Read The Supernaturalist Online

Authors: Eoin Colfer

The Supernaturalist (6 page)

Chapter 3: Blowing Bubbles

MONA
Vasquez felt as though her insides were trying to punch their way out of her stomach. She lay on her cot, sweat pumping from every pore in her body. Mona could remember everything that had happened the previous night, but the images were blurry, as though viewed from underwater. The private police had tagged her with a dart. Stefan and Ditto had managed to cart her back here. Literally. And then what?

Then the new kid had saved her. After that she had puked for six hours straight. And if the intestinal gymnastics in her stomach were anything to go by, she wasn’t finished yet. Mona lay still as a statue. Perhaps if she didn’t move, the jitters would go away.

This kind of thing was happening more and more lately. You couldn’t expect to go charging around Satellite City
shooting off lightning rods without repercussions. In the past eighteen months, she had accumulated sixty-seven stitches, three broken bones, a slipped disc and now a puncture wound in her leg. She was lucky to be alive, though she didn’t feel particularly lucky at this moment. The cold truth was that the odds were against her and were stacking higher all the time.

But what choice did she have? Stefan’s quest was her quest. Someone had to put a stop to the Parasites. Her own parents had died young. Maybe the Parasites had stolen their last few years from them. And the creatures were becoming more brazen by the day. They were attracted to any illness or injury, however small and stalked their victims in broad daylight.

Mona did not share Stefan’s driven hatred of the Parasites. After a night of creature-blasting with the Supernaturalists, she had no problem sleeping for eight hours solid. But Stefan could be heard pottering around the workbench, repairing weaponry or rigging climbing equipment. Often his obsession kept him awake for forty-eight hours straight.

The girl sat up slowly, waiting for her stomach to lurch. It didn’t happen. Perhaps she was finally on the mend. She studied her face in the bedside mirror. She was green, no doubt about it. Not a deep green, but there was a definite hue. There were even a few green tendrils in her eyeballs. What kind of poison had been in that dart? If it hadn’t been for Cosmo, she’d be nothing more
than a shrub now with a couple of shrivelled leaves.

Mona sighed, stretching the skin on her cheek between finger and thumb. There was a time when she used to worry about being pretty. Her mother used to say she was beautiful like an exotic flower. Mona had always remembered the phrase.
Exotic flower
. Even if sometimes she couldn’t remember her mother and father any more. They had been lost in a food riot in Booshka.

Mona wandered out into the common area, scratching her head. Stefan, of course, was already at a workbench, pouring cleaning solution on the lenses of his night-vision goggles. His dark eyes were completely focused on the job. Mona took a moment to study him. Stefan would be a big hit with the girls, if he ever stopped working long enough to bring one out on a date. He had all the right ingredients. Tall, dark, handsome in a beaten-up-once-too-often way. But Mona knew that Stefan did not have time for himself, let alone someone else. He only had time for the Parasites.

Stefan noticed her standing there, and a genuine smile brightened his face.

‘Hey, Vasquez, you’re back on your feet.’

Mona nodded; the motion caused her stomach to flip.

‘Just about. Thanks to the new kid.’

‘Are you up for some business?’

‘Always ready for business, Stefan,’ replied Mona, trying to summon up some enthusiasm.

Stefan tossed her a lightning rod. ‘Good. Show Cosmo
how to use this. We have an alert three blocks away.’

‘Do you think the Parasites will show up?’

Stefan looked at her through the lenses of his night-vision goggles.

‘What do you think?’ he said.

Cosmo was halfway through a particularly nasty dream involving two Parasites, Ziplock and a hairdryer, when Mona shook him from his sleep.

He opened his eyes, expecting to see the Clarissa Frayne dorm marshal looming over him. Instead, he saw Mona Vasquez. Incredibly, she managed to look pretty in spite of her pasty green complexion.

‘You look pretty,’ he sleep-mumbled.

Mona thrust out her bottom lip. ‘Excuse me?’

Cosmo groaned. Had he said that aloud?

