|Date||27 years in the future|
|Previous||Dance in the Flames|
This story is set 27 years after the events of Dance in the Flames.
As serious as a heart attack.
Perhaps that was the late Jennifer Sharp’s last thought, like an explosion of panic in her mind as she stopped breathing and dropped into the abyss. She was out of line, in every way there was, and she knew it. She was where she shouldn't have been, with someone she shouldn't have been with in her final moments, protecting someone she should have made sure was in a safer place. She’d been playing and winning. She was on top of her game. She was probably smiling. Until the sudden impact betrayed her. Then everything turned around. Success became an instant catastrophe. She had no time to put anything right.
Nobody knows what a fatal gunshot wound feels like. There are no survivors to tell the tale. Medics spoke of it all the time, Sharp herself knew well enough how it worked.
You just drop dead and stay there.
And that was exactly what the hero did.
The mercenary found out about his target in July and stayed hesitant throughout August. Half-heatedly, he had tried to kill her in September. It had been far too soon. He hadn't been ready. The attempt was a failure. It could have been a disaster, but it was actually a miracle.
Because nobody noticed.
He had used his usual method to get past security and set up a hundred feet from where the President of Denaria 7 was speaking. He used a silencer and missed his prey by about an inch. The bullet must have passed right over her head. Maybe even through her hair, because she immediately raised her hand and patted it back into place, as if a gust of wind had disturbed it.
Of course, he saw it over and over again afterwards. Some news team had caught the whole thing on camera. She raised her hand and patted her hair. She did nothing else. She'd just kept going on with her speech, unaware, unfazed, because – by definition – a silenced bullet is too fast to see and too quiet to hear. So it missed her and flew on. It missed the guard standing behind her. It struck no obstacles, hit no buildings. It flew on straight and true until its energy was spent and gravity hauled it to the group in the far distance, where there was nothing except empty grassland.
There had been no response. No reaction. It was like the bullet had never been fired at all. He didn’t fire again. He was to shaken up.
So, a failure, but also a miracle. And a lesson. He spent October acting like the professional he was. He started over, calmed down, thought, learnt, and prepared for his second attempt. It would be a better attempt, carefully planned and properly executed, built around technique and unholy fear. A worthy attempt. A creative attempt. Above all, an attempt that wouldn’t fail.
The planning had started with the objective analysis of the first endeavour’s failure.
The final evaluation: This time, don’t miss.
As a realistic professional, the mercenary was reluctant to blame the whole debacle on inadequate hardware, but he decided that better firepower couldn't hurt any. So he had researched his needs and located a local weapon supplier. The guy had what he wanted. The price was right. They negotiated a guarantee. It was his usual type of agreement. He told the trader that if there was a problem with his merchandise then he would come back and shoot him in the spinal cord, low down, cripple him.
Getting his hands on the gun was the last step. Now he was ready to go fully operational.
But then November came and the rules changed completely:
The Hero Factory arrived.
Two weeks later
Every city had a cusp, its highest point, its pinnacle, just before the good part of town turns bad. As far as Sam Clank could see, this one was no different. The border between desirable and undesirable ran in a ragged irregular loop, bulging outward here and there to accommodate reclaimed blocks, swooping inward in other areas to claim inroads of its own. It was pierced in some places by gentrified corridors. Elsewhere it worked gradually, shading imperceptibly over hundreds of yards through rundown streets.
Nearly a fortnight ago his team had been contacted with a distress call. He’d been enjoying an easy game of Robo-Ball with some brand-new rookies, only to be interrupted by an orchestra of flaring klaxons, red lights and screaming alarms. He’d had to abandon the match and learn that someone wanted him and his team to play the role of body-shield to the ruler of some planet he’d never even heard of. Naturally, if anyone other than Patrick Zire had ordered him into doing it, he would have turned them down, told them to get lost, then walked off. But he had a duty as an agent of Hero Factory. An innocent woman was in danger and his team had been given their first mission in days.
Anything to get out of the Assembly Tower again and stretch his legs.
