David Bernard hoists his duffel bag over his shoulder as he stands in front of the main entrance and tries to work up the courage to go inside. He takes a moment to look at the letters stenciled into the glass: SKY COMMANDO UNIT on the top, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY underneath. He remembers when this door was just an ugly metal slab with no markings at all. When the entire program was secret, and no one was allowed to talk about what they were doing in the condemned firehouse the locals were expecting to collapse in on itself any day.
Four years. Is that all?
He stares at those stenciled letters and tries to remember the first day he walked through the old doors into the chaos on the other side. The old days. Only four years. Stupid to even think like that, but he can’t help it. He can see his reflection in the glass, but it’s only a featureless silhouette. An outline only, nothing inside.
Only four years.
David sets his jaw, digs his key card out of his jacket pocket, puts it up to the reader, and when he hears the click he pulls the door open and steps into the lobby.
It’s not the same lobby. There wasn’t really a lobby in the old days. They used to jokingly call it the “contamination room,” because you’d step out of the comparatively clean environment of New York City and step into a world filled with the mess of engineering: wires and hydraulics and oil and ozone and metal shavings and fumes coming from solvents that probably shouldn’t have been used in enclosed spaces. That was when they were still trying to put the suit together, when nobody knew who they were, and even the people who were sort-of footing the bill were looking for a reason to ignore them completely.
It’s different now. Sky Commando is the crown jewel of the New York City police department, and with success comes funding.
The carpet isn’t exactly posh, but it looks nice enough, and the air conditioning is a welcome relief from the humidity outside. The receptionists desk is one of those curved “L” models that they use on movie sets when they want to show a lobby that looks high-tech. It’s ridiculously large for one person. Style over substance.
“Heya Lieutenant.” Benny’s on duty this morning. He smiles amiably at David over thick-rimmed glasses. The florescent lights shine off his bald head. "You're lookin' a lot stronger today."
"Thanks." To the casual observer David appears to be in the picture of health: a clean-shaven man in his late twenties, short, light brown hair, sharp blue eyes, and an ease about him that suggests excellent physical fitness. A more practiced eye will notice that his eyes blink a little more often than is normal, and that his movements, while fluid and graceful, are also slow and deliberate. A very practiced eye might notice the slight tremor in his hands while they are at rest, and his tendency to shift his weight ever so slightly from one leg to the next, as if he wasn’t sure of his footing.
“Seems we missed out on all the action last night,” Benny adds.
“Did we?” David lets his duffel bag fall to his side as he walks over to the doors that lead to the main complex.
“You didn’t hear about Forrest?” Benny sounds vaguely surprised. “It’s been all over the news.”
David stops and turns to stare at Benny blankly. “What’s been all over the news?”
“You really don’t know? Well damn. Martin Forrest and his family were attacked last night by some kind of paramilitary group.”
David feels his jaw go slack as he gapes at Benny in astonishment. “What?”
Benny nods. “Armed to the teeth. I gotta wonder if it’s the same group that hit Liberty… I mean, it’s a hell of a coincidence, right?”
“That’s what I get for trying to leave the job at the office,” David says.
“Hey, don’t knock it,” Benny says. “It’s better than sitting up alone at night, listening to the police radio while you finish off a bottle of Scotch.”
“I hate Scotch,” David says.
“So do I,” Benny says, “but I keep buying it.”
All the unit offices are on the ground level. His “office” is a slightly-larger-than-average cube in the “upscale” cube farm near the Captain’s office. There aren’t many people in at the moment, and the quiet is a little unnerving. The Captain’s door is closed, the light is off. She isn’t in yet. He looks across the room and sees the rookie’s cube is also empty—but her purse is sitting on her desk.
She’s here. She’s probably upstairs.
He takes the stairway. Elevators bother him. It’s funny—he has no problem getting himself sealed in an armored suit that would smother him alive if the life support systems failed, but lately elevators make him feel trapped.
It’s probably the concussion.
A short jog up to the third floor—just to prove to himself he can do it without breaking a sweat—and he steps into the hangar. The hangar is the last remnant of the chaos that engulfed the building four years ago: it still smells like ozone, metal shavings, and solvents that probably shouldn’t be inhaled in enclosed places. It’s also full of sound: engineers are shouting to each other over the sounds of drills and metal saws, and a group of men and women in grimy jumpsuits huddle around something off to one side of the space. It’s a side project, he knows that much, but he also knows he’s not going to understand it no matter how many times one of them tries to explain it to him.
One or two of the engineers look up and wave as they see him. He nods back, but his attention is drawn, as always, to the center of the hangar. There, standing on its pedestal, is the suit. Half again his size, silver and blue steel, the most advanced tech the NYPD has ever had at its disposal, and the pride of Skylar Industries.
He stares at it in silence for a moment, taking it in, once again transported four years back, when he saw it for the first time. It was cruder then, but he still thought it was a work of art. And it kept getting better.
