Current Projects

Steelheart Chapter Eleven


This chapter was originally posted on MTV Geek on July 13th, 2013.

My first move was to go back in and toss Roy’s rifle, which he had been crawling toward, out the door. Then I checked on the two other soldiers. One was dead; the other had a weak pulse—but he wasn’t going to be waking anytime soon.

Time to move quickly. I pulled the notebooks from my mattress and stuffed them in my backpack. Six thick notebooks and one index caused the backpack to bulge. I thought for a moment, then took my extra pair of shoes out of the pack. I could buy new shoes, but I couldn’t replace these notebooks.

The last two fit, and beside them I slid the folders about Steelheart, Nightwielder, and Firefight. After a moment I added the one about Conflux. It was the thinnest. Very little was known about the clandestine High Epic who ran Enforcement.

Roy was still coughing, though the smoke had cleared out. He pulled off his helmet. It was surreal to see that familiar face—one I’d known for years—wearing the uniform of the enemy. We hadn’t been friends; I didn’t really have those, but I’d looked up to him.

“You’re working with the Reckoners,” Roy said.

I needed to try to lay down a false trail, get him to think I was working for someone else. “What?” I said, doing my best to look baffled.

“Don’t try to hide it, David. It’s obvious. Everyone knows the Reckoners hit Fortuity.”

I knelt down beside him, pack slung over my shoulder. “Look, Roy, don’t let them heal you, okay? I know Enforcement has Epics who can do that. Don’t let them, if you can manage it.”

“What, why—”

“You want to be laid out sick for this next part, Roy,” I said softly, intensely. “Power is going to change hands in Newcago. Limelight is coming for Steelheart.”

“Limelight?” Roy said. “Who the hell is that?”

I walked over to the rest of my folders, then reluctantly took a can of lighter fluid from my trunk and poured it on the bed.

“You’re working for an Epic?” Roy whispered. “You really think anyone can challenge Steelheart? Sparks, David! How many rivals has he killed?”

“This is different,” I said, then got out some matches. “Limelight is different.” I lit the match.

I couldn’t take the remaining folders. They were source material, facts and articles for the information I’d collected in my notebooks. I wanted to take them, but there was no more room in my bag.

I dropped the match. The bed started aflame.

“One of your friends might still be alive,” I said to Roy, nodding to the two Enforcement officers who were down. The leader had been shot in the head, but the other one only in the side. “Get him out. Then stay out of things, Roy. Dangerous days are coming.”

I slung the pack over my shoulder and hastened out the door and onto the stairwell. I met Megan on the way down the steps.

“Your plan failed,” she said quietly.

“Worked well enough,” I said. “An Epic is dead.”

“Only because she left her mobile on vibrate,” Megan said, hurrying down the steps beside me. “If she hadn’t been sloppy . . .”

“We were lucky,” I agreed. “But we still won.”

Mobiles were just a part of daily life. The people might live in hovels, but they all had a mobile for entertainment.

We met Cody at the base of the playground tower near Refractionary’s corpse. He handed back my rifle. “Lad,” he said, “that was awesome.”

I blinked. I’d been expecting another berating, like Megan had given me.

“Prof is going to be jealous he didn’t come himself,” Cody said, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. “Were you the one who called her?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Awesome,” Cody said again, slapping me on the back.

Megan didn’t look nearly as pleased. She gave Cody a sharp look, then reached for my pack.

I resisted.

“You need two hands for the rifle,” she said, pulling it free and slinging it over her shoulder. “Let’s move. Enforcement will . . .” She trailed off as she noticed Roy barely managing to tow the other Enforcement officer out of the burning room and onto the landing.

I felt bad, but only a little. Copters were thumping above; he’d have help soon. We scurried across the park, heading toward the tunnels that led deeper into the understreets.

“You left them alive?” Megan asked as we ran.

“This was more useful,” I said. “I laid us a false trail. I told him a lie that I was working for an Epic who wants to challenge Steelheart. Hopefully it will keep them from searching for the Reckoners.” I hesitated. “Besides. They’re not our enemies.”

“Of course they are,” she snapped.

“No,” Cody said, jogging beside her. “He’s right, lass. They aren’t. They may work for the enemy, but they’re just regular folks. They do what they can to get by.”

“We can’t think like that,” she said as we reached a branching tunnel. She glared at me, eyes cold. “We can’t show them mercy. They won’t show it to us.”

“We can’t become them, lass,” Cody said, shaking his head. “Listen to Prof talk about it sometime. If we have to do what the Epics do to beat them, then it’s not worth it.”

“I’ve heard him talk,” she said, still looking at me. “I’m not worried about him. I’m worried about Knees here.”

“I’ll shoot an Enforcement officer if I have to,” I said, meeting her eyes. “But I won’t get distracted hunting them down. I have a goal. I’ll see Steelheart dead. That is all that matters.”

