Beachhead

A Sci-fi Technothriller

Having just initiated an alien invasion, most heroes would feel a certain level of responsibility...

From a remote archaeological dig in the Sahara to a resort paradise in the Bahamas and the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea, the broken alien sphere malfunctioned and now the team is scattered across the globe. Now they must battle to make it home, where they are ordered to undertake a series of dangerous missions by the mysterious Coldhorn Initiative.

But as well as the oncoming alien armada, there’s still Hellinix, Elliot’s assassin family the Blood of Breogan, and the terrorist hippies the Children of Gaia left to deal with.

Will Elliot ever start accepting responsibility for his blunders? Is there really a country called Arseholeville? Is a shark moat actually an effective intruder deterrent?

It all feels a bit like the Coldhorn Initiative has the team fiddling while Rome burns, since somewhere out there, Hellinix is moving forward with its plans and all the evidence points to the inevitable conclusion that they want the aliens to come. Hell, they seem to be counting on it.

This science-fiction thriller is a dark and humorous tale of wayward superheroes, the evil megacorporation standing against them, and the teamwork it will take to save the world.

Excerpt:

Prologue

If it was disorienting to find himself shifted to another place, another time, maybe even another dimension—and from Hallelujah Jones’ experience—it was so much worse when he landed in a situation where he knew none of the players and had absolutely no context beyond that provided by the immediacy of his own senses.

A star field stretched out before him through the window of a spaceship he was apparently piloting. Ahead, a golden console fluttered with digital dials and meters, which organically told him nothing, as he didn’t understand any of the writing, but somewhere deep in his mind, the markings were decompressed and unpacked by god knows what. They said that he was traveling at 7,600 terasauds per second and heading in a direction that didn’t intersect with anything in his immediate future. Not going back to 1950 then, he thought. At least not soon.

READ MORE

The interior of the cabin was bright and smelled of detergent. Not a blemish to be found on the leather upholstery or the plastic paneling. In the window, Hal glimpsed his reflection and saw a man who did not pay any resemblance to him whatsoever. This man possessed flinty eyes, a scar across his cheek, and wore some kind of combat armor, all white, not the sort of thing any spy worth his salt would be caught dead in.

A pulsing amber light flashed in the center position of the heads-up display. There was a loud beep and then it disappeared, replaced with a destination heading.

The voice came from behind him and on the left, a soft-spoken man, speaking a language that sounded like a cross between French and Hebrew. He could not understand a word at first, but once again, whatever lurked in the depths of his mind unpacked it for him and the words became clear.

“That’s it. They were right. The power of the baby must be unfathomable. Thanbur, we must go there immediately. Set us up to jump. We go now!”

Since nobody else made a move to do anything, Hal assumed that person he was currently inhabiting was named Thanbur, so he reached out and punched several random buttons that caused no disconcertion in his passengers and yet sent the vessel onto a new heading.

As if by magic, a giant bubble formed in front of them, marbled with spots and continually rotating blue, green, and purple smears. It grew until it filled the screen.

The ship entered the maw.

Blue lights stretched around them, looking very similar to what he saw when he jumped through time. The moment they were inside the jump stream, the man he was inhabiting unclipped the restraints from his seat and left the cabin. The ship’s computer would take care of whatever journey they were now making. It gave an ETA of twelve minutes, not a long time at all.

Hal unstrapped himself and followed the broad-shouldered and severe warrior he somehow knew to be Commander Astar into a small armory. It was possible that the Cognosians or someone else entirely were presenting him with an interactive recording of something important that he needed to witness—they’d done that to him in the past. Or, this could all be happening right now, and with him a part of it. The former had happened at their site where Pitch resided, but it had felt far less natural, far less real and immediate, than this did.

The commander handed Hal a white ballistic breastplate. “Put this on. I don’t expect too much trouble, but I’m going to need you to back me up. Just in case.”

“Of course, Commander.” Hal brought it to his chest. Strapping darted out and wrapped around his torso, then the breastplate expanded to cover his sides and abdomen. At the base of the device, near his right hand, an open holster formed.

The commander handed him a plasma pistol which slotted inside perfectly. “Let’s get ready to make a landing.”

