Read the First Three Chapters of Bystander 27

When cruel fate throws his life into turmoil, he vows to get his revenge…

Rik Hoskin’s superpowered fantasy Bystander 27 publishes August 11th with Angry Robot Books—read an excerpt below!

For Jon Hayes, the super-powered ‘costumes’ are just part of ordinary life in New York City, until the day his pregnant wife Melanie is senselessly killed in a clash between Captain Light and The Jade Shade.

But as Hayes struggles to come to terms with his loss, and questions for the first time who the costumes are and where they come from, the once sharp lines of his reality begin to blur…

If Hayes wants to uncover the shocking truth about the figures behind the costumes, and get justice for his fallen family, he’ll have to step out of the background, and stop being a bystander.


 

 

CHAPTER 1

Everything changed when Hayes’ wife died. He was waiting for her on the corner of Sixth and West 24th Street, close to Madison Square Park, and she was late. That was Melanie all over, late could have been her maiden name and marriage hadn’t changed her one iota.

There was the other late, too, the one that had been good news for her and for Hayes and the reason they were meeting here today.

“Quo,” she had said one night over dinner, “I’m late.”

Hayes had looked up from the pasta he was working around the plate with his fork, a frown materializing on his forehead. “Late for–?”

“Late,” Melanie had replied. “Late-late.”

He looked at her, trying to make sense of the words she was saying, as her brown eyes the color of Turkish coffee looked hopefully into his. She looked beautiful then, more beautiful even than the day they had got married, eight weeks after he had got his discharge from the service. “You mean… we’re going to be… a mommy?” he said it, knowing the words were jumbled and wrong, knowing she would laugh.

Except Melanie didn’t laugh, she smiled. She smiled a smile that engraved itself on his heart in that moment, and he realized that they were both going to be parents. “Yes, Quo,” she said, nodding. “Isn’t it… perfect?”

“It is,” Hayes had replied, and he had reached across the table for her hand, leaned forward and kissed her. She had tasted of pre-packed pasta and sauce from a jar, and of their future.

That had been seven months ago, and now Melanie was in her third trimester, her belly distinctly ballooning, and they were meeting with her gyno in a clinic off Sixth Avenue to make sure everything was going okay. And she was late.

Melanie Hayes, nee Monroe, had graduated in social sciences from Columbia and gone into advertising. Hayes had met her in her final year at an employers’ fair, he there to represent the US Navy, she dressed for a party along with a gaggle of her friends, none of whom had any intention of signing up. But they had got talking somehow, an attraction flitting between them like a spark trying to catch fire, and when her friends sauntered off to check out the jobs in fashion and media and computers—shooting Warrant Officer Jon Hayes those judgmental looks that students have for “warmongers” as they went—Melanie had stayed.

“Do you swim?” she had asked, running a hand self-consciously through her long, dark hair.

“Yes, ma’am,” Hayes had replied with the unambiguous abruptness of the Navy.

“I mean, privately,” Melanie said. “You know—for fun.”

Hayes had smiled, thinking of how he and his school friends used to sneak into McGinty’s pool not so very long ago. “Yeah, whenever I can.”

“My parents have a pool,” Melanie said. “I mean, we do. I live with them.” She had cursed then, a rising blush turning her pale cheeks pink.

“Where is that?” Hayes had asked.

“Jersey,” Melanie replied, pulling a face that made Hayes laugh.

They had spoken more, exchanged numbers, and when he was on leave they had met up and found that they enjoyed more than just swimming together.

Now, Jon Hayes was thirty-two and Melanie was twenty-nine, and they were about to have their first child. And Melanie was late.

Hayes checked his wristwatch. 11.07. They had arranged to meet here at 11, so that they could walk together to the clinic for the 11.15 appointment, and not have to rush.

Standing at the street corner, his back to a wall, away from the sidewalk traffic, Hayes withdrew the phone from his pocket and checked its suddenly illuminated screen. There were no messages. He could call her, but he knew Melanie, knew it would not make her any faster.

Hayes had served in the Navy for eleven years before his honorable discharge. He had done two tours of Afghanistan and chased all over South America in the name of Uncle Sam. The Navy had made sure he was always on time, and it was a habit that his civilian life was never going to break. Normal life was paced differently, but he would always be that guy who turned up ten minutes early, shoes shined and pants pressed. He prided himself on it.

