Warp Meets Whip
Warp stood just off the blacktop, facing back down Interstate 80. He’d taken his time walking away from the rig, keeping an eye on the road, half expecting Bear and his partner Mina to emerge out of the wall of blowing snow. But minutes had dragged by and there was no sign of them. He was starting to numb from the cold. It was time to get airborne.
He took two steps forward, feeling the snow crunch under his boots. The sense of tactile contact with the ground was part of building the impulse he needed to lift off. He crossed his arms and gripped his shoulders. He closed his eyes, listening to the howl of the wind.
He’d never flown in air this cold before. Or with winds this strong. He knew he should wait for a break in the wind, a quiet moment when he felt more centered. But he didn’t have time, and it might get worse before it got better.
He took a deep breath, bent his knees, and gathered his focus. He opened his eyes. This is going to suck.
He left the ground just as the gusts topped 50 miles per hour.
He’d steeled himself, but it was much worse than he thought. The wind came in treacherous bursts, fierce and unpredictable. It changed direction constantly, and died just as soon as he compensated, leaving him spinning. He didn’t dare lose focus, didn’t dare gain too much altitude, too much speed. He kept it low and tight, following the road.
He flew as he always did. Upright, posture forward, legs in motion. He knew the motion of his body wasn’t necessary to maintain altitude or speed, but the rhythm helped. He held his pose like a speed skater, pushing forward, driven by the twin engines of his legs. A push from the left, a push from the right. Left, right. Left, right. It was the rhythm that centered him, kept him balanced despite the treacherous wind. It was the rhythm that empowered him, changed him from ordinary Kyle into the Pulse-powered Warp, gifted with the miraculous power of flight.
It didn’t feel very miraculous at the moment. More like he was flying into a buzzsaw. He was bundled against the cold, with a winter jacket over his insulated Black Signal uniform, but the wind cut through it all, hungry to gnaw and spit him out like a bone. He held tight to his shoulders and tried to make himself small. Already he could barely feel his hands. His eyes were slits, fixed on the road fifty feet below. Visibility was nearly zero, even at this altitude, and getting worse.
Goddamn, he thought. I can’t stay up more than a few minutes in this.
It had been eight years since the Pulse, eight long years since Warp had learned he could fly. But in many important ways, he still felt like a beginner. Every day he worked alongside his teammates at Black Signal Group, people who could do amazing things, and whose confidence dwarfed his own. Like Array, who could conjure a blade out of thin air – and cut you in half before you could blink. And Two-Bug, who had perhaps the most uncanny gift he’d ever seen.
Kyle sometimes envied his coworkers whose gifts kept them on the ground. They never had to worry about their Pulse-granted gifts vanishing as quickly and mysteriously as they’d come. Not the way those worries came to him, anyway. When he was hurtling through the air, a hundred feet up. He knew those fears were holding him back, keeping him from pushing his powers to the limit. Keeping him from discovering if they even had a limit.
But there was still plenty of time to do all that, Warp told himself for the hundredth time. Black Signal wasn’t paying him to become a fancy flier. He was being paid to transport high security cargo, and he had a job to do.
He followed the rig’s tracks back through the snow. It was dark, and there were almost no other cars on the road. When he’d been in the air for two minutes he saw a lone Chrysler minivan crawling down the middle of the highway, its dim headlights like flickering candles in the gloom. He flew past it, wondering idly what the occupants made of the flying speed skater drifting over their heads.
When he’d lost all feeling in his face, he spotted Whiskers’ rig.
It was identical to the eighteen-wheeler Caspar was driving, though the trailer was empty. It was off the road on the left side. Way off. Its tracks told the tale – it had exited the highway at speed, crashed through the highway guardrails, and across a snow-filled ditch. The trailer was in flames, and thick black smoke billowed up into the night sky. As Warp drew closer he saw that it had come to rest on its left side. The front grill and windshield were cracked, and it was half-buried in snow.
