As Captain Paragon continues his search for Janet Goodman, with Freyja in turn pursuing him, a storm descends over New Amsterdam. A war criminal from the last century returns, seemingly from the dead, and threatens to grind the world to dust beneath his boots. In amongst all this, the forces seeking to control the emerging power of the transhuman mutants search for leverage, but the elemental power of this new enemy may not be so easily harnessed.
‘The Blitzführer’ continues the twisted superhero tale of Captain Paragon.
Lance Boer had always been a fairly light sleeper, which was certainly an advantage in his job. Being mayor of arguably the greatest city in the United States of Columbia required long, hard hours and a routine that would have been punishing for almost anyone else was his bread and butter. But, even by his standards, his sleep pattern was currently erratic. He had taken to spending nights in his City Hall office rather than go home and disturb Rebecca at odd hours. The reports just got more and more disturbing, and it was hard to go to bed knowing that more would be waiting for him in the morning. He read the latest by the light of his desk lamp alone, squinting through his bifocals at the tight print. Paragon still missing, unaccounted for, and Janet Goodman – Columbian Woman herself – the same. That wasn’t public knowledge yet, but he’d managed to prise it from a certain agency with which he still had a little pull. The two events were almost certainly linked. Paragon had been created using Goodman’s DNA. She was the closest thing the transhuman soldier had to a mother.
He put that document down and turned to the next one. This concerned a very different subject, but was no less disturbing in its implications. A tropical storm, of all things! That’s what the climate scientists said. No doubt it was something to do with global warming, but whatever the cause, they were certain a hurricane was going to hit New Amsterdam within the next couple of weeks. It was currently whipping itself into a frenzy in the southern Atlantic, and coming their way. It meant costly damage to infrastructure, the city shutting down for days, economic catastrophe that would be felt across the country and indeed the world. The last thing anyone needed.
And, in the background, as always, the transhuman problem. He grimaced at his own internal monologue. They weren’t a ‘problem’ – they were people, citizens of Columbia, residents of New Amsterdam. They paid their taxes like anybody else. Except, more often than not the only word he received about them came in the form of reports from the NAPD about gang activity. Paragon had kept them at bay for a while and, if the rumours were true, one or two others had also stepped up. Vigilantes. That was exactly what the Registration Act had been supposed to put an end to, but with so many unlicensed transhumans flooding the city, what difference did it make? Frankly, they could use a few of these guys on their side.
Boer pushed the papers to one side and massaged the bridge of his nose. A tumbler of whisky sat untouched on his desk, the ice long melted so it only served to dilute the liquor. Well, that was no bad thing. He tossed it back and savoured the alcohol burn down his throat. He should go home. He couldn’t achieve anything else tonight. Apart from security he was the only one in the building. He’d have to wake up his driver. His eyes drifted to the couch in his office, and the neatly folded blankets on the floor next to them. Sarah, the maid, tidied them up in the morning without saying anything when he was forced to use them. He didn’t want to do that tonight, but it was already past midnight.
With a wince, he rose from his chair and crossed over to the window behind the desk. He looked out across the city; his city. Lights still sparkled in the dark buildings. Well, they said this place never slept. He’d spent his career trying to keep this great, seething nest of humanity from falling into anarchy, in one way or another. He was up for re-election next year too, with no serious opposition. But he was considering not running. Stepping down quietly, retiring upstate somewhere. It was time, surely.
He heard the door click at the other end of the office and turned slowly. He kept it locked late at night, and only security had keys. That meant there was a situation. The door opened and the pale, wide-eyed face of Officer Malcolm stared at him. Boer frowned and opened his mouth to speak when Malcolm dropped to his knees and fell face-forward onto the carpet. A hooded figure stepped right over him, followed by several more. They filed silently into the office and stood facing him. No one said anything. A pool of blood began to form beneath Malcolm’s body.
Boer raised his hands slowly. “All right. What is this?”
The lead intruder who’d entered first, a tall, broad-shouldered figure whose only visible feature beneath his long black jacket was a pair of well-shined boots, stepped forward. “Es ist ein vergnügen, sie endlich kennenzulernen, Herr Boer.”
A slighter figure stepped up beside him and threw back its hood to reveal a middle-aged woman with pale blonde hair. Her eyes were almost completely colourless and one side of her face was covered in a network of twisted scars. “He says it is a pleasure to finally meet you, Mr Boer.”
He swallowed. “You killed my security guard.”
The leader chuckled lightly. “Eine bedauerliche notwendigkeit. Meine entschuldigung.”
“A regrettable necessity,” the woman translated, “my apologies.”
Boer nodded. He had no idea who these people were. There was an alarm fitted to his desk, but he had a bad feeling about this situation, and a sense that he was not in control. He thought the language the leader used was German and killers speaking that in this city could be a very bad sign indeed. “What is it you want?” he asked, trying to keep his voice calm.
“Ihre stadt, Herr Boer.”
“Your city, Mr Boer.”
“Then stand for election like anybody else.”
Another soft chuckle. If this guy didn’t speak English, he understood it well enough. “Das ist nicht mein stil üblichen, Herr Boer.”
“That is not my…usual style, Mr Boer.”
The leader began to circle the office, coming towards his desk. He could see he wore black leather gloves and his bearing was ramrod straight. Military discipline. Not just some thug then.
“Who are you?” Boer demanded.
The figure stopped halfway to his desk and turned to face him. The shadows beneath his hood were impenetrable. “Liest du nicht geschichte, mein freund?”
“Don’t you read history, my friend?”
“History?” Boer looked from the woman to her leader and back again. “What does that mean?”
“Vor siebzig jahren, ich war der held des Deutsch Reich, der höchst dekorierte offizier in der Wehrmacht, eine legende in meinem eigenen leben.”
“Seventy years ago, I was the hero of the German Reich, the most decorated officer in the Wehrmacht, a legend in my own lifetime.”
Boer sat down heavily in his chair. “You can’t be…you’re dead…”
The figure pulled its hood back, revealing a hideous iron mask like a leering skull, embedded in scarred, ruined flesh, lips pulled back over blackened teeth and burning, hate-filled eyes. “Mein name ist Eisernes Kreuz.”
“My name is…”
“I got it, thanks,” he told her weakly. Across the room, a demon from the past smiled at him, and somehow, Mayor Boer knew things were only about to get much, much worse. In the distance, thunder rumbled.
Captain Paragon landed lightly on a low ridge overlooking the floodlight complex less than half a mile away. Even from this vantage, it was a formidable-looking facility. Concrete towers, angled to deflect explosions, topped by narrow windows that bristled with weaponry, high walls crowned with electrified razor wire, reinforced titanium gates. The sound of dogs barking drifted through the night. Paragon knew that much of the facility was underground too, protected by layers of concrete, proof against even an attack by atomic weapons. The entirety of New Amsterdam State might be flattened by some cataclysm, but this fortress would still be left standing. It was bleak, frowning edifice, a citadel designed not just to resist assault from without, but also from within. It was the most impregnable prison in the world, known officially – and perversely – as the Lake Pleasant Transhuman Containment Facility, but referred to almost universally simply as The Tank.
It was past midnight, but everything was lit as bright as day and Paragon watched for a while, searching for a way to get inside. He could simply approach the gates and ask to be let in. The warden, whoever he was, might think he was there in some official capacity. But then his superiors would find out where he was, and that wasn’t what Paragon wanted. It was hard for a man in a blue uniform and an alabaster-white cape to remain stealthy, but he was determined to stay one step ahead of Colonel Black.
