Previously available in Pantechnicon, I’m going to post parts 1-5 of London Calling here also.
Without further ado, here’s part one.
Baxter looked down. There was a hell of a long way to fall, should he feel so inclined. His fingers tightened on the rail of the window washer’s platform lift and tore his gaze away from the pavement that lay over 600 feet away.
One Canada Square was the tallest building in Britain. From up here Baxter could see the Thames, the Millennium Dome, and some of the most expensive offices in the capital. He could see his own reflection in the thick safety glass: tall, muscular, wearing dull grey coveralls. What he couldn’t see was the rest of his team.
He raised a hand to tap at his earpiece, then cupped the mic to protect it from the howling wind. ‘In position.’
The response was prompt. Neena was a stickler for timekeeping. ‘Floor forty-seven electronics will be down for one minute on my mark.’ Her voice was calm, but distracted. ‘Three. Two. One. Mark.’
All lights beyond the window flickered and died. Baxter lifted his free hand and gestured toward a seagull, reaching out for it even though it was a good fifty feet away. The muscles in his jaw shifted as he stared at the bird, willing it to give up scrounging just for a few minutes.
There was a heart-stopping pause. As if his life were flashing before his eyes, Baxter had the all too real vision of what might happen if, just this once, his ability to control animal life had fled him.
That’d be the mission well and truly fucked.
Languidly, as if it had nothing better to do, the seagull twisted in the wind to approach the platform lift, landing effortlessly on the handrail that Baxter still clung to.
The window behind him groaned as it opened, the rubber seals tearing a little after years of disuse. A delicate hand slipped a pendrive into the outside world, and Baxter turned to take it without a word. The window closed once more.
Baxter slipped the pendrive and his earpiece into a little velvet pouch, then fastened it to the seagull’s leg. In silent communion the bird was given its orders and, incapable of disobedience, it took flight.
With a cheerful whistle, Baxter adjusted his cap and returned to cleaning the windows.
‘Mr. Strathclyde will see you now, sir.’
Baxter nodded to the secretary. He never bothered remembering their names; it was a new one every week, it seemed. Passing the neat young man’s desk he wondered briefly if Strathclyde just hired temps and fiddled with their memories every time he released one back into the wild.
He gave the office door a shove and stalked in, nodding to the boss. ‘You wanted to see me, sir?’
Jason Strathclyde was a wiry little Scotsman careening wildly toward his sixtieth birthday. He wore the suit, brushed the hair, and had the cushy office, but he didn’t fit the desk. Baxter knew the army, and he knew what it did to people; Strathclyde had seen combat, of that he was certain.
‘Take a seat, Mr. Baxter.’
Baxter sank into the leather armchair and leaned forward attentively.
‘Job well done. Top marks to your team.’ Strathclyde motioned to the pendrive that lay on his blotter pad.
‘I’m glad to hear it, sir.’ Baxter waited for the but.
‘The Chinese have dispatched an agent to London. He’s infiltrated Vauxhall and is passing information back to China.’
Baxter nodded slightly. ‘And SS have passed it to the SOE because it’s one of us?’
‘Exactly.’ Strathclyde nodded. ‘It all looks dull, I’m afraid. You don’t get a holiday, you don’t even get scary parahuman bad guys. The worst their agent seems able to conjure up is a light squall.’
Baxter blinked at that. ‘He makes it rain? Christ, I thought I was shit…’
His boss snickered. ‘Animal control isn’t to be sneezed at, and who wouldn’t give their right arm to move at the speed you can? Look on this as an opportunity to get Otto fully broken in.’
‘He’s had six months’ training. If he’s not ready by now, he never will be.’
They were known as the Baker Street Irregulars. It was an old nickname once held by the Special Operations Executive way back when, but now it just referred to Baxter’s team. Sherlock Holmes’ crack squad of underfed urchins, protecting the Realm from whatever enemy she’d gained this week.
Officially they were I-Section. Whatever combination of genes, radiation, alien experimentation or god alone knew what else had spawned parahumans, they were so few and far-between that the UK only had fifty or so. Those who refused to give up their careers and aspirations to join the SOE either had their minds changed for them, or ‘forgot’ how to use their particular abilities.
Octavian Savage was one of those who had made an unexpected U-turn in his decision not to join up. He was nineteen years of age and instead of studying History at University, he was here, walking along the bank of the Serpentine with Neena Chakrabarti and Richard Baxter.
‘You’re sure this doesn’t make us look like spies?’ Neena’s voice was soft, and she smiled as she spoke.
‘Two adults escorting a teenage boy? No, it makes us look like fucking paedophiles.’ Baxter fished an apple out of his pocket and bit into it. It made an unhappy squish sound rather than the crisp crunch that he’d been hoping for, and he scowled, tossing it into the lake.
