“We’re approaching the Northeast Research District,” said the helicopter pilot’s static-warped voice.
Without even thinking, Kathleen Aurelia rechecked her helmet, harness straps, and the gunnery systems in front of her. It had been years since her military experience, but the old habits and old reflexes had come back as soon as she’d boarded the TCPD SWAT helicopter minutes earlier at Preszewski Center. She breathed deeply and easily, reminding herself that she was one of the few among TCPD SWAT with experience in this kind of fighting. Performing to her old, military standards would help expunge what the papers were still calling “the Ironport Fiasco” from her unit’s reputation, at least around Preszewski Center.
“How much further?” came a higher, more nasal voice in her helmet relay. That, she knew, was Detective Martin Roth, seated just behind her. Kathleen silently clenched her teeth in annoyance.
She’d become far too familiar with his voice over the past few months. Roth, a balding, ferrety-looking man, was one of the team of detectives investigating the murder of Detective Aragon, the undercover officer slain in the hostage situation in Ironport. Roth worked in Narcotics, not Homicide, but because Aragon had been killed at a Chaser deal, Roth was heavily involved in the case. He had interviewed Kathleen, her SWAT teammate Lenny Alvarez, and everyone else who’d stormed that warehouse over and over, and the whiny edge in his voice had gotten more obvious each time.
“Are you sure you didn’t see any of these men at the warehouse?” he’d say, pointing to a mug book full of photos of suspected Black Rose members.
Every time, Kathleen would dutifully flip through the book, and every time, she saw no one familiar.
And every time she said so, Roth would respond, “I really don’t think you’re taking this seriously enough, Officer Aurelia.” She hated the superior tone he took when he used her title. “If we could show-- or even imply-- that that energy burn on Aragon’s body came from a Black Rose weapon, that’d establish a connection between the Pyrebrands and the Black Rose.”
In the most recent interview, she’d replied, “There was nothing to suggest the Black Rose were ever within miles of that warehouse. I’m not going to testify to something I didn’t see, no matter what your pet theory is.”
At that, Roth had gotten huffy and indignant and stormed out of the room. Later, Kathleen had heard, from her friend Lenny, that Roth claimed she’d “accused him of falsifying evidence” and “was lazy and uncooperative.” The two of them had gone to Chief Gherrenfur, who’d somehow sorted out the whole thing administratively. The interviews had stopped. But Roth continued to take out his frustration at his lack of progress on the Ironport case by badmouthing SWAT’s competence whenever he could get away with it.
In short, Kathleen despised the whiny little twerp. “Remind me why you’re here again?” she said into the intercom.
Roth’s voice came back too loud; he hadn’t learned to speak at the right volume on the headset system. “Forget the flashy super-stuff. This is just a routine theft from an EdenTech medical lab. That’s Narcotics’ terrain.” She heard him lean forward to speak closer to her ear, a pointless gesture with the roar of the rotors drowning out everything but speech through the headsets built into their helmets. “Remind me why we’re in a freakin’ SWAT helicopter again?”
Kathleen refused to rise to the bait. She simply said, “Aether Pirates.” She immediately felt disgusted with herself. She’d invested her voice with the same smugness that she despised in some of the old SWAT officers, the ones who claimed to have seen everything Titan City had to offer, who acted jaded by flying robbers, strange monsters, or men who turned into living shadows. She’d never even seen an Aether Pirate.
“Keep the channel clear,” chided the pilot. “We’re there.”
The helicopter burst from the shadow of a street of ultramodern skyscrapers along Visionary Way and out into sunlight. The Northeast Research District, a futuristic vista of steel, glass, and chrome, spread out below them. In the middle distance, the transparent bio-domes of the EdenTech Corporate Biocampus glistened in the noonday light. Nearby, the fanciful, mid-twentieth century buildings of Progress Park and the Titan Institute of Advanced Sciences rose proudly. Ribbons of green wove through the cityscape. Kathleen recognized them as the famous Zukunft Skypark, former elevated roadways converted into strips of parkland forty feet in the air.
She couldn’t help smiling slightly at the view. Even after months in Titan City, she still found new things to amaze her.
“Patrol units report that they’re passing the Spirit of the Future,” said the pilot. “Hang on.” The helicopter banked violently and accelerated. Roth yelped. Kathleen checked the weapons again and prepared to fire if necessary.
They swept in just a few dozen feet above the Skypark. Bystanders shielded their eyes and stared up as they passed. Ahead, a huge, golden, robotic-looking figure, winged like an angel, floated gracefully above a circular area near the heart of the Skypark. As Kathleen watched, a sphere of light rose from the figure’s cupped hands. It stretched up to catch the rising light, then repeated the cycle again. The helicopter drew close enough that Kathleen could see dimly see the buildings and plantings on the figure’s far side by looking through it. So, she thought, that’s the Spirit of the Future. She had planned an outing to visit the famous, holographic “statue,” but she had never gotten around to it. She certainly hadn’t expected to get her first view of it from an attack helicopter.
