He’d missed them again. Last night he’d walked around downtown for hours. Nothing happened. Derek laid the paper down on the kitchen table and sipped his coffee. The headline read JEWELRY HEIST ON EAST SIDE. Derek was sure it was the same group that kept evading him. There was no security footage. They had disabled the cameras. The entire store had been emptied. He leaned back and looked out the window over the sink. The backyard was drowning in darkness and rain. Lightning flashed, painting the bushes and shed in bright relief. It cast an odd contrast on one of Susan’s leprechauns, crouching greedily in the window sill over a pot of gold. The lightning passed and the backyard dropped back into the vacuum behind the mirror reflection against the glass. The little ceramic leprechaun once again chuckled warmly over his pot of gold. He turned his attention back to the paper and pushed the last bites of his pot roast around on his plate.
“You know, your dinner doesn’t have to be reheated if you get off work on time.” Susan leaned against the doorjamb, half in the hallway. “Or did you make a Techbug stop on the way home?” The thunder finally crashed from the lightning and Susan sat down beside him. The storm must be moving further away from the Daniels’ house.
“No, I didn’t stop for Nanites. Benny Frank needed some help with a couple of marketing projections.” Derek motioned toward the article. “Did you see this? Five hundred thousand people in this city and we still can’t stop crime.”
Susan glanced at the article and reached for his plate. Derek grabbed the half of a roll sitting on the edge as she took it away. “Well, not everyone can be a big, bad Nanocop like you, Derek. Remember, anyone under 21 or over 65 isn’t eligible. So that knocks out like half the city, right there.” She set the dish in the sink and looked out into the back yard. “And I wish it would make you ineligble, too.”
Derek sighed. “If it makes you feel any better, I’m not going out tonight. It’s a miserable storm out there.”
“I’m not talking about the storm. I’m talking about the danger you feel compelled to put yourself in.” Susan turned around and leaned against the counter behind her. “I just don’t understand why you go looking for trouble.” Lightning flashed outside, silhouetting her in the window.
Derek pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. “Susan, we’ve talked about this.”
“Yes, we’ve talked, but you’ve never answered. Why do you do this to yourself? To me?” Susan stepped close and put her arms around Derek, clutching him tightly. “Why can’t you just let someone else go running around in those nanite suits?”
Derek felt conflicted. He understood her concerns, but he also felt the draw of the nanites and a responsibility as a citizen of the city. He pressed her head to his chest and rested his chin against the top of her head. “I love you, Susan. It’s just something I need to do. The city depends on the citizens to keep order.”
Susan pushed away from his chest and thumped him. “I depend on you, too, Derek. Why am I less important to you than some nameless faces? It isn’t as if you’re getting a call to go out and rescue someone. You go out and wander around hoping someone will need you and half the time you come home in the middle of the night and climb into bed after doing nothing. And then when you do find trouble, you end up rescuing some rocks in a store that are all insured anyway! You leave me home alone and wander around the city in the dark to save nothing!”
“It isn’t like that every time! And half the time, you’re out late yourself, with your girlfriends. You barely beat me home last night.” Derek sighed and the storm rained harder. “I save people, Susan. I’ve rescued people from fires, car wrecks, and robberies, or did you forget how we met?”
“Don’t change the subject. Derek, I know you help people. But this isn’t about helping people. It’s about you. And me. I want you home safe with me.”
“I am home, Susan, although it doesn’t feel very warm or welcoming at the moment.” Thunder rolled outside. The wind was quieter, but the rain was even more steady.
“That hurts. The only reason you’re home is the storm and you’d rather be out there anyway. What good is it to have a man home if he wants to be somewhere else?”
“I guess it’s no good to have him home at all,” Derek growled. He stomped to the hall closet and pulled out his hooded raincoat.
“Where are you going?” She followed him. “You said you weren’t going out tonight.”