They took their seats again just before the ship fell out of warp. In front of them was a small brown planet, no green to speak of. A marker popped up on the HUD.

“That’s the village right there,” said the commander.

“Do we want to land at a distance and approach by stealth?”

“No need. Awe and splendor will serve us better. They were left with nothing but tools for basic survival. It’s bound to be safe.”

#

As the ship pulled into land, Hal had the sinking feeling that recognized the planet and it was nowhere he wanted the be. The last time he was here, he’d helped Elliot Goshawk, and a man named Arthur, driving a giant mechasuit to save a guy named Gunther. Those memories were mostly safely locked away, but as he looked down at the planet, some of them leaked out, and he saw himself on the surface, surrounded by wraiths, battling for his life. If this was the same place, it wasn’t safe at all.

The ship landed on the dark side of the planet. Its blaring lights lit up the wooden huts around them. He opened the exit ramp and followed the commander down.

Astar held up some kind of scanner and pointed it towards a shack at the corner of two rows. “That’s the one.”

Heads poked out of doors held ajar, which were lit by the brilliant landing lights from the spacecraft. It was clear from the torn expressions of the curtain twitchers that he’d been right. Whoever these people were, they would not do a thing to them. They were living in buildings that were little more than hovels.

Astar knocked on the door. “Open up and let me in or I’ll blast a hole in your wall.”

The door opened slowly. Behind it, a figure swathed in tatty brown robes stood in front of them. His skin as white as a distant star. “Why have you come here? Are we to be freed?”

“Let us in,” said Astar.

The man withdrew from the door entirely, leaving the way open. The house was simple and barely furnished with a wooden bed, table, and chairs. On the bed another figure lay holding a swaddled infant, its face and hands sticking through, ivory white.

“No,” said Astar. “The ruling of the tribunal stands. You and your people are to be imprisoned on this planet forever. As long as we survive, this judgment will never falter. We are here for your son.”

“No.” The woman clutched the boy to her chest. “You cannot have him. He is my blood!”

Astar shook his head. “You’re not in a position to make any demands. And, I suggest, you are thinking about this entirely the wrong way. Your son is pure and without your corruption. He will help to undo the damage your people have done. You can take some reassurance that he will be of use to the Collective. He won’t live out his life in a place like this.”

The woman cried.

The man took the baby away and handed it to Hal. “Yes, it is better this way.”

“A wise decision,” said Astar. “He will be looked after.” He nodded to Hal and the two of them left.

Back in the ship, Astar stripped the infant naked and placed him in something which looked to be a cross between a cot and a water tank. The boy’s entire body was brilliant white.

“This will adapt his appearance so he looks human. Take us to Earth. The location has been selected. London, Wembley. The correct foster parents have been arranged for the best-intended growth of the child. Make it so.”

Hal shivered. An alien child was to be passed off as human and left on Earth. Could this be Elliot Goshawk as a baby? Hal couldn’t be certain, but figured if that turned out to be the truth, then his feeling that he was being dragged through time by Elliot was very likely more than just a half-baked theory.

#

The landing on Earth had to be performed with much more subterfuge. Hal cloaked the ship and landed it in a roundabout right beside a pub called the John Lyon, just across the road from the target location, a large detached, mock-Tudor house.

Astar took the baby boy out of the tank. He now looked perfectly human. After wrapping him in a blanket he handed the boy to Hal.

Holding the child weakened him at the knees. It didn’t feel like such a long time ago that he’d held his own son in exactly this way. It brought every emotion he’d been feeling since he’d been away right back to him, and he once again regretted all the moments he’d lost.

He followed the commander out of the ship and the two of them crossed the road and climbed the steps to the house in question. Hal kissed the baby on the forehead. This time Astar didn’t knock. He passed his hand over the lock and the door sprang open.

Together, they entered the house—a real family home, judging by the old photographs that hung in all the available space. They entered the living room, more portraits, and niknaks on every shelf, most conspicuously a series of Lalique glass figurines which looked as though they might be eighteenth century. Hal sat on one of the leather sofas and rocked the baby. “What are you going to do—leave him here with a note?”

