Max opened his eyes for the third time that morning. He never slept well during the first night in a new place and last night was not any different. He turned over on his mattress and reached out for his phone to check the time. It was 6:45 AM; only fifteen minutes before his alarm was set to go off. Realizing he probably wouldn’t get any more rest between now and then, he decided to get up to start preparing for his day.
He switched the alarm off on his phone and stood up from the floor where his mattress lay. It was the only new thing he currently owned. He drove into Grandeur City last night and stopped at an outlet store just off the highway to purchase it.
It had been an easy move-in once he arrived at the apartment building. In addition to the mattress, all he had to bring up were a few boxes he had brought out from storage in Humbleton. The boxes mostly contained clothes, worn towels, basic toiletries, a photo album, and his laptop computer.
He had signed the lease only a few weeks ago and didn’t see the apartment for the first time until last night when he arrived. It was a small studio on the top floor of one of the oldest buildings in the city. It was first built over fifty years ago as an office building and was bought out and renovated by a leasing company after the building stood abandoned for several years.
Max could tell that the apartment was once used as a storage room, based on the wide open floors and the slanted walls. The floors were old but sturdy and made of solid dark wood. The kitchen area was basic: The refrigerator was a bit small and dented but it worked just fine, there were several wooden overhead cabinets that would need to be dusted out but were in good condition otherwise, and there was a small island just across from the fridge with a gas stovetop in the middle.
The bathroom was also very small and simple. The floor was made up of dulled gray tiles that had probably been there for at least twenty years. The bathtub was probably just as old with its’ deep rust stains patching the once pristine, white porcelain. However, it had a shower-head just above the tub that appeared to be fairly new.
There was a slightly raised platform between the walls opposite of the kitchen, next to the bathroom which is where Max placed his mattress. He speculated that there was a small office here at one point, comprising just of a simple desk, chair and filing cabinet most likely.
He had a short amount of time to find a place to live in Grandeur City. He called multiple apartment complexes throughout the city but most of them were either full or out of his price range. Then he got lucky when he called this building. Apparently someone had to break out of their lease early from a small studio in the building and the complex was desperate to fill it. Max saw a few pictures of the place, agreed on a decent monthly rent, and sent over his application that day.
Max walked over to the window in the apartment; the place’s crown jewel. The place was definitely old, the appliances were not updated, and the room probably got drafty in the winter, but it had the best view of the city out of the entire building.
It was explained to him that the complex had originally intended to make this into a community room for the floor’s residents but the building had filled up quickly and the demand for living space was still high, so the room was instead turned into a studio for extra revenue. However, the complex had already installed the great big window that nearly took up the whole wall.
The window was a large square with metal panes criss-crossing over each other to form several smaller squares that filled up the space. The glass was solid and clear, making it easy for natural light to stream in and to see out over the horizon of the city.
Max stood against the window and gazed out at the waking city before him. It was all still surreal to Max that this was where he would be living now. Coming from a small town where grocery store clerks knew your name and the neighbor’s houses were just as familiar as your own, was a vast contrast to this city were you were merely an anonymous statistic.
Max turned away from the window and proceeded with getting ready. Today him, Celine, Charlotte, and Remus would be reporting to their new base and meeting their team. Celine had given him the address which he had written down on a small piece of wrinkled paper: 1616 K Street, NW.
After he was dressed, he put in the address into his new phone. He had two phones now: His old, flip-phone for his personal contacts, and a custom-made smart phone issued to him by the Guardians. The phone showed that it was only a twenty-minute walk from his apartment. The four of them had planned to meet exactly at 8 AM in front of the building and would walk in together.
The time was currently 7:30 AM. He figured it would be better to have an earlier start anyways so he gathered his keys, wallet, and walked out of the apartment.
Alicia sat with rapt attention in her 7:50 AM Calculus I class. Her mom had joked with her that she must have drawn the short-straw when it came to selecting classes, but Alicia didn’t mind. In fact, this was one of her favorite courses this semester.
