He raced through the blackness.
The loose dirt of the forest floor passed rapidly beneath him as he twisted around boulders and the boles of giant trees with not even as much as the slightest pause. Those boulders and trees should have been all but invisible here, under the heavy canopy of the branches that blocked out what little light came from the night sky high above, but he saw them all clearly. There was no colour, not to him, but not everything was in black and white; grey seeped into the world around him, grey of all shades, giving depth, giving life.
As he leapt over a fallen log, he realised there was something different about his body, but for the life of him he could not figure it out, even as front paws landed first, the leap not even slowing his frantic pace.
He felt something tangy and metallic in his mouth, something wet. He ran a tongue over it, feeling the sharp points of teeth in his mouth, but not even that seemed odd to him.
He could sense them, up ahead. His prey. His quarry.
They knew he was here now, had known it since he took down the first of them. They had fled him, stumbling almost blind in the darkness that was his home. They had tripped over unseen branches, tumbled down short banks, slipped on slick moss. But eventually they had regrouped, and he was fast approaching their new position.
He could hear their voices, raised, shouting to each other. But the words… he felt like he should know them, if he could only concentrate. If he could just reach out with his mind, he knew that their words would make sense to him. Not in a way of recognition, but in a way of… remembrance?
His mind felt like thick fog, unable to focus on what he wanted to focus on. There was only the Hunt that filled his entire being, and each time he tried to remember where he was, what he was doing, the thoughts slipped away like water through his fingers.
Fingers. That thought stayed long enough to have a follow up. I should have fingers… Then that too was gone.
They’d found a clearing, open to the soft pale light of the moon that hung, fat and swollen, in a crisply dark sky speckled with a million million stars. They had flashlights out, pointing them this way and that, making more of their almost familiar words to each other. They peered intently into the darkness of the forest that encircled the clearing, but they did not see him as he slinked carefully around.
He wanted them. That thought above all others. Wanted to leap at them, his teeth bared. Wanted to sink those teeth into flesh, ripping and tearing it asunder. Wanted to taste their blood, hot and sweet and sticky. The Hunt filled him, made his body ache with the need.
One of them must have spotted him, because suddenly they shouted louder than the others – and those words he knew he should have known as if it had come from his own mouth – and they all turned their lights towards his location. Their lights, and something more. Another word he should know, for those long devices they held in their hands, one end of each pointed towards him.
But it was too late. Too late for them, as he leapt into the clearing, his fevered desire for their death spurring him on. Onwards he rushed, twisting and leaping and dodging but never slowing, passed the streaking metal that would have spelled his doom, metal that was spat at him from those long devices with rapid and monstrously loud booms, and flashes of sudden light almost as bright as the sun.
Each bullet – the word intruded on him, feeling both familiar and unknown at the same time – missed its mark as he darted and dodged aside. Then he was on the first, leaping for the man, his paws outstretched and claws ready, his lips bared to reveal those razor sharp teeth.
The soldier screamed.
With a scream, he thrust himself out of the dream, catapulting almost out of his seat. And he probably would have left it entirely too, had it not been for the belt that was locked around his waist, securing him to the seat.
His eyes were open as wide as they could go, flashing this way and that wildly, and he panted as if he had just ran a sprint in record time. In his chest, his heart hammered incessantly, and sweat slicked his forehead and back.
Still shaking, he lowered himself back down into the seat, trying hard to control his breathing. It came now in short, sharp, burst through his nostrils. He became aware that his hands gripped the arms to the seat hard enough to turn the knuckles white, hard enough to dig his nails into the material.
Fingers. That was an odd thing to be surprised by, he thought as he unclenched his death grip on the seat arms. Fingers. He raised his hands to his face, wiggling the fingers even as he stared at them, counting them. Ten fingers. Why am I surprised that I have fingers?
He became aware of more of the world beyond his fingers. To his left, in the cramped seat next to him, was an elderly woman. She had thinning grey hair, creased skin, and eyes that looked at him with a mixture of sympathy and annoyance.
