Archive for March, 2015

Allen and Marcus found the training room to be deserted. This time of day, most people were either on patrol, missions, or home for the day. There was an expansive gym with equipment most places only dreamed of. Three boxing rings were set up for hand-to-hand sparring. A myriad of martial arts weapons were stacked neatly against the wall. Other exercise equipment was easily accessible, but stored and maintained with great care. Two doors were on one side of the room, one to a small office, and the other to an equally well-maintained virtual reality room.

Allen only sort of paid attention to what Marcus was saying about the place as the energy controller steered him into the VR room. Dark thoughts rolled around in his head, a helpless sort of fury that made him want to break something.

“The previous Director Daniel Jones had the capabilities of making a pocket dimension outside of time and space, and he used that to create a place of infinite space for them to train,” Marcus intoned. “They also had a healer readily available in Dr. Derek Danesfield, so serious accidents like broken limbs were never a real issue.

“Now, powered combat that could potentially break the building is done in a complex virtual reality run by the most sentient artificial intelligence I’ve ever seen. He goes by the name Chip—not terribly original for a computer generated program to be sure, but evidently there’s a story behind that.”

Marcus handed a helmet to Allen and sat in one of the specially designed chairs. “When you put it on, it’ll connect you to the matrix. When you joined and got your powers evaluated, Drake programmed them into the VR, so when you open your eyes in there, your virtual representation will be able to do everything you can do.”

Allen nodded and offered a cursory smile. “That’s really cool.”

“Right? This whole thing’s Drake’s brainchild, though even he won’t take credit for the AI. Apparently, it’s an offshoot of a technopath’s personality.”

He blinked. “Really? That’s a thing?”

Marcus shrugged. “Normally they’re not so developed. Sometimes when a technopath connects to the cloud, parts of their…will, for lack of a better word, will break off and float out in virtual space, sometimes affecting other connected programs.”

“Ah, like a virus or something.”

“Exactly. Only this particular technopath had dissociative identity disorder. Along with a laundry list of other mental health issues. So when a bit of him broke off, it was a full-grown personality. And that person runs the games we play here.”

“Hunh. That’s way cool.” Despite himself, Allen found his interest piqued.

“Yeah, he’s kinda a cool guy too.”

They put the helmets on and their minds were instantly transported into a completely black room. Somehow they had no trouble seeing each other, as if the phantom source of light shone only on them. A man stood there. He was dressed in tailored evening wear, somewhat reminiscent of the nineteen twenties. He tipped his fedora. “Greetings, gentlemen.”

“’Sup, Chip. This is Allen. Allen’s new, we’re going to run some combat training.”

“By all means. Where would you like to go?”

“Alliance City, midday. Average established traffic patterns.”

“Done.”

The floor dropped away and turned into a bird’s eye view of the sky scrapers of Alliance City. Instant vertigo hit Allen and he dropped a few feet before he got a hold of himself. He could fly, of course, but seeing the floor disappear was an entirely different matter than taking off into the air.

Marcus smirked. “You okay, there, buddy?” Floating in the air wasn’t an issue for him, as he had the rocket boots he usually wore into combat.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Good to go.” He gave Marcus a lopsided smile. “Hey, that Chip guy always dress like he just stepped out of a costume party?”

“That ‘guy’ can still here you.” Chip’s voice echoed in the air around the concrete jungle.

Allen blushed. “Oops.”

Marcus chuckled. “He switches up the era every now and then, but sometimes, yeah. Usually his outfits are pretty dapper, though. Anyway. That’s not important. So, rules are, we beat each other senseless until one of us taps out or goes unconscious. It will shut off automatically when that happens. The computer can monitor our pain tolerance, as it’s affected by adrenalin, fatigue, and other factors. Everything will feel real—the buildings, the people, the elements. At this altitude, I’m sure you can feel the wind.” At Allen’s nod, he grinned. “But mostly, you’ll be feeling my fist in your face.”

Allen grinned back. “In your dreams, Sparky.”

“Shut it before I make you eat it. We good to go?”

“Unless you want to back down now.”

“Not a chance. Why would I do that when I’m gonna cream your ass? Chip, start the simulation.”

Allen’s witty retort was cut short by a blinding flash as Marcus tossed a bright lightning strike at him. “Ah, you rat bastard.” When his vision cleared, Marcus was gone. “Where did—aha!” He spotted Marcus hidden around a building by a power line. “Shoulda put some more distance between us when you had the chance!” He charged straight for Marcus.

“Now, why would I do that? Then I couldn’t do this.” Marcus put his wrists together and channeled a huge blast of electricity, which slammed into Allen with the stunning force of a thousand volts.

Allen swore. “Holy shit, okay I admit that was a little more than I thought you could do.”

Marcus laughed. “Sometimes we do battles above our weight class, but I don’t usually pick fights I can’t win. I know I can beat you.”

“With that little laser beam? You couldn’t beat a moth to death with that.” Allen did his best to shake off the stun and charged after Marcus again. Marcus took advantage of the pause that Allen was forced to take, and put several blocks between them. Allen was the much faster flier, though, and caught up with him easily. Marcus ducked into a building, and Allen flew after him. He chased the electricity controller through three floors of an office building before they reached the roof where Marcus exited the proper way. Allen took a shortcut through the concrete and steel. He was met with another blinding flash. Marcus disappeared again.

“Son of a bitch, where’d you go this time?”

Marcus laughed. “Hey, if you want to give up now, I will accept your surrender.”

“Never surrender!” Allen crowed triumphantly. It occurred to him that something was happening that he never saw coming. He was having fun.

He spotted Marcus in the distance. “You’re not getting away this time!” He charged toward Marcus, who turned and fired his powered-up blast. Allen was ready for it this time, and ducked. “That trick’s not going to work more than once,” he said. “I figured it out. You gotta charge your blast before it’s big enough to hurt me, hence the keepaway game.”

“Aw, shucks, ya got me,” Marcus said unconvincingly. “While that’s true, I’ve found ways to compensate.”

Allen looked down. Too late, he realized they were nearby a power plant. Well, that was going to give all the energy Marcus needed. The lights went out around the plant for blocks around. Allen looked Marcus in the eye. “Aw, f—”

The electricity slammed him in the face, and the simulation was over.

Marcus grinned at Allen as they took off the helmets. “I’m sorry, I totally took advantage of my experience in the simulation. See, I know I’m pretty much unbeatable in the middle of a city where there’s so much power.”

“Jackass,” Allen said grumpily, but he couldn’t stop grinning. That was so much fun.

“I know.” Marcus grinned back. “Hey, tell you what. Because I’m such a good sport, we can do the next fight in the country. That’ll take away my city advantage.”

“Bring it.” Allen flashed a smile and put on the helmet.

He was amazed at the next setting. It was an expansive farmland, with a large barn and adorable farm house. A few animals populated the acreage. They floated over a large forested area about a half a mile away from the cow pasture. He took a deep breath, and to his surprise, the smell of manure hit his nose. “They can do virtual smells too?”

“Sort of. You can smell things in the same way you feel things. Basically, the simulation tricks your brain into sensing these things. Think about it, people with powers based on your sense of smell would be at a disadvantage in a VR sim that couldn’t replicate their abilities.”

“Got it—hey!” A bright light flashed in Allen’s face. He didn’t think he was going to fall for that again, but Marcus took advantage of his wonder to take the first shot. “Thought you were done with cheap tricks.”

No answer came. By the time Allen’s vision cleared, Marcus was nowhere to be seen. “Well fine, if you want to play it that way.” He glanced around. It was a fairly good tactic, actually. Marcus would have to hide a hell of a lot longer if he was going to draw in enough energy to give him a knock-out blast. In the canopy of trees, he’d have plenty of places to hide.

