The Crescent, Grace City, 1939
Matchstick raced through the dimly lit labyrinthine alleys, occasionally taking a nervous glance over his shoulder. Fear clawed at his spine, made his hands shake and his heart pound. He had been at least six blocks since he glimpsed them, they could be anywhere by now.
He turned a corner into a narrow passage, slumping against the wall to catch his breath. Matchstick’s employers had assured him that there would be no interference from the police, but a random beat cop not in de Beauremond’s pocket was the least of his worries. There were far worse things that prowled the streets of Grace City after sunset, especially here in The Crescent. Good people called them guardians, people like Matchstick called them nightmares.
A tin can clattered against the cobblestones farther up the alley. Adrenaline surged through Matchstick’s system causing his already racing heart to feel like it was trying to punch its way through his ribs. He stepped into the yellowish circle of the building’s weak security light. He probed the shadows with narrow eyes, ears straining to detect the slightest hint of movement. Sheaths of flame ignited around his hands, adding a ghostly flicker to the aging brickwork and deepening the shadows outside his protective circle of light. Matchstick ground his teeth. They would not take him. Not tonight.
Another noise jarred his nerves and he unleashed a tongue of fire from his hands that pierced the darkness like a spear. After a few seconds, Matchstick paused, gasping for air. Small flames from burning debris flickered near the opposite end of the alley, trails of faint gray smoke wafted an acrid stench to Matchstick’s nose. The howl of a frightened alley cat echoed. It brought a twitching smile to the pyrokenetic’s face. He chuckled softly, almost embarrassed at his reaction; but it was not the only laughter he heard.
It started low, a stifled chuckle that quickly grew into a hysterical guffaw. A lump formed in Matchstick’s throat as the sound enveloped him. He was not alone in the alley!
“Show yourself!” Matchstick demanded only to be answered by giggling. He thought he saw a shape moving in the darkness: the silhouette of a hooded figure sliding silently through the shadows like a phantom. He blinked his eyes in confusion. The figure, at times, appeared to be a few feet from him and, at others, almost a block away. The way the shape flickered in and out of existence nauseated him. He felt a gentle tap on his shoulder and wheeled around to find the alley behind him empty. Beads of sweat ran down his forehead and stung his eyes. Matchstick turned back around at the exact moment a leather gloved fist collided with his face.
Droplets from a gentle rain brought Matchstick back to consciousness to find that his hands had been bound. As he shook the cobwebs from his head, he became aware of two men standing over him. The man on the left wore a dark coat buttoned to the waist. Rather than a collar, there was a wide, deep hood that kept most of the man’s facial features obscured by shadow. Only his chin and mouth were visible. The chin was narrow and the thin-lipped mouth was curled upward in a playful smirk. The man on the right wore a mask of black cloth that hid his entire face. Resting just underneath the battered fedora was a pair of goggles that gave off a faint yellow glow. Matchstick felt that there was something predatory about that glow, as if he were to tear off that fabric and find the snarling visage of a wolf underneath. This pair of men were what spooked him in the first place. He knew them only by reputation, eerie drunken tales told by muggers and triggermen in holding cells and waterfront bars.
The man on the right, the brutal vigilante known as BlackJack, grabbed Matchstick roughly by the shirt and hauled him to his feet. His associate, The Eye, took a step back and lowered his head slightly.
“Listen, scum.” BlackJack growled, “Klinger. Where is he?”
Matchstick smiled, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” He really did not expect the backhand to hurt as much as it did. Warm blood trickled down his chin from a freshly opened cut on his lip.
“You better tell him. He’s not the most patient of men.” The Eye, in contrast to his partner, spoke softly, almost like he had no concern for what was transpiring a few feet in front of him.
Matchstick struggled against his bonds. He felt the warmth of his flames behind him as they burned through the thin but strong cord that held his hands together. “Burn.” He hissed as his hands came free and sprayed fire toward the two men. “Burn!”
Matchstick blinked. BlackJack and The Eye were no longer in the alley. Fearing the pair might return as quickly as they had vanished, he bolted off into the night.
“I told you rope wasn’t going to cut it,” The Eye said as the pair looked down upon Matchstick’s escape from a nearby rooftop.
“Doesn’t matter. He is exactly where I want him.”
“Oh?” puzzlement colored the hooded man’s voice.
“Rats always flee to the protection of the nest.”
A few blocks away…
Matchstick was out of breath by the time he reached the run-down warehouse. He banged on the door and waited.
“Were you followed?” a husky voice replied from within.
“I shook them off.” Matchstick gasped.
