Tailing a person was a lot harder than it looked. ''Star. D'' was hurrying on ahead at a decent clip, and here they were trying not to lose him in the crowd. Terry hadn't put much thought into his pursuit of Serac on the day this all began, but this was a different matter as they had to avoid drawing the man's attention, which was a tricky thing to do when you were in a group with four other people. That being said, they were lucky that the man seemed to be a hurry, for he never once turned around or even glanced over his shoulder as he awkwardly tried to negotiate his way though the flow of pedestrians.
What Terry found curious, and no doubt some of his friends might've been feeling the same, was that the man seemed to be following the exact same path that they had after arriving in Liu-hou Town. He took each and every same turn and corner until they saw him duck into the front entrance of the same parking garage that Auto had parked in. With a growing sense of excitement they followed him up several levels, having to be more careful now that there wasn't a crowd of people to hide behind. Eventually he came to a halt in front of a moderately-sized moving truck with a non-descript pastel logo painted on the side. There he brushed off his jacket and leaned back against the grille with arms crossed as if trying to put on the impression that he'd been waiting there for some time. Fortunately for Terry's group there was a sizable utility vehicle parked nearby that allowed them to hide behind while giving them a decent view of the bandaged man and his truck. A few minutes passed and nothing happened, until the man's head perked up and a new group approached the truck from the opposite direction.
''Look, look!'' Akira hissed, tapping the sleeve of Terry's jacket in excitement. Terry didn't need the group pointed out to him; they were unmistakable. The newly arrived group appeared to be six in number: four adult men, one sticking out thanks to his white suit, another by the scarf he was wearing, and two younger members. One of them Terry couldn't make out any distinguishing features from this distance beyond blond hair color and that he was carrying a briefcase of some sort, but the shorter of the two was unmistakably a girl, definitely Serac.
''Is that her?'' Nova whispered, gesturing over in their direction with his head.
''Yeah, definitely.'' Terry said. ''She's wearing the same fur-trim jacket she had on when we ran into her at the convention center.''
''Shh!'' Daniel whispered. ''I'm trying to hear what they're saying.'' Terry nodded and cocked an ear to see what he could make out from this distance.
''...orders.'' the man in the white suit was saying, apparently filling in Star. D on something. ''We're supposed to unload the first... Yes right now. Take it up with him if...'' Then one of the other men said something that was inaudible and the man in the white suit turned to face him. ''I don't know, that's why we need...get in.''
''Not very enlightening.'' Terry muttered.
''I wouldn't say that.'' Daniel replied. Before Terry could ask what he meant by that Daniel had taken out his phone and quickly snapped a picture of the side of the truck. None of the men or Serac seemed to notice and they started to clamber into the truck, with most of them climbing up into the trailer.
''Looks like that's that.'' Terry sighed. Perhaps they could get the truck's license plate number as it pulled out, but other than that it didn't look like there was any more that they could do. That is, until he heard Auto shuffling beside him.
''You wanna go after them, don'cha?'' he asked with his usual blank-eyed look.
''I...guess so.'' Terry admitted. ''Oh right, you're here!''
''Yeah, I am.'' the mechanic said. ''So, what's it gonna be? Don't have much time.''
''Guys?'' Terry turned towards his friends.
''If we can find out where they're going that'll be a big lead.'' Daniel said. ''I say we should go for it.''
Nova nodded in agreement. ''Whatever you guys are cool with, I'll come along.'' Akira chimed in.
It was a good thing that they had reached a consensus so quickly, because it was a mad dash down to Auto's own truck. It was therefore fortunate that the garage only had one entrance cleared for vehicles of that size, allowing them to quickly catch up with the group's truck at the ticket gate (Auto insisted that the others pay, which they begrudgingly did). Once outside on the streets however it was a different matter. They had no control over the flow of traffic and were entirely at its mercy. Following a vehicle without being obvious about it wasn't very difficult if there was a group of cars separating them, but they nearly lost the truck thanks to the capriciousness of traffic lights and the other motorists. Auto though, was up to the task. He was completely in his element, and whenever it seemed the truck was pulling out of sight he managed to execute a deft maneuver and slip through the gaps to catch up.
''You know what you're doing, right?'' Akira nervously asked after one such maneuver was met by a cacophony of car horns.
''I had the right of way.'' Auto replied, eyes forward. ''Now shut up. I need to concentrate.''
As Akira sat back in his seat with a frown on his face Terry heard Nova mutter something to himself. ''What was that?'' he asked.
''What? Oh, I was just saying that it looks like they're heading for Lodgeport.'' Nova explained. ''It's part of the private, industrial part of town.'' he added for Terry's benefit. ''It's near the water, and a lot of shipping and processing companies have depots and warehouses out there. Take a look.'' He pointed out the window.
It was a little difficult for Terry to get a good look at the scenery outside from his vantage point, but he did notice that the buildings lining the streets were getting smaller and more utilitarian. The traffic was lightening up too, and through the gaps between buildings Terry thought that he could just barely see brightly-colored cranes and rows of low, boxlike structures that looked similar to the depot that he had fought Sayren at.
''Yeah, definitely Lodgeport.'' Nova remarked.
A few more minutes of driving passed before anything else happened. Then, finally, the truck they had been following slowed down and turned left off of the road and onto a lane that seemed to dip underground and disappear beneath one of the buildings that lined the road. ''There they go.'' Nova commented, pointing across the dashboard.
''I see, I see.'' Auto murmured. ''Let me park.'' He took the truck another block before pulling into one of the parking spaces on the side of the road, around a corner and out of sight. All of them were over-sized to accommodate vehicles with heavy loads.
When everyone spilled out of the confines of the cabin the neighborhood's atmosphere immediately made Terry feel a little unsettled. It was strangely quiet, the only noises he could hear coming from a distant highway overpass and the occasional cry of a seagull circling around overhead. He saw a person walking off in the distance, and from time to time he could spy a car driving by from a couple hundred yards away. It was quite a change in scenery after all that walking they did earlier through heavily-populated and lively streets.
''Where is everyone?'' he asked. ''Didn't you say this was part of the industrial district? It's practically deserted.''