Melanie still approached life the way she had at uni, sleeping in at the weekends while Hayes was jogging the streets or on the treadmill in winter, arriving for the movie after the trailers had finished, catching the train as its doors played their closing serenade of beeps. In anyone else it would have driven Hayes mad, but Melanie was Melanie, and he loved her for it.

He was still looking at his phone, its screen going dark, when he heard the explosion. He turned, along with everyone else on the block, and tried to locate the source of the noise.

For a moment there was nothing. And then, between towering skyscrapers two blocks away, a distant figure cut through the sky trailed by a familiar streak of light.

Excitement and fear ran through the crowd as they recognized the flying figure. Dressed in white with gold accents at the cuffs and matching boots, the flying man was Captain Light, hero and savior, protector of planet Earth. For a moment, Captain Light seemed to just hover in the air, forty stories above the street, while the trail he had left in his wake dissipated, stars fluttering away like smoke.

The crowd was jazzed.

“It’s Captain Light!”

“I love him so much!”

“Go! Go!”

People adored Captain Light. Everyone knew his story. He had begun life as an ordinary scientist whose experiments with an energy reactor had ended in the freak accident that had granted him fantastic powers. Now he could utilize the properties of the spectrum in ingenious ways.

Captain Light hovered above the street for a few seconds, watching something that was hidden from Hayes’ view by a skyscraper to the left. A news copter came lurching inelegantly into view in the distance, eating up the space to capture footage of the scene that would already be playing out live on rolling news channels.

Captain Light watched the unseen something for a moment. Then, with a spectrum trail of brilliance, the hero dipped down in a graceful arc like an Olympic high diver, trailed as ever by that brilliant streak of luminous propulsion. An instant later, he had disappeared behind the towering structure to the right, accompanied by the distant, muffled whoosh of displaced air.

“What do you think it is?” a woman in the crowd asked. She wore a headscarf and shades, like a fifties movie star.

“Whatever it is,” a heavyset, dark-skinned man with streaks of grey at his temples replied, “I hope Captain Light kicks its butt.”

Hayes hoped so too. He had seen things overseas he wanted to forget, extremism fuelled into hatred that had taken on a bloody and brutal physicality. But heroes like Captain Light dealt with something entirely different. They fought threats from the cosmos, or from other dimensions, or the kind of batty craziness that demented geniuses dreamed up in their lairs—which is to say they dealt with the kind of deranged bastards who had lairs to begin with.

Hayes had seen one of them before, a hero called the Hunter who worked under the cover of night and used a specially-adapted crossbow to topple his enemies. He had been picking up drive-thru at the time, and as he pulled away the Hunter had landed on the roof of his car with a sound like clashing cymbals, before leaping away into the night after his prey. Hayes hadn’t even seen who the Hunter was chasing, it had been so quick.

Another time, he had emerged from the subway to find the office block he was supposed to visit had been totaled a quarter hour earlier by Doctor Decay. The building and its occupants had been reduced to dust that caught in the wind. People were coughing and choking on it, people’s lives reduced to so much debris.

Hayes was a spectator now, watching the brilliant trail that Captain Light left in his wake, trying to figure where he was headed, when something else came around the edge of the far skyscraper. It was big and dark and moving, like an oil slick on the sky. The crowd watched as that dark cloud condensed into a figure, dressed in black with a dark green cloak swirling like mist around her supple form—the Jade Shade.

The news chopper swayed overhead, lining up its shot as Captain Light reappeared from behind the far skyscraper, fists forward, speeding up, powering towards the Jade Shade like a missile. From his mouth he emitted a beam of brilliance, gold but tinged with all the colors of the spectrum—his so-called spectral scream. From this far away, the scream was barely audible, its sound like the buzz of a fluorescent light bulb. The Jade Shade seemed to shudder in the air as the scream burst struck her, and her demonic cloak lost integrity for an instant, its edges fraying outwards in wispy, powdery trails.

And that’s when Hayes saw Melanie turn the corner. She was scared, head partway turned back to watch the incredible scene above her. She was just one member of a crowd of terrified civilians running for their lives from the battle playing out overhead. Seven months pregnant, she ran with all the grace of a water balloon.

“Shit!” Hayes hissed, and he began to push his way through the crowd towards Melanie.

She was a block away, running scared. But she saw Hayes, raised her hand to wave, shouting something that was lost to a loud howl that suddenly ripped through the air. Hayes recognized that sound. It was the noise a helicopter engine made when it was in distress, a descending whine like a moping dog. Back in Afghanistan, Hayes had seen a friendly chopper get hit by an anti-aircraft missile, and it had made just that same canine howl before striking the ground in a fireball. Eight people had died.

