02:00 Heathrow Airport, London, United Kingdom
“Flight 747 for Sydney has been delayed. New estimated time of departure is 0400 hours.”
The clipped British voice came over the intercom, echoing around the cramped departure room.
Nicholas Hancock sighed into his hand as he clamped it onto his chin and drummed his fingers against his stubble-covered jaw.
More wasted time, ha? This ill-fated business trip had already gone on too long. The Brits weren’t interested in what his brother’s company, Nano-Wire Armaments, had to offer. And it was time to come to terms with that fact.
“Further delays may be expected,” the voice over the intercom advised to a chorus of groans around the lounge.
Nick kept his frustration to himself as he settled further into the unyielding plastic of his chair, crossed his arms, and tried not to count just how many hours this was adding to this worthless trip. If the Brits weren’t interested, he doubted the Australians would care, either.
Nick would pack it all in, if it weren’t for one thing – he owed his brother. Without him, Nick would have jumped off a bridge two years ago.
After a disastrous stint in Afghanistan in private security, Nick had returned to the States a broken man. The Army had chewed him up and spat him out, and private security had been worse.
For a man who’d once known exactly what he had to fight for, he’d returned a man who’d had his fight taken, broken, and twisted.
Even now, two years later, Nick could remember the moment his brother had dragged him off that bridge.
The look in Jake’s eyes. Nick would never forget it. And even now, as his frustration mounted at the continued delays, he could close his eyes and see it.
“You’ve got to live. Because you save people, Nick. That’s what you’ve always done, and it’s what you’re meant for.”
“What I’m meant for, ha?” Nick whispered under his breath as he let his hand drop over his mouth. He breathed into it, feeling the air pressure pool against his palm then press through his fingers.
Nick took another breath, then finally let his hand drop.
He let his eyes scan the departure lounge around him. It was packed with pissed-off, tired passengers. Most of them were on their phones or buried in their respective devices. A few weren’t. A few, like Nick, were just waiting.
And, to a T, those not on devices were looking at the two massive TVs on either side of the lounge.
Nick frowned as he looked up at them.
He’d caught snippets of conversation through the airport and on the shuttle ride over here.
There’d been some kind of meteorite impact in the South China Sea.
At the time of the impact, there’d been a tsunami warning for southern China and Vietnam. A big one. But there’d been no tsunami. Not even a blip in wave height.
What was weirder was none of the space agencies had picked up the meteor in the first place. It had come from nowhere, struck the middle of nowhere, and disappeared without a trace, apparently.
Nick stared at the TV closest to him for a few minutes, but the banner down the bottom was just rehashing what was already known.
If Nick were in a different mood, maybe he’d care. As it was, he tilted his head back, checked the departure board, and sighed.
Time to get something to eat.
He stood, stretched his large form, and headed out of the lounge.
“It’s got to be the meteor,” he caught a couple saying in front of him.
“Meteorite,” he corrected under his breath, not interrupting. Though Nick had always been a soldier, once upon a time – a long, long damn time ago – he’d wanted to be an astronaut. Space… had called to him since forever. Fitting, considering his biological father had apparently had something to do with the space industry, though the exact details weren’t known.
Not the point. As soon as a meteor impacts the Earth, it’s called a meteorite. But that’s even assuming the object that supposedly struck the South China Sea survived its impact. Presumably it was burnt up in the atmosphere, and that’s why there was no tsunami.
The Earth got lucky today. Which was more than could be said for Nick. He glanced to the side as he saw two airport staff jogging past, their faces pale.
“They say they haven’t heard anything new – just what’s been in official communications,” one of them said.
“Why on earth is the government keeping us in the dark? If we have to cancel these flights, we need to know now, or we’re going to have a riot on our hands.”
Nick stopped, pivoted, and watched the two staff members jog out of sight.
… What the hell was going on?
He hesitated, wondering whether to head back to the departure lounge in case there was any news, but then he figured it would just come over the intercom, anyway.