“Bah,” she said, turning away from me. “That’s not an answer.”

“Let’s keep moving,” Cody said, nodding toward a stairwell down to deeper tunnels.

#

“He’s a scientist, lad,” Cody explained as we walked through the narrow corridors of the steel catacombs. “Studied Epics in the early days, created some pretty remarkable devices, based on what we learned from them. That’s why he’s called Prof, other than that last-name thing.”

I nodded thoughtfully. Now that we were deep, Cody had relaxed. Megan was still stiff. She walked ahead, holding her mobile and using it to send Prof a report on the mission. Cody had his set to flashlight, hooked to the upper left of his camo jacket. I’d removed the network card from mine, which he said was a good idea until Abraham or Tia had a chance to tweak it.

It turned out that they didn’t trust even the Knighthawk Foundry. The Reckoners usually left their mobiles linked only to one another, and had the transmissions encrypted on both ends, not using the regular network. Until I got the encryption too, I could at least still use my mobile as a camera or a glorified flashlight.

Cody walked with a relaxed posture, rifle up on his shoulder, arm looped over it and hand hanging down. I seemed to have earned his approval with Refractionary’s death.

“So where did he work?” I asked, hungry for information about Prof. There were so many rumors about the Reckoners, but few real facts.

“Don’t know,” Cody admitted. “Nobody’s sure what Prof’s past is, though Tia probably knows something. She doesn’t talk about it. Abe and I have bets going ’bout what Prof’s specific workplace was. I’m pretty sure he was at some kind of secret government organization.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Sure,” Cody said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same one that caused Calamity.”

That was one of the theories, that the United States government—or sometimes the European Union—had somehow set off Calamity while trying to start a superhuman project. I thought it was pretty far-fetched. I’d always figured it was some kind of comet that got caught in Earth’s gravity, but I didn’t know if the science of that made any sense. Maybe it was a satellite. That could fit Cody’s theory.

He wouldn’t be the only one who thought it reeked of conspiracy. There were a lot of things about the Epics that didn’t add up.

“Oh, you got that look,” Cody said, pointing at me.

“That look?”

“Y’all think I’m crazy.”

“No. No, of course not.”

“You do. Well, it’s okay. I know what I know, even if Prof rolls his eyes whenever I say anything about it.” Cody smiled. “But that’s another story. As for Prof’s line of work, I think it must have been some kind of weapons facility. He created the tensors, after all.”

“The tensors?”

“Prof wouldn’t want you talking about that,” Megan said, looking over her shoulder. “Nobody gave authorization for him to know about it,” she added, glancing at me.

“I’m giving it,” Cody said, relaxed. “He’s going to see anyway, lass. And don’t quote Prof’s rules at me.”

She closed her mouth; she looked like she’d been about to do just that.

“The tensors?” I asked again.

“Something Prof invented,” Cody said. “Either right before or right after he left the lab. He’s got a couple of things like that, inventions that give us our main edge against the Epics. Our jackets are one of those—they can take a lot of punishment—and the tensors are another.”

“But what are they?”

“Gloves,” Cody said. “Well, devices in the form of gloves. They create vibrations that disrupt solid objects. Works best on dense stuff, like stone and metal, some kinds of wood. Turns that kind of material to dust, but won’t do anything to a living animal or person.”

“You’re kidding.” In all my years of research I’d never heard of any technology like that.

“Nope,” Cody said. “They’re difficult to use, though. Abraham and Tia are the most skilled. But you’ll see—the tensors, they let us go where we’re not supposed to be. Where we’re not expected to be.”

“That’s amazing,” I said, my mind racing. The Reckoners did have a reputation for being able to get where nobody thought they could. There were stories . . . Epics killed in their own chambers, well guarded and presumed safe. Near-magical escapes by the Reckoners.

A device that could turn stone and metal to powder . . . You could get through locked doors, regardless of the security devices. You could sabotage vehicles. Maybe even knock down buildings. Suddenly, some of the most baffling mysteries surrounding the Reckoners made sense to me. How they’d gotten in to trap Daystorm, how they’d escaped the time when Calling War had nearly cornered them.

They’d have to be clever about how they entered, so as to not leave obvious holes that gave them away. But I could see how it would work. “But why . . .” I asked, dazed, “why are you telling me this?”

“As I said, lad,” Cody explained. “You’re going to see them at work soon anyway. Might as well prepare you for it. Besides, you already know so much about us that one more thing won’t matter.”

“Okay.” I said it lightly, then caught the somber tone of his voice. He’d left something unsaid: I already knew so much that I couldn’t be allowed to go free.

Prof had given me my chance to leave. I’d insisted they bring me. At this point I either convinced them utterly that I wasn’t a threat and joined them, or they left me behind. Dead.

