Apr 5 2011 10:30am
After the Golden Age (Excerpt)
Please enjoy this excerpt from Carrie Vaughn's After the Golden Age, out on April 12th from Tor Books. On her way home from work, Celia West gets kidnapped. Unfortunately for her, the scenario is all too familiar...
Celia took the late bus home, riding along with other young workaholic professionals, the odd student, and late shift retail clerks. A quiet, working bunch, cogs and wheels that kept Commerce City running.
Only a block away from the office, the person in the seat behind her leaned forward and spoke in her ear:
“Get off at the next stop.”
She hadn't noticed him before. He was ordinary; in his thirties, he had a rugged, stubbled face, and wore jeans and a button-up shirt. He looked like he belonged. With a lift to his brow, he glared at her over the back of the plastic seat and raised the handgun from his lap. Without moving his gaze, he pushed the stop call button by the window.
Damn, not again.
Her heart pounded hard—with anger. Not fear, she reminded herself. Her fists clenched, her face a mask, she stood. She could hardly move her legs, wanting only to turn and throttle the bastard for interrupting her evening.
He stood with her, following a step behind as she moved forward toward the door. He could stop her before she called to the driver for help. And what could the driver do, but stand aside as her kidnapper waved the gun at him?
She was still two miles from home. She could try to run—in pumps and a dress suit. Right. Really, she only had to run far enough away to duck into a corner and call 9-1-1. Or her parents.
9-1-1. That was what she'd do.
She didn't dig in the pocket of her attaché for her phone. Did nothing that would give away her plan. She stepped off the bus, onto the sidewalk. Her kidnapper disembarked right behind her.
“Turn right. Walk five steps.”
She turned right. Her muscles tensed, ready—
The bus pulled away. She prepared to launch herself into a run.
A sedan stopped at the curb. Two men jumped out of the back seat, and the kidnapper from the bus grabbed her arm. The three surrounded her and spirited her into the car, which rolled away in seconds.
They'd planned this, hadn't they?
In the backseat, one of the men tied her hands in front of her with nylon cord. The other pressed a gun to her ribs.
The one from the bus sat in the passenger side of the front seat and looked back at her.
“You're Warren and Suzanne West's daughter.”
Not like this was news.
“What will the Olympiad do to keep you safe?”
“You'll have to ask them,” she said.
“I will.” He grinned, a self-satisfied, cat-with-the-canary grin that she recognized from a half-dozen two-bit hoodlums who thought they'd done something clever, that they'd figured out how to corner the Olympiad. As if no one else had tried this before.
“What are you going to do with me?” She said it perfunctorily. It was a way to make conversation. Maybe distract him.
His grin widened. “We're going to send your parents a message. With the Destructor out of the picture, the city's wide open for a new gang to move in. The Olympiad is going to stay out of our way, or you get hurt.”
He really was stupid enough to tell her his plan. Amateurs.
Wasn't much she could do until he'd sent the message and the Olympiad learned what had happened. She'd leave the hard work to them. She always did.
Then, of course, they blindfolded her so she couldn't keep track of their route. By the time they stopped, she had no idea where they were. Someplace west, by the docks maybe. The air smelled of concrete and industry.
A stooge on each arm pulled her out of the car and guided her down a corridor. They must have parked inside a building. Her feet stepped on tile, and the walls felt close. Finally, they pushed her into a hard wooden chair and tied her wrists to its arms.
The blindfold came off. Before her, a video camera was mounted on a tripod.
The man from the bus stood next to the camera. She smirked at him, and his frown deepened. He probably expected her to be frightened, crying and begging him to let her go. Giving him that power of fear over her.
She had already been as frightened as she was ever likely to be in her life. This guy was nothing.
“Read this.” He lifted a piece of paper with large writing.
She just wanted to go home. Have some hot cocoa and cookies. Supper had been microwave ramen and her stomach was growling. The blindfold had messed up her short red hair, making it itch, and she couldn't reach up to scratch it. Irrationally, she thought of her parents, and her anger began to turn toward them. If it wasn't for them and what they were. . .
Thinking like that had gotten her in trouble before. She focused on her captor. This was his fault.
She skimmed over the text, groaned. They couldn't even be a little creative. “Are you kidding?”
“Just read it.”
In a frustrated monotone, she did as she was told.
“I'm Celia West, and I'm being held in an undisclosed location. If the Olympiad has not responded to their demands in six hours, my captors cannot guarantee my safety—”
She glared an inquiry.
“Couldn't you sound. . .you know. Scared or something?”
“Sorry. But you know I've done this before. This isn't exactly new to me.”
“They all say that.”
“Shut up. Finish reading.”
She raised her brow. He waved her on.
She said, “If you really want to scare everyone you'd cut off one of my fingers and send it to them. Of course, then you'd really piss them off. That whole non-lethal force thing might not apply then.”
