Brigandeers: Chapter 1: Pluck a Duck

Human genetics are curious things.

Charles Darwin was right. Sort of. Humanity, like all species, is evolving all the time. Everything is changing at a cellular level, faster than you can blink.

Our genetics are transforming, and they are changing in response to the world around us. It’s a survival of the fittest scenario taking place all the time around us, every day.

It’s a genetic war out there, and one most people are scarcely aware of.

But what most people are also scarcely aware of, is that genetic change has feedback mechanisms. Darwin got it right, but he only saw an incomplete part of the overall picture.

You see, the great man was looking through a keyhole at the fine art genetic world. He only saw the Mona Lisa’s eyes: he never saw her wicked ass smile. He saw genetics as a neat and tidy garden maze – every path leading to another path, with a whole lot of dead ends and potted rose bushes at the end of the.

The reality is different: it’s more like a crazed botanist’s secret lab, with all sorts of nutso green-fingered experiments, and “just in case” samples tagged haphazardly all over the overcrowded benches.

While Darwin could see that humans – and other animals, and insects, and plants – were affected by the world around us, he didn’t understand that our genetics are changing in preparation for what is to come.

Genetic change happens before it is needed. Human genes guess what is happening in the world, and they then prepare a small minority of the population in a variety of ways for every possible change by providing a huge number of genetic varieties to cover every imaginable – and unimaginable – environmental possibility.

You see, we humans see people as individuals. Our genes see humans as one entity. That’s where Darwin made his mistake. He thought we controlled our genes, when in reality it is the other way around.

Genes control us. We – all of us humans – are one big travel pack for our genes to move around in. We’re here to do their bidding, to do what they want us to do. As individuals, we’re inconsequential. It’s what happens overall that matters. So genetics likes to throw in a few wildcards here and there, as backup. Just in case.

In other words, our bodies are prepared for what might happen, thanks to our DNA spiraling away inside us, long before it even does.

Have I confused you yet?

No, this isn’t “intelligent design”. We don’t think there’s an almighty greybeard behind it all, pulling the strings. None of our scientists think that, none of them at all. Well, none except the kooky American ones over in the Bible belt that thought dinosaurs wore saddles and cavepeople prayed to Jehovah.

There’s no team of Gods, tossing the dice. Or if there are, we haven’t met them yet and they probably hate us. Or they’re in the shape of a double helix, and they’re really, really small.

But we know it’s happening – this genetic “preparation”, if you want to call it that – because the evidence puts this all beyond reasonable doubt.

We can’t see the action, but we can see the results of the action. Kind of like the sky being blue is the cause of why its blue, not the reason.

Science, bitches.

And no, I’m not a scientist. I’m explaining this as best I can, so you’ll have to bear with me. Maybe I’ll get Nigel to read my story later, and he’ll do a better job of explaining all this. But I warn you – it’ll be boring. He’s a real scientist, and trust me, he’s damn good at making stuff boring. I suspect that was part of the requirements of his PhD.

Now, rather than get into all the deep science shit, here’s an example you might be more aware of, because I can bet that although until you recently you sure as hell hadn’t heard of us: you might recall how scientists began to notice way back in the eighties that the number of people with autism was on the rise.

Nobody knew why. It was only when the internet exploded onto the scene a decade and a half later, in the nineties, and we realised that people on the autism spectrum were often incredibly gifted at working with computers, that scientists first began to suspect this connection between genetic change and human giftedness.

It took a few more years before IT companies started really making use of autists and now, of course, autists are hand-picked as toddlers and go on to make far more money than ordinary people do. They’re in demand, whereas only a few decades ago people just pegged them as weirdos.

Yay humanity!

We StealthHeroes (just call us “Stealths”) are kind of like the people with autism. In fact, we usually come from families with lots of autism in them – my mother had Asperger syndrome, as does my uncle.

When we Stealths began to first appear, it was almost as if the genetic world was preparing for the old-style superheroes – the guys with capes and masks – to disappear. It was almost like the world was preparing for us to take their place.

It was almost as if we were planned for. Like we weren’t just an accident.

If that doesn’t do your brain in, I don’t know what would. It freaks me out, that’s for sure.