What happened next, happened fast. People were panicking, running in all directions, scattering for cover. Melanie was caught up in a crowd, some of whom ran straight into traffic. Car horns blared, a truck’s air brakes hissed loud as it fishtailed across the street.

Then the news chopper appeared from behind a building. Its angle was all wrong, nose pointed almost directly towards the ground, but still fifty stories up. The chopper was surrounded by tendrils of Jade Shade’s black mist.

Captain Light’s indignant holler carried a whole block as he launched himself at the Jade Shade, but his spectral scream dissipated as she threw up a shield of inky haze that seemed to knock him from the sky.

Then, suddenly, the chopper began picking up speed as it was tossed straight towards the Captain like a spear. Captain Light was knocked from the air as it struck him, hurtling away like a rag doll as the chopper continued its deadly descent.

“Run!” Hayes screamed, seeing the helicopter arrow down towards the crowds ahead of him. He was sprinting towards the diving chopper, towards Melanie. It was automatic for him. SEALs ran towards danger, never away.

Melanie was still running when the chopper hit the street. Its starboard ski cut through her chest and abdomen in a sudden, gruesome explosion of blood and flesh and bone, before flattening a yellow cab like it was made of tapioca. The impact was so hard that it shook the street for a block in all directions. Hayes felt it, his legs still pumping, hours on the treadmill and pounding the streets around their house ultimately giving him no more time to reach her than if he had been standing still. Screaming came from everywhere at once, a chorus of shock rising to illustrate the scene.

Above, Captain Light and the Jade Shade were exchanging blows, light against dark. One side of an office block exploded into glass shards as the villainess went caroming into it, but Light was at the scene in an instant, propping up the roof while the floor was swiftly evacuated. Shade dove for the hero, bringing the full fury of her tesseract cloak to bear. Captain Light stood staunchly in place, holding the ceiling aloft as Shade’s demons screeched all around him, batting their pliable bodies uselessly against his chest and legs as they tried to unbalance him.

“Not today, Shade,” Captain Light said through gritted teeth. “Not even on your best day.”

Ninety seconds later and it was all over. The Jade Shade was taken into custody, unconscious and with her supernatural cape removed and placed in a specially designed crate.

The crowd cheered Captain Light, some freckled kid running over to ask for his autograph. There was a thirty-foot-wide crater on Sixth Avenue containing the flattened remains of a news helicopter that looked as though it had tried to merge with a taxi cab.

Hayes stood beside the crater and looked into its crumpled residue, a spider’s web of cracks across the blacktop all around it. Emergency vehicles were on the scene, sirens wailing, and New York cops hastily ushered everyone back behind the temporary barricades they had erected. Hayes found himself pushed back with the crowds, cordoned behind those barricades with their candy cane stripes of red and white, as though someone was trying to prettify the scene of the deaths.

Just then, Hayes’ phone burbled, trembling against his pants’ pocket. Without thinking, he removed it from his pocket and looked at the illuminated screen. It was 11.15. Melanie’s appointment.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

Ginnie. That’s what they were going to call her. Virginia. Virginia Hayes. But they had already shortened it to Ginnie by month five, when Melanie had felt the first kick.

Now Ginnie was dead before even being born, a thing that never was and never would be. A person, snuffed out before they had had a chance.

And Melanie…

Hayes waited outside the crematorium, shoulders back, chest out, in a suit with pants pressed and shoes shined the way he had been taught. He watched the middle distance, eyes unfocused, as a short line of cars arrived in the balmy air of early summer, heat that left Hayes cold. He had felt real heat in Afghanistan, and whatever they called summer in New York seemed chill by comparison, especially today.

Melanie’s parents, Jack and Jodie, the ones with the pool, arrived and said things he did not hear. So did Hayes’ supervisor from work, a ruddy-faced man called Jeff who was in his fifties with a Seventies haircut. Hayes was thinking about the people he had lost in Afghanistan, the funeral services he had attended for colleagues, for brothers in arms. And how with Melanie it was different. It was heartless, turned into ceremony by the very fact that it was not a ceremony. With the Navy it had been ordered, which made it somehow what the person had wanted and what everyone needed. Here it was sending a coffin to be burnt.

