Authors: Joshua Guess
Tags: #Sci-Fi | Superheroes
The Next Chronicle: Book Two
©2015 Joshua Guess
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Also by Joshua Guess
Living With the Dead
With Spring Comes The Fall
The Bitter Seasons
Year One (With Spring Comes The Fall, The Bitter Seasons, bonus material)
The Hungry Land
The Wild Country
This New Disease
Dead Will Rise
War of the Living
The Next Chronicle
Beautiful (An Urban Fantasy)(Novel)
Soldier Lost (Short Story)
Dog Dreams In Color (Short Story)
With James Cook
The Passenger (Surviving The Dead)
It was night in Louisville. The hour was not late enough to leave the streets empty, but not so early to protect those below from the worse elements of the city. Five stories above the busy strip of bars and clubs, a man waited.
He was large, though this was not obvious as he perched on the corner of the roof. At first glance he seemed normal enough—aside from doing his best impression of a gargoyle. He wore dark clothing that, if viewed from a distance, would not seem out of place anywhere. A closer look told a different tale.
The thin coat he wore was leather, hand-crafted and snug. Inside, sewn with painstaking care, were some of the
generation of ballistic strike plates. Many new and vastly improved protective technologies had come on the market in the recent months. Some said it was a Next blessed with super-intelligence looking to capitalize on the growing fear in the human population. Others claimed the opposite, that a consortium of normal humans in the defense business decided to create a front company to hide their identities, to provide cheap and powerful armor for the frightened majority.
The man did not care which was true, though for the record neither was. The entirety of his concern was the sweet curve of the cost/benefit ratio.
Beneath the jacket he wore a bulky stab vest. His arms and legs, even his hands, were armored in ways obvious and subtle. These were all necessary, of course, because his own abilities included only a limited resistance to damage. His bones would not break, but anything beyond a small-caliber handgun would pierce his skin. Knives were especially dangerous.
Had he walked through a store, the other patrons might have looked at his outfit twice and shrugged it off. Unless he also wore the last piece, the most important element of his gear.
In a city where justice often failed its citizens, he believed in the responsibility of power. To have the ability to do something about it but choose not to? Unconscionable. The man watched the streets below, waiting. The time would come when—
“You have got to be kidding me,” a voice said.
The man spun, landing in a crouch. With practiced ease he drew two expandable batons, whipping them open.
“Frank Brawner?” the stranger said. The man blinked behind his mask.
“How do you know that name?” the man said in a low growl.
The stranger sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered. “Are you or are you not Frank Brawner?”
The man relaxed somewhat, but did not move from his fighting stance. “I am. Who are you?”
“I'm Ray Cassidy,” the stranger said. “
Cassidy. From the Office of Superhuman Affairs. Might I ask why you're carrying those weapons while lurking on this roof?”
Despite the chill of the evening, Frank began to sweat beneath his armor. Thin drops formed between his face and the mask. “I'm patrolling,” he said.
Agent Cassidy closed his eyes for a moment. Frank could swear he heard the man counting under his breath.
After a few moments, the agent cleared his throat. “You are aware there are laws against vigilantism, aren't you? See, I know you're aware of this fact because our people brought you in four months ago for the same thing.”
Frank straightened, letting his batons hang loose in his hands. “This city needs people like me. We stand up for—”
“Let me stop you right there,” Cassidy said, putting up his hands. “You have no idea how often I get the 'the city is in peril' speech. And stop talking like Batman. You sound like an idiot.”
“There's no need to be mean,” Frank said in a higher and more natural tone. There was a hint of squeak in it, probably from scraping his vocal cords raw with his false, growling voice.
Ray Cassidy gaped. “You think that's me being mean? Listen, you're breaking the law here. You know you are. And you think me being honest about you trying to live out your preteen fantasies is
?” He shook his head. “Go on, tell me what you were going to do if you saw a crime down there.”
Frank fidgeted. “I was...going to stop it.”
“Well, thank you,” Cassidy said acidly. “Glad you cleared that up. Care to be a little more detailed?”
Standing straight, Frank looked the agent in the eye. “I would have jumped down. Lots of people get mugged in this neighborhood, especially after the bars start kicking the drunks out.”
“Let me make sure I have this right,” Cassidy said. “You were going to drop fifty feet and wail on someone with your batons. That right?”
Frank nodded hesitantly. “When you say it like that...”
Cassidy smiled. “Yes, sounds pretty ridiculous. But let's assume you did it. Do you know what would have happened?” He didn't wait for a reply, losing patience with the situation. “Had you landed and actually managed to fight off some mugger or whatever, you would have been caught and charged with attempted murder.” Frank's eyes widened, an expression visible through the eye holes of his mask.
“That's right,” Cassidy said. “We knew you were going to be here. How? Because a few days ago, the city decided to send one of its Next police officers here in plain clothes
because the area was dangerous.
