For a couple of hours, Arika McClure dreams about nothing in particular: elevators, motorcycles, a big empty green-carpeted building made of glass which she is trying to get out of but she keeps getting lost, rooms full of oddness (not specific odd things, just rooms filled with the mental label, "odd"), being back at school, being late for school but her parents can't wake her up, flying across big blue oceans shaped like doughnuts, big eyeballs, Jason Chilton, hot acid, brick walls being pulled down, enormous towers of playing cards--
In the background, a long deep slow-motion voice is shouting something. It takes a whole minute for one word to come out.
She senses movement. She's taken away from the apartment, down the stairs and out of the front door. She's stuffed in the back of a big heavy military truck which has pulled up, a black hood is pulled over her head, and for a long time there's nothing but grumbling of the engine and momentum shoving her from side to side as the truck drives. After half an hour they get to a big ramp leading down underground. She becomes tired and irritable and confused as they drive deeper into the Brooksburg Air Base's underground tunnels. The tunnels get darker and narrower, quieter and slimier. The truck seems to become smaller to navigate them. It closes in around her. They've been driving for miles, now. How long is this tunnel? Brooksburg doesn't have tunnels, even. Wait, yes it does. She heard about them. Never saw them. But this is exactly what she imagined they'd be like.
--pancakes and penny sweets and the smell of being at the beach--
They stop at a checkpoint and turn off the engine. Two big soldiers - airmen - or is it three? - pull her out of the back and drag her through utterly, oppressively black corridors, boots crunching on gravel while she just watches the ground roll past and drags her toes behind them.
In the background.
Arika's so tired. She just wants to sleep. She knows the alarm went off. She's supposed to be getting ready for school. But she can't summon the willpower to get out of bed. She hits 'snooze' again.
Three (four?) men in dark blue flight suits drag her into a room with a chair in it. One of those comfortable dentist chairs with an array of dentist's tools on a tray nearby, which is fine, because dentists are highly trained people who know exactly how to use all of those tools properly without causing you pain--
But this is all a dream. I'm still asleep.
--but big restraints too. Restraints she can't get out of. She was driven underground. She was knocked out by the bullet and they grabbed her and Susie, who she's supposed to be--
--protecting, and took them to Brooksburg air base--
I'm still asleep. How do I know this? My eyes are still closed.
In the scary dream there are people holding her down as the dentist comes in. She's two hundred and fifty-six times stronger than a regular human and she can't get free or do anything but stare straight forwards at the huge whining drill bit moving gradually towards her face and--
Arika opens her eyes.
The dream was a rough approximation to the reality. Four airmen in big blue flight suits just like hers are holding her. One for each limb. One of them has a diamond-needled syringe aimed at the back of her left hand. She knows it's a diamond-needled syringe because it's the only thing they've found that's sharp enough to puncture through her skin. On Jason, even they don't work.
But she's still in the street. Broad daylight. That's as far as they managed to bring her while she was unconscious. Susie's over there on the other side of the road being dragged away. Being taken away down the street by that Moxon bloke.
I just got a good night's sleep in about sixty seconds. I didn't know I could do that.
Arika focuses back on her own situation. She is being held down and a man is about to inject something into her. So she pulls her left arm free, grabs the slowly crawling syringe and smashes it.
Like all the men, he has a big dark blue helmet and goggles on, just like the one she discarded in the apartment. His face is completely covered. She can't see his expression change. She can't even see his eyes through the mirrored orange lenses. But he looks wrong. In her sixth sense, all four of the people holding her look broken. They look inside out. Like optical illusions.
Moxon has his arm around Susie and is holding her head down as if they're running from gunfire. In the distance there are a few jeeps approaching. They'll be here soon. They couldn't bring the vehicles in without making noise, without giving themselves away. So they sent a few people ahead on foot. Moxon and these four.
The man whose syringe she just crushed slaps Arika in the face. She flinches. But she's still accelerated. So how did he move so fast? These men are drawing power.
