John lost his best friend in Suriname. He left Danny’s body in a ditch after shooting him in the head. Danny looked up at John with no fear, no remorse. He’d been caught. John had orders. Danny would have done the same. He was good. But John was better. John didn’t have a wife, didn’t have a family he’d leave fatherless, didn’t have kids he was trying to put through college by selling biological weapons on the black market. John picked up his gun from the mud. Danny was on his knees, blood mixing with rain. Danny was the only man in the unit who knew things about John, personal things. That’s why they sent him. After the shot, John ran through the jungle, seventeen miles in a relentless rain, and mourned his friend. But when he made the extraction point, he put it away. For the unit.
John lost the only woman he had ever loved when she smiled and said her vows to another man. The sun was shining. The church was full of people. John’s tux didn’t fit right. He was best man. He felt like an ass and a liar standing up there in front of everyone pretending to be happy. But she wasn’t pretending. The couple laughed and danced into the night. John never told her how he felt. She never knew. Later that night, when he was finally alone in his hotel room, John cried for his love in quiet, feather-light heaves. Then he went for a dawn run and put it away forever. For his friends.
John was overseas on his first big mission when his sister’s life fell apart, when her husband left her with a toddler and a baby, kicked her and them out of the house. And hit her. At least once. John was thousands of miles away doing things human beings shouldn’t do to each other. It was weeks before he got the email. It was just like with their stepmom. His sister could never seem to escape it. Only now John wasn’t there to look after her. Or the kids. He suited up and ran through the wind-blown desert, tears evaporating in the heat along with the sweat. When he got back to base, there were new orders and he put his pain away. For his country.
John was seventeen when his stepmom sent his little brother to the hospital. He stayed with him until the boy made him leave. John had a game that night. It was the state finals. He was the star. Everyone was counting on him, including Jojo. John plowed over the other team’s defensive line. He ran and ran and ran. He scored three touchdowns. He was graduating in the spring, going into the army. His brother and sister would be alone with the woman. He cried under his helmet before the game. Then he put it away. For the team.
John lost his mother in seventh grade. She’d been sick for months. When the men with the sad looks showed up in English class to take him home, he ran. He ran like his coach had shown him, pushing past the strangers and sprinting down the hall and running out the door and across the parking lot and through the football field and four miles down the road to the elementary school where his brother and sister were waiting. He cried the whole way. But as he hugged them in the parking lot, he put it away forever. For them. Their dad wasn’t a strong man. So John would be. Always.
John hadn’t cried in the caves. He was too worried about surviving. He hadn’t cried on the flight home. He was too happy to be free. He hadn’t cried in the hospital. There were always people around, especially at first.
Do you want anything? More pills? More water? Another blanket? Can I help you wash? Help you into bed? Help?
And there were so many other patients in pain. Some with families, some without. Some with friends, some without. John did what he could. He told stories. He smiled. He made the rounds in his motorized chair. He didn’t have to say it. His appearance was enough.
If I can make it, so can you.
If I can make it.
John sat in his dark hospital room and looked down at his legs, limp and bent, barely fitting in the space between the seat and the footrest. He was a big man, always had been.
They had come, finally. The eyeless suits. The bastards. They were going to take it away. The tiny bit he had left.
He looked at his legs, then at his burned and mottled skin.
He scowled and made a fist and punched himself with his good arm. He punched his legs as hard as he could. He heard the sound, but he felt nothing.
A tear came.
John Michael Regent held up his one good hand in a ball. It shook in silent fury. He bared his teeth as teardrops fell from his lips. He wanted to scream. But then everyone would come. He wanted to yell. But they’d just look at him with those eyes.
He clenched his own shut. He was so tired. Of everything.
This would’ve been a night for a run. He always went at night. Nobody was likely to see and no body was likely to be missed.
His first few times he just ran and ran and ran, two firm legs striking the pavement in even strides, some other man’s heart pounding. Even a woman’s once. John had to take what he could get.
That was the night he happened on a mugging. It was an accident, a wrong turn at 3 a.m. He taught the jerk a lesson and handed the scared man on the pavement his wallet back. The guy just stared up at the strange woman in the hood and dark sunglasses—sunglasses, at night—who had leapt down from a roof and beat the shit out of his attacker.
“Those were some moves,” he said on his back, wide-eyed.
The woman had bent the mugger’s leg at the knee and roundhoused him into the wall. Right in the balls. Then she popped him straight up the jaw with the palm of her hand, knocked him out.
She didn’t respond. She just dropped the wallet and ran away.
The next week, John went looking for trouble. That was how he justified it. Taking the bodies. Taking what wasn’t his. Stealing them. Stealing tiny bits of someone else’s life. They’re not using it, he told himself. Like an idle computer or a fallow plot of earth. And I can do some good with it. I should do some good with it.
So John ran and ran and ran all over the city and all through the night. It felt good. On his fourth patrol, John stopped a backseat rape. Last month he helped a wounded pedestrian, a victim of a drunk hit-and-run, make it to a hospital. Two weeks ago he was tutoring a parkour group in basic self-defense. They were already in great shape. They knew how to move. He was just organizing them, teaching them tactics, things to consider when you happen upon a crime.
He pushed it that night. He stayed out too long. He watched the dawn come up from the roof of a five-story building. The little stretch of city before him hung on the outskirts of Philly and was full of working-class ethnic neighborhoods and strip malls. He was starting to think of it as his responsibility.
From what he could tell, the police weren’t looking for anyone, or at least not for anyone in particular. All anyone knew was that there were some helpful citizens about, and the only things they had in common were the hoodie and the sunglasses.
But the attack on the drug den would bring them to the hospital. Sooner or later, someone would put the pieces together, find the connection. They’d all been patients at the fancy new VA. They’d all used advanced hand-to-hand, like what a soldier would know. Regent couldn’t stay. It was too much of a risk now. If he ever wanted to run again, he had to get away. It was already on the news.
But in trying to leave, he had aroused his shadowy pursuers. John knew how it worked. “Ayn” was just the first wave. It was her job to keep him on the reservation long enough for the others to arrive. As his file was chewed by the system, as it triggered automatic flags and warnings, as numbered bureaucrats sipped soy lattes and processed it—processed him—each in tiny chunks, they would summon the dragons.
Men like John.
It didn’t matter if he had done anything. He was on a list. And to any lanyard-wearing case worker who didn’t know him from a hole in the ground, it was always better to be safe than sorry. That’s how they got people to give up their freedoms and to take other people’s away. Make it about safety, and never ask for more than a tiny bit at a time.
Advance file to next stage.
So this was it. The beginning of the end of a long, legless run. They’d get him. He knew. It was just a matter of time. But John was ready.
He had one last mission. One final objective. And he was going to see it through. John Regent always completed the mission.
John wiped his face with his good hand. He took a deep breath and put it away. For the unborn.
The pivot of the first “episode” of my serial novel, THE MINUS FACTION, about extraordinary abilities and how not to use them.