She knew that this was all unusual. She spent her whole life telling everyone she was going to grow up to be some sort of humanitarian. At first it was a Marine Biologist, then it was joining the Peace Corps, and finally it turned into becoming a Psychologist.
But when she actually started taking Psychology courses at the community college back in Humbleton, Alicia found them boring and unfulfilling. By chance, she took a computer science elective last semester and fell in love with it. The math calculations and algorithms were intriguing to her, like little puzzles. But she still had that passion deep down inside to do something more than working nine-to-five for a simple paycheck everyday. It was when she attended a white-hat hacking seminar that she felt she had found her calling.
White-hat hackers were essentially ethical hackers who specialized in testing the security of major information systems. The speaker at the seminar had explained that ethical hacking skills were essential in today’s world of expanding technology and cyber attacks.
“All it takes is seven bad guys, thirty minutes, and the whole internet can be shut down in this country”, the speaker had stated.
Upon further research, Alicia discovered numerous jobs and movements out there all in relation to ethical hacking and information security. Now here she was, attending Grandeur City University, no longer a Psychology major, happily sitting in an early morning Calculus class as part of her Computer Science degree requirements.
Fifty minutes later, the class concluded and the groggy students quickly gathered their belongings with renewed energy and hurried out the door. Alicia’s next class wasn’t until after lunch so she started walking in the direction of the campus library to do some studying.
She pulled out her phone and nervously checked for a message. There were none. She sighed and put the phone back into her bag. Jackson Trenton had messaged her last week to let her know that Max would be moving to Grandeur City within the next week. He didn’t have any more details beyond that to provide to her.
Alicia had been excited and nervous ever since. She kept her word to Max and left her new address with Jackson to give to Max later on. Her phone number remained unchanged but she knew that there was a chance that Max had changed his. So all she could do for now was wait.
They hadn’t spoken ever since that early morning when Max walked away from her in Humbleton’s main square. She still remembered in vivid detail of his warm hands around her face and of the secret that now bound them together.
Maybe it was foolish to believe that her best friend from childhood was actually a powerful being born on another world, but she trusted Max and believed in him. Of course, she had also witnessed first-hand some of the things he could do. The flashes of him ripping through her car’s back window and withstanding the hot flames still burned in her memory.
She hadn’t told a soul or even hinted at the fact that Max was different to anyone. However, her and Jackson had several conversations over the summer. She was amazed that the Trentons had kept something like this hidden for all these years. She was also fascinated by the stories Jackson shared with her about Max’s origins as well as what he had been through over the past year. She could tell that it was therapeutic for Jackson to have another person to confide all these details to.
Now all she wanted to do was be there for Max and share this burden with him. But this wasn’t something she could force on him; the choice was up to Max. For now, all Alicia could do was to focus on her studies and just wait.
Max only had a few more blocks to go before reaching his destination. People in business attire hurried past him on the sidewalks and occasionally he saw someone jogging along the edge of the street wearing ear-phones. He came to a crosswalk and stopped to wait for the signal to turn. Some people hurried across anyways before another car rushed through, others stopped and gazed down at their cell phones.
Max turned his head up and could see the white traces of the sky peeking through the tops of dark gray buildings and utility poles. The crosswalk signal turned and he continued forward. He remembered how in Humbleton, the air was always still and at peace. You could hear yourself think even when a car drove by you along the road or when two people across the street were having a conversation; everything was all in one, flowing harmony.
Here in the city however, all he heard was the roar of rush hour traffic and jumbled chatter from people on their cell phones. Nobody here was connected in anyway; they were all thrown together in one compact space yet remained separate from one another.
He turned a corner and then saw his destination before him. It was a plain, nine-story office building that blended in easily with the rest of the block. In dark gray letters just above the glass entrance doors was spelled “CONCORDIA.”
