We’re delighted to present the third of three special previews of award-winning writer Rik Hoskin’s latest novel, Bystander 27, a thriller set in a world where superheroes are real …
Bystander 27, published by Angry Robot, goes on sale on 11th August, available from all good bookshops – and you can order it here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link) – and read on for a chance to win a copy, too!
Hayes located a multi-level parking garage opposite the Nexus Range and did circuits until a space opened up that overlooked the tower. The day rate for parking here was extortionate, of course, because – well, New York. And Hayes did not really know why he wanted to be here, but he had compassionate time away from work and he couldn’t mooch around the house forever.
Located on Fifth Avenue, the Nexus Range looked like any other Manhattan skyscraper except for one thing: the top four stories sported a halo of shimmering light which seemed to rotate very slowly, hour by hour, day or night. It was a force field, Hayes understood, erected to protect the celebrated occupants and their many treasures, both self-created and confiscated from their foes. That light could be seen long into the night, like a lighthouse whose illumination was the beam of justice – evil beware. No one got in or out of those floors without a truckload of security clearance, and even if they did they still had to face the inquisition by the likes of Astra and the Meld, who could read a man’s mind the way a normal read a news headline.
Hayes watched the tower through his windshield, engine off, but with the keys still in the ignition. Nonsensically, he was prepped for a quick getaway. He feared that one of those telepaths would somehow sense him, even this far away, more than a block distant and twenty stories lower, as if they were waiting for just this eventuality. It was like passing a cop – even when you had nothing to hide, the guilt just set in.
He sat with his belt on, watching as that shimmering field of energy made its slow revolution, protecting the heroes and their secrets from the world outside their doors. If only Melanie had had that kind of protection.
The Nexus Rangers had banded together after Morgana Le Fey had drawn her faerie folk out of the woodwork of some nether dimension in a bid to take over the world. Thenjust five heroes, they had combined forces to drive her armies back, dispatching Le Fey to an other-dimensional prison from which she was unable to escape…right up until she did, of course. After that first adventure, the heroes had opted to work together whenever the need arose, under the banner of the Nexus Rangers, later shortened to simply The Rangers.
The Rangers had been a hodgepodge back in those early days. They were led by an engineer calling himself Mechanist, who used his mechanical expertise to fight for justice. His allies included Captain Light, a super-strong savage known as the Missing Link, several inventors-turned-costumed heroes, and the mysterious Astra, who could reach into a person’s mindscape and turn their most spiteful desires against them.
The line-up had changed over time, with new members joining and old ones bowing out. It was speculated that the Rangers had saved the world at least fifteen times, though their spokeswoman would not be drawn on that.
Hayes watched the Nexus Range from his parking spot, waiting for something. He did not know what that something was, he just wanted to see what happened here. He opened his window a crack to let the air and noise in from outside, and waited, resting back in his seat.
For a long time there was nothing. The constant hum of New York traffic droned like a distant beehive, and the whup-whup-whup of helicopters cut the air now and then, sometimes passing across the frame of the windshield, sometimes heard but not seen. There seemed to be a near-constant whine of sirens as emergency vehicles rushed to accident after accident, a fire, a heart attack, a car crash victim. But the heroes never emerged. They didn’t do car crashes or heart attacks or any of that penny ante stuff that colored the day-to-day lives of the normal people. No, the heroes waited in their fortress until something big came along that needed their might – a sentient world engine or a demonic attack or an alien landing on the White House lawn. Bastards.
It was 19:38 and Hayes was stretching his neck muscles when something actually happened. The distinct taint of boredom had begun to overwhelm Hayes by then, after over ten hours sitting in the car just watching. His car – a 4WD with a soft-top roof – had always seemed. Now it felt like he had spent his whole life trapped in this little box, but that if he left it itwould be game over and he would never be able to go back.
But at 19.38, something happened. There was a flash on the far side of the halo that orbited the Nexus Range, accompanied about a second later by the delayed sound of a jet engine being fired up. The noise was so loud that Hayes could feel it vibrate his insides, shaking his organs and his bones, making his chest tense.
