Warp awoke face down in snow. It was dark and very, very cold. He tasted blood, and he couldn’t feel his legs.
There were muffled voices, somewhere behind him.
“Shit this is cold. I’m not getting paid to freeze my ass off on a fucking interstate in Iowa.” A man’s voice. Young, angry. Somewhere close.
Someone answered, farther away. Warp couldn’t make out the words. But the voice was deep and strange. Growling, almost.
“Why the hell are they forty minutes out?” the young man replied. He had a British accent. “Jesus, this is amateur hour.”
Warp moved the fingers of his left hand experimentally. There was resistance.
He was buried in snow. His hands throbbed from the cold, and the whole left side of his head rang with pain. Something had hit him, hard. Hard enough to make him black out.
The second voice responded again, like a rumble in the distance. Warp could almost make out words. Whatever it was, it sounded inhuman. Huge and monstrous. Definitely a PIP of some kind, maybe a mutant. God, I hope it’s not a mutant, Kyle thought. Whiskers had told him stories of mutants that had turned his hair white.
“We’re the ones putting our necks on the line,” the young man was saying. His voice had shifted; he’d moved closer. “We did our job. End of story. I don’t like freezing my nuts off because Ops isn’t around to do theirs. It’s fucking unprofessional.”
Warp was able to move both his legs. Nothing seemed broken. But when he shifted his head, black spots rose up to choke off his vision.
He couldn’t breathe. He twisted in the snow pack until his mouth found fresh air. He took a ragged breath and his vision cleared. Blinking snowflakes off his eyelashes, he saw a dark blur that might be a strip of night sky.
“I think the flier is moving,” said the young man. Warp heard footsteps, coming closer. “Hey, Whip. I think this asshole is waking up.”
Something moved behind him. Warp felt its heavy tread through the snow. A dank smell assaulted his nostrils. Burnt fur. He flexed his shoulders, prepared to make an attempt at standing.
Something pinned his legs in a painful grip. Before he could even draw a breath, he was yanked twenty feet through snow and ice. Pain lanced through his hips. He felt like he’d been sandblasted.
He stayed limp, unmoving, trying to feign unconsciousness. The young man spoke again.
“Watch it. You saw how fast he moved. Don’t let him get airborne.”
Something heavy spiked into Warp’s back, pinning him to the ground. “That’s it,” said the young man. “If he twitches again, break his rib cage.”
Warp’s lungs were so compressed he couldn’t breathe. The black spots returned, swarming at the edge of his vision. He tried to remain limp, but the pain was excruciating. He was a drowning man, fighting not to struggle for a last breath, and it was a fight he was going to lose.
Seconds later, the weight on his back eased. Whatever was pinning him was still there, but it no longer threatened to break his spine. Kyle risked moving his head a few inches, found a position where he could draw a pinched breath.
Someone was speaking. A new voice, distant. Near the road.
“Yeah, we got him, colonel,” the young man shouted in reply. “He’s right here. We got the driver and the big guy bagged up for delivery.”
The driver and the big guy… Mina and Bear? That meant they were close. Prisoners, perhaps? Not dead. Warp allowed himself a renewed twinge of hope.
There was more talking. Too muffled and distant to make out, but things were happening. He didn’t have much time.
Warp kept his eyes closed, kept his breathing low and regular. The only movement he allowed himself was to tighten his hands into fists. He did a situational assessment, the way he’d been trained.
He was still buried in snow. He was still pinned down, by someone or something huge. Probably the same thing that had swatted him from the sky. He couldn’t see it, but he could smell it, and when he stilled his own lungs he thought he could hear it breathing. Deep and bestial. Like a stallion. He couldn’t tell what was pressing into his back, but it felt and moved like monstrous talons. He tried not to picture what the thing looked like.
The situation was getting clearer. Whiskers and Lone had been ambushed by professionals, a team of at least three. No, he realized. Not just Whiskers and Lone. Until he learned differently, he had to assume Package Red and their support vehicle had been hit as well. Until he knew differently, in fact, he had to assume Package Blue was the only vehicle left in the convoy.
This ambush had been well planned. It would take a large and exceptionally well-funded organization to take out three highly trained teams of PIPs simultaneously. Kyle had no idea who he was up against, but they weren’t amateurs.
He set all that aside for the moment. It was time to focus on the immediate task. He was up against at least three opponents. He had to escape, and warn his teammates.
He had a chance. Nothing was broken, he was unhurt, and his opponents didn’t know for sure he was conscious.
And they mistakenly thought they could keep him out of the sky.
Warp flexed his hands. Once, twice. He took long, slow breaths, letting his mind clear. What he was going to attempt was dangerous, but he couldn’t permit himself to think about that.