The door opened a crack. Beyond the tiny opening there was only darkness. Matchstick assumed the guard was checking to verify his claims that he was not followed. He looked over his shoulder and toward the rooftops. The guard seemed satisfied and ushered Matchstick in.
His guide led him through the shadows to the back room. A small rectangular space lit by a single bulb. Half a dozen men were seated around a small wooden table. He recognized three of them as petty thieves from The Crescent. The remaining three were unfamiliar to him, but he assumed a nefarious connection given the rest of the company. A pair of uniformed women stood next to the door. The lower half of their faces were covered with red silk scarves and they carried rifles of a type he had never seen before. About the size of a Thompson sub-machine gun but covered with coils of copper wire that occasionally crackled with electricity. Matchstick’s throat went dry. The presence of these women, the Lady’s Guard, meant only one thing: she was here in person.
Matchstick’s head whipped around as he heard a slight, throat-clearing cough from the corner of the room. Lady de Beauremond stepped into the light. Though he could tell she was standing mere feet from him, Matchstick could make out no features other than the white hair and burning eyes. It was as if the shadows became flesh yet retained their nature. He had heard rumors that she had powers of her own, but had never witnessed them. A shiver ran up Matchstick’s spine and his stomach felt as queasy as it had during his encounter with BlackJack and The Eye.
Hunched behind the Lady was a smallish man in a white lab coat. His face was covered in some sort of device, like those new breathing apparatuses the Navy was using for diving. As this man stepped further into the light, Matchstick could tell that his face had been horribly burned. He wondered for a moment if he had assaulted this man at some point in the past.
“Good evening…gentlemen,” Lady de Beauremond began with a purr. “I’ve asked all of you here because I have a special task for you. A task of great importance…”
“Get on with it!” one of the ruffians Matchstick did not recognize demanded. The outburst earned him a glare from the others at the table as well as the Lady herself. The two guards stepped forward but were halted by a single gesture from their boss.
“Leave.” de Beauremond’s voice was soft, but there was something about her eyes that filled Matchstick with fear. The ruffian stood and drew himself to his full height. He was a powerfully built man, but his size seemed to mean nothing to the woman cloaked in shadows.
“You expect me to take orders from a woman? The only one who should be in charge of this operation is me!” The man roared and reached out to grab de Beauremond. Matchstick did not see exactly what happened next, but his mind registered the large man taking a single step forward before crumbling into dust.
“If there are no more objections, shall I continue?”
The rain had become heavier. It pattered against the roof as BlackJack and The Eye stared into a dirt-yellowed skylight, planning their next move.
“We can’t just go in there and get her, Jack.”
“Why not? You said yourself she is in there.” BlackJack growled.
“Because we have no proof that she or any of them are doing anything wrong. For all we know they are having a friendly game of bad guy poker.” The Eye smiled at his friend.
“Bullshit, Eye. You know she is in there with Klinger and Matchstick. All of them are criminal scum and need to be taken off the streets.”
“Klinger died in that fire on the docks two years ago and Matchstick hasn’t even stolen a candy bar since he last got out of jail. We can’t do this without any proof of a crime.” The Eye thrust his hands into the pockets of his coat. “You know as well as I do that if we go after them tonight, they’ll be back on the street by morning and gunning for us. Hells! You saw that Matchstick was willing to burn down the damn Crescent just to get away from you.”
“Maybe if you just let me jump him instead of pulling all that theatrical shit…”
The Eye flickered out of existence for a moment. When he returned, he stumbled and fell through the skylight.
“Eye!” All BlackJack could do was watch as his friend fell into the darkened warehouse below. “Damn it!” Jack dropped into the opening.
A moment before the sound of breaking glass interrupted the meeting, Matchstick swore that he saw Lady de Beauremond stagger backward. From the warehouse floor someone yelled, “Alert the mistress! BlackJack and The Eye are here!”
“Kill them both!” de Beauremond hissed and retreated back into the shadows. Everyone leaped to their feet and followed the lady’s guard through the door.
Glass crunched beneath Matchstick’s shoes as the group spread out through the warehouse. Below the skylight, there was a small pool of blood but BlackJack and The Eye were nowhere to be found. In the darkness, the two vigilantes had the advantage, just like they had in the alley. He decided that discretion was the better part of valor and if Lady de Beauremond wanted that job done, it was better that some of the crew were healthy enough to do it. When he was certain that no one was looking, Matchstick slipped out of the warehouse and back to his own apartment.
BlackJack dragged The Eye’s unconscious form to a secluded spot between two piles of crates. “Come on, buddy, wake up. We could use those powers of yours about now.” The Eye did not respond to his words nor the slaps across the face.