He didn’t think Marcus had made it any farther than that. He didn’t have Allen’s speed. There was no rustling in the trees to give away his position, so for a moment, Allen was stymied. Then a grin flashed as an idea occurred to him. He grabbed his shoe and flung it with all his might at the ground. It hit the forest with all the force of a meteorite, sending the trees flying back and shaking the ground.

“Shit!” Allen’s ears caught the sound of Marcus’ voice, and he dashed in that direction. He barreled in for a grapple, but Marcus rolled out of the way. Allen ended up with nothing more than a face full of dirt and twigs as his momentum carried him into a summersault. He didn’t bother going right side up, so it was in an upside-down world he saw his quarry dart away.

As Allen rose with a flip into the air, he felt the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun at his back. That gave him another thought. Marcus liked blinding him? Two could play at that game.

“Hey, jackass! Heads up!” He grabbed his other shoe and fired it by Marcus’ head. Marcus turned around and was instantly blinded by the sun directly behind Allen. In that moment’s hesitation, Allen attacked.

His fist slammed against the side of Marcus’ face. Marcus flipped end over end and crashed into an evergreen. The simulation flickered and faded away.

“Round two is mine!” Allen pumped his fists into the air.

“Having fun?”

Allen spun around at the sound of the voice that didn’t come from Marcus. His heart skipped a beat when he saw Tracy standing in the VR room. Happiness flashed over his face and he leaped up to grasp her hands. “Tracy! What are you doing here?”

Her blue eyes were so full of sorrow, it was an instant reminder of the thing he’d actually forgotten. His hero was dead.

“I heard what happened. It’s all over social media. Allen, I—I’m so sorry.” She wrapped her arms around him, and it was her eyes that filled with tears. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.”

Allen held her close. “I’ll be okay. I’m a little shaken. But I’ll be all right.”

Marcus stood and walked over to the couple. With a great deal of reluctance, Allen pulled away so he could introduce the two. “Uh, Marcus, this is Tracy. My, ah…” And despite the weight that hung in his heart, he actually felt it give a happy leap. “My girlfriend.”

Marcus extended his hand. “Marcus. Good to meet you.”

Tracy shook the offered hand. Allen could see her gaze travel the length of the other boy. The two of them were still in costume, and Tracy was familiar enough with Delta’s heroes to recognize the outfit. There may have been some who would have fangirled over the male half of Delta Division’s star couple—Marcus and Lindsay were frequently featured in fan webzines and blogs—but Tracy had a remarkable gift for accepting a person for their own intrinsic value. Allen’s reclusive nature hadn’t stopped her from making friends with him, and the fame of Marcus’ alter ego wouldn’t either.

She smiled. “Well, I’m glad to see Allen’s hitting it off with someone here.” The thought seemed to genuinely please her. Allen blushed.

“We were just blowing off a little steam,” Marcus said. “Seemed appropriate, given the circumstances. We both kinda felt the need to punch something really hard. I mean, in Allen’s case, he tends to miss if he tries to hit the ground with his feet, so I’m not sure of his actual threat to humanity. I, however, might drain the city’s power supply.”

Allen couldn’t let that one slide. “I don’t need to hit the ground with my feet. I’ll just use your face.”

Tracy looked at him in surprise. “Well, look at you, with the snappy comebacks and stuff. Way to go, hero boy.”

Allen’s color deepened. That had been Tracy’s name for him since they were kids and he stood up to a playground bully that was picking on a younger kid. Allen had been all of a powerless sixty pounds then, and as mute as a mime, so of course he’d gotten his ass kicked, but it had impressed a young Tracy who insisted on being his best friend.

Marcus chuckled. “Care for another round?” He flicked a switch, and a giant wall-sized screen lit up with an aerial view of Alliance City. “We can play the sim as a broadcast on here so you can show off to your girl.”

“Oh! I’d love to see that!” Tracy’s face lit up.

“Can’t promise I won’t clean up the city with your sorry ass in front of your girlfriend, though.” Marcus flashed a cheeky grin.

Allen hesitated. The screen was showing the cityscape, and he’d lost badly there. He wanted to put on a good show in front of Tracy. But he also didn’t want to protest and complain that the challenge was too hard.

Marcus caught his shifting gaze. “I know, I know, okay, look. I’ll set the controls for a non-collateral damage exercise. It’ll handicap me enough to give you a fighting chance, cause it means I gotta avoid brownouts. On the other hand, you can’t drop a building on me. Fair?”

Allen glanced at Tracy’s smiling face. She really was excited to see this, and those terms did sound reasonable. “You’re on.”

“Wait.” Tracy caught his arm as he sat back down and planted a kiss on his cheek. “For luck.”

Marcus smirked. “Yup, he’s gonna need it.”

This time, Allen was prepared for Marcus’ blinding flair. He turned his face away, and glanced back in time to see Marcus take off for an alleyway. Allen reached out and snatched at his leg. His fingers closed around Marcus’ pant leg, but Marcus put his other boot to Allen’s face. Searing pain spiked into his forehead and cheek as Marcus turned his rocket boot propulsion system into a weapon. Allen let go.

He wasn’t going to give up now, though. Tracy was watching.

What is your reason for fighting? Stryker had asked him once. It wasn’t a difficult question. “To help people,” he’d said. “I don’t have a reason for it. I just want to make the world a better place.” But the truth of the matter was, most of all, he was fighting for her. And now he was fighting to get stronger. Somebody had to show the world what a hero was. Someone had to carry on Stryker’s legacy.

You were my hero. You’re the reason I became a hero. And now you’re one of the reasons I fight. This is my city, my home, my people. You fought to save them, and so will I.

He dashed after Marcus. With his greater speed, he caught up and flew around, cutting off Marcus’ retreat. Without giving him a second to fly the other way, Allen brought his knee up to smash the boy’s jaw. Marcus saw it coming and dodged—barely. The attack caught him in the cheekbone, giving him a hairline fracture. Allen followed through with a bash to his nose. Blood spurted out, covering Allen’s hand, but that was all he had time for before Marcus counterattacked with a powerful lightning blast. It wasn’t strong enough to knock him out, but it did knock him back. He stopped just short of colliding with a brick wall.

Marcus put some distance between the two of them, and Allen was treated to another rain of lightning. He shrugged it off, but not before Marcus took off.

Allen knew where he was going this time. That power plant was the greatest source of electricity. Even if he was avoiding a blackout, Marcus could draw enough energy if he was given enough time. Allen was determined that wouldn’t happen.

Allen made haste to the power plant. Somewhere along the way, he lost track of the energy controller, but he had a feeling he was around here somewhere. He scanned the horizon.

The sound of a slammed door made him look down. Marcus had taken to the pavement and made his way to the plant on foot. Allen caught sight of him just as he ran into the building. Dammit. Marcus’ words came back to him. “You can’t drop a building on me!” Cheeky bastard.

Allen was still faster. He dashed into the building after Marcus and watched him vanish around a corner. His speed was at least a little limited, weaving in and out of workers and factory equipment.

Marcus led him on a merry chase through the building, up the stairs, and through a window. For a second, it appeared Marcus was home free. As Allen exited the building into the air, he was met with the sun’s blinding glare. Marcus was learning from him, even as he was learning from Marcus. But Allen didn’t need to see to kick this kid’s ass. He dashed forward anyway.

The dark silhouette against the sun wasn’t moving. A brighter light shone from within the shadow. That confused Allen, even as he bolted forward, all his power focused behind his fist. He threw his most powerful super strength uppercut yet, and felt bones shatter beneath his fist. At the same time an incredible burning sensation filled his chest.

Aw, crap. Marcus had gathered enough energy.

The simulation shut down. Allen blinked as he opened his eyes to reality. The screen in front of them flashed with the word draw. He grinned.

Marcus laughed as he removed his own helmet. “One win, one loss, and one draw. I think that’s a good place to call it…for now.” He flashed Allen a grin. “Okay, I’m gonna make myself scarce, cause three’s a crowd.” He smiled at Tracy. “It was good to meet you. I’ll leave you to care for him.”