She punches him back. She twists in mid air, wrenching her legs and remaining arm free. She whirls upright and punches the next nose she sees, bounces off in the opposite direction to elbow a third man in the face, and then the fourth grabs her by the scruff of the neck and yanks her off-balance.
"Kkiillll hheerr!" shouts a voice from down the road. Moxon.
Can they fly?
Arika plants her feet and launches upwards with the fourth airman hanging on. At about rooftop level, she glances around. He's got something in his other hand. It looks like a string with a dozen squidgy lumps of dough attached in a row, a big transparent plastic bag full of hot dog buns. But the string is actually a twisted pair of red and black wires, and there's a chunk of metal in the piece of dough at the far end. He has one corner of the wrapper in his teeth. He's pulling the wrapping off. A quick and practiced move. Arika mentally likens it to soldier pulling a grenade pin with his teeth.
The words plastic explosives bolt through her head.
She starts flailing at him to get him to let go of her scruff. He lets go, but even once he's got both hands off her he stays with her, which answers her question: yes. He can fly. With the string of explosives torn open he whips it at her, over-arm. She dodges and, at first sight, it looks like he misses, the string going over her right shoulder. But then the wire connects with her collarbone and it wraps downwards and she feels a series of small impacts on her back. They stay glued to her. Sticky bombs. The man kicks over and dives backwards, letting out wire from a spool in his right hand. In his other hand there's a thing with a button. The trigger.
Arika struggles for a moment but the bombs won't come off her back. So she starts to dive after him. She could have gone for the wire, but she doesn't think of that. She gets there fast enough to put a fist through the front of his face, but too late to stop him pushing the button.
This time she doesn't actually pass out. She feels the series of detonations slamming into her back like cannonballs, a few milliseconds apart. Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. Arika doesn't have time to wonder if she has spinal damage. She spins wildly in the air, propelled by the explosions, and doesn't have time to think about broken bones or the asphalt she's about to hit shoulders-first or the man whose head she just destroyed and whose blood and skin and hood are still wrapped around her hand.
Someone intercepts her before she hits the road. It's the sniper. She can tell because he's got the special rifle, the one which fires bullets four times faster than sound. Bullets you can't hear coming. Bullets a girl like her isn't fast enough to dodge. He cannons into her from below, tosses her over his shoulder and grabs one of her ankles. Now she's hanging in front of him and the rifle in his other hand is braced at his shoulder and aimed down into her jaw. (Not that "up" and "down" really mean anything with the horizon gyrating wildly around them.) This is his mistake. Now they're together - static with respect to each other. Arika is no longer disoriented by the spin. She gets her head together a fraction of a second before he fires a bullet through it. It's just enough time to put a hand in front of the barrel. POW. The bullet takes a chunk of webbing from between her first two fingers and ricochets off her eyelid. She howls in pain, takes hold of the sniper rifle barrel with the other hand, wrenches it out of the sniper's hand, whirls three hundred and sixty degrees (pulling her foot free) and aims to smack him in the head with it. He sees the blow coming a mile off and blocks it with the outer right forearm.
He's slower than she is. All four of them are slower than she is. But she's two hundred and fifty-six times stronger than a fifteen-year-old girl. And they're who-knows-how-many times stronger than strong, trained airmen. And she's hurt. And they never taught her any combat.
There are anti-Power weapons, thinks Arika McClure. There are super soldiers. They harnessed it. They can build super soldiers now.
They're trying to kill me.
Arika swoops around behind the sniper and brings a chop down at his neck. He twists with her and blocks it again. She kicks him, retreats a metre, brings the rifle up to her shoulder, prays that it's still loaded and pulls the trigger. The sniper is too slow. He takes the bullet in the left lung. Blood spurts out of the wound in his suit and falls sideways.
Sideways. Arika has lost track of the horizon. They've descended to just half a metre above the road, and are moving down it at high speed, as if they were fighting while hanging off the underside of a speeding truck. The dead sniper hits the asphalt shoulder-first and begins rolling, spraying blood in a rough cycloid. Arika tightens her grip on the rifle, rotates and stabilises on the air, just above the road, as if riding an invisible hoverboard.
She's aching all over now, and exhausted. She's never felt exhausted before. Not since she was Born.
