by Steve Johnson

14,198 words

May 1, 2002

Chapter One

Saved From a Fate Exactly Equivalent to Death

The line of black-uniformed cops outside the bank held their batons out at arm’s length, forming an interrupted barrier of black wood against the mob of big men (and one woman) in red, white, blue and yellow. And some in green.

There wasn’t a lot of black in their outfits, which was one way to tell the two groups apart. Another was that few of the big men wore badges and guns, and none of the cops had masks or capes.

"Captain, if you could just tell your men to stand aside," said a deep-voiced muscleman in white tights with red stripes, a DON’T TREAD ON ME cape and an eagle design on his helmet. "I wouldn’t want anyone to be hit by stray bullets when they bounce off my –"

"There aren’t going to BE any stray bullets!" snapped SWAT honcho Deke Maitland. "In fact, there’s not going to be any shooting at all, on either side, because we have the area sealed off, and it’s going to stay sealed off, without any help from Captain Columbus!"

The man in the eagle helmet looked stricken.

"It’s Columbia," he said, half to himself. "Captain Columbia. The living legend of the French and Indian War …"

"Are you gonna let those hoods sit in there all day?" demanded a fellow who’d painted his face to look like a silver skull. "I could just rip ‘em out through that window before they could shoot even one hostage!"

The captain’s head swiveled to look at him. Unlike Captain Columbia, the silver-faced man wasn’t intimidated.

"Well, maybe ONE hostage," he amended. "But that’s it. Unless, y’know … if they have a shotgun, it could go two, three, tops. I guarantee it."

High wordless yells started from the other side of the bank, and rifle fire cracked. Maitland and the Silver Skull hit the pavement as one. Captain Columbia looked puzzled.

A whoosh of yellow flame rose up above the bank’s neoclassical façade for a moment, then retreated, like a dragon pulling in its tongue. Shimmering heat-plume blurred the outline of the buildings across the street.

"They tried a breakout," said Maitland’s radio in a breathless voice. "Melted through the wall with some kinda heat-beam. We shot over their heads and drove ‘em back inside, but a coupla cars got --"

The pavement bucked with the force of a thunderous boom and a cloud of black gasoline smoke rose on a pillar of flames.

"Make that one car," said the radio. "Ah, the other one’s burning, so it prob’ly won’t explode, ah, sir."

"Keep that exit covered," Maitland ordered. "I want fire on that opening. You got your rubber bullets?"

"Ah, no, sir. Aren’t they all with Ashby and Reese in the mobile unit?"

"For Christ’s sake --" Maitland snarled. "Get ‘em around behind there! We really oughta have more rubber bullets for this."

"Why rubber, sir?"

"They flinched back when you shot at ‘em, right?" Maitland explained. "That means they’re not bulletproof, whatever ray-guns they got. We don’t shoot people if we can avoid it in this city, not yet, anyway."

He got up from the pavement, feeling his jaw for bits of asphalt.

"Christ almighty," he said to himself. "Ray guns."

"I bet they’d refract right off my silver helm," said the Silver Skull confidently.

"What if you’re wrong, wise guy?" said Maitland. The Skull scratched his head -- evidently it hadn’t occurred to him.

"Why, then I’d just --" he said, but Maitland had already turned away. Flames were licking at the sky beyond the bank once more, but now they were electric blue, transparent rather than solid.

"Whitcomb? What’s going on back there?" he demanded over his radio. "Have they got --"

The blue flames rose, and a man rose with them, suspended in the heart of the shimmering fire. His skin was wreathed in rippling white aurorae.

"The heat-beam must have reacted with the chemicals in that truck somehow!" the hovering man exulted. "Fire can’t hurt me now -- I have complete mastery of flame! With powers like these, I could become a superhero!"

Maitland heard the voice far away with his ears and close up over his radio. He looked at it sourly, changed the frequency and spoke.

"Mobile Unit, this is Maitland," he said as the flying man streaked away in a blue crackling arc. "Whitcomb just had an origin. Get around back ASAP and cover that exit with rubber bullets."

He rubbed his eyes.

"We lose more good cops this way …"

A patrolman in riot vest and gloves, but no helmet or faceshield, trotted up behind Maitland, startling him. He held a big case in one hand labelled CITY SWAT.

"Cap’n, the Libertarian’s here. He says he won’t violate anyone’s rights or anything, but he’s going in to break up the infringement of other people’s property. And Flumerider – he brought his log this time – wants us to open a hydrant, so he can surf the log into the midst of ‘em."

Maitland looked as though something heavy were crushing his head. He goggled at the uniformed officer.

"I’m just telling you what they said, sir," said the patrolman apologetically.

"All right," said Maitland, and took a deep breath. "Chaves, right?"

"Yes, sir," said the patrolman, whose name tape read CHAVES in letters an inch high.

"Chaves, you take the Flumerider, the Libertarian, and all of these citizens over here," Maitland said, "and you take ‘em over there, to that liquor store, see it? And KEEP ‘em there until I send for you. Round up a couple of uniforms to help you, let ‘em use the john, watch TV, whatever, but keep them away from the crime scene."

Officer Marcantonio Chaves nodded, crisp as a salute. It was what he’d been waiting to hear.

"Yessir," he said. "I’ll go get those other two right now."

Maitland turned away from Chaves to watch the crowd of costumed men (and one woman) argue with the police. It seemed there might be more of them than when he’d turned his back.

Chaves came over a few minutes later with a man wearing a blue business suit, white shirt, blue tie, blue hat and blue gloves. His face was covered by a realistic-looking plastic mask, like the front of a mannequin’s head.

"I’m cooperating because I want to," he informed Captain Maitland as they passed.

"Smart move," volunteered Chaves. Behind him, a stout man in checkered shirt, blue swim trunks and hob-nailed boots struggled along under the weight of a huge log balanced on one shoulder. In his other hand he carried a lumberman’s picaroon.

"Need some help there, Mr. Flumerider?" Chaves asked.

"I’m all – whuff – right," panted the stout man. "Usually – I ride this thing – into battle. Where are we – whuff – going?"

"Over there," said Chaves, indicating the liquor store. "Command post for superheroes on this case. Coordinate our efforts, see, yours and ours."

He smiled when he said it and sounded sincere enough for church. The Libertarian turned to look at him.

"Is this anything like the ‘strategy session’ you hosted in the back of that padded truck during the Scarlet Skull riot?" he demanded. "The one where you locked the doors and drove around and around the suburbs until the riot was over? Because I’m halfway sure that was a fake."

Chaves shrugged, the picture of concern, and switched the CITY SWAT case to his other hand.

"I wouldn’t know about that, Mr. Libertarian," he said. "I wasn’t at that one."

"Sorry," said the Libertarian. "I thought I’d recognized you. All –"

He cut off in a way he wouldn’t have if Chaves had been white. All you cops look alike was what he’d meant to say. Which was a problem the Libertarian would never have to deal with, not with a dimestore dummy’s face stuck over his own.

Chaves didn’t sigh, or lecture the Libertarian about cops being people, too. He didn’t even give him the cop stare, telling him he could ruin the guy’s whole day if he felt like it, and there wasn’t a lot the Libertarian could do about it.

He was too excited to do any of those things.

He got Flumerider and the Libertarian over to the store, which didn’t appear to have a name. The clerk, name of Wayne, had mirrors so he could see every corner of the place, and a call button on the counter. He probably had a shotgun under there, too, but Chaves didn’t ask and Wayne didn’t volunteer the information.

Chaves checked the restroom which a sign on the door claimed the store didn’t have. The window was high up, slotted, and so narrow a three-year-old might have squirmed through it, but no one else. There was a back door with over a dozen locks on it, some with combination dials. So far, so good – no one was getting out through there.

He got some folding chairs from a church next door while other officers escorted the mob of heroes into the store. There were three patrolmen with them, enough to watch all the heroes and still keep an eye on the back door, just in case.

Everything was falling into place.

He waved to the newcomers, gave them the skinny and helped them settle the heroes in. There were no windows, of course, and bars on the door’s slot at eye level. They couldn’t see out.


"I’m gonna go see if the church has any coffee," he said, desperately hoping his voice sounded normal. His pulse was drum-rolling in his chest so hard it was tough to breathe. "All this liquor and nothing to drink – we don’t want them to start fighting each other."

"As if anything could keep two costumes from gettin’ into it," said Sarecky, a five-year veteran hoping to pass the sergeant’s exam without, from where Chaves stood, much hope in hell of succeeding. "See if they got a microwave, willya? I got a Hot Pockets here I’ll split with ya."

"Uh-huh," said Chaves, barely hearing him. He nodded fast as a twitch. "Right."

Then he was heading toward the door, it was opening, Wayne was buzzing him through, he was out on the street in the sunlight with the blue faded bricks of the store whizzing past inches from his head as he hurried, trying not to run, toward the alley between the church and the liquor store.

Finally he was there, in the dark, and he opened the case labelled CITY SWAT. He took out his green costume, which went over his body armor, and his cape, which hung down to the middle of his back. He pulled on the latex mask which still was too small, even after he’d worn it all day Saturday around the apartment, and fastened it in back. It felt like his eyes were being squeezed out of his head.

But he was suited up. From the other end of the alley where Officer Marcantonio Chaves had entered, the superhero known as Flak-Jack, the Bulletproof Man, emerged, running hard right at the bank.


Sometimes, perhaps through nothing more than the blind operation of the laws of chance, everything goes as you think it will.

Chaves flashed past the outer crowd barriers at ten miles an hour, Olympic miler time. The road was slightly downhill here, and the heavy armor on his chest and back helped pull him forward from his bent-forward stance. His cape rippled straight back from his shoulders, fluttering like a flag in the wind. None of the cops manning the perimeter stopped him; one, a gangly redhead named Brooks, turned his head almost completely around to follow him as he ran by, never once thinking to do anything about it.

There was a sawhorse set up in the middle of the street to keep a phone wire out of the puddles. Marc hurdled it with barely a thought. He landed on wet pavement, skidded, stretched out with his next step and recovered his balance by main force. A patrolman named Rezin, short with a toothbrush moustache, suddenly grinned at Chaves as he took the sidewalk with two huge steps and slammed into the bank’s thick glass doors with all his might.

It was bulletproof, but not invulnerable. The whole inch-thick pane popped out, floor to ceiling, as the gummy stuff holding it in its frame gave way. Chaves rode it down, getting his hands down to catch himself, but the glass rebounded like rubber when it hit and threw him, so he rolled off to one side and almost got his cape wrapped around his head. If he’d gone with the full-length cape, it would have happened, but he’d been strapped that week and only bought three feet of material. A lucky accident, perhaps, he thought for the first time.

He stood up quickly, breathing hard, looking around the lobby. It was like a plush hallway, elevators on the right, loan officers on the left, with tellers facing the glass doors and a vault in back, visible through a metal screen. Perhaps the bank wanted its customers to see how thick and solid the vault was; if so, they’d done the job, because the vault door was as solid as the continents, despite bright scars on its cylinders and some burn marks on the face of the steel plate where someone had tried to blast his way in.

Two guys were back there, one in a lavender ski mask, the other wearing a full-head Halloween mask of the Incredible Hulk. Both were looking at him, of course, one with a sledgehammer in his hand, the other holding a bag big enough to hold a shotgun, or an antitank rocket for that matter. But they were back behind the screen, with the teller wall in front of that, so they couldn’t get to him right away.

The other two were a different matter.

One of them was a few steps away, near the elevators, holding a shiny automatic pistol pointed at the floor. He wore a bandana over his lower face and another one tied around his hair, making him look like a paisley ninja. There were customers on the floor in front of him, forming a barrier to anyone who tried to shoot him in the foot, or possibly the ankle.

The other guy was across the way near the loan officers’ desks. He had a shotgun, the pump kind with the ventilated barrel housing that was popular in action movies, although in Chaves’ experience they weren’t any more special than the hardware-store Remington 700 he toted around in his patrol car. He was looking at the teller wall, trying to see over it through all the angled planes of thick bulletproof glass to see if there was anyone on the floor, or maybe scoping for loose bills. He didn’t turn right away.

The three robbers looked at Chaves for a long moment, perhaps waiting for him to say something. Superheroes usually did. But his chest was heaving so hard he couldn’t keep up, let alone think of anything to say.

Then he had it. Something along the lines of "Drop those guns, they’ll do you no good against Flak-Jack, the Bulletproof Man!" Hitting the last part, his hero name, real hard, and drawing it out slow to emphasize every syllable. That was the way to strike fear into their hearts.

Then they all started moving at once, before he got so much as "Drop –" out of his mouth.

The shotgunner by the desks screamed, a wordless sort of "AaaaaAA!" double noise, and ran for the back, around through a swinging half-door Chaves hadn’t noticed before. The two in the back ducked out of sight, perhaps thinking Chaves had a gun, which of course he didn’t. And the guy right near him, with the bandanas covering his whole head except a strip around the eyes, grabbed a woman’s hair with his left hand and stuck his pistol in the air with his right.

"Freeze, motherfucker!" he said right into Chaves’ face. "I got a hostage. Now, I want –"

Chaves spun to the left, making his sashweighted cape flare out, and also hiding the spinning back kick until his boot suddenly flashed into visibility a split second before its heel stomped the guy in the face.

"You have to actually point the gun at the victim before she’s considered a hostage, dude," Chaves said. "Technically."

The robber went down hard, hitting his head on the marble flooring, and Chaves stepped on the gun, pushing with his boot until it was pointed in a harmless direction. The guy groaned, and Chaves popped him in the jaw, bending down to deliver a roundhouse swing with all the force he could muster. There was a solid, meaty smack, and the guy’s head rolled limply on the floor.

Chaves pried the gun out of his fingers. Whaddya know, the NRA slogan was right; even out cold, his fingers were curled around the grip so he literally had to pry one finger after another off the plastic handle. The woman he’d grabbed pulled away from him, still on hands and knees, clutching at her scalp where he’d pulled her hair.

"He was going to kill me," she burbled, looking up at Chaves. "Flak-Jack, you … God. Thank you."

She was breathing hard, too, and the look in her eyes was a revelation. It was what he’d joined the police force for, not long ago, but never gotten. The look of an innocent for her savior, like Lois Lane gave Superman several times a day when she fell out of windows and planes and such. And she called him by his hero name, too, which was really a shock because it had never happened before.

He grinned, couldn’t help it, standing there looking at his first rescue whose name he didn’t even know, and realized without thinking it too important that he still had the robber’s gun in his hand. He stuffed in into his back waistband, behind the cape, and reached down to offer the lady his hand.

"You’re all right now, Miss," he said, loving every word. "It’s all going to be …"

Then BOOM! He was knocked down by a smashing blow to the small of the back that threw him across the lobby. For a moment he thought he’d been hit by a car, but then he’d never been shot before and didn’t know what it was supposed to feel like.

The two safecrackers had come out of the back and shot him from across the lobby. He was half in, half out of the elevator, and the doors were trying to close on his legs. His spine was swelling like a balloon, his legs felt like blocks of wood vaguely connected to the rest of him, and his vision was perfectly clear but distant somehow, as though he were watching his life on TV instead of from inside his head.

Concussion, he thought. I’ve got a concussion. But I wasn’t shot in the head … makes no sense.

He heard the woman scream and her heels clicking on flooring, and that was good, because it meant she was running away, hadn’t been hit. God, if she’d been shot because he was offering her his hand … he didn’t even know what that’d be like, it was so bad. Not that the pain, which was now starting to really flower in his back, was anything wonderful, Christ no, like a fat man in red-hot boots standing on his pelvis and walking slowly upwards, but still, it didn’t mean he’d screwed up, got his first hostage killed. That would be Hell. This, bleeding to death on an elevator floor, this was merely Purgatory.

Actually, he didn’t seem to be bleeding. That was a plus.

He heard the robbers running towards him, their tennies making wop-wop-wop sounds on the polished marble, yelling to each other without making a lot of sense. He barely had the strength to pull his feet in, letting the elevator close behind them.

Now what?

Batman would have got up into the corner, or over the door, and popped down when they looked inside, hitting them from the blind side. Or Spider-Man would have just burst out the doors as they drew close, bending the metal out of the way, and punched both of them in one motion, lifting their feet from the floor. That’s what superheroes did.

But Flak-Jack, though he was now thinking his body armor had maybe stopped the bullet completely, didn’t have the strength to stand up, much less come out swinging.

He heard them getting closer, but he couldn’t bend his back. His spine felt like it had been stamped flat in a car crusher and wouldn’t flex. Part of him wanted to curl up in a ball and wait for it all to go away, but he couldn’t do that, either, and the rational part of his brain knew that was just as well; the scared guys outside had their blood up now. They weren’t going away.

Whether it was the rational side of his brain that had brought him here in tights and a cape to fight bad guys was a question he was glad to leave for another day.

Marc got his hands under him. They, at least, appeared to be working fine. He did a push-up under the full weight of his armor and was glad he’d practiced it that way, at home in his apartment kitchen with the table and chair pushed back, instead of doing more and faster push-ups without armor. He couldn’t exactly throw his weight into the air and clap his hands before he came down, but he got his hands onto the car’s paneled interior and was able to grab the railing that went around at waist level. It held his weight as he hauled himself to his feet.

But they still didn’t want to hold him; he needed both hands to hang onto the rail. And the wop-wop-wop was now right outside.

Chaves turned himself around to face the door. He was thinking he could push off the wall with one hand and punch somebody with the other, and if he gave it all he had like he had outside with the bandana guy, he might even knock one of them out, when the hard metal triangle pressed into his back.

