Jon Smith walked through the evening, walking slowly, savoring the glitter of the setting sun on the skyscraper windows of Atlas Park.
It was home, now, the only home he remembered, beside his fractured memories of back alleys of Steel Canyon, King's Row overpasses, and sewers in Galaxy City; those were "homes" that he preferred to forget about.
Atlas was a good place to call home.
He'd chosen the apartment on the advice of Ms. Liberty, the trainer that the social worker had sent him to first. She in her turn had sent him to a pair of very old, rather run-down buildings right next to the Atlas Park-Steel Canyon tunnel. The first building, a hideous green brick, sported a huge billboard on top, for all the Steel Canyon traffic to see: "Earth for Humans". The blue brick one next to it was less garish, but it had an added feature that made up his mind for him.....one apartment had both its windows facing the concrete side of the overpass that had been built many years later, a mere ten feet away. He had noticed it from the outside and asked about it....when the building manager complained that he couldn't rent the apartment for that reason, Jon had gladly offered to take it....if the price was low enough.
The two apartment buildings were mere feet from the "war walls"....huge concrete and forcefield walls that divided what survived of Paragon City into "zones", areas of containment, of relative safety. The "tunnel" passed from one zone to another, keeping the traffic inside shut off from the dangerous areas between them. He had no eyelid to close over the cybernetic monocle that had replaced his right eye; it constantly fed images to his brain, even in the middle of the night when he was trying to sleep. This one apartment was on the far side of the building away from the glowing zone wall....and with the concrete overpass just feet away, it effectively blocked most of that blue glow from the windows of his apartment.
When he walked out the front door of his new apartment house, he often would see the Atlas Park Security Chief standing on the street corner. There was little enough that the police force could do in modern-day Paragon City about the Superadine-fed Outcasts that stood openly on the street and in the nearby park, making drug deals and engaging in petty robbery with an utter lack of fear of the authorities, but the Chief stood there anyway, day after day, doing what he could to direct heroes who came by the area. When he had a few moments to spare, Jon gladly volunteered to arrest a few of the miscreants, trying out his shiny new "Hero badge" and credentials for the first time.
Superadine had changed the face of the city, and much of its populace as well. A highly addictive street drug, it changed its users, giving them fledging powers far more dangerous than any tire iron or Glock, while at the same time progressively robbing them of much of their intellect. Superadine was the reason the police force, in riot gear, so often found themselves standing around watching the Outcasts and Trolls, while waiting for the now-deputized "Heroes" to arrive to take care of them.
Behind the apartments, to the east, was a strip mall. Between the gyro shop and the music store, Jon found the huge sign advertising luxury high-rise apartments, at a "mere" $399,000, strangely surreal, considering how close it was to the troubled park.
The area wasn't *too* bad.....but bad enough that the rent was low, other than the gated Pinnacle Apartments high-rise. Despite that, the walk from his apartment to the Yellow Line train station due south was uneventful. Gang leaders eyed him as he passed, but turned away, their underlings following their example. They knew him, or knew him by reputation, even in the few days that he had been working the streets. Any Atlas gangbangers who attempted to shake him down would only earn a quick trip to jail.
It's not like he was difficult to recognize. "The half-metal-man" was the kindest of the things they called him, thinking he couldn't hear what they were whispering behind his back. Or maybe they knew he could hear, and didn't care.
He didn't mind, much. It was nice to be able to have "off hours", to walk the streets of Atlas, to enjoy the scenery, to walk where he wanted without fear of a sudden ambush. Life wasn't always so quiet, but tonight the gangbangers were content concentrating on their drug deals and threatening shopkeepers, and leaving the card-carrying Heroes alone.
He boarded the train, ignoring the stares he got from the other passengers.
Arriving in Galaxy City, he stopped to check a hand-drawn map he pulled out of a pouch, then headed east from the train platform. He spotted two low-level low-lifes standing over a cringing woman, one of them jerking on her purse. Bottom-feeders, first level Hellions. He ran over, swatted them a couple of times, and called in for them to be picked up. It was kind of like picking on children, drug addicted children at that, and it made him uncomfortable....but not as uncomfortable as standing by and watching the woman's distress.
He was grateful when she effusively thanked him that she didn't offer him a reward. He was never happy with turning down a reward, he worried that he might offend the grateful citizen. But at the same time he didn't like accepting money for arresting petty thieves who didn't stand a chance against his prosthetics.
It's not like he had earned them.
The walk from the train station was uneventful, otherwise. He turned south then east again to skirt his way around the Arena, walked south past a 2-story apartment house, stopped long enough to take a long look at the unnamed statue that he later found out was the tank M1, came up to the front window of the library, peeked inside. By some stroke of fortune, no one was sitting at the front desk. He went in, glancing quickly over his shoulder at the setting sun and its display of orange ferocity.
He chose the most secluded part of the library to sit down and scan the history book he had picked off the shelf, hoping against all hope that he could at least look up a few things unmolested....and without causing a stir among patrons or staff.
Absorbed in his reading, he lost track of the time. It was with a shock that he realized that the page was suddenly shadowed, looked up, and saw that the overhead lights were being turned off, one after another.
He got up, dropped the book on a table, and walked quickly to the front door, his shoulders hunched.
He discovered that he was the only person left in the library beside the librarian, a plump, pretty woman with red-gold hair. He ducked his head, trying to hide his face as he walked past her. She held the door open with a disapproving look on her face. "You have to leave, now," was all she said to him, in a stern tone of voice, one that invited him not to come back. He was certain he knew what she was thinking about him....that he was homeless, or a gang member.
It's not like she would have been far wrong, only a few weeks earlier.