“No,” said the commander. “I’m sure if we stay here long enough—”

A figure came out of the air, a tall angry man materializing in the room. No sooner had he fully solidified he swung a deadly looking blade at Astar’s head.

The commander swayed back and caught the blade in his hand just as it passed. He twisted the sword, and it might as well have been glued to the attacker’s hand, as he spun through the air and fell to the floor with a thump. The sword did not seem to have affected Astar’s hand at all.

Flames erupted from Astar’s hand and seeped down the length of the blade. “Do you want to live, or do you want to burn, William Goshawk?”

Hal gasped and looked at the child in his arms. So this was it. This was Elliot. This was the moment he was handed to his adoptive parents.

“Live,” said William in a hoarse whisper. “I want to live.”

Astar let go of the sword. “To put it bluntly, Mr. Goshawk, you cannot possibly hurt or escape from us. Do you understand?”

William picked himself up off the floor and sat on the sofa, facing them. He looked at the sword in Astar’s hand and nodded. “I understand. What do you want from me?”

“Many, many things,” said Astar. “But for now, I’m leaving this child in your hands as a trust. Raise him as your own and train him to be a killer. Something tells me you won’t find that difficult. Cast him in your own image. He’ll be able to do all the things you can do, but much more. He’s the most important…”

The world swam as Hal entered the timestream. He flipped back in on a city side street, the sound of traffic in the distance and building work going on somewhere nearby. A moment later, he recognized that he’d been drawn to London, close to the city center.

Along the street were converted houses now seemingly all used for business, and a gamut of occupations: there were solicitors, accountants, dentists, and private medical practices. Though the one he was standing in front of had no such sign. A message came up on his glasses: What are you standing about for? Get your arse in here!

He opened the door into a beautiful white hallway, and standing in front of him, looking very unethereal, was Pitch. He looked her up and down. Her feet were actually contacting the floor.

“You took your time,” she said.

“Is that actually you?”

“Uh-huh! I’m here. For real and so are you.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s time, well, the end of times. Not quite that, but we’re all out of time. So don’t expect to jump any time soon.”

Hal shrugged. He’d had it with trying to interpret Pitch. “Any beer in the house?”

“No! Well, yes. But stop messing around. We’ve got work to do. The Earth is about to be invaded, and our plans might be all for nothing. I think I’m going to be sacked. Can you believe it?”

“Yes, actually.”

“The Elliot project has come to an end. Finished. Unless we do something about it.”

 

Chapter 1 – Moving Target

The truck’s tires rumbled as they neared the turnoff. Arthur coaxed the vehicle to a stop and caught his breath. This was it. That white line on the road represented more than just the last intersection before the turnoff to the Splice Arena. It was also his last chance to walk away before he handed himself over to the company he’d been battling for months. Sure, if he reneged on the deal with Hellinix, the U.S. government would have him back on the Most Wanted list, and he’d likely end up in prison for the rest of his life. He would never be able to show his daughter that he could achieve something with his life—that he was worth keeping around. He’d never amount to anything, and he’d most likely wither away behind bars. But he was walking into the slavering jaws of Hellinix, a company that had done its best to ruin his life. The outfit that had literally torn his family apart. Why was he doing this again? He rubbed his face. The scales itched, twitching beneath the taut skin of his cheek and the ridge beside his eye. He’d been scratching too much and his skin was raw and painful.

In his mind’s eye, he saw the last look that Samantha had given him, the wide-eyed stare that had been a mix of fear and disdain, and he knew he had to give this a shot. He had to show her he was not just some loser. Because Sam deserved that. She deserved to have a hero for a dad, and maybe it was something he needed to do for himself as well. He wiped a tear away from the corner of one eye, hoping Stanley hadn’t seen it and eased the truck forward.

For the most part, London traffic was well behaved and the other drivers accommodated his continued confusion at every junction, but it had made for some terrifying moments, none of which appeared to phase Stanley at all. The orangutan sat beside him, seeming to enjoy the wind on his face through the open window, staring out at the city and drinking it in. It must be nice to feel that carefree. Or perhaps the ape was thinking deep thoughts and just appeared happy-go-lucky. With Stanley it was hard to tell. The ape just took it all in his stride.

