“Thank you for answering this emergency call. As this is a special situation, proper procedure has been forfeited.” General Garald was posed with one foot bent on the head chair of the meeting room. General of the Siege Division of Garghent’s military, he was the primary authority for keeping the city safe. “This group here represents the only available Specters we have on deck as of right now.” His voice was hardened by his veteran decades.
Sitting around the boardroom in full gear was the team of Specters assigned to this mission. Hales the Solar Aspect, Yillo the Paroxysm Aspect, Jid the Hunter Aspect, Dartan the Rule Aspect, Talayia the Stiletto Aspect, Veron the Jinx Aspect, Emilo the Steelskin Aspect and Professor Vandle.
“For starters, thank you Professor Vandle for coming out of retirement and teaching for this mission.”
Professor Vandle saluted. “I miss the action and someone ought to check on these old students of mine, preferably me, their teacher.” Vandle curbed his humor right after as Garald went straight to business.
“We have been tipped off as to the motive of a secretive vigilante group known as #@%^&%*$.” The word was bleeped out as Garald tried to speak it. “As you may already know, this group has been a thorn in Garghent’s side for several years now. Their biggest advantage is a cognitive barrier they have protecting their identity. You can’t find someone you don’t know the existence of. Our intelligence believes they have a Coder. Dartan, we will be relying on you to try to crack their defense.”
“Yes sir.” Dartan confirmed.
“I know about the Tournament. Some of you have met and even fought their leader before, Josua the Zone Aspect. He and his group are deemed as criminals. Their threat level is unknown.”
“I’ve got a question,” Genjam interrupted. “If their threat level is unknown, shouldn’t the military send more Specters for this as insurance?”
“The vigilantes have unknown power and therefore their threat potential could be very high that’s true. The threat that is drawing the rest of us away, however, is known. That is why we simply have no other available Specters.” Garald revealed no further details. “Do not think this is unimportant. We know their target and it is concerning enough that they should even have that much intel.”
“What intel is it?” Emilo asked.
“As Veron and Talayia are part of the Espionage Division they have access to this information so there is no harm in disclosing it. Talayia, care to explain?”
“Of course.” Talayia happily jumped to her feet. “A year ago, before the Siege of Garghent, rumors that Talis Ranis was spotted in caves near the Aiy Dry Desert by our very own Captain Hales sprung an investigation. But it was a third party archaeologist by the name of Jourac who made the discovery of a feather from the Fable while working on a dig. The nearest city was Garghent at the time and that is when Doctor Vant Gordiyn took him in and made the connection to Hales’ encounter. Since then they have been working on translating writings from Talis Ranis, at the cave where Hales spent a few days recovering.” Talayia turned to the Solar Aspect. “Did I get that right?”
Hales nodded, remembering how peculiar the Fable was in person. Talayia flashed a brief smile, they had not had a chance to talk since graduation. “So the importance of the writings is one thing, assuring they remain in Garghent’s sole possession is another. If Josua and his group succeed in stealing the translations or kidnapping the archaeologist, which is what we believe they are after, well let’s just say that the world is not ready for what is written.”
“New writings from Talis. What do they say!” Genjam eagerly exclaimed. Dartan looked enthusiastic.
Talayia wagged her finger. “Now that, my friends, is need to know information.” Talayia sat down, giving the floor back to Garald.
“Professor Vandle, debrief them on the plant.” Garald ordered.
Vandle stood. “Your former colleague, Antho the Yellowmancy Aspect had been scouted by Josua a year before his enrollment into high school. Josua approached Antho and offered a place in the group after he awakened his Aspect. We found out about this early on and prepared him as a double agent. When we encounter them, Antho will be on our side and we can rid this group from Garghent once and for all.”
Hales was thinking about how Garghent really had snuck its greedy fingers in everything. She shivered, a victim of their schemes and powerless to fight it.
“Captain Hales is the only Specter to have successfully bested Josua in the Tournament, is there anything you can share about his fighting style or Aspect.”
Hales stood up and pulled flat her jacket. “I beat him on a fluke. He was stronger and faster than me at the time but a solar flare from my stars knocked out his headphones, without which his power doesn’t seem to work. He needs music. I met him one time after the Tournament where he told me how I had won and that he would improve his technology. I can’t say if he is stronger than me now, but I believe his explanation to be correct, that I won because his headphones short-circuited.”