Inside, the crematorium evoked the sense of a church without ever settling on any one denomination. Melanie had been raised Catholic, but she was at best lapsed and at worst couldn’t care. Her parents didn’t really attend church, not once she had left school and being a part of that community had not seemed as important anymore. So the service was about nothing but a person who had died, and how they maybe might live on or go somewhere, but without any commitment that could offend anyone present.

The service was short, though it felt anything but. Thirty minutes summing up a life, thirty minutes that seemed like a lifetime. Hayes stood and sat and stood again, paying respects in the ways the funeral director instructed along with the rest of the service’s attendees. He could not feel anything, it was too raw. If he tried to think about Melanie, he just heard the whine of the helicopter going down, and then he would be back in Afghanistan with that Black Hawk spouting smoke as it spiraled down to earth before exploding into a ball of flame.

Someone—Melanie’s cousin, Hayes thought—came over and said that she was in a better place now, and Hayes just nodded, looking at the coffin as it was removed from the podium, like so much freight. Her remains were not in the coffin—there had not been enough of them left with the way the helicopter had crushed her—so it was really nothing more than an expensive box. An expensive box that would be set aflame in memory of a woman he had loved, and a daughter who had never been born.

After the service, flowers were displayed in a room containing a book of condolences and a buffet. There was a framed picture of Melanie, recent but before the pregnancy. Hayes had not supplied it; he figured that her folks had.

“Jon? How are you feeling?”—that was Jodie Monroe, Melanie’s mom. She was a caring person, one of those women who seemed to have been born to be a mother and had that urge to mother everyone around her. She had been blonde when Hayes first met her, but now she wore her hair shorter and was letting the natural grey seep through in a gradual transition to retirement.

“I’m fine, ma’am,” Hayes replied automatically.

Jodie reached forward and put a hand on Hayes’ arm. She was dressed in black, a tailored jacket and skirt, court shoes and a delicate line of pearls that was unobtrusive and, hence, most probably expensive. “Jon, it’s me,” she said. “I know it must be hard. You saw… what happened.” She was close to tears but she held onto them, squeezing them back into her eyes with a long, deliberate blink.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Hayes said with a shake of his head.

“You should talk to someone,” Jodie insisted.

“No, ma’am,” Hayes corrected her assumption. “I mean I don’t want to talk about it to you. I think it would only upset you. You loved her, and so did I, and what happened was… was not right. I’m sorry.”

“You’re a good man, Jon,” Jodie told him. “You’re family. You remember that if you need us. Whenever you need us. Just because Mel’s… gone…” Her words trailed off mid-sentence, and the hot tears began to stream down her face without any effort on her part, no movement of her shoulders or chest, no wracking sobs. Even a blink could no longer hold them back, it was like watching a faulty faucet whose washer had broken.

Hayes leaned forward and held Jodie, just letting her be sad.

Finally, Jodie Monroe pushed herself away, and she seemed a little unsteady and a little older than she had before. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking away for a moment. “People bring such pretty flowers.” And then she walked away, back to her husband who was reading the condolences, squinting through one lens of his glasses.

 

Jonathan “Jon” Hayes had grown up in Beaumont, Texas, the son of a locksmith and an elementary school teacher. His grades had been good, but he had been drawn to the military by 9/11 and what had happened after. He did not want to fight wars, he wanted to stop them.

Hayes had joined the US Navy at age nineteen, and gone into the SEALs program before his twenty-second birthday. Becoming a SEAL was a commitment. It took more than a year of training, almost half that time in BUD/S—Basic Underwater Demolition/School—which taught a man to push his body to its physical limits while keeping his mind razor sharp. Stamina and clear-thinking under pressure—these were the things that the Navy treasured. Leadership skills were assessed, too, but the real push was on extreme survival.

By the time Hayes came out of BUD/S twenty-four weeks later, more than half his class had washed out, submitting what was known as a “Drop on Request”. Those who remained could fire a gun with astonishing accuracy, and were as comfortable in water as they were on land. They could perform stealth underwater work without leaving so much as a ripple on the surface, handle demolitions both above and below the water, and patch a buddy back together after a gunshot wound, all without breaking their stride. Their bodies became tools, hardened and honed, and they learned to prioritise the mission over the individual.

Their superiors assured them that SEALs were the toughest fighting men in the world, deadly armed or unarmed. After enduring the final three weeks of BUD/S—where he and his colleagues were dropped into a remote location and tasked with survival—Hayes believed it.

