Volume 1 of the Citizen Trilogy
Size: 6.00 x 9.00 in
Armed with a super suit, an IT degree, and a little bit of writing skill, our prospective hero plunges into the heroing business as an official field tester for Heroes Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Hamilton Progressive Defense Systems. Criminals and thugs, supervillain wannabes, robots and a giant, he’s got his work cut out for him.
And he can’t even manage to pick his own superhero name.
I live in a really, really boring city.
Watch the news and you might think something horrible happens every night on every corner of every block, but try finding a crime in progress and you’ll spend a lot of time looking. A lot of time. Four nights now and I haven’t managed even one. The sirens always move away from me. So does everything and everyone else.
Wasted light from the city washes the clouded underbelly of the sky. The moon makes a dim blotch behind the orange and grey. There isn’t enough reflected light to cast shadows but, for anyone in the alley beneath me, I’m probably a clean outline against those semi-lit clouds.
Not that there is anyone.READ MORE
I let a sigh escape. It hisses almost untouched through the distorter. Rising out of the crouch I’ve spent the last ten minutes in, I walk back to the middle of the roof, cricking my neck from side to side and shaking my hands out. Trying to shake off the mild funk I’ve let settle in is more like it.
We’d talked about this kind of thing in training for about fifteen minutes: how to recognize it, how it was more disappointment or boredom than actual depression, and how the psychologist giving the talk didn’t have any suggestions on how to deal with it other than patience. Not that any of us cared at the time, more concerned with training hurrying up and being over already so we could get on with the job, the adventure.
The next roof is only seven or eight feet away and it’s a little lower. An easy jump, especially considering how much practice I’ve had in the last few nights. Eight running steps and the ninth pushes me off the edge and into the air. I love the little lurch in my stomach for that first instant with nothing underneath me. More intense than going over the lip of that first downswing on a roller coaster; I hope it never goes away.
I touch down easily and don’t break my stride as I sprint across the building, already looking ahead to the one after. A little further, but the same level, more or less. Still not really a challenge.
Four rooftops and two fire escapes later, I stop to catch my breath. I’m trying to take it easy so it doesn’t take long. I know I’ll need to get used to the feeling of sweat in the suit, at least if I’m going to take this seriously, but it would be nice if the material breathed better.
Sitting on the edge of a four-story roof, I dangle my feet out over the street and wonder why I answered the ad in the first place. On some level, maybe I wanted to spend my nights running around rooftops in funny pajamas instead of sleeping, not that I’d had any idea of the job description when I put my fingers on the keyboard, but it must have been there somewhere. And running across rooftops is about all I’ve done so far. Nothing else yet. I guess it’s about patience, something I’ve never really been good at. I just wish something would happen. Anything.
A loud crash comes from beneath me followed by the gentle crystal rain of smaller bits of glass dropping to the sidewalk. I look down and see three men step away from the front of the building, each carrying an armload of what look like Bluray and DVD cases. They dump them into the bed of a pickup and take a few hurried steps back into the store and out of my view.
Sulking on a rooftop, I couldn’t be bothered to look down before I sat. Would I even have noticed the truck if I had? Probably only if they’d been getting out of it at the time. Sometimes I’m a little slow, I guess, but I see it now, and watch the three men rob what must be a video rental store. My heart starts pounding as I take the baton from my right thigh holster. I’ve practiced this plenty of times in the last four nights, but never when it mattered.
The hooks pop out with the touch of a button and I overlap two of them with the roof’s edge before slipping off. Even at only two inches long, the pair of hooks don’t have any problem supporting my weight. Touching the second button makes the line begin to play out and I start dropping toward the ground.
In training, I watched an instructor do this by jumping off the ledge from a standing start and catching the hook on the way by, but I haven’t been brave enough to try that yet, even from a single story roof or a fire escape. Someday, but I won’t do any good right now if I break both of my legs due to bad timing. I don’t want to miss my chance and I don’t have that much trust in the suit yet, not to keep me safe from a four-story fall.
For the eight or ten seconds it takes me to reach the sidewalk, I worry about what I’m going to say. It needs to be strong, something to stop them in their tracks. Preferably, it should also dazzle the thieves with my brilliant wit. At the very least, it should get their attention.
I don’t need to worry. My appearance gets their attention, freezes them where they stand. Jaws drop. Eyes get wide. I’ve got a captive audience for my witty repartée. “All right guys, that’s enough.” Oh, so witty. With all the spare time I’ve had over the last few nights, you’d think I’d be better prepared. But then, with all of the sleep I haven’t gotten, maybe it’s impressive that I can spit out a coherent sentence at all.