The gates started to open slowly. Paragon frowned. A convoy of armoured vehicles began to make their way out along the road. There were dozens of them – bulky, reinforced carriers, designed for transporting the prisoners. Jeeps escorted the convoy and heavy machine guns mounted on their roofs swivelled this way and that. After a few seconds, the whoomph-whoomph of a helicopter sounded from somewhere behind the walls and then an attack chopper swooped up and over the convoy, panning a searchlight back and forth, scrutinising the ground. The whole area a quarter of a mile or more around The Tank had been scorched bare to deny cover to any would-be attackers. In the distance, Paragon could make out the lights of two more choppers circling. He’d arrived at a crucial juncture, it seemed. He crouched low in the scrub, watching the slow train of vehicles make its way through the gates. There were other facilities like this elsewhere in the country and Paragon knew that the prisoners were sometimes transferred between them, but this was like some kind of exodus. Perhaps the overcrowding had reached critical levels. Or perhaps it was something else. In either case, there must be hundreds of guards moving with the convoy. The Tank was as unprotected as it would ever be. A stroke of luck then.
When the vehicles had passed through the gates and moved off into the darkness, accompanied by the noise of the hovering choppers, all returned to watchful silence. Paragon waited a few more minutes and then took to the sky, flying straight up into the air and then arcing downwards, aiming for the centre of the facility. He knew where he was going; where he’d find the man he was looking for. He landed with a blast of compressed air in an open concrete courtyard surrounded by high walls. He couldn’t hide in the bright gaze of the floodlights, so he just moved fast, trusting that the prison was currently undermanned enough that security wouldn’t be able to stop him. He smashed his way through a reinforced door and darted inside the low building that took up a large part of the facility’s eastern quadrant. It was dark inside, and he could tell that most of the rooms he jogged past were unoccupied. Like all transhumans, he had an instinctive ability to sense the presence of others of his kind. He’d been expecting to be overwhelmed by it as soon as he got close, but that wasn’t the case. Either the cells below ground stretched down further than he thought, or that convoy had emptied the whole prison.
A guard almost walked into him at an intersection, but before he could even open his mouth, Paragon cuffed him lightly on the side of the head. The blow was enough to send the human crashing into the wall, where he slumped down into a crumpled heap. The weapon he carried – a fearsome looking thing designed to stop even the strongest transhuman in their tracks – clattered to the floor. Paragon checked both ways down the corridor for other guards and, seeing none, carried on his way. He found what he was looking for after just a few more identical grey corridors. The door was locked with an advanced-looking magnetic seal, but he simply smashed through it and walked calmly into the room.
“I thought I felt you coming…” the figure on the bed said.
It was a hospital room. An austere, bleak one, certainly, but the bed here was probably one of the most comfortable in the facility, and various monitoring machines and wires dangling from hanging fluids were universal. The room’s bandaged occupant wasn’t even able to struggle to a sitting position to look at Paragon. What flesh was visible was bloodied and bruised. “You know why I’m here.”
“Not really,” Hellhawk rasped, “I’m hoping not just to gloat over me. You already had your chance to do that.”
Paragon stood over the bed and looked down at his one-time enemy. It was less than a week ago that he’d defeated him in New Amsterdam, although it had largely been thanks to that cop – Holman – and his well-placed shot with a gun not unlike the one the guards here used, that Hellhawk had ended up here. “You used a device on me.”
“You mean the collar?”
He nodded. “I need to know where it came from.”
“Because someone I care about is missing. I think it has something to do with that collar.”
Hellhawk rolled his eyes towards Paragon. His whole body was swaddled in bandages. He’d fallen a long way after their fight and it might be months before he made a full recovery, even with his transhuman constitution. And when he did recover, all that awaited him was indefinite detention here in the grimmest prison on Earth. “Why should I help you?”
“What do you have to lose?”
Hellhawk croaked a laugh. “You have no idea…no idea at all what you’re dealing with.”
“I thought you’d taken over Red Dragon’s terrorist cell. What’s going on?”
He shook his head against his pillow. “You and I are just pawns in all this, Paragon. There are forces at play that we can’t understand. We’re soldiers. We follow orders. But look at you, flying in here. Every alarm will be raised by now.”
Paragon looked over his shoulder. “I don’t hear any alarms.”
“Of course you don’t. This isn’t an ordinary prison. There’s no lockdown. We’re all in solitary. When I’m finally healed up enough that they don’t need to feed me through a tube, they’ll haul me out of here and throw me in a hole like the rest. And that’s where I’ll stay.”
“You made your choices, Hellhawk. You’re responsible for the deaths of…”
“A trial, Paragon,” Hellhawk snarled, “if I’m a criminal, they should try me.”
“We both know you’re guilty.”
“That’s not the point! You know that! Even as brainwashed as you are, you know what this country’s supposed to stand for.” He reached out with a hand and grabbed his cape, yanking him closer. He bared his teeth. “Look at this place. Guard towers and razorwire. Dogs and machine guns. You know how many transhumans are held here?”
“No one does, Paragon. This is just a fucking pit where they throw us to die.”
“I’m not the one putting people in this place.”
Paragon pulled himself free. Hellhawk was a powerful transhuman, but his grip was weak now. “I’m not here to debate politics. I’m here for answers.”
“I can’t give you any.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
Hellhawk stared at him. His eyes looked very white against what was visible of his bruised flesh. “All I know is this – the one who gave me that collar was the most powerful of us I’ve ever encountered. More powerful than you, Paragon. He could drag me out of here any time he wanted.”
“Then why doesn’t he?”
Hellhawk chuckled softly. “Why would he? I’ve served his purpose. I kept you distracted.”
“He has your friend, Paragon. I’m certain of that. It was probably his plan all along. Maybe you’re wondering why I’m telling you this. It’s simple: there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. I don’t know who he is, where to find him, or how to stop him. This knowledge won’t help you.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Paragon turned and headed for the door, but then stopped and turned. “What’s going on, Hellhawk?”
“I told you…”
“No, I mean here. In The Tank. I just saw a convoy leave, and this whole section is almost deserted. Where is everyone going?”
“You’re asking the wrong man. The only part of this hellhole I’ve seen is the inside of this room.”
“Very well.” He turned away, but then paused. “Thank you, Hellhawk,” he said in a gentler voice.
“We’re soldiers. We’re not supposed to think.”
“And I know they conditioned you not to ask questions. In fact, I know a lot more about you that you might think. But listen: if there was ever a time to examine your loyalties, it’s now. Look at what they’re doing to us. You think they’d hesitate to put you in here too if they knew you were acting outside your jurisdiction like this? Your government’s probably already declared you rogue. I know a lot about them too. This place…it’s an internment camp. A gulag. And they’ll build more. Enough to hold every single one of us, eventually. We were made for war, Paragon, so make sure you’re fighting the right one.”
Paragon watched Hellhawk for a long moment. The shadows in the darkened room made it hard to see much, but he could make out those white, staring eyes, looking into him. Wordlessly, he turned and left.
Officer Holman looked around at the paintings and other elaborate ornamentation that hung in this section of City Hall. He felt out of place in his beat cop’s uniform and still wasn’t totally clear why he’d been told to report here. “What the hell’s going on here, sergeant?” he asked Hendricks, his direct superior.
“Beats me, kid,” the veteran cop said with a shrug, “but they asked for you by name.”
“So why are you here?” Holman said with a slight smirk.
“To make sure you keep your damn nose clean in front of the brass.”
Holman laughed, but he was troubled. There were rumours swirling around the station that something big had happened in City Hall, but it was all still on a need to know basis. Holman had not even considered he might be someone who needed to know a damn thing about something so high-profile – he assumed he’d find out the same time everyone else did, from the TV when the NAPD released a statement about whatever it was. But now the Commissioner had personally requested he attend this crime scene. What the hell could an ordinary patrolman have to offer?
