Action Figures - Issue One: Secret Origins (38 page)

Well, co-bought,
I say,
but still. Crazy, right?

It’s a Christmas miracle. Or something.

In Kingsport they say, Concorde’s heart grew three sizes that day.

Ha! You’ll have to let me know what it is.

Will do. I’ll give you a shout after dinner.

Not that I’m not curious, mind you, but first things first. On Christmas Eve, Mom takes the night off from cooking and we order in Chinese, which we devour while watching
A Christmas Story
. This is a longstanding and revered holiday tradition in the Hauser household, so whoever is leaning on the doorbell and interrupting our sacred ritual better be the delivery guy with our missing fortune cookies.

“Not it,” Mom says.

“Excuse me?
Not it?
” I laugh. “Who are you, me?”

“Answer the door.”

Christmas spirit, Carrie, Christmas spirit. That’s why DVD players have pause buttons.

Oh.

“Hey, kiddo,” Dad says.

It wasn’t a long visit. Dad was on his way to Worcester to spend Christmas with Uncle Tyler and his family and, with Mom’s consent, decided to take a little side-trip to personally deliver my presents. A little Christmas bonus, Mom called it. We exchanged gifts, he stuck around to watch a little of the movie with us and swipe some of my chicken teriyaki, and then he was back on the road.

It wasn’t a long visit, but it was long enough.

Dad gone, dinner eaten, and movie watched, I say an early good-night to Mom and Granddad and run up to my room, though my excitement over the mystery box is not what it was. What could possibly live up to a surprise Christmas visit from Dad?

The door closed and locked as a precaution, I sit on the bed with the package (I’m not ready to call it a gift) and tear off the paper to reveal a plain brown cardboard box. I lift the lid, and the first thing I see is a pair of fancy sunglasses. There are funny little widgets on the earpieces, kind of like those Bluetooth earpieces you see stuck-up executives wearing. I slip them on. The smoked lenses wrap around my face, covering my peripheral vision. They beep softly in my ears and the word INITIALIZING appears in glowing text in front
of my left eye. A few seconds later, IDENT NEEDED appears on the left lens, SAY YOUR NAME on the right.

“Carrie Hauser.”

The lenses go blank.

VOICEPRINT CONFIRMED HELLO LIGHTSTORM

After a few seconds of silence: “Hello, Carrie.” Concorde’s voice. “You’re no doubt wondering what the thing on your face is.”

“Definitely,” I say, thinking out loud.

“For starters, it’s your transponder, so make sure you’re wearing it whenever you go airborne,” Concorde says and my heart skips a beat.
Transponder
! “The lenses are a shatter-resistant polymer, and they’re your heads-up display. The voice-activated onboard computer is GPS-equipped and linked to military and civilian air control systems, so you’ll be able to see where you are, your altitude, your orientation, and if there’s anything else in your airspace. Pay attention to that last function. I’ve flown into more than a few birds in my time and believe me, it’s no fun.

“You’re also hooked into all the necessary radio bands—commercial, first responder, military, and most importantly, the Protectorate’s communications network. I expect you to use it, a lot.” Concorde sighs at me in stereo. “I’m putting a lot of faith in you, Carrie. You’re a smart girl, and I’m trusting you to be smart enough to know when you’re in over your head. Don’t make a fool out of me.”

“I won’t,” I say.

“I’m holding you to that,” Concorde says, and I jump a foot off my bed.

“Concorde?”

“What, did you think this was a recording?”

“I did, actually.”

“Sorry, kid, it’s me in your ear, live and direct, and you better get used to it,” he says, as surly as ever. “Don’t think I’m cutting you loose. I’ll be watching you and your friends every step of the way, and if you give me a good reason to shut you down I will, by any means necessary, and I guarantee it’ll hurt. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Well, what are you waiting for? Suit up and try it out,” he says, and the earpieces fall silent.

The next thing I take out of the box feels like no fabric I’ve ever handled before. It’s as thick and tough as leather but as soft as silk, and has the slickness and sheen and stretchiness of spandex. It unfolds into a full bodysuit in yellow and white. There’s a belt and black leather gloves, and a pair of dead sexy calf-height boots sit in the bottom of the box (I’m betting I have Natalie to thank for those).