There was no sign of what had driven it off the road. The headlights were still on, and the glare prevented him from seeing into the cabin. The engine was dead, but there were no footprints leading away that he could see; Whiskers and Mina – publicly known by her call sign Lone – were still inside. With an impact like that, there was a good chance they were unconscious, or worse.
Warp came down in front of the wreck, illuminated by the headlights. He sank slowly into a drift thirty feet from the cab. The snow was deeper than he thought, almost to his hips, and for a moment he struggled to get any forward motion against the wind. He grit his teeth, bent his knees, and slogged ahead.
He’d progressed less than ten feet before he spotted something glowing on his right. A Black Signal comm unit. It must have been thrown clear of the rig in the crash. He fished it out of the snow. It displayed half a dozen failed communications from Array. He tucked it into his belt and continued to trudge forward.
He heard a sound in the wind just before he reached the rig. Grinding, like stone on stone, loud and close. At least it sounded close, the wind made it hard to be sure. But it was weird and it sent a quiver up the length of his spine. He glanced around, on edge, but didn’t immediately see anything. Just blowing snow and shifting shadows, as the wind raced out of the open field on his left.
Warp briefly considered taking to the air again, making a quick reconnaissance. But he had to reach the cabin before the fire spread, and get Whiskers and Lone clear. They both had hard-earned reputations for surviving tough scrapes in the past – especially Lone, who’d earned an international rep for lethal skill with a firearm in a couple of harrowing firefights over the years – but the lack of prints leading away from the burning rig had him worried. Warp hunched over and took the last few steps.
As he neared, he saw to his relief that the flames were starting to die down. It looked like something underneath the rig had sparked and caught fire during the crash, and the flames had quickly spread to the trailer. The open flame was all but extinguished, but black smoke continued to pour into the cold night air. As long as the flames didn’t reach the reserve fuel tanks, there wasn’t likely to be any immediate danger.
He had to climb on the toppled rig to reach the passenger side door. He tested its stability cautiously before clambering up, unsure if the whole thing would shift if he put weight on it, but the tractor was wedged into the snowbank like a key jammed in a rusty lock. He grasped the front of the grill and pulled himself up.
From the top of the rig, he took a moment to assess the situation. They were fifty feet off the highway, separated from the blacktop by blowing drifts and a snow-filled ditch. Even with the fire out, the truck wasn’t going anywhere. It would take hours to get a tow out here, and a four-man crew – at least – to dig it out. He hoped no one in the cab needed serious medical attention; he doubted an ambulance could get even within thirty feet.
He examined the door under his feet. Snow was already starting to obscure the logo painted on the side: Radio Transport Services, the name of the front company Black Signal used for Midwest operations. Warp bent down and peered through the frosted window, but it was too dark to make anything out. There was no sound from the cabin. He rapped the window with frozen knuckles. No response. Damn, he thought. Whiskers – Bear to his friends – had a mutant’s physique. He must weigh, what, three hundred, three-ten? Kyle pictured what it would take to lift a mutant of Bear’s size out of the cabin and through the snow on a gurney, to a waiting ambulance.
Bear, you goddamn better be alive in there.
It took three attempts to lever the door open. It was enormously heavy, and he had to lift it almost straight up. Smoke stung his nose and the wind fought him. His fingers were so numb he could barely feel them. The second time he very nearly lost a hand as a savage gust of wind slammed the door like a bear trap, and only reflexes and blind luck saved him. He waited until the wind relented a little before bracing himself and trying a third time.
There was no one in the passenger’s seat. Warp climbed down into the cabin, letting the door close over him. The cabin was relatively warm, and blessedly out of the wind. He shivered uncontrollably for a moment, then let his shoulders unclench. The dash was dark; the only light in the cabin was from a street light a hundred feet down the highway.
“Whiskers?” he said into the darkness. “Lone?”
No response. The cabin was empty. Warp’s initial relief hardened quickly into cold apprehension, and crawled into the pit of his stomach.
