Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Pandora's Playground 1

"Don't move!" The gruff shout came from a short, broad man with no neck. The night was not too dark to make out his brown and red uniform, name tag and badge, or the assortment of weapons hanging from his belt. Faint light reflected off the balding half of his scalp, the skin tight but spotted. His shirt appeared to be a size smaller than it should, seams stretched tight by bulging muscle. As he stepped out of the passenger seat of the matching brown and red truck, its suspension recovered at least two inches.

"Think you could skirt around the Old Manhattan checkpoints?" The driver of the vehicle hopped out and spoke now. This man was taller and thinner than his partner, but likewise uniformed. He spun a small, hood mounted flood light towards the shore.

The bright cone illuminated the crouched figure of a man by the edge of the water. Obeying the command, the man stayed motionless except for the slow rhythm of heavy, controlled breathing. Glimmering in the light, beaded droplets clung to his black cape that draped to the sand, hiding all but the dark red metal helmet. The man offered an explanation, his voice even and somehow polite, despite coming through a distortion device, "Quite the contrary, I have been here for weeks, just returned from a leisurely swim."

To be fair, the excuse was only slightly less believable than someone having swam across a mile of the Hudson's cold water an hour before an early spring dawn. In fact, the frigid conditions justified seasonally loose security. Measures were in place to monitor boat crossings, but few eyes even watched the river, let alone close enough to discern a swimmer. The dripping man wondered how his approach could have been spotted at all. More likely, it was the dumb luck of a passing patrol. Regardless, he was glad he added an hour into his travel calculations for speed bumps like this.

"Relax, pal. We don't need a story." The tall one spoke this time as he produced a tablet computer. "This happens more often than you'd think. Just give us a name. We'll register your visit and you'll probably be free to go."

To properly address the inquiry, the man rose to his feet. As he did so, the cape parted, revealing small metal plates that armored most of his body. The majority of them were flat black, dimly reflecting light from the flood lamp, while those on his side matched the shade of his helmet. At a height well past six feet, his posture was impeccable, neither hostile nor yielding. With a slight bow that did not lower his eyes, he replied, "I prefer the name Deathgrind."

The tall one only snickered as he entered the name into his tablet; the short one was hardly so gracious. Snorting, he prodded, "Lemmie guess, all the good ones was taken?"

"This coming from a pair of freaks working for a company named Brutes for Hire." A dismissive tone was apparent through the distortion; the retort was followed by an indignant scoff.

Growling, the short brute took a menacing step forward, poised like a bull about to charge. His shirt looked about to burst as he brought his hands together to crack his knuckles. Deathgrind remained still, not even adjusting his footing. The lack of reaction only spurred further fury. Tension grew. Through clenched teeth the brute threatened, "I could crush you an' your suit like a can of beer."

"System says he's a strength type. Can't be stronger than you, Flint." The words came from his tall partner, "Just take 'im. There's even a decent bounty on this punk."

Flint's clenched teeth twisted into a grin at the mention of the bounty. Excited, he vaulted forward, spraying sand back at his partner. He was airborne the entire distance to Deathgrind, his enormous arm chambered. The punch came at a blinding speed, fueled by the jump, but it missed the target. As fast as the combined motion was, Deathgrind was faster. Not solely in reaction time, but the movement itself was fluid to an extreme degree considering the armor which should restrict his movement. When Flint landed, he found Deathgrind standing to his right with a hand gripping the inside of his elbow.

The next strike came from Deathgrind, driving his metal fist into the captive elbow. The joint shattered with a sickening crack that rang over the scream of pain. Deathgrind then pulled on that arm as he crashed his heel into Flint's knee. This impact caused a sound similar to the last, although there was no accompanying scream. Instead, Flint crumpled with little more than a whimper. Not yet finished, Deathgrind maintained his grip on the elbow, tightening and twisting with every word he spoke, "One. My metal is far stronger than a can of beer. Two. Canned beer? Have some class. And three. I. Like. My. Name."

Releasing the broken man, Deathgrind turned to the remaining brute. A heavy caliber pistol boomed once; Deathgrind found himself looking at the sky as his head snapped backwards from the force of the bullet. Two more shots were fired, both ricocheting off the same metal plate of his chest. With these, he took a step backwards before righting himself. Rolling his neck and shoulders, he asserted, "Excellent aim. You must be an aptitude type. Only a class four, of course, else you would have a better employer. Now, you could fire again, but the worst it would do is crack my visor. Or you could reach for your stun gun and hope that I am not well insulated. Either of those options ends with me fairly angry and you fairly dead. Collect your partner and get out of my way."

Without any further interference, Deathgrind strolled past his former assailant and stepped into his new truck, quite happy the gentleman had left it running for him. On his way, he was careful to trample the tablet computer, fracturing it irreparably. The suspension suffered again, almost as much as it had for the now incapacitated brute. After rolling up the tinted window and turning the flood lamp off, Deathgrind began his drive inland. He thought for a moment, realizing how the episode with island security had worked in his favor. Despite its modest quality, the seat offered a luxurious embrace after the taxing swim. Moreover, the drive to his meeting should go unmolested thanks to the official vehicle.

Although recent years had put it on the mend, Midtown was still a disaster. Most of the buildings still lay in crumpled heaps, buried further under their own rubble from the streets. Road clearing had taken priority to new construction as Midtown was home to Manhattan's single access point that remained, the Lincoln Tunnel. The limited access was more beneficial than anticipated; it made the island isolated, defensible. The entire island was a testament to the human condition. What was a city several hundred years in the making had been unmade within the span of a single year. The attack in September of 2001 was a scrape on the knee next to the disembowelment that was the Mutant Uprising less than two years later. Though Midtown bore the brunt of the chaos that ensued, no block had survived pristine. Everything was damaged, most of it abandoned, and little of it tenable. Yet here the city stood, persisting, repairing, and in some places thriving.