Outside the building, as the librarian turned the key in the lock, Jon hesitated, thinking that the gentlemanly thing to do would be to offer to walk the woman to her home.....but he was sure she would take it badly, at least coming from him. He dropped his eyes and turned and walked away from the library.
He hadn't gotten more than a block and a half away when he heard the unmistakable sounds of struggle, mingled with low-pitched shouts, high-pitched screams, and the stomach-turning burbling of zombies.
He had no conscious thought, simply pivoted as a single movement on one metal leg and ran in the direction of the noise.
Jon knew the park behind the library well....it was the same park where he had run into Jon Wilcox, the man whose name he had adopted, the first person to address him as "hero", the first human being he could remember to treat him with any kindness at all. He had fought off zombies that day in the park, and many other days as well. But the zombies had never in the past ventured so close to the library building.
Rounding a corner, claws already extended, he continued his full-speed dash right into the center of the boiling mass of living and recently dead flesh.
Two zombies and a reaper were already dead on the ground by the time by the time his brain began to make sense of the scene. The librarian was standing in the center of the circle of Vazhilok, screaming, her hands extended, trying futilely to ward them off, as the attackers tried to force her behind a nearby building.
His practiced eye counted automatically, his mind calculating odds. "RUN!" he screamed at the woman.
He saw her freeze in panic, as he waded into the mob. There was no time for further warnings.....he saw a mortificator take aim at the librarian, and he lept frantically to put his body between her and the mort.
It was a stupid move, and he paid for it, with knives slicing across his back. But at least he took the blows, and not the girl.
"RUN!" he yelled again, louder this time, and out of the corner of his eye he saw her shake herself as if waking from a dream, then turn and comply.
It was the Luminous Eidelon that he'd spotted that caused him to give her an additional shove toward the nearest corner, then turn and brace, knowing the punishment he would be carrying home that night.
Not his best showing against the Vazh. This was going to hurt. But he waited until she was safely out of line of sight before swinging both sets of claws at the boss Vazh and then running in the exact opposite direction.
It was only by the thinnest of margins that he avoided an automated trip to the hospital that night.
He finally ran for the safety of the train station, letting its police sentries finish off the Eidelon and the mortificator that still pursued him.
Breathing hard, dripping blood, he turned and ran back toward the library, backtracking until he reached the scene of the attack, the street and parking lot now empty of life.
"Hey!" he shouted, now regretting that there hadn't been time to ask her name. "Miss Librarian! You okay?!"
Empty silence was his only answer.
He spent an hour searching the area around the library, before giving up and going home. If the Vazh had found her, they had already dismantled her body and carted it away. The only good thing was that he didn't find a tell-tale pool of blood.
The next evening, when he finished his day's assignment, he made a point of going by the library, peeking in through the large window in front. It was with great relief that he saw the librarian, sitting working at the front desk.
Just then she looked up, saw him silouetted against the window by the setting sun behind him, jumped up and ran to the door; he ducked his head and started to walk away.
She pulled the door open. "Wait!" she called out, standing half-in and half-out of the door, holding it open with her body. When he stopped and looked back, she beckoned to him. Slowly, hesitatingly, he walked back toward her.
"I want to thank you for what you did last night," she said, her eyes wide.
"It's all right. I....I fight zombies for a living." He stared at the pavement.
"Oh......I see." She looked perplexed, then smiled wanly. "You're a Hero, then?"
"Um.....well......I work for Hero Corps, if that's what you mean."
She blinked, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "I'm sorry....I didn't know. I guess I thought...."
".....yeah, I know," he cut her off. He didn't really want her to tell him what she thought of him, it was obvious enough.
"Well....." She looked flustered. "I just wanted to thank you. You're welcome here any time."
"Thanks....." He had intended to check and see if the librarian had made it safely away from the fight, and then leave, but the way she held the front door open for him, her eyes seeking his, made him hesitate, then nod to her and enter.
He found the book he'd been reading the previous night, went to the back and found the secluded alcove where he had sat before. He had been reading for a few minutes when the librarian approached him. He started to jump to his feet, guiltily, ready to take flight. It took a half second before he actually heard what she had said: "Are you finding everything you need?"
A moment's hesitation....he forced himself to sit back down. He explained what he was looking for, using as few words as he could, ducking his head and moving the right side of his face away from her, trying to hide his cybernetic monocle, letting his long blonde hair cover as much of his face as possible.
She didn't show any obvious signs of noticing. He was grateful for that.
Before she left him alone to read, she had piled a large stack of books on the table in front of him.
When he left that night, he stopped and glanced at the name plate on the front desk: Georgia Clay.
He returned, first tenatively, then more and more frequently. At first he would peek in the front window before entering, and if he saw someone other than Georgia at the front desk, he didn't go in.
It seemed that Georgia must have talked to the other librarians about him; he didn't know what she said, but they, too, over time, began to treat him with a courtesy that he was unfamiliar with outside of Hero Affairs and Hero Corps, and gradually, he began to relax around the library staff.
With no family, no friends, and no past, only a nearly-empty apartment and the grueling and gruesome work of culling gang members and zombies from the streets of Paragon City, he had little else to occupy his time. He knew so much.....and yet there were huge gaps in his memories as well, sometimes in the oddest places. He soaked up everything, anything he could get his hands on. It helped to fill in the blanks left by his missing memories. He particularly focused on histories of Paragon City......general history......newspaper archives. His hunger for a past of any kind, even a distant, generic one, drove him.
He never checked any books out, he did all his reading in the back alcove of the library. He read voraciously, and with a startling speed. Bit by bit he began to piece together a picture of the new world he found himself living in.
He was beginning to find a place for himself.....he'd taken the first step to carving out a place to fit in.
Copyright terraforming.com, November 26, 2012