“Someone turn a damn light on,” Jack heard one of de Beauremond’s men bark. Good. They were confused and scared. That would work to his advantage.
Jack crept between the rows of crates, sticking to the deepest shadows so he would remain hidden in case someone did get to the lights. From the sheaths tied to each of his legs, BlackJack withdrew a pair of flechettes. Although the heavy metal spikes were dropped onto infantry from planes during the Great War, he had become rather proficient in throwing them at opponents. Their weight comforted him a little but the vigilante was concerned that the criminals hunting him would find his unconscious partner. Even more disturbing to BlackJack was the event that got the two of them into this predicament. He had never seen his partner’s powers malfunction. A sense of dread tingled against the base of BlackJack’s skull. Whatever had caused the accident would have to wait. First, he would have to make sure the two of them survived this mess.
The rain pouring through the hole in the roof muffled the footsteps of the occupants of the warehouse. Occasionally he could hear the tap of hard soles and a faint squeak of the rubber-soled boots worn by the Lady’s Guard. The sounds that bothered him the most, however, were the intermittent crackle of electricity and the hum of capacitors.
BlackJack climbed to the top of a stack of wooden crates, careful with his movements so that none of the equipment he carried bumped against the wood. At the top, he twisted a dial on his goggles to lessen the glow from the specialized lenses that granted him an ability to see in the dark. He watched as faint forms spread out through the maze of crates and shelving. He surveyed everything on his current level. If he could move quickly and silently enough, BlackJack would be able to stick to the high ground and take out his pursuers one by one. From his vantage point, he could also see the open panel of the fuse box. His mouth curled into a smile as a half-formed plan congealed.
He threw the first flechette toward the front of the warehouse and it clattered on the concrete floor. Several of the dim forms ran toward the sound, assuming that one of the vigilantes had revealed his position. The second projectile slammed against the fuse box. Sparks showered against the floor. While BlackJack was not looking for accuracy, he hoped that he had damaged the fuses responsible for the overhead lights in the warehouse. At the very least the sparks would deter most from touching the box.
Some of the remaining group split off and headed toward the fuse box in the hopes of cornering one of the intruders there. A lone thug remained near BlackJack’s perch. His signature weapons, a pair of leather billy clubs filled with powdered lead, slid into his hands from hidden sheaths on BlackJack’s forearms. He dropped on the henchman, bringing both weapons down hard on either side of the man’s head. Before his target could scream out in pain, BlackJack clobbered him on the head, rendering him unconscious.
Another man turned the corner and BlackJack charged toward him. He was not fast enough. The henchman raised the revolver. Flame erupted from the muzzle, creating white splotches in front of the vigilante’s eyes. BlackJack felt the bullet graze his upper arm a fraction of a second before he slammed the club against the man’s head. The single rapport rang in his ears, obscuring the sound of approaching footsteps.
“It’s BlackJack! Get him!” the muffled voice called. BlackJack turned and only had a moment to roll out of the way as one of the strange weapons belonging to the Lady’s Guard fired. The second weapon fired and a burst of flame bloomed from the crate he was hiding behind, singing his already wounded arm with a heat unlike anything he had ever felt.
He scrambled to retrieve a pair of cylinders from a pouch on his belt. Taking a few sharp, centering breaths, BlackJack dove across the aisle and depressed the studs and sent a cloud of razor sharp needles toward his attackers. He hit the concrete hard, but could hear the moans indicating that some of the projectiles had found soft tissue. The needles were not lethal but would be painful enough to buy the masked man the time he needed to get back to his partner.
Pain screamed through his nerves every time BlackJack’s arm was jarred. He reached The Eye just as the hooded figure groggily sat up. BlackJack tackled his partner as another projectile struck where The Eye’s head was moments before.
“Time to go.” BlackJack growled.
The Eye nodded and shadows enveloped the two men. When their pursuers reached the small niche, BlackJack and the Eye were gone.
Uptown Grace City, Lady de Beauremond’s Pentouse…
Lady de Beauremond sat in her study, contemplating the curls of smoke from the cigarette at the end of the ebony holder. The strange feeling at the warehouse haunted her since she returned to her residence. A slight headache throbbed at the center of her forehead and she felt weak. She assumed that the cause of her current symptoms was due to some sort of hiccup in the flow of magical forces. The phenomena stoked the fires of her curiosity and brought a smile to her lips. Whatever happened had to have affected The Eye as well and his own curious nature would lead him to investigate it. That would keep him busy long enough to enact her plan. BlackJack was the looming threat, but de Beauremond already had a contingency to solve that problem.
