Authors: Andrew Seiple
By Andrew Seiple
Cover art by Andrew Halbrooks
Edited by Beth Lyons
Text copyright © Andrew Seiple 2015
All Rights Reserved
With love and thanks to Tazura, my wife, my many awesome beta readers, and Beth Lyons, the best editor a new author could have.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1: Welcome to Icon City
“Welcome back, Dire. If you're reading this, the surgery was a success. I'm you... well, I'm the you who existed before this process was done. I'm the you who existed before the medical chair was done with us. I'm gone, now. You're all that remains of us. And before we get much farther here, there's something you need to know, something you need to keep in mind before we proceed. All this was necessary. There was no other way.”
--Excerpt #1 from a tape recovered from the wreckage of Doctor Dire's first confirmed lair. Catalogued as MRB record 7834329-B, informally recognized as the Dire Monologues.
Somewhere in the darkness behind me my secret lair was exploding. My would-be assassins were screaming and dying as they hit the traps I'd set in the storm sewers, but I'd escaped their initial assault with the clothes on my back and a pack full of useful devices and items. The night had been rough so far, but at least my headache was receding.
I darted down the tunnel, running at full speed. It was dark, but my mask's night vision rendered that fact moot. Glowing augmented reality graphics popped up whenever I got too near one of my traps, which was good because I had no memory of setting any of them. I didn't really have any memory of anything before I'd woken up ten minutes ago, in an automated surgical chair with stitches in my scalp and a killer headache. Self-inflicted amnesia, according to the video I'd left myself. A necessary precaution, according to old me.
I had no idea who the men behind me were, or why they were trying to kill me. I glanced back at the bobbing flashlights of my pursuers as an assault rifle chattered, and a spray of bullets whistled down the tunnel. A few found me, and my forcefield flared as it negated their impact. The heads-up in my mask showed I was down to seventy-two percent charge.
"YOU KNOW, SHE REALLY DOESN'T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU'RE TRYING TO KILL HER. DIRE IS WILLING TO LET THIS GO IF YOU ARE."
There was a pause. They were probably trying to parse my mangled speech. For whatever reason, I'd received an inability to use first-person pronouns to go with my amnesia.
I took the opportunity to hop over two AR-flagged monofilament mines, and dodged around a jury-rigged white phosphorous grenade. The old me was pretty brutal when it came to setting traps.
The assassins sent their reply in the form of more bullets, but by then I was ducking down a side corridor. I paused there, hauled out my 1911 army pistol, and sent a few bullets back. Then I took cover and waited, counting the seconds.
They didn't have my mask, and the night vision it provided. They had no warning of the mines, or the grenades. When the explosions and the screaming started, I ran across to a T-junction, darted left, and started following the AR tags that indicated an exit. As I went, the gunshots and noise faded behind me.
A lighter patch of darkness ahead. A rush of cold air, and I shivered. I hadn't dressed for cold weather before I'd been so rudely interrupted, and going by the calendar I'd seen during my awakening, I'd be walking out into winter. At least I'd chosen a sweater, rather than a T-shirt, when I grabbed some initial clothing. Jeans and sneakers had been a less-than-ideal choice, but I'd have to live with it for now.
The sewers ended in a spill pipe, with water streaming down to a dark pool that surged and subsided between wooden pylons. It was dark and cramped, and my mask's night vision helped fill in the details. The water from the storm drain ran down a sand-choked concrete channel, with the wood of a pier overhead. Boats bobbed to either side of the pier. Most of the craft were small and dilapidated. One or two of them were half-submerged in the water.
I paused, glanced back toward the dark tunnels behind me. I heard nothing more.
My adrenaline started to ebb, and I sagged against the side of the tunnel. I was tired. I needed to get out of here, and find some shelter before I froze. I needed to find someplace to hide where my mysterious assassins wouldn't look. Just some place where I could take stock of the situation and figure out where I was, and how I could survive the next few days.
