Baltimore: Chapter 3 by Joshua Guess

 In response to the manufactured earthquake aimed at the central United States months before, the Department of Superhuman Affairs strongly lobbied for funding to create a taskforce. The OSA, being in charge of registration, criminal justice, and nearly every other aspect of life involving the Next, saw it as their mandate to prevent or respond to the actions of the group of rogue Next wreaking havoc across the world.

When congress dawdled, the head of the OSA took his argument to the United Nations. Under pressure not to be seen as complacent, the congress and the executive branch worked out a vast international agreement in a startlingly short period of time. Journalists were quick to give the accelerated time frame context; when teams of terrorists were jumping from one continent to another at will to destroy infrastructure and sow chaos, the usual arguments and deliberation went out the window.

And so the Rapid Intervention Taskforce, or RIT, was born. In truth it was a system of them, with each nation working within their own borders and offering assistance to other countries as needed. Working from a common resource pool of international funds, each RIT unit practiced total information transparency with every other unit. Massive attacks were sometimes prevented using the system, while disaster response became surgically coordinated. Using RIT teleporters meant having boots on the ground to aid victims in minutes rather than days.

Though Erik sat with his shoulder squashed hard against Dom's in the cab of a massive relief truck, surrounded by dozens of identical vehicles and preceded by hundreds of Next, his first thought upon seeing Baltimore was that the taskforce would not be enough.

“Jesus,” said the driver, an older man with a haggard face. “What the hell is that?”

“Water,” Dom replied. “That's water.”

The wave had crashed long before, leaving standing water miles inland. That was not what they were seeing, however. They were too far from the damage caused by the tsunami to witness it directly. Instead they gaped in horrified wonder at tendrils of seawater rising and moving in the distance. Erik did a few rough calculations in his head and realized the whipping columns had to be ten feet thick at least, to be seen from so far away.

As they watched, one column swept sideways through the air and crashed into a building, crumpling it as easily as if a giant swiped at it with a massive arm.

The radio in the cab crackled to life. “Confirmed: the hydrokinetic is in the city and is attacking. The director believes he's had his powers magnified temporarily. All unites are to remain where they are while strike teams remove the threat.”

“Fuck that,” Dom said, opening the door. “We're not going that direction anyway. We're gonna find our families.”

Erik nodded, following his friend through the door. He looked up at the driver defiantly, but the older man just gave them a hollow-eyed glance. “I seen enough of these to know it's not gonna be pretty, boys. You take care, okay?”

“We will,” Erik said. “Thanks for the lift.”

“Where are we?” Dom asked. “I don't know which way the university is.”

Erik shook his head. “We're west. That's all I got. Probably not the best idea to go straight in. Not with...that going on.”

A booming impact echoed across the city streets as whoever was controlling all that water attacked once more.

“How did that wave even hit us?” Dom asked. “It didn't just roll over Delaware.”

Erik tilted his head toward the writhing mass of watery appendages destroying huge swaths of a neighborhood. “I bet that guy did a lot of it. They did a simulation on TV a while back on what would happen if a big tidal wave hit the Chesapeake, and it would still have a lot of power after going around the corner and hitting the bay. But not that much. You heard that Singh lady say that guy was making the wave worse. He probably aimed it right up the bay and kept it strong.”

Erik realized he was babbling and closed his mouth. Dom was trying to distract him like he always did when something bad happened. Erik got better grades, but emotionally Dom was way more intelligent.

“We're going to find them,” Dom said. “You know the university would have done a lock down. They're probably all together, worried crazy over not being able to get hold of us.”

Not for the first time, Erik tried his cell. The signal wasn't getting through, though whether it was damage to the towers or just an overwhelmed system thanks to the emergency, he didn't know. Every failed call cut him a little deeper.