Ten minutes later, covered in my long winter coat and armed with an excuse about forgetting to give Sara her present, I’m out the door. Once in the woods near my house and well out of sight from the street, I drop my coat and slip the goggles on.

LOGIN

“Carrie Hauser.”

VERIFY IDENT

“...Lightstorm.”

VOICEPRINT CONFIRMED HELLO LIGHTSTORM

“Hello, fancy shades.”

TRANSPONDER ACTIVE

GPS ACTIVE

COMM SYST ACTIVE

The earth falls away. Trees slide past me as if they’re retracting into the ground and release me into an ice-blue sky littered with fat clouds. I rise up to meet them and they greet me with a dusting of snow, flakes as white as sunlight and as big as pennies. They touch my aura and, with a whisper-faint sizzle, vaporize.

Merry Christmas to me.

Allow me to re-introduce myself. My name is Carrie Hauser. Fifteen years old, high school sophomore, formerly of Barnstable, Massachusetts, currently of Kingsport.

You can call me Lightstorm.

I’m a super-hero.

EPILOGUE

“Welcome back, sir,” the receptionist says. “She’s expecting you.”

Of course she’s expecting me, you idiot
, the Foreman grumbles to himself. He snatches back his ID, a black plastic card with a magnetic strip and no identifying marks—no name, no photo, no insigne identifying an organization as large as any mid-size American corporation but more secretive than any government black ops outfit.

The Foreman passes several pairs of security guards en route to the main elevator. Standard security was doubled at every facility after the Boston incident, the lighter weekend shifts eliminated in favor of full rosters. It strains the organization’s finances a little, but so did losing an entire outpost and the millions of dollars of technology within. An ounce of prevention and a pound of cure and all that.

The guards posted at the elevator know who he is, even without the mask, but they do not greet him as they normally would, with polite nods and
Good morning sir
s with a heavy dose of respect and not more than a little fear. Word of what happened spread through
out the operation like wildfire and, clearly, it’s robbed him of his prestige.

But he didn’t rise through the ranks as quickly as he did by making excuses on the rare occasion things went wrong. The same sharp, calculating mind that elevated him will save him from falling...too far, at any rate.

The doors slide open. He steps into the elevator and they close. The car rises. He hasn’t touched a single button.

He steps out on the top floor, which is accessible to its owner and whoever she invites up and no one else. He approaches the black marble desk and waits by one of the leather chairs, waits to be invited to sit. He knows the protocol.

“Ma’am,” the Foreman says.

“I finished reviewing the loss report on Boston an hour ago,” she says, waving a manila folder at the Foreman. “The total hit is eight figures, plus Archimedes.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“We lost no data thanks to the automatic backups. The facility, the hardware, the manpower, those are regrettable but acceptable losses.” She inhales slowly, exhales. “The loss of Archimedes, however? That is not acceptable.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“He might well have been the most valuable resource we’ve ever acquired, and now he’s sitting in Byrne. Again.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“What do you plan to do about that?”

“Nothing, ma’am.”

She narrows her eyes at the man who, up until last week, was her most valued, most trusted ally. “Nothing.”

“Yes ma’am. Nothing.”

“Explain.”

“If I may speak freely?” She gestures: proceed. “Ma’am, your organization’s secrecy has been compromised more in the past two months than it has been in the past five years, thanks directly and indirectly to Archimedes.”

“Without him we’ve lost an unparalleled datamining operative,” she says. “Our best hackers can’t do half what he did.”

“I recognize he’s a unique asset, but he’s not ready. He’s too independent. He needs to be broken so we can rebuild him to your liking, and there’s no better way than to leave him in prison for a while.

“Additionally,” the Foreman continues, “if we were to try and free Archimedes right away, it would raise suspicion and risk further exposure—just as it would if we were to make any further moves against the team calling itself the Hero Squad. If I might make a recommendation?”

“...Go ahead.”

