Fiction Friday: London Stronghold

Wide image of London.   It was oddly satisfying to watch the ships roll in and out of port along the Thames River. They seemed neither rushed nor lazy in their movements, each one skimming the water at its own pace. The ripples they created intersected, touching one another in half-moon patterns that kept the surface of the otherwise murky water in constant motion.
   “Backlash, report to London Citadel immediately.”
   The order came from a tiny, clear patch no larger than a dime that was pasted just behind the back of James Kendall’s right ear. It was standard issue to all members of the PeaceKeepers, a worldwide network of superheros that operated autonomously in cooperation with Interpol and the United Nations. It was the one thing about his new job that he absolutely detested. The thing could be removed, if necessary, or ‘muted’ for privacy purposes, but was otherwise expected to stay on at all times. The fact that the stupid thing could also link members telepathically did not help James’ opinion of the device. It was invasive.
   “Copy that,” James said softly so as not to attract too much attention. He finished his cigarette, rolling the butt between his fingers and dropping it in a waste bin on his way back towards London Stronghold. People mostly ignored him, though some eyed him askance as he walked with hands stuffed into the pockets of his fatigue-green coat. Natives said it was because people could ‘smell the Yankee’ on him, James said it was because people were nosy or rude. 
   James made the walk from London Bridge to the Gherkin in relatively good time. ‘Immediately’ meant different things depending on who gave the order and the tone used. This time around, it just meant he needed to report in and not that someone was filling a local coffee shop with duplicates of himself. That happened the week prior. Things with the PeaceKeepers were vastly different from how things were with the Agency for Evolved Control where he had been before. The A.E.C. operated much like any other government agency. The PeaceKeepers… well, mostly they tried not to cause too much damage when handling an issue. He had once equated them to the Justice League from D.C. Comics and learned very quickly never to make that comparison again.
   For one, London Stronghold was not orbiting Earth. It was, in fact, a subterranean establishment that sprawled out beneath a good chunk of London. Also, there were no elevators or magic portal tunnels to get into London Stronghold. James had to descend, first, into the bowels of London Underground, find a specific archway, descend down those steps, and then punch in a code that opened a pressurized sewer flap in the ground to get to where he needed to be. They were global Ninja Turtles. That was also not an appropriate comparison, or so he was told once.
   “Justice,” he said to a hologram of a page boy complete in Victorian garb and newsie cap. The transparent being was always present no matter the time or day and in every Stronghold across the globe. James first encountered Justice in Chicago and had been pleasantly surprised to see the ten-year-old-looking hologram when he first arrived in London.
   “Good afternoon, Agent Kendall,” Justice said, using James’ last name. The hologram was the only one that ever used real names for the members within the Stronghold. It was a curiosity that James had yet to puzzle out as most members were incredibly protective of their identities for obvious reasons. “Your presence has been requested in Laboratory One. Proceed with caution. Agent Richter set off a particularly bothersome bomb earlier today during his trials.”
   James made a face but nodded all the same. “Thanks for the heads up.”
   “You’re welcome, Agent Kendall.”
   The creepy little thing was always so polite and usually more informative than he needed to be. Agent Richter otherwise known to the rest of the team as Neurophage, was their resident genius and weapons manufacturer, among other things. If he set something off, then that something was bound to linger for a while. Regardless, James had been summoned, so to Laboratory One he went.
   Each of the Strongholds had their own set of rules per the person that lead that particular team. In London Stronghold, unless there was specific events, missions, or training, no one was expected to walk around in ‘costume’ – which, he was told, was also not the right word for the uniforms they wore. So, he trundled along, hands still in pockets until reaching the designated meeting space. The crisp white doors opened automatically with a sterile hiss. Everything was white, a common theme in the Strongholds. Chicago Stronghold had been the same way, all antiseptic white walls and crisp corners. Some rooms were open aired, others with glass that could be frosted for privacy but, the general decor for the PeaceKeepers was ‘white’. When the door opened, James’ nostrils were accosted by the most rancid smell ever set loose on olfactory glands.
