Fallen Heroes

Volume 3 of the Citizen Trilogy

Book Cover: Fallen Heroes
Part of the The Citizen series:
Editions:Kindle: $ 4.99
Pages: 174

Now firmly placed in a job that’s part office work and part lab tester, our hero discovers his heroing days might not be quite as over as he thought. A corporate competitor has launched some hostile, and dangerous, actions against his employer and he may have to put the suit back on for real. But how will he balance that with being the guardian of his three nieces? And then there’s the fact that he’s in a fairly serious relationship.

Published:
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
Genres:
Excerpt:

1

It’s actually being about two weeks since I took the suit out to and I think that’s the longest I’ve gone yet.

I keep waiting for the company to ask for it back and I can’t imagine why they haven’t. The job they have me working now doesn’t require me to have one of my own, but mine is older now, two models back. Maybe it’s no good to them anymore?

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All in all, I have to admit that the company has been very understanding. There are a lot of bits of the last contract that are still in force, but my current contract, among other minor differences, adds the word laboratory in the testing section and has me working in a private, I might almost say isolated, small building complex located about a 45-minute drive from my parents’ house if it’s rush hour. The pay is just as good, meaning a whole lot better than I ever made working in IT, and the hours are a whole lot better and more reasonable most of the time. I have a couple of late, but not too late, nights and one weekend day per month, and it’s usually easy to get mom and/or dad to come and hang out for the evening or the day with the girls. I have two potential babysitters for when that doesn’t work out.

The lab testing does sometimes involve me wearing a suit, but it’s provided on the spot, an upgraded version from my old one and the one that came after. It will take about 11% more impact energy than mine, but the new Mark III suit doesn’t seem to fit quite as well, or maybe I’m just a little too sedentary now. I’m certainly not running across rooftops at night anymore, and I’m sure I’ve put on a handful of pounds, at least, but I don’t really want to check. Potential weight gain aside, I’m out of practice, if nothing else.

And they never asked for my suit back.

I keep it in a small safe tucked into the corner of my closet, folded neatly. Anybody who knows all three of my nieces’ birthdays would be able to hit on the correct combination eventually, but who would think to look? Only one of the girls even asked about it, and I told her the truth, if only part of it, that the safe contains copies of all of my relevant legal documents; mortgage, basic pay and retirement plan information, and so on. I specifically don’t use the word Will, but that’s in there too, along with all the rest of the paper in a smaller lockbox that requires key, sitting on top of my neatly folded super suit.

Which the company has not asked to be returned.

And if they don’t ask, I’m not going to volunteer it. I know I’m not going to wear it again, that so long as I am responsible for the health and well-being of my sister’s children, that part of my life needs to be over. I can’t afford the risks that come with it anymore.

And being part of the corporate support team isn’t such a bad thing. New toys before anyone else sees them, far better hours, and I still have the occasional slightly less illegitimate contact with Max and Crusader. Not much, really. A note or two here and there, a technical update. But enough.

Maybe I should give back helmet, though. It takes up two thirds of the safe on its own. Never realized I had such a big head.

But it’s been two weeks since I took it out of the safe, and six months since I put in there the first time. Which meant it has to be eight since I’d last worn it.

Eight months ago, more or less, at 21 minutes after midnight, I’d been wearing the suit, sitting on top of a rooftop somewhere unobtrusive and looking out over the city, looking for trouble to get into, or looking for trouble that someone else was in. My last night in the city. The house would close in two days and I’d be on a train with my last piece of luggage-a few changes of clothes and a sleeping bag-by noon after turning over the keys to my now-empty apartment to the building manager.

Now, at 21 minutes after midnight, no, 22 minutes after midnight, a Saturday night when Sheena was not in town, and the most I could do was sit on the bed and stare into the open safe, looking at my neatly folded super suit still programmed to the charcoal gray I’d last set it at. Standing up, I take the three steps to the closet, then bend down to close the safe door, and spin the lock.

And that’s where I’m at now. Two weeks since I’ve had it out, and I can’t do more than look at this time. How long until I even open the safe again? Two weeks? A month? The next time I need one of the documents in the lockbox?

