The First Age

Full Version: Ryker Petrović
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Origin: Kiev, Capital of Dominance II

Appearance: 6'2", muscular and broad shouldered. Dirty blonde hair that's thinning prematurely, gray eyes. Numerous scars from poorly healed wounds. One eye is murky but not completely blinded and scarred from fire flashed in his face. Otherwise, he would be called handsome.

Age: 32

God reborn: Rāvaṇa


The gray and orange screen of a .ccd government website blinked patiently. The blazing office of Channeler Oversight logo dominated the background. Just looking at it curled the taste of disgust in the back of his throat.

The man pacing before the work station clasped his hands behind his back and calmly spoke a command to fill the first field. There was no one to hear him. None but the computer system.

"Ryker Petrović."


He added.

As he spoke, the fields on the screen were filled. This was the magic registration form put out by the CCD. The website was likely to have been blocked by the American government, but this was no ordinary office. The log in was no ordinary password either. The man did not resist questioning long before giving up his clearance status. Ryker's was long ago revoked.

The next field was CID. This number identified him as a citizen of the Custody. Behind his back, his hands clasped ever more tightly. It was just a number, he told himself. Just a number.

He stripped an orange shirt from his back and dropped it to the floor. The back that was revealed rippled with muscle. Broad of shoulder with fists like iron, Ryker had little in the way of conflict with the others around him. Yet a mass of scars criss-crossed those muscles, scars of the many fights he sought. Most were old and decently healed. Others were barely visible but to his discerning gaze. One was new enough to pucker bright pink over one pec. Each one was a mistake that forced him to learn. The lessons were hard. But he learned. He learned.

He forced his eyes to fall across the CID printed in big block letters across the shirt's shoulders, marking him a foreign invader. The orange marked him a member of Block Five, but the number was not so easily cast off as doffing a shirt. A biosensor barcode was tattooed on his wrist with the same information. There was no removing it short of amputation.

Ryker sighed and read his CID aloud, "719A433"
. Promptly, threads of fire curled into the fibers of the cloth. The orange shirt was incinerated within seconds. Good riddance, he thought. Today was the last day to wear any such item. Never. Again.

The field populated with his number.

The next field asked for location. Ryker smirked and looked around him. The room was spartan. A metal desk and rackety wooden chair sat abandoned in the center. The frame of an old printed photo fell broken on the floor. The family within would mourn their deceased. Perhaps. The man was a bastard. Likely his family would not miss him.

Other than the computer system, the only thing to look at was a thick, glass window overlooking a dead yard. Ryker knew the place well. If he closed his eyes he could see the asphalt, smell smoke, and hear the crunch of boots in the gravel. Even here, they made them march. And the chanting. God. The fucking chanting.

The warden's office was stamped with the official seal of the United States Army. Their beloved military prison was about to burn. But not until he finished this form.

Location: "San Quentin Military Prison Complex, Marin County, California, USA."

Ryker outright laughed at the next field in question. Occupation.

Currently, as he was standing in the office of an executed warden with full control of the Prison's security system, he could claim warden. As a prisoner, he cleaned toilets. As a free man, he was a special operator. And before the military, he was a father and husband. So which of these glorious occupations to claim?

The laughing ceased. He left the field blank and moved to the series of questions that followed.

Summarize what you can do with magic. Easy.

"Fires. Bombs. Melting. Forming. Moving. Killing. Blocking. Crushing."
There was one more thing, but he omitted that detail.

Most of those powers were fairly recent developments. Even Ryker was unaware of the extent of this power within. He practiced ceaselessly in solitary confinement. The best place to focus on the oneness within was without the distractions of the fucking assholes around him that he was forced to endure. It started slow, of course. He still recalled the day another prisoner escaped nearby grounds. Although originating from a civilian complex, word of another man of the power that cast off the shackles of bondage and reclaimed his life spread like wildfire. Within these walls, Damien Oakland was a legend. Soon another would claim that title as well.

