The Human Element

Chapter 8: The Shadow of Death

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The memorial service was well attended. The courtyard in front of the Delta Division headquarters was set up with hundreds of white wicker chairs in front of a large podium which sat against a backdrop of shifting holographic images of Stryker. In some he seemed to turn and smile. Others made it look like he still flew the skies if you looked up at them at the right angle. The chairs were quickly filled, and more kept coming. All day, the ferries worked, running back and forth between the island and the mainland, carrying in civilians from all over the city. People took seats on the grass around Delta’s massive skyscraper. If Stryker was still alive, he’d be able to look down on the island headquarters and see the people covering the small acreage and walkways like ants on a hill.

Marcus kept casting concerned glances at Lindsay. He put his hand on hers, but she stiffened. After a moment, she pulled away. She’d said maybe about five words to him since Stryker’s death. She’d been really affected by it, hardly leaving her room in the Delta Headquarters unless she had to. He wanted to be sure she was okay, but he felt a little pissed too. What made her think he was so unaffected? Stryker wasn’t just her hero; she wasn’t the only one who looked up to him. The entire city did too.

His anger flared, but he quickly stuffed it inside. It’s not about you.

Granted, it wasn’t about her either, but now wasn’t the time to point that out.

He barely heard the speeches. Sam turned hers into a subtle recruitment drive. That’s not exploitative at all, he thought sarcastically. He would have been annoyed at her, except even Sam the Robot couldn’t hide how angry she was at this. Someone had attacked her people. She was pissed.

Jayson got up on the platform. He looked so worn out. His limp was so pronounced, he could barely make it up the steps. Marcus had heard the story of how he’d lost his leg. The stress he was under must be making the pain of the injury flair up. He could have teleported up to the platform, but he walked anyway. Guess no phantom pain could hurt as bad as he’s hurting inside right now.

The audience quieted. Everyone knew Blink and Stryker were best friends. So out of respect of the dead and the living, they fell silent. Someone coughed. The silence stretched.

Jay started speaking, talking about how he and Stryker had met—at least as much as wasn’t classified. He talked about what kind of man he was, how he needed something to fight for. About how the people of the city were his inspiration, as much as he was theirs.

Partway through he broke down. In front of the whole city, he started crying. Unable to hold back the tears any longer, unable to be strong, he buckled under the weight of his sorrow. His arms curled up on the podium on top of his written speech, and he sobbed.

Charity got up and walked up the steps. She put an arm about Jayson and gently tugged at the piece of paper he was hiding. In a soft voice, she continued the speech.

“Being a hero isn’t about being strong. It’s not about fighting for justice, it’s not even about protecting the weak. It’s about fighting for something. Stryker taught us that. And so, in his memory, I will find something to fight for, something that keeps me strong. I call each of you to do the same. Because so long as each of us fight for what we believe in, Stryker will be fighting within us.”

Jayson turned around and buried his face in Charity’s shoulder. She held him there for a moment and let him cry. Then gently, she turned him around and gave him a small shove in the direction of his seat. He returned there and sat down.

Charity pulled out her own speech. She smiled a little. “How do I follow that?” She chuckled a little. No one laughed. Tears sparkled in her eyes.

“Here at Delta I’m one of the school teachers. I get to watch young minds being shaped by the world around us, and I sometimes wonder if we’re doing right by them. I look at you all today. Some of you are here out of curiosity, wondering how we deal with the loss of one of our own. Some of you are hurting as badly as we are. Some of you are here because you’ve been inspired. And at the end of the day, that’s all any of us can ask.

“Ultimately, Stryker was a soldier. Like Blink said, he fought for something, like our soldiers fought throughout history, for freedom, for justice, peace. Stryker fought to show that there was something worth fighting for. Those of you who are here to honor his memory, that’s what I want you to take away from this day. Find that something and fight for it.”

Marcus’ thoughts drifted. What was he fighting for? What was his purpose? Why was he here? He’d joined for one reason, and that was more or less to make sure he didn’t hurt anyone else. But if he was going to be a fully realized hero, there would have to be something more.

That went on for a bit before Charity wrapped up and started back down the stairs. Marcus watched her descend. What was she fighting for? He’d seen her fight. Moreover, he’d heard of everything she’d gone through. The memory of the look on her face when they were in the PSO lab was burned into his brain. It could have crippled her; perhaps not physically, but certainly mentally. And yet, she was a hero. Like Stryker, the city looked up to her. She was driven. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, he admired that.

He couldn’t shake the image of her battling the people who had threatened to kill him, couldn’t escape the thought that she’d nearly died for him. Her eyes met his, and in that moment, he understood. She’s fighting for you, idiot.

In that moment, she collapsed to the ground.

* * * *

A bullet fired from a gun couldn’t have gotten out of his seat faster than Eric. This is what he was terrified of, what he was positive was going to happen, what he never allowed himself to admit he feared. The head of Delta attacked, the Division’s inspiration assassinated, of course Charity would be a target. The people of the city loved her, almost as much as he did.

He couldn’t blame them. She was beautiful. Even now, lying prone on the steps, he found himself taken aback by her perfect form. Her chin-length hair framed her masked face. She smiled all the time, but there was always something behind that smile, something sad. He was only just beginning to understand why, and someone was trying to take her from him.

He knelt on the red carpeted steps. His suit shifted away from his hand so he could touch her face, feel her breath, know that she was okay. Her face was at rest, the most peaceful he’d seen her…well, ever. He felt something warm and wet on his face, and he realized he was crying. “You’re okay, Charity, please tell me you’re okay, you have to be okay.”

She was breathing. Maybe she was just exhausted, tired from playing the supportive friend, tired of being strong. The rise and fall of her chest was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

“Move.” Dr. Franks was there now, demanding he let her do her job. He complied, too stunned to do anything else.