Nick kept picking up snippets of conversation as he made his way to the food court.
TVs were on around the court, and people were glued to them as they ate their burgers and overpriced sandwiches.
Nick paused in front of one and watched as the animated news anchors discussed whether this could be the result of some secret Chinese weapon launch.
He doubted it. Likely it was some artifact on someone’s radar, and there’d never been a meteor in the first place. That, or it had burnt up in the atmosphere like he’d said before.
This would just blow over, and the news would move on to the next sensational piece.
Nick scratched at his jaw and yawned. Then he stood in line at the first café he could find and bought a sandwich with the few bob still in his pocket.
When he was done, he walked through the court, resisted the urge to stop and watch the TVs again, and headed back to the lounge.
On his way, he saw more staff rushing around. Their expressions were heavy with worry and stress.
Nick could ignore a lot, but his body was primed to pick up expressions just like those. It was in the way their eyebrows were flattened, in the stiff skin around their eyes, in the height of their shoulders. All of it suggested something was going on.
Most other passengers were in their own worlds, reading the news on their phones or chatting excitedly among themselves. If people did look up, it was only ever a brief glance before they buried themselves back in their devices.
He reached the split in the corridor that would lead back to the departure lounge to the left. He paused.
Jake had always told Nick that he had a talent for sensing danger. As kids, they used to head out to the woods behind their house and spend long afternoons in the fir and larch forests of western Montana. A few times, they’d crossed paths with bears and mountain lions, but every time – according to Jake, at least – Nick had sensed danger and saved their necks.
Nick knew he didn’t have some magical, god-given gift to sense danger before other people did. He had good hearing. He also had a body that was primed to adrenaline. Which wasn’t a good thing. It might save your life when you correctly interpret the crack of a twig as an enemy pressing in from behind, but it’ll ruin your life after you come back from war. Your adrenaline will tell you the whir overhead is a chopper. It’ll tell you the scratching sound at your back door is a burglar lifting the window with a crowbar. It will haunt your every damn moment, promising that there is nowhere safe in this world anymore.
Right now, Nick could try to convince himself that his adrenaline was acting up.
And for a few seconds, he tried to do just that as he tightened his grip on his sandwich and shifted a single foot toward the left.
Then he heard something.
It wasn’t someone breathing. It wasn’t some pipe leaking air.
It was way too mechanical for that.
Nick’s body reacted, charging with adrenaline that blasted through his torso and jumped into his feet like electricity grounding itself.
Before he knew what he was doing, he shifted to the right. He walked down a ramp, his heart speeding up with every step, blood pounding into his body, blasting into his chest, promising him it was time to act. It was time to run. It was time to fight.
As a kid, Nick had gotten into trouble too many times for starting fights. He’d flare up over the smallest thing. No, wait – though other people would tell him it was over the smallest thing, it never was. Nick could forgive and ignore a lot. But there was one thing his damn body was primed to react to. Injustice. If he saw a weaker kid getting beaten up in the playground, he would act. If he saw someone bullying others, he would act. If he saw someone stealing or breaking the rules, he would act. Because if he didn’t, he’d never be able to live with himself.
“So you live with yourself. If you can’t stop yourself from protecting others, then you do that to live.” That’s what Jake had told Nick up on that bridge, the rain pounding down around them, the wind slamming into Jake’s wet jacket. “If this is the only way you can live, then you live this way.”
… You live this way.
Those words echoed in Nick’s ears as he walked around another turn in a corridor.
That’s when he saw the guy in the hoody. The first two things Nick noticed was that the hoody was too large, the hood completely obscuring the guy’s face, and that he had his hands in his pockets, the fabric stretched, meaning there was something much larger in those pockets than hands.
Nick was instantly bombarded with images of his private security gigs in Kabul. Watching the dust-covered streets for trouble, checking cars, checking people, and knowing if you lost your attention or nerve for a second, it could be your last.
He’d lost count of the number of times he’d picked up a hidden weapon or IED others hadn’t.