Otto snorted. ‘I’m nineteen. I very much doubt that-’
‘-I keep telling you to look older when we have meetings. What part of that isn’t sinking in, kid?’
‘We couldn’t look more mismatched if we tried, Sarge,’ Otto snapped. ‘You’re built like a brick privy and you dress like a fucking Chav. Neena’s always in a suit, and is far too pretty to be your girlfriend. My training stressed that one should do one’s best to blend in, to be as unobtrusive as possible, and you two stick out like sore thumbs!’
Neena laughed into her hand. ‘Oh, Otto, one of these days he’s going to put you over his knee and give you a good smack!’
‘I wouldn’t bother,’ Baxter admitted.
‘No. I’ll just shoot him.’ Before Otto could be overcome by apoplexy, Baxter continued; ‘Looks like we’re not done. There’s a Chinese operative in London. For the moment he doesn’t seem to be here to destabilise anything, but he’s infiltrated the SIS somehow, and seems to be digging for information.’
‘And I suppose we care because he’s a mutant freak just like the rest of us, and has mad super powers we cannot possibly hope to stand up against?’ Neena glanced out across the lake. For all her acting like an experienced SOE operative, she’d only transferred into field ops a year ago, and hadn’t really encountered other paras since then. The thought of actually coming up against someone with some kind of comic-book superpowers made her skin crawl.
Baxter gave a curt nod. ‘He has the leet skills. Be afraid. I’ve heard he can cause light showers given a couple of hours’ notice.’
There was a short barking sound. It took Baxter and Neena a few seconds to realise that it was Otto laughing. ‘Is that it? SIS can’t handle one lousy rainmaker?’
‘They don’t have to. It’s our jurisdiction. Technically we should’ve known about him before he got this far. We’re going to get our balls cut off for this, even if we do find him.’ Baxter eyed Otto, giving serious consideration to slapping the youngster round the back of the head. ‘They even gave us the Canada Square lead in the first place.’
Neena pursed her lips, looking back to the boys. ‘That’s hardly reasonable.’
‘It isn’t, no.’ Baxter checked his watch. ‘It’s politics. So, here’s what we’re going to do. Otto, SIS are going to let you replace one of their techie guys. They have plenty of footage for you to study. You’ve got three days to get the imitation spot on, and you go in on Thursday. Neena, fill his head with as much gibberish about computers as he can absorb so the other techies don’t see him coming a mile off.’
‘Christ, how am I supposed to learn this guy’s mannerisms in three days as well as pick up enough geek speak to get by?’
‘You’re trained. Suck it up.’
Otto looked, moved and spoke like a man he’d never even met. He carried Clive Harrison’s ID, wore his face and walked his walk. He had a head full of buzz-words and acronyms ready to fend off all but the most astute observer.
He was taking faking it to the extreme.
‘Hey.’ Otto nodded. Didn’t know the guy’s name. That was okay, Clive would have just labelled him as a user and moved on anyway.
He was, essentially, alone. The SIS offices were so high security that he wasn’t allowed his mobile phone, and he’d never get past the very armed guards if he’d tried wearing a wire. The best he had was the knowledge that Neena was sitting in an office somewhere with a patch into the video feed. He cast a glance toward a discreet camera embedded in the ceiling and wondered if she was watching him right that very moment.
To this day he couldn’t put a finger on why he’d changed his mind. He’d been so determined to take the placement at Leicester University, then the Sarge had come and given him that whole Spiderman power/responsibility spiel. The guy’s sheer force of presence had been so unsettling Otto couldn’t envision him doing anything other than killing faceless strangers on battlefields, and had wanted nothing to do with him.
Now here he was, being all MI6. Octavian Savage, super shapeshifting spy on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. What a load of bollocks.
‘Harrison! You fixing my PC today, or what?’
Otto pulled up short. The man in front of him made him bristle, exactly the way the Sarge did. The way his head was held high, his lack of fear in making direct, belligerent eye contact, his feet apart for stability. This man had been a soldier. He’d killed people, and probably lost a friend or two in the process. His confidence was enough to choke the life out of the weak-willed, and Otto felt his mouth dry up.
Speak. Speak, you idiot. Harrison isn’t afraid of these people. He looks down on them, for god’s sake! He dropped his shoulder slowly, and met the man’s eyes, trying not to flinch. ‘It’s the CPU, I’m afraid. We have a replacement on order, but all packages are being opened by hand at present due to the current-’
‘I don’t give a flying fuck.’ The man’s voice was entirely calm. ‘Get it fixed. No more excuses.’
