Chapter the Fourth; In Which Barn Owl Does A Favor.
Owl passed the cards to me so I could deal while he went to grab another beer. He came back with one for Improv and Stunner too who had empties in front of them from their third and second beers respectively.
He took his seat just in time for me to start dealing. “Okay, so. This story doesn’t leave this place, got it? It’s just between the five of us.”
“You’re being pretty dramatic about this.” Urban laughed. “I thought this was going to be a funny story.”
“Way over dramatic.” I said. “It’s not even embarrassing, it’s just… cute.”
“Cute?” Asked Stunner.
“Yeah.” I said carefully. Her tone sounded incredulous for no apparent reason. “What about it?”
“Nothing.” She said, trying to sound innocent. “Just surprised to hear Mr. Super-cowboy talking about ‘cute’. Didn’t think it was manly enough for you.”
“Okay.” I finished dealing the cards and pointed at her. “First, I’m not a cowboy. Do you see a six-gun? Do you see spurs? Do you even see a lasso—which would be really useful if I knew how to use one—but I don’t because I’m not a cowboy.”
“I see a duster and a cowboy hat.” She replied.
“Stetson. And it looks cool.” I glared.
“See, it’s not the coat and duster that does it,” Urban said, “It’s the bandito mask he wears over his mouth.” Everyone who wasn’t me laughed at that. Even Improv grunted in an amused way.
I glared at the lot of them. “It was the bandana or a surgical mask. And but that time, they were already calling me Whitecoat, so anything that made me look like a doctor was right out.” Betting began and I could tell Stunner had a good hand. She lacks subtlety in all its forms. “Besides, we’re supposed to be laughing at Owl, not me.”
“That’s right.” Urban agreed, her attention snapping back to Owl. “So let’s hear this cute story.”
Owl sighed. “Alright, fine. It all started when I got a call from Lyzander Biomedical—“
“You get calls?” Stunner asked. “How come I get so much guff working for the city if you’re corporate?”
“Because I’m not corporate. I just… The Lyzander guys, and a few others, they know how to get in touch with me if there’s trouble. From what you all have said, I might be the only one here without the smarts or the degree to outfit myself. But I don’t so they keep me active and I protect them from scientific espionage.”
“That a big problem?” Improv asked.
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” Owl nodded. “Look, we all know that the Tongs had a finger in every kind of science they think can make them a buck, but the Corbins, the Maras… they’ll steal weapons tech if they can. Plus, while the guys I deal with are clean, there’s at least a dozen labs in the city willing to hire goons to steal data because it’s cheaper than high end bio or quantum experiments.”
Most people who commit crimes don’t exactly spend years honing it into an art, even career thugs. They get into crime not because it’s their calling, but because its easy. Or at least it seems that way.
Working nine to five for weeks just to buy that big screen you want right now? A sucker’s game. And it took even longer to climb the ladder into a job you might enjoy or at least not mind. What was easy was just waiting until it was dark, smashing the window and taking it.
Never mind the alarms, the cameras, the cops and the small matter of lugging a device larger than you are home. Most career criminals at least learned to be careful with the crime itself. Sometimes though, the getaway just wasn’t as well thought out.
For example, three masked men had just broken into the lab at Lyzander Biomedical and made off with a retro-viral emplate (whatever that was). They bypassed the alarm, avoided getting their faces on camera, and zip-cuffed all the scientists to one another. Then they promptly piled into a bright red panel truck with the personal tag HAUL AZZ and made their get away.
There aren’t a lot of bright red panel trucks and even fewer driving like maniacs through rush-hour traffic in the city with the worst traffic in the world.
“Thank heaven for dumb criminals.” said Barn Owl. Dropping into a shallow dive, he just missed grazing the underside of an elevated train track and lined himself up with the weaving truck. Evidently, the driver saw him, because the vehicle took a sharp right into a side street.
It wasn’t enough to shake the Barn Owl though. After all, he didn’t have to lose speed whipping around cars on the road. In moments, he pulled even to the truck’s roof and thrust the fingers of his taloned gloves into the roof. Steel hooks also unfolded from beneath his ceramic feathers to provide further anchoring.
After making sure he had a firm foothold, he risked releasing one glove to pound on the roof of the cab in front of him. “Pull over!” He shouted.
Predictably, the response from the driver was to jerk the wheel hard, right and left to try and shake him off, followed by a bullet coming through the passenger side of the roof.
Owl shied away from that. Maintaining flight, even his usual gliding with his mechanical wings, he needed to keep his costume light, which meant minimal armor. He had a few panels of dilatant armor over his vitals and his wings could provide some protection in a pinch, but the former was only helpful outside of point blank range, and the latter resulted in lengthy and expensive repairs.
The driver was still doing his level best to shake him off, so for a minute or so, all Owl could do was hold on. Over the screeching tires and angry honking horns from the drivers around them, he heard the passenger talking. He couldn’t make it out, but the tone and lack of response from the driver suggested on thing: he was calling for help.
