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Welcome to Utopia: Book One of the Utopian Dreams Series

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Dec 14, 2019.

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  1. Mr. Tebbs

    Mr. Tebbs Know what you're doing yet?

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    And it was really Mystique all along!
     
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  2. Threadmarks: Chapter Thirty-Four: From the Shadows
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    From the Shadows

    Now that Jericho knew what had really happened, he found that his thoughts had ceased to churn in ever-decreasing circles. Confusion no longer clamored in his head and tangled up his wits. He took up the remote and turned off the TV. There was no need to keep it on any longer; by now, Portman’s features were indelibly burned into his memory. They would stay that way until he got his hands on the man, one way or the other.

    A glance out the window reminded him that it was still dark. By the clock, it was just after six in the morning, so he still had an hour or more before sunrise, and three hours before the interview.

    He paused. Can I still do the interview? Should I still do it? Is attending a job interview really the best way to show respect for Luke and Bobbi, for their memory?

    Again, he reminded himself that Luke had put significant effort into making sure he got to Utopia City in the first place. He’d be seriously disappointed in me if I backed out now. There was just a tiny niggle at the back of his mind; his thoughts were steadier than they had been before Stirling’s visit, but he still wasn’t entirely certain he was up to going through with the whole affair. What would be worse; if I went to the interview and bombed out, or just didn’t go?

    That, at least, was something he could work out. He still had no way of knowing where Jack Portman was (unless he counted the extremely vague descriptor ‘with the Southsiders’) but that could be shelved until he had more information. Right now, he needed to nail down what he was going to do about the interview.

    As he unzipped the satchel and started donning his costume, he realized that he didn’t know how to get out of this area of the Oaklands quickly. In fact, given his state of mind when he’d gotten to the apartment in the first place, he wasn’t even certain where he was in the Oaklands. It was, he decided, something he would figure out as he went.

    Tapping his face with his gloved fingers, he made sure he wasn’t about to head out without his mask on. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue but in his current state of distraction, anything could happen. Then, just to be sure, he did a quick visual and tactile check to verify he was fully costumed up with the satchel in its rear pouch. Once again, he tucked his MagCard into an inside pocket then zipped his jacket up. On the point of opening the door, he paused. If he didn’t turn his head, he could still see Luke sitting on the sofa in his mind’s eye, just outside the limit of his peripheral vision.

    “See you later,” he murmured under his breath and opened the door.

    You be sure an’ take care now, cuz. The voice was in his head, not in his ears. Tears sprang to his eyes and he had to force himself not to turn around. Not because of what he might see, but because of what he wouldn’t.

    “Always do,” he whispered as the door closed behind him.

    Outside the apartment, he leaned against the wall and took several deep breaths. I’m good, he told himself. I’m a hero. I’m strong. I’m capable. I’m not going to fall apart again.

    Once he’d talked himself into believing that, he straightened up and looked around. Corridors led to the left and right, but just a few yards down the hallway, he saw a you-are-here sign. A few seconds of study allowed him to work out where he was in relation to the rest of the Oaklands, and where to find the nearest window exit.

    The longer he hung about inside the building, the more likely someone was liable to poke their head out of their apartment and wonder why he was prowling around in costume. Thus, as soon as he worked out where he was going, he didn’t waste any time. Down the corridor to the left and around the corner he went, his long strides covering the distance quickly. There was a window ahead of him just where the diagram said it would be, and he hurried toward it. Taking his MagCard out, he tapped the reader as he’d seen Independence do. It worked just as well as swiping the card across the reader, and he tucked the knowledge away as the window swiveled open. Learn something new every day.

    Climbing out onto the discreetly placed ladder, he tapped the outside reader to close the window, then put the card away, zipped up his jacket again and started climbing. As he crested the edge of the roof, he saw the by-now familiar rooftop with its holographic sign hanging overhead. Nothing seemed to have changed, except perhaps for the faintest glow in the sky to the east. He amended that thought as he clambered onto the roof proper; nothing had changed except him.