I don’t know whether to feel special or to feel scared. A mixture of both, I guess.

Maybe we were planned, I don’t know. I don’t know who planned us, or what. I’m not religious, and I haven’t had any messages from God since my last full bottle experience with Tequila.

I don’t know how many of us there are, and I don’t know what powers and special skills each of us may have. Nigel has no idea either, and he’s our resident sciencedude.

I know there’s my sister Aneira (Ani), and me. She can control animals. I think that’s pretty cool, although I’d never tell her that.

She started with insects, when she was little. It freaked our mother out, to be honest, all these spiders making pretty patterns for Ani with their webs. It was like Charlotte’s Web on acid, except Charlotte never wrote some of the rotten words Ani’s spiders did in their webs. Those were some foul-mouthed spiders.

She’s pretty disgusting, my sister. Mind-blowingly smart, but filthy.

By the time she was six or seven she’d moved on to small rodents, birds and the like. Have you ever seen that movie “Enchanted”? Yeah, well, it would have been amusing except it was MY toothbrush her rats were meddling with. Not nice.

And wood pigeons? They might be supposedly endangered, but you’d never believe it from the number that used to shit all over our rooftop, hanging out for a glimpse of their Fearless Leader.

Fortunately, she wasn’t much older before she realised that she needed to be a bit less overt about her Powers, and she stopped calling them in from round about. And our garden stopped resembling a zoo. A zoo covered in bird shit. And bee shit. You wouldn’t believe the amount of shit a few thousand bees can make.

It stinks too.

Now she’s 18 and up to larger mammals: dogs, cats, the odd pet lamb. They do what she wants, exactly what she wants. She gets this cross-eyed look on her face, concentrates on whatever victim she intends to control, and wham! Insta-zombie. Except the animal is alive and breathing and knows exactly what it is doing as it goes about her bidding.

Gods, I hope she never levels up to humans.

She always looked angelic, and that was part of the problem. You don’t expect someone with such fricking evil powers to look so good. And now she’s grown up, she’s stunning. White blonde hair, pale blue eyes, perfect skin, perfect smile, perfect body. If she hadn’t been a Stealth, she’d have been a supermodel. As it is, she does modeling when she’s not busy with us, doing the whole Stealth hero stuff. If anyone was going to look good in a full body latex catsuit, it’d be Ani.

It’d make me angry if I didn’t love her.

Okay, I love her, and I’ll admit it: it does make me angry. But I cope.

Now me, I’m the plants and fungus girl. Bacteria too.

I’m Rose.

Yeah, I’m thrilled about it too. It’s almost like my mother knew what I was going to be when I was tiny and pink, way before I developed any Powers.

The looks went all Ani’s way in our family. The most anyone ever says about me is I’m “interesting” looking.

I’m tall (like Ani), but dark. I’ve got the blue eyes too, but they’re a kind of nondescript blue, like someone spat in the sea kind of blue, rather than the perfect Aegean of Ani’s eyes. I’m skinny and my body never became curvy, so put me in a latex catsuit and I’d be praying mantis sexy rather than a Greek Goddess sexy.

My body is too short, my limbs are too long, I’m all angles and awkwardness, and all in all I’m just never going to be much worth looking at, despite the fact that Nigel seems to think I am.

But he’s strange like that.

I can’t say I’m displeased about getting plants for my Power though. Okay, well, the plants are pretty good, and I know you won’t believe it but being able to control fungus can be damned useful sometimes too. Even in vanilla life. I never need deodorant, my feet smell amazing, and I live up to my name.

I never need to brush my teeth either, although I do out of habit. It’s those chunky bits – I don’t like them. And I hate popcorn shell in my back teeth.

But the great stuff for me is not just the visible stuff – you know, being able to make trees topple and die, throwing branches at people, all that kind of obvious stuff.

For me, the really cool stuff is the stuff below the ground.

You see, I control the internet. I control the fungal species that enable trees to talk with each other – what science calls the internet of trees. I control their root systems, so if there’s anything going on beneath the ground I know about it. That means cables, drainage, pipes – everything.

I own it all. The earth is my co-pilot. I’m one tough beyatch.