“There!” shouted Roth, so loudly that Kathleen and the pilot flinched. The detective pointed between them, straight ahead and just above the statue. Kathleen blinked. It had to be the Aether Pirates’ vehicle, but it was nothing like she’d imagined. Other officers’ stories about the Aether Pirates had led her to expect something like a giant hot-air balloon, but this looked more like a World War II-era fighter plane, as imagined by a modern Hollywood director after watching a few too many pirate movies. Its fuselage gleamed a garish scarlet in the bright sunshine, interspersed with panels of white, black, and bilious orange on the wings. Dark insignia depicting skulls, crossbones, gears, and propellers became visible on the wings as it banked to fly straight at them. A pair of propellers buzzed loudly enough to be heard over the helicopter’s roar. Odd-looking, brassbound gun barrels and stranger weapons jutted from the wings and a pair of ball turrets. As Kathleen watched, twin puffs of white steam burst from the turret guns, and a red-hot projectile streaked past the helicopter. Seconds later, a bolt of crackling, violet-white energy blasted out of one of the wing weapons. The pilot swerved out of the way, just in time.
Kathleen gasped, in surprise as much as fright. But her combat reflexes knew what to do, even if her conscious mind didn’t. The Pirates had shot first, with intent to kill. She armed the helicopter’s guns and fired.
Roth choked off a scream as the helicopter’s twin cannons fired with a basso profundo rattling. Seemingly untouched, the Pirate plane banked again, trying to cut around behind them. The pilot matched the maneuver, trying to get Kathleen another clear shot.
“Don’t worry, Detective Roth,” said the pilot. “That thing is just a pinnace. Nothing compared to one of their big carrier ships. Nothing Officer Aurelia can’t handle.”
Kathleen grinned at his confidence in her. She took aim at the pinnace’s left wing, carefully leading her target. She fired a short burst. Seconds later, the whine of the Pirates’ engines shifted in pitch. Smoke and jets of flame billowed from one of the pinnace’s engines even as its propeller spun to a halt. The pinnace began to dive, making exactly the same sound Kathleen had heard out of similar craft in dozens of old war movies … only hundreds of times louder.
It would be only moments before the pinnace crashed, either into the Skypark or the street far below. She bit her lip in disgust. Military training or not, this was supposed to be crime-fighting, not war.
She’d had time for only a moment of regret when the pilot shouted, “Look out! Storm Pirates!” Five figures leapt from a hatch in the pinnace’s belly. Instead of parachuting to earth or just falling, they pushed themselves away from the crippled plane and rose higher into the air. Kathleen squinted. She could just make out propellers and steam vents from the figures’ backs. The Pirates were flying with jet packs.
One took aim with a brass-bound rifle. Kathleen targeted the Pirate, but he flitted away before she could fire. She picked another target and fired a burst from the helicopter’s cannons. The second Pirate dodged, too. Soon, she was firing almost continuously. The pirates were so small and maneuverable that the helicopter’s ultramodern weapons couldn’t be brought to bear fast enough. Kathleen shot down only one of the five Aether Pirates, who crash-landed in the dirt of the Skypark. Before she knew it, the others were on them.
They flew in close, flitting in beneath the helicopter’s rotors. Two grabbed the helicopter’s doors, trying to force their way in. Another struck at the forward windows, filling Kathleen’s field of view. Steam and smoke from his brass jetpack swirled around him. He wore a loose-fitting, oil-stained shirt and pants, a huge hat, and a long, bright red coat the same color as his pinnace. Gaudy, gold braid and thread covered the coat, depicting images of skulls and gear teeth. An unkempt, black beard bristled below a face contorted with rage. A brass-and-wood contraption of gears and lenses covered his left eye … or maybe he’d used it to replace his left eye. He squinted with the gadget at Kathleen through the canopy and bellowed in fury. He drew a thick, heavy blade studded with jagged teeth. He smashed the massive hilt against the canopy, splintering it with cracks. As he swung, the teeth whirred to life like the chain of a chainsaw. He slashed again, and the canopy shattered into plastic shards in Kathleen’s face.
She leaned back, just out of reach of the Pirate’s flailing blade. Her fingers scrabbled at the flap that held her sidearm holster shut. The helicopter shuddered violently, and she heard a horrible, tearing sound from behind her, but she dared not look around.
Behind the Pirate, the crippled pinnace slammed into one of the sturdy pylons supporting the Skypark. The Pirate flitted back for a split second in shock. He turned back to Kathleen. “My ship!” he shouted through a mouthful of brass teeth. “Ye’ll pay for that, woman!” He thrust out his whirring sword and plunged at her.
Kathleen wrenched out her pistol and fired at the Pirate’s center of mass. He screamed and dropped his blade to clutch his chest. Steam jetted from a dozen places on his jetpack. He spiraled earthward, away from the helicopter. Kathleen gasped in relief.
