Cover art by Jeanette Eileen Widjaja
(Note: The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting. As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)
“MOM, FOR THE HUNDREDTH time, no. I can’t tell you anything about my new assignment,” Danny said, trying her best not to roll her eyes as she was driving along one of the most accident-plagued stretches of highway in the state of Florida.
“If you won’t tell me, then how do I know you’re not beating confessions out of innocent people in some CIA black site?”
“First, because I’m a Deputy US Marshal.”
“Don’t remind me. I can barely stand the shame. My daughter, wearing a badge. I have no idea where I went wrong.”
“Second, because however ashamed you are of me, I am still your daughter,” she said. “I put on the badge because I want to help people.”
“You can’t help people from inside a corrupt system, Danny. You have to tear it down and start over.”
“Maybe, Mom, but until you find the matches to burn it down, I can do my best. But that means that sometimes, I have to keep secrets.”
“Even from your mother?”
“Especially from my mother. Do you know how embarrassing it would be if I were doing Witness Protection and my crazy ACLU lawyer mother kicked in the door with a court order demanding the release of the witness?”
“So, you’re doing Witness Protection!”
“I never said that. I just suggested a scenario in which you could humiliate me. You know, like when you sued my high school.”
“They were discriminating against you.”
“I remember, Mom, and I’m hanging up now. I’m almost at work.”
“Okay. I love you. Be safe.”
“I love you too. Try not to sue my boss.”
“You’d have to give me his name first.”
“Bye,” Danny said, hitting the “end call” button before her mom could reply. She loved her mom, she really did, but Deputy US Marshals and pot-smoking hippie civil rights lawyers went together like gasoline and matches. It didn’t help that she knew her mom would have preferred her to have been a bit more like her sisters, but Danny had always wanted to be a cop.
She was a good one, too. Or she liked to think so. Her superiors certainly seemed to think so. She’d spent the first four years of her career on a fugitive retrieval team, and now, she’d been promoted to ‘Metahuman Emergency Response Team Support,’ or what most people called ‘Superhero Duty.’ And not just for any Superhero group, either. She’d been assigned to Focus. A Tier Three asset.
Honestly, she was a little nervous about that. Focus wasn’t your run-of-the-mill Superhero. Tier Three Assets were the heroes who got the call for situations that threatened the entire planet. Heroes like the Olympus Six, Ice Dragon, The Gentleman, Clockwork, and Quickstep. They were the most powerful metahumans on the roster and Focus was one of the most powerful of the Tier Three Heroes in the US. Maybe one of the most powerful in the world. She was the sixth-longest serving Superhero out there, with an active period just a hair shy of thirty-two years. She was also extremely gay. Danny had had a crush on her since she was five years old. She’d had a poster of Focus kissing her former sidekick Scatter on the wall of her bedroom from the time she’d come out to her parents at thirteen up until she graduated from college. She also had a bad habit of turning into a babbling idiot around pretty girls.
She pulled off the Interstate, taking the exit for downtown Pontian, all the while telling herself that she was the junior-most member of Focus’ support team. The chances that she’d actually get to interact with the hero her first day on the job were pretty slim. She would just show up, report to the Officer in Charge, and probably spend the day setting up her locker, getting entered into the system, and doing other boring shit. Which was a good thing. She could get used to being around a literal ageless lesbian goddess before she actually had to speak to her.
God, she was definitely going to make a fool of herself.
“Here’s your temporary pass card, ma’am. Your escort should be here momentarily.”
Danny took the swipe card and clipped it to her belt, then looked around the entryway. The thick steel walls and heavy doors looked more like they belonged on a bank vault than in the lobby of a Marshal’s station. There were armored machine gun nests with electric miniguns or air-cooled Browning .50 caliber machine guns. She was a little surprised there weren’t rocket launchers.
