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.”
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.
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.”