''This is just one small sector, and it's private.'' Nova said, shrugging his shoulders. ''A lot of places are probably still closed for New Year's.'' He gestured at some smaller, shuttered businesses on the opposite side of the street. ''I bet if you walked a half-mile in any direction you'd find more activity. If you're going to be doing something shifty, now would be the time to do it.''
''I suppose so.''
''But at the same time that means that if something goes down we're on our own.'' Akira observed. ''Whatever. I guess we should go check out that building while we can.''
The group walked over to the building that they had seen the truck disappear into. The lane the truck has disappeared down looked surprisingly steep, and the entrance was blocked by a large set of shutters that seemed to be controlled by a large keypad device that was set into the wall on the driver's side. The clearance and warning signs, Terry noted, appeared to be written in both Anglosine and Laingese characters.
''Look at this.'' Akira called from the sidewalk. Terry and Nova trudged back up to the sidewalk and saw him and Daniel examining a plaque set by the front entrance. ''Under the address it says 'property belonging to the Changxing Organization'.''
''That's good to know.'' Daniel was writing stuff down in his notebook again. ''So far things seem to be working out the way we thought.'' Terry peered past him and into the building's front. It was utilitarian, dark, and empty. This building was nominally closed as well.
''It's sort of creepy.'' Akira commented, looking up at the building with a slightly foreboding look. ''By the way, what did you mean back in the garage, about the boss, the guy who was dressed like a yakuza thug, saying something interesting?''
''Oh that?'' Daniel looked up. ''I noticed that he said something about unloading 'the first', implying that either have more stops planned, or that they'll going to come back with a new load of whatever they're carrying.'' He looked up towards the building. ''Whatever they're unloading, they're doing it furtively. I'd guess that they could be traffickers.''
''Like drugs and stuff?'' Akira suggested.
''That's the most common kind of contraband people think of, but it could be anything.'' Daniel said. ''It would certainly explain why one of the guys was selling Stardust, though.''
''Their truck wasn't that big.'' Nova spoke up. He too was looking up at the building, arms crossed and a contemplative frown on his face. ''I think it's a safe bet that they'll be sticking around the city for a bit.''
''But they could also be entirely legit, just saying.'' Akira shrugged.
All of this speculation was making Terry feel restless. He had pushed for this investigation, but he was finding that he didn't really have much to add to it. He didn't know the city like Nova and Daniel did and all he could really contribute was...muscle. He understood how important the talking and hypothesizing were, but he didn't feel comfortable unless he was doing something. He looked up at the building again, and than down at its base. There were a row of small windows at ground level, though when he walked over and peered down at them he found that he couldn't see much of anything.
''I wonder what's down there?'' he remarked aloud. ''A receiving area, maybe?''
''Probably.'' Daniel shrugged. ''I mean, what else would there be down there?''
''I guess so.'' Terry continued to stare at the windows. The blackness beyond was...tantalizing.
Akira seemed to notice what he was doing and stepped over to get a look himself. He looked down at the windows, then back up at Terry's face. A look of knowing settled onto his face. ''You're thinking of trying to get in there, aren't you?'' he said.
Terry looked at him. ''I didn't say that.'' he said.
''But you were thinking it.'' Akira pressed. ''Come on, I think I know you enough to know how you think.''
''I guess so.'' Terry admitted. His friend probably had in mind the time that he had declared that he was going to be the one to confront Sayren. ''I admit it, if possible I would like to see if there was a way inside.''
''What for?'' Daniel said, a sense of wariness immediately creeping into his voice. ''That's way too risky.''
''I...dunno,'' Terry could imagine how well saying something like 'because I want to' or 'because I want to see that girl again' would go over with his friends. ''if we went in there we could...'' He cast around for something to say. ''Maybe we could try getting a look at whatever they're unloading?'' he suggested. ''If it's something illegal it would help our case to have some hard evidence.''
''I think you're reaching.'' Daniel replied.
''Well yeah,'' Terry admitted. ''it's not like I seriously think you guys want to go down there.''
''Actually, I wouldn't mind.'' Nova said. Everyone turned to him. He shrugged. ''I'm just saying that I'm down for trying to get inside if there's a chance we could learn something from it.'' he said. ''I'm not afraid of whatever's down there.''
''Er, but what if these guys have guns?'' Akira said warily. ''I mean, they are traffickers, right?''
''You said just now that it's possible that they're actually legitimate.'' Terry pointed out. ''The point is, all we have right now are suppositions built on top of information that's circumstancial.'' he said. Now that he knew he had Nova's support he felt emboldened. ''This could be our only chance to find out once and for all what's going on here, and what these guys are up to.''
Daniel muttered something to himself and looked down, as if trying to gather himself. Terry could understand if he was feeling exasperated – after all, what he was proposing they do wasn't exactly the rational thing to do. But as he had said, they were Stargazers, and were supposed to do things that normal people would balk at. Again, as the only ones who knew the hidden side to this case, it was their duty to do everything they could to investigate it.
Finally Daniel looked up. “You know breaking into a building is a felony, right?”
His remark almost made Terry laugh. How like him to be worried by something like that! Instead he reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. His friend blinked conspicuously, surprised by the gesture. “Look, I understand why you’re worried.” Terry said, trying to sound soothing. “But don’t worry about us. We can take care of these sorts of things.” Daniel shoulders drooped a bit as he exhaled. The look on his face clearly showed that he still disagreed with this idea, but he slowly nodded his head.
Terry turned to the others. “You guys okay?”
“I said I was fine with it.” said Nova.
“I’m okay if you guys are.” shrugged Akira. “But uh, how are we supposed to get inside? You got a plan?”
“Maybe.” If this receiving building was anything like the depot where he fought Sayren then there had to be other entrances in the back.
“What’re you gonna do?” Nova asked, turning to address Auto. Terry had forgotten that he was even there as he hadn’t said a single word.
“I’ll stay here.” Auto said, rummaging around in his pockets for another pack of cigarettes. A rather nasty grin came to his face. “In case you need to make a quick getaway.”
“Thanks.” Akira said dryly. “Come on, let’s get out of the street. I feel so exposed.”
The group, now numbering four, slunk around to the back, and just as Terry had thought there was a series of loading docks on the opposite side of the building. There were several human-sized doors next to the truck lots for the employees in plain view. There was nothing special about the doors themselves, but each one did look solid and had no panes to smash this time. Each one seemed to be locked electronically by a card reader.