When the convoy had set out from Cheyenne, with two fully-crewed rigs and two support vehicles, Bear had been assigned to shadow Package Blue with his partner, Mina Tam. Both had been with the organization over five years, joining just a few years after the Pulse had remade the world. They were some of the most loyal and dependable PIPs on the team. They were not the kind of people who panicked, or made rash decisions.
Warp stared through the shattered windshield, half buried in snow. Then where the hell were they?
From this vantage point he could see most of the frozen vista ahead of the truck. The snow was undisturbed. No tire tracks, no footprints, no nothing.
Warp checked the driver’s door. It was solidly jammed up against hard snow. No one had gotten out that way.
“Bear, you son of a bitch. Where the goddamn –”
There was a squawk from the Comm unit at his belt, loud enough that Kyle nearly jumped out of his skin. “Whiskers, this is Array. Do you read?”
Array’s voice. The Comm unit was still working. He tried to respond, but after three attempts he gave up. Either the unit was damaged, or his fingers were so numb he just couldn’t make it work.
He dropped it to the floor, next to a small bag of cat treats. Jesus, he thought. I hope to God Bear didn’t bring his cat on this Op.
As he searched the cabin he found the jacket of Bear’s uniform, on the floor in the back. It had been shredded, sliced open in at least two places by something sharp and very powerful.
Warp swore under his breath, tracing one of the cuts with his finger. It was too dark to see if there was blood on the jacket, but his finger came away dry. “What the hell did this?”
He spent a few more minutes groping in the darkness, hoping to find something of Lone’s. Some concrete evidence she’d been here. Lone was one of the most cool-headed individuals he’d ever met. He couldn’t imagine a situation that would make her panic. If there was a person on planet Earth who’d manage to leave behind a clue for rescuers who were sure to follow, it was Lone. But he found nothing.
The Comm unit squawked again. “Whiskers, this is Array. We sent Warp back to you. He should be there by now. Can you see him?” He could hear the anxiety in Array’s voice. Her fear. He couldn’t go back to her empty handed. Not without Bear and Lone, or at least some answers.
Warp chewed his lip in frustration. “Damn it, Whiskers. Where are you?”
He took a deep breath, and for the first time became aware of a faint smell. A stench, animal-like, like burnt fur. It hung in the air, alien and vaguely nauseating. It made his nose wrinkle. He began to hunt around the cabin for the source, not at all sure he wanted to find it.
The cabin darkened suddenly. For a moment he didn’t understand, thinking something had blocked his vision. His sight returned just as suddenly, and with it came understanding. He bolted upright, every muscle alert.
Something had blocked the street light, just for a second. Something completely silent, close to the front of the truck.
“Bear, do you read?” said Array, frustration and fear in her voice.
Warp reached over his head, threw the door open, and took to the air. He hurtled away from the cabin, using the gifts the Pulse had given him to execute a tight turn, his legs moving now like a speed skater, a clean eight feet above ground. He accelerated so quickly he left a swirling wake in the snow.
When he’d cleared the wreck by seventy feet he skidded to a stop, hovering in the air. Hovering was hard without the rhythm of his legs to provide balance. It was tricky to maintain it for long. But he didn’t focus on that now. His senses were on high alert, and he took in everything. The wind whistling across the empty highway on his right. The streetlight, thirty feet behind him. The trail he’d made in the snow minutes ago, plodding to the truck. His eyes raced over it all, scanning the wreck.
There was nothing.
He drew freezing air into his lungs, letting the cold clear his head. He slowed his breathing, felt his racing heartbeat gradually return to normal. Think, he told himself. What did you actually see?
Something had blocked the light from the streetlight. Something very close.
Or, he realized with a chill, something very large, standing where I am now.
He looked all around again, this time more closely. There was nothing.
No, not nothing. There were tracks.
They were new. They definitely hadn’t been there when he’d landed just three minutes ago. They crossed his own trail, as if they’d followed him to the wreck.
They were footprints. Huge. Unnaturally huge. Animal-like, like a bear, but cartoonishly larger. They led out of the deep snow on the field to his left, approaching the wreck.