He still had bandana-man’s gun, stuffed in the back of his waistband.

The running noise stopped, a button on the elevator’s panel lit up, and the doors slid open to reveal Lilac Skimask and Hulk Mask Guy, both framed in the doorway with their guns pointed down.

The eyes inside the mask slits grew wide with terror when they saw Chaves pointing the shiny automatic pistol at their heads.

Behind them, the dude with the Star Wars shotgun stood hazed in blue powder smoke, his mouth half open as though he’d never shot anyone before. Probably he hadn’t; there weren’t that many real hardcases running around who’d think nothing of killing a man, and most of the real bad ones were in prison.

"Drop ‘em," Chaves gritted between his teeth.

Instead, both men raised their guns and shot him.

Barely more than arm’s length apart, Chaves and the two robbers shot at each other as fast as they could snap the triggers. Each one was screaming something at the top of his lungs. Chaves never knew what exactly he screamed, but from the shocked faces of the hostages outside the elevator, it wasn’t fit for family viewing.

Chaves bounced on the elevator’s back wall as hammer blows smacked his shoulder, his chest, his ribs. One crushing pain centered right on his heart, freezing his blood with terror for an instant. It hurt, but no worse than a flurry of very hard punches, and suddenly the huge blooming flames stopped dead and the noise stopped smashing his ears, and he was still alive.

Chaves grinned like a maniac. His smile before, when the grateful woman had looked up to him like a knight on horseback, was weak tea compared to the pure electric moonshine he felt now.

Hulk-mask was down on the ground, holding his hand over his face in an instinctive effort to protect his eyes, while he clicked his trigger again and again. The other guy’s lavender mask had a long straight rip in it over one ear, just beginning to darken slightly with oozing blood. He held his gun out at arm’s length with both hands, thrust toward Chaves’ face like a cross warding off a vampire. The eye holes of his mask showed white all the way around.

His own eyes dancing with wild elation, Chaves slid the slide on his own gun forward, locking another round into the chamber. He caught the lilac-masked man’s eyes and held them with his own.

"Here," he said, and tossed the gun at his enemy’s feet. "Try again."

The guy didn’t get it.

"Go ahead, punk," Chaves said. "Pick it up. Can you get it before I get you? One way to find out. Come on, be a man. Go out in a blaze of glory. ‘Cause I don’t need a gun for you, but you definitely need a gun to deal with me."

The guy got it now. He looked sick. His teeth appeared over his lower lip, his eyes glazed over, and he sank to the floor on his knees, looking down at Chaves’ boots.

Son of a bitch, thought Chaves. It worked. Better get that piece, though, before he changes his mind …

He bent over to retrieve the pistol. Chaves felt something tear inside him.

"Uk," he said, and he thought,

There was a titanium insert on sale for another $99. Why did I pass it up? When you think about it, even a busted knuckle costs you a lot more than 99 bucks, especially if you have to take time off work to get it fixed. Plus there's insurance, which never pays full price, but they don't tell you till months later so you go and spend the money on rent or German beer and then pow, the bill lands in your lap and you're left standing there with your chest hanging open.

Mouth. I meant mouth.

"Aw," he groaned, and thought,

How’d it get through six layers of Kevlar? I thought this would stop a .45 slug -- it did in the video. Forty-five packs enough whomp to knock you right on your ass, armor or no armor. I didn't go down. Didn't even come close. So it wasn't a .45, and it damn sure wasn't anything bigger, like a magnum or Desert Eagle. So what the hell?

He clutched at the elevator car's handrailing, but of course it stopped at the edge of the doors. His blood-slick hands were sticky, but not sticky enough to hold him up, and although he thought he was holding very tight he felt himself falling forward. His other hand caught the doorframe, halting his forward motion with a sick shock that crackled up his arm out of his chest, way too fast.

"Hhk!" he gasped, and thought,

Cop killer bullets. Son of a bitch had teflon, or army-grade alloy caps, up the spout. Must have blown through the vest like Kleenex. Flak Jack my ass -- if I really had a flak jacket, made of steel plates, I'd be laughing now. Damn things weigh eighty pounds, though. Wouldn't have been able to put the moves on the one outside with one of those on, not after running all that way. Still, I probably should have gone for the extra protection. This might be worse than it feels -- no, that's not possible. But it sure could be worse than I think.

The dude who'd run off screaming when Chaves first arrived now returned, flashing his shotgun around like Rambo at empty desks, chairs and spaces. He took in his buddy on his knees in front of Chaves, sullenly silent, then the other guys sprawled and moaning on the carpet, and his last compadre fiddling with a big complicated ray-gun the color of a new penny.

"Fry him, Richie! Fry him!" said the shotgunner. "He’s completely frickin’ bulletproof!"

"I can’t, I can’t!" said the guy with the ray gun. "It doesn’t work on anything green! Gotta reset the gain index … holee …"

Chaves pointed at the guy with the ray gun. His eyes widened, looking past Chaves to the hole in the ceiling, and the buffed-out woman in chrome body paint standing over the guy with the lavender mask.

Unsurprisingly, she caught Chaves' attention, too.

She was tall, a little taller than he was, with big perfect hair the exact color of pennies. Her skin was a flawless silver mirror. She wore triangular perforated-aluminum panels for a bra, a short skirt braided out of wire, steel sandals, iron bracelets. Her eyes were the white of a flourescent bulb, with blue-green filament centers too intense to stare at, although he was doing it anyway.

She clicked across the marble floor and took the ray gun out of its owner’s unresisting hands, looked it over, crushed it like tinfoil. He slumped, and she came back to where Chaves was somehow still standing.

His eyes watered, but he couldn't look away. Her own eyes roamed down his body, examining his injuries.

"Flak Jack?" she said. Her voice was liquid silver.

"Yuh," he said, a bubble of salty spit welling up over his lips. What he thought was,

Behind you, that guy, he's got a gun, he's all wired on adrenaline and terror, like me only armed and not shot, looking for something to unload on. He's at your eight o'clock, right behind your left ear, and he's putting the gun to his shoulder right now, but you can't see him and he's gonna get you first. Look! He's right there, right THERE, look in my eyes and see what I'm telling you and for Christ's sake get down!

Nothing was coming out of his mouth, but he raised his hand, pointing at the guy even as he fell forward. The chrome woman saw his finger and turned, picking up the gunner by eye just as he fired.

Nine pistol-caliber slugs bounced off her with a WHUNNG sound, like a thickly rung bell. One flicked across Chaves' cheek. As he fell forward, hitting the doorframe and collapsing around it, he felt hot blood pour down his cheek and chin.

My costume, he thought, and then

My face! and then

Oh My God, as the pain hit.

He was having a tooth pulled straight out the side of his face. There was blood, of course, and a sharp cold emptiness across his cheek, but it didn't seem important compared to the bright hot pressure on his cheekbone. He groped for it, driven by instinct to plug the hole in his head, but smooth cool fingers caught his hand before he touched it.

The silver woman knelt, holding his hand, and touched the skin of his cheek above the wound. A prickling urgency like mild electric shock brushed his skin, and then it was smooth and cool and solid as she drew the edges back together, holding them until they knitted.

Chaves tasted metal in his mouth.

Her other hand released his and felt the holes in his jacket, spreading smooth cool solidness through the outraged tissues. The pain receded all at once. He was suddenly aware how shocked he was, soaked with sweat, mouth as dry as glass.

She brought up her silver hand with a green-black glob stuck to her fingertip.

"Here," she said. He took it, and it pulled loose like a magnet coming free.

"It went in very deeply," she said, "despite your armor. It's a --"

"Cop killer," said Chaves. His voice once more his own. "I know."

"Not a cop killer today, though," she said with a smile. "And speaking of killers --"

She turned her head, to where the shotgunner was still standing there in a haze of blue-white smoke, out of ideas for the moment. He clutched at his arm, lowered the shotgun, then dropped it.

"I believe this one's yours," the silver woman told Chaves. "You're all right from here, Flak-Jack?"

"Sure, Paragon," said Chaves, as though he'd known her for years. "Thanks for the assist."

"I just happened to be in town," she said lightly. She stood up, her silver skin rippling like oil.

Chaves stood, too, and she touched him on the chest again, making his skin crackle with controlled electricity. A rivulet of silver spilled out of his healed wound, encasing and sinking into her fingers.

She caught and held his gaze, like looking into the sun, smiled, and was gone, stepping up into the air and through the hole in the roof.

Sudden applause burst out from the street.

Chaves looked around, totally confused, at half a dozen cops who had entered the bank in time to hear his challenge to the lilac-masked man. They took charge of the perps without resistance; lilac-mask looked too stunned to resist, or even want to – he didn’t even notice the scratch on his face slowly darkening the side of his ski mask.

"Damn, that was amazing, Flak-Jack!" said Rezin, looking around at the shell casings littering the lobby.

"Got cojones of steel, man," another cop added. "Hard core."

Brooks, the redhead with the prominent Adam’s apple, turned his head over on its side, marveling at all the bullet holes in the elevator’s paneled walls.

"I purely don’t believe it," he said, turning from side to side. "They sure didn’t hit much, did they?"

Chaves tried a deep breath, felt bruised ribs bite, stifled a cough.

"They hit some," he said.

"Oh, yeah, no kidding, Flak-Jack," Brooks hastened to assure him. "You’re a real man of steel. But look here – that AB-10’s got a twenty-round clip. There’s got to be twenty holes in this elevator at least. You figure six in the revolver the other guy had, and they hit you, what, five or six times out of 26? That’s not even twenty percent. Pretty poor shooting, especially at this range."

He was gesturing with his hands, happy, excited. Chaves began to feel the weight of his armor.

"Is that all the perps, then? The perpetrators," he said.

"Got ‘em all, Cowboy," said Rezin. He pointed to the shotgunner, now lying on his back half on, half off a desk at the far end of the room. The guy’s leg slowly tilted up, as though he were sleepwalking, and he slid off to the floor, carrying a flood of papers with him.

"Musta been hit by one of his own ricochets," Rezin opined. "Poetic justice, man, like it always happens with Betterman."

Strangely, being compared to the world’s greatest hero embarrassed Chaves, in a way that putting on tights in public could not.

"I’m no Betterman," he protested. His legs were steadying down now; he took a short step, and it hurt. He swayed, then braced as Brooks took up the strain on his arm.

"You are to these folks," said Rezin of the patrons and staff in the lobby, who still hadn’t got to their feet. "You saved all their lives."

"Well, I don’t know if these guys were going to –" Chaves began.

"Where is he?" bellowed Captain Maitland from the entrance, choked with cops and onlookers. "Get out of the way. God damn it, if there’s even one casualty I’m taking it out of Flak-Jack’s bulletproof hide!"

"Steady there, Flak-Jack," said Brooks. His voice sounded odd – it sounded, in fact, just like Chaves’ own voice when he was trying to pretend everything was normal, and it wasn’t.

"Lemme help you there," said Brooks, and he reached around with his other arm to get hold of Flak-Jack’s cape and haul it around, turning it around his neck till it hung down over the right side of his chest, covering up the gaping hole in his spandex top. The hole’s round edges were crispy with muzzle-burn, and inside it the name tape on his body armor clearly read CHAVES in letters an inch high.

Chaves looked up at Brooks. Brooks winked at him.

And as Maitland and the TV people and the cops and even a few late-arriving superheroes crowded around him, as he took the painful steps that improved with practice into their midst, as he answered their questions in Flak-Jack’s deep whitebread voice, even as he held his cape’s edge tight to conceal the hole in his secret identity, he saw Brooks following him, giving him the thumbs-up, and he knew that without doing anything more complicated than donning some tights and jumping into a bank holdup, he’d somehow acquired a sidekick.


Chapter Two

The Sensational Character Find of the Year

Flak-Jack’s bustup of the bank robbery got a full segment on the nightly news, in between Larry Liberty’s defeat of yet another mountaintop stronghold of holdout Nazis and Paragon’s impromptu damming of the runaway Schuylkill River, foiling Magnetohydrodynamic Man’s attempt to avenge himself on the city of Philadelphia for consistently mispronouncing his name. The Prosecutor had bound six conspirators in a Congressional spy-protection racket with miles of their own blackmail videotapes, then stuffed their mouths with the $100 bills of their foreign paymasters. The evidence needed to convict them, and many others, lay in a black box beside the prisoners with the Prosecutor’s gavel-and-key emblem on the sides.

There was also a war somewhere, the Federal budget being passed, and some movie star was in rehab, but mostly the news was about Paragon, Larry Liberty, the Prosecutor – and Flak-Jack.

Bare-knuckle push-ups didn’t do a lot more for your arms than regular push-ups. But they hurt more, which was why Marc Chaves did them. So far, being Flak-Jack had been largely about withstanding pain.

"So, what do you think, Marc?"

Chaves looked up from his kitchen floor. Brooks was in the living room of Chaves' apartment, sitting on the end table up close to the TV with a sketch pad and crayons. The pad was Chaves', but Brooks must have brought the crayons himself.

He didn't know what Brooks had been saying, so he tried a cop stall.

"I dunno, Brooks. Which way do you see it coming down?" he said.

It worked; Brooks nodded his head enthusiastically, making his Adam's apple bob up and down. Chaves felt slightly ill.

"Red, white and blue," Brooks said. "No question. Look how well they go on Betterman! Or the flag, for that matter, but mostly Betterman."

"Betterman?" said Chaves. He couldn't help picturing Brooks Tinsley in a Betterman costume, hands on hips, squinting slghtly, as he proudly stood guard over the metropolis. In tight-fitting nylon, Tinsley's physique, simultaneously skinny and pot-bellied, hurt worse than any number of bare-knuckle push-ups.

"Yeah, but not, y'know, JUST like Betterman," Brooks conceded. "For one thing, that cape wouldn't look as good on the ground as it does when he's flying. Being as how I don't, fly that is, it might make sense to ditch it. Plus, I think it's copyrighted."

"Would Betterman mind?" Chaves said. "He's supposed to be above all those mortal concerns like intellectual property and stuff."

Chaves got up and began shadow-boxing, with a little shadow-ass-kicking when he sensed an opening. A guy made a mistake in a fight, you took advantage of it, and so what if it wasn't fair? He'd do the same to you. So far, that principle worked even for a superhero.

If, that is, Chaves really were a superhero, he admitted to himself. His costume looked homemade, not natural like the heroes on TV, and he wasn't entirely happy with the name Flak-Jack, either. Meeting a real superhero had put things in perspective. He was fitter than most men he knew, certainly bolder, but now he was playing in a bigger league.

It might be time to get serious.

Brooks did a couple of fake kung fu moves in response to Chaves' boxing stance, and Chaves sighed. Brooks had never been within earshot of serious.

"I can't believe none of you saw Paragon," he said. "She was right in front of me."

"Oh, no kidding," Brooks agreed. "Forensics took fiber samples from the carpet -- she may have size four feet, but she's gotta weigh above 800 pounds. They said she stressed the concrete."

"But how'd she get in? She can't walk through walls, " Chaves said. Although he wasn't sure of that at all. For a fan who'd started crossing over into the pros, he wasn't as up on all the minutiae as the guys to whom fandom was their whole universe.

Case in point:

"I wouldn't be so sure of that," Brooks said. He sat down on the end table again. "Her body is made of nanotechnological liquid metal, right? There's, well, there's overwhelming evidence, even if you stick to the public record and don't get into all the Internet speculation. So every molecule can sort of do its own thing. It's a THICK liquid, sure, because each molecule is a little machine and they have to be fairly large, but we're talking fairly large for a molecule, not a grain of sand. So she could, like, disperse her nanites into a loose cloud and sorta waft through an open window, then recollect herself inside."

"Yeah, but how complex can the instructions for a machine the size of a molecule be, anyway?" Chaves did not believe he was having this conversation. "Can you tell it 'Go over there through a window and then link back up with my body at location X?' Or just "flow this way' with a little arrow? There's got to be a limit."

"I guess," said Brooks. "A lot of ink's been spilled over superheroes' limits. Bad guys would love to know how to take down Betterman, for example, but everybody's a little bit curious. I mean, a guy like that, no weaknesses, no vulnerabilities -- suppose he and the Prosecutor fought? Who would win, y'know?"

Chaves squinted at Brooks.

"You think about this a lot?" he asked carefully.

"Not just me. There's whole web rings about B/Pros fight potential."

"B Slash Pros?"

"Betterman/Prosecutor. There's also B slash P-for-Paragon, P slash Pros, then you got R, S and T for Rosie and Starshine and them. Every way the big guys could ever fight, there's a site about it. Plus ... other stuff, all kinds of stuff, but the Prosecutor really frowns on people making up stories about him. The fans know it, so that's sort of a fringe. Most people respect his wishes."

"I'd think he'd like the publicity," Chaves said. "He doesn't seem shy about leaving his calling card."

"Some publicity, yeah, I guess," Brooks said. "But slash fiction can be kinda ..."

He trailed off, looking pained. Chaves didn't want to ask.

But he had to.

"Kinda harsh?" he said. "Kinda biased?"

"Kinda porny," Brooks managed to say. "So I've heard," he added.

Chaves, dumbstruck, looked not unlike the guy who'd bounced a shotgun load off Paragon's chest. He blinked.

"Wow," he said, before realizing,

"And EVERY superhero has fans like this?" he said.

"Yeah, pretty much," Brooks said. "It takes a while to wade though all the crap, but you get to know where the good sites are after a while. Books and magazines are a lot harder to sort through, actually. There's a lot of variation from issue to issue of WATCHTOWER or SUPERWORLD, for example. I don't think they keep writers very long."

