I must have looked stupid right then, what with my mouth hanging open. Was Kiro lying? Was I not alone in this after all? And these others, were there powers like mine – uncontrollable, all-consuming? I settled back in my chair.
“There are others?” I said.
Kiro waved his hand in front of the display and images materialized from the light. “Were,” he said. “There were others.”
Were? I watched the hologram morph into a newspaper clipping: “Thirty-five Dead in Hollisburg Mall Bombing.” I recognized the headline – anyone would have. The story had run for days about a crazed man who had blown himself up in the middle of a Kansas strip mall. I remembered my mom talking about it, all those years ago – photos so horrible, she’d said, that even the most hardened of reporters couldn’t bear to look at them. Kiro touched the display and another image flashed into life. Another newspaper clip. Another headline: “Mysterious Lightning Storm Kills Nine.” Then, “Earthquake Destroys Subway Line; Fifteen Dead,” and finally, “Five Die Suddenly Aboard Overseas Flight.”
I remembered them all.
Kiro waved his hand again and this time the newspaper clippings were replaced by official looking documents. CIA and FBI seals flashed across the screen. He touched the display disk and four photographs appeared. The first was of a grungy-looking man in old fatigues and a baseball cap. He was older, around thirty-five or so, and it looked like he hadn’t showered in months. I couldn’t place him, but then that didn’t surprise me. From the look of it, I guessed he was homeless.
The second in line was a young guy wearing a sleeveless shirt and jeans. He had the look of a college student who had just pulled an all-nighter – eyes bloodshot, hair in disarray – and he stared out from the screen as if in a haze.
The last two photos were both women. One, a girl about my age who sported a punk rock look with spiked red hair and multiple piercings. The other, a woman old enough to be my mother. Nondescript, except for the cigarette perched above her ear.
Kiro went down the line. “James Finnegan, Dean Westerfeld, Molly Landry, and Katie Pugh. Recognize the names?”
I shook my head.
“You wouldn’t, of course. The government sealed the records.”
“What are you getting at?”
“These… events,” Kiro said. “They weren’t natural disasters or the work of some crazed lunatic. They were, in all four instances, the result of powers – unchecked and uncontrolled.”
He touched the hologram and a video began to play. It was homemade, produced on an old school camcorder. The Vivo type, I figured – they used to be all the rage back when I was in high school. For a moment, the screen shook and then a man’s face appeared – Dean Westerfeld’s face – and he smiled in front of the camera. The date in the bottom right corner read January 9th, 2018. It was like a time machine dragging me back. Back to my own first days – before I realized I wasn’t just going crazy, that it all wasn’t one giant nightmare.
I watched Dean set the camera down and raise his hand toward an old television set in the corner of what must have been a junk yard. He laughed, and it was a giddy laugh. The kind that escapes your lips when you’re not quite sure what’s real anymore. “Boom,” he said. In a flash of blinding light, the TV exploded, a bolt of electricity ripping through the screen and arcing into his outstretched hand.
I looked away, having seen enough, when Olivia said, “No. Watch.”
On the screen, Dean grabbed his arm and yelled, “Fuck!” The camera shifted, was lifted off the table, and then zoomed in on Dean’s hand. Two of his fingers had been scorched red. His palm, too, had been badly burned and in places was already blistering. The recording cut to black.
“For Dean, it was electricity,” Kiro said. “For James, fire. Molly, we believe, could somehow alter densities. And Katie – well, Katie could compel people. She could transfer thoughts, memories, into other’s subconscious.”
“To the general public, four seemingly random disasters,” he said, as he touched the screen and crime scene photos of the Kansas ‘bombing’ appeared. A giant crater sat in the center of what used to be the mall. Blood pooled between cracks in the concrete, broken up every few feet by the mangled bodies and shattered limbs of those who had wandered too close to the blast point. I looked away.
“But the government has a name for them,” Kiro continued, “A code name: Vert Evo.”
“What?” I whispered.
“These weren’t isolated incidents, Rainey. In fact, they all had exactly one thing in common.”
“Vert,” I said.
Kiro nodded. He pointed to the photographs that had reappeared on the screen. Stills of Dean, James, Molly and Katie. “They called them the Four Horsemen,” Kiro said, before looking right at me. “Who would have guessed there was a fifth this whole time.”
I glanced up at the photos and shivered. Was I destined to go out like that too? Bringing a whole bunch of people with me?
Ponytail – JJ – whatever his name was, shifted in his seat. “Did you use Vert?” he said. “You know, before?”
I looked past JJ, at the long tables strewn with gadgets, and my eyes fell on the walkie-talkies there. They lay half disassembled, bits and pieces sprinkled here and there, but I recognized the brand logo. Years ago, just before everything had gone to hell, my dad had sat on my bed one day after work and given me a similar set. For us to always be together, he’d said, even when we couldn’t be. For a moment, I could actually see him there beside me, while the memory played out in my head.
He was looking down on me, his eyes red rimmed and weary. “It’s all going to work out, sweetie,” he’d said. “Daddies working hard at work and the payoffs coming. For your mother and me. For all of us.”
“I know, Dad.”
