It only lasts a few seconds, but it feels like they are siphoned through quicksand before landing on concrete, feet flying across a rooftop terrace overlooking the city’s Monolith. Half a kilometer tall, its rounded edge glints like the flat edge of a sword from this angle. Charlie spots the Alpha-chasers on a rooftop adjacent to them, and it looks like they’re closing in.
“Move,” orders Seven in a low voice. This woman seems so soft and mousy when he absentmindedly bumped into her earlier. Now, she expertly darts across the skyline like a shadow, pushing him beyond the limits of what is humanly possible. Even though he has no clue who Seven is (and she has all the charm and sensitivity of a sucker punch), he trusts her with his life.
Seven, on the other hand, is more displeased than usual. She is forever loyal, never questioning how One chooses them, but this guy seems like a risky recruit. Between clumsy footing and dumb wisecracks, there isn’t much to him. And he did just single-handedly fuck up a mission she’d been planning for months.
Dive out, they hear in a deep, static voice, and before Charlie can think about what that might mean, Seven manifests a long, fat sword in her fist and slices through thin air like there is only fabric holding reality together.
“You heard him,” she says, leaping backward off the edge. As the portal closes, the rush returns to adrenaline (the dose must be wearing off) and at the last nanosecond, he is stepping off the same edge at least ten stories above an intersection, plummeting into his own leather chair.
Charlie rips off the headset angrily.
She was testing him.
As he steadies uneven breaths, taming the wild beat of his heart, the image of that terrifying wildebeest returns to him.
No, she was saving him.
That creature was really a man in a mask-like helmet, an Aether elite, and he saw what Charlie had been up to.
“He’s somewhere on this block!” A woman shouts from outside. Charlie rushes to the window, peeling back the corner of his blind with two trembling fingers. Three of the Alpha-Chasers had somehow followed him back from The Neozen Network.
It’s got to be the dose, he thought. I’m coming down hard. But his mind was too restless to let exhaustion take its toll. His memories of the past hour, the mission card, and the transmission from One— they all steamrolled his doubts and left him fighting back an adrenaline rush once again.
Why create a special task force if The Resistance isn’t a threat?
Charlie throws on a hoodie and sets off down the street with his usual blank stare. He begins noticing them everywhere. The cameras with their corrosive red blinks. Seeing him, sensing what he felt, making sure he wasn’t human enough to rebel against Aether. At least One watched him too. The dude scouted him out by his so-called ‘deviance,’ seeing something in him that no one else did.
As Charlie passes one of those fuckers looking for him, he fights the urge to take his middle fingers and trace his new number in the air.
Can’t catch me, mate. I’m 88.