Falling by Susan Jane Bigelow
A short story set in the Extrahuman Union universe, set between the events of Broken and Sky Ranger by Susan Jane Bigelow.
LONG AGO, ALICE HAD A poster of Sky Ranger on her wall. He was the first, the only Sky Ranger then: a slight, tall, wiry man with long, tangled hair and a deep voice, the hero of postwar New York, and the founder of the Extrahuman Union. He’d worn this gorgeous blue outfit with a stylized white compass rose on it, and Alice’s poster had shown him floating, bright against a bright dark sky, above some landmark in New York City.
She’d study the poster with her steady, worshipful gaze and dream of flying high above the clouds, her tight braids splayed out behind her. She would close her eyes and imagine being one of them, fighting crime and keeping the peace alongside the Union’s Law Enforcement Division. She could forget the shouting downstairs, the hunger that gnawed at her, the smashed and broken buildings left over from the Last War that never seemed to get fixed, and all the other miseries of her childhood. Maybe, she thought, I’ll get my powers when I get a little older. Maybe one day I’ll be able to jump up into the sky.
But sixty years passed, and she never could.
Alice had a garden and a small house on the road outside the dilapidated little village of Stafford Springs, and it was enough. She could walk down to the store where she worked, and then home again when the day was done, without too much trouble. Across the street was an old memorial statue to those killed in the Rogarian War, now festooned with black and white banners and slogans. Honor the brave human dead who fought the alien threat. The most loyal humans fight for independence and liberty. Here lies our virtue and our strength, ever reborn in our sons and daughters. That sort of thing.
A gang of the local Black Bands did a little ceremony there every weekend, and sometimes she watched from her upstairs window. So much posing and sharp gesturing, everything young men thought was impressive and meaningful. She had no patience for it. She’d seen it all come and go.
Life had a lulling rhythm: in town on the weekdays, the ceremony on the weekend, and a day of quiet on Sundays. She had a few friends scattered here and there, but most had moved away. Her neighbors were all strangers now; the last she’d really known, Jackie, had moved up to Canada after the latest round of troubles had begun a few years back. Alice had never had much of an interest in having a husband, and her daughter had long since grown and moved away—far away, to the colony world of Mandolia. From time to time, she’d get some pictures of her grandsons through the Confederation-wide OverNet. The latest, which she got on Monday morning before she headed down to work, showed all three little boys in identical black uniforms. They had joined the Young Defenders, April wrote, clearly thrilled. All at once! It was a thing they had at school, apparently, a group for dedicated young Reformists. April herself was a Reform Party member.
Alice could only shake her head. The thugs who did the ceremony found reasons to be cruel to her when she passed them on the street, and sometimes they stole things from the shop. She didn’t want her grandsons to be that way. She sighed. Maybe it was different on Mandolia.
She made a print of the picture anyway, and put it up on her wall along with all the others. She was adjusting it to be in just the perfect place when the man crashed into her garden.
There was a deep, rattling thud, causing the pictures to jitter and clack on the wall. An ominous silence followed. She shook her head, finished putting up the picture, and made her way out to the back. A crater had somehow dug itself in the middle of her daisy patch, and at the center, lying at a funny angle, was a white man in a dusty brown and red suit.
“Hey you,” she tried. “Get out of my garden.”
He didn’t move. She huffed a sigh.
“Now!” she demanded, throwing her voice forward like she did when she had wanted April to listen to her. “You drunk, get going! How’d you get back here, anyway? Those are my daisies! My Nana gave the first of those to me, and there you are, right smack in the middle of them.”
He groaned, stirring. She gasped and sprang away as she realized his arm was bent back, clearly broken; the red splotches on his suit were bloodstains.
“Oh, you’re hurt,” she said. “Oh, oh my. Hang on, I’ll go call the ambulance.”
“No!” he rasped, eyes wild, focusing on her at last as he struggled to sit up. “No!”
“What?” She hesitated.
“No… no hospital. I’ll… I’ll be okay, I just need rest, I… ” he gasped, and flopped back over, like a fish out of water.
“Oh Lord,” she murmured, eyes rolling skyward. She dragged out the hose, turned it on, and sprayed him in the face.
“Hey!” he managed to say as soon as he’d finished sputtering and flailing.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t,” she said flatly.
He gaped at her, the question plain on his face.
