And that’s where we are right now. Just the five of us, getting started in our life as Stealth heroes. Starting out, building resources. Making mistakes, learning as we go.
It’s not easy. I guess that’s why we’re “heroes”.
I don’t feel like a hero. Maybe I should wear a cape when I’m at home? Maybe that would help? Most of the time, I feel like I’m struggling to keep up with life, and definitely not being a role model for anyone.
I wonder what it must have been like for the caped heroes? Did they enjoy being icons, and get off on the public attention? Or did they secretly wish they could have done everything they did without anyone noticing, like we do?
I’m sure there has to be a middle ground there, somewhere…But as long as the internet continues to exist, we can’t show our heads above ground. Literally above ground, come to mention it, when you consider where our home is!
We spend a fair chunk of our time fighting crime, mostly at night. I feel like we’re never doing enough but, as Marika points out, were still young. Sometimes during the day we do stuff too, when the opportunity presents itself and we can avoid being seen.
That’s harder than you’d think. Even though Dunedin doesn’t have many street cameras (it makes drug dealing easier, so the authorities certainly wouldn’t want them!) and we do a lot of our work remotely with Drones and camera work and staying at home, it has enough eyes on the street that we still need to be cautious.
Every person above the age of five has a cellphone with a camera. The last thing I want to do is get identified and have my life ruined by a ten year old drug dealer with a vendetta and a smart phone.
It would be laughable if it weren’t so likely to happen. One wrong step, one oddity picked up and identified, and we’re history. Except we don’t have a planet to fly off to, or an invisible island retreat, so we’d be stuck in orange pyjamas rotting in high security for the rest of our lives, if we were even that lucky.
More likely a bullet to the head. Much cheaper.
We’re a pretty small operation. Nothing fancy – just a couple of warehouses down near the old docks (“the Hangar”), a couple of drones, a truck, an inflatable dingy, a couple of kayaks, and two pretty beat up old dirt bikes. Our main center of communications is our flat, where we all five of us live.
I suppose being a superhero isn’t what it used to be. I’d give anything for billionaire parents, I tell you. It’d be nice to have some of the stuff the caped guys used to have. Heck, I’d even settle for an invisible plane.
The old superheroes had it so easy. I’m not jealous, I’m really not, but they never had to worry about paying the rent. They never wondered how they were going to pay that huge electricity bill that just came in, or how they’d feed themselves on something better than two minute noodles, when they were sick of two minute noodles because that’s all they’d had to eat all damned week.
They never had to deal, like Marika and I do, with the ugly drunken patrons of the pub they work at demanding another beer, and not knowing whether the guy was going to get nasty or horny. You can usually tell, but not always.
They never had to work in a garage like John, or in a crappy greasy pseudo-Chinese restaurant like Nigel.
They never had to do anything much, except be heroes and enjoy the accolades.
Until it all went horribly wrong, that is.
None of our gear is marked. We don’t have bat insignias or big shiny numbers or lightning bolt logos on our vehicles. We don’t shine our symbol in the sky at night letting everyone in town know where we’re having our secret meetings with the Commissioner of Police either. We’re not that stupid.
We certainly don’t have the latest greatest in development hi tech stuff the military would be jealous of.
I wish! No, our stuff would mostly be laughed at by the military. In fact, a lot of our equipment, like our truck and the bikes, is cast-offs from the military from the surplus auctions.
We have the stuff the authorities didn’t want any more because it was so old and wrecked and outdated and butt-ugly. John has been an absolute legend fixing everything up and getting it all running again, but it would be nice to have a bigger budget. Any budget at all, actually. Like our hardware, most of our tech is pretty dated, and none of it is the least bit cutting edge.
But it works. All of it works. It blends in to this old, run-down city of ours, and unless you’re really looking for us, you’ll never find us. That’s a tactical advantage in itself, and one I never would have thought of at first, but it works hugely in our favour.
Besides, John says, it’s not the tools you have, it’s the skill of the person wielding them. I agree with him, but I’d still like a better bike. Marika also agrees that having old stuff is an advantage – the authorities would never suspect us to be as effective as we are with such a small stock of gear.