He swallowed hard, expecting the taste of blood in his mouth, surprised it wasn’t there.
He could hear something now, something that came above the pounding of blood in his ears, but it slipped away in the fog of reality each time he reached for it.
There was another person too, to his right. He swivelled his head that way, eyes still wide. Another woman stood in the aisle, younger than the first, and wearing a blue blazer over a white shirt. A stewardess, he knew, as more of reality seeped in.
“Are you alright, sir?” the stewardess was saying. Yes, that’s what that other noise had been; she had been speaking to him. “Sir? Are you alright?”
“Yes,” he managed, his voice raw in his throat. “What… what happened?”
He ran a hand down his face. His skin was cold to the touch, clammy, and damp from the sweat. He swallowed again. His body was calming now, he knew, but still the fog covered his thoughts, keeping them just out of his reach.
“You had a nightmare, I think,” the stewardess replied. “You were screaming, and nobody could seem to wake you.”
“Are you sure you’re okay, dear?” That from the elderly woman to his left.
“Yeah. Yeah,” he replied. “I just need to wash my face.”
“Alright,” said the stewardess, moving back a pace in the aisle. “But don’t be too long; we’re going to be coming in to land in about ten minutes.”
He muttered something, which was probably an acknowledgement and was taken as one anyway, before undoing the belt and pushing himself out of the tiny seat, easing his way out into the thin aisle that ran from one end of the aircraft to the other, soft green lights along it providing scant illumination. His legs wobbled, almost collapsing under him, and he grabbed the opposite seat for support. The cabin was dark, only a few lights on above seats and most of the shutters pulled down over small windows, but he could see more faces were watching him, some concerned, the majority angered that he had disturbed them. He forced his legs to solidify, but didn’t release his grips on the seats as he made his way towards the bathroom. The engines of the aircraft rumbled in the floor under his feet.
When he closed the toilet door behind him, slipping the lock into place, the light overhead flickered on. Only then did his legs give way, and he had to grip the wash stand to stop himself falling onto the cramped floor in a heap. He closed his eyes, letting out a long breath to stabilise himself, then pushed his body upright.
He didn’t look at the mirror as he filled the basin with hot water, then scooped it with his hands and splashed it over his face. He rubbed his fingers over his skin again, and up into his hair. Only then did he let himself look at his reflection.
Tommy Brogan was a tall man, cresting six foot, with a face he knew many found handsome, with deep blue eyes – so deep they were almost black – and high cheekbones. A few days’ worth of stubble covered his chin and his jawline, all the way up to lanky black hair that hung in curly threads, hair that he’d grown out over the last few months from its usual short and controlled style. He let out another long breath, feeling the warm water seep into his skin, revitalising him. The dream was already fading.
If it had been a dream. There was something of… familiarity to it. That didn’t make sense, but he couldn’t recall enough of it to place the recognition.
He dried his face, before heading back to his cramped chair. It creaked as he lowered himself back into it. The faces that had been watching him before had returned their attentions to the monitors on the backs of the chairs in front of them, their features illuminated by the monitors’ flickering blue light that made angles look sharper.
“Are you sure you’re alright, dear?” asked the woman on his left.
“Just a nightmare,” Tommy said. Then he grinned, the smile settling naturally on his face. “I can’t say I’m surprised; how is anyone supposed to get a decent sleep in these tiny seats?”
The woman returned his smile.
Roughly ten minutes later, the plane landed with no more incidents, then it was another ten minutes for it to taxi in. Tommy spent most of his time staring passed the woman and out of the window at the crisp blue sky, with touches of pink as the sun sank below the horizon, and the stark grey buildings of Heathrow airport. It had been over a decade since he’d been here. Well, probably not here exactly, it had been so long that he couldn’t remember exactly which airport his family had left the country by. He’d imagined all through the flight to the United Kingdom that he’d feel a sense of return, like coming home. But Canada was his home, and although everything he could see out of the small window was familiar, it was also so incredibly foreign.