Something Max had learned from his training over the summer was that most Guardian Bases were hiding in plain sight in the form of something else. A business, a school, a home, or in this case, a non-profit organization.
Concordia was an established organization within Grandeur City that specialized in research and consultation on technological advancement. The organization actually took clients and had employees, most of whom were oblivious to what really went on.
There were currently two other Tymorreans assigned here. Max was told that the Guardian base here in Grandeur City specialized in surveillance and possessed some of the movement’s top technologies.
Max looked towards the entrance and saw two perky blond women waving excitedly at him while a dark-haired man stood against a wall with his arms crossed, not looking at him.
Max smiled and waved back at Celine and Charlotte and crossed the street to join them.
“Did you find the place OK?”, Celine asked.
Max nodded, “Yeah it was pretty straightforward. How do you both like your new place?”
Charlotte chimed in, “We love it! It’s in a great location over-”
“You can all chit-chat later. We need to report inside now”, Remus interrupted.
Used to this sort of interaction with Remus, the three simply followed him into the building’s lobby.
“And remember, let me do the talking”, Remus said in a lowered voice.
Celine, Charlotte and Max stood back while Remus walked up to the reception desk.
“Could you let Ms. Hamilton know that her new IT staff is here?”, he asked the receptionist calmly.
“Of course! Please have a seat and someone will be down to come get you”, the woman at the desk cheerfully replied.
Charlotte sat down in one of the dark, leather chairs in the waiting area.
“They must have renovated the place recently - this is way nicer than I remember!”
“Charlotte”, Remus said in a low-voice.
“Right...”, she replied, taking his hint that he wanted her to be quiet.
A small door near the lobby elevators opened and a woman came out and walked towards them.
She had short blond hair that was so light, it was nearly white. She was tall too; taller than everyone in the group except for Max and even then she was nearly the same height as him.
She stopped before them and stuck out her hand towards Remus.
“Naomi Hamilton”, she said formally.
“Ramon Zimmerman”, Remus replied back in the same tone.
Naomi repeated the gesture with Celine, Charlotte, and Max who each gave their human names, as instructed in their training.
“Max Trenton”, he replied as she firmly gripped his hand.
She lingered with Max just a moment longer than she did with the others. Her piercing blue eyes analyzed him carefully.
She then let go and turned her attention back to the rest of the group.
“Come with me”, she said plainly, “I’ll have your access badges made then we’ll get straight to work.”
The group then followed her back through the small - nearly hidden - door by the lobby elevators.
Kyra sat up groggily in her bed and looked over at her phone to check the time, her eyes still only halfway open. It was almost noon which meant she already missed her two morning classes but she didn’t care. Her head throbbed and pulsed while a dull ache stayed centered within her forehead. She looked down and saw that she still had on the tight black dress from the night before.
She groaned as she got up and walked into her bathroom. In the mirror she could see a girl with mats of dark hair sticking out and smudged dark make-up around her eyes. She turned the cold water on in the sink and rinsed her face. She started to feel better already as she dried herself with a hand towel wiping away the excess make-up.
She stepped back into her bedroom and unzipped her dress, letting it fall unceremoniously onto the floor. She put on a pair of pajama pants and a cotton tank-top then stepped out into the common area of the apartment.
A thin, dark-haired girl was curled up in a lounge chair with her laptop.
“It’s about time you got up!”, the girl said to Kyra.
Kyra ignored her and walked straight into the adjoining kitchen area towards the coffee pot. Her head pounded as she dumped out cold coffee into the sink and filled the carafe with water.
“What time did we get home last night?”, Kyra asked the girl sitting in the other room.
“I left Cooper’s place around eleven last night. You were still throwing them back pretty good when I left so I have no idea when you got home”, she replied.
Kyra poured the water into the reservoir of their coffee machine and grabbed a package of filters from the cupboard. Pieces of the night before were starting to come back to her. She remembered their friend, Josie, dropping Kyra off at home in the middle of the night. She then staggered into her bathroom, threw up for what had seemed like eternity, and then fell into bed.
