49. The Research Console - Part 3

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Howl somehow knew this was the right area.

It’s here. Athena was circling above him.

Yes. Here. Howl leaped up onto the roof of a car and sat down. His special eyes allowed him to see many figures moving around.

What now? asked Athena.

We watch and we wait.


Lucky levered the manhole cover up and turned it over. Affixed to the underside with duct tape was a blue rectangular key-card.

‘Looks like we’re first here,’ he said, pulling it free.

‘You think anyone’s quicker around these streets than us?’ replied Seeker proudly. As he turned around, Lucky’s flashlight illuminated the machete and two knives hanging from her belt. He had his bow but hoped that confrontation could be avoided.

‘Okay, now the console.’

The pair jogged across Republic Square to the disused holo-kiosk. There were still a few dozen of these advertising machines scattered across the city.

‘Clever idea,’ said Seeker as Lucky brushed garbage off the access panel and found the slot for the key-card.

‘Did you hear that?’ she asked a moment later.

‘Hear what?’

‘Something. Maybe.’ Seeker pulled her grey hood low over her eyes. ‘Keep at it, Lucky. I’ll take a quick look around.’

‘Okay.’ Lucky anxiously placed the key-card into the slot. He couldn’t avoid the feeling that this might be some kind of elaborate trap. But as soon as the key-card slotted in, the holo-kiosk screen came alive with a single message:


Lucky was about to take the modified tablet from his bag when Seeker returned, now holding her machete.

‘Light off.’

Lucky complied. ‘What is it?’

‘Movement. At least two groups closing in on us. Come on – the alley.’

They had briefly scouted Republic Square before locating the key-card and had identified a nearby alley as a secure escape route. Lucky pulled the card out and followed Seeker across the square. As they passed a car, she grabbed him and pulled him down into cover.

There was enough moonlight for him to see two women stride past. Both were quite small but one was carrying several blades. The other was much harder to make out.

‘Must have some sort of camo gear,’ whispered Seeker. ‘Let’s keep moving. We can always come back to the console now we have the card.’


Fei had studied a map of the area and knew where to find the manhole cover.

‘Gudu, watch my back.’

‘No problem,’ replied the enforcer.

Fei aimed her flashlight at the ground and within seconds realized that they were too late. The manhole cover had been pulled up and she could see the tape that had held the key-card in place.

‘Damn it.’

The both looked around, concerned that they were not alone.

Gudu sighed. ‘Lady Rose won’t be happy.’


Lucky and Seeker halted once they reached the alley. He’d always thought his hearing was good but Seeker’s was exceptional.

‘Oh no,’ she said.

‘What is it?

‘Someone’s coming along the alley.’


Beater and Zephyr were running towards Republic Square. Ryder Arcadia had made it crystal clear to the siblings that they were to return with the key-card – by whatever means necessary. Their superior, Crimson, was waiting nearby with transportation.

‘We’re close, right?’ asked Beater.

‘End of the alley then across the square.’


Lucky and Seeker retraced their steps.

‘Getting kinda busy here,’ said Seeker.

Too busy for my liking,’ replied Lucky. ‘We need another way out.’

‘I don’t think so.’ As the woman stepped out from behind an abandoned van, she shone a flashlight in their eyes. It was the pair they had earlier avoided and the second woman was now wielding an odd-looking machete. Though short, she was very wiry and her many scars suggested an experienced fighter.

‘Not until you hand over the key-card.’

Seeker stepped towards the fighter, her own machete at the ready.

‘There’s no need for this to turn unpleasant,’ said Lucky. ‘We can all work together.’

‘Our boss doesn’t see it that way,’ replied the other woman. ‘Hand it over and nobody gets hurt.’

Seeker said: ‘If anyone’s going to get hurt, it’s not going to be us.’


Threads and Plate crept through the darkness.

‘You know what, Threads, you should make me a suit like yours. You’re practically invisible.’

‘Yeah but where would I get all that material?’

‘Good point. Hey, looks like something’s going on up ahead.’ Plate had just seen a flashlight come on. Two tough-looking women were confronting another pair: a man and a woman wearing a hood. It looked like a fight was imminent.

Suddenly, the woman with the hood swung her machete but missed her agile opponent. With lightning speed, her foe attacked and the blades met with a metallic clang. After a flurry of blows, the quick woman launched a flying kick which sent her opponent to the ground.


