LADY IN RED
A thick steel door swung freely on squeaky hinges. Bruce pushed a rusty steel pole behind an old gas pipe and wedged it behind a metal girder; barring the only access to the roof. Wiping his hands on his pant legs he was in his favorite place in the world. From the edge of the roof, he could see The City in the distance. The apartment building towered over the surrounding neighborhood giving him a bird’s eye view of Old Town and its inhabitants. On the roof, there were no classes, no jobs and no people. On the roof, the world couldn’t reach him.
Sure it was dangerous to be in Old Town at night away from the protection of The City’s ever-watchful security systems. Old Town was like the old west, where the predator thrived, the fastest survived, and the great equalizer was still the gun. Deep down he knew it to be an almost lawless place where killers, rapists and thieves went to escape the all-seeing eye of The City’s justice system. Still Bruce couldn’t resist the temptation to spend a couple hours in the only place where he could escape the hustle and bustle. He took a deep breath, ignoring the hot pungent smells of the sun baked asphalt and the concrete jungle all around him. He closed his eyes and listened to the urban sounds drifting up from below.
After a long moment he opened his eyes. Like iron filings to a magnet his eyes were drawn to the magnificent sight before him. Sunset bled through the skyline of The City on the horizon. The modern high tech metropolis with its sky scrapers, maglev trains, and free energy microwave footprint never slept. The City was the financial, cultural, social, scientific and technological center of the world. It was where he had grown up, where he had always lived and where he still lived. The famous skyline stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. He could easily distinguish Three-Freedoms Towers to the north and the one hundred eighty story Democracy’s Hope building to the south. The two iconic structures served to define the edges of the city proper. Maglev Trains treaded their twisted paths through, over, under and around the buildings tying the whole scene together into one continuous piece of art. Several new projects where under construction; a couple promised to dwarf even the Regan International Peace Center.
He exhaled his stress. It took a deliberate act of will to ignore the thoughts that battered his mind. Mid-term exams were coming soon and he was definitely not ready for them. His dad had woken up seven months ago, blind in his left eye. The doctors in his sector of The City had no explanations or cures. Bruce worked three nights a week at the Columbus space elevator loading freight and supplies bound for NASA’s newest orbital platform. He knew other kids had tougher things to deal with but his troubles were his and sometimes they could be overwhelming.
He ran his hands along the weather ravaged concrete blocks atop the waist high retaining wall at the edge of the roof. The texture felt good, somehow coarse and smooth at the same time. He wasn’t doing a very good job leaving his troubles behind so he refocused on the skyline. Minutes ago, it had been a black speckled silhouette lit from behind by the colors of molten lava. Now, it was a shimmering cacophony of twinkling lights surround by a black sky lightly dusted in powdery orange and red.
Directly below him, an old fashion diesel engine roared as its garbage truck extended iron arms, grabbed a giant metal box and lifted it over the back. Suddenly his mind skipped sideways giving him a kind of mental vertigo. Something wasn’t right. He scanned the streets below. There is a part of a man’s mind that notices every Kaptain Kreme’s Koffee Shop the day after he fell in love with Kaptain Kreme’s Koffee. Yet he would swear those Koffee shops had not been there the day before. It was that part of his mind that went on alert. What was different?
A lady in a red dress passed under a street light two blocks to the west of his building. That was it; she was in a place where a lone lady had no business being after dark. A bundle of caramel colored hair spun over her shoulder as she looked from side to side. She quickly twisted her shoulders ninety degrees throwing a look behind her. She was afraid.
When she disappeared into the scenery, Bruce’s focus shifted to where she had looked. There was movement. Three black-clad pursuers melted in and out of the shadows reminding him of his favorite Ninja movie. He lost sight of them often but saw enough to be convinced that they were following her. They were four or five blocks behind her.
She was headed north on Jacobson street. If she took Preston Blvd east and cut through the old meat processing plant, she could make it to an Enclave ahead of them. There would be Police there. Or, if she was lucky, there would be a couple of those militant anti-gang volunteers in their ceramicrete battle suits loaded to the teeth with supposedly non-lethal weapons. They’d help her, if she knew the way.