The overcrowding at San Quentin was atrocious. So much for the golden justice of the United States. Rooms built to hold 10 contained 100 men. Often the pestilence that spread in such close quarters meant those of like disease were confined together. Tuberculosis in one meant anyone with a bad cough were thrown in, destined to a fate worse than the run of the mill cold. Addicts were thrown together in another that fought over a single needle as a vial of bad drugs were tossed in by the guards just for their sheer amusement. But of all the places to find one self, the black block was the worst. Ryker shivered with disgust just to think about it. A single skin lesion would get a man confined to a destiny almost worse than death. Even a simple infection from a poorly healed wound taken on the Yard would land you nestled in the wings of the Black Death, as the inmates called it. If a man didn't have syphilis when he went in there, he had it a few hours later. The inmates made sure of that. In there, HIV was the least of their concerns. You would die of syphilis long before then.

This power seemed to protect against illness and infection, though. Once the fevers passed, of course. He had a fever after the first time, certainly. But he was a dead man if the guards learned of the sickness. He quickly picked a fight with another inmate, granting him one of the scars on his back, and made himself pass the worst of it in 48 hour solitary.

How long have you been able to touch magic?

"Twelve months."
He answered flatly. Twelve long months since that first fever. Twelve miserable months trying to master it after Oakland escaped. The darkness and solitude did their work. This power inside was his power now. He waited until that much was confirmed long before this day. This day he would be free. This day was his last inside.

Have you ever been targeted for your magic?


Anything else we should know?
That question gave him pause.

"They call me a national security risk. An unlawful combatant. A prisoner of war in a war that does not yet exist. As soon as I leave this cursed desert, I will return to the fatherland, no thanks to Custody intervention. I expect a glorious homecoming."

He hit submit and the form dissolved into the ether of the internet.

The power erupted into his grasp in that moment. When Ryker emerged from the warden's office, he left a train of carnage behind him. That day, Oakland's legend burned with the rest of the inmates.

He left one alive. One skinny guard that quivered in fear at his feet. The noisy calls for mercy did not touch Ryker's heart. But what stayed his hand was a single memory of kindness this worm once showed him. The act was repaid in the moment Ryker passed him by. And there would be one to relay the tale, assuming he escaped the hellish inferno consuming the complex.


A month later.


Mexico City to Cape Town to DV to DI.

The air force escorted him to Moscow. When he emerged onto the tar mac, cutting an imposing figure in the uniform of Assault Team Vega, hair neatly cut, and wounds tended, his eyes narrowed warily when a black limousine pulled up. The orange and black flags of the Ascendancy waved on the breeze. The motorcade was a black train of death, and Ryker summoned the power into his grasp when the door opened just in case they were here to kill him.

The ghost of a smile crossed his lips when the Ascendancy presented himself. A glorious home coming indeed.

"My personal gratitude for your service to the Custody."
The man said even as the power filled him in turn. It dwarfed Ryker's own, but neither commented on it even as they both sized one another up.

Ryker bowed his head ever so slightly and joined the man in the limousine. When they emerged at the Kremlin grounds, Ryker was promoted to Commander, allotted expenses, and assigned to what was sure to be a bloody and glorious campaign. He was given everything he asked.

Except one thing, but Brandon was unlikely to yield that so easily.

((Ascendancy written with permission and consultation.))
Late 2044,

From his desk, Ryker studied the scene outside.  Dusk slung colors across the horizon, what could be seen of it between fingers of shadowy buildings. Curtains were still open in the apartment building nearest. Within, the shapes of people shifting through their evening routines passed. Clearing dinner. Gathering trash. Preparing for bed.

Behind him, his own family was doing the same.  Anastasia darted down the corridor without interrupting. He already explained his task for the night, she agreed to leave him to it. They already said their good nights, and moments later, the hallway light winked away. 

He was settled comfortably, robe draped open revealing skin blushed red with the heat of a recent shower while the secure connection filtered the myriad safety checks. The screen flickered from blue to orange then, his sign-in waiting empty.

He put his face to the scanner, waited, and opened the first report.  Hours later, he crawled into bed and nuzzled the neck of his wife. She murmured something, then shifted as his hands tangled in the slip of her night gown. 

"Did you find out where you're going?" She asked, pressing her lips into the curves of his neck.

Ryker moved his lips to her ear to whisper another secret she'd take to the grave: just like she safeguarded all his secrets. The wife of an agent of the Kremlin knew who she married. She was as loyal to the agency as Ryker himself. 

He answered without a moment's hesitation. He liked that she knew where he went and what he did while there. He filtered some of the content, cleaned up the story, but sometimes he wondered if she liked the scent of violence that followed her husband like a cloud. Not every tale was car chases and near misses, but many were, especially when the United States was involved. 