   “What the flying fun hose did you do, Neuro?” James asked as he entered the room, hands covering his nose and mouth. Two other members stood in the room with the resident genius: their leader, Saraya Nigel, otherwise known as Zephyr, and Aiden Craig, code-named Aerial, their transport expert. Both stood with the same disgusted face, both staring at the red-headed genius for creating such a horrific stench.
   “Neuro was trying to adapt a smoke bomb to include a tear gas agent,” Aerial explained. “He failed.”
   “I noticed,” James grunted. “What’s up?”
He was easily one of the oldest members of the London team which sometimes bothered him and sometimes didn’t. So far, everyone had been rather gracious and accepting if not inviting.
   “Well, we were going to do a mission briefing,” Zephyr intoned. “But now we need to air out the Stronghold because this is being sucked into the automated air vents. You get to stay here and fix this fuck up, Neuro. Call us when it’s safe for us to breathe again.”
   “Me? But…” Neuro spluttered as Zephyr walked out of the lab, taking James and Aiden with her.
   “We calling Eric in on this?” Aiden asked as they walked. The man was of equal height to James if ten years his junior. He was also miraculously capable of flying, driving, piloting, or any other -ing that could be done for every vehicle known or not known to man. Fixing them came naturally to him as well. Eric Kreedy was a mercenary that was sometimes hired on to assist in missions that were not always straight on the up and up. He was also Saraya’s fiancee.
   “No,” she practically growled. Or, perhaps they were not an item anymore. No one told James anything.
   “So what are we looking into, this time?” James dared as the three heroes walked out of the stank-hole that had been created by Neurophage’s failed smoke bomb.
   “Not a what,” Zephyr commented. “Who. Levi Amadour, otherwise known to the world as Dr. Love. He’s a terror on par with the Collector.”
   “Worse,” Aerial threw in with a look of disgust on his face. James remained silent. He was, after all, still learning a great deal of life as a superhero. His first few missions were small, so far, things to help him acclimate to his new enhancements and recently unearthed Evolutionary gifts. Apparently, he had more than what he originally believed, things that were discovered during the enhancement process. Now, rather than being known as Agent Falcon, James was known to the collective team in London as Backlash. Adjusting to the name was not the only thing he was still adapting to. Knowing the various heroes and villains that ran in their particular circle was also expected, something he was still catching up on.
   “Enlighten me,” James said. “I fail to see how anyone can be worse than the bastard that eats souls.”
   “Because this shit head forces Evolution on anything with a heartbeat,” Aerial countered. James’s mouth nearly dropped. Forced Evolution?
   “Is that even possible?” James asked. Enhancements were one thing. They were engineered to augment something that already existed. If there was no Evolution to augment, then at best you might get some spiffy new eyeballs or enhanced hearing; maybe even taste the color of a rainbow if someone was feeling saucy. But to force Evolution, to purposely tamper with someone’s DNA to give them a power seemed oddly horrific.
   “That’s the big question, isn’t it?” Zephyr answered as they cleared the first level into the old undercity of London towards street level. “There’s debate on whether it is or not, should be or shouldn’t be and everything in between. Regardless, we do know that Dr. Love, at least, has succeeded in doing something. He’s known for creating vile mutations, things that were once animals or men but have been lost in whatever genetic manipulation he’s done. It robs them of everything and, most of the time, gives him full control over these pathetic creatures. He made a name for himself in Geneva not too long ago when he set loose an entire pack of mutated wolves on the populace. Their infection spread like wildfire.”
   “Infection?” James asked. “He uses it like a plague?”
   “Sort of,” Aerial said. “The theory is that there are some people with the genetic coding for Evolution that was never triggered. If one of those things bites someone with that coding, it triggers them. If they bit anyone else, those folks just get sick like… like rabies. The ones that are triggered… well, I’ve yet to see any of them survive.”
   “Fun…” James said with a concerned grimace. It was the opposite of fun, in fact. “So where are we going?”
   “Scotland,” Zephyr answered. “Once Neuro clears out the Stronghold. Currently, we’re going to the pub. Talisman and Essence are on their way.”
   “Cuz that’s what I think of when I think ‘mission briefing’ – a pub,” James chortled, sucking in breath as the icy cold November wind hit his face at street level.
   “Things are done differently here, detective,” Zephyr grinned. “Get used to it.”

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