Garald built on Hales’ explanation. “So he is a fine fighter, the only one on the registry from his group. We do not know the scale of his group nor how many Specters they can field. Unfortunately Antho has been unable to get into contact with us, we believe it is a result of their Coder.”
“Professor Vandle is leading the operation, please refer to him for any more questions. I have to leave now. Do not fail this mission. Doctor Vant is a priority target, ensure he remains unharmed.”
With that Garald left the meeting room.
Professor Vandle took over, walking to the head of the room. “It really is good to see you again, I only wish the whole class could be brought here. But enough reminiscing. I will assign roles to each of you. Myself and Jid will act as scouts. We will keep point and watch for Josua. Dartan, you will have access to the security room and any files of information you might need. Crack their Coder’s defense barrier and reveal their secret. Yillo, Emilo, Talayia, Veron and Hales you will be the primary fighters. Keep Doctor Vant safe and the translations secure, follow anything he tells you.”
“What of the archaeologist? Is he in the area of operation?” Genjam asked.
“Jourac will be present. So long as he remains in our possession then he is a valuable asset. Should he be kidnapped then he must be dispatched. He cannot fall into Josua’s hands alive. He knows everything.”
“Why has he not been dealt with yet?” Jid asked the next question.
“He was supposed to be, but Doctor Vant apparently had second thoughts. We are not qualified to know the reason. We will do our job and succeed.”
The squad of nine rolled out to their positions. The Research building Doctor Vant was working at was located only several kilometers from the military wing Vandle and his squad left from. They were all within the main district of Garghent, the heart of the metropolis, where the buildings resembled vague behemoths in a grandiose display of might and power.
They rode in a private truck to their destination.
“All roads leading in have already been closed. Anyone coming in will have to pass through high alert security. The local guard has been informed to check for Josua. The good thing is we know what he looks like.” Vandle looked around at his former student’s faces. They all looked battle-hardened. He couldn’t be more proud. Getting the opportunity to do a mission with them right now was any military professor’s dream. “What we don’t know is Josua’s current strength, or his accomplices aside from Antho who will rejoin us. They have the upperhand in terms of the element of surprise but we are the defenders so the responsibility of attack is on them. A risky thing to do at our headquarters.”
“But they pose a serious enough threat that the guard can’t handle themselves.” Jid input.
“True. It’s a precaution that we are here. The information we are protecting is highly classified and can’t fall into enemy hands. That’s why we’re needed. We’re up against Specters who have so far been able to avoid authority and punishment.”
The truck came to a halt and the group dismounted. Nine Specters in full gear leaping out of a truck is an intimidating sight. They wore dark clothing, lightweight and sturdy. Bullet resistant, flame retardant, water proof, electrically conductive, impact dampening, shock absorbent and most importantly for a Specter, flexible. Garghent invested in millions to perfect this exclusive gear for their Specters. They all carried sidearms at the very least because it never hurt to have a gun on hand.
The group split up. Professor Vandle and Jid would patrol around the perimeter of the research building, using their Aspects for scouting. Talayia, Emilo, Veron and Hales would guard the entrance to the laboratory where Doctor Vant was working. Dartan would be in a special annex room trying to crack the vigilante group’s barrier.
Vandle radioed in. “Stay sharp and work in shifts. It could be hours or it could be days before we see some action. But the longer they wait the more of a chance they will fail and we’ll find them. Expect something sooner than later. Use your discretion to engage any targets, but update your location to the rest of us first.” Vandle released the radio and focused his mind and breathing.
“Seeker!” He activated his Aspect and two golden-yellow beams of light appeared from his eyes. The lights gave him a panoramic sight from all points of the beams at once. He moved them in separate directions to cover more ground.
“Hunter!” Jid activated his own Aspect, becoming ethereal and altering his entire perspective to see energetic fields, after-images of motion, vital signs of living creatures and scent trails, all in a colorful kaleidoscope of dizzying and dancing lights and distortions. When he first awakened his Aspect a single step drained most of his stamina in this state. Jid was among the fastest runners of his class and he compared one step to a 30 meter sprint. Conditioning, practice and endurance scout training enabled him to move for minutes at a time before needing to stop. He learned tracking skills and developed those principles to apply them for reading his Hunter state. There was an intuitive facet to his Aspect as well as being able to read the intentions behind actions of the organisms or people he observed in this state.
Drawing on those skills now, Jid looked for signs of Josua.