Warp drifted closer, following the tracks. He found where the thing that made them would have blocked the light from the street lamp. He hovered over the spot.
“That’s impossible,” Kyle muttered. He willed himself higher, higher, until his own shadow fell on the truck. He looked down. To cast a shadow from here, the thing would have to be nearly twenty feet tall.
He felt a chill that had nothing to do with the wind. He wanted to drop down, get a closer look at those tracks, but felt safer with some altitude. He drifted towards the truck at walking speed, following the tracks.
The pieces were starting to come together. Bear saw something on the road, he thought. Something huge.
He remembered the sounds of Bear’s voice over the radio. Something that scared the hell out of him.
Warp craned his head to look at the road. He followed the rig’s tracks, all the way from the highway to the crash site. Something that drove them off the road, forced them to crash. Then… what? That same something took Whiskers and Lone?
The thought was both chilling and logical. It was possible. It made sense.
If something huge had driven Lone off the road, then it was likely still close by. And if that was true… there was a good chance Bear and Mina were close by too.
The possibility, freighted with menace as it was, still gave him a surge of hope. It meant he might not have to return to Array empty-handed. If he gained more altitude, he could start a search. It wouldn’t be hard to find two injured people in a field of snow. He could –
There was a sound like grinding stones behind him, and a smell like burnt fur, overwhelming and close. It filled his nostrils, and he pivoted in the air.
He never saw the thing that swatted him from the sky, sending him crashing to the earth, and into blackness.
Caspar pulled into the Esso charging station. There were four cars in the parking lot, all huddled near the door to the convenience store. Array hung up the headset as they rumbled to a stop at the edge of the lot, away from the lights and the tall charging stations. She didn’t say a word, but her face told Two-Bug everything.
“Warp’s there by now,” he said. “If it’s something serious, we’ll know in a few minutes.”
“It’s just bad comms,” said Caspar. “It’ll clear up when the storm breaks.”
Two-Bug had no confidence that was true. But Array was nodding along, ready to accept whatever solace was offered.
“Should we charge up?” Two-Bug asked.
Caspar shook his head. “We’ve got three-quarters of a charge. Let’s just sit tight until Warp gets back.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes. Then Caspar leaned over and tapped Two-Bug’s comm unit.
“See if you can get Package Red.”
Two-Bug nodded and got to work. He tried for several minutes before giving up. “Nothing,” he said.
Caspar was staring in the driver’s side window. “You see that?” he said.
“What?” said Two-Bug.
“I thought I saw some asshole walk around the back of the trailer.”
“Where did he come from?”
“I don’t know. Just showed up.”
Two-Bug checked his own mirror. It was clear. “Could it have been Warp?”
“No, this guy was short.”
“I’ll check it out,” said Array. She was tired of feeling helpless; she wanted to be doing something.
Before Caspar could reply, they heard a clunk from the back of the rig.
“What the hell was that?” said Two-Bug.
Caspar unbuckled and zipped up his parka. “Nobody messes with my rig,” he said. He reached behind his seat, pulled out a tire iron.
“Stay here,” he said to Array. He pulled on gloves and opened the door.
“I’m coming with you,” said Array.
Caspar shook his head, thin-lipped. “Stay with the Package. Lock the door.” He climbed out and slammed the door. Array took his place in the driver’s seat and hit the lock.
“Jesus, Array,” said Two-Bug. He craned closer, looking at Caspar’s retreating head in her side mirror. “First Bear and Mina, now this. What the hell is going on?”
Array had made a dozen runs with Caspar along the Nebraska corridor, and they’d seen some shit. She knew he could take care of himself. “It’s okay,” she said, her voice calm. “Caspar can handle it, whatever it is. Nothing can get the jump on him, you know that.”
“Should we go? Keep an eye on him?” Two-Bug grabbed a flashlight and started to unbuckle.
“No – he’s right. We stay here, and keep an eye on the Package. He’ll be back in a second.”
But the seconds stretched into long minutes, as the howling wind slowly caked their windshield with snow. Caspar never returned.