“Why shouldn’t I go call the cops right now? You dug a hole in my garden and sat in it, looking like you just slaughtered a pig.” She folded her arms over her ample chest. “Go on. Tell me why I shouldn’t go call them.”
He said nothing, shivering in the warm summer morning air. She glowered at him. Part of her wanted to go and call the police, to get him out of her garden and her life. But… something seemed familiar. Too familiar for a strange drunk digging in her daisies.
“What’s your name?” she demanded. “Who are you? Where’d you come from?”
“Sky Ranger,” he whispered. “I… ” He passed out again before he could finish.
She hauled him out of his crater and into the house with some difficulty. She wished she’d had a son, or that her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Mason, came around more than once a month or so. “Old woman shouldn’t be dragging a big man into her house,” she grumbled. He had come to enough to help a little, and stumbled along, leaning on her. “My old bones can’t take the strain.” But she felt a little secret burst of pride; she had always loved her strength, and was glad to know it still served her.
She propped him up on the couch. He settled back into the cushions, eyes closed. “Here,” she said. “Now stay put. I have some soup.” She bustled off into the kitchen, thoughts whirling around in her head. Sky Ranger. The Sky Ranger of the Extrahuman Union, right here, bleeding on her couch! It occurred to her that she hated his guts—should hate his guts—for a few very good reasons, but still. Still. Here he was, one of the very last of his kind, fallen out of the sky right where she lived.
She allowed the little girl who had loved the Extrahumans and that first Sky Ranger a tiny little supernova of glee, and she danced around the kitchen while she fixed him some soup. But as soon as it was done, the adult Alice fixed a scowl on her face in order to take it out to him. She had questions, oh yes.
“So,” she said, setting the bowl of soup on the glass tabletop next to him with a clank. “I want to know some things. Can you talk?” He shook his head no. “Fine. Have a few sips of this, and I’ll ask some questions while you do. Maybe you can answer me later on.”
She held the bowl up to his lips and spooned some of it at him. He made a face, but swallowed. She bit back resentment and asked, “I want to know how you fell out the sky, and why you look like someone took a bat to you. You’re supposed to be strong—they say not much can hurt you. So what was it?”
He raised his singed eyebrows at her.
“Yes, I know all about you. I know a lot of things, for an old woman. Here.” She spooned some more soup into his mouth. His narrow mouth was surrounded by a scraggly-looking black beard. No wonder she hadn’t recognized him right away; he looked nothing like the neatly trimmed, sharply dressed man from the news. His black uniform, so often seen on the broadcasts these days, was gone, too. “Another thing. What happened to you? You’re not with the Reformists any longer. Are you?”
He sighed and sank back into the couch again, eyes closing.
“And I wonder if those things are the same,” she said shrewdly, fixing a makeshift sling around his useless arm. “So. You rest. And when I get home from work, I’ll get my answers.”
Alice trudged down the hill and around the corner, into the village center. The sun was well up in the sky, and the air was warm, building up towards humid. These were the kinds of mornings she savored, though there were few enough of them anymore. Better this, she thought, than the ice and snow she stumbled over during the winter. Maybe someday she could go somewhere without winter. People used to do that, a long time ago—they’d go south in the winter. Her Nana had once, back before Alice was born, but she was one of the last. No one went to Florida anymore. Too dangerous.
She opened up the store, like she did every weekday, and set everything up. Betsy, the owner, would be in within a few hours, but now for Alice manned the counter alone. She never minded it. They sold a little of everything, including some puny locally grown vegetables. They still didn’t get a lot of customers. Their little town was vanishing back into the hills and forests; soon there would only be a bridge over the river left to remind people it had ever existed at all.
They came in before noon, the boys on the cusp of manhood with the black armbands and the cocky, dangerous attitude. They sauntered and strutted around the store, blatantly putting things in their pockets.
One swaggered up to the counter and gently, deliberately placed a zucchini on it. “How much for this?” he asked. She named a price. “Naw,” he said. “How about you say, go ahead and have it. Thanks for all the service you do. Right?”
Alice folded her arms over her chest. “You going to pay for those other things y’all have?”
“Y’all,” the others mocked. “Y’all!”
“Hey,” the Black Band at the counter said. “We’re the Reformist Civil Guard, and we have to eat, too. You owe us. Didn’t the president say to give the Civil Guard all possible aid in the fight against traitors, alien-lovers and terrorists?”
“You fighting terrorists today?” Alice asked, feeling a little brave. “Either pay or put it back.”
