Crimson Cadet by Susan Jane Bigelow
A short story set in the Extrahuman Union universe, and a prequel to Broken by Susan Jane Bigelow.
CRIMSON CADET FELT HIS WAY through the narrow, dark hallways, floating just above the creaky floorboards. They were here somewhere, cornered and desperate.
Suddenly, this seemed like a bad idea.
Neighbors had reported that some of the kids squatting here possessed unusual powers, so the Law Enforcement Division of the Extrahuman Union had been called in. They got a lot of false alarms, but in this case, the reports actually panned out. A blue-haired boy they found downstairs had great speed; they’d only managed to catch him when he ran right into a tranquilizer pack. He now slept peacefully in the lead-lined containment van.
The neighbors and other kids talked about an older girl, too, but she was proving far more difficult to catch. She and two younger boys were the ones Crimson Cadet was hunting.
They hadn’t said a word about what the girl was capable of.
He felt sweat bead on his forehead. It was always an effort for him to restrain himself, to hold himself just above the floor, which meant he couldn’t use the limited, green-blue forcefield he could generate when he was fully airborne, or planted on the ground. He felt vulnerable and very alone.
He held his breath and drifted forward an inch. Below, he could hear crashing and shouting. Their new Sky Ranger, breaking things. Crimson Cadet found himself missing the calm presence of the old, white-bearded Sky Ranger, gone these past three months, terribly.
He checked around corners. Nope, not there. This wasn’t working. His feet touched the ground, his forcefield snapped up, and he decided to give the nice guy trick a shot.
“Hey,” he called in his friendliest voice. “I’m not here to hurt you. Come on out—we can get this over with and you can go back to what you were doing faster. Okay?”
No response. He hadn’t really expected one.
There were only two rooms up here on the second floor of this rickety old house; they had to be in one of them. He steeled himself and quickly shot into one—empty. The other one, then. He had a little pack of knockout gas—everyone in the room would be asleep in a split second. The LED could bring them in and examine everyone once that was done.
He sighed. Kids. He was hunting kids. He’d trained and studied and advanced through the Law Enforcement Division’s ranks for all these years just to hunt down a bunch of scared kids on Staten Island. The world seemed hopelessly askew.
He picked up the gas pack and held it over his head, ready to throw it into the room. He took a breath—
—the next thing he knew, he was saying “Thank you,” as the older girl disappeared down the stairs.
What had just happened? The pack was gone from his hand. All of the children had vanished, and he had a pounding headache.
He flew to the stairs just in time to see them leaving the house.
Sky Ranger was holding the door, a vacant expression on his face.
“Sky!” he called. “Hey! Stop them!”
But Sky Ranger only smiled beatifically.
“You idiot!” shouted Crimson Cadet. The girl looked back at him—
—and for a brief, impossible moment, he was sitting next to a wide, deep river. He reached down, and dipped his hand in. The water was frigid, and smelled of winter. It shimmered in his palm while the bright sun shone overhead. He let the river’s water trickle through his fingers onto the bank, and looked up into the sky—
—what was that? He shook his head to clear it, and looked around for the kids. They were all gone, and Sky Ranger was giving him a very strange look.
“I can’t believe you just let them walk out of there!” Sky Ranger was ranting. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you did it on purpose!”
“Sky, why would I do that?” Crimson Cadet sighed. “The girl—”
“It’s my second time commanding the LED on a mission!” Sky Ranger continued at top volume. “If I didn’t know better—”
“You do know better,” Crimson Cadet said. “And I should remind you, you were holding the door for her.”
“I remember no such thing! You’re making excuses!”
Crimson Cadet threw up his hands. “Whatever you say, Sky.” He waited. Sky Ranger burned hot, but he always cooled down quickly. Sure enough, Sky Ranger’s shoulders slumped.
“You didn’t, did you? Try to undermine me? I need to look like I’m in charge out there,” Sky Ranger said. His voice still had a little bit of an edge to it. He was so young to be Sky Ranger, thought Crimson Cadet.
“I know,” said Crimson Cadet. “And you did. You were fine. It was the girl. I think she has some kind of power.”
“Oh? I don’t believe it,” said Sky Ranger. “I’ve never heard of a power that worked like that.”
“We don’t know everything,” Crimson Cadet reminded him. “She may be a new and different kind of extrahuman.”
Sky Ranger frowned. He rarely approved of new and different.
“In any case,” Crimson Cadet pressed quickly on, “I’d like your permission to investigate further. If I could? I know I can track her.”
“You don’t want me to come with you?” Sky Ranger asked, still surly.