As a SEAL he had seen action in Bolivia and Columbia, chasing down drug routes and their ties to the international web of terrorism. People got hurt sometimes, shot sometimes, killed sometimes; this was the life that it was. Afghanistan had been awful and unreal, each newly discovered atrocity challenging Hayes to cling onto his faith in humanity.

When Hayes was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer, Melanie had taken to calling him “CWO”, and later just “Quo”. She would write him while he was in Afghanistan, and every letter began “Dear Quo”.

When he got back from Afghanistan that second time, Hayes had chosen to leave the service and concentrate on being a human again. He had seen a lot by then, allies tortured and hung from trees where they were left to bleed dry, women raped, some of them barely more than kids, and life after life ruined. He had come back Stateside to forget all that, to make the life with Melanie that he had fought for, where they could raise kids and grow old and not worry about all the crazy that existed beyond the confines of their cozy little house, with its clanking water heater and the mould in its basement. For all its faults, it had been their home.

Hayes remembered the day they had moved in, that he had carried Melanie over the threshold like newlyweds, even though they had been married for seven months by that point; how Melanie had laughed and called him soppy.

He stood in the hallway now, barely two years later, eyeing the frayed wallpaper that they had intended to strip, the aged wiring from which the chandelier hung. He had had two years to do all those things, to make it good for her, to make their tiny corner of the world perfect, but somehow life had kept getting in the way. And now it was too late, and the house was empty, its soul torn out when that falling news chopper had cut through Melanie’s body, Melanie’s and Ginnie’s, and now there was less life to get in the way.

Hayes closed the door behind him with a solid clunk. The world sealed outside, he pulled at his tie to loosen it as he strode to the living room with its creaky old windows that howled when the wind got up, and its wall-mounted television screen that seemed incongruous to everything else about the house.

Hayes sat on the sofa and, for the first time since Melanie had died, he let his body sag down, and he wept.

“Why were you always late?” Hayes muttered as the tears ran down his face. “Why couldn’t you have been on time, just this once?”

Hayes remained there for a long time, until the tears had dried on his face and the side lamp came on via its timer circuit, eating away at the darkness that had taken the room to its breast.

Then, Hayes rose from the sofa, climbed the stairs and went to bed, sleeping on the right hand side as though Melanie might come back to bed any minute.

 

Hayes dreamt of the helicopter crash in New York, the news chopper becoming a Black Hawk. Melanie was there, but before he could reach her the whole mess was dragged into the earth by the tendrils of Jade Shade.

 

A week passed in darkness, like a storm. Hayes could not tell you what he did in those days. He ate, sure, and he slept a lot, but the sleep was restless and unrewarding, and his mind kept replaying things he did not want to revisit.

Six days into whatever it was he was feeling, he got a call from work—a packing company where he was a supervisor—but his boss was understanding about him needing more time.

“Take as long as you need, Jon,” Jeff Puchenko said. “We got you covered.”

The phone call tripped something in Hayes’ head, and he went down into the basement for his toolbox, and got to work scraping that shitty wallpaper off the hallway wall. Manual work and the repetitive noise of the scraper soothed him, and the wall behind didn’t much care whether he did a good job or just beat up on it.

The next morning, the hallway wall looked bad, but it was a different kind of bad, and there were shreds of aged wallpaper satisfyingly strewn all over the floor. Hayes looked at the mess from the bottommost stair and nodded. He had done something about that wall at last; Melanie would have liked that.

After that, he felt ready to look in on the nursery they had painted and furnished. The door had been closed since Melanie’s death, and it had seemed to wait at the end of the upstairs hall like a beast poised to pounce. Hayes stood at the closed door, shutting his eyes and taking a breath, just like all those times he had tried a door in Afghanistan or Bolivia or any of those other anti-American hellholes he’d been posted to. In the SEALs they would have blown the door with a charge, or maybe just kicked it at the weak spot where the lock met the wood of the door. This time, Hayes just turned the doorknob and let out his breath as he opened his eyes, his body tensed for an explosion that never came.

Within, the room was the way they had left it. The child’s crib, white with bars like a tiny cage, chubby lions and giraffes and monkeys painted across its end in an animal parade. A mobile hung over the crib, rotating in the breath of wind from the opening door, spinning like the blades of a helicopter. Hayes tamped down the thought, reaching for the mobile and halting its twirling procession.