Dom didn't seem as bothered by the lack of communication, but he was the kid who played baseball in the park, basketball in the street, and climbed trees until his hands bled. Erik's dad called him a throwback to the way kids were when he himself was young, while Erik was a child of the digital age. Not obsessed with technology by any means, nor absorbed by it, but so used to its continuous and ubiquitous function that the lack demoralized him. In a very real way, a central pillar of his world had failed.

Erik tried to bring up a map on his phone, but the GPS and internet were both out as well. Frustrated, he stopped and took a deep breath, thinking it through.

“We need to find a gas station,” Erik said after a few seconds.

Dom's eyebrows knitted together. “Why?”

Erik smiled, determined to work through the fear and heartbreak brought on by the state of the city around him, the only home he'd ever known. “Because we need a map if we're going to figure out where we are and how to get where we're going.”

 

Baltimore: Chapter 2 by Joshua Guess

 

 

Erik reflexively put up an ineffectual hand as if to stop the blast from twenty feet away, shouting as he did. Dom froze in horror beside him.

The shopkeeper stared in stunned disbelief, dropping the gun to the blacktop.

The woman he'd shot in the face staggered back, caught her balance, and stuck a finger in her ear. “You dick,” she said, the words cutting across the now-silent street. “Do you have any idea how loud that was?”

Erik's brain caught up a second later. He hadn't seen bone and brain flying, not even a drop of blood. This tiny woman took a shotgun blast to the face and barely flinched. “Lady, are you okay?” he heard himself ask, his own voice booming.

She looked over at him, an opportunity the shop owner took to turn tail and escape. It seemed he wasn't interested in dealing with an angry woman unfazed by buckshot.

“I'm fine,” she said. There were streaks of gray and black on her face, the burned residue of gunpowder. “You two should probably get out of here, though. I have no idea if this is gonna work.”

Before Erik could ask what she was talking about, the world turned blue.

The source of the sudden blue light was Ms. Kadege. The willowy woman hadn't moved, but she was now radiating a fierce blue light in every direction. The strain was evident in her body, arms shaking and muscles flexed to their limit. Her face contorted in a grimace of incredible effort.

Trying to understand what was going on, Erik looked around for some kind of context clue. In the distance he could see the massive swell of the Atlantic, the wave nearly ready to crash. It was enormous, though the exact size was impossible to gauge from so far away. The sight knocked the wind out of him.

“Oh my god,” he breathed. Next to Erik, Dom saw the awestruck expression and whipped his head around to see.

Just as he did, the wave hit.

What it hit was harder to describe.

Though the wall of water overtook the distant docks, easily visible down the incline their street sat on, and though it wiped away works of men like buildings and boats in an instant, the wave didn't hit the heart of the city.

Instead it slammed against something invisible—something blue, Erik guessed—and filled the world with the sound of a thousand miles of crashing tides focused down to one spot. The impact wasn't only deafening, but actually physical. The ground shook and buckled as what Erik correctly guessed was a giant force field was driven into the earth by the sheer weight of water.

All of this happened in a span of five seconds. The water impacted the invisible dome surrounding Baltimore, but the wave front was not the wave, merely its leading edge. The impossibly large volume of water behind that front piled up and pushed in that span of seconds, and the strain was too much.

Ms. Kadege collapsed in a boneless heap. The blue light winked away, and in the next second the tattooed man, Agent Cassidy, and Ms. Kadege were gone. Erik barely had time to process this information when the teleporter reappeared, this time next to the Indian woman, who put up a hand.

“Grab them, too,” she said, nodding at Erik.

He absorbed this as background noise, the rest of his attention fixed on the disastrous consequences of the vanished force field.

The water that had been pushed up its broad slope began to fall in a long, curved sheet. Erik's memory flashed to a time last summer when Dom caught him with a water bucket prank. The few gallons had hit him like a punch. The weight of the stuff was one of many facts Erik had filed away in school—more than eight pounds per gallon.

This errata was front of mind as he witnessed tens of billions of gallons rush toward the ground. Some of it was pushed by the continuing surge of water, which Erik estimated at a glance to be more than a hundred feet high.