‘You look pretty… green. Pretty green. It’s the virus. Don’t worry, it passes.’

Mona smiled. ‘I hear you’re quite the medical expert.’

The smile woke Cosmo quicker than an adrenaline patch.

‘Not an expert, exactly. I was lucky.’

‘Me too.’ Mona straightened. ‘OΚ. Sentimental moment over. Get your bald head out of bed. We’ve got work to do.’

Cosmo threw back the worn blanket.

‘I know. Training.’

‘Training? You wish. We got an alarm three blocks away.’

She handed Cosmo a lightning rod. ‘Green button prime. Red button fire. Make sure the narrow end is pointing at the spooky blue creature. Got it?’

Cosmo held the rod gingerly. ‘Green, red, narrow end. Got it.’

Mona smiled once more. ‘Good. Consider yourself trained.’

The Supernaturalists were strapping on their kit. Weird combinations of police and mining equipment. Some instruments seemed like they were held together with duct tape and prayers. Everything looked out of date.

Stefan was shouting as he worked. ‘The Stromberg Building. Mostly residential units. The Satellite feeds the rotation times to the units. Apparently two apartments got rotated south at the same time. One hell of a collision.’ Mona explained the situation to Cosmo while strapping an extendable bridge on his back.

‘The Big Pig is a twenty-four-hour city, so factories revolve their buildings just like their shifts. Everybody gets eight hours’ quiet and eight hours’ south facing. For the other eight, you’re working, so you don’t care where your apartment is. The Satellite tried to squeeze two apartments into one space. Nasty.’

Cosmo shuddered. The Satellite had messed up again. This was becoming a regular occurrence.

Ditto handed him large plastic night-vision goggles that covered most of his face and crown.

‘We all wear these fuzz plates. X-rays bounce off them. If the privates get a shot of your skull, they can computer-generate your face. It’s accepted as evidence in court these days.’

‘Uh… OK,’ mumbled Cosmo. He felt as though he was walking towards the edge of a cliff, with every intention of jumping. In the orphanage everything had been as predictable as day following night. With the Supernaturalists, every moment brought fresh adventure. Was this the life he wanted? Did he have a choice?

‘Everybody strapped?’ shouted Stefan. ‘Then let’s go.’

They squeezed into the elevator, tense and excited. Cosmo could not believe that he was on his way to shoot supernatural creatures. The rest of the crew were performing their pre-engagement rituals. Ditto daubed his arms with camouflage paint, Mona cracked every knuckle in her fingers and Stefan burned a hole in the shaft wall with his gaze.

Cosmo noticed that they were going up.

‘Do we have a helicopter?’ he asked hopefully.

‘A helicopter? Oh sure,’ chuckled Ditto. ‘Two helicopters and a Transformer.’

‘So why are we going up?’

‘Because the lawyers are on the ground,’ said Mona. ‘And up is where the Parasites are.’

‘Oh,’ said Cosmo, not in the least reassured. He hadn’t had a lot of luck on rooftops recently.

The Supernaturalists’ warehouse was in a relatively low building by international standards. A mere one hundred and forty storeys high. They emerged on the rooftop into a cloud of grim green smog.

In Westside all the buildings were roughly the same height, give or take a floor or two. This ensured a clear signal from the Satellite to the rooftop dishes; it also made it easier for vigilantes to move between buildings, provided they were prepared to risk life and limb doing so.

Westside stretched before them like a box of upright dominoes, with only building graphics and neon signs to distinguish between skyscrapers. Overhead, police and TV birds jockeyed for airspace, buffeted by the winds that squeezed through the pig-iron columns.

Stefan unhooked an extendable bridge from his back. Cosmo paid close attention; obviously there wasn’t going to be time to practise this. He had seen the window cleaners at Clarissa Frayne operate these contraptions, running between buildings with suicidal nonchalance, and had always thought to himself,
Never in a million years!
Things change. Circumstances change.