The officer saw you and kept an eye on you for the last few nights. He's stationed here, you see, because he can legally do the job you seem to think is your...” Cassidy paused, mouth pursing around the word in distaste, “destiny.”
Frank's shoulders slumped. “Oh.”
“Yes,” Cassidy said. “You're Next, Frank. The reason people with super-strength aren't supposed to go out and fight crime is because you should be properly trained and legally deputized.” Cassidy caught his eyes. “We live under restrictions for a reason. You may not like it, but you do have to live with it. Also, if you
jumped, you would have seriously hurt yourself. You're tough, but five stories is too much. We know. We have your records.”
Frank sighed. “I just wanted to help.”
New fire lit Cassidy's eyes. “No, you didn't. You wanted to live out your adolescent fantasy. Helping was totally incidental in the equation. For god's sake, man, if you want to fight crime so badly, why not join a police academy?”
Thankful for the mask covering his face, Frank blushed. “I tried. They said I was unfit.”
Again, Cassidy gaped. “And you didn't take this as some kind of sign? Cops are cops for a reason. They have to learn how to do this stuff. Jesus, man. You need help.”
Fresh anger boiled from Frank. “You know what? Take me in. I'll do my time and be right back out here. Because people need someone to watch out for them.”
Cassidy stared at the costumed man for a long time, wondering if he would have to deal with an attack. “You don't get it,” he finally said. “I could take you to our facility. It's a jail for people like us. And let me tell you, man, you'd be about the least powerful guy there. At best you would be some other Next's lunch. More likely, you'd die. The weak don't fare well.”
There were a few threads of truth in that, though mostly it was bullshit. The facility held some terrifying customers, sure, but almost every prisoner was segregated individually. Not that Brawner needed to know that.
Cassidy ran a hand through his messy black hair, resting the other on his hip. The suit was black, with a white shirt and black tie. It could have been off the rack from any department store from its simple cut, but in fact cost more than most mortgage payments. He'd had it custom made, using materials not yet known to the rest of the human race.
And here he was, getting it dirty climbing up a ladder to talk to this idiot.
“The city doesn't need people like you, Frank,” Cassidy said. “It
protectors. Cops. Some have powers, some don't, but they're doing their best. Your problem is that you think you know better than everyone else. That somehow,
can be the hero that makes the difference. Would you still have felt that way when you accidentally killed a purse snatcher? I don't know, and I don't want to. This stops now.”
Frank tensed, raising his batons. “You can try,” he said, voice gruff once more.
Cassidy rolled his eyes. “Lord, give me strength,” he muttered. “I'm not going to fight you, dumbass. I'm going to do the one thing that might actually make you understand just how out of your element you are.”
“What do you mean?” Frank said, raising his weapons high.
“I'm going to help you,” Cassidy said, and gestured toward him.
A dim flash of green light swept over Frank's body, and suddenly he was cold. There was a patter like freezing rain. His hands were empty, his face unmasked.
He was completely naked.
“What the hell?” Frank shrieked, fumbling to cover himself.
Cassidy smiled, then pulled out his phone to snap a picture. “I'll be keeping this,” he said. “Have fun getting down from here without anyone seeing you. I'll be disintegrating the ladder as well, just so you know. You'll probably have to call for help. Oh, and if I catch you again? I'll leak this picture to the media when I take you to jail. That way you'll have some of that fame you're looking for waiting for you when you get out.”
Without waiting for a response Ray Cassidy, newly-minted OSA agent and amateur extortionist, turned and walked away.
“Fucking superheroes,” he mumbled as he lowered himself down the ladder.
The edge of the water had only the barest suggestion of a beach before sloping upward for a hundred yards. A bright moon danced off the waves as the team hauled their raft onto the shore, its engine long since turned off. There was enough light to make out the loose scrum which made up the hill, a mixture of rocks, sandy soil, and actual sand from which grew a surprising assortment of vegetation. Even purely human eyes could see as much.
Kitra Singh saw with a precision most people could only dream of. Her visual acuity wasn't easily measured as the tests weren't precise enough. She could see in near-total darkness, requiring only the smallest source of light.
Those were the least of her gifts.
She did a fast check of her team, a single glance processed by her enhanced brain almost instantly. Everyone accounted for, she signaled with a raised hand to begin the ascent.
The team spent two weeks memorizing the topography of the place, planning their direction of approach. They drilled eight hours a day to account for every contingency. The steep hill, soft and malleable though it was, offered no particular difficulty. They moved upward in a winding zigzag at good speed.
As planned, the team crested the hill directly beneath the spreading boughs of a stand of evergreen oaks. Here they paused, everyone checking and rechecking their weapons and equipment. As always, Kit would be first through the door even though Johnson was rated much more resistant to damage. It was Johnson's first field mission, and Kit refused to risk the team regardless of how eager the young man was to prove his worth.
“Give me checks,” Kit said in a low voice.
One by one they checked off, vocalizing their readiness. “Let's go,” Kit said, unhooking the custom helmet dangling from her belt and slipping it on. The front was open, though the edges hugged her mouth, widening around her eyes to keep her vision clear. It was a concession made out of practicality since her superiors knew she could recover from nearly any wound to her body, but a head shot was a head shot.
The land rolled in deep waves here, the foothills of the coastal mountains. The combination of verdant plant growth and desert ecology would have been fascinating in any other circumstance. The team whispered through the loamy soil, stepping between clumps of tall grass as they moved along in a crouch.
A shallow gully ran toward the ocean, the swell of a hill beyond. After weeks of studying the maps over and over, the sight gave Kit a sense of deja vu. She turned to face the others, signaling for them to remain behind. Johnson she touched lightly on the arm, nodding toward the hilltop.
Without the rest of the team, they could move at full speed. Johnson was physically much more powerful than Kit, though he kept slightly behind her as they dashed up the hill. Another small copse of trees loomed as they neared the top, only a handful but more than enough to give them cover.
They fell into a crawl just before breasting the hill, working their way forward to take their first glimpse of the target with their own eyes. The building looked much as it had in the surveillance photos. Johnson pulled a pair of binoculars.
“Looks good,” he muttered, breathing the words. “Quiet.”
Kit could see it fairly well, which wasn't good enough. She put out a hand, palm up. Johnson passed her the binoculars. She scanned the building slowly, starting over when she was done.
“Something's different,” she said. But what was it?
The world slowed, Kit's movements a crawl. Like a toy running out of power, the scene wound down until it stopped completely.
“What is it?” asked a voice. Only it wasn't a voice exactly. Kit's mind processed the intent of the thought into words because that was what she could understand.
The Syrian coast vanished, replaced by a wood-paneled office with subdued lighting. Kit sat across from an Asian man with concern on his face. “Are you okay?” he asked.
She took a deep breath, steadying herself. Doctor Otomo waited patiently.
“I'm sorry,” she finally said. “That's a tough memory.”
The psychiatrist nodded. “I assumed as much, given your reaction. When I asked you to share a memory of loss with me, I knew it would be difficult. Do you want to continue?”
The question didn't surprise her, but it felt like a trap. Months had passed since the incident at the facility with Thomas Maggard, but Kit was still required to attend these sessions twice a week. Joseph Otomo was an empath, a very specific sort of telepath who could experience the memories of others. Being able to feel what his patients felt, see through their eyes, gave him an ability to identify with them in ways no other psychiatrist could.
But it also made him dangerous. On his word, Kit could be removed from her position. Not pushing forward could be a mistake.
“Yeah,” she said. “Let's get this over with.”
She felt a pull like a gentle vacuum as soon as the doctor touched her hand. He couldn't read her mind, he had no ability in that regard at all. Instead he was a receiver, extraordinarily sensitive to projected thoughts. All Kit had to do was focus on the memory, and they were once again reliving it.
“It's the flowers,” Kit whispered.
Johnson turned to her. “What?”
She stared at the building, which at first glance seemed to be nothing more than a remote villa. “The flower beds. They're new. They run all around the base of the wall. Why...” Then she saw it. Just a corner, but when she made out the shape hidden behind the low greenery, it was impossible to miss. “Fuck me, they've lined the outside of the place with Claymores.”
Johnson's mouth dropped open in horror. “Antipersonnel mines?”
Kit nodded. “If they put defenses outside, it means they know we're coming. They're probably watching for us.”
Johnson nodded in understanding. It might be his first rodeo, but the guy wasn't stupid. He knew just as well as Kit that his ability to shrug off bullets wouldn't matter at all in the face of one—much less many—of those mines. Hundreds of pieces of steel deformed into the shape of bullets by the sheer force of the explosion propelling them would shred them in the blink of an eye.
Kit smiled, proud he had grasped the situation well enough to begin retreating without being told. Even if they had been prepared to deal with the mines, the conditions had changed enough to warrant a mission scrub. Going up against an enemy who knows you're coming and has prepared for you isn't wise when you planned to have the element of surprise.
Later, Kit liked to think they would have escaped unharmed, that the course of events would have been smooth even in failure. She had no way to know, of course, because things hadn't gone smoothly, but the thought brought a small measure of comfort to her.
But for one loose rock, they might have retreated safely.
Johnson finished his step backward, still crouched. His boot came down on a piece of stone, which wobbled free beneath his weight and caused his movement to stutter. As his balance failed and he began to teeter backward, his instinct took over. Not the trained reactions of a man studiously learning to use his superhuman powers safely, but the base reflexes hard-coded into his muscles at earliest childhood.