“God, I am never drinking that much again”, Kyra said as she rubbed her forehead. The sounds of the coffee machine bubbled in the background.
The other girl released a loud staccato laugh.
“That’s what you said last week!”
Kyra winced, “Dammit Annie, not so loud!”
Annie giggled in response. “Sorry!”
Kyra had found Annie through Craigslist just a few months prior. The two girls lived in a small three-bedroom apartment just outside of the Northeast Sector in Grandeur City. Annie was a third-year Anthropology major at Grandeur City University and their other roommate, Tiffany, was a senior Biology major.
Kyra had delayed applying to college so much during her senior year, that she ended up not applying to anything at all. There was nothing academically that really interested her; all she wanted was freedom and to get away from Humbleton. At the suggestion of a few acquaintances she made at Humbleton High, she applied to Fairfax Community College in Grandeur City and was accepted.
As soon as she accepted Annie’s offer on filling their third bedroom, Kyra took all of the money she earned while working at Beans and Berries to buy an old 1996 Honda Civic. She then packed up the car and drove away, barely saying goodbye to her family.
Kyra was currently studying for a Liberal Arts Associate Degree but realized she hated the program two days after starting it. She skipped a lot of her classes and instead spent her time hanging out with Annie and her friends on weekends and often in the evenings. They usually attended local college parties or night clubs.
It was an exciting time for Kyra; she was meeting all sorts of new friends, doing whatever she wanted, and didn’t have to answer to anyone anymore. Sure, she was failing her classes and nursing hangovers several times a week, but these were her choices. She was all about living for today and not thinking of any consequences.
The kitchen filled with the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Kyra poured about half the pot out into a mug she had grabbed and mixed a few spoons of sugar in. She brought the mug up to her lips and drank the warm liquid with relish. She sighed as she felt the throbs of her headache already starting to subside.
For Kyra Hadley, she lived as if tomorrow simply didn’t exist.
Naomi led them through several rooms and corridors until finally reaching a plain medal door with a keypad attached. Max hoped to himself that Charlotte or Celine knew the way to get back here as he had no idea how Naomi navigated through the building’s maze of back hallways.
Naomi entered something into the keypad and then pressed her thumb onto the black touchpad just below it. The door beeped and then they heard the sounds of a lock becoming unbolted. Naomi grabbed the door handle and pulled it open, motioning for the rest of them to walk through.
“We’ll get all of you into the system today so you can do this on your own next time”, she said as the four walked past her.
Inside of the room was a dark, wide space filled with walls of knobs and computer screens. On the far side of the room, Max could see a young man with light-colored hair sitting before a column of video screens. The man had his back towards them with headphones on, typing furiously and looking intently at the monitors of data before him.
“Well now I can be more candid”, Naomi stated as she walked to stand in front of them.
“My birth name is Naomii Ruuse; obviously it doesn’t matter which name you call me by”, she continued, “I am the Team Leader for this base which means that I receive orders directly from the Council. While you are stationed here, you will report to and take your orders from me.”
Max flinched inwardly at her cold tone.
“Now, let me introduce the other member of our team”, Naomi said.
She turned towards the man sitting in front of the tower of screens.
“This is have Evander Frode, son of Kreios Frode as you all know. His human alias is William Adams.”
The young man stayed where he was, not even turning his head in acknowledgment.
“Will”, Naomi said loudly.
Will did not respond.
“Will!”, Naomi barked sternly.
When he still remained in his position, Naomi strode over and ripped his headphones off.
“Hey! What the hell Naomi?”, Will protested with agitation.
“When I call to you, I expect a response!”, she said, nearly shouting now. “Is that understood?”
“I didn’t hear you”, he stated under his breath as he reluctantly got up from his post.
“Like hell you didn’t”, Naomi snapped back as she strode towards the group with Will in tow.
