by Earl Wajenberg and Jim Burrows
Dan Force winced as he sat down in the easy chair. The bandages pulled at the wound.
“Just float yourself down, Uncle Dan,” Irene urged. He did sometimes forget to use his powers.
“Wouldn’t help,” Force replied. “It’s the bending, not the weight, that does it. Never mind. I’m here now.”
“Here” was not only in the easy chair but in the home of his sister, Jessica Bell, her husband Michael, and their daughter Irene, in the suburbs of New Acadia. Jessica had invited her brother over for, she openly said, some pampering. He had arrived mid-morning, been fed lunch, was about to be fed dinner, and had been prevented from doing anything much at all, particularly FALCON paperwork. “When someone has been wounded in the line of duty,” Jessica had said for the n-th time, “they can just find someone else to harass with the resulting paperwork. They’d have to if you were unresponsive. So don’t respond.”
“That will probably work,” he had agreed. FALCON had, in fact, a squad of clerks and AIs to handle its own paperwork needs, since their metas and supers and special agents were frequently zooming off to far places of dubious reality, ignoring the plaintive calls of the forms.
As Force was happy to do now.
“Have some anesthetic, old man,” said Mike Bell, handing Force a vodka on ice. Force thanked him and did not see, as Irene did, that Jessica shot her husband a Look. “Old man” had always been Mike’s address for Force, meant wholly affectionately, but it might not be altogether tactful any longer.
Two years ago, Dan Force had disappeared under mysterious circumstances involving joint efforts of FALCON White and Gold teams and breaches in local reality. A few months later, he had been retrieved under equally murky circumstances, but appeared to be about ten years older. The circumstances and Forces’s memories were going to stay murky, it appeared, because of the scar of an electrical burn—blaster bolt?—on the side of his head, now concealed by his hair. But along with more age, he brought back a new set martial skills and, of most interest to FALCON, a set of powers involving the juggling of basic energies.
Consequently, Force had moved from White Team researcher to Gold Team field agent. And a consequence of that was the bullet graze in his side now.
Mike caught the Look, grimaced apologetically, and excused himself to the kitchen, to stuff a chicken. Meanwhile, as Irene also observed, Uncle Dan had quietly made the ice cubes in his drink melt in a couple of seconds. He sipped the diluted drink slowly. “Anesthesia” was welcome enough, but he was always careful of his lucidity now.
“Could you wear armor?” asked Irene, trying to sound as meek and un-accusing as possible.
“I was wearing armor,” Uncle Dan answered. “Kevlar vest and a helmet. But the vest only comes down to here.” He put the edge of his hand at the bottom of his ribcage. “And the bullet got me just below there. You can get all muffled up in kevlar if you want, but I need my mobility.”
Irene nodded, but her mind was already elsewhere. She had just had a brilliant idea! And it would solve two problems at once. Well, okay, one problem was much bigger than the other, but still. She started thinking it through.
Meanwhile, her mother asked, “You couldn’t see the bullet coming? I mean, if you had, you could have cancelled its momentum, couldn’t you?”
“Its kinetic energy,” he corrected. “The momentum would have to take care of itself. Probably go into the ambient air. Maybe make a bang. But no, of course I didn’t see it coming. If I were a speedster, I might have, but I can’t see a bullet in flight any more than you can. And I wouldn’t be fast enough to do anything about it, if I had.” He sighed. “Bullets are rather a weak point of mine,” he said. “I can’t affect objects unless I’m in physical contact with them, directly or through some physical medium I can control. By the time you’re in contact with a bullet, it’s too late.”
Jessica’s eyes flashed as she met Irene’s gaze. “That information,” she said, not just to Irene, “doesn’t go out of this house.”
“Of course not!” said Irene loyally.
“White and Gold Team must already know,” called Mike from the kitchen.
“Of course,” said Force, a little testily. “And Green Team. But–” And the testiness left him. “–yes, it’s wise to be discreet about it.” He took rather a long swallow of “anesthetic.”
“Well,” said Jessica, patting her brother’s hand, “bullets are most people’s weak point. That’s how they’re designed. Just dodge ’em more, okay?” He smiled and patted back.
Irene excused herself and retired to her bedroom. Then she hauled out her notebook, found the number, and dialed.
