An Unlikely Hero – Issue 5
Todd cursed as another wave of Zombie Ninja’s stormed the barricades. Glancing at the ammo counter, he saw that his weapon was almost empty. At this rate, they would breach the compound and overrun the small group of defenders within minutes.
“I’m out!” A J called out over the headset. His friend was in one of the watchtowers manning its turret-mounted machine gun. A J jumped out of the turret and switched back to his assault rifle, using the under slung grenade launcher to send a barrage of frag grenades into the enemy. Explosions ripped through their ranks, shredding the undead horde. It was never going to be enough though, there were just too many of them. Then, just as he was about to give up, he heard a cracking voice over the radio.
“November six-three-six incoming, prepare for evac.”
“Fall back!” Todd said over the sounds of gunfire, “Protect the helipad.” The soldiers retreated from the wall and surrounded the helipad at the centre of the compound. Almost immediately, the Zombie Ninjas scaled the wall and began to pour into the compound. They were met by the concentrated fire of the soldier’s weapons as a battered helicopter swooped into the valley hovering over the compound. Although the paint was peeling and its hull scarred by battle, Todd could just about make out the faded logo of Overwatch, the organisation that had tried and failed to save the world from the undead invasion. The arrival of the helicopter caused the remaining defenders to cheer.
That moment of celebration would cost them. One of the zombies leapt from the wall on to one of the soldiers, tearing his throat out before anyone could stop it. There was a screech of tearing metal as one of the watch towers began to collapse. Todd saw A J fall from the top, plummeting to the ground. Acting without thinking, Todd switched to the gravity gun and fired. The energy beam struck A J mid-fall, arresting his descent. “You gotta love the gravity gun,” Todd said swinging his friend around and setting him down gently. The helicopter landed and the soldiers began to back towards it, firing as they moved.
“This is just like the Battle of Pittsburgh,” A J said as they covered the retreating soldiers.
“We’re in the middle of the Nevada Rad-Lands, how is this anything like the ruins of Pittsburgh?”
“Hostile terrain, surrounded by the enemy, chopper evac while under attack? This is just like the last three missions.”
Todd sighed and took another bite of his lunch, the plate balanced precariously on his knee as he jigged the controller around. “You’re right, this new downloadable content sucks.” He fired the last of his ammunition at the zombies and boarded the helicopter, followed closely behind by A J’s character. As soon as they were both on board, the helicopter took off and the “Mission Complete” screen appeared.
“Yeah, the Broken Arrow mission pack was better,” A J said as soon as they were back to the online lobby screen, his voice crackled as he adjusted his headset. They had been playing Zombie Ninja Assault over the internet for the last hour ever since A J had instant messaged him about one of their homework assignments. “Hey, did you tell your dad about what happened at the gas station this morning?”
“Are you kidding?” Todd said laughing. “Dad’d go mental. After everything that’s happened already, if I told him some gang member nearly shot me this morning, he’d yank me out of school and pack me off to the same fancy boarding school my cousin goes to in Europe. We lived in New York for 12 years, and the only time I saw a gun was on a cop’s belt. I’ve only been here for two months and I’ve already been shot and got caught up in an armed robbery! I thought Key West was supposed to be a safer place to live.”
“It is, you’re just a magnet for bad luck.” Todd heard a muffled over the headset calling up to A J. “I gotta go, mom say’s dinner’s ready. See you at school tomorrow?”
“As long as I don’t have to stop a bank robbery on the way.” There was a beep as A J logged off and Todd switched off the console. He was about to get up and take his plate downstairs when the nanobots chose that moment to “speak.”
“ANALYSIS OF TACTICAL SIMULATION COMPLETE. 26 STRATEGIC ERRORS NOTED. A REPORT HAS BEEN MADE WITH RECOMMENDATIONS INTENDED TO INCREASE COMBAT EFFICIENCY. DO YOU WISH TO REVIEW THE REPORT?”
Sitting in front of a bank of computer screens, the man watched the house across the road as he eat the re-heated instant noodles, grimacing at the taste. Although he had not been able to enter the Marshall’s home, his boss had specifically forbidden that, he had managed to plant listening devices and hidden cameras in the grounds. The listening devices worked by bouncing an invisible laser off the house’s windows and measuring the vibrations caused by sounds from within. Sounds like people talking. Small cameras were also pointed at the windows so he could see as well as hear what was going on inside the house. He had also managed to tap the phones.