Will stopped before them in a slouched position and an averted gaze. Max could now see that Will had dyed yellow hair that fell over his forehead. His naturally dark roots lined the straight hairline that parted over his scalp. He kept his hands in his pockets, looking disinterested to meet them.
“Will specializes in intelligence analysis and has the unique position of traveling from base to base as needed. He’s been with us for a few months now”, Naomi explained unfeelingly.
Celine gazed with anticipation at Will, waiting for him to recognize her, but instead he kept his gaze averted from them.
“Can I get back to what I was doing, your highness?”, he said sarcastically to Naomi.
“Fine”, she replied ignoring his contemptuous tone.
Celine felt disappointment as Will walked back to his work area.
“Can you go over our Mission Briefing now?”, Remus asked plainly.
Naomi stared over intently at Max, making his stomach recoil.
“I need a few moments alone with Oden first”, she said not taking her stare off him, “Will is getting all of you set-up into our security system in the meantime.”
She then walked past Max, “Come with me”, she stated in a lowered-voice.
Max followed her with reservation into a small adjoining room that only contained a black table and a few chairs around it.
She shut the door behind them.
“You can imagine my surprise when I was told that Oden Vaul, the last son of the legendary Vaul bloodline, was actually alive all these years living as a human.”
She took two steps toward him, still maintaining that hard, pointed stare.
“What surprised me even more was that you were sent here to Grandeur City - at your request.”
She looked at him in silence for a moment then took slow, calculated steps past him.
“Kreios may have had some sympathy for you but I want you to know that you will not be shown the same compassion by me”, she stated sternly.
Max remained silent, not turning around. A warm wave of unease filled his chest and he could feel the sweat forming on his palms.
Naomi turned around to look at Max, “I understand that you also requested to stay in your human occupation. I know this will require you to not be here at certain times but I’m only granting this to you because I was ordered to do so.”
She walked back to stand in front of him. This time she was only inches away from his face. Max could hear the hard breaths that came out from her nostrils.
“But the moment you let your human trivialities interfere with our mission, I will send a report back to the Council and you will be stripped of all these little diversions you’ve requested. Is that clear?”
Max could now feel a flush of anger inside him but he kept it to himself and kept a calm disposition.
“Yes”, he replied plainly, not meeting her hard stare.
She finally stepped back away from him and let out a short, unfeeling laugh.
Naomi then turned around and walked out of the room, leaving the door open for him to follow.
However, Max could only stand there staring out into the empty space before him that was now filled with tension and resent.
He didn’t have a good feeling about how things were starting.
“Did you find anything?”, Celine asked as Max stepped out of the police station.
Max shook his head.
“It’s another dead end. They have the murderer in custody already; it was a carjacking gone bad.”
Celine sighed as they continued on to their next lead.
Her and Max were out in the city on a surveillance mission. Since the first day they’d arrived at Concordia, the whole team had been tracking suspected Outlander activity within the city.
It was common for Outlander members to strike fear into the human population of every city they went to through the form of some sort of crime spree. In the case of Grandeur City, it was a series of bizarre murders that started about a month ago. Every other night, a new victim would turn up in the streets. Their clothes would be ripped to shreds and their faces nearly unrecognizable; almost like an animal attacked and ravished them before going in for the final kill.
Naomi and her team hadn’t found an exact pattern yet; the only consistency they found so far was that all the victims had deep puncture wounds in their throats. Now the new additions to the team were helping to track down a more solid lead.
Max’s gift of invisibility had been proving very useful for the team; he was able to sneak into morgues and police stations to eavesdrop on conversations and glance through classified documents. Max was still uncomfortable with resorting to such a mode of deception but Celine kept reminding him it was for a greater cause.
Whenever a Tymorrean is involved in such an act of violence towards humanity, she would say, all human laws cease to be relevant.
“This would be a lot easier if we had a contact inside the Sheriff’s Office”, Max said.
“Good luck running that one by Naomi!”, Celine chuckled.
Max sighed, “Where are we heading now?”