There was a chair in one corner of the room, a nursing chair with a plump cushion on it, upon which a crocheted blanket had been folded and stacked. Above and behind this, the drapes were partially drawn, pictures of those same stupid animals in their parade crisscrossing to and fro. Melanie had thought they were cute.

The bulb was bare, they still had not gotten around to choosing a lampshade, and there were tins of used paint stacked in one corner, along with a roller and a brush and a paint-streaked cloth.

Hayes took a deep breath, looking around the room, taking everything in. It was a wasted effort now, a space that never was, the way their Ginnie would never be. But maybe he should take the paint tins down to the basement, just to clean it up and do something.

 

The paint tins were in the basement where they could form a community with the other empties that had once awaited application on living room and bedroom and banisters. They were different colors, sure, but they’d hopefully figure a way to get along.

Hayes felt an emptiness burning inside him, a space that he had carved there for Melanie and their daughter, an excavation that he did not know how to fill again. He sat on their bed, staring at the door to the en suite, wondering what he would do now Melanie wasn’t here. Colleagues had died and he had attended their funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, but none of that felt like this. Then there had been a reason to carry on—a posting, an assignment, a mission. Now, he would go back to packing cases and filling out forms, and rotas to juggle and irate customers wondering where their stuff was or why it got broke, and that was not enough. That was not a mission.

Hayes stood and opened the wardrobe, reaching up behind the rail for the box he kept on the shelf there. He pulled it down, and sat back on the bed before opening the lid. Inside was his Glock, sleek lines and a matte black finish, the barrel not much longer than his outstretched hand. Beside the Glock was an ammo magazine. He took the magazine in his hand and loaded it, slot by slot, before ramming it home in the pistol’s grip. Then, Hayes looked at the pistol, wondering what came next.

He turned the pistol over until it faced him, and stared down the barrel. The soulless eye of the port stared back at him, waiting to unleash its deadly cargo.

“No,” Hayes murmured. That wasn’t the answer. That wasn’t what the SEALs had taught him. Giving up wasn’t in his nature.

So what then? What now?

 

CHAPTER 3

Hayes located a multi-level parking garage opposite the Nexus Range and did circuits until a space opened up that overlooked the tower. The day rate for parking here was extortionate, of course, because—well, New York. And Hayes did not really know why he wanted to be here, but he had compassionate time away from work and he couldn’t mooch around the house forever.

Located on Fifth Avenue, the Nexus Range looked like any other Manhattan skyscraper except for one thing: the top four stories sported a halo of shimmering light which seemed to rotate very slowly, hour by hour, day or night. It was a force field, Hayes understood, erected to protect the celebrated occupants and their many treasures, both self-created and confiscated from their foes. That light could be seen long into the night, like a lighthouse whose illumination was the beam of justice—evil beware. No one got in or out of those floors without a truckload of security clearance, and even if they did they still had to face the inquisition by the likes of Astra and the Meld, who could read a man’s mind the way a normal read a news headline.

Hayes watched the tower through his windshield, engine off, but with the keys still in the ignition. Nonsensically, he was prepped for a quick getaway. He feared that one of those telepaths would somehow sense him, even this far away, more than a block distant and twenty stories lower, as if they were waiting for just this eventuality. It was like passing a cop—even when you had nothing to hide, the guilt just set in.

He sat with his belt on, watching as that shimmering field of energy made its slow revolution, protecting the heroes and their secrets from the world outside their doors. If only Melanie had had that kind of protection.

The Nexus Rangers had banded together after Morgana Le Fey had drawn her faerie folk out of the woodwork of some nether dimension in a bid to take over the world. Then just five heroes, they had combined forces to drive her armies back, dispatching Le Fey to an other-dimensional prison from which she was unable to escape…right up until she did, of course. After that first adventure, the heroes had opted to work together whenever the need arose, under the banner of the Nexus Rangers, later shortened to simply The Rangers.

The Rangers had been a hodgepodge back in those early days. They were led by an engineer calling himself Mechanist, who used his mechanical expertise to fight for justice. His allies included Captain Light, a super-strong savage known as the Missing Link, several inventors-turned-costumed heroes, and the mysterious Astra, who could reach into a person’s mindscape and turn their most spiteful desires against them.

The line-up had changed over time, with new members joining and old ones bowing out. It was speculated that the Rangers had saved the world at least fifteen times, though their spokeswoman would not be drawn on that.