I sit back down the bed and stare at the safe. Yeah, that part of my life is over. Superheroing is for kids, not for people who have them, and I have to step up and be a man, face responsibilities, pay a mortgage even. Bring home the bacon, or Cheerios, or whatever I can get them to eat. Some days aren’t easy, and I’m going to need a whole lot more time before I have any idea what this parenting thing is about. I’d like to go back being the cool uncle, but now I’m the uncle who makes and keeps the rules, checks homework, gives tooth brushing reminders. Somehow, that makes things a whole lot harder, as if they’d been easy to begin with.

On the nightstand, on my side of the bed – as funny as that sounds when Sheena isn’t visiting – my phone vibrates. Only once, so a text, which dramatically limits the number of people can be, anyway, and considering the time, I’m pretty sure I can narrow that list down to one before I turn the phone over to see I’m right. There only two short words onscreen.

 

You awake?

 

Smiling, I type a quick response.

 

Miss you.

 

She doesn’t text back instantly, and I start to think it’s time to put the phone down, but after a few more seconds, it rings instead. I touch the ‘accept’ icon and put the phone to my ear, but Sheena’s faster than I am. “Miss you too.”

I have to smile. “You’re coming next weekend, right?”

“You tell me.”

It’s hard not to respond to the return smile in her voice. “Well, you did cancel on me this weekend so you could go out to the coast for some meeting or another.” Which wasn’t fair, but hopefully my tone’s light enough that she’ll take it for the teasing I intend.

“Ouch. Conference. You’re right though. My loss.”

Right is one thing, but whether it’s fair or not is something I don’t really have to think about, but I had really been looking forward to this weekend. I’d kind of thought the girls might be too, and I didn’t know if that was because Sheena got to be cool or because I seem to pay a little bit less attention to what they might be trying to get away with when Sheena is around. Either way, they did seem to like having her around and knew when she was supposed to visit. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“That you’re the one doing all traveling. The original agreement was supposed to work both ways, never mind that I sucked at it.”

“Well, yes, but I was pretty sure you’d suck at it when we made that agreement. I do a lot of traveling anyway. If I arrange one of my flights so I’m getting off or on in a different city, so what?”

“Yeah, but now I do none of the traveling, which is a lot worse than just not doing my share.”

“There are extenuating circumstances these days that make it harder for you, like having to buy four of everything.”

“I will admit that I don’t have the same level of disposable income I used to–” And I’m certainly not saving as much money as I was, even with the increased salary. I’d like to blame the mortgage for that, but it really wasn’t that much more than my rent had been. The killer was groceries. And clothing. And all of the other expenses involved in having three kids. “But that doesn’t mean you should have to shoulder the whole cost.”

“You’re adorable sometimes, you know?”

“I work pretty hard at it. If I’m not, you might stop coming to see me.”

“That’s… not in my immediate plans. I love you.”

“I love you, too.” Short call. I can already feel the end coming. “Conference starts early in the morning?” On a Sunday, for some reason, but I don’t really understand how behind the scenes retail works.

“Day two, yes. About seven hours from now I should be getting out of the shower, so I should probably get some sleep.”

“You do that. Miss you.”

“Miss you, too. Next weekend, promise.”

“I live in hope, but I’ll try not to hold you to that. Life happens.”

Short call, but good timing. I feel a lot less sorry for myself knowing that I don’t have to lie to Sheena anymore, knowing that I don’t really have to since I’m not keeping any new secrets. The old ones are still there, and I’ll should let them stay where they are for a little while longer, at least. probably a lot longer.

But I’m mentally in a much happier place with Sheena, and that can only be a good thing.

 

2

I’ve grown to hate Mondays and it’s got nothing to do with work.

