Chapter 1 – The Champion

From the snow-slicked street, Aegis saw the lights, heard the sounds of his targets. Voices didn’t carry the sixty-some floors down the sole lit span in the tall, wide building dominating the abandoned business park, but the shots did; rattle-cracks from old model guns, tattled on their owners with their rat-a-tats. The noise proved Aegis had a reason to be out here at a time of night known for villains, and perfect for those hunting them.

The pod behind him gave a warm beep as it began rolling towards its next request. The sound triggered a quick inventory check: gloves, a plated vest over a thick dark wool sweater to keep Aegis warm, a pair of Paragon-uniform pants belted over with accessories, including everything Aegis would need to disable, kill, or call for help. Nestled over his nose and cupping his eyes sat black-and-blue goggles that kept incoming light optimal for anything.

No helmet. Aegis wouldn’t go that far. News crews would chase his pod signature, and they would be here. The Paragons ran the world. Their mascot couldn’t hide.

His boots, with soft pads built into the heels to keep old feet comfortable, did a fine job conquering the concrete walk towards the building’s entry. Snow piled up on the sides, plowed with precision by automated labor so cheap the cities could keep it running for ghosted buildings like this one. A pair of tall, shock-white columns flanked the entrance, bearing an etched logo not quite strong enough to overcome decades of irrelevance to find a trigger in Aegis’s memories.

Between rounds of cracking fire from above, Aegis crunched snow to the thrum of New York. Trains pulsed beneath him, the rushing keeping pace with his steps, while a vague scent of decay seeped through the breeze into every breath. A lot of these broken business parks surrounded the compacting city, now, and they all smelled like this. Felt like this while they waited for someone to save them.

A set of double-doors provoked a majesty marred by shattered glass, by the bent handle showing reckless force applied to the opening. Aegis used his predecessor’s handiwork and stepped over the shards. He’d send a rep offer out tomorrow, get someone to clean it up. Image mattered, even out here.

“You’re there?” Celice came through his earpiece. She chewed something, teeth gnashing thick.

Eggplant. One of the reasons Aegis had taken this call personally. He looked forward to dinners with his daughter, but now she kept insisting on recipes meant for old men and goats. Aegis would eat the leftovers when he came back, though. After he’d had a bit of aggression to work up his appetite, when he could justify some sort of protein to go with the veg-tastic dish.

“I’m here,” Aegis said. “They broke in. Not subtle about it.”

“Do you need back-up? I can send the call,” Celice paused, except for her chewing. “A couple drones aren’t too far. Ten minutes.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Dad.”

The lobby had held up better than the door, possibly owing to its barren blandness. A long desk stretched in front of an empty wall the same white as the columns outside. Space for chairs, a line of receptionists and, where Aegis stood now, a constant flood of customers, employees. Working so hard for dollars, euros, at the cost of family and friends. While the Paragons had much left to do, they had at least ended mad scramble for cash.

“Call the drones then,” Aegis said. “But I’m not waiting.”

The elevators posed a problem. If the criminals up top had any sense, they would have someone watching the only reasonable entry to their floor, and elevators like these displayed their location in white numbers on black bars atop their slate-gray doors. The moment Aegis punched a number, his imminent arrival would be clear to anyone paying attention. Stairs lingered as a possibility, but for sixty flights, not a sane one.

The drones would beat Aegis to the targets if he took that route.

“Going in,” Aegis said, both for his daughter and the recording.

Every mission, every word the Paragons spoke in action sat in their vaults. Ready and waiting to counter the dual threats of hyper-inflated media and the myth-making enterprises involved in making the Paragons seem like arbitrary gods. Recruit anomalies, keep the normals from getting scared. Two birds, one stone, etc. The more the Paragons were seen not only as the world’s guardians, but its friends, the less trouble would be thrown their way. For that matter, it’d been too long since Aegis had sent out a release of his own, proof that the Champion himself still performed out here, still chased down evil.

Inspiration came from the top, and if providing it required a few hits, then Aegis could take them.

The elevators matched the front entrance, one suffering violence extreme enough to leave its door hanging while the other waited for passengers, though its sharp squeals signified good looks wouldn’t keep the elevator long from forced retirement. Aegis ought to survive if the thing fell apart with him in it, but those people already up top likely would not. Which means they were both brave and stupid, or they’d made the safe, slow call and climbed the stairs. Knowing the sorts of people who would take potshots with weapons in an abandoned tower at night, Aegis bet the former.

The elevator’s speed preached new definitions of the word slow, which gave Aegis another chance to stretch out. Feel his shoulders crack and test the limits of his lungs with a few deep breaths. His stun gun had a loaded dart, and he kept the weapon ready in his right hand as the numbers on the panel climbed. He shifted to the left side of the elevator, minimizing his profile.

Years ago, Aegis would have stood stock center, hands on hips and ready to win through cocky intimidation alone.

That time ended when the bruises started following him home, haunting him the day after. When the concern in Celice’s eyes stole away his macho grin.

