Marsha hummed quietly to herself as she pushed the cart through the empty store, collecting the cash boxes from the registers in the final stages of closing. She pushed her short brown hair behind her right ear beneath the frame of her glasses, stifling a yawn. She’d only had the manager position for a few days, and she held a satisfaction in the work she did and the money she’d earned for it, even if it required longer hours. They gave her time to think, and she appreciated the independence. It wasn’t like she had much to do at home anyway, and she knew who she was in the store, appreciating the consistency and dependability of the job, finding a sort of beauty in the routine.
The glass doors shattered violently open as four men stepped through the empty frames, power in every motion.
“Live.” Said the first one, eyes trained on a stopwatch. “Ninety-six seconds.” The four went furiously to work, running wide into the high-end department store, assault pistols at the ready. Two of them ran for the jewelry counter, shattering the protective glass casing and throwing as much as they could into the bags slung over the shoulders. The others approached Marsha, guns trained on her as they demanded the cash boxes she’d been collecting from around the store. She threw herself back from the cart, falling to her knees with her hands behind her head and weeping in terror before the gun in her face while the second thief looted the cart. The hostage taker glanced at his watch, counting down every precious second before the silent alarm from the breaking glass would bring the police to the scene. “Move it, move it!” He called to the others. “Thirty seconds!” The others rifled through their marks, furiously fighting the clock to lay claim to the pilfered valuables. “Clear!” cried the mastermind. The manager looked on in fear as they formed up, marching wildly for the back door. She turned her head as they stormed toward the exit, when in a fury of noise and pain the butt of the time keeper’s pistol collided with her right temple, causing her to collapse to the floor. Marsha’s vision faded as the men passed through the door, the darkness creeping in through her right eye until it turned the whole world black.
I placed the wrench on the workbench, cleaning the grease off my hands and stepping back from the table. As far as the project was from completion, I couldn’t help but be proud of the work we’d done. Carolynn stood up, looking at the partially assembled weapon on the table. She wiped her hands with a rag as she looked at the pile, leaning against the workbench by my side. “You know, if you used the compression schematic I put together coupled with the core elements of your system, you’d get the same if not better propulsion with less energy, and in smaller dimensions.”
“And I told you that the temperature gradients are too high in the prototype on paper. The numbers just don’t add up yet.” I replied.
“Do you have any idea how much butt that design would kick?” She asked, confident in her ability.
“Do you have any idea how much getting lit on fire sucks?” I said. “Because I do, and it sucks so much.”
She brushed the knots out of the brown hair that ran down to her jawline, trying not to smile. “It was one time.”
“Which was more than enough.” I said. “I mean, it’s not like it was the first time I’ve been on fire, and I doubt it’ll be the last… My point is we gotta try again if we want to build a propulsion system that actually works before we get into the finer points. And I’d like some focus on not lighting me on fire.”
“What’s this about being on fire?” Iris asked, rounding the corner of the open garage door, computer in hand.
I smiled at her. “I’m sure you know plenty about being on fire.” I said.
“I know how silly you look without eyebrows.” Iris replied, throwing a wink at Carolynn. “What are you guys doing in here with the door open? It’s freezing outside.”
“Got kinda stuffy in here.” I said. I looked her over, noting the red flannel shirt she wore over her black wide-collar tee. “I might not be cold if you didn’t steal my shirt.” I smiled.
“Well…” She began, not sure where she was going. “It’s cold, what am I supposed to do?”
“You wear it better than I do anyway.” I said. “What’s up?”
“I found a few things you may be interested in.” She said, placing the laptop on the workbench. “First, there’s this one.”
I looked at the monitor, an article detailing the witness account of a local pilot discussing the mysterious hooded man who helped him land his plane. “Well what do you know? Some actual acknowledgement. Maybe pretty soon they’ll admit we exist.”
“Maybe, but we get what we need. That’s all that matters.” Iris said. “Now I realize I probably should’ve started with the less favorable news, but here it is anyway: Jackson Garmana was found dead in his cell a week ago.”
I couldn’t believe it. “What happened? He was doing so well.”
“Hung from the ceiling with a bedsheet.” She said. “I guess they’re thinking suicide, but they have an internal affairs investigation open. I was… wondering if you could use any of your pickups in the department to find out what happened.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” I said, staring off to the side and shaking my head. I cursed under my breath. “He was a good man. He deserved better.”
We stood there for a moment, considering the gravity of the news. I couldn’t have seen it coming. The last week and half had gone so well since Droigheann had left, and when I visited Jackson at the prison, he was in incredible spirits. What happened?
“In the meantime,” Iris continued “I picked up a case on the scanner you might be interested in.”
“A robbery, late last night at Malveaux and Lorde.” She said. “It sounds like the perps were professionals, well-equipped. They have a witness, but it doesn’t sound like she’s said anything substantial yet.”
“Career criminals?” I said. “Finally, something normal.”
“Career criminals are normal?” Carolynn asked.
“Compared to some of the crap I’ve seen lately, it’s a little too normal.” I said. “I’ll go see what I can find, if there’s anything to it.”
Carolynn beamed. “Will you try the new sword?”
“If I find some action.” I said. “Nothing like some good field testing.”
“Detective Chase Murdock.” I said, brandishing my badge to the officer at the hospital. “I’m here to talk to the witness.”
“Whatever you say. She ain’t been much help.”
I stepped between the security guards and into the room, removing my gray blazer and rolling up my sleeves. In the bed before me laid a woman with short brown hair, a bandage wrapped around her head with a gauze pad in front of her right eye. I crossed the floor to the other side of the room, laying my jacket on the seat by the window. I turned to the officers at the door. “Give us a minute, will you?” I said, closing the door behind them as they left. “It’s Marsha, right?” I asked.
“Yeah…” She answered sheepishly. She was easy to pity, and in more than just the way people in hospitals look. Looking at the small, timid woman in the bed, I couldn’t help but notice her resemblance to Carolynn, making me pity her all that much more.
I sat down by the edge of the bed. “Well it’s nice to meet you, Marsha.” I said. “My name is Chase. Is there anything I can do to help you?” I asked quietly.
“No, I think I’m alright for now…”
“Well I’d like to help you.” I said. “But first I need you to answer some questions for me, is that alright?”
“I’ll try.” She said. “I don’t remember that much.” I stood up, rotating the blinds to lower the light in the room. “What are you doing?” She asked.
I returned to my seat and leaned forward, my left hand lighting up with a faint white glow. “The light might hurt your eye when the vision comes back.” I loosened the bandages on her head, carefully removing the gauze and placing my hand over the wound. The swelling on her eye began to subside, and she began to test the muscles, blinking slightly as her pupil began to dilate. She lifted a hand in front of her face in amazement, suspended in disbelief.
“How did you do that?” She asked.
I sat back down, pulling a folded up newspaper clipping from my pocket. “Have you seen this?”
She looked over the story of the pilot’s testimony for a moment. “Yeah, this is about that pilot who said he saw an angel or something, right?”
“He saw me.” I said, returning the clipping to my pocket and taking her hand. “I’m one of the good guys, Marsha. You can trust me.”
“Alright.” She started.
She struggled through her recreation of the encounter, recounting her fear in every moment until the blackness faded in and elaborating on the points I asked.
“Then I woke up here.” She finished. “That’s all I have. I’m sorry if it’s not very helpful.”
“It’s enough.” I said, trying to reassure her. “Thank you for your help.” I rose and picked up my jacket, pulling out one of my business cards and writing my informant number on the back. “If you think of anything else, don’t hesitate to contact me. We’ll be in touch if I have any more questions.” I picked up my jacket and began walking toward the door.
“Wait.” She said. I turned around, standing by the edge of the bed. “The pilot from the article, he said he thought you were an angel… Is he right?”
I touched her hand and smiled, pausing for a moment. “That’s for you to decide.” I said. “What do you believe?”
For the first time since the robbery, she smiled, lighting up the room with her joy. “I believe you’re more than people think you are.” I smiled and turned to leave the room, halted one last time by her final assertion. “You’re a hero.”
“I do what He made me to do.” I said.
I stepped out of the room, satisfied with the effort I’d made. Marsha was the kind of person who deserved a hero.
My moment was broken as a man rounded the corner, a police officer on either side. He spoke deliberately and with conviction to the officers, asking them questions about the witness. His gray coat smelled of his cologne, masking a slight musk of cheap cigars hidden beneath it, as though he’d relapsed into his former smoking habit in the occasional moment of weakness. His bronzed skin was peppered with the darkness of greying black bristles, casting a shadow on the lower part of his face. His hair was unkempt, receding in his experience above the forehead lines carved deep by the weight of his career.
His steely brown eyes met mine, noticing a badge-carrying man he didn’t recognize.
He finished the command he was giving the officer to his left, turning towards me in the abrupt next step of his procedural actions. “Who are you?”
“Detective Chase Murdock, I don’t believe we’ve met.” I replied.
“Captain Aaron Slate.” He said, extending his hand. He continued without pause, firmly grasping my right hand. “You new here or something?”
“Transfer. Pyropolis.” I said.
“Well welcome to Bastion.” He said. “I hope you’re not expecting it to be as friendly as the old City of Fire.”
Oh I’m not.
“They tell me they ain’t gotten anything out of this one yet, any updates?” He asked, gesturing to the room.
“Yeah.” I said. “Opened right up. She should be willing to answer any questions you have.”
Captain Slate seemed surprised. “Now how’d you do something like that?”
“Sometimes people just need to believe somebody’s on their side.” I smiled.
He half smiled, visibly impressed. “Not bad. Dreyfus.” He said, getting the attention of the officer next to him. “Give Murdock a copy of the case file from the scene, I assume you haven’t been yet?” He asked.
“Well here you go.” He said, passing me the folder as he opened the door. “Welcome to the BCPD.”
“Glad to be here, Captain Slate.”
I sat at the kitchen table staring into a glass and considering my next move, tuned out from the news station on the television in the corner. The information Marsha had provided hadn’t been terribly helpful, but there had to be something I could do with it.
“Local technology giant Cloud Incorporated has released a claim regarding their recent project, Fibre, stating that their initial tests for the radio signal technology has produced results far beyond expectations.” The news anchor said. “The project will be used to increase the abilities of cellular towers and wireless technology, allowing stronger signals and larger areas of coverage.”
“Hey there, pretty lady.” I said as Iris entered the door behind me. She rested her head on my shoulder, arms around my neck.
“How’s your day going?” She asked.
“I’ve had better.” I sighed. “Marsha wasn’t able to give me very much to go on, and these guys haven’t been in town long, so we can’t really venture a guess as to what their next move is. What Marsha could give me was vague, four identical pistols with extended clips and barrel shrouds.” I stood up and turned around, leaning against the edge of the table. “I could shake down the accessible gun runners in town, but it looks like we just might have to wait this one out and try to be ready with quick response times. I gave Captain Slate my informant number, told him to call me if he picks anything up.”
“Captain Slate?” She asked.
“Captain Aaron Slate. Showed up to see the witness, and almost got me into some hot water.”
“More trouble?” She said. “Just what we need.”
“I don’t think so.” I said. “Slate isn’t in it for the power, he actually has the nerve to believe in something. He’s a good guy, and they run in pretty short supply these days.”
“Well I’ve got the best one right here.” She said, leaning in for a kiss.
The news station on the TV behind me jumped to its next story, an image of some kind of press conference at the Albright Industries building. The podium boasted a smiling young man, olive skin and black hair, neatly combed to one side as the sides and back tapered down his head. He was a handsome man, a winning smile displayed prominently in the window of a neat short mustache and goatee. He held his arms wide and smiled, blue eyes shining in the light of the flashing cameras.
Beneath him ran a headline, “Albright Scientist David Fadi announces Mayoral run.”
“Speaking of good guys,” Iris said “you heard about this one? He seems to be something pretty special?”
“Well, he sure doesn’t look like a politician.” I said. “Which is a nice place to start.”
“Guy’s got charisma like the devil.” She said. “People are saying he’s every kind of awesome.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” I said, my skepticism undying.
Iris turned back to me, smiling as she gripped the edges of my blazer. “Come on, baby. You can’t hate everybody.”
“I don’t hate everybody, just a large percentage of people.” I said. “And he’s playing with a elected office-sized handicap.”
Iris laughed. “It’s kind of hard to disagree with you on that one.” She turned the TV off. “So are we going out tonight?”
