Curveball Issue 32: The Foe Beneath

Part One: Thorpe Island

There is a moment after the storm passes when the tension eases—almost like an exhalation of breath, as if the island is relaxing into the promise of calm after weathering the winds and pounding rain. The sky still rumbles, but the sound is faint, and light no longer flickers across the sky. The only trace of the storm that remains is the wind, and it, too, is dying away. There is only the sound of surf rolling onto the sand.

And then, there is something new.

Out of the sky, a trumpet sounds, blowing a long, clear note. It has no discernible source of origin—the sound simply is, existing everywhere, surrounding everything. It isn’t loud, but it carries an unmistakable feeling of power. The trumpet sounds again, and the air hums, vibrating with the power it carries. A third time the trumpet sounds, and a soft, steady hiss fills the air as a sharp wind blows over the beaches, creating tiny funnels of sand that quickly dissolve into formless clouds. When the sand falls back to earth it almost sounds like the patter of raindrops all over again.

A siren sounds from a complex of modern buildings at the center of the island, echoed in turn by a siren that sounds in the small town that sits nearby. Men and women emerge from the buildings—stores, houses, apartments—carrying children, pets, and whatever belongings they can manage—and begin to walk toward the town square.

The trumpet sounds again. Many of the people look nervously into the sky, trying to find its source. Small children cry softly, pressing in close to their parents for comfort.

At the center of the island, the gates of the main complex open. A fleet of buses rumble through, moving at speeds normally considered very unsafe for vehicles of that size. They aren’t the fastest things moving, however—a blur of red streaks past them, almost too fast to see, the sharp boom of a supersonic echo following it all the way to the shoreline. A second blur streaks straight into the air, coming to a halt and hanging motionless high over the island. A few of the people point, recognizing the red-and-black uniform.

Roger Whitman. The Regiment.

Two more figures can be seen hurtling through the air—not flying, though given the distance they cover with each leap the point may be moot. They land in the town square with practiced ease, and start directing the growing crowd. One, a tall dark-haired man with a nasty scar traveling down the left side of his face, glances up at the floating form of Regiment, as if waiting for a signal. The people in town know who he is—Scrapper Jack, a villain of some note in days past, now a guest of the island. The other man is dressed in the very distinctive uniform of Crossfire, a group of lawless vigilantes. This man is also a guest of the island.

Fire streaks across the sky as the flaming silhouette of a woman flies up to Regiment and takes position to his right. The townspeople aren’t familiar with her.

The townspeople are beginning to believe that maybe, this time, this isn’t a drill.

The ground shakes as long, slender cylinders emerge from the ground at various points across the island. This causes more concern than anything else—it means the island’s point defenses are being deployed, and that isn’t usually done for drills.

The buses reach the edge of the town when the horn stops.

For a few seconds all that can be heard are the sirens blaring, and the roar of engines as the buses careen wildly into town. Then a third sound, felt before it’s heard… a rumbling groan emerging from the water, rolling over the land, a sonic fog of discontent and malice that makes pets restless and small children weep. The sound increases steadily, until it sits somewhere between the bus engines and sirens.

That’s when the water begins to roil.

A wide ribbon of churning wake erupts from the ocean water, surrounding the island completely. The frenzy of the ocean deep triggers a change in the sound: the rumbling groan grows louder, angrier, more intense… and as the sound increases, it feeds back into the water, and the seething ring widens in turn.

Twenty feet. Fifty feet. One hundred feet. Two hundred feet. Two hundred and fifty feet of water churning so fiercely that it has turned foamy white, surrounding the island completely, and still growing wider.

Panic begins to set in. People pour into the streets, surging forward as if intending to meet the trucks halfway. Vigilante and Scrapper Jack immediately start shouting, telling the townspeople to fall back, form lines, and wait. They are ignored until Jack stamps firmly on the ground. The tremor cracks the asphalt around his feet and momentarily surprises the crowd into silence.

The buses roll in shortly after. When the first comes to a stop, a thin, spiky-haired man wearing a trenchcoat hops out.

“Single file, climb in!” CB’s voice cuts through the noise effortlessly. “When this bus is full, start boarding the next! There is room for everyone, and you will not be left behind.

That is apparently the reassurance they were looking for. The crowd quickly forms into lines.

CB grabs one of the townspeople at random and jerks his thumb to indicate the bus. “Can you drive this thing?”