There was no ring. Immediately, a feminine voice, much clearer than phone voices usually were, said, “You are an unusual caller for this line, Miss Bell. What can I do for you?”
Irene was rattled and, at the back of her mind, she suspected she was meant to be. “I, uh, I had a question. Some questions.”
“I might answer them. Go on.”
“You– The Household makes costumes for supers, right?”
“Sometimes. Not usually for FALCON agents.” Irene was rattled again. The voice would know her name from caller ID, but it also knew her uncle was a FALCON agent, or so it appeared.
“You make bullet-proof coats?”
“They are not really bullet-proof, but they are some protection against some ballistic damage, yes.”
“How much are they?”
“They are all individually tailored.” The voice then quoted the price range, from the cheapest they had ever made to the most expensive. Those coats cost as much as cars. Good cars. “We also trade in favors,” the voice told her. “This, of course, would require negotiation. We have made sales to, and deals with, FALCON, so there is precedent. Are you inquiring on behalf of Professor Force?”
Irene suspected she was talking to an AI: the immediate comeback, the totally smooth delivery with no um’s or er’s or groping for words, the ready facts and numbers. No breath.
A second thought: It must know it was tipping its hand to her. Why? To scare her. Why do that? To make her stop wasting time, maybe. Or maybe it was a machine’s idea of a friendly warning: Realize what you are getting into, kid.
Warnings had remarkably little effect on Irene. She came near to defiantly saying yes, and would have implied she was speaking for Uncle Dan, Doctor Force, a FALCON agent, the Energist. But the word “discreet” floated through her mind, and she was doing this to protect Uncle Dan, not make trouble for him.
“No,” she said, and said no more. Chew on that with your binary logic.
“Research, then?” asked the immediate voice.
“To summarize, the Household can provide thread garments that are unbreakable by the normal range of piercing and cutting instruments such as swords, knives, needles, and scalpels, applied with human strength. The garments will not tear even at the point where the wearer can suffer fatal damage from knock-back. At all the commonest calibers, wearers can sustain broken bones and deep tissue bruising, but no directly lethal injury except under circumstances that can be justly called ‘freakish.'”
“I see. Thanks. What … kind … of favors would be worth a coat like that?”
“What have you got to offer?” the voice shot back.
“I want examples,” she insisted.
“Favors accepted by the Household that cash out in that range have included an escorted trip to a friendly nation in a parallel world, through unfriendly territory, for a party of four; answers to five questions about the future, selected from a list of ten, from a time traveler; the assassination of a known murderer beyond the reach of law enforcement, to rescue a kidnapped client; and destroying a vampire.
“Honesty compels me to tell you,” the voice played on, “that those favors cashed out near the top of the range. At the lower end of the range, payment has been monetary.”
“I see,” Irene heard herself say, while the center of her mind scrambled around through memories of Uncle Dan’s exploits (known ones, anyway), looking for comparisons. The problem was, they didn’t tell her a lot about his exploits, but she was pretty sure he was in that league. That was, if he wanted to pay. Well, she could suggest it to him.
“Are you considering a cloak, cape, coat, skintight, or formal suit?” the voice asked.
“Cloak or coat,” she answered.
“That requires more material but the engineering is simpler. That would be in the middle to lower price range.” Small mercies.
“Are they still effective when they are light-weight, so as not to impair mobility?” she asked, feeling a little proud of herself for the businesslike question.
“They are always light-weight and designed not to impair mobility,” the voice answered. Was there any hint of offense in the tone? Smug pride? No.
Now, how to end the call? Just end it. “Thank you. That’s very helpful. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Miss Bell.” And before she could push the button, there was a dial tone.
– – –
Irene was a little surprised to see the FALCON van waiting outside the school at the end of the day. Who knows, maybe it was there for Mae Long…. Except… no one was supposed to know that Mae was a superhero. Well, maybe one of the other kids.
Irene hooked her thumb through the strap of her backpack as she walked casually down the walk. The van was parked where she’d have to pass it on her way home—she’d just keep it casual and not pay it any mind on her way past.
When she was about ten feet away, the side door slid open to reveal the Woman of Bronze, Special Agent in Charge Simone Lefort—Uncle Dan’s boss.