Although boring at first, he knew the assignment would soon become more interesting. While he was making his report earlier that evening, he mentioned the incident at the service station. His boss had found the information interesting and had decided to move the operation on to its next phase. He was to arrange an “accident” for Todd to test the boy’s newfound abilities. So far, he had it narrowed down to either a car accident or a fire at school. The car accident option would be the easiest, he would have no trouble making it look like a simple hit and run. A major fire at school would be a much more wide ranging test, testing more than just the boy’s resilience.
There was just one thing bothering him. So what if the kid was some sort of mutant with accelerated healing; it wasn’t as if they were rare. He couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about; or his boss’s fascination with the kid, not with their operation on Sentinel beginning to enter its most crucial stage. At least he didn’t have to spend all day babysitting a drugged kid in a basement like the rest of the team. As he thought about what he was going to do, he didn’t notice the women watching him from the shadows at the back of the room. There was little chance that he would have seen her even if he had been looking directly at her; she was only visible when she wanted to be seen. Had he been able to see her, he would have been surprised see that it was his target’s homeroom teacher.
If she stayed any longer, she knew that she would be tempted to interfere, to stop him from putting his plan into motion. That was against the rules. In fact, interfering in such a way would violate one of the highest rules of the oath she had sworn. Miss Gunderson sighed and closed her eyes. The darkened room shifted and blurred until it was replaced by a tranquil scene. Rolling hills covered in green grass stretched from horizon to horizon, dappled here and there with white snowflake-like flowers. The blue sky above was flawless, broken by streaks of wispy high clouds that only seemed to cement its perfection, not detract from it. A short distance away was a small folly resembling an idealised version of a small Ancient Greek temple.
Her surroundings weren’t the only thing that had changed. Gone was her short brown hair and green eyes and in their place was long blond hair and blue eyes. Everything about her had changed, her appearance, her height and build; in every way she was a different person.
As she walked towards the folly, she saw that she was not alone. Sitting down inside the folly on a stone chair was a Hispanic man in his late thirties. He was hunched over a chessboard on a marble plinth, his brow furrowed in concentration. When she walked into the folly, a second stone chair materialised on the other side of the plinth. One of the unique features of the folly was that it automatically adjusted its layout and the amount of seating in order to accommodate as many people as were inside it. The man looked up as the appearance of the chair broke his concentration. “Hola Helen,” he said smiling until he saw the clouded expression on her face and winced sympathetically, “bad day huh?”
Helen slumped down onto the chair. “You have no idea. Some sweaty, over-muscled brute plans to test my son’s abilities by either burning down his middle school with him inside or running him over in a car. I’m supposed to just stand aside and watch.”
“It’s difficult when your charge is your own kid. Trust me, I know how you feel; but you can’t interfere or act on their behalf.” He knew that there was little that he could say that he hadn’t already said over the last few months.
“I know I know, we’re only supposed give ‘advice and guidance’ and allow our charges to ‘fulfil their destinies’ on their own terms.” She said testily, “I swore the same oath as you did Matthew, remember? But it’s not that easy. My first charge was an eleven-year-old English boy who had just discovered his mutant abilities. He was a good kid with a loving family, and I gave him all the advice I could. But none of that helped when the soldiers came for him in the middle of the night. I did nothing as his family was murdered and he was whisked away. What can you say to a scared little boy, locked away in a government research lab to be experimented on like a lab animal?”
“He escaped in the end though.”
“Two years later, with blood on his hands from fighting his way out. Just a kid and he had to kill half-dozen people with his bare hands. He’s fifteen-years-old now and a wanted criminal on the Overwatch list of suspected terrorists, accused of stealing government research data because the British government didn’t want to admit to what they did to him. I feel useless just watching the same chain of events happen again, this time to my own son.”
Matthew got up, walked over to the edge of the folly and looked out over the green fields. He reached in to his pocket and took out a small photo from inside his wallet. It was of a young boy in dirty overalls sitting astride a battered dirt bike. There was a proud grin on his oil-streaked face as he started its motor. “Do you know why The Watch was created?”
Helen turned around in her seat and looked over at him. “To guide the next generation of heroes.”
