The Chosen Few

rating: +89+x

HUB: Speed Demon

I don't usually hang around Three Portlands, but the dives are second to none and the bartenders aren't programmed to ask questions. I order a blit-bomb, and Hersh rotates with a click and starts mixing a cocktail of glowing chemicals that would be more suited to a bowl of Jello or toxic waste vat. The pub has seen better days: the paint is warped and split, the air is like melting fondue, and everyone in here is loaded for bear. But the drinks — the drinks will kill you. And that's my kind of scene.

Hersh passes me the cocktail. It looks like Superfund sludge. I toss the blit-bomb back, and it hits me like a freight train, flushing my pores and making my skin steam. The hot euphoria of my innards being melted down and rebuilt by my chest engine is better than sex.

While I'm coming down off the high of ingested toxic waste, a hobo in blue sweatpants and blue windbreaker sidles onto the stool next to me and asks Hersh for a tonic. I order another blit-bomb. We don't look at each other.

"You the witch?" he says out of the corner of his mouth.

I heft up a small steel case in one hand. He does the same with a small USB stick. Hersh holds out two glasses: one full of tonic, the other of iridescent rainbow slick. We place our goods on the counter, then simultaneously snatch the other from the table and down our drinks.

I'm lighting up a cigarette when the hobo draws a pistol on me.

"FBI! Put your hands up! You are under arrest for trafficking in controlled substances, homicide, assault and battery, unlawful possession of firearms and paraweaponry, opening Ways within restricted spaces, crossing state lines in the commission of a crime, sending threats by mail, racketeering, and armed robbery."

He manages to get it all out in one breath. I haven't even managed to close my lighter.

"You forgot jaywalking," I say. Behind the agent, a man in an ugly grey hoodie slouching in a booth gives me a wink. The hoodied man stares intently at a nearby wizard — a hobgoblin of a man who almost certainly has a penchant for fire magic.

The agent stares at me. "Hands up!"

Hoodie's stare drills into the hobgoblin, who slowly sidles out of his seat with a bottle in hand.

"Do you know what's in a blit-bomb?" I ask the agent. I snap my lighter closed and he flinches slightly. Nearby, two nondescript men and one woman stiffen — they must be his backup. "Do you even know what'll happen if you shoot me?"

All eyes are focused entirely on me.

"What?" the agent asks. His finger tightens on the trigger.

I wink. "Nothing!"

The hobgoblin smashes his bottle over the agent's head and takes three lightning bolts in the back for the trouble. I grab the case and throw myself over the counter where Hersh is hiding. He stares at me accusingly as bolts of fire and other blood magicks destroy his selection of exotic depressants.

"Hey, don't look at me," I tell him. "I didn't start this."

I take a moment to think. Those bolts were thrown by the UIU. I'm not just dealing with some regular joes in over their heads. This must be MOOT: the Mobile Occult Operations Team. The heavy hitters. The wizard SWAT.

This will be harder than I thought.

Hersh looks ready to reactivate his combat programming. Time to make my great escape. From my left pocket comes a pair of bright-orange knuckledusters; from my right, a fistful of purple pills that tend to interact explosively with blit-bombs. I pop the pills and slide the knuckledusters over my fingers.

My whole body starts vibrating. As I peek over the countertop, the vibrations concentrate themselves into my fingers. They start to glow — a close enough look would reveal tiny explosions coming off my digits, bombarding the surrounding air with heat and concussive force like miniature thermobaric warheads.

A quick scan of the room reveals three things: Hoodie's disappeared; the MOOT agents have managed to instigate a bar brawl; and the room has no exits. I had to get PushedTM in by a bouncer — and in retrospect that's probably why the UIU wanted to meet here. No way out.

But I'm used to making my own.

I throw the case over the counter and vault over it, almost immediately taking a bar stool to the face; luckily, its owner is more alcohol than water at this point. She offers no resistance when I catch it and yank it from her hands. The stool immediately starts disintegrating, but stays intact long enough for me to catch a knife with the seat and bash its wielder so hard that their mechanical eyes pop out of their sockets.

A pair of angry wizards lurch at me. I duck under Gandalf the Chrome and sweep his legs out from under him. His buddy tries to lurch over him but receives a kick to the cybernetic crotch, then an uppercut that sends him in one direction and his metal jaw in another. As Chrome tries to get to his feet, I elbow drop him in the skull and drive him into the ground with a CHOOM.

I grab the case from the floor and a lightning bolt goes over my head. Looking up, I see the MOOT team stalking towards me. They tried bringing me in quietly — now they just want me quiet. While the female agent lobs lightning bolts at me, her backup keeps the rabble at bay. It's all I can do to weave between the shots without losing my balance — her trigger finger is faster than the bolts she's throwing.

Then I get the drop on myself — literally, tripping backwards over a stray bar stool. It's exactly what I need. Neither of us are expecting the stumble, so her next few shots go wide. I manage to convert the fall into a back roll and come up on my knees. Then I throw the case at her.

Her lightning bolts are meant to disable nervous systems, not inanimate objects, so it hits her full force in the face. As she goes down, I lunge at her goons. They react a split-second too slowly. I reach out, grab them by their collars, and slam their heads together. It sounds like bottles breaking.

With my immediate vicinity free of morons, I scoop up the case and continue looking for an exit. Then my gaze meets the hobgoblin's. He's recovered from his impromptu tasing — man's tougher than he looks — and I can tell he blames me for it.