“Hey, lean back a bit, would ya?” Arthur asked. Beside him, Stanley filled more than his half of the cab. Strands of errant orange hair cascaded about him. The cabin smelled worse than a locker room, with most of the odor shedding from the giant orangutan and overpowering the new car smell.

“You know, you should really try bathing sometime,” said Arthur.

“As if you smell like rainbows and butterflies.”

“I smell better than you do,” Arthur said.

“What was that you said?”

“I said, ‘Look at the studio up ahead’.”

“That’s what I thought. Lizards have to know their place. It’s biology 101.” Stanley chuckled and put his arm on the window ledge. His hairy arm resembled a perching cat. Arthur ignored the lizard comment. He was used to being the butt of the team’s jokes, and at least Elliot had stopped calling him a terrapin.

Ahead, the massive spherical bulk of the Hellinix stadium gleamed like mercury, reflecting the lights of the city.

“When we get back home,” said Arthur, “I’m going to introduce you to the concept of deodorant.”

“I know what it is, but why mask all this awesomeness?” Stanley took an exaggerated breath. “Go on. Breathe deep. Maybe it will help you win.” Stanley stared up at the stadium. “You’re really fine with this plan?” His tone softened.

“What? The fight?” He hoped Stanley hadn’t noticed the slight hesitation that had crept into his voice. “Sure. I’ve beaten all comers before, and I can do it again.”

And it wasn’t like he had a lot of choice. Elliot might be okay because there was hardly a holding cell that could keep him, but if the government, or Hellinix wanted to keep Arthur locked up, it would be trivial for them to do so.

“Why do you do that?”

“Do what?” Arthur eased the truck around another round-about. Why were there so many in this damn country?

“Lie,” said Stanley. “Do you human apes think your untruths are invisible? Your deception is written all over your face. Your mouth tells me you have no issue battling modified soldiers for the entertainment of others, even though you know that there is an alien species—at least one, possibly more—coming to this planet for purposes unknown, and that everything you hold dear is in jeopardy. You know this, but instead of doing anything to warn others and let them know they need to prepare, you decide to fight in a meaningless contest.”

“You asked me once what I can do. Well, this is what I can do,” said Arthur. “And it isn’t as if the government would listen to me, anyway. What am I going to say to them? ‘Hi, I’m not insane and there are aliens coming?` We already released the video of that. It should have been enough, but nobody paid attention. The news cycle moved on. Besides, Gunther and Sami will have a team figuring out how the mind control works—”

Stanley showed his teeth. “I know how that works already. I had the pleasure in New Guinea. All this is an excuse, Arthur. What was it the Romans used to say? Beer and circuses. You, my friend, are a dancing bear set to distract the masses while the wool is pulled over their eyes, and I think you know it. You know what else I think?”

“I’m sure you’re going to tell me,” mumbled Arthur.

“You’re trying to put on a brave face, but your eyes and voice tell me otherwise. You’re scared.”

Was he? He searched his heart and found determination, but was there fear hiding there as well? He was surprised to find that there was; a dark ocean of it. As he stared inward, ripples of it lapped at the corners of his mind.

“I’m not afraid to fight,” he said. “We all have a part to play. I’m not smart like you and Elliot, or an agent like Millicent. But I can do this. I can win Splice. That’s what Gunther wants me to do. It’s my way of contributing.”

“Fascinating,” said Stanley, leaning back in his seat.

“He knows you so well,” came Nel’s voice from inside Arthur’s mind. He nearly jumped. She’d been so quiet—so unlike her usual annoying self—that he’d nearly forgotten she was there. Almost. “Do you want to tell him, or shall I?”

“Tell him what?” said Arthur.

Stanley raised an eyebrow, then gave Arthur an exaggerated wave. “Hi, Nel! Is she saying something to you? What’s she saying?”

“Tell Stanley he owes me money,” said Nel. “And while you’re at it, you should confess. He’s right. You are terrified, but not of what he thinks. Does he know how scared you are that you might lose your family for good?”

Arthur swallowed. His shoulders were tight knots, and he’d been grinding his teeth.

