The Sorrel-Eades warehouses, a small complex just north of the Farraday City Boardwalk, have been abandoned for years. It was declared an EPA Superfund site a decade ago, when a truck dangerously overloaded with industrial chemicals exploded outside the center warehouse building. It’s well known among the locals that anyone who goes in the S-E complex dies, and some of the earliest examples of that death were graphic and frightening. But the EPA never actually sent anyone to clean it up—whether they forgot, or the lords of the city forbade it, nobody knew. The end result was the same: nobody went there unless they actually wanted to die.
The truth of the matter is that the chemicals have been gone from the complex for years. When Haruspex Analytics wanted to find a place where they could operate in anonymity, they chose the most environmentally inhospitable location they could find, cleaned it up, and made sure nobody knew it was clean. In the end, it was simply one contaminant being replaced with another, and it still killed anyone who came too close or stayed too long. In the last few days, however, locals have noticed things happening there—specifically trucks driving up to the center building, and armed guards unloading sealed containers. So far no one has worked up enough curiosity to start poking around, and the storm currently engulfing the city is a far more pressing concern.
A storm, it should be noted, that has left the Sorrel-Eades complex relatively untouched.
All eleven buildings sit comfortably within the storm’s eye. The old chain link fence that closed off the complex from the rest of the city is gone, ripped to shreds and flung across the city by the eyewall separating the complex from everything else, but the warehouses themselves are untouched, an oasis surrounded by a swirling wall of screaming clouds. The clouds themselves are terrifying, moving at such speeds, with such a small circumference, that they resemble the inside of a tornado—smooth, almost marbleized. At the higher elevations, lightning sparks so furiously that the light filters down through the clouds, so that even at ground level they glow with a faint green light.
It is into this scene that Jack Barrow emerges from the eyewall next to the southeast warehouse, soaked to the bone, carrying Red Shift and Jenny Forrest, one under each arm. He hops up on to an old loading platform as if the weight of the two were nothing, and sets them down against the warehouse cinderblock wall. Red Shift immediately staggers to his feet, using the warehouse wall to steady himself. Jenny stays where she is, fumbles with her chin strap, and removes her helmet. Her braided hair is soaked, and she wordlessly turns her helmet over, watching the water spill out.
“That… was undignified,” Red Shift says.
Jenny snorts, taps the back of her helmet a few times to make sure the water is gone, and with a sigh puts it back on her head.
Vigilante appears out of the clouds a few seconds later, between the southeast and east warehouses, carrying CB and Street Ronin, one under each arm. He takes a moment to get his bearings, sees Scrapper Jack and the others, and moves quickly to join them. Only when he reaches the loading platform does he set his passengers down, at which point Street Ronin sits up and removes his helmet, emptying it of water in much the same way Jenny did. CB simply rolls over on his back, reaches into a trench coat pocket, and pulls out a half-empty pack of cigarettes and a rusted Zippo lighter.
“Well,” CB says, “that part of the plan was shot all to hell.”
Jack grunts in agreement as he shakes the water out of his leather jacket.
“No time to rest,” Vigilante says. “If they haven’t spotted us yet, they will soon. Everyone in position.”
Jack nods. “Luck.” In a single, smooth motion he leaps into the air, disappearing from sight. Vigilante runs east, disappearing from sight.
Street Ronin stands, pulls down his visor, and reaches over his right shoulder to detach his rifle from its mount. “Ready Zero?”
Jenny stands, testing her balance, then nods. They run around the opposite corner of the building, heading north.
Red Shift taps his visor once, then sighs. “At least it’s dry in here. I hate hydroplaning.”
CB says nothing. He pulls out an earpiece from a trench coat pocket, placing it in his ear with his right hand as he lights his cigarette with the zippo in his left.
Red Shift’s mouth twitches slightly, then in a blur of speed he’s gone.
CB takes a drag from his cigarette and feels the world spin around him, much like the storm they just fought their way through moments ago. It spins and tiny pieces swirl around him, like parts of a puzzle scattering through the air. He takes a second drag and the whirling stops, the world snaps into focus, and he can see all the angles.