I swallowed uncomfortably, my mouth suddenly dry. I asked for this, I told myself sternly. I’d known that once I joined them—if I joined them—I wouldn’t ever be leaving. I was in, and that was that.

“So . . .” I tried to force myself not to dwell on the fact that this man—or any of them—might someday decide I needed to be shot in the name of the common good. “So how did he figure these gloves out? The tensors? I’ve never heard of anything like them.”

“Epics,” Cody said, his voice growing amiable again. “Prof let it drop once. The technology came from studying an Epic who could do something similar. Tia says it happened in the early days—before society collapsed, some Epics were captured and held. Not all of them are so powerful they can escape captivity with ease. Different labs ran tests on them, trying to figure out how their powers worked. The technology for things like the tensors came from those days.”

I hadn’t heard that, and some things started to click into place for me. We’d made great advances in technology back then, right around the arrival of Calamity. Energy weapons, advanced power sources and batteries, new mobile technology—which was why ours worked underground and at a significant range without using towers.

Of course, we lost much of it when the Epics started to take over. And what we didn’t lose, Epics like Steelheart controlled. I tried to imagine those early Epics being tested. Was that why so many were evil? They resented this testing?

“Did any of them go to the testing willingly?” I asked. “How many labs were doing this?”

“I don’t know,” Cody said. “I reckon it’s not very important.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

Cody shrugged, rifle still over his shoulder, the light of his mobile illuminating the tomblike metal corridor. The catacombs smelled of dust and condensation. “Tia is always talking about the scientific foundation of the Epics,” he said. “I don’t think they can be explained that way. Too much about them breaks what science says should happen. I sometimes wonder if they came along because we thought we could explain everything.”

It didn’t take much longer for us to arrive. I’d noticed that Megan was leading us by way of her mobile, which showed a map on its screen. That was remarkable. A map of the steel catacombs? I didn’t think such a thing existed.

“Here,” Megan said, waving to a thick patch of wires hanging down like a curtain in front of a wall. Sights like that were common down here, where the Diggers had left things unfinished.

Cody walked up and banged on a plate near the wires. A distant bang came back at him a few moments later.

“In you go, Knees,” he said to me, gesturing toward the wires.

I took a breath and stepped forward, pushing them aside with the barrel of my rifle. There was a small tunnel beyond, leading steeply upward. I would have to crawl. I looked back at him.

“It’s safe,” he promised. I couldn’t tell if he was making me go first because of some latent mistrust, or because he liked seeing me squirm. It didn’t seem the time to question him or back down. I started crawling.

The tunnel was small enough to make me worry that if I slung my rifle on my back, a good scrape stood a chance of knocking the scope or sights out of alignment. So I kept it in my right hand as I crawled, which made it all the more awkward. The tunnel led toward a distant, soft light, and the crawl took long enough that my knees were aching by the time I reached the light. A strong hand took me by the left arm, helping me out of the tunnel. Abraham. The dark-skinned man had changed into cargo pants and a green tank top, which showed well-muscled arms. I hadn’t noticed before, but he was wearing a small silver pendant around his neck, hanging out of his shirt.

The room I stepped into was unexpectedly large. Big enough for the team to have laid out their equipment and several bedrolls without it feeling cramped. There was a large table made of metal that grew right out of the floor, as well as benches at the walls and stools around the table.

They carved it there, I realized, looking at the sculpted walls. They made this room with the tensors. Carved furniture right into it.

It was impressive. I gawked as I stepped back and let Abraham help Megan out of the tunnel. The chamber had two doorways into other rooms that looked smaller. It was lit by lanterns, and there were cords on the floor—taped in place and out of the way—leading down another small tunnel.

“You have electricity,” I said. “How did you get electricity?”

“Tapped into an old subway line,” Cody said, crawling out of the tunnel. “One that was half completed, then forgotten about. The nature of this place is that even Steelheart doesn’t know all of its nooks and dead ends.”

“Just more proof the Diggers were mad,” Abraham said. “They wired things in strange ways. We’ve found rooms that were sealed completely but had lights left on inside, shining for years by themselves. Repaire des fantômes.”

“Megan tells me,” Prof said, appearing from one of the other rooms, “that you recovered the information, but that your means were . . . unconventional.” The aging but sturdy man still wore his black lab coat.

“Hell yeah!” Cody said, shouldering his rifle.

Prof snorted. “Well, let’s see what you recovered before I decide if I should yell at you or not.” He reached for the backpack in Megan’s hand.

“Actually,” I said, stepping toward it, “I can—”

“You’ll sit down, son,” Prof said, “while I have a look at this. All of it. Then we’ll talk.”

His voice was calm, but I got the message. I pensively sat down beside the steel table as the others gathered around the pack and began rifling through my life.