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The elevator announced its arrival with the sound of a dying balloon instead of a cheery ding, but the lift made it to the sixtieth floor. The doors began their same, slow crawl and the blam blam blam of heavy weapons fire poured through. Not at Aegis, though. The morons continued their party. They’d had every opportunity to prepare, to set an ambush, and instead they’d opted for more champagne.

The opened door cleared the way to a smaller, nicer lobby, as though its height preserved the glass-lined white furniture from the seeping decay down below. A circular desk sat off to the right side, required chair and anything on it gone, ransacked for what could be carried. The lobby’s sole occupant leaned against the desk now: a man holding an old-model handgun down at his hip and staring at his Tama and the image it projected above the man’s forearm.

Aegis lowered his own gun and walked out of the elevator, making it halfway across the lobby before the man bothered to look up. At the sight of the armed and armored head of the Paragons, the world’s most famous Champion, the man’s head cocked to a side, eyebrow raised. Questioning the impossible. Aegis decided to prove it.

A long stride, a good stretch of Aegis’s right quad leading into a solid right hook, took the man’s just-opened mouth before he could make a sound. With his left arm, Aegis caught the fallen guard and set the suited figure onto the pearl-white tile.

“Trig blink neutral,” Aegis said, following a hunch.

His goggles took the command and shut off their processing for a solid second, giving Aegis a true look at where he operated. Line lights, with their bright trails, filled the gaps between the ceiling tiles and sprayed such a harsh glow that the lobby seemed like a snow-covered mountain at noon. No wonder the guard had trouble reacting to Aegis—keeping the floor this washed out would make identification impossible without goggles like his.

The lobby played security for a single path, one locked by a walnut-wood door whose key card seal stood out on the wall with a small speck of red showing power. A look behind the reception desk showed any bypass that might have existed had gone the way of the chair and the monitor.

“Trig P-Lock,” Aegis said to the room, then held his left, Tama-bearing wrist against the card reader.

Paragon technology worked again and the reader beeped its submission to Aegis’s rank, jutting open the lock and allowing Aegis to open the heavy door via the chrome-metal bar on its front.

Another ambush opportunity came and went as Aegis, with the door opened just enough to see around, looked into an empty hallway. At the far end, past a number of secondary split-offs, the hallway opened into the sort of broad, overlooking space so favored by the high floors in these buildings. A chance to look down upon all those you’d managed to rise above.

The weapons-fire had stopped, and from the door, Aegis could see why. Some of the windows of that overlook were shattered, and the intact pair that Aegis could see sported the telltale star-burst of bullets streaking through. Bullets that likely came from the big, turreted gun in the center of the room, facing outside.

“Are you seeing that?” Aegis said.

“Looks like we’ve found our target,” Celice replied.

“They could take out the drones with a weapon that size,” Aegis said. “Tell them to keep off.”

“I’ll tell them to watch out. Mynx can always make more.”

Aegis wanted to say that Mynx made enough of the things already, but stopped. These jerks might not have an ambush ready now, but they could change their mind any second. Better to take advantage of surprise while you have it, than lose it arguing about things that don’t matter. Besides, Aegis knew the real reason he didn’t want the drones around: they’d take away the glow. That oh-so-sweet vindication Aegis would get when he stood in the courtyard below, speaking to the media about another successful Paragon operation. Sharing the spotlight with a pair of Mynx’s mechanical monsters would mean… sharing.

Aegis slipped through the door into the hallway, hugging the right wall and watching the far glass for any sign of motion. Every step came with a roll of the heel, his hands holding his stun gun forward and ready. He crept closer to the first cross-section, quick-stepped up to the bisecting hallway and leaned to give himself a view without exposing his back.

Empty. Aegis reversed to the other side of the hallway, stun gun aimed along the opposite direction. Nothing there either. Closed office doors. Empty white walls with brighter, square blotches exposing art’s former home.

Aegis took a breath. Slow, shallow. Listened.

Laughter. Towards the windowed room. The sound of liquid hitting glass. Not laying a trap, then, but celebrating.

He’d spent too much time going after hardened criminals. Enemies who knew full well what Aegis and the Paragons could do and prepped to fight them. These, these were the kinds of bottom-barrel criminals you fought when all the others were gone. Who filled the void left when you’d eliminated the truly terrifying.

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Aegis shook his head at nothing. He’d be surprised to get a single interview after this one. Who cared if a bunch of low-level bums shot up some abandoned buildings? He slipped the stun gun back into its holster. The least he could get from this would be some fun.

Aegis wheeled left, into the side hallway whose end revealed another cross-section. He moved quicker now, padding his feet to the sounds of chatter, talk of weapons moved and weapons made. New deals struck. Despite all efforts, the Paragons could never get rid of every under-the-table transaction, couldn’t quite cleanse the world of its muck, but Aegis felt they’d at least made sure to punish the main offenders. You could swim in the swamp, but you would pay a price.