The thing that held him wasn’t pressing down consistently. It shifted, changed positions. Warp imagined it looking around like a nervous animal. Once it switched hands, releasing the pressure on him briefly before pinning him again from a slightly different angle.
The thing wasn’t paying attention. It was just trying to keep him from rising into the air. But there were other ways to fly.
Something was happening. The voice near the road was getting closer. The colonel. He said something inaudible.
“Whose genius idea was that?” the young man said in response. “We’re just supposed to wait here?”
The colonel’s reply was short, tinged with authority.
“The flier showed up outta fuckin’ nowhere,” responded the young man defensively. “That wasn’t our fault. He just, like, dropped outta the sky. And it might’ve been nice if Ops had given us a heads up that he was in-bound, I might add.”
The colonel’s reply was inaudible. But it was clear he wasn’t pleased with the young man’s answer.
“I’m not complaining,” said the young man hastily. “Whip and I took care of the situation, as advertised. The filer won’t be a problem.”
Warp heard a muffled explosion. Even buried in snow he felt a sudden flash of radiant heat, coming from the direction of the rig.
“Jee-sus!!” said the young man, shock and surprise in his voice. The reserve tank, Warp thought. The fire must have reached it.
It happened then. The thing holding him down shifted again, as if it were turning to look. The pressure on his back eased fractionally.
He shielded his head with his hands and moved parallel to the ground, eyes shut, at full speed. He had no idea what was straight ahead. The ground here was uneven, littered with rocks and tangled brush, and still he shot forward like a blast from a cannon.
The thing’s talons ripped through his jacket and uniform, tore a bloody scrape across his ass. Once he’d escaped its grasp he slid through thick powder for a dozen yards. His left hand banged painfully against something frozen and hard, and snow blasted through every crevice in his clothes, caking his naked skin.
But he was clear. With a mental push he changed direction, surging triumphantly into the air with an explosion of snow and ice. He opened his eyes and spun around to face his captors. He saw them clearly, just for a second, illuminated by billowing flames from the rig. Flames lanced thirty feet high from the trailer, giving birth to thick clouds of black smoke.
To the left was the thing, grotesque and apelike. It hunkered in the snowdrift, staring stupidly at where he’d lain only seconds ago. It had dirty white fur, and even hunched over it was more than a dozen feet tall. Warp was already thirty feet in the air, but the sight of it unnerved him so much he surged upwards another ten feet.
The other two were on his right, both staring up at him, mouths agape. The one by the road, the colonel, was dressed for the snow; the younger one was improbably attired in a dinner jacket and tie that flapped in the stiff breeze. His leather shoes had sunk ankle deep into the powder. On the side of the road, near the colonel, was a black SUV that hadn’t been there just minutes ago. Warp got no more than a glimpse before the wind blinded him.
He blinked furiously, dodging instinctively to the left while he hovered blind. He shielded his eyes and his vision cleared an instant later.
All three of them were gone.
He gawked. He’d been blind no more than seconds. He’d heard nothing but the wind, and the sound of hungry flames. They had to be there.
His eyes narrowed. Wait a minute. He focused on where the creature had been. The trajectory of his own escape was still clear, and so was the imprint of his body in the snow. The thing had been right next to him –
Warp stared. There was something. A shape, a blur, like a smudge in the air. It was hard to pin down, but yes. It was real, and it was roughly the size of the creature.
And it was moving, toward him. Once he saw it, he was able to resolve two smaller blurs, where the men had been standing. They were moving too, though it was hard to make out where.
Something was shielding them from him. A PIP. There was only one PIP he knew of with abilities like that – what the hell was his name. Gilbert. Gibson. Gleeson. Albie Gleeson. A pay-to-play mercenary out of Bristol, call sign Zone. Solid reputation, though lately he’d been rumored to be working with a shapechanging psycho known as U07, real name Gunther Kollerwip.
Kollerwip… Whip. Zone and Whip. That’s who these assholes were. Whip was the muscle, a towering monster with a fearsome rep – and multiple warrants for his arrest all across Europe. Zone was renowned for his ability to manipulate energy, including light. Not to mention his uncanny ability to manipulate the press, and a PR team that kept his reputation unblemished by any of his black ops assignments – and always made sure to photograph his good side. Exactly the kind of PIP whom the world loved to view as a Hero. Word was that he was so in demand he could get away with almost anything.
Any organization that hired both of these men must have very deep pockets. They were two of the most expensive mercenaries in Western Europe.
The big blur had stopped. It had reached the brush to Warp’s left, out of the glare of the headlights. Warp couldn’t be sure, but he thought there’d been another shape there, a deeper shadow, just before the blur had obscured everything. A rock or tree stump, maybe.