"Ohio," he replied, and she gripped him hard enough to make him wince.

Yes, she liked it.  Damn, he loved her.
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Moscow, 2044

Operation planning was not reviewed within the walls of the Kremlin. The room they occupied was in an ordinary office building within walking distance, certainly. The former KGB building was an imposing stone structure, but relatively unplainly designated as administrative offices. Within, however, a forcefield of security blocked all any lacking legitimate security clearance. Ryker had to confirm with a DNA reader at the door. It was possible to fabricate such samples, but it required immense amounts of effort that proved difficult even for their agency.

The sliver of excitement hastened his steps, slender and nearly invisible as the tendrils of a spider’s web, to any but the most trained of eyes. Then again, he wasn’t truly making an attempt at concealment.

The boardroom occupied their attention for a good hour. Operations were assigned. Tasks to the team distributed. The overall mission would be upheld, individual roles in it were secondary. The mission mattered most. If one of them fell behind, they would be left behind. Captured, caught and the Custody would deny their existence. Ryker knew the risks. He signed up for them. Though perhaps he’d never been compromised to the point of confirmation. Stories’ of comrades downfalls were filtered through tight lips around the agency. Under the directive of the Ascendancy himself, their missions were green-lighted only by his command. Given their destination, Ohio, Ryker did not doubt the seriousness of the matter. The United States was enemy number one. The public relations tour was flashy with distraction. The reason mission scrambled like ants in the darkness, public unawares.

“Question,” Ryker called out. Four faces turned to him. Three members of their Reliancers’ Team listened with steady gazes. The newest member, Ryker did not know each one well beyond reputation. The first, dark-haired, dark-eyed Massimo Cocci, was recruited from White Knights. He was a tank of a man, slabs of solid muscle who would serve as firearms, ammunition, safety and extraction. At his side sat Wioletta Jasinka. Formerly polish GROM with three doctoral degrees, she would serve as the communications officer and nuclear advisor. The remainder of her past training experiences were unknown even to Ryker. He only knew that he would defer to her expertise once inside. Finally, next to himself, was Johann Ek, another white European chosen specifically for his perfected American accent and overall whiteness. According to the mission plan, it would be Johann and Ryker as acting agents on the inside each with their own priorities and agenda.

The final face was that of  their team leader, the one through whom all communication to Ascendancy would filter, was himself a former KGB agent right until the dissolution of the ASU and restructure into the CCD. Older, experienced, he fought and clawed his way through the ranks. Someone to respect, possibly fear.  “Petrovic?”

“In the event this all goes to hell. Does default protocol dictate a complete reactor meltdown? Or complete mission abortion?”

A few faces paled.

Wioletta, as their scientific officer, guffawed. “A complete reactor meltdown must be avoided at all costs.”

Ryker shrugged. “I’m just asking.”

Their team leader crossed his arms, studying Ryker like he wasn’t sure he trusted the newcomer to the team. “Our mission is to destabilize the plant until it goes off line. A blackout, Petrovic. Not incinerate millions of people: ourselves included. The Ascendancy’s orders are abundantly clear.”

Wioletta raised a brow, “You don’t want to be in the middle of that plant if there is a meltdown. Believe me, Ryker, you want to avoid that excruciating demise.” A sadistic flicker ghosted her lips like she’d seen the effects herself.

Ryker shrugged again, obviously wanting to avoid such a demise. If team leader observed the streak within her, he carried on without acknowledging it. Wioletta happily explained. “The liquid poison control system is a secondary safety backup should the control rods fail. Under no circumstances should that system be disturbed when you dismantle the control rods. Both systems operate automatically and function without power, but both also operate under manual control. When you trigger the system failure that halts the descent of the control rods, I will delay the liquid poison control system until maximum heat is reached. At which point, we will enable the acid drop, the nuclear chain reaction will halt. All that should remain at that time is the decay heat. Even if the barriers fail under decay heat, there should be little to no radioactivity.”

Ryker flashed a moment's irritation. He already understood all of this. He’d been studying for weeks, ever since receiving the files that night at home.

“Worst case scenario is decay heat overwhelming the reactor core. So if concrete is melting, probably best to get the fuck out of there.” His gaze challenged Wioletta’s. She was suppose to be in the control room during all this, far from the direct dangers Ryker would face.