The first buildings were crushed by the falling sea, and then he was somewhere else.

 

 

 

“What?” Erik said as he found himself in a brand new location. The sudden change of scenery wrenched his stomach out of whack, as if he'd just jumped off a merry-go-round onto solid land. “Where am I?”

“Where are we?” said Dom from next to him. Then, “This is the weirdest fucking day.”

“About ten miles east of the city,” said a voice from behind them. It was only then that Erik noticed someone had a hand on his shoulder and was moving it away. The tattooed man stepped around them and joined other figures standing nearby.

“You boys will be safe here,” the Indian woman said. “I'm sorry, but it was the best we could do. I'm going to radio one of the relief units to let them know to give you a ride back into the city if you want.”

Erik took a half-step forward. “Wait, you're not staying?”

The small woman shook her head, clumps of short black hair catching in the light breeze. “Can't. I've got to start helping with disaster relief. We've never seen anything this bad.”

At first, the gentle tone of her voice made no sense to him. She spoke as if trying to comfort a child, but Erik was fifteen. He was clearly old enough to handle being left alone. But as he looked at her, the distant shapes of buildings at the other end of the field they stood in sparked something inside him. The truth, suppressed by the adrenaline rush of their run and the strange appearance of these people, bloomed in his mind fully all at once.

“My parents,” he whispered.

Dom's hand went to his mouth. “Oh. The whole city, Erik. My god.”

The woman nodded. “I'm sorry, guys. I really am. We tried, but there was just no time to know if it would work.”

Erik nodded numbly and forced himself to meet her gaze. Now that he was looking at her, really looking at her, she seemed familiar. “You saved our lives, and I don't even know your name.”

She smiled wryly, an expression which transformed her face. The lean, muscular frame, short hair, utilitarian clothing, and lack of makeup gave the impression that this was a woman who didn't fuck around and with whom you did not want to fuck. But the smile brought a little sunshine to her, a warmth that was truly lovely. “I'm Kit. Kit Singh,” she said, offering her hand.

Erik shook it limply. “Erik. I knew I recognized you. You're in charge of that task force. The one going after that supervillain scientist.”

Nearly everyone but Erik and Dom groaned. Kit shot them a dirty look. “Yeah, I'm a director in the OSA and the task force is my baby, but please for the love of Zeus don't call him a supervillain. We already deal with enough assholes putting on tights. It only encourages them.”

“Uh, sure,” Erik said. “Sorry.”

“No big deal,” Kit assured him. “We've got to go, but James over there has your coordinates. We'll have someone scoop you up. It might take a few hours.”

The teleporter pulled out a phone and tapped the screen, which Erik assumed was him logging their location. He raised an eyebrow at the boys. “You guys need anything before we run? Or will you be okay here?”

The field bordered what looked like a mall, a highway humming with the sound of many speeding wheels beyond a screen of trees. Spotting a low retaining wall, Erik shook his head. “We'll just sit over there and wait, I guess.” The familiarity of it sent a pang of loss through him. “I have money if we get hungry or anything.”

Kit nodded. “I'll need your names so for my people when they head in this way.”

“Erik Bell and Dom Janowski, ma'am,” Erik said.

Kit blinked and looked at Dom. “Really?”

Dom sighed. “Granddad was Polish.”

Kit flashed another of those sly smiles. “You two stay safe, okay? It shouldn't be long before OSA teams start coming through. We've gotten really good at responding to these things, which now that I think about it is kind of depressing.”

As the four adults readied themselves to leave, Cassidy split off and stepped close to Erik. “Listen, I know it might be tempting, but don't use your powers to help unless you have someone from the OSA overseeing you. We're trained for this stuff, and it might do more harm than good.”

Erik stared at him in confusion. “Powers? What are you talking about, man? I don't have any powers. I'm human.”

“Oh,” Cassidy said, eyes flicking down Erik's form and back up in an instant. “That's my fault. I thought I recognized you from our index. Forget it.”

