“What are you talking about?” Joe asked. “I’m not going to burn the dog. I only burned the building because the mob owned it.”
“The mob? Mr. Monroe’s not part of the mob. He’s a decent man.”
“My definition of decent doesn’t include protection rackets or money laundering.”
“He doesn’t do that. I’ve known him — I mean he’s been in this town for years. Just ask around.”
“I’ve been in this town for years. I didn’t know anything about it until a couple weeks ago.”
Man-machine adjusted his stance, lowering the gun arm.
Joe decided not to read anything into it, but hoped it meant his message was getting through. Just in case it wasn’t, he edged ever so slowly right, moving away from the dog and between Man-machine and Monroe’s building. If the guy did start firing at him, his misses would hit something that deserved the damage.
“Where are you going?” The gun arm went back up.
“Nowhere. Just moving a little. Thought I might get away from the dog.”
Joe stopped. No need to make the guy nervous. He had a huge gun hanging under that arm. Stupid. Could the guy have copied the features of the wartime Rocket suit without thinking about what he’d designed it for?
“So,” Joe said, “what’s with the gun? I’ve seen smaller weapons on tanks. Have you been facing some kind of armored menace I haven’t heard about?”
“No… I just thought, the bigger, the better.”
“I’d wondered. If you carry that thing around, you’re going to use it on a civilian sooner or later.”
“Well what about you? You’re carrying a gun.”
“I’m out to destroy buildings tonight. If I keep on doing this and I have to face people, I’ll use something that takes them out without killing them. If you want, I’ll pass on the design.”
“I don’t want your design! I know Mr. Monroe. He’s been a friend of my family for ages. I can’t even tell you how much he’s helped me –”
Joe stopped listening. It came together all at once. The overly certain attitude. The connection with Monroe. The powered armor with almost all the same features as his own… Could it be the kid from the hardware store? But where did he get the money to build this thing?
“Monroe paid for your materials, didn’t he?” Joe said.
The gun arm came back up.
“Look, I’m not trying to make you angry here,” Joe said. “I’m just thinking. How many mob related tips have you gotten from Monroe? If you think about it, you’d be a great weapon against rivals. Short of a bazooka, they’d have no way to stop you.”
Man-machine didn’t say anything. He seemed frozen in place.
“So what is it?” Joe asked. “Does he tell you that he’s heard about a mob operation or do you receive anonymous tips?”
“You’ve no right to accuse him after what you’ve done.”
Man-machine fired a burst from his gun.
The bullets missed Joe, flying over Monroe’s building to thud into the top floor of the factory behind him.
Joe gave the jetpack fuel and shot upward.
The kid (if it was the kid) wasn’t listening. He didn’t care to find out what would happen if Man-machine hit him, but whoever it was in that armor used deadly force just because he got angry.
That bothered him.
He rotated a little to the right, flipped over and started downward, aiming to hit a little toward the back on Man-machine’s left side.
Man-machine tried to twist and bring the gun around, but the armor couldn’t twist quickly enough. Joe hit him in the side, knocking Man-machine over, but bouncing off him as Man-machine fell down.
The bounce carried him upwards.
He twisted left, making a quick circle over the burning building and the trucks to land on the street some thirty feet from where Man-machine struggled to stand up.
“Hey, I know you don’t believe me, but hear me out. Read the paper tomorrow and then go out and hunt me down if you still want to.”
Man-machine stood and shouted, “No. I don’t believe you.”
Then he jumped.
Joe stepped sideways, narrowly avoiding being landed on.
He threw a punch at Man-machine’s leg, knocking him sideways, but not far. Worse, Man-machine’s arm swung down from above, hitting him in the side with the bottom of his fist, knocking him down the street.
When he stopped tumbling, he pulled himself up.
Man-machine was already coming for him, boxy legs covering the distance far too quickly.
The dog, stuck behind the fence, barked at both of them.
Joe punched the button on his palm that fed fuel into the jetpack, rising into the air. Hovering one hundred feet above the street, he thought about his options. He could fly away. It was a pointless fight. Whoever was in that armor hadn’t thought through what it meant to use it. A punch or stray bullets from that thing could easily kill somebody.
Man-machine needed to learn that.
The question, Joe asked himself, was whether he personally had any duty to teach.