Agent Lefort smiled and waved Irene to join her.
Irene approached the van. Casual—no big deal.
“What brings you here, Agent Lefort?” she asked when she was a couple of feet away.
“Why don’t you get in, chère?” replied Lefort. The last word came out ‘sha’, in her Acadie accent. “Let’s not attract more attention than need be.”
“Right. Sure. Casual,” said Irene and stepped in.
“Ms. Bell’s residence, Rogers, and no need to rush,” Lefort told the driver as the door slid closed.
“This is about last week, isn’t it, ma’am?” asked Irene.
“It was the sixth time, after all.”
“No, just the fifth.”
“Ah! Not counting the reservoir, then?”
“No. That was a misunderstanding. And there weren’t any bad guys!”
“True enough, chère. Still…”
“Still,” Irene agreed, nodding.
“So, five rescues. That could turn into a pattern, a habit.”
“I suppose it could.”
“At least you generally don’t need him when he’s tied up in another mission.”
“Yeah. Except the res… Oh, I see. Yeah, maybe it does count.”
Lefort smiled. “I don’t suppose you could, you know, try not to get into any more trouble? Eh, chère? That way I wouldn’t have to worry about his rescuing you interfering with his missions? I’d hate to have to start holding him in reserve, just in case…. He actually is a valuable asset.”
“I don’t try to get into trouble.”
“I understand, chère. It’s just a knack. Been there.” She sighed. “But, as a matter of fact, no, this is not about last week. This is about a call we got from the Household.”
“I didn’t tell them anything!” Irene protested. “I just asked some questions!”
“Chère, you tell people things by the questions you ask. But what I want to know is where you got the number you called. Your uncle give it to you?”
“No. But… You know about his memory. You send him out with minders.”
Irene was surprised to see a flash of guilt on Lefort’s face. “He caught that?” the Woman of Bronze asked.
“Yeah, but he doesn’t mind. Says you’re right. Anyway, he leaves a lot of notes around, reminders. And I saw a stick-it note with ‘Household’ and a number on it.”
“The voice– That was an AI, right?”
“Now, what made you think that?”
“It was just so … perfect. And fast. Not rushed, but no pauses.”
“You noticed that? Yes, it was.”
“Was it trying to scare me?”
“No, chère. She was just speaking naturally. If that’s the right word. She must figure anyone calling on that line is so far in, no point pretending.”
Irene felt a thrill of achievement. She was that “far in”! But Lefort was still talking.
“Now, it was the Concierge called me. You must know who he is.”
Irene nodded. “Runs the Household. Started it.”
“He called me to ask if, any chance, we wanted to buy some of their wonder-garments for the Energist. I said not at this time, but we had a little discours and I learned about your call. You worried about your uncle’s gunshot?”
“Sure. He got to talking about how he’s not bullet-proof.”
“Most of us aren’t. But he c’n have as much kevlar as he want.”
“But he doesn’t want any more, because of mobility.”
Lefort nodded. “I see. So you wanted to price out a skintight for him. Makes sense.”
“Not a skintight. He said they weren’t for ‘skinny old duffers.’ I think he feels embarrassed next to all the big young hunks.”
Lefort smiled. “And they say women are vain,” she murmured.
“He is awfully old for a super,” Irene said, and was surprised to hear the worried note in her own voice. She remembered the agony of worry when he had gone missing. “So I told him he should try a cloak. Wizardy. But he didn’t say yes or no.”
“So you push things along a little?”
“But he has to think he look good in it? This is a style issue?” Lefort gently mocked.
“Sure it is,” Irene returned. “You’re one of the few who wears a regular uniform, so maybe you’re outside it, but look at ’em all! All the bright colors and weird masks and logos. He needs some style! Wouldn’t you rather see him in something cooler than that ratty old black hoodie he wears?”
“He say it’s inconspicuous,” Lefort said, but half-smiling.
“Oh, yeah! That works! ‘Who’s that floating fifty feet up in the air? Throwing lightning balls? I almost missed him because he’s just wearing an old black hoodie.’ A good outfit would help his morale. Isn’t that why they all have ’em?”