Back at the research building, the Specters were making preparations. Veron was drawing tattoos, Talayia was sharpening extra knives, Emilo was doing breathing exercises, Yillo was meditating and Hales was daydreaming.
There was obvious tension in the air, coupled with anticipation for a fight and the fact most of these former students had not seen each other in over a year.
Talayia broke the ice. “Still daydreaming?” She nudged Hales back to reality. Hales forced a smile.
“Been a while, Tals.” Hales greeted.
“It’s been even longer since anyone’s used that nickname. I would ask what you’ve been doing in the military but I have access to everyone’s files.”
“You stalk us?” Hales accused sarcastically.
“I hate missing out on all my friends’ lives!” Talayia defended innocently.
“Well that saves me the trouble of explaining. How is the spy thing going?”
“I’m getting closer to catching up to my brother, I can feel it. Moving up the ranks and perfecting the art of stealth.”
Hales knew Talayia’s whole reason for joining the military and Espionage division was to find her brother. Hales didn’t know much else other than that singular drive propelled Talayia to dedicate her life to subterfuge and awaken an Aspect. Talayia hadn’t seen her brother since she was a child.
“What will you do when you meet him?” Hales couldn’t help but ask.
“We planned a very long sibling reunion day.”
“That’s touching.” Hales said.
“So how are your siblings?” Talayia winked.
Hales shook her head. “You probably know better than me. They practically live with their babysitter since I’ve been so busy. But at least they’ve got a better place now and I see them when I can. Mostly it’s just school and the usual childhood shenanigans.”
“Ah, those were simpler times. Being a kid. Back then we just dreamed of having powers and fighting bad guys and now that we’re actually doing it, I dream of being a carefree child again.”
“When did you get all nostalgic? I always took you for a living in the moment gal.” Hales teased.
Talayai rolled her eyes. “Oh hush, you know seeing people you haven’t in a long time brings all those connections to the forefront of your mind.”
“Yeah.” Hales agreed passionately, even with just that simple response, and let the conversation slip away.
“We should update each other on any new abilities and talk combat strategy.” Suggested Genjam.
“I see you haven’t lost that leader mentality at all.” Talayia snarked.
Genjam sighed. “Let’s try to take this seriously. We don’t know who we’re up against.”
“Oh since when did pointing out character traits become synonymous with aloofness?” Talayia provoked.
“Can we just focus on the mission?” Genjam pleaded.
“I am focused. But suppose the enemy is nearby and listening or that this building is bugged, I mean they apparently know enough about this place to plan a break in and kidnap someone with top security. By all means, explain your powers out loud.”
“I’m just trying to make sure we’re all prepared, not just for the enemy but so that we don’t hit our own team.” Genjam explained.
Part of the tension came from a quality of Specters that is persistent among all those with power and killer instincts. The independence and individuality that comes from the Aspect imbues such an intense sense of superiority and paranoia that even former classmates or old friends start to see one another with hungry, challenging eyes that ask ‘who among us is stronger’.
“I can give you a demonstration.” Talayia stepped up to Genjam. She was tall and lithe with very long, dark hair braided in multiple sections. She had the taller appearance and stature but Genjam was actually physically taller and much bulkier. He had short hair, large eyes and a strong jaw as opposed to Talayia’s features which were all sharp and high.
Comparing them side by side, Genjam was much softer looking, almost gentle. Talayia had the deadlier countenance.
Genjam blinked first.
“Relax, okay.” Genjam backed off and went to guard a hallway.
Emilo chuckled dryly “When did you become such a-“
“You can hold your breath but not your tongue!” Talayia snapped. “Maybe I should cut it out.”
“Case in point.” Emilo snidely remarked.
Hales pinched her nose in exasperation.
Talayia shot a knife out of her hand that was directed at Emilo.
His shocked expression was frozen to his face when turned to stone. The knife clattered to the floor.
He breathed out and returned to his normal skin, storming up a rage. “What the fuck you crazy bitch!”
Talayia tsked three times. “I told you not to say it.”
She shot a volley of stilettos dagger out her body.
Emilo transformed into his gargoyle form, allowing him to move at the cost of reduced invulnerability. He blocked the projectiles with his arm. When he moved his arm back down, Talayia was gone.
She had launched her black dagger behind Emilo and appeared at its location behind him. She jabbed a finger at his stone reinforced neck.
“At this range you’ll die.” She said coldly.