He leaned over and kissed me on the forehead, then he tucked me away, deep inside the sheets. “Sleep tight, Rainey.”
I lay awake long after he’d left, clutching the walkie-talkie to my chest like a life-preserver. Then, after a minute of indecision, I threw off the sheets and crept down the hallway toward my parents’ room. The door was cracked open – they always kept it open those days – and I pressed myself to the wall, listening.
“John, you can’t keep doing this.”
“It’s going to get better, Tay. Things are almost there. I just need a little more time, that’s all.”
“No, I can’t keep doing this. You’re gone half the night, I never know where you are or what you’re doing, and the days you are home, it’s as if you’re on another planet. In a trance or something. You know it’s killing you, and I can’t just sit by and watch it happen. Watch you lose everything. At some point, this family has to come first. Or I swear to god, John, I’m gone. I’ll take the kids and I’m gone.”
For a long moment, there was silence. And then my dad whispered, “It won’t come to that. It’s almost over.”
I walked back to my room and slipped the covers over my head. After a second, I pressed the button on the side of the walkie-talkie and whispered, “I love you.”
In return, I heard static, then softly, “I love you too, kiddo.”
He was my dad. He was superman to me. I knew that at the end of the day, he’d fix everything – make it all better. So when that horrible night came around, when our whole family came crumbling down around us, I knew I’d put my faith in something that wasn’t real. I’d wanted to move on, but to do that I needed to forget.
And that, unfortunately, was the tricky part.
I looked up and saw JJ staring at me, still waiting for my answer. But all I could see in my mind was blood, bright red, infecting my vision. I tried to recover. “Why Valtronic?” I said. “I thought they had nothing to do with Vert anymore. Not since it was banned.”
Olivia laughed. She flicked her midnight hair back over her shoulder. “You’re drinking the Kool-Aid, kid.”
“Aye,” JJ added, “and it’s quite strong.”
I frowned, looking to Kiro for an explanation. He ran his hand across the console and a new image appeared. A still of Peter Clark – director and president of Valtronic Enterprises. In all the pictures I’d ever seen of the man, he always wore the same coy smile, as if to say, ‘yes, I am smarter than you.’
“Do you recognize him?”
“Of course,” I said. “Who wouldn’t?”
“And what would you say if I were to tell you that Peter Clark is single-handedly responsible for the largest underground Vert trade in the United States?”
I gave a nervous laugh, then glanced between the others, looking for clarification of Kiro’s obvious insanity. JJ shrugged, while Olivia merely looked at the picture with disgust. The still unnamed member of the team – the boy I’d met on campus that first night – crossed his arms, doing a solid job avoiding my gaze. He was wearing black jeans and a wife beater and I had to tear my eyes away from the lean muscle peeking out beneath his shirt.
“I’d say you’re a lunatic?”
Peter Clark? A drug lord? You’d have to be nuts to think that. The man was the biggest anti-vert advocate on the planet. He’d nearly bankrupted his own company donating millions of dollars to the government’s second War on Drugs.
I was a street rat and even I knew all this.
On the screen, Clark’s face was replaced by an older man with stark white hair, dark eyes and spectacles placed precariously far down his nose.
“Dr. Jason Fine,” Kiro explained. “Founder of Valtronic, creator of Vert.”
Out of the corner of my eye, wife beater guy stiffened. He started to get out of his chair when Kiro placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “Sit, Aiden.” The boy – Aiden – hesitated, before slowly rejoining the circle. As he did, I could have sworn he shot me a glare.
Kiro looked back at the display. ”Dr. Fine,” he said. “A brilliant scientist. He’d hoped Vert would take us to the next step in human evolution. Everything and everyone connected, a unified world. But as the drug became more and more abused, Fine became a recluse, seen less and less often outside of his lab -”
Black and white photos flashed across the screen. Blurry shots capturing glimpses of Dr. Fine, some taken from street cams, others from street side ATMs and storefront cameras.
“- until the Four Horsemen appeared.”
A final image flashed onto the display. It was Dr. Fine sprawled across a desk, blood leaking from his ears, pooling beneath his face.
“In the wake of their very public deaths and the hundreds of lives they took with them, Dr. Fine spiraled into a depression, eventually killing himself – overdosing on the very drug he created.”
“And that’s when the shit hit the fan,” JJ said. “Clark retained control of the company, on the surface campaigning against Vert, while behind the scenes establishing a full-court press on the drug market.”
I sat stunned. In a weird, twisted way, it made sense. My dad had always told me that the best place to hide was always the last place anyone would think to look. And the last person anyone would suspect of trafficking Vert would be the one person dead set on destroying it.
Did it mean I was buying their story? Not quite. But I was curious.
“So let’s say I don’t think you’re totally insane,” I said. “What then? What would Peter Clark possibly want from me?”
Olivia leaned forward. “He doesn’t want you, love. He wants pieces of you.” She made a tearing motion with her hands. “He wants to cut you open, see what makes you tick.”