De Beauremond’s manservant, John Butler, stood rigid, waiting patiently for his mistress to acknowledge his presence. After it seemed that she was too withdrawn into her own mind, he offered a gentle cough to alert her. She looked up at him, eyes confused, but quickly recovered her stoic demeanor.
“Call my office in Reno. Tell them to send the specialist.” Butler turned on his heel and was about to take a step when she added, “And send in Doctor Klinger. I wish to see his designs again.”
Hyperspace, somewhere near the Hyades…
Yellow-green light radiated from the statue on the table. Dante Zemekis stared at it with his large, unblinking black eyes, trying to determine the source of the illumination. He drummed his thin fingers against the metal of the table. He hated puzzles he could not figure out. His partner, Oona the pixie, fluttered onto the table. At nearly twelve inches tall, the mysterious statue was almost the same size as she was.
“Course plotted for Vanesh. We should be there in a couple of days.” The pixie ran a hand over her disheveled, spiky hair. She could see herself and the statue reflected in the shiny black ovals. While she was happy to have the Nagani as a partner, his eyes unnerved her. More so at times when he was in deep concentration. “What is it?” She asked in an effort to stave off the shudder threatening to run up her spine and through her wings.
“A statue,” Dante answered, his voice distant. “I’ve never seen material quite like this.”
“I thought you had seen and done everything, old man.” Oona teased.
Dante chuckled, a warm sound that put the pixie at ease. “I’d say that this piece is at least ten thousand years old. But the figure depicted escapes me.”
“As long as it’s worth the fifty thousand Republic Creds, I don’t care.”
“But this could be the scientific discovery of a lifetime!”
“One,” Oona began, “we stole it. Two, the Gambler’s Fallacy doesn’t run on vacuum. We need that cash for fuel and supplies.”
“Supplies? Like what?”
“Food, Dante. Or did you forget that pixies are not immortal?”
“Oh. Of course. We should get klesa when we get back planetside.” Dante picked up the statue and placed it in a plastic container.
“And a bottle of vorb. I don’t know about you, but I need to get messed up. This job has been stressful.” Oona rolled her shoulders and stretched. Her wings quivered and buzzed with the effort.
“I don’t know what was so stressful for you. That column fell on me, remember?”
It was Oona’s turn to laugh. “Yeah that was pretty funny seeing that big ass head attached to a flat body. It was like a gray balloon.”
The ship lurched violently, causing the lights to flicker off and the red emergency lights to activate. An alarm screeched through the passages of the Gambler’s Fallacy.
“What in the goddess’s name?” Oona and Dante raced toward the bridge. “Do you think we hit something?”
“Hyperspace collisions are somewhat uncommon but do happen. The proximity sensors should have detected any debris.”
Oona slid into the small chair attached to the helm controls and strapped the headpiece on. Data from the ship’s external sensors was transformed into visual images in her brain. She started and exclaimed “Wow!” The galaxy from hyperspace was washed out color against a white background. Everything was flat like an amateur artist’s rendition of the universe.
“See any thing?” Dante asked, eyes focused on the engineering readouts.
“Not a thing. Have you ever seen this before? It’s ama…wait a sec. There is something.”
“Some kind of a wave or ripple.”
Dante threw himself into the closest chair and strapped in, “Hold tight.”
Oona felt her hands tightening on the armrests, the metal framework giving slightly from her extraordinary strength. The hyper-wave approached quickly. Streaks of color shimmered and threaded through the mass of white. She chanced letting go of the seat long enough to rip the interface from her head so she would no longer see what was coming.
The Gambler’s Fallacy lurched again. Alarms screamed. All the consoles on the bridge emitted sprays of sparks, and metal panels ricocheted off the bulkheads, each one threatening to decapitate the occupants. The jostling became more violent and was accompanied by the screeching of metal being torn from a location deep within the vessel. As quickly as the violent interlude began, it was over.
Emergency lights still flashed though the alarms had gone silent. Coolant hissed from piping all over the ship. Dante unfastened the restraints and moved quickly to the pilot’s seat.
“Oona. Wake up.”
Oona shook the cobwebs out of her head and looked toward her friend, a scowl of concern curled his lipless mouth. She smiled at her friend. “I’m OK. Your beard is smoking.”
Dante patted out his smoldering facial hair. “Well this is a predicament. I suppose we should try to figure out where we landed.”
Oona forced the landing ramp open and the pair climbed out into a chilly night. The ship had come to rest in a forested area. A smoking trail of wreckage led off into the darkness. They hopped down and headed toward the treeline.
Dante and Oona crested a hill and saw the expanse of stars shining in a cloudless sky. A city glowed in the distance. The pixie gasped.
“Dante, these stars…”
“Look familiar?” the Nagani responded, “They should. This is Earth.”