“Sure, no problem,” Erik said. “Take care.”

And then they were alone.

Suddenly too weary to move even the hundred yards to the short wall, Erik slumped to the ground and sat. Images of his parents flashed through his mind, joined by an overwhelming sense of dread. Johns Hopkins wasn't on the water, but who knew how much damage the wave had done?

If they were alive, they would surely be making the call to the land line at the house, frantic to know if he was okay. At the thought of the antiquated way of making sure Erik was physically at home, he remembered the phone in his pocket.

He had just swiped the screen into life when Dom plopped to the ground across from him. “Weird how that dude thought you were a Next, right?”

Erik nodded. Despite the madness over the last half hour, even the surreal experiences gave him no reason to believe Cassidy's words anything but an honest mistake.

Smart as he was, Erik was wrong. He had no way of knowing that Ray Cassidy possessed the rare and powerful gift of seeing the Surge, the omnipresent energy upon which all Next drew to fuel their abilities. When using this talent, the world became a mass of seething green energy, but normal human beings were mute, black shapes within it. The Surge did not touch them.

Erik, however, had blazed like an emerald sun. 

Baltimore, A Next Chronicle Story: Chapter 1 by Joshua Guess

For anyone who hasn't read the novels in this series or who might be wondering what this weird page is, welcome. My name is Joshua Guess and I'm a novelist. The Next Chronicle is a series of superhuman-themed books I've written. This serialized story is set in that world, taking place between book two, Damage, and the as-yet unwritten third volume. Baltimore is free to read in this space. Please note that this blog contains the raw, unedited text of the story, which I will go back and update as I edit.

 I hope you enjoy. 

 

Erik didn't remember Baltimore as the city in decline it spent the last thirty years of the twentieth century becoming. He was too young. He was born in the year 2000, a few months before Ray Elliot exploded in green light and disintegrated a suburb of Louisville. A baby at the time, Erik had no awareness of the bone-deep ways the world changed. He did not see the coming of the Next heralded by Elliot's light show.

He was too young during those early years to comprehend the anger and fear held by many. Erik had no concept of the idea spreading across the world that the person sitting next to you on the bus might hold an ability powerful enough to wipe out a city block. Erik was spared these things.

Instead his first memories, some of the most powerful, were formed during the renaissance which followed. Baltimore became one of several hubs where the official position was to welcome Next of every stripe with open arms. Those with enhanced intellect moved in and set their genius to solving economic problems. They did this as it was done in other cities; by inventing entirely new technologies and industries based on them.

Erik's father had commented more than once what a powerful force even those few brilliant people had been for change. A man invents a new microchip architecture more advanced and efficient than anything imagined by normal people, then brokers an agreement between giant corporations to bring new business to town.

Just like that, contracts for data centers, manufacturing facilities, and new infrastructure were signed. That was the one example of many Erik's dad liked to use.

Those early years were formative for him and reformative for the city. Old buildings came down, new ones rose in their place utilizing the newest Next-created materials and technology. As those first steps began to bear fruit, more Next saw the place as a viable option.

City council members sold Baltimore by asking a simple question: do you know what we can accomplish with men who can fly, women who can lift five tons without breaking a sweat?

Even as a small child, Erik understood through the context of the people around him that the rapidly changing—and growing—city was unusual. For the adult residents like his parents, it was like watching an old man drink from the fountain of youth.

When the first earthquake hit, it was barely noticeable. The news reported the devastation across the south and midwest, but the massive quakes released by a group of rogue Next only sent bare tremors as far as Baltimore.

It was the second set that broke Charm City in half.

 

 

 

“Erik, you okay?” Dom asked, waving a hand in his friend's face.

“Huh? Yeah, man, I'm good. Just doing the last few problems and we can go.”

Dom shook his head. “Wish I could do that. I sit at home with those books open for like an hour before it starts making any sense.”

