“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!”