The MRH90 light troop transport was approaching Crystal City’s immediate airspace, the sunlight reflecting off the mid-morning waves just off the Queensland coast, when Jess, gazing soulfully out the window, her black hair tied back, her eyes almost as blue as the ocean, perked up.
“Huh,” she said.
“That’s vague,” Jarred said, looking up from the fact sheet he was studying on Crystal City - the world’s only successful man-made island city, ruled by a former Navy captain and defended by powerful hydromancy - to see what his squad mate was on about.
“The elementals. I was just wondering what they reminded me of.”
“Was it elementals? Cause we got those in Neo-Brisbane.”
“The air elementals,” Jess said, turning to look at Jarred - her superior officer. “They look like pterodactyls.”
Jarred was at the window in an instant. Yes, they did look like pterodactyls flying about over the ocean. Misty, shimmering, ancestors of the modern raptor. Or something, he wasn’t sure on the geneology any more, and elementals, well they weren’t exactly from this planet. They just popped up six months or so after the Rifts did. They weren’t particularly destructive, they were more like animals than monsters, which was something most people were thankful for. Just don’t threaten them or their young, and they mostly left people alone.
He had heard of elementals burning, crushing, drowning or suffocating people who got too close - hell, he’d had one particularly traumatic experience himself where a water elemental, at a mage’s will, tried to go down his throat - but he also lived and operated out of a skyscraper converted for use as a paramilitary, bordering on superhero, base of operations three city blocks from the Botanic Gardens. If anyone was an expert on elementals, it was probably him and his squad.
Brock Industries had come out of the chaos of E-day intact, well armed, well organised, and under ex-military command - that Xavier Brock, a veteran when Jarred was just thinking of joining the army, and Jarred’s mentor.
Now, Brock Industries was sending Tesla Squad, the flagship squad of element-wielding soldiers, to Crystal City on a mission.
Besides, it would be good to see Adam again. It’d been just bit over three years since Jarred had seen his brother face to face, after all.
“And if you look out the other window,” the pilot – Kale Donovan, Brock Industries’ glorified errand boy – said, “you’ll see water elementals, leaping like dolphins.” They moved to the opposite window and saw a pod of water elementals, five, no six, leaping from the waves and into the air, arcing like their more native cousins.
He looked quite the cool guy with his Aviators on and his blond hair short and sharp. The fire-emblem leather gloves were a bit on the nose, but that was his style, really. Jarred may have actually seen them ignite, just yesterday, but he had some more important things on his mind, like saving Rachel from a cult of mind-controlling, world-destroying dark mages, so… priorities.
“Wow, elementals out here are so much more...” Jarred started, then struggled.
“Free?” David prompted.
“They’re not really at home in the city,” Sarah said. “Cities are so, well, human. Elementals are a bit... stifled in the urban centres. Out here...”
“Never thought of it like that,” Jarred said.
“Wonder what they’re like in America or the UK? Or Italy, or Russia?”
“Fact is, we won’t know till we hear from those countries, if they’re still around,” Jess said. “But the wind elementals in the States are totally just bald eagles with assault rifles in each talon.”
“I’d tell you you’re full of it, but…” Jarred replied.
“Bet they’re 40 metres tall in Japan, though,” David said.
“Why, because of anime?” Jarred said.
“One can only hope...”
“You actually want there to be giant, Kaiju-sized elementals in Tokyo.”
“I just wanna fight one in a mech,” he said sheepishly.
“Of course you do,” Jarred said, with a pat on the back.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Nerds.”
“Says the girl with a rapier and bow,” Jarred said.
“Remember that sex you wanted to have?”
“Touche,” Jarred said.
“So Kale, what’s your take on the job?” Jess asked the pilot. s
“My job is to give you your jobs, not to have a take on them,” Kale replied.
“And be a general pain in our asses to boot,” David said.
The vehicle dropped suddenly before stabilising.
“Sorry, we hit some turbulence,” Kale said, sarcastically.
“Don’t antagonise him,” Jarred said. “He’s our ride home, after all.”
David suppressed a bout of airsickness.
“You okay?” Jarred asked.
“Yeah, just… don’t like flying.”
“Tell me about it,” Jarred said. “I like the idea of flying, soaring free, the wind in my hair. Just… not so much the falling out of control part. Vertigo and all that shit. Can’t even sit in the back of dad’s car and go down a steep hill, say like Toowong, without my stomach falling out. Man, I never told anyone that.”
“Wow,” David replied.
“Guess I just learnt to cope,” Jarred said.
“You must have hated jumping off the top floor of the Myer Centre after that demon,” David said.
“Don’t remind me,” Jarred replied, sourly. “I still remember picking the cheeseburger off my armour. And seriously wondering if it was still good.”
David made a disgusted face.
The two-way radio, on standby until now, came to life.
“MRH90, this is Crystal City air traffic control,” the voice on the other end said. Adam! “Please acknowledge and confirm. Over.”
Kale pressed to talk. “Crystal City, this is MRH90, carrying Tesla Squad and their gear. And they’re looking forward to landing soon. Are we go for LZ? Over.”
“You have permission to land, take the one on your left, and follow the signals. Over.”
“Acknowledged. You wanna talk to them now?”
“I’ll be there waiting for you on arrival, but tell them I said hi. Over and out.”
“Acknowledged. Tesla Actual out.”
The MRH90 approached the twin landing pads either side of the Crystal City docks, each pad 200 metres on the facing side, and a 200 metre wide docking area with several sea craft berthed there. Two battle ships formed a protective barrier, diagonally encasing the entrance to the docks, and automated defences - machinegun turrets with anti-missile lasers and behind them, S.A.M. sites - protected the city itself behind the ships.
A landing beacon and workers guided the aircraft down to a spot on the left landing pad, and the craft touched down.
As the blades wound down, and Tesla Squad stepped out of the chopper to the scent of the ocean, Adam appeared out of the background, saluting with his cybernetic right arm, and Jarred saluted back.
“It’s good to see you again,” Adam said, and even he, with the most robotic face Jarred had ever known, couldn’t hide the joy in this reunion.
“Likewise,” Jarred said.
“Let’s get you set up,” Adam said. “We have a lot to discuss. There’s a spare room available in the block I’m in, and you’ll have to have your weapons inspected and recorded - you know the rules.”
“Of course. Well, after you.”
A single squad transporter was there to take them to their destination, and Adam gave them the sight seeing tour along the way. But Jarred could tell his brother was talking about anything other than the job at hand. That could wait until later. This was Adam, after all. Adam was Tesla Squad. Adam was family. And it’d been three years plus. A little small talk was expected, after all.
“So you took in a girl held captive by goblins, gained a troll, fought a dominatrix-led army of raider hoons, almost died fighting zombies, and took the fight to a cult of evil mages hellbent on finishing the job E-day didn’t,” Adam said.
“In a nutshell,” David replied. “And there were drop bears.”
“So, pretty standard work for Tesla Squad, then.”
“Yeah, pretty standard really.”
“Good, you’ll do just fine with this one.”
The five members of Tesla Squad, plus Kale, had finished up a takeaway lunch at one of the the police station’s meeting rooms. Noodle and pizza boxes scattered all over the meeting room table, soft-drink bottles and coffee mugs mixed between. The scene on the table was as bad as the ruins of civilisation, if not worse. Jarred could almost see zombies shambling about in-between a pizza box and a coffee mug. Then again, he hadn’t had proper caffeine in forever.
There were four office juniors in the room, and when the group were officially done with most of the waste, the juniors took the rubbish away, leaving much of the table clear and the group to their privacy, shutting the door behind them, which Adam locked.
“That’s what we do,” Jarred said. “It’s a paid job, right?”
“That coffee you’re drinking? Client’s private stash.”
“You sultry minx,” Jess said. “You’ve been holding out on us.”
“Thought it was too good for the regular cops,” said Jarred.
“Let’s get down to business,” Adam said.
“Right. You just know it’s business time when someone with a coffee mug says so.”
“And they do this.” Adam put a manila folder on the table, and flipped it open. Inside was a black-and-white photo taken of a young man, barely more than 18, 19, in a hoodie, fleeing from an apartment complex’ pool. He was halfway over the fence, and his face was only just in profile.
More importantly, though, there was a girl, lying face-down in the pool. Blonde, tall, lean, ripped black jeans and white-and-blue-chequered bartender shirt.
“The girl in this picture is Anna Freeman, female, age 21, lives in apartment 5C. I rescued her myself, and she’s currently resting in the hospital next door. She suffered some trauma, but not in the way you’d automatically imagine.”
“What do you mean?” Jarred asked.
Adam moved the first image aside, and behind that was another still, this one of the same young man, this time facing the camera. His eyes were… the only word for it was feral.
And there were tendrils of water holding Anna aloft in the air above the pool. The young man was controlling them, holding her there by sheer force of will.
“Hydromancy. Used in a crime within the bounds of Crystal City.”
“Okay, explain this for the new guy?” Kale said.
“Kale, you don’t have any powers I should know about?”
“Then you shouldn’t have any problems in this city. Because powers are not supposed to be used here. At all.”
“The rest of us…” Jarred whispered.
“Some restrictions will have to apply. Offencive usage is out. Support and defence is restricted to what my supervisors have allowed. That means you all have to use these.”
Adam turned to a cabinet, and brought out a locked suitcase which he opened up and turned to the group to see.
“Inhibitors.” Jarred knew what was coming the second he picked up the radio and Adam called the group in. To see them here, now, it was suddenly real.
Inhibitors. Police-issued devices in the form of collars that couldn’t be removed except by the joint orders of both the chief of police and in agreement with Captain Jonas Young, the former naval captain who created the city out of nothing.
And Adam’s client, as Jarred suddenly realised.
Even the captain wears one, Jarred recalled. Leading by example. Full transparency and accountability. It kept the people safe from the gods, in other words.
As Adam handed them out and the team snapped them on - the collars sealing up automatically like they were magnetised, and a series of runes flashing all along the surface before fading - Tesla Squad knew in full the stakes of this operation.
It wasn’t a man they were looking for.
It was a new god on the streets.