"No ####; probably scared G-Man'll kick in their door and arrest them for libel," Chaves said. "So, uh, you know a lot about this scene, uh?"

"Sure! Good thing for you, too, man. Imagine if some plank like Pevetz found you before I did -- forget keeping your secret, you'd be lucky to keep your job."

Chaves nodded, but he didn't say anything. What was on his mind to say was,

Are there any F sites? F vs. B, F vs. P ... maybe, oh, F slash P, somewhere?

Which was why he didn't dare utter a word.

Brooks nodded some more, making the table creak. When he nodded, he did it with his whole spine.

"Course, you were double-lucky Paragon showed up when she did," he went on. "You think you were hit pretty bad, huh? That vest of yours looked like ####."

It had, too -- the inner layers had spalled huge flakes of gray-green waxy composite into the fabric shell, like a bag of broken china. He didn't have any scars, but an area the size of a softball was sliced to ribbons on the inner cover, and on the shirt he had on under it. It seemed unlikely his skin had been spared.

"Yeah," he said. "I'd a been dead for sure."

"Maybe she just flew in," Brooks said. "Y'know, most of these guys move at super-speed, invisible to the naked eye. Like, you can't see a bullet in flight, right? Not even a little. They get up around Mach One, and man, they might as well be invisible. Photographers HATE that."

"Paragon's got super-speed?"

"Yep. Paragon, Betterman, Peacemaker, Trenchcoat -- even that new guy, Hecatomb. It's pretty much a given -- if you wear a cape, you've got the speed to make it fly like Old Glory. Which is why I'm thinking, me being pretty much without superspeed, no cape."

He was distractible, but every time Brooks kept coming back to the central idea of his happy little world. He was going to be a superhero.

"Got a name picked out yet?" said Chaves by way of forestalling the image of Brooks in a Betterman costume.

"Armor Man!" said Brooks immediately. Chaves just looked at him.

"Cause I'd wear armor," he said defensively. "Like you do."

"Where you gonna get it?" Chaves wanted to know.

"Where you got yours! It's department issue, right?"

"Hell, no!" Chaves snorted. "Like I could get away with painting my SWAT suit kelly green. Sure, I had it on yesterday, but that's just because we were on tactical turnout. And the cop killer went right through two layers of Kev. ####."

"So you bought your own?"

"Yeah, it's legal everywhere but California," Chaves said. "I'll show you the catalog. But look, we gotta think about titanium inserts or something, Brooks. Kevlar just didn't make it last time."

Brooks pondered.

"They sell those?" he asked.

"Sure. Hundred bucks, but y'know, I realized right after getting shot that --"

"So you could stack four or five of them on top of each other," Brooks was saying over him. "Sew pockets on the vest, or weld 'em together. They'd bounce cannonballs off 'em! For eight or nine hundred, you could --"

"A cannonball would crush your bones even if your armor held," Chaves said. "I've thought about this, okay? Besides, it's not like titanium's weightless."

"It's stronger and lighter than steel," Brooks insisted.

"So wear an inch of aluminum on your chest and tell me you're gonna be running an obstacle course! How you gonna afford all that armor, anyway?"

Brooks looked hurt.

"You did," he said.

"Yeah," said Chaves. It was true; he wasn't paid any better than Brooks, and if anything he had more expensive tastes, eating out occasionally and going to the games. Brooks, so far as he knew, didn't go out of his apartment. Chaves had never actually seen Brooks' place, but he imagined narrow, overhung aisles between stacks of comic books and videotapes filling four walls like a self-storage unit with paint on the concrete walls. Maybe a television, maybe a bed. He hoped he wasn't doing Brooks too much of an injustice with his creepy imaginings, but, well, look at him, he thought. I can't be far wrong.

"Maybe you can build up to it, uh?" Chaves said. "I gotta replace this vest before Flak-Jack goes on patrol again. I can use the unbroken plates in the back to fill up the shell in front, so I can turn my issue vest in without getting busted. But my own vest'll be shot."

"I don't know how you can say that word," Brooks said. "And I wouldn't want to go out without back armor. Don't you think criminals shoot people in the back?"

"Only the seriously crazy ones shoot at cops at all," Chaves replied. "Good way to get yourself killed."

"I guess," said Brooks. He was sketching on the pad again.

"Don't you -- sorry, man -- but don't you have any feeling for how crooks think at all?" Chaves asked.

"Marc, I see hookers, crackheads and drunks, who are basically Crackhead Lites. I don't know from master criminals. I've never seen anyone rob a bank, or stick up an armored car, or anything more complicated than put a gun in a liquor store owner's face and clean out the till. Even them I don’t see in the act. And I swear, the next one of those guys who doesn't take a bottle with him, leaving his prints all over the bottles next to 'em, will be the first one I've seen."

"So, no," Brooks said, intent on his crayons. "I don't know how crooks think. How do you?"

He had a point.


Brooks wanted to get right into the thick of things, so they drove five hours into another state to pick up their new vests. The surplus store had Kevlar, but also the Vietnam-era flak jackets with steel plates over the nylon. Both of them picked the latter.

Chaves showed Brooks how to remove the fabric cover, bleach the tough synthetic fabric so it would take the dye, dye it in the bathtub and hang it up so it faded mostly along the seams, where the dye was thickest. He'd tried a few times before getting his own costume right, and by now he knew what he was doing.

Needle and thread were not Flak-Jack's weapons, but wielded fearlessly and with patience they formed sleeves and pants that were sound and rip-safe, if largely composed of sewing thread. The mask was tricky, because although much of a size, Chaves and Brooks turned out to have radically different facial bone structures; at least, Chaves' mask kept slipping over Brooks' eyes, and a pattern they made from Brooks' face fit Chaves like a blood-pressure cuff, bugging his eyes out.

He noticed, when he pulled the cord tight that time, a stiffness in his cheek that hadn't been there before. But it could have been that his teeth were gritted tightly at the time, because as was becoming usual, Brooks was talking.

He never shut up. Chaves wasn't antisocial -- he hung around with the guys, and not out of a sense of obligation, either. But he wasn't used to having someone around every freaking day, work or no work. And, as he had observed before, Brooks never shut up.

He couldn't ditch Brooks, of course. Quite apart from feeling it unmanly to complain about something as mundane as loose lip syndrome, Chaves knew Brooks could expose his secret identity. Which probably didn't mean going to jail, but it would sure endanger his job. And he liked being a cop, if not necessarily all the time.

A sidekick, though ... wasn't that mostly for the comic books? As far as he knew, the real superheroes didn't have many sidekicks these days. They'd all grown up, or quit the biz. Sometimes you saw them on Behind the Powers.

But he coped. It was a hell of a lot better than being shot in the face. And by now, he knew that for a fact.


Flak-Jack and Armor Man went on patrol just as autumn really lost interest in pretending and let winter do whatever the hell it wanted. Their clothes were bulky enough to cut the wind, and nylon was great to retain heat, sweat and odor, but their faces felt raw within seconds, leathery in minutes. Plus there wasn't going to be a lot of easy prey out in the streets, not prey with any sense in their heads.

Because neither of them had ever worked foot patrol, they stuck to the dimly-lit main avenues through the worse parts of downtown for a while, tracing the routes they'd patrolled in squad cars. Hands jammed in their pockets, faces tucked down against the wind, they sometimes got right up on a guy before he noticed their primary-colored costumes. One blue-and-white motored right past them at twenty miles an hour and didn't even flash a spotlight in their direction.

"What's wrong with people tonight?" Brooks wanted to know. "If I were still working midnights, thank you Jesus I'm not, I'd have stopped a dozen guys by now."

"Yeah," said Flak-Jack. "Maybe we oughta just do what I did before: patrol in uniform and switch to the colors when we actually see something."

"But then we can't watch each other's backs," Brooks complained. "We're in different precincts. You gotta have backup, right, Flak-Jack?"

Somehow, having Brooks call him Flak-Jack wasn't like having Paragon do it. Not at all.

"Let's work it backwards," he said. "The guys who'd hit liquor stores, check chasing places, they're not the ones we want anyway."

"The cops can handle 'em," Brooks agreed.

"Yeah, that's what I meant," said Chaves. "We're after bigger game, like the Dolphin Gang or Prince Rudolf's Flying Circus. They don't boost rings from the Red Ball -- they go for the big scores."

"Like a bank?"

"At night?" Chaves said. "Hn. Why not? You gotta have tools, and be real quiet, but it's not a bad idea."

There was a bank a few blocks away, Brooks thought (they were avoiding areas they knew well in their day jobs, on the theory that the cops, and certainly the hoods, would know them there, despite their oversized domino masks), so they patrolled that way, sticking to the shadows, which was considerably easier to do at night than it might have been otherwise.