The door to the mayor’s office was opened by a plain-clothes detective from the MCU, a woman recognised only by sight. He was way out of his jurisdiction here. Inside, there were already forensics teams moving around the large room, and a few other detectives standing around drinking from Styrofoam cups. It was early in the morning, with pale grey light filtering through the big window behind the desk that gave an expansive view over downtown New Amsterdam. But that wasn’t what held his attention. His mouth dropped open as he looked around, trying to take all this in.
“Sweet Jesus,” Hendricks said beside him.
Holman could only nod in agreement. Almost every surface, every object in the room, from the walls and ceiling to the carpet, desk, bookshelves, paintings, curtains, even the windows themselves, was scrawled with one symbol repeated over and over. A swastika.
“It’s only ink,” a voice said from behind him. He turned to see a smartly-dressed woman with a stern, composed demeanour. She gave him a firm handshake. “Lieutenant Goldstein, MCU,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am, I know.” Everyone in the force knew Goldstein. Hell, everyone in the city did. She’d transformed the once-corrupt Major Crimes Unit and turned it into one of the most effective elements in the NAPD. At least until all these transhumans had started showing up and making things difficult. That she was stylish and charismatic and was able to command attention in front of the camera was all just a bonus. Holman actually felt a little star-struck around her. “I’m…uh…”
“Officer Holman. I know. It was me who requested you come down here.” Her gaze slid past him and alighted on Hendricks. “And you are…?”
“Sergeant Hendricks, ma’am.”
“You aren’t needed here, sergeant.”
“Excuse us, please.” She guided Holman further into the office, leaving Hendricks gaping like a fish behind them. “Just ink,” she said again as they walked over the graffiti scored into the carpet, “if it was anything else, you’d be able to smell it.”
“Even so. This is pretty…”
“Fucked up?” She sniffed. “I know. You don’t have to tell me.”
“Has Mayor Boer been informed about all this?”
“And most of the security guards are dead or severely beaten. Someone broke into City Hall last night, abducted the mayor, and left all this.” She gestured around the room.
“But who would do that? And…uh…what does it have to do with me, ma’am?”
“I think you know the answer to both those questions.”
Holman looked down at the desk. Like everything else, it was covered with those swastikas. He wished it was the first time he’d seen one of those in the last few months. One of the gangs at large in the streets of this city called themselves The Reich. They were what was left of a group of thugs that had flocked to the banner of a man who had called himself Iron Hand. They weren’t the most powerful of the gangs, but they were certainly the most loathsome. “Transhumans,” he said.
“Bingo.” She pointed a finger at him, then pointed at the door. “Your friend there? Hendricks?”
“What about him?”
“I did know who he was. And I know his reputation. You shouldn’t have brought him with you.”
“Sorry, ma’am, but he’s my superior.”
“Yeah, not any more he’s not. I’m seconding you to the MCU. You’re Detective Holman, at least for now.”
He blinked. “Um…can I ask why?”
“You’re famous, kid. That video of you shooting Hellhawk and saving Captain Paragon was all over the internet.”
“You want me on board as a PR exercise?”
“I want you on board because I know you’re one of the few cops in this city I can trust to deal with transhumans. Most of them are like your friend Hendricks. They’ve seen too many of their buddies carved up by Wolves or Demons or these Reich assholes, and that’s without good old fashioned prejudice about what they can do and what they represent. You’re different. You’ve worked with Paragon, for one thing.”
Holman nodded, still looking around at the trashed office. “A couple patrols, sure.”
“You’re the expert on transhumans then.”
He turned sharply. “Me? Are you kidding? There must be any number of advisors you could get to help you. Experts on them. Scientists.”
“I don’t give a shit about T-Events, or T-organs, or fucking T-anything else, detective.” She fixed him with her dark, electric stare. “You know these streets. You know what these guys can do, what’s pushing them to carry out atrocities like this. You have an insight no one else in the force does. Would you say that’s true?”
“I’m a beat cop,” he said, “I’ve seen my share of stuff out there. And, yeah, a lot of it has been transhumans. The gangs are out of control.”
“But this is a new level, right?”
Holman shook his head. “I can’t see any of them being so desperate or crazy that they’d kidnap the mayor of New Amsterdam. That’s a whole new level.”
“So someone’s working behind the scenes here. If I learned one thing from Paragon, it’s that this is bigger than one city, and bigger than some crime wave. We’re dealing with…with the destiny of our species here, lieutenant. This place, this city, it’s just the eye of the storm.” As if on cue, there was a distant rumble of thunder from far out in the bay. Hurricane Sandra was supposed to hit them within days, or so the weather forecast said. That was what Holman was supposed to be preparing for right now. He didn’t need this in his life.
“The eye of the storm is where it’s calmest,” Goldstein said, “but maybe you’re right. Maybe the worst is coming.”
“You don’t think this is the worst?” He looked around the room again, taking in the sheer scope of the damage. It must have taken hours to do all this. And to what end?
“Until we find out what happened to Boer, this is just a precursor to this storm of yours, detective. This is no random hate-crime either – Boer’s Dutch.”
“So it’s political. I want you to find out what’s going on here. Who did this, and what they want.”
“And I guess find the mayor too…”
“If they wanted him dead, we’d have found a body. This is all about sending a message.”
“Right.” Holman rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “There are a few wannabes in The Reich who might’ve stepped up.”
“Any of them capable of this?”
“I don’t think so. They haven’t been a real threat since Iron Hand. Just low level stuff. I can’t see one of them suddenly taking the reins and pulling off this kind of stunt.”
“So who did it then?”
“Someone new,” Holman said, circling the desk as he spoke, “someone from outside. More transhumans pour into this city every day. It’d just take one powerful enough to seize control to change the game. More powerful than Iron Hand, even.”
Goldstein raised her eyebrows. “That sounds pretty powerful.”
“Yeah. Someone we probably ought to know about.”
Goldstein turned smartly on her heel and pointed to the detective who’d let him in. “Reese, put a call in to Homeland Security. I want to see if The Tank have lost track of anyone else recently. That’s where Iron Hand came from, right?”
Holman bobbed his head. “That’s where I’d start looking.”
“And, obvious evidence aside, do you really think this is The Reich? Could it be one of the other gangs? Or somebody else entirely?”
“Maybe. Your forensics boys should be able to tell you more than I can. I don’t see what anyone would have to gain by framing them though. They could send us on a wild goose chase into the streets, but…”
“But you already know we’re not looking for some two-bit thug.” She flashed him a wide smile. “Reese?”
“Fucking phone’s dead, lieutenant.”
She held up the offending item. “No signal.”
“We’re in the middle of the damn city!” She took her own phone out of her pocket and frowned down at the screen. “Huh…”
Holman did likewise, but his phone too was just showing a network down symbol. He tried dialling 911, but even that didn’t work. “Lieutenant…I’ve seen this before…”
“When Hellhawk came after Paragon. He had a device that blocked all our signals, like a scrambler.”
“You think this is something to do with his terrorist group?”
“Or someone who has access to that kind of technology.”
“Reese, we need to…”
The door opened and another detective poked his head into the office. “Uh…ma’am…you might wanna switch on the TV.”
“Someone’s broadcasting something about the mayor.”
“What?” The screen mounted on the wall to one side of the office was covered in swastikas like everything else, but she looked around for the remote anyway. Holman fond it on the desk in front of him and passed it to her. “What channel?”