“Leave Archimedes alone, leave the Hero Squad alone, leave Boston alone, at least for a while. Let things cool down. Let them forget about us. We have plenty of projects to pursue while keeping the organization out of the spotlight, and that is what we need.”

“Out of sight, out of mind,” she says, “that’s your suggestion?”

“Consider it a short-term sacrifice for long-term gain, ma’am.”

She drums her fingernails on the desk, contemplating. “I want you to stay put. I need to keep one set of reliable eyes on the Protectorate and their little youth corps.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

“They’re going to be trouble, those children. Especially the girl,” she says with an unprecedented note of concern that does not go unnoticed.

“We’ll take care of her, ma’am. We’ll take care of them all,” the Foreman says. “In good time.”

“In good time,” she agrees.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Action Figures
has been a work-in-progress for many years—some of the characters were born back in high school, in fact—and so it’s deeply satisfying to bring it to a conclusion of sorts in the form of this book (I say “of sorts” because there are quite a few more entries in this series coming, so my work here is not done yet).

I owe debts of gratitude to a lot of people, starting with my wife Veronica, my number one cheerleader and beta tester. Any creative type will tell you, sometimes all you need to keep going in the face of adversity and rejection is one person who believes in your art, and for me that’s Veronica.

Fortunately, I had more than just her backing this project. I had a gang of test-readers who got to see this novel in its formative stages, offered invaluable advice on everything from believable teenager behavior to accurate Boston geography, and assured me that it did not suck. So a tip of the hat goes to my test-reader team supreme of Kate Sokol, Rob Isaacson, Julie Tremblay, and Alena Shellenbean.

This gratitude extends to Thao Le of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, the first agent who ever took the time to offer detailed feedback on one of my submissions, and gave me advice that transformed this story from good to great. Alas, she opted in the end not to become my agent, but I’m exceedingly grateful for taking the time to work with an aspiring novelist—something I wish, for the sake of other struggling writers everywhere, agents and editors would do more often.

The artwork gracing the cover of this novel was provided by Patricia Lupien, a longtime friend, a talented artist, a geek girl before geek girls were cool, and someone who deserves the title of co-creator. A couple of the characters in this novel were born during a party game in which we brainstormed ridiculous superheroes and, over the years, were integrated into the concept that eventually mutated into this story.

A word of advice for anyone considering self-publishing: if you can get your hands on a professional editor to give the manuscript a once-over to find all the little flaws and typos you’ve missed despite your repeated readings, do it. I was fortunate enough to have such a person within my extended family in the form of my sister-in-law Tori Fullard, so thanks to her for goof-proofing my manuscript.

A thank-you goes out to Suzanne Collins for some indirect inspiration in the form of her excellent
Hunger Games
series. It was while devouring the first book that

something clicked in my head and I decided to try writing the story from Carrie’s perspective—and that, kids, is why it is more important for writers to read than it is to write.

(A brief aside: it was Harlan Ellison who first remarked that a writer who writes more than he reads is an amateur, and I wanted to make sure I credited the man properly, because I’m pretty sure Ellison could take me in a fight.)

Finally, thanks to friend and fellow writer Justin Aucoin, whose own experimentation with self-publishing proved the final push I needed to give it a go myself. If you’re a fan of historical fiction with a swashbuckling flair, go online and pick up a copy of
A Pirate’s Honor – A Jake Hawking Adventure
to get started.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Bailey was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts and raised on a steady diet of comic books,
Dungeons & Dragons
, Saturday morning cartoons, sci-fi television, and horror movies…which explains a lot.

An effort to parlay his love of geek culture into a career as a comic book artist failed when he figured out he wasn’t that good, so he turned to writing as means of artistic expression. Since then, Michael has written several scripts for New England-area renaissance faires, as well as a number of articles based on faire culture for
Renaissance Magazine
, and pays the bills working as a staff reporter for his hometown newspaper.

Michael lives in Massachusetts with his wife Veronica, three cats, an English bulldog, and a comic book collection large enough to warrant its own room.

Visit Michael online at
www.innsmouthlook.com
.

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