She smiled, “Yes.”

He closed down his screens swiftly. “When we do we leave?”
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Dayton, 2044

The Dayton, Ohio airport was busier than ever in its existence. Thirty-years ago, perhaps it was a different story, when fuel was plenty and travel widespread. Today, the world of 2044 was dreary. Especially when it came to the melancholy land-of-the-free.

However, it was a long line in which Ryker waited at the turntables for his luggage to be deposited from hollow tubes. Reporters, media, bloggers, visitors, protestors and fans – together they added to the cacophony that echoed in the cavernous metal terminal.

Ryker arrived in Dayton by way of JFK alone. Nobody cared about the businessman traveling under the guise of an energy lobbyist. His credentials flashed green at the border. This was hardly his first trip inside the States. Likely, the CIA circulated their own agents within the Custody like viruses undetected. Ryker didn’t care. It wasn’t for profound patriotism that he served the CCD, although his allegiance wasn’t a detractor either. Like most that entered the armed forces at minimum age rank requirements (18), he did it for the thrill of heated moments. That he was flagged early on as one to watch, various psychiatric examinations combined with the immediacy with which he followed orders, he was an ample clay willing to fit a mold the Custody needed.

Recruitment carried him through the bowels of Custody foreign defense, counter-terrorism, recon operations, and finally, national interventions. Black ops.

He was no stranger to U.S. soil. The blonde hair and blue eyes carried him through coffee shops and food stands. The gruff, eastern European accent was muted, if not exactly American. But it was close enough that nobody bat an eyelash when he thanked a worker for the coffee or hailed a taxi.

The hotel where Ascendancy would be participating in the energy summit was out of the question for a guy like him. He was a low-ball player. A consultant. A lobbyist. He stayed at a double-level chain-brand hotel. The kind that offered donuts and orange juice in the morning and called it a continental breakfast. Ryker didn’t eat donuts.

He turned on the t.v. when he entered the room, absorbing coverage of the summit in brief passing. But the noise was a muffler. He dialed a number, listened a moment and checked the panel of a wrist-wallet. Directions and an estimated time of arrival were on display.
“I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

He left the suitcase in the room. There was nothing in it but prop clothing, toiletries, and a novel he’d never open. He didn’t intend on returning for any of them.

The house was a small bungalow style building in a mostly empty neighborhood of Dayton outskirts. If it wasn’t for the shadow of the nuclear power plant down the road, the homes would be more desirable. As it was, located on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ the sub-division was mostly empty lots and unfinished wooden frames. There were no neighbors to witness the sudden uptick in visitors.

The mailbox concealed a recently installed security system that flashed green when he input his codes.

The team was already waiting inside.
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Dayton, 2044

A pale, misty morning covered the Ohio landscape with dew. It blurred past Ryker as he jogged a back-wood, two-lane highway. Breath fogged in front of his face, small, rhythmic clouds. Athletic clothes hugged him tight with warmth, landwarrior glasses rimming the eyes otherwise roaming their surroundings. One side of the road was tree-lined. Enough cover to hide from random eyes buzzing helicopters overhead if necessary. America was behind the times, but even their army utilized thermal-imaging seekers. A man ducking through underbrush would blaze like the sun even in the thickest of night. Thermal fabric disarray would be necessary. Not that Ryker wore such for a simple scouting run. The others scoffed when he insisted on surveying the route to and from the nuclear plant with his own two eyes. Custody satellite images of the area flooded the safe-house interior like wallpaper, but no virtual reality could replace what a man sensed with his body.

For that was what he was doing. Ears absorbed the thicket of forest movements on one side. His own two feet pounded their steady rhythm. The draw of steady breath in and out. He was a man at the peak of strength, endurance and athleticism. A six mile jog round-trip was hardly tiring.

Opposite the road was a wide-open field if not for the high fence spiked with barbed-wire scrawling the top like vines. The grass beyond was shorn low. Not a bush, not even so much as tall weeds could hide the darting of a rabbit let alone a man. A similar perimeter of unobstructed land circled the entire nuclear power plant. Ryker was a fast sprinter when he wanted, but cutting across the plain would be a death sentence. An escape route only to use in a last resort.

From here he could glimpse the frosty surface of the cooling ponds. Those waters were unnaturally rectangular in shape. Likely toads and other wildlife enjoyed their banked edges, but they served one singular purpose. To cool the force of reactions churning within enormous cement towers looming beyond.