The place felt a little overdone to her, but then, she’d only ever been in one throwdown with a Super, and he’d been a low level hydrokinetic. A couple of beanbag rounds to the gut had finished things before they could really start. She doubted that the kind of people who could go toe-to-toe with someone like Focus would be taken down so easily, so maybe the arsenal and the armor weren’t overkill.
She turned at the sound of boots on the tile floor, and saw a short woman, maybe five-foot-four or so, with vaguely middle eastern features, headed towards her. She couldn’t quite place the woman’s country of origin, but then, Danny had a lot more experience with picking out East Asian than West Asian features. The woman was beautiful, though. She looked more like a dancer or a model than a cop, and if she hadn’t been carrying what looked like a cut-down AR in a hip holster and had a Marshal’s badge clipped to her belt, Danny would have taken her for support staff, or a civilian.
The woman stopped in front of her and smiled, and Danny stamped down on the urge to do something stupid, like babble or ask for her phone number, because damn, she was gorgeous. But she was also a co-worker, so definitely a no-fly zone, something which helped keep Danny from making a fool of herself.
“Danielle Martin?” the woman asked.
“Yes, but please, call me Danny.”
The woman smiled and held out her hand, and Danny had to work to keep from sucking in a breath, because wow. “Deputy Marshal Lori Ahmad.”
Danny shook her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Lori said. “Come on. Let’s get you to the boss. It’s already been a day, and she’s only on her second cup of coffee.”
Danny winced as she fell in behind Lori. “What’s going on?”
“We’ve got some wannabe Supervillain pulling tech robberies all over town, but we can’t do a damn thing about it since we’ve got a fucking Kaiju swimming around the bay.”
“There’s a Kaiju in the bay?” Danny asked, more than a little shocked. “I didn’t see any evacuation traffic as I was going in.”
“You came in on Interstate 2?”
“We run the Kaiju evacuations along I-95. Kaiju tend to come straight inland, so it’s safer to run the evacs along a North/South route.”
“What’s the status on the MERTs?”
“Focus is out in the field, along with Beta, Gamma, and Delta Squads. Since Alpha is a person short until we get you on the clock, we’re stood down. The city’s two Tier Two teams, the Ironclads and the Myrmidons, and all four of the local Champions teams are down at the docks, but honestly, against a full-blown Kaiju, they’re mostly limited to aiding evac. Pontian doesn’t attract a lot of heavy hitters when it comes to Superheroes. The local chapter of the Black Panthers has the only heavy hitter we’ve got besides Focus, but they’re insisting on holding South Shore in case the Kaiju tries to come ashore there.”
Danny nodded. It made sense, given the reports she’d read on the city. Most of Pontian’s black population was concentrated in South Shore and the surrounding neighborhoods, and while the Black Panthers worked with the Marshals when they could, they weren’t part of the official hierarchy. Plus, after a few incidents where a Super battle had been deliberately steered into low-income black neighborhoods, the Panthers were perfectly willing to tell the Marshals to get fucked if there was even a chance that they might be out of position when the people they were there to protect were in danger.
“Who’s the local Panther leader?” Danny asked. “I know I read it in a report, but honestly, I’ve been through so much information in the last week, it’s kind of blurring.”
“Yeah. I remember what it was like when I got assigned. And honestly, Pontian’s a lot to deal with. The local Pack Master is codenamed Kipengele. Means Element in Swahili. She’s an elemental kinetic. Does Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Fauna, Electricity, Heat, and Cold. Has ‘all cops are bastards’ tattooed on her right bicep.”
“Bet she’s fun to work with,” Danny said.
“Given that her twelve-year-old son was killed by a cop, she’s honestly a lot more co-operative than you’d expect, but once she makes a decision, there’s no moving her.”
“Yikes,” Danny said.
“Yeah. Bastard who did it is a Captain in the local PD these days.”
“Jesus. No wonder she’s salty.”
“Can I ask a question?”
“How the fuck did I make Alpha Squad? I expected to be on the reserve if I even got assigned to field duty at all.”