Tracy smiled. “Always do.”

He clapped Allen on the shoulder. “See you around, bro.”

The grin on Tracy’s face couldn’t have gotten any wider without splitting her face. “You made a friend! I’m so happy!” That was not something that came easy to Allen.

“Yeah.” Allen smiled. “I guess so.”

Her face sobered. “Seriously. How are you doing?”

Allen stopped smiling as well. The fun was over, and without reality of a virtual sort flashing in his face, he had no choice but to try come to terms with the thing that had happened. “Honestly? Angry. Scared. Stryker he was just…he was so big. Invincible. If he can go down then…” He shook his head. “But that doesn’t mean I should stop fighting. If anything, it just means I have to fight harder. I mean, I have some pretty big shoes to fill. Or throw.” He couldn’t resist adding that, even though Tracy wouldn’t have the first clue what he was talking about.

He held his girlfriend to his chest and took in a breath of her floral shampoo. “I’m glad you’re here, babe.”

She wrapped her arms around him. “We’ll get through this, I promise. And if anyone can follow in Stryker’s footsteps, it’s my hero boy.”

Advertisements

Eric didn’t know what to do. Charity was busy grief counseling her friends, and he wished with all his heart he could help; but he was about as useful as an umbrella on a buffalo. He spent several minutes in the infirmary, determined to outlast the uncomfortable feeling of being useless. He wanted at least to be there for Charity. She was going through grief of her own. When she’d lost her business in the hallway, he’d wished with all his might he could ease her pain, but that was impossible. And now it was becoming increasingly obvious that he was just in the way.

He never felt more like an outsider. This was a crazy world he’d been thrust into, and he didn’t belong here. These weren’t his people, and he couldn’t understand their pain. Sure, he could intellectualize it, and God knew he’d felt the pain of losing a brother, but he could sense that this was different. This was so much more.

“We’ll figure this out,” he said lamely. Brilliant, Eric. Just friggin’ brilliant. “I’ll go to the crime scene, see what I can find out. I’ll let you know what happened as soon as I do.”

Charity cast him a grateful look, and he smiled. He wasn’t going to tell her that he offered just to get the hell out of here.

A little while later, he landed at the scene, clad in his suit. Drake was there in his vigilante uniform. The ‘Mister X’ disguise always seemed so absurd to him. A dark figure who stalked the streets and brought the pain to anyone who didn’t meet his code of justice? How original. Yet he couldn’t deny its effectiveness, and how damn good the man was.

“Shot came from hotel, two blocks that way.” In this disguise, X spoke with a voice modulator, and used short, curt sentences. “Checked the place. Clean. Professional hit.”

Eric absorbed the information and nodded. That was hardly a surprise. If you were going to send someone to kill the Paragon of Alliance City, you weren’t going to send a tripped-out street kid. His attention was far more focused on the sidewalk in front of him. It was roped off with crime scene tape, surrounded by a small crowd of civilian gawkers and reporters. Local police milled around, making sure the bystanders kept to their place.

The sidewalk was covered in blood. It spread in a puddle that seemed to go on forever, stained indelibly on the concrete. Like an eerie reflection, the puddle seemed mirrored against the shattered pane of glass in the coffee shop window. Dried blood drooled from a frothy spray down the little glass that was still intact. A splash pattern danced around the gray-bricked edges of the wall.

Eric pushed down a wave of nausea. “Find the bullet yet?”

To answer him, shattered pieces of metal floated in front of his eyes. “Broke up on impact. Possible forensic countermeasure. Or to do maximum damage possible.”

Eric couldn’t keep the image of the exploding bullet out of his head. The metal shattering into thousands of pieces, splattering blood, bone, and brain matter against the brick and mortar. The nausea hit him again.

“Vorg. Microscopic scan.”

Eric nodded. He maybe should have been annoyed that Drake was ordering him around, but he was far too stunned. With a few mental commands, his heads-up display focused on the floating metal and zoomed in. “Identifying,” the A.I.’s voice said. “Scan complete. Eric…it looks like me.”

Eric wasn’t entirely in the mood for his suit’s existential crisis. “Just because it’s small bits of metal—“

Eric, listen. It’s more than a bullet. It’s a bullet-sized machine. The composition of metals is different, but the machine’s purpose and programming is the same.”

The nausea returned, but for a different reason this time. “To kill the Gifted.”

Eric,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Eric shook his head. It wasn’t her fault. Her purpose for existence was a burden she bore all the time. With a perfect memory it wasn’t something she could forget. “Drake, I know how they did it. The bullet was more than a projectile; it was a programmed missile, with the capabilities of emitting the same frequencies as my suit used to be able to do. This bullet was meant for him.”

Drake’s cowled head nodded. “I thought as much.” He paced away, and Eric felt that useless feeling again. What could he do to help them? They were his friends, after a fashion. He needed to do something. But how could he? He wasn’t part of their group, not really. No matter how much Charity tried to pretend he was.

Suddenly, Drake spun on his heel and gripped Eric on the shoulder. He leaned in and dropped the voice modulator. “I need you to take point on this investigation. I’m too close. When we catch this bastard, I want to nail the sun of a bitch to the wall. I don’t want to see him get off scot-free because of some bullshit implication of conflict of interest. I’ll be around if you need my expertise, but it must be you that puts the cretin behind bars.”

Eric’s jaw dropped so hard it banged against the inside of his suit. “I—but…this is your focus, you’re the one who’s the most capable, I can’t—I’m not trained in this…”

“You nearly uncovered the existence of the Delta Division. While drunk. You are capable of this. I need you to do this.”

Eric could scarcely believe it. He knew damn well what the request cost Drake. The man was a control freak, perpetually convinced that he was the only one capable of the things he was good at. That he would ask him…well, Eric was flattered.

And terrified. What if he couldn’t do it? He was a businessman, not a detective. There was a huge difference between following a money trial and solving a crime.

We can do it.

Well, if my suit thinks I can, then what am I worried about? he thought sarcastically. Yet, the truth of the matter was, Drake thought he could do it. Drake wouldn’t ask him if he didn’t trust his capabilities. He trusted him.

He stuck out his hand. “Count on it.” He said it with a confidence he didn’t feel. “We’ll get your guy. You have my word.”

* * * *

Mitch took the ferry from Delta Headquarters to the mainland and melted into the city streets. A few people called after him—mostly obscene names that came from the anti-metahuman protesters lining the shores overlooking HQ. That would bother him, usually. Here his people were, trying to save their sorry asses, and they had the balls to denounce them as ‘dangerous’, ‘morally irresponsible’, and his personal favorite, ‘genetically deviant’.

They weren’t a loud minority, not really. No one took them seriously. They had about two or three hundred people that were dedicated enough to sit along the shores, and most of them were there for the excuse to smoke weed for a common cause. On days with bad weather, that number dwindled to about fifty people that actually hated metas enough to sit through driving rain and blustery winds. No one was there during the winter.

The websites were always active, however. Every now and then, some hack who thought he was the next revolutionary would get a hold of some bandwidth; like moths to a flame, unintelligent twits would gather with their thoughts and opinions, as if they really mattered. Mitch had read one of their scathing commentaries once. “This is not a popular opinion,” it began, “but a necessary one. In light of human history, those painted wrong by their own time are often the most wise.” It just got worse from there, saying something about how the presence of metas took away their right to free speech. The Internet exacerbated stupidity.

Mitch had showed it to Charity, and she’d gotten annoyed all right—at the use of ‘most wise’ instead of ‘wisest’.

It should bother him more tonight, he reflected, as he aimlessly put one foot ahead of the other along a filthy alleyway. One of the people they so adamantly protested was dead for no discernible reason. Was this a victory for them? Were they happy a man’s life was extinguished, just because he dared to call himself a hero? But tonight, he just didn’t care. If they were going to spiral into self-destruction, he wasn’t going to stop them.

