THE LITTLE PORTUGUESE TOWN OF Monte Vinha was strange. I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me about it, but the feeling was in every smile directed our way, the stares that followed us down the nearly deserted streets, and even the air we breathed. Yet the quaint buildings, the rich food, the friendly people—everything appeared normal, similar to the other small towns we’d passed.
But I knew something in Monte Vinha wasn’t right.
A hundred and eighty years ago, I’d been born in this country, and though I’d returned only a handful of times since after my parents’ deaths, it was still my homeland. Even before London, where I’d lived most of the past century, or America, where I had spent the rest of my boyhood and early adult years with my foster father, Ritter Langton.
“It’s like we’ve stepped into some kind of comic horror movie,” my partner Kenna Murray said, the lilt in her Northern Irish accent making it sound like a question. “And they’re all waiting for night to turn into psychopathic killers and chop us up into wee pieces.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “And where are all the tourists? There should be more walking around. They do have a castle here.”
Even though I was driving, I didn’t miss the roll of Kenna’s eyes. “Practically every little town here has a castle,” she said. “We’ve passed a dozen at least.” A gross exaggeration since we’d only seen four or five on our drive from the airport. “Seriously, though, it’s getting late in the season for tourists.”
“Not here, it isn’t.” Mid-September was still prime tourist season. “The sudden decline in population could be keeping them away. Rumors do travel.” I glanced over my shoulder as I turned off the main street, following the directions given us at the café where we’d eaten lunch.
Monte Vinha had plunged from five thousand residents to nearly four thousand in the past five years alone. That abrupt change and the chatter our Renegade technopath had intercepted about Emporium land purchases in the area was the reason we were here. Portugal had a history of remaining untouched in our battles with the Emporium, but after a thorough reconnaissance of the town, I guessed that was about to change.
“Could just be the younger generation moving away for better jobs in the city,” Kenna suggested. “And at the same time the aging population slowly dying off.”
The youth in these small cities had historically left for better opportunities, but many returned later in life to take over small businesses from their parents and grandparents as the older generations retired and passed on. “If that were the case, wouldn’t there be more older people here? I don’t believe I’ve seen anyone over sixty, have you?” I’d have to check the data we’d been given to see if the population ages matched up with similar cities.
Kenna thought for a moment before shaking her head. “No, I can’t recall seeing any really old people. Maybe they had a mini flu epidemic, or some kind of disease the elderly weren’t inoculated for. A few hundred dying over several years might not have set off alarms until now. Either that or the Emporium has discovered the fountain of youth and is passing it along to the town, so the old people are leaving in droves for new careers too.” We shared a laugh at the implausibility of the Emporium doing anything to help mortals.
Whatever was going on here, I planned to find out exactly what the Emporium was up to—and put a stop to it. That is, unless our initial report made Greggor recall me to London. I didn’t fool myself into thinking that I’d been our leader’s first choice for the assignment.
Only two days ago, the Emporium had slaughtered twenty of our people during a Renegade meeting in New York City, and our London cell was down five of our strongest Unbounded, four permanently dead and one missing. No, I was by far not the first choice, at least not without more backup. My abilities were extremely useful, but things tended to explode when I was around—literally. Our leader was making the best call he could with the personnel he had left. I just happened to speak the language, and as half-Portuguese, I blended in.
Kenna, by contrast, was a brilliant operative, always near the top of Greggor’s list. After two hundred years of life, her fighting skills were impressive even among Unbounded with the combat ability. She spoke as many languages as I did and could lose most of her Irish brogue when she concentrated, though her red hair and all those freckles would be a drawback here without her disguise.
“Oh, wait, remember that old guy we passed in the park?” Kenna said. “He had to be a least seventy.” She gave me a grin that twisted something in my gut. “Guess that takes the fountain of youth idea off the table.”
I turned our rental car down a short dirt road, which should lead to our vacation rental. I’d have preferred a bed and breakfast, but a villa meant no prying eyes as we came and went, and no neighbors to run into at mealtimes. We couldn’t risk Emporium agents hearing through casual conversation that we were here.
