#2:

Hostile and Otherwise Illicit Physical Contact

by Steve Geick

New York City authorities had encountered or confiscated less than a dozen firearms in the past four years.

Arthur Stone Jr. now watched as a man clad in airy blue combat gear ricocheted and bounded among slate walls and rooftops in the area formerly known as the Financial District. Slung across his armor-vested back was an automatic machine gun affixed with a nasty bayonet. Aside from his dramatically feline means of travel, he made no attempt to hide the weapon. There wasn’t a hint of fatigue or hesitation in the hooded figure’s sky-high liquid crawl.

“He’s coming from somewhere very nearby. The human body can’t accommodate that level of activity for any extended length. And for whatever reason, he’s deeply familiar with this particular stretch of architecture,” Arthur said as he watched.

At last the lower-Manhattan cityscape swallowed away the gunman.

“He’s obviously pretty careful to avoid being picked up on camera,” said the senior scout.

“How’d that work out?” asked Arthur once the video concluded.

The scout gave a resigned shrug. “Pretty well, sir. This is the only footage.”

“And it’s from when?”

“Last night. If he’s still in the area, we think it’s one of these three buildings.” The scout used a stylus to circle the locations on the screen of his tablet. “It’s possible that he’s since exited through some blind spot in our surveillance. We’re happy to deploy additional cameras in the area at your command, sir.”

The New York headquarters of the East Coast Open Hand Sentinels came equipped with a special office for the Unity Party Chief. It was a common feature in the early days of the Biarchy, when Arthur Stone Sr. would have sat at the desk. Arthur Jr. had rarely ever stepped foot in such spaces, and this was his first time using one to conduct party business. When Wyandanch the Unifier went missing, Arthur decided to visit as many local Scout and Sentinel chapters as his time would allow. He would likely need to draw upon the pools of talent within those organizations to find his next sanctioned combatant.

“Has Liberty seen this?” Arthur asked the scout, hoping to send this latest problem down the chain.

“We’ve been told she’s unavailable.”

“She’s busy with the other situation,” said Arthur as he replayed the video on the scout’s tablet. He pointed at the wall-scaling figure on the screen. “That’s Revere.”

“Revere was a sniper, sir, as you know. The guy in the video is carrying a machine gun. We thought it might be Madison.”

“It’s Revere. Believe me.” Arthur could tell by the way the man moved. He and Orson used to call them refs; the Sovereign Entity’s foreign enforcers. They were deployed to make sure the Unifier and the Divider were adhering to the treaty as they waged their two-man civil wars. It had been years since the last one was spotted.

Arthur handed the tablet back to the scout. “Don’t let this get out unless it’s cleared by me or Lib. Anything else?”

“One more thing, sir.” The scout stiffened. “I hope I’m not stepping out of line, but — well,” he drew a deep breath and looked Arthur firmly in the eye. The Chief had to work pretty hard to keep from bursting out laughing. “You once told me that fear died in the war, and that there weren’t any ghosts in the new world. Just men who live forever.”

“I sound drunk in this story.”

A fumbling chuckle jerked loose from the scout’s throat. “I don’t think so, sir. You were standing on stage. There was a class of us. Trainees.”

“Go ahead.”

“Sir, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring.”

“What ring?” Arthur asked.

The scout glanced away briefly before fixing his attention on Arthur once more. “I want to wear the mask, sir. I want to be the Unifier.”

For several long seconds, Arthur said nothing, which the scout seemed to consider an invitation to continue. “I know why you’re out visiting sentinel facilities. You weren’t ready for what happened to Wyandanch. You thought the peace would last forever.”

“Excuse me,” Arthur cut in.

But the scout had more to say. “You’re scrambling to load the pipeline with candidates. The next Unifier should be a scout, not a sentinel. Sir, my men have reason to believe that the Sovereign Entity will soon outlaw the Open Hand Sentinels as a treaty-incompatible paramilitary body. Every last one of those guys will be in cuffs within six weeks time. It’s going to happen.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t remember your name.”

The scout stopped short, his mouth yet to close on the last few words in his cascading sales pitch.

“It’s Bullerk, sir.”

“Bullerk. Where’s Trombane?”

“He was re-assigned this morning, sir. I’ll be captaining your immediate scout detail for the time being.”

“Bullerk. We have a Unifier, you know.”