The hobgoblin smashes a bottle against an adjacent table and shouts an incantation, turning the spilling booze into a column of fire. He wraps both hands around his drunken angel sword and lunges at me, confident in his killing blow. And he should be. I've seen that kind of magic fire before: there's not a substance on any Earth that can stop it, and if I try to block it I'll be bisected like butter.

So I don't block it. I step inwards to meet him, twisting slightly to get between his arms and then grabbing his bottle hand and wrenching it upwards. He involuntarily releases his grip on the sword. As it flies into the air, I elbow the hobgoblin in the face and onto the ground. Then I bash the case into his face — once, twice, thrice. Not enough to kill him — that would break the spell and leave me covered in booze — but enough to keep him down.

I stand up and catch the bottle by the neck, then look at the walls. It's impossible to punch through them — they're PushTM only. But I have a drunken angel sword. And there's not a substance on any Earth that can stop it.

I haven't even finished the thought before I dig the blade into the wall, carving out a Rookie-shaped ring of fire big enough for me to slip through.

It's almost nightfall, or whatever they call it in Three Portlands, by the time I shake the city's police golems and make it back to the hotel. When I get into the room, the Inside Man is sitting on his bed, still wearing that ugly grey hoodie, munching on some crisps and watching a brainless action flick. I have no idea why he likes those things.

"Why d'you still have that thing?" he asks upon seeing the case in my hand. "I said you could leave it behind. It's empty, innit?"

I shrug. "I got attached."

The Inside Man rolls his eyes. "Whatever. Good work with the UIU — I made sure someone streamed you kicking their asses," he crows. "That kind of infamy is sure to put us in the top running for the name 'Chicago Spirit'."

"Us?" I say, fixing him with a disbelieving sneer. "You ditched me the moment those guys started throwing lightning around."

"Hey, I got you the hobgoblin, didn't I? Your job is to be badass. Mine is to let you be badass."

He stuffs a handful of crisps into his mouth. "I knew you'd get outta there fine. You gotta believe in yourself. Like I do."

I roll my eyes, then toss the case onto my bed and join him on his. "Seriously, what the hell are we doing here? You just said it was recon — for what?" I ask, reaching for the crisps.

The Inside Man perks up. "You remember Farhan?"

I nod.

"That was 'cause I was trying to get in on black market augs, right?" he says, passing the crisps. "But I got bored with it and so we never did anything. Well, I got hooked on this video game a couple days ago — it's called EVE Online, this online multiplayer game where you can start corporations and rob people and plan heists and — my point is, I'm hooked. So I want to try the black market thing again, for real."

He leans back. "Three Ports is prime for this kind of thing. Place is full of Maxwellists and the only real augcorp in town is Anderson — and they charge a fortune. Folks are chomping at the bit for cheap augs, and that's where we come in. We'll make a killing. But before I do anything I wanted to scope out the cops. See what they've got."

"So what've they got?"

"Nothing I can't handle with a good network. Anyways, that's all I needed from you. Gonna check in with my selves, see if they have any suggestions, chat with some folks around town. You can take off if you want. Got any plans for the rest of the week?"

"Think I'll stick around," I reply. " Go shopping, maybe. There's a few indie comics they sell here I wanna check out. Maybe a new mortar and pestle. What else is on?"

"Cool," he says, hitting the remote. The TV starts showing The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — don't judge, it's a great film. We watch the movie in amicable silence for an hour, only breaking the cheesy, feel-good dialogue onscreen with the crunching of crisps and the incessant gurgling of my stomach. The Inside Man goes out for thirty minutes, returning with a pair of large pizzas and a six-pack of beer that's been charmed to have twice the ABV. I devour it all — the thing inside my chest is hungry enough that nothing comes out the other end anymore. The beer — and that stunt I pulled earlier with the blit-bomb — put me into a coma before the movie finishes.

I don't sleep well that night.

I find myself sitting around a dining table. It's on the Moon. My ex-girlfriend, Natasha, is there. She's yelling at me, but no sound comes from her mouth. I look at the table. In front of me, a human heart pulses on a plate.

I take up my fork and start eating it. Natasha screams louder, soundlessly. I stop eating the heart and stand up from the table. Then I fall onto a waterslide, high in the sky. Shaggy and Scooby-Doo are there, speaking Tamil and wearing orange turbans. I'm on a high cliff overlooking an orange sunset — then something pushes me off and I plummet far to the ground.

I land on a couch. Then it's a toilet. Natasha dunks my head into it. I can't breathe, and then I breathe the water and I'm fine. I'm lying in bed with Natasha. I touch her shoulder and she rolls over. She doesn't have a face.

I'm trapped in a bunker with a family I haven't spoken to in years. There are monsters outside. There's an elf in the room. I stab him. The monsters get in. I hide under a table. It finds me. It has Natasha's face. I can't breathe.

There's a shadowy figure on top of me, knees planted firmly on my diaphragm in a way that makes my lungs scream. I can't breathe and I can't move and then the thing plunges its hand into my chest. My chest hurts and the thing looms over me with my heart in its claws. The light of its hellish pulse illuminates its face. It's Natasha.

But this is no dream.

I'm awake, and Natasha is on top of me with my heart in her hands.

The last time I saw her, I'd left her heartbroken in a different bloody universe.

Now she's here to return the favor.

NEXT: Morphine Machine

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