Monday mornings, for some reason, the girls are hard to get up, in part probably because I’m too lax about things on the weekend, but it’s probably harder for them to get moving and motivated because their routine is still wrong. By Wednesday, things are normal, but Mondays are hard. Mondays, the girls are missing their parents more, missing the old breakfast routine that involved mom and dad instead of their uncle trying not to burn bagels while he poured cereal and packed lunches. To be honest, I kind of miss my old morning routine to. A couple of slices of toast, a too-expensive grapefruit, and a quick energy drink in place of most people’s coffee. These days, I’m as likely to have cereal as any of them are, and I’ve developed a fondness for Raisin Bran, as much because the girls don’t seem to bother with it so I never reach for an empty box as because I like it myself.

Twelve, ten, and eight. And all three of those numbers are going to change in the few months between now and the end of the school year. I wondered how Kaylee and Steve would be feeling about that if they thought about it. For me, frequently with months between visits, the girls had always seemed to be growing so fast, but things are different as their guardian. Now I get the slow and gradual changes happening right before my eyes and passing by almost before I realize it.

And it’s most apparent with Jenna, who’ll be 13 soon, going on 37, changing schools again in the fall, going to a bigger junior high, her second new school in two years on top of the tragedy of her life right before that. We’d all agreed to the move, them even knowing they’d have to make new friends, to live closer to mom and dad, so I could have a little support now and then, and they could have more nearby family than just me. I had decided not to get too close, or mom would feel obligated to be there every single day and she had plenty of health problems to deal with right now. But we still managed a good visit with them at least once a week, and there were a few babysitting nights here and there to match up with my schedule.

I try to make things fun at breakfast, even on Monday mornings, but it’s hard to see the difference in behaviour before Tuesday. I really am still new to this whole parenting thing, and having been their guardian for eight months now, I feel like I should be getting more practice, but I also still feel like I’m coming up sputtering for air most days.

Four different kinds of cereal on the table, none of them Raisin Bran, so the girls have a choice, and I’m dropping fruit and snacks into three separate lunch bags while trying to get their attention at least little. “Okay, so today’s selection of sandwiches, we have green onions and chicken feet, or the ever-popular pickled hot peppers. Who wants what?” It didn’t matter the sandwiches were mostly already prepared, and on Mondays I usually went to the hard-learned favourites for everyone. From youngest oldest, we had processed cheese slice, bologna and ketchup, and lettuce, tomato, and cucumber with a tiny splash of Italian dressing. Two sets of eye rolls, but only the youngest reacts with anything more than that, scrunching up her entire face and sticking her tongue out. “Gross, chicken feet? Gross!”

I grin, grateful to have gotten something out of somebody. “What’s wrong with chicken feet? The chickens like them.”

“Liked. To walk on, not to eat. And you know what chickens walk on?”

I scratch my chin and let my eyebrows come down as if I’m giving it serious thought. “The ground, usually. But you know I washed them, right?” I do wonder how the school might react if I actually sent chicken feet with one of the girls for lunch. While I’m sure they’d get some excellent reactions from their friends, I’m equally sure there would be a phone call from the principal the same afternoon. I wonder if I can get away with exploring different cultural traditions. I kind of miss the easy access to China Town and other stuff not quickly found in the ’burbs. Not that I’ve ever eaten chicken feet.

“Even if you ran it through the dishwasher… no way would I eat that sandwich.”

“More for me.” I shrug and hold up a more or less orange slice of more or less cheese. “Okay for a second choice?”

Now I get the third eye roll. “Obviously.” I strip the plastic off. “Ah, the sarcasm is strong in this one.” After that, it’s just the delicate crunching of cereal for a while, though I do try one more time for engagement before they go up the stairs, but not directly with the one I think needs it the most. My relatively limited experience with the girls a daily basis tells me that Jenna comes out of it fastest if she’s left alone, but I still feel like I should try more. The younger two could always be engaged on some level. So, Marsha is my next target, the only one who eats cereal like I do, without milk.

