Whether through blind luck, divine providence or inscrutable design, the STOR4U self-storage yard on Chicago’s north side had survived The Surveyor’s attack. The business, however, had not: the yard was quiet and deserted, and the chainlink gates had been rammed through. Jack walked through the lanes of containers and storage sheds, many of them forced open, with Sam only two paces behind.
Whoever had been through the yard, looting in the wake of disaster, hadn’t broken into the locker under the name Jackson Holley. Jack didn’t know which of the three fates he should have chalked that up to either. Either way, the weapons and gear that he and Sam had given up, like it was some kind of funereal ritual, were still secure. For a moment, Jack was struck by the idea of breaking into a crypt: the pair of them had surrendered their old lives to a metaphorical death. Their old identities were dead, that was the point, and now there was only the new, the normal.
No matter how hollow it felt.
Jack took up his bolt cutters and set them against the lock. Of course, he thought, they had only given their weapons up, hidden them away. They had not destroyed them. Had he ever honestly been that set on this normal life? Or was it just another kind of pretending, just thinking what he thought he should think?
He cut the lock loose.
Sam pulled the roller door up. “I’ll keep watch,” she said, tapping a cigarette out of her pack, “Just in case.”
Nodding to her, Jack stepped inside the shed. He wove his way around the vague, household detritus that had been abandoned by the previous person to rent the shed out, whoever they were. This is good, Sam had said, no better place to hide weapons. The weapons in question were locked at the back of the shed in a secure case, hidden beneath a pile of blankets. Jack hurled the blankets aside and set his thumbs on the biometric lock.
The case chimed once, and opened, airtight seal hissing. And there it was, a selection of handguns and two rifles, stripped to their components and wrapped in plastic, with the tools required to return them to working order. All of it on a bed of twin black armorweave suits, neatly folded. One side of the case was dominated by a chrome helmet, dented and scarred, made to match the visage of an impassive tiger.
Tiger and Leopard. That had been their names — their only names — for so many years.
“Everything’s here,” Jack called. “We’re in business.”
Sam walked over, crushing her cigarette beneath her boot. “Right on,” she said, scooped her helmet out, and began plucking the various pieces of her rifle and handguns out of the case. “This is mine, and this is mine, and these are mine. You remember how to put these babies back together, Jack?”
“Like riding a bicycle, right?”
She grinned. “Just making sure.”
The irony, though, as Jack began to reassemble his assault rifle was that he had never learned how to ride a bicycle. But Elias had taught him so many other things, skills that helped him survive. The most important of those skills had been the care of firearms — the procedure of turning the pieces into a weapon: piston, rail, pins. Bolt, handle, combine. He worked without thinking and then, when he brought the rifle to his shoulder, it settled there like an old friend, comfortable and warm.
Then, he set it down and stripped off his clothes. Over on the other side of the shed, Sam whistled at him and laughed. Jack shot her the bird as he stepped into his armorweave suit and pulled it up over his shoulders, zipped it up.
Armorweave was one of those Golden Age technologies that had changed the world. It had a distinct texture, gently rough, and tight without being restrictive, and it had quickly become the ubiquitous second skin of capes everywhere — those who could afford it, at least. A second skin that could stop a knife and turn bullets into a punch instead of something that punched through.
Of course, the world had made it quite clear that there were worse things out there than knives and bullets. Some of them, Jack had even seen. He twisted left and right, rolled a motion through his shoulders, grunted at an unfamiliar hitch.
“Don’t tell me you put on weight, Jack,” Sam said. Her suit was half on, pale flesh exposed.
“Jeez, you really did get sloppy, huh?” She zipped up her suit and slipped her handguns into holsters, a knife into her boot.
Jack waved the question off. “What’s the plan?”
“Easy,” Sam replied, gathering up her massive marksman’s rifle and holding it across her shoulders. “We track down a Neo or two, we capture them, and then we get them to talk.”
Jack frowned. “You sure that’ll work?”
“People like talking to me, Jack. I have a very trusting face.”
Jack snorted, grinning despite himself, despite everything. “And if that fails?”
“Then I’m sure I have a number of, shall we say, enhanced techniques that have proven to be remarkably effective in the past.”
“Okay,” Jack replied. “There’s just one problem with that.”
“And what’s that?”
“We’ve only got the one helmet – your helmet. I’d rather not get identified by the Neo-American military.”