    It was amazing how thoroughly perceptions could shift in the span of a night. Before, he’d surveyed the futuristic buildings with their holographic decorations and the moving lights in the sky with an almost childlike sense of wonder, but now he saw Utopia City as a darker and more savage place. Somewhere within this high-tech wonderland lurked an amoral killer, a malevolent serpent defiling what Jericho had come to see as a post-scarcity garden of Eden.

    Breathing the night air in deeply, he tried to flush the loss and pain out of his heart through sheer force of will. It diminished slightly as he allowed himself to drink in the fact of being; of merely existing without thought or motivation. Spreading his arms, he turned slowly in a complete circle in an attempt to recapture his earlier mood. It eluded him, mocking his idealism with the harsh realities of the world.

    The breeze had sharpened from the last time he was up here, and the air traffic had diminished. He watched what he thought was a hex thrumming across the sky, a circle of blinking lights made elliptical by perspective. Running lights still flitted here and there, though he wasn’t entirely certain if they all belonged to air-cabs. He turned his head and stared up at the apartment building that towered over the Oaklands. Maybe I’ll be able to get my head in the game again if I go back up there. It had worked before, so it should work again.

    He eyed the edge of the rooftop between himself and the apartment building, then prepared for his run-up. Taking a deep breath, he started forward, pushing for the speed that would glide him across the gap. But just as he hit his stride, a chilling thought destroyed his focus.

    The last time I did this, Luke died.

    He stumbled to a halt, just a few yards from the edge. Looking up at the apartment building, he shook his head. There’s no reason to think that way, he told himself. That murdering sonovabitch was always going to come to Utopia City. Slowly, he retraced his steps.

    Once he got back to the starting point, he flung himself forward once more. His feet pounded against the rooftop, driving him toward his goal. He needed to get up to the top of that apartment building. That was where he’d be able to clear his head. There was no correlation between him going out as a superhero and something terrible happening to a loved one.

    He barely made it halfway along the rooftop before the chaotic swirl of his thoughts brought him to a stumbling halt. Leaning over, he rested his hands on his knees while he dragged air into his lungs as if he were exhausted, though this was nowhere near the case. Inside, a bone-deep fear began to well up as he realized just how off-balance he was. I can’t even get this right. What am even I doing here?

    “You okay there?”

    The voice came out of nowhere, startling him badly. He snapped upright and spun around, searching for whoever had spoken. It had sounded like a young woman, one who was close by. But he was alone on the rooftop, or at least he’d thought he was. “Who’s there?” he snapped, forming a G-tag in each hand.

    “Sorry.” What he’d taken to be a discoloration on the waist-high parapet and a patch of haze in the sky beyond took a step toward him; a human form fading into existence. Slim hands emerged from long sleeves and a hood was lifted out of the way, allowing a woman’s face to emerge from the dimness. More precisely, her face was visible from the cheekbones down, while her eyes were still shrouded by the hood. “Didn’t mean to bother you, but I was wondering if you were okay.”

    Temporarily shocked out of his funk by the adrenaline singing in his veins, Jericho stared as she walked closer, her feet making absolutely no sound on the rooftop. The light from the sign moved oddly across her costume, to the point that he could almost swear he was able to see through her. “Where did you come from? I looked there!” After Luke, Transit and Thomas, and now this woman, he was starting to detect a pattern. He’d gotten complacent in Savannah with no other prodigies to match his wits against. I really do need to up my game.

    “Don’t beat yourself up,” she said, as if reading his thoughts. “Not being seen is kind of my thing. The name’s Smokeshadow.” She held out her hand; reflexively, he dissolved the G-tag in his right hand and shook it.

    “G-Man,” he replied. “So, invisibility? You’re a dynamic?” He nodded toward her costume. Even so close, he had trouble focusing on its details. “Or are you wearing Artificer gear?”