“Or what?” The kid smirked. “Call the cops? Go ahead.”
They could do what they wanted, of course; the police wouldn’t stop them for fear of being labeled disloyal. The security forces based at Enfield, some fifteen miles away, would come grab people on the word of a Black Band, and sometimes they’d never come back. No one wanted to find out where they had gone. She sighed and turned her back. When she faced front again, they’d all gone, taking as much stuff as they could carry. She swore she heard one whisper a few choice things about her weight, her age, and the color of her skin as they left.
She started to clean up the mess they’d made, joints sore, and thought for the hundredth time about the offer Jackie Nabors had made to her many years ago. “If you ever want to get away from all this,” she’d said, “just come find me.” She’d said it more than once. “I can get you out of the Confederation, for good.” But Alice never took her up on it. She was old, and she didn’t have the energy to go to whatever outside place Jackie was suggesting.
She told diminutive, curt Betsy about the incident later on in the day.
“It’s coming out of your pay,” Betsy informed Alice sternly when she finished. Alice began to protest, but Betsy cut her off. “I can’t do it any other way. It keeps happening to you. I’m sorry. We don’t have the money to just hand merchandise out, and the cops won’t stop Black Bands. So.”
What could Alice do? She needed the job. She nodded silently, resolving to find a way to stop them next time.
The sunlight slanted across the enclosed back porch, pooling where Alice sat warming in her wicker chair. She could see the garden and the birds at the feeder from this spot. She sometimes liked a mug of green tea while she sat here, but today she didn’t feel up to making any. Her back ached from standing at the counter, and her heart was sore from the encounter with the three Black Bands. Besides, she still had her visitor to attend to.
“I saw you on the news, you know,” she said to Sky Ranger, who sat in the chair opposite. He looked much better, she’d been pleased to note, and he’d stayed put and kept the sling on. That was a good start. “A long time ago. With the president. He gave you a medal.”
He didn’t say anything to that, just kept staring out at the crater in the yard.
“You owe me answers,” she said.
“I was running,” he said after a time. “And I got away. But they hit me. Missiles. I blacked out. And when I woke up, I was in your garden.”
“Uh huh,” she said.
He shrugged diffidently, a hint of his old arrogance in his expression. “Think whatever you like.”
“I had another question,” she reminded him. “You were a Reformist. And now you’re not?”
“Now I’m not,” he confirmed tiredly.
“And nothing. I don’t want to get into it.” He stood unsteadily, wincing. “Thank you for the soup. I’m feeling better. I should leave before you get in any trouble because of me.”
“Now hold on a minute—” she said, preparing to berate him for endangering his health so.
“Really,” he said, holding up a hand. “I’m tough. I’ll heal. And it’s dangerous for me to be here.”
“Well, don’t leave yet,” she said, having a sudden impulse. “I have something. I think you might want it.”
He laughed, a somewhat unpleasant sound, and gave her a look that loudly declared, you can’t possibly have anything I want. But she went upstairs to get it anyway.
“Here,” she said, handing him the cardboard tube. “Inside,” she ordered, rolling her eyes at his quizzical expression. He popped off the lid and pulled out the paper rolled up within, then spread it, crackling, on the ground. Flakes fell off of the yellowed corners.
“I kept it,” she said. “All these years.”
He looked and looked, eyes wide. Then, slowly, his fingers traced the compass rose symbol on the first Sky Ranger’s chest.
When she came back, he was sitting on the chair, looking out the porch windows at the sunset.
“I was hoping you’d like that,” she said, perfectly satisfied. “When I was a little girl, I had pictures of him all over my room. He was my hero.”
“He… he’s always been mine,” Sky Ranger managed. “But I never knew him. He died a long time before I was born.”
“I know. You’re what, the third? He was the first. And I guess you’re the last.” She struggled, trying to form what she wanted to tell him. “I thought I would say to you, I’m sorry for what happened to the Union. I saw it on the news. I thought it was terrible.”
He nodded, eyes heavy with pain. “Me, too.”
“Did they ever catch who did it?” she asked.
He laughed again, but quieter and sadder this time. “Oh, yes. I did. You asked why I’m not in the Party anymore…well, that’s why. They did this. Party men gave the order. So… I fight them now.”
She thought about that for a minute. “Well,” she said. “They said it was terrorists. But from what I know of them and their like, I can see it. I believe you.”