Way down at the far end of the road she can see Moxon and Susie and the two jeeps. Susie. She clutches the rifle in her good hand and starts accelerating towards them.
There were two more of them, she remembers, but this time she isn't lucky enough to look around in time to see the shadow shooting across the face of the nearest apartment block towards her. All she feels is the impact. The car weighs two tonnes and lands on her at most of two hundred miles per hour, with the front bumper turned sideways to line up with her torso, hitting her head, shoulder, spine and legs all at once. Arika ploughs into the road under the weight of the vehicle, tumbles confusedly over and through the shattered wreckage which spins out in all directions from the collision, and rolls to a halt in the middle of the white line, about a block short of where Moxon is now holding Susie at gunpoint.
She lies there for a long moment, taking stock. She counts off her injuries: the hole in her hand, the bruise on her eyelid, painful sprains in ligaments she didn't even know she had, bones in her shoulder rubbing against each other in ways they shouldn't be and blood from her forehead wound trickling across her eye and dripping off her nose onto the asphalt under her head. She wants to sleep. She wants to go back to sleep until she wakes up in the hospital and it's all better, and for a moment she lets her eyes close. But a tiny part of her brain screams, You are vulnerable now. You are vulnerable and people are trying to kill you. GET READY. AND DON'T THINK ABOUT IT.
Shaking, Arika manages to lift her head a few inches off the ground and get an elbow underneath her. There's a flat shard of metal under her hand. Big enough and jagged enough to take someone's head off.
The last two come in from ahead, flanking her. She doesn't see, she just senses the shapes approaching, shapes which shouldn't exist, which make her feel ill to look at.
Don't think about it, goes the knowledgeable-sounding little voice in Arika's head. She gets herself up to one knee, leans forward as if to steady herself as she stands up, takes hold of the shrapnel, screams and whirls it in a figure-of-eight. The first slice passes horizontally through the eyes of the man on her left, around and back up through the rib cage and collarbone - the jolt as the blade tears messily through bone and organ almost takes it out of her hand. She gets a better grip by the time she reaches the man on the right and pulls it cleanlier through his throat and C5 vertebra.
Arika drops the blade and covers her eyes until they're both dead.
"Ssttoopp oorr Ii kkiillll hheerr," bellows Moxon from the end of the road. Digitised, of course. It's impossible to give verbal commands to men who are listening hundreds of times faster than you're talking. He has a box which records what he says and plays it back at high speed. And "stop or I kill her" is all he's had time to record since this started... what? Five seconds ago?
Susie Kuang has watched most of this. She hasn't been able to follow it. Susie has only been dimly aware of dark blue blurs streaking around her field of vision and the incredible noise of the bomb, two gunshots, several hard collisions between fist and bone, and the smash of the Lincoln Continental landing on Arika's back. She sees a few corpses tumble out of the air and she sees the explosions of gore after Arika recovers from the car. It's not until a few seconds after this that Susie even realises that Arika is the one who has won.
Moxon hasn't been trying to keep up with the fight. He knows how it's going just from the sounds; the choreography is all his. The fact that the gunshots go off at all is a bad sign; it means the explosions didn't work. The car impact is bad too, because it implies failure on the part of the sniper. And the final two wet deaths mean that despite all calculation, the car, too, has failed to kill Arika McClure.
The other reason he doesn't try to follow the fight is that he has no time to spare in preparing his backup plan. While Susie is distracted by the fight he positions her in front of him, facing away, hands up, his gun to the back of her head, barrel buried under her hair, obscured from Arika's point of view. At the same time he has recorded his second message and hit the button to broadcast it at high volume. He hits the button several times to get his point across, and after the fourth try he is certain that Arika has slowed down to regular speed, to talk to him directly.
He waves at the jeeps to stop before they reach him. Men get out with machine guns and take defensive positions aimed at Arika, now standing over two bubbling corpses with a gout of blood splattered across the whole lower half of her suit.