    She tilted her head in acknowledgement of his insight. “Not quite invisibility. I don’t have a Dynamic rating. I’m mainly prodigy, with a low-end Artificer rating. My outfit’s made from a programmable hyperweave. Variable refractive index with adaptive camouflage. It makes me hard to spot, and skill takes care of the rest.” As he watched, the costume altered color and form to become a comfortable-looking hoodie and a pair of jeans. The translucent effect faded, giving it the appearance of ordinary clothing. “But you’re not up here to talk shop. You’re hurting really badly right now, and you want to go somewhere to either vent or brood, or both.” The tone of her voice, her stance, what he could see of her expression; all radiated understanding of his plight.

    Slowly, Jericho let the other G-tag dissolve. Folding his arms, he turned away and moved toward the roof’s edge. Smokeshadow’s feet still made no sound against the rooftop, but she was close enough that his G-sense just barely registered her presence behind him. She didn’t speak, which gave him time to gather his thoughts.

    “I came to Utopia City to try out for Force Majeure,” he said roughly, fixing his gaze on a distant building and addressing his words to it rather than the woman behind him. Normally he wouldn’t have been spilling his guts like this, but she was very easy to talk to. “My cousin and I met a lady on the train, and we were sharing an apartment. I went out on patrol.” His fists clenched inside the gloves. “When I got back, they’d been murdered.”

    “Jeez.” There was a catch in her voice, then her hand rested on his shoulder and squeezed supportively. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine.”

    Between her touch and her words, he felt a little of the tension leaving his body. He was obscurely grateful that she wasn’t saying anything stupid like you must feel so terrible or it’ll be all right. Of course he felt goddamn terrible and no, it would never be all right. She hadn’t tried to hug him either, which was another point in her favor. While he wasn’t averse to physical contact under the right conditions, a hug from a stranger under these circumstances would feel incredibly awkward.

    Lifting his anguished face toward the night sky, he drew deep lungfuls of the chilly air. “The cops know who did it. They’ve made sure he’s not getting out of the city. I’d be going after him myself right now, but I’m new in town. This isn’t my city.” That was true in more ways than one. He didn’t know the layout, he didn’t know the customs, and the people didn’t know him. At least the citizens of Savannah knew of G-Man, even if they ignored him most of the time.

    “And you got that other thing you said,” she pointed out. The hand on his shoulder was a physical reminder of her presence, comforting without being intrusive. “Trying out for Force Majeure? That’s pretty damn important. I’d be conflicted too.”

    “Yeah.” He dropped his head. “Luke—my cousin—made sure I’d get here in time to try out. The last thing I want to do is disappoint him. But if I attend the interview in this state, there’s every chance I’ll screw it up anyway. I have no idea what to do.” Which is why I’m up here, he didn’t have to say.

    “You and him were pretty close, huh?” Somehow, she hit just the right note so that it didn’t feel like she was being patronizing.

    “Brothers couldn’t be closer.” It was nothing less than the truth. He could barely remember a time when Luke hadn’t been a part of his life. “He was set on me coming here and doing this. But I don’t know if I can face up to it right now.”

    “So, call ’em and ask to reschedule,” she said bluntly. Her voice was brisk now, no-nonsense. It was a total contrast from the solicitous tone she’d been using up until now. “And if they won’t, then go anyway.”

    “But I’m a mess—” He wasn’t sure why he was protesting. This was exactly what he needed to hear.

    “And if you can’t reschedule and you don’t go, then you’re one hundred percent guaranteed to lose your slot.” Her grip on his shoulder tightened and she pulled him around to face her. “But if you do go and you do make it, then you’re in. Not everything’s a sure winner. Sometimes you’ve got to just roll the dice and hope you don’t come up snake eyes.”

    He blinked. The logic was simple and inescapable. It was what his mind had been fighting back against; somewhere deep inside, he’d been trying to hold out for a guaranteed success. She was right, of course. There were very few sure things in life.

    “Goddamn it,” he muttered. “You’re right.” It was a wrench to let go of the notion that he could somehow wrangle a miracle out of the situation, but he managed it. I’m just gonna have to do it the hard way.