The homeless shelter that the President was due to make her seasonal public appearance at was halfway into the no-man’s-land in the north. There was an abandoned monorail track to the east. All around were decaying buildings. Some of them were warehouses. Some of them were apartments. Some were abandoned, some were not. The shelter itself was exactly as it had been described to him in the mission briefing the night before. It was a long, low, one-storey building made of industrial-age brick. It had large metal-framed windows evenly spaced in the walls. It had a yard next to it twice its own size. The yard was closed in on three sides by high brick walls. It was impossible to decipher the building’s original purpose. Maybe it had been a stable to some weird alien horses.
Currently, it housed fifty homeless people every night. They were woken early every morning and given breakfast then turned out on the streets. Then the fifty cots were stacked and stored while the floor was washed and the air was clogged with disinfectant. Metal tables and chairs were carried in and placed where the beds had been. Lunch was available every day, and dinner, and then the reverse conversion to a dormitory took place at nine every evening.
But this day was different. It was a celebration, a day dedicated to some kind of festival. All manner of merriment made the order of events different, and this year it was more noticable. The wake-up call had happened a little earlier than usual and breakfast had been served a little faster. The overnighters were shown the door half an hour before normal, which was a double blow to them because the cities were notoriously quiet on holidays. The floor was washed more thoroughly than usual and more disinfectant was sprayed into the air. The tables were positioned more exactly, more volunteers were on hand.
Clank didn’t know why they were bothering. It was a publicity stunt, an unnecessary risk, an added danger that they shouldn’t have to be worrying about. The President should be locked away, confined in her palace at a time like this, especially with such an imminent threat at large. But, alas, some events organizer had booked the event on the hunch that the assassin would be too busy celebrating.
The first Hero Factory agents to arrive were the line-of-sight team. Two heroes, both rookies. They had a large-scale city surveyor’s map and telescopic sight fitted into their visors. One of them walked through every step that Caliga was scheduled to take. Every separate pace he would stop and turn round to squint through his scope and call out every window and every rooftop he could see. Because if he could see a rooftop or a window, a potential marksman on that rooftop or in that window could see him. The hero with the map would identify the building concerned, check the scale and calculate the range. Anything under 700 feet he marked in black.
But, he had to admit, it was a good location. The only available sniper nests were on the roofs of the abandoned five-storey warehouses opposite. The rookie with the map finished up with a straight line of just five black crosses, nothing more. He wrote checked by scope, clear daylight, 0845 hrs, all suspect locations recorded across the bottom of the map and signed his name. The hero with the scope countersigned and the map was rolled and stored in one of their transporter, awaiting Sharp’s arrival.
Next on the scene was a convoy of five law enforcement vans with five separate canine units in them. One unit cleared the shelter. Two more entered the warehouse. The last two were explosives hunters who checked the surrounding streets in all directions on a 400-yard radius. Beyond 400 yards, the maze of streets meant that there were too many potential access routes to check, and therefore too many to bomb with any realistic chance of success. As soon as a building or a street was pronounced safe a local patrolman took up station on foot. The sky was still clear and the sun was still out. Fittingly, it was obscured by grey clouds, robbing them of the chance to spot the glint of a sniper’s scope on a rooftop. It gave out an illusion of warmth, grousing to a minimum.
By nine thirty the shelter was the epicenter of a quarter of a square mile of secure territory. Hero Factory agents held the perimeter on foot and there were dozens of local cops in vehicles loose around the area. They made up the majority of the local population. The city was still quiet. Some of the homeless were wandering about. There was nowhere productive to go, and they knew from experience that to be early in the lunch line was better than late. Presidents didn’t understand portion control, and pickings could be getting slim after the first thirty minutes.
Jenny Sharp arrived at ten o’clock exactly, in a transporter with Anna Thorne and more rookie reinforcements. Behind them were four more trucks of local cops. There were police department sharpshooters and fifteen general-duty agents. Clank watched as the vehicle parked tight against the base of the warehouse wall. Normally, the bulky transporter would have blocked the shelter’s entrance, but they didn’t want to reveal the direction of Caliga’s intended approach to onlookers. She was actually scheduled to come in from the south, but that information and ten minutes with a map could allow anyone to predict the President’s route all the way to downtown.