“I guess these are out.” Akira observed. “Any windows?”
“Not so fast.” Nova said as he examined one of the doors up close. “I could probably break one of these down, but that would cause a lot of noise...” He continued to examine the area. “Hey, Terrence.” he suddenly said. “I have an idea, why don’t you undo the lock?”
“And how would I do that?”
“With your electricity, of course.” Nova clarified. “These things work by generating a current to undo the mechanism when a valid card is read, right? You can just skip that step by sending a jolt directly into the thing, right?”
“I don’t know,” Terry admitted. He actually had very little knowledge about the intricacies of electrical devices beyond the basics. Whenever he used his power he never tried to quantify exactly how many volts he was putting out, just whatever felt like “a lot” or “a little.” His experience from helping his uncle out with some of his projects wasn’t going to be any help either, as his uncle delegated that sort of stuff to one of his employees who was an electrician. But he couldn’t very well give up without even trying. “I’ll give it a go.” he said.
He bent down to the device and examined it. He could see the wires that ran from the reader to into the wall by the door, and the few millimeters of copper where they connected to the box itself. He was unsure exactly how he should go about doing this, and everyone looking at him expectantly didn’t help. He decided to just do it and see what happened: he put a finger to the bit of copper and let out a tiny spark, the smallest amount of power he felt he could muster. There seemed to be a half-second pause, during which he thought nothing had happened, but then there was a small thunk as the lock disengaged. Terry let out a relieved breath and gripped the handle and turned. The door swung inward, revealing a dark corridor. Akira whistled. “Good job.” he said. They stepped inside, but before they continued on Nova took a scrap of paper from Daniel’s notebook and stuck it between the door and it’s lock. “Just in case.” he said.
Terry’s feeling of deja vu began to grow as they cautiously felt their way down the darkened corridor. There were a few empty staff rooms here that soon gave away to the typical assortment of small offices, restrooms, and storage spaces, all locked. Terry took the lead and moved slowly and cautiously, an ear out for strange or out of place noises. But fortunately everything seemed to be quiet and desolate in this part of the building, and they soon came to a large flight of stairs running up and down the building.
“They’re probably down below.” Terry said quietly, indicating the words “To Main Receiving Area” that were stenciled in both Anglosine and Laingese on the wall next to it, along with an arrow pointing downward. Down they went, as slowly and quietly as they could. At the bottom Terry came to a sudden stop.
“What is it?” Daniel whispered.
“A camera.” Terry muttered, pointing to the door a few yards away. Stenciled on it was “Main Receiving Area Sector B” and trained on it was an old, boxy camera. In the semi-darkness they could clearly make out the green LED light by its lens, indicating that it hadn’t been installed simply for show. Terry felt like cursing; he’d forgotten about the possibility of security cameras - surely there had been some set up outside, hadn’t they? Had their faces already been captured?
He shook his head in annoyance. No use worrying about something that he hadn’t been aware of. Right now he had to think of a way to deal with this one. They could try finding another entrance, but those were probably watched too. He had to think of a way to deal with this one...
“So what’re we doing?” Akira asked. “Are we going back, or...?”
“Quiet, I’m trying to think.” Terry murmured, scratching his temple as he fought. The camera was an electronic device just like the card reader outside. He supposed he could destroy it with a well-placed bolt, but that would definitely leave behind evidence that someone had broken in. How could he disable it without destroying it?
Then the answer came to him. He judged the angled the lens seemed to be at. “I have an idea. Stand back a few feet.” The others complied, and Terry called on his powers again. Not too much, just enough to output a few small sparks.
“What are you doing?” came Akira’s voice from behind him. “My hair’s feeling tingly.”
“I’m, uh, trying to jam it.” Terry explained. Any first-year Physics student knew that electromagnetic waves could interfere with an electronic device’s operation. If this was working, and admittedly he had no way to tell if it was, then right now the camera’s picture should be warped and distorted, hopefully enough to obscure them from sight.
Akira whistled again. “Dang, your power’s really handy.”
“Well I have no way of knowing if it’s working or not.” Terry said back testily. “Just hurry up and go through the door!” He gestured for the others to hurry down and they did. Nova took the lead and very carefully eased the door open and glanced out. Apparently the coast was clear, for he motioned for the others to follow. Akira and Daniel hurried past, taking care to stay away from the small electric arcs that were rising from their friend’s body, and he followed, letting the sparks burn out once he was through.
The basement receiving area only served to strengthen Terry’s sense of deja vu despite being dissimilar to the old depot in several respects. Massive metal partitions divided it up into multiple sectors, each one with an open portal wreathed by plastic sheets large enough for a number of forklifts that were parked against a far wall to drive through side-by-side, while smaller openings for conveyors were situated next to them. Smaller containers were stacked on giant metal shelves like at a giant home improvement and construction material store, while larger containers and cargo palettes were stacked in such a way to leave wide lanes on the floor-space. Arrows painted on the floor served to direct workers while crisscrossing the ceiling above were guides for an automated crane. The area felt enormous and made Terry think of an iceberg when he compared it to the building on top.
He couldn’t hear anything other than his heart’s excited beating and he didn’t see anyone either. The traffickers and Serac must’ve been in another sector. He exchanged a glance with Nova, who he noticed had an uncommon glint of anticipation in his eyes. They nodded wordlessly and took point, with Daniel and Akira sticking close behind. The containers, Terry could only begin to wonder what they held, provided plenty of color as they crept slowly and cautiously forward. His whole body felt like a coiled spring, ready to jump into action at a second’s notice. Actually it wasn’t quite that he was ready for action so much that he was anticipating it, almost relishing it. Did he have the same look in his eyes that Nova had? He had realized after his encounter with Serac that he had actually enjoyed their fight. Not the injuries or freezing, but just the sheer rush that came from fighting someone with equal skill on equal ground without any significant danger. Was that why he wanted to see her again, and kept pushing the investigation, just to fight her?
No, this was no good, he berated himself. This wouldn’t be anything like that time, and if he didn’t take this seriously Daniel’s fears would come true. That wasn’t going to happen.