For a moment, they don’t respond. The voice distorter makes me sound like a robot from a 1980s b-movie and I probably look like a comic book reject as I flick some slack up the line and press the button to retract the hooks. The line winds in almost exactly as fast as the head falls, snapping into place with none of the backlash you get from a tape measure. Whatever part of the design team was responsible for the baton did a very good job.
The biggest one, shaggy and scruffy in a black leather jacket, snorts a laugh. “What are you supposed to be, Batman or something?”
Inside the helmet, I smile. “Do I look like an orphaned billionaire with too much time on his hands?” It’s hard not to laugh. If only I had access to Batman’s toys. “I’m just a concerned citizen.” Behind Scruffy, a goatee and pony tail lean out to see me clearly over his shoulder.
Beside him, a guy a little shorter, but at least fifty pounds heavier, drops three cases from the stack he’s carrying, and then four more when he tries to catch them. In a couple of seconds, he’s standing in the middle of a scattered pile with a confused look on his face, holding just one disk in each hand.
For a couple of heartbeats, no one moves.
He smiles, the one I’ve decided is the leader, and I have just a moment to wonder what he could be happy about before I hear the voice behind me. “Yeah, whatever.”
I spin around, showing all three of them my back as I step sideways to widen my view, but I only get half way before I hear the shot and the bullet pounds into my side, knocking me off my feet to land on my back.
“This is your suit.”
Stretched over the mannequin, a spandex body suit, complete with boots, gloves, and a helmet, stood in the centre of the far wall on a stand that looked bolted to the floor. Charcoal against white, it pulled at every eye as we filed into the room. We spread out into a loose semi circle and waited for Edstrom to give another mini-lecture, his fifth–or was it sixth?–so far that morning.
The lips under his weasel moustache twitched. “Doesn’t look like much, does it? Like something out of a black and white comic book.” He slapped a hand on the mannequin’s shoulder. “It’s so much more.” Reaching up to the neck, he rolled down the collar a little. “For starters, its colour is fully customizable. The presets are grey, red–” he moved one finger in the collar and the entire suit changed to Superman red– “and an urban camouflage pattern.” Now the suit shifted to the colour of cement vomit with a few blotches of blue thrown in. “But with a little patience and practice, you can have any design you like.” The suit switched to black with silver lightning bolts and I wondered if anyone else found the design familiar.
He dropped into a talk about the various features of the suit, covering each one in excruciating yet obviously incomplete detail. The man seemed incapable of realizing when he bored his audience and he was probably blind to the fact that he wasn’t an expert on anything. None of us really cared exactly how the kinetic mesh or the helmet’s voice distorter worked, the helmet optics wouldn’t matter until we could test them, and the distributed computer was just a phrase. Way too much detail. Machine washable was nice, though.
“So that’s your suit in a nutshell.” Edstrom smiled and made eye contact with each of us, just as he had during the long lecture. “Any questions?” His eyes rippled across the audience again, but we didn’t have any. Rather, we had lots but none we were willing to ask if it made him take longer to get to the point. “All right then, let’s move on to a little practical.” He gestured to a door in the wall to our left. “Through there, you will find a series of change rooms labeled with your numbers. Please change into your suits and meet back here in ten minutes.”
Ten minutes seemed like a lot of time to get changed, but there was a lot of fabric tugging involved to get the fit right, and I spent a lot of time admiring myself in the mirror. The very detailed measurement process I’d submitted to yesterday morning obviously went to customize the suit and I could see I didn’t want my weight to move either up or down more than a couple of pounds. The mask gave me a hard time until I figured out that the two-inch-wide strip along one side was actually transparent from the inside and would stretch across my eyes nicely.
I played with the collar until I found the tiny pad that changed the suit colour when I pressed it. Same three presets, but all with the number forty-two in large white numbers on my chest. Settling on the charcoal, I pulled the mask off and left the change room. Helmets to be issued later, I supposed.
Five of the others waited in the white room by the time I returned, two in red, three in charcoal. I wondered if anyone would pick the camouflage pattern but didn’t have to wonder long: the next person out of the change rooms wore, it, probably to distract from the form fitting material.
But she was the only one. The last three all arrived in grey, completing our group. Ten minutes seemed about right after the fact, but we waited for another ten trying not to make small talk before Edstrom bothered to return. Not really surprising. As the high-powered executive in charge of the program, his time was far more valuable than ours, of course.
Edstrom stuck a phone back in his pocket as he walked past us and past the mannequin to a set of cupboards on the wall opposite the changing rooms. We turned to follow him, flowers tracing the path of the sun. He waited to be sure he had our complete attention before speaking. “Your suit will not make you stronger or faster or smarter. Those are all your problem.” He grinned, and I found it just a little creepy. “It also won’t let you walk through walls or leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s designed purely for protection, to keep you alive.”