A few blocks turned out to be fifteen, and the bank wasn't much -- a storefront with an ATM, near a corner takeout place. But the streetlights weren't very strong, the architecture was old and crumbly, and not a lot of people were coming and going, so there were plenty of places to hide.

They watched the bank until their eyes felt crackly, like lumps of ice. They were used to long nights, but usually with a car around them and maybe a hot drink every few hours. And they weren't used to hiding at all.

"The point of policeis to be seen" Chaves opined. "To deter crime by our oresence. Superheroes, now, we don't want to make some perp look the odds over and go home. We want him to come out and roll the dice,so we can nail his ass."

"We do?" Brooks said.

"Damn straight," said Chaves. "I didn't learn tae kwon do, sewing, dyeing and now metalworking to sit on my ass waiting."

So he stood up. It was better that way.

Suddenly, or so it semed after the empty hours, a light flashed on them and a blue light flashed.

"Hey," said a cop voice from an unmarked car. Both of them jumped. Chaves almost ran for it, but Brooks stepped into the light.

"Greetings, officer," he said heartily. "We were watching that bank over there, but I guess we're done for the night now that you've arrived."

"This is my beat," the cop said, lowering the light to Brooks' chest. "Part of it. Hey, is that Flak-Jack?"

Chaves stepped up, trying to smile. He caught the guy's name tag -- Whipple -- and his precinct, which startled him. They were all teh way over in the One-One! How long had they been walking?

"That's right, officer,." he said.

"Aw right. Good job with those bank fuckers last week. Aw, man -- sorry! I can't believe I said fuckers in front of Flak-Jack ..."

Brooks snickered.

"That's, uh, quite all right, officer," said Chaves. If he sounded any more white he'd have to write for the National Review. "This is a stressful world we live in. It calls forth the ... rough side of each of us."

It was all he could do to avoid putting a question mark on every phrase, because he was just throwing them out there as fast as they occurred to him. But the cop was grinning, buying it.

"You, ah, you know that bank is closed, right, guys?" the cop said.

"Surely, officer. It's well past midnight," Brooks said.

Chaves winced and hoped he didn't sound that bad.

"No, I mean closed. They came for the sign yesterday. That ATM's not hooked up to anything -- we watched 'em suck the money out. You wouldn't believe how much cash is in one of those things -- it was like a trash bag full of twenties they hauled away."

Brooks looked crestfallen, but Chaves covered for him.

"You know that and I know that, but there are those that don't," he said quickly. "Blue Steel here has been working a lead from his home town for months now, and we're working together to nail it down here in the Lib. You may be seeing one or both of us around for a while, until we get the guys we're after."

Brooks goggled, but said, "Uh, yeah."

"It's his military background," Chaves explained. "In special ops, they never liked to talk about their missions. Even after they were over. But I've said too much."

The cop nodded, grooving on his celeb encounter.

"What can I do?" he said. "To help."

"Just stay alert like you always do," Chaves said. "If we get wind of our quarry in your area, we'll let you know. Always like to have the force on our side."

"Great. Well, good luck. Save me a piece of the guy you're after."

Whipple motored away, and now that their hideout was blown, Brooks and Chaves headed off, too.

"What was that all about?" Brooks wanted to know.

"I thought we'd look stupid admitting the bank was closed, so I made something up. What's the harm?"

"Not that. That was cool," Brooks said. "I mean telling him I'm from out of town! And 'Blue Steel'? Isn't that a movie?"

"I didn't want to give him your REAL name", Chaves improvised, "because I was saying you were from out of town. Blue Steel's from out of town, get it? Armor Man is a local boy."

Brooks thought.

"Okay," he decided. "But how come you said we were working the case together? Aren't we partners?"

Cops, Chaves remembered, had a hell of a time staying married. He wasn't the least bit surprised to have had that particular thought right now.

"I'm giving you a chance to establish yourself, Brooks. Me, they already know. I say this here is Blue Steel, my partner, and they don't hear 'partner', they hear 'sidekick'. No matter what you do from then on out, you're always Blue Steel, "Flak-Jack's partner." This way, y'know, we're a team. Like how Prosecutor and G-Man fight the same guys all the time, but no one thinks G-Man is Prosecutor's boss or nothing. Equals."

Brooks had been watching him intently until he ran out of ideas. Now he waited for the reaction.

"Hey, thanks, man!" said Brooks, and hit him on the arm. Chaves' armor made a ringing click. "Blue Steel. Y'know, that's actually not half bad. Maybe I could look into having two secret identities .."

Aw, Jesus, Chaves thought. Another costume.

"Does anybody know you're Armor Man?" he said quickly. "Why not just pick one name and stick with it?"

"Good thinking, partner. Blue Steel it is."

A flash lit the night sky from over by the Skyler bridges. It wasn't a flickering cop light, nor (as far as Chaves knew) a bomb. And he'd seen enough fires reflecting off the soot and grime in the upper air to know it wasn't a fire, exactly, although there were similarities. Fires, however, weren't generally blue-green.

"C'mon!" Both of them had seen the flash, of course, but only Chaves immediately thought to run toward it. Brooks followed close behind, however.

The river was much too far for two not-quite-young fellows to run all the way there. They did it anyway, or tried to, and made some pretty good time. As long as he wasn't expected to do anything more than wheeze and swallow phlegm while holding his aching sides, Chaves figured he'd be all right.

In fact, there was an unsuspected advantage in running across town at three in the morning -- Brooks couldn't sprint and talk at the same time. So there was just the slap-slap of rubber soles on sidewalk or asphalt, the whuh-whuh of labored breathing, and the occasional blurt of radio noise as they ran past some early riser.

Not bad. Chaves wished he still had his cape, so it would fly back from his shoulders as he ran. That would look good.

The riverbank came up suddenly, startling Chaves. He'd thought they still had a few blocks to go. He was judging by the height of the Guernsey-side tower of the bridge, which now that he was closer he could see was leaning at a significant angle.

Another blue flash, and a section of stone and soil fell off the bank into the water, carrying some cars with it. Blue-and-whites were showing up in force now, strobing the water with their lights, which made them prominent targets. Chaves saw cops scattering away from their vehicles just before the first one exploded.

Its gas tank went up, of course, but the rising orange fireball was eclipsed by the sudden sunburst of yellow vapor as the car's steel body literally vaporized, splashing in all directions as fine droplets. This time, he caught a reflection off the river, and followed it back to where the flashes were coming from.

There was a guy in red and white down there, with capes on either arm and way too many legs anchoring him in the mud. He turned a head that was too wide to be human, breathing blue fire across the base of the bridge in a blaze of sparks and dripping, hissing steel gobbets.

Chaves thought it was Meltron, an alien criminal from a distant star who belched microwaves at will. He'd been dubbed Iron Dragon (a rough translation of his alien name) when he first showed up in Hogbutcher City, but there'd been an Iron Dragon somewhere out West in the forties, and CAG hated anyone re-using a name. 'Meltron' was the creation of some newspaper feature; it wasn't as though the guy was going to insist on "Iron Dragon", even if he read the news. He probably didn't even speak English.

Meltron was standing spraddle-legged near a pile of dull red rocks against the riverbank, near an abandoned white brick building. When he stopped breathing fire, the rocks glowed with a light of their own. They were rough on most sides, but straight along the edges, like building bricks that hadn't been cemented into place yet. In fact, some had traces of mortar showing along the edges, crumbling and black where they'd been burned out of a larger structure.

Great, Chaves thought. Where this guy comes from, sandstone is precious, so as soon as he hits town he starts carving his own personal stash out of the walls. It's Earth, dude. The planet’s made of rock. We got all the sandstone you want just lying around on the ground -- help yourself.

Still, Meltron was getting into major villain territory. His breath was directional, thank God, so a soft-skinned hero like Chaves had a good chance to sneak up behind him. He'd be pretty tough, of course, to survive a mouth temperature like that. Chaves remembered that when Meltron was hooked up with some outfit like the All-Stars of Evil, Betterman punched him through a brick wall without fazing him. Or maybe that was Lava Lord -- there were a lot of these fire guys running around, and villains didn’t care from CAG, so they re-used each other’s names a lot.

Getting shot had done at least one good thing -- it cured Chaves of thinking he was invulnerable. Yes, his vest could stop just about any man-portable bullet by now. But he always knew he could be shot in the head, protected by a thin piece of plastic with eye holes, and that'd be that. Or in a world of superpowers, he might be on the wrong end of a pair of laser eyes, and he'd find out what Kevlar smelled like when it burned.

Chaves had plenty of time to think about all this while he stood panting his lungs up like a consumptive, hanging onto an iron railing next to the river. But Brooks, who like most people had never actually been shot, vaulted the railing and went puffing down onto the muddy bank toward Meltron, because he didn't know any better.

"Aw, hell ..." Chaves said, and climbed down after him.