And so he walked. He didn’t have a particular destination in mind. He just wanted to be alone for a moment, to let his brain sort out this knot of confusion. Why? His mind grappled with the question. Stryker was a good, kind man. He made Mitch believe good men existed, that maybe, he could be one someday. He was an icon to the people, a beacon of hope. What purpose could there possibly be in snuffing out that light?

Without noticing, Mitch arrived at the scene of the assassination. Vorg was already here, as well as Mister X. If either of them noticed him, they didn’t give a sign. He was fairly certain X knew, though. Nothing happened without that man knowing about it.

Mitch didn’t need to be here. His view wasn’t great. He was some distance away, on the other side of rubberneckers and curious onlookers. Stryker’s body was gone. There was no reason to stand around on ceremony, but Mitch stayed anyway, part of the crowd of people who didn’t want to look away, that stared as the CSIs combed the scene. He understood in a way. Leaving meant they had to figure out how they were going to get on with their lives.

“Hey, you’re from Delta,” someone said, a businessman in a long tan trench coat. “Inferno, right?”

“What was he like?” This was from a twenty-something poser with pretentious thick-rimmed glasses, a pretentious goatee, and pretentiously wavy hair. “Linus Macklby. I’ll be running this story on my blog tonight. How is the Delta Division handling the loss of the Paragon of Alliance City?” He stood ready to record Mitch’s comment on his phone.

For a moment, Mitch considered setting fire to the man’s phone and telling him to mind his own goddamn business, but he changed his mind. Blogs were often a more reliable source of news anyway. Professional newspapers and news channels were sponsored and slanted to one view or another. Independent bloggers were free of that—though that often meant free to be utterly and viciously wrong.

“I don’t think anyone’s free to make a statement to that yet,” Mitch responded. “Individually, I don’t think anyone knows how they’re handling it yet. Stryker was a good man. We will all be hurting from this loss for a very long time.”

He declined to answer anything else, and took his leave. There was nothing else for him here.

He wandered along Blink and Stryker’s usual patrol route. There was someone walking the beat, Mitch was sure of it, because Sam wouldn’t let the streets be abandoned just because a hero was shot to death. Who she found to replace the duo, he had no idea, and didn’t care. If he ran into them, he’d stay out of the way. He didn’t know why he felt the need to finish the route. Symbolic, maybe. A compulsive need to finish what the fallen hero had started, even if it was something as simple as a patrol route.

When one went looking for trouble, it wasn’t very far away. Mitch heard a man scream in the distance, and he jogged quickly toward the sound. By the time he got there, three thugs had the man pinned against a brick wall with a switchblade to his throat. One of them was going through the poor man’s wallet. “P-please! Just let me go! Th-that’s all I’ve got, please, I won’t tell anyone, just don’t kill me!”

The thugs didn’t notice Mitch’s approach. He snuck through the shadows until he was almost on top of them, and then whistled through his teeth to get their attention. They turned and stared, and Mitch grinned as flames spread from the tips of his fingers along the edges of his coat and encircled him like an aura.

“Shit! Capes!” They scattered, but not before the alley was surrounded by a wall of flame. Trapped, the three thugs huddled back together. One of them pointed a gun. “Back off, you freak, or I’ll fill you full of holes!”

Mitch just laughed. “You’ll try.” He flicked his fingers, and the gun exploded, covering the man’s hands and arms with shrapnel.

That got their attention. Another one tried the reasoning approach. “Look, man, we’ll cut you in, all right? We can make a deal.”

Mitch ignored the speaker and walked up to the one who held the wallet. He snatched it from the terrified thug’s grip, minding his fire so it didn’t touch the faux leather. “Money.” He waved his fingers expectantly until the thug handed it over. Neatly, and ever so slowly, he tucked the money back into the wallet and handed it to the victim. “Anything missing?”

“N-no, Sir.” Mitch’s lips twisted in a smile at that. The man was several years his senior, and no one ever called him ‘sir’ like that.

“Good. Tonight might be one of those nights where you follow your gut and take a cab. The streets aren’t safe.”

The man nodded and took off like a shot through the opening in the flame that Mitch provided for him.

Mitch turned to the three would-be assailants. “I knew we should have stuck to our regular turf.” The thought wasn’t his. It came from one of the muggers.

“You shitstains are a bit off your beaten path, aren’t you?”

The three exchanged a look at Mitch’s words. “H-he said we could—that we’d be safe!”

Mitch chuckled. “’Safe,’ huh? Ironic choice of words.”

“We were told whatshisface…Stryker was dead. That—”

The man screamed as Mitch grabbed his collar. Flames licked at the thug’s face. “So now that he’s no longer with us, you figure you can just start terrorizing the people he protected? You couldn’t take one night off, one miserable night out of respect for the dead? No, of course not. A king is dead, long live the king.” He tossed the man to the concrete. The guy didn’t get up, but writhed in pain from the second degree burns on his face and neck.

“D-don’t kill me, please…” Begging seemed to be this guy’s style, permanently stuck in bargaining mode. The deal he’d tried to make left a bad taste in Mitch’s mouth.

Mitch laughed. “Funny. I think that’s exactly what your pal with the money said.” He took a step toward the man, who tripped and landed inches away from the fire wall. With a gasp, he rolled away onto his hands and knees. Mitch slammed his boot into the man’s nose and grinned at the soft crack. His target went flying into the fire. Mitch scooped him up by the belt and dragged him out. Flames licked at the hapless man’s clothing until Mitch put them out. He’d survive.

“I’m not going to kill you; in fact I want you alive. I want you to tell everyone that you deal with that these streets will never be ‘safe’ for your kind to terrorize. When one hero falls, another will rise to take his place. And you had better hope to whatever god you still believe in that that hero isn’t me.”

He dismissed the flames and left them there.

Blood trailed down the shattered windowpane, around bits of unidentified matter and coagulated on the sharp tip of a piece of glass. Jayson’s eyes followed it to the end, where the blood dripped into nothing. What must it feel like? He wondered. To reach the end of the glass and fall into an abyss?

The end.

This was the end.

His mind couldn’t comprehend the motion of the crowd around him, people running scared, the throng pressing against themselves away from the dead body that lay on the ground. He couldn’t understand so many lives that would just keep on going when the one before him had just been shattered.

Instinct kicked in, the only thing that could possibly carry him through this. His phone was by his ear before he knew why. He didn’t remember taking it out of his pocket or dialing the number to Sam’s office.

“John’s dead.” He could scarcely believe the word’s came so easily. With them came a horrifying reality. “Oh, dear god, John’s dead.”

“What happened, Mr. Allison?”

Her question was calming. The tone the words came in make him believe even for just a second that things were going to be okay.

They weren’t.

“Gun shot. How it happened, I have no idea. It just…oh, God…I j—I just—he’s…John, he’s…” He was blithering now, incapable of finishing a sentence.

“It’s okay, Mr Allison. We’ll talk about this later. Get to a safe place. I’m sending people over.”

She might have said more, but Jay dropped the phone. It clattered into a pool of blood. For a second, he imagined the communication device giving voice to the dead, a voice that was lost to the concrete as the blood soaked into the sidewalk.

Jayson tore the mask from his head, understanding in some vague sense that some low-life, bottom feeding paparazzi was going to take a picture of this moment of vulnerability, and his identity would likely be on some blog tomorrow.

He couldn’t give less of a shit right now. He wanted the damn thing off his face. It was covered in blood.

His hands were slick with it, the red sticky liquid from John’s body. Oh, dear god. He’s dead.

He couldn’t deny it. John lay half supported by the shattered glass window where he’d fallen. His arm looked incredibly uncomfortable, twisted underneath him like a rag doll. Jay resisted the urge to move it.