He waited in his seat until the majority of the other passengers had shuffled slowly towards the exits, then pulled his red rucksack from the overhead compartment, and handed his flying companion hers as well. Then he departed the plane, and heading into the gigantic airport itself.
Following the signs that hung from the high ceilings, he trailed after the large queues of passengers as they made their way deeper and deeper into the structure, more streams of people joining them from other gates. There were people from all walks of life here, from every country, every nation, and every creed. Families, dragging along wailing children who had not been best pleased with the long flights they had been forced to suffer through; holiday makers, both those just beginning their journey, bright eyed and staring at everything around them, and those returning home, their eyes downcast and glum, not looking forward to having to return to the tedium of their working lives; business men and women, their eyes focussed only on their destination, each one of them wearing suits and carrying only what they needed for their short stop in the English capital.
Tommy wasn’t exactly sure where he lay on that spectrum. He wasn’t here on vacation, but then again, he wasn’t exactly sure why he was here either. Work related, that much he knew, but unlike the suits around him, he wore a pair of faded blue jeans, and a thick brown coat buttoned up over a Clash T-Shirt. He really didn’t know what to expect here; all he’d been told by his CO was to board this flight to England, and that someone would be meeting him here. He’d been told to pack enough clothes to last him – without being told how long it would need to last – and that the rest of his things would be sent on after him. That was unsettling, for it told that this was more than likely a permanent reassignment. One he hadn’t asked for, one he hadn’t expected. They couldn’t just up and decide to do this to him. He had tried to argue all these points, and his CO had looked at him with what was dangerously close to sympathy, and then told him in no uncertain terms that he had no choice in the matter. He either accepted this assignment, or he was gone. Dishonourable discharge. That in itself was bullshit, and not at all accurate. He’d taken it up with legal counsel, who told him he had a case since dishonourable discharges were reserved for those found guilty in a court martial, but while Tommy had sat in the man’s office the counsellor had received a phone call. When the counsellor had ended the call, he had told Tommy he would be unable to take the case. So had the next two Tommy had tried.
Then just last night, his CO had shown up at his door, drunk as hell, and begged Tommy to take the plane ticket being pressed into his hand, that Tommy needed to take this assignment if he wanted to know. The CO had not been able to say anything more, despite his drunken state, saying only that Tommy owed him that.
So, with a great deal of disgust – and also, shockingly enough, a great deal of curiosity – Tommy had packed, and took the flight.
He grabbed his larger suitcase from the conveyer belt, before trundling it behind him as he headed to customs. The joint citizenship on his passport had him through that in moments, and then he was in the arrivals lounge.
On the other side of the metal railing were a throng of people, all waiting to collect the new arrivals; friends and family for some, taxi drivers trying to attract the attention of others, and others still with a mixture of hand written signs awaiting specific travellers.
One such sign caught his attention; it was held by an attractive woman, probably around Tommy’s own age, with long mousey hair, understated makeup, and a smart blue work suit. The jacket of her suit was buttoned up at the waist, and the white shirt underneath unbuttoned halfway down her chest, revealing a long sliver of skin. Over the top, she wore a long tan coat that reached down passed her knees. She had a look of annoyed patience, and the sign in her hands read THOMAS BROGAN.
She scowled at him as he approached, trailing his luggage behind him. “Thomas Brogan?” she asked, her accent as close to a stereotypical English accent as Tommy had ever heard outside of a TV show.
“Please,” he replied, “call me Tommy.”
She flicked cool hazel eyes up and down him, examining his casual attire, and clearly finding it at fault. “I’m Monika Wells,” she replied.
“Still Tommy,” he said, throwing her his cheekiest grin, his eyes sparkling.
He held a hand towards her, and she looked at it for a long moment. Then, instead of taking it, she said, “Do you have any more bags?”