Brooks slipped in the slime and fell down, catching himself with his hands on a muddy tire. Meltron was breathing again, making a noise like a steam whistle in a high wind, working the bridge supports till they glowed barbecue-orange. He didn't hear Brooks slip, nor flail around trying to get his boots under him. The armor was making it hard for him to stand up.

Chaves got under his armpit and gave him a boost. The idiot was grinning.

A guy came surfing down the river, riding a big pointed log. Chaves recognized Flumerider, who had evidently acquired an outboard motor or something, because that log was really making time across the water. He had a grin that matched Brooks’ exactly.

Meltron huffed in surprise, fire wreathing his head for a moment. He took a big breath, fanning his internal flame, and let go just as Flumerider lined up and headed for shore.

A rod of semi-solid flame punched into the river ahead of the speeding log. Instantly a cloud of white steam billowed up, spreading to touch both banks and wash Chaves in dirty boiled river water. The inside of his armor felt wet, and his eyes stung. Chaves squinted, turned aside, but couldn’t stop watching to see what happened to Flumerider.

The log, without its rider, shot out of the cloud and skidded up the bank to a muddy bluff, where it buried itself a yard deep. If Meltron had been fifty yards to the left, he’d have been staked like the world’s biggest vampire.

But he wasn’t.

Captain Columbia showed up on the bridge, right in the middle where the support pillar was glowing like a coal, and stood on the guardrail overlooking the water. His coonskin cap was fluttering in the breeze, and a little yellow half-cape with a snake design stood straight back from his shoulders. Steam covered him as the wind carried the cloud downriver, but the city lights behind him made it easy to follow his outline as he brandished a huge tomahawk over his head and jumped.

His legs flailed in air as he plummeted, head down, yelling some French and Indian war cry, Chaves supposed. Like Flumerider, he couldn’t look away from Captain Columbia’s imminent doom.

Apparently the Captain possessed superhuman resilience, or was luckier than any man alive, because he didn’t go crunch! the way Chaves expected him to. He landed square on Meltron, who hadn’t seen or heard him coming, and thumped his tomahawk down on the wrinkled, marble-ridged skull with a sharp ping like metal breaking.

It actually was metal breaking. He stood up, groaning, holding the pieces of his tomahawk and clutching his chest where he’d landed on Meltron’s apparently very solid bulk. Captain Columbia had a dirk and a flintlock pistol in his belt, but he stood there staring at the bright line in its hatchet where it had bent nearly double over Meltron’s head before snapping.

Meltron turned to face him.

A plip! went up from the water fifty yards out, and Chaves ducked before he heard the sound of the shot. Was Meltron shooting at them? A gun seemed so ... pointless, after seeing his flamethrower breath.

But Meltron seemed to think he needed an equalizer. He picked up a gadget from the sand that looked a little like a cast-iron bullhorn with rings around the narrow end. Captain Columbia staggered back a step and reached for his knife.

Another spark flashed across the river. No, it wasn't Meltron at all. It was the cops, shooting at Chaves and Brooks. No doubt they thought they were coming to back Meltron up.

Captain Columbia saw Meltron’s attention waver and chose that moment to run away, doubled over with both arms across his chest. He looked like he might have broken a rib.

The alien let the Captain go, seeming to forget him immediately. He grabbed up a chunk of sandstone in each hand, tucking his bullhorn-gun under his arm, and ran for a hole in the embankment, like a tunnel mouth or a sewer outlet. He threw the chunks inside, ran back and grabbed two more. The cops had his range now; flat white sparks flashed from his reticulated hide where bullets shattered. At least they’d forgotten about Chaves and Brooks.

"He's protecting his stash," said Chaves to himself. "What a maroon ..."

"Must think the cops can't hurt him," Brooks said. "Good thing we're here, huh? We'll sort his ass out."

"With our hands?" Chaves demanded. "Broo -- Blue Steel, we don't have any freakin' armored gloves. He’ll fry our fists. We can punch him twice -- each -- and that's it."

"So we won't punch him," Brooks said with the calm certainty of the completely mad. "We'll blow him to Kingdom Come."

He reached into his trouser leg and pulled out a tear gas launcher, with the shoulder stock removed. It was like a big fat sawed-off shotgun, albeit with a bore that could shoot tennis balls.

"Better get yourself a weapon, Flak-Jack," Brooks counseled. "We oughta rush him once this hits, doncha think?"

Chaves gave up. He found a length of iron pipe, about five feet long, that seemed solid enough.

Meltron blew another volcano-belch at the cops on the far bank, and the snipers forgot about Flak-Jack to make Meltron's armor dance instead. Some of the big rounds made him wobble a bit on the slippery footing, but that was it.

Brooks thumbed back the latch on his launcher and slid a 40mm grenade into the breech. It didn't look like a tear gas shell at all.

"Where'd you get that?" Chaves said.

"Catalog," Brooks said tightly. "Wanna get him by his cave or down by the water?"

"The water," Chaves decided after a moment. "We knock him in that cold water, it's got to make him uncomfortable. Maybe douse his flame."

Then, he thought, I run fifty yards over sloping mud and hit him with a piece of pipe. And I knock him into the water, where a rifle slug couldn't. Yeah, right.

He could see just one way to make it happen: he was going to have to throw his own weight into the blow as well as the strength of his arms, body-checking Meltron like a hockey player. On solid ground, it probably wouldn't work, but here, with luck, he'd be able to knock Meltron down. And if Meltron didn't fall on top of him in the process, he'd probably get out okay -- his armor wasn't fireproof, but it was thick.

It was an insane idea. He knew that, on some unimportant level. But he was going to do it. He WANTED to do it.

Meltron came back from dumping another two chunks of rock in his cave. Someone on the far bank started up with an automatic weapon, spattering Meltron with dirty white flashes.

Chaves crouched, tensing his legs.

"Get ready," he told Brooks.

Another automatic, this one a rifle, started up on Meltron, and now he was pissed. He shook a fist at the cops, roaring alien threats, and sucked in a massive draught of air, making the interstices between his armor plates glow red-hot. His internal temperature must have been beyond imagining.

He let go, whooshing a stream so hot and bright that it stung Chaves' eyes from fifty yards away. All firing instantly stopped, as everyone on the far bank for a mile around took cover.

Several cars exploded in unison, their pink-yellow gasoline clouds boiling up into the sky. The bridge's supports, half melted through, glowed like candles before they sagged like candles, then broke as the tension on them reached its limits. Six lanes of asphalt and steel dropped toward the Skyler River, groaning like the damned in torment.

And stopped.

Meltron blinked, looked left and right. He saw Chaves and Brooks but didn't take them in, or consider them important. He cocked his head, trying to see underneath the bridge.

A silver leg extended from the mass, probing with steel-sandaled toes for solid ground. Finding the opposite bank, which was concrete here beside the bridge, Paragon shifted the immense weight and set it to one side, grounding the severed ends of its beams so that the rest of the bridge, still packed with traffic, didn't quite follow it down.

Several cars and one truck, their owners having fled, slid down the damaged section toward Paragon. One was in neutral, apparently, because it slid far faster than the rest. She barely had time to raise a silver hand before it hit her, driving her feet back into the concrete with a crunch.

The car's frame bent, but it held, and Paragon flexed her arm, bringing it in closer to shoulder it out of the way before the others hit.

She came back around with two handfuls of wire from her skirt, hurling it left and right to ensnare the bridge's still-intact side supports; unlike a suspension bridge, its supporting members were rigid beams, and hadn't gone limp when the section fell. She knitted the ends blurringly fast into a basketwork net, which caught the sliding cars and held them fast.

Meltron belched a blast of blue fire at her, exploding the cars like popcorn, but she wasn't there any more. Like a quicksilver streak, she was in the air again and most of the way across the river before the first car blew.

"Daaaamn," Brooks said, shielding his eyes with his hand.

Paragon hit him feet-first, driving Meltron into the riverbank. He flailed, but she backflipped out of the way, the mud seeming to fly from her shining skin as fast as she touched it. She came up facing him, another length of wire in one hand. Her fingers braided it, forming a system of loops, even as she held up her other hand to block his attack.

Meltron raised the bullhorn device to his mouth and blew steel-mill heat, white-hot, melting her wire-snare in a blaze of green fire even as she sideslipped the worst of it. He started to take a breath, stepped forward, and broke a piece of the sandstone underfoot.

He looked down, shocked, and gasped candleflame. He raised his foot.

Paragon darted in, almost but not quite on his blind side. She kicked his other foot out from under him with a sound like steel hitting stone, caught him under both armpits, forced his arms up and out in a full-nelson, cupping her hands behind his head. Meltron tried to turn to one side, but she pressed razored nails into the sides of his head and he stopped.

"It's sandstone, Meltron! Sandstone!" she said. "We have all you want without melting it out of buildings. Just tell me who you're working for, and stop burning down the city ..."