So Ryker ran his circuit, just a man keeping up with fitness. Land warriors disguised as regular sunglasses recorded everything for him to study later. In the meantime, he absorbed this world until it was a part of him.

He’d be back tomorrow.
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Dayton, 2044

Tomorrow came. He was up at 0230, readying his supplies, triple-checking inventory against checklists, and reviewing their mission sheet. There was nothing he hadn’t already done the night before, but protocol was protocol. At his left and right others were going through the exact same task.

First among the deployed Reliancers was Massimo Cocci. The former White Knight was going to serve as primary firearms, ammunition, safety and extraction. Ryker’s ammunitions was limited compared to what the slab of muscle next to him was going to carry. They would all depend on him should shit go sideways. On the other side of Massimo was Wioletta Jasinka, a polish former GROM who was going to be primary communications and nuclear advisor. Ryker tested his communication pieces with Wioletta multiple times, ways, failsafes, and backups before she gave the clear that all was good.

To his right was another man practically as white as Ryker. Johann Ek’s kit was nearly identical to what was currently going on Ryker’s body. They wore flexible cloth-based armor under their clothes, the kind that could stop a projectile and scrambled cameras. It was the layer after that where Ryker was storing the numerous devices and com-links about his torso. Over that went a blue button-down shirt, collar crisp with starch. He buttoned it all the way to his chin and snugged a tie up after that. He would carry no sidearm, but a plastic-based shiv was tucked along his leg.

Together he and Johann shrugged on white lab coats almost in unison. Each glanced at the other.
“You look like a proper fucking nerd,” Ryker quipped. Johann was all seriousness, though. For him, this wasn’t the time for humor.

Ryker shrugged.

At 0530 their vehicle rolled to the power plant’s gate. Massimo and Wioletta were already on their way inside through alternate routes. If everything went according to the mission sheet, they wouldn’t see each other again for hours.

They flashed their credentials, security that Wioletta already managed, and the chainlink rolled open.
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Dayton, 2044

The first line of fencing rolled away. It was chain link, over ten feet high, and mounded with rolls of barbed wire across the top. From the passenger seat, Ryker paid little attention to it. Then they rolled up to the second check-point, another line of fencing. The barbed wire atop this one was broken along the top. Strands of it swayed down like stringy hair. When the mechanism that rolled the fence locked up, the two ‘scientists’ in the car exchanged looks. After about a minute of the rollers banging, guards came out to manually pull it back. The intel was correct, then. Things had gone to shit since the Nuclear Power Safety Commission was defunded. That boded well for what was waiting inside.

There were plenty of parking spaces near the front. Their cover was as employees from another plant coming in to provide support when some key personnel recently took sick. One was even in the hospital. That meant their vehicle cleanly rolled into the visitor lot near the main entrance. Short walk in. Quick way out again. Climbing out, the first time Ryker noticed was the twin cooling towers loomed high overhead. The morning was foggy and the sun not quite up. The top of the tower seemed to disappear into the clouds.

Their path took them away from the ominous cooling tower. A minute later, Ryker and Johann entered the administration building. It had the feel of a third-world military base. The walls were bare concrete, 5-foot thick in most places. The kind of thickness required to contain meltdowns. Steel grates made the floor. Water circulated underneath that. The main steam vents would be inside the cooling tower, but water-filled pipes followed them everywhere. Another sign of protection against the worst possible outcome always in view. The people that worked here daily must be numb to it by now. Or else strung out with constant anxiety. Turnover in the industry was pretty high. Their footsteps echoed as they walked despite both men wearing loafers. Painted lines on the floor indicated directions. Red signs with angry symbols issued warnings where not to go without proper protective gear.

At the end of a long hallway, Ryker and Johann split apart. Johann to the left toward the command center, Ryker to the right toward the main reactor. Neither said goodbye. Each had their own task, their own scope of the mission. If one didn’t make it back, the other wouldn’t miss them. It was the kind of action where men were left behind if things went to hell. Neither one gave much of a fuck about the other. 

Schematics and videos and virtual walk-throughs were one thing, but he’d never walked the inside of a facility like this. He’d practiced the experience on VR headsets for the last two-days, but like that scouting run yesterday, it was entirely different to see it yourself.