The white-armored medic assembled her team in the shelter’s yard and sent the sharpshooters to secure the warehouse roofs. They would be up there for three hours before the event even started, but that was normal. Generally they were the first to arrive and the last to leave.
Thorne pulled Clank aside and asked him to go up there with them. The orange-armored veteran agreed and switched positions. It had been a long time since he’d thought of Thorne as anything other than a fellow Elite hero. She had earned her title a long time ago and she had matured massively. She was no longer the rookie she had been some twenty five years ago. Now she was independent, responsible, self-governing. Now he respected her as much as he respected his long-dead teammates: Scott Trooper and Jack Reacher.
So, following orders for a red-armored hero half his age, he walked across the street with a rookie named Troy. They ducked past a cop into a damp hallway full of trash and rodent droppings. There were stairs winding up through a central shaft. Troy was in silver armor and was carrying a an Energy Rifle in one hand. But he was a fit guy. He was half a flight ahead of Clank at the top.
The stairs came out inside a rooftop hutch. There was a wooden door that opened outward into the sunlight. The roof was flat. There were the corpses of filthy-looking birds here and there, and dirty skylights made of wired glass and small metal turrets on top of ventilation pipes. The roof was lipped with a low wall, set on top with eroded coping stones. Troy walked to the left edge, and then the right. Made visual contact with his fellow heroes on either side. Then he walked on the front to check the view. Clank was already there.
The view was good and bad. Good in the conversational sense because the sun was shining and they were five floors up in a low-built part of town. Bad because the shelter’s yard was right there underneath them. It was like looking down into a shoebox from a distance of three feet up and three feet away. The back partition where Caliga would be standing was dead ahead. It was made out of old brick and looked like an execution wall.
“What’s the range?” he asked.
“Your guess?” shrugged Troy.
Clank put his knees up against the lip of the roof and glanced out and down. “Ninety yards?”
The silver-armored rookie unsnapped a range-finder from his utility belt. “Laser” he grunted, switching it on and lining it up. “Ninety-two to the wall” he stated. “Ninety-one to her head. That was a pretty good guess, Sir.”
“Practically like standing right next to her” frowned the veteran.
“Don’t worry” shrugged Troy. “As long as I’m up here nobody else can be. That’s the job today. We’re sentries, not shooters.”
“Where are you going to be?” asked Clank.
The rookie glanced all round his piece of real estate and pointed. “Over there I guess” he mused. “Tight in the far corner. I’ll face parallel with the front wall. Slight turn to my left and I’m covering the yard. Slight turn to my right, I’m covering the head of the stairwell.”
“Good plan, kid. You need anything?”
Troy shook his head.
“OK” beamed the Elite hero. “I’ll leave you to it. Try to stay awake, OK?”
The novice smiled. “I usually do.”
“Good. I like that in a sentry.”
Clank descended back down the five flights of stairs though the darkness and stepped out into the slivers of sunlight. He walked across the street and looked up, saw Troy nestled comfortably in the angle of the corner. His head and knees visible. So was the barrel of his Energy Rifle. He waved. Troy waved back.
He smiled to himself then walked on to find Thorne still in the yard. She was hard to miss, given the bright color of her armor and the sudden brightness that was ripping through the clouds.
“It’s all OK up there” he grunted. “Hell of a firing platform, but as long as our guys hold it we’re safe.”
The other veteran nodded, turned around and scanned upward. All five warehouse roofs were visible from the yard. All five were occupied by sharpshooters. Five silhouetted heads, five silhouetted barrels.
“Jenny’s looking for you” she murmured softly.
Nearer to the building, staff and heroes were hauling the long tables into place. The idea was to form a barrier with them. The right-hand end would be hard against the shelter’s wall. The left-hand end would be three feet from the yard wall opposite. There would be a pen six feet deep behind the line of tables. Caliga would be in the pen with four heroes. Directly behind them would be the execution wall. Up close it didn’t look so bad. The old bricks looked warmed by the sun. Rustic, even friendly. He turned his back on them and looked up at the warehouse roofs. Troy waved again. I’m till awake, the wave said.
“Clank!” called an all-too familiar voice.
