Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Origin Story

Living in Commerce City, odds are you’re going to get caught up in something someday—pinned down in the crossfire of some epic battle between heroes who can fly and villains with ray guns, held captive in a hostage crisis involving an entire football stadium, or even trapped by a simple jewelry heist or bus hijacking.

When my turn came, I got stuck in a bank robbery.

I was waiting in line to make a deposit when a hole opened up in the ceiling. A glowing green laser light traced a perfect circle, and that section of ceiling dropped to the floor, scattering the line of people underneath in a cloud of dust and noise. I was too far back to really see what was happening, just that there was debris and screaming, some of which might have been mine. Then Techhunter rappelled through the hole, wielding a laser pistol and shouting at everyone to get down and lie still. We did.

He was just one guy. No henchmen, no partners. That was Techhunter’s M.O. in the news stories I’d read. He worked alone, with only his machines as backup. This time, he had a swarm of hovering metallic balls zooming down the hole in the ceiling with him. They fanned out around the room and trained tiny cannons on everyone. They probably shot lasers or tranquilizer darts. Surely in a place like Commerce City, with so many vigilantes and criminal gangs battling each other, bank tellers would be trained how to handle situations like this, but the ones here all stepped back from their counters, arms in the air, staring at Techhunter with trembling gazes. As if they didn’t live in Commerce City, where this kind of thing happened on a monthly basis at least.

Techhunter didn’t ask for the manager to open any safes; he just drilled through the locks with his laser pistol, collected cash and emptied a pair of safety deposit boxes into a hard-sided case. He wore wide goggles that hid most of his face, and a headset with all kinds of wires and antennae sticking from it, probably what he used to control all his devices. His suit was made of some slick material, supple as leather but appearing to be much stronger, probably armored. Pants, tall boots, padded shirt, and a fitted trench coat, all in a midnight blue so dark it looked black, except when the light caught it right.

Everyone cowered. Except me. I couldn’t help it, because by that time I’d had a chance to really look at him. The superhero stalker website Rooftop Watch had posted a half dozen or so pictures of Techhunter over the last couple of years, blurry action shots in semi-darkness, and I hadn’t paid much attention because he was just another guy in a mask. Now, seeing him in person, the way he moved, smoothly and urgently; the way he studied the room and pursed his thin, slightly chapped lips—it was all familiar. I should have thought it was just a coincidence, but I was sure. Even under those face-obscuring goggles, I knew him.

Then he looked across the room at the one person not cowering in his presence. Through the goggles, he caught my gaze. His lips parted and he froze, just for a second. He knew me.

Before I could call his name—or think that maybe I shouldn’t call his name, or find any way at all to ask what the hell he was doing here, a masked villain with a super-high-tech armory—the guy next to me reached out. While I’d been staring at Techhunter, this unassuming young businessman with a goatee and a red tie had very slowly and carefully drawn a gun out from inside his jacket. Was he an undercover cop or just paranoid? Didn’t know, didn’t care, because he proceeded to take aim at my old boyfriend.

I grabbed the gun out of his hand and threw it across the room. He wasn’t expecting that, and he stared at me in consternation, stammering out, “What—”

And I was kneeling there, shocked at what I had done, wondering if this made me a bad guy now. Again, Techhunter and I looked at each other, and I started to call out, “Jas—”

But he shouted me down. “You—get up!”

I knew that voice. It was definitely Jason. I stood, and then it all happened very fast. Police sirens blared—the whole incident had only started a couple of minutes ago—and some guy on a megaphone shouted at him to stand down and lower his weapons, and someone else yelled that Techhunter had a hostage. Remote gun spheres altered course to zoom toward the front of the bank and aim their weapons outward.

Techhunter—Jason?—went into action, hauling the case’s strap over his shoulder as he wrapped his arm around my waist and pulled me close. He clipped himself to the rope, then clipped me, and at some command the thing wound up on a winch and carried us to the roof of the bank and then into his stealth hovercraft. The floating gun spheres swarmed back up with him. A dozen police cars surrounded the bank now, and cops poured out of them with weapons drawn, ready to fire until they saw me, the hostage. The hatch at the bottom of the ship closed, Jason went to the cockpit, pulled back on a control stick, and I fell over as the thing tipped back and zoomed away.

Techhunter was not known for kidnapping, but I must have been special.