That was no good. More goons meant a greater chance of one of them making off with the emplate. And while Owl hadn’t been filled in completely, he had been told that the emplate was scheduled to be ‘neutralized’. Assuming that was a euphemism for destruction, Owl decided that it was more important to get it away from them than to bring them in.
Of course, both would be ideal…
“Finch.” He said aloud, waiting for an electronic tone to sound in his ear before continuing. “Call Addison.”
‘Finch’ was the computer that was the heart of the Barn Owl’s heroic implements. It controlled each feather individually to optimize aerodynamics, identified resonance frequencies in targets and modulated the sonic emitter in his mask to take advantage of them, and even adjusted the vision setting on his mask on the fly. It also featured a hands free phone.
The other end of the line rang twice before it was picked up. A voice with a slight Canadian accent answered. “Yeah, Addison. Go.”
“Detective Addison.” Owl said, trying to sound upbeat. “How’s your day been? Met your arrest quota for the month?”
Addison didn’t sound amused, but his tone wasn’t hostile. “Barn Owl. What is it this time?”
“Well, it’s going to start with traffic violations up and down…” He looked up to find the signage, “Clingham Avenue. Once you get to them, There’re some guys at Lyzander Biomedical who would love to add armed robbery, and maybe criminal conspiracy to the charges. It’s a red panel truck; license plates: H-A-U… Oh. Haul ass. The plates say ‘haul ass’. Who would put that one a get away truck?”
“Just tell me where to pick them up.” Addison interrupted.
“That’s the thing, Detective.” said Owl. “No delivery service today. You or whatever rollers you send are going to have to stop ’em yourselves.”
“What? Listen, Owl, I don’t know what you’re getting at, but…”
“Just think of it as me doing the responsible thing your boss’s boss over in City Hall wants all us prelates to do; let the police do their job.”
“You think I’m going to believe that?” Addison still didn’t sound angry, just affably suspicious. “You’ve got something else going, don’t you?”
“That’s why you’ve got the shiny badge, Detective. Let’s just say they’ve called for back-up of their own and the thing they stole absolutely, positively needs to not end up in their hands.”
Addison sighed. “Alright, fine. I’m sure dispatch can find me a black and white nearby. Thanks for the tip.”
“Just doing my civic duty. And for the novelty of getting a thank you, I’ll make the take-down a little easier.” Owl disconnected the call by shrugging his shoulder up to his left ear. Then he took a deep breath.
The truck had settled down, only making hard turns to avoid traffic again. They probably thought they’d shaken him since he hadn’t done anything since the original first shot. Still, just the swerving was going to make his next move a risky one.
But risk was all part of the ebb and flow of being a hero. He let go of the roof with the other hand and briefly flexed his fingertips causing the talons to slide back into their housing atop his fingers. Now, he was attached to the truck only by the spikes in his wings and the friction of his boots.
With his free and untaloned hand, he reached back to the mechanical apparatus that formed the juncture where his wings met his back. The feathers there weren’t part of the suite of Finch-controlled flight surfaces. Instead, they housed their own tricks.
Four were carefully balanced, ceramic throwing knives, which he was still learning to throw with much accuracy. Two others were actually smoke grenades. He took one of the two largest ‘feathers’, one of those that was within easiest reach over his shoulder. These two were a gift from the boys at Traynor-Dowd Composites, another favor for his help.
A twist of the quill exposed the blade along the leading edge of the feather, converting it into a long knife. And not just any long knife, but one made of some sort of carbon-titanium matrix and sharpened with lasers. Properly held and directed, it could cut through pretty much anything one would find in the civilian world.
Ironically, this made it a worse weapon, not a better one as the edge was so thin that holding it improperly and cutting any way other than straight down, even through butter, would ruin it, requiring another round of laser honing. While it was terrible in a fight, it made an excellent brute force lock pick.
“Wait. Are you talking about molecular-array poly-alloy?” I asked. Everyone but Improv looked at me with various degrees of ‘what a nerd’ in their expressions, Stunner worst than all of them, of course. “What? I read about it.”
This was true. Not that reading scientific journals in your free time made you less of a nerd.
Owl shrugged. “That sounds about right?”
“Very cool stuff.” I said, not caring how much of a geek it made me. “They put that stuff together molecule by molecule using a supermagnet array the size of a grain silo. They just gave some of that to you?”
“I’m the guy that kept the Westies and Tongs from getting a hand in on that silo.” Owl said. “And keep them out. I operate with a lot of tit-for-tat.”
“Clearly.” Urban said. “Most places would just try and hire you as private security these days.”
“Some have tried.” Owl shrugged. “But I don’t…” He glanced at Stunner and amended whatever he was going to say, “I don’t want them to feel obligated to pay me for helping them out. I just suggest ways they can help and if they can’t or don’t want to, everything’s still shiny.”