“I guess I’m going where I can be of some use, where I’m sure I really want to be anyway, since you say it is so clear that I don’t want to be home with my wife!” He slammed the closet door shut.
“Derek, tell me you aren’t going out in this! Even jewel theives wouldn’t go out in this!”
“Susan, I obviously can’t tell you anything.” He yanked open the front door and the storm roared into the front hall. Lightning flashed over the house tops across the street and the rain fell on the carpet. “The potroast was delicious.”
Derek walked outside and slammed the door shut behind him. What a miserable night not to be at home.
Derek huddled under the faded red awning of an old deserted storefront. The rain pounded the canvas with the staccato blend of a snare drum and a machine gun and then fell off the awning in a solid wall, boxing him in. The wind blew the wall toward him randomly, soaking his shoes and the lower half of his legs under the raincoat. His socks felt like cold mashed potatoes around his feet and any shift in his center of balance sent a spillage of shoe water over the edge to run down the cracked gray cement toward the river coursing down the edge of the road toward the drain. He pushed back the hood and ran a hand through his limp, dark hair. It hung in sweaty strands around the rim of his face and ears. He wasn’t sure if the latex hood was better for keeping the rain off or worse for sticking to his sweaty scalp and hair as it prevented any air circulation underneath.
He squinted his eyes and tried to penetrate the solid wall of rain. According to his watch, he’d been out here for three and a half hours. The last two of them had been spent under the awning. He’d ducked for shelter when the storm, which had been waning into mere rain, worsened. Thunder cracked in his ears and he flinched from the sound, feeling stupid for being scared of thunder as it continued to rumble between the buildings. He should go home to his wife. Lightning bleached the gray world outside of his sanctuary. Maybe he’d give it a little longer. At least here he had a less drenched place to drop his raincoat for the nanite armor. He hated to think how uncomfortable he would be in the nanite armor wearing a raincoat.
A single raindrop hit him on the nose. Derek blinked, confused, and looked up. The center of the awning was reaching downward toward him. A giant bubble of trapped rainwater stretched the frayed fabric above him. He stared at it without comprehension, and then it passed its maximum ability. The cloth ripped and threw itself apart, dangling the threadbare pieces on either side of the man that had sought shelter under it. Derek didn’t even duck in time. For two seconds, he stood encased in a solid column of water as it washed the sweat from his hair down past his collar and into his raincoat, cleaning out the clothes underneath and lubricating the inside of the dark blue latex coat. Derek found himself under a sunroof of rain with his hood down.
He stepped sideways under the little bit of cover that was left and tried to shake the water from his hair and eyes. He put the hood back up and stepped into the storm to look for new cover. A few streets over he found a carside restaurant with metal corrugated covered parkway. He stood outside in the rain, looking through a break in the water wall into the covered space so sharply separated from the rest of the gray wet world. Lightning flashed and electrified the clouds he wasn’t watching. The lightning leaped from cloud to cloud for several seconds, illuminating what mystified him under the tin roof. The protection was already occupied. In the blue light of the heavens, a girl danced down the length of the cover. Rainwater glided in a thin sheet over the concrete and every graceful step and kick began and ended in a splash of electric blue droplets flying up around her. They were self-propelled jewels leaping and diving in time with her dance. As she spun, her darkblond ponytail whipped around her, sending out droplets of its own. Her arms curved over her head and she rocked side to side with the thunder and rain, for there was no music for her dance.
The lightning finally ceased and he stepped from the wet to the dry under cover of the sudden darkness. He pushed back his hood and watched the dancer. She seemed completely unaware of him. Lightning flashed again. Her skin was so pale it seemed to light up with the night sky, adding to the oddly ethereal look. She was wearing sneakers and dark leggings that fit under her bright blue shorts. The top was as strange as the bottom of the ensemble: a leather vest that left her arms free and bare. The blue ribbon tying back her hair matched the shorts. Derek couldn’t help but wonder what kind of lunatic goes dancing under covered parking during a rainstorm with no music. She reached the far end of the covered length and turned on one foot, kicking the other in front of her and curving her body back, her toes pointing toward her unknown watcher. She stretched her arms backward and her hands penetrated the wall of water on that end. Her fingers played in the falling rain before she finally straightened and stopped, facing Derek. The darkness closed around them again, preventing Derek from seeing the blush in her cheeks.