“I’m well aware, sir. I would never disparage the mask. I’ve admired you for as long as I can remember.”

“The mask isn’t mine,” Arthur said as he turned away from the scout and took a seat at his desk.

“But you made it. I could never seek the blessing of a man who was just found naked in a bag. It’s your opinion I value. Yours above all others.”

Arthur buried his face in his hand, lacking the energy to put on a show of outrage at the scout’s disrespect.

Bullerk continued uninvited, “If this isn’t the way to do it, then what is?”

Arthur broke from his tired posture to look the man in the eye once more. “Scheming on one of the only two people in the country with the right to physically hurt you is probably not the safest place to start.”

“I don’t care about safety, sir.” A sad agitation began to show itself in the man’s eyes. “I need to fight. You bought the mask with your father’s capital. I don’t have that. All I have is you. In this room, with me.”

“Ten seconds ago I made the mask. Now you say I bought it?” said Arthur, squinting at his subordinate.

“Sir. He isn’t going to pull through. You know I’m right. And if I’m wrong, we’re all worse off for it.”

“Is that with all due respect?”

“That’s right, sir. I hope I haven’t crossed the line.”

Where did this guy even come from?

“Bullerk. You know what I would have done if I found out someone was gunning for the mask back when it was mine?”

The scout bowed his head. “I think so, sir. I just want you to be ready.” He took a deep breath. “If Marrowcut is back — ”

“I’ve got to be somewhere. If you see Trombane, tell him I miss him.” Arthur stood, nodded, and left the room, hoping the change of scenery would distract him from the pinching memories Bullerk had stirred up.

It was too late. The name rang through his head at an ice-cold pitch. The mask of the Divider ripped and lashed in his mind’s eye as he moved through the sentinel hallways. Marrowcut. That old stain.

Arthur had extinguished the terror of Blackvain, built the Open Hand Sentinels from the ground up, and trained two of the three men to succeed him in the mask. If he would have left it there, perhaps this repugnant presence would never have come rumbling up from the bowels of hell to blanket his people in scars. Instead, Arthur hung around in a support role, watching as his dearest childhood friend failed repeatedly to bring Marrowcut to justice. Orson — as Seneca — was not considered a bad Unifier. But if he had only been a little stronger, a little smarter, and a little more focused, he could have broken Marrowcut, and the Biarchy would have been spared a grinding, slow-motion outburst of heartache.

When Michael Key finally took up the mask, the world felt somewhat whole for the first time in forever. Sequoia was a much closer match for Marrowcut, whose attention he commanded and ensnared with grave intensity. Collateral damage was virtually eliminated. The two men alternated between fiery high-wire acts of impersonal violence and brutish, earthy clashes — all of it interspersed with short bouts of boiling inactivity. The fever broke in Brooklyn, where Sequoia overtook his foe with a single sniper round to the bomber’s dominant arm. Marrowcut managed a successful retreat, but Sequoia hunted the wounded ghoul down the eastern seaboard, catching up to him in three separate cities, and putting one of his limbs out of business in each.

Marrowcut couldn’t be responsible for what happened to Wyandanch. Marrowcut was a washed-up cripple, tamed to kneel by Sequoia the Unifier.

The Benedict Building in Lower Manhattan served as the original headquarters for the Unity Party.

Aldon Cribb, the Vice President of the United States, had been waiting for Arthur in the viewing box of the sentinel training hall. The elder statesman sat watching the action below, accompanied by his own small detail of Open Hand Sentinels.

Arthur swallowed as he entered the room. “Not one single person told me you’d be here.”

Cribb laughed and turned to greet the Chief with a handshake and a hug. “Mystery is the order of the day.”

Most of the training platform consisted of a winding network of obstacle courses. When the Open Hand Scouts conducted this type of training, they worked the course in isolated heats and competed for the best time. The sentinels didn’t take turns. Their course design prioritized spacing over speed and encouraged shortcuts, but the shortcuts were scarce, narrow gambles. Cribb returned his attention to the sentinels on the floor as they scrambled and jockeyed for control of long cramped pathways. Arthur took notice as well, remembering the reason he had come there. The sentinels strategized and maneuvered with impressive tenacity, though their parkour still lagged behind that of the scouts.

“Let’s talk, kid,” said Cribb.

“Talking is the order of the day.”