Stunner fiddled with her chips and gave him a sidelong look. Clearly, she wasn’t so obtuse to have missed that.
We’re not actually against people using their powers to make a living. You would never hear us bad mouthing the descendants in the armed services, or on various police forces (but not the NYPD, because Our Mayor had a problem with the idea and the law didn’t technically protect descendants from discrimination based on their powers.), or any other person that made an honest living with their powers.
The problem we had with Stunner was that her line of work wasn’t so honest. Our Mayor, Sarah Raymond, who didn’t want psionic cops was more than happy to put descendants on the payroll at City Hall, performing ‘city services’ as she saw fit. This mostly came in the form of feathers to put n her cap for re-election.
“So… when do we get to the cute part?” She asked.
Owl looked relieved that she didn’t take overt offense at his comments. “Yeah, so I made my way back to the back of the truck: not an easy task with the guy all over the road, mind you. But I got back there, climbed down to the doors and…”
Luckily, in their haste to escape the scene of the crime, the crooks didn’t lock up the back beyond letting the latch close. Slightly less lucky was the fact that it was a latch that locked automatically.
That’s where the knife came in. Its slid easily through the rubber gasket where door met door.
A shot went off inside. Small caliber, as it hit the inside of the door, ricocheted, and inspired a yelp of fright form inside. Someone really was back there, and they were armed.
Hoping to take advantage of the ricochet, Owl sliced the knife straight down. The bolt went ‘ping’, and one door swung open, allowing Owl to slip inside.
The interior of the truck was almost empty, just what looked like a black washing machine with a digital readout on the front and a Westie named Paul Crocker, who was about to have his fourth encounter with the Barn Owl.
Crocker, red faced and out of shape, was trying to get to standing from sitting atop the washing machine… thing that had to be the emplate. All the while, he was using his gun hand to cradle his right arm, the shabby suit he wore was slowly darkening over the sleeve.
“You shot yourself because you hear my outside?” Owl asked, shaking his head. “My God, Pauly, but you are stupid.”
“I don’t gotta take this from some prick in a bird mask.” He mustered and tried to raise his weapon.
Owl hit him with a sonic burst calibrated by Finch to give him a split second, blinding migraine. In the split second, he stepped up and swept the gun aside with one hand while taking a swing for Crocker’s face with the other.
Crocker managed to step back and away from the blow, but had nowhere else to go with the emplate behind him. Owl’s next swing caught him square in the nose, probably the newest in a parade of breaks that nose had seen.
Blood fountained and Crocker went over backward. His back hit the emplate and then he slid over it backward, hitting his head in the process.
“And bad at this.” Owl kicked the gun away and leaned over to look at the criminal. “If it’s possible to hear while you’re unconscious, trust me on this one, Paul: Retire. You aren’t good at this and you’re not going to get better.”
Before he could turn back to contemplate how he was going to move the appliance sized emplate, it got his attention with a series of beeps and flashing symbols on the digital display. Apparently, in the process of getting his ass-kicking, Crocker had hit… something.
Owl checked the display for a clue on how to stop whatever was happening form happening.
Most of what was there was gibberish and unfamiliar icons to him, but he did understand the lines ‘Stasis Offline.’ ‘Bryce suspended animation ceased’ and ‘Containment Cessation’.
The winged prelate stepped back, weapon in hand, ready for just about anything to emerge from the emplate.
“Didn’t you just say the poly alloy knife was bad in a fight?” I poked fun at Owl. I like to think we were bro enough for that by now.
“Bryce?” Stunner looked shocked, “There was a person in stasis in that thing?”
“Not exactly…” Owl rubbed the back of his head. I smirked at his embarrassment. “B.R.Y.C.E. Stands for Biochemical Retrovirus Yield and Containment Emplate.”
“Oh.” Stunner said, making it clear that was the least helpful explanation ever. “So the washing machine thing wasn’t the emplate.”
“Nope.” I said with a laugh. “The emplate is…”
A potbellied pig clamored out of the chamber that opened on the front of the storage device and toddled over to Owl. All along the way, it made ‘oink’ noises that he’d never heard a non-cartoon pig make.
Which was fitting, because he’d never seen a pig that looked like this one. Pigs tended to be pink and opaque, not like this one, which looked like it was perfectly sculpted out of clear gelatin.
“Wait.” Urban sat up straight in her chair. “What?”
“The emplate… Bryce. He’s… a jelly pig. Look, I didn’t even want to tell this story.”
“A pig… made of jelly?” Urban persisted.
I laughed and raised the bet a dollar. “Here comes the science.”
Owl folded and took a swig of beer. “Jelly as in jellyfish. He’s a mutant, cross between a pig and a jellyfish. Lyzander bred him as an experimental incubator for retroviruses: something about how pigs have organs like ours and how jellyfish have stuff in them that help retroviruses grow, I don’t know.”