Energy would always pick up through his back, race to his neck, and set his hair standing on end. It would always pluck at his senses, always tug his head forward and focus him on what needed to be seen.
And right now, nothing would be able to tear his gaze away from the man in the hoody.
The guy had his back to Nick now. His gait was slow but determined, apparently easy, and yet obviously measured. It was the unmistakable walk of someone trying to look innocuous.
The guy was up to something.
Nick jerked his gaze down the corridor, searching out security or a staff member, but in the time it took him to scan the crowd further down the corridor, the man moved. Quickly. With the snapped efficiency of someone who’d been trained their entire life to use their body as a damn weapon.
He closed the distance to a door – a security door – and jammed something from his pocket onto the keypad next to it.
“What the hell are you doing?” Nick spat.
He could only see the side of whatever device the guy had in his hand. It was bulky and looked home-made.
A thrill of terror shot up Nick’s spine.
“Hey, security!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, his voice carrying right through the corridor like the blare of a horn.
But the guy was too quick, and his home-made device worked. With a beep, the door unlocked and swung open. The guy ducked through.
Nick had a moment, a moment where he had to decide whether to throw himself after this guy or wait for security. But, despite his bellowed words, he couldn’t hear them or see them.
So Nick went with the words of his brother, instead. “If you can only live by saving others, then that’s how you live.”
Nick threw himself forward.
Back in the Army, he’d grown a deserved reputation for having a turbo mode. All soldiers will find their reaction time shortening in the height of deadly battle. The body pumps everything it has into surviving.
But there were some soldiers, like Nick, who could give even more, who found not just their reaction time shortening, but their strength and speed increasing almost exponentially.
Which is precisely what happened now as Nick somehow closed the several meters between him and that door and managed to grab it before it could close.
He wrenched it open to see some kind of machinery room.
“Security!” he bellowed again.
Or at least he tried to.
The guy in the hoody spun out from the side of the door, grabbed Nick’s collar, and yanked him forward.
The guy was a good half-a-foot shorter than Nick and didn’t have Nick’s brick-wall build.
That didn’t matter. Call it momentum or plain training, but the guy wrenched Nick out of the doorway with the ease of someone hefting a butter knife.
Nick’s rubber-soled shoes squeaked against the floor as he struggled to grip his assailant.
The door swung shut behind them.
The guy flipped Nick right over his shoulder. Nick tried to control his descent as he struck the concrete, immediately pushing forward into a roll.
The wind was knocked out of him by the time he pushed onto his feet and pivoted to face the guy.
The guy looked down at Nick.
Nick looked up.
… And he swore he saw something under that hood. Something that shouldn’t be there. The glow of two red lights.
“What the hell have you got planned?” Nick spat as he rose and backed off, not stupid enough to throw himself into a fight after this guy had shown his considerable skill. The best thing Nick could do right now was wait until security came.
If they were coming.
There was every chance that with the hubbub going on in the airport, they wouldn’t be called until it was too late.
“Nicholas Hancock? Son of Sergey Petrov?” the guy asked, his tone oddly breathy, as if he had asthma or something.
The hair on the back of Nick’s neck stood even further on end until every strand felt like little lightning poles. “What the hell?”
“That was the name of your registered biological father, correct?” the guy asked, his breathy tone efficient and clipped as if he’d been taught to speak by an artificial voice assistant.
Nick had no idea what his biological father’s name was, or what the term registered referred to. The only fact Nick had ever learned was that his dad had been interested in space.
“Answer,” the man spat.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I never met my father. What the hell is this, anyway? Why do you know my name? Are you here for me? Did you lure me in here?” Nick realized as he paled.
The guy tilted his head to the side, the movement too quick, almost as if it wasn’t made by muscles, but pulleys and levers that had just been released. “Yes. To all of your questions for which yes is a suitable answer. As for your other question? What the hell is this? This is you dying. You match the biological signature we’re looking for,” the guy said as he finally pocketed the odd, jerry-rigged device in his hand.