“The fourth Pirate sheared off the tail rotor!” shouted the pilot. “I’ll try to put us down on the Skypark, but …” The helicopter slewed around violently, cutting him off. Everything blurred into a whirl of motion and screams. The force of inertia lashed Kathleen back and forth as the helicopter spun out of control. A piece of the main rotor snapped off and fell away. A door ripped loose. Images flashed by: the green of the Skypark, the shining buildings, the brilliance of the sky, the sun, the Skypark again.
I’m going to die, aren’t I? Kathleen thought.
With a tremendous grinding noise and a violent shudder, the spinning stopped. “I’ve got you!” shouted a voice over the wind and the screaming. Kathleen looked out where the door had been. A powerful figure, clad in an amber bodysuit and a slightly darker cape, braced the helicopter upright. Tinted lenses covered his eyes, and a fanciful, Art Deco ray gun hung in a holster at his hip.
“A hero,” she said, stunned. To her shock, she knew him. She’d last seen him, burned and unconscious, in that warehouse in Ironport. They called him “Topaz.”
He lowered the helicopter and set it down gently on the grass of the Skypark, near the Spirit of the Future. “Are you all right?” he asked.
The three officers unstrapped themselves. “Fine, thanks,” said Kathleen, the first to recover. Roth just stared at Topaz, looking bewildered. The pilot patted himself down, as if he thought he might’ve left some parts behind in the helicopter. Kathleen glanced around and spotted three of the five Aether Pirates, including the two she’d shot, lying immobile on the grass.
“Look out!” shouted Topaz. He shoved Kathleen aside just as another crackling blast of light, like the one from the pinnace’s guns, gouged into the earth where she’d been standing. The blast scythed on into one of the projectors for the holo-statue. It exploded in a shower of sparks. The image of the golden angel fuzzed and flickered disconcertingly.
Topaz sprang into the air before Kathleen could thank him. Shading her eyes against the sunshine, she saw him streaking up toward the last two Aether Pirates. One fired his rifle at the hero, unleashing another blast of energy. Topaz dodged aside before the beam even got near his cape. The Pirate jetted away, continuing to take potshots at the hero, while his cohort dove in to attack with a wickedly curved sabre. Topaz gritted his teeth, a gesture visible even from down where Kathleen watched. He seized the diving Pirate’s wrist as he streaked past and grabbed him in a one-armed wrestling hold.
With his free hand, Topaz drew his ray gun and fired back at the other Pirate. His blaster was nothing like the Pirates’. It emitted expanding rings of pulsating, golden light and hummed loudly, just like ray guns in the old sci-fi movies Kathleen’s dad had enjoyed. The rifle-armed Pirate screamed as the rings struck him. He lost control of his jet pack and circled wildly, finally crashing near Roth with a huge explosion of dirt. The detective hurried over to arrest the Pirate.
Topaz bodily dragged the last Aether Pirate out of the sky and landed beside Kathleen. She stared. “That was … thank you, Topaz!”
The hero smiled. “I’m glad you’ve heard of me. I didn’t think I was, y’know, first-tier or anything.”
“No,” she said. “It’s just, we’ve actually met before, and …” Kathleen trailed off, embarrassed at her own tone. She barely knew a thing about Topaz, and here she was, gushing over him like she’d never even seen powers in action before.
“Officer,” Topaz said, “er, if you wouldn’t mind some handcuffs or something …” The Aether Pirate writhed in his grip, cursing incoherently.
“Oh, right,” said Kathleen. She secured the Pirate, read him his rights, and called for backup and paramedics for the slain or injured Aether Pirates.
She chatted with Topaz while they waited. She had no idea what she said, knowing that it was just her shock from the crash playing out. Topaz was surprisingly patient, not at all the hotshot that stories around SWAT had led her to expect.
“Officer Aurelia,” called Roth from where he still knelt beside the Pirate Topaz had shot, “could you come here, please?”
Kathleen excused herself to Topaz. She really, really hoped she wasn’t blushing.
“What?” she said bluntly, as she approached Roth. She’d nearly died several times today; she couldn’t handle much of his griping.
For once, the detective was grave. “Take a look at this.” He gestured at the unconscious Aether Pirate. Energy burns covered the man’s garish vest and sash. “Look familiar?” he asked.
She nodded in horrified silence. She’d seen burns exactly like them before, on the body of Detective Aragon.
Roth shook his balding head. “You were right to call me on trying to pin the Aragon thing on the Black Rose,” he said. “No Black Rose were in that warehouse, right?”
Kathleen nodded. “None. But Topaz was,” she said quietly. “Do you really think a hero killed Aragon?”
Roth stood up and dusted off his pants reflexively. “What I think is, we’d better have a serious talk with our friend with the fancy ray gun as soon as backup shows up.” He rubbed his forehead. “I’d better call Preszewski Center and tell them to prep the secure suspect interview room.”
Written by - Jack 'O'lantern' Snyder
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