“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.”