It was a refrain Erik heard at least once a week from his best friend. Erik had always been strong at math and science, and this year he'd combined the two by taking physics. Dom, ever willing to join his friend in whatever classes they could share, had signed up with him. Dom was far from dumb, but Erik didn't just get the work, he enjoyed it. Though he'd spent most of his academic career doing well, physics was the first class he'd developed a hunger for.

“Okay, done,” Erik said a minute later, closing the book with the sheet of paper he'd written his homework on still inside. “I can help you with yours if you want.”

Dom, who was only called by the longer Dominic when his mother caught him in a lie, shook his head. The motion sent his short dreadlocks swaying. “Maybe if I hit something I can't figure out on my own. If I don't figure this shit out for myself, it won't do me much good on the tests.”

“We should probably get going,” Erik pointed out.

Erik and Dom's parents all worked at Johns Hopkins, Erik's as researchers and Dom's as teachers. None of them would be home for hours yet, and the boys were supposed to be at one house or another by four thirty for a check-in.

“Yeah,” Dom said. “Let's—what the fuck was that?”

Down the block, a flurry of people burst from a coffee shop, running as a slowly-dispersing mass in the direction of the wall they sat on.

“I don't know,” Erik said, hopping down. He put a hand out to one of the approaching people, but let it drop when he got a good look at their faces. They weren't just scared, they were wild-eyed with terror. The sort of scared Erik had only seen in person once, when a neighbor got the news that her daughter was in a serious car accident and was on her way to emergency surgery. It was the stark, nightmare fear of imminent death and destruction.

When other storefronts began spewing out people sprinting for their lives, Dom jumped down as well. “What the hell is going on?”

Erik shook his head. “No idea, but we should probably run, too.”

They did. Erik was stockier and shorter than Dom, but what his legs lacked in stride he made up for in endurance. Dom loped ahead, a few lengths at first with the lead growing, then stopped at an intersection. “Over here!”

They raced toward a Mexican restaurant, its doors standing open. From it blared the slightly off-harmony voice of a dozen televisions at max volume.

“...repeat, move inland as much as possible. The earthquake has apparently caused a submarine landslide. A tsunami is expected to strike the east coast within the next half hour. It's unknown at this time how large or damaging this even will be...”

Erik turned to Dom, whose eyes now carried that same wild look. “What do we do, E?”

“I don't know,” Erik admitted. “We're not close to the water, so I guess depending on how big it is we're either far enough away or couldn't get far enough if we ran that whole time.”

He went over everything he knew about tsunamis in his head, which amounted to what he'd seen on TV about the one in the Indian Ocean. Something tickled in the back of his mind, a half-formed thought informed by his physics class about the relationship between the intensity of the earthquake and the wave itself. It was vague enough to reassure him while leaving him anxious because he didn't really have anything to base it on.

Instead of talking it out to himself as he was prone to do, Erik ran. This time with Dom behind him.

Erik had no destination in mind as he pumped his legs relentlessly forward. The all-consuming thought burning all other rational consideration away was to move inland. He knew the likelihood of it doing any good was small, but he ran anyway. A creeping, dense weight of inevitability was trying to run him down; the idea that he was about to die and there was nothing he could do about it.

“Stop!” Dom shouted breathlessly from behind him. “Erik, stop and look!”

Erik slid to a halt, almost running into a car jammed between countless others on the panicked streets full of fleeing people. A skinny man wearing a black t-shirt and jeans, every inch of skin below his jaw covered in tattoos, stood on top of a nearby vehicle.

“Crazy white dude,” Erik said. “So what?”

Dom, who had struggled to keep up with Erik's terror-driven sprint, shook his head. “He wasn't there a second ago. He just appeared.”

As Erik watched, the man vanished into thin air. Well, not actually into thin air. More likely he had the ability to fold space around himself. Erik was sure he was a teleporter rather than having just gone invisible or something—there had been a slight rush of air filling in the empty space where the man had been.

“I wonder if he's coming back,” Dom mused.