He should move. He was a sitting duck hovering in the air like this, and the relentless wind was rapidly siphoning away what little body heat still flickered in him. He was shivering badly, and he wouldn’t have the strength to stay aloft much longer. But there might be an opportunity here, if he wanted to take it.
A smile played at the edge of Warp’s lips as he watched the blur move. Yeah. Yeah, he did want.
The blur was jittering, vibrating back and forth. Whip was doing something. Warp hovered patiently. Waiting.
The waiting dragged on. A wave of uncontrollable shivering gripped Warp. He was losing feeling in his feet again. Jesus, Whip. Let’s do this before I die of old age.
Something burst out of the earth then, faster and larger than he expected. A three-foot rock, trailing a plume of fresh snow. He had just enough time to whistle in admiration at the inhuman strength it must have taken to wrest eighteen hundred pounds of stone from the ground and hurl it, with far greater accuracy then he would have believed possible. He was fifty feet from Whip and twenty-five feet up, and it still came spinning unerringly towards his head. This guy IS a monster, he thought.
He allowed the rock to get close, oh so close. He’d been worried that Zone would use his abilities to mask its approach, but he could see it clearly as it spun towards him.
In the split-second before it took his head off, he snapped his head back and threw himself to the snow as violently as he dared. The spinning rock crashed to earth harmlessly just a few feet to his right.
“Yeeesssss!” shouted Gleeson from somewhere close. “Bullseye! That’s what I’m talking about. Did you fucking see that, colonel?”
The colonel said something curt.
“Shut your mouth,” said Gleeson. “There’s nothing that flying fairy can do that Whip and Zone can’t handle. Doesn’t matter how many times he gets up, we’ll bring him right back down. Every time.”
The colonel raised his voice, and Warp could hear him for the first time. “You’re taking too many damn risks.”
“Risks? Risks? You hear that, Whip? The colonel’s worried about risks. There are no risks when Whip and Zone are on the job, mate. We get it done, every time.”
“Get him secured, and get this cleaned up,” said the colonel. “The flames will attract cops and fire response, and there are too many witnesses already. Last thing we need is some farmer pulling over to offer to help out.”
“Jesus. We just took out three PIPs in ten minutes. What does it take to make you people happy? No extra charge for the aerial combat, colonel.”
Warp heard the sound again. Like rocks grinding. U07 was speaking. Jesus, is that German? This guy seriously needs speech therapy.
The grinding ended. “You said it, Whip,” said Zone agreeably. “People don’t appreciate real craft, that’s the problem right there.”
Keeping himself limp, Warp slowly elevated his body out of the snow. His head and back were caked with ice. Head lolled back, he opened his eyes a crack, just wide enough to get a blurry sense of his surroundings. He’d pancaked into a snowdrift in deep shadow, and it was difficult to make out the lay of the land.
He began to drift away from the scene. Slowly… no sudden moments that would draw attention. The wind had sculpted the powder along the edge of the road into a low ridge, and he raised himself just enough to smoothly glide over it. Once he was in the open field north of the road he risked picking up speed. It was almost totally dark here, and fallen logs and thorny shrubs became visible only at very close range. He gained altitude to avoid them.
When he was safely away from the scene of the wreck he moved faster, rising in a graceful arc until he was a hundred feet in the air. He straightened his spine, shook off the snow and ice, and assessed his handiwork.
He could see the scene clearly from here. The wreck, on its side, was like a lopsided flashlight illuminating the scene. The flames from the reserve tank were already slowly dying, though it would be at least an hour before smoke stopped billowing from the trailer. The colonel was right; it wouldn’t be long before emergency response arrived on the scene, even in a blizzard.
U07, visible again and looking like a great white ape from this altitude, was slowly ambling towards the spot where the rock had come down, using the ditch to keep out of sight of the road. Zone, bundling himself against the wind, staggered through the deep snow on an intercept course. Neither of them moved quickly. It was clear they both expected to find him buried in a nearby snowback with a crushed skull.
Warp watched for any clue who he was up against. Zone and U07 were both mercenaries, and he very much wanted to know who was signing their checks. Someone with a great many resources had organized this ambush, and Warp still had a lot of questions. Like who they were, and exactly what they were after.
The Black Signal Group had enemies. Rival organizations they’d tangled with in the past; international competitors who routinely did things of questionable legality in pursuit of lucrative contracts. But this was on a whole new level. This was someone new.
