- SJF – Chapter 1
- SJF – Chapter 2
- SJF – Chapter 3
- SJF – Chapter 4
- SJF – Chapter 5
- SJF – Chapter 6
- SJF – Chapter 7
- SJF – Chapter 8
- SJF – Chapter 9
- SJF – Chapter 10
- SJF – Chapter 11
- SJF – Chapter 12
- SJF – Chapter 13
- SJF – Chapter 14
- SJF – Chapter 15
- SJF – Chapter 16
- SJF – Chapter 17
- SJF – Chapter 18
- SJF – Chapter 19
- SJF – Chapter 20
- SJF – Chapter 21
- SJF – Chapter 22
- SJF – Chapter 23
- SJF – Chapter 24
- SJF – Chapter 25
They started their tour at O3C, with Manny giving Darius a basic overview of everything, spending more time on the break room and the bathroom than anywhere else. “When you got business to handle, you gotta handle your business,” Manny said.
Manny walked Darius through O3C, introducing him to everyone on duty. There were too many people for Darius to remember, not to mention more people than he felt comfortable being around. Manny, on the other hand, liked everyone and everyone seemed to like him. Making the rounds through O3C, introducing Darius, constantly cracking jokes—Manny was in his element.
“I’m not going to be able to remember all of these people,” Darius said after being introduced to his thirty-third co-worker.
“You think I know everyone’s name?” asked Manny. “That’s why God invented the name tag.”
“I didn’t know God invented the name tag”
“Now you know. Make a note of it. There’ll be a test later,” Manny said with a laugh. He laughed at most of his jokes. “Seriously, though, don’t worry about remembering names. Everyone has an identification badge—you can’t go anywhere without one. There’s more important things to remember—like where the nearest bathroom is.”
“The nearest bathroom?” Darius asked.
“I already told you—when you gotta handle business, you gotta handle business.”
Darius didn’t know what to make of Manny, or if he was the right person to train him. As much as he hated to admit it, Darius worried that Maslon might have been right. In the half hour Manny spent showing Darius around O3C, Manny had done very little other than crack jokes. The jokes were funny, but Darius didn’t have a clue as to what he was supposed to be doing.
Manny led Darius to the middle of Operation Crew Command Central. Activity swirled around them. Events of the world played out on the video monitors in front of them. Darius felt like he was standing in the center of the universe.
“Kinda overwhelming, ain’t it?” Manny asked.
“Just a little,” said Darius.
“Everyone gets overwhelmed at first. This is how it all looks to you right now,” Manny said, stretching out his arms as wide as he could. “You need to learn to see it like this.” He held up his hand, his thumb and forefinger two inches apart. “Comprende?”
Manny stretched out his arms again. “This is what’s going on here right now—at Super Justice Force, in O3C. All of this,” he said. “But all of this, is made up of all of these.” He held up his hand again, thumb and forefinger two inches apart.
“A lot of small parts, making up the big part,” said Darius.
“Exactly. Think of Operations Crew as all the small parts, instead of the one big part,” said Manny. “Don’t think of it as this big giant thing. You start thinking about the big part, and that’s how you get overwhelmed.”
“You mean like the service teams—SAO and all of that?”
“What do you know about service teams?” Manny asked.
“Just what I read in the Employee Handbook,” Darius said.
“Really? You read that thing?” asked Manny. “I don’t know anyone who’s actually read that thing. I bet you were the kid that always turned in his homework on time.”
“I want to do a good job,” said Darius.
“You’re with Manny, amigo. You watch, four weeks from now you’ll see.”
“What happens in four weeks?” Darius asked.
“That’s how long your training lasts. You train with me for a week. After that, you spend three days a week floating in other departments and two days with me. At the end of the month you’ll be evaluated. Right now you’re a L1T—a Level 1 Trainee. You read about that in the Employee Handbook?”
“Yeah. It means I have limited security clearance”
“Limited don’t really begin to cover it,” said Manny. “Sixty-five percent of HQ is off limits to L1Ts unless they’re with a L1 or higher.”
“The Employee Handbook said that after training I’d be moved up to a Level 1.”
“If you pass your evaluation—prove you’ve learned something in training—then yeah, sure, you move up to a standard L1.”