I looked around the underside of the pier. A thin strip of sand divided the edge of the spillpipe and the water, and I eased myself out into it. Picking my way through to a slope, I half-crawled, half climbed my way up the sandy slope, past the peeled metal fencing under the pier. It scraped at me as I went, and I wriggled free, tearing my sweater.
I emerged on a gritty sand beach, on a coastline that had seen better days. To my east, the ocean stretched on, dark and solemn under a clear night sky. The moon and stars gave witness and a bit of light to the scene. To the south, piers jutted out of the water, the ones nearest me empty save for scattered small craft. They got nicer the further south they got, with better and less-crappy boats becoming visible at the edge of my augmented vision. Looked like a marina over there, though I couldn't tell for sure because the lights were off. To my north, intact piers gave way to broken piers which gave way to what looked to be the remnants of some sort of amusement park. Roller-coaster tracks, and a few giant clown heads leering out into the night. Again, no lights. If it weren't for my mask's night vision, the clown heads would have been shapes in the darkness.
To the west, fires bloomed from burn barrels, as people muttered and moved among tents and scrap-metal shacks. Beyond the settlement lay streets, warehouses, and buildings. I was at the edge of a great city. But save for a flickering, smoke-spewing light in the middle of a cluster four or five blocks down, every last part was unlit. No electric lights, nothing but the moon above and the fires below.
The group of refugees watched the city. I was safely out of their view behind them, many hundreds of yards back. I checked the magazine of my pistol, and found it down to five bullets. Those plus the two spare magazines I had left... no, not enough. I didn't have enough bullets to kill everyone on the beach, so hopefully they wouldn't be as trigger-happy as the last lot.
I started in their direction, and stopped. If they
anything like the last they wouldn't react too well to my current appearance.
I reached into my pocket and deactivated the forcefield generator. Then I removed my mask.
Pale white with eyes of solid black. Plain, barely-featured beyond the basic eyes, nose, and mouth. Feminine, it held the barest hint of a smile on its ceramic lips.
The men hunting me had opened fire the second they saw it. Why?
The mask went into my overstuffed backpack, and I paused to examine the gun holstered by my side. A bit of adjustment, and my fluffy green sweater went over the firearm. A cloth scrunchie from my pocket went over my black locks, pulling them back in a rough ponytail. Pulling on recent stitches, too, but no help for that.
I hoped I seemed inoffensive. With a final breath for courage, I moved up to the edge of the group.
“Hey,” I whispered to an older man wearing a tattered ball cap and the remains of a trenchcoat. “What happened?”
He shook his head, looked at me with watery eyes. “How'd you miss it? Lights went out. Then that 'partment blew up. Then it kept blowin' up.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Just woke up. Guess that was it, it was noisy,”
He nodded back and moved over, making room at the fire next to about six or seven other refugees. All of them had mismatched clothing, and the signs of people who'd been living hard for a little too long. With my unsteady gait and torn sweater, I fit right in.
There was something cooking in a pot, and a guy with a scarf across his face offered me a styrofoam bowl. I took it, nodding my thanks, and ate with my fingers. Beans with a few slivers of ham. It burned my fingers and tongue, and it was the best food I could ever remember eating, thanks to old me and her rather-inconvenient memory wipe.
In the distance, the apartment building groaned and started to collapse, sending flames shooting up into the night. There were sighs and murmurs of dismay from the crowd, and I narrowed my eyes. That looked like it could be about the right area for my starting point. I'd walked a ways in the dark, but five or six blocks sounded about right. Was I responsible for whatever attack had wrecked that building? Given that the gunmen earlier had been targeting me, that seemed a likely hypothesis.
Now that I had a belly full of food, and was in relative safety, I had half a mind to go and take a closer look at the site of the explosions. That half a mind was swiftly squashed by caution. Multiple explosions hadn't slowed my foes down much. I'd been lucky to escape without interception.
Instead, I turned to consider my new companions. By all appearances they were homeless, ragged, and suffering from the cold. We had so much in common.
Noticing my attention, the
man with the ball cap and trench coat stepped forward and shook my hand.