The bridge, in its collapsed state, resembled a steel tray with twin rows of semicircular holes. There was a cable reel attached to one end of the tray. Stefan placed
the other end firmly beneath his heel, wrapping his fingers around the reel’s grip. He let out a few feet of cable, then pressed the fire button on the reel’s thumb-pad. The bridge telescoped instantly, powered by a small canister of gas, shooting across the divide. Stefan played the reel expertly, keeping the bridge’s nose aloft until it cleared the lip of the other building.

‘Go!’ he ordered, standing to one side.

Mona and Ditto ran across, careful yet confident.

‘Don’t look down,’ advised Ditto, from the other side.

Cosmo took a deep breath and crossed, holding his breath as though he were underwater. Crossing a bridge at this altitude is not as easy as it would seem. The wind calls you to jump, the metal creaks below your feet and time teases you, stretching every second to an hour. Cosmo focused on Mona smiling at him.

He was across, stepping eagerly from the lip. Stefan came behind him, stowing his bridge with the press of another button. It slotted back into its reduced size, hopping into Stefan’s hand like a yo-yo.

On the building’s southern edge, Ditto had already laid down another bridge. No time to think, no time to make decisions. Just time to follow the pack and be scared.

‘Keep up!’ Stefan advised over his shoulder. ‘We don’t have a spare second. The Parasites will already be there.’

The Parasites! Cosmo had almost forgotten about them. Would they be waiting? How would he react when they came face-to-face again?

He trotted across the second bridge; already the fear had diminished. Cosmo didn’t think he would ever be comfortable scooting around the rooftops, but at least he wasn’t paralysed by terror.

Mona jogged beside him. ‘Look,’ she said, between breaths. ‘All around us. Can you see, Cosmo?’

Cosmo did see. Dozens of the blue creatures were scurrying across the rooftops, being drawn to a single point like dirt down a plughole.
There are so many
, he mused, his thoughts seeming as breathless as his lungs. There must be thousands. But he kept going, forwards, in spite of the instinct to turn and flee.

One block south, two penthouse apartments were skewed off vertical, both still attempting to occupy the same slot of the Stromberg Building. Gigantic gears groaned and electrical fires licked the side of the building. The Parasites leaped effortlessly across the divide, crawling into the residential units.

‘We’re going over there?’ said Cosmo incredulously.

Stefan nodded brusquely. ‘Yes. And quickly. The TV birds are closing in and I hear sirens.’

Cosmo heard the sirens too. The steady woo-woo of the police, and the strident bips of the legal firms. The bips were louder. They had a couple of minutes at the most.

Mona laid down a bridge, stepping to one side.

Stefan drew his lightning rod, priming it.

‘OΚ everybody, we go in through the roof box. We
take one apartment only. Thirty seconds and we’re out of there. I want us all miles away by the time the Stromberg Privates get on this roof. Clear?’

‘Clear!’ shouted Cosmo, having seen it on TV. Mona and Ditto simply nodded, priming their own weapons.

Stefan laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘Calm down, Cosmo. Remember, don’t worry about the Parasites, they don’t fight back, so long as you’re not injured. Worry about the lawyers and private police. They fight dirty.’

‘OK.’

Mona punched him on the shoulder. ‘You’ll be OK, Cosmo. I’ll look out for you.’

They crossed the final bridge. Cosmo could feel his ribcage shudder as his heart beat against it. The only thing that kept him going was a feeling that none of this was actually happening. In reality he was probably lying in a hospital somewhere, heavily sedated, with Marshal Redwood looming over him. Might as well enjoy this dream world while it lasted. Think of it as a video game. Go in, blast a few aliens and compare scores later.

The rooftop’s surface was irregular, buckled by mammoth gear cogs. Steam and hot oil geysers spouted from rents in the concrete mould. The stairwell was blocked by mangled steps. Stefan wrapped a length of burn-tape around the metal struts. Burn-tape had been developed for logging companies in South America before it became illegal to use wood as a building material.

‘Cover your eyes.’

Cosmo obeyed, a split second too late. Stefan snapped the fuse and a magnesium strip ignited, glowing brilliant white and fuelling an oxyacetylene balloon. The tape cut through the metal struts like a wire through cheese, and Cosmo had the image burnt into his retinas for several minutes. A section of stairs dropped into the shaft, blocking the lower levels.