His body straightened as he began to fall, arms shooting out for balance. Kit winced, shooting a hand toward him with incredible speed. She was still too slow.
Johnson tumbled down the hill, dislodging rocks and sandy dirt as he fell. That wouldn't hurt him, Kit knew. The man could take a head-on collision with a speeding car and carry on without a scratch.
It was the split second during the fall where he had been standing up. That was what killed him.
A motion sensor or camera must have been pointing at the stand of trees. It made sense, given how useful the spot would be for any approaching enemy. When Johnson popped up during his fall, a flood of light erupted from the building. Giant stadium bulbs scorched away the night from recesses beneath awnings, others nestled in the flower beds.
, rushing down the hill.
A klaxon began to howl behind her, the sound barely muffled by the hill. Though she couldn't hear them, she imagined the hoarse shouts of men piling out of barracks, terrorists thirsty for the blood of the people sent to neutralize them.
Those men might have been doing just that, but Kit never found out. Something else happened as her feet churned up rooster tails of sand, a new factor in the equation which turned her blood to ice.
The sound of the air being cut momentarily drowned out the alarm, followed by a bracing windstorm slapping her with displaced sand. In the midst of the maelstrom, a figured clad in dark clothing flashed by, the power of his flight ripping the hillside to tatters as he passed.
Before Kit could register what was happening, the enemy Next landed in the middle of her team, who had moved toward Johnson as a unit.
With a rush of adrenaline Kit rerouted the power inside her to gain speed. It was an ability unique to her, so far as she knew, and incredibly useful. By sacrificing her other powers, Kit could temporarily boost another immensely.
Her perception of time stretched, slowing everything down while she moved forward normally. It still was not enough. Between one footfall and the next the enemy superhuman casually raised a boot and stomped on Johnson's neck as he struggled to right himself.
The sickening, wet crunch of bone was accompanied by a jolt in the ground itself. Fury rose up in Kit, instant and consuming, washing away rational thought and driving her forward. The enemy Next blurred, a hand wrapping around the throat of another member of the team. They drifted upward, five feet, then ten.
Kit grunted as she launched herself off the side of the hill, bringing her knees nearly to her chin as she hurtled toward the murderer holding the struggling form of her teammate.
Thanks to her genetics, Kit had many advantages. She was stronger than any three men, faster than an Olympic sprinter on her worst day, and had the coordination of an ancient Kung-Fu master. These and many other interconnected abilities made her an excellent generalist, capable of a wide variety of acts beyond even the most skilled vanilla humans.
In this case, her weight was the best advantage she had. Clocking in at five feet and small change, petite of build, Kit still tipped the scales at better than two hundred pounds. Her muscles, bones, and organs were like stone compared to a normal person. And it made her
Slamming into the killer sent a wild rush of feral satisfaction through her. She dimly noted that he dropped the struggling member of her team as she wrapped herself around him. The impact drove them sideways through the air, though this too was merely a piece of data her brain cataloged behind the rage.
Her legs wrapped around his waist, ankles locking over his groin. Kit snaked both hands onto his face, at first planning to simply lace her fingers together and try to break him. Then she thought better of it; he was probably too tough for that.
Instead she went for the eyes. Even if he was the sort of Next whose body was suffused by a protective energy field, his normal human reaction would be to panic as someone tried to attack his organs of sight.
As it turned out, he was
that type of Next. Like Kit, his damage resistance was purely physical in nature, confirmed by the wet spurt as her fingers slammed through his eyes with the force of pistons.
He screamed and thrashed, but Kit held firm. Her legs stretched, putting immense pressure on his groin, her hands sliding down the blood-slick cheeks and coming to rest on his mouth and nose. Leaning her head against his back, she pulled tight with every ounce of force she could muster. The world faded to near-blinding darkness as she once more pushed all her energy into a single ability. Her muscles thrummed with strength, burned with power.
The killer, despite the surely searing agony in his face, seemed to understand what was happening. As her hands cut off the flow of air, he panicked.
His own hands skittered over hers, trying to find purchase. The blood made it difficult, his wild fear only worsening the situation. In his mindless need to breathe the killer tried hurting her, slamming them both into the ground.
Kit felt a rib break as the man somehow managed to hit her with an elbow. She winced as a lightning bolt of pain circled her chest, but she did not loosen her grip. Now on the ground, rolling in the dirt, the killer tried once more to pry her fingers loose. It was a failing of many Next who grew too reliant on their powers; those men and women forgot in their arrogance about simple physical laws such as leverage.
Kit had it. The killer didn't.
His struggles weakened as his air ran out. Eventually his movements stopped completely, though Kit didn't release her hands for several minutes after.
When she finally did, she found the remaining members of her team staring at her in shock, horror painted in every line of their faces. Without a word, she lifted Johnson from the ground, as gently as she would a child, and moved back toward the sea.