Just as Erik opened his mouth to reply, the tattooed man reappeared. This time he was not alone. With him came a tall white guy in a tailored suit, dark hair neatly trimmed. His eyes scanned the location, stopping briefly on the two boys. His looks said he was a little vain, but that gaze was all business. Erik flinched slightly under its intensity.

A small woman with light brown skin stood in front of the group, her hand on the shoulder of another woman, the tallest Erik had ever seen. She had to be six and a half feet, her tightly braided hair falling halfway down that length. Rather than look awkward, the slender lady in her sleek black uniform had the taut poise of a dancer. The impression was proved accurate as she moved, gracefully leaping atop another car.

“Ready, Ms. Kadege?” asked the man with the dark hair.

The tall woman smiled without looking back at him. “You brought me halfway around the world for this, Agent Cassidy. Of course I am ready.”

The accent was thick but perfectly intelligible to Erik. It was from somewhere in Africa, he was sure, but he only filed away the information as a minor curiosity. Any other time his quick and curious mind would have followed an impulse to ask questions, learn more. Today—right this second—he was faced with Next appearing out of nowhere in the midst of a potential national tragedy.

It never occurred to him to wonder whether they might be the bad guys. The deep radar meant to pick up on small details and warn him of danger didn't so much as blip.

The man with the dark hair, Agent Cassidy, began to glow. A fey green light shined from his hands, which settled onto the back of Ms. Kadege. She gasped, eyes showing whites all the way around. “My god,” she said, her voice suddenly dry and cracked. “I didn't expect that much.”

Cassidy exhaled a resigned sigh. “That's just me calibrating. Get ready.”

The light that followed briefly competed with the sun itself.

“We don't have much time,” said the small woman, putting a hand to her ear. “They've got a goddamn hydrokinetic speeding up the wave. Sixty seconds.”

Erik stood transfixed as Ms. Kadege lowered herself to one knee, bowed her head, and stretched both arms as high as she could get them. The movements were tightly controlled but perfectly fluid. Even the harsh stretch of her long fingers seemed deliberate.

A faint blue shimmer covered her dark skin, then expanded outward. As it began to cover more area, it grew a deeper blue and formed into a sphere. Erik's head snapped up to watch the globe grow, wanting to see how far it went before it stopped.

It didn't, that he could see. The wall of energy raced onward and was lost from sight, its color making it impossible to see against the sky.

“What the fuck is going on right now,” Dom said next to him, not making it a question.

Erik laughed, a sudden, jerky reaction to the insanity of the situation. “I got no idea, man.”

The shaky laughter caught the attention of the group. Cassidy glanced over at them, eyes scanning Erik once more. “You might want to run, guys. Don't know if this is gonna work.”

“We're good,” Dom said at once. “I think we're safer with you.”

“Right,” Erik agreed. It was true; he suspected if something bad happened, they might be able to catch a ride with the teleporter if nothing else.

“Hey, what the hell are you doing?” said a new, and very angry, voice. “You freaks making this shit happen?”

The voice belonged to an older man who stepped out of a small store holding a shotgun. His expression was crazed as he raised the weapon to his shoulder and took aim.

Suddenly Erik wasn't feeling quite so safe.

The small woman raised her hands, palms forward, and hopped down off the car. Walking slowly toward the man, she spoke to him calmly. “Sir, please put the weapon down. We're here to help. I understand this is a stressful situation. Don't make it worse by doing something you'll regret.”

The gun wavered for a second. Had it shifted to the right, maybe everything would have worked out. In that moment of consideration, however, it drifted left. Right toward Erik and Dom. The small woman must have had a good sense of her surroundings, because she did a sideways hop to keep herself between the barrel and the boys.

Erik saw the movement startle the shopkeeper. He knew what would happen a fraction of a second before it turned into reality. The shopkeeper, probably in a purely reflexive motion, tightened his finger on the trigger.

The shotgun went off with a thunderous crash, taking the woman in the face from two feet away.