“Um…all of ‘em, ma’am…”
Freyja sat cross-legged on the bed of a fairly dilapidated motel room, listening to the droning of the news on the crummy TV set in the background. She only had it on to distract her, to keep her awake. It was early morning, and all she had to see her through another day was the sludgy machine-coffee in the plastic cup next to her. One mouthful and she’d left the rest undrunk. She’d tried sleeping a few times over the last few days, but her current travelling companion made that a bit complicated. She could hardly leave him in a room by himself, but even being close to him was nauseating, and she wasn’t going to tie him to a tree and sleep rough. This was New Amsterdam State – hardly the wilderness – and anyone could find them out here like that. So, reluctantly, she had shared rooms with Mandrake, the one-time psychopath and T-organ collector for some shadowy agency even he knew nothing about.
He was trouble even without the constant reek of death she got from him thanks to her overly-sensitive nose. On the first night, he’d tried to run away. That was too obvious. She was a light sleeper and she’d woken up to find him trying to jimmy open the door with a paperclip he’d found. Pathetic – especially when he should know perfectly well she had a set of lockpicks in her pants pocket. On the second night, he’d tried killing her. That motel was even worse than this one, and he’d hovered over her with a shard of glass from a smashed window in the lobby, trying to summon the courage to slit her throat. She knocked some sense into him after that.
The third night was the worst. Like some kind of accelerated Stockholm Syndrome, he’d started to nurse a weird crush on her and she found him sneaking up on her in her sleep again, but this time with something else on his mind. She’d smashed his head into the wall a few times, and a few more for good measure, all the while with him alternately protesting his innocence (“I can smell what you’re thinking, asshole!” she’d bellowed) and then trying to get her to see it as a compliment that he’d deigned to try to assault her, since she was a ‘freak’. He was a truly loathsome creature, but his odd ability to sense transhumans from afar was the only way she was going to find Janet Goodman and, by extension, Paragon.
Not that any of it would do her much good if she was dead from exhaustion. She glanced at the bathroom door. The fitful sound of the shower came from within. She’d insisted Mandrake shower morning and night in an effort to rid him of his stench. He couldn’t smell it, and neither could anyone else as far as she could tell, but to her it was like a cloying miasma, a constant stink of rotting flesh. He seemed to have been in there a while, so she got up and knocked on the door. “Mandrake? Jonah?” There was no reply. She waited a minute or so, listening at the door. Her hearing was better than an ordinary human’s too. Underneath the gurgling fizz of the motel shower, she could hear low noises. The sound of someone quietly exerting themselves. She shuddered. “Mandrake – time we were moving on.”
“Don’t come in!” a voice squeaked from inside. But it wasn’t where it should be, and the sound was all wrong. It should have been slightly distorted from the running water.
She shouldered the door open and found him, naked, trying to wriggle his way out of the tiny window. His legs flailed helplessly at her and she turned away from the repulsive sight of his pale, skinny body. “For fuck’s sake, Mandrake…”
“Help me! I’m stuck!”
“You’re a piece of shit.” Still looking away, she grabbed his writhing legs and hauled him free with a grunt. He almost bowled her over, but she jumped aside as he tumbled to the floor and lay there, covering what little dignity remained to him with his hands. “Get up!” she said, aiming a kick at him. He rolled away with a moan and then finally sloped up to his feet and stumbled into the bedroom. She pulled a towel from the rail and threw it at him. “Put some clothes on. I’ve spent enough time in this shitty motel.” She leant over and turned off the shower. The water had been starting to pool in the tub.
Back in the bedroom, Mandrake clutched the towel around him pathetically. He looked like a drowned rat, in every sense. He was a scrawny little man with head of dirty-brown curls and a horrid, straggly goatee. More than that, he looked ill. Pale and sickly, with greasy skin and psoriasis sores on his arms and legs. He oozed corruption from his very pores. It was said a transhumans T-organ evolved over time depending on how they used it. Mandrake claimed he was simply descended from transhumans; insisted he wasn’t a ‘freak’ himself. Freyja wasn’t so sure about that. A lifetime spent using his abilities to torture and mutilate people might be responsible for his current degraded state.
“Have some pity on me, you bitch,” Mandrake said. Apparently he’d oscillated back to hating her now.
“Pity? How many transhumans did you murder again?”
“Are your hands clean, She-Wolf? How many people have you killed, huh?”
“Enough that one more isn’t going to cause me to lose any sleep,” she growled. “Get dressed.”
He continued morosely picking through his meagre belongings – all that he’d been able to salvage from the wreck of the Winnebago that had served as both his home and twisted laboratory – while Freyja walked over to the grimy window and looked outside. It was a grey, blustery day. Leaves caught in the wind pirouetted around the motel’s parking lot, mingling with the garbage that had been left to pile up in the gutters. They were on the outskirts of some one-horse town, a no-name pimple on the rump of Columbia. She’d been looking for a place to hire a car, but no one could help her. “Used to be a place,” the motel’s toothless proprietor had told her last night, “closed down ‘cause of the government.” She didn’t know what he’d meant by that. It wasn’t important, really. All that mattered was that they were on foot for another day. Not a problem for someone with her constitution and woodcraft, but another day in the wild might just kill Mandrake. And, if it didn’t, she’d still have to put up with his non-stop complaining. She was starting to regret not killing him. It was a whole lot more than he deserved. “You might want to get a move on,” she said without turning around, “I heard them say a storm was on the way. A big one. We don’t want to be caught outside in it.” He said nothing and she shook her head and continued to stare out of the window. She’d cracked it open a fraction, just to let some fresh air in and drive out Mandrake’s stink, and she could definitely smell something in the air. A tension, a building electricity. Even if she hadn’t seen it on the news, she’d know bad weather was about to hit.
She became aware suddenly that Mandrake hadn’t said anything for a while, and even his background grumbling had subsided. She turned around and saw him sitting on the bed, knees pulled up close, staring at the TV screen. He was rocking very slightly back and forth. He smelled of fear. Wet, rabid, childhood fear. Like he’d seen a bogeyman. “Mandrake?” She looked at the TV and frowned. A fractured image showed a figure in a black uniform on what looked like a cheap movie set. Glowing braziers surrounded him and he was standing in front of a familiar flag. “What is this? Some war movie?” She stepped closer and saw the man’s face – the leering metal skull mask he wore. It was oddly familiar. “Who is that?”
Mandrake continued to gibber at the TV as the man began to speak. It sounded like German. After a moment, a blonde woman by his side began to translate. “I, Iron Cross, legendary hero of the German Reich, liberator of the Aryan race, have returned to the world after my long exile. I bring tidings of great destiny for all pure humans to heed. The superman walks amongst you again and he comes to free you from the bonds of slavery that have held you these seventy years. Now is the dawning of a new age: an age of glory and greatness, for the supermen who have been collared and caged by your corrupt rulers shall now be free to take up their rightful place as masters. Rejoice! The era of the Transhuman Reich is upon you! It will begin here, in New Amsterdam! Join me, those supermen who crave the greatness that is rightfully theirs, and those humans who crave the strong hand of a just master. Let us grow together, as we were always destined to do.”
Freyja stared at the screen open mouthed. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“H…him…” Mandrak burbled. She knew part of his story. Iron Cross was the reason he existed. His grandparents had been tortured in that man’s ghoulish laboratories somewhere in Eastern Europe, seven decades ago.
Iron Cross was still talking, and his translator’s lighter voice didn’t need to convey the menace dripping from his words, burning in his malevolent, crazed eyes. “I have already taken Mayor Boer prisoner. More will follow. I do not wish to lay waste to your nation, for I have need of its resources. Resist, and they will be the first to suffer. Let us find a peaceful way forward. New Amsterdam belongs to me, now.”
The screen went blank. The signal was dead. She looked at Mandrake. He hadn’t moved. “We need to go, Jonah,” she said softly, “we have to find Paragon.”
“You can’t stop him. No one can.”
“They did stop him. Goodman did. Seventy years ago.”
Mandrake stared at her. “They killed him. But there he is. Back.”