We fly beneath the radar because they’d suspect us to have much better equipment. If they even suspected we existed at all, that is.
Actually, we can’t afford a radar. We’ve got a couple of dishes, but I know for a fact that Nigel built them himself. I suspect he made them out of old woks he nicked from the restaurant. No – souped-up home security systems and re-purposed cooking utensils are as good as it gets for us.
We all five of us – Ani, me, John, Marika and Nigel – share a flat, down below The Bastard Arms, a huge old pub that’s a bit of a landmark, right in the center of town.
I share a room with Ani in the flat, and I cannot believe I’m still doing that as we’re adults now and I’ve shared a room with her ever since I was born. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get away from my sister. We’ll end up sharing a grave together, the way we’re going. She still doesn’t make her bed.
There’s not much to the flat. You go down the stairs behind the main bar, and it’s our kitchen and dining area, and we’ve fitted in a few old sofas in front of a lineup of monitors, old televisions and other equipment we use to follow what’s going on around the city.
In fact, the whole bank of tech is fitted up against the stairs, and a false wall with some bookcases attached can swing in and hide the whole lot away if we ever have company that isn’t in on who we are and what we do. It’s very Anne Frank, and I’m pretty pleased about the setup – it’s very Stealth, and helps us almost live up to our name.
From the main living-kitchen area, there’s a short corridor leading off to the bedrooms and bathroom. At the end of the corridor, past the bedrooms, is the fast exit up to the alleyway at the side of the Arms, through the old hatchway that used to be for kegs and bottle delivery and stuff.
Nigel shares his room with John, and you can imagine how well that works, while Marika scored a room of her own, as she set up the place and is the lease holder. Her grandfather Bill also owns The Bastard, which kind of gives her an advantage in room choices too. Bill’s a crusty old bugger we rarely see – Marika’s mother has done all the paperwork and management at the Arms for as long as I can remember – and he’s rich. I’d like to see Marika inherit the place one day, but the way things are in her family, her Dad’s side will get everything, even though he nicked off when she was a kid and we have no idea where he is.
Our flat used to be the cellar of The Bastard, until we took it over. It can be noisy at night, especially when you’re trying to sleep, being a popular student pub in a student town.
But being right at the heart of everything has its advantages. Marika and I only have to go upstairs and we’re at work already. John works across the road in the garage on the corner, so he’s within spitting distance too. And the old cellar doors from our flat down below leading out into the side alley are a terrific fast exit. Ani only has a quick walk down the road and she’s at the studios where she does a lot of her modeling, and we’re not too far from the shopping district either. Nigel has to travel, but that’s part of his job and he deals with it.
It has the feeling of a “lair” and I like that. It could be warmer, with a bit more natural light and a bit less mould in the bathroom, that’s all.
The Bastard is three storeys tall, and old, and so much a part of the landscape, looming over everything, that nobody notices all our antennas rigged up on the top of it, with illegal wiring trailing down through into the pub then eventually down to our cellar flat. We get great reception, despite being below ground, and we follow all the emergency service radios with no problem at all. Plus all the illegal cable channels you could ever want, thanks to being part of the pub.
We also have cameras set up on the rooftop, pointing in all directions, with three directed right at the central police station, the hospital and fire station. We’re listening in at the Law Courts too, and various other haunts around town including some of the bars and meeting places, in the hopes we’ll get lucky and catch more information from either the authorities or the drug cartels, although they’re basically the same thing.
So far we haven’t been lucky, but we keep hoping. They’re all completely clueless about our existence, of course, although the police are probably wondering why their own existence is so easy, and the drug runners keep having mishaps with trees and families of small animals. Then again, none of the current lot, with the exception of that Sergeant Davis, are particularly bright, so maybe they’re not wondering at all.
I can’t imagine what Dunedin must have been like before it became the center of operations for the meth kings from China. Before all that started up, about the biggest thing that ever used to happen here was the jaffa run down Baldwin street, where the local chocolate company rolled thousands of orange-flavoured chocolate balls down the steepest street in the world. There were a few wildlife tours, and a few nature walks, and some albatrosses flying about, and some penguins, and that was that. It was a sleepy little town, and although the government was crooked, it was no more crooked than any other in the world.