Kiro cleared his throat. “What O so delicately put is this: No one knows why Vert changed you, Rainey, or the others for that matter. Whether it was sustained use of the drug combined with something unique in your genes or simply one bad dose – no one knows. And as far as we’re aware, there haven’t been others. Clark hasn’t been able to replicate the results.”
I opened my mouth, but couldn’t force words to come out. I’d always wondered if it was the Vert that had changed me. How could I not have?
So that first year, I’d been constantly on edge, always expecting someone to grab me, to steal me away, as if I was part of some secret drug study and they were hiding in the shadows, waiting for it to take effect. But no one ever came, and over time I stopped wondering why it had happened to me and started trying to deal with what it had done to me.
Still, this? This was crazy. Like straight out a nightmare, crazy.
“So I’m what?” I said. “His key to perfecting some kind of super soldier?”
“That’s the gist of it,” Kiro said, “sure.”
“At least, it’s part of it,” JJ said.
I shifted in my seat. “Fucking hell, there’s more?”
“Over the last three months, Clark’s been expanding his reach with Vert,” Kiro said. “Pushing out much further than he’s ever done in the past. He’s preparing for something. Something big. We just don’t know what yet. We’d hoped that Clark’s interest in you might give us some clues. That’s why we went after you. But I don’t think the two are connected. I’m fairly certain he didn’t know about you until we did. ‘Till you lit up on grid. Literally.”
So that’s how they’d found me. Taking Vert had put me on the radar. Once again, I’d dug my own grave.
I was about to tell them exactly where they could stick their conspiracy theories when the lights overhead dimmed, replaced by flashing red sirens. An alarm blared in the background and, as one, ROOT 4 stood up.
Suddenly, the room was ablaze with action, everyone scrambling to different posts. Caught in the middle, I didn’t know what to do, so I headed toward the long tables.
Olivia flagged my attention and gestured to the flashing red lights.
“Cargo shipment is going to pass through,” she shouted over the alarm, as she strapped some type of utility belt to her waist. “They’ve been using unmarked E-trains to shuffle Vert around the country.”
I remembered the recent news reports. So these were the trains they were taking out? Cargo trains?
Kiro walked over to us, a bullet proof vest now strapped over his long-sleeve shirt. “We can’t let Valtronic get a hold of you,” he said, tightening the straps. “From here on out, you’re under the protection of ROOT 4.”
“Do I have a choice?” I said, repeating what I’d asked JJ earlier.
“Sure you do,” Aiden said, joining the group at the long table. “You can either stay willingly, we can chain you back to that room you woke up in-” He secured his own vest over his shirt. “-Or we can find a more permanent way to make sure Valtronic never gets a hold of you.”
The threat was obvious enough.
I balled my hands into fists. “Look, asshole,” I said. “I don’t know what your deal -”
A large hand settled on my shoulder and when I looked up, JJ was next to me. “Don’t mind, Aiden,” he said. “It’s his time of the month.” Aiden gave JJ the finger. “Look, Rainey, we’re doing this for your own good – well, our good and the world’s good – but mostly your own good.” He paused and stared up at the ceiling for a second, as if wondering whether anything he’d just said made sense. It didn’t.
“So, what? You’re bringing me along?” I said.
Aiden laughed as if it were the dumbest thought in the world, but Kiro nodded. “The girl comes,” he said.
“You’re kidding, right?” Aiden said. “Do I really have to be the voice of reason here?” He pointed at me. “She’s dead weight. She has no useful skills. She can’t help with the mission. And worse than that – she has a huge fucking target on her back. Bringing her here was a mistake, let alone for the bust.”
I flinched from the verbal whiplash, though I didn’t necessarily disagree. Did I even believe them about Valtronic? About Vert and the others? I couldn’t think of a reason why they’d lie, but still…this whole mess was way too much to handle. Unfortunately, walking away didn’t seem to be an option anymore.
If it ever was.
“We’re international terrorists,” JJ said. “We’ve all got huge targets on our back, numb nuts.”
Kiro ignored JJ. He grabbed what looked like a stun gun off one of the long tables and holstered it under his shoulder. Then he stared Aiden down. “Don’t forget your place, kid,” he said, his voice dangerous. “Your personal vendetta aside, you’d be nowhere without me. Don’t forget that. As for the girl? What would you have me do? Leave her here alone, or worse, with one of you and go into this a man down? No, I want her to come. I want her to see what’s going on behind the scenes. See the truth for herself. We’re going to be stuck with each other for a while, whether we like it or not. If she’s going to trust us, we’re going to have to do the same.”
Aiden looked halfway between embarrassed and ticked off. He strapped a silver disc onto his forearm – the same kind I’d seen JJ wear – and stormed out of the room. His attitude surprised me. So did his anger toward me. It was different, personal. When we’d met on campus that first night, he’d been pleasant, if not into me. I prided myself on being a fairly good judge of flirting and he’d certainly been partaking that night. What had changed his tune?
Olivia picked something up off the table and tossed it to me. A pair of sleek black gloves. Thin textured – the kind thieves used so they could still feel their way around safes and locks.
“If you’re gonna be sticking around,” she said, “better get used to wearing those. Now come on. We’ve got a train to burn.”
–Vote on Top Web Fiction–