The entrance to the main reactor was up a short flight of stairs. At the top was a round steel door that looked more like an enormous bank vault than the portal to the greatest power on earth. His hair stood up on the back of his neck about then, though he couldn’t explain the menacing feeling. Dont be a pussy, he told himself and entered.

He knew he was being tracked. Wioletta would know he was approaching the reactor just as she would know Johann was nearing the command center. Given that neither of them were competent nuclear physicists, it was she who was going to be responsible for relaying orders. Johann simply had to upload a malware into the command system. Something easier done from an internal terminal than even the best Custody hackers could accomplish on short notice. Besides, malware was only part of the job. Sabotaging the coolant system would require a physical presence, which was where Ryker came in. He passed through the manual door on the exterior of the vault. A baseline radian check scanned him for radioactivity. Markers on his coat gave a color-code of the same. He had 45 maximum minutes inside to maintain safe radioactivity exposure, which was plenty of time.

Massimo should be entering the adjacent reactor auxiliary building at the same time. It was separated from the reactor core by a 3-foot thick reinforced concrete wall, but the auxiliary building was the only space large enough to haul big equipment in and out of the core. Beyond the concrete was another 3-feet of open air followed a 2-inch thick steel annulus separating the outside world from the reactions taking place inside.

Inside the very dome that Ryker was currently entering.

The reactor dome looked almost exactly as he expected it from the inside. Bridgeways carried him across enormous pits filled with water so black they might as well have been pools to hell. The core rods would be submerged down there. That much power so close, it was a marvel that mankind was able to bend it to will. What would it feel like to harness that kind of power? 

Looking at the water, another menacing wave passed his senses almost as if it had been reading his mind. He frowned, surprised by what was clearly his imagination creeping up. He shook it off and proceeded.

He walked past an enormous control panel. Electric boxes larger than some vehicles were embedded in the grid. Rows and rows of power plugs thick as his arms dangled ready to be tapped into. He imagined plugging in to one of them would feel like tapping honey straight from the beehive.

Interesting, certainly, but the power grid wasn’t Ryker’s target. It was something far more mechanical.

There were rows of condensers built into the side of the reactor tower as tall high as two-story building. On top of each condenser was a single massive turbine spinning relentlessly. Three lower-pressure turbines flanked it. Together, they pulled the cold water up from the cooling lakes through hundreds of thousands of tiny pipes. It would flood the hot water coming off from the reactor rods inside the pools, siphon them back to the cooling towers where the heat would become steam. The steam condensed back to droplets and dripped back down to the underground lake and start all over again. Relentlessly swirling. One sweet circle of hot and cold where even a small disruption to that balance was dangerous.

But if the turbines were knocked out, the water pumps would slow. The heat would build too high and the system would be switched off until backups could be engaged. In the command center, Johann through the oversight of Wioletta, would make sure the backups stayed off-line once the malware was deployed. As she explained back in Moscow, a meltdown was absolutely to be avoided, but Massimo was to reengage the backups before that happened. With Ryker inside the reactor core to trigger the manual disruption of the turbines, he would also prefer that the system come back on as planned. Wioletta was right about that. He wanted to avoid melting his skin off.

Massimo waited like an overlord to provide ammunition should they be compromised and serve as a communication relay if necessary. Finally, back at the safe house, their team leader was monitoring the energy summit taking place where at the precise moment the Ascendancy’s speech would begin.

Speaking of. He checked an analog watch on his wrist... It was about that time.
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Dayton, 2044

The reactor core itself was not exactly where the power rods were located. Yet one more layer of protection encased the rods from where he presently studied the turbine system. His gaze flicked at the black pools, imagining the confinement shells buried under their obsidian surface. The fourth, final barrier between the world and the radioactive rods, the confinement shells were made of lead. The rods were buried within them. Of course, none of this was plain to the eyes. He only knew the basic diagrams Wioletta’s reports made them study. But as he waited for the seconds to tick until time zero, another wave of menace made the hairs on the back on his arm stand up.

He rubbed his sleeve just as someone came to stand beside him.

“You okay?” the man asked. He was a site surveyor in his forties, running the usual checks. Ryker knew all about the man, another part of mission prep, knowing the identity of all those to cross their path on the inside.

“Yeah, I’m good,” he said, glancing at the man’s name tagged to his coat.