“Thanks,” he grunted, failing to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
“Behave,” she snapped. “You know how hard it is to get any news that’s not lies from anyone these days! You know that, and you were one of them! Don’t go being nasty to an old lady on account of the way things are.”
He looked properly abashed. “Sorry.”
“Well,” she huffed. “Well.”
“So you see why,” he said, “I’m fighting them now.”
“Is that what you’re doing?” she asked. “Fighting?”
He had nothing to say to that.
She softened slightly. “Hm,” she said. “Why don’t I get you a tea? You could use a warm tea before taking off into that night. It gets cold here in the hills.”
He nodded beleaguered agreement, and she shuffled off to set the water to boiling.
Twilight had spread over the valley at last when she returned, two steaming mugs balanced on a tray. She handed one to him, which he accepted without a word. They sat facing one another in her old wicker chairs as the porch cooled off from the heat of the day.
“That poster,” he said. “I didn’t know they sold posters of him.”
“Oh, sure,” she said. “All the kids had them! This was in the days after the Last War, after the Rätons came, when New York City was nothing but a bombed-out backwater refugee camp. We didn’t have a lot of heroes, and he was there. He did a lot of great things before they locked all of y’all up in the tower. We used to see Extras all the time on the street, or flying overhead.”
“Really,” he breathed, eyes wide.
“They didn’t tell you that part?” She shook her head. “I remember there was a building on fire in my neighborhood, and what do you know? The old Sky Ranger came and saved a little boy out of the top of that building. He would have died otherwise. He just flew in, whoosh, grabbed him, flew out. He was amazing, he did good things for the people. When things got real bad, the Union acted as the cops in some places where the regular cops wouldn’t go. But then it got all political, and you know the rest.”
Sky Ranger stared out the window at the gloom, eyes heavy. “I knew they’d been free before the Tower was built,” he said. “But I never knew… I never knew people actually liked us.”
“Sure,” said Alice. “I did. Who wouldn’t want to fly?”
“I wish I’d known him,” the third Sky Ranger said, voice suddenly tight. “I… ” He fell silent, burying his head in his hands. Alice felt uncomfortable watching his shoulders shake slightly.
“I’m sorry,” she said awkwardly. It was all she could think of to say, and she felt the need to say something, for the sake of politeness. She almost reached out to pat his knee. Almost.
“Sorry?” he cried. “For me? No, don’t feel sorry for me. It was my fault. I should have seen it coming. But… I didn’t. I failed him.” He gestured down at the poster, still sitting on the linoleum floor. “I failed him, the second Sky Ranger, my Sky Ranger, and everyone else.”
She scowled. “Boy, you need to know something that I’ve learned over a long, hard life. Someone else’s evil isn’t your fault. We all do our best to get by.”
“You don’t know what I’ve done,” he said haughtily.
“No, I don’t,” she said evenly. “And I believe you did some bad, bad stuff. I saw you wear that uniform, and I know they shut people up in that Tower for life. I know those things.” He flinched at that. “But are you doing good now? Tell me the truth. Are you helping the people now?”
“I try,” he said softly. “I’ve been on the run for more than two years now, and I’ve done all kinds of things to fight them. I’ve set prisoners free, I saved a man from being executed, I helped a group get away from the Black Bands… and in the beginning, I saved two women and a baby from them. But… it’s so much. And I’m so tired. It’s never enough.”
“Hm. And what were you doing when you were hit by those missiles?” she asked.
He shook his head, suddenly reticent. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Tell me,” she said. “What was it?”
He sighed heavily. “Fine. I decided to try and take out the base at Hingham. I smashed a bunch of tanks before I had to run.”
“Hm,” she murmured. “And why did you do something so foolish?”
“I told you. I fight them.”
“That’s it? No other reason? Stupid. That’s not fighting the Reformists,” she said, fixing him with her meanest look. “That’s suicide.”
They regarded one another for a long moment. He didn’t argue.
“I should go,” he said at last, rising shakily to his feet.
“Stay here,” she urged. “Just one more minute. I have one other thing for you.”
She copied out the address Jackie had given her, and brought it down to him. “This is a place in Canada, where my friend Jackie Nabors is,” she said. She wrote Jackie’s name on the card. “Go find her. Tell her Alice from Stafford Springs sent you, and that I say you’re okay. Tell her to message me if she wants, she knows how. She’ll get you off-planet, or she says she can do that. You can get away from all of this.” She pressed the card into his hands. He took it gingerly and examined it.