“I think I can handle it, but if you’re interested.” I said. “We also have to find a way to stay in closer up-to-the-minute contact with the robbers, and be ready to act when we finally get something.”
“So we need somebody fast?” She asked, touching her chin with one hand and smiling smugly.
“Fast is good.”
“I have just the man.”
“I think you mean kid.” I said.
The next few days were spent shaking down arms in attempts to track the pistols, but given a lack of specific information about the particulars of the weapons, Iris and I were unable to garner any significant amount of information. Meanwhile, I hadn’t been contacted by Captain Slate, leaving me largely at square one.
Until I received the call that night.
Four men exited the car, assault rifles at the ready as they strode into the science and technology lab. They’d practiced for this operation, made contingencies for police presence or uncooperative hostages. The night would leave the lab vulnerable, putting as few civilians as possible in their way as they went for their target.
The lock on the door fizzled open as the thermite cooked through the steel in a flash of sparks and flame. They threw themselves into the room, iron-sighted and working like a well-oiled machine. Up the rear staircase, around the right corner, cut through the grate, and behold: The Mark. They had thought of everything.
They hadn’t thought of me.
A straight black sword pierced the floor, the handle erupting in an expansive foam that filled the gap in the security gate. The criminals recoiled at the startling sound of the impact before approaching the wall, the first of them tapping on it with the butt of his weapon. He struck at the barrier, the gun bouncing off the wall.
Nothing like some good field testing.
They began to skirt the edges of the room, calling out commands to search for whoever was there.
“Put down your weapons and get on your knees. One chance.” I said. “Then I hurt you.”
“Not if I put a bullet in you first, you psychopath.”
“Don’t count on it.” I growled.
I hid in the shadow at the top of the room atop a series of waste disposal pipes. My senses rose, consciousness extending through the room to track their movements. They didn’t stand a chance against me.
I began with one at the edge of the room, securing a hallway beneath an elevated catwalk. I dropped to the catwalk, swinging over the edge of the safety rail to land silently behind him. I pulled the end of a steel grappling cable from my vambrace, throwing it around his neck and gripping his windpipe beneath it. I pushed him to his knees with one leg, using the other to push the assault rifle from his hands. He fought in silence, gasping for breath before he faded into unconsciousness. He collapsed as I returned to the upper level of the catwalk, kneeling behind the wall of the safety barrier. The others moved around the room, the one at the center barking commands as he worked at the large metal case in front of him to procure his target.
I made for the second of them, a thief in the corner of the level he shared with the target approaching a nearby staircase leading to a lower level. He stepped cautiously down the staircase, carefully checking his corners with the assault rifle. The one in the center called that he’d secured the mark, and another of them went to assist him in getting it out of the room. I threw myself around the railing from beneath the staircase, pulling the top of the rifle against the thief’s neck and slamming his head against the wall to his side. The man in the center called for the second to cover him, and his comrade took his side, scanning the area through the sights of his weapon as they slowly paced for the exit.
There was a brief pause as they worked, the silence of the room twisting into a fear of the anticipation.
I fell between the two, jabbing my elbow into the gunman’s back, striking in furious succession at the two criminals. The one who’d been calling the shots was unphased as the other flew headfirst into the safety rail opposite him as he turned to strike. I redirected his force into the floor. To my amazement, his arm shot up beneath me, overpowering my hold against him and striking my chest with his elbow. He stood before me, straightening up to meet the challenge. He curled his hand into a fist, and a series of black circles on the joints of his arm twisted into new positions, the bionic black sleeve illuminating with faint blue LEDs as the circular joints and steel rods slid into place.
He led with his right arm, throwing with the added force of the exoskeleton unfurling with him. I ducked to one side, pulling the scales from my pocket and driving them into his side. He tumbled to the side of the room, the box from the security chamber sliding across the floor with him. I grappled to the wall behind him, sliding feet-first into his side and kicking him against the wall. I threw my right arm forward toward his shoulder as he raised his left arm, circling it around mine and striking with a flat hand against my shoulder. The force of the hit pushed me back, and in the moment before I made my next move, I felt the cold barrel press against the back of my head.
The man with the augmented arm stood up, taunting me as he picked up the box.
There was a crack like thunder and a flash of light.