Part One: New York City, South Bronx
David Bernard stands in line at the corner grocery, awkwardly holding the handle of a plastic basket as it bangs arrhythmically against his legs. The air conditioning is out, and bags of ice line the meat and produce isles, adding to the already considerable humidity. It’s uncomfortably warm and damp. David tries to suppress his agitation as he waits his turn.
“And they say they can’t fix it until tomorrow…” Nirmala is a small, animated Indian woman with long, glossy hair that falls down to her back. She’s owned the grocery for as long as David can remember. “Thank goodness we have plenty of ice! But it’s very inconvenient.”
The man at checkout makes a noncommittal, vaguely sympathetic noise in the back of his throat as he pays in cash. Nirmala puts his groceries in a paper sack, hands him his change and his receipt, and smiles at him as he leaves. David shuffles up to the counter and unloads his basket.
“David.” He likes the way Nirmala pronounces his name. Dahveed. It sounds exotic when she says it. “You do not look well. And this food! What are you doing to yourself?”
David smiles sheepishly. He does look a mess: his first few days of retirement were spent sleeping, watching television, and not paying much attention to hygiene. This is the first time he’s been outside since he left the Sky Commando unit, and he’s not buying anything healthy: beer, potato chips, more potato chips, and… he looks through the contents of his bag and snorts. It consists entirely of potato chips and beer.
“I’m letting myself go this week,” David says. “Saturday I get back on the wagon.”
Nirmala raises an eyebrow. “Did you lose your job? I see a lot of people do this when they lose their job. They don’t usually ‘get back on the wagon’ by Saturday.”
David chuckles. “I didn’t exactly lose it. I retired.”
“You are too young to retire,” Nirmala says, laughing, but her expression falters when she sees the look of regret—quickly masked—that flashes over David’s face.
“I got hurt on the job,” he says.
“Are you all right?” Nirmala asks. “What happened?”
“I’ll be fine.” David tries to ignore the trembling in his right hand as he reaches for his wallet. “I got punched through a wall.”
Nirmala isn’t sure if David is joking. She smiles, nods, and starts to ring him up.
David stares out the grocery window into the street as Nirmala scans each of his items, and tries not to think about the walk back. The beer is technically heavier than the doctor wants him to carry, and he feels a little guilty that he went to the grocery store just to buy a lot of crap. That said, the doctor also doesn’t want him to drive, and he figures he’s earned a few days of self-pity supplemented with artificially flavored food.
Nirmala tells him the total, which he only half hears. He hands her a credit card and she runs it through. He can hear the modem start to dial, and is amused to find himself thinking of her setup as “old fashioned.”
That’s when he notices the van drive by the display window—again—and realizes why it’s bothering him so much.
It’s a black van with black-tinted windows. The tint is much, much darker than the state of New York allows—so dark that David can’t even see the driver’s silhouette—but that alone isn’t enough to make him suspicious. Lots of people tint their windows, and a significant percentage do so beyond what the law allows. This annoys him because it’s unsafe, but it’s not something he considers criminal activity.
However, this van is tinted and circling the block, and now that he thinks about it, it’s been doing this at least since he first showed up at the grocery store, and suddenly the agitation he’s been feeling in line has nothing to do with the wait, the heat, or the humidity—his instincts are telling him something is wrong and he’s been trying to ignore it.
He steps away from the counter and walks over to the display window, a large pane of glass that takes up a full third of the wall. The van rolls by again, slowing down as it rolls past the grocery, then speeding up as it passes the grocery and its tiny parking lot, and turns at the end of the block to loop around again.
He reaches for his cell phone, realizes he left it at home, and sighs.
Take it easy. It’s probably nothing. Don’t be the crazy retired ex-cop, OK? At least give it a few months.
David turns to see Nirmala holding his credit card out to him.
“It’s finished. I need you to sign the receipt.”
David flushes. “Sorry.” He takes his card back and hastily signs his name on the paper, making a mess of his last name. Too many loops in Bernard. He gathers up his groceries—two bags, one in each hand—and is just about to walk out the door when he sees the van roll around again. He puts them back down on the counter and heads back to the window.
This time the van turns in to the parking lot, and out of his view.
“Is something wrong?”
David turns back to Nirmala. She looks confused; the other people waiting in line look impatient. He points to the end of the grocery facing the parking lot. “Do you have any windows on that side of the store?”
Nirmala looks at him blankly. The customers shift uneasily.
David points again. “That wall. Any windows? Nirmala, it’s important.”
Nirmala blinks once, then nods. “In my office.”
“I need to use your office,” David says. “Call the police.”
He heads to the other side of the store, his bags still sitting on the counter.
“The phone is in my office,” Nirmala calls out after him.