“Let… let me do this one on my own,” Crimson Cadet said carefully. “I’ll see what I can do myself first, right? If I need you, I’ll call.”
“Why shouldn’t I just send a team?”
“I think a team will scare her away,” Crimson Cadet explained. “I want a chance to talk to her one-on-one. Okay?”
Sky Ranger’s frown deepened, but at last, he nodded and said, “Okay.”
Crimson Cadet dressed in the least conspicuous outfit he could find and headed for the first floor, pass in hand. The guards at the gate raised their eyebrows, but let him by. Green LED passes were rare, but the blue-clad military guards obeyed them where Crimson Cadet was concerned.
It was bending the law to go out into the city without wearing clearly identifying clothing, he knew, but this case required a light touch. Besides, it was a thrill and a relief to walk through New York City’s streets without everyone staring and pointing. Real freedom must be like this, he thought.
He dug in his pocket and found the Union’s credit chit, which he used to buy himself subway fare. He might be able to fly at 150kph above the clouds, but one of the things he loved best was riding the clattering subway beneath the city streets.
The Staten Island neighborhood where they’d found the kids was run-down and half-populated, just like a lot of the rest of the island. Many of the residents had migrated to the modern towers of Queens or left the city entirely years ago. The past half-century hadn’t been good for New York. The old Sky Ranger had told him that Lower Manhattan had been bristling with tall skyscrapers and bustling with commerce before the war. Now it was a faraway warren of low-rise postwar concrete apartment buildings and vacant lots, fertile ground only for tiny extremist groups like the Black Bands and the Reform Party.
He started with the house they’d gone to originally, but it stood stubbornly empty. He did a cursory check, then worked out a search pattern for the neighborhood in his head. He was good at searches, and he often found what he was looking for.
Chances were, the girl and her troop of kids were still here somewhere. He just had to look hard enough, and hope they didn’t get spooked. He had a sense, though, about the girl; something about the way she’d looked at him. She’d make herself known.
It didn’t take too long. He’d only been looking for an hour when he found her perched on top of a low wall, staring down at him.
“Well?” she asked.
She had dark skin; deep, calm eyes; and hair pulled back in tight braids. She couldn’t be more than a young teenager.
He smiled up at her, turning on the charm. “Hello,” he said conversationally.
“Well?” she said again, folding her arms in a single smooth motion. It was an uncanny move.
“Remember me?” he asked, trying to joke.
She actually smiled. Maybe this will be easier than I thought! Crimson Cadet hoped.
“I remember you, and the rest of you,” she said.
“Where are the others?”
“Safe,” she said. “We’re good at hiding from you. This isn’t the first time you’ve come for me, you know.”
“Yes, back at the house.”
“No,” she said. “Before that.”
“… Oh?” Crimson Cadet asked, confused. He didn’t remember her.
“You and the old man. You were together with him all the time. I’m surprised he’s not here now.” She smiled. “I made you forget.”
“Did you, now?” said Crimson Cadet. “I’m not surprised you can do that. The man I was with, he… he died. A few months ago. He was our Sky Ranger.”
“Is that like your boss?” she asked.
“He’s—he was in charge of us. Of extrahumans. You know what we are, right?”
“I do,” she said evenly, watching him closely.
“Have you—have you considered that you might be one of us?” Crimson Cadet asked, feeling incredibly awkward.
She laughed, and the sound shattered reality into a million pieces.
The sea spray hit his face, and he sputtered and spat, trying to steady himself on the heaving deck. Everywhere he looked, waves rolled under the small wooden boat. No land was in sight.
“What is this?” he said, grabbing for the railing. The wind whipped through his hair. He didn’t dare take off, not in this. “Where are we? Did you do this?”
She stood next to him, holding on to nothing but still perfectly steady. “Am I an extrahuman? Maybe,” she said, and though her voice was soft and the wind loud, he could hear her perfectly.
“What… who are you?”
“I am who I am,” she said. “This is some of what I do. You’ve seen more of it. But there are things I do that only I know about, that no one has ever seen.”
She smiled as he tried desperately to stay upright.
“Is that answer enough for you?” she asked, and vanished.
The seas heaved under them, and Crimson Cadet felt his stomach lurch. He leaned over the rail, retching. Then the sea tossed and the boat bucked, and Crimson Cadet fell into the murky, freezing deep…
He opened his eyes, gasping. He was standing on solid ground again, back in the alley on Staten Island. The girl was nowhere to be seen.
He wouldn’t give up on her this easily. She had to know that.
He grunted. She probably did know that. He smoothed his shirt and tidied his hair, and set out to start his search pattern over.