Lori stopped and turned toward her. “You don’t know?” she asked.
“No,” Danny said. “When they told me I’d been promoted, I thought I was getting my own fugitive retrieval team. Then they told me I was coming here. I’ve never done Superhero support before, and I didn’t put in for a transfer. I figured it was because our last capture turned out to be an unrecorded meta, but even if that was it, there’s no way that should put me on the primary support team for a Tier Three asset.”
“Well, you’re not wrong about that,” Lori said. “But if you don’t know why you made Alpha squad, then I have a feeling the boss is not going to be happy.”
“You’ll see,” Lori said as she started walking again.
Danny followed with a sinking feeling in her gut.
Danny’s first thought when she laid eyes on Deputy Marshal Carmen Perez was that this assignment was some kind of joke. It was bad enough that Lori, who was apparently her squad mate, looked like a model, but she just had to have a boss who looked like the centerfold in Hot Butch monthly too. Short, spiky brown hair shot through with blonde highlights, muscled arms sticking out of the short sleeves of her navy-blue polo, one of those cut down ARs in a hip holster, and a voice that sounded like it belonged on stage in a blues bar filled with cheap cigarette smoke and cheaper whiskey.
She was definitely too gay for this job.
Fortunately, Perez wasn’t paying any attention to Danny, and didn’t notice her miniature gay meltdown. She was too busy barking orders.
“I don’t give a damn what PPD says. The Panthers are backing up the District Four Champions, and I need more bodies District Three, so you tell that arrogant jackass that he can either move his men, or I will start by arresting him for reckless endangerment of civilians during a metahuman crisis, and keep arresting people in his chain of command until I find someone who will follow fucking orders.”
“Yes, ma’am,” someone responded, as Lori snorted and shook her head.
“That’s the boss,” Lori said.
Danny didn’t comment. Instead, she looked up at the bank of twenty-seven ultra-high-def screens that made up the status board. A full third of it was showing footage of the bay, where Danny could see a giant shape swimming just under the surface, with enormous spines breaking the surface like the dorsal fin of the shark in Jaws. She expected it to break the surface at any moment, but nothing happened, and the longer she watched, the stranger that got.
Kaiju were deep sea dwellers. They grew to enormous sizes, and people were terrified of them, but mostly, they were harmless because as deep-sea dwellers, they mostly stayed way the fuck down at the bottom of the ocean. Kaiju attacks had started after the Castle Bravo test off Bikini Atoll back in 1954. The science geeks weren’t sure if the bomb had woken them up, or if the radioactive fallout had caused something to mutate, but it didn’t really matter to most people. What did matter were the attacks, and attacks were a bit like a Category Five hurricane. Sometimes you get two or three in a year. Sometimes you went a decade and a half without a single one. They were more dangerous than hurricanes because you usually only had at most a few hours warning, but less dangerous because they never wandered very far inland.
The odd part was, when Kaiju did attack, they almost always went straight for land. The fact that this one was swimming in circles around the bay didn’t make any sense at all, but that was definitely what was happening. Danny stood there, watching as it made three laps around the bay, and watched as the zone of projected landfall that was on one of the screens slowly followed it in circles around the city.
“Do we have any idea what attracted it to Pontian?” Danny asked.
“No,” Lori said. “We don’t have any of the usual Kaiju bait. No whaling vessels, no leaking oil tankers, no navy bases with nuclear powered ships, no nuclear reactors. Dumping in the bay has been illegal since that one hit Miami back in ‘92, so there’s no toxic waste in the water. We don’t even use mermaid repellent on the beaches, so there’s not much chance it was driven here deliberately.”
“Any chances it followed a supercargo that lost a few containers?”
“Possible,” Lori said, “but if that’s it, why hasn’t it hit the docks?”
“I don’t know,” Danny said.
“That seems to be going around today.”