You should be used to this by now, a voice in his head taunted him.

No shit. This was not the first person he’d seen dead. Ceil, their Arlethaen friend, dead at the hands of the Old Order. The man he’d called Dad, killed by a purposeful strike from an angry god.

His mother had never recovered. To make matters worse, shortly after that Jay found out that the tactical call he’d made cost the lives of three people they were ill equipped to lose. He’d failed the team.

He’d failed John. They were partners. They were friends. He was supposed to protect him.

He couldn’t protect anything after it had half a head shattered all over the sidewalk.

The world shifted as his knees hit the ground, then kissed the palms of his hands. Jayson threw up.

Uniformed Delta Division officers showed up and spread out, pushing back the crowd and ascertaining any immediate danger. One began roping off the area while another snapped pictures.

“Sir?” A hand rested on his shoulder, and he turned to see the face of one of Delta’s investigators. Jayson couldn’t remember the man’s name, or anything about him, which was unfortunate because he was sure he’d interviewed the detective himself. He hoped to hell the guy was competent. If he was on the scene to do a preliminary investigation now, his notes had better be thorough and comprehensible for when Drake took over, or there would be hell to pay. And Drake would take over. He’d be by after the PSO mission to be sure. He wasn’t going to let something like this go to just anybody.

“I…I’m going to take him to the infirmary.” He shouldn’t be making that call, not yet, and not when his judgement was compromised. No one stopped him. Half a second later, they were in the infirmary.

Dr. Elizabeth Franks was there. She wasn’t supposed to be on duty tonight, but in a case like this, Sam had pulled in the best. Liz didn’t often work as a mortician, but she was more than capable. And she was personally invested. Tears pooled in her eyes, and her pale skin was nearly translucent. She was shaken. Jay hadn’t been kidding when he’s said the good doctor had more than a little bit of a crush on the paragon.

Of course, all that mattered exactly nothing now.

“He…hm…He—I think the cause of death is a gunshot wound to the head.”

It was an incredibly poor attempt at humor that wasn’t all that funny anyway.

Dr. Franks nodded and didn’t look at him.

Jay gripped his mask and ran his hands through his hair. “I…this isn’t supposed to happen. He’s supposed to be invincible. Invulnerable to anything people could throw at him.”

That was the story they told anyway. There was one thing John was vulnerable to. The machines in his world that stole powers. Maybe that had something to do with it.

It wasn’t doing any good to try to figure it out. Jay felt nauseous again.

“I’m sorry.” he didn’t even know why he was apologizing.

“Yeah. Um. I’ll be a bit, okay?”

“Okay. Hey, doc?”

“Yeah?”

“Where’s my wife?”

He didn’t really need to ask. He knew where she usually was—in her office, more often than not—and seeing that he’d given Sam sufficient time to do something, she probably knew something was up now, and was heading down here.

With that thought in mind, he ran outside of the morgue and caught her.

“Where is he?” Her voice was panicked. “Sam said something was wrong. What happened? You’re okay, thank God you’re okay. Joleon, is he…”

How in every hell that existed was he going to tell her?

“Merelise…” The use of her Alethaen given name interrupted her small rant.

“Oh, God, no…”

“Meryl…Joleon is dead.”

She caught her breath. Everything in her body just sank, and she collapsed to the floor with a sob. “No, no, no, God no, please, no!”

Jay caught her around the arms and held her to him. He just let her cry, because that’s all he wanted to do himself. The aching, sickening feeling in his stomach tightened, and he was pretty sure he’d never eat again.

He didn’t want to. He didn’t care anymore. There was nothing left.

Once, he’d stood toe to toe with Kronos and told the angry god that he had nothing left to lose, so bring it on. Idiot, idiot, idiot! Did he honestly think he was going to sneak around the god of time? Just because he was imprisoned, that didn’t mean the world was out of his reach.

Oh, dear God, please tell me John isn’t dead because of me.

Stop jumping to conclusions, another voice said, this one of reason. You don’t yet know the how our why or what happened. Blaming yourself will just blind you with guilt, and then you’ll never see the truth.

The suits from Arlethae was the only thing Jay could think of that would nullify a Gifted’s abilities, but he hadn’t seen one in the alleyway. What the hell was happening? Who would do something like this, and why? He just didn’t understand.

For a moment, he was angry. Not that this unspeakable thing happened, but that right now, he would have to be the strong one. Why me? Why is it my responsibility all the time to make sure everyone else is okay? When is it my turn to fall apart?

That lasted hardly for a moment. This was his wife. He would hold her up, and he would support her as much as she needed.

Even though right now, he didn’t have a dammed clue how.

* * * *

“Delta HQ to Thundra, abort mission.”

Charity exchanged a confused look with Drake. “Say again, HQ?”

“Abort mission. Return to base. Immediately.”

Drake shrugged. He’s gotten the data he needed, and besides, the computers were now destroyed. He’d go through the information later in his own lab.

“Okay, kids, back to the van, we’re taking off.” In the Maverick, she did a headcount. “Drake, let’s port back.” She’d saved the teleportation for an emergency, and there was an urgency in Sam’s voice that make her think this was the time for that.

They appeared back at HQ and piled into the hanger. Sam stood waiting for them, a dark, angry look on her face. Instantly Charity’s mind jumped to the conclusion that Sam was angry with them. Why, she had no idea, and it didn’t matter at all. It didn’t occur to her to ask. Her mind just raced to find a justification for every action she’d directed that night.

But that was unnecessary.

“Stryker is dead.”

For some reason Charity had the bizarre impression that Sam was talking about her favorite reality show character, which made no sense because that wasn’t the character’s name, and Sam didn’t watch television anyway, and even if she did, why would she be this upset about it?

Stryker is dead. This time it hit her like a slap to the face. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my God.”

“What happened?” she heard Eric ask.

“Details are still under investigation. What we do know at this time is that he was assassinated, shot at long range. Mr. Hachirobei, I assume you will be—”

Drake was gone. He didn’t even stick around to ask where it happened, but this was Drake. He’d find out. The streets were Mister X’s domain. Not a damn thing happened out there without him knowing about it. Except this.

“Miss London.” Charity’s head jerked up at Sam, pulling her out of her stunned stillness. “Mr. and Mrs. Allison are just outside the infirmary. I expect you’ll want to be there for them.”

“Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.”

She didn’t even remember covering the distance between the hanger and the door, but she was suddenly a few hallways down, on the floor sobbing. John was dead. He was gone. The one they all looked up to, the dependable one, the one they counted on to be there. He was gone.

Her senses dulled with grief, she hadn’t even realized that Eric was beside her, but then he wrapped his arms around her. She really lost it then, a small, internal voice expressing gratitude that she’d managed to put it off long enough not to cry in front of the younger kids.

“Gotta…gotta pull it together, she muttered finally. “Meryl and Jayson…they need me.”

Eric didn’t stop her, didn’t try to talk her out of it. Without a word, he helped her up, his arm around her waist. Her legs nearly gave out from underneath her, but he held her steadily. “I’m here,” he said, his voice gentle.

She nodded, and somehow the two of them made it to the infirmary doors. With a deep breath, she pulled away from Eric, and the two of them walked in.

The look on her friends’ faces was nearly her outdoing. Meryl was nearly prone, her whole body convulsing with uncontrollable sobs. This was her brother, her twin. Charity knew how terrified and angry she was when Marcus was threatened; she couldn’t possibly imagine how she’d feel to lose him. And that was only a fraction of the closeness that Arlathaen siblings felt. It was a trait of their race that every birth produced twins, a boy and a girl. They were meant to be together in everything, two halves of a whole.

Jayson held her. Thank God for him. The two of them were soulmates, and if anyone could pull Meryl through this, it would be Jay. But he was hurting too. He’d gone through too much. Charity could well remember the fear in his eyes when his mother nearly died a few years ago. She survived, but had never been the same. And then, just when Jayson was coming to terms with his adoption and deciding which of the two men in his life was his ‘real’ father, he’d lost them both.

If it wasn’t for that, he’d be running Delta, Charity was sure of it. She wished he was. Maybe then John wouldn’t have died. She never hated Sam more than she had at that moment. That makes no sense, she told herself. It’s not like Sam actually made this happen.

She pulled them both into her embrace. There were no words. The three of them just cried together. They would get through this, they had to.

If only she knew how.

* * * *

Allen followed Charity’s exit with his gaze until she made it through the doors; then his look of disbelief returned to Sam. “The four of you are dismissed. Please have your reports on the mission on my desk by morning. Thank you.”

Then she was gone.

Mitch spun on his heel and backed out through the hanger doors. “And, that’s my cue. Catch you jokers later, hm?”

Allen didn’t respond. He just stood there, his fingers clenched into a fist so hard that his knuckles were white and his fingernails dug into his skin. The sharp pain focused him. “What coward…what goddamn coward would do this? I’ll kill him. I swear to any god listening, I will kill him!”

Lindsay stared at him. “H-how dare you?” Allen glanced up at her in surprise. “How dare you?” She fairly screamed it now. “You have no right to be upset by this! You’ve been here for, what, three months? He was my mentor for three years! What the hell is Stryker to you? What could he possibly mean to you?”

“Lindsay, that’s enough,” Marcus said in a low voice, and tried to pull her away. He might as well have been tugging on a marble statue.

Allen could feel hot tears burning in his eyes. “He was my hero. That’s what he meant to me. And yeah, maybe you’re right. I should have joined Delta earlier, and maybe known him a little longer, but you know what? It doesn’t change a damn thing. We lost someone, and come hell or high water, we are going to make sure that he is avenged. So, are you going to stand there bitching at me about it, or are we going to work together to find out who is responsible? Because I can guarantee you I will find out. And God help him when I do.”

Lindsay had no response for that. She leaped into the air so fast, it left shatter marks on the concrete floor, and then took off into the night sky through the open roof.

Marcus shrugged. “Sorry about that,” she said. “Lindsay gets a little…worked up over things. “

“I don’t really blame her.” Allen unclenched his fists. There was blood on them, collected under his fingernails. He laughed a little. “For all my big talk, there’s not a damn thing we can do right now, is there?”

Marcus sighed. “Come on. The training room’s open. Maybe there’s nothing we can really do, but I think we both need to blow off a little steam. How’s about we go dick around in there a bit.” He grinned. “Betcha I’ll kick your ass.”

Allen found himself with a half smile to return. The idea sounded like a good one. God only knew how much he needed something to hit right now. “Okay.” There. That was something he could do. He’d fight and he’d train, and when people a lot smarter than he was figured out what was going on, he’d kick this villain’s ass.

“I can’t believe we’re missing the raid on the mad scientist’s lair.” Jayson spoke in English, though he normally used Arlethaen around John. There just happened to be very little about that sentence that translated well.

John chuckled. “You watch too much shows.” He tried the phrasing in English, but then lapsed into his native language. “It is quiet tonight.” The two of them paced the Alliance City downtown core keeping a vigilant watch on the people that milled about. Their presence attracted attention; heads turned and people pointed them out, varying in degrees of subtlety. Other than that, there were little for them to worry about.

“Too quiet…” Jay responded, stroking his chin with his gloved hand. His mask hid his face, but John knew there was a mockingly suspicious look underneath the skin-tight, breathable polymer. Jayson laughed. “Seriously. It’s cause people have our patrol route memorized by now. Your average criminal isn’t going to be stupid enough to cause a big scene when they know Blink and Stryker are on the job. Because we are that awesome.” He laced his fingers behind his head and walked backward grinning at John.

John’s mouth tipped. “You’re feeling useless here, aren’t you?”

Jay’s grin flipped into a look of pure exasperation. “God, yes. One of my closest friends is out there in the Sahara facing her worst fear, reliving the most horrible moment of her life, and I’m stuck on the streets giving petty criminals the evil eye.”

John shook his head. “I think you are giving Charity’s strength too little credit. She is more capable of dealing with this than you imagine.” He put a hand on Jay’s shoulder. “We’ve all seen things. Terrible things. And you know as well as I do that, when we see those things, we have two choices. One is to buckle under the weight of the horror we have witnessed, to take a knee to evil. The other is to stand and fight.”

He withdrew his hand and smiled. “You made your choice in the midst of your crisis of faith. And because of that, Kronos is bound. Defeated. Charity is of the same heroic stock. When her choice comes, she will stand. Again and again. And I believe the others with her will do the same.”

* * * *

The hallways of the evil laboratory were dead silent. So quiet, Allen was sure everyone could hear his heart beat. His glance went to Charity. Like the rest of them, she’d exchanged her ostentatious super hero costume for a full stealth uniform. Sweat beaded on her brow and stuck damp, brown curls to her forehead. She wasn’t doing well; it didn’t take a genius to figure that out. Her demeanor was calm, but this scared the hell out of her. That, and what she did, that display of incredible power…just, wow. No wonder she was one of the biggest names in Delta.

“Keep an eye out,” she said. “That’s not going to be the last of the creatures we face, and I can’t do that aura thing in here without frying the computers. And we sort of need those…you know, being the main target and all.”

The plan was to get as much data from the computers as possible, in then out. Hopefully without anyone noticing. Everything clear, he watched her slip into the computer labs. Drake and Eric followed her. No, Mister X and Vorg. Now that he knew these people by their real names, it was hard to equate them with their hero identities.

The laboratory was massive. Computer towers scaled the room from floor to ceiling. It cleared a good two storeys easily, accessible by a series of crisscrossing wire platforms. A balcony surrounded the whole room, punctuated by intermittent staircases leading to the lower floor and row upon row of terminals.

Something rattled on the walkways. It sounded big and bulky. “Bigger than a breadbox,” Charity had said. This one was his and Lindsay’s. “Let’s kick some ass.” He tried to grin at her, but she took off into the rafters without even looking at him. By the time he got to the top of the room,, she had a large man tight in her grip.

The man was more bulk than brains. As Lindsay took off to the ceiling, he struggled and kicked. The sound emanating from his mouth wasn’t anywhere near eloquent, threatening the girl with certain death if he didn’t let him go this instant. Never mind that he’d end up splattered all over the floor at this height. He twisted and snarled against the teenage paragon, and even as Allen watched, a thick, red ooze started to dribble out of every pore in his body.

“Ewww!” Lindsay squealed and dropped her burden.

“No!” Allen yelled, without stopping to wonder why he was worried about such a creature. He snatched the man’s hand out of the air, but the slick red substance left him without a grip. With a sickening squish, a dark red stain spread on the concrete below.

Then, before his eyes, the stain moved. It coagulated, and from the puddle stepped a humanoid figure, roughly the same shape as the man they’d dropped, but bigger and bulkier. And covered head to toe in thick scabs.

“Okay, that’s disgusting.” Lindsay’s face expressed that in volumes as she floated by Allen.

Allen just looked at her, speechless.

“I hold, you punch, kay?”

She dashed to the lower floor after the blood creature, when Mitch appeared out of nowhere. He touched the big man, and instantly he screamed and went up in flames. Allen landed and gave him an incredulous look. “What the hell, man?”

Mitch shrugged. “Thundra said put ‘em out of their misery.

Then he heard a buzzing sound rattling behind the walls and through the ventilation shaft. He glanced at some of the others. Lindsay had her head cocked to one side. She must hear it too. A minute later, so did Marcus and Mitch.

A tink tink tink sounded from the rooftops, and Allen bolted into the air just in time to see a horde of flies pour through every conceivable entry point into the lab. “What the hell?”

