This is the first, edited chapter of my Nano, those that deserve the thanks - well you know who you are. For everyone else, I hope you enjoy.
I stared at her across the cold concrete floor. Stark industrial lights swayed slightly above our heads and cast our shadows in harsh relief against the ground. Massive packing crates – behemoths of metal and wood were scattered – in a haphazard fashion around the room, not that any provided any immediate cover. The centre of the room was left clear and gave me no shelter from the automatic rifle aimed precisely at my face.
Despite all odds, my heart wasn't racing in my chest. I had seen the woman fight before – even faced her earlier today, an engagement resulting in the destruction of my own gun, hastily discarded in a pile of its own rust as she unleashed her gift on it. She was small, but her size did little to make me feel better as her pale eyes stared at me down the stubby sights of the rifle.
We were - for the lack of a better cliché - at an impasse. She was waiting for me to move, so that she could shoot me down with that vicious skill and I was waiting for – well, something. I felt my eyes narrow as I focused my gaze on her. She seemed poised and steady, confident in her skills. It was a far cry from my own posture. I could feel my muscles half tensing before I consciously reminded myself to calm them. I was on the edge of flight and it would only take a twitch for my opponent's finger to tighten on the trigger.
I caught her eyes tightening and dove sideways as my enemy's patience vanished. I could feel the whispering of the bullets passing close to my skin as the roar of gunfire enveloped me. My body curled into a roll and I rose, running hard as I caught sight of a crate that would offer me protection from the bullets that I could feel tracking towards me. I dropped to the ground as I felt a shiver down the back of my neck. My momentum carried me across the rough ground, the exposed flesh of my hands scraping along the concrete as I slid towards the cover. The sound of gunfire paused for a second as she reacted to my movements before it began again, striking against the ground near me and closing every moment. I felt it searing past my skin as I finally slid in behind the crate, pressing my back against the solid wood as I tried to catch my breath.
I was panting, adrenaline coursing through my veins like fire. My heartbeat sounded deafeningly loud in my ears and almost covered the noise of my body desperately trying to drag more air into my lungs. Half-blind and almost entirely deaf, I calmed myself swiftly – or as swiftly as I could. I couldn't see her and now I couldn't hear her either. And somehow, under all of this chaos and fear I was exhilarated. I felt like laughing, my mind ablaze with excitement.
I knew I needed to move and I could feel my muscles tensing in preparation to the desperate sprint as I closed my eyes, trying to restrain the feeling of absolute wildness that was building. After a few moments of concentration the feelings sunk, simmering under a surface of cooler thoughts that I knew I would need to keep focused on if I wanted much of a chance.
I would have to do more than dodge to win this. The realisation hit me like iced water down my spine.
I would have to use my accursed gift – use it, and risk the inevitable side effects.
I steeled myself. I had worked towards this and if I was to survive this encounter intact I would need all the help I could get. Twisting around into a crouch, resting a hand against the cool wood I had been leaning on, I ground my boots into the concrete to get a solid grip.
My worries slowly fading away, I focused on my next target – a disorganised pile of crates that lay in stacks around the side of the room. Once I reached them I would have a fighting chance to move around.
I tested my footing once more before swallowing to remove the acrid taste from the back of my throat. Then I threw myself into the adrenaline and moved.
The world turned to crystal as I crossed the floor in a rush of speed and a part of me wondered if I was touching the ground at all. My opponent moved in the periphery of my vision and then the roar of gunfire erupted again. I knew it would be too slow, I was moving too suddenly – too fast – for her to get a bead on me.
It didn't really bother me that this would have to be a one-time trick, since she was bound to expect it if I tried again. I wasn't entirely sure how I'd managed the feat in the first place and had no idea if I would be able to replicate it.
Shadows took me as I dove behind the crates and came up into a crouch. Here, I had some protection, but there were also gaps between the large containers, and after that stunt I figured that she would be looking to get rid of me quickly.
It was time to see what I could do to even the odds.
I leant back against the wood and closed my eyes, shuddering at the sensation of its cold nails pressing against the back of my neck. I drew up plans and discarded them almost as quickly. The woman was good, almost too good for me to beat her. Any plan that I came up with would be shot down almost as quickly as I tried it – both figuratively and literally. That only left one option, the one that had worked with me before. Being unexpected.
As I felt the cold iron of the nails pressing against my neck, something began to build in the back of my mind as I turned around to face the crate. I had a plan. It was crazy and utterly stupid and I was hoping like hell that those factors would be the ones that would stop me from getting shot.