I wasn’t hurt, wasn’t even scared. I was just waiting for him to stop being busy so I could ask what the hell was going on. The ship was small. The cargo area, which held the rope winch and a few equipment cases, wasn’t any bigger than the back of an SUV. The cockpit was one bucket seat surrounded by control panels, looking out through panels of a wraparound windshield.

We flew for what felt like a long time.

• • • •

The last time I saw Jason Trumble was the week before high school graduation, right after he found out he wouldn’t be allowed to graduate because he had too many unexcused absences from gym class. He punched his hand through the window between the principal’s office and reception, shattering the glass with the sound of ringing bells, and marched out, right past where I was waiting for him, dripping blood along the way and not caring. I called after him, and he turned around to look at me. My heart fluttered a bit, thinking, he really does care, he really does like me. But then he scowled and kept going out the front doors, never to return. I got a birthday card from him a few months later. He said he was joining the army, which sounded like a bad idea to me, but he didn’t give me a return address, and he hadn’t answered his email since he left, so I had no way to tell him that.

I decided maybe he didn’t care after all, and I moved on.

• • • •

That was eight years ago. Sometime between then and now, he’d become a supervillain. On reflection, I wasn’t surprised, not exactly.

I waited for Jason to say something.

The ship finally came to rest on something solid, street or helipad or garage or something. I was able to sit up and arrange myself more comfortably. The engine whined to silence, the hum of electricity ceased, and in the cockpit Jason flipped a last few switches before turning around. He seemed to take a deep breath, as if steeling himself, before crouching to enter the cargo hold.

He took off the goggles and headset, and it really was him, his sharp nose and thin eyebrows, spiky brown hair and scowling expression.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “You okay?”

“Jason, I—” For just a second, I teared up, but the moment passed. “I thought you died or something. What happened to you?”

He looked at me for a long time, his expression distant, thoughtful, before saying, “It’s good to see you, Mary.”

And just like that we fell against each other, hugging, like none of the time since high school had passed. After that long, impossible hug, we sat side by side, knees pulled up, and he explained.

“I tried to join the army. Washed out of basic. I guess I should have known that wasn’t going to work out. I . . . kicked around for a while. Here and there, this and that. Picked up some things.” He glanced around the ship, regarding his gear with a pleased, proud smile.

“Why didn’t you write? Why didn’t you tell me what happened to you?”

“I didn’t want you to worry,” he said, deadpan.

Jason.”

“Do you . . . um . . . want a drink or something? I only have water and coffee and a couple of energy drinks. Can’t really drink drink while I’m out in the ship. You know.”

“Coffee, I guess.”

We drank coffee he poured from a thermos into Styrofoam cups. I had another flashback of us in high school, at the diner after an all-ages show or late movie, sucking on coffee and planning to take over the world.

It had been a joke, I thought.

“Um. I never expected to run into you like that,” he said. “I thought I was seeing things, but you just kept staring at me.”

“I’d recognize you anywhere.”

“Yeah, but what were you doing there?”

“Making a deposit. Going to the bank, like a normal person.”

A bit of the light went out of his eyes. “So that’s what you are, now? Normal?”

He said it like I was the one who’d been committing crimes.

I’d been doing really well with my own tailoring and dressmaking business. I was designing, making custom evening gowns and wedding dresses. A couple more high-end gigs like that, and I’d be on my way. I was proud of myself, but I couldn’t read Jason’s expression, which seemed blank, uncomprehending. Old high-school Jason would have accused me of selling out, making cocktail dresses for society bitches, hustling for their dime like some peasant. But old high-school Jason had left me behind. I spent a lot of months—years, maybe even—missing him and wondering where he’d gone. Then I just couldn’t, anymore. Would new Jason, with his unreal gear and flashy persona, understand that?

“Well,” I said. “And look at you. You’re famous. Techhunter, one of the archvillains of Commerce City.”

“Yeah. Who’d have thought?”

I always figured he’d either take over the world or die in a gutter, and since I never heard what happened, I figured it was the latter. I should know better than to make assumptions.

For the next minute or so, we drank coffee in silence. We never had a problem coming up with things to say in the old days. The old days—as if we were really that old, as if it really had been so long. It hadn’t, on the scale of things, but it sure felt like it.