Drake put his head down and started getting as much data as possible. Charity gave up her efforts to assist and started taking pot shots at the bugs. Allen’s gaze darted around. He punched things. What was he supposed to do with a bunch of bugs?

Mitch and Marcus had that well under control. Fire and electricity was an effective tool against a swarm of unidentified insects.

“Ow!” Charity cried out. Already on edge, Allen jerked his head toward her. “One of them bit me,” she muttered. “Okay, that’s it. X, you done?”

“As I’m going to be,” Drake replied.

“Everyone get down, then,” Charity said. She put her hands out. There was a crack of thunder and a blinding flash of light. Dead bugs rained down, peppering the ground in a near-endless stream. “There. Take that.”

She flashed a triumphant look. Allen was glad she was happy. He, on the other hand, could feel the hail of insects collecting in his collar at the base of his neck. In that second, he was pretty sure he’d never feel clean again.

* * * *

“This is disgusting.” John cast a look so thoroughly unimpressed at the meat and pita in his hand, Jay was almost surprised it didn’t catch fire. “What in God’s name are you feeding me?”

Jayson laughed. “It’s called shawarma, and it’s part of the cultural experience of a big city. Seriously, you can’t throw a stone without hitting at least ten restaurants and five cart vendors that sell the stuff.”

“You’d think with that kind of competition, it would drive its creators to make an edible product. I’ve chewed cow hooves with better taste and less grit.”

“More for me, then.” Jay held out his hand, and John slapped the foil-wrapped package into his palm. “Wait. Cow hooves?”

“It was a dare. Ceil wanted to see if my teeth were as strong as the rest of me.”

Jay scratched his forehead with his pinky. “I…I’m trying to decide if I want to ask…”

“A bit rubbery. Lacked seasoning. And for subjecting me to such horror, you’re buying coffee.”

Jay shrugged as they walked away, ignoring the burning look of amazement that bored into their retreating back. He could only imagine the excited conversation the vendor owner was going to have with his family. “Stryker and Blink bought my shawarma!” Poor man. It’d probably kill him to know that the Paragon of Alliance City had cast such dishonor on his food.

“Y’know, considering the way you take your coffee, I shouldn’t be too surprised at your poor taste in cuisine.” Jay flashed a grin at his friend.

“It’s called a latte, and it is an art form.”

“Who put such silly ideas into your head? Black is best. Straight-up, unadulterated fruit of the coffee bean. None of this silly foam nonsense.”

“You do realize there is an entire process that the coffee bean has to go through before it can—”

“You’ve been listening to Charity’s lectures again, haven’t you?”

“She was practicing her Arlethaen. I didn’t really have a choice.”

Jayson just shook his head at that, then nodded at the barista behind the counter as they walked into the café.

She flashed a friendly grin back. “Usual?”

“Please. You know, one of these days, I might change it up just to confuse you.” Jay leaned on the pastry display taste and cocked his head with a grin.

“Sorry. Don’t think I can put any less sure in it than ‘none’.”

Jay chuckled. “And that it why it will never change. I’m sweet enough.” He winked. She blushed.

He turned around to John with a twinkle in his eye. “She’s totally crushing on you,” he said in Arlethaen.

John blushed. “No. She’s crushing on Stryker, not…” He shrugged. Not John Smith.

There was a deliberate disconnect between John Smith and Jayson Allison, and Stryker and Blink. Blink and Stryker were in the magazine’s top five most eligible heroic bachelors, most often trading off spots one and two. Blink’s sweet, boyish charm and incorrigible charisma played off Stryker’s exotic stoicism and innocent idealism. They played that up for the press because it garnered the public’s support for the Delta Division—an ongoing PR stunt orchestrated by Samantha Clive—and because it protected someone they both loved very much.

Meryl Allison: Jay’s wife and John’s sister. Though Jayson played the flirt when in costume, there was not a man more devoted to his wife. He was hers and hers alone.

John, on the other hand, had never been in love.

Jayson knew what John was getting at, but he disagreed. “Not that much of a difference.” He slapped the back of his hand against John’s chest before returning his arms to their folded position across his chest. “I keep telling you, you need to get out there.”

John shrugged and looked away. It wasn’t the first time they had this discussion.

Jayson picked up the coffees and handed John his. Once outside the café, he clamped a hand on John’s shoulder. “Listen, man. That hero that people see out there, protecting them, keeping them safe, that’s you with or without the mask. You’ll find someone that sees that, I promise.”

John gave him a half-smile, so Jay dropped the chick-flick moment. I should probably stop needling him about this.

Jay took one step before that resolution ended. “Oh! What about Dr. Franks? She knows your secret identity already. Plus, she’s drop-dead gorgeous, wildly intelligent, and she’s been crushing on you since your first physical.”

He glanced at John with a smirk, but he never would get an answer to that question.

He didn’t hear the shot. Against the backdrop of the night sky and the café’s florescent light, he saw an explosion of red mist as it sprayed against his face. The copper scent of blood filled his nose and mouth. The coffee shop’s window shattered. Blood and hair and bone sprayed across the fragmented glass and pavement and brick. People screamed and ran. You should duck, the practical, detached reason in his head told him. He didn’t move.

He finally found his voice. “John,” he rasped. He still stood there, unwilling to believe the scene right in front of his eyes. “John!”

“That god dammed cantankerous bitch!” Charity was furious. Eric thought it was incredibly hot, but he put his hand over his mouth in a casual, understanding matter, at least in part to keep that idea inside his head. It would not amuse her right now.

“Hey, it’s okay. I’ll be there.”

“No thanks to her,” Charity spat out. “If she had her way, you would be here at all, we’d still be separated, and—” She ran out of words, she was so angry.

There was no love lost between the two women, and Eric didn’t blame her. The decision to go public had to have been in the works months before they’d broken up. When Charity had asked Sam to make an exception so she could tell Eric about Delta, there had been no damn good reason why the director had refused. Eric didn’t think It was spite, but he couldn’t rule it out.

They were in the common room of the Delta Division HQ. From the top down, the whole building was the multiple-triangle shape that made the Delta symbol. The high-rise nearly touched the sky above ground; and below, the man-made island was hollowed out to house several laboratories. This and a group of three other levels were for the agents’ quarters. The common room was a nexus. Several large television screen were placed about the room for entertainment and information. Satellite hook-ups, provided gaming, movies, and other benefits of Internet access. Huge glass doors opened out on to a veranda that surrounded the building.

With the late hour, there were few people in the room, and the screens were silent. A couple sat somewhere in the back, conferring quietly. A lab technician hogged a corner table up against a window with a view out into the lake. Charity and Eric sat at the bar.

Charity gave Eric a look as he swirled his fourth whiskey of the night. “We do have a mission tomorrow,” she scolded him.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine by then.”

“Uh huh. Eric…”

“Really.” He set the glass down. “But if it bothers you that much…” He put his arm around Charity’s waist. “Look, I know I went a little…off the deep end after I thought I’d lost you.” He nuzzled her. The alcohol was getting to his brain a little. “But I don’t need it now. I’m never going to let you go again.”

She smiled, and when he kissed her, she kissed him back, lingering. “So long as I don’t ever lose you.” Her hand brushed up against his face.

He closed his eyes and leaned into her touch. “I love you. So much.”

“And I love you. Now, come on, let’s go home. I have to figure out how the hell I’m going to get a bunch of teenagers to kill monsters instead of each other.”

* * * *

The Maverick was a fantastic machine. Allen had seen it the day before when they went to Russia—he still couldn’t get over the fact that the day before, he was in Russia—but it still took his breath away. It had all the functions of a versatile helicopter, with the sleek exoskeleton of an airplane. Its stealth capabilities were unparalleled, hiding from all but the most sophisticated detection systems. It didn’t seem large from the outside, though it certainly had a commanding presence even as it idled in the hanger. Light bent around its frame, already designed for minimal air resistance. It made the plane look smaller.

