Susie and Ching Kuang live in a second-floor apartment in Brooksburg, thirty minutes' commute south of the air base where Ching works. The apartment is nice, but it is precisely big enough for one couple and nothing else. One couple plus a baby, for example, would be too much. Even one couple plus an argument, they've found of late, is too much.
Arika McClure, carrying Susie in her arms, lands unobtrusively near a nest of recycling bins two blocks away. It's the middle of the day and this part of the suburb seems to be pretty much deserted, which works in their favour, because Arika is still wearing her flight suit, a tightly buckled dark blue creation which would turn heads if there were any around to turn. It has stiff fins on the arms, legs, neck and head, making her look as if she is on her way to a fancy dress party dressed up as a stealth aircraft. The suit is admittedly of moderate use for high-speed flight but even with the hood and gloves pulled back to free Arika's hair and hands, it remains hopelessly impractical for simple tasks such as escorting somebody two blocks down the street.
When they get up the stairs to the apartment's front door Arika silently takes Susie's door key and enters first. There are only about four rooms in the whole place and two of them, the kitchen and bathroom, are small enough to qualify as broom cupboards. It was, indeed, decorated recently. There are some paint cans near the front door which Arika nearly trips over, and there's no way to escape the smell of fresh beige paint short of opening windows to the breeze, which is the first thing Susie does after walking in. In the main room there's a brand new sofa stacked with folded protective dust sheets, and behind it is a wide window with some forlorn scarlet curtains gathered on the floor nearby, waiting to be put up.
Susie disappears into her bedroom but leaves the door open. She drags a suitcase out from above a wardrobe and begins opening drawers, looking for things to put in it. Arika begins unbuckling parts of what the Air Force refers to as her suit but she, increasingly, thinks of as her costume. The goggles, gloves and hood are the most irritating pieces of the outfit and also the most fiddly to remove. After that she unzips the two long sleeve segments and finally begins work on the mini-wings, of which there are nearly two dozen.
Once she finishes removing armour panels, she sits on the half of the sofa which is still free to sit on, and stares at the blank television screen for a few minutes, doing nothing.
"How come you can fly?" asks Susie. Arika looks up and can see an inch-wide strip of Susie through the crack in the door. It seems to her like an odd place to conduct a conversation from.
"How do you fly? What did they do to you on that base?"
"Nothing," says Arika. "Just experiments. Tests."
"So you could always fly?"
She had just got home from a party. She was late, and drunk, and underage. She was on the doorstep, opening the front door, bracing herself for the inevitable tirade from her waiting parents. Then it suddenly felt as if someone had shoved a needle through the base of her skull and filled her spinal cord with hot acid.
She tripped over the step and fell forwards, screaming. For her parents, concern swiftly replaced anger. Her mother phoned for the ambulance while her father carried her to the living room and put her on the sofa, delirious with pain.
Six minutes passed, though to Arika it felt like days. After six minutes, she blacked out for a further sixteen seconds.
Emergency services vehicles began to arrive on the scene two minutes after that. What they found looked like the aftermath of an airstrike. More than a hundred houses, tracing a long, irregular path when viewed from the air, had been demolished by forces unknown. Over two hundred people had been killed, crushed by falling masonry or ripped limb from limb by the same mysterious force which had torn apart their houses. At one end of the trail was Arika McClure's former home, and at the other end of the trail, the best part of a mile away, was where Arika woke up, flat on her back, in the middle of the street, and amnesiac.
The ambulance collected her and treated her for shock. Seeming to be fit, she was taken to the police station for questioning to try to figure out what had actually happened. She was kept in a small interrogation room for several hours, during which time, for various reasons, nobody came and interrogated her. Eventually, she had had enough, and walked out.
She didn't realise the door to the interrogation room was locked. She just saw the lock break when she pulled it.
"And I just ran away. There was nothing left to find, of my mom, or my dad, or my older brothers. For them and about a hundred other people there weren't even body parts. They had to test DNA."
"And nobody said anything? Nobody thought it was suspicious that... you woke up a mile away, or that the ambulance was called minutes before anything even happened?"
"I moved in with a school friend," says Arika. "And, the morning after that, I realised that I didn't need to eat anymore. I didn't need to drink. I barely even needed to breathe. But I couldn't tell them anything. When the police came around I lied about where I'd woken up. I couldn't tell anybody about what had happened. Because I knew what had happened. What would you do? They called it a freak tornado."
"I thought you were anorexic," says Susie. "I never saw you eat more than a single biscuit at a time. I thought you were purging."