Turning, he opened one of the cupboards and took out a knife and a baseball bat. Carrying both, he walked back over to the dummy suit. “Come in a little closer but leave me enough room to swing.”
As we crowded in, Edstrom took the knife and slashed across the mannequin’s chest. A thick line of grey marked the slash for a couple of seconds then faded away in a second or two more, leaving no mark on the black. Stepping to the side to give everyone a good view, he stabbed the dummy three times in the stomach leaving three round grey spots that faded out the same way the line had and just as quickly. As far as I could see, the stabbings didn’t push the fabric in more than half an inch.
He turned back to us with a huge smile. “Anyone want to try?”
The knife passed from hand to hand and five or six suited figures took turns stabbing the mannequin with the same result. I wasn’t going to bother, but someone pressed the knife into my hand.
“Before you do it,” Edstrom interrupted as I reared back, “take a glove off. As soon as you pull the knife away, put your hand on the spot.”
We all looked at him for an explanation, but he kept a bland smile on his face, so I shrugged, pulled my left glove off, and stabbed the mannequin. I didn’t stab it as hard as I could, but hard enough that I would have sunk several inches into a roast with a sharp carving knife. The blade pushed in just a little, then skidded several inches across the mannequin’s stomach. Putting my hand over the grey spot, I waited for whatever was supposed to happen. After a moment, I felt the spot grow warm and turned to look at Edstrom.
“Stored kinetic energy is released by the mesh as heat, designed to radiate away from the body. It’s not perfect, but it works pretty well.” He hefted the bat. “More kinetic energy makes more heat. Who’s up?”
The bat left bigger grey marks, long and thin with jagged crinkles at the edges. Those marks gave off a lot more heat, but they didn’t take any longer to fade than the knife slashes or stabbings had.
We oohed and ahed for a minute or two before a red suit with the number twenty-seven on his chest asked the question that had to be running through everyone’s mind. “What about bullets? I don’t think any of us is really looking to get shot while doing this job.”
Smiling, Edstrom reached into his suit jacket, pulled out a small revolver and shot Twenty-seven three times in the chest.
We gaped at him for a moment, everyone too stunned to do more than let our mouths hang open. Edstrom wiggled the gun more or less in the direction of his victim. The shots still ringing in my ears, I looked at Twenty-Seven, who stood in the same place, looking down at his chest, hands spread but not raised. I followed his gaze just in time to see the quarter-sized jagged circles disappear, starting at the rough crackling edges and shrinking to dots that actually fell away, hitting the floor with tinkling bounces.
Twenty-seven’s hands clenched into fists and he took a small step towards Edstrom, but our lecturer spoke into the silence before the flattened bullets stopped ringing. “Getting shot at close range can hurt. That was only a .22 caliber shell and probably felt like someone poking you in the chest, Twenty-Seven.”
Stopping before he took another step, Twenty-Seven’s head tilted down again, obviously looking at his chest. At the same time, he brought a hand up, fingers probing to try to find the spots the bullets had impacted. There weren’t any visual traces and he didn’t seem hurt at all. I started to wonder what it might have felt like.
Edstrom’s smile grew wider, obviously enjoying the reaction. “The larger the caliber of the bullet, the stronger the impact will be. Most conventional automatic weapons ammunition will feel like little stings or large insect bites. A .38 at close range will probably leave a bruise and a .45 at the same range might even knock you over, but you should be able to get up swinging. The best thing to get hit with is a shotgun loaded with buckshot, even at close range—with the ball spread, you probably won’t even notice the impact until the suit releases the stored heat. Slugs are a different matter. Overall, our testing indicates bruises and, very occasionally, a cracked rib, but that’s extremely rare even against high caliber weapons. Try not to get shot in the head as there is a very small, but measurable chance of a concussion, even with the helmet.” He shrugged. “Well, at point blank ranges, anyway.” My eyes dropped to the floor, looking for the flat bullets again as Edstrom kept talking. “The lesson to take away from this particular demonstration is trust your suit. Anyone else want to give it a try?”
I wondered if anyone else wanted to try hitting him. Besides Twenty-seven, anyway.
“What the fuck, man! You shot ‘im!”
My ribs hurt. Not as much as I thought they might, given the range, but the gun isn’t as big as it looks, I guess. I’ll have a nice bruise before long, though. Did the helmet tell me what it was? I think I remember it whispering something about the same time as I felt the impact. Focus. You’re not hurt, so figure things out.
“Yeah. ‘S why I carry the gun, douche.”
I’m not hurt, but I don’t really want him to get a second shot, so the one with the gun has to go down first. The other three should be easy. I’ve been working hard, training hard. It shouldn’t take more than a minute unless someone runs away, and even then, I’m getting faster.