    “Mm-hmm. And you do realize that if you do make it on to the team, you’ve got a lot more chance of being in on the bust when they do catch up with the guy who did this, right?” Her tone was matter-of-fact. “So straighten up, get your head together, and come out swinging. Nobody’s gonna hand you this win. You’ve gotta grab it with both hands and make the best of it.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” he replied, only half-jokingly. He marveled that he was capable of even making a joke at a time like this, no matter how feeble. “Thanks, I … that helps a lot.”

    She gave him a half-smile. “You’re welcome. It’s not like I told you anything you couldn’t figure out for yourself. What time’s the interview?”

    “Nine,” he said. “But I want to get there early, just to be sure.” The air-cab had been very prompt the previous evening, but he didn’t want to automatically assume this would always be the case. And it would be the height (or the depth) of irony to decide to attend, then be late anyway.

    “Good thinking.” She dropped her hand from his shoulder. “Dunno if you’re up for getting some sleep, but you’re not in the best of shape right now. So I’d try if I were you. Even an hour would do you good.”

    He rolled his head on his neck, recalling the nightmare he’d woken up from. “I … really don’t know how well that’s going to work. Right now, sleep and me aren’t on the best of terms.”

    She didn’t argue the point. “Caffeinate yourself, then. Have a hot shower, or a cold one. Close your eyes for twenty minutes. You’re a prodigy; you know there’s a dozen ways to recharge your batteries.”

    “Yeah.” Jericho nodded. “Yeah, you’re right.” This was a first in his experience. He’d never before managed to get past the need to brood without actually brooding. “Sometime, when I’m in a better headspace, you’re going to have to tell me how you pulled that off.”

    “Sometime, when you’re in a better headspace, I will,” she agreed. “For now, you need to go deal with you.”

    “I’m going, I’m going.” He headed toward the edge of the roof. As he got there and prepared to climb down onto the waiting ladder, he turned back toward Smokeshadow. “Quick question. What are you doing here anyway?”

    “Here in Utopia City, or up here on this roof?” she asked, a grin quirking the corner of her mouth.

    Jericho had originally meant to query her presence on the roof, but her question had opened a wider field of interest. “Uh, both, I guess. If you’re okay with telling me.”

    She nodded. “Well, I’m on the roof to see what can be seen.” She held up a hand as Jericho went to speak. “Not finished. We’re both prodigies. You go to a rooftop and brood; I find a good vantage point and watch. The street, cars going by, people, the sky, the city. I like to get in a few hours of watching in the morning to freshen me up for the day.” She gestured to the east. “And in an hour or so, I’ll be watching the sunrise. I understand it’s pretty good.”

    “Whoa, wait!” He held up his hands to stop her as the possibilities burst upon him. “How long … were you … did you see …” If she’d seen Portman go in and come out again, she might be able to afford him some insights that the police didn’t have access to.

    “Sorry.” She shook her head, a regretful tone in her voice. “I’ve only been up here since about four. Everything’s been quiet, so I’m guessing the action was long done by then.”

    “Oh, okay.” He tried not to feel let down. It wasn’t her fault, after all. “And in the city? Are you here to join Force Majeure too?”

    “Pfft, hardly.” She gestured, as if to wave his suggestion away. “I’m a tourist. I’m literally here to sightsee.” The pause was just long enough for the pun to register with Jericho. “So to speak. Though …” She drew the word out thoughtfully.

    “Though, what?” he asked.

    “Though, did you want to see something interesting before you try to get your head down?” Her expression was lively, inviting him to reply in the affirmative.

    He hesitated, but knew he had to answer at some point. “Yes?” he ventured, not at all sure if he had the willpower right then to say no.

    “Cool.” She grinned conspiratorially and gestured to him. “Come over here, and check this out. Try to stay as quiet as possible.”

    He went over to her and stood, looking from the rooftop down onto the street. “What am I looking for, exactly?” he murmured from the corner of his mouth. From her attitude, it seemed she was going to show him some kind of wildlife. Maybe a bird nesting in one of the trees?

    “You’ll see,” she breathed, and dug in her pocket for a notepad. One page, ripped out, became a paper airplane after a minute or so of careful folding. Then she pointed at a manhole situated under a streetlight. “See anything weird about that?”

    He peered in that direction. “It’s a manhole. Or rather, a manhole cover.” Looking more closely, he added, “It’s got a kind of spiral pattern on it.” Apart from that, it seemed perfectly normal.

    “Good eye. Now, check this out.” She grinned and threw the paper plane. Not at the manhole, but out toward the street. It got about a third of the way before a contrary wind gust put it into a dive. Rather anticlimactically, it crashed into the sidewalk about a yard from the curb. She sagged. “Crap. And I was going to do the big dramatic reveal, too.”

    “What did you want to do with it?” asked Jericho practically.

    “Get it onto the street.” She dug out her notepad again. “Gimme a minute here. The next one should fly better.”

    “Don’t bother.” He formed a push-tag in his hand and flicked it toward the paper airplane lying forlornly on the concrete below. The target was small but unmoving; his aim was good. The ’tag hit the plane and flicked it sideways four yards, right into the middle of the road. Jericho dismissed the effect before it could go any farther, then glanced at Smokeshadow. “Now what?”

    She looked from his hand to the plane, then she nodded. “That works too. Now, we wait.” Grinning in anticipation, she leaned both hands on the parapet of the roof, and fixed her attention on the street below.

    “For what?” He couldn’t see anything happening. Even if a maglev car came along, it wouldn’t so much as touch the paper airplane.

    “Shh. Just wait. And watch.”

    He stilled his impatience. This was far too elaborate to be the setup for a simple practical joke. With the occasional glance to ensure that the roof behind them was clear, he settled down to observe the scrap of folded paper in the middle of the road.

    Time ticked by. One moment stretched into the next. He’d done this before, staking out an area for criminal activity, but before now, it had always been his choice when to start and when to finish. And normally, he had something more interesting to look at than a paper airplane. He began to wonder what Smokeshadow would do if the wind blew it off down the street.

    Then he heard … something, he wasn’t sure what. Beside him, Smokeshadow murmured “Here it comes.” He followed her eyes and saw that the manhole cover was opening. Not lifting, as he would’ve expected, but opening, the spiral pieces sliding apart like a camera iris. It was a strange and compelling sight to see on a deserted street at oh-dark-thirty in the morning.

    When he saw what came out of the manhole, his sense of the weird ratcheted up a dozen notches. Covered in a glossy black carapace, it was about six feet long and thoroughly articulated. His first thought was mechanical lobster, but it had too many legs and no pincers. Apart from that, it was about the right shape. As if a mechanical horror climbing out of the sewers in the early hours of the morning could have a right shape.

    He opened his mouth to ask a question, but her hand on his wrist quieted him. Together, they watched as it scuttled over to the paper airplane. He didn’t see exactly what happened next, but when the thing turned away, the plane was gone. A rounded brush polished the spot on the roadway where it had rested, then the thing scuttled back toward the manhole. Seconds after the cover irised shut once more, a car rounded the corner, gliding smoothly over the now-empty street.

    Jericho looked at Smokeshadow, his eyebrows raising under his mask. “Well, crap. What was that?”

    She shrugged. “Street cleaner, I guess. I’m thinking things like that handle routine maintenance and cleaning, as well as trash collection. All without letting the regular public see them.” She chuckled. “Explains why there’s no litter or graffiti, doesn’t it?”

    “It does.” He shook his head. “I’m beginning to think there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes in this city than I’ll ever know about.”

    She snorted with laughter. “You’re only just getting that now?” Shaking her head, she made a shooing motion with both hands. “Go sort yourself out, already.”

    “Okay, and thanks.” He went back to the ladder and started down it. He appreciated Smokeshadow’s attempts to distract him from his problems, but he still didn’t know how well his efforts to get ready for the interview were going to go.

    In the end, however, he didn’t just owe it to himself to try. He owed it to Luke and Bobbi as well.
     
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