“When I was kid, probably almost your age, Marsha—” A couple of years younger actually, but not so relevant to the story, and better to draw a parallel. Her eyebrows go up but she doesn’t look at me. “—your grandfather and Uncle Bill took me fishing one Saturday morning. At the time, they both subscribed to the theory that the fish got up really early so you had to get up earlier to be there when they got up if you wanted to catch them. They got me up at 4 o’clock in the morning.” Her eyebrows rise higher but she’s not quite making eye contact. “In those days, I was told, the toaster was too noisy so we didn’t use it to avoid waking your grandmother. Breakfast was frosted flakes in milk.”

“Gross.” She sticks her tongue.

“I agree with you now, but then it was okay, except they spent too long drinking coffee and I wasn’t very awake, so what I eventually wound up with was the sort of sugary not-flake mess, kind of like sludge in the bowl. “

“You’re going to make me gag.”

“Sorry, is your stomach getting delicate again?” I grin at her. “My point is, that’s why I don’t eat cereal with milk on it today, because your grandfather made me choke down that stuff twenty-five years ago.”

“I totally get it. Milk to drink is on the side, not on the cereal. I hate soggy cereal.”

I catch Jenna looking at me through her hanging hair. She rolls her eyes, and that’s probably all I’m to get this morning.

 

3

I try to make it a joke, but I’m really feeling the difference in Sheena’s and my relationship activities lately. The girls are all in sight, walking just ahead of us, and Sheena’s holding my hand at least, a firm grip, a warm grip, and I wish I had her around a lot more than I do. I keep my voice low so there’s no chance any of the girls will overhear, and they’re ignoring us anyway. “Remember when I used to take you shopping for fun stuff? You know, jewelry, flowers, candy, that sort of thing?”

She squeezes my hand harder than the joke is worth, but I felt like her laughter is a bit forced. “You have never once have taken me shopping for jewelry.”

“Ah, haven’t I? I thought I had. I know I’ve bought lots of flowers and candy when we get together.” I pretend to consider it. “But no jewelry, really? I was sure I had.” The words are out of my mouth before I can think to stop them, and I very specifically don’t react to the sudden and sharp look Sheena gives me.

“I’m not sure how to take that.”

By my lower lip for a second and exhaled loudly. “That’s okay. I’m not quite sure how I meant it. Can we back away slowly and change topics if I promise to figure it out on my own at let you know?”

“Deal.”

Take a few more steps, “But I am sorry.”

“For what?”

“For using a big chunk of our weekend together to take the girls to the mall to shop for clothing.” Like it’s the first time.

She laughs and suggests lunch. We wind up sprawled across two tables in the food court, the girls sitting separately and talking about things that I wasn’t generally equipped to deal with, me using peripheral vision to look on from the table next to theirs to give them at least the illusion of privacy while Sheena and I talk without them feeling the need to be involved. Although, I was sure that they were all paying more attention more than it looked like they were even if they weren’t just paying attention to the things I thought they were.

“It’s not so bad, really.”

My gaze stays to Sheena and I keep the girls in my peripheral, fooling myself that I can keep track of all three of them but not expecting anyone to run off in the middle of lunch. They’re all too old for that. Still, it’s good to be prepared. “What’s not so bad?” I think back to previous conversation to see if I can figure out where she’s at right now.

“This.” She waved a hand vaguely, taking in the whole mall, I think. “I have lots of memories at the mall, most of them as a teenager, even if my job takes me to a lot of them these days. That’s not the same, though and it’s not nostalgia, exactly, but it doesn’t really bother me to spend a Saturday afternoon here.”

I smile back. “Which is cool, but it’s not really what you signed on for, is it? I mean, long distance relationship aspects aside, I was young and single and just had a job to kind of tie me to one spot when we started dating. Things are a bit different now. Different like I’m the guardian to my sister’s three children, responsible in a big way for three lives other than my own.” Yeah, it’s a little different now.

She leans across the plastic table and snares half a spring roll from my plate. “You were pretty committed to that job, I think.”

I snort, shaking my head. “Not so much the job as the people. And it was actually a lot closer than I ever told you. I was actually–” I bite down on the words. because now that I could look back and see things, I remember things that I don’t know if were actually enough in my head at the time to put words to. Being honest, I can see that my stress level was ridiculously high, and it all had to deal with keeping two lives separate.