“What are you doing out here? It’s-” Derek was unsure how to communicate the apparent lunacy of her actions. “It’s raining.” He took a few cautious steps toward her, not wishing to frighten her away.
“I noticed that. I was dancing.” She stayed where she was. “What about you? Are you in trouble?”
Derek shook his head. “I’m… looking for someone.”
She cocked her head to one side and took a step forward. The water parted around her foot, but didn’t kick up spray like it had before. “Are you looking for Nanites?”
Derek didn’t answer.
“It’s my birthday. I’m 21.”
Derek smiled, but wasn’t sure why. “Then happy birthday, uhm. I’m sorry; I don’t know your name.”
“I’m Taryn.” They met halfway down the sheltered length. “I guess you’d say this is my birthday party.”
“Out here alone in this storm?”
“I’m looking for the nanites, too.”
And suddenly Derek understood. He nodded and stuck out his hand. “I’m Derek.”
She grinned and happily accepted the handshake.
“Do you think they’ll come looking for us?”
“No idea.” He looked out into the storm as thunder rolled across the tin roof. “Some nights it takes a long time; some nights they never come. Sometimes they come just when you need them most.”
“Don’t you mean they come when they need you most?”
“No, I don’t.”
Taryn nodded. They watched the rain in quiet for a few minutes.
A voice spoke up in Derek’s ear. “Citizen, your service is requested to serve the community.” Adrenaline shot through Derek’s veins and he straightened his back, lifted his chin. They were calling. But he hesitated. It was her birthday. The first she could accept a call from the nanites. He should let her have it.
Taryn yelped beside him. “Ohmigosh, they’re in my head! Derek, the nanites found me!”
He smiled, pleased. He wouldn’t have to give up his call afterall. He quickly threw off his raincoat. “Just tell them you accept. Nanites, I also accept.”
The pair stood beside a wall of stormwater and watched as each became one of the city’s heroes. Derek was in awe. He’d never seen it happen from the outside. Taryn had never seen it at all. Lightning flashed and the solid wall poured sideways, drops of dark water swirling around them as they stood still, feet apart and hands at their sides. Taryn’s bright eyes were wide as she watched him. The nanites, glistening in the wet lightning, formed her armor from the ground up. Her wet sneakers turned navy blue and then grew boxey with sharp edges. The navy blue armor climbed her legs, hiding the dark leggings in hard nanite armor. Her shorts vanished under the same dark shielding and it climbed her leather vest. As the navy blue ascended, gold blossomed and curled across her chest, forming the city’s shield. The nanites flowed down her arms and ended in hard gauntlets. She smiled at him as her dripping blonde hair turned navy blue. Just before darkness closed over his own eyes, he watched the amber colored front of her helmet coalesce. There was no doubt, it was an impressive sight.
“Citizen, you have been armored by Nanite Law Enforcement and some nanites have infiltrated your body to assist your natural abilities in this time of emergency.”
Derek knew she would be hearing something very similar. “There will be a map to the location in a second,” he told her.
“You will be in constant contact with the Nanite communications grid, feeding you information and updating your status to the network. Your body is also being augmented by the Nanites to boost your strength and speed and accelerate healing if the need should arise.” Derek fidgeted. He hated having to wait through the intro speech to get the information he really needed. But he also knew that Taryn must be drinking in the experience like a an alcoholic on their 21st birthday. “You are also provided with GPS capability and an active map of the city.” There it was. The city etched itself across his viewscreen and a little red dot appeared to the lower right: the location where they were needed. In the center appeared two little blue lights: himself and Taryn.