These days, the pollies in charge are so crooked I don’t think they could even walk straight.
These days, we can hardly keep up.
Of course, it does kind of feel like it’s all for nothing a lot of the time. Sure, we’re catching the small fry, but the really big fish – the ones behind all this mess – they’re way out of our league. And we know it. We’re catching the dealers, the runners, the users…and that’s about all we can manage. When we do catch them, they get a slap on the wrist and they’re out again the next day.
That’s not surprising – there’s too much money tied up in the trade for the authorities to leave their little guys who do the actual work of the drug business stewing in jail for too long. They need them on the streets, wheeling and dealing, and shuffling the stuff – and the money – from here to here.
Sometimes it all feels like a complete waste of time. It’s depressing, but what can you do? You have to try.
When we’re not chasing small time crooks, thieves and suchlike, we’re hunting for other Stealths like us. I can’t believe Ani and I are the only ones with these Powers. I can’t – I don’t – want to believe we’re alone. Neither do the others, but it took us a while before we decided to start actively searching for them.
I never said it to anyone else, but I was afraid to start hunting. I was afraid of what I might find.
Since then, we’ve found a few. We’re rare, but we do exist. Nigel is aware of a couple of Stealths over in West Virginia in the States, and three more in Europe, but nobody local. Not yet.
He’s been in touch with the foreign Stealths, but none of them are anything like either Ani or me. Most of them seem to be more able to influence weather patterns, wave forms, cloud formations. Stuff like that. In fact, he’s not even sure if what he’s found is exactly the same as us. But the people he has found have been enough to keep him looking in hope for more.
And it never ends.
“Rose, I think I’ve found another one,” says Nigel, bustling in as I sit quietly eating my breakfast, just the very morning after we’ve stopped the latest Ice Cream runner.
I’m still tired from my work – moving big stuff and using my Powers drains me completely. We haven’t figured out why, but I’ve just slept nearly fifteen hours, from yesterday afternoon right through until half an hour ago. I’m knackered, and enjoying the rare moments of peace and quiet is a rare bliss. I’m the only one in the kitchen, and it’s silent and soothing.
Or it was.
His bright blue eyes are fixed firmly on me, unnerving me.
I wish he wouldn’t stare quite so much. “Where abouts?” I ask, swallowing another bite of my fried eggs, and reaching for the tomato sauce. “Somewhere local? It had better not be another false alarm.” I put my fork down, and look at him. “Last time those possums eating the wires even had me fooled. Bloody possums.”
It’s early, I’m grumpy, bleary-eyed and half-awake, but Nigel has no sense of time or decency, and doesn’t seem to sense that I’m not in the mood for talking. I’d rather he discussed his work when we’re all here, and not just me, but he seems to see me as the boss of everything (try telling Aneira that – that would really go down well!).
He also likes to spring surprises on me first. I’m so lucky like that. Since moving in to the flat a year ago, I’ve lost track of the number of times he’s burst in to the bathroom when I’m peeing, or when I’ve just stepped out of the shower, absolutely convinced he’s found another Stealth like us. I’ve been woken at three in the morning, and harrassed at eleven o’clock at night, just as I’m about to go to bed. He’s a good guy and all, and very diligent, but I wish he’d learn the distinction between working and non-working hours.
It’s never an appropriate time or place. If he wasn’t so completely innocent in everything he does and in his whole view of the world, I’d be absolutely certain he was a complete pervert. A pervert who is crushing badly on me.
It’s not reciprocal. In case you couldn’t tell.
He pulls up a kitchen chair next to me, and sits down, perched on the edge of the padded seat. “This is it, Rose! I’m serious!” he insists, all short of breath and excited, puppy-like in his eagerness to please. “I’m telling you, I’ve found another one. Just out on the Taieri, I think…not too far. Even in our own region! All the signs were there, I was trying to chase what was going on last night, after you crashed out, but I just couldn’t track them down. I…I might need help.” If possible, his stare increases in intensity.
Maybe I got it wrong about him harrassing me at all hours. Maybe he only bothers me at all hours some of the time?