“Wait, she’s okay, right? She’ll be okay?” Marcus stood there now, pale faced and just as baffled as Eric was.

He gripped the boy on the shoulder. “Let the doctor do her job.”

Marcus might have nodded, but he wasn’t sure, and he didn’t particularly care. Dr. Franks waved Jay over and instructed him to get Charity to the infirmary now. The three of them disappeared, leaving Marcus and Eric to find their own way into the building and up the stairs.

Not that it took very long, and the length of time it did take gave Eric the chance to process.

“I’m going to kill the bastard. Why is he doing this? Stryker, now Charity? Why? How is she still alive?” Marcus mused out loud.

“We don’t know that this is an attack,” Eric said reasonably.

“What else could it be?” Marcus nearly screamed at him. He looked nearly ready to faint himself. “How the hell can you be so calm?”

“I’m not,” Eric said honestly. “I’m going insane. God, Charity, she…” he didn’t know how to finish that sentence. “But we’re not going to fall apart, do you hear me?” He turned and faced Marcus. The rest of his suit melted away to a chest piece underneath his buttoned shirt. He gripped the boy’s shoulders. “We are not going to fall apart. We are going to work together and we are going to figure this out, and that is a promise.”

God, the kid was seventeen. He was hardly yet a man, and yet he was dealing with a loss no one should. Seeing the boy’s tears nearly brought back his own. “We’re going to be okay, I promise.” It felt emptier the more he said it.

It felt like forever before the doctor came out of the examination room. She was pale as death. Eric was on his feet before he noticed it. Marcus sat perfectly still, elbows resting on his knees. He barely breathed. Allen sat beside him, wordlessly.

“It…it’s my fault,” the doctor said quietly. Eric shook his head, confused. “There’s a…a black tar-like substance coating her—her brain. I-I can’t touch it with my abilities, and it’s far too intertwined within her cells for me to even think of attempting surgery.”

“What?” Marcus’ abject confusion radiated from the boy. “How? How would something like that—it couldn’t have come from nowhere.”

Something clicked in Eric’s head. “A bug. One of those bugs in PSO bit her.”

The doctor nodded. “I wondered as much. There’s a mark on her neck, it looked like it might have been some sort of delivery system.”

“But what do you mean it’s your fault, I hardly think—”

“Delta protocol suggests a full examination after missions, especially ones to Ptah-Setker-Osiris. I should have known. I should have checked. If I’d checked, I would have found the bug bite and maybe done something about it. But John—” She cut off and covered her mouth. That was the night of the assassination. Everyone had something on their mind other than a damned protocol.

“When will she wake up?” Marcus’ voice was surprisingly steady.

Dr. Franks hesitated. “I…I don’t know. I don’t know if she will.”

“Can I see her?”

The doctor nodded. “She is still unconscious.” A redundant bit of information.

Marcus just nodded and walked past them into the room. Eric followed. Doctor Franks didn’t stop them.

It was quiet in the room. Too quiet. Charity was in a hospital gown now, mask gone, sparkles still dancing on her cheeks. She dusted them on any time she used the Thundra costume. She was supposed to represent the use of energy, so being flashy was important. Eric had never really understood till now what it meant to her to be in the spotlight. She didn’t like the attention so much, so why did she go out of the way to draw others’ eyes to her? It was being a hero. It was meaning something. Eric just hoped she knew how much she meant to him.

Marcus was crying again. He shed silent tears as he sat by her beside. He gripped his sister’s hand. “She’ll wake up. She will wake up.” He slipped off his goggles and laid them on the bed. “Please wake up.” He was just saying what Eric felt.

Eric couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t do the bedside vigil thing, staring uselessly at the monitors, waiting like a soap opera lover for his lady love’s eyes to open. He couldn’t wait for the long, agonizing beep that said the wait was over and the worst had come to pass.

He stalked out of the room and slammed the door behind him. Drake was there and he gripped Eric on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said, but Eric wasn’t listening. He shoved away Drake’s hand and made his way to the common room. He needed a goddamned drink.

* * * *

Jayson watched the utterly defeated look on Drake’s face as he tried to do the gentlemanly thing and give Eric the encouragement he needed. Unsurprisingly, Eric was having none of it. The two of them stood silently just outside the room, watching through the reinforced glass window as Marcus tried unsuccessfully to keep it together. The air was heavy. Jay felt the change in his pocket tear a hole through the thin fabric and fall to the floor with a shallow clatter. He picked up the coins. Almost no one used cash anymore, but Jayson liked keeping a bit of change in his pocket, just for the sake of fiddling with it as a nervous habit.

“Nickel for your thoughts?” It was a terrible joke, and Drake let him know with a dirty scowl. Jay didn’t regret the pun, though. They’d have to get through this somehow.

Drake continued to brood, his dark look nearly boring a hole in the glass in front of them. Three guesses what he’s thinking, and the first twenty don’t count. “That train of thought isn’t helping anyone, you know.”

Drake looked at him with a raised eyebrow, annoyed. He made no comment.

“The thought that you should have been able to protect her. Look, man, I get it. You think I haven’t been telling myself the same thing? I was right there when John was killed. I keep playing it over and over in my head, but every time it ends up the same. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You…you can’t change the past. All we can do it try to make things a little better going forward, you know?”

His little pep talk didn’t seem to have any effect. Drake just went back to staring through the window. “Hey, listen to me. Do I have to drag you to the gym myself and beat some sense into you, cause I will. I did it before, and I can do it again…ya scrawny punkass kid.”

This time when Drake looked at him, it was with just a hint of a ‘challenge accepted’ face. “You haven’t been able to beat me since Saskatchewan. I’d like to see you try.”

“Well, to be fair, