Under the River

Derek Daniels looked at his reflection in the store window. He was getting old. Or so it looked to him. Maybe that wasn’t gray in his hear, but dirt in the window. Maybe his stomach was still as flat as ever, and the window was warped. He stepped back to the edge of the curb to see if it made any difference. Not much. He tried a few poses and sucked in his breath. He could fight crime, but not time.

He heard a load roar behind him and turned. The dark green van was swerving in and out of the lane, partially to the rhythm of the loud music, partially to no pattern at all. It had suddenly bumped and ascended the raised sidewalk, six feet from Derek Daniels. he threw himself forward as the van careened back onto the street behind him. The store window smashed as his weight fell upon it, leaving him hunched over a now broken television set, shards of glass and blood sprinkled on his face and hands. His coat was torn; one knee of his pants ripped. He pulled himself back up, carefully, trying not to cut himself anymore than he already had, and glared down the street after the van. They were going to kill someone.

He looked around, but there was no one in sight. Behind him, the store’s ancient security system finally kicked in. A light began to flash and a siren wailed. The broken store window and wailing siren should attract Nanites… but he doubted they’d be looking to him as the good guy! He had to catch their attention and go after that van.

He had an idea. It wasn’t exactly courageous. It might even be a little embarrassing, but it might just work.

“Help! HELP!” He screamed as loudly as he could. His voice cracked as he struggled to put volume into it, to overcome the wail of the store’s siren. “Somebody help!” He felt like putting on a blond wig and tying himself to the railroad tracks. He felt ridiculous.

“Citizen, what is the nature of your distress?” Distress. Thanks for making him feel even more like a helpless damsel, nanites.

“I was nearly run over by a drunk driver in a green van two minutes ago. We need to catch them before they kill somebody! Suit me up!”

He waited for the air to thicken around him, for the night to grow darker as the nanites built the suit around him, to feel the weight of the armor encasing him. He waited some more.

“Hello? We have to catch that van!”

Finally, he felt the nanites at work. The cloud of dust coalesced around him and solidified into dark armor, hiding the blood on his clothes behind the city’s gold emblem of protection. He flinched as some of the armor rubbed against the shards of glass still on and in his skin, but as soon as the suit was secure, he took off running. He’d always been curious whether he actually needed to stand still for the suiting up, but there had never been time to test it.

“I need to be faster! I can’t catch up to them like this!” Still, he pounded down the street, no longer any sign of the van. The nanites were going through their programmed speech. Constant contact, augmented abilities, GPS, nothing important that he hadn’t heard a million times before. “Nanites! I need transportation!”

“Transportation program accessed. Please slow down.”

Slow down!? That was the opposite of what he needed! He slowed to a walk, wishing he had seen the direction the van had gone. Suddenly, the ground rushed up at him as he fell. He caught himself with his hands, but couldn’t get back up. The armor, normally easy to move in, was stiff and unyielding. He realized with a start that it was the armor that had thrown him off balance. The gauntlets around his hands began to change and swell. He watched, startled, as they fused together and became rounded. He gasped as he recognized a wheel between his hands, as though he were balancing on the axle like handlebars. He looked back, but couldn’t see behind his head, the helmet wouldn’t turn that quite that far. He could, however, see a store window on the side of the street. And in the store window, glistening as it completed its transformation, was a dark blue motorcycle with no rider, and the city’s golden crests on the side. He appeared to be looking through the front headlight. He flexed his arm, as though revving the handlebar control on a traditional motorcycle and felt the engine roar beneath him. Good enough. He quickly got the control instructions from the nanite connection and sped off down the street.

The pavement whizzed by below him, only inches from his face. A lean to the left or right and he swerved in that direction. Turning the axle of the wheel between his hands took him left or right, and shifting his foot allowed him to brake. He accelerated. The speedometer in his visor showed him passing 60 mph. The pavement was no more than a blur under his wheels, streaked with yellow lines. There was no sign of the green van. He mentally shook his head. They could be anywhere by now. The nanites hadn’t seen it, so they couldn’t track it by GPS. But maybe they could track everything else.

“Nanites, I need GPS city traffic.”

“Which section?”

“All of it.”

In his visor a spiderwebbed map of the city sprang up. He could barely even make out the roads at this level of view.

“Highlight all motor vehicles.” Little points of light appeared on the map and began slowly creeping around the grid. The speed alone told him the map was expanded out pretty far. “Center on me.” The map shifted, showing a blue light tracing up one line of street. “Zoom in one level.” The map moved closer, the farther streets fading from view. He could see his own blue light, cruising up the one street, and the street through the map itself. He watched the other lights, tracking them, looking for patterns, or one that wasn’t following the pattern. The road ended at the river. He slowed and turned right, riding alongside the waterfront. Or driving alongside the waterfront. He wasn’t quite sure what he was doing in this modified motorcycle armor. Suddenly, he saw something. On the map, not far from where he was, a blip was not travelling in a straight line. It wriggled as it followed the street map. “Zoom in on that light, three streets east.” The map zoomed in and he watched the little light careen down the street. He’d found it. He revved the engine and took off toward the other light. It was a few streets away, but heading for the river. He sped up. As he got closer, he saw that they would pass him, but only just barely. He could catch up with them over the bridge, assuming they went straight instead of turning. He got rid of the map and focused on the road. Ahead was the intersection of the two van’s road and the waterfront he was travelling. He was half a block away when the van went through the red light at the bridge. He barely slowed as he hit the intersection. His light was green, but he crossed his fingers and leaned hard into the turn, hitting the brake with his feet. He heard the loud squeal as the tires struggled to keep their hold on the pavement. He left a long, black curve etched into the pavement. He kept his balance and looked up onto the bridge as he gunned the engine.