David breaks out of his reverie and notices the people standing near the suit. Samuel Vicks is the chief engineer for the Sky Commando Unit—and, as it happens, the man who brought him into the program. He’s a stout, balding man who nonetheless insists on sporting a long gray ponytail that falls down to the middle of his back. Standing with Samuel is the rookie and a few of the other engineers. The rookie has her jaw set, and her dark skin is covered in a sheen of perspiration. That means they were arguing, pretty heatedly from the look of it, and she wasn’t giving an inch. David chuckles to himself and walks over.
“I can’t work like this,” Sam complains as he closes the gap. “She keeps telling us to fix things that don’t exist!”
“It exists,” the rookie insists. “There’s a wobble.”
“None of our simulations show a wobble,” Sam says. “Come on, Officer, it’s gotta be in your head.”
“The hell it is.” There’s that jaw again. “Simulations aren’t the same as flying. It doesn’t feel like the thrust is being distributed evenly. There’s a problem.”
Sam turns to David. “Davey, help me out here. I can’t fix what isn’t there.”
David shrugs. “If the pilot says there’s a wobble…”
Sam sighs and turns back to the rookie. “Fine. We’ll look it over. It means taking the suit offline. At least a day.”
The rookie frowns. She doesn’t want to give up a day of being able to fly it. David doesn’t blame her.
“Fine,” she says reluctantly. “Just get it fixed!”
Sam grins ruefully, then starts giving orders as the engineers prepare to take the suit apart.
“That must have hurt,” David said to her.
The rookie shrugs. “Thanks for backing me up. There is a wobble.”
“I believe you,” David says. “C’mon rookie, I’ll get you some coffee.”
She frowns again. David never offers to get her anything. Then she shrugs and follows him into the “ready room”—the room where they usually have mission briefings before one of them gets bolted into the suit and flies off into the city.
The ready room is a kitchen. When they first moved into the building the kitchen was one of the few rooms that was fully functional, so they left it intact. There’s an industrial-sized coffee maker set up next to the sink, with bins of powdered creamer and various kinds of sugar—real and otherwise—set next to it. David opens a cupboard over the sink and pulls down two mugs.
“What’s going on, Lieutenant?” The rookie sounds cautious and concerned.
David concentrates on pouring coffee into the first cup. “You’re going to have to start calling me David, Alishia.”
The rookie stares at him. David never uses her first name.
“You feeling all right, Lieutenant? You’re making me worry. I think maybe you got thrown through that wall a little harder than we thought.” She says it playfully, but there’s an edge to it. She knows why she’s been flying every patrol for the last month.
“Funny you should mention that,” David says. “I failed my physical.”
He turns, cup of coffee in hand, and sees her staring at him in shock, concern, horror… and hope. And he can’t fault her for it.
He holds out the coffee. “You’ll have to treat it yourself. I never did figure out your specific mixture.”
She takes the coffee, hands trembling. David turns back to the pot and pours the second cup.
“I have to concentrate to pour a cup of coffee,” David says. “It took me a week and a half to get the coffee in the damn mug. I have headaches. Food tastes funny—I drink my coffee black now. Weird, right? Thing is, I’m in no shape to fly. I’ve known that for a while. I was just hoping I’d recover faster…”
“Will you?” The rookie’s voice is quiet. “Recover, I mean.”
“Probably. That’s what they tell me. ‘Probably.’ Not the most reassuring word in the English language, but it’s better than ‘probably not.’” David raises the cup and takes a sip. It’s strong and bitter, and he likes it. He still doesn’t understand that part. “But I won’t recover fast enough for it to make any difference here. I’m done. You’re Sky Commando now.”
Warring emotions play over the rookie’s face, then she sets her jaw. “I don’t want it like this.”
“Tough,” David says. “It’s the only way anyone’s ever gonna get the spot. You know the drill—we recruit young because even in the suit we’re going to get hurt. We’re going to get hurt more than any professional athlete will. When I came in they gave me six years on the outside. They didn’t factor in a drugged out nutjob using a bus like a baseball bat to knock me through a cinderblock building. We’re only human—we only bounce back so many times.”
The rookie’s jaw is still set. Her eyes flash defiance.
“God damn it, Alishia, I can’t do the job. I can barely pour coffee! Do you really want to put civilians at risk by putting me in a two ton walking robot suit with rockets strapped to it?”
The rookie glares, but she shakes her head. “No. I don’t want that.”
“Of course you don’t want that. That’s why you’re in the program.”
They brood in silence a while.
David finishes his coffee, sets his mug down on the counter, and turns back to face her. “I’m out today. I pack my stuff and go home. There’s no point in hanging around, and one thing they made sure of was that we a get a hell of pension. So I finished my coffee, and now I’m going to make the rounds, say some goodbyes, clear out my desk and go home. You are going to go back into the hangar and make damn sure they fix the wobble. Sam’s a great guy. Don’t let him push you around. That goes double for the Captain. I’ll take a bullet for her, but don’t let her tell you how to do the job. At the end of the day it’s your ass on the line.”
Alishia Webb looks down at the ground. “OK,” she says.
David sticks out his hand. She shakes it firmly.
“Good luck, David,” she says.
He forces himself to grin and claps her on the shoulder. “You’re gonna be a hell of a Sky Commando, Webb.”
And then it’s done. The torch is passed, and David isn’t a hero any more.