“It’s Steve, right?” he offered to shake hands. Ryker’s accent wasn’t quite as flawless as Johann’s, but he easily passed for American. The blonde hair and blue eyes helped. Plus he could pull off that American charming cocky son of a bitch better than many.

“Yeah, that’s right. Thanks for coming up. Memphis site doing well these days?” he asked. Steve had been with Dayton for three years. Had transferred from Atlanta originally. He still had that southern accent too.

“You all have it better than us, but it’s holding together,” Ryker replied. The badge on his coat said his name was Paul. Paul from Memphis. He didn’t have the southern accent though. Mostly because Ryker couldn’t get it right and he didn’t care enough to try any better. He was originally from Pennsylvania.

Steve tapped his radioactivity badge, indicating he better get back to it. They only had so much allowable time on the inside after all. Ryker shot him a mock salute and a lopsided smirk that fell to stillness as silent as the watery pools once Steve’s back was turned.

He was thirty seconds late pulling the rig, but he could improvise.

Mossimo’s voice buzzed Ryker’s ear to hurry his ass up. The turbines ran mechanically. There was no way to stop them except to disrupt a release valve, and that fucker ran on regular batteries. Alone, Ryker quickly slipped a copper and wire battery interruptor on the valve. Within the space of about forty-five seconds, all three of the high pressure turbines and two of the lower pressure ones were slowing.

The disrupted valve indicators alerted their system, but Ryker was already on the other side of the reactor by then. Steve came running, his footsteps thumping on the steel walkways.

Ryker couldn’t leave yet. He had to remove the interruptors once Johann’s work was completed in the command center. Mission orders said they had to delay long enough to force the control rods into the water to halt the nuclear reactions, let the water pressure build up inside the containment shells to just below explosion pressure, then reverse the process.

The nuclear reactor would be offline, but the secondary heat would build just enough to make the world hold its breath, then all would be well. They would walk out with a nuclear power plant defunct and crisis averted. No melting skin.

Ryker and Steve hurried to the indicator panels. Ryker went through a mockery of the checklists to determine the source of the problem. Steve was on the radio, relaying what was happening. Standard protocol said that when the reactor was compromised, there would be no entrance or exit. Their fates were sealed. Steve was justified to be worried. Sweat slicked his brow.

Ryker knew his part inside out. He was in front of an enormous panel of instruments. Sensors and lights flickered colorful warnings. Gauges were going up rapidly.

“Control rods are descending!” he yelled to Steve. His voice boomed echoes inside the massive chamber. Both of their gazes immediately fell to the black pools of water. The surface was still silent as the night sky, but deep within something was happening. Steve paled. 

Plan part one: check.
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Dayton, 2044

“Fission reaction halted,” Steve declared, interpreting the gauges that looked like another language to Ryker. In his other ear, Massimo repeated the same almost word for word on relay from Wioletta. Almost on cue, both men directed their attention from neutrino readings to pressure gauges. Twelve separate gauges were all climbing steadily to the right. The top rows were indicators from within the containment vessel itself. Nothing to worry about. The fission reaction halted, but with the turbines down, the hot water was boiling off, unable to be carried away. The building steam rose the pressure. It was according to plan. So long as the pressure didn’t blow up the containment vessel itself, it was fine.

But then something passed his senses so fierce, it nearly knocked the wind out of him. Ryker uncharacteristically put a hand to his forehead, fighting the dizzying darkness. It felt like it was right behind him.

Steve put a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
“It’s alright, man. It’s alright. We’re safe. The vessel is holding. Just need to get the turbines going again,” he explained. It was normal for men to panic in such a situation, but that wasn’t what was happening. He wished for something as simple as panic. This felt like a drum inside his head, pounding from inside, trying to claw its way out. He was so startled, he didn't even drop Steve to the ground for touching him.

That menacing darkness pulled him away from the panels. He was backing away, trying not to freak out by this unknown sensation. Was it radioactivity? Compromise? Poison? Had he snapped? He backed all the way into the breezeway rail.

He slowly turned, eyes settling upon the pitch black surface of the massive pools. Far beneath the surface, the containment vessel was steadily growing in pressure as the radiant rod heat boiled off the water level. If the water boiled too low, the rod exposure to the air itself would turn explosive. 

It's fine. This was the plan. So why did he feel like he was standing at the base of a volcano on the verge of eruption?