I pick up my fork again, and continue on my eggs, cutting them into pieces and dipping them in the sauce. I like my eggs well-cooked, not runny, and I’m enjoying these. Or I was, until Nigel started up. “Have you spoken with Aneira? Asked her what she thinks?”
“I haven’t seen her. I think she’s still out with Cam.”
I look at him sharply, “You’re kidding! She’s not back yet?”
No,” he says, warily. Then: “But she’s with Cam. I’m sure she’s fine. Aneira can look after herself.”
Damn right she can. I’ve known that since she was a kid, and I pity the poor bastard who tried to attack Ani. But she’ll be exhausted like me. It’s getting easier to use our Powers, but it still tires us out completely us, and depsite her putting on a show about it, Ani finds the going even harder than I do.
“I know she can look after herself,” I say, “But it’s not like her to be out all night. She’s usually home before midnight.”
Nigel swallows…”Not always, Rose.” He looks at me, as if nervous about continuing, then: “She’s done this more than a few times. It’s pretty hot with Cam, you know. It’s not like they can come back here together for the night exactly.”
“I know,” I say. “And I’m not my sister’s keeper.” I laugh at the irony: as if anyone could keep Aneira! I’m also a bit annoyed that Ani is getting more action that I am. But then, that’s always been the case. It still bothers me. “Aneira will do what she wants. But that’s really late. We’re meant to be working. She’s meant to be earning so we can pay the rent and, like, actually eat. She’ll look like shit in this aftenoon’s magazine shoot if she didn’t get any sleep. I don’t want her to lose her job.”
I don’t say what I’m thinking: that Ani is killing the exhaustion and pain of using her Powers by going a little crazy with Cam. It’s her way of dealing with the struggle. I mean, everyone finds life hard: some people use alcohol to get through it, others use drugs or sport. I use sport and food. Ani uses relationships.
“My ears are burning!” says a voice with a laugh from behind me, sounding amazingly bright and cheerful. “You’d be amazed what they can do with makeup and Photoshop these days, Rose. Dark circles and lank hair? No problem. They could even make you look decent, Nigel.”
The kitchen door at the bottom of the stairs opens. It is Aneira, and her boyfriend Cam behind her. He’s looking guilty and shifty while she on the other hand, looks like she’s just stepped off a magazine cover. I feel concern and worry and annoyance and anger all rolled into one when I see her.
Sometimes I really hate my sister: my head is pounding, hers should be too. Or maybe I should just admire her for being able to cope a whole lot better than I do with this thing that we are.
“I guess we’ve been sprung,” she says lightly, laughing a little. She’s not the least bit worried. She sits down with a thunk at the kitchen table, her fine frame doing its best to make the chair wobble, her long, blonde hair falling in loose waves over the table surface. It’s only because I’m watching her closely that I see her pained expression as she plonks herself down. Yep – she’s putting on a good show.
Okay, I admire my sister. She’s doing what I just can’t seem to do.
“What a night!” she declares to us all. “I swear, this is getting harder. Maybe because I’m getting older. Early menopause or something?”
“Yes, you’re positively ancient,” I noted dryly, trying not to laugh in spite of myself. “Crusty old bitches, that’s us.”
She brushes my snark aside. “Well – do you want to know how I went or not?” she demands.
I nod, playing with the rim of my plate so as not to appear too interested.
“My control is getting stronger,” she says slowly. “More powerful, better distances, bigger minds. I’m like a fricking Jedi, man! I feel incredibly powerful. Having that control over other animals, it’s such a rush.”
She lifts her head and looks around at us. “But it’s draining. I feel exhausted. I used to push a few insects here and there, and it was all good. The spiders were fun.”
“How could I forget?” I interject, cringing.
“Then it was rats, mice, sparrows,” she continues, ignoring me. “No problem there either. Not much difference between the vermin and the insects, to be honest, unless I’m controlling a whole hive, or a huge rabbit warren or similar.”