Her hand tightens on my arm. I hadn’t even felt her put it there. “You were actually…”

I shake my head again. “I’m not sure this is a conversation I want to be having with the girls three feet away.” I glance over to their table, and Jenna has her cell phone out, texting someone, one side of her headphones dangling from the ear close to us while her sisters are making faces at each other. “Yeah, maybe not.”

“Not what?”

“Maybe they’re not paying as close attention as I think they there.” I shake my head and look back Sheena. Better not to dismiss it, but also better to be careful. “Still, not exactly how I might’ve wanted to have this particular conversation, if I’d thought about it at all.”

“And yet I think you want to tell me something, enough that it’s burning a hole in your stomach right now.”

Not how I would have put it, but not wrong. “It’s scary how well you know me sometimes.” And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. But there are secrets in the past that can stay secrets in the past, even if there are feelings that maybe shouldn’t. “I was actually… it wouldn’t have taken much more to get me to drop that job and move to wherever you were.”

I feel my mouth twitch just a little as her eyebrows both go up. “At least at the time.” She’d been ready to stop visiting and with a pretty good reason. “After…” I didn’t want to talk about that rough period. “Well, there was a period I started feel a lot less sure about myself and you didn’t seem all that eager for a while.” Even remembering the conflict that I felt, I can look back and see that I was pretty ready to relocate, move my superhero life just as readily quitting my day job, in spite of the difficulty of that secret. “I think about it a fair bit, but it’s easy to look back now and see what should have been obvious. The job was just a job, both the one I’d gotten laid off from and the one I’d just started. My boss at Hamilton was awesome for letting me relocate and keep essentially the same functions, but it was still just a job, even if it was better than the one I’d had before. I do miss Kelly and Henri and a couple of other people. Did I tell you that they she’s pregnant, by the way?”

She shakes her head. “No, but I’ll congratulate her later, if you like. Right now, it’s too much like a deflection.”

There’s nothing to do but laugh unless I want to buy myself a few more seconds with a mouthful of rice. “I suppose it is. The point is, that I love you. It was harder to say before this—” I made a circular motion with the hand holding the plastic fork—“for some reason, and I know that, sometimes at least, the change in my life has been hard for you to adapt to. I’m not sure how the girls feel about things, but I know it's harder for you.”

She stands up and leans forward to kiss me and the movement is too quick and I’m too surprised to kiss her back. It’s not particularly intense or passionate, more like a quick peck to remind me that she can do it whenever she likes. She sits back down and picks out a couple of fries to dip in the sweet and sour sauce, stirring them around a bit. “I love you too. And whatever label you put on our relationship, I don’t see that changing. No, this is not what I was expecting on our first date, but how could I? And, if I’m honest, this new parental responsibility is showing a seriously attractive mature side of you that I like, even if I’m still getting used to it.”

Which, somehow, makes me feel a whole lot better.

 

4

The one thing I don’t like that much about my current role is that I have a late night in the testing lab every couple of weeks. It’s an intrusion into my now normal human sleep schedule, otherwise inviolate, except in the events of childhood illness or emergency, both thankfully rare so far. On the other hand, it means I get to see mom and maybe dad for an extra, if short, visit. They drop right into parental mode and make the drive to babysit their granddaughters and we usually spend a few minutes talking before they go home. If it was any more than once every couple of weeks, I’d probably have to look into investing into standardized babysitting services, or even the occasional nanny to cover things, which would significantly eat into the savings I was managing to put together. As it is, we have a couple of possible sitters and I haven’t been in a tough spot yet.

To be honest, I’m not even sure why a late-night is built into the schedule, although pretty much everyone in my department has one, so that’s at least fair. But, really, nothing that any of us did on those late evenings couldn’t have been done in the morning or afternoon, if we wanted to. And leaving work at midnight, well, sucks. That much I totally remember from my on-call days, and if I’d built extra respect for people who worked nonstandard shifts, I already had some from previous lives.