He turned round and found Sharp walking out of the shelter towards him. She was carrying a clipboard thick with paper, the biggest downside with being the leader of the Delta 4 hero team, part of the reason he’d turned it down all those years ago. The medic was up on her toes, busy, in charge, in command, like she should be.
She looked magnificent. Her white armor emphasized her litheness and made her eyes blaze with green. A dozen heroes and scores of cops swirled all around her, every one of them under her personal control.
“We’re doing fine here” she beamed. “So I want you to take a stroll. Just look around. Anna’s already out there. You know what to look for.”
“Feels good, doesn’t it?” he asked with a grin.
“Doing something really well. Taking charge.”
Her clipboard lowered a fraction and her eyes lit up, like he’d seen them do a thousand times before. “You think I’m doing well?”
“You’re the best” he smiled. “This is tremendous. Caliga’s lucky she’s got you covering her back.”
“I hope” she shrugged, the excitement dwindling in her eyes.
Sharp beamed, quickly and shyly, then moved on, leafing through her paperwork. Clank turned the other way and walked back out to the street. There were cops on the corner and the beginnings of a ragged crowd of people waiting for the free lunch. There were two television trucks setting up fifty yards down the street from the shelter. Hydraulic masts were unfolding themselves and satellite dishes were rotating. Technicians were unrolling cable and shouldering cameras.
He spotted Thorne with a cluster of rookies, figured them for some kind of task force. They had just arrived. His teammate had a map unrolled on the hood of a transporter and her agents were bunched around her, looking at it. Clank waved at her and turned left, passing the end of an alley that led down behind the warehouses. He could hear a monorail on the track ahead of him. The mouth of the alley was manned by a local cop, facing outward, standing easy. There was a police cruiser parked nearby, another cop in it. Cops everywhere. The overtime bill was going to be something else entirely.
There were broken-down stores here and there, but they were all closed for the day. Everything in sight was old and in ruin, almost unhealthy. This was the slums of a powerful city. Once the industrial heart of some kind of steel trade, now a filthy, disused wasteland. Grime and moss grew from buildings. Rude words were spray painted onto houses. Windows were smashed and boarded up. It seemed as if the entire city had been coated in a layer of soot and dirt. The filth was starting to stain the orange armor on Clank’s feet.
The streets were silent, shuttered and still, not even worth patrolling. His footsteps echoed right down the blackened road. There was only one other person in eyesight and that was an old guy washing the windows of his shop. Deciding to entertain the possibility of buying a souvenir, Clank ventured closer. The guy was the only thing moving on the whole block.
The store was tall and narrow. The display case was crammed with junk of every description. There were clocks, coats, musical instruments, alarm radios, hats, music players, binoculars, Christmas lights. There was writing on the windows, offering to buy just about any article ever manufactured. If it didn’t grow in the ground or move by itself, this ancient guy would give money for it. He also offered services. He could convert money, appraise jewellery, repair watches. There was an entire tray full of watches on view. Mostly old-fashion wind-up things.
“Have a nice day” called the hero, forgetting the name of the holiday that the old guy should have been celebrating. There was no reply.
He grew bored with the pointless task and Clank didn’t spot anything interesting again on his patrol. He met Thorne a block from the shelter. She was walking in the opposite direction. When she spotted him she stopped, waited for him, then turned around to walk back with him, maintaining her customary distance the whole time.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” she announced trivially. “A good day to catch our shooter?”
“I don’t know” sighed the veteran.
“How would you do it?”
“That’s the thing. I wouldn’t. Not here. Not yet. This is his backyard. I’d pull Caliga out of this and wait for a better chance.”
“Me too” shrugged Thorne. “But the guy missed before and, after this, Caliga goes back to her palace, which is no good for him. He’s stuck deep into December, then there’s holidays and it’ll be a whole other year. He’ll have failed his mission. He’s running out of chances. And we know, whoever he is, he’s right here in this town.”
Clank said nothing. They just kept walking.
They arrived back at the shelter at around noon. Sharp was standing near the entrance. She nodded a cautious greeting. Inside the yard everything was ready. The serving tables were lined up. They were draped with pure white cloths that hung down to the floor. They were loaded with food warmers laid out in a line. There were ladles and long-handled spoons neatly arrayed. The kitchen window opened directly into the pen. The shelter hall itself was set up for dining.