“Sorority Row at Grandeur City University. A coed was found two days ago on the front lawn of one of the Sorority Houses with her throat ripped out. There should be plenty of witnesses walking around this time of day who could give us more information.”
Max remained tense and silent.
“What is it?”, Celine asked.
“It’s just... if a Tymorrean really is the one causing all of these murders lately it seems like there should be something more we could be doing than sneaking into police stations and talking to frat boys. If this pattern continues that means another person is going to die tonight!”
“I know this is hard Max”, Celine said sympathetically, “But you’re in a different world now. These Outlanders are not just your typical thugs. They’re dangerous and have to be dealt with carefully. We don’t know just yet what we’re dealing with now. But the faster we get on with this, the sooner we can stop whoever’s responsible for these killings!”
Max sighed again and started walking.
“Let’s get on with this then.”
They arrived at the baby blue house where the crime took place just a few days prior. Teddy bears and flowers lined the walkway leading up to the front door. Posters with the words “We Miss You Amber” decorated the porch. On some of the posters was a young woman with shiny blond hair and a bright smile.
Max forced himself to ignore the heaviness in his chest; just as he had with the little girl who was shot to death during his first shift as a Grandeur City firefighter a couple weeks ago.
“You stay here and see what you can find outside the house. I’m going to see if I can find anyone who’s willing to talk about what happened to Amber”, Celine said.
She then followed a young woman who had just walked out of the house, dabbing her make-upped eyes with a tissue. Celine walked quietly a few feet behind her until the girl stopped to look at her phone.
“Excuse me?”, Celine asked, changing her voice to a friendlier tone, “Do you know anything about what happened at Tri-Delta House the other night? My friend wants to pledge there but now I’m afraid of her ending up murdered like that other girl!”
The young woman turned towards her.
“You mean Amber?”, she whispered.
Celine lowered her voice, “Yeah. I mean... what happened to her? Did anyone see anything?”
The girl shook her head.
“No I was there that night. There was a major party at Tri-Del and all I remember is that Amber got super trashed and then she just disappeared!”
“Where’d she go?”
“I don’t know... But one of my friends said he could hear barking outside that night.”
“Yeah! Like a dog or something.”
“... I heard that she was pretty messed up. Do you think an animal did something to her?”
The girl shrugged.
“All I know is that the girl who found Amber that morning was so traumatized by what she saw, that she dropped her classes for the rest of the semester and is going through some serious therapy right now.”
Celine gazed back at the girl, putting the pieces together in her mind.
Meanwhile, Max was able to find a discrete place to take himself out of visibility without arising suspicion and explored the outside perimeter of the house. He carefully examining the thick thorny bushes that lined the side of the house for anything that may have been overlooked by the police.
Then something caught his eye.
He met back up with Celine a couple blocks away from the house.
“Did you find anything?”, she asked.
“Just this”, he said holding up a small Ziplock bag. Inside was a piece of tattered pink cloth tinged with crimson.
“The police report said she was wearing a pink top when she was found”, he said as Celine took it and carefully examined the bag.
She sighed, “I think I have a better idea of what we’re dealing with now.”
“What is it?”
Max gave her a quizzical look.
“They’re rare”, she continued, “But I’ve heard that some of them exist. They’re Tymorreans who have the ability to turn themselves into another creature.”
“Like an animal?”
She nodded, “Yeah sort of... except typically they turn into something much more; they’re violent and typically have no self-control. They’re practically monsters from what I’ve heard.”
“How would we find someone like that?”
Celine shook her head, “I don’t know... usually shape-shifters are very limited in their abilities. They can only stay in their other form for so long and when they revert back they have to wait for a certain amount of time to pass before they have enough energy to change again.”
“That would make sense then... This guy only strikes at night when no one can see him and he probably has to wait twenty-four hours before he can change again.”
“Yeah maybe... Let’s get this back to Concordia and check-in with Naomi.”
To Be Continued...
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