First however, I needed a weapon. I took a quick breath and then another as I held out my hands. I brushed my fingers against the nails and the metal sealing the edges of the crates, releasing my magic as I did so. At my touch, their dull surface began to shine.
Narrowing my eyes, I ran my hand over them again, this time dragging inwards as I started to collect the material I needed for my magic to work. The metal responded, flowing up over my fingers and arms, travelling slowly over my skin as it moved to the back of my neck. It began to collect there before I started to focus, calling on the magic and the material I had gathered to start to fill in the diagram that filled my thoughts. I was acutely aware of the working beginning to take shape, lifting from my skin and forming interlocking links as it built above my shoulders. As I moved onto the next crate and started the process to draw out more metal it grew, almost like a living thing as ring after ring formed down over my arms. The chain finally took shape as I reached out with my magic one last time and drew in the last of the metal, instructing it to make crude weights that hovered above my wrist, suspended by my will and that spark of energy that held the rest of the weapon in place.
I took a deep breath and sighed. The procedure was tiring and compounded with that, my lack of familiarity with the gift left the chain uneven and badly weighted. It was a rough weapon to fight with but it would hopefully work. I only needed it for one thing anyway.
The distasteful business over with, I could feel that exhilaration of adrenaline and risk rising inside of me again. My eyes lingered over the structures of crates - those piled several high and I found myself smiling. I took a few steps back and began to jog away from and along the wooden boxes, not ducking under the gaps in the cover but rather peering through them, trying to spot my adversary. I heard her before I saw her, a whine and a blast of sound that rushed at me in a confusing mess. My head whipped back and I dropped straight down as bullets pelted through the gap that I'd just stepped into. I smiled slowly. I knew where she was now.
A few seconds was all it took to spot what I needed and I closed my eyes one last time, throwing away those thoughts that had held me calm up to this point. I wouldn't need them anymore. The next few minutes would be a matter of luck and instinctive ability rather than careful planning.
I resisted the urge to yell as I leapt forward, sprinting directly towards the sprawling tower of crates. My feet found purchase against the rough wood and I rose rapidly, staying as low as possible for as long as I could before I erupted from the shadows of the cases into the industrial illumination of those bright lights.
My target was below me and I could see her reacting to the movement - only to blink and wince as she stared into the bright lights that silhouetted me. It was all I needed. My magic flashed out like a whip, projecting the chain towards her as I flew after it, raising my legs up to make myself a small a target as possible.
She fell for it. Her rifle rose to bat the light obscured projectile away. A crash of metal knocked the rifle off course for a vital moment that left the bullets ripping past my shoulder rather than into them and the rest of the chain smashed into the weapon, ripping it from her grasp to skitter in the floor in a tangled mess.
I landed in front of her, extending my legs slightly to catch my weight before I sprung forward, determined to move as quickly as possible while she was still off balance from the blow. I shifted my weight rapidly, throwing it into a punch that she only half blocked, knocking her backwards as I caught myself and stepped forward, twisting my body quickly and snapping out a savage curving kick towards her head.
The elaborate movement caught her eye and she shifted back again rapidly, hand coming up to guide my foot past her face. Then she pushed, shoving my momentum far too far round and leaving me in a helpless spin. I twisted desperately, throwing myself into the move to try and face her again. I spun rapidly and started to drop back into a defensive stance.
She was already there. Her body only inches away from mine as she lashed out with a knee into my moving form. It caught me between my legs and I didn't even have time to feel the pain before my body dropped, blackness already starting to rise to meet me as I registered a blur of movement and something slammed into my face. I hadn't even realised that I had lost the fight before unconsciousness crashed into me.
I wasn't sure exactly when I started to become aware of the world around me again. I felt peculiar. Like I had awoken to sunlight on skin and I just wanted to lie there. I could feel movement around me but it seemed far away and unimportant. It all did, my memories seemed vague and half-formed, and I didn't even really mind. I was just happy lying there and enjoying the warmth of the sun.
There was something about the whole thing that felt a little off though. It was just a whisper in the back of my skull but it stopped me from fading back into the stupor that was relaxing in that feeling of sunlight. I frowned and started to stretch. Nothing happened. I couldn't move anything below my neck. I felt panic rush through me as my eyes snapped open to catch someone kneeling over me, their hands enveloped a soft shade of green light as they hovered above my head.