And, like Ani, my Powers seen to have no limit to their distance. None at all. I can control plants and fungus and shit just as easy halfway across the world as I can right outside my door.

Marika, who works with us and is our internet support person, radio and communications guru and all around Culture queen, has a theory about that. She thinks it’s because everything is connected. Even between countries, nothing is ever completely separate.

The earth is one huge ecosystem. So when you tap into one part of the system – like I do, and like Ani does, to a lesser extent – you’re tapping into the whole damn thing.

Just like the electronic internet. I guess I’m the Boss of the Internet of Plants, and Ani is the Boss of the Internet of Animals.

Ani and I don’t work alone. I mean, even the old caped superheroes had sidekicks. We have ours too, although I’d never call them “sidekicks” because if I did I’d find my side kicked pretty hard.

We realised early on that we needed someone to help us who was great with tech, because we sure as hell weren’t. That’s why Marika is here. She’s great with culture and language and stuff, and is a mean motherfucker when it comes to native species.

We need to know that stuff, because we really don’t want to trash anything that belongs here in New Zealand, on the south island, where we’ve got our base of operations (more on that in a moment).

Having a lot of power means you can do some serious damage without even realising it, and animals and plants do get hurt.

I suppose that’s that power and responsibility thing coming back again. It can really bite you on the bum if you’re stupid. Or careless. Or both.

So we have Marika to help us. She knows her shit, and we take her advice seriously. She’s younger than us, not even seventeen, but you wouldn’t guess it. She just has this serious kind of mind, whereas I can’t seem to stop joking about and seeing the funny side of things.

Then there’s John. He’s twenty-three. He’s our wheels. Our transport guy. There’s nothing he can’t drive.

He spent some time in the military, in Transport, and I think all he did there, apart from shooting bunnies, was learning how to drive every single type of truck and transport they had.

Or maybe he already knew how. I wouldn’t put it past him.

He’s an ex-farmboy, from up Central Otago, so he’s useful with fixing anything mechanical, and not too shabby on the electronic stuff either. Which is good, because we need it.

He has been behind the wheel since before he could walk. Maybe literally, maybe not, but he’s a damn fine driver, and all-around great guy, and that’s what counts.

Oh, and he’s kind of hot. Muscles, blue eyes, shaven head…yummy.

I try not to think about it too much.

Finally, there’s Nigel. Nigel is all red hair, blue eyes, freckles, and a big bushy moustache for I don’t know what reason because it is NOT sexy. It looks like it belongs on a seventy year old man, not on a twenty year old geek.

Maybe he’s compensating for something?

He’s weedy and clever and nerdy and everything that is useful and helpful and nothing at all that makes me go ohhhhhhhh! Which is also useful and helpful, because John is enough of a distraction around here – I don’t need more than one guy to cause trouble for my hormones. I’ve got enough to deal with. Nigel could never distract me, although it’s not for his lack of trying.

It’s Nigel’s job to find us all – all the Stealths that there are in the world, because it’s not just Ani and me out there. Nigel is our search and rescue and recon. He’s doing that job well. He tours the world (well, New Zealand mostly, but we have big dreams), looking for signs, tracking us down, linking us all together in a network. Maybe it’s risky for us to know each other, but the network also gives us emotional support and keeps us safe. When you’re a weirdo, it helps to feel less alone.

So that’s us. The five of us. Two Stealths, three ordinary human supports. The world doesn’t have superheroes any more, but it should be damn glad it has us.

*************************************

“He’s heading down Portobello Road,” Marika’s voice comes crackling over the radio. She’s back at the flat, broadcasting from the living room-cum-mission-control, and she has been monitoring the latest over police communications.

“Blue sedan, driving erratically. Swine in pursuit, but they’re not doing a very good job. There’s no way they’ll catch him before he reaches the township.”

“What’s the story?” asks John, fiddling with Drone 2, and clicking a new battery into place. Drone 2 is our latest acquisition, and it’s pretty special – deadly silent, great optics and sound, and an extra-long range. Ani and I worked late at the Arms for months to save for it, and she even donated her tips.

“Estimated 80 kilograms of Ice Cream on board. On his way out to the heads where there’s probably a Cruise boat waiting for shipment. Tried to get to Port Chalmers, but was cut off by the cops on the overbridge and is now heading south.”