He was staring at the pool almost like he could feel what was happening at the bottom of it. Like his very soul could peer through the meters of darkness and feel the rising heat. At that very moment little furrows of steam began to curl off the surface. He gasped. “What the hell?” he said it to himself.

“Steve! What is that?” this time, when he called the other man’s name, it was legitimately to summon him to the breezeway. Steve ran to his side. Hands gripping the rail, leaning over in shock. Dozens. No, hundreds of curls of steam began to rise from the surface. Hundreds. Moments later, thousands.

In his ear, Massimo started talking rapidly: "Wioletta says the pressure is building too fast. What’s happening?"

“The reactor pools are steaming,” Ryker responded to Massimo, but it was Steve that licked his lips. 

“That’s impossible,” he said, voice strewn to shreds. "Its too fast. Worst case scenario, the radiant heat wouldn't overload the vessel for hours."

Ryker glanced at the turbines. Fuck this! And ran for it. He retracted all the battery interruptors, crumpling hot copper foils in the palms of his hands. They sizzled at the touch. As he pulled the last one, the valves should reopen, the turbines start to spin, and the boiling water be carried outside. He stared at the turbines with such intensity, he thought his very willpower might make them start to turn. 

But as he looked back toward the pools, the steaming had transitioned to bubbling outright boils. His eyes were wide. Moments later, a huge spray of water rocketed upward in an enormous column. He threw his hands over his ears, hoping the resultant shockwave wouldn’t damage his skull. The containment vessel holding the uranium rods exploded. The water sprayed in an enormous arc toward the top of the dome screaming upward. Steve yelled in pain as boiling water landed and sizzled all around him. He ran away from the explosion toward where Ryker watched in horror. 

He frantically put a hand to his ear. "Exfiltrate me, now!" 

Alarms sounded almost the same instant.

Plan part two: literally blown to hell.
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Dayton, 2044

Plan part 3: get the hell out of there.

The comm was silent.

“Exfiltrate me, now!”
he repeated.


he yelled.


His voice betrayed some of the growing panic as he called for their extraction officer one last time.

But he was on his own.

Except for Steve. Who was frantically punching commands into a safety cabinet. The doors popped open and he hurried into a haz-mat suit.

The pool was half-empty. As soon as fresh air hit the hot rods, the dome compound was going to explode. That hazmat suit was going to be melted onto Steve’s skeleton.

He ran to the vault door, ignoring Steve’s cry that he don the worthless safety measure. There had to be some way to override the system. Johann should have been able to suppress the lockdown from the command center, but he was likely long gone just like Massimo. Ryker was scanning the panels, trying everything he could think. Lists and protocols ran frantically through his head. Fuck Wioletta and her condescending explanations. He wasn’t trapped! Desperate, he started punching the panel with his bare fist. The glass cracked and fell away. Digging his fingers behind the cover, he yanked it away to reveal a mess of wires and circuits. Blood slicked the pads of his fingers as he yanked indiscriminately. His heart was pounding.

Then there was a roar behind him. The sound of fire. If it wasn’t for the flash of heat and eruption of sweat pouring out his neck, he might have froze. A glance over his shoulder found a wall of orange. 

He gasped for the last time, and threw his arms over his face too late.

The intensity left no capacity to think. Every second was an hour. It curled up his clothes. The sleeve and pants melted to his skin. He screamed louder than he knew possible. Then the body recoiled. Arms and legs drawn low, and an unbelievable pain followed. Beyond he could hear Steve’s screams before they fell to silence in seconds. Ryker squeezed his eyes closed as half the view faded to nothing but colors like the sun itself crashed out of the sky. The explosion wrapped around his body. His face felt like acid was dumped on it, skin melting like a candle from his limbs, sliding off the skeleton.

Then, like Steve, his own screaming stopped. Gases suffocating. Then the fire pushed itself down his throat, grabbed his chest from inside, and flooded back out through his limbs. Through to the bone. Through to the fires until he was one with them in body and soul. And in that moment, a furious defiance pushed back.

Pushed. Back.

Then, free air crossed his lips. It chased through gaping wounds in his cheek, through and over teeth from the side. He heaved the clean air into his lungs until he found the voice to roar back at the flame… He stood. Push! His eyes wouldn’t focus, but he saw something anyway. Then, somehow, the wall of fire roared backward.

Plan part 4: Burn the fuckers to the ground
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