Sam nodded, expression thoughtful. She scooped up her helmet and tossed it to him. “Here,” she said, turning for the door.
Jack caught it, stared into Tiger’s impassive features, then to Sam’s back. “Sam, this doesn’t help.”
She turned back, eyes sparkling with her disconcerting sense of mirth. “Just between you and me, I don’t care if they see me as I kill ’em.”
“We’re not going out there to kill anyone.”
“You’re right, it’s going to be an interrogation.”
“No. Listen. If we get into a gunfight, we’ll get noticed – by the Neo-Americans, the capes, the cops, or all of the above. We’re good, but we have our limits. If we capture someone, what’re we going to do? Kill him? Let him go?”
Sam shrugged. “Probably the former.”
“And who says he would even talk to us? If he did, how would we know it’s the truth?”
“God, Jack, I have this weird love-hate thing when you remember to think. I really do.”
“Yeah, you and me both. But we don’t need to get into a gunfight, and we don’t need to hurt anyone.”
“Okay, I’m listening.”
Jack slung his rifle across his shoulders, and pointed to a set of blinking lights moving through the night’s sky. “You said they’re flying in so many dropships, that it’s a cover for something. Well, that’s the key. If you think this is a covert operation, then I think we should go find out what they’re covering up.”
The Neo-American dropship set down on the western side of Chicago. Jack followed in its wake, with Sam keeping a comfortable distance, and he wasn’t worried about being spotted — not yet, anyway. If there was one thing the Golden Age had done for the world, it was inure the general population to the sight of unfamiliar people in strange costumes. Elias had known that, had counted on it.
Sam’s helmet cast the streets around Jack into a harsh green-white simulacrum. As the pair of them approached the western side of Chicago, the Neo-American presence intensified, with armed and armored figures becoming increasingly common, setting up ‘humanitarian checkpoints.’ Jack frowned and turned down an alley, Sam following.
“They’ve blocked off this road, too.”
Sam nodded. “Don’t want people seeing what they’re up to.”
“No way we’re getting in. They’ve got every road and street that gets close to their landing zone monitored, and we can’t cross the chasm for an oblique entry.”
“We could steal some uniforms.”
“Won’t work, and you know it.”
“True,” Sam said. “But I can dream.” She cast her eyes about, looking around the street, and her gaze settled on something. “Well, hello,” she said, and strode out of the alley and across the road. There, on the western side of the street, was a townhouse with its lights on.
Jack followed. “Sam,” he hissed. “What’re you-”
She was already beating on the front door, pounding on it. “Follow my lead,” Sam replied and then, raising her voice into a plaintive yell, “Help me!”
Footsteps from inside. Sam reached up and placed her hand over the lens of a security camera. “Is someone there?” she pleaded, “I’m bleeding bad! I need help!”
Jack had never heard such a tone from her before.
The door opened, just enough for the sight of a man’s face to slip through, and for Sam’s boot to slip in. The man had to be forty or fifty years old, thinning, greying hair over a dark face, and some of the color in that face drained away as Jack tracked his eyes wandering to Sam, then to him, then to their weapons.
His voice wavered. “Can I help you?”
“Absolutely,” Sam replied. “We need to walk through your house and out the other side.”
“With those weapons?”
The man shook his head and moved to close the door. It jarred against Sam’s boot. “Leave,” he snapped. “Or I’m going to call the police.”
Sam grinned. “Unless you have a landline,” she began, “You and I both know that won’t be happening.”
“Sam,” Jack said.
“Now,” she continued, eyes on the man. “You can invite me and my friend in, or we can invite ourselves in. And don’t think I don’t know you’ve got a gun hidden behind the door.”
Silence reigned, and something buzzed inside Jack’s skull. “Please,” the man replied, “I have a wife and a daughter.”
“Then I hope you’re thinking about your next move very carefully.”
“Sam!” Jack snapped, and she turned to look at him. She got the picture and shut up, but kept her boot in the door. God, what would Sabra do? He reached up and removed his helmet, figured it was a good start, and said, “Hey. We got off on the wrong foot. My name’s Jack. What’s your name?”
The man glanced to him. “Robert.”
“Robert. Like I said, I’m Jack, and that’s Sam. I understand how this looks, but we’re not going to hurt you.”
“I wish I could believe you.”
