John Smith lived alone in a smallish room nestled inside the Delta Division headquarters overlooking Lake Ontario. It was a nice enough room, filled with comic books and music. None of it reminded him of home.
He missed home often. When he closed his eyes, he could still see his mother’s smile. She’d been exceptionally kind. He saw her every day in his sister. Mata could see into a person’s mind; Meraliese could see into a person’s heart.
He often hoped he was like his father. The man had quiet, observant; always ready with a smile and a piece of wisdom when asked, but forthcoming with neither. He always felt the need to show his knowledge instead of telling it.
He missed the man more every day. He’d gained a good friend from the tragic events that had taken his parents, but sometimes he wondered if that was enough…
He could still see it. The warm day—unseasonably so for the time of year. It was getting on to a warmer season, but for the time of year, one could not expect the air to be as beautiful as it was that day. Mata was preparing dinner in the kitchen—one of her favorite fowl recipes, if he remembered correctly. If he closed his eyes, he could still see droplets of scarlet blood splattered across the browned, spiced breast meat.
She always made the seasoning herself. She was singing. He could still hear the song in his head, a song he often strummed on the guitar, or hummed when he was feeling lonely. He did that right now, remembering.
Fater was in the stable. He loved the animals. Mata often teased him that he ran an inn, not for the people, but for the animals they traveled in on. He never denied it.
That evening, Jay had been out for a run, and John was in the family room with his kittle, a stringed instrument he’d loved playing since he was four years old. Meryl’s fingers danced over her own musical instrument, and together they pieced together a melody to a song Jay had written. His sister was smitten with the strange boy that had so suddenly come into their lives.
That’s when a metallic figure walked into the room. It didn’t even glance at the twins. John had been too stunned by the absurdity to do anything about it, so the machine walked right by into the kitchen as they stared, stupefied.
Mata could never hurt a fly, but she knew what this was. It was something horrible, and it was going to hurt her kids. She focused on it and did the one thing with her Gift she’d sworn never to do. She searched out his mind, the mind of the man inside, and made it turn in on itself. John still remembered the auto-tuned agonizing scream of the man as he collapsed, the thousands of tiny robots that made the suit collapsing with him. Then Mata started running to her children to make sure they were all right.
She never saw the other one behind her. Never saw her death coming. The machine raised its hand and the air vibrated with a beam of terrifying sound that dissolved everything in its path…including Mata’s insides.
Too little, too late, John sprang into action. He dashed toward the machine and punched inside it. Even now, years later, he could still clench his fist and feel the warm flesh of the man inside the suit. He felt the sticky blood and he felt his fingers close around the man’s spine.
And then he tore it out. He tore the man apart the way his machine had torn apart his mother. He might have screamed, he still wasn’t sure. Screamed with the agony that can only be felt when watching the woman who gave you life die at your feet.
Then the sound came from the barn. “Joleon!” His sister screamed his name, and they ran. Together they ran to the barn as fast as his Gift could take them. Even with his incredible speed, he was too late. The machine had gotten the jump on Fater. His blood was scattered all over the wooden doors. This time it was Meryl who screamed.
Ceil had been with Fater. The boy was a little bit older than the twins, and much like a brother. Fater and Mata considered him a son. Ceil could regenerate, and in this, John took some comfort. It didn’t matter what they did to him, they wouldn’t kill him. They couldn’t.
The machine grabbed Ceil by the neck and together they flew into the air. John and Meryl joined them in the skies. The suit let out a strange sonic vibration, which made John feel nauseated, even at this distance. At such a close range, Ciel had it much worse. He let out a strangled cry, and looking back, John wondered if he saw death itself coming for him. For somehow his Gift was gone.
With a crunch of his hand, the machine broke Ceil’s neck. He tossed him to the ground. John couldn’t even scream. Then the machine turned his face to John and Meryl and positioned its hand to point at them. Every instinct John had screamed for him to run, but he could not. He couldn’t move. He willed himself to move, and nothing happened. The wail of the machine echoed in his ears, and all of the sudden, he felt himself falling. The ground rushed to meet him, and he knew he was going to die. That meant he’d be with Mata and Fater, but somehow he still fought against it. He needed to protect his sister, who was falling with him. At least they would be together in death.
But their God had other plans. John felt an arm around his waist and his sister’s sobbing breath against his ear, even as he knew it was Jayson who was with them. And then everything in their world changed. Everything.
That was how they came to be here. That was the day that killed the two people who had given him life and taught him how to live it. From that day, he’d had to figure out how to live it on his own.
Now, they were all super heroes. Samantha Clive had taken the unprecedented step of declassifying the clandestine organization. Now, the public knew that beings of extraordinary power watched over them, for better or for worse. Men and women of all ages looked to the sky to see him streak across the horizon on his way to save the world.
To John, this felt especially strange. In his world, they could not use their abilities for fear of persecution. The attack on his family was not an isolated incident. The Old Order feared the Gifted, and used whatever measures they could possibly find to make sure they were wiped out. Sometimes John feared they would succeed. He spent a great deal of time wondering if he should go back to Arlethae. How many more Gifted had died to the relentless oppression by the Old Order since they had left?
Yet something made him stay. God only knew what.