He stepped forward, fists clenched, like he might actually hit her. “Unless you really want me to do something like that, just stick to the script. I know what I'm doing.”
“Whatever you say.” She read out the usual list of demands: the Olympiad was to leave Commerce City and not interfere with the actions of the Baxter Gang— “Baxter Gang?” she added in a disbelieving aside, then shook her head and continued. They'd let her go when the Baxter Gang had the run of the city. They'd send another video in six hours to show just how mean they could be, etcetera.
The plan must have sounded so good on paper.
She made a point of not looking at the men with guns who seemed to fill the room. In truth there were only five. Even so, if she did anything more aggressive than mock the man she assumed was Baxter, they just might shoot her.
There was a time when even that wouldn't have bothered her. She remembered. She drew on that now. Don't reveal anything to them. No weakness.
She didn't want to die. What an oddly pleasing thought.
Finally, she reached the end of the script and Baxter shut off the recorder. He popped the memory card out of the camera, gave her a final glare, and left the room. The men with the guns remained.
All she could do was wait.
* * *
How it usually worked: the kidnappers sent the video to the police. The police delivered it to the Olympiad. The kidnappers expected Warren and Suzanne West to be despondent over the imminent danger toward their only child and cave to their every demand.
What the kidnappers never understood was that Celia West was expendable.
She'd understood that early on. When it came to choosing between her own safety or the safety of Commerce City, the city always won. She understood that, and usually even believed it herself.
She thought she might try to sleep. She'd been losing lots, with the late nights at the office. Leaning back in the chair, she breathed deeply, closed her eyes, and tried to relax. Unfortunately, relaxing in a hard-backed chair you were tied to was difficult at best. Though she imagined her falling asleep in the midst of her own kidnapping would annoy Baxter, which made her want to do it even more. But she was sweating inside her jacket and wanted to fidget.
All the breathing and attempts at relaxation did was keep her heart from racing, which was enough. She could meet the gazes of the gun-toting stooges in the room and not give in to blind panic.
Eventually, Baxter returned to the room. He eyed her warily, but didn't approach, didn't speak. He broke his minions into shifts, sending one of them for fast food. The food returned a half-hour later, and they sat around a table to eat. Her stomach rumbled at the smell of cheap hamburgers. She hadn't eaten, and she needed to use a restroom.
Just breathe. She'd had to wait longer than this before. Her watch said that only three hours had passed. It was just now midnight. She had a couple more hours at least. More dramatic that way.
She might say a dozen things to aggravate Baxter. She figured she could annoy him enough to get him to come over and hit her. That was the bored, self-destructive teenager of yore talking. And a little bit of revenge. If she ended up with a big black eye, things would go so much more badly for him later on.
Then, the waiting ended.
—Celia, are you there?—
It was odd, an inner whisper that felt like a thought, but came from outside. Rather like a psychotic must feel, listening to the voices. This one was understated, with a British accent. She'd felt Dr. Mentis's telepathic reach before. She couldn't respond in kind, not with such articulate, well-formed thoughts. Instead, she filled her mind with a yes, knowing he'd read it there. Along with a little bit of, it's about time.
—I'm going to put the room to sleep. I'm afraid I can't pick and choose. You'll feel a little dizzy, then pass out. I wanted to warn you.—
She kept herself from nodding. Mustn't let the erstwhile archvillains of Commerce City know anything was happening.
The guard by the door blacked out first. He shook his head, as if trying to stay awake, swayed a little, and pitched over sideways, dropping his gun. Startled, his compatriots looked over.
“Bill? Hey, Bill!”
Two at the table keeled over next. Then one standing by his chair. Baxter stood and stared at them, looking from one to another with growing urgency. Her vision was swimming. Squinting to focus, she braced, waiting, wanting it to be over.
Baxter looked at her, his eyes widening. “You. What's happening? You know, I know you know—”
He stepped forward, arm outstretched. Then he blinked, stopped, gave a shudder—
She thought she smelled sage.
The world was black and lurching. If she opened her eyes, she'd find herself on the deck of a sailing ship.
“Celia, time to wake up.” A cool hand pressed her cheek.
She opened her eyes, and the light stabbed to life a headache that ran from her temples to the back of her neck.
“Ow,” she said and covered her face with her hands.
“There you are. Good morning.”
She was lying on the floor. Dr. Arthur Mentis knelt beside her, his brown trench coat spread around him, his smile wry. The cavalry, finally. Now she could relax.
He put an arm around her shoulders and helped her sit up. The headache shifted and pounded in another direction. She had to hold her head. On the bright side, the members of Baxter's Gang were all writhing around on the floor, groaning, while the police picked them up and dragged them away.
“Sorry about the headache,” he said. “It'll go away in a couple of hours.”
