Season 1 - Episdode 1

Set ’em on Fire

Like a camera shutter closing, darkness preserved the day’s blue-sky weather in the damp air, as if a blink could bring it back. Marshal trudged the man-made canyon of buildings below Market Street under sparse, overhead lights, his footsteps ringing out on the sidewalk. The area’s mix of elder landmarks and new towers always energized him, grounding him amid the city’s inexorable march toward the future. This kept him looking ahead, as it should. Anything behind him, he’d already know about.

The hotline tone pulsed in his ear. “Marquis,” he answered, and kept walking.

Bentley Harrison’s lilting voice relayed the expected: “Patching you through to private chat now, boss.”

Marshal pulled his phone from its belt holster and switched to text. He ran through the three security questions, then hailed Archie, his boss, for lack of a better description, via touchscreen. The leader’s text message was relayed without formality:

Your Team DC needed tonight for node move. Safety window: midnight to two.

And there was an address. This meant Team Quo was ready to close in, and soon. Some outsiders had been monitoring that site for some time, Marshal knew, and its project owner had been alerted but instructed not to interrupt operations. The blockchain was well on its way to funding a new documentary, one promoting decentralism as a “cure” for capitalist denial. With the latest predictions of floods and fires and hurricanes, the timing was so right, Ken Burns was going to want to produce the thing.

Now, Archie’s band of merry henchmen (and woman) would have to storm the place and secure the situation themselves. Probably scare the shit out of poor Gatsby66, Marshal thought, but better that than the alternative.

His mentor didn’t have to mention what that consequence might be. Marshal answered:

Yeah, you right. Will secure and report. You good Arch?

Archie assured him that he was, and asked about the air quality at Marshal’s location. The whole state knew that a large wildfire raged out of control, threatening the old-growth redwoods just miles north of the city. Marshal told his friend that the Pacific winds had blown the smoke inland, so far.

Good. Stay safe.

That went without saying, but Marshal appreciated the sentiment. He memorized the target address, erased the message thread, and clicked off. Turning onto a side street, he was about to summon his colleague Drake on the hotline when he sensed more intimacy from his fellow pedestrians than was normal, or comfortable.

They didn’t wait for a formal introduction.

A flash of light was the only preamble, then pain coursed through Marshal’s temple, and he nearly went down. A hand thrust reflexively in front of him scraped the pavement. But before he could right himself, a blow to the back of one knee buckled his leg and blew him off balance. The assault wasn’t enough to cripple him, yet Marshal paused to gauge the situation from the ground, glancing at his assailant from the corner of an eye. Not one, but two dudes, he observed, his mind an Orca to the situation’s krill: identical, rumpled rayon jackets—first guy shorter, smells of solvent, something bright in the other guy’s hand… Weapon?

A shoe met the ribs on Marshal’s right side, causing all the air to shoot out of his lungs. He pulled into a fetal position on the sidewalk. Blood pooled in the eye near where his temple had been struck. He mumbled something unintelligible, never ceasing his internal calculations.

A nasal voice cut through his haze. “Maybe you should see a doctor. We’ll call you an ambulance, buh—”

In one motion, Marshal rose, ignoring the weakness and pain on his right side, and pulled a homemade tool from his belt kit. Despite the bloody eye, he snapped a mental picture of his two attackers while he aimed and fired the modified long-nosed lighter at the man who smelled of solvent.

Instantly, the first man’s suitcoat—then the other’s—ignited. With cries they couldn’t suppress, both goons fell to the sidewalk to roll. The harsh, yellow flames quickly subsided, but their damage did not. Marshal jumped back and watched the two writhe. The light cellulose fabric of their jackets contracted, as it tended to during combustion, coating the men’s skin in fiery shrink-wrap and continuing to cook them as they wailed in agony. The smell of rayon fused to hair and flesh haloed outward.

Satisfied, Marshal turned and hustled away before any of the onlookers across the street could react.

Marshal pounded a fist against the passenger window of a gray cargo van parked outside the warehouse, startling the driver, who dropped his phone. The door unlocked mechanically, and Marshal bulled his way in, slamming it behind him.

“Damn, man,” the stocky driver said irritably, a shelf of brown hair falling further into his eyes as he retrieved his device from the floor. “Watch it with Rita’s door. What th’—?”

“Can it, Drake. This is no time to phone home, E.T.”

Drago Kaminski, the team’s surveillance captain, often retreated to the van he’d named for actress Rita Hayworth to make personal calls. He noticed Marshal’s bloody face and arm clutching his right side, and hit the door locks. “Who got to you?”