Her office is small, and made to look smaller by the presence of an oversized desk set in the middle of the room. A computer, a phone, and a combination printer/copier fax machine sit on the desk, along with a number of binders filled with schedules, shipments, and balance sheets. Cheap tan blinds cover the window on the far wall.
David squeezes around the desk and peers through the blinds. The van is parked at the far side of the lot, next to an old garage that has apparently been converted into an office building.
He has a very bad feeling about this.
David reaches for the phone, tearing his gaze from the window just long enough to dial 9-1-1. The phone dials once.
“911 Emergency Services, what’s the nature of your emergency?” A woman’s voice, professional but a little bored.
“My name is David Bernard. I’m at Local Fresh Grocery in South Yonkers…” He rattles off the address. “I think there’s a two one seven in progress in the building across the parking lot.”
“A… did you say ‘two one seven?’” The woman sounds a little surprised. “Are you sure?”
No, you’re not sure, David. It’s just a van. Don’t be an idiot.
“As sure as I can be from here,” David lies.
“All right, David, I’m contacting the police. Can you give me any more information?”
David quickly describes the van.
“Do you have a license plate number?”
“I can’t see it. I’m calling from the office in the grocery store, and all I can see is a profile.”
At that moment the van’s passenger-side door and sliding door open. Three armed men, dressed in black commando uniforms and combat body armor get out of the van and head for the office.
David notices the weapons they’re carrying. His chest tightens.
“Scratch that,” he says. “This isn’t a two one seven. This is a code ultraviolet. Make sure you tell the police that: give them my name and say ‘code ultraviolet.’ Got that?”
There’s a moment’s hesitation. “David, I’ll relay that information to the police. Now I’m going to need you to stay on the line—”
“—no time,” David says. “Tell them to hurry!”
He drops the receiver and runs out of the office.
Next to the office is a small loading area where delivery trucks drop off fresh inventory. He grabs a long crowbar leaning against one of the walls and hurries toward the door. He steps out into the parking lot and sees the van, all doors closed once more, idling quietly.
This is stupid, David. They’re obviously well trained. You have a concussion.
He has to deal with the van first. Sight lines are terrible—there’s no way to stay hidden. He’s going to have to use the direct approach, which is probably not going to work.
Too bad I don’t have a two-ton battlesuit to wear right now.
His vision blurs for a moment—his rehab doctor told him adrenaline would make the effects of the concussion worse—and he curses under his breath as he places a hand on the grocery wall for balance.
I am going to get myself killed…
No point in trying for stealth. He needs to run. He hoists his crowbar, grits his teeth, and runs as fast as he can, for the first time in months, trying to cover the ground between the grocery and the black van faster than the driver can notice and react. He’s a quarter of the way to the van when he hears a low boom, feels the ground shudder, and the van disappears under a mass of instantly-solidifying foam.
Sky Commando is here.
David recognizes the stuckey as soon as it hits: capsules of some kind of high-tech goo designed to solidify, then capture and distribute force. They’re useful restraints, and if you deploy a large one correctly it can even immobilize a getaway car without hurting the passengers. The stuckey slams into the parking lot right next to the driver-side door, liquefying on impact, expanding rapidly as the liquid-form stuckey reacts to air, then hardens again into a thick, solid mass. It lifts the van up on the driver’s side, raising the entire van off the ground three feet and tilting it slightly back and sharply to the right. By the time the shell hardens, only the back of the van is exposed.
David stops running and looks up: Sky Commando streaks down from the sky, propulsion systems keening as the sun glints off the sleek blue armor. Not twenty feet from the ground it reverses itself, engines flaring to slow its descent sharply enough to land on the parking lot in a combat-ready crouch.
Webb stuck the hell out of that landing.
“Three more inside,” David calls out. He jogs closer.
Sky Commando nods once. A loud series of clicks travel down the length of the armor, then segments pop out and slide away. Webb steps out in her tactical suit—a miniature version of the outer shell, less rugged but better suited for going indoors—and turns to face David.
“Aren’t you retired?” The Sky Commando helmet does a lot of voice modulation, but David can hear her amusement and exasperation.
“Three men inside, all armed with military-grade weapons,” David says, trying to ignore how stupid he feels standing there holding a crowbar. “Webb—it’s the same guys who attacked the Forrest house.”
Webb swivels her head to look at—or, more likely, through—the building. “Stay here. Backup should be here soon.”
David nods. Webb runs into the building. Almost immediately he hears automatic weapons fire, and he hastily moves behind the newly-cocooned van for cover.