‘Bridges,’ said Stefan.

The team members hooked the instruments over sections of banister and expertly steered them down to the chaos below. One by one they descended into the unstable penthouse. Cosmo climbed down last on Mona’s ladder, blinking stars from his eyes.

He stepped into pandemonium. People fled in panicked droves to the fire escape, oblivious to the blue creatures clinging curiously to the walls. Not everybody was oblivious. Stefan drew his lightning rod and started blasting. Parasites exploded in azure bubbles, bouncing around the confined space like space age pinballs. They made no sound and showed no surprise, simply swelled and popped.

Mona began firing with deadly accuracy, also with a stream of Spanish words that Cosmo suspected were not taught in kindergarten. She quickly cleared one wall of any remaining creatures, shouldering her way through the melee to the displaced apartments.

Cosmo drew his own rod, primed it, aimed and hesitated. The Parasites regarded him through round
eyes, heads cocked. Alive. He couldn’t do it. Not even the memory of the blue creature crouched on his chest, sucking his very life force, could make him push the button.

At the corridor’s end, the apartment hadn’t managed to lock into place. A six-foot gap yawned between it and the main structure. Stefan cast a bridge across, using it to winch in the wayward apartment. Parasites flowed around him, eager to reach the wounded.

The youth looked back.

‘Thirty seconds, remember?’ he said. His eyes were wide, possessed. Only one thing was important to him now.

He ran across the bridge, blasting as he went. His team followed into the lion’s den. The apartment had obviously impacted with considerable force. Every stick of furniture was piled up against one wall. TVs, chairs and domestic robots were reduced to little more than wires and sticks.

The people hadn’t fared much better. At least a dozen assorted men, women and children were heaped in one corner of the room, limbs entangled. The Parasites were all over them like flies on meat, hungrily devouring their life force.

Cosmo’s doubt disappeared. He pointed his lightning rod at the nearest blue creature and pressed the red button. There was surprisingly little kick from the rod, almost like a toy. But the effect was anything but playful.
The charge scorched the air as it passed, sinking into the Parasite’s midsection. The creature absorbed every volt, conducting not a spark to its victim. Its greed for energy was its undoing. The blast pumped it up beyond its limit, shattering the creature into a dozen spark-filled orbs.

Ditto was not shooting. He was the medic, doing what he could for the injured. He pulled gashes together with staples, doused open wounds with antiseptic disinfectant and poured liquid painkiller down the throats of the conscious. For some it was too late.

Ditto placed his hand over the heart of an elderly man.

‘Shock,’ he said sadly. ‘Just shock.’

Mona was half ninja, half gunslinger. Popping off charge after charge into the blue creatures. She never missed. In moments the swaying room was filled with blue bubbles, like party balloons. They rose to the ceiling and melted through with an electric fizz.

Cosmo fired again and again. The Supernaturalists were right. The creatures were sucking the life from these unfortunate people. And he had never known. Never seen. How could they beat adversaries like these?

Mona appeared at his shoulder, her chin sunburnt by muzzle-flash.

‘Chin up, Cosmo. You just saved a life.’

That was the way to keep going. Save one life at a time. Cosmo took aim at a creature glowing silver from absorbed life force. He fired. The creature dissolved into bubbles.

The floor beneath their feet suddenly began heating up. Cosmo’s rubber-soled boots left melting strings where he stepped.

‘The floor is burning!’ he yelled.

Stefan laid a palm on the carpet.

‘Lawyers,’ he pronounced. ‘They’re coming through the floor. We blocked the stairwell. Time to go.’

‘But the Parasites! There are more.’

Stefan grabbed Cosmo by the lapel. ‘We’ve done what we can. If you get arrested, you can’t help anybody.’

An orange cutter beam erupted through the flooring, an inch from Cosmo’s foot, carving out a small circle in the surface. The beam withdrew to be replaced by a fibre-optic camera.