“Nope,” he replied, jostling the suitcase behind him. “Just this.” He decided this woman – Wells – wasn’t just a driver sent to ferry him to wherever the hell he was supposed to be going. No, she had that look about her that Tommy had seen the few times he’d been loaned out to joint task forces with government agents. She was looking at him, sure, but he got the feeling that at least as much of her attention was on everything around her too. “I don’t suppose you wanna tell me why I’m here?” he tried.
As soon as he said it, he could tell by the look on Wells’ face that she wasn’t going to answer. But he didn’t care; being uprooted so suddenly had made him as stubborn as a mule. “Look, we can play silent games all you want, but all I know is I get sent here for God knows what reason. And I’m a loyal soldier, I do what my boss tells me. But you’re not my boss, and I’ve just had a really long flight, so I’m not taking another step until you start telling me what is going on.”
Wells’ eyes flared, and he could see her bite off a retort. “This isn’t the place, Mr. Brogan,” she said instead, glaring hotly at him.
“But if you follow me, I will take you to someone who will answer all of your questions.” She worded it almost like a request, but Tommy knew an order when he heard one. Wells was clearly used to people doing what she told them to.
He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as if that would stifle the headache this whole situation was giving him. “Fine,” he said. “Lead on.” He gestured towards the exit with a grand, and entirely mocking, flourish, but Wells either didn’t notice it, or just plain ignored it.
When they left the building, the chill of the night air rolled over him. It wasn’t that it was incredibly cold, he’d had colder springs back home, but after the warmth of the plane and the terminal, it was a shock to the system. His breath plumed before his face. He followed Wells – who had pulled a pair of black leather gloves and a thick hat from a pocket of her coat and pulled them on – to a parking structure attached to the terminal, where she unlocked a dark red Audi and popped open the boot for him to store his luggage.
She drove them in silence, despite Tommy’s best attempts at breaking the ice. Deeper and deeper into the depths of London they went, so long that he lost track of their exact direction. The city was like a maze to him; none of the directions they seemed to follow made an actual lick of sense, and he was sure that if his driver were to suddenly stop the car and kick him out, he’d be well and truly screwed.
So instead of trying to draw her out into conversation, or even make sense of where they were heading, he stared out the window at the living, breathing metropolis around him. It had that air of an ancient city that he had found a lot in his missions to Europe; where the roads would follow a winding path that had a more natural feel to those straight and ordered lines of a more modern city. No building appeared to match the one next to it in design, or even the colour of the brick it was made from, and no two appeared to have even built in the same decade. Or probably century, he thought. Domed roofs, sloped roofs, or flat; one floor, or multiple; intricately crafted specimens, all columns and arches, or plain towers that jutted into the sky like ugly grey blocks; they were as different as could be. But there was still a sense of home here, from the bright lights that shone all around him, to the people still milling around on packed sidewalks even this late at night.
He glanced at his watch as a yawn cracked his jaw; it was around 2000hrs local time, which put it around three in the afternoon at home, but the long flight here – especially the nightmare that had made it fraught – meant he was drained, both physically and mentally.
But not drained enough to notice an odd thing Wells did. It was a small thing, a peculiar event that the silent and mysterious woman did every now and again. As she drove, she would randomly extend the little fingers of each hand from where she gripped the steering wheel, just for a fraction of a second. He watched her slender fingers with interest, trying to figure out what that meant.
After the fourth – or maybe the fifth time, he wasn’t sure – he recognised a pattern; each time they passed a motorbike, heading down the other side of the road towards them, her little fingers would extend. A quick glance at Wells’ face revealed she was probably unaware she was doing it.
“What’s that all about?” he asked.
She glanced at him from the coroner of her eyes, her jaw line tight. He could almost imagine he could hear the grinding of her teeth. “What’s what?” she said finally.
“The… you know…” He flicked his fingers out, copying the gesture.
Her eyes flashed down to her own hands briefly, and he saw her tighten her hold on the wheel enough that the leather of her thin gloves creaked. She licked her lips, then the hard edge returned to the set of her features. “Nothing,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”
She did not make the gesture again, no matter how many motorbikes they passed.