“I’m sorry,” he said finally, abruptly. I stared at him, not sure what to say. “For not letting you know what happened to me. For not telling you where I was. I figured . . . I just figured you were better off without me. That it’d be better if I left you alone.”

I wanted to punch him. I had to think about it, but then I did it, slamming my fist into his shoulder. My knuckles banged against the armor plate protecting his bicep.

“Ow,” he muttered, rubbing his arm, just as I hissed and studied my skinned knuckles.

“Jerk,” I said. I looked around his ship, gray and sleek, like something from outer space, with levers and monitors, winches and crates holding who knew what, hatch covers and control panels. The hovering gun spheres nested in a rack on one wall, lurking ominously. Had he built all this? Found it and co-opted it for himself? And why did he rob banks, when he could use all this to be a hero?

“I didn’t do it for the money,” he said, when he caught me staring at the case of loot he’d taken from the bank. “I don’t need money, it’s just to confuse them. But the safety deposit boxes—”

“I don’t think you should tell me,” I said, gesturing for him to stop, closing my eyes, as if I could unsee it. I should have waited until tomorrow to drop off that deposit. But no. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.

“Right. You’re right.”

More silence. Too much to say, rather than too little, maybe.

“And I’m not really trying to take over the world,” he said, as if he had to explain himself. “I’m not that ambitious. Not yet, anyway.” He showed that sly grin again.

A beeping alarm drew him back to the cockpit, where he checked a monitor. “Police band,” he explained. “They’ll sweep the area soon. I have to get moving.” He swallowed, licked his lips. Just like he had when he asked me to prom. “Would you—do you want to come with me?”

He’d said later that asking me to prom was the most difficult, bravest thing he’d ever done, not because he was afraid I’d say no, but because he was afraid to go to prom at all. He was sure he wouldn’t be welcome. He didn’t think it would even be fun. No matter what he did, he’d be made fun of, pushed to the fringes, like he always was. But he wanted to show that they couldn’t keep him out, either. So just for once, he did the normal thing and asked a girl to prom, and of course I said yes because I’d been waiting for him to ask, and we hatched a plan together. I made our outfits, his tuxedo and my knee-length cocktail dress, out of leather scavenged from thrift store handbags and biker jackets. We looked wicked, in patched-together leather in a dozen different shades of brown and black. He found a black lily for my corsage, and I made a boutonniere from old resistors and wires. God, did people stare at us, but once we got to the hotel ballroom we behaved ourselves so no one could kick us out. We even had a good time.

I thought—I’d thought back then that things could only get better, but then came that meeting in the principal’s office, and that was the last straw for Jason, who must have decided that not only were the rules not fair, they weren’t worth dealing with at all.

I wished I’d known what to say to him, then. Or that he might have thought then of asking me to run away with him. I’d said yes to prom, hadn’t I?

Shaking my head was hard. My neck felt stiff, and I wondered if I pulled a muscle when he winched me up on the rope. Or if this was just hard.

“I can’t,” I said. “My business is taking off. I’ve worked too hard. I can’t leave all that. Even if it is normal.”

He nodded as if he really did understand, as if he hadn’t really expected me to say yes. “Yeah, okay. So . . . you must have a boyfriend.”

That was his problem. He made too many assumptions.

That anxious-sounding beeping from the police monitor sounded again. All serious, he went to check, flipped a couple of switches and held a hand to his ear—listening to a signal coming in through an earbud.

“They’re getting close. I’ll let you out, but I should probably tie you up. They’ll treat you like a victim then, and not an accomplice—”

“No,” I said, the word just bursting out of me like a gunshot.

He stopped, his expression neutral. “No, what?”

“No, I don’t have a boyfriend.” I had never really wanted one, after he left.

He had this look in his eyes, hungry and angry, and I didn’t know if I’d given him the right answer, or the wrong one. He moved back to the cargo compartment, was just a few inches away from me, a length of rope in hand. He smiled apologetically. “Then can I maybe see you again?”

I nodded, and by some mutual signal that I didn’t recognize, we came together. His hand pressed around my waist, the length of our torsos fit together, my hands on his shoulders, our lips, kissing. A slow, careful, melting kiss. Both his arms wrapped around my back, me clinging to the slippery fabric of his trenchcoat. Then we came up for air.