Emilo stopped moving. In order to put his Steelskin back to its strongest level he’d have to drop his gargoyle form and breath in.
“You’re bluffing.” He said in a grating, deep voice.
“Then make a move.” Talayia dared.
A door opened nearby. “I can hear you all from here! What’s going on?” It was Dartan and he looked mad.
“Genjam suggested we show off our powers.” Talayia responded first.
“Hey that’s not-“ Genjam started but Dartan cut in.
“Whatever it is, I can’t focus with you guys arguing.” He pulled out a pill bottle, popped the cap and downed a bunch.
“So you haven’t cracked it yet?” Veron asked.
“No, their Coder has it layered in some complex stuff. Imagine an irregular geometric shape with an unspecified number of angles with an unknown surface area and its in three dimensions, now solve the mathematical matrix in which that geometric shape was formed.”
“You could’ve just left it as no.” Veron complained.
“So if you do all that you break their barrier?” Hales asked.
Dartan blinked. “Yeah. And without a Coder I doubt anyone could ever breach it.”
“What is it exactly?” Hales asked again, “their ability I mean. I don’t understand it. When I try to say their name it gets bleeped out, like some curse word in a movie.”
“That’s not a bad comparison, but it’s a lot different too. What I’ve learned so far is that it’s called Shibboleth, maybe not the Aspect itself but the name of the block. It’s not a mental block like you’re just forgetting it when you try to say, it’s more close to a cosmic or moetic rift. There is just a void in the very concept of its existence. A tear in the fabric of reality. Maybe to use your movie metaphor the film tape is missing, instead of a censor the part that’s supposed to be there is gone.”
Hales tapped her chin “I guess that makes sense, but then how do we know the group even exists?”
“Context. People exist, society exists. We know what the idea of a vigilante is so we can understand that they fit within the structure of what it means to be a vigilante.”
“So they aren’t actually vigilantes then?” Hales said.
“What?” Dartan said abruptly.
“They fit the narrative of a vigilante because that’s as much as we can perceive them, according to your explanation. It’s like a prism. You angle it in the right light and it can look like there is a cube or a sphere inside but the prism itself is something else entirely.”
“Wait a second. Oh man, I’ve been looking at it all wrong.” Without another word Dartan went back to his room.
“Well that killed my buzz.” Talayia declared.
Emilo looked angry still but all the tension was gone now and he just walked off to join Genjam.
“I think you broke Dartan.” Veron laughed. “And I think you broke Emilo.” Veron and Talayia started chatting and Hales moved over to Yillo.
“Well I think Talayia is losing it.” Hales admitted quietly.
Yillo shrugged. “We should pay attention.” He obviously did not care.
Hales walked someplace to stand watch. Each Specter naturally shifted toward a different spot and stayed with a pair. Yillo and Hales guarded one path, Genjam and Emilo took point at another and Veron and Talayia stood outside the large doors to Doctor Vant’s lab.
Hours went by uneventfully save for the occasional banging on a desk coming from Dartan’s room.
Vandle radioed in. “Status update. No sign of Josua. Dartan how much longer?”
Dartan responded. “Hours, days maybe. This Coder is into some crazy stuff.”
“Very well, keep working at it. We’re going to circle around and check the locale again.”
The radio went silent.
“There’s a rec room right down the hall. We should take turns eating.” Hales suggested. “This is going to be a long day.”.
“Alright. You want the first shift?” Yillo asked.
“You can take it, I’m not hungry yet.”
Yillo nodded and made his way to the rec room. Shortly after, a lab assistant came out from the research room. He was an older man and wore a white coat.
“Getting some supplies.” He informed Talayia and Veron.
“I will escort you.” Talayia told him.
“Garghent must be desperate these days if twenty year olds are our bodyguards.” he grumbled.
Talayia just smiled.
“Our work is too important to be left in the hands of kids.” He complained as they walked.
“We are all Specters.” Talayia explained.
“Bah! Give a child a gun and they are still a child.”
Talayia smiled again. They were coming toward Hales’ hallway and Talayia made eye contact with her.
What Hales got from that second of eye exchange was how badly Talayia wanted to murder that man.
Another radio call from Professor Vandle interrupted the escort process.
“We found Josua! He’s with Antho and one more, likely a Specter. Send three and keep three to guard the research building. We’ll meet you at the entrance.” As soon as Vandle finished speaking the radio went dead.