Otto nodded again, half believing the stranger was going to use the pavement to sandpaper the skin from his face if that computer wasn’t working by the end of the day. ‘Will do,’ he said, the forced nonchalance utterly unconvincing.
The man moved around him, probably off to bully the hell out of a secretary or something, and Otto sagged. He had no hope in hell of fixing Scary Man’s PC. He could just about manage using one to write his A-Level homework. He had two options: either find the infiltrator by the end of play today, or sneak out fast and leave Scary Man to the real Clive Harrison tomorrow morning. He was leaning toward the latter.
There was no tingly feeling. Parahumans couldn’t magically detect one-another. They didn’t give off sparks or have anti-gravity hair. Their skin didn’t goosebump when other Paras were near. All he had to help him was an A-Level in Communication Studies and six month’s training as an SOE operative. He knew plenty about body language, neuro-linguistic programming, and anthropology. Okay, maybe not plenty.
Maybe not enough.
He’d been inserted on a day when Harrison was scheduled to floor-walk. In theory this gave Otto the opportunity to scour each and every level of the building for potential spies, whilst fobbing off any technical queries onto the helpdesk with the heavily-practiced line ‘Wow, this IS a weird one. I’ll have to ask you to log it.’ All it was really achieving was elevating his stress levels until he screamed at a hapless user to get the hell off his back and stomped all the way to the nearest bathroom.
Baxter lifted his boots from the console and slammed them down on the floor. ‘Christ, he’s useless!’
Neena leaned back in her seat, watching Otto disappear into the toilets. The bank of monitors stretched out in front of them were under the constant watchful eyes of MI6 staff, none of whom really appreciated having these unknown operatives in their midst. They were unsettled and twitchy. Baxter figured they thought he and Neena were Internal Affairs of some kind.
‘He is only nineteen, Sarge,’ Neena said, her voice as gentle and calm as ever. ‘You’re asking a lot of him.’
Baxter grunted. ‘Pull the plug, before it gets any worse.’
Otto leaned over the sink, splashing near-freezing water into his face. Dripping wet hands on the edge of the sink, he stared into the mirror, into the face that wasn’t his.
He wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to this. It was downright freaky seeing someone else staring back at you, especially when you caught a reflection out of the corner of your eye, a flash of a face that didn’t belong. That’s why he preferred mimicking animals, or trees, or… anything but other people.
Grabbing a paper towel, he patted his face dry and took a slow, steadying breath. He could do this. He was trained for this. He was going to go back out there and-
The lights began to flicker with a regularity that could only be artificially induced. Neena. Morse Code.
A B O R T
‘Fuck!’ He slammed his palms against the sink, then kicked the pedestal for good measure.
Otto straightened stiffly. He hadn’t even considered that he might not be alone in here. His eyes caught the reflection of a desperately thin young man in the mirror before him.
A Chinese man.
This job’s turning me into a racist! He bit the inside of his cheek, chewing on it thoughtlessly as he regarded the stranger. ‘Yeah. You could say that.’ He peeled his eyes away from the mirror and forced himself to face the guy, making one of Harrison’s stupid grimaces.
The emaciated man nodded in sympathy. ‘First day?’
‘Oh, god no.’ Otto pushed a laugh out through his teeth. ‘No, just…’ He gestured back toward the office. ‘Users. You know?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t.’ He offered Otto his hand. ‘Adam Lee. Finance.’
Otto shook it without thinking twice. Lee’s hand was wet. ‘Clive Harrison. I.T. You, uh, you pee on your hand there, mate?’
‘Of course not.’ Lee smiled crookedly.
‘Of course not, no.’ Lee was standing in a puddle. Otto’s eyes followed the trail of water to a cubicle. ‘Then what’s with the-’
Lee was no longer emaciated. He had fleshed out into a much healthier bulk. The water seemed to be moving along the floor, running into Lee’s feet. The guy had some freaky water-sucking foot thing going on.
‘You lie.’ Lee’s tone was conversational. ‘I know Clive Harrison. Your act is good, but it is not perfect.’
Otto sucked in a breath, then exhaled slowly. ‘Look, mate, I don’t know what’s going on, but you’re talking out of your arse…’ Yeah. Denial. Always works.
Doors slammed shut as water fired out of each and every toilet, rocketing toward Lee. Urinals cracked from the force of water forcing itself out of pipes and through the air. Taps gave way to pressure and fired water out any which way it could go. And as it hit Lee, he grew. Muscles developed impossibly fast.
Within ten seconds, Otto was facing a man five times his size. Another second more, and a rock-like fist had smacked him back into the wall. Tiles cracked under the impact, and the room began to spin.