After another hour, he found her sitting in a park, reading a piece of paper at a picnic table. An open envelope sat next to her. He gingerly set himself down at the table across from her.
“Is that a letter? A real letter?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, her eyes never leaving the page. “I just got it the other day. It came all the way from Valen.”
Crimson Cadet’s eyes widened. He’d never heard of the Confederation Post Office delivering real envelopes from so far away. “What’s in it?” he asked.
She smiled. “Secrets.”
“Oh,” he said, feeling stupid. “I should have figured that. So. What you did back there… that’s part of your power. You do illusions?”
“Not quite,” the girl said. “And I don’t like thinking of it as a ’power.’ It’s part of me.”
“I agree with that,” Crimson Cadet said enthusiastically. “I like to think that what I can do is the same. It’s not extra. It’s just who I am.”
“And so it is,” she said, looking up at him at last. “But you’re here because you think I’m like you.”
“In a way, yes,” he said.
She held up a hand, and he could smell the sea in his nostrils. “Wait!” he said. The smell, and the feeling of being somewhere else, faded. “Wait. I’m not here to bring you in. I just want to talk.”
“You said that last time,” she said. “It turned out you were lying.”
“I don’t remember that,” he said, his face hot. It had kind of been his plan this time, too. “But… hey. You know what the law says.”
“I do,” she said.
“So… I have to do what it says. I enforce the law. That’s my job.”
“You could try and hold me at your Tower,” she said. “But there’s nothing to stop me from just walking out the door. I could make all of you forget me again.”
“That’s… that’s right. You could,” said Crimson Cadet.
“And what’s to stop you?” she asked. “Why don’t you just fly away?”
“I have a tracking implant in my arm,” he said. “They’d find me.”
“If you wanted to, you could find a way,” she said, smiling. “People have before. They will again.”
He shrugged. “This isn’t about me.”
“If you say so.”
They studied one another across the table.
“I stay because it’s where I’m from,” he said at last. “It’s home. I have nowhere else to go. I know it’s prison. I know it isn’t fair. But I can’t help my friends if I’m on the run out here. I’d be too busy staying undercover.” He sighed. “And Sky Cadet—Sky Ranger now—would just fall apart without me. I don’t like to think about what he’d become.”
“Well,” she said. “I don’t go in because I have friends who need me out here. There are things that need doing. That’s what this is about, in part.” She held up the letter. “I tried to explain this to you last time, too. You didn’t listen.”
“How many times have we met before?” he asked, genuinely curious.
He opened his mouth, shocked. “That can’t be right.”
She smiled again, and pushed a little hologram cube across the table. He looked at it, and saw five of himself staring back. The settings were all different, but it was him every time. The old Sky Ranger stood in the background of one image, looking gruff. The oldest picture had to have been from two years ago, when he’d briefly worn that mustache.
He gave the cube back to her. She held it up to his face and pressed a button. It clicked. “Six,” she said. “Now’s when you lie to me some more. You always do.”
“I won’t,” he said.
“Tell me why,” she said, fixing him with that limitless gaze of hers.
He warred with himself for a moment. “I… it’s… look. It’s been a rough few months. I miss the old Sky Ranger. He was… he was… ” Crimson Cadet was startled to find tears in his eyes. Him! It was impossible. “He was like my father. He was like everyone’s father. I don’t know who my father was, not really. They don’t tell us. I don’t even know my own name! I only know I’m Crimson Cadet. That’s it. That’s the name they gave me at the Union. But Sky Ranger, he was like a father for me. And when he died… I don’t know. It changed things for me. I’m not the same.”
“I remember my father,” said the girl quietly. “I miss him, too.” She took his hand, and he felt all the tension drain out of him. He breathed in and out, his chest relaxing and his mind clearing. He looked at her, not sure whether to be surprised or not.
“Thank you,” he said.
She nodded acknowledgement at him. He made his decision.
“You and the other kids should try and stay out of the city,” he said. “We do patrols, and we’ll probably find you again if you’re here.”
She grinned widely. “You won’t remember if you do.”
“Will I remember this?”
“Yes,” she said. “This, you get to remember.”
“All right.” She was incredibly powerful, he told himself. There was no way to hold her in any case. He stood to go. “Take care of yourself. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Janeane,” she said.
“Take care, Janeane.” He held out a hand; she glanced at it, bemused, before taking it.
Then Crimson Cadet, forgetting all about staying undercover, leaped into the chilly autumn New York sky.
Crimson Cadet never saw the girl again, though he thought of her often. The months passed and Sky Ranger grew into his role a little more, though he never quite grew up either.