He leapt up to his feet, flinging the towel away. “I’m not going back there!” he shouted suddenly. “I’m not helping you!” He made a mad dash for the door, right past Freyja, but she was quicker than him. A palm strike to the side of the head sent him flying into the wall and he fell limply to the threadbare carpet with a glassy expression in his eyes, then slumped into unconsciousness.
She stood over him for a moment, watching him. She did feel pity for him then. The same pity she felt for Paragon – these men, like so many others, had been made by their war, built piece by twisted piece by the sins of others, and now they were playing out the same hopeless conflicts over and over again. Mandrake was a repulsive creature, but he owed his existence to the worst excesses of Nazi Germany. What chance did someone like that ever have?
There was no time to muse on that now. She had no chance of stopping Iron Cross alone, and she knew exactly how this story would end if she didn’t – with her and all her kind caged in a place like The Tank when the Columbian government came down like an atom bomb on all transhumans because of this. Sighing, and with an inward cringe, she picked Mandrake up and tried to get him into his clothes.
Colonel Black was ushered into the Oblong Office by stern-looking secret service agents. The scene within was chaotic, and at the centre of it all was the slender shape of Jeanette Radcliffe, the Vice-President of the United States. She looked up at him as he entered and motioned for him to take a seat. “Ma’am,” he said as he approached.
“Colonel.” Aides were chattering all around her, and TV screens played out footage from earlier. Everything was rapidly spinning out of control. Black was the only one who seemed calm.
“The President…?” he said.
“Has cut short his visit to China. He’s boarding Air Force One as we speak.” She waved away someone demanding her attention with a print out of some kind and finally sat down at the President’s desk. She rubbed her forehead. “Of course, we can’t actually speak to him because of this damn storm that’s messing up all the cell phone signals.”
Black spread his hands. “These are trying times.”
She eyed him. It was no secret that she was hardly his number one fan. In fact, with the exception of the President himself, this whole administration had a deep-seated mistrust of Black’s department. “I hear we’re having problems gathering intel on the ground in New Amsterdam. Is that the storm too?”
“No, ma’am. We believe that issue is…technological…in nature.”
“Not exactly,” he said carefully.
“You’d better clarify a few things, Colonel, and quickly. Because three hours ago, a man most of the world believes died seventy years popped up on TV and started mouthing off about holding New Amsterdam to ransom. I hope I don’t need to remind you that things are already tense around the transhuman situation. This Nazi shit is not helping.” Radcliffe was normally extremely controlled, and Black was surprised to hear her cuss, even at a time like this.
“We believe Iron Cross may have access to certain equipment that was seized from a known terrorist less than a week ago.”
“And how would he have gotten hold of that? Or is he working for the same organisation?”
Black cleared his throat and adjusted his cuffs slightly. “There is another situation you may not yet be aware of, ma’am…”
She sat back in her chair and gave him a flat look. The room seemed quieter all of a sudden. “Go on.”
“It seems that, in the early hours of this morning – at around the same time Iron Cross was abducting Mayor Boer – a convoy from the Lake Pleasant Containment Facility…”
“Yes, The Tank. A convoy from there was attacked. Its whereabouts are currently unknown.”
Radcliffe leant forward and tapped the surface of the desk with her manicured fingernails. “What kind of convoy?”
“As you know, the nature of the prisoners held in the…uh…The Tank…means that we often have to move them to other similar facilities elsewhere in the country. We were transporting a number of inmates to the airfield in…”
Her eyebrows shot up her head. “Half the transhuman criminals held in The Tank are unaccounted for? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Along with many guards and a large amount of containment equipment.”
“Weapons. Armoured carriers. Soldiers. That’s what you mean, yes?”
“And there’s no way this is a coincidence, is there?”
“We don’t believe so, ma’am.”
She beckoned. “Walk with me.” They stepped out of the Oblong Office and headed down a quiet corridor. Radcliffe’s heels made no noise on the plushly carpeted floor. Portraits of worthies from Columbia’s past looked down at them sternly. “This situation is escalating fast.”
“Don’t fucking ‘yes ma’am’ me, Black. The largest and wealthiest city in the country is being threatened by a maniac who should have died with the rest of Nazi Germany. And now it looks like he may have the means to carry out his threat too. Even by the standards of your department, that is a considerable fuck up, wouldn’t you agree?”
“The movement of inmates was routine. Check the orders.”
“Oh I will. And Iron Cross? He was supposed to be frozen a mile underground. How did he escape? He was guarded more heavily than our nuclear stockpile, and somehow no one noticed him thawing out and climbing out of his tube?”
“We’ll investigate the matter urgently, ma’am.”
She glanced at him sideways. “I’m certain you will. In the meantime, it looks like The Tank is in no shape to offer any kind of support.”
“So what’s your suggestion? A military intervention? Should I send in the National Guard to apprehend this character?”
They stopped at the door to another office, Radcliffe’s. “I wouldn’t advise that, ma’am. Iron Cross is one of the most powerful transhumans to have ever lived. He’d make short work of mundane forces.”
“So we have to fight fire with fire?” She pushed the door open. Her office was smaller, and the window looked out over a quiet garden. Leaves scattered by the wind tumbled across the meticulously maintained lawn. “What is the current status of Captain Paragon?” She took a seat at her desk and Black pulled up a chair opposite.
Radcliffe rubbed her forehead again. “This is starting to get ridiculous.”
“I couldn’t agree more, ma’am.”
She slammed her fist down on the desk and stared at him. “I’ve yet to hear an apology from you, Colonel! I count three catastrophes in the space of twenty-four hours. Three catastrophes that might hand New Amsterdam over to a psychotic fascist we don’t appear to have any way to stop. Right now, the only way I see out of this is to nuke the city. That is not a situation that I would want to be responsible for and if I did have the misfortune to be in charge of the department that was, I would be falling over myself to apologise to the woman in charge. Namely me.” She pointed a thumb at herself.
“With all due respect, Vice-President,” Black said with a small smile, “I only took over this department a few months ago. Prior to that, all this rested in the hands of General Hepburn.”
“And where is Hepburn now?”
“Hopefully enjoying a quiet retirement in Idaho.”
“So none of this is your fault? How fucking convenient.” She rubbed her eyes and rested her elbows on the desk.
“Ma’am, if you review my reports going back almost a decade, I have always been very consistent with my advice regarding the transhuman threat.”
She took her hands from her eyes and looked at him. “Excuse me?”
“This situation – or something very like it – is what I predicted right after the attacks in 2001. I said at the start that the Registration Act did not go nearly far enough. I have done everything I can during my time in this department to reduce the potential for disaster, but it may have been inevitable. We have unleashed the power of transhumanism on the world. Now we are reaping the consequences.”
“You’re giving me philosophy, Colonel, not solutions.”
“I have a solution, ma’am. But you may not like it.”
“As long as it isn’t levelling New Amsterdam to the ground, I’m all ears.”
“It may not be too far from that, ma’am. The Captain Paragon project was a failure. We can all agree on that. He’s unstable. But, for the past few years, we have been pursuing a different avenue of the transhuman soldier programme.”
“I wasn’t aware of this, Colonel…”
“It is highly classified, ma’am.”
“I’m the Vice-President!”
“Highly classified. We have been exploring new, more efficient techniques for the creation of transhumans, and we have a squad of modified soldiers that will be ready to deploy within the hour.”
“Are you serious? An entire squad of Paragons?”
He held up a hand. “Not exactly, ma’am. The technique isn’t quite so…thorough…as the one used to create him. But they are transhuman. They are the finest men and women of Columbia’s armed forces, implanted with mature T-organs and given the training and weapons they need to counter any transhuman threat.”