“Don’t know. Could be some of Cazadero’s goons. Archie says someone is planning a raid tonight, and for sure the Quo want us out of the way.” Marshal’s secretive mentor routinely withheld any information that might put his team at risk, including the identity of their adversaries. It was a lot like his days in the Special Forces, when the only intel dispensed was need-to-know.

Drake started the van’s engine and peeled away from the curb. If Sophie Cazadero’s people were on the move, Marshal and Drake needed to be a step ahead of them. The Justice Department’s chief investigator had flagged Team DC as a prime target for their role in protecting the decentralists, and there was nothing covert about her operation. She’d been known to sit down with Marshal herself over drinks, from time to time, chumming for information while reminding him of the bull’s-eye on his back.

“What’s the plan?” Drake asked evenly as he took a corner on two wheels.

Marshal braced his free arm against the roof until the van righted itself. “Need to secure that node from Gatsby66 and get him to a safe house,” he replied.

Drake stuck an arm out the window and jammed a key card in the warehouse garage slot, gunning the gas as an iron gate slid shut behind them. “Safe” would be relative, he knew, if the Quo’s cops got ahold of the valuable node and its codes. Its software had yet to be revealed to anyone at the government level—or any other level, to their knowledge.

“Speaking of safe...” Drake eyed his roughed-up colleague as they keyed their way into the penthouse elevator.

But Marshal had already mellowed. A rapid return to equilibrium was in his training, like a fire horse that took its rest when it could. It was more important to look ahead to what else the night would hold.

A chime rang when the elevator stopped at the top floor of the warehouse loft complex. The steel doors parted, and the two men stepped into a dim entryway. Piles of computer parts, tools, and martial arts weaponry partially blocked their path. “Dump, sweet dump,” Marshal said fondly.

The vast loft was a sea of clutter. The team’s paraphernalia sat on tables, across countertops, in corners. The kitchen held so many empty takeout containers it looked like a DoorDash recycling center. Even sound muscled its way through the space, with a driving techno beat reaching Marshal’s and Drake’s ears as they stepped into the great room. Every closed door promised more of the same disarray. Without irony, Bentley had dubbed their upscale work-live headquarters the Chic Dump, and the name stuck.

Bentley must have been reaming out the refrigerator, for Marshal detected competing whiffs of garlic, microwave popcorn, chocolate, and rancid beans, among odors that even he could not identify. There, the team’s self-described techno-rat sat, cross-legged, in the middle of the kitchen floor. She held a book in one hand and ate cold ramen noodles with her other fingers.

Marshal glimpsed the chewed mass as the young woman mouthed a greeting that was lost beneath the surging music. He strode over to the granite counter, stuck his face next to the virtual assistant, and commanded it to silence the stereo.

The sudden quiet jolted Bentley from her reverie. “Fuckin’ ’ell!” she thundered. Then she saw Marshal’s face and softened. “What happened to the other guy, eh?” She and Drake were well aware of their boss’s considerable combat powers.

“Set ’em on fire,” Marshal said casually, turning on the faucet and washing the blood off his hands. Gingerly, he peeled his long, black hair away from his sticky forehead.

A glint of relief and mischief entered Bentley’s eyes. “That’ll teach them to rob a decentralist.” She imitated Marshal’s low voice: “No, really. I haven’t got any cash.” Drake laughed. “It’s all in Digital. Honest!”

They sobered when Marshal repeated his suspicion that his attackers were government or some other lackeys looking to clear the way for their planned raid. He quickly filled Bentley in on their directive from Archie and the plan that Marshal had devised to secure the node and its owner.

Bentley stuffed the last of the noodles into her mouth and held her sticky hands out to Drake, who winced and pulled her to her feet. The dark-skinned woman was all big curves, big hair, and flashing teeth—a stark counterpoint to the pale, unremarkable surveillance man, whose job, after all, was to stay hidden, usually behind his squarish glasses and unkempt straight, brown hair.

Bentley drew closer to Marshal and peered at his wounded temple and rheumy, pink eye. “We’d best get going, then. Can you see out of that thing, eh?”

Marshal gave a wheeze. “Ribs are a bigger problem. I think they’re just bruised, though, not busted.” There was no time for doctoring, although they might well need some later on. Every one of their deadlines could, indeed, be a matter of life and death. Marshal opened a duffle bag and began sorting through it. “Pack up, gang. Doors open at midnight.”