Sharp was still detailing positions for each of the general-duty agents, giving them their positions.
“OK, listen up” she announced. “Remember, it’s very easy to look like a homeless person, but very hard to look exactly like a homeless person. Watch their feet. Are their shoes right? Look at their hands. We want to see gloves, or ingrained dirt. Look at their faces. They need to be lean. Hollow cheeks. We want to see dirty hair. Hair that hasn’t been washed for a month or a year. We want to see armor that has molded to the body. Any questions?”
“Any doubt at all, act first, and think later” she continued. “I’m going to be serving behind the tables with the President. We’re depending on you not to send us anybody you don’t like, OK?”
Clank squeezed through the left-hand end of the serving tables and stood in the pen. Behind him was a wall. To his right was another wall. To his left was the shelter windows. Ahead to his right was the approach line. Any individual would pass four agents at the yard entrance and six more as he shuffled along. Ten suspicious pairs of eyes before anybody got face-to-face with Caliga herself. Ahead to the left was the exit line. Three agents funneling people into the hall. He raised his eyes. Dead ahead were the warehouses. Five sentries on five roofs.
Troy waved. He waved back.
“OK?” asked Sharp.
She was standing across the serving table from him. He smiled.
“I want you and Anna freelancing in the yard. Stay near the exit line, so you get a wide view.”
“OK” grunted Clank.
“Still think I’m doing well?”
The veteran pointed left, to the shelter. “I don’t like those windows” he griped. “Suppose somebody bides his time all the way through the line, keeps his head down, behaves himself, picks up his food, makes it inside, sits down, pulls a blaster and starts firing it through the window?”
The medic nodded. “I already thought of that. I’m bringing three cops in from the perimeter. One at each window, standing up, facing the room. Plus I've got Ratchet in there.”
“That should do it. Great job, Jenny!”
“And Caliga’s going to be wearing a bulletproof vest under her armor.”
“How about you?”
Sharp smiled. “We’re made of metal, Sam.”
The two life-long friends shared a grin before she raised a finger to her visor. There was a static fuzz as she ran a radio check.
She left him while she spoke to the local Police Chief, telling him he could start marshalling the crowd near the entrance. Then she told the media that they could come into the yard and start rolling the tapes. With fifteen minutes to go she announced that the President was on her way.
“Get the food out” she ordered to the staff.
The kitchen crew swarmed out into the pen and cooks passed pans of food out through the kitchen window. Clank leaned on the shelter wall at the end of the line of serving tables. He pressed his back flat on the bricks between the kitchen window and the hall window. He would be looking straight down the food line. People would have to skirt around him with their loaded plates. He wanted a close-up view. Thorne stood six feet away, in the body of the yard. Sharp paced near her, nervous, thinking through the last-minute checks for the hundredth time.
“Arrival imminent” she stated into the communicator in her visor. Clank was glad he didn’t have to rehear it in his own headset a moment later. “The driver says he’s two blocks away. You guys on the roof see him yet?” She listened to her earpiece before speaking again.
“Two blocks away” she repeated.
The kitchen crew finished loading the food warmers and disappeared. Clank couldn’t see because of the brick walls but he heard the transport cordon. Several powerful engines, approaching fast, slowing hard. A vehicle pulled past the entrance, then another, then some form of stretched limousine, then another cruiser bringing up the rear behind it. He watched Sharp grin to herself.
President Caliga stepped out of the rear passenger door then stood there and beamed warmly. Camera crews pressed forward. The President stood up straight and paused a moment to smile for the flashing lenses. She was a tall female for her species, meaning she only came up to Clank’s waist. She had put on slightly too small a layer of armor to conceal her bulletproof-vest to the eye of an expert marksman. Her personal detail surrounded her and eased her into the yard. Cameras panned as they walked past. The personal agents were locals, adorned in black armor. All of them had earpieces and bulges at their waists where their weapons were.