There was the van, swerving and dodging the air again. As he rose along the bridge’s incline, the van reached the apex. It swerved again, and bumped the sidewalk of the bridge. The sidewalk jerked at the wheels and this time, the van gave into the resistance. It lurched sideways and hit the rails. The bridge was old, built when the city was still young. The rails had already done all that they could do, and they gave way with a metallic scream. Derek’s eyes widened as the van threw itself over the edge of the bridge. He raced to the hole in the bridge’s safety guards just in time to watch the underside of the van slosh below the surface of the river.

He froze for the briefest moment and then backed up. He peeled across the width of the bridge and jettisoned himself off the bridge and into the open air, 170 feet above the river.

It occurred to him as he left the bridge that he’d never seen a waterproof guarantee on the nanites. Certainly they worked in rain just fine, but underwater? It looked like he was about to test their limits.

“Nanites, I need oxygen for breathing underwater and fins!” He had no idea if they would even understand him. As he lost the forward inertia and began to fall toward the dark water below, his armor began to shift. It loosened up, allowing him to once more bend and move around. The wheels vanished. His legs separated again. He glanced back and saw that instead of boots, his feet were now encased in large, curved fins. His hands returned to gauntlets, but with webbing between the fingers. Looked like the nanites knew how to handle water after all. as long as he was getting some kind of air supply. Faster than he would have liked, the surface of the river came rushing up toward him. He glanced at the speedometer still on his view screen and gasped: 71 mph!

The shock of hitting the surface slowed him considerably. It also gave him some considerable bruises to feel later. He shook his head to clear what may be a minor concussion and looked around him. He had to find that van. It was darker under the water than out on the street. “Lights, please.” Light from his helmet struck out into the darkness, causing a small school of silver fish to scatter quickly. He swam down. That was at least one direction he knew the van would be going. The nanite fins on his feet gave him a lot of extra propulsion. He kicked his feet and glided through the murky water. Off to the left, he saw a cloud of bubbles searching for the top. He dove into them and followed their trail down until he saw the van. It was on the bottom of the river, engine down. Through the back window, he could make out the faces of two teenagers, twisted in horror, but not yet drowning. The van was trapping the air in the back of it. At the rate it was spitting out bubbles, it wouldn’t keep much air for long. He kicked and powered toward the van. He could hear the strange, underwater-filtered screams from the teenagers inside. He didn’t want to pop that air bubble if he didn’t have to. It was buying them time. He swam down to the front of the van. If he could come in from underneath, maybe he could bring them out one at a time without sacrificing the air for the other one. The passenger door window was cracked, but still in place. Through it, he could see that the two in the back weren’t the only ones. The driver was still buckled into his seat. And from the look of it, unconscious. The teenaged boy from the back window was tugging on the belt, trying to break it free. The girl had finally stopped screaming. Derek paused, trying to assess the situation. Three teenagers, probably 50 feet of river water, and a van leaking air. He took a deep breath and realized that he wasn’t suffering any shortage of air, despite the effort of swimming down here.

“Air gauge, please?”

“No air gauge available. Oxygen being supplied through water filtration.”

He nodded. That was the answer.

“I need breathing apparatus for the three of them.” His gauntlets changed, becoming more like gas masks.

“Third oxygen mask located on back.” He was ready. The water had already covered the top of the passenger window. He broke the glass and climbed awkwardly through.

“Put a knife on the back of my right hand.” A blade slid into view. He cut the seatbelt and dragged the unconscious driver up into the back of the van, into the air bubble. The other two teenagers were huddled there, staring at him. The girl was covering her chest with her arms. Neither had a shirt on. He clamped his right hand over the driver’s face, sealing the oxygen mask around his mouth and nose. He held out the other hand to the girl. She hesitated, and looked to her boyfriend. He, sensibly, shoved her toward Derek and told her to go. Derek sealed the left hand mask around her face and held them both tightly against his chest. She grabbed his forearm and held tightly.

“Take them to safety! Save her.” The boyfriend was willing to sacrifice himself to get her to the surface.

“I’m saving all of you. There’s another mask on my back. Seal it and hang on.”

The boyfriend swam around to the back of Derek, and in his visor, Derek watched a third little mask symbol turn blue, which appeared to mean it was processing air. He hoped the suit could maintain all four of them, but either way, it was better than the alternative.

“Blow the doors.”

The suit launched little devices from each shoulder that sped through the few feet between them and the door. When they hit, they detonated. Derek and his passengers were rocked backward, the doors burst open wide, and the river fell in on them. The air bubble blasted into the open water and rocketed toward the surface. Derek followed, though at a much slower pace. With one person on his back and two more clutched to his chest, his flippered legs had to work much harder to go the same distance. At least they didn’t have to worry about air.

Eventually, they made it to the surface and shortly thereafter, to the bank of the river. Derek climbed out, still in armor, his fins and oxygen masks melting back into the armor’s usual features. The boyfriend held the girl, rubbing her arms to try to warm her up, though he was shivering from cold himself. The driver lay still on the rocky bank. Derek leaned over him, but the nanites were already taking readings. It was too late.

The girl gasped and hid her face in the boy’s shoulder. The boy shook his head.

“It was his birthday.”

“So you went drinking and let him drive? Bad decision.”

“He wasn’t drinking. He’s allergic to alcohol. He was just,” the boy blushed slightly, “watching us. I guess he wasn’t paying enough attention to the road.”

Derek shook his head slowly. He couldn’t believe it.

“Paramedics will be here shortly. They should have some blankets to help warm you two up.” He walked away. With the energy and aesthetics of youth, came also the stupidity and inexperience. He was glad he was too old for that.

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