“What happens if I don’t get past L1T?” Darius asked.
“You’ll be sent to wash dishes in the cafeteria. But that ain’t gonna happen, amigo,” said Manny. “You’re being trained by Manny. El francaso no es una opción.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means that failure ain’t an option,” said Manny. “You’re gonna do good here, ’cause if you don’t, it makes me look bad. And I never look bad.”
Manny laughed and slapped Darius on the back, once again almost knocking him off his feet.
Manny and Darius walked around SJF Headquarters for almost two hours, wandering along corridors, up and down stairways, riding the elevators, and generally exploring all the buildings. In addition to the regular hallways and corridors that ran through each building, HQ also had a series of “Emergency Access Paths” that allowed quicker, more direct passage to various locations throughout the entire facility.
“There’s a lot of corridors that look the same—it’s easy to get lost or confused. Especially in an emergency,” said Manny. “You know where we are right now?”
Darius looked up and down the long corridor he stood in with Manny. It looked like the other dozen or so long hallways they had taken from location to location.
“I don’t even know what building we’re in,” said Darius.
“Neither do I,” said Manny. “I guess one of us better figure out where we are and how to get outta here.”
Darius fumbled with his PCU, trying to make sense of the map on the screen. Manny had already showed him how to use the device to determine location, as a guidance system and how to tap into the main surveillance system. More than anything, Darius struggled to work the touch-pad screen. Every time Darius tapped the screen of the PCU he would zoom in on the map so tight he couldn’t tell where he was, or he would accidentally activate some other function. It felt like playing a video game that he kept losing. Finally, he managed to pull up the information he needed.
“We’re in Sector 3, at coordinates 1-A53,” said Darius. “I think.”
“I don’t know,” said Manny, shrugging his shoulders. He pointed to the juncture at the end of the corridor. “What happens if we go right or go left?”
Darius touched the screen again. “We go left, and it takes us to the stairwell at co-ordinates 1-A55. To the right is an access point to VMB1. What is VMB1?”
Manny shrugged his shoulders again. “I don’t know, esai. You’re the one who read the Employee Handbook,” he said. “Maybe you should access a security feed, and we can figure out what VMB1 is.”
Once again, Darius fumbled with the PCU, this time trying to access the proper security feed. He struggled, activating incorrect functions, accessing the wrong feeds, and swearing under his breath.
“You know, you can always smash that thing on the ground. It won’t break,” Manny said.
“I’ve almost got it,” Darius said.
“Oh, I can see that,” said Manny. He made a show of looking at his watch. “You know, our shift is over in about six hours.”
“Is this how you train everyone?” Darius asked.
“Most people usually ask for help by now.”
“Well, I’m not most people. I don’t need help,” Darius said, holding out his PCU for Manny to see the screen. “Vehicle Maintenance Bay One.”
“Very good,” said Manny, clapping his hands. “And you thought you couldn’t do it.”
You’re right, Darius said to himself, I didn’t think I could do it.
Manny started walking toward VMB1. He didn’t say a word to Darius, just motioned for him to follow. Manny stopped in front of a set of double doors that looked like countless other doors they had passed while wandering the halls. “The video surveillance feeds don’t do this place justice,” said Manny. “This place will blow your mind.
Manny opened the door leading from the corridor to rear of Vehicle Maintenance Bay One. He hadn’t been exaggerating.
Darius stared in wide-eyed wonder at VMB1, a massive space the size of a football field. Along the far wall were a series of garage doors big enough to drive either a tank or a semi-truck through—both of which were parked inside the space. Ten individual hydraulic lifts took up half the floor, and could be locked together, forming one huge lift that rose all the way to the ceiling—five stories up—where it doubled as a landing pad once the retractable dome roof opened.
In addition to the semi-truck and the tank, a small fleet of vans and cars sat parked in service bays. None of those vehicles impressed Darius. It was impossible to be impressed by ordinary cars, vans, trucks and tanks, when parked in the same space were things Darius never thought he would see in real life.
Nightwatcher’s Nightmobile was probably the most famous car in the world. Darius had a die-cast metal replica of the legendary crime fighter’s tricked-out car when he was a kid.