“Status change!” someone yelled. “Kaiju is changing course. It’s…It’s headed back out to sea.”
“What the fuck?” someone asked.
“Collins, get me a drone in the air. I want it tasked to follow that bastard until it goes deep. Williams, tell PPD and emergency services that we’ll hold the evacuation until the Kaiju is out of visual contact and off coastal sonar. Once we lose contact, if we lose contact, I’ll give the all clear to let people go back to their homes. Lopez, re-task the Myrmidons. See if they can find our sticky-fingered Supervillain.”
“What about the Ironclads?” someone asked. Danny assumed it was Lopez.
“Leave them where they are. Ironsides is less likely to panic and fuck something up if the Kaiju does another 180,” Perez said in an annoyed tone. “If anybody needs me, I’ll be in my office.”
Danny took it from the tone that anyone who needed her should probably find a way to not need her if they wanted to keep their head, which made it a little unnerving when Perez turned and looked right at her.
“You two, with me,” Perez said.
Lori started after Perez, and Danny followed, wondering if it was too late to take her mom up on the offer to send her to school to learn to be an acupuncturist.
Perez’s office was bigger than Danny expected, but the size had more to do with function than ego. The front wall of the office was curved glass, which gave her a full view of the situation room below, and the back wall was a miniature status board, carrying the same information as the one in the situation room. The office had two desks. One faced forward towards the windows and was relatively bare. The other faced the miniature status board and had a keyboard, a mouse, three additional monitors and an assortment of other electronics. The wall opposite the door had a small armory locked behind thick sheets of bulletproof glass, with everything from swords to assault rifles to two single use rocket launchers.
As Perez crossed the office, she reached down and unholstered the cut-down AR on her hip and dropped it into a holster mounted on the forward-facing desk, then she unceremoniously dropped into the chair and grunted as she gestured to the two chairs on the other side of the desk. Lori unholstered her own AR and dropped it into a holster on the right arm of one of the chairs as she sat down. It was an easy, practiced motion, like she’d done it several times a day for years, which Danny figured she probably had. Danny dropped into the other chair and waited.
Perez opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out a liter water bottle, and a bottle of migraine pills, the kind that was a mix of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine. She dumped a couple of the pills in her hand, popped them in her mouth, and chased them with half the bottle of water. She then dropped the bottle of pills back in the drawer, leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and started rubbing her temples.
Danny glanced over at Lori, who had an amused smirk on her face. Lori turned to her and gave a small shake of her head.
“Stop it,” Perez said.
Danny turned back to Perez, who still had her eyes closed.
“I didn’t say anything,” Lori said.
“You know I hate being handled,” Perez said.
“Yeah, we both know that’s not true.”
“Are you sure you want to test me when I have a gun in easy reach?”
“You always have a gun in easy reach. Hell, I bet you shower with that .50 caliber Desert Eagle.”
“Don’t be stupid. I only bought that piece of shit to impress girls with it. I shower with the Model 500.”
Lori snorted. Perez opened her eyes and smiled just a little.
“You okay?” Lori asked.
“Yeah,” Perez said. “Just…Not looking forward to the fallout from this one. I’ll have the mayor screaming down my throat by lunchtime about unnecessary evacuations and wasting taxpayer dollars.”
“If that thing had come ashore, and you hadn’t evacuated, hundreds of thousands of people would be dead.”
“I know that, and you know that, and it doesn’t change a damn thing. Fucking politics.” Perez turned to look at Danny, and Danny had to fight not to squirm under the scrutiny. It was odd. She had stared down hardened criminals without flinching, but there was something in Perez’s eyes that was just a bit unsettling.
“So, you’re Danielle Martin,” Perez said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Danny said. “I prefer Danny, though.”
“Then Danny it is,” Perez said. “So, Danny…You care to tell me how you know Focus?”
“Never met her even casually?”
“You didn’t run into her on vacation and have a fling, or get drunk with her in Vegas and get married or some shit?”