Sharp led them into the pen behind the serving tables. One hero took each end and stood with their arms folded for nothing but crowd surveillance. The third hero, Sharp and Caliga herself took the middle of the table to do the serving. They milled around for a second then arranged themselves into the appropriate order, which was just a case of placing the President at the front, the closest to the line. It put her in more danger but it meant that she was also closer to the six wandering heroes in the crowd. Caliga picked up a ladle in one hand and a spoon in the other, checked the cameras were on her then raised the utensils high.
“Happy Blorthog Day, everyone!” she announced.
The crowd swarmed slowly through the gateway. They were a subdued bunch, moving lethargically and without talking. No excited chatter, no buzz or sound. Nothing like the hotel lobby or the donor reception Clank had supervised over the past two days. Most of them were swaddling in several layers of chipped, filthy, rusty armor. Some were pinning their protective covering with pieces of string. They had hats, fingerless gloves and downcast faces. Each had to pass left and right and left and right through the six screening agents. The first recipient looped past the last rookie, took a plastic plate from the first server and was subjected to the full brilliance of Caliga’s smile. She spooned some kind of sloppy, greasy meat product onto his plate. The guy shuffled along and Sharp gave him vegetables – or at least that was what they looked like from where Clank was standing. The other hero added some kind of stuffing with a grim, matter-of-fact face and the homeless local headed inside for the tables. The food smelled good but the guy smelled bad.
It continued like that for five minutes. Every time a tray of food was emptied it was replaced by a new one passed through the kitchen window. The President was smiling like she was enjoying herself. The line of starving citizens edged forwards. The cameras rolled. The only sound was the clatter of metal utensils in the serving dishes and the repeated banalities from the servers. “Enjoy!” “Thanks for coming by!” “Happy Blorthog Day'!”
Clank glanced at Thorne. She raised her eyebrows. The two veterans glanced up at the warehouse roofs then at Sharp, bust with her long-handles spoon, looking warily at the television reporters. They were clearly bored, stuck taping a whole hour, which they knew was going to be edited to a maximum of eight seconds, with a boilerplate commentary laid over it. President Caliga serves the traditional Blorthog Day lunch today at a homeless shelter. Then it would cut to sports highlights.
The line was still thirty people long when it happened.
Clank sensed a dull chalky impact nearby and something stung him on the right cheek, chipping his visor. In the corner of his eye he saw a puff of dust around a small cratered chip on the surface of the wall. No sound. No sound at all. A split second later his brain connected the dots.
He looked at the line. Nobody moved. He snapped his head to the left and up. The roof.
Troy wasn’t there.
No, Troy was there.
Or was he?
Whoever it was seemed to be twenty feet out of position.
And they also seemed to have just fired a bullet at him.
Panic gripped the hero as he tried to defeat time and move faster than the awful slow motion of terror would allow him. He pushed off the wall and filled his lungs with air, turned toward Sharp as slowly as if he were running through a swimming pool. His mouth opened and desperate words formed in his throat and he tried to shout them out. But she was already well ahead of him, as always.
“G-u-u-n!” she yelled.
The medic was spinning in slow motion. Her spoon was loose in the air, arcing over the table, glittering in the sun, spraying food. She was on Caliga’s left, so she jumped sideways at her charge. Her left arm was scything up to shield her. She was jumping like a Robo-Ball player going for a hook shot. Twisting in mid-air. She got her right hand on the President’s shoulder for a pivot and used the momentum of her left to turn herself around and face her. She drew her knees up and landed square on Caliga’s chest. Breath punched out of the President and her legs buckled. The startled politician was going down backward when the second silenced bullet was fired.
It hit Sharp in the back, piercing straight through her armor like butter.
There was no sound. No sound at all. Just a bright vivid backward spray of oil in the sunlight. Had she been organic, that would have been a spray of Sharp’s blood, as fine as autumn mist. She may as well have been organic. The bullet would have the same effect.
It hung there in a long conical cloud, like vapor, dark and flickering. It stretched to a point as she fell. The spoon came down through it, tumbling end over end, disturbing its shape. It lengthened in a long graceful curve. She went down and left the spray of her innards behind her like a question mark. Clank turned his head like it was clamped with an enormous weight and saw the scope of a shoulder far away on the roof, moving backward out of sight. He turned immediately back to the yard and saw the wet grey arrow of oil pointing down to a place now out of sight behind the tables.
