When Ezekiel was finally released, Hank Howard was standing outside of the Containment Zone, staring down at his watch as if he could peer through it into the spatial pocket dimension and figure out what the gift of the bike meant.
The bike was a clear allusion to his fall from grace. Yet coming from Ghost, who had stripped him of his position as Vanguard Captain and reinstated him as a Sheriff… what did it mean?
Hank looked up to find Ezekiel looking at him with an amused expression.
“Take your time,” Ezekiel said, shrugging as he massaged the spots on his wrists that had been tied with the refined plastic that was all but unbreakable. “I would prefer not to leave this place if I’m being honest. I don’t do well in the outdoors.”
After opening his mouth to release a pithy retort, Hank thought better of it and closed his mouth. It was already all but guaranteed that at least Heath was going to be impossible to deal with. A voice that sounded a lot like Alan convinced him to let this small smartass comment go, for the greater good.
‘Besides,’ Hank thought to himself, eyes flashing, ‘a man like this, in the wild… there will be plenty of time to make up for small slights.’
Not that Hank was a particularly vindictive person, but he would always remember that this man Ezekiel’s first instinct was to pick and belittle. That impression would remain, immaculate and untouched, within Hank’s heart until enough evidence emerged to shift that assessment. Based on the file that he had read through briefly, describing the man, chances of that were slim.
It was just after midnight as Hank had left immediately from Alan’s to head to West Providence and retrieve Ezekiel. The scientists there were so stuck up in their experiments that time of day meant little to them, even less so after the System, when most people only slept one to two hours a day.
Even this much left Hank feeling a certain amount of exasperation, as he hadn’t really felt the need to sleep aside from a bit of personal leisure, and then only once a fortnight for a bit. It was more to reassure the subconscious that had slept ⅓ of its existence up until now. Hank also knew that there were a lot of people that refused to sleep entirely, considering it beneath them. These were inevitably the Tier 3 or 4s, who considered themselves something a little more than human.
The less interaction Hank had with them, the better. Which was why this Heath situation-
Ezekiel looked up sharply, a fraction of a second before Hank’s own pupils dilated at the distant, low thrum of an engine. “We have company.”
Curious, that Ezekiel would detect it before Hank. Perhaps this man would truly be useful on the reconnaissance mission they were assigned to. Even though the chilling vibes given off by the man, despite his smile, convinced Hank that their true purpose was a bit darker than that.
Over the next minute, the engine sounds grew louder, until a humvee roared up toward their location, skidding to a stop inches from Hank. Hank’s eyebrows rose.
The doors on both sides opened, and two men got out.
Someone had apparently worked up the nerves to tell Mordecai Heath he was balding, because his greasy black hair was freshly shaven, giving him a competent, militaristic look. His skin was tanned, but his eyes were beady and dark, full of meanness. His shirt wobbled, holding back his bulging belly, but even Hank wouldn’t underestimate the man for the shape of his body; Hank had no doubt that when the man wanted to move, he would do so, and quickly.
The other man was someone Hank didn’t recognize, but by the jade pin in his collar, he recognized him as a member of the Temple on the Hill. This man was slim and Asian, with expressionless eyes as he examined both Hank and Ezekiel. At his side was a one-handed sword.
“So,” Heath said, his tiny eyes gleeful. “You’ll be working with me for the next few months. What a distinct… pleasure.”
Ezekiel snorted but said nothing. Hank scowled.
“It was ma’ understandin’ that I would be in charge of our little… detachment,” Hank said, letting that old southern anger rise in him.
Heath shrugged, and to Hank’s surprise, snapped his fingers. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
The back of the humvee folded upwards, and a metal platform slid out of the overly large vehicle, containing a power suit. Immediately, Heath leaped forward, as the suit opened up like a blooming flower, and he sank into it. Within seconds, it snapped shut, encasing him in its protective layers.
Hank watched it all, impassive. Without a doubt, he was fast enough to have shot the man before he entered into his suit. After all, his Quick Draw Skill was at the Rare level, and effectively gave him an extra 50 Agility when it came to drawing his pistol. That advantage was one of the main reasons that Hank had been unbeatable towards the beginning of the Zone when bullets were enough to put a monster down.
They were very different people, but on this Hank and Heath agreed; the easiest way to solve this was for one of them to beat the other into submission. Hank would have been more circumspect in his attempt, but Heath was running hot off their last confrontation, where he lost. It gave him a desperate air that destroyed that peanut sized bit of caution he possessed.
Hank glanced at the Asian man. “You won’t interfere if I beat the shit out of him?”
The man didn’t bother to reply. Not that he really had the chance, because Heath’s voice, modulated by the power suit, boomed outwards. “Jiji, if you fucking dare interfere, I’ll crush your skull.”
At that, the man finally showed a reaction, a long crease running through his brow. But still, it seemed he had tacitly agreed to let it happen. Hank turned and looked at Ezekiel.
“If you kill him, I’ll say a beautiful eulogy. But no, I have no interest in leading this farce,” Ezekiel said, shaking his head.
Curious again. Before turning back to Heath, he asked Ezekiel, “How do you know I will win?”
Behind him, he could feel Health launching himself into motion, his huge armored hands clenched into fists, aiming for Hank’s open back. Ezekiel just smiled and rolled his eyes, offering no warning.
A dangerous man, Hank finally decided, giving himself another half second to peer at Ezekiel. Smart, but lazy. Perceptive, but relatively unambitious. In terms of actual power… it remained to be seen, but Hank was betting that the man had an astounding amount of potential. There was just something… broken about him.
“Too easy!” Heath shouted as his attack was mere inches away from landing. Hank chortled.
Hank activated Dodge Roll, and within a second, his body had curled up on the ground, he had rolled a meter to the left, and he was back up on his feet, his pistol drawn. Hank’s build didn’t necessarily crown him as the fastest individual in Zone 1, as he mostly relied on Skill Levels to put the edge on his speed. His Agility was high, sure, but it was his second tier of Stats: his highest Stats were Perception, and the highest of all, Focus.
Exosuits were divided into three types: power, speed, and energy. Power suits were built around crushing things and usually had the highest physical defense. They fared relatively well against monsters, and they generally invalidated the attempts of speed suits to overwhelm them. However, the high powered plasma attacks that the energy suits were capable of made them extremely unpopular in the exosuit tournaments that West Providence sponsored every month.
As Hank straightened, his eyes traced the lines of Heath’s power suit. It was definitely a high-end model, and more top heavy than most. A recent trend was to add some of the extra mechanical muscle on the legs, giving the suits the ability to bound across long distances at the drop of a hat. Heath eschewed that trend, and his power suit was built along the lines of the original models: rumbling whirrs sounded from the servo motors in his shoulders and elbows, while his fingers buzzed with power.
Getting grabbed by him was not an option.
Hank only drew his left pistol, a fine repeater, but one loaded with bullets that he hadn’t made himself and infused. Instead, he relied on Mana Reinforcement to sharpen and strength the four bullets that shot towards Heath’s chest. At the last second, another function of those large shoulders jumped to life, and a thin film of plasma sprung across his chest. When the metal slugs passed through it, they melted, but only partially.
In terms of Mana Reinforcement, Hank was probably in the top 10 of the Zone, with a Skill Level of 84. Still, the fact that this powersuit had energysuit technology within it was a surprise and not a welcome one.
Even though the bullets lost their edge, they were still reinforced and slammed against Heath’s chest with enough force to make him pause mid-step, and then stumble when he tried to catch himself.
“You fucking…!” The red mechanical eyes glowing, Heath righted himself and began to stalk towards Hank. Hank grinned in response.
This would be more fun than he had thought.