“Well, yes, that’s the ‘party line.’ But do you know the real reason?” Helen shook her head in confusion, wondering where he was going with this. “It’s because they’re getting younger.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your brother was what, twenty four, twenty five when he volunteered for the Paragon programme?” Helen nodded. “That’s the average age when most heroes become active. I was a few weeks short of my eighteenth birthday when my father had his accident and passed on the role of Defender to me. I was one of the youngest of our generation.” He sat back down opposite her. “But now, mutants are getting their abilities at a younger age, metaprodigies get enrolled in accelerated learning programs before they’re even out of pre-school. My son was only 14 when he found the prototype battlesuit that I’d been working on just before I died and decided to use it himself. I would’ve killed dad for not stopping him if I was still alive. Ask any other member and they’ll tell you the same thing. They’re getting assigned to younger and younger charges. Our living peers may not have realised it yet, and when they do they certainly won’t like it, but the next generation of heroes are barely into their teens and Destiny is already picking them out.”
Neither of them spoke following Matthew’s speech. “How’s Jared doing?” Sarah asked, changing the subject.
“He’s doing great.” Matthew said turning back around. “He turned sixteen this summer, and he’s got his first girlfriend. No one has any idea that for the last year and a half, LA’s most prominent superhero has been a high school kid in a suit of power armour.” The smile on his face showed how proud he was of how much his son had accomplished, but is also showed a hint of sadness. He knew that his son was growing up without him and that soon, he would no longer need the advice of ‘Mr Cooper’ who had shown up mysteriously a few months after his father had died. When that happened his son would no longer be his charge, Mr Cooper would vanish and no one would remember he even existed.
Todd sighed and pinched the brow of his nose in annoyance. “It’s not a ‘tactical simulation’, it’s a video game.”
“WHAT IS A ‘VIDEO GAME’?”
“You know what?” Todd said sitting down at his desk and opening one of his textbooks, “it’s getting late and I’ve got homework to do. Go look it up yourself.”
There was a noticeable pause before the nanobots responded. “UNTIL BIOHOST INTEGRATION IS COMPLETE, UNIT IS UNABLE TO ACCESS THE PLANETARY COMPUTER NETWORK TO UPDATE LANGUAGE LEXICON.”
“Yeah, and we call it the Internet, not ‘planetary computer network’.”
Again there was a pause before the nanobots responded. “UNTIL BIOHOST INTEGRATION IS COMPLETED, UNIT WILL NOT BE ABLE TO OPERATE AT MAXIMUM CAPABILITY.”
“Don’t get snippy with me,” Todd snapped, using one of his father’s favourite phrases. Despite the fact that the nanobots only “talked” to him through text, he definitely detected an attitude, a faint insistent tone in its “voice.” He got up from the desk and flopped facedown onto his bed. Todd screamed into his pillow, his cry of frustration muffled by the material pressing into his face. “You really think I’m gonna let some alien nano crud hack apart my insides? How do I know you know what you’re doing? You weren’t even designed for a human being!” That, as far as Todd was concerned, was the end of discussion on the matter. Until he better understood what the nanobots had planned, and until he was sure that they were capable of doing it without turning him into a pile of twitching organic goo, there was no way that he was going to give the nanobots the permission they needed to proceed.
“I should probably tell dad about all this,” he thought to himself as he flipped over and lay on his bed staring at the ceiling. “He’d probably freak out though.”
Moored a little way off shore, the man watched the bridge from a small powerboat, squinting in the morning sunshine as it reflected of the water. After following Todd for several days, keeping him under surveillance, the man now had a good grasp on the boy’s movements and habits. He knew that after school, he had a habit of stopping off at a local electronics store to drool over the latest video games. On the odd morning that he was running late, he would get the school bus and when he didn’t, he usually met up with a friend as he cycled in. Whether on bike or on bus, Todd entered the city from the same direction; crossing the bridge in to Key West from Stock Island.
The man checked a handheld computer, looking at a series of status indicators on its screen. All of them glowed green; the explosive devices attached to the bridge’s supports were armed and ready. With a single button push, he could send the bridge crashing into the waters of the channel.
