EXCERPT: Rocks Fall by Naomi Novik

CATEGORY: Secret Identity Management Variables

RULE 1001.1: It’s Lonely At The Top

SOURCE: James Wright Ellroy, fourth-generation superhero

VIA: Naomi Novik

What does it take to be a supervillain? Brains, obviously, or the run-of-the-mill baddies would be a lot more dangerous. A certain moral flexibility, of course. It’s not easy for a normal human being to set aside their sense of good and evil. Technology and luck certainly help.

But empathy? No one ever expects a villain to feel for his victims. But Alexander Bane is no ordinary supervillain.

For one, he carries an iPhone. For another, he can feel the pain of every one of the people he kills. But it’s not enough to stop him. Perhaps his gifts have sent him over the brink of madness. Perhaps his wife’s death drove him crazy. Or maybe he really does have a plan to save the world.

But it doesn’t really matter. Because rocks fall. And unless this supervillain has a back-up plan, a pile of ordinary rubble might be his ultimate foil.

In this tale, we offer you a chance to a see madness and brilliance unmasked—but no less in the dark.

 

Rocks Fall
by Naomi Novik

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” he said, surveying the extremely large pile of rock.

He sat down across from me, just out of arm’s length. The helmet had come off during the cave-in, and even in the sickly glow of his handheld, he didn’t look much like I would’ve imagined. He had a nice face, pointed chin with laugh wrinkles around the eyes and mouth, and sandy blond hair. He ran a hand through it, scattering dust, and he could have been anyone: a math teacher or an optometrist or an accountant, someone not very important and not very dangerous.

“Are you in any pain?” he asked.

“I’d be better if you wouldn’t mind shifting some of these boulders off me,” I said.

He smiled, briefly. “No, I don’t think so, but I do have some Vicodin I could toss in reach.”

Alexander Bane offering me painkillers: brilliant. I wouldn’t have minded something, although preferably served in a glass and out of a bottle of Macallan, but a fuzzy head didn’t seem as though it would do me much good in the present circumstances. Not that the clear one was going to be particularly useful either.

My right arm was still loose, but I couldn’t reach around well enough to get hold of the big rocks pinning everything else, not with enough momentum to do anything useful. I picked one of the smaller rocks away and put it down on the cave floor and swung my fist down to crush it, more to amuse myself than anything.

“I wouldn’t rely on the cave having stabilized,” Bane said.

“I’m already under most of it,” I said cheerily. A little anxiety wouldn’t do him any harm. No one had a very clear notion of what his powers really were—there were at least fourteen different versions of his childhood records scattered about, with wildly different test results—but it was fairly settled that invulnerability wasn’t one of them.

It wasn’t, strictly speaking, one of mine, either, but I could hold up reasonably well under a pile of rocks, at least for a few hours.

“You might bring more of it down on whoever is digging us out,” Bane said, and if I listened I could hear it, the distant rattle and scrape of shifting rubble, indistinct voices.

“Always comforting when the backup arrives only an hour late,” I said, playing off my very real relief. I hadn’t taken the matter seriously at first—a routine break-in at a small office building according to the incident report; nothing to merit the attention of anyone over a GS-3, except that I’d randomly been at the local precinct that morning to do a safety presentation for schoolchildren.

My call-in had been perfunctory. I recalled saying something like, “Alice, I’ll look into this as long as I’m in town; send a spotter over if you have a minute, unless I’m done before they can leave. Bring you a latte on my way back!”

And then there I was, walking along an enormous room full of gray cubicles and outdated computer equipment—deserted; everyone had evacuated, for reasons about to become apparent—and out comes Alexander Bane from the corner office in his red and gold, carrying one of those old almond-colored midsize computer towers under an arm.

It was a pyrrhic comfort that he’d been equally surprised, and whatever he’d been stealing had been lost after our subsequent discussion. Along with a significant portion of the wall of the building and at least eleven million dollars’ worth of structural damage to the nearest intersection. So much for my streak of six years in a row of safety performance bonuses.

I wasn’t going to regret it, if I pulled this off. The capabilities of Bane’s suit were fairly well documented, barring the regular changes he made, but I hadn’t reviewed his records in years. When Bane reared his shiny helmeted head, they called in the big guns—Marcus Leo, Tamisha Victoire; Calvin Washington if they could get him. Not that my gun wasn’t perfectly respectable in every dimension, but there’s a reason I’m a GS-12 in Maine and not a GS-15 in New York, and it’s not for lack of scintillating conversation.

“I will take some of that, though, if you don’t mind sharing,” I said; he was drinking from a small flask.

“I’m afraid it’s only Evian,” he said, rolling it towards me. “You’re a Macallan man, I think.”

“Yes,” I said, glumly; well, that was horrifying. No reason he should ever have looked up James Wright Ellroy, twenty-eight, GS-12, Portland-based, outside his notice by any sensible standards; and it didn’t matter whether he knew about my powers— he knew my drink.

I was grateful for the water anyway; the dust was settling, but my mouth was still thick with it. I capped the flask and rolled it back to him, and watched him put it away. He seemed remarkably unconcerned about the oncoming rescuers.

“Ah,” he said, when I mentioned as much. “Not to make you uncomfortable, but they might be my people, actually. My suit sends an alert whenever it takes damage.”

That gave the rattling and grinding outside a potentially more ominous character. “I don’t suppose you can call them and find out for sure,” I said, trying to listen to the voices. Would I recognize the nearest rescue crew?

“No reception,” he said, raising the handheld.

“Really? No special secret network?”

“It’s too annoying to keep it jailbroken,” Bane said.

“Wait, what, are you actually using an iPhone?” I said.

“I like Plants vs. Zombies,” he said, unrepentantly.

“Of course you do,” I said. “So we’ll just sit here until we find out who’s being rescued.”

“Unless you have a better idea,” he said.

[End Excerpt]