Dust billowed up the sides of the car, mostly kept out by the closed windows. A little whitewashed villa with a tiny patch of grass in the front yard appeared in the distance.
Kenna squinted through the dust. “Look, someone’s waiting for us.”
She checked the mirror and adjusted her long, dark wig. I could still see her myriad freckles under her thick makeup, and every one of them fascinated me.
I pulled my mind away from those thoughts. I was so far out of her league that even thinking about her that way was a waste of time. As a combat Unbounded, she was disciplined, unforgiving of weaknesses like the one that was already making my hands start to shake. I’d have to do something about the unsteadiness sooner rather than later, but I would put it off as long as possible.
I wasn’t wearing a wig, but I’d grown my hair several inches longer, and let three days of beard cover my normally clean-shaven face. For an Unbounded, that meant I looked like I hadn’t shaved in three or four weeks. I could pass for a thousand different Portuguese men.
Bringing the car to a stop in front of the villa, I jumped out and made my way to the narrow cobblestone pathway leading to the porch. The stocky woman sitting on a chair came awkwardly to her feet, smoothing her dress and the apron she wore over it. Her hair was still mostly dark, but her face was wrinkled by long exposure to the sun. I guessed her age to be mid-fifties.
“Boa tarde,” she said with a smile, ducking her head slightly.
“Good afternoon,” I repeated, slipping easily into the language of my youth. “I guess we’re your tenants for the week.”
“Ah, I can tell by your speech that you are Portuguese,” the woman’s smile grew wider, her Portuguese flavored with the accent of the Alentejo. “Welcome. I am Dona Mafalda.” Dona meant missus, but as was often common, she’d used it with her first name and not her last. Hearing it reminded me of long sunny days and simpler times.
“My husband and I take care of this house for the owner,” she continued. “There are clean linens on the beds and more in the cupboards if you need them. I brought bread, cheese, ham, and the other things you requested and put them in the refrigerator. Keys are on the table. If you need anything, please call the number by the phone.”
She glanced at Kenna and added, “If your wife doesn’t speak Portuguese, my daughter knows English, and she can call to tell me what you need. Her number is also by the phone.”
“I speak Portuguese,” Kenna said, her accent passable, but with a hint of her Irish brogue. “But thank you for your kindness.”
“Good, good.” Dona Mafalda said. “You live in Portugal then?”
“In Leria.” I chose a significantly larger city farther north, one definitely not close to where I’d been born in nearby Évora.
“Ah, that’s good. It’s so nice to have young people here. Monte Vinha is so beautiful, but our youth don’t see that. They always want to leave.”
At first, I suspected Dona Mafalda’s remark was a subtle jab at our youthfulness—an illusion since Unbounded age only two years for every hundred we live—but there was really nothing in her tone to indicate this, and her semi-vacant smile never faltered.
The woman leaned over to scoop up a very large cloth shopping bag. “I hope you will enjoy your stay. There are two bicycles on the back deck, a soccer ball, and inflatables for the pool.
Let me know if you need anything.” Tipping her body forward in a partial curtsey, she stepped past us and hurried down the cobblestone path to the dirt road.
When her figure disappeared, Kenna drew one of the guns we’d picked up at the safe house in Lisbon this morning. I did the same. Opening the door to the villa, we stepped carefully inside. The entryway opened into a large sitting room, featuring an aged floral couch, two matching chairs, a long black coffee table with a stack of magazines, and an oversized TV. Kenna motioned that she’d check out the two bedrooms, so I ducked into the kitchen. The room took quaintness to a new level, every gleaming surface decorated with hand-crocheted doilies like my grandmother had once made. No sign of danger.
Kenna met me back in the sitting room and together we headed for the large cobblestone deck off the back of the villa. She checked the perimeter, while I gazed at the glittering water in the pool. The water beckoned, promising to soothe the growing ache inside me, but I knew it couldn’t. There was only one thing that could stop the ache.
“Let’s bring in the equipment.” Kenna returned to my side, holstering her gun.