The Law Enforcement Division went out on missions. They hunted people, they fought, and they pulled through somehow. They gained a few new members, and older ones retired. Things changed, even when everything seemed to stay the same.
Crimson Cadet felt the walls of the Tower press in on him more and more. He knew why he stayed, but it bit and tore at him nevertheless.
One dark winter day, their team prescient informed them about a firestarter preying on the townspeople a hundred and more miles off to the northeast. They prepared, and flew out. Crimson Cadet worried. If the reports were right, this one was the most dangerous rogue extrahuman they’d ever faced. Even Sky Ranger seemed nervous, though he kept trying to show off for young, beautiful Silverwyng, who flew beside him.
Crimson Cadet did what he could to calm everyone down. That was his job. But even he couldn’t squash the sense of foreboding he felt as the firestarter’s little cabin came into view.
At once, the air around them shimmered, growing hot. “Scatter!” Crimson Cadet called, and they did, just as the sky erupted into flames.
They dodged his attacks for what seemed like hours, trying to get close or wear him out. Fire appeared all around them, burning and lashing out. There was no escape. The flames singed his hair and clothes and skin; he heard the others scream in pain and his heart shattered.
But, just as Crimson Cadet thought they might be done for, the fire stopped. He took the opportunity and dashed into the firestarter’s house. The firestarter, no more than a lanky teenager, stood stock-still, eyes fixed on something only he could see. Crimson Cadet drew his sidearm—
—and the firestarter broke whatever spell he was under. He turned to Crimson Cadet, fury in his eyes, and the air began to shimmer around them again. Crimson Cadet snapped up his forcefield just in time as flames exploded around him. It wasn’t enough; the heat was agony! Desperate, he aimed his gun into the center of the firestorm and fired.
The flames vanished, and the firestarter, the boy, dropped to the ground, lifeless.
Crimson Cadet stood over his body, trembling with relief and sick horror. Sky Ranger staggered in, badly burnt and wild-eyed.
“You got him!” he cried. “Crim! You got him!”
“Yeah,” said Crimson Cadet, voice quivering. Silverwyng flew in and gasped at the corpse. She, too, was badly burned, but her incredible healing powers were already at work. She’d look perfectly fine in a few minutes.
“What happened?” Sky Ranger asked. “What did you do? Why did he stop?”
Crimson Cadet shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
Silverwyng sniffed the air. “It… it smells like the ocean in here,” she said, surprise in her voice.
Crimson Cadet inhaled deeply. She was right.
The ocean! He grinned fiercely, and ran out of the house.
“Thank you!” he called, though he didn’t see anyone nearby. Sky Ranger and Silverwyng left the house hand in hand, looking at him as if he might have lost his mind. “Thank you!” Crimson Cadet cried again.
That night, he dreamed of lying on the beach, basking in the warmth of a tropical sun that he had never seen. He turned, and she was there.
“You,” he said. “Janeane.”
She smiled at him, and said a single word: his name.
He struggled for the rest of his life to remember what it was.
The story continues later this month in Broken, the first novel in the Extrahuman Union series.
About the Novel
In a post-war, future world, where first contact has been made with intelligent life and humans are colonizing the stars, the nations of Earth have been united under a central government. Extrahumans, those possessing supernatural abilities such as flight and strength, are required by this government to belong to the Union, where they can be trained, monitored, and weaponized.
Michael Forward is cursed with the ability to see the future – every possible future – when he gazes into another person’s eyes. All he has ever wanted is to escape the grim destiny he sees when he looks in the mirror, but when he is tasked with a mission that will define the course of human history, Michael finds he cannot refuse. Now, he needs the help of a homeless ex-superhero to save a baby who may become the key to humanity’s freedom.
Broken figured she was done with heroics when she lost the ability to fly and escaped the confinement of the Extrahuman Union. But then the world started to fall apart around her, and a desperate teenage prophet with a baby entered her life, offering her the possibility of redemption and a chance to fly once more.
In a time of spreading darkness, when paranoia and oppression reign, can these unlikely allies preserve a small ray of hope for a better, brighter future?
How to Get the Book
Broken will be published officially on March 22, 2016. You can buy the book in print now, or preorder the ebook (EPUB & MOBI) from all major retailers online. You can also buy the ebook directly from us on March 22. The print book contains the novel, two illustrations from Kirbi Fagan, and a sneak peek at Sky Ranger, the second book in the series (published this June). The ebook edition will also contain a prequel short story, “Crimson Cadet”, as well as an essay from the author and a Q&A with the artist.
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