Deathgrind was headed for one such place. Traffic had been nonexistent until he was a few blocks away, which made the couple patrol vehicles and few taxis near it look like an immovable jam. Finding an empty alley at the outskirts of this activity, he parked his appropriated truck and waited for a patrol to pass before getting out. People bustled about in an early morning rush, creating a crowd to blend in with, a task easier than it sounds. The cape was, of course, a little ostentatious but body armor was hardly uncommon in the harsh environment. No more than a couple heads turned as he passed, long purposeful strides outpacing much of the crowd. That pace proved unsustainable as the foot traffic thickened, peppered by men and women wearing light blue scrubs or lengthy white coats. There was a subtle pattern to it all that centered on the brick building Deathgrind now looked up at.

From this distance, the crown was hidden behind the rest of its seventy floors, but Deathgrind knew it was there, piercing the sky just out of sight. He also knew two of the ornamental corners had been replaced, along with much of the surrounding masonry, although just to look at it he would not have guessed. The landmark had been returned to its 1930 glory, complete with the title of tallest in the city when a wounded military helicopter had struck its remaining rival. Its new owner had been meticulous with the refurbishment, apart from one addition. Above each of the Chrysler Building's three entrances hung the bright placard of the Kaison Corporation. The font was an ultra-modern sans serif with the letters slanted heavily right and the leading K inscribed within a red playing card diamond.

The authenticity of the restoration proved to be completely exterior and primarily aesthetic. A careful eye of the shops lining the outside of the ground level revealed them to be a facade; each one was at most a foot deep window display. Deathgrind realized why this had been done the instant he passed through the revolving door. The entire first floor had been gutted and opened up, save for the elevators which still stood in the center of the room. The remodel had enabled a level of security the building could not otherwise accommodate.

A small army of security guards oversaw the entire room. More than wearing the same black slacks with blue stripes, grey shirts and ear pieces, the guards themselves were uniform. Each one looked marathon capable and stood with the same military posture. Men and women alike had their hair in a tight buzz cut. None of the guards acted as individuals either; their motion was one well conducted concert that corralled patients and visitors through full body scanners. Deathgrind's entrance effected a key change to something sharp. While no one approached him, he noticed that no less than two guards at a time kept eyes on him. The mood was more assertive than aggressive, but Deathgrind was by no means welcome here.

"No helping it at this point," Deathgrind muttered to himself, barely a hum being produced from his speakers. After one more glance around the room, he identified the staff security checkpoint. Small and sparsely attended, doctors and nurses flashed their badges as they passed by a pair of guards. That would be the most direct route. Deathgrind marched himself straight toward it.

The reaction was approximately what Deathgrind expected, although faster. In as many steps, three guards had positioned themselves behind him. Weapons had not yet been drawn. By his fourth step, a real Amazon of a woman was between him and the checkpoint. Her strong, broad shoulders supported epaulets with more stripes than any other guard in the building. A steel name tag read "Cooper." With eyes as dark as her skin and at about Deathgrind’s chin, she gave him a look that dared him to make the first move.

“Honey, patients check in over there.” She gestured with a slight flick of her chin. There was a suppressed southern accent in her deep voice.

"I am aware. I came to see Mister Kaison."

"Oh, of course! Let me see if he's available," There was not an ounce of sincerity in her voice when she put a hand to her ear in a mock phone call, "Yeah, see if Mister Kaison has any time this year to see a seven foot troll dressed like the Tinman."

Metal plates chimed as Deathgrind clenched his right fist, the crisp note resonating above background noise. Although he might not have noticed it, Deathgrind now leaned forward. The subtle shift was a sort of menacing that promised violence. Something like silence followed, cascading outward and drawing attention. Just beyond normal perception, a brief ripple ran through the air between Cooper and her threat, while a shallow wrinkle appeared across her forehead. Following these, the three guards behind Deathgrind adjusted their weight, readying to strike but not with the holstered weapons on their sides.

With another clack, Deathgrind moved his right arm, only from the elbow down. He had brought his hand up, held outward to Cooper. Pinched between two of his fingers was a small card that had not been in his hand an instant before. He relaxed his posture as he spoke, "I was given this."

The card was about the size of a business card, but it had the rounded edges and finish of a playing card. The side pointed away from Cooper and towards the ground was covered in a complex red design that had the Kaison Corporation logo worked into it. The opposite side marked it as the ace of diamonds. There was contact information printed on it in small font, but that had been obscured by large plain letters written in black permanent marker. They read, "MEET -DK"

Cooper relaxed and the floor followed suit. The ripple happened again, except in the reverse direction and even harder to perceive. She put a hand to her ear and began to speak, "Morning Ace, there's someone here to see you. He brought an invitation but I don't think he has an appointment..." Her voice trailed off and she paused to listen. After a moment, she buried her face in her hand. When she spoke again, the words were heavy with sarcasm, "What a coincidence that you just decided to clear your schedule this morning!"

Deathgrind focused his attention on the other half of the conversation, but even with his hearing, the in-ear headset was too quiet. Cooper continued a moment later, her southern accent becoming apparent as she did, "Mmm-hmm. Well, next time you have even just a little feeling... let your security team know about it. Please."

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