Bruce was visualizing her route to safety when he realized he was running. He took the dirty concrete stairs four and five at a time leaping to the landing of each floor. Dirty yellow street-light poured through broken and missing sections of wall. He crashed through the broken security door onto the street.
Half a block after turning onto Spartacus Street his legs began to protest. He used to jog four or five miles a day but that seemed forever ago; way back in high school. Burning lungs forced him to slow and he realized that he didn’t have a weapon, not even a pocket knife. While he hadn’t noticed any weapons on them; the men in black had moved with unnerving speed and precision. What use would he be against them? He’d have to get to her first and help her escape. He’d have to get to her before she crossed Preston Blvd.
The thought of the Ninja guys catching the lady in red spurred him to do something he’d never consider even in day light; he cut through a blind alley. The short cut would lessen the distance by almost two blocks. He rounded the corner onto the street and came to a skidding halt three feet directly in front of her. Her right hand shot to her left hand and touched a ring. She drew herself to her full height and looked defiantly at him.
Words spilled out of his mouth almost on top of each other, “You’re going the wrong way. The tubes are back there.” He pointed over her shoulder.
She stared at him and said nothing but was obviously ready to run or fight.
Her calm attitude and confident expression confused him. He lowered his hand and tried to return her calm expression but the thought of the ninja guys raced through his mind. He nervously glanced over her shoulder.
In the voice of someone used to being obeyed she commanded, “Get out of the way. I don’t want any trouble.” Bruce thought she stood a bit taller as she spoke and her fingers never left the ring.
Bruce stammered, “No, no I’m here to rescue you…” Rescue you? What are you Luke Skywalker now? Then the floodgates opened, “I was up on the roof, I saw you and there were these guys, ninjas behind you and they looked like they were…I mean I thought they were following…” Suddenly the whole thing sounded ridiculous. His face became uncomfortably hot. How embarrassing, he realized how silly he must look. He had jumped out of the shadows in front of this beautiful lady and started spouting nonsense about ninjas. He took a step away from her and tried to think of an apology.
Her steely expression faltered. It blossomed with understanding and then soured. She took a step to close the distance between them and whispered, “Ninjas? Do you mean men dressed head to toe in black uniforms?”
“Yah, Ninjas.” He whispered too.
Looking around she said, “I don’t know what Ninjas are but if I’m right I’m in big trouble. And so are you if they find you talking to me. We need to get off the street fast. Do you know a safe place to go?”
“Well yah, that’s what I’ve been saying all along. The nearest tube stop is back that way a few blocks but if they were following you we can’t go back that way.” Instinctively the two drifted closer to the building into a shadow and away from the street. Beautiful caramel colored hair swirled from side to side as she watched the street. Bruce thought frantically.
As her right hand went back to her left arm Bruce noticed that it didn’t settle on her ring as before but slid past it to her forearm. She rubbed it and absently muttered, “How could they have found me?”
Bruce started to ask what she meant but she spoke first, “I need power. My reserves won’t be enough. Do you know of any public outlets? I can convert any type. “
He only came to the suburbs for the solitude of his abandoned building and the view. He couldn’t think of any.
She rattled off suggestions, “Public outlets, Enclaves, closed businesses we could break into, abandoned buildings with the power still on, anything?”
Then Bruce remembered an exterior outlet with a spring loaded cover on his roof next to the door. He’d never tried the socket but he knew they couldn’t wait on the street any longer. Worse comes to worst, he thought, we can always bar the door and hold out till first light.
“I have an idea.”
On the way back to the apartment building they kept to the shadows. Neither spoke for fear of being heard. They emerged into the nightlight on the roof and Bruce spoke as he extended his hand, “By the way my name is Bruce,”
She smiled distractedly, taking in her surroundings, and said nothing.
Ok, no small talk. So he wouldn’t beat around the proverbial bush, “Why are those men after you?” He pointed to the power outlet cover as he barred the door.
She knelt next to the wall and paused considering how to answer him, “They are assassins.”
“Assassins, as in kill people type assassins? Ninjas, really?” He figured it was something like that but to hear her say it in such a matter of fact way shook him. His stomach tightened as he waited for her explanation. But none came.
He tried again, “Why would they want to kill you? I mean who are you?”