They had passed from Sector C to Sector B when they finally heard the sounds of activity. It was distant and indistinct at first but as they sneaked from the shadow of one giant container or shelf to another they could occasionally pick out a word or two from the buzz, distorted by the acoustics of the large chamber. Finally, crouched behind a shelf, they could see at a distance their quarry. At the far end of the chamber was a set of horizontal shutters through which poked the back end of the traffickers’ truck, trailer doors open and ramp lowered. Terry could make out three figures standing by the truck while a fourth seemed to be wheeling a large dolly down the ramp. The man in the white suit seemed to be looking at a clipboard or something of a similar shape while there was no sign of the one with the briefcase. Serac was easily recognizable thanks to her ponytail and stature compared to the others. Nova turned, put a finger to his mouth to needlessly remind the others to be quiet, and they all stretched their ears...
Gekko was scowling deeply at his tablet while the others were getting started on unloading the smaller items from the truck. The security clearance codes that the Changxing people had sent them had worked like a charm in getting them inside of the building’s basement, but the rest of the documentation was unnecessarily dense and jargon-filled. No “bring such-and-such over to Sector So-and-So” or anything that would’ve actually been helpful, but instead he was expected to decipher a stream of numbers and protocols that were absolutely useless to him without a visual aid. There were a lot of things he’d do differently if he were in charge; he couldn’t care less for Christian’s “test of character” talk, he just cared about having the tools he needed to do his job.
“Hey, a hand here?” It was Burke, pushing an especially heavy-looking box to the edge of the trailer.
“Be careful with that!” Gekko snapped as he slipped his tablet back into the inside of his jacket and grasped the other end of the container to balance. “The stuff in there’s worth more than all of us make combined! Christian’ll have our asses flayed if we break anything!” Most of this shipment consisted of Heian pottery, made from material that looked almost nothing like anything found on Lagoon. All of this stuff came in to Marine Cove’s cargo depots from the spaceports down south,which they then picked up and drove off to their cache out west, and then inevitably bring it back into the city when Christian forged new contracts with HLTO’s prospective clients until it was time for a new team to take over. It was all very roundabout and overly-cautious, Gekko felt, though Christian had assured them that once business took off in the area and the operation became more large-scale they wouldn’t have to deal with this anymore.
“Sorry.” Burke mumbled as the two carefully eased the container down the ramp and to the floor. Burke was always like this, Gekko reflected angrily to himself. He was always making clumsy or stupid mistakes because he had no inkling of foresight at all. Small things for the most part, but even small mistakes could end up with shit hitting the fan in this profession. Christian had already had words with him before in the past, but his latest escapade with Stardust had left him on very thin ice, as his black eye and busted nose now attested to.
Douglas, on the other hand, was a man that Gekko liked...as a worker. He and Mirch were the workhorses of the group, yet while the latter had as much intellect as a grazing cow Douglas was a veteran of the business and the most experienced of the group aside from Christian. He was also thoroughly unambitious. He could’ve easily been made leader of his own team, yet instead seemingly preferred a life of taking orders instead of issuing them. It was this quality that Gekko especially liked him for; he was a non-threat.
That brought him to River and Torrent. Torrent was always eager to get to work and to his credit worked hard but Gekko didn’t care for him. There was just something about him that rubbed him the wrong way and he could never put his finger on it. River creeped him out. Normally she barely said anything and was almost always by Christian’s side whenever he was present. He knew that that was her job, but her standoffish and aloof nature reminded him of nothing more than a wind-up doll. And on top of that she was a Stargazer... After learning how he had wound up in Christian’s custody he had always done his best to keep his distance.
“This is Adrian.” said a little voice issuing from his earpiece.
“I hear you. You there?”
“Yeah, I’m at the dispatch office.”
“Can you access the system and see about pulling up some layouts that we can actually use?”
“Sure.” said Adrian matter-of-factly. He was a rather laconic person too, but at least he wasn’t a Stargazer on top of it. “Just looking at the consoles they have here tells me that they’re running an old OS. It’ll be no problem for the Craybird.”
Adrian had been a bored computer engineering student at a Danz university when Christian had met him. His boredom had led him to messing around with his school’s network, and one security breach too many had landed him in rather hot water. Christian had then swept in and offered him a position as member of his team. Adrian’s new role was to keep track of HLTO’s finances, logistics, and anything else that involved numbers or computer engineering. The Craybird was his secret weapon: a cutting-edge Heian-made laptop stuffed to the virtual gills with an OS and hacking/decryption suite that was normally only reserved for use for the most cutting-edge top departments of SARA and SPHERE law enforcement. Compared to the vast majority of civilian software and hardware it was practically a quantum computer.
“By the way,” Adrian continued. “When I got up here I saw that one of the door alarms was triggered just now.”
Gekko’s brow creased further as his scowl deepened. “I don’t hear any alarm.”
“It’s silent.” Adrian explained. “It means that one of the outer door locks isn’t properly engaged.”
“And what about it?” Gekko grunted. An additional complication was the last thing that he needed right now. “One of the workers probably just forgot to lock up properly.”
“According to the readout it was only triggered thirteen minutes ago.”
Gekko swore under his breath and put a hand to his forehead while he contemplated what course of action he should take. If this really wasn’t a malfunction then who could’ve gotten inside? There weren’t supposed to be any of the regular workers here today, so was it a thief, some third-party trying to steal a piece of their rival’s pie? There was precedent for that, he had to admit. Or could it be some punks thinking it would be funny to break in to the place? Whatever it was he couldn’t afford to ignore it if Adrian was right. Christian would have his hide if he messed this one up.
He lowered his hand. “Everyone stop!” he called out. The others put down whatever they were doing and looked over at him.
“What’s up?” Torrent asked. “A break already?”
“No, this isn’t a break,” Gekko snapped. “Listen, Adrian just told me he thinks that we’ve got some snoopers in the building.”
“Like who?” Douglas asked, a skeptical look on his face.
“I don’t know!” Gekko grumbled. “That’s why I want you guys to fan out and see if you can find them!”
“I’m not an idiot.” Douglas replied coolly. “I just don’t want to jump at any shadows.”