Time to play pool.
He flips up onto a small awning partially covering the loading platform. From there it takes two broken windows and a rusted air conditioner to get to the roof. He crosses the roof quickly, and looks down at the rest of the complex. All of the buildings are dark. All of the spaces between are empty.
He taps his earpiece once. “In position.”
One by one, the rest of the team answers in kind. Red Shift, Street Ronin, Jenny, Vigilante, Jack. Everything is set. All that remains is the opportune moment.
“All the pieces on the board,” a voice says.
CB spins around, pistols in hand. There, in the middle of the roof, stand two men. Men he has, in fact, met before: one large, one small, both wearing pinstripe suits and bowler hats. The large man stares at him impassively, betraying no emotion at all. The smaller man is very thin, his eyes are very bright, and his smile carries all the warmth and sincerity of a rictus grin.
“All the pieces on the board, waiting for the bell to ring. Who shall live to be the pawn? Who shall die to be the king?” The grin sharpens to match the eyes.
CB exhales sharply, then returns his pistols to their holsters. “I’m more of a checkers guy.”
“I think you are not,” the small man says, and doffs his hat, bowing low. “But I am not offended by the deception. Quite the contrary, in fact. Oh Cat Who Observes Himself, we truly must stop meeting like this.”
“Fine by me.” CB watches the small man warily. “We still besties?”
“Indeed. Our alliance must, it seems, continue apace. We have gone so far as to attempt to intervene on your behalf. The results were somewhat disastrous, unfortunately.” The small man gestures wide, indicating the shrieking wall of clouds.
CB looks at the clouds. “You did the storm? That’s your idea of helping?”
The small man gives a slight shrug, his smile rueful and mocking at the same time. “It wasn’t what we intended. They wanted the storm. We attempted to stop them. They countered with something… unexpected, and now we have this…”
The small man stares at the roiling clouds.
“It will continue to grow, of course. It’s hard to believe the little man had so much power, in the end. There are very few on this earth who can do what he is doing right now. Perhaps only one other. Had we known what he was truly capable of… well.”
“Wait.” CB focuses intently on the smaller man. “A person did this?”
“Oh yes, a person. Horace Preston. Do you know him? They needed him to create a storm. He could have done it, in time, had we let him. Not one like this, of course. Probably little more than a monsoon. But we wouldn’t have it, and we broke him. It should have ended there.”
“Where did it end instead?”
The small man laughs. “That’s the problem, oh Cat. It isn’t ending. It isn’t ending at all.”
He spins, arms wide, just as he had on their first meeting. “They put him in an iron box, and sealed him shut with mighty locks, and when the king made known his will, the jester danced, and dances still.” He stumbles at the end, almost losing his hat, and he laughs like a child. But when he stops spinning he stares at CB with uncharacteristic calm and gravity.
“He’s somewhere underground. Buried in a burrow, a box within a box, set beneath a box. There’s nothing left of him now, I’m afraid. Nothing but his power, unfettered by his flesh. As long as he is trapped within that box he is power without constraint, and the power he channels is more than enough to destroy this city. He will bury it in water, destroy it with wind, bring lightning and fire from the heavens, and it won’t stop here. It will continue to grow… and grow… and grow… the devastation will be immense. He’s become quite the prodigy, our Mr. Preston.”
CB turns to look out at the other warehouses. Somewhere underground... that was what they’d suspected to begin with, but it was good to have some kind of confirmation that they were on the right track.
“Hold on. He’s become quite the what?”
No one replies. The men are gone. CB is alone on the roof.
“Great,” CB says. “One of those.”
He looks at the eyewall and wonders if it’s grown taller since they arrived. Is the patch of blue sky overhead smaller, or is that just his imagination?
He’s become quite the prodigy, our Mr. Preston.
…quite the prodigy…
CB’s eyes widen.
“Oh. Oh shit.”