A small team of men dressed in red jumpsuits, stained with dirt and grease, worked on the Nightmobile. Darius could see that the car was banged up pretty bad. He walked over to get a closer look, but something much bigger caught his attention.
Standing not ten yards from the Nightmobile was the Super Justice Force Starcruiser. The heavily armed tactical ship looked like a smaller version of the space shuttle crossed with a jet fighter. Capable of space travel at incredible speeds, two earlier versions of the Starcruiser had been destroyed during the Battle of Enceladus, years before Darius was born. He still remembered reading about it in “Tales of the Super Justice Force.” And he’d begged his parents for the toy version of the Starcruiser, but it was too expensive.
“Maybe for Christmas,” his mother told him.
Christmas never came that year.
Lost in the moment, Darius felt like a little kid. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been as excited by anything. He thought about his parents, and his brother Dwayne, and how excited they would be if he could tell them about everything he saw—at least his father and brother would be excited. His mother would just smile and say, “That sounds wonderful,” although she would really be wondering what all the fuss was about. His brother, on the other hand, would be asking a million questions, first and foremost being if he could get a ride on the Starcruiser.
“Earth to Darius. Come in Darius.”
Manny’s voice snapped Darius out of his fantasy.
“You okay?” Manny asked.
“Don’t strain yourself,” Manny said, chuckling. “C’mere. I got someone I want you to meet.”
Manny stood beside the Nightmobile, next to someone working on the engine. Darius couldn’t see the mechanic who had crawled under the hood of the car, but he could hear him swearing up a storm.
“This is Otto Rekker,” Manny said, pointing to the man cursing under the hood of the car. “Otto, get out here.”
Otto grumbled a string of profanities that sounded like every single swear word ever spoken, mashed into one long super curse. He pulled his head out from the tight space under the hood, his face smeared with slightly less grease than his hands, He wiped his right hand—his real hand—on red, grease-stained coveralls with the sleeves torn off.
“Otto, this is Darius,” said Manny. “Darius, this is Otto.”
Otto Rekker needed no introduction. Standing nearly seven feet tall, his head shaved completely bald, the ever-familiar handlebar mustache creeping down both sides of his mouth, Darius recognized Otto from the comic books he’d read as a kid. An elaborate tattoo of a dragon wrapped all the way around Otto’s right triceps, bicep and forearm. The head of the dragon rested on the back of his hand, its mouth open, spitting fire that came out onto Otto’s fingers. Otto’s left arm had no tattoo, because he had no left arm—at least not a real one. His left arm was completely mechanical—a high-tech fusion of lightweight metal alloys and experimental plastics crafted into an incredibly powerful machine attached to his body.
The leader of the notorious gang of criminals called the Rekking Crew, Otto Rekker was one of the worst supercriminals of all time. Darius remembered when he was kid, Otto Rekker had broken the back of Nightwatcher in a fight, leaving the crime fighter out of commission for two years.
“Big D, good to meet you,” said Otto.
Darius mumbled a response, reluctantly shaking Otto’s hand. Something about Otto made Darius uncomfortable. It had nothing to do with the fierce-looking tattoo or the bionic arm. It had to do with the bad man he knew from comic books—the supercriminal whose face had flashed across the television screen for weeks after a near-deadly encounter with Nightwatcher.
Darius never much cared for Nightwatcher. As far as he was concerned, Nightwatcher wasn’t even a real superhero—he had no real powers. He was just some guy who dressed up in a weird costume with a bunch of high-tech gadgets. Still, what Otto Rekker did to Nightwatcher was wrong.
“Now that is a bad man,” Darius’s father, Dwayne, had said while watching a news report about Otto Rekker.
Like Darius, Dwayne Logan had never cared much for Nightwatcher. “Can’t trust a man who hides behind a mask like that,” he would say. But his feelings for Nightwatcher changed after Otto Rekker had broken his back. It was the same way for much of the country. Nightwatcher had been a dangerous crime fighter who played by his own rules, and it made people uncomfortable. But the savage beating he took from Otto Rekker made him a public favorite, eventually leading to his first endorsement deal and membership in Super Justice Force.