She looked at him for a long moment. “When this is done, Black, I’m going to need to see the records for this new project of yours.”
“One thing: you said that we’d unleashed this ourselves. How does adding more transhumans to the mix help anything?”
“These are transhumans we can control.”
“You said that about Paragon.”
“This is different.”
“I’ll have to take your word for that.” She stood up, but then stopped and looked down at him. “This is what you want, isn’t it? This is your vision.”
“What’s that, ma’am?”
“Harnessing them. Using them. Keeping them under control, like loyal pets. This whole situation just proves what you’ve been saying all along.”
“I will push for harsher sanctions on transhumans once New Amsterdam is safe.”
“And who’ll argue with that, I wonder?”
“People are smarter than you might think, Vice-President. And remember, it’s them or us.”
“I’m sure you think it is.” She opened the door and gestured for Black to leave.
He got up out of the chair and tipped his hat to her as he passed. “Ma’am.”
“Send in your transhumans, Colonel. But don’t expect whatever you have planned next to happen without a fight.”
“I never plan beyond the next battle, ma’am. I’ll send in Black Squad right away.” She held his gaze as he sidled past, then shut the door behind him.
The police chopper circled over the Brooklands Bridge and Holman squinted out through the side window. “People are dying down there,” he said into the radio.
Goldstein, sitting beside him, nodded. “We’re trying to control the traffic, but there’s no law against fleeing the city. All we can do is appeal for calm.”
It was total gridlock on the bridge. Cars were parked at odd angles as they pressed forward into any available space, and people swarmed like ants over the whole blaring mess, all desperately running from the phantom of a war their grandparents fought. Iron Cross hadn’t done anything more dangerous than taking one public official hostage, but he’d already whipped New Amsterdam into a frenzy. Holman could make out police cordons – tired, scared beat cops, like he was this morning – islands of flashing lights in the middle of the ocean of madness, trying to keep order, trying to control the flow of traffic and refugees. “I should be down there.”
“Your job is to help me locate Iron Cross.”
Holman licked his lips. It was all hopeless. His first suggestion had been looking for the epicentre of the disruption that was killing cellphone signals, GPS, wi-fi and even regular telephones. But they’d found there were shifting, intersecting radii of interference, a sophisticated dispersal pattern that offered no obvious solutions. In either case, the city was cut off from outside help. No TV signal, no e-mail, no phone calls. What would he do if he was a civilian in these circumstances? He’d run too. “Something’s going on down there,” he said, pointing.
A small riot seemed to have broken out. It was impossible to see what could have caused it, but there was a fire blazing down there. A car had been torched. There was no way the fire department would be able to get there. “I’ll call it in,” Goldstein said. The short-ranged police radios still worked, more or less.
“There must be something we can do.”
“Keep your mind on the job, detective.”
“My job is to keep these streets safe.”
“Mine too, but there are a lot of ways to do that. Iron Cross is our responsibility now.”
“I’ve seen transhumans fight, ma’am. We’re going to need something heavier than the guns this chopper carries.”
“We’ll deal with that when…” She tailed off as she caught sight of something on the other side of the bridge. Holman followed her gaze and watched as three heavily-armoured helicopters, twice the size of theirs and mounted with a fearsome array of guns, swopped low across the river.
“Those are from The Tank!” he said.
“Thank god,” Goldstein laughed, “someone knows what’s happening here.”
The choppers began to sweep down the length of the bridge. People were running. Holman frowned, then nearly leapt out of his seat as he saw gunfire flash. “What the hell?! They’re strafing the bridge! They’re killing people!”
Goldstein was already radioing for backup, trying to get anyone to listen to her, but the airwaves were full of chatter. Panic was spreading. Explosions ripped through the crowds as cars erupted in plumes of flame. He couldn’t hear a thing over the rotor blades, but he could imagine the screams. He could see people leaping off the edge of the bridge, risking the long fall into the cold water far below. He pressed himself up against the window, staring helplessly down at the carnage.
“Get us out of here,” Goldstein yelled at the pilot.
Holman spun around in his chair. “What? We have to help!”
“What do you think we can do against three military helicopters, detective?”
She had a point. As they circled away, Holman watched people – his people – getting massacred. The helicopters had cut a channel through the traffic. Car wrecks burnt on either side of the bridge, walls of burning, blackened fury. Bodies littered the asphalt. He could see that even from this high up. In the distance, at the other end of the bridge, he could make out the squat forms of military vehicles trundling down the road, now passing unimpeded through the cleared bridge. Was that all this was? Had the government decided that slaughtering civilians was the lesser of two evils against a threat like Iron Cross? He hoped not. He hoped to god.
Somewhere hidden in the depths of New Amsterdam, Iron Cross scrutinised a map of the city obtained by one of his lieutenants. Sabine, his second in command, watched him. “Things have changed,” he mused aloud.
“It’s been seventy years, General.”
“I am aware of that.” He put the map down on the table and folded his hands behind his back. “But whatever the age, cities all burn the same, I think.”
“They do, General.”
He smiled, pulling his scarred lips back in an ugly rictus. This base of operations was crude – little more than a bunker, and only defensible by virtue of its location, hidden beneath the city. He was like a Jewish rat hiding from retribution, a position that ill-suited him. But for now it would do. A large man entered the room, ducking beneath a brick archway. Iron Cross fixed him with a stare. “I do not know you.”
“My name is Shock.”
“What of it?”
“I lead The Reich.”
“Do you indeed?”
“I asked them to assemble, General,” Sabine explained, “they are believers in our cause. They once followed your son.”
Iron Cross narrowed his eyes at her. “The child they bred from my stolen essence? I have no interest in such blasphemy.”
“Iron Hand was a great man,” Shock said.
“Then why is he dead?” Iron Cross turned back to the map. He pointed to the Brooklands Bridge. “You know this city?”
“A gift is arriving for me. I wish you to go and collect it for me.”
“An army. Perhaps a few of your friends will be amongst them.”
“My friends?” Shock looked around in confusion.
“Transhumans,” Sabine explained. “All will fight for us against the weak rulers of this world.”
“They won’t all side with you…uh…General Cross, sir. Not everyone has the good sense to see things the way we do.”
Iron Cross stared at him again. “My friend,” he said softly, “that made no difference in 1939. It will make no difference now. Men respect strength. Despite my long slumber, I have that in abundance. Don’t doubt that.”
“I don’t, sir. Not at all.”
“Well go then. Do my bidding.” He dismissed him with a curt wave and turned back to the map. He didn’t pretend to understand all the complex infrastructure of this age, but he was beginning to form a rough plan of attack.
“General,” another of his lieutenants, Karl, said, “I have a message for you.”
“Then deliver it,” he replied without looking up.
“It’s here, sir.” He was holding a device, like a folded plastic case with a typewriter and a glowing screen. He looked at it blankly. “Um…here.” He placed the object before him and pressed one of the keys. A shadowy face appeared on the screen.
“Cross, is that you?”
He tilted his head. “Guten tag, Colonel,” he said.
“Drop the act, Cross,” the other man said through the screen, “I know you speak English.”
“You never know who may be listening,” he said.
“No one’s listening. I have the frequency for the scrambler I gave you. That’s why I’m able speak to you at all.”
“How’s it going?”
“Events proceed as predicted.”
“Good. And you have my little package?”
“I am reliably informed it is arriving as we speak.”
“Good. Try not to hurt too many people. You know how this is supposed to go.”
“Indeed I do.”
“There’s no need to make this any more complicated than it has to be.”
Iron Cross tilted his head again. “I am a man of my word, Colonel.”
“I know that you are. And remember, our belief systems are not incompatible. There’s no reason we can’t both gain from this.”
Iron Cross rested his gloved fists on the table. “We have an accord, Colonel. I understand this.”