Then time restarted and a hundred things happened all at once, all at high speed, all with shattering noise.
Heroes pulled their weapons and started firing up at the warehouse roof. There was shouting and wailing from the crowd. People were stampeding. Running everywhere under the heavy repeated thumping of powerful energy weapons. Clank clawed at the serving tables and hurled them behind him, fighting his way through the wreckage to Sharp, his longest living friend, the one who was dying on the floor. Agents dragged Caliga out from under the wounded hero then smothered her and hauled her off the ground. She was screaming loud, shrieking desperately. The engines of transporters revved. Tyres were squealing. Guns were firing. There was smoke in the air. Sirens were yelping.
He fell to his knees in a lake of hydraulic fluid, which should have been inside his friend, next to Sharp. He cradled her head in his arms. All her litheness was gone now. She was completely limp and still, like her armor was empty. Her Core had been punctured by the exit of the bullet from her chest. But her eyes were wide open. They were moving slowly from side to side, searching, like she was curious about something.
“Is Caliga OK?” she croaked. Her voice was a whisper, but alert.
“She’s secure” nodded Clank in reply.
He slid a hand under her neck. He could feel the liquid that, to him and any other hero, was blood. His closest friend was soaked in it. It was pulsing out. More than pulsing. It was like a warm, hard jet, driven by the whole of her punctured hydraulic tanks. It forced and bulged its way out between his clamped fingers like a strong bathtub faucet being turned high and low, high and low. He raised her head and let it fall a fraction, allowing him to see the exit wound better. Straight through the centre of her Hero Core. Fatal. It was leaking oil, like a river, like a flood, as if it were arterial blood draining out of her.
“Medics!” he yelled.
Nobody heard him. His voice didn’t carry. There was too much noise. The heroes around him were firing up at the warehouse roof. There was a continuous crashing and booming of their blasters.
“Tell me it wasn’t one of us” whispered Sharp.
“It wasn’t” he promised.
The white-armored hero dropped her chin to her chest. The fluid flooded out between the folds of her plating, pouring down and staining her. It pooled on the ground and ran away between the ridges of the concrete. He flattened his hand hard against her Core. It was slippery, so he pressed harder. The flow loosened his grip, like it was hosing his hand away. It was slipping and floating on the tide.
“Medics!” he called again, louder.
But he knew it was useless. She was probably running out of the fluid she needed to cling onto life. The standard hero had eight pints of it in them. Without it they couldn’t function. He was kneeling in pretty much all eight of them. Her circuits were doing their job, pumping what precious reserves she had straight out onto the concrete around his legs. Plus, with a splintered Core, she was as good as dead. It was useless.
“MEDICS!” he roared.
She looked straight up at his face.
“Remember?” she wheezed faintly.
He bent closer.
“How we met?” she added, barely a rasp now.
“I remember” he mumbled.
Shark smiled weakly, like his answer satisfied her completely. She was very pale now. There was hydraulic fluid everywhere on the ground, it was a vast spreading pool. It was warm and slick. Now it was frothing and foaming at her chest. Her tubes were empty and filling with air. Her eyes moved in her head and settled on his face. Her lips were stark white. They fluttered soundlessly, rehearsing her last words.
“I love you, Jack” she murmured.
Then she smiled, peacefully.
She thought he was somebody else. He was her longest-serving and closest friend and she didn't recognize him. That broke Clank's heart. It meant she was finally at the end of the line, seconds away from slipping from reality. Her system was shutting down. She was becoming muddled and disillusioned. As much as it pained him, he realized it was best just to play along.
“I love you too” he answered, pretending to be the long-dead hero.
He held her for a few long moments more until she died in his arms.
It happened at about the same time that Thorne gave the ceasefire order. There was a sudden but total silence. The cold acid stink of the energy weapons being discharged and the hot reek of the oil hung in the air. Clank looked up and back to see a cameraman shouldering his way towards him, with his lens tilting down like a cannon. Then Thorne stepped into his path. The guy pushed at her. She didn’t seem to move a joint but suddenly the guy was falling. The veteran caught the camera and threw it straight over the execution wall. It crashed on the ground.