“We’re on a vital mission. We need to get across the street and find out what the Imperial forces are doing here. It’s SOLAR business.”
“SOLAR business,” Robert repeated, but where there was fear, there was now just skepticism. “I don’t see your uniforms.”
Robert shook his head. “I can’t take the risk.”
“Hey,” Sam said, “We haven’t kicked in your door.”
Jack wracked his brain for the next thing to say. He imagined Sabra in his place, and the things she would say. What would she say? Something ridiculous, probably, but it would still just work.
Go for the Hail Mary.
“We work with Fulcrum,” Jack said.
Robert’s eyes lit up. “Fulcrum? I saw her! Here, in Chicago! I helped carry her to the hospital! Is that why you-”
“Yes,” Jack said. “That’s why we’re here. She told us you were someone we could trust.”
Robert stepped back and let Sam push the door open. “Then I apologize for delaying you,” he said.
“It’s fine,” Jack said. “It happens a lot.”
It was a short walk through Robert’s townhouse to the back door. A woman — Robert’s wife — stared at them as they crossed through the living room, puzzled and concerned. Sam gave her a smile, “You have a lovely home.”
And then Sam opened the sliding glass door and stepped through and with one final, apologetic look to Robert and his wife, Jack slipped his helmet back on and followed.
Jack had to admit it was a good plan, but it didn’t make him feel any better. Sam had defeated the blockade by what amounted to trespassing and a series of breaking-and-enterings. Minor transgressions in the grand scheme of things, especially given that only Robert’s house had anyone in it. But the image of Robert’s worried face refused to leave Jack’s mind, even as he and Sam sat at the top of a fire escape and studied the Neo-American landing zone.
It was a hive of activity. A trio of hulking, angular dropships were being unloaded by a swarm of uniformed Guardsmen. Armored officers, red capes worn over one shoulder, stood out among the throng, watching their subordinates pull cargo from the bellies of the great leviathans. Sam had always wanted one of those capes, Jack knew, but, for now, she had resisted the urge to start shooting.
One of the dropships rose into the air. Jack couldn’t help but marvel at the sloping planes of the craft, at the engineered disregard for aerodynamics. What kind of secret technology did the Empire possess, and keep secret, that they could make something like that fly?
Jack glanced to Sam. “What do you see?”
She scoped around with her rifle. “Aid supplies, mainly. Food, water, medical supplies. There’s a pallet of portable generators over there. Honestly, I’m starting to feel a bit disappointed.”
“Mm,” Jack murmured.
“No. Sam, doesn’t it bother you?”
“The disappointment? Yeah.”
“No. The way Robert looked at us. He was afraid of us.”
She shrugged. “So buy him some flowers, Jack.”
Jack sighed and turned his eyes back to the remaining two dropships. He raised a hand to his helmet, toggled the zoom, and went from dropship to dropship, then from person to person. Now that he could see the sheer number of Neo-American personnel, at the amount of hardware they were bringing in, the thought that they weren’t up to anything was ludicrous.
There has to be something here, Jack thought, taking another visual pass. Something that we’ve missed.
“Huh,” Jack said. “That’s interesting. Sam, pass me your rifle.”
Sam did so. Jack raised it to his visor and the systems integrated together, brought his quarry into that much more detail.
Jack passed her rifle back to her. “Look there,” he said. “What they’re unloading from the far dropship. Tell me I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing.”
Sam raised her rifle, sighted in on the dropship in question. “That’s some heavy-duty gear they’ve got there. Looks like mining equipment — fusion cutters, drills. Probably to clear debris.”
“But no heavy machinery,” Jack mused.
“Makes sense. They’re noisy, heavier, harder to transport.”
“Doubt that’s a concern in ships that big. Anyway, there’s something else: The Surveyor doesn’t leave much debris behind. So, what the fuck are they clearing?”
Sam lowered her rifle and looked over to him. Jack saw the realization dawn on her face, saw her coming to the same conclusion he had.
“They’re digging something up,” she said. “But where? We’d have noticed excavation works.”
“That’s easy,” Jack replied. “Where could you hide this operation? Where couldn’t you get heavy machinery?”
Sam turned her eyes to the north, where Jack could just spy the edge of the sheer chasm The Surveyor had ripped through the earth. “Well, well,” she said, grinning. “I think you’re onto something.”
“Yeah,” Jack said. “Whatever it is they’re looking for, I bet it’s down there.”