“I know.” The Vice President sounded sympathetic.

“Turns out we’ve picked up a brief visual on Revere the Mediator. Pre-war automatic firearm.”

“New York?” asked Cribb, his eyes still fixed on the exercising sentinels.

“Yeah. You don’t think they were involved in the kidnapping, do you?”

“No. Too poetic. The Lincoln Memorial? If those guys acquire a taste for that type of theater then we’re really up the creek.”

Arthur lowered his voice considerably. “Then who?”

“I was hoping to God you could tell me.”

Arthur shook his head. “Sorry to let you down. Sons of Loyalty? Maybe one of the anti-state groups?”

“Who’s the other one — with the swords they’ve been confiscating?”

“Camel Clan,” said Arthur.

“Camel Clan. Maybe them?”

“Probably not.”

Cribb loosened his focus on the sentinels, glancing intermittently at the younger man. “We’re not doing anybody any good with this nonsense about whodunnit.”

Arthur’s face was a portrait of disgust. “He’s in a fucking wheelchair, Al.”

“Is he?”

“I would certainly imagine. The medicine doesn’t heal gunshot wounds.”

The Vice President shrugged as a pack of sentinels peeled around a bend of the track below, vaulting each obstacle with powerful focus. “Look, I don’t know if he’s back. I don’t know if he ever went away in the first place. Mike knows, but Mike is as good as gone.”

Arthur had known Cribb for as long as he could remember, so he knew he was about to receive a weighty helping of unwelcome advice. He could read it in the old man’s posture.

“Kid, I’ve had as much trouble making sense of this whole thing as you have. Maybe more. Out of the blue, we’re wondering which way is up, and whether it’s going to get worse before we even figure out who’s behind it.” Cribb stood and adjusted his suit jacket as he turned to face Arthur. “There’s one thing I know, and I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”

Arthur braced himself, and the older man continued, “If he really is back, it’s got to be you who shuts that book for good.”

Arthur looked around the room in a desperate search for sanity. “Why is everyone off their god damned chair today?”

“That’s the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s crazy, but it makes a lot of sense. You won’t tell me I’m wrong.”

“Al, I’ve spent the past however-many years sitting at a desk. I barely even exercise at this point. You are wrong.”

Cribb shrugged again. “You have the talent. You have the experience. You’re still young.”

Arthur’s heartbeat fell to a sluggish tumble. He was still young, and that was a serious problem. It was only a matter of time before everyone found out. Pretty soon, most of his peers would start looking like old men and women. They would shrink, wrinkle, and soften, slowly but surely. Maybe not this year. Maybe not the next. Whenever it happened, Arthur would still look thirty. He could only hope that the lines around their eyes and the grays in their hair crept in at such a gradual tick that none of the party’s old anti-medicine traditionalists would notice until after he’d stepped down.

Not likely, he knew. It was only a matter of time.

“You can still swing that old stick of yours, can’t you?” asked Cribb.

Arthur stood and looked out at the training course. “I’ll handle finding the next Unifier. The responsibility is mine. Tell the President to concern himself with governing our people.”

“This isn’t coming from Orson. It’s coming from me. Because if your old man was here, it would be coming from him.”

Arthur cringed. "I resent that shit."
"What shit?" asked Cribb, looking wounded.
"What do you think?"

Aldon shrugged with his arms outstretched. “I’m telling you what I believe.”

“You hate when they use his name to get elected, but you’re fine with playing that card to get me to pick up a weapon.”

The Vice President exploded. “Hey!”

Arthur nearly lost his breath when Cribb’s heavy paw landed meanly on his shoulder. He turned to face the angry politician’s screaming red face. The two men stood within inches of one another and Cribb’s finger trembled in the small space between their eyes.

“I’m telling you what I truly believe — what I truly believe in my heart! Senior would want that bastard put to justice for what he did. And he’d be right. Marrowcut should have to look each and every survivor in the eyes and atone.” Aldon stood blinking and breathing as he slowly lowered his hands.

“You alright?” Arthur took a step back, pressing one palm against the glass wall at the front of the viewing box.

“He should be made to atone. He should be dragged out from whatever cave he’s been hiding in. He should be made to hit his knees outside in the public square.”

“Al. Relax.”