 

Hayes watched the Nexus Range from his parking spot, waiting for something. He did not know what that something was, he just wanted to see what happened here. He opened his window a crack to let the air and noise in from outside, and waited, resting back in his seat.

For a long time there was nothing. The constant hum of New York traffic droned like a distant beehive, and the whup-whup-whup of helicopters cut the air now and then, sometimes passing across the frame of the windshield, sometimes heard but not seen. There seemed to be a near-constant whine of sirens as emergency vehicles rushed to accident after accident, a fire, a heart attack, a car crash victim. But the heroes never emerged. They didn’t do car crashes or heart attacks or any of that penny ante stuff that colored the day-to-day lives of the normal people. No, the heroes waited in their fortress until something big came along that needed their might—a sentient world engine or a demonic attack or an alien landing on the White House lawn. Bastards.

 

It was 19:38 and Hayes was stretching his neck muscles when something actually happened. The distinct taint of boredom had begun to overwhelm Hayes by then, after over ten hours sitting in the car just watching. His car—a 4WD with a soft-top roof—had always seemed. Now it felt like he had spent his whole life trapped in this little box, but that if he left it it would be game over and he would never be able to go back.

But at 19.38, something happened. There was a flash on the far side of the halo that orbited the Nexus Range, accompanied about a second later by the delayed sound of a jet engine being fired up. The noise was so loud that Hayes could feel it vibrate his insides, shaking his organs and his bones, making his chest tense.

Hayes watched as the Ranger Jet, a sleek shaft of metal with fins, lifted off from a hangar bay located to the far side of the roof of the Nexus Range.

“Damn it,” Hayes cursed. He hadn’t thought about which side of the building the hangar bay doors would open; now he wished he had picked another parking lot so that he could see the launch more clearly.

The Ranger Jet took off with a rumble that shook the air, but the devastating effect of its exhaust was absorbed and negated by the force field. In a few seconds, once it was clear of the building and its protective halo, the rocket picked up speed in a sudden burst and shot high into the clouds, instantly disappearing from view.

Hayes looked for the sun, trying to figure which way he was facing in the maze of the parking garage. The jet was heading south west, to Washington or Baltimore, maybe even Mexico. Although they seemed to be an American institution, the Rangers went all over, fighting the forces of evil wherever they were needed. They were kind of international that way, but locating themselves in New York made them feel like the “home team” to the people around here.

The rumble of the rocket engine grew fainter as it shot off on its transatmospheric circuit.

Hayes remained sitting there for a long time, just looking at the part of the sky where the Ranger Jet had disappeared and at the corner of the building where it had initially emerged. The edges of the sky were very slowly changing from blue to pink as the summer sun began its lazy descent.

“What are you doing, Quo?” the voice asked. It came from behind Hayes.

Hayes jumped. His eyes flicked automatically to the mirror and he saw Melanie there in the back seat, pretty as ever, her dark eyes as transfixing as he remembered.

“Do you think this will bring me back?” Melanie asked.

“I…”

“I died, Quo,” Melanie told him. “I died. There’s no coming back from that.”

“Heroes come back all the time,” Hayes argued, his voice fiercer than he had intended. “What about Eternal Flame? What about Kid Ocean? They came back from the dead.”

“I’m not one of them, Quo,” Melanie told him, meeting his eyes in the mirror. “They were heroes. I’m just a person, a normal.”

“But if you…”

Suddenly someone tapped on the glass of the driver’s window, the sound loud and unexpected.

Hayes turned to see who it was, and came face to face with a heavy-jowled woman leaning sideways to talk to him through the gap between window and frame. “Hey, you see a kid come running through here?” she asked. She looked sweaty and harassed, and she did not wear her weight well.

“What?” Hayes asked, confused.

“My kid,” the woman said with that broad NY drawl. “You seen my kid? The little shit’s ran off while I was loading the groceries. You seen him or not?”

Hayes rubbed at the side of his face, as if to wake himself up. “I’m sorry, no. I didn’t see anyone.”

“Yeah, thanks for nothing, pal,” the woman snarled, edging away from Hayes’ car. “Sorry to disturb your masturbating…”—the rest was lost to the winds as she walked away in search of her kid.

Hayes turned back to the mirror, saw the back seat was empty. He turned in his seat, reaching behind the passenger’s headrest automatically as though he was going to reverse. The back seat was empty, Melanie was gone.

Hayes’ breath came heavy, powering down his nostrils with what seemed the same force as the Ranger Jet taking off. “Shit.”