Nick’s life came down to a point. A sharp one. All his memories clumped together until he felt a race of nerves like no other plunging into his spine. It shifted through his body, biting into every muscle, blasting through his nervous system with all the power of lighting.
It left his whole body tingling.
He didn’t have time to question what the hell it was. The guy threw himself forward.
Somehow Nick managed to roll back over some kind of air con unit. It was just in time, and as his feet flipped over his head, he pushed the ball of his left foot into the guy’s shoulder and threw him off.
Nick landed on the ground on the other side, then pushed forward, his muscles straining like stretched springs.
His head was… filling with this dense ringing. Picking up in his ears, filtering through everything, shaking his damn skull.
He wanted to clap his hands on his temples but couldn’t dare spare the momentum.
The guy didn’t hurry to catch up. He slowly walked around the side of the air con unit.
By that time, Nick had ducked behind another machine, then another.
In a few seconds, he was out of sight.
But not out of mind. The guy started whistling.
It didn’t sound right. Dammit, it didn’t sound right. There was a sharp edge to it as if it was being played through a broken speaker.
“Shit,” Nick breathed, never letting the word echo from his lips.
He needed to get back out into the corridor to raise the alarm and get some help.
He ducked down behind the console in front of him. But as he did, his chinos caught on an unprotected screw.
That slight tear of fabric was all it took for the whistling to stop. Nick picked up the pound of footfall, then felt a rush of air as the guy jumped right over the console behind him.
The guy came at him so fast, by the time he was upon Nick, he didn’t even have time to stiffen.
The man wrapped his fingers around Nick’s throat, slammed Nick’s head against the unpolished concrete, and hissed.
It was the mechanical hiss he’d picked up in the corridors, the same damn hiss that had seen Nick head here in the first place.
The guy kept his white-knuckled grip on Nick’s collar as he yanked Nick’s head back and slammed it against the concrete.
Nick’s world started to fracture. A ringing filled his ears as the wet press of blood filtered out from the wound to his skull.
But he didn’t stop fighting; he started. He wrapped what was left of his weak grip around the guy’s wrist and tried to yank him off. But Nick’s body was starting to shut down.
And that ringing… that ringing was growing unbearable.
His life flashed before his eyes. His adoptive parents, his school, his job, his ex-girlfriend. Everything and everyone blinked away in his mind’s eye as that ringing continued to fill his ears.
The guy leaned forward, the hood of his over-large gray sweatshirt never falling from his face as his white lips pulled back hard over his neat, perfect white teeth.
Nick tried to wrench the guy’s arm off one more time, but it was useless. His assailant was too strong.
Way, way too strong. Because as he yanked Nick’s head up again and slammed it against the concrete, Nick heard the stuff cracking.
It took a lot to crack industrial concrete. A lot more than the impact of one man’s skull against it.
One more time. The guy did it one more time, jerking Nick back and slamming him against the concrete with such force, blood splattered out over Nick’s neck and down his back, over his face, and up over the guy’s hood.
… The ringing still wouldn’t stop. It filled Nick up, more and more, finding cracks in him he’d never known had existed.
The guy pressed a hand forward, cupped it over Nick’s blood-covered lips, and paused.
Nick heard something click and the faintest buzz.
But it was on the edge of his hearing. His body was shutting down, succumbing to his irreversible brain damage.
The guy let out a soft laugh, then stood and walked away. “It’s done,” he said to seemingly no one but himself.
Blood seeped out of the injury to Nick’s skull, pooling behind him and slicking over his torn shirt. He stared up at the ceiling as his life left him. Just out of the corner of his eye, he saw his assailant as the guy continued to walk away.
The last thing Nick saw before he died was the man’s hoody. The blood-covered hoody.
The splatters disappeared. The guy didn’t wipe them off – they simply melted away as if they’d never existed.
Then Nick Hancock died.
The rest of Hena Day One is currently available from most ebook retailers.