Lefort nodded. “It can get a little complicated, but it come down to that. So, chère, they quote you a price?”
Irene blinked, but pulled out her notebook and found her notes from the phone conversation. She quoted the range to Lefort, who did not scream but merely nodded again.
“Well, chère, you right. Your uncle is old, and you and I both want to see him get a lot older. Maybe as old as me!” She chuckled at Irene’s consternation. She had forgotten that Lefort was, in fact older than Uncle Dan, even if you threw in the ten-year time slip. “And bullets are an issue. If I open up this old un-flashy regular uniform, I can show you a few scars. I could wish the Energist were better defended. Without compromising his mobility.”
The Woman of Bronze was on her side in this? Irene smiled.
“You sure got his back, don’t you?” Lefort observed.
Irene’s smile broadened and she told Lefort about her mother’s regime of enforced pampering.
“Good, good. Supers, metas, paras—they often got messed-up lives. Your uncle, too, with his ten misty years. Makes a big, big difference, if they have family, friends, anybody watchin’ their back, patchin’ ’em up, carin’.
“So, Ms. Bell,” she went on, “since this is your good idea, I will arrange for you to have a seat at the fitting.”
Later, Irene didn’t think she had squealed.
– – –
“Now hold your arms up again,” said Madame Tchen. Dr. Force obeyed. “Turn around slowly.” He did. “Turn around as fast as you can.” He whipped around a full circle, his feet six inches above the ground all the way through. The dark blue coat he wore twisted tightly around him, gleaming like liquid. The broad collar flapped but not into his eyes. “Did that feel comfortable?” she asked him.
“I hardly felt anything,” he said. He smiled at Irene while Madame Tchen nodded approval.
“Now please stand relaxed. Miss Bell,” said Madame Tchen, “another round of sparring. Go stand behind your uncle. Now, in your own time … be imaginative.”
Irene paused to let suspense build and consider her options. No use trying to strangle him; when she had tried it, the greatcoat had simply split open at the front, buttonless. Last time, she had tried pulling the broad collar over this face, but though it was wide enough to double as a hood, it didn’t come down far enough to blindfold him. And you lose your concentration when you’re suddenly two yards up in the air—and felt the tingle as he grabbed your wrist and pulled the electrical punch he could have thrown.
Irene grabbed for one of the broad sleeves and tried to yank his arm up behind his back. He twirled in the air again, a half-circle this time, and the edge of his palm was at her neck, held back from the chop, along with whatever shock, burn, freeze, or kinetic boost he might have had in mind. Irene was holding the detached sleeve.
Madame Tchen nodded again, moved in, and reattached the sleeve. “And now the aerodynamic stance again, please.”
Force held his arms out and trickled some potential energy into the coat. Following the ribbing inside, the sides and sleeves extended into flaps, gliding wings. The collar flared up like the airfoil on the back of a truck. As an afterthought, he rose a foot off the floor.
“You no longer have trouble making it do that?” asked Madame Tchen.
“Oh, no,” Force replied cheerfully. “Once I got it right, it was obvious.”
“Good. The ‘proof of the pudding,’ of course, must be done on the roof.”
He landed, smiling. “With the backpack,” he added.
“To be sure.”
Irene followed the grownups out of the fitting room—the only fitting room she had seen with padding on the floor and walls, like a dojo. And on the ceiling.
Up the stairs and to the roof. New Acadia lay spread out under a bright day. Taller buildings loomed. Dr. Force handed the coat to Irene, opened a briefcase, and donned a thin, flat backpack. The coat went over it easily. Then he put on a pair of goggles.
“May I ask what the backpack contains?” asked Madame Tchen.
“A battery,” he answer. “Pro– Hm. Can’t give details. But I’ll draw on its energy for my own kinetic and potential energy. Basic physics.” He adjusted the goggles, stared straight up, and spread his arms. The coat snapped into the aerodynamic stance. “Now. By reducing turbulence, the coat ought to let me fly even faster. Let’s find o–”
The word was concluded somewhere above. Madame Tchen and Irene watched the dwindling speck.
“Thank you, Madame Tchen,” said Irene.
She nodded. “It is always satisfying to do a good job and see it appreciated.”
“I think he’s a little safer now. And it looks way cooler.”