“Right. I help you, you help me.”
“I feel there is some other favour you wish to ask of me, Colonel. Though we communicate through the magic of this machine, I can read you well enough to know that.”
“I never told you how this was supposed to end.”
“No,” Iron Cross agreed, “you did not.”
“I’ve been given permission to deploy my forces.”
“In a manner of speaking. Transhumans.”
“Like the one you told me about – this…Captain Paragon?”
“Like him, yes. I don’t want any collateral damage. I want this to look like they diffused the situation. I want you to surrender to them.”
Iron Cross laughed. The sound bounced hollowly around the cavernous chamber. “Surrender? Unthinkable. I have never surrendered.”
“This isn’t a real battle. Stand down when they ask, go quietly. Then we’ll move to phase two.”
“I see. And if I were to try and fight these super-soldiers of yours?”
“It would not end well for you.”
“I remind you: I was never defeated in the open field, Colonel.”
“Funny – I thought you spent most of the war hiding in your laboratory.”
Iron Cross leant close to the screen. “Perhaps you do not know my whole story, Colonel. Note how I give you the respect your rank deserves, even though you won your honours in peacetime, while I was forged in the fiery crucible of war. I fought for my country in the first War, in the trenches against the British. I was the victim of a mustard gas attack, which left me scarred and mutilated as you see.” He held up a hand to the exposed flesh of his face, around the edges of his iron skull mask. “I was once a handsome, dashing officer. My disfigurement drove me insane and I was consigned to a bleak sanatorium. The Weimar Republic was not a forgiving place to be dependent upon the state, Colonel. I was left to my madness, isolated in a small room, forgotten by those I had once called friends. My deformity and my loneliness drove me further into a pit of insanity, so I did not know if I was alive or dead. But then, as chance would have it, the T-Event occurred. I was one of the fortunate few who was transformed, destined to rise as one of the Übermensch. Herr Hitler recognised the strength of our kind, and I rose swiftly through the ranks of the Nazi Party. My nature made me the ideal man to research further advances in transhuman creation and…well…the rest you know.”
“Why are you telling me all this, Cross?”
“So that you understand exactly who you are dealing with. Alone, of all Hitler’s lieutenants, I was afforded the honour of using the title Führer. To you, I am a legacy of a long-ago war, one which will soon pass from living memory. But for me, those days were but a restful night’s sleep in my past. Their memory still burns strong. I remember, Colonel. I remember.”
“The world is a very different place now. Don’t forget who’s in control here.”
“I would never forget a thing like that, Colonel.”
“Good.” His hand moved, and the screen went dark.
Iron Cross straightened. His followers were watching him, perhaps wondering what would happen next. “I believe you have your orders?” he said. His voice was calm, but they knew him well enough to hurry on with their assigned tasks. Iron Cross rested his hands on the table and looked at the blank screen, staring at his own twisted reflection in its depths.
Paragon soared through the air. He flew low so that the ground beneath him looked like a model landscape, a brown-green network of fields, interspersed by dark strips of highway, rivers and occasional forests. Towns crowded together or alternately sprawled like spreading cancers. From this vantage he could see how cities threw out their tendrils, spreading strip malls and shopping precincts along the arterial highways. There was method to his madness. His only lead on his hunt for Goodman was that she had been taken by a powerful transhuman. Everywhere he went, Paragon picked up the strange tickle in the back of his head that told him others of his kind were close by. Instinctively, he sensed their power, the invisible development of their T-organs, and he was searching for something that overwhelmed him. He was flying across New Amsterdam State, but this was just the start. He would cover the entire globe if that’s what it took. He had no illusions it would be easy – his quarry, whoever it might be, had the power to take transhumans’ abilities from them. He would not be so easy to detect. Nonetheless, he was confident that the power would lead him to his target. Transhumans were mobilising across the world. Movements were forming, and strength called to strength.
He banked sharply to follow the course of a silvery river that wound its way through the countryside. He scanned the ground, trying to pick out any detail. Were there people down there? Impossible to know, but he felt that tingle again. Transhumans, somewhere close. He started to swoop low, and then suddenly he was spinning wildly off course. It took a few seconds for the pain to register and, as he wheeled crazily across the sky, he looked down at his leg. An arrow was stuck straight through his thigh. He gaped at it. His blood was flying through the air in a bright arc of crimson. His strength ebbed out of him, and he began to plummet helplessly to the ground.
Holman pulled out his gun and strode up to the barriers. The wind whipped at his coat and he could feel flecks of rain on his skin. Hurricane Sandra looked about to make an early appearance. They’d had no time to prepare. Why now, of all times? New Amsterdam was tearing itself apart, and they were about to get hit by a devastating storm on top of that too? It seemed unfair, but if being a cop had taught him anything, it was that life wasn’t interested in fairness. Ranks of riot police were deployed behind the barricade. Horses cantered in amongst them and SWAT teams were already taking up position in the surrounding blocks. The real firepower hadn’t arrived yet though.
“Crazy day, huh?” a voice said. He turned and saw Suarez, his one-time partner, waving at him from beneath a riot helmet.
“This is out of control,” he said.
“I heard they promoted you.”
“For now. But look, here I am on the street with the rest of you bozos.”
“I heard they were sending someone to help.”
“That’s what I hear.” Holman looked up. The grey clouds were moving fast across the sky. The sound of city-wide unrest was audible in the distance. People were running. Word had spread about the massacre on the bridge, and now the rumour was that heavily-armed military vehicles, driven by transhumans, were roaming the city, killing indiscriminately. In the midst of all this, they’d had a message in Morse code of all things – four simple words. “Look to the skies,” Holman told Suarez. He hoped it was who he thought it would be.
On the front lines, Goldstein was waiting for him. She had no business being there – she was brass, but she knew she needed to be seen. She wore a stab vest and carried one of those transhuman-killing guns like she knew how to use it. He’d heard rumours about her streak of marksmanship awards in the academy. “What’s the good word?”
“I didn’t hear any. Not from back there anyway.”
“Someone’s coming,” she said, nodding towards the end of the road. They’d taken up station here near the main precinct house, the last bastion of order in a city that was on the verge of total anarchy. The enemy would come to them. To send a message. That’s what it was all about.
“You think the mayor’s still okay?”
“I don’t think it matters now, detective.”
The convoy approached. It was with a low rumble like thunder, weighty tyres and tracks moving down the road. He rode atop the lead vehicle, like a German tank commander from an old photograph. God knows where he got the uniform from – probably a museum – but it looked about right. High collar marked with thunderbolts, a peaked hat with a skull that mirrored his freakish mask. All in black. As the column of armoured vehicles halted a few hundred yards ahead of them, taking up the width of the entire street and training their guns on the nervous wall of cops, he pulled himself out and stood on the roof of his chariot. He wore a cape, a great billowing thing in dark red, like blood. He surveyed his enemies calmly. “This city is mine!” he bellowed. His voice carried in the cold air without the aid of any amplification. “Surrender now, and you will not be harmed!”
“You believe that?” Goldstein asked Holman quietly.
“I remember what happened to the last people who tried appeasing a bastard like this.” He took his gun in a two-handed grip and rested his arms on the barrier, taking aim.
“Don’t do anything foolish, detective,” the Lieutenant warned.