Gekko didn’t bother hiding his irritation. He liked Douglas as a worker, true, but not as a person. Whenever he had something to say to him it always seemed to be critical. He walked over to one of the containers that had just been loaded to the floor. “Listen!” said, rapping the container for emphasis. “Christian put me in charge here, and I’m not going to let this operation get derailed! The stuff that’s in here can put us away for ten years minimum! You don’t want to go to jail ‘cause some punks just happened to stumble across our operation, do you? I sure as hell don’t!”
“He just asked a question, don’t get your panties in a twist.” Torrent said, coming to the defense of his friend.
“Whatever, just go.”
“If we find anyone what should we do?” Mirch asked, slow on the uptake.
“What do you think?” Gekko said impatiently. “Whoever these guys are, they seem careless. Just drive them off before they see anything, but if they don’t, well...use your imagination.” He turned to the others. “Well what are you guys still standing around here for, start sweeping the place, now!”
“Oh shit,” Akira gulped. “you heard that, right?”
The others didn’t need to be told. They hadn’t heard every word of the group’s conversation, but they had heard enough to realize that they had been somehow found out. Terry cast a quick glance over towards the nearest gap in the partition wall. They could probably make it, but there was little chance of doing it without being seen. What’s more, he realized that this was his fault. Since he had pushed for coming in here, it was on him to solve this. “Okay, look guys...” he began to whisper as the man in the white suit gestured in their general direction. He didn’t have a plan, but he had to say something.
“You guys start running,” Nova cut in much to his surprise. “I can distract these guys for a little bit.”
“Seriously?! We all need to get out of here!” Daniel hissed. “These guys could-”
“Look, just do it!” Terry hissed back, jumping on Nova’s suggestion. “The two of us can take care of ourselves, you know that!”
“Okay, well, I hope you know what you’re doing.” Akira said under his breath. “Let’s go!” With a look of concern he raised himself up slightly and started to dart towards the opening, keeping his body crouched low to the ground. Daniel locked eyes with Terry and Nova, nodded painfully, and then did the same.
“You do know what you’re doing, right?” Terry asked his remaining companion hesitantly. Up ahead he heard an exclamation of surprise from one of the traffickers as they immediately spotted the retreating Daniel and Akira, who immediately broke into runs.
“Don’t worry about it, I’m used to this sort of thing.” Nova replied, nonplussed. “Besides, I’m looking for some action too.”
Nova smirked. “Yeah, I can tell. We’ve got the same look in our eyes, that same gleam. That’s why you pushed for this, didn’t you?”
Terry couldn’t quite answer him. If he had picked up on that then perhaps there was some truth in his feeling from before. But, again, he tried to shake that thought from his mind. “That’s our cue.” he said in response to the trafficker’s cry. Nova nodded and the two leaped out from behind their hiding place.
The two traffickers who had been running in their direction, “Star D.” and the bearded man, quickly skidded to a halt when they saw the two Stargazers reveal themselves, and not a moment too soon as Terry threw an arc of lightning in their direction which impacted at their feet, scorching the floor. “Aw hell, it’s those Stargazer kids!” Star D. Shouted in alarm.
The other traffickers who had been making their way to another part of the floor were doubling back to check on what was happening. The leader swore viciously as he backed up near the truck. “Serac!” he shouted. “Get them!”
“Me?!” the girl exclaimed in surprise, taken aback by her leader’s orders.
“Yes you!” the man commanded. “This is your job, isn’t it?!”
The others backed off slightly, clearly a little unnerved by Terry’s and Nova’s presences, while Serac took some cautious steps forward, like a spooked animal, until she was between them and the other traffickers. It seemed to Terry that she wasn’t sure about the possibility of fighting a two-on-one fight, especially against two Stargazers.
“So this is your ice queen, huh?” Nova remarked as he removed his jacket and tied it around his waist.
“Yeah.” Terry replied, shifting into a cautious fighting stance. “I’ll focus on her, you try keeping the other guys from going after the others.” he said. Fortunately, Akira’s fears that they were armed didn’t seem to be holding true. “Five minutes, then we run.”
Nova cracked his knuckles and nodded. “Got it.”
Serac’s eyes were cautiously darting back and forth between Terry and Nova, unsure of what to do. But she quickly seemed to come to a decision for she swiftly ducked down and threw a hand to the floor. Almost instantly a wide, fan-shaped spray of cold air and ice leapt from it, riddled with tiny stalagmites of ice. Terry had expected this sort of tactic again and had sprung away as soon as he say her put her hand to the ground. Nova, however, remained in place. Instead of dodging the emission of ice, he instead smashed it with his armored arm. Terry saw a brief discharge of light, and the entire spray shattered into little fragments.
“Trying to scare us?” Nova asked as he straightened up, a cocky-looking smirk on his face. “Sorry, that won’t do shit to me!”
Serac let out an annoyed tch and sprang forward over the broken fragments, a spike of ice gripped in her hand. This time Terry jumped forward and grabbed her upraised forward, arresting her movement and preventing her from swinging her makeshift dagger. “Here we are again,” he quipped, remembering a similar incident during their first meeting.
Serac’s expression darkened even further at the sight of him. “I have nothing to say to you.” she growled.
“Liar,” Terry said. Her eyes were burning with a blue flame. “Your eyes tell me you have plenty to say!” He put on some pressure, trying to force the icicles around and away from him. Her response was to throw a knee at his ribs but he swung away at the last moment to lessen the blow and jabbed his right elbow into her side to throw off her balance. However, she quickly turned her momentum by pivoting on her foot and lashing out with her free hand. It wasn’t aimed very high, but Terry swiftly pulled back anyway, the ice shards scattered on the floor crunching under his feet as he did so.
After he fell back he realized that there were some flecks of blood on his hand and he quickly saw why. Serac’s hand and forearm was completely iced over, with her fingertips ending in claw-like spikes. Well that was fine, Terry thought as he glanced between Serac and one of the cautiously-circling traffickers. Last time he had fought purely defensively; this time was going to be different. He let electricity flow through his fists and jumped forward again to make his counterattack. She swiped at roughly eye-level so he ducked down and thrust a palm into her stomach. She was knocked to the ground with a sharp cry as the electricity within the blow discharged with an equally sharp crack, though she managed to break her fall and spring back up again. She came at him with a high, sweeping kick that he almost lost his balance trying to dodge and he found himself back up against one of the containers that were arranged on the floor. Gripping the cargo handle behind him with both hands he threw up a high kick to deflect her downward swipe. The ice felt surprisingly solid as the tow of his shoe made contact with her arm, though he still saw a chip break off at the point of impact.