Inside, it seemed to almost bend space, it was so roomy. Plush chairs lined the walls inside, providing an easy view of a low table that could be folded into the floor. An empty holographic display shone over the table, waiting for information to be input. A door to the back of the plane was bolted shut, but could be opened easily enough for a drop. Drake already sat in the cockpit, surrounded by a holographic heads-up display. His eyes flicked back and forth in sync with his flying fingers as he performed last-minute checks and countdowns.

“Takeoff in two minutes,” Drake informed them. “Get in and buckle your seat belts, I don’t care if you’d survive an impact.”

“The ship’s got teleportation capabilities,” Charity explained, “We’ll save the ship’s teleportation capabilities for an emergency,” Charity decided. “It takes some time to warm up after use.”

“Uploading satellite imagery to the holographic table,” Drake informed them.

Charity nodded and caught the ball of information before she expanded it to sort through. She focused on a sonar image of the laboratory they were going to.

“So, what’s the plan, Boss?” Lindsay asked. Sort of a suck-up, Allen reflected. He wondered what Marcus actually saw in her. She seemed so shallow.

“Entrance here, I think. It looks like an exhaust vent. They have to keep the computers cool somehow. I’m sure it’ll be secure up the wazoo, but you can crack it, right Drake?”

“I can crack it,” Lindsay responded, pounding one fist into the palm of her hand.

“Yeah, let’s keep that kind of crack until they actually discover us. I’d much rather get in and out without them noticing us.”

Lindsay looked disappointed.

“So…” Allen spoke up. All eyes turned to him, and he suddenly felt intimidated. He swallowed and tried again. “So, what kind of things can we expect?”

“Monsters,” Charity said matter-of-factly. Allen noticed an out-of-place twitch in her cheek and a momentary flash of uncertainty in her otherwise controlled demeanor. “PSO does genetic experiments, splicing meta powers into altered humans or animals. You’ll see scientists and laboratory assistants, but don’t let their demure appearance fool you. Most of them exercise some form of mind control over their pets. If they’ve got any sanity left, I can guarantee they’re entirely amoral. The world’s not going to miss them if they happen to end up dead. If their mind is lost…well, the best thing is to put them out of their misery anyway. I’ve been told on no uncertain terms that this is a recon mission, not search and rescue. I…I don’t like it, but those are orders.”

A quiet tension settled over them. Allen suppressed a shudder. When he signed up for this, he knew he’d probably be running into a villain or two—that was part of being a hero, right? But here it was, right in his face, the cost of heroics. Thundra was a hero, no question about it. But Allen was looking under the mask now, and he saw the toll it had taken on her. Her eyes were haunted and he could tell she hadn’t slept well.

Was that what he was going to look like five years from now? So twisted and broken he could barely breathe? He’d heard about things like post-traumatic stress disorder. In his psych eval, Meryl had mentioned something about the super man’s curse. Super heroes had it worse, she told him. They had to shoulder more responsibility, more tragedy, more trauma at a younger age than anyone else. What else had Charity seen? What else was he going to see?

* * * *

They arrived, and the Maverick parked in stealth mode several feet above the lab. Never again, Charity had promised herself a long time ago. Well, that didn’t pan out. In her dreams, she went back to that dreadful place, over and over and over again to save people. No one ever survived. Sometimes, even her waking hours, she’d fantasize about going back, rescuing some poor soul from the clutches of the twisted sycophants, and take him or her under her wing. She could be an inspiration to them, a message that they could live on.

Maybe then, what happened to her would have purpose.

She felt a hand on her arm, and she turned to smile at Eric. Early in their relationship, she’d put off sharing a bed with him because she couldn’t explain her nightmares. Now he knew everything, and Charity couldn’t get over what a support he was. She’d never be able to get out of bed if it wasn’t for him. He could make her forget all those times she woke up screaming, terrified she was trapped forever in a torturous prison.

But she was not going to let that define her life. The group gathered at the door of the Maverick, that was what defined her. Eric, the love of her life; she’d die for any of her friends–for him, she’d live. Drake, her rock. Some saw him as erratic; to her, he was stability itself. Marcus: he was growing to be such a young man. People called him her sidekick, and that was true to a point, but he was really a hero in his own right. Even the others: Lindsay, Mitch, and Allen; she didn’t know them quite as well as she could yet, but they were her students. They would grow and develop their own stories. They looked up to her, and she was their hero. That’s why she kept fighting.

“So much for stealth.” Drake pointed to the sands below. They were stirring. From the dunes, gray in the moonlight, rose countless creatures.

“We need to get Drake into the computer lab. I’ll clear a path. Spark Plug, Inferno, you’re behind me. Clean up any stragglers. Vorg, stick with X, you got his back. Oh, and take this.” She handed him her comm. “Spirit, Spryte, break anything bigger ‘n a breadbox, got it?”

She scarcely waited for a nod before she took a nosedive from the plane. She bent her body at a ninety degree angle to the ground, arms pinned to her sides, one leg tucked behind the other. The wind whistled in her ears. For a moment, she was at peace.

When she was held captive by Ptah-Setker-Osiris, their experiments had unlocked a power hidden deep within. It was another form; a part of herself she could not control. In some ways, it was like another entity altogether, but in her truest moments she had to admit that it was an intrinsic part of her. It had taken it years to master it, years to take back the control PSO had taken from her.

Oh, sure, she’d used it a time or two. When she and the team had fought Kronos, she’d taken on this form because it was the only thing that was equal to the god. But she’d been terrified the entire time…or at least the part of her that was aware. Most of the fight was blacked out from her memory, though it still woke in her dreams. She’d been afraid of herself, afraid of her power.

But that was years ago. Now she was going to kick some ass.

Electricity flashed in the night sky as the energy rippled over her body and exploded into bright light. Time shifted away from her, like it was sucked into another dimension. More to the point, it became irrelevant to her. Past, present, future, it all melded into one. So simple, she mused. It’s all so simple.

It was not the first time she’d had that thought, and she still didn’t have the slightest idea what it meant. It was like this form was a gateway into another universe, and she saw things with a clarity she could never retain when she returned to Earth. Pain, tragedy, guilt, failure, joy, laughter, friends, tears, loss, and so much more: it all left an indelible mark on one’s soul, a purposeful design to…

She was never quite sure what. It was hard to remain anchored to the same plane of existance as her friends when she was in this form. It all seemed so far away, so irrelevant. With some effort, she pulled her mind back to the swirling sands of the Sahara desert. Reality struck a blow to her mind that left her spinning in tears. She wanted to go back to the sensation of timelessness.

But right now, she had a job to do. The air around her heated so fast that the surrounding cold air collapsed in on itself. Winds began to cycle around her supercharged body. Moisture gathered in the air, and a lightning storm formed in response to her presence. In a distant sense, she was aware of the creatures that surrounded her. They were bat-like creatures, their sonic cries enhanced to do more than just feel the world around them. Everyone clutched their ears, and even Charity felt a sharp pain. Well, that wouldn’t last for long. Lightning crackled in an aura around her. Bats fell by the thousands. More joined them as Marcus and Mitch began to fire at will.

The descent was over in seconds. Charity’s booted feet touched the sands, and her aura faded. The world spun.

“Are you okay?” Eric’s hand caressed her shoulder a bit clumsily. His suit was less like a knight’s armor and more like a second skin, but it still made his fingers bulky. The touch grounded her in reality.

She nodded, noting that she was breathing heavily. Her whole body rebelled at being brought back to this realm of existence. Eric looked worried. She didn’t have the faintest idea how he possibly emoted through the metal faceplate, but she could still sense his concern. “I’m fine really.” She sounded breathless even to herself.

The bats were gone, but they had barely a moment’s pause before Drake said, “I’m in.”