Mona grabbed the cable, yanking it repeatedly until the cable separated from its box.

‘Wrap it up. It’s time to leave!’

The cutter beam reappeared, this time glowing blue for a quick burn. The harsh clicks of several guns being loaded emanated from the hole.

Stefan led the retreat, shooting as he went. To the residents, the Supernaturalists must have seemed crazed. Shooting at nothing, into the air, when there were people to be helped.

They traversed the retractable bridge into the main building. Cosmo glanced down through the gap. A dozen rapid-response lawyers were huddled on a raised platform below, the Scales of Justice logo plastered across their
helmets, waiting for the cutter beam to finish making a hole. One spotted Cosmo.

‘You there,’ he shouted. ‘Do not flee the scene of an accident. There are waivers to be signed.’

‘Keep going,’ urged Ditto. ‘These guys have better equipment than us.’

The lawyer ripped a Velcro patch from his combat vest, revealing an abseiling spike and coil.

‘It is illegal to flee the scene of an accident!’ he called. ‘Freeze! Or the Stromberg Corporation will not be responsible for your injuries.’

The lawyer ducked under the platform’s safety rail and fired the spike through a gap in the twisted stairwell bars. Cosmo ducked and the spike buried itself in the ceiling overhead. The lawyer smacked a button in the rig and the spike’s cable reeled him up at high speed. He crashed through two layers of plasterboard, landing in the corridor behind Ditto.

‘Freeze, defendant,’ he said, levelling a lightning rod. ‘You have the right to get seriously messed up if you attempt to flee.’

Ditto’s eyes were wide. A perfect imitation of an innocent six-year-old.

‘Seriously messed up? But, sir, I’m a minor.’

The lawyer sniggered. ‘Not by the time your case gets to court.’

‘I object,’ said Ditto, headbutting his adversary in the stomach. The stunned lawyer tumbled through the hole
in the floor, only his abseiling cord preventing him from plummeting to earth.

Stefan and Mona were already on the roof.

‘Move it, you two. We’ve got choppers coming in.’

It was a kaleidoscope of chaos. Different crises swirled into Cosmo’s vision and out again before he could deal with any of them. Lethal lawyers and a belligerent Bartoli Baby. Life-sucking Parasites and now helicopters. All because they were trying to help people. Wasn’t there someone they could tell?

Cosmo scrambled up the bridge on to the rooftop. The night sky was alive with converging choppers. Dozens of searchlights strobed the building. Most were TV birds. Disasters were big news. Even small ones like this would be sure to headline every bulletin.

Mona and Stefan were crouched by the lip of the Stromberg Building. Stefan took a shockproof walkie-talkie from his belt, switching the volume setting to high. He threw the radio on to an adjacent building.

‘We need a bridge,’ said Stefan. ‘Mona?’

‘Not me. I already put down three. I’m almost out of gas.’

‘Ditto?’

‘Same here.’

Stefan kneaded his forehead. ‘Cosmo. Bridge. Now.’

‘Me?’

‘No time like the present. No one else has enough juice for a big gap. And there isn’t time to switch canisters.’

The rookie Supernaturalist lifted his bridge from its rack on his back. It seemed simple enough: stand on the bar, shoot the nose out and guide it with the cable. Simple enough. Not as easy as falling off a building, but easier than threading a needle with spaghetti.

He stood on the bar.

‘Put your heel behind it,’ advised Mona. ‘Use your weight as an anchor.’

He shifted his foot.

‘Keep the nose up; better to overshoot.’

Nose up. OK.

Noises from below. Shouted commands and the thud of boots running.

‘They’re coming.’

Cosmo wrapped his fingers around the reel and fired. The bridge recoiled against his foot, sending tremors through his new kneecap. He ignored the pain, concentrating on steering the nose. It was heavier than it looked, and wilder. Twisting in the high altitude wind. Cosmo leaned back on the cord, hauling the nose up. Then it was over, two feet clear of the next building. Cosmo relaxed, the bridge touched down with a clang, two hooked grippers sprouting from the far end.

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