow, and though the bowstring might be ruined, he had every confidence that she could kill him in seconds if she decided to. Cringing, he trudged wetly into the forest, the transhuman bitch hard on his heels.
Janet Goodman walked through the strange facility which she had come to know quite well in the past several days. She had complete freedom to move around; the hateful collar made her as weak as an ordinary human, and as far as she could tell everyone else here was a transhuman. There were no windows anywhere that she’d found – they might be underground, or in the depths of space for all she knew – but the whole place was decorated like an upmarket hotel. Comfortable, opulent, but also sterile and without character or warmth. The lightning was low everywhere, and she longed for open skies and sunshine. It was like being in a submarine, albeit a very spacious one. She opened the double doors that led into a circular office. She’d put together a mental map of the building, and it seemed to be set out like a big circle, with rooms and corridors radiating outwards from this central chamber. Here, the master of this place conducted his business, like a spider sitting at the heart of a great web.
He looked up at her as she entered. He would have been handsome, but his deathly white skin was covered in fine, iridescent scales, and his eyes glowed deep red. A faint heat haze filled the air around him but, more than that, he was shrouded in a miasma of sheer power. He was probably the mightiest transhuman ever to live.
“Dante,” she said flatly, folding her arms.
He smiled. His lips were thin, reptilian. He was also known as the White Dragon, with good reason. “Ms Goodman. Thank you for coming.”
“As if I had a choice…” She was a prisoner here. She could hardly refuse his summons.
He ignored her and folded his clawed hands before him. “You have had time to acclimatise to your new home, I hope,” he said. His words sounded slurred through his inhuman mouth. Although his face still resembled a man’s, there were signs that he was undergoing further transformations, as if his mouth were beginning to form into a lizard-like muzzle. Horny growths protruded from his lower jaw. She hadn’t noticed those the other day. “It is time for your work to begin,” he continued.
“And what work would that be?”
“The transformation of the human race. The ushering in of a new era. What else?” He chuckled softly, a deep rumble in his chest accompanied by a waft of brimstone stench.
“No. Merely ambitious. It’s a fault, I admit, but one I can bend to great purpose. So, I will show you to your laboratory.” How could she resist him? She was powerless. He led her back through his labyrinthine lair. “Why are you so reluctant to help me, Ms Goodman? You’re transhuman.”
“I am. Not that you’d know it right now…”
“I regret the precautions we must take. In time, I hope we can enjoy a more…normal…working relationship. But, even with your very good reasons for despising me, why do you not see the value of our work here?”
“Work?” Ahead of them were two metal blast doors, and there was a bank of monitors on the wall beside it. She peered at them. They showed the inside of cells, much less comfortable than hers, which was like an ordinary hotel room. Transhumans languished inside them, including one unfortunate woman who was mutated almost beyond recognition, her face contorted into some warped, arachnid form, but with eight human eyes staring out fearfully through the malformed chitin. “Is that your work? Causing transhumans to mutate even further? Turning them into monsters?”
“It is part of it. Your expertise can refine our techniques. You can save these people.”
“From you,” she said flatly.
“From a world that despises them. That one was not changed by my scientists. She is the result of the tender ministrations of your friend Colonel Black.”
“Black? But how did he…”
Dante gestured to the doors. “All the information can be found in the databases within, Ms Goodman. Help us to save transhumankind. Help us to forge a new world.”
She looked at the poor spider-girl and sighed. What choice did she have?