Aldon now whispered, but his words burned no less brightly in Arthur’s mind. “He should be made to shred his own fucking mask in public and he should be put to death later that morning.”

“Do you need water?”

Cribb settled back into the chair and unbuttoned his collar. “I’ve said what I came here to say."

"I know. Do you need me to get you some water?"

"The second Lib and her people bring home our mask, you pull it over that mug, and you do what you’re meant by the laws of nature to do. Senior isn’t here to say it, and there’s nothing I can do to change that. But as long as I’m still here, I’ll say it for him, so help me god. You’re the leader of our people. You’re the Chief. That doesn’t change the fact that I brought you to your first ballgame. Took care of you when Senior was on the trail. You hear me?”

Only then was Arthur reminded that Cribb was his godfather, although he still wasn’t sure what that meant.

“I hear you.”

Cribb seemed momentarily satisfied.

The Vice President motioned for his sentinels to leave the room. The last one out closed the door behind him. Arthur wondered what more could possibly be said. The sentinels had already gotten an earful. Cribb should have had them leave the room before he started up.

Whatever this was, it wasn’t good.

“There’s one other thing.” Cribb looked away at the ground. “I don’t want to worry you, but you’re going to see some things in the news over the next few hours, and I wanted you to hear it from me first.” He swallowed. “We haven’t been able to get in touch with Orson since early this morning.”

Arthur’s vision went to fog and a pulsing siren rang in his ears.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Cribb continued.

“What?”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. He’s been under a great deal of stress.”

“He’s missing?” Arthur pleaded.

“We’ve — no. We haven’t heard from him in a while. That’s all. I don’t want you to get worked up unless we’re sure there’s something wrong.”

Arthur’s fist was balled against his mouth. There was water in his eyes and he didn’t have any idea where to go or what to do.

“The President of the United States is missing and you aren’t sure if something is wrong?” The Chief couldn’t breathe. He’d never had a panic attack before. Was that what this was?

Probably. But there was also an actual siren going off somewhere nearby. Its unrelenting cry seemed to grow louder every few seconds.

“The hell is all that about?” asked Cribb.

Arthur had already begun to search his phone for Orson’s number when the viewing box door swung open and crashed hard against the inside wall. The floor quivered under his feet as Cribb’s sentinels streamed in with a pair of scouts. “Everyone needs to make their way to the main lobby,” one said.

“Let’s go!” another shouted. “Chief, Mr. Vice President, we need you out. Both of you. Now.”

Cribb stood and hurried out into the hallway. Arthur instead turned and looked down at the training floor below. He raised his phone to his ear and listened to the ring. Every visible corner of the building was drowned in the flicker and flash of bright red lights. The same penetrating alarm that had first sounded in the lower hallways now cracked through the air in the viewing box with a deafening and explosive whine.

There was someone perched on the central apex of the training course. He stood slouching in the happy and exhausted manner of a triumphant athlete as a sloppy formation of sentinels began to close in around him. The figure’s entire head was obscured by some sort of torn crimson cloth. He turned and screamed in the direction of each approaching sentinel through pulsing red light. Arthur could not hope to hear the man’s words over the evil screech of the siren, which beat against the insides of his ears with bruising insistence.

The man turned his focus to a nearby sentinel who had gotten close enough to grab him. He shook free with a single violent twist of his entire body then looked up at the viewing box itself. It was now clear that the whole outburst was meant specifically for Arthur. He was supposed to be angered, impressed, or both. Instead he felt nauseas, especially when the intruder began to strike at the onrushing sentinels with his fists and elbows. It was the first time Arthur had witnessed an illegal physical altercation in years.

A sentinel fell limp at the criminal’s feet, who then jabbed an index finger in Arthur’s direction while shouting something inaudible.

The Chief felt a tugging on his arm. He kept his eyes locked on the frantic agitator below as his scouts worked together to pull him from the room.

The stairwell provided some relief as the merciless blast of the alarm gave way to a steady series of high-pitched chirps. “How the hell did this happen?” Arthur asked the nearest scout.

He didn’t recognize the voice that answered back, “Nobody knows who he is or where he came from, sir. Everyone is working really hard to — ”

“Your name?” It hit him all at once.

“Grenig, sir,” the scout replied.

Only then did Arthur realize that he still held his phone to his ear. There was no one on the other end.

“Grenig, where is Bullerk?”

Chapter 3