He heard ambulance sirens starting up in the distance, then a he heard cop cars. Feet running. He saw Thorne’s legs next to his face. She was standing in the middle of the fluid, doing nothing at all after disposing of the camera. She just stood there for what felt like a very long time, until they heard the ambulance in the yard. Then she bent down and tried to pull him away. Clank waited until the paramedics got close. Then he laid his fallen sister hero’s head gently on the concrete. He stood up, sick and cramped and uneasy. The paramedics fussed around for a moment. Then they went quiet and gave it up, covering her up with a sheet. They left her for the medical examiners and crime scene investigators. He stumbled and sat down again, with his back to the wall, his hands on his knees, his head in his hands. His armor was soaked in the dark, oily fluid. Thorne sat down next to him, an inch away.
“What happened?” he asked.
“They’re locking the city down” shrugged the other veteran insensitively. “Roads, bridges, airports. The government’s in charge of it, plus the cops and army. Plus our people. We’ll catch him.”
“Was Caliga OK?”
“Completely unharmed. Jenny did her duty.”
There was a long silence, then Clank looked up.
“What happened on the roof?” he demanded. “Where was Troy?”
Thorne looked away. “He was decoyed somehow. He’s in the stairwell. He’s dead too, shot at point-blank range in the head. Probably with the same silenced rifle.”
“It’s like how Trooper died all over again” moaned the orange armored hero. “Like Reacher too. Killed in action. All gruesome and heartless.”
“Nothing you could’ve done.”
“Did you see it?”
The female nodded.
“She took a bullet for Caliga... I thought that was just a figure of speech.”
“Instinct” grunted Thorne. “And she was unlucky. Must have missed the harder armor on her back and cut through her pack. If it had been half an inch lower the bullet would’ve bounced right off.”
“Did you see the shooter?”
“I was facing front. Did you?”
“A glimpse” he shrugged, wiping his palms on his armor, front and back.
“So what now?”
“We get a new leader, we stick it out. The mission’s still on.”
“You should go back to Makuhero City” muttered Thorne.
“Not till I see the guy who killed my longest-living friend in cuffs” bristled Clank. “I just held her while she died of Core failure. I’m not going to just walk away.”
His teammate looked into his eyes then lowered her gaze. Then, she nodded.
“Everything’s going to change now, isn’t it?”
“I wasn’t as close to her as you were” she muttered. She helped me in some of my more difficult times but, we never really spoke. I always relied on others, I never really appreciated her being with us. I took her for granted, I figured she’d always be here with us, that she’d be the last of us to go. But nobody lasts forever, right? We all have to go at some point.”
“Keep me posted” grunted the veteran as he pulled himself to his feet, dripping in oil. “And book be a video conference with Zire."
Thorne frowned. “Why?”
“Because I’m a witness” shrugged Clank. “I saw the shooter. On the roof. Just a glimpse of his back as he moved away from the edge.”
“You got a description?”
“Not really” he grunted. “It was only a glimpse, but I could probably give you an accurate enough description anyway. There was something about the way he moved.”
He raised his head to fix his teammate with a steely glare, his expression like iron.
“I’ve seen him before... his name’s Bonecrusher.”
- The story will be set 27 years into the future - Correct
- Sharp will be the leader of the Delta 4 hero team - Correct
- Scott Trooper and Jack Reacher are dead - Correct
- A number of new rookies have been added to the team recently - Correct
- The Delta 4 team will be charged with protecting a political figure on Denaria 7 - Correct
- The only pre-existing characters, aside from Jenny Sharp, will be Sam Clank and Anna Thorne, who will be a fully trained elite hero - Correct
- Jenny Sharp - Deceased
- Sam Clank
- Anna Thorne
- President Caliga
- Troy - Deceased
- Patrick Zire - Mentioned
- In spite of the fact that the story is set 27 years into the future, the heroes in the story are suited with their 2.0 upgrades because it is impossible to predict any future developments in Hero Factory over the next 27 years with any degree of accuracy.
- Echo Burning was inspired by The Curtain Descends, a story written by Chicken Bond on Custom BIONICLE Wiki, detailing a possible future death of his self-MOC.