Authors: J.B. Garner
Tags: #Superhero | Paranormal | Urban Fantasy
The Push Chronicles: Book 2
By J. B. Garner
Copyright 2014 J. B. Garner
Cover art illustrated by Felipe de Barros
In memory of Jon Compton, my dearest friend, without whose constant support any of my books would not have been written.
To Reyn and Dave, who gave me the encouragement and opportunity to write these words. They are my family and I love them dearly.
To Mom, David, and Christine, from who I had separated myself and finally found the courage to return to my life.
Thanks as well to Shay, Tessa, and Aaron for their support and insight
A Special Thanks to my Kickstarter Contributors:
David Garner, Jr.
Silver Games LLC
Table of Contents
I ignored the gentle throb in my knuckles as I pried away the boards from the door. Last night's brawl with Buzzkill and his human gang had been rougher than I would have liked. The stitches in my side were evidence of that. Taking on one meth-fueled Pushcrook and his entourage would have been simple if all of the Atlanta Five had been there, but it was just Extinguisher and myself. That was an awkward enough pairing as it was; putting it into a dangerous situation made it worse. It was just another evening in the ever-growing slog that was the life of Dr. Irene Roman, former physiologist, now 'Nationally-Famous Superhero' Indomitable. Maybe it wasn't so bad for my Pushed colleagues, they had actual reality-bending, superhuman abilities, but for me, whose only advantage was unrelenting stubbornness and a talent for ignoring the unreality that pervaded our world, it was a hard, painful role to step into.
Outside, it was a lazy fall afternoon: a perfect day, at least as perfect as any day had been since the Whiteout. I would have preferred to be spending a lazy day in Grant Park, catching some fresh air and a healthy rest, but when I got the call from Rachel Choi about a lead on the Downtown disappearances, I didn't have a choice. Lives were at stake. That was why I was now breaking into a disused portion of Underground Atlanta, sealed off since the 1920s. The last board fell away and I forced the rusted hinges of the door open.
"Are you sure about this?" I whispered. At least the new suit and the new gear was nice, especially the microphones and receivers. Rachel's voice came crisply over my earbud.
"Mind's Eye corroborated what Duane pieced together from the eyewitness accounts, at least until you entered the scene." The Indian seer's powers, just like any of the other Pushed, went askew the second I, or the few others like me, became involved. "Are you sure you don't want to wait until I can arrange for some backup? Duane should be done with his client briefings within the hour and Extinguisher is out on patrol, so it probably wouldn't take him long to get there." The very personal problems between Extinguisher and myself had managed to be kept that way: personal. Even the very astute observer that is former FBI agent Rachel Choi hadn't picked up on what few clues we let slip.
"That's okay," I replied. I took a moment to focus before wrenching the door free from it's rusty prison. A stale, rank stench permeated the air beyond. "There's no telling when this creep will strike again or what state the victims are in. We can't risk waiting."
"I suppose you're right." There was a tapping at a keyboard. "Still, keep in contact. Don't hesitate to call for the cavalry."
I grunted an acknowledgment to the advice I was very unlikely to follow as I stepped through the open doorway. This construction was old, lacking the multiple refurbishments of the other parts of Underground. It was moist, dank, and the walls dripped with condensation. I could only guess that a forgotten sewer pipe or some natural stream vent had broken into these tunnels. While the door had been sealed, I couldn't help but notice that there were a few partial footprints in some of the deeper grime. Someone or something had been through this way in the recent past. I crept further along, senses straining in the darkness.
I wasn't even ten yards into the darkness that my stomach began a very familiar twist-and-roll. Someone Pushed was nearby, confirming my suspicions. The reflex to recoil and crumple with nausea was something I had learned to master just a few days into the Whiteout, but the sickly feeling was something I could never entirely ignore. What dim light the open door behind me cast was now non-existent so I had no choice but to close my eyes and focus on my other senses and that strange reaction to unreality to guide me. I could feel my mind and body slip into that harmonious state of focus, the unlocking of my full human potential. It was the only side-effect of whatever it was that I had become post-Whiteout that I enjoyed, even if the euphoria and calm it granted was a temporary thing, limited by my willpower and my endurance.
It was that fortuitous timing that saved my life. The wire went unnoticed even as it cut into the leather of my racing boot. The sudden drag, though, triggered alarm bells in my head, bells that wouldn't have been on otherwise. Already committed to motion, I knew there was no way to stop now and no way to know just what this wire was attached to. Even with my now-accelerated thoughts, there was only moments to decide. Retreat or plunge forward, those were the only options I had.
Before I put on this mask, I would have retreated. That time, maybe even that person, was long since gone. I changed my careful step forward into an all-out sprint. There was a brief pull, a sudden clatter of two small, metal objects, and then silence. I wasn't lulled into a sense of security; instead I ran faster into the blackness.
To say I was a stranger to explosions at this point in my life would be a lie. The Battle of Washington, where the collective population of Push Heroes fought the same number of Pushcrooks, had more than a few I had been too intimate with for my liking. That experience, though, was not nearly so personal as this, as what had to be two grenades exploded in the darkness behind me.
If I had been out in the open, I probably would have been perfectly fine. As it was with the explosion channeled by the claustrophobic tunnels, I was caught in the back by a concussive wave and a series of stinging punctures along my back. Most of the fragments seemed to have been caught up in the layers of my leather uniform, with only one nasty one cutting into my shoulder blade. My equilibrium thrown off, I stumbled as I continued to sprint, catching my foot in some unseen muck. Even with my mind and body in overdrive, there was no way to catch myself before I fell forward. The best I could manage was a tumble to soften the fall. I could hear crumbling masonry behind me as I shakily stood, not from the pain, a nonexistent thing when I was in my focused state, but from the concussion itself. It looked like I would have to find another way out.
