There are no familiar faces from the Irregulars or Challenger Foundation in today’s #SaturdayScenes, and it’s not from a book already published or a book in progress. Today you get to take a look at a different corner of the Ascension Epoch universe and meet, for the first time in prose, the super-soldier called Sentinel, the deadly metahuman renegades of Nemesis, and their very persuasive leader, a man called Gravitas.
I wrote this scene a couple of years ago. As a rule, I don’t do scenes in present tense, but I find it useful to experiment from time to time. Somewhat ironically, I found that using the present tense, combined with the spare description and brutal pacing, worked well to convey the impression of a vivid memory. Let me know what you think.
Crumbling plaster and the stink of mildew on rotting wood, the echoed tapping of boots down an empty hallway leaving tracks in an inch of dust. Lightless at dusk except for moon shine through glassless windows, pigeons and bats brooding in nests of naked wires. The steps cease. Silence, stillness. The ghosts come out.
Christopher Ramsey pushes open a bullet-cratered door; it swings inward on squealing hinges. The Sentinel steps through the threshold.
It is ten years ago.
The man who speaks is tall and regal looking, glossy black hair combed with precision, small round spectacles perched near the bulb of his nose. Impeccably dressed, straight backed, heavy-set. Well-manicured hands, polished shoes, cufflinks. He is called Gravitas.
Distinguished looking wrinkles appear at the corners of his eyes, creases deepen around his mouth as he commences his practiced oration. “’From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need.’ That is the principle that informs the enlightened society of New England. By accident of birth some have much more to give than others, and the rulers of New England are always very much in need. Three quarters of a million parahumans enslaved. Four thousand executed over the last thirty years. Nova Scotia burning, filled with squalid camps of starving prisoners. These are the necessary preconditions of universal equality, are they not, President Sprague?”
Bright incandescent lights shine down from crystal chandeliers onto crystal stemware, prismatic gleaming above ornate woodwork and beautiful framed portraits on the richly painted walls. White table cloths and white faces with wide open mouths and quaking chins. A table overturned, a vase shattered, bright blooms and ice from a sterling silver champagne bucket scattered on the floor. Staccato sobs replace the piano music while blood spreads across the purple carpet.
“These are the causes that impel you to try to deprive a superior people of its destiny, to remake the very nature of man. Such hubris! The universe will not suffer it. It has raised up a power to chasten you, President Sprague… and you too, President Cooper, who looks across his border with such admiration. Implacable justice has come. Your nemesis has come.
“Stand up, President Sprague,” Gravitas lilts, his voice becoming a vocal orchestra of different tones and notes, rising then deepening in enthralling harmony. “and you too, Mrs. Sprague, and you too, little Lillian.” The air vibrates queerly, everyone gets lightheaded. The First Family of New England obeys.
“Now, President Sprague, you will strangle your daughter with your bare hands,” insists Gravitas. “Watch closely, Mrs. Sprague. Stand still, Lillian.”
The President of New England drops his mouth, his lips dry. He steps forward and holds out his hands. Tears roll down his cheek and his wife’s. His daughter, 12 years old, prettily dressed in an ankle-length gown, her hair plaited, her cheeks wan, just stares. She tries to speak but has no voice.
Gravitas brushes up against President Sprague, whispers something into his ear. The voice is angry, curt, unpracticed. “You had my brother executed. Gerald Sterling. Remember that name when the light goes out of your daughter’s eyes.”
Sprague’s cold, sweaty hands clamp around his daughter’s neck, fingertips digging painfully into her spine. His thumb digs into her windpipe. In her stupefied panic, she doesn’t recognize the report of gunfire in the hallway or the crash as the door flies open and the body of a Nemesis soldier falls lifeless across the threshold.
Gravitas drops screaming as bullets obliterate his knee cap.
The Sentinel strides into the room, ear-plugs dug in beneath the folds of his helmet, return fire ricocheting off the slope of his gun-shield. A determined, sharp-eyed face peers through the viewport above the iron sights of his rifle and the weapon roars again. Another Nemesis gunman falls, his finger tightening on the trigger, stitching a line of bullets into the ceiling. Rain of plaster, shattering glass, screaming. The remaining Nemesis soldiers, most dressed as waiters and bellhops, move to Plan B and turn sub-machine guns on the hostages. Barricade charges from the other side of the room, hurtling a table at Sentinel one-handed. Abattoir comes up behind him.
Sentinel rolls away, but not quickly enough. The heavy pedestal wrenches the rifle out of his hands. He sees it spin away and hit the carpet, stock first. Sentinel’s pistol is out immediately, three rapid shots into the chest of one of the gunmen an instant before the barrel of his grease gun sweeps table of the governor of New York.
Sentinel’s head throbs, blood rushes out his nose, his stomach knots. This is Abattoir. He throws off the pain and leaps across three tables, avoiding a curtain of lead. He collides with Barricade; they land between President Sprague and his wife.
Sprague is still strangling his daughter. Her face turns blue.
The windows shatter. A man with metal wings and face covered in Indian warpaint flies through the cloud of glass. He kneels. A tattooed, muscular arm slants upward in front of his flack-jacket covered torso, skin covered in tiny cuts and streaked with blood. A tomahawk blade grows out of the back of Abattoir’s skull. Panicked, a nearby Nemesis swings his gun like a club at Noble Eagle’s head. The winged man blocks it with his forearms and hauls his enemy off his feet. The man yells as he’s thrown through the shattered window, the sound gradually dying off on the 25 story fall.
Noble Eagle growls at the two remaining Nemesis gunmen. They drop their weapons.
Sentinel’s pain starts to fade, but the blood still pours out, leaving an imprint of his face on Barricade’s chest. Hands the size and strength of bear paws crash around his head, denting in his helmet. A knee comes up into his abdomen, but his muscles tighten just before impact. He rolls with the blow and is quick to his feet. Barricade’s head spins on his thick neck, a red mark on his chin from where Sentinel’s boot hit home. Five more bone-pulverizing blows land before Barricade hits the deck unconscious.
“Stop,” Sentinel demands, breathing heavy. His eyes drift over to Gravitas, curled up on the floor a few feet away, in too much pain and losing too much blood to do anything but whimper.
“God damn you, make him stop!” This time he adds the exclamation point by stomping on the Talent’s wound. Gravitas howls.
Sentinel taps President Sprague just once, and lightly. The roof of his mouth splits and the front row of teeth fly out of his mouth, coloring his daughter’s pale face with blood, and finally, he lets go.