With one hand still on the bar Terry swung out of the way as Serac thrust her other hand forward, also iced over now. He could hear the fabric tear as her frozen claws shred the spot where he had just been. He couldn’t help but gulp - his winter jacket would provide a little protection, but he definitely couldn’t afford anything more than a glancing blow from that attack. He wondered though, why she wasn’t trying to freeze him in place again? She obviously wasn’t trying to hide her powers anymore, so why stick with melee combat when she had more efficient tools at her disposal? Well it was working out for him so far, anyway. Only a few more minutes...
He couldn’t afford a distraction, but Nova couldn’t help stealing a few quick glances at Terrence’s duel with the ice Stargazer girl. He’d seen and participated in numerous street fights in his time, but the fighting of two trained and dedicated martial artists was quite different. They weren’t as highly choreographed and smooth as a casual observer might expect, but both of them seemed to be holding their own despite the occasional blow or near-miss.
That was enough spectating, he had his own job to do. There were three guys facing him: the guy Daniel had designated “Star D.”, the especially large one, and the mid-eastern-looking man with the beard. All three of them looked a little apprehensive at the sight of his transformed arm, and none of them seemed to have weapons, which was a reassuring sign. Nova wasn’t sure what he had to do, but this was his chance to see if there were more secrets to pull out of his arm.
Star D. Was the one who moved first, but in an inelegant, spooked sort of way. He made as if trying to dash past him in the direction where Akira and Daniel had disappeared to but Nova managed to grab him by the shoulder and - he was surprisingly light for a grown man - threw him to the ground as if he was throwing off a tackle in the middle of a football play. The other two men circling him, trying to find an opening, well taller, broader, and clearly more experienced. As soon as they saw their fellow about to hit the floor they tried to take advantage of the moment to attack. Springing around his comrade’s skidding body, the bearded man threw a punch at Nova’s face. On reflex he threw up his left arm to block it and felt a numbing vibration run up to his shoulder. While this was happening the larger man tried to run around him, forcing him to whirl and throw out a burst of force from his right arm into the man. The man would’ve been sent flying if he were someone around Nova’s age, but he was a big, muscular adult, so while he did go down it wasn’t with the forceful crash that he was used to.
Nova quickly ran around to reposition himself in front of the opening in the large metal wall. His arm of flesh was still a little sore, but not enough to stop him. “You bastards aren’t taking a step past me!” he declared, striking his chest emphatically.
“You’re making a big mistake, kid.” the bearded man said. There was anger and force in his voice, but curiously no actual malice, Nova thought. “You should’ve just run.”
“Sorry, I don’t turn tail.” Nova replied, grinning expectantly. This was the chance that he had been waiting for, wasn’t concerned with the risk. The more danger, the better. “Bring it!” he declared.
All three of the men rushed him at once. Nova smirked again; this was a situation that he was well familiar with. He put his arms up in a guarding stance and went on the defensive. His plan wasn’t to fight them head-on, he was going to play smart, look for things like wasted movements, mistakes, openings, and when he saw them, that was when he’d strike. Keep his mind working and get his body into a routine. He figured that he’d have to be in tune with his body if he wanted to unlock some sort of new power.
Of his three attackers Star. D was easily the most inexperienced. Everything about his body language screamed nervousness, and it was crystal clear from how halfhearted his occasional punches and swipes were that he would rather leave the fighting up to his two allies. Nova was more focused on those two who were clearly more experienced. They kept trying to flank him and maneuver him away from the entrance, but he wasn’t going to allow that. He took a couple hits, but he was willing to take them as long as he was able to keep them at bay. He needed to be like a wall, solid and impenetrable.
He winced as he moved out of the way of a chopping punch the bearded man threw at him and got hit in the small of his back by the butt of the large man’s fist. He stumbled a bit before growling and side-winding his own fist into the man’s rib cage. He staggered back wheezing just as Star. D tried to have another go at it. Nova sidestepped him and dealt and hammer blow to the back of his head. “Burke!” the bearded man shouted as the hapless man crumbled to the floor, bleeding.
“Guy’s weak shit.” Nova growled, stepping over the prone body. At least he finally had a name for the guy. And now he was down to only two opponents.
The big guy grunted in annoyance and lunged forward, payback clearly on his mind. He took several swipes at Nova, the first missing but the second scoring a solid blow on his guard. Nova grimaced and staggered back a few paces as the shock reverberated through his body but he did his best to stand firm. Like a wall, he repeated to himself. As he deflected another blow with his metal arm, eliciting a grunt of pain from his opponent he suddenly became aware of an odd sensation. At first he thought it was leftover trauma from the blow he just took, but it wasn’t a painful sort of feeling - it was like a strange tingle in his arm that felt more than skin-deep, like it was running through the bone itself.
For an instant he felt a wave of excitement course through him: this must be it, he had to be getting somewhere! But then the man’s knuckles scraped the side of his jaw and the feeling was immediately lost. Nova let out a small growl of frustration and hit the man with a blast forceful enough to knock his huge frame to the floor, pissed that his rhythm had been lost. He tried to work himself up again, this time choosing to go on the offensive and drive the two men back towards the piles of storage containers to limit their movements, but to his continued annoyance the tingling sensation did not return. Well whatever, he thought to himself, at least he had a start and the time limit he and Terrence had set was likely running out by now...
In a fight, even a few minutes could feel like an eternity, but this time Terry found himself not caring. Just as well, for Serac was able to match him practically blow-for-blow and was, he had to admit, probably a little more skilled than he was. She had probably gone through a formal training regimen, unlike him, and her fighting style was a balanced mixture of offense and defense, combining deft footwork and body movement with well-aimed punches and swipes with her frozen claws and hard-thrown kicks that reminded him of savate. As he had noted during their first encounter she didn’t waste anything, whether successful or not, every movement had a purpose.