“… Why?” he asked.
“Why not?” she retorted. “I’m old and I’m not going to use it. But you might as well. Get a fresh start, while you’re still young.”
“That isn’t—” he started to say, but she cut him off.
“Don’t ask me why, boy, just take it. Go on.”
“You wouldn’t give me this if you’d known the things I’d done,” he whispered, voice shaking.
She felt like kicking him. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get out of here,” she ordered. “The sky’s up there. You look better now, and you were right. Every minute you’re here, I’m in danger. They come take people in the night these days if anyone even so much as hints they’re traitors.”
He nodded and put the card in his pocket. “Thank you. I can’t repay you.”
“I got to meet you,” she said. “I always wanted to.”
He smiled wryly. “You wanted to meet the first Sky Ranger, not me.”
“Close enough,” she said. “Now get.”
He let himself out the back door and stood for a moment near the ruins of the daisy patch, then jumped up into the sky. She watched him go, a smile brightening her lined face. That was a fine sight.
The next morning she checked her messages, glanced out at the garden to make sure no more men were in it, and then shuffled out the door to work. She thought about doing something naughty to the banners around the monument, a little spark of rebellion lit in her from last night, but she didn’t. No use making waves. Today was overcast and awfully muggy, and she could feel the sweat rolling down her back as she hiked down the hill.
Once again, the teenage Black Bands came in before noon, and once again they filled their pockets while she watched and waited. “Hey,” she tried. “Hey, those come out of my salary. Please, didn’t you take enough yesterday?”
But they just grinned at her and walked out the door.
She could have cried. Betsy would be in soon, and she’d be angry again. She couldn’t afford to keep losing money like this. Betsy might decide that if Alice couldn’t handle the Black Bands, she wasn’t necessary anymore. Then what would she do?
A few minutes later, a message came in. She opened it, curious. No one ever got in touch with them unless it was a cranky seller. There was no sender listed, nothing but the words, “Come up to the monument.” She shrugged. No customers were there, Betsy wasn’t due for another hour, and it would take her only ten minutes to get up to the monument again. Fine. She shut the shop and hiked back up the hill in the mid-morning heat.
By the time she got to the monument, she was huffing and puffing, her shirt soaked through on her back. That got her to thinking she might be hallucinating when she saw what waited for her there.
In the middle of the little park, blindfolded and tied to the monument, were the Black Bands. They looked woozy and had some new bruises, skin darkening to match their uniforms. On the ground in front of them was a big basket full of the goods they’d stolen.
She clapped her hands in delight and picked up the basket. A note fell out. Thank you, it said simply. On the back was drawn a crude, eight-pointed compass rose.
Her heart sang for the rest of the day.
The story continues later this month in Sky Ranger, the second novel in the Extrahuman Union series.
About the Novel
Union Tower has fallen. The Extrahuman Union is no more.
Sky Ranger, leader of the recently annihilated Extrahuman Union, is on the run. Deceived by his former Confederate allies, despised and branded a traitor by the rest of the world, Sky Ranger has left Earth behind in search of atonement.?
Impetuous and stubborn, Renna is one of the refugees aboard the same ship as Sky Ranger and instantly feels drawn to the former hero. Along with an orphaned teenager named Dee, Renna is one of the only people who will acknowledge Sky’s presence—even after their ship crashes. Together, in the middle of a scorched desert planet, Sky Ranger, Renna, and Dee form an unlikely bond.?
Everything changes when Dee is abducted and whisked from alien space back into the heart of the Confederation. Sky Ranger faces a grim choice—to go his way alone, or return to face the same government that committed genocide against his people.?
A story of hope and adventure, sacrifice and freedom, Sky Ranger is the second novel in the Extrahuman Union series and the direct sequel to critically-acclaimed?Broken.?
“Come for the superheroes, stay for the characters and world-building.” — A Fantastical Librarian
How to Get the Book
Sky Ranger will be published officially on June 28, 2016. You can preorder the ebook (EPUB & MOBI) from all major retailers online right now. We will have print copies available soon and you can also buy the ebook directly from us on June 28. The print book contains the novel, two illustrations from Kirbi Fagan, and a sneak peek at The Spark, the third book in the series (published this June). The ebook edition will also contain a prequel short story, “Falling”, as well as an essay from the author and a Q&A with the artist.
Preorder the EBook