“See?” said Nel. “Look at you, all stressy. Nana would have you hanging upside down from a rope until your blood cooled. She did that to Sophia once and left her there all night. She still has bug eyes from it.”

“What does she want?” asked Stanley.

“She says you owe her money.”

Stanley looked to be about to respond when a bullet punched a hole in the side window and zipped past Arthur’s head, buzzing like an angry hornet. “Get your head down!” he shouted, unsure where the shot came from. His body moved, no longer under his control, as Nel took charge. He felt the iron pressure of her will clamp down on, pushing him to the side as she caused him to shield his head.

Another bullet tore through the windscreen, then out through the rear glass.

“Why are they shooting at us?” said Nel. “I’ll make you metallic. We need the exoskeleton for this. If anyone gets to kill you, it should be me. Not these amateurs.”

“No!” If she did so, the suit would tear down the vehicle, cannibalizing it to create the metallic exoskeleton he knew Nel had in mind. He might end up protected, but Stanley would be left exposed. Worse, the truck’s momentum would continue, but there was no telling what components would be missing, possibly key elements of the chassis or suspension which would leave the vehicle uncontrollable. The image of them all being hurled from the moving vehicle onto the road leaped into his mind. “Please don’t do that, Nel. Just give me a moment here.”

Her control eased up enough for him to move his legs and he planted his foot, veering past the entrance to the Splice Stadium parking garage. There was no telling who was attacking them, but since they were right outside one of the largest Hellinix facilities in the UK, he had a suspicion it might be them. But if it was Hellinix, what purpose would they have in blocking him from the fight after doing everything they could to convince him to do it in the first place? Who were their biggest enemies? The Children of Gaia. But since Stanley had dispatched Halley, their leader, into some kind of portal brought into reality by some freak experiment, and Elliot had nuked their private island, it might have reduced their capabilities, but it sure was a reason to exact revenge. In any case, the parking garage was a dead end. He couldn’t take them in there as planned. They would be sitting ducks.

“Where are you going?” said Stanley.

“Away from here. Fast.” Whoever was firing on them was gutsy to be doing it out in the open like that in the middle of London. Almost as if they didn’t care about the consequences. He needed to get them out of there. Maybe he could shake the attackers in the maze of streets in the commercial area behind the stadium. Then he could switch to a different vehicle and lose them altogether.

Arthur gritted his teeth and took the next corner too quickly. In front of them were two vans set up in an open V-shape, their bonnets pointed nose to nose. Behind them was another vehicle, a dark-colored truck, and behind that were several men with rifles.

He toyed momentarily with the idea of accelerating through, but immediately realized that would not be successful. The roadblock had been put together well. Anything striking one of the lead vans would only serve to push it further into the way, jamming it hard against the other and making it impossible to pass. There was no way through the roadblock.

All this flashed through his mind as he slammed on the brakes. The maneuver coincided with one of the rear tires being shot out. For a moment they teetered. Arthur had a glimpse of blue sky as the truck rolled.

“Brace yourself,” he shouted, but the sound of his voice was lost to the crash and crunch of metal and the screech of the asphalt tearing at the side of the truck as it slid across the street and slammed into the curb some distance from the roadblock.

Nel took charge and kept him from injuring himself. When the vehicle was still, he lay there as the truck engine continued to rev. It took him a moment to realize his foot was pressed firmly on the gas even though the vehicle was on its side.

“Nel, the gas,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper.

His leg relaxed and the engine sound died away. The engine continued to idle for a second or two, then conked out.

“You hurt?” He fought Nel for control, won, and twisted his head to look at Stanley, who was regarding him with an intense expression on his face.

“Been better.”

Arthur checked himself. Still strapped in and nothing broken, his head ached and the damn scales continued to itch like hell. The smell of fuel filled the cabin and made his eyes water. He blinked, using the nictitating membranes, which helped a bit. “We need to get clear. We shouldn’t be breathing these fumes.”

Stanley unbuckled himself and twisted around enough that he was upright. “If we push out the windscreen, we might get out that way, but I’m not sure I’ll fit through.”

The idea was a good one and Arthur found himself undoing his own seatbelt as Nel claimed his body again, using her will to clamp down on him once more. He tumbled as soon as he undid the strap, but Nel ensured he did not hurt himself. “We can’t stay here. They have us pinned down,” he managed to say.