Lucky moved in front of the winded Seeker to protect her. He wished he’d had time to prepare his bow before the ambush.

‘Give us the key-card,’ ordered the fighter, eyes bulging.

‘Why should I? We got here first.’

‘Is it worth dying for? Hand it over or I’ll-’

The woman spun around, realizing there was someone behind her.

Lucky was surprised to see a huge man emerge from the darkness. He was wearing metal armor and holding an enormous sword. Where there wasn’t metal there was rippling muscle; the interloper looked like something out of a fantasy film.

‘Seems to me this man’s being reasonable, lady. Maybe you could try it?’

‘That’s a big sword. Let’s see if you know how to use it.’

The fighter leaped at the big man, machete slicing through the air.


‘Ever get the feeling you’re late to the party?’ Bolt squatted beside Nix, only a few feet from the holo-kiosk.

Nix was looking through his night-vision goggles. ‘Quite a battle. Some big dude with a sword and some quick chick with a machete. I think I recognize her from Buck’s files at the station. Name’s Gugu or something. One of the Red Dragons.’

‘As the holo-kiosk screen is on, I’m guessing someone was interrupted. That someone probably has the key-card.’

‘Sounds about right.’

Bolt lifted her scout rifle, which also had a night-vision scope. ‘Whatever side we’re on, it’s not the Red Dragons, right?’


‘So how about we even the odds?’

‘Sounds good to me.’


Lucky didn’t hear the shot. He just saw the machete break in two. The fighter looked down at her shattered blade.

‘Where did that come from?’ asked her companion.

A second shot pinged off the ground between them.

‘Come on!’

She grabbed the fighter and pulled her away. Aggressive even in retreat, the woman threw the remains of her weapon at the big man but he shifted nimbly so that it bounced off his shoulder, one of the very few places on his body protected by armor. The fleeing pair disappeared into the night.

‘Thanks,’ said Lucky to the man as he helped Seeker back to his feet. Only then did he realize that the man was accompanied by a woman whose outfit made her almost invisible. ‘Er … I guess we should introduce ourselves.’


Zephyr and Beater crouched behind a wall, trying to work out what was going on. They had seen the fight but were still not sure who had the key-card.

‘What do you think, bro?’ asked Beater. ‘We going in?’

‘Against that guy? Look that those muscles, and his sword’s taller than you are!’


Threads watched another pair appear out of the night. These two both looked like military, and the woman was wielding a deadly-looking rifle.

‘Relax,’ she said in a strong Russian accent.

‘Unlike the last two, we ain’t looking for a fight,’ added her companion.

‘Glad to hear it,’ said the man Threads now knew was called Lucky.

‘Name’s Bolt,’ said the sniper. ‘This is Nix.’

Threads and the other three introduced themselves. Now the military man was closer, she realized he was equipped with stealth implants.

‘Nice suit,’ he remarked with an admiring stare.

‘I’m guessing we’re all here for the same reason,’ said Plate. ‘Anyone have the key-card?’

Lucky took it out of his pocket. ‘Didn’t get a chance to use it. Do you guys have data to upload too?’

Bolt nodded.

‘Ours is right here,’ said Threads.

‘Maybe we should go do it before something else happens.’ Lucky led the way across the square.


‘How sweet,’ said Beater. ‘They’re all working together.’

‘And we’re on our own,’ replied Zephyr. ‘What will El Jefe say? We need allies too.’

‘That woman with the machete seemed like our kind of lady.’

‘Just what I was thinking.’


Gudu was all set to charge back into the fray and take them all on.

‘Calm down!’ insisted Fei. ‘We’re outnumbered. Best we can do is report back to Lady Rose.’

‘I’ll slice them all up,’ spat Gudu. ‘Especially that big bastard. We can’t go back to Lady Rose with nothing.’

‘We might not have the key-card but we’ve got something. I planted a tracker on that guy with the bow.’

‘Interesting.’ The voice came from behind them and the accent sounded South American. Two murky figures stepped out from behind a tree, both with their hands up. ‘Hey, ladies, we don’t want to fight. Let’s talk.’


Very strange. Athena soared down from above and flew alongside Howl as he loped away from the square.

Athena, these are humans. They are all strange.