“I wasn’t expecting to find you here this late,” Manny said to Otto. “I was just showing the kid around.”
“I was supposed to be home hours ago. Anna is pissed. But this old girl is tore up pretty bad,” Otto said, pointing to the Nightmobile. “And you-know-who needs it for some charity event this weekend, so I’m stuck burning the midnight oil.”
The left side of the Nightmobile didn’t look that bad. The right side was another story altogether. The entire right side had crashed into something—something big. Parts of the car were actually missing—like the door, the front quarter panel and the front tire. The rear tire was simply a shredded mess of rubber.
“Didn’t you just fix this thing?” Manny asked.
“Last month. Completely rebuilt the whole damn thing,” said Otto.
“Was he drunk?”
“We’re talking about Nightwatcher here, not Captain Freedom,” Otto said. “I swear, every time he takes the old girl out he crashes her into the side of a building or drives her off a freakin’ bridge. Then I fix her, and that sonovabitch just wrecks her again. No respect at all. I’m telling you, someone needs to revoke his license.”
“You say the same thing every time,” laughed Manny.
“And I mean it every time. You know he’s practically blind in one eye? I’m serious. Everyone thinks he squints all the time to look tough, but it’s because he can’t see out of that one eye. The guy can barely see! My dead grandmother has better eyesight! But he’s still toolin’ around like he doesn’t have a care in the world.”
Manny laughed uncontrollably. Darius didn’t understand what was so funny. Otto’s jokes made him feel kind of uncomfortable.
“Do you think I want to be here, when I could be home in bed with my wife? I keep telling him replace that bad eye of his with a bionic one, but he doesn’t listen to me,” Otto complained. “Our health plan doesn’t cover biomechatronics, and he’s too cheap—that’s the problem. He says it’s because he doesn’t want to be laid up recovering that long. Hell, it wouldn’t be like the time I broke his back. But I’ll tell you this much, if he wrecks this thing again, I’m gonna rip out that bad eye of his, and then he’ll have no choice but to get a new one.”
Manny gasped for air, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Please…please…stop,” he begged. “I can’t take any more.”
“I’m glad my misery brings you so much joy,” Otto said.
“Go home, amigo. Get some sleep.” Manny said, slapping Otto on the back. The same slap that almost knocked Darius off his feet didn’t budge Otto. Manny took a deep breath, wiping tears of laughter from his cheeks. “We need to get back to work.”
“Hey, don’t forget: a week from this Saturday, barbecue at my place. I just got a new grill,” Otto said. “And don’t forget to remind Elladia. I know Anna sent her an email, but you remind her.”
“Thanks. I’ll be there. Not too sure if Elladia can make it—she’s been swamped with school. But I’ll be sure to pass along the invite,” said Manny.
“Big D, you’re welcome to come by too,” said Otto. “We’ll have plenty of food. You like barbecue?”
Darius nodded his head. He felt like he had nothing to say to Otto. He certainly didn’t plan on going to his house for a barbecue.
Manny led Darius out of VMB1, into a different corridor from where they had come. He showed Darius where all the janitorial supplies for Sector 3 were stored, and then showed him an emergency access corridor that led to the Medical Trauma and Surgery Unit.
Darius heard everything Manny told him, including how MTSU offered free courses to all employees in first aid and CPR—something Darius would need to know to move up in rank. But something ate away at Darius, stealing his focus, making him more and more uncomfortable. His mind kept wandering back to the stories he’d read in comic books like “Supercriminal Showcase” and “Tales of Villainy”—all starring Otto Rekker.
How can a guy like that be allowed to work here? Darius wondered. Maybe no one knows it’s him. Maybe he used some sort of mind control device to keep people from realizing who he is.
“Manny, do you know who that guy back there was?” Darius asked.
“The guy back there, with the tattoo and the bionic arm”
“Sure, that was Otto, head of vehicle maintenance.”
Darius stared in disbelief at Manny. It must be some sort of mind control device—like the one Professor Necromance used on Humdinger.
“No, man, that’s Otto Rekker—of the Rekking Crew,” said Darius. “The guy is like one of the worst super criminals of all time. When I was a kid, he nearly killed Nightwatcher. Don’t you know that?”