Even though it was spring loaded she slammed the cover shut and mumbled a curse. She stood and looked at him, “Later ok? Right now we have to get out of here.”
“What do you mean get out of here? We just got here. The door’s barred. We’re twenty something stories up. It’s dark. If we just hunker down till morning there’s no way they can find us and even if they did, they can’t get to us.”
She didn’t appear to be listening to him.
But since he was trying to convince himself as much as her he continued, “you have your power source now…”
She interrupted, “It’s not a power outlet. It’s a broadband connection. I have no idea why anyone would have wanted one outdoors….” Her voice trailed off as if she were speaking to herself.
“Wait. A broad-what connection?”
“A broadband connection. I’m not sure what they were called.” She pointed to the wall, “That’s how people used to connect to the WWW. You know, the old World Wide Web, the old net.” She paced aimlessly lost in thought.
Every school kid knew about the old WWW. It had been a cluttered hodgepodge of computer networks. It was unregulated and un-policed; a disgusting collection of humanity’s every perversion. But he had no idea what she was talking about. “You mean that is an old transmitter or something? Like a satellite?”
“No they used to plug their L.I.N.K.s into places like that.”
Bruce replayed her words in his head. He asked, “They plugged in? You mean with wires?”
“Yes of course, with wires.” She wandered around the rooftop as if looking for something. Bruce followed.
“But then they would have to stay in one spot all the time.” That was ridiculous, like a warm snowflake or a ferocious butterfly.
Bruce was still pondering the implications of the old system when he noticed her reaching for the rusty steel bar. He started to ask her what she was doing but never got the chance. It was at that moment that fate decided to change his life forever.
A blur of motion and a glint of light flashed past his head. Something flew past his head towards right at her. Suddenly a multi-colored light flared to life encasing her in a shimmering shell. The crackling snap-hiss of lightning charged his skin as the flying object was repelled and clattered harmlessly to the ground. Static electricity crackled and the force shell faded from view. An oriental throwing star, straight out of some old 2-D movie, lay on the gravel roof next to her feet. Some kind of force field had activated and protected her. Shock morphed into paralyzing terror as he realized they were under attack.
She reacted with the grace of a dancer and the speed of a trained athlete. She whirled and dove directly at him knocking him backwards. “Get down,” she growled.
Bruce swept his gaze around looking for a place to hide. All he could think about was the waist high wall around the edge of the roof and the door. He took one look at the iron bar and dismissed the idea. Maybe he could hunker down beside that wall and avoid throwing stars. Dragging his butt over the loose stones he back peddled on hands and feet toward the edge of the roof. He saw movement to his left behind the wall in which the door was so uselessly barred; it was one of them. He saw the black outline of another attacker to his far left perched on the half-wall as if he just landed there. A wave of vertigo washed through him as he realized that the ninja held a sword, an actual three foot long glinting shaft of steel. God he was in a movie or more likely a nightmare.
As he retreated Bruce watched the woman dive and roll toward the center of the open space between the wall and the door. She came out of the roll and settled to one knee with her arms raised over her head. Her right hand touched the ring on her left hand. Her fist pointed at the heavens. Almost in slow motion the red dress floated gracefully around her settling to the roof top like the petal of a giant red flower.
The swordsman sprang off the ledge at the woman. He flew an impossible distance, sword raised above his head, legs trailing like the tail of a kite. The blade of his sword began its arc toward the unsuspecting woman.
Light blossomed from the ring on her finger. The dazzling figure of a silver clad woman sprang to life next to the lady in red. The sound of steel meeting steel rang in the air as the ninja descended upon the apparition. Bruce stared in shock as the new arrival intercepted the sword wielding ninja. She was dressed in a form fitting silver grey suit of body armor that bristled with weaponry. Crossed gun belts hung low over both hips and a bandoleer of throwing knives fit snuggly over her chest. In both hands she wielded a long sword and engaged her assailant while a second sword rested in its scabbard strapped to her back. But the most shocking part was her face and hair. She was an exact copy of the lady in red. The simulacrum seemed to glow from the inside and tendrils of light stretched out to the ring on the real woman’s fist.
