Prologue: An Uncertain Future
I never believed in fate. Still don't, I guess.
People used to say to me that everything happens for a reason. I had a different view. Shit happens, about sums it up. I didn't find any comfort in the idea that there was a grand design, or that some higher power was controlling everything. I figured, any God who sets out to make this world the way it is must be a major asshole.
Except that somebody did set out to make the world - my world - this way, and the asshole was me.
When Kessler showed me the truth that day, after our battle at Ground Zero, I started to think about my life, his life, how we were different. I wondered how much of the past he'd changed after he'd come back, how much he'd interfered in the course of history, and the course of my life. And when I started, I couldn't stop. Pretty soon, I didn't know how much of my past was real and how much had been engineered by Kessler, to get me ready for whatever lay in my future.
I wondered if Trish had always been the woman I loved, or if the accident that killed her mother and inspired her to become a doctor was just another part of his conspiracy? Would Zeke always have betrayed me, or was Kessler responsible for his old man's disappearance, to make him feel worthless and insecure, and fill his head with those goddamn conspiracy theories? How many other people did he kill, or cheat out of the lives they would have had, to complete his mission?
I tried to find those memories in Kessler's head. The ones that would help me understand how different, or how similar, we were. All I saw were those same images he'd shown me before he died. Images of the Beast as it tore through city after city, spreading its devastation like a plague, slaughtering people by the thousand. I buried his body in the crater where it had all started for me. Even now, thinking about it, I still can't believe the truth. It's me in that grave, a future me, a me that can never exist.
Because I can't become Kessler - I won't.
Even now, a week later, I'm still trying to pick up the pieces of the "legacy" he left me. Empire City's crisis didn't end with him. Sure, he may have started it. He may have destroyed the city, killed hundreds and ruined the lives of the ones who survived, but his death didn't fix that. No, he left that up to me. Food is scarce. Water is precious. Electricity is sacred. But its hope that's hardest to come by.
People are doing the best they can, but they've lost so much. To make matters worse, the plague's still eating away at this city's heart. Dozens die every day, no matter how hard we try to stop it spreading. The government promised us a cure, but we've given up listening to the politicians and the media.
Then there's the gangs. They still own the streets and there's nothing the police can do to stop them, outnumbered and outgunned by the new law: the law of the jungle, eat or be eaten, survival of the fittest. Yeah, the scumbags are here to stay. They've got the power in this crippled city and they're making sure everyone knows it, especially me.
The Reapers are turning people into murdering psychos faster than we can save them. Sasha's still alive somewhere, twisted mind bent on vengeance. The shanty town at the heart of the Warren has become the unofficial dominion of the Dust Men. A city within a city, and deep within that fortress Alden's plotting his comeback. Leaderless, the First Sons wage war over the power vacuum left by Kessler, and they don't care how many innocent people they kill with their infighting. But when it's over, I know what their first objective will be: to recreate the Ray Sphere, and increase their own power.
And that's what I fear most. One Ray Sphere maimed this city. Another would kill it.
The shadow of the Beast looms over it all. I'm living with the knowledge that, one day, the world will face something stronger than Sasha, Alden, even Kessler. And if I don't stand against it then the world will burn. I'm driven by the promise I made standing over the dead body of my future self, the promise I renewed kneeling at Trish's grave. I'll grow stronger. I'll protect this city, and, when it comes, I'll face the Beast.
And if I can't stop it, then God help the world, because I won't be able to anymore.
Shots ring out in the darkness. People scream. No sirens. If the cops are out there, they aren't coming. Just a regular night in Empire City.
Footsteps in the alleyway. Hooded shadows hurry below, knocking over trash cans in their haste. Boots splash through puddles and tear open garbage bags. They wear street clothes. Battered jeans and weathered red tops, emblazoned with anarchic, hand-stitched symbols - skulls, guns, flames. Reapers. They carry old AK-47 assault rifles, looted from gun shops or collectors. They shoot into the air as a warning to anyone that might be tempted to get in the way.
They move like they've got a purpose, but beneath their shrouds their eyes are blank, black froth bubbling from slack lips. Insanity lurks beneath the surface. They're nothing but puppets, drones controlled by the Conduit, the high-level psychic, that produced the tar filling their lungs and enslaving their minds. The one called Sasha.
Something jumps from a rooftop, dropping into the alley from five storeys up, and lands in a crouch in front of them. They recoil, stunned. Addled minds search for meaning. They wait for their mistress to give them the answers. The figure in front of them rises, light from a single bulb shining on padded leather in yellow and black, hood pulled up to keep the rain off. He flexes his fingers and electricity drips from their tips. It dances across the puddles at his feet. The bulb brightens as he lifts his head. Brighter still as his eyes take in the unwitting criminals in front of him. Then it explodes in a shower of glass, overloaded.
Even in the black, his eyes glow.
"You assholes picked the wrong night."