She takes a breath, “But now I’m getting messed up with cats and dogs, even the odd pet lamb, and their minds are just hard, hard work. I feel like I’m losing control. I feel like I’m losing myself inside the other creatures.” She exhales, and the cracks in her demeanour are really showing now: she’s pale and shaking. “I’m worried one day I’ll try it and I won’t be able to come back to myself. I’ll get lost…” She ends lamely, her words failing.
“You’ve got to watch those lambs, man,” says Nigel, attempting to make light of the situation. “They can be nasty. So you were out practicing?”
Ani shoots him an evil look. I cringe as the guy backs off faster than you’d have thought possible, shrinking down into his seat, hands raised and palms out. “I’m sorry,” he says to her.
“Yes I was,” says Ani, continuing without skipping a beat. “You know, I always thought sheep were kind of passive, but they’re anything but. Horrible creatures. And the lambs? They’re complete assholes. They trade on the cute image, but they’re out to get you the whole time. One of them – a pet lamb someone had idiotically decided to tie up in their front yard – was running me around in circles for a full half hour before I could settle down and concentrate. They I made it run around in circles!” She grins around at all of us, pleased, her stress apparently forgotten as fast as it appeared.
“I’ll make a note of it,” says Nigel. “So you two were out working last night?” He peers at them, unable to hide his suspicion.
“Some of the time…maybe…” says Cam, with a grin, standing behind Ani, and putting his hands on her shoulders.
“How did you cope with a full night after yesterday?” asks Nigel cautiously. You really can’t kill a scientist. Believe me, I’ve tried. He blunders on: “There weren’t any…ah…side effects?”
Ani sucks her lower lip, and just looks at Nigel. Don’t get me wrong – I really like Nigel, for all that we give him heaps, but sometimes he doesn’t know when to keep quiet. He should have just left the room the moment that Ani and Cam walked in, if he’s known what was good for him. Some people are their own worst enemies.
“Maybe you just need a good sleep,” I suggest, interrupting, before Ani can throw verbal acid at the poor guy. “And a shower.” I take a sniff, and pull a face. “Yes, definitely a shower. I can TELL you’re Queen Bitch of the animals right now.” I place my knife and fork together on my plate. I’m done with the eggs. “It’s been a long week. I’m tired too, and I’ve hardly even been out on Stealth. The hardest work I’ve done is an assignment I have due in on Friday.”
“So what did you manage to find?” I ask. “Aneira?”
“Ani gives me a LOOK, and I know it’s not really a question she wants to answer. But she brushes her hair behind one ear, and chews the inside of her lower lip. “Not much, to be honest. I found a few more birds to practice on, then we ran into someone’s pet lamb, tied up in a front yard over in St Kilda. It was such an easy target, how could I not? That gave me plenty of practice for an hour or two. Like Cam says,” she added, indicating her boyfriend. “Lambs are nasty buggers. It’s totally deceptive. But it was funny as fuck making the little bastard dance around in circles, trying to eat its own tail, then manage wild disco moves. It totally deserved it. Lambs are Not Nice.”
John’s bedroom door opens and he staggers out yawning, wearing nothing but a t-shirt. It’s not very long. It doesn’t leave much to the imagination. I have a great imagination. He turns the kettle on, asks if anyone else wants a cuppa, then sits down at the kitchen table, next to Ani. “Flat meeting huh? Bit early?”
“Don’t blame me if you can’t get up before the crack of noon,” I say acidly.
“It’s not even nine, liar,” he says, glancing at the microwave for the time.
I laugh. “I know. Early for you. I guess we really should have a meet, as Nigel says he’s found another one. Right, Nige? So what have you found?”
Nigel looks at me, and clears his throat. He just loves this shit.
“There’s another one of you. Out near Mosgiel, real close. Only a few kilometers away. Amazing. Smashing.” He sees John’s doubtful expression and adds, “I’m absolutely certain of it ths time.” He looks perplexed. “It’s strange…” he says quietly, as if to himself. “It’s almost as if Dunedin is some sort of center for this kind of stuff, this kind of energy…”
“I don’t want another wild goose chase this time, Nigel,” says John, pouring boiling water into his coffee mug,and stirring the contents, then opening the fridge and reaching for the milk. “Last time you were absolutely certain as well. We ended up in Noumea for six weeks and nothing!”