“Everyone knows who Otto Rekker is,” said Manny. “And everyone knows what he did.”
“If everyone knows who he is, and everyone knows what he did, then what’s he doing here? How can they just let someone like him in here?”
“Someone like him? What about someone like him?”
“He’s one of the bad guys,” said Darius. “What do they call ’em around here? A Bit? He’s a Bit.”
Manny fixed a hard stare on Darius, who was clearly upset. He reminded himself that Darius was new on the job, not to mention young—very young. Which is why he kept his cool. The old Manny would have torn into a kid like Darius for being so disrespectful—maybe even hit him. But the old Manny had been laid to rest for a long time. Still, Darius needed to know the score.
“Listen to me very carefully, ’cause I ain’t ever sayin’ any of this to you again,” Manny said, his sense of humor replaced with a hard seriousness. “Otto Rekker has been many things, but he ain’t ever been a Bit. You don’t know him, which means you don’t judge him. You don’t judge anyone. Ever. Unless you’re ready to be judged. Comprende?”
“What’re you talking about?” Darius asked.
Manny pointed to the STATU around Darius’s ankle. “You wearin’ that as some sort of fashion statement?”
Darius looked down. For a moment, he had forgotten.
“I don’t let anybody on my crew if I ain’t read their files,” said Manny. “You got pinched last week when you didn’t run as fast as your loser friends. You were carryin’ enough eXXeLL to keep the wannabes in No Man’s Land juiced up for six months. I know all about you, esai. At least Otto Rekker was able to go toe-to-toe against Nightwatcher. You couldn’t even out-run some flat-foot cops. If anyone is a Bit, it’s you, kid.”
“Those were mistakes. I’m getting my life together.”
“I’m sure you will. That’s what Second Chance is all about. The reason you’re here right now is because at some point the supes realized that catchin’ bad guys and lockin’ ’em up wasn’t doin’ the trick,” said Manny. “Otto, he’s First Ten—one of the very first Chancers. Him and Butchie Pirro, EZ Manigo and Quincy Boone and the guy that dressed like a beaver, and all them other guys, Second Chance wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for them. There would be no second chances. Not for you. Not for me. Not for anyone.”
Darius had thought about Second Chance a lot ever since he entered the program. But he hadn’t thought of it the way Manny was talking about it. For Darius, Second Chance would be an opportunity to turn his life around. The lives of others hadn’t much occurred to him. He wondered about guys like Butchie and Big Mike, but those thoughts were only in passing.
“I’m sorry,” said Darius. “I never really thought about it like that.”
“You never thought of yourself as malo hombre?” Manny asked with a smile.
“One of the bad guys”
It sounded weird to Darius, Manny calling him “one of the bad guys.”
“No, I never thought of myself as malo hombre.”
“Most people never do. Someone breaks the law, you can bet they got their reasons—reasons they can justify. Reasons that make sense—at least to them,” said Manny. “Hell, Doc Kaos can probably make a compellin’ case for tryin’ to destroy the human race.”
Manny’s words got Darius to thinking. Every time he broke the law—every time he did something wrong—he felt justified. He stole because he needed to survive. Stealing meant money. Money meant food. Food meant staying alive. It was better to steal than it was to starve—even if stealing was against the law. He never thought of himself as a bad guy for doing it. He did what needed to be done to get by.
“I’m sorry if I came down hard on you,” said Manny. “You need to keep some things in mind. First, there are a lot of people who work here that used to be one of the bad guys. Don’t ever judge them for what they did, unless you’re prepared to judge yourself the same way.
“But how did he end up in Second Chance after everything that happened with him and Nightwatcher?” asked Darius.
“Ask him at his barbecue next weekend. In fact, Nightwatcher will probably be there, so you can ask him too. It’s always better hearing the story from the two of them at the same time,” said Manny.
“I don’t think I can go to the barbecue. I’m not really supposed to leave HQ.”
“You ain’t supposed to leave HQ without the approval of two Level 4 employees or higher,” corrected Manny. “I think we can find some L4s to give their approval.”
Manny slapped Darius on the back. This time Darius braced himself. He still felt like he was going to be knocked to the ground.