“We want the little red dot. It’s just a couple streets over. You ready?”
“I’ve been ready for this for years. Let’s go!”
They took off at a quick jog into the drenching storm. The water shed off the armored nanite uniforms as quickly as it fell out of the sky. As they ran, the Nanites continued to provide information. “This is a suicide mission.” Derek stumbled. “A jumper is on the roof of the building.”
“That makes more sense.” The pair ran on and soon reached the building. They looked up at the roof, but the rain grayed out the world and made it difficult to see anything. Then lightning sparked sideways across the skyline and silhouetted at the top of the building a figure standing at the edge. The wind whipped a trenchcoat around his legs and his fists were raised to the sky. “We have to get up there!” Taryn ran for the door. She jerked on the knob and rattled it, but it wouldn’t give. “It’s locked! What do we do?”
“For one thing, we don’t both go up there. You stay down here. Watch him while I go up.” He could hear the pout in her voice. “Why do you get to be the one to go up?”
“Because I have the key.” Derek stepped up to the door and lowered his voice to a whisper inside his helmet. “Amp leg strength.” He pivoted on his left leg and kicked out his right leg. The mule kick hit the lock and the door exploded open, flinging pieces of the door jamb outside into the rain. He didn’t look back, but instead dashed inside. “Interior map- nevermind.” The stairs were straight ahead and he took them two at a time. Five flights of stair sprinting made him thrilled that he’d decided to workout and stay in shape over the years. As he turned the corner to the last flight, he asked for communication with Taryn. “Can you hear me?”
“I hear you.” She sounded out of breath. If the guy jumped, he hoped she’d be able to catch him. With the Nanites augmenting her, she should be able to. At the top of the stairs was a door access to the roof. He hoped the Nanites were still augmenting his strength. He lowered his head and picked up speed. He threw his shoulder into the door, just under the knob and it, like the one downstairs, easily gave way to him. He stopped and found himself on the roof, with rain pouring down around him. The collected puddle began flowing through the door he’d broken and down the stairs. Derek scanned the edge for the jumper, but didn’t see him. Taryn would have let him know if the guy had already leaped before he got there. A clap of thunder pealed from above him and a voice rang out from behind.
“Who are you?”
Derek turned around and mentally kicked himself. The stairs had gotten his mental compass twisted around. He was facing the back of the building. He turned and stepped around the roof doorway to face the jumper. The young man’s combat boots were a foot from the edge of the building. His dark, straight hair was cut at chin-length, but on the roof top in the storm, it whipped around like the snakes of Medusa and alternately hid and exposed his deep, serious eyes. The long, black trenchcoat clung to one side and flapped wildly away from the other. The rain beat around him, but he didnt’ move an inch.
“I’m here to help. Why don’t you come away from the edge? We can talk about this.”
“Talk about what? And who is that?” The young man motioned behind Derek and Derek turned to look, telling himself even as he did that he was a fool to fall for such a trick. At least if the guy leaped, Taryn was- standing right behind him.
“We’re both here to help you.” Taryn walked forward and got six feet from the man before he took a step back that covered half his distance to the edge. “Please, come away from the edge. At least talk to us before you do anything.”
“Just leave me alone. There’s nothing you can do to help me! I’m useless.”
“That can’t be true. Even if you haven’t found your purpose, that doesn’t mean you don’t have one.” Taryn took another step forward.
“Stay back!” He leaned toward the edge. Taryn picked up her back foot and Derek jumped forward. He grabbed her arm and held her back.
“We’re staying back, son. What’s your name?” Derek’s heart was still pounding from the run up the stairs.
“Stratton.” Lightning flashed again and thunder cracked right behind it. The storm was almost directly on top of them.
“Ok, Stratton. My name’s Derek. This is Taryn. We just want to talk. Why are you up here?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“Why not? If talking to us makes you change your mind, then it was worth it. If not, you can still jump and what do you care if we know why you did it, right? You’ll be dead and nothing will matter anymore.”