“Not exactly nothing. The diving was good, but” says Marika, appearing suddenly around the corner from the living room, wearing tracksuit pants, a very old t-shirt and ugg boots. I’d had no idea she was even in the flat – I thought she’d stayed over her friends’ place last night. But Marika was like that – quiet, serene, happy to stay in the background, but observing and noticing everything, everything. “It wasn’t half so bad as the time before that when Nigel was absolutely convinced there was a Stealth hiding out in Fairmont.”
“Oh gods yes,” says Ani, laughing. “West Virginia. Who could forget that? Those Preppers…”
“In fairness to Nigel,” adds Marika, “There was no way he could know that the signals he was tracking weren’t a hive of Stealthies but a pack of End Time preppers, all convinced that the end of the world was upon us!”
“Could’ve fooled anyone,” I say, with a smile.
“Guns and spam…” mutters John. “Why is it always guns and spam with the crazies?”
“What Nigel does is risky,” says Marika, leaning against the doorway. “We knew we’d be taking risks when we started on this venture, trying to find others like Ani and Rose. Sometimes we’re going to get it wrong. Heck, most of the time we’re probably going to get it wrong. Maybe all of the time. That doesn’t mean we stop trying.”
“This time I’m certain,” repeats Nigel staunchly. “Over on the Taieri. There’s something hiding up there, that’s for sure. Animal markers, all behaving oddly. Flocks of birds flocking backwards, beachings of fish – not sea mammals, but *fish* – in the river. Weird, odd stuff that shouldn’t happen.” He shakes his head. “There’s something going on out there all right.” He looks across at Ani. “I think we’ve got another YOU.”
“God help us,” says Cam, trying not to laugh. I try not to grin.
“So what next?” says Marika. “If you’re that certain, a field trip out to the Taieri? Attempt contact by the net? Or just do some stalking until we figure out who it might be?”
“A field trip, I think,” says Nigel eagerly. “I’ve tracked the anomalies down to a five kilometer radius. Not too far from the airport, as a matter of fact. And here’s something even stranger: airplanes have been noticing problems with their navigation systems. Just the light aircraft, and only a few quirks here and there, but enough to be noticeable for people who are watching for anything bizarre.”
“People like us, you mean?” says Ani, sitting upright, her expression interested.
“People like you,” confirms Nigel. “Look: I might be wrong. I’ve been wrong before.”
“No, really?” mutters John, his voice laden with sarcasm.
“But I have a really odd feeling about this one. I think I’m on to something. I think I need to check it out. It’s not like it’s far to go, which is convenient.”
He clears his throat. “And I think I shouldn’t go alone.” His gaze falls on me, and I groan inwardly. “Rose?”
“Do I have to?” I ask, trying not to cringe visibly. “I’m sure someone else can go.” I look around. “Marika…?”
“Not a chance,” says Marika quickly. “I’ve got to stay here and keep you in communication in case something goes wrong. But I want John to take you both.” She looks at Nigel warily. “I know you mean well, Nigel, but I don’t trust your driving skills. I’d prefer Rose came back alive.”
Nigel opens his mouth to protest, but Marika puts her fingertip under his gingery moustache, silencing him immediately. “Just humour me, okay?” she says softly. He nods slowly, as she releases her finger.
“So what do we know so far?” I ask Nigel, bringing the conversation back on track. “Anything – apart from unusual bird and fish behaviour?”
“I’d put the airplane oddities down to just errors,” says John, being practical. “I don’t see how it can have anything to do with anyone like Ani or Rose. I mean, they certainly can’t do anything to affect navigation systems.” He looks at Ani queryingly. “Can you, Ani?”
“Of course not,” says Ani. “We have to work on living things. Navigation systems are electronic.” She frowns. “If anything, I’d suspect the drug runners again, doing some messing around behnd the scenes for some reason we haven’t figured out yet.”
“That makes sense,” agrees Marika.
“We’ll check it out,” I say, standing up, and putting my dirty plate in the sink. “I guess there goes my chance for an hour of uninterrupted gym time.”
“It shouldn’t take long,” says Nigel.
“You always say that,” I reply wearily.