This world was strange to John. Never mind its fast cars, young sun, and baffling language; the people of this world were so unpredictable. Especially now that they knew of the existence of the ‘super heroes’. The humans viewed him as almost god like, and he suddenly understood what it was like for the First Created.
Legend had it that Creator had first formed the Ereakthc and granted them great power and immortality. But they lacked structure, ideas, mortality. Then the Creator formed the Ereurtc, the Second Created. To them he gave a short life, and from that sprang ambition and creativity. It was said that, as the Ereurtc told stories of the First Created, those stories became true. And so the gods and legends were born.
Over time, the wickedness of some of the gods could not be reconciled. They were cast out, some of them coming to rest on Earth for a time. There, they were worshiped, and they came to view life differently because they had people who looked up to them with such adoration. It was mesmerizing. And that’s how the people of Earth looked at the Delta heroes today.
John didn’t like it. He wanted to blend into the background and be left alone, but his heart ached with desire to help people. When he was granted his powers—his Gifts—he asked to be given the power to protect. More than anything, he wanted to keep others from harm.
“It’s not just your powers that protect people, Mr. Smith,” Samantha had said once. “The very name of Stryker will bring hope to this city, and it is that hope that will inspire people to look inside themselves for their own inner hero. An inspired people is a stronger people. Your name will help them protect themselves.”
At the end of the day, maybe that’s what kept him on Earth. He couldn’t protect his own world, not when his people viewed him and those of his faith with fear and superstition. But maybe he could protect this one.
His phone beeped with an appointment reminder. He set down his guitar and strolled at a leisurely pace to his sister’s office. Meryl had done well for herself here. His gentle sister had tried field work once, years ago, and it had gone badly enough that she wanted only to work from behind the scenes. Over the past few years, she’d blown through the schooling to acquire degrees in psychology and sociology, and she now worked as Delta’s resident therapist. She screened each hero, building a profile of both their personality and powers. It was her job to assign each new recruit a mentor.
When John walked through the door, he was greeted with Meryl’s patient smile and a teenager’s squeal of excitement from a girl perched on the edge of Meryl’s desk. The girl had short hair and a petite frame, and a grin that was nearly bigger than her face was. It made John smile. He loved to see the enthusiasm of the new recruits. Sam was right. These days, everyone wanted to be a hero, to save the City. Your strength inspired that enthusiasm. It was humbling.
“Hi!” The girl giggled, and somehow smiled even wider. “I’m Lindsay.”
John held out his hand. “John. It is nice to see, meet you.” He grinned, hoping the girl didn’t notice his slip of the tongue. He knew that wasn’t the right way to phrase that.
It was difficult sometimes for him to grasp English. He remembered making fun of Jayson for not learning Arlethaen right away. Now, he got it. English was such an idiomatic language, full of colorful imagery and references to the past, the future, popular culture, and all kinds of things John felt he would never understand.
Jayson said once that Arletheaen was really wordy. In his effort to translate, John often used multiple words to say the same thing, all jammed into one sentence. He never quite knew which one was the right one to use, so he used them all. It sounded right to his ear, after all.
But the girl didn’t seem to mind. She hopped off the desk and shook his hand. “So I guess you’re training me and stuff.”
He nodded. “Yes. You are done with your interview?” He glanced at his sister.
Meryl nodded. “Yes. I think you’ll find her quite entertaining.” The corner of his mouth tipped. John wondered what in the world she was getting him in to. He smiled back. This was his sister, after all, and he would do anything for her.
He nodded to Lindsay and gestured her toward the door. “We should start by measuring your abilities. If you will come with me to the training room we can get begin started.”
“Kay.” She nodded excitedly, and they walked over to the gym.
Later, Drake would program Lindsay’s abilities into the virtual reality training room, but they began in a real-life environment that provided weights and adjustable gravity to see how fast she could fly under what conditions. They went at it for a few hours. He tested her strength, flight, and speed under normal, less, and increased gravity.
The girl threw herself into her training. “You want to be a hero badly,” he said, teasing her a little.
“Yeah. Cause I’m awesome, and everybody should know that.” She flashed a smile.
He said nothing to that, then corrected her stance. “Feet apart, about the width of your shoulder. You are strong, but that does not mean you should strike without purpose. Let every blow you make be one that will mean something. When you overwhelm your opponent with strength, he will find a way to fight strength. When you fight with purpose, he must match your purpose or be struck down.” He set a dummy for target practice. “Strike.”
She did so in a pattern he’d previously instructed. Her blows landed weakly. He caught the dummy as it swung back before it could hit her in the face and then put a hand on hers. “Lindsay.” His voice was gentle. “What is your purpose?”
For the first time since they met, her cheery demeanor slipped. “I-I don’t know. Honestly? I just don’t know.”
John smiled and put his hand on her shoulder. “Admitting you lack something is the first step to finding it.”
He stepped away and gestured again at the dummy. “Again.”
No great city was built overnight, and the girl would need training before she could be a true fighter, but the more he drilled her, the more his confidence grew: this was what was meant to be. Everything he’d been through, everything he’d seen and done, this was the reason. He’d protect this city, this world, this girl that had been entrusted to his care. This was his purpose. His strength.