Iron Cross swung himself down from the carrier’s roof, clambering down the ladder built into its side. He landed on the asphalt with a thud from his polished boots and began walking towards them. His cape caught in the wind and spread out behind him. The silver details on his black uniform gleamed. “This is your final warning. If you do not disperse…”
There was a sound from above and he stopped short. Everyone craned their necks upwards. The low drone was followed by a dark shadow moving across the sky. It was a black brick of a vehicle, an advanced aircraft of some kind borne into the air by whirring propellers mounted in its stubby wings. A hatch at the back began to open as it took up position, and lines dropped to the ground. Six figures descended, sleek and black. They landed lightly in front of the police barricade and stepped forward, as one. From each of their shoulders, bright white capes flowed. Holman stared. They were three men and three women, dressed like Paragon with their faces hidden by cowls, except where he wore Columbia blue, their uniforms were black. Their bearing was sterner too, as hard as that was to imagine. They formed an immovable wall before Iron Cross.
“What in the hell…?” a cop beside Holman asked.
“The cavalry, I think,” Goldstein said. But she didn’t lower her gun.
“You are the soldiers,” Iron Cross said flatly.
“We are Black Squad,” one of the costumed men said as he walked forward. “In the name of the United States of Columbia, I order you to lay down your arms and surrender.”
Iron Cross looked at each of the six members of this Black Squad in turn. “And to whom would I be surrendering? Have you not names?”
“I am Captain Champion. That’s all you need to know.”
“And I am Iron Cross. That is all you need to know, Captain.” He clenched his fist and the thunder rolled high in the turbulent sky. “Iron Cross does not surrender.”
The moment stretched. Black Squad stood poised. They seemed uncertain. Holman frowned. They didn’t seem to act like any transhumans he knew. What was going on?
Colonel Black stared at the screen in dismay. The image came from a tiny camera mounted on Champion’s shoulder. They were hundreds of miles away, in a secure location in Jefferson. His staff looked to him for guidance. He shook his head and smiled wryly. “I was prepared for this.”
“Send the override signal. Take control of those vehicles. We’ll turn him into a fucking crater.”
The technician by his side tapped a few keys. Nothing happened. “Um…”
“I can’t get through, sir. It’s like the signal’s still being scrambled.”
“We’ve got the frequency for the scrambler!”
“I’m sending it on that frequency, sir but…it’s not working…”
“Then how come we can see this?” He gestured wildly at the screen.
“Um…he may be letting us see it, sir…”
“What are you saying? That a man who can’t figure out a laptop somehow took control of one of the most advanced pieces of tech on the planet?”
“He does have a lot of transhumans with him now. One of them could have…”
“It doesn’t matter. We can still signal Black Squad, right?”
“I think so, sir.”
“Then tell them to engage.”
“They’ve never been in action before. They’re not ready to…”
“They’re soldiers! They know how to fight! Order them to engage Iron Cross! Tell them to bring me his fucking head!”
Freyja scrambled through the brush, pulling the miserable weight of Mandrake behind her. She’d taken to tying his hands with a length of rope she’d lifted form a hardware store and now pulled him along like an animal. The irony would have been amusing in any other circumstances. She held her bow by her side, ready to knock another arrow if it came to it.
“I assume I have you to thank for this?” a familiar voice asked.
She turned and saw Paragon limping out from the edge of a stand of trees, holding her arrow in his hand. His leg was bleeding badly. “I was aiming for your cape – but the wind.” She shrugged apologetically.
“Why are you shooting at me?”
“I had to get your attention somehow, didn’t I? Here, I can help with this.” She spat on her hand and walked towards him. He watched with interest as she slapped her hand against his leg and began to rub her saliva into the wound.
“What are you doing?”
“You just shot me out of the sky.”
“It was for your own good.” She took her arrow back from him.
“What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you.”
“Because the world can’t afford for you to go off on your own little missions.”
“There’s nothing little about it,” he growled, “and what business is it of yours anyway, Huntress?” He pushed past her and then seemed to notice Mandrake for the first time. “Who’s this?”
Mandrake quailed before Paragon’s scrutiny. “His name’s Mandrake. He’s…well…”
“Not a transhuman. But…”
“He can sense us. His grandparents were transhumans. I think. He’s latent.”
“He helped me find you.”
Paragon peered at him. “He looks ill.”
“I feel ill,” Mandrake croaked.
“He can find transhumans, you say?”
“Better than we can.”
“Then I need him. To help me…”
“Find Goodman. I know.”
He whirled. “How? Do you know something?”
“I know that whatever creep Mandrake was working for was looking for her too.”
“He’s a kind of…bounty hunter,” she explained.
Paragon looked at Mandrake again. “He doesn’t look like one.”
“He killed transhumans and harvested their T-organs. He sold them to some guy in the military.”
Paragon cocked his head. “Who?”
“Some Colonel. How should I know?”
Paragon stank of fury all of a sudden. Normally his scent was carefully controlled, but not now. He advanced on Mandrake. “Colonel? What did he look like?”
Mandrake shrank back again, lifting his bound hands in front of him defensively. “Just…a guy…middle-aged…buzzcut…smokes cigars. He never told me his name! Please don’t hurt me!”
“Black,” Paragon said. “Black paid you to kill transhumans?”
“I don’t know!” Mandrake wailed.
“He wanted Goodman too,” Freya said.
“He was at the crash. He told me not to look for her.”
“Well he wanted her found. I don’t like to think what for.”
Paragon’s fists clenched and unclenched. “He’s not the problem now.”
“You’re right. There’s a bigger one – have you seen the news this morning?”
“New Amsterdam. The mayor, what’s his name? Boer? He’s been kidnapped.”
Mandrake let out a strangled cry again and buried his head in his hands. “Iron Cross,” Freyja said.
Paragon’s jaw stiffened. He smelt of nothing again. “He’s…”
“How do you know that?”
He looked down at himself. “His DNA was used to make me. In part, anyway.”
Paragon looked up, but then shook his head firmly. “No. This is not my responsibility. I have to find Goodman. That is my priority.”
“Your priority is doing your job!”
“That’s rich coming from a vigilante.” He walked away. His leg moved fine now, but he didn’t even seem to have noticed. “If what you’re telling me about this man here is true, Colonel Black, my commanding officer, has gone rogue. I have no loyalty to him. No orders to obey.”
“All right then,” Freyja said, “if you’re going to set your own agenda, then do it. You and I both know what the immediate threat is. A nightmare from seventy years ago is destroying your city. People are going to die,” she glanced at Mandrake, “or worse.”
Paragon stopped. “I’m sure my superiors have the situation well in hand.”
“Are you sure about that?” she asked.
Lightning arced from the sky. Black Squad advanced towards Iron Cross. As the storm broke overhead and the wind sent capes flying wildly around them, he raised his hand. “Long ago,” he bellowed above the storm, “I was the greatest of our kind. You are poor facsimiles of the heroes that once ruled this Earth. Children, trying to understand the world of your elders. Do you know who many transhumans died in my dungeons? Do you know what a small thing it would be for me to destroy you?”
“Stand down,” Captain Champion called out. He clenched his fists, “This is your final warning.”
“Do you have the first idea of what you are dealing with?” Iron Cross continued. “Do they not teach history in the schools of Columbia?” A bolt of lightning seared down from the clouds and struck him. But instead of burning him to a crisp, the power danced around him, wreathing his fist and flashing from the eyes of his mask. Slowly, he began to levitate from the ground. “I am Iron Cross! General of the Wehrmacht! Hero of the Reich! First of the Übermensch!” He rose higher and higher, until he seemed to be suspended on a column of crackling electricity. “But you will know me by the title given to me by Herr Hitler himself! To him, I was and shall always be…Der Blitzführer!”
He threw his fists forward and two lightning bolts flashed across the street. They smashed into Captain Champion’s chest and he burst apart like a melon. Charred fragments rained down around the blackened stain where he had just stood. The rest of Black Squad began to flee, but the lightning found them, lashing out from the ground, tearing them to pieces, leaving nothing but ruin in its wake. Through all this horror, the gloating laughter of Iron Cross carried over the storm.