Instead, he drew in a massive breath, heating his guts to white-hot. He was facing Chaves and Brooks almost directly, while Paragon's head was hidden except for her coppery hair. She didn't know she was pointing him at them like a flamethrower.

Brooks shot his grenade launcher. Its recoil caught him by surprise, flopping him over on his butt. The round hit Meltron right in his open mouth.

Meltron snapped his jaws shut in surprise. His throat worked.

Then he exploded in a crimson flare that swelled to throw its awful light over the entire city, both sides of the river, Paragon and Chaves. Chaves was blown back off his feet, sizzling where molten metal splashed his skin through his shredded clothes. Brooks, shielded by a dip in the ground, saw liquid silver run halfway up Chaves' body, feet to chest, and cling there, burning.

Thick smoke poured up from him almost at once.

And Brooks and the cops across the river, those who hadn't been blinded by the flash, saw a charred, twisted metal skeleton raise its upper half on a blackened arm, its hair a thick smear of bubbling copper down one side, its skirt a flattened gridwork of scorched wire, sitting up in the center of a splattered circle of liquid silver.

"Holy ####," Brooks said, and meant it.

Chaves felt solid weight on his legs and belly, then the shock of its heat like a thunderclap. He smelled burning plastic and ozone and burnt metal, and something in his cheek where he'd been shot. The legs didn't hurt at all, though they were terrifically, killingly hot. But his cheek!

He clapped his hand to his face. It wasn't blood, but there was liquid on his fingers, heavy liquid that bowed his hand back in front of his eyes, silver liquid with a bit of his blood still mixed in.

The smear of silver syrup weighed about a pound. He didn't have the strength to hold it up. His hand fell across his metal-coated waist, where it stuck with a sizzle. The silver on his hand ran down his palm, mixing with the silver on his legs. It rippled, like a pond struck with a pebble.

Then the whole silvery mass began to pour up his chest, rising against gravity. He felt it making rough microscopic legs, like sandpaper on his skin, working its way up his body. Still there was no pain.

Chaves looked up, eyes wide with horror, and saw Paragon. Her scorched, metalized skull caught his eye and smiled, the silver lips part of the skull rather than the melted-away skin. One incandescent green eye was flickering, numbers and letters unspooling at lightning speed, but the other held his gaze, weighed him, and found him good.

The left eye stopped, flashed red, started again. No matter how she worked the problem, the answer was coming up the same.

She threw a last strand of wire across from herself to him, letting it coil around his ankle. Her left eye stopped its flickering at last, giving up the impossible. Both her eyes strobed a mental command in implacable, irresistible mathematics that mere matter dared not defy.

The rest of the silver liquid spread around her on the riverbank gathered itself in a rolling ball that followed the wire up onto Chaves' leg, flowed up his body, and covered him.

He felt it itching on his body like a million soft needles, then it figured out his skin and wriggled through it. He passed out seeing the stars shimmer as his eyes filled up with liquid silver.



Chapter Three

P Slash F

Chaves woke up to see pale dawn breaking over the riverbank. Usually it broke over the houses there, but one whole section of them was burned down.

He didn’t hurt any more, but now his legs felt cold. His belly felt cold, too, and kind of tight, as though his belt were cinched too far in. In fact, his hands felt cold, too.

He rolled over onto his side and felt something heavy and soft slide across his chest. He grabbed at it to catch it.

It was a breast.

He was holding one of two identical silver breasts in his silver-coated hand, and both breast and hand felt cold. He could feel the hand’s touch, as though it were actually his breast, his silver skin.

He turned his head, and an unfamiliar weight and mass followed it. His hair was long and heavy, made of copper wire.

Chaves blinked hard. He heard a squeaking noise as his metallic eyelids met.

When he opened them, several people were staring at him. Two were cops, and another was in plain clothes, but heavy and squinty in a way cops got when they made detective. Three were women, and he didn’t know any of them. One was Brooks, still in his Armor Man getup.

"You all right, Paragon?" the plainclothes cop said.

"When we found that skeleton, we thought –" said one of the women, who wasn’t much older than a girl, really.

"Meltron’s gone, Paragon," one of the others reported. "I mean, he didn’t get away, he’s history. He just blew up, I guess."

Chaves looked at Brooks, whose mouth was hanging open.

"And Paragon?" he said.

"That’s right, you’re Paragon," said the plainclothesman. "You might have hit your head in the explosion. Do you know where you are?"

"Liberty City," Chaves said. "The waterfront."

His voice sounded wrong, a deep resonant contralto.

"We were fighting Meltron," he said, trying out new words. "He had a gun … some kind of heat-funnel."

"We found that over here," one of the cops said. "Didn’t want to touch it till you came around."

"That’s good," Chaves said, marvelling at how his voice sounded in his ears. "Arm – ah, Blue Steel, you doing all right?"

"Yeah," said Brooks, nodding. He, at least, was getting with the program. "Yeah, Paragon. I’m all right. But what about –"

"Don’t worry," said Chaves quickly, "it’ll all sort itself out. Let’s see about Meltron’s heat-ray weapon, then get back to the lab."

"The, uh, the Spire, Paragon?" Brooks prompted.

"The lab in the Spire," Chaves said. "It’s got a lab."

"Maybe you oughn’t be moving, Paragon," the plainclothesman said. "You mighta got hit on the head …"

Chaves stood up faster than he ever had in his life. It was effortless, like turning a wheel and watching the car move, with him inside it.

"Nonsense," he said. "I feel perfectly fine."

He saw the bullhorn-weapon lying mouth down in the mud, amid blackened chunks of alien rock. The skeleton, like a wrecked Terminator, lay beside it.

Chaves picked up the bullhorn, handed it to Brooks, and knelt down. He could clearly see how Paragon’s high cheekbones had been supported by the prongs that curved out from her optical fittings. They seemed to have no other purpose than to be cheekbones, to make the robot beneath look more human.

To make her look like Paragon.

He picked up the skeleton in both arms, carefully, afraid it might come apart. But it didn’t.

"Come on, Blue Steel," he said. "We’ve got work to do."

He walked up to the edge of the road with Brooks following him. His first step left a bare footprint in the asphalt, like sand on a beach.

"Aw, hell," he said quietly, or meant too. One of the women watching him looked shocked.

Then cold water was pouring down, through, his legs, and pooling about his feet. Steel sandals formed out of the liquid, firmed and hardened.

He took careful steps after that, trying not to make anything else happen. It took a long time to get to the curb.


People were watching wherever he went, carrying a burned-up skeleton and wearing a silver skin and looking like a robot fashion model. He wasn’t about to just walk to his apartment and lead the whole world there.

"Brooks," he whispered, or tried to. It was hard to make his voice come out at any level but conversational. "Go to the place we used to make the armor. Okay? I’ll meet you there."

"You gonna ditch ‘em?" Brooks said. "I figured we could just cut down an alley and change clothes, come out in uniform. I got mine right here in this bag."

"I din’t bring mine, and besides, I’m not sure I can survive taking this off," Chaves said. "I might be all burned underneath. But Paragon can fly, right?"


"So I’ll meet you there. You go on and change, like you said. We need to figure out what happened."

He stopped talking, and he and Brooks looked at each other.

"You gonna go?" Chaves said.

"I wanted to see you take off, man," said Brooks. "I never seen it before."

"All right," said Chaves. "Uh, stand back."

He leapt into the air.

His leg muscles contracted with a ping! like the splitting of Captain Columbia’s axe, and threw him fifty feet into the air.

Then he came back down.

Brooks had not stood back when bidden, and now he backpedaled frantically as Chaves slammed into the ground feet-first. His sandals punched through the road surface like thick clay and crunched into bedrock beneath.

Chaves stepped out of knee-deep holes in the street.

"How does Paragon take off?" he asked.

Brooks shrugged.

"She just does it," he guessed. "I toldja I never seen it."

"Okay, then. Plan B."

He took off running.

That was more like it; cars and buildings whipped by like rollercoaster pylons. He stopped short when he came into an area with pedestrians, afraid he’d run one over, and made a detour into the chemical works. Half the buildings were abandoned, and the lots they sat upon were huge. He covered miles in a few minutes, not even breathing hard.

Actually, he wasn’t sure if he was breathing at all.

That scared him, so Chaves walked the rest of the way. His apartment had a back entrance, of course, as fire regulations required. He put some weight on the fire escape, felt its iron bars give like crunchy graham crackers, and went up the stairs instead, hoping nobody would see him.

Nobody did.

He made it into his apartment (breaking the lock, as he had no keys) and put the skeleton on the kitchen table, sinking into a chair beside it. The chair’s hollow metal struts squeaked, but held.

Chaves leaned forward, looking at the skull at nearly eye level. His breasts swung out and away from his body when he moved, changing his balance. They clacked together like ball bearings.

Despite intense competition from many contenders, that was easily the weirdest thing that had happened to him today.