“Yeah, right.” But I didn’t move to join her as she started to leave. The cobblestones, the whitewash of the house, the red tiles of the roof, and even the interior setup was very like the house my parents had owned in Portugal—the house I still owned—passed down first to my parents and then to me by a great-grandfather I’d never met.
The water in the pool undulated with a light breeze. I’d been swimming in the river with my friends the day the gardener had brought the awful news that my Portuguese mother and English father were gone. Killed in a fire on their trip to Lisbon, he’d said. That was long before I’d heard of Unbounded, or learned my parents’ deaths weren’t accidental.
“Blaze, is everything all right?” Kenna asked.
I turned to look at her, aware that the minor shaking in my hands had now become flashes of heat. Moisture washed over my entire body. “Of course.”
But everything wasn’t all right. These memories made me feel more out of control. Hopefully, nothing a swig of curequick couldn’t dispel, but I wasn’t going to drink it now. I can wait just a little longer. I would end up taking it because I’d never jeopardize the mission, even if drinking the curequick meant hurting myself. It was almost like a game I played at times, a deadly serious game. One I always lost.
I strode past Kenna and added, “I’ll grab the computer while you sweep for bugs.”
Setting up the laptop and the projector didn’t take long. Soon I was staring at a large satellite image on the white wall of the sitting room, where I had removed a painting to give us more space.
Kenna came into the room with a teapot full of water. “Is there some special place that Portuguese customarily keep the matches? I was going to make some tea, but I can’t light the gas burner until I find the matches. Would you like a cuppa?”
Like all Unbounded, we didn’t need to eat to survive. Our bodies were continuously absorbing bits and pieces of the world around us, but we still derived comfort from food and especially the familiar. Sometimes a juicy cheeseburger helped push back my demons.
“Here.” I approached her, reaching for the pot. I could see lemon rinds already floating in the water.
“Wh—” She broke off, a smile playing on her mouth. “Oh, this I have to see.”
I gave a little effort, and the pot in my hand instantly heated, the water beginning to boil violently. Oops, too much.
As a roaster, my Unbounded ability was to manipulate matter in one specific way—heating. The ability was remotely similar to the talent of pyros, who could set fire to anything flammable, but my manipulation extended to any matter. I could increase the temperature of an object by touch, either scorching, boiling, or melting it. Bursting objects into flame was the most obvious part of the ability, though not the most effective, thus my nickname Blaze.
A side effect was that my skin could withstand incredible heat before it began to burn. Not that I was impervious to high temperature, but I could normally work through the discomfort and pain. The ability made me valuable to the Renegade cause, but using it excessively as I’d done meant I often ended up incapacitated and in dire need of curequick, which in turn had allowed the “medicine” a chokehold grip on my life.
Still smiling, Kenna went to retrieve the teacups and a plate of ham and cheese sandwiches made from the welcome package left by the landlady.
I set the still-boiling teapot on a hot pad and returned my attention to the map on the wall. Splashes of yellow marked the areas our intel had pinpointed as possibly being connected to the Emporium. Some of the purchases dated back over ten years, but it was the recent large purchases marked in red that had flagged our attention.
“With both the red and yellow, it means they own most of the land surrounding the city,” I said.
“If the yellow really belongs to the Emporium.”
Sometimes I wondered if Kenna disagreed with me just for the sake of argument.
“I’m betting it does, and whatever they’ve been doing here, it’s been successful enough that they’ve decided to expand.” I reached to touch the teapot again, giving it a final shot of heat because it hadn’t boiled quite long enough yet.
“That’s farmland, isn’t it?” Kenna pointed to the red areas on the satellite image.
“According to the data, it was all vineyards and cork trees at one time. And one olive grove. But you’re right. The satellite images Greggor gave us don’t show trees on the new land they purchased, though there are some on the yellow areas.” I paused before adding, “Cutting down cork trees? That’s almost a crime. It takes three harvestings of nine years apart before the very best cork is grown. That’s twenty-seven years of work and patience thrown away.”
“Vineyards take time too.” Kenna sat on the floral sofa, crossing her knees, her eyes still fixed on the map. “And it’s difficult to cut down trees at all. So what are they growing instead that is so important? Maybe some kind of GMO?”