However, she still seemed reluctant to actually use her Stargazer powers. Not that she necessarily needed them to be effective, the bruises Terry could feel forming on his arms and ribs were proof of that, but after fighting Deck and Sayren it felt odd, and she had no reason to hold back. She swung a kick at him which he caught on his forearm, and the shock of the impact reverberated through his arm but no wave of cold. Serac quickly retracted her foot and thrust forward with a clawed arm, and in response Terry spun away and smashed her in the shoulder with his elbow. She responded with a knee to his side and threw out an elbow of her own, but he managed to grab her arm and, ignoring the numbing cold of the ice he was gripping, shot a bolt of lightning into her stomach with his other hand just as she tried twisting out of his grasp. He let go and the arc of electricity blew her backward and to the ground with a cry.
“Stand up!” the man in white yelled from his position over by the traffickers’ truck. He still hadn’t made any effort or indication of moving from that spot, even after the others had run off to confront Nova elsewhere on the floor. “What are you doing?!” he continued to shout. “Do your job and take that boy down!”
Terry shot a dark glare in the man’s direction and then turned back to Serac. She was slowly trying to get back up to her feet in the stumbling, numbed manner he was used to seeing from people by now after he blew them off their feet. “Why are you letting a coward like him give orders to you like that?” he asked.
“It’s none of your business.” Serac growled.
“Is it just because he’s your boss?” Terry pressed. Whatever her story was, all he had to do was look at the expression, or lack thereof, on her face and the grimness in those striking blue eyes of her’s to know that it wasn’t anything good.
“I said it’s none of your business.” Serac repeated as she wiped at a her lip with the sleeve of her jacket. Both of them were breathing heavily, their contest already starting to wear them out.
“Why the hell are you just standing there?!” the man screamed, his face going red. “Get him!”
“Shut up!” Terry shouted, losing his patience. He threw a bolt of lightning off in the man’s direction, heard him cry out in surprise and crash to the floor but he didn’t bother looking to see if he had hit him or not. Instead he turned back to Serac, who still had a hand on her stomach and was trying to catch her breath.
“So you’re just fighting because you’re being told to, like an attack dog?” he said to her. Serac didn’t respond to that, at least not in words. She sprang forward and came dangerously close to slashing him in the face with her clawed hand; he could hear a rip as she managed to nick the part of his scarf that was hanging outside his collar. Being this close to her again, he could see that her face was furrowed with visible anger. It was different from how she had composed herself before. He must have struck a nerve with her. Terry retaliated with a kick to make her back off, and again it caught her frozen forearm, chipping off more ice. With her arm deflected she took a few steps backward and quickly dropped to the floor and laying her hand out flat. Once again a spray of ice burst out from it, but the spikes of ice were much larger than the ones she had shot at him and Nova before, reaching waist height and looking sharp enough to pierce right through his coat.
He dived away from the line of ice and shot another bolt of lightning at her, but this time Serac had anticipated his move and one of the spikes of ice suddenly grew in size to intercept the bolt, its tip being vaporized in the process. Terry spared a moment to silently complement her on the reaction time before generating a ball of electricity in his hand and throwing it in her direction. It swooped in a wild arc that she hastily ducked away from, an arm thrown up to shield her eyes from its dazzling light. This was exactly the effect that Terry was looking for; he darted forward, keeping his body in a half-crouch, and threw an electrified punch into her side that sent her spinning, but like she’d done earlier she caught herself on the spin and drove the heavy heel of her outdoor boot into his side, resulting in him only barely managing to dodge a follow-up hammer kick.
She thrust another blade of ice at him that he hastily backed away from and then jumped back over the dolly to put an obstacle between them and pulled over to the side to avoid the blade as she threw it at him like a javelin. Just as he was starting to wonder if he had gone over the time limit or not he suddenly a terrific explosion of pain and something heavy and metallic-feeling smashed into his temple from the side, darkening his vision with red and throwing him off balance. He reflexively put a hand to his head and felt a warm rivulet of blood creeping down his cheek, when through the haze before him he could make out something light-colored move in front of him before something, likely a fist, slammed into his stomach, stealing the air from his lungs and dropping him to the floor.
Dammit... was the only thought going through his head, dimly aware of what must’ve just happened. Careless...
Nova heard the crash and whirled to see some twenty feet away the sight of the man in white dropping Terrence to the floor with a punch right to the gut. The two men he had been tangling with, no doubt bruised and sore by now just like he was, stopped trying to throw punches at him to see what was going on too. The leader pulled out of the toolbox he had used to bludgeon his friend with a box cutter and flicked up the blade. Terrence was on the ground, wheezing and clearly dazed, and the stomped his foot down on his friend’s back to keep him pinned in place.
“What are you doing?!” the girl gasped, and even from this distance Nova could see that she was visibly surprised by her leader’s actions.
“What’s it look like?!” the man spat viciously. “Doing the job myself!” He looked over at Nova and pointed his blade in his direction. “Stay right there and don’t even think about doing anything funny unless you want me to kill your friend on the spot!” he growled. “How did you get in here?! How’d you find us?!”
“Go to Hell.” Nova growled in defiance. In the corner of his eye he saw Burke pulling himself up to his feet, groaning and clutching his head. His very first thought was an admonishment, too late to be of any use, but then again that was how those sorts of things always worked. His second thought was to begin searching for a way out of this mess. Their leader’s sudden burst of action seemed to have taken the rest of the traffickers by surprise, but that wouldn’t last and they were already slowly closing in. Normally he wouldn’t be too concerned about them, but Nova could guess that the leader could plunge his box cutter into Terrence’s back or neck faster than he could wind up a punch. And if he happened to be truly out of it, that would certainly be a major hindrance to any sort of escape plan.
But he had no time to think one up. The leader sneered at him and waved the blade around in his hand, emphasizing it. “That’s not the attitude you want to take with me.” he said. His face was contorted into an ugly, arrogant look. He lifted his foot off of Terrence’s back and grabbed him by the back of his scarf, pulling him up into a kneeling position. The man squatted down and pointed the tip of the blade at his neck. “Talk. Now.”
He certainly couldn’t bullshit his way out of this now, and he was a little concerned about how the girl would react, but he had no choice. If he was fast enough, Nova was confident that he could knock the man away and then maybe grab his friend before the others could react...
“Get your hands off of my friend!”