While a minority of PIPs around the world – through a combination of charisma, luck, skill, and carefully managed PR – managed to maintain a good public image, most were not so fortunate. In the years since the Pulse, those PIPs with a carefully cultivated public persona had been celebrated, becoming global celebrities, while those who shunned the public eye were viewed with deep suspicion and distrust. The public, and worldwide media, had come to delight in dividing PIPs into two simple categories: Heroes and Villains.
It was something Kyle experienced every day. Black Signal Group, like other PIP-based Security conglomerates, had a professional public relations team that made sure their activities were viewed positively by the public – and more importantly, that they never fell afoul of the government organizations regulating PIP affairs, especially the powerful Federal Pulse Authority, the FPA. That hard-working PR team made sure they were seen as Heroes, when they were discussed at all.
There was a dark side to this glamour and celebrity. The PIPs who weren’t so lucky – the vast majority, in fact – were driven to organize too. PIPs who avoided the press, lived by their own moral code, and mavericks who dared speak truth to power, or speak up for unpopular causes – all of them became “Villains.”
Kyle knew and admired a lot of folks in this category. It included many former Heroes who’d fallen out of public favor for reasons beyond their control – or reasons that were too complicated to explain with a PR release. A small number of Villains, those most successful acting below the radar of public awareness, even used that anonymity to operate as self-proclaimed enforcers over the broader populace of PIPs. It was these vigilant individuals who often ensured the world had nothing to fear from the PIPs who went off the deep end, the ones no one could control.
And then there were the real villains.
There were a few high-profile – and highly dangerous – organizations that were truly criminal, and their exploits, and the efforts to bring them to justice, become the stuff of legend. Midnight Train, who’d murdered the Mexican Defense Minister when he’d been too slow paying a ransom. The brutal Frontier Division, who’d killed Opera, the so-called Queen of California and one of the most popular PIPs in America, in a bloody public execution in the heart of L.A.
It was looking more and more like Kyle and his teammates were up against a real team of Villains. He had to find out who, and he had to find out what they were after.
As Zone and U07 dug in the snow, Warp allowed himself a satisfied smile. He took a moment to watch Gleeson, shaking his head in wonder. The man was trying to negotiate an Iowa blizzard in a dinner jacket. Warp imagined he’d been enjoying a night on the town when he’d been called up, and simply hadn’t bothered to check the weather before reporting for duty. No wonder the colonel treated him like an idiot. With footwear like that, he was going to start losing toes in twenty minutes.
Speaking of the colonel, he was trudging back towards his black SUV. A long white station wagon had slowed down to check out the scene of the accident, and the colonel waved them along with a reassuring smile. Nothing to see here, folks.
He’d seen enough. Warp shifted to the right, accelerating away. He kept the street lights in sight, and when he had enough distance to ensure he wouldn’t be seen, he swung back to the road and tracked east, towards Package Blue and the rendezvous point.
He’d crashed in deep shadow, far from the road. Whip and Zone would dig blindly through snow for ten minutes before finally admitting to the colonel that he wasn’t there. He wished he could be there to see that.
He was moving with the wind now. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but at least it was less excruciating. He was no longer shivering. In fact, his heart was racing, and he felt almost warm. Even the pain on his left side, where Whip had clawed him out of the sky, has receded to a numb ache. His worst problem now was the mess Whip had made of his gear. He adjusted as best he could, but you could only get so comfortable with a five-inch tear in the ass of your jeans.
This wasn’t over. He’d report what he’d found to Caspar and Array, and together they’d decide how they wanted to deal with the situation.
That wasn’t a mystery. Warp knew exactly how Array would react when she discovered Bear was in the hands of a criminal group of PIPs. They’d turn the rig around and race back to the site of the wreck.
Warp rubbed his hands. He found himself enjoying the thought. The idea of facing Whip and Zone in a fair fight appealed to him very much.
Except… they couldn’t exactly race back, could they? This stretch of Interstate 80 was a divided highway. It’d be miles before they could turn the rig around, and that would take time they didn’t have. Sooner or later, Zone would admit to the colonel that Warp had escaped, and then –
Then the colonel would pack up and leave. Immediately. Taking his prisoners… or dealing with them some other way.
Warp realized he couldn’t take that risk. With no further thought he turned away from the road, executing a smooth 180, until he was teeth into the wind again. He accelerated defiantly, back towards the wreck, feeling ice crystals collide with his skin and his face begin to numb. He’d have to stop the three of them on his own, and make sure Whiskers and Lone were safe.
Warp was not a guy who enjoyed taking unnecessary risks, but if he was honest with himself right now, this is the way he wanted it. He’d have Whip and Zone, arrogant and overconfident, all to himself. In fact, he already knew how he was going to play it.
He grinned into the stiff Iowa wind as he hurtled onwards.