My body reacted almost instinctively, my hands started to move up to push them away before I remembered that I couldn't move them so I did the next best thing. I jerked my head upwards; my body fuelled by feral panic and instinctive terror, twisted my neck and bit down hard on one of the glowing limbs.
"Fuck!" The man pulled his hand away as he continued to curse profusely, muttering through gritted teeth as he brought his hands together and the glow brightened.
"What the hell is going on? And – no that pretty much covers it." The tension had started to bleed away slightly now that the man had moved back and wasn't casting on me; well enough to leave me mostly coherent anyway.
"My name's Steve. I'm a healer." I closed my eyes, wincing internally. I'd just bitten my healer – very smooth. "Your paralysis was supposed to be temporary whilst I checked you for concussion, but after that little incident I'm tempted to just leave it on." I couldn't tell if he was actually serious or just winding me up.
I blinked. "Has anyone told you that your bedside manner really sucks?"
There was a smirk in response. "Most people tend to worry too much about pissing off the healer who's looking after them. What's your name?"
"Matt." I answered. "Why?" I asked the question slowly, caution drawing it out of me.
"I'm testing for concussion and making sure you don't have any memory loss. Besides, you know my name; it's rude if I don't know yours." He seemed far too cheery as he responded.
There was a second while I tried to find a way to phrase what ran through my head. "But how do you know if I know what my name is if you don't know it."
He looked at me. "But I have all your information right here on the chart."
I frowned, now confused. "I thought you said that you didn't know what my name is?"
He shook his head slowly and patted me on the shoulder in a patronising manner. "Nope, I said that it would be rude if I didn't know it. Don't worry; a small bit of confusion is perfectly normal after a blow to the head."
I stared at him, completely dumbfounded for a few seconds. "Actually, I think you might just be a bastard."
He looked thoughtful and nodded. "You may have a point there. In any case, the fact that you're capable of this conversation means that you seem to be mentally sound and I don't need to call in a psion. Let me just finish checking for any physical damage and you can be rid of me." He paused for a few seconds. "If you bite me again I will have my revenge, and considering that I can block nerve endings for as long as I want I suggest you behave."
I blanched slightly and lay still as the soft green light invaded my vision. I had that pleasant feeling again but this time was a little less overwhelming and in a matter of minutes he stepped back, releasing his grasp on the energy. "I've dealt with the damage. There shouldn't be anything long lasting – although if there is, just let me know. The paralysis will wear off shortly and I'm not going to be here when it does. You've got a meeting in," he checked his watch, "about an hour with your boss in Dep-7. I suggest you take the time to go take a shower or something, or someone might think you've been running around like an idiot for hours. See you."
With that, the healer left.
Within a few moments a tingling began below my neck and spread rapidly through the rest of my body before fading as suddenly as it came. I attempted to lift my hand and sighed in relief as it obeyed me. After opening and closing my fist a few times, I stretched and stood slowly, feeling absurdly overjoyed at the simple ability to move.
The room was quiet and the harsh light that dominated the centre of the room was dormant. Instead the room was lit by more ambient lighting that revealed viewing areas set high in the walls. I cast a look up at them but couldn't see any movement behind the glass. I shook my head, enjoying the complete lack of pain despite the beating and vigorous exercise I had been going through earlier. I was still aware of a faint stiffness in my muscles as I headed towards the exit and nearly tripped over the sports bag lying in front of the lift.
I caught my balance and glanced around the room. It was empty. I looked over the bag and found a small note pinned to the top.
New equipment and uniform for trainee Matt Greene. Please change and be in Department Seven at 04:00 for a debriefing.
The letter was unsigned but that didn't really matter. The fact that I had been given new kit meant that I'd obviously done something right during the exam. Exultation rose up inside of me and I wore a stupidly happy grin as I stepped inside the lift, browsed the rows of buttons and hit the right one for the temporary accommodations.
My flat was a surprisingly spacious area, a little bit larger than the environment outside would allow. It was one of the advantages of working for the Company; the little things like living space became a little bit simpler when your employer has ready access to dimensional mages.
I quickly stripped and stepped into the shower, relaxing as the hot water started to run the ache from my muscles. After checking quickly for any bruising or damage that wasn't apparent at a glance I relaxed more, finally happy that the bastard healer hadn't just dulled my pain receptors. I let my mind wander as I showered in an attempt to stop myself from worrying about the approaching debriefing. It was difficult. If I became a full agent there would be multiple changes to accustom myself to, the least of which might be a forced move from this flat.