"You take one step forward and I swear to God she dies," shouts Moxon, directly, this time. "This is a conventional nine millimetre Beretta M9. It's not like that sniper rifle. You can catch its bullets out of the air without raising your heart rate. But there's no way you can get from there to here before the bullet gets from here to her head." He positions his hand so the trigger finger isn't visible either.
Susie hears what Moxon is saying and tries to stand as still as she possibly can.
"Let her go," shouts Arika, also not moving.
"I want to let her go," says Moxon. "I really do. The last thing I want is for more innocent blood to be spilled! That's the whole purpose of Defense, after all. To protect innocent people from people who might want to hurt them. You're up to a nice round two hundred and twenty-two people today, McClure! And you're not even eighteen! That's a pretty good record! Where are you from?"
"You were trying to kill me! All you've ever been trying to do is figure out ways to kill me!"
"We were trying to stop you from killing more people!" shouts Moxon. "We were trying to stop you from hurting yourself even more by hurting people who are close to you! Do you understand what'll happen if you let word of this get out? Do you know how many civilians would have died today if we hadn't had the area evacuated and kept you contained? We need to study this--"
"You are a liar!"
Moxon keeps talking, "How long can this go on? A new superhuman every year until there are no humans left to be killed? You want to help people. You want to be on the side of the good guys. If you let us study you we can make more of you. We can train you and put you to work. And save lives."
"Then put the gun down."
"I can't," says Moxon. "You know I can't. You have to stay where you are. And we'll work this out."
Arika thinks. She stares at Moxon. He looked like such a nice guy when they first met. He's shorter than she is (and she almost never sets foot on the ground anyway) so he felt unthreatening to her and he felt like he had her best interests at heart. Almost everybody she met on the base was like that. Some were more irritating than others, but all of them seemed to be well-meaning. But it was because they were scared of her. And scared of Jason too. This is about Power, she thinks. They wanted Power. They have that. Then they wanted the power to kill other Powers. They just need to be a little faster, and they'll have that too. They can just crank out armies of them.
She transfers her attention to Susie, whose hair is in disarray from being dragged down the street by Moxon and who has tears in her eyes and who is trying not to shake as she stands still with her hands knitted on top of her head. Arika spends a long time trying to think of ways to save her. She can't come up with anything foolproof. She could cover the distance in a tenth of second, to be sure, or maybe even faster still, but how good are Moxon's reactions? And he's looking right at her, waiting for exactly that move. And still talking, waffling away, stalling for time. She could hurl the shard of metal at him, but no way in hell is she that good a shot. Not with Susie in the way.
Stalling for time...
Moxon resists the impulse to dive for cover when he hears the approaching roar, just in case McClure realises what's about to happen. He keeps talking right up until the impact, keeping her distracted and listening and thinking at human speeds.
There are bigger missiles; this one had to be small for agility and most of its interior is occupied by the fastest guidance processor package known to mankind, but even so the explosion is big enough to shatter every window for a three-block radius. Moxon and Susie are both hurled backwards by the shockwave and hit the ground hard. Moxon cracks his head on a jeep fender before he stops rolling. His ears ring. His insides judder, pummelled by the sound of the blast.
By the time he shakes the stars from his head and locates Susie Kuang again, Arika is there, floating over him, fists clenched, eyes fiery, her hair and the side of her face blackened. Somehow, he still has his gun in his hand. He can't think of anything else to do but raise it at McClure and pull the trigger until it's empty. She stands there and lets him do it, snatching each bullet out of the air with the same hand, one by one. They both know it's not a serious attempt to kill her. It's a gesture of defiance.
She screams an ultimatum at him. He can't hear it. He'd still be deaf from the blast even without the gunshots and the impossible thunderclaps from the caught bullets. And then she turns, picks up Susie Kuang, and carries her away.
Unable to think of anywhere else to go, Arika flies back out into the desert, with Susie in her arms. She gets a few miles out before the adrenaline rush of the fight begins to subside and the pain in her shoulder rapidly becomes so bad that she can't even carry Susie properly. She sets her down on the plain and stomps away a step or two, refusing Susie's help, clutching the joint and wincing as she tries to roll it around. And finally, she breaks down and cries.