Swords flashed faster than the eye could follow and the ninja dropped to the ground in a heap.
Bruce raised his fist and inhaled for a victory shout. But to his horror two more shadows swooped in from the right. One headed for the angelic projection while the other vectored toward the original. He had no idea what to do. These guys moved like the wind and had swords, knives, and who knew what else.
He used the lung full of air to shout a warning, “Behind you.”
At the same time he remembered the assassin behind the wall by the door. He flashed a quick look. The ninja, like his companions, was covered in a light absorbing material from head to toe except for a small slice of exposed flesh across his face. Two black eyes punctuated that slip of white skin. Their eyes met for a brief instant and then the assassin blinked, turned his face and ignored him. Bruce realized those deadly eyes were taking aim down the shaft of an impossibly long arrow pointed at the two women. One was kneeling like a statue, still holding her fist above her head and the other holding a glowing sword at the ready. He watched as the glowing apparition met a second assassin in mortal combat. Again blades flashed and sang out their songs of death. The third assassin bore down on the two from behind. Bruce watched with mingled fascination and horror.
In one fluid motion the lady in red spun on her knees performing a perfect three hundred sixty degree rotation. The silver warrior disappeared as soon as the ring moved and reappeared in nearly the exact same place when it stopped. The red dress floated back to the roof top and Bruce saw that she had picked up the fallen assassin’s sword. To his gut wrenching horror he also saw the arrow sticking out of her lower back.
Bruce frantically scanned for something he could use as a weapon. He scooped up a handful of the pea stone gravel and sprang to his feet. The archer had a second arrow notched and was pulling the string towards his face. Rage, humiliation and fear drove Bruce’s arm forward and he released the tiny missiles flew. The pebbles ricocheted harmlessly off the killer and a helpless horror griped Bruce’s gut. The arrow leapt from the bow. He couldn’t bear to look yet he had to. To his surprise the warrior of light stood with both guns drawn. Her hands hovered at her hips like a Wild West Sherriff except the guns weren’t revolvers. Massive shiny black plasma pistols, a foot long and four inches across, pointed at the archer.
Lightning flashed across his field of vision. Purple white light assaulted his retinas and he had to cover his eyes. The hot tangy smell of ozone filled his nostrils and the hair on his neck stood on end. A high pitched sound like the squeal of rubber coated lightning being dragged over electric guitar strings mixed with the nerve shredding vibrations of crackling static and sizzling water. Bruce thought the atoms in his chest were flying apart.
Then as suddenly as it appeared the lightning left. Inky blackness enveloped him. Seconds passed until a suggestion of light bled through the darkness. His body remembered to breathe and he gasped a halting jagged breath.
Bruce grimaced at the ringing in his ears. He finally stood and staggered to the pile of black and red bodies. The silver clad woman was gone. Two ninjas with vicious slashing wounds lay motionless next to the body of the beautiful caramel haired women in red. Another black clad body lay half covering her with an arrow buried deep in its chest. It covered the upper third of her delicate form obscuring her lovely face and the breath taking eyes that would never see again. He hadn’t had time to think about it before but he knew now that he had loved her from the moment he’d seen her. Tears ran down his face as he witnessed the scene. What had happened here? How could this be?
“Get off of her,” he cried. He moved around for a better angle to roll away the body. “Get off her!”
He moved to push the vile beast away and froze in alarm. The assassin moved. The whole body heaved upwards and shifted. Bruce took a step back. It moved again. He looked at the arrow protruding from its chest. How could he be alive?
More movement caught his eye. Tanned white legs in elegant red shoes moved. They flailed for purchase and ground against the gravel surface. She was alive. He wasted no time freeing her from the corpse and gently cradled her head as he sank down beside her.
As if waking from a dream she jerked and gasped. Her eyes opened and she lashed out with a weak punch, “Get away from me,” she yelled.
“It’s ok, it’s ok,” he reassured her while at the same time drawing his face back, the better to dodge another blow. “It’s ok they’re all dead. You did it. You’re safe, just relax.” He tried to sooth her.
Like a cat surrounded by hounds her eyes darted back and forth. Then they focused on him and softened. “Don’t leave me,” she whispered.
“Don’t worry, I won’t.”