Hayes watched as the Ranger Jet, a sleek shaft of metal with fins, lifted off from a hangar bay located to the far side of the roof of the Nexus Range.
“Damn it,” Hayes cursed. He hadn’t thought about which side of the building the hangar bay doors would open; now he wished he had picked another parking lot so that he could see the launch more clearly.
The Ranger Jet took off with a rumble that shook the air, but the devastating effect of its exhaust was absorbed and negated by the force field. In a few seconds, once it was clear of the building and its protective halo, the rocket picked up speed in a sudden burst and shot high into the clouds, instantly disappearing from view.
Hayes looked for the sun, trying to figure which way he was facing in the maze of the parking garage. The jet was heading south west, to Washington or Baltimore, maybe even Mexico. Although they seemed to be an American institution, the Rangers went all over, fighting the forces of evil wherever they were needed. They were kind of international that way, but locating themselves in New York made them feel like the “home team” to the people around here.
The rumble of the rocket engine grew fainter as it shot off on its transatmospheric circuit.
Hayes remained sitting there for a long time, just looking at the part of the sky where the Ranger Jet had disappeared and at the corner of the building where it had initially emerged. The edges of the sky were very slowly changing from blue to pink as the summer sun began its lazy descent.
“What are you doing, Quo?” the voice asked. It came from behind Hayes.
Hayes jumped. His eyes flicked automatically to the mirror and he saw Melanie there in the back seat, pretty as ever, her dark eyes as transfixing as he remembered.
“Do you think this will bring me back?” Melanie asked.
“I died, Quo,” Melanie told him. “I died. There’s no coming back from that.”
“Heroes come back all the time,” Hayes argued, his voice fiercer than he had intended. “What about Eternal Flame? What about Kid Ocean? They came back from the dead.”
“I’m not one of them, Quo,” Melanie told him, meeting his eyes in the mirror. “They were heroes. I’m just a person, a normal.”
“But if you…”
Suddenly someone tapped on the glass of the driver’s window, the sound loud and unexpected.
Hayes turned to see who it was, and came face to face with a heavy-jowled woman leaning sideways to talk to him through the gap between window and frame. “Hey, you see a kid come running through here?” she asked. She looked sweaty and harassed, and she did not wear her weight well.
“What?” Hayes asked, confused.
“My kid,” the woman said with that broad NY drawl. “You seen my kid? The little shit’s ran off while I was loading the groceries. You seen him or not?”
Hayes rubbed at the side of his face, as if to wake himself up. “I’m sorry, no. I didn’t see anyone.”
“Yeah, thanks for nothing, pal,” the woman snarled, edging away from Hayes’ car. “Sorry to disturb yourmasturbating…” – the rest was lost to the winds as she walked away in search of her kid.
Hayes turned back to the mirror, saw the back seat was empty. He turned in his seat, reaching behind the passenger’s headrest automatically as though he was going to reverse. The back seat was empty, Melanie was gone.
Hayes’ breath came heavy, powering down his nostrils with what seemed the same force as the Ranger Jet taking off. “Shit.”
It was time to go home.
Hayes returned to an empty house. Melanie had not appeared again on his back seat during the drive home through New York’s evening traffic, an experience in patience, tolerance and quick-thinking.
Even with the lights on, the house felt unoccupied. Melanie had been the heart of the place, Hayes realized. Without her, no amount of illumination or decoration or music could turn the building into anything more than an empty husk. He sat in the lounge, with the TV on, eyes glazing over as his thoughts slipped away, one by one.
They lived in a world of incredible people like the Rangers. There were heroes and there were villains. It was clear cut, except when it wasn’t – those days when heroes fought heroes or heroes turned out to be villains in disguise, some lousy alien with shape changing tech or a magic whamma-jamma. Hayes had not paid much attention to all of that. The heroes lived their lives, full of color and excitement and lightning flashes of derring-do, while people like him cleaned up crap holes like Afghanistan, crap holes that could never really be cleaned up, that just festered with new forms of hatred passed down from one generation to the next, adapted by each one into something even more destructive and cruel. Places like Afghanistan were a world away from these things that happened in New York City, these things that people like the Hunter and Eternal Flame and Captain Light tackled. Kid Ocean had turned back a sentient tsunami once – that kind of thing never happened in the Middle East.