After a great deal of consideration, this was where he had decided to stage the “test” his boss wanted. In the end, both a simple car “accident” and a fire at Todd’s school might appear to be targeted attacks aimed at the boy. This way, it will appear that the boy was caught up in a terrorist attack just like everyone else.
As Todd looked out of the window, he sighed; today wasn’t exactly turning out to be a good day. He’d woken up to find that vandals had gone down their road during the night and slashed the tyres of the resident’s cars. Even his bike hadn’t been spared with both its front and back tyres slashed. The depth and variety of his language when he had found out had surprised even him, it had certainly shocked his father when he came stomping back into the house, cursing the vandals with every insult that he knew. He had been forced to head down to the main road to catch the school bus.
The bus lurched again as the traffic moved slowly forward. With Key West being located on an island at the end of the Florida Keys, the Overseas Highway was the only road in or out of town. Crossing over the deep channel that separated Stock Island from Key West, traffic often crawled to stand still during rush hour. The junction across the bridge where the highway met Roosevelt Boulevard, the road that encircled the island of Key West, was often gridlocked. Today was no different and a queue had formed, tailing back across the bridge.
Todd hated the school bus; it was slow, noisy, stuffy, and even with the windows open, it was always hot. The seat belts that they had to wear were tight and uncomfortable. He turned away from the window and looked around the bus. There were only a dozen or so other children on the bus, most of the students at Horace O’bryant lived in Key West itself. This school bus was for those children like Todd who lived outside the city limits.
His mobile started vibrating in his pocket, its small speaker pumping out a tinny rendition of his favourite song. He took the device out of his pocket, looked down at the small screen and smiled; it was a text from A J.
From his vantage point offshore, the man watched as the distinctive yellow school bus inched its way onto the bridge. His fingered hovered over the red “detonate” button. “Just a few more feet,” he muttered as he started to sweat.
Todd jumped as a series of bangs rocked the bus, the loud retorts causing him to flash back for an instant to the night he had been shot. Clouds of smoke billowed up from beneath the bridge, enveloping the bus. Before anyone could react, the bus driver cursed as he looked out of the front window. A crack was racing across the width of the road where the join between two sections of the roadbed was failing. The bridge creaked; there was a moment of stillness as if time itself had paused and held its breath. Then with a loud snap, the last piece of steel reinforcement broke sending the road section crashing into the channel below at a steep angle. The bus driver threw the bus into reverse gear and slammed down on the accelerator in an attempt to prevent the bus sliding down the slope into the water. Its tires squealed and the children on board screamed. An SUV behind the bus lost traction and crashed hard into the back. Todd was frozen in fear; he was gripping on to the seat in front of him, his knuckles turning white with the pressure. He was thrown forward as the bus was shoved off the end of the broken road and only the tight seatbelt around his waist prevented him and the other children from being thrown out of their seats. The driver wasn’t so lucky, slamming forward and striking his head on windscreen as the bus pitched into the water.
The front of the bus sank into the channel, its rear sticking out and resting against the bridge. Water started to pour in, rapidly flooding the front of the bus. The other children started to panic and scramble over each other to get to the emergency exit at the back, but the incline the bus was leaning at was steep, almost 90 degrees. A shrill cry jolted Todd back to reality and he turned around just in time to catch one his classmates who had lost their grip and was sliding towards the water. “Thanks,” the boy said holding onto Todd tightly as he pulled him up.
Todd looked around the bus and realised with a start that he couldn’t see the bus driver. “Hey, where’s Jeffers?” The boy glanced towards the front of the bus; the driver was slumped over the wheel, the water already over his head. He unbuckled his seat belt and dropped into the water. The water was cold and the salt stung his eyes as he struggled to remove the driver’s belt. Just as his lungs began to scream for oxygen, the belt popped open and he dragged the unconscious driver to the surface, gasping for air.
The water was rising fast, pouring in through open windows and around the door seal. There was a shudder as the bus shifted, settling further into the channel’s silt bed as it slipped against the shattered bridge support. “Someone give me a hand,” he yelled out over the screaming. Someone, he didn’t know who, helped him drag the unconscious driver up the aisle. As they did so, a green wireframe representation of the school bus appeared in his field vision. Complex calculations began to flash by until the familiar green text appeared.
“AT PRESENT RATE OF WATER INGRESS, VEHICLE WILL BE COMPLETELY SUBMERGED IN APPROXIMATELY 63 SECONDS.”