“Genetically modified organisms? Could be. The background I was reading on the plane says Portugal has increased their use of GM crops every year.”
“I thought Europe banned the use of GMOs.”
“Publicly, maybe. But most countries have them in some form or another.”
Kenna gingerly tested the handle of the teapot before pouring a cup for each of us. She’d found a sack of sugar—most likely left by past vacationers—and put one spoonful in mine and two in hers. I wondered how she knew my preference, but before I could ask, she was talking again.
“Still, cutting down trees hardly seems something the Emporium would waste time on. Why not just go somewhere else? With American companies pushing for GMOs, it isn’t really an agenda the Emporium needs to help along. Something else is going on. Something bad.”
“Well, that’s what we’re here to find out.” Like most Unbounded gifted in combat, she had great instincts. I would trust her even if my gut wasn’t giving me the same feeling. “I already emailed Greggor a request for a population comparison with other towns to see if that brings up anything.” Our technopath in London could come up with the information we needed in a fraction of the time it would take us to research it.
I gulped the hot tea and eyed the sandwiches, but my desire to eat had deserted me. I couldn’t push back the need for curequick any longer without endangering my ability to function.
Besides, in a minute, Kenna would see that I was suffering.
“You up for a bike ride?” I asked her. “Let’s see what they have growing in their fields now.”
Kenna’s laugh was genuine. “Actually, I haven’t ridden a bicycle in fifty years.”
“Don’t worry. It’s like . . . like . . .”
“Riding a bike?”
I laughed. I’d spent most of the last decade largely avoiding working with a single partner. Mostly, I was sent in alone, while a team worked the same op from another angle. My goal was to complete whatever missions I was assigned until I was too damaged or too exhausted to continue, and then I’d spend weeks in my flat recovering. That meant a lot of solitary moments. It felt good to be working with a partner again.
“I’ll just change into some shorts,” I said. “Trifle hotter here than in London.”
Grabbing my duffel, I headed to the smaller of the two bedrooms. I forced myself to wait until after I changed, my body flushed and sweating, my stomach cramping, to get the curequick from my pack. Curequick was a staple for all Unbounded regeneration, despite its addictive properties, and we usually carried it in both drinkable and injectable versions. Made primarily of sugars and proteins reduced to their most usable forms, it allowed us to regenerate at five times the rate of our already increased regeneration level. It also gave the user a pleasant buzz. The mixture had been designed by a scientist in one of our American Renegade cells, strictly formulated for use after taking wounds in combat. Unfortunately, Unbounded who used it too often found themselves victim to the severe withdrawal symptoms.
Unbounded like me.
For years, I’d told myself I was different from the new generation of Unbounded, who used curequick as a recreational drug, not as a way to heal after battle, but in the end it all boiled down to the same thing. Too many missions, too much curequick, and I was no longer reliable. The only thing left was to check myself into a certain hospital in London for treatment, and I’d be damned if I was going in that direction. No, I’d fix myself.
After this op.
It was always after the next op.
I downed the contents of a pouch, and the warmth spread through me, at first a trickle and then a rush.
I loved it—and I hated myself for needing it.
Of course, if I had been reliable and not in the habit of avoiding extended meetings because of my dependence, I would have been in New York with the others when we were betrayed to the Emporium. I might have been one of those slaughtered. Instead, I’d have to live the rest of my two thousand years—twenty-five lifetimes of guilt—knowing I hadn’t been there to protect our people.
A noise at my door had me reaching for my gun, but it was only Kenna, her eyes narrowing as she spotted the pouch in my hands. “Look, if you can’t do this . . . I heard about your . . . trouble.”
“My addiction, you mean. It’s not a problem. I’m dealing with it, okay?”
“Sure.” The firm line of her jaw told me if there came a time when I wasn’t handling it, she’d make sure I didn’t endanger the mission.
“Anyway, right now we have a bigger problem,” she continued. “I was moving the bikes out to the path behind the house, and I found something. Remember those old people we were looking for? I found another one, but he’s dead.”