The darkness explodes, a thunderclap exploding from his palms as he thrusts his hands forward. A wave of pure energy smashes the gang members off their feet and sends them hurtling backwards. One slams into the side of a dumpster and slumps to the floor. Another has an unfortunate meeting with a fire escape ladder and ends up hanging by one leg from the bottom rung. The others fly out of the alleyway, crashing into a car parked at the exit.
One Reaper cripples the passenger side door and snaps off the wing mirror. But he's got the wherewithal to keep hold of his assault rifle. All the lights in the passage are out now, obliterated by the blast, but he can see the glowing eyes fixed on him, stalking towards him. He opens fire. His enemy retaliates, shooting pure electricity from his fingertips. It hits his gun and, suddenly, keeping hold of it doesn't seem like such a good idea. Gunpowder bursts into life. Bullets tear the weapon apart from the inside and almost blow his arm off.
He survives the explosion long enough for a lightning bolt to hit him full in the face, singing his hair and knocking him out cold. Smoke plumes from his hood as he collapses.
Another of them charges, braying out unintelligible grunts, sludge pouring over his chin and down his front. All thoughts of self-preservation are crushed by the corrupting influence of the tar. He runs face first into the man's fist, jaw popping out of place with the impact. A foot collides with his stomach. Fingers ball around the front of his top and then hurl him into the wall. He lies, dazed, until a boot to the underside of his swollen chin sends him to sleep.
The last grabs his fallen rifle and starts shooting, coordination gone. The enemy raises a hand, palm out. His bullets turn into a light show against the invisible shield and then fall to the ground like lead rain. The gun runs empty. The other hand thrusts towards him. A blast of writhing energy whips from its fingertips and earths itself in his head. He crumples to the concrete.
The Reaper who hit the dumpster stands up. Battered, bruised and maybe broken, the mind controlling his doesn't care. It pokes and prods him back into the fray. He grabs a pipe from the floor, holding it like a club, and charges. He'd probably make good on the attack, too, if he wasn't screaming like a lunatic. The other man hears him coming and lunges backwards with his elbow outstretched. It catches him full in the throat, jerks his legs out from under him and sends him crashing to the floor. His makeshift bludgeon rolls away across the ground.
A hand presses into his chest and then a throb of electricity pulses through him. Glowing shackles lace around his wrists and ankles, locking them to the ground. He'll struggle when he wakes up. If he wakes up. But he won't be going anywhere until the cops come to take him in.
Cole MacGrath stands up, holds out a palm. It isn't raining anymore. That's a Godsend. The rain makes his powers go haywire, does strange things to his senses, makes him feel like he's going crazy. He pins the other Reapers down and strides back into the alley, leaving them for the law. Once they're down for the count, they aren't his business anymore. It'll be their job to take them in, hose them down, purge them of Sasha's tar. Maybe even restore some semblance of humanity.
He reaches to the strap of his messenger bag and presses the auto-dial on his cell phone. He only gets the machine. It's not such a surprise. It'll be dawn in a couple more hours.
"Warden, I got a trash pickup for you," he says, and gives the address. He always used to know the city like the back of his hand. Now that everything's changed, he knows it better than ever. "Five in total. They'll wait 'til morning."
He disconnects. These days, Warden Harms is the closest he's got to an ally. They're strangers, barely saying a word to one another, but they both want to protect the people and put the city back together, one piece at a time. Everyone feels like a stranger now. The whole city knows his name, but there's no one he can trust, no one he can turn to. Not after what happened with Zeke. Not after what happened to Trish. He's alone, and that's the way it has to be.
He leaps up, catches the metal rail around a fire escape landing overhead, then takes hold of a drain pipe and clambers up to the roof. It takes him seconds and doesn't even make him sweat. Nowadays, energy seems to come so easy. He has to go all out before he starts to feel that familiar burn in his muscles.
But then, that's not so rare. The city's a cruel mistress at the best of times. The dangers are constant. The gangs are unrelenting.
He thinks about finding a place to crash for the night. Sleep was a no-go when it was raining - too much chance that he'd get wet. His body doesn't react well to moisture. Now that the weather's cleared up, he might be able to catch a few hours some place dry. Zeke's isn't an option anymore. Things are too tense there for him to get any shuteye.
Instead, he's sleeping rough, any place he can find that's dry, elevated, isolated, where he isn't going to be found or disturbed. People would freak if they knew their big hero was actually a vagrant. He keeps his problems to himself.
Empire City's got enough of those right now.
He isn't given long to think about that nap he wants to take. He can already hear the miniature thunder cracks of a gun battle a block away.
He sighs, drawing back a hand and plunging his fist through the metal case of a nearby fuse box. He wraps his fingers around the cables inside. Sparks shoot out in all directions as a raging torrent of white lightning courses the length of his arm. It fills him. It revitalises him. The lights in the apartment block flicker and wink out.
He hates to leave people in the dark, but right now, he's got no choice. There's work to do and a hit from the mains is just what he needs before a firefight. It's no substitute for a good night's sleep, but it'll have to do.
After all, it's going to be a long night.