I’m not a scientist or an engineer, although I can spreadsheet with the best of them, and test design and data analysis are certainly things I can use the word ‘specialization’ on. The network security guy persona is comfortable, but comfortably easy. This was actually more interesting and more fun.

Right now, I’m finishing up the last testing series and the first draft analysis package for the latest formulation of sticky ball. The initial data, although I still have a lot of heavy analysis to do, is pretty good. Oxygen permeability looks to be up another 15%, making it within spitting distance of almost being able to breathe through. But it’s still, at least according to the data, costing the final polymer 56% in tensile strength. The last formulation had done little bit worse on both counts, and our test group of superheroes is still using the original, but I wonder how much strength we’ll have to surrender to make it completely breathable.

I do agree that it probably can’t be sold effectively on a large scale until the company could essentially guarantee that somebody got caught in the face with one wouldn’t suffocate and die, but I’m pretty sure that some of the numbers this test run gave me, and I would probably have to do a little googling to be certain, brought the strength of the material down inside two Sigma of normal human strength range without getting us to that point. I can’t help but think of how disappointing that strength might have been when I was dealing with Sylvain.

Still, it’s promising. I don’t know if I can recommend that this one goes out for field testing, but we’ll see how it goes when I get to the bottom of the numbers. Besides, it might be beneficial to work until we got the oxygen permeability up to completely safe levels and then started into a second sequence of tweaks to get tensile strength back to the originals. I hope it’s possible. Not my department, though.

Control+S. Always save the results. Save early, save often. There were several backups of the raw data, but that’s not the same thing as the analysis. I hate to lose work. I skip from one computer to the other and to open up a note file to skim, something I recorded during the testing series.

And that’s when the fire alarm goes off.

Except it’s not a fire alarm, but a totally different, if equally loud and annoying. And, and automated voice message chimes in with the flat

“Data integrity attack. Site Initiated.”

I actually wrap my head around the first statement easily, even if I have no idea why I’m hearing it. The second makes no sense. “What?” A stupid reaction, and I’m suddenly glad I saved as my system starts to shiver and crash. The notes file freezes and then nothing else wants to open, even a basic system readout. Back at the other computer, I find things not much different, but do manage to get to a command prompt to initiate a system check, getting a ridiculous sounding error. Unable to connect to server. Internal server error.

“Initiating site lockdown.”

I know we have IT guys, and I’m sure one of them is kicking around even though it’s 1030 at night. But I’m here, I have a little experience at emergency computer assistance, so I scoop an unconnected laptop from another workbench, one that I can connect with a cable and a couple of clicks directly to a server, and before I can think too hard about it, I’m off to the server room. If nothing else, it will keep me from twiddling my thumbs for the rest of the night and maybe I can even be productive until the IT crisis team shows up.

The server room is actually two floors below me and on the same side of the building. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t take that long to get to, but I worry about the phrase “site lockdown” and think I don’t want to push my luck too far and find myself locked in the stairwell or the elevator. It might be a while before things get resolved.

The door on my floor opens easily enough, recognizing my code, so I have no issues getting into the stairwell, at least, but I decide to use the small network cable I grabbed to prop the door open instead of letting it close behind me, under the working assumption that I’ll probably be able to find another in the server room itself.

Two floors down, the door opens easily again, this time with the manual release, and I’m starting to wonder what these the word lockdown means. Our normal security systems don’t seem to be affected, although it occurs to me that I don’t really know enough about the systems in building since it’s never been my job, and maybe the internal door locks are on a completely separate server. That’s actually smart, if it’s true.

But, even with what I think were quick reactions, I’m too slow. The door to the server room is already open, which means someone is already on the case. Well, at least I can offer my assistance, and an extra laptop. I stick my head in the door. “Hey, I…”

It’s very difficult to complete an offer of assistance when you’re confronted by someone in what might as well be stormtrooper armour, if charcoal gray instead of white, and pulls what looks like a thumb drive out of the server he’s standing in front of. He looks up, probably decides I that I’m just an IT guy and not a threat, and takes his time to pull one more little blue drive from the last server in a row before turning to confront me.

COLLAPSE

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