“Crystal or bowls?” I ask Marika.

“Crystal.” Marika sounds stressed. “Ice cream” is the latest illegal drug to hit the streets, and an estimated 80 kilograms of crystal is enough to do a lot of damage to a lot of kids.

Crystal is the more lethal of the two common varieties. Very addictive, very lethal.

And it’s kids the drug cartels are aiming at. Not adults, kids. This stuff is marketed directly at 10 to 15 year olds. They get hooked even before they hit puberty. The drug bosses aim low, at the kids whose parents are out of work, jobless, in bad situations. They target the kids who live in the slums on the south part of town, and in the poor ghettos of decrepit, dilapidated government housing up on the hillsides.

They lure the kids in with hopes they will make it rich, selling it to – yep, other kids. Sell a habit to fund a habit, make a little cash on the side.

And so it goes. The government does nothing – the authorities like keeping these really toxic drugs illegal, because most of the politicians are in bed with the drug lords.

It’s cosy up there in Wellington, and even cosier down here in Dunedin. One bed, many feet, as the saying goes.

I’m out at the Hangar. We call it “the Hangar” to feel more official, although it’s little more than a shed, based on the main road out to the peninsula, just one among rows of filthy, broken-down, abandoned warehouses. Dirty and dusty and completely unnoticeable.

Exactly how we like it.

“I’ll need eyes,” I say to John, who is with me. He nods. He’s already on it, setting up Drone 2, and connecting up the new, high-powered battery pack.

Within less than a minute, he pilots the tiny white machine. Our beloved Drone 2, the second of our “Eyes in the Skies”, zips out of a rear skylight and off in the direction of the action.

The two of us move over to the side of the Hangar, where we’ve set up our communications station – a citizens band hookup, a few white channel systems, a couple of old computers, two old box television sets from the dawn of time, and a gaming console or two for when things get dull. Which is more often than you’d think, even for us hero types.

John suggests we hook on our earpieces to get better sound from Marika. I fit my earpiece in awkwardly, and watch the feedback from the drone on the larger of the two screens as it flies across the harbour and reaches Portobello Road within minutes, far faster than a car could have done. We spot the blue sedan, and two police cars plus a sergeant’s station wagon, all giving chase, speeding way too fast along the wickedly bendy road that weaves around the foot of the peninsula, leading out to Portobello.

“Any ideas, Red?” Marika’s voice crackles in my ear. “Red” is my code name when we’re busy doing hero stuff. You know, like “Rose Red”.

“A few,” I say.

“I’m on it,” Ani’s voice comes in loud and strong over the radio.

Damn! Damn my sister! She’s obviously at Cam’s place again, and is ignoring our protocols as usual – you know, the don’t communicate unless you’re in a secure position and don’t interrupt secure comms with your cheaparse portable handset and don’t piss your sister off.

Yeah, those.

“Snow,” says Marika, her voice clearly exasperated, referring to my sister by her code name. “You were supposed to be working.”

“Job cancelled,” says Ani. “And I’m on it.”

I can almost hear her screwing her face up in concentration, to do…that.

We watch from the Drone 2 camera as a family of ducks – a mother, leading a trail of tiny fluffy ducklings – venture out across the road, less than half a kilometer ahead of the speeding cars.

I groan. “No way, Ani,” I say. “They’ll never stop in time!”

“Sure they will,” she says. I can hear her confidence drowning me out. “They’re crooks, they’re not fricking evil. They’ll stop.”

Half a minute later the ducks are a fuzzy smear on the bitumen. Sometimes I wish the cameras on our drones weren’t quite so good.

“Oh shit!” says Ani. “Oops!”

I groan.

“Any better ideas?” says Marika quietly. “And please, Aniera – no more small animals.”

John and I watch the car chase as it continues on the television screen in front of us, relayed from our tiny spy as it weaves overhead around the bay, following the action with its onboard cameras.

The cars, all four of them, zip through MacAndrew Bay at over 100 kilometers an hour – an insane speed for the winding, bumpy peninsula road – nearly taking out a group of school kids crossing the main road to the playground.