It was time to go home.

 

Hayes returned to an empty house. Melanie had not appeared again on his back seat during the drive home through New York’s evening traffic, an experience in patience, tolerance and quick-thinking.

Even with the lights on, the house felt unoccupied. Melanie had been the heart of the place, Hayes realized. Without her, no amount of illumination or decoration or music could turn the building into anything more than an empty husk. He sat in the lounge, with the TV on, eyes glazing over as his thoughts slipped away, one by one.

They lived in a world of incredible people like the Rangers. There were heroes and there were villains. It was clear cut, except when it wasn’t—those days when heroes fought heroes or heroes turned out to be villains in disguise, some lousy alien with shape changing tech or a magic whamma-jamma. Hayes had not paid much attention to all of that. The heroes lived their lives, full of color and excitement and lightning flashes of derring-do, while people like him cleaned up crap holes like Afghanistan, crap holes that could never really be cleaned up, that just festered with new forms of hatred passed down from one generation to the next, adapted by each one into something even more destructive and cruel. Places like Afghanistan were a world away from these things that happened in New York City, these things that people like the Hunter and Eternal Flame and Captain Light tackled. Kid Ocean had turned back a sentient tsunami once—that kind of thing never happened in the Middle East.

So what the hell is behind these people? Hayes wondered. What’s motivating them?

He glanced up at the television screen as a news report started up.

“… where reports are coming in that The Bride has taken control of the Pentagon.”

The footage showed a shaky aerial shot of the Pentagon, taken from a helicopter. The camera tightened focus on a section of tinted windows as the reporter continued to talk.

“The Bride’s demands are currently unclear, but it’s understood that the Rangers are on site and—“

The reporter halted mid-sentence as something exploded from a wall a little way up from where the cameraman had focused. Shaky footage followed as the camera operator tried to capture the action. Dressed in brown leather and a trailing head wrap, the Bride bounced across the parking lot followed by a humanoid figure in a glowing metal suit.

“The Mechanist has just emerged through a wall of the Pentagon,” the reporter burbled redundantly as the metallic figure strode towards the Bride.

“Stay down!” the Mechanist’s electronically enhanced voice commanded, though it was unclear whether he was talking to the Bride or any innocent bystanders who might be close to the scene.

The Bride raised her hand as the Mechanist approached, saying something which the camera’s mic could not pick up from this distance. She claimed to be the immortal bride of Genghis Khan, Hayes remembered, and was hell bent on completing her husband’s mission to take control of the whole of the world. It sounded kind of crazy, but a lot of these bad guys’ intentions did.

The Bride had the ability to—how did they phrase it?—turn men’s minds. Which was another way of saying, she filled up her victims’ brain centers with dopamine until they could not help but feel happy in her company. Happy, lusty and obedient as a hungry dog.

On screen, the two combatants clashed in a swiftly played-out bout. The Mechanist had been susceptible to the Bride’s powers once, but it seemed he was utilizing some device—likely of his own creation—to block her uncanny mesmeric abilities.

Hayes watched, removed from the whole thing. The television rendered it as distant and unimportant, meaning no more to him than a sports game. Probably, the Bride had gained access to nuclear codes or military secrets just ten minutes earlier—she had done that before, one time taking control of a Polaris sub and threatening to nuke Cape Canaveral, until Captain Light had intervened. But the threat seemed unreal and commonplace; another mad villain, another world-threatening scheme.

A cheer went up from the reporter and her camera operator as, on screen, the Mechanist fired some kind of power beam at the Bride, knocking her clean through a parked automobile.

“The Bride is down,” the reporter stated with a sense of relief coming through in her voice. “I repeat, Mechanist has taken down the Bride.”

Other members of the Rangers were emerging from the busted side of the Pentagon, some of them rubbing their heads where the Bride’s powers had momentarily held them in thrall. They descended on the Bride as she struggled to recover from her forced meeting with the auto, surrounding her and targeting her with their own abilities or weapons, supernatural or artificial, to hold her at bay.

Hayes watched, his mind wandering as the live footage played out. Where did these people come from? he wondered. Where did they get their abilities? Some of those details were out there in public, but most of it was secret. Were they heroes full time? Were the bad guys always being bad? And what was driving these people to keep fighting, to keep clashing and causing mayhem and righting wrongs?

How do these heroes and villains do what they do?

 

Excerpted from Bystander 27, copyright © 2020 by Rik Hoskin

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