So what the hell is behind these people? Hayes wondered. What’s motivating them?
He glanced up at the television screen as a news report started up.
“… where reports are coming in that The Bride has taken control of the Pentagon.”
The footage showed a shaky aerial shot of the Pentagon, taken from a helicopter. The camera tightened focus on a section of tinted windows as the reporter continued to talk.
“The Bride’s demands are currently unclear, but it’s understood that the Rangers are on site and – “
The reporter halted mid-sentence as something exploded from a wall a little way up from where the cameraman had focused. Shaky footage followed as the camera operator tried to capture the action. Dressed in brown leather and a trailing head wrap, the Bride bounced across the parking lot followed by a humanoid figure in a glowing metal suit.
“The Mechanist has just emerged through a wall of the Pentagon,” the reporter burbled redundantly as the metallic figure strode towards the Bride.
“Stay down!” the Mechanist’s electronically enhanced voice commanded, though it was unclear whether he was talking to the Bride or any innocent bystanders who might be close to the scene.
The Bride raised her hand as the Mechanist approached, saying something which the camera’s mic could not pick up from this distance. She claimed to be the immortal bride of Genghis Khan, Hayes remembered, and was hell bent on completing her husband’s mission to take control of the whole of the world. It sounded kind of crazy, but a lot of these bad guys’ intentions did.
The Bride had the ability to – how did they phrase it? – turn men’s minds. Which was another way of saying, she filled up her victims’ brain centers with dopamine until they could not help but feel happy in her company. Happy, lusty and obedient as a hungry dog.
On screen, the two combatants clashed in a swiftly played-out bout. The Mechanist had been susceptible to the Bride’s powers once, but it seemed he was utilizing some device – likely of his own creation – to block her uncanny mesmeric abilities.
Hayes watched, removed from the whole thing. The television rendered it as distant and unimportant, meaning no more to him than a sports game. Probably, the Bride had gained access to nuclear codes or military secrets just ten minutes earlier – she had done that before, one time taking control of a Polaris sub and threatening to nuke Cape Canaveral, until Captain Light had intervened. But the threat seemed unreal and commonplace; another mad villain, another world-threatening scheme.
A cheer went up from the reporter and her camera operator as, on screen, the Mechanist fired some kind of power beam at the Bride, knocking her clean through a parked automobile.
“The Bride is down,” the reporter stated with a sense of relief coming through in her voice. “I repeat, Mechanist has taken down the Bride.”
Other members of the Rangers were emerging from the busted side of the Pentagon, some of them rubbing their heads where the Bride’s powers had momentarily held them in thrall. They descended on the Bride as she struggled to recover from her forced meeting with the auto, surrounding her and targeting her with their own abilities or weapons, supernatural or artificial, to hold her at bay.
Hayes watched, his mind wandering as the live footage played out. Where did these people come from? he wondered. Where did they get their abilities? Some of those details were out there in public, but most of it was secret. Were they heroesfull time? Were the bad guys always being bad? And what was driving these people to keep fighting, to keep clashing and causing mayhem and righting wrongs?
How do these heroes and villains do what they do?
• Bystander 27, published by Angry Robot, goes on sale on 11th August, available from all good bookshops – and you can order it here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
• Look out for our exclusive interview with Rik Hoskin tomorrow!
• Get all the latest news about Angry Robot at www.angryrobotbooks.com – and joining the mailing list, the New Robot Army | Find Angry Robot on Facebook | Follow Angry Robot on Instagram | Follow Angry Robot on Twitter
Courtesy of Angry Robot, downthetubes has some copies of Bystander 27 by Rik Hoskin to give away!
To be in with an opportunityto win, correctly answer the question “Which pen name has Rik used to publish over over 20 books?” and email us at downthetubesATcruciblecomicpress.com (replacing the AT with @ when composing your mail) with your answer by 12 noon UK time on Monday 17th August 2020. Please include “Bystander 27” in your email subject. Good luck!