“Uh…No, ma’am. I’ve never met Focus. Or if I have, I’m not aware of it. Since her civilian identity is unknown, I can’t rule out that I met her out of uniform.”
“Do you know anyone who might have some sort of connection to her?” Perez asked.
“Maybe,” Danny said. “My mom is a lawyer with the ACLU. I know she worked on a few cases involving Superheroes back when she was first starting out, but that was before I was born, so I’m a bit fuzzy on the details.”
“Do you have any idea of why she might have requested your assignment to this unit?” Perez asked.
“Danny, are you familiar with the power classification system we use?”
“Yes, ma’am. I memorized it last week.”
“And are you aware of how Focus is classified?”
“Yes, ma’am. She’s a Class Six Multi-Talent Alpha Juliet Uniform.”
“And explain to me exactly what that means.”
“Class Six means her power level is beyond what we can measure. Multi-Talent means she has more than one metahuman ability. ‘Alpha’ for anonymous, meaning we do not know her civilian identity. ‘Juliet’ for Jack of All Trades, meaning she has a broad enough power set that she can deal with almost any hostile metahuman without assistance. ‘Uniform’ for unknown, meaning we don’t know the full scope of her powers.”
“And do you know where Focus ranks in terms of power levels for known metahumans?”
“Yes, ma’am. A Class Six power level puts her firmly into the category of Tier Three assets, meaning she is one of the people we call when the world is in danger of meeting a sudden and unexpected end. As far as Tier Three assets go, she’s estimated to be in the top ten in the world, but no one is sure because we can’t measure her power level.”
“And tell me. Do you know what happens when an asset who is that powerful makes a request?”
“I’m guessing we fill it,” Danny said.
“Good guess,” Perez said. “Though a more accurate way to put it is, they get whatever the fuck they want, as long as it’s legal and we can actually provide it. Do you know how many requests Focus has filed in the thirty-two years she’s been working with the Marshals?”
“No, ma’am,” Danny said.
“Three,” Perez said. “The first was in 1998. David Moore, the first Officer in Charge of her support team reached mandatory retirement. She requested her handler Cecile La Saint be given the Officer in Charge role. Easy enough. It made sense. She knew La Saint. They worked well together. No one worries about a request that makes sense. The second request was three years ago. La Saint reached mandatory retirement. At which point, Focus requested me for this job. No one knows why. I wasn’t her handler. I wasn’t even a squad leader. I was the lead sniper. People worry about requests that don’t make sense. You get that, right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Danny said.
“The third request was a few weeks ago. One of our Marshals on Alpha squad had a close call, and decided they were done. It happens sometimes. This isn’t a safe job, and he has a wife and kids to think of. He turned in his badge and went to play rent-a-cop somewhere. Normally, when that happens, we promote someone from Beta to Alpha, and someone from Gamma to Beta, and so on. Except this time, Focus requested you by name to fill the empty slot on Alpha squad. Which doesn’t make sense. And requests that don’t make sense make people worry.”
Perez leaned forward. “To be clear, Deputy Marshal Martin, I am people. Do I look like I need to be worrying about anything aside from Supervillains and Kaiju attacks?”
“That’s right. So, I’m going to ask you one more time. Do you have any fucking clue why Focus requested you by name?”
“No, ma’am. None whatsoever.”
Perez let out an exhausted sigh. “Fuck.” She turned to Lori. “Take her and get her in the system, and then pull her gear. I want her on the range by lunch, and make sure she doesn’t break her wrist. I can’t have Alpha team stood down if I’m going to have fucking Kaiju attacks.”
Lori nodded and stood up, drawing her AR out of the holster on the chair and fitting it back into the speed holster on her thigh in one fluid motion.
“Come on, Danny. Let’s get out of Grumpy’s way.”
Danny stood up and they started towards the door, but before they could take more than a couple of steps, the door opened, and Focus stepped through it.