The area around them became noticeably more upscale, the architecture uniformly modern. The buildings stretched high into the night sky, all steel and glass. Offices and other places of business for sure. Off to the right, through gaps in office blocks and parking structures, he spotted water, gentle waves rippling on its surface and reflecting back the wavering image of the full moon. He glanced up, picking out the moon when it was visible through the moving skyline, hanging there alone, all other lights in the sky obliterated by the thousands of lights of the city.
It took him a few seconds to realise that Wells was pulling up. She killed the engine, and stepped from the car. He followed her. They had stopped at the side of the street beside a series of thick concrete steps, heavily lined on either side by squat bushes. Wells was taking those steps briskly, stopping at the top by a sign that read Huntington Tower.
That tower loomed there too, stretching towards the very heavens themselves. It had four corners here, at the base, but as the walls – seemingly made of nothing but sheets of tinted glass – rose majestically higher, they curved outward at the front face to meeting at a triangle at the top. To Tommy, it looked for all the world like a gigantic glass blade, jutting out of the belly of the city.
He had no time to gawk longer, as Wells was already stalking towards the entrance of the massive structure, stripping the hat from her head and shaking her hair out. “Come along, Mr Brogan,” she called to him, her voice colder than the air around them.
He watched her a second, then glanced back at the car, then back at her. “So I’ll be unpacking later then?” he called. She did not answer.
The foyer he followed her into was spacious, all green marble and pillars, with large windows that afforded a view back out into the world. A long reception desk dominated the centre of the foyer, behind which were a series of large clock faces, their times all set to different zones. Even now, the reception was manned, though the hard faced receptionist had a look of security. She certainly eyed Tommy with interest, and not the usual sort of interest he was used to from women, but he ignored her as he rushed to catch up with his taciturn host, who had disappeared beyond the reception.
He reached her as she was swiping a card across a reader embedded into one wall that was all burnished glass. A similar wall stood opposite it, not as far away as the full length of the building; the facing mirrors reflected Tommy and Wells’ images onwards towards infinity. Four doorways, two on each side, sat in the walls, made of the shining steel. Elevator doors, he thought to himself, a second before one of them smoothly parted.
“What is this place?” he asked, as Wells entered the elevator.
“In due time, Mr Brogan,” she said.
“Tommy,” he correct absently, following her inside. There were more mirrors inside, but only covering half the walls. The lower halves were a deep green, with intricate patterns that seemed to speak of branches at one instant, and rolling waves at the next. A long metal rail ran along the join, extended from the wall. Wells gripped it, facing the doors as they slide smoothly closed. The elevator was filled with the soft tones of The Girl From Ipanema.
Nothing happened for a moment. There was a sense of… expectation? As if Wells were waiting for something to happen. The seconds ticked on.
“Hey,” he said suddenly, blinking in realisation. “There’s no buttons.”
Wells gave a quick grunt. He was sure it sounded surprised, as if he’d passed some sort of test.
She pressed her now bare hand against the wall, the spot indistinguishable from the rest. The walls gave a beep, and a thin green line scanned her palm. Her nails, Tommy noted, were cut close.
“Wells,” she said suddenly, though not to him. “Authorisation code zero-one-seven-foxtrot.” She eyed him thoughtfully then, as if weighing something in her mind. Then she added, “One additional.”
“Confirmed,” said a disembodied female voice, floating in the ether. The voice did not sound like an automated reply, nor did it seem to issue from a speaker. If he hadn’t know better, he would have said the voice had come from inside the elevator with them. But that was ridiculous.
The elevator began to climb. Up and up and up and up, it went. There were no readings for Tommy to look at, to see just exactly how high they had gone, but the journey seemed to last for long minutes, with nothing but the gently music to accompany them. We must be nearing the top, he reasoned.
Then, finally, there was a ping, and the elevator came to a halt. The doors parted, and Wells was already stepping out. Tommy followed her.
“Mr Brogan,” she said. “Welcome to Level 51.”
And Tommy’s jaw dropped.