Automatic weapons continue to fire sporadically, from different locations. He doubts it’ll have any effect. The tactical armor doesn’t have the level of protection the full suit does, but it’s still hefty enough to repel small arms fire. When he hears the grenade going off he frowns. The tactical armor doesn’t do as well with those.
She’s got a better shot at walking away from this than you do. If you go in you’ll only distract her.
He’s a civilian now. He has to let her do her job.
The van thumps as someone—the trapped driver, David supposes—kicks the back door. The frame of the van is a little distorted from the stuckey shell, and while the back door is exposed, some of the shell has hardened over the edge, keeping the back door shut. It shudders, snaps, and suddenly the door pops open, swings out three inches, then wedges deeper into the shell.
David ducks around the corner of the van, keeping clear of the door’s arc, and lifts his crowbar.
Metal groans as whoever is inside pushes the door out, inch by inch. Finally something snaps, and the door opens wide. David calmly steps around the van and swings the crowbar, as hard as he can, into a very surprised black-clad soldier.
The soldier reflexively brings up his arm to block the blow. It’s a natural but unfortunate response: the crowbar shatters his elbow then smashes into the combat armor, knocking him back into the van. David grabs the soldier by an ankle and drags him out. The soldier shouts in alarm as he tries to grab hold of something… the alarm turns to pain as his shattered arm jostles against the doorframe. A few more tugs and the solder falls three feet to the asphalt below, and lands on his bad arm one more time. He passes out from the pain.
David takes a minute to catch his breath, then removes the soldier’s ski mask and checks his pulse. He’s an older, bearded man with graying blond hair. His pulse is fine.
David goes through the soldier’s pockets. He doesn’t find any ID—not that he expected to—but what he does find is almost as interesting: a small, black plastic box with an antenna and a single red blinking light.
Yep. That’s probably for a bomb.
The soldier has a short-range handheld two-way radio clipped to his belt. David takes it and fiddles with the controls until he finds one of the frequencies he knows the Sky Commando helmet can receive. “Webb, this is David. Alishia, can you hear me? This is important.”
A few seconds later, David hears Webb’s very exasperated voice, quite clearly, coming out of the radio. “David, how the hell are you talking to me on this line? I’m a little busy right now.”
As if to underscore her words, more automatic fire erupts from the building.
“You’re about to be a lot busier,” David says. “The guy in the van tried to make a break for it. He had a transmitter. I think it’s for a bomb. Whoever’s left in the building isn’t trying to win this fight. They’re just running down the clock.”
Webb doesn’t reply right away. David can imagine what she’s saying to herself right now—she’s very creative when it comes to swearing. When she finally replies, her voice is very calm.
“How long, David?”
“I don’t know. There’s no countdown or anything. Just a red blinking light.”
“How do you know what it is, then?”
“It’s a red blinking light on an unmarked black box,” David says. “Taken in context, there are only a few options. You want to assume it’s one of the others?”
“No,” she says. “We need to get everyone away. Can you evacuate that grocery? Get them across the street, as far away as you can take them. I’ll try to cut the red wire. After I find the red wire…”
“OK,” David says. “Good luck.” He shoves the transmitter and the radio into his pockets and heads toward the grocery.
He sees the soldier’s shadow, thin and distorted on the pavement, holding the crowbar one-handed over its head. The shadow twists, the arm comes down, and David ducks and spins. The crowbar passes over his head, missing by inches. The soldier wobbles in front of him, hunched over from the pain in his ribs, left arm dangling uselessly at his side as he grips the long crowbar with his right. He has to be in excruciating pain—he has to be—but it doesn’t show on his face. All David sees is a tightness around the eyes and a clenched jaw. It could just as easily be resolve: the resolve to do unto David what had just been done unto him. Revenge is a strong motivator.
David steps back, tensing, waiting for the soldier to make his play. The soldier steps forward, and when he does David falls to the ground, cushioning the impact with his hands as his legs lash out to hit the man squarely on his extended knee. It doesn’t break, but it does buckle. The soldier snarls in surprise and frustration, then collapses onto his side—right on his broken arm, again. His snarl turns into a howl of pain.
David winces in sympathy, but that doesn’t keep him from scrambling to his feet and kicking the soldier in the face as he tries to stand. The soldier falls to the ground again, but doesn’t stay there. He’s still trying to get to his feet.
“Just stay on the ground!” David shouts, and aims another kick at the soldier’s face. This time the soldier grabs David’s ankle with his good arm, pulls sharply, and David tumbles over. He manages to cover his head, hitting with the side of his arms first, but the jolt still hurts. Searing white light saturates his vision, and suddenly everything feels detached, as if it’s all happening at the other end of a very long room.
He tries to sit up, but his arms and legs aren’t working right. His vision clears just long enough to see the bottom of the soldier’s boot come down hard on his face.