“Engines approaching,” said Stanley. “Whoever it is, they have reinforcements and I doubt they have our best interests in mind.”

Based on the engine sounds, at least two vehicles were coming up on their location. “We have to get this windscreen out. Help me push it free.”

They joined forces to shove at the already cracked glass as more rounds pinged off the rear of the van. Something ricocheted from the rear, striking the driver-side window, narrowly missing Arthur’s head.

“I need to have you change,” said Nel. “Now!”

“There’s no time for that.”

“Get yourself clear,” said Stanley. “Leave me. Do what you need to do, and come back for me. I’m too big to get out that way and if you wait for me we’ll both be stuck. If you can use the suit with Nel’s help we’ll have better firepower.”

Stanley braced his feet and pushed up on the metal frame where the windscreen had attached on its upper edge. “If I can make the hole bigger, maybe I’ll fit.”

Arthur kicked at the cracked glass until it bulged free. It wasn’t a bad plan. There was no advantage to staying put beyond the cover the car body provided, which was not much. The only problem with it was that he would have to leave Stanley behind. He looked across at him. “I don’t want to leave you here.”

“So what? You want to stay so we can both die together? Go get them and then come back for me.”

Arthur nodded. “You work on getting clear. There is fuel everywhere and it won’t take much to set it off.”

Stanley showed his teeth. “I’m well aware of how an exothermic redox reaction works. Get moving!”

“Huh?”

“To put it in your vocabulary—shit burns.”

Arthur swore. “Give me my body back, Nel!” As soon as she relented, he pushed himself up out of the driver-side door. Broken glass littered the road and the smell of fuel was just as bad out here on the road. Another round pinged off a mailbox on the street corner close to where he was crouched.

He stood, waved his arms, and broke into a sprint away from the truck, hoping the attackers would give chase. He grimaced as he ran. Every step took him further from Stanley and their wrecked vehicle. He hated leaving his friend there, but Stanley was right. If he’d stayed put, they would both be sitting ducks.

He usually remained clear-headed under fire, but the accident that tossed their truck had taken him entirely off guard, and leading the attackers away was the only plan he’d been able to come up with. There were several shooters. Possibly three. It was hard to tell with the echoes from the close buildings interfering with the sounds and sending them back to him so that initially he hadn’t been sure if they faced one man with a rifle or an entire squad.

He hoped Stanley was okay. The orangutan was smart—smarter than any creature had a right to be. But all the thought in the world would not help against a bullet. He let out a string of curses, put his head down, and ran.

Still warm from the afternoon sun, heat from the pavement rose through the soles of his feet. A welcome change from the chill that had draped itself over him like a wet cloak at the first sign of the team that hit his and Stanley’s vehicle. Clearly a planned operation, it had been executed well. Only they hadn’t counted on his reflexes, or the speed at which Nel could take over. Even he hadn’t counted on that.

“Need me to help you run faster?” she said, her voice coming from inside his head, but sounding as though she was standing beside him.

“No, thank you. You’ve done enough.”

“You should thank me. Nana always says a pleasant word is as good as a vacation.”

“I bet the holidays were a real joy at your place,” Arthur mumbled.

He urged himself forward at full speed. His breath rasped, and his heart thundered. Nel’s help mostly felt like interference. Worse, it left him wanting a long shower. Bodies were only meant to have one driver, and his seemed to have picked up a hitchhiker, one that wouldn’t ever get out.

To his right, part of the wall beside his head exploded in a shower of brick shards and powdered grout. He sucked in a sharp breath and cut left, heading into an alley. What he needed was a way out. The maze of ancient brick buildings, blind alleys and razor-wire-topped fences were not helping him achieve his top objective. Right now that was to keep breathing and not have his head reduced to the consistency of pulped watermelon.

A pile of crates and boxes blocked the end of the alley. That would do for now. All he needed was a moment to clear his head.

“What are you doing?” asked Nel. “You can’t rest here. They’re coming.”