Once I had dried myself off, I approached the bag curiously.
I found myself quite anxious as I began to remove the contents of the bag but it faded quickly. It appeared to be a normal suit – black with a white shirt, no tie – and I pulled it on quickly. It felt almost uncomfortable at first before I realised that it was giving me a much greater range of movement than I had come to expect from anything but sportswear. I took a minute to adjust to the strange sensation before I pulled out the next thing from the bag. It was a double breasted great-coat. I felt my heart start to race, I knew this coat. People from the Department wore it as part of their uniform. I shook it curiously. The damn thing weighed a ton but it moved, lightening as the sound of metal against metal reached my ears. Then it shocked me.
I dropped it and stepped back, blowing on my fingers as I glared at the thing. Shaking my head I turned to the rest of the bag, pulling out a gun holster and several little charm-like objects – small wooden and metal block like objects with symbols deeply engrained into the material. I strapped the gun holster onto my belt and pushed the charms into my pockets before I pulled on the coat, feeling it lighten as it lay across my shoulders. I pulled on a pair of tough boots that I'd found in the bag – they fit perfectly – everything did actually. I paused at that and shook my head, for some reason that was the bit that got to me. It was time for a cigarette.
I fished my effects out of my discarded clothing and stepped back into the corridor, heading for the lift. I preferred smoking outside at the best of times and I was particularly restless tonight. The lift – that marvellous piece of technomancy that connected the sprawling, multi-building company – opened in moments and again I scanned the buttons before selecting the roof. The few seconds that the trip took let me set an alarm on my phone and I fumbled with unfamiliarly placed pockets before I succeeded in replacing it and the lift opened.
I stepped outside into the night air and lit the cigarette, taking a deep drag and letting out a sigh as the nicotine started to soothe my slightly ragged nerves.
"That's bad for you, you know."
"I spent the night being shot at by a woman with a machine gun," I said, as Steve stepped into view. "So, I think it's allowed. Besides; I could say the same for you."
The man shrugged. "I'm a healer, helps with some of those pesky side effects. You should know that since you're giving the healers doing your check ups extra work with that habit of yours."
I took another drag of the cigarette. "They seem fairly used to it by now. As long as we don't turn up off our heads on something, they don't seem to mind. Our department tends to get some leeway on stress relief and bad habits."
Steve nodded sagely. "Don't blame you; I wouldn't want to be doing your job."
I smiled. "Guess I'm just an idealist."
"Nothing to do with the fact you get to run around with explosives and the newest toys?" He laughed. "It seems that half the Touched are scared of you because they've been breaking the law. The other half seem to think you're going to start blowing up their things or bodies in the crossfire."
"Sometimes these things happen when you're dealing with people who can use magic." I grinned shamelessly. "And the explosions and cool toys are just an added bonus."
Steve laughed again. "Fair enough. I get enough excitement at work without people trying to kill me – well most of the time anyway."
He looked at me pointedly as he said the last part and I fought back the urge to blush as I replied. "Hey, I said that I was sorry, but I was paralysed and you were casting at me, what did you expect?"
The amusement in his voice grew with the banter. "Well, I know I wasn't expecting the highly-trained agent to start chewing me."
"As you've already pointed out, we have a reputation for random violence and destruction to uphold. I was just doing the best that I could in a bad situation."
Steve rolled his eyes. "You're definitely all just overgrown children. I'm surprised you can even deal with the fact that you got beaten up by a girl."
There was a second of silence before I replied with my voice as deadpan as I could make it. "She had a machine gun."
His lips twitched. "Those weren't machine gun wounds I was healing."
I spoke evenly again, trying to keep the amusement out of my own voice and failing miserably. "I'll let her know that you think you can take her shall I? After all she's only a girl."
Steve blanched slightly at the idea and I laughed. "Thought not." A faint beeping noise caught my attention and I checked my phone quickly. "Right, I have to go. I'll see you around?"
"Wait a sec, I'm catching a drink with a couple of mates later on this week, if you give me your number I'll call you if you're interested." He looked pointedly at my new uniform. "It looks like you'll have something to celebrate at any rate."
I returned the look for a minute before nodding slowly. "That sounds good."
A few minutes later I was back in the lift, the seconds that the technomancy needed to transport me across space seeming too fast and too slow at the same time. In the end though I squared myself up and lifted my head as the doors opened for Department Seven and I stepped into the building to begin my debriefing.