Just like the old days, except so much sadder, because we knew now what we’d lost.

We had to let go when we heard the police sirens through the hull of his hovercraft.

In addition to tying nylon cord around my wrists and ankles, he blindfolded me, explaining carefully what he was doing as he did it, tying the cloth over my eyes, securing me to the rope and winch, gently setting me on what felt like a concrete sidewalk. Giving my hand a squeeze as he released me.

The hatch hissed as it slid shut, the engine whined as the ship climbed away, and I listened until I couldn’t.

The police arrived just a minute later.

• • • •

They were very nice to me, because I was the victim. Jason had been right about that. I sat in an empty conference room at the police station, a blanket over my shoulders and a paper cup of bitter coffee in my hands, waiting for someone to arrive to take a statement. I was assured it wouldn’t take long, that it wouldn’t be difficult. They asked if I wanted a social worker or victim rights advocate with me. I said no.

A pair of detectives arrived, a man and a woman, both in their thirties and looking haggard, like they’d been working for a long time without sleep. They sat across from me, and the woman set down a manila folder stuffed to bursting with records.

They asked the standard questions. My name, why I was at the bank, what happened there, why Techhunter had picked me, and what had happened after. Did I know where he’d taken me? Did he say anything about where he was going? About what he stole from the bank and why? And so on, and I didn’t know anything, and I said so. The detectives nodded, resigned.

“Did he tell you his name? Who he really is under the costume?” the man asked, and I knew I was in trouble. I could feel my face blush and my stomach turn over. They must have heard my stomach turn over.

“No,” I answered truthfully, because Jason hadn’t told me. I’d just known.

“Can you tell us anything about him? Anything that might lead to identifying him?” he asked, and again I didn’t really feel like I was lying when I said no.

Then the woman pulled a photo from the file folder and slid it across the table to me. “Do you remember this, Mary?”

It was our formal picture from prom, the two of us side by side in the patchwork leather outfits I’d made, only Jason was snarling and flipping off the camera with both hands, and I was hanging on his arm and laughing. The photographer didn’t bother trying to get us to stand still and be nice, just snapped the picture and took our ten bucks for copies. Mine was in my scrapbook back home, which meant this was Jason’s copy, and I wondered how they got it. Or maybe the photographer had saved an extra proof or something. I wasn’t going to ask.

We looked so young. So bony and new, and I wouldn’t say we looked particularly happy, but we were something, and it was good.

“Yes, I remember that,” I answered, and the catch in my voice made me sound vulnerable and worthy of sympathy, I hoped.

The woman spoke kindly. “Mary, what would you say if I told you that we suspect that Techhunter may be Jason Trumble? That he may have taken you hostage because he knew you?”

“I would say that makes a lot of sense.” I hoped my watering eyes made my story sound more true.

“Did he reveal himself to you? Give you any sign that he was Jason and that he knew you? Did he say anything that made you suspect?”

Everything, I didn’t say. I shook my head and touched the edge of the picture, like I was mourning him. I could have told them anything, that he didn’t look anything like that skinny kid in the picture anymore, that he used a machine to disguise his voice, that I couldn’t recognize anything under his goggles. But they assumed all that, so I didn’t have to say anything. And that’s how I became a bad guy. Henchwoman to a supervillain, and weirdly that was okay.

“If Techhunter contacts you again, you’ll let us know?” the woman said, and I nodded. The man handed over a tissue, and I scrubbed my eyes.

• • • •

They let me go. But I assume they’re watching me, and that my phones are tapped and my computer hacked and all that. I’m not really even angry about it, because of course, and if it were any other former girlfriend of any other supervillain I’d think it was the right thing to do. But I also can’t stand the idea that they’ll use me to catch Jason. So I mostly don’t talk about him at all, and I hope he doesn’t contact me. At the same time, I hope he does. I constantly watch for little flying drones, buzzing as they follow me, and wait for him to make his move.

But he’s too smart for that, so he hasn’t.

Yet.

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Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, about a werewolf who hosts a talk radio advice show. Her newest novel is a planetary adventure, Martians Abroad. Bannerless, a post-apocalyptic murder mystery, will be released by John Joseph Adams Books in July 2017. Her short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, from Lightspeed to Tor.com and George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. She lives in Colorado with a fluffy attack dog. Learn more at carrievaughn.com.