“Quiet.” He sank to his haunches behind a pile of rotting cardboard, ignored the stench of old piss, and tried to slow his breathing. He’d sucked in a nose full of sulfur just after the wall shattered. That last shot hadn’t come from a conventional weapon. He brushed the remains of the wall from his head and off his shoulders. Either someone was giving the demolition business a whirl, or Hellinix—or whoever—had finally decided to end him. No matter who it was, they were using one of those alien staff weapons. He shuddered. The last time he’d encountered one of them, a Hellinix security team had used it to encase him in an energy field that had stuck him in place like a moth caught in a lepidopterist-riddled nightmare. Those damn wizard sticks weren’t natural, shooting bolts of power from their twisted lengths. No one should have a weapon like that. Hellinix did, and he suspected those Children of Gaia lunatics might as well. But this attack was too well coordinated for it to have been put together by a group of hippies. This had to be Hellinix. But why? He was supposed to be fighting in their damn contest tomorrow. It couldn’t just be to soften him up. If they were going to try that tactic, they’d do it just before the last match. It wasn’t in their best interests to cut his run short. The answer hit him hard in the solar plexus. What if they were actually after Stanley? He’d thought he was leading them away from his friend, but what if they had wanted to split him and Stanley up?

He turned to head back to the orangutan, but vHe turned to head back to Stanley.

Voices echoed at the end of the alley, barely mask by the distant, but increasingly loud helicopter rotors.

“Now we fight,” said Nel. “I better take over since you’re not very good at it.”

“No. We need to run. I have to circle back around to Stanley. We have to get to him.”

“If you need to be with him so badly, why did you leave him there on his own.”

“I had no choice. They were shooting at me.” He grimaced. “At us.”

“Of course they were. They don’t like you. And I don’t like you, either. I don’t think I’ve told you that enough today.”

Shapes moved at the mouth of the alley. “Time to leave,” he said.

He leaped at the wall, allowing the millions of nano-scale adhesive setae that coated his feet to cling to the surface, and propel him upwards.

“Where are you going?” Nel shouted from inside his mind.

“The only way is up.” He allowed himself to mimic the wall, knowing the suit would follow the lead of his scaly skin. He would be near invisible against the brick.

Shots were fired from the alley, but none came close. He scampered up to the roof and ran along it, heading back toward the truck and Stanley.

Nel’s mind pushed him aside, taking control of his body just as a helicopter descended beside the building. His body rolled, expertly manipulated by Nel, changing direction mid-leap as a blast from one of the alien staff weapons punched a neat hole in the roof where he’d been a moment earlier. As he came to his feet, he glimpsed the chopper holding steady with its door slid open and a marksman sighting along the length of the alien weapon, ready to take another shot. The man wore some kind of optical observation device over his eyes. He tunneled his vision, magnifying it enough to see the rampant dragon insignia on the shooter’s lapel.

“Look at that,” said Nel. “You’ve upset someone else.”

“Hellinix,” said Arthur. “And they can see me. He shouldn’t be able to do that.” The guy was wearing some kind of optical system. “Brazen.Taking potshots at me in broad daylight. They could have killed someone. There are civilians all over.”

“As long as it’s not you,” said Nel.

“Aw, thanks, Nel. I think that’s the nicest thing—”

“Because I’ve called dibs.”

He shook his head. “You’re nearly as cold as Millicent. How do you get to be like that at age ten?”

“Ask Elliot. Now quit moving and let me drive!”

She tore the last vestige of control from him and put his body into a series of rolls and twirls that would have put a practitioner of capoeira to shame. He realized there were two shooters in the chopper, one with an alien staff and the other with a carbine. Both were expert marksmen. Some of the rounds were landing too close for comfort.

“Nel!”

“Not now. We’re busy.”

“We aren’t going to make it off this roof. At least not without someone losing their life. Can you get me onto that helicopter?”

“Exactly who do you think you are?”

The rotors whirred, so close that he could sense the vibrations through the air. Who was he? A father, but not a good one. A minor celebrity, but not one that anyone cared to look up to. A soldier discharged without fanfare. He sucked in a lungful of air. He was the one who could save his friend, the one who could stop these assholes from killing innocents.

