My name is James Montgomery. I am seventeen years old, and I have the greatest job in the world.
Some kids work retail. Some kids mow lawns. Some kids shovel fries.
I fight crime.
My PDA's beeper goes off during World History. I turn it down and glance up to Mr. Brinkley. He's in the middle of explaining the fall of Rome when he catches my look and gives me the nod.
As far as everyone knows, I'm a volunteer firefighter. If they were to give the station a call, an operator would pick up and act the part of a surly department deputy too busy to deal with suspicious teachers. If they were to look online for fire reports, they'd find that it lines up with my sudden absences. If they were to 'drop by' the station and ask about me at any time during the day, they'd meet at least three separate people armed with embarassing stories about the one time I ran into a burning building and rescued a sex doll.
I get up and jog downstairs, fishing the tiny earpiece out of my pocket. As soon as I've got it in, I click it on.
There's a brief crackle of static followed by the voice of a young woman: "Good afternoon, Paladin. I'm Holly; I'll be your handler for today."
"Cool," I tell her, keeping my voice low as I make my way out of the hall and onto the street. I pull out the keys and hop on my moped, mounting my PDA on the handlebar. Meanwhile, Holly starts feeding the PDA directions; my destination pops up on a map, plotting a route.
I start the moped up with a rumble and slip out into the crowded street. As I drive, Holly keeps talking.
"There seems to be a small problem, sir," she says.
I was never comfortable with the way handlers always call me 'sir'. The vast majority of them have ten years on me. "Paladin's fine," I tell her, keeping my voice just above the growl of the moped. "What's up?"
"Mulligan has responded to the beeper, but he hasn't turned on his headset. I've got a handler standing by for him, but--"
I try not to grin. "Did you check his file?"
"Should be a memo in there about that. He doesn't work with a handler."
The long silence that follows tells me right off that we're going to have one of those conversations.
"Sir--ah, Paladin," she says. "It's protocol for all registered capes to have handlers. Refusing the aid of a handler is a flagrant violation of--"
"Check his file," I tell her. "It's authorized."
"Paladin, handlers exist to--"
"Yeah, I know. I need your help. He doesn't. Can you tell me what's up?"
"There's a situation at the Dresden Center. Several Class 4s--tech-based, initial reports say."
"At least four."
I do the math. Don't like the result. "One of our team-members is still recovering--got injured a while ago. Anyone you can contact to play pitch-hitter?"
"One moment." A few seconds of silence, and then: "The nearest substitute cape is a Class 3. She can be there in thirty minutes."
I grimace. Still, it's not too bad. With Mulligan there, things should be fine.
The police have the city block squared off; they've started evacuating. I pull the moped into an alleyway far off from the crowds, stash it by a dumpster, double-check to make sure no one's in eye-sight--and then change.
Doesn't take more than two seconds. I just think of clothes--of the hair, of the mask--and conjure them into reality. A costume of glowing white engulfs me; I feel the tangled threads of dreadlocks sprouting from my shaven head.
I kick my feet--immense pistons made from hot white light engulf them, firing off like cannons. I'm propelled up the side of the building to the rooftop, where I quickly run to the edge--and then, after a quick check to make sure no one's beneath me, I leap down--extending stilts from my feet to hit the ground long before my momentum becomes dangerous.
I slowly retract the pillars until I'm on the ground. Several police officers confront me--more than a few of them stare at me with clear disapproval.
I can understand the irritability; I'm half their age and three times as effective. Frankly, it doesn't bother me. Never liked cops anyway.
"Mercenaries," the one in charge tells me. "At least four of them."
"None. They've got power-armor and guns that can punch basketball sized holes through walls. Figured they were at least Class 4s," he says.
I nod my head. Usually, Cape-Busters would be called in to handle a situation like this--but they're stretched pretty thin these days. I start moving toward the front of the building.
The cop behind me gives me a look. "You're just walking in? Where's your back-up?"
"On the way," I say, and then I grin. My entire body is promptly engulfed in a gleaming suit of brilliant white armor--a giant shield in one hand, a big nasty spiked mace in the other.
The cops step back. Most of them have seen it before, but it still throws them off.
I charge straight for the front doors.
The men inside don't waste any time. Their guns start popping like firecrackers as soon as they see me charging with my shield in front of me. Rounds hit my shield--I feel the vibration all the way down in my bones--but it hardly slows me down. By the time I reach the front, the gunfire has died down.
The glass walls rupture. I carve an eyeslot in the center of the shield with my mind; immediately, I count four men armed with what look like high-powered rifles and wearing fibrous black power-armor. Newer models, I think.
One goes for me, bringing a spiked fist down for my shield. I make the joints in my armor solidify as I step forward, taking the blow; then I pivot, swinging the mace around and hammering him in the flank. He's batted aside with a sickening *crack*, crashing into one of the others. Two more shots hit my back, nearly rupturing the armor--I mentally reinforce it and continue my spin, extending the mace until it turns into an enormous fly-swatter.
It hits both of the attackers, smacking them across the room. They land in a heap.
"Receiving update," I hear Holly say in my ear. Then: "Oh, uh, crap."
"I've just been informed that the Dresden building is currently being used as storage for--"
The rest of her words are drowned out by the sound of a Sonic Inducer; one of the two mercs I hit with my initial barrage has gotten up and is firing a pure wall of noise at me. It rips through the armor--makes my molars rattle. I groan, stumbling back, holding the shield out in front of me.
And then I hear the dull roar of a V8 engine as several tons of American-made chrome rip through the front end of the building. A bright tangerine orange 1970 Plymouth Road Runner tears through the shattered window pane, hurtling straight for the guy with the sound-gun. He doesn't get a chance to react--there's a loud *SMACK* as he rolls up across the hood and tumbles off, hitting the ground with a thud. The car fishtails as its driver hits the brake, bringing its flank to stop only inches away from the room's far wall.
When you have the ability to do near-infinite replays, you always know how to make an entrance.
The door clicks open; Mulligan steps out in a shirt and tie. The man he just hit groans, stumbling to his feet; Mulligan turns to face him.
"Wh--what--who the hell are you?!" the merc asks, grabbing the side of Mulligan's car for support.
"Who am I? What, are you dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am?"
Mulligan reaches back, unsheathing his Louisville Slugger.
"I'm the goddamn Batman."
The bat descends with a solid thwock, sending the guy to the ground. Briefly, I wonder how many tries it took Mulligan to get that line exactly right. Gonna have to have a talk with that boy later about frivolous power usage.
But all thoughts about that immediately bleed away when I hear Holly's voice crackling in my ear:
"Sir? Paladin? I've just received a critical update," she says. "I'm calling for Society reinforcements to be portaled in."
"Eh? We got this--"
"The Dresden building is where the Scourge's body is being stored," she says.
Right on cue, Mulligan and I hear an explosion somewhere below us.