"I do. I have to. Nothing I eat ever gets digested so it just goes rotten in my stomach and starts smelling. Anyway. So I tried to stay in school. But I found myself needing less and less sleep and I found it harder to keep myself from just taking off whenever school got boring. And everything just moved slower for me. I hated it.
"I tried fighting crime.
"I spent weeks just wandering around all night, good parts of town, bad parts of town. Every now and then someone tried to mug me and I just pushed them hard enough to break a rib or two, and then ran. But crime doesn't happen in front of you, does it? It's not something you can just go out and find and fight, whenever you feel like it. Unless you feel like making yourself a target. Then, after about a year, I stopped a bank robbery."
"Yeah... I'd never seen anything like it. I was at the bank, opening a savings account, and then this gunshot goes off, the loudest thing I've ever heard in my life, and suddenly there are actual people with masks and guns running around shouting at people to lie down on the floor. I had no idea what to do. Nobody does in that situation. So I just lay down. And then I thought, hey, this is what I'm here for. So I went to top speed and took all their guns and threw them all on their backs over and over until they stayed down.
"And eventually the police turned up and arrested them. And I was about to take off when this guy in a suit comes up to me, American accent, says he's from the CIA. Classic CIA suit. He tells me about the 'little' project they have going here in Brooksburg and asks me if I'm interested in helping out. So what else could I do?"
"What did they offer you?"
"Secrecy. Cash. A purpose in life."
Susie doesn't say anything for a few minutes, but folds clothes carefully into a square, dense pile, before slotting the pile neatly into the bottom of the suitcase. He was tracking you, she thinks. The whole thing might even have been staged. "What did you want to do when you grew up?"
Arika looks at Susie blankly. Susie looks up from her packing and returns the stare.
"I don't know," says Arika. "History. I was good at History and Biology. But what's the point? School work is so boring now and I'm years behind."
"Plenty of people find school work boring and plenty of people leave school early and then go back later. But that's not what I meant. You want to help people, don't you?"
"Sure, that's why I joined the project. To help make more people like me. I guess I just want to be a hero. You know, saving lives and everything. But that's not what they're doing. And I can't join the police or the fire service or the coastguard without going public, and then everything that happened back home gets traced back to me, and..."
"You," says Susie, "obviously know nothing about superheroes." She emerges from the bedroom trailing a pair of gigantic wheeled suitcases.
"Weren't you going to stay here?" asks Arika, puzzled. "You don't have to go with Ching, you know."
"I know," says Susie.
"So, stay. He'll come back."
"Maybe," says Susie. "But you're the one at risk here. So you're the one who's leaving."
"At risk?" says Arika, turning to look out of the window. "I'm not--"
It's pure luck that Arika sees the flash at all. If not for Susie's offhand mention of 'risk' subconsciously prompting her to quickly check their surroundings for hostiles, there would have been no reason for her to turn around and look out of the window at that exact instant. She sees it on top of the apartment building over the road from the one the Kuangs live in. The sniper must have been waiting for Arika to move into the right position. The speed of light being what it is, it hits Arika's retina as the bullet itself has barely even left the barrel of the rifle, but by the time animal responses have kicked in and she has begun instinctively accelerating up through the levels of perception, it's three-quarters of the way across the street towards the window. She reaches maximum perceptual acceleration just as the bullet is just outside the window and crawling forwards through the glass. From here on there are about fifteen centimetres separating it from her head.
As if half-asleep, Arika watches the the surface of the glass distort towards her, spidery cracks spreading out from the point of impact, like an infection. (Waiting for her to move into position? The slight angle of elevation means the sniper had a perfectly clear view of almost all the floor space in the apartment. Perhaps he was waiting for somebody else to move into the right position?) She is already bringing up a hand to block the shot but she knows she isn't moving fast enough to catch it in time. She also knows that dodging the bullet entirely - which may not even be an option, on current showing - could endanger Susie, who is standing behind her. So she has no real choice but to just absorb the hit.
At least, that is all the reasoning - and it's not reasoning, it's not even thought, it's just pure videogame Zone twitch judgment - that Arika manages to get done in the milliseconds she has at her disposal. There may have been a smarter plan but she doesn't have time to think of it. The round hits her in the left temple, distorts in shape slightly on impact, grazes along her skull for a few centimetres as she turns, ricochets off her skin on an upward trajectory and penetrates the apartment's newly-painted ceiling. Where it will stop is anybody's guess. Pain shoots through Arika's head, the first serious pain she has felt in years, but it quickly gives way to fuzzy numbness as the pressure wave travelling through her skull takes effect.
She loses consciousness and starts falling just as the sound from the supersonic gunshot arrives at the window, and the apartment door has been kicked down and the first trooper is inside the hall well before she hits the ground.
Susie Kuang hasn't even begun to react.