An older woman dressed in green coveralls blinks in surprise and nods mutely.

CB nods and tosses her the keys. “When the bus is full, go to the main complex. They’ll take it from there.”

The woman nods again, then hurries into the bus, climbing up the well and into the driver’s seat.

The other buses line up behind the first, and their drivers emerge in turn. CB nods to Jenny as she emerges from the second bus, then to Alan Grant as he steps out of the third. He doesn’t bother nodding at Agent Grant as he steps out of the fourth, fifth, and sixth; it feels redundant.

“The Lieutenant says they’re close.” Street Ronin’s voice comes in clearly through the nearly invisible earpiece CB is wearing. “Ten minutes on the outside.”

“How does he know? How sure is he?” CB snatches a backpack off the ground, handing it back to the young teen who’d dropped it moments before. “And why are you calling him Lieutenant when you know he’s not a cop any more?”

“He hasn’t thought of a name yet.” Street Ronin sounds mildly exasperated. “I can’t exactly blame him—his power is weird—but we gotta call him something. Anyway, he says he can sort of feel them.”

“He can sort of feel them?” CB does a quick headcount. “We have forty buses. Mine is about half full. We’re going to need more time than that.”

“You’ll get it.” Roger’s voice cuts in, sounding calm and unconcerned.

I guess when you can fly and never bleed it’s hard to get stressed about fighting an unending horde of magic bug aliens.

“Ten minutes to surface,” Street Ronin says. “Not ten minutes before these things overrun your position. Given what the Lieutenant has told us, we should be able to stall their advance long enough for you to evacuate the town.”

“Fine,” CB says. “Since we have some time to kill, how about we find the Lieutenant a proper handle, so Crossfire doesn’t keep rubbing his forced retirement in his face?”

“That’s not what we’re doing.” Street Ronin sounds a little defensive.

CB grins. “Not intentionally, maybe, but you know, he didn’t retire because he wanted to.”

David Bernard breaks in, sounding wary. “It’s OK. I’d rather not commit to a name before I’ve had a chance to figure out exactly what I can do.”

“I got one for him.” Alan Grant’s voice cuts in, and CB looks across the square to see the man trying very hard not to grin. “It’s perfect.”

David’s wariness turns sharply toward alarm. “Uh, I don’t think—”

“Doctor Weird.”

There’s a moment of silence over the line.

“What?” David asks faintly.

“Doctor Weird,” Grant repeats. “You’re Earth’s Warlock Supreme.”

That provokes sharp laughter from Jenny. The townspeople boarding her bus look at her nervously as they pass.

“Grant, you are such an asshole.” Agent Hu, Grant’s partner, sounds more amused than annoyed. “Also, ‘Weird’ is a terrible handle.”

“Thank you,” David says.

“Should be something like ‘Enigma,’” she continues. “Sounds way cooler.”

“That’s actually not bad,” Vigilante agrees.

“I can’t be—”

Before David has a chance to continue his protest, Street Ronin cuts in. “Red Shift just checked in. He votes yes on ‘Doctor Enigma.’ He’d tell you himself, but he’s moving a little too fast to talk right now.”

“It’s a pretty good handle.” Scrapper Jack, this time. “But isn’t it already in play? I wanna say it’s some guy in Kansas.”

“Nah, Scrapper, that’s just ‘Enigma,’” Vigilante says. “And he retired a few years ago.”

“Look,” David says, fighting to keep the exasperation out of his voice, “I don’t think this is the right time to—”

“Let’s get a consensus here,” CB says. “Jenny? Roger? Robert? LaFleur? We haven’t heard from any of you, yet.”

“Gladiator and Overmind are abstaining from the vote,” Street Ronin says. “They’re too busy being grownups.”

“I’m not voting either.” Roger doesn’t bother hiding his amusement. “But I agree, it’s a pretty good name.”

“That counts as a ‘yes,’” CB says. “Jenny?”

“I like it,” Jenny says. “Seriously, David, you could do a lot worse.”

“Well, there you go,” CB says. “That’s all in favor, minus two abstentions. Motion carries. Congratulations, Doctor Enigma.”

“We’re not all in favor,” David protests. “I’m not in favor.”

“Oh, come on,” CB says, “you don’t count…”

“Guys!” CB can almost picture David throwing up his hands in exasperation. “I have a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice!”

The channel is useless for the next two minutes. No-one can seem to stop laughing.

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