At the end of the new hallway, Aegis peeked right and saw the party. A quartet of chuckling nobodies, who wore a mix of drifter-style gear that confirmed Aegis’s assessment of their neophyte status in the criminal game. Two cylinders occupied the center space on a pop-up plastic table otherwise covered in the remnants of a garbage dinner; synth food Aegis wouldn’t touch. One cylinder bore the telltale brown of bourbon or whiskey, the other looked like water. No surprise which held less.

The real shock, for one of the four, a capped man whose eyes floated past his friends in mid-drink, was Aegis making his way in long strides down the final stretch of hallway. The man paused his swig, his bloodshot stare struggling to make sense of what came towards him, before his hand lost grip on the glass entirely and the man stumbled back, uttering some form of warning shout that drove his partners to confusion.

Aegis connected his first swing with the sound of the capped man’s glass hitting the tiled floor and shattering. Not that his target, whose puffy, pale cheeks took Aegis’s blow with a satisfying squelch, appreciated the timing. Nor, Aegis figured, did the man enjoy having his face collide with the remnants of dinner and the pop-up table, but the life of a criminal was often one of disappointment, especially when Paragons were around.

The next one in line, a gibbering, shorter man whose legion of coats and sweaters belied a tropical ancestry, didn’t get enough distance on his scrambling back-step to escape Aegis’s reach. With both hands gripping the short man’s coat, Aegis whipped him to the right, into and through the thin, decaying wall into what was once a high-profile office. Now, in a far cry from the monetary mountains once moved in its confines, the short criminal laid unconscious and covered in drywall on the office’s floor. One more injustice leveled in the building, and not the last to come.

Two left. The capped man, who’d made it as far as the glass windows on the level, who’s hands were reaching for a gun somewhere on his person, and a lanky, suit-sporting specialist. Aegis had seen enough fighters in his time to know the leader, to know who posed the greatest threat, and he could dissemble any of a thousand clues to find that one person in a group of enemies. This time, it didn’t take much: the specialist’s eyes were narrow, his hands weren’t twitching, and he didn’t appear to be praying to some deity for salvation. In other words, the specialist was everything the capped man wasn’t.

Aegis broke for the specialist with a barreling charge, using the sheer spectacle of the Paragon leader in full battle array for intimidation. This tended to result in the cowering collapse of most enemies, with the occasional outright turn and flee for the true cowards. The specialist, though, reached into his jacket, pulled out a handgun the likes of which the Paragons had banned decades ago, like the one the elevator guard had held, and fired.

For most of his life, Aegis had a cordial relationship with bullets. They would greet him with their usual ferocity, and Aegis would disarm their damage with the very thing that made him the Paragon’s icon: an invulnerable skin. The shots would sort of sink against Aegis, and then fall away to the ground, leaving nothing so much as a mark for their trouble. Missions had gone by where hundreds or thousands of rounds had poured into the Paragon and found themselves rendered useless, whether they struck his arms, legs, eyes, teeth or anywhere else. As though a divine cloak covered Aegis and kept him safe from harm.

That cloak did its job again now, catching the bullet as it struck Aegis’s left shoulder, outside the reaches of the vest where the shot tore through Aegis’s clothes and rendered its ineffectual verdict against the Paragon’s body. The specialist managed to snap off a second round that went directly into the vacuum hole of Aegis’s vest, causing nothing so much as a microsecond’s pause in the Paragon’s momentum.

There was no third shot.

The capped man, having seen his partners laid to waste, took the safer road and awaited his arrest with the simpering pleas of the over-matched and guilty. Any thoughts of further escape vanished when Mynx’s drones arrived, shattering the remaining glass and hovering inside the room, stun guns at the ready, lethal options awaiting an algorithm’s calculation.

“Late, as always,” Aegis said to the machines, standing near the capped man with the unconscious body of the specialist hanging from his right arm.

Aegis took the specialist down himself, leaving the drones to watch over the other three. By now, at the base of the building, a few pods had arrived and disgorged news crews looking to feed the ravenous beast of popular content. And the media found nothing more popular than a Champion conducting a raid. Aegis strode out to meet the flashes, the cameras, the pouring of questions from reporters and fans alike.

Before answering a single one, though, Aegis directed the other late arrivals, the lower Paragons whose job covered this district, who had asked Aegis to cover for them. Who would have taken the bullets he bore instead. The trio of motley anomalies, wearing their Paragon blues, swept by Aegis towards the tower. They’d take the other three, plus this one, and divine the proper punishment. The cost in reps owed, and the best methods of repayment.

“Are you all right?” Celice’s voice, coming through the ear piece, cut through the calls from the press.

“I’ll live,” Aegis gave his classic comeback, then dumped the specialist on the ground in front of the cameras as snow began to fall between the lights.

He had a speech for this, a modified version of the stock Paragon set of warnings, lessons, and calls for a better tomorrow. The difference this time, what made Aegis’s words come slower, and forced him to focus to keep standing tall, was the spreading pain in his left shoulder. An aching, deep, bone-crunching pain that he’d never felt before.

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