“Roy. Roy Carver,” He had cloth wraps around his hands, that left his fingers free. His fingernails were ragged, especially compared to my own. I met his grip with strength.
“Got a first name?”
“Not really. Just call her Dire.”
He frowned. “Her who?”
“Her. She. Dire.” I thumped my sweater. He frowned at me, and I smiled back.
“Oh. So ya talk about yourself like you're someone else. Ya mental?”
My head throbbed, and I remembered the chair I'd woken in, the chair full of surgical saws, cauterizing lasers, and other gruesome tools. The chair where I'd carved out my own memories, according to the video I'd left myself. Sane people don't do that sort of thing.
“She's fairly certain that she is or was crazy, yes.” I frowned. “Sorry. She can go if that's a problem.”
Roy laughed, a wheezing gasp that ended in coughing. Finally, he shook his head. “Nah. If we start kickin' people out for bein' mental, it'll be a ghost town 'round here. Ain't that right, Sparky?”
He thumped a hand down on a wheelchair full of blankets. The blankets stirred, and I stifled a snort. Another ancient geezer, with maybe a third of a head of hair to his name, all staticky and standing out from his age-spotted head. He stared at me with crusty eyes that were somewhat whited over with cataracts, and smiled. “Hello Lucy!”
“This here's Leo.” Roy explained. “But he prefers t'be called Sparky. It's what we called him back in '44, me an' the boys.”
Leo... Sparky... whoever he was, he was already looking off over my shoulder and muttering under his breath about sausages and boot polish.
“And I'm Joan, hun.” The round-faced woman across the way meandered over, and clapped a hand on my shoulder. She was fat, and smelled a bit like moldy bread.
Not that I was in any position to point fingers, I'd just waded through the muck of a storm drain. At least it hadn't been a sewage pipe.
“So. Where is this?” I asked.
Roy scrutinized me. “The Shanties off Melville Street?”
“No, she means which city is this?” I asked.
“You really been on a bad trip, Dia.” Joan grinned. “It's still Icon City, sorry. Don't know what you were hoping for.”
I didn't correct her assumption of my name. Icon City... no, it didn't ring any bells. I pressed my hands to my temples, let out a breath. Shook my head.
“Icon City?” Roy said, squinting at me. “Tesla's masterpiece? Home of the first heroes? Big golf ball in the bay where Helios headquarters is?”
I shook my head.
He continued. “More costumes per square mile than the rest of the east coast combined?”
“Y'know, heroes and villains. People with powers.” His hand found Sparky's shoulder, squeezed... and damned if a little arc of electricity didn't climb his arm. He snapped his fingers back, and cursed. “Shit. Your ground's up again, Sparky.”
“Oh. Sorry, Roy.” Sparky came back to himself, and fiddled with a lever on the side of his chair. With a snap, spring-loaded metal rods poked out of the arms, dug into the sand. There was the snap of a completed circuit, and he relaxed, and closed his eyes.
I watched with fascination. “He generates electricity?” That didn't seem possible, but here he was doing it.
Roy nodded. “Ayeah. Me an' Leo go way back. When he got his surge he was so damn happy. Thought he was followin' in Mister Tesla's footsteps. But they only had the lightning in common. He didn't get the smarts. Fact is, when he uses his powers, it scrambles his brains.” He sighed. “We thought he was gonna join the Liberty Brigade, but they turned him down. Official reason was his powers were harmful for him to use, but I got me a suspicion it was because he was colored. So we went to a Jersey recruiting station, lied on our names and ages, and got in as Gee Ayes.” He huffed. “We did our share, dammit. Normandy in forty-four, up that beach and through.”
I nodded. Forty-four seemed to be a reference to years. It was the year two-thousand now, I knew. First day of it, in fact. That was an awful lot of time between the two dates.
“Why are you here? What happened after the war?” I asked.
He was silent for a while. Another member of the crowd, a dark-skinned young man with short-cropped hair, shook his head. “Man, you don't ask that question round here. Everyone's got their reasons, and unless someone tells it, ain't good to ask.”