It’s time for action, before someone bigger than a family of ducks gets hurt. I’m thinking quickly, my brain racing for an idea.

“I know,” I say hoarsely, pulling my chair closer to the television screen catching the relay from the drone. I’m still in shock over the ducks, but I don’t want to let it show. I like to be seen as tough, not a softie.

Up ahead of the chase, the road does a sharp bend to the right around a blind corner.

Due to recent Spring downpours, the ground of the hillside overlooking the road is unstable and loose. Huge, ancient macrocarpa trees, easily six feet wide at the base, planted long before the peninsula was settled with anything more than a few sheep farmers or got anything like the traffic it now does, leer unstably over the street. I’m amazed they haven’t been lopped, but since the cartels took the city over a few years ago, there’s been no money for any infrastructure maintenance. A lot of stuff that should have been done hasn’t been sorted.

They’re a sitting duck for a landslide.

And yeah, I’m still thinking about ducks.

I focus my mind, creating a still, small place inside that somehow connects with the each and the sea and the sky. My whole being seems to be reaching out tendrils of power through the ground, beneath the water to the peninsula.

From our vantage point in the warehouse, in front of our television screens, to the tall, overly laden trees, my senses race towards to living trees, to their root systems, already only loosely connected to the earth and not much of an anchor for the weight of the enormous trunks, which begin to shake free and move.

With a low, almost inaudible creak, the massive tree trunks begin to split and bend over. Slowly, almost unnoticeably, at first…then momentum takes over, then gravity.

There’s no way out: the trees, already way overbalanced and long due for lopping, begin to topple over. With a crash that echoes through my brain, and across the harbour sending sound waves across the bay, they smash onto the roadway, scattering dry, shattered branches across both lanes and even as far as the water.

The road is completely blocked with a mess of wood, leaves and mud. There’s no way through.

“Good one, Rose,” says John softly. I stir, bringing myself back into the here and now, letting go of the touch of the macrocarpas. I try not to act too pleased by his praise, and nod carelessly in thanks.

I’m guessing Ani is swearing quietly right now. I’m pretty pleased about that too, although I could have done without duck casualties.

The ice cream runners skid to a halt minutes later at my roadblock. The driver’s reaction time isn’t fast enough, and the sedan goes skidding into the fallen tree trunks, still quivering from their collapse just seconds earlier. A split second later there’s no more front end of the sedan: it’s gone, right the way through as far as the windscreen.

The car is a mess: it’s not going to run anything ever again, and I wonder what the status is of the man inside until John pilots our Drone closer, and I see movement from inside the vehicle as the runner begin to pull himself from the wreck of their car.

From the Drone camera we can see the expression on his face quite clearly. He looks shocked. I don’t blame him.

The pigs are screeching to a stop behind them, their squad car lights flashing and sirens wailing. One, two, three pull up, the sergeant finishing the triumvirate of pointlessness. A few seconds behind the drug runners, they’re able to avoid the crash site – although only just – and skid in sideways one after the other to dovetail in next to the main mass of one of the tree trunks I’ve collapsed.

John and I rock back in our chairs and sigh in relief, alone in our cold, dusty warehouse. We watch the feedback from the Drone, as the pigs make their arrest and gather all our glory, completely unaware of the real heroes behind the scenes. One of the police officers glances briefly at our Drone hovering close by above, capturing the action.

“Dammit,” said Marika over the coms. “We’ve been a bit too casual maybe. New paint job for Drone 2 again, John?”

“I think so,” he replies. “That’s that Sargeant Davis again. Smart bugger spotted us last time too. Can’t have him getting too suspicious.”

“He won’t,” I say confidently. “And if he does, what’s he going to do? Tell everyone back at the station that maybe it wasn’t due to him that the crims were caught – again?” I snort derisively. “Not a chance. He loves taking credit for other people’s work way too much for that.”

“I’d rather play cautious,” says Marika again. “New paint job. As soon as you can fit it in, John.”

“No problem. I’ll even nick the paint from the lock up behind the main police station. I think our uniformed friends can help us out a bit, as the new paint job is due to them, don’t you think?”

It’s so John. I can’t help but laugh. And then the tiredness hits me.

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