“That's okay,” she said softly, to not jostle herself. “I think I used to be better at this hostage thing.”
“Are you joking? That ransom video was a riot. Even Warren laughed.”
She raised her brow, disbelieving.
“Will you be all right for the next few minutes?” he said.
He gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze and left her propped against the wall while he helped with clean-up. As the police collected and removed the gang members, Mentis looked each of them in the eyes, reading their minds, learning what he could from them. They wouldn't even know what was happening.
The wall around the door was scorched, streaked black with soot, and the door itself had disappeared. Spark must have had to blast it open. The room smelled toasted with that particular flavor Celia had always associated with Spark's flames: baking chocolate. Celia was surprised to find the scent comforting.
Her mother entered the room a moment later.
Suzanne West—Spark—was beautiful, marvelously svelte in her form-fitted skinsuit, black with flame-colored accents. Her red hair swept thick and luxurious down her back. She moved with energy and purpose.
She paused, looked around, and found Celia. “Celia!”
This was just like old times, nearly. Suzanne crouched beside her, gripped Celia's shoulders, and pursed her face like she might cry.
Celia sighed and put her arms around her mother. Suzanne hugged back tightly. “Hi, Mom.”
“Oh Celia, are you all right?”
“Headache. But yeah. Did you guys find my bag? I had notes from work in it.”
“I don't know. We'll look. I was so worried—did they hurt you? Are you okay?”
“I'm fine.” She tried to stand, but the headache made her vision splotchy. The floor was nice and stable.
“Don't try to move; paramedics are on the way.”
“I don't need paramedics. I just want to go home.”
Suzanne sighed with frustration. “I really wish you'd come live at the plaza. It's so much safer—”
Celia shook her head. “No way. Uh-uh.”
“This sort of thing wouldn't happen—”
“Mom, they picked me off the bus on the way home from work. I can't not leave home.”
“What were you doing riding the bus?”
“I don't have a car.”
“Celia, if you need a car we can—”
Headache or no, she wasn't sitting still to listen to this. Bracing against the wall, she got her feet under her and managed to push herself up. Suzanne reached for her, but she shrugged away. “I'm fine.”
She hated being like this. She felt sixteen years old, all over again.
“Why won't you let us help you?”
The question wasn't about this, the rescue from the kidnapping, the arm to get her off the floor. It was the big question.
Celia focused on the wall, which didn't make her dizzy. “I haven't taken a cent from you in years; I'm not going to start now.”
“If it'll keep you from getting assaulted like this—”
“Well, I wouldn't get assaulted like this if I weren't your daughter, would I?”
If she'd said that to her father, he would have lost his temper, broken a chair or punched through the wall with a glance, and stalked out of the room. Her mother, on the other hand…Suzanne's lips pursed, and her eyes reddened like she was about to cry. Instantly Celia felt guilty, but she couldn't take it back, and she couldn't apologize, because it was true.
“Everything all right?” Mentis had returned. He stood, hands in the pockets of his trench coat, and looked between the two of them inquiringly. He was in his thirties, with brown hair grown slightly shaggy and a pale, searching face. The Olympiad had been active for over ten years already when he joined, as a student at the University medical school. Despite his younger age, he carried around with him this maddening, ancient air of wisdom.
Celia and her mother stared at one another. Mentis, the telepath, must have seen a frothing mass of pent-up frustrations and unspoken thoughts. They couldn't hide from him like they could from each other.
Nevertheless, Celia said, “Fine. I'd just like to go home and sleep off this hangover.”
“Right,” Mentis said. He held out her attaché case, unopened and none the worse for wear. “I think this is yours. We found it in Baxter's car.”
He turned to Suzanne. “We should move on. Captain and the Bullet have cleaned up the bank robberies, but two branches of the gang are still at large.”
Celia paused. “What's happening?”
“This was more than a simple kidnapping,” Mentis said. “It was a distraction. Baxter's people launched attacks all over the city. He wanted to see how much he could get away with while we were busy rescuing you.”
If Baxter could have held her indefinitely, moving from place to place, keeping one step ahead of the Olympiad, he might have run them ragged.
They'd taken the time to rescue her.
“Detective? Could you see that Miss West arrives home safely?” Mentis called to a young man in a suit and overcoat standing near the doorway. One of the detectives on the case, he held a notepad and pencil, jotting notes as Baxter's men were escorted out. The cop looked at Mentis and nodded.
She suppressed a vague feeling of abandonment, that she could have died, and now Mentis and her mother were just leaving her alone. But she remembered: the city was more important. And Celia was always saying she could take care of herself, wasn't she?
—You'll be fine. I have faith in you.— Mentis's smile was wry, and Celia nodded in acknowledgement.
“Thanks,” she said. “For coming after me. Tell Dad I said hi.”
Suzanne crossed her arms. “You could call once in a while.”