“Last I looked, I was a superhero,” he said, feeling instantly better about the situation as soon as he said the words. “The fucking world’s first. And right now I need to take out that alien staff weapon, so get me over there quick.”

Nel rolled him out of the way as another blast took out more of the rooftop. At that rate, the entire structure might collapse. He did not know how long it would remain intact or whether it would continue to bear his weight. To add to that, the other shooter appeared to be getting his eye in.

“I saw a video of you once, you know,” said Nel as she steered them around the smoking hole in the roof.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Nan said I should not have been watching it. Said I’d be scarred for life.”

“Oh… That video. They said there was a curtain.”

“Not on the video I saw.”

“Yeah.” It had been his first TV appearance, and he’d been keen to show off his ability to become nearly invisible to the naked eye. What could be more impressive than disappearing on live television? Unfortunately, using the power required him to strip off. At least it used to be that way before he stumbled on the suit. “The production crew said they deleted all the footage.”

“Not on the video I saw.”

“I was wearing underwear.”

“Not that I could see.”

He blushed. “Just get me over to that chopper, okay?”

Before he had a chance to wonder how she would go about it, he was hurtling through the air, heading for the open door. The dark mask of the staff-wielding shooter grew larger before him.

They did not make it inside the door. Instead, he clung onto one of the landing skids.

“Time to suck metal!” said Nel. His other hand lashed out and a section of the helicopter body seemed to melt, congealing into strands that found their way towards him like questing metal worms.

“Nel! What are you doing?”

“Stopping you from falling to your death, idiot.”

The helicopter tilted, unbalanced by the additional load and no doubt made worse by the way he was swinging as he hung on.

The metal strands found their way into his body, piercing him with cold, sharp points until they vanished inside his skin. When he looked again, his hands were encased in metal. His fingers seemed to elongate, transforming into hooks, which Nel quickly jammed into the side of the helicopter’s fuselage.

“Now we climb!” Nel’s voice was shrill with excitement.

“We could have done this with my usual gecko ability. You’re enjoying this far too much.” He looked down to see the truck still resting on its side. Beside it, a team of several men were man-handling Stanley into a cage on the back of a flatbed. “They have Stanley. We have to hurry.”

But the shooter leaned down and aimed the staff weapon at him, point-blank at his chest. He looked up at the blank outer surface of the man’s NODS, certain the guy would trigger the weapon and send him spinning off to the ground. As he watched, a thin rod of silver metal suddenly bloomed in the center of the man’s head and he toppled from the helicopter. The weapon followed him, spinning towards the ground.

“Threat neutralized,” said Nel. Wasting no time, she steered his body into the chopper. The other shooter backpedaled as fast as he could, but there was nowhere in the aircraft to escape to.

“What’s going on back there?” The pilot tried to turn his head, but Arthur ignored him. The guy was busy trying to wrangle the chopper and the way he and Nel were jumping all over the place, it could not have been easy. And without an optical display system, it was unlikely the pilot would even see him. He didn’t figure the pilot posed any threat.

Nel raised Arthur’s hand and fired a single shining metal rod towards the remaining shooter. The guy froze as the rod jutted from the floor between his feet, quivering.

“Drop your weapon,” said Arthur. Reluctantly, the man did so.

“Right,” said Arthur. “I know you’re Hellinix. Why are you trying to kill me? And what do you want with Stanley? You have nowhere to go and I promise I will get it out of you one way or another.”

The man grinned, revealing teeth. Then, in a motion so smooth and fast that it required all of Arthur’s enhanced vision to follow, the man drew a sidearm from behind his back, raised it and shot the pilot in the head. Then he turned the weapon on himself. Before Arthur could shout out, ‘No!’ the guy was dead.

“Damn,” Arthur mumbled. “Why would he do that?”

“You really botched that up,” said Nel. An instant later, she launched them from the helicopter. He hit the wall of the building an instant later, the metal encasing his fingers and arms grated down the brick wall until it gave him purchase. Seconds after, the chopper crashed in the alley, sending up a wall of flames.

“Time to pull Stanley out,” said Arthur.

“I enjoy being a superhero,” said Nel. “I could get used to this.”

“Me too, kid.”

COLLAPSE

Beachhead