Just as the man’s head jerked in the opposite direction to see where the voice had come from he was hit by what looked like a tightly-condensed funnel of air that shrieked and whistled as it blasted the man, throwing him off of Terrence and spinning him to the ground. The others all whirled their heads in the same direction and Nova took the briefest of moments to spot Akira, wind still swirling around him and an angry look on his face, jump out from behind a row of forklifts that were situated nearby, Daniel slightly behind him, looking incredibly apprehensive and clutching a fire extinguisher in his hands.
Immediately Nova dove forward while the other traffickers were still caught by their surprise, like wild animals caught in a car’s headlights. He heard Terrence groan as he propped him up, but he was still conscious and his eyes were now open, albeit glassy-looking. At least he seemed to quickly take stock of what was happening.
“Close your eyes.” he muttered, and Nova quickly looked away as his friend generated a second small ball of electricity that exploded with a sharp crack, the light dazzling the traffickers and briefly leaving small starbursts imprinted on his vision. Then Terrence stood up straight and gave the dolly an electric-boosted kick that sent it flying off towards the group. He turned, saw his other two friends, then wordlessly they all began to run. Daniel quickly stopped to spray a cloud of foam behind them to discourage any pursuit, then threw the canister itself into the mist. None of them spoke a word to each other as they carried out their escape plan, it was like they just wordlessly knew what to do, a sort of synergy born from the direness of their predicament. The four of them wheeled around to make towards one of the area’s exits, past the shelves, boxes, and conveyors. They could hear commotion from behind them, but it sounded more like swearing and gasps from the cloud of foam than the noise of pursuit. But as Nova, who was now leading, swung around a support column he spotted the man wearing the sweater and scarf ahead, seemingly having headed them off.
“Out of our way!” he shouted at the man. Where had he been before? Was he not a fighter like the others? The man’s body was all tensed up, a look of annoyance on his face and teeth grit. Surely he wasn’t thinking of taking on all four of them?
But after a few tense half-seconds, the man relaxed slightly, though his brow remained furrowed, and stepped to the side, leaving the way to the nearby exit open. “Get out of here.” he growled. Nova and his companions didn’t need to be told twice. They dashed past the scowling man, through the doorway, and hurried up the stairs as fast as they could go.
“That guy just let us go, didn’t he?” Terrence remarked as they wheeled down the building’s empty hallways, trying to head back in the general direction they came in from.
“Don’t complain.” Nova grunted. “How’s your head?”
“Like it’s being squeezed by a vise.” Terrence grunted back, scowling himself. “I can see fine and everything, though.” Already it looked like the bleeding was starting to congeal, a good a sign as any. “Anyway,” Terrence looked over his shoulder towards Akira and Daniel who were starting to fall behind a bit as they lacked the stamina of the others. “why didn’t you guys run like we told you to?!”
“Dumbass!” Akira exclaimed in the heat of the moment. “That guy...didn’t you see he was going to kill you?! You should...be glad that we changed our,,minds!”
“I was just caught off guard, is all!” Terrence said defensively. “But yeah, thanks.”
“Argue later!” Daniel gasped, doing his best to keep up. “Let’s just get out of here for now!” That was something they could all agree on.
Side still aching from being blown to the floor, Gekko let out an articulate cry of fury and violently kicked the toolbox with his foot, knocking it over onto its side and disgorging its contents out onto the floor with a metallic clatter. This had been a disaster, a disaster! The others were nursing their own bruised frames, and no one seemed to dare to say a word. Gekko felt himself seethe. So help them...
“Is...everyone all right?” Torrent asked as he approached the solemn group, in an annoyingly-oblivious way. Gekko took one glance at his face, saw red, and before he knew it had lunged forward, grabbed the startled man by his stupid scarf, and was yelling in his face.
“What the hell was that all about?!” he shouted, pulling Torrent within inches of his own face. “You just let them go?! Do you realize what you just did?! What the hell were you thinking?!”
Torrent’s surprised expression turned to one of anger as well. “Gte your hands off of me!” he shouted, pushing Gekko away from him. “What the hell was I supposed to do?! There were four of them, three Stargazers! It’s not like I had a gun or anything!”
“They’re goddamn kids!”
“Yeah, kids who could electrocute me and punch my frickin’ head off!” Torrent retorted. “Screw you!”
Gekko felt his mouth starting to twist in preparation for another round of verbal abuse but decided no, Torrent wasn’t worth the wasted breath. Instead he swung around and locked his sights on River, who had one hand on the side of the truck to steady herself, her breathing coming long and hard. “And you!” he snapped. “I told you to take that kid out, what was up with that shitty performance?!”
“I...” River began to open her mouth, but Gekko didn’t even let her begin. “You were practically useless!”
“Hey, lay off of her!” Douglas interjected in a forceful, authoritative voice that was amplified by the acoustics of the area. His dark eyes were set in a look of understated anger. “If you’re so obsessed with being our leader, then don’t just go around assigning blame, act like one! Before anything else we need to figure out what we’re going to do here! Act like a brat afterwards!”
Gekko felt a fresh surge of anger at being disrespected like that but this time he bit his tongue. Dammit, Douglas was right, that was the most important thing to do right now. Christian was going to be furious when he heard about this, so he might as well start on damage-control. Worrying about those damn kids and how they found them would have to come later. “Okay,” he muttered, sounding heavily restrained. “First, we clean up this shit.” He gestured towards the shards of ice and the puddle of fire extinguisher foam. Then he put a finger to his earpiece. “Did you see all of that, Adrian?”
“A front row seat.” the young man replied in a deadpan, yet cheeky way.
“Well can you use the Craybird to remove any trace of what just happened here from the security cameras’ records? I don’t want there to be any traces left of what just transpired for our clients to stumble upon.”
“Hack their security system?” There was an apraising silence from the other end. “Sure.” Adrian said. “I should be able to do that.”
“But...how did they find us?” Burke said confusedly, scratching his head. “That was Trident, right? How did they know where we’d be? I don’t get it.”
“I dunno.” Gekko growled. “But what I do know is, if we don’t do something our asses are smoked.” he said. He didn’t have any doubt that if their plan did completely fall through they’d all be boned, but whether it would be at the hands of their clients, the police, Christian, or the organization, that was an uncertainty, and not one he wanted to know the answer to.