“We’ve lost signal!” Shouted Genjam. Yillo came running back at the same moment.
“Which three?” Yillo asked. He looked eager.
Talayia turned from the research assistant she was escorting. “Wait! This is a trap. They timed the signal jammer right when Vandle gave orders to split up.”
Emilo was double checking his weapons. “So they hacked our channel? How?”
“It doesn’t matter. We stay here.”
“What about Vandle and Jid?” Genjam asked.
“Vandle and Jid won’t engage without backup. The mission priority is guarding Doctor Vant.”
“Vandle’s last orders were to join him.” Genjam argued.
“It’s a diversion to lessen our numbers here.” Talayia argued back.
“What diversion? They found Josua. He’s our target, we can take him out!”
The research assistant cleared his throat excessively loud. “Your mission right now is to escort me to get supplies and lab gear.”
Talayia swiveled furiously. “You are going back to the laboratory. We’re locking down.”
“No, I am getting supplies.” the lab assistant said tursly. He started marching down the hallway.
“Is it really worth dying for, to get supplies? It can wait.” Talayia ordered.
He didn’t stop walking when he spoke. “We are on the cusp of translating the most important text of knowledge for Aspects. Something that will only benefit you and your fellow Specters. It is worth dying for,” he pointed his finger,” and it’s worth you dying for as well.”
Talayia cursed but ultimately relented. “Everyone stay here until I come back!” She shouted from down the hall.
“Let’s go.” Genjam blurted out. “We stop Josua and the Doctor Vant will be safest. We still have Antho as a double agent and we’ll be going through the main entrance anyways. We’ll tell the foot soldiers to increase their numbers on the way out.”
“I’m down,” Hales said. “If there’s going to be a fight soon regardless, I’d rather do it outside where I have more room.”
“I’m coming too.” Emilo said,
“Guess I’ll hold down the fort. We should have at least someone,” volunteered Veron.
“Yillo, can you stay too?” Genjam asked.
“We’ve wasted enough time, let’s get to Vandle.” Genjam started on a jog with Hales and Emilo.
A few minutes later Dartan came scrambling out the annex room door. He looked surprised. “Where did everyone go?”
“Outside, they found Josua.” Yillo explained minimalistically.
“No, damn it. I’ve just cracked the barrier. This is bad. The radios are down too.” Dartan was tapping his fingers and rubbing his head. “Very, very bad.”
“What’s wrong?” Veron asked.
“Ambush. Josua’s setting an ambush. We need to warn them.”
“They already assume it’s going to be a trap.” Veron said calmly.
“No, just stop talking.” Dartan’s eyes were bloodshot and his whole body was shaking. The veins in his head were twitching.
“Are you okay?” Veron asked.
“I’m fine! Just a side effect. It’s not a trap, it’s an ambush. Josua has a small army.”
“Calm down, Dartan. They can handle it. We’ve also got a lot of soldiers in the area.”
Dartan was becoming very heated. “An army of Specters! Josua has been collecting Specters. Anyone who didn’t want to join the military but couldn’t leave the city. Specters we fought in the tournament. Lots of them! A dozen, maybe more.”
“Oh. How can you know that?”
“I broke through their barrier. They have a hidden website. It’s got loads of stuff including recruitment and lists of a lot of prominent people in Garghent. They have their own spy network under our noses.”
“Veron, go warn Vandle and the other’s. I’ll stay here.” Yillo took command. “Dartan, keep looking through their site. I don’t know how long you’re going to have access to that before they find out, but you’ll certainly be a target.”
“I’m leaving.” Veron sprinted off.
“You sure I shouldn’t see what’s stopping the radio?” Dartan suggested.
“No, you’ve used your power enough for now. You might need it for later. Focus on recording what you can from the website.”
“Yeah okay, I just need a minute.” Dartan pulled out his pill bottle again and downed another bunch before heading back into the work room.
Yillo said nothing more and stood guard right in front of the doors to the laboratory.
He would wait here, prepared to fend off any number of Specters. He had earned a reputation from the Tournament after killing his own classmate. If the enemy Specters really were members of that same Tournament, Yillo hoped they would recognize him.
He thought it was unfair that killing should be a disqualifier for that Tournament, not that it really mattered now because it was so long ago but just the thought of missing out on fighting made Yillo jittery.
This was going to be exciting. He was alone and his Paroxysm was trying so hard to surface, he could barely keep his color normal.
And then the power went out in the city.