He could call me. “Maybe I will.” She managed a smile for her mother and a last wave at Mentis before leaving.
The cop escorted her out of the building. “I'm Detective Paulson. Mark Paulson.” Endearingly, he offered his hand, and she shook it.
“Yeah, I know.”
A few awkward, silent minutes brought them to the curb and a swarm of police cars, lights flashing a fireworks display on the street. A half-dozen men were occupied keeping reporters and news cameras behind a line of caution tape. A couple of hero groupies were there as well—the creator of a low-end gossip website dedicated to the city's heroes, another guy holding up a big poster declaring: CAPTAIN OLYMPUS: OUR ALIEN SAVIOR. There were always a few lurking around every time something like this happened. Instinctively, Celia looked away and hunched her shoulders, trying to duck into her collar.
Paulson brought her to an unmarked sedan. They might actually get away without the reporters noticing. Opening the passenger side door, he helped her in.
While he situated himself and started the car, she said, “Paulson. Any relation to Mayor Paulson?”
He developed a funny little half-smile. “I'm his son.”
That was where she'd seen that jawline before. And the flop of dark hair. The mayor's had gone handsomely salt and pepper in his middle age. Mark's hair still shone.
“Ah,” she said, grinning. “Then you know all about it. I shouldn't pry—but he wanted you to go into politics, didn't he?”
“Not quite. He wanted me to be a lawyer, then go into politics. I got the law degree. Then, well.” He shrugged, his glance taking in the car and the flashing lights behind them. “Then I decided I wanted to be on the front lines rather than the rear guard. Make sure no one gets off on a technicality because they weren't read their rights.”
“Cool,” she said.
“What about you? I mean, your parents—” He let out an awestruck sigh. And who wouldn't, after meeting Spark? “They want you to go into. . .the family business, I guess it is?”
“Oh, they certainly did. Nature had different ideas, though. I'm the offspring of Commerce City's two greatest superhumans, and the most exciting thing I ever did was win a silver medal in a high school swim meet.” Good thing she could look back on it now and laugh.
She still had that medal sitting on her dresser.
“It must have been amazing, growing up with them.”
“Yeah, you could say that.” The strength of her sarcasm invited no further questions.
Finally, they arrived at her apartment building. Detective Paulson insisted on walking her to her front door, as if one of the Baxter Gang splinters would leap out of the shadows and snatch her up. She had to admit, twice in a night would be embarrassing.
“Thanks for taking me home,” she said, once her door was unlocked. “I know you've got better things to do.”
“Not at all,” he said. “Maybe I could do it again sometime.”
Though he turned away before she could read the expression on his face, she thought he was smiling. She watched him until he turned the corner.
Closing the door behind her, she shook her head. She'd imagined it. Her head was still foggy.
Later, she sat in bed, drinking a cup of chamomile tea and watching the news. All the city's “independent law enforcement agents" were out in force, quelling the riot of criminal activity. Typhoon created floods to incapacitate a group of bank robbers. Breezeway swept them off their feet with gusts of air. Even the telekinetic Mind-masher and his on-again, off-again lover Earth Mother were out and about. Block Buster Senior and Junior were as usual directing their brute-force mode of combat toward a trio of vandals holed up in an abandoned convenience store. The two superhumans were taking the building apart, concrete block by concrete block, until it formed an impromptu jail. Block Buster Senior used to be just Block Buster until a couple of years ago, when Junior showed up. Anyone could tell he wasn't much more than a kid under the mask and skinsuit uniform. Lots of people speculated if the two were actually father and son as their names suggested, or if they instead had a mentor/apprentice relationship. Whatever their story, Celia thought they took a little too much joy in inflicting property damage.
And if they were father and son—how had Junior managed to inherit his father's power? Why him and not her?
Most of the coverage focused on the beloved Olympiad, who'd been protecting Commerce City for twenty-five years now. One of the stations had exclusive footage of Captain Olympus and the Bullet, the fourth member of the Olympiad, tearing open the warehouse that housed the Baxter Gang's main headquarters.
The camera could only follow the Bullet's progress by tracking a whirlwind that traveled from one end of the building to the other, tossing masked gunmen aside in a storm of dust and debris. Guns flew from their hands and spiraled upward, shattering with the force of movement. It was all the Bullet, Robbie Denton, moving faster than the eye could see, disrupting one enemy attack after another in mere seconds.
Captain Olympus, the Golden Thunderbolt, most powerful man in the world, wore black and gold and tore down walls with his will. He stood before his target, braced, arms outstretched, and created a hammer of force that crumpled half the building.
Celia's hands started shaking. The warehouse district was across town. He wasn't anywhere near here. The news reporter on the scene raved on and on about the spectacular scene, the malevolence of the criminals, the courage of the Olympiad.
She found the remote and turned off the TV.
© 2011 by Carrie Vaughn