Todd looked up at the emergency door, which still hadn’t been opened. Through the glass, he could see the SUV perched precariously on the edge of the bridge, threatening to fall onto the bus at any second. “If that car falls, we won’t even have that!” He muttered out loud.
The boy helping him with the driver looked at him confused, “You what?”
“Nothing,” Todd answered, “we gotta get that door opened.”
“It’s jammed,” said one of the younger kids, crying in panic. “It won’t open!” Once Todd got to the back of the bus, he could see why. The frame was buckled and warped, the metal damaged by the earlier impact with the SUV. “We’re gonna drown!” The panic spread as the bus shifted again, the water coming in even faster, already filling half the bus. His own pulse was racing as panic threatened to overwhelm him too but he took a deep breath and looked around, this wasn’t the time to lose control; he needed to remain calm.
“Maybe if we tried together,” he said trying to sound optimistic, “we can force it open.” However, even with four of them, the door wouldn’t budge. He thumped the glass in frustration.
“UNIT CAN ENHANCE BIOHOST’S STRENGTH TO THE NECESSARY LEVEL REQUIRED TO FACILITATE ESCAPE.” Todd could tell there was a “but” coming. “HOWEVER, ENHANCEMENT CAN ONLY BE PERFORMED AS PART OF FULL BIOHOST INTEGRATION.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Todd thought at the nanobots.
“MUSCLE AUGMENTATION OF UPPER LIMBS CAN BE PRIORITISED AHEAD OF ALL OTHER PROCEDURES. NECESSARY ENHANCEMENT LEVEL CAN BE ACHIEVED IN APPROXIMATELY 5 SECONDS.”
Five seconds. In just five seconds he could be able to get the door open and they could all escape. The only catch was that he would have to agree to something that he had been resisting since the nanobots had first started “talking” to him. Looking around at the fearful, desperate faces of the others, he realised that there was really no choice about it. He had to do this; he was the only one that could. Closing his eyes, he silently gave the nanobots the consent that they had been pestering him for.
Todd waited for … something … anything. He didn’t know what he was expecting, but he expected to feel something. When the nanobots told him that the muscle enhancement in his arms was complete, he didn’t feel any different. “Well,” he thought to himself, “he goes nothing.”
He flexed his fingers, took one look at the other children, and punched the door with all his strength. The metal buckled under the blow, the door bulging outwards. Another punch, followed by swift kick and the door was ripped from his hinges and sent flying. Todd looked down at his own fist; despite the punishment the door had received, the skin on his knuckles wasn’t even grazed.
The other children were stunned into silence, but only for a second and they soon began to scramble towards the open door. “Hey, no shoving,” Todd said as he effortlessly picked up a fellow eighth grader that had been climbing over a sixth grader, holding the surprised boy up the floor. “Get away from the bus as fast as you can, those who can swim help those who can’t.”
“Who died and made you the boss?” The boy said as Todd but him down. Todd glared back at him.
“You saw what I did to that door;” he said pointedly, “imagine what I could do to your face. Now help me with Jeffers.” Scowling, the other boy grudgingly helped him lift the driver out the door.
By now, people on the bridge and on the shore had seen the school bus in the water. A few of them had started swimming towards the bus to help the children in the water. As Todd climbed out onto the back of the bus, he saw that many more people were just looking on and had taken out their mobiles. They were either taking pictures or recording videos of the scene. His blood began to boil as he watched them. “That’s great,” he yelled at the spectators, standing on the back of the bus, “just what viewtube needs, videos of drowning school kids. You know, you could’ve helped you selfish…”
The screech of metal interrupted his shout, the SUV slid of the end of the bridge, its underside scraping across the broken concrete. Todd barely had time to look up as the three tonne vehicle slammed into his chest. He felt his ribs crack and break under the force of the impact and he opened his mouth to scream in pain, but before he could utter a sound, the bus slipped down into the water submerging him. The tepid salt water flooded into his mouth, choking him as he was forced underwater, pinned between the bus and SUV.
Posted on Saturday, July 18, 2009, in An Unlikely Hero, Fiction and tagged attack, boy.child, hero, kid, super, superhero, supers, teen, teenager, terrorisim, terrorist, young. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.