"Irene!" The first shout in my ear sounded distant through the ringing. The second one was much louder. "Irene!" My voice sounded funny as I started to speak, something that slowly fixed itself as my ears recovered from the blast.
"I'm fine. More or less, anyway." I kept a hand on the wall to steady myself. "Some kind of explosive booby trap, so yeah, your info was straight." A thought dawned. "Of course, if he, she, or it is here, they aren't alone any more."
"Maybe you should extract now," Rachel said as the clickety-clack of keys came over the earbud. "I'm calling in Extinguisher and feeding him your last known location. I can't get a read on you now and -"
"No time, I'm going on." I decided to leave out the cave-in. There was no need to get the over-cautious private detective even more eager to call in every hero in her files.
"I'm still making the call," she added. "Be careful. You're too far down now for me to get a clear GPS signal, so if something goes wrong, it will be hard to find you." I began to move forward again as my senses cleared. I couldn't afford to be too cautious now or else I would be the proverbial sitting duck. With any chance of stealth blown as it was, I felt through the gear bag at my hip for my headlamp. As much as it lacked style, I might as well go forward with the ability to see. No doubt whatever was down here wasn't affected by the dark like I was.
"Right. Over and out or whatever it is."
The headlamp's LED flared into life. The dust was still settling from the explosion, forcing me to suppress a cough, but even so, I could see the tunnel continue forward with a slight descent. The humidity was getting worse, the walls slick and the exposed pipes dripping. There had been lighting run down here at one point, but either there was no power or no working bulbs left. Maybe it was some kind of maintenance tunnel? It hardly mattered right now. I pressed on at a jog, still slow enough to react to danger.
It wasn't more than another two dozen yards before the tunnel made a sharp right turn. Even if my light was giving me away to some degree, I still felt the need to be cautious around the blind turn. The last thing I needed was to dash around it into a waiting bullet or fireball or some other esoteric insanity. I plastered myself to the right wall and carefully edged to the corner. My gut was clenched; I was very close to the source now. I darted my head around the corner quick as a flash to get a look at what laid ahead.
There was only a short space of hall before a chamber. From my quick glance, I could see it was round, with several other connecting tunnels. A junction of some kind, maybe even an abandoned storage area, as I saw some old furniture and tools about. Most importantly, I observed three things. First and most obvious, more tunnels meant possible alternate routes to the surface for me and escape routes for the kidnapper. Second, there was a human form lying in a pile of what I figured to be old clothing. I couldn't tell if he or she was alive, but I knew they weren't Pushed instantly. The figure had be one of the victims. Last but not least, there was a large steamer trunk, looking a bit more intact than the rest of the artifacts in the room, that dominated the center of the chamber. There was dirt all around it in clumps on the stone floor and seeping out of the weakening boards. I had no clue what that could mean other than it might be large enough to hide the Pushcrook I was hunting. Unfortunately, I didn't catch any glimpse of what I was actually looking for. The clammy mist that seemed to collect in this low point of the tunnel didn't help at all.
I stood there, deliberating for a split-second. There was nothing to be done for it. I had to find out if that person was alive or not and I couldn't do that here. I took a centering breath and slid out into the room.
To my small surprise, I was not immediately impaled, shot, stabbed, or otherwise subjected to bodily harm. My senses, though, were still screaming at the presence of the Pushed, not just close but literally all around. I focused myself to keep calm and not lose concentration as I dashed past the steamer trunk to the fetal figure beyond it. I had not even gotten to one knee to check for a pulse before it was obvious this person was dead. It was a woman, skin chalk-white, though there was not quite the stench of decay I was expecting. Maybe she had just died recently; the last victim had only been gone two days and was a woman. I reached for the neck so as to turn the corpse and try to confirm my suspicions as to her identity, cursing under my breath at another life lost to the curse of the Whiteout. That's when I felt, even through my gloves, the two deep puncture wounds right on the artery.
I barely had time to jump to the obvious conclusion as the air pressure suddenly shifted behind me. Something solid had just coalesced out of the mists. Accelerated reflexes took over as I tried to push up and off, at least to gain a little space from whatever was behind me, but it moved far faster. I was grabbed by the shoulders and hurled bodily through the air with inhuman force, careening straight into the far wall. I twisted as best I could to minimize the impact, but the collision sent a heavy shock through my back as I slid back down to the ground. I willed the pain into check as I struggled to get a clear view of my assailant.
What I saw was what anyone with even the faintest knowledge of literature or movies would call a vampire. Male, once human, and dressed in blood-stained clothes, the sight of the pearly white skin, powerful physique, glowing red eyes, and knife-like fangs was frightful, if I had been capable of feeling fear at the time. What was far more shocking was what lay beneath the facade of unreality, something only myself and a very few others could see. Unlike the normal human at the heart of most of the Pushed, there was a corpse. A dead, pungently rotting man hung, puppeted by the unnatural forces around it. I couldn't be sure, but there was enough resemblance between the outage visage and the rotting flesh to make me think there had been few alterations. Not that I had much time to think about that. The vampiric thing was already moving.
With no real options, I did the only thing I could do: I pushed to my feet and met the monstrosity head on.