“What the fuck!”
It’s funny the way your mind starts to work once you’ve proven to yourself you can’t be killed, that nothing in your current circumstance can really hurt you, that you can do anything you want. Did they cover that in training? I tighten a fist just to feel the mesh of the glove crinkle. If he speaks again, I’ll know exactly where he is.
“Just load up, fuck.”
And that’s all I need.
Rolling onto my back, I kick out with both feet and feel a kneecap crack under the impact. I’m standing as he screams another obscenity and pull the gun from his hand before he can recover enough to squeeze the trigger or even aim the weapon.
He throws a punch that’s so slow I can just step out of the way, moving in closer and pushing his arm with my left forearm, shoving the fist so far off line he’s wide open for anything I care to do to him. My right fist hits his ribs hard enough that I have a brief flash of worry that I’ve broken a couple of those, too, but I haven’t got time to think about that. Between the knee and the ribs, he isn’t standing very tall anymore and my left fist catches him behind the ear.
Before he hits the ground, I’m already turning to face his friends. Two of them are slack jawed from the speed of my recovery or maybe the vicious counterattack. Scruffy winces at the crack of his friend’s head on the sidewalk.
“Who’s next?” Funny, no one steps forward.
Three sets of hands twitch and the klutz drops his last two disks. I get tired of waiting very quickly. Even one gunshot attracts attention and the store must have an alarm system. I can’t afford to still be here when the metro police finally arrive.
I take one step forward and the two behind Scruffy each shuffle back a step. He tenses up and his eyes tighten. Two steps to my left and I take my eyes off them to pick up my baton. When I straighten, the same two lean away from me and Scruffy hasn’t moved. Looks like I’ve got a volunteer after all. I can’t help the smile, even if they can’t see it. The raw electricity running through my veins right now is better than any energy drink I’ve ever had.
Flinging the baton, I charge forward. Scruffy thinks he’s the target and ducks, but the steel tube smashes into the klutz’s face with a spray of blood. His hands fly up to his ruined nose and he opens his mouth to scream but no sound comes out. Scruffy doesn’t cooperate by standing up into my planned clothesline so I smash an elbow into the back of his neck and use the extra leverage for a jumping snap kick that connects with the quiet one’s jaw.
In almost slow motion, his head flies back and left, putting his face in light from the store window for just a moment. He’s just a kid. Peach fuzz on his lip, zits on his nose and forehead, he’s probably somebody’s little brother. One of the older idiots. Maybe this will help steer him back. Maybe it’ll help if I tell myself that again later, but right now there’s no time.
I squash the flash of guilt because he’s already going down and won’t get up again for a while. Scruffy and the klutz are still more or less standing and need a bit more of my attention before I can leave.
But maybe not as much as I thought. Scruffy drops to his hands and knees and the klutz has both hands trying to stem the flow of blood. Rivulets squeeze through his fingers and even down into the cuffs of his jean jacket. His eyes are scrunched shut and I think he’s starting to shiver. A back fist to the side of the head puts him down and it only takes one punch to knock over the last punk standing.
From where I’m standing, there are four unconscious men—three men and a teenager; the guilt starts to surge, but I push it down again—and I’m barely breathing hard. DVDs and Blu-rays are scattered over the sidewalk and bits of shattered glass decorate the scene. Still no sirens and no one has come out of the woodwork to see what’s going on.
I suck in a deep lungful of air and hold it until my chest hurts.
Jeez, so this is what it’s like to be a superhero. I feel like a god. In only a couple of minutes, I’ve proven I’m bulletproof and beaten up four men robbing a store. I start to tell myself that the second part is because of the first, but it’s a lie. Things will hopefully go in a different order next time, skipping over getting shot entirely if I can manage it.
I pick up my baton and slide it into the thigh holster, then spend a minute or so looking for the gun. It’s lying far too close to the shooter’s hand, so I toss it into the store. The police will look there, but my unconscious friend probably wouldn’t if he wakes up before they arrive.
For a moment, I debate if I should tie them up, but I’d have to look inside the store for some extension cords or something. Maybe I should think about some kind of gadget belt, but that seems a little too comic book when all I need is some rope. Spider-man had it easy.
A siren gets loud enough to break through the adrenaline, and I realize I’ve been hearing it for the last few seconds, at least. It’s time for me to disappear. I think I’ll watch from the roof to see if any of them manage to get up and stagger away before the police arrive.
But before I start for the nearest alley and, hopefully, fire escape, I just can’t resist waving at the little black bubble of the security camera a few feet inside the door. I hope it’s real and not a dummy.
I guess adrenaline makes me stupid.COLLAPSE