“It doesn’t matter now.”
“What doesn’t matter, Stratton?” Derek let go of Taryn. He was afraid the wind would blow the kid off the roof before they had a chance to save him.
“Life doesn’t! I’m a failure. My dad was right.” He started to turn his back on them. Taryn and Derek both took a step forward, putting themselves that little bit closer, but he didn’t notice.
“Stratton, I’m sure it isn’t that bad. Why do you think you’re a failure?”
Stratton looked back over his shoulder. “Because the test said so.”
“What test?” Taryn asked.
“The nursing exam. I failed it. I got the results today.” He turned back toward her. She stepped toward him.
“You failed the nursing exam? That kind of thing happens all the time, Stratton. You can take it again. I’ll help you study.”
Stratton shook his head. Her offer to help confused him. “Why would you do that? It doesn’t matter anyway. When my dad finds out I failed it, nothing will convince him I’m worth it.”
“Derek, if your dad really feels that way, then he’s the one that isn’t worth it. But I’d be really surprised to find out you’re right on that one. Why wouldn’t he want his son to help people? That’s a wonderful career goal.”
“He doesn’t think guys should be nurses. He’s a doctor. Grandad was a doctor. I’m supposed to be a doctor.” He raised his fist at the sky as lightning and thunder warred over his head and shouted, “I don’t want to be a doctor!”
“Then don’t be a doctor, Stratton. But if you don’t come away from that edge, you’re not going to be anything more than a spot on the pavement.”
“She’s right, Stratton. You didn’t choose to be a nurse to please your dad, or anyone else. You chose that path for yourself. Now it’s up to you to follow it. Why don’t we go inside?”
Stratton looked at Derek. The wind whipped his hair around his eyes and Derek couldn’t tell if he wanted to walk toward them or jump backward.
“Please, Stratton. Let’s show your dad how great a nurse you can be.” The young man turned his attention back to Taryn.
“You really think I’d be a good nurse?”
“I think I’d like to see you get the chance to prove it.” Taryn stepped gingerly forward and held her hand out to him.
Stratton nodded and turned, reaching for her hand. Lightning cracked and the wind snatched his trenchcoat. His turning had freed the one trapped side and the wind flung the coat out beyond the edge of the rooftop, dragging Stratton with it. His foot slipped in the water at the edge and his body tumbled over the side.
“Shit!” Derek lunged forward and threw himself after the boy. Taryn’s scream echoed inside his helmet as he plummeted toward the street. Stratton was falling just below him, flailing his arms in the trenchcoat, eyes fearfully wide. “Nanites, anchor me to the roof!” Behind him, a chain snaked upward from his boots. As it reached the roof, the end of the chain blossomed into a spiked grappling hook and lodged itself against the rim. He stretched his arms forward. Stratton was reaching for him but there was still a gap.
He desperately screamed at the nanites. “Pneumatic jet!” His right gauntlet fused together and shifted forward.
Derek threw his right arm behind him and tightened his fist. The jet thrust him forward, closing the gap. He grabbed Stratton by the trenchcoat and yelled, “Stop!”
The chain ceased the descent and Taryn finished her scream. He looked down in Stratton’s face. It was ghost white, drained of all color.
“Taryn, get down here and catch him. We’re about ten feet up.”
Minutes later, Stratton was sitting on the stairs wrapped in a towel, waiting for the ambulance that would check him over. Taryn and Derek waited with him.
“Why did you want to save me so badly?”
“Because no one saved my dad when he jumped.”
Derek looked sideways at her, but did not comment.
As the ambulance pulled away with Stratton inside, the armor melted away into the night, leaving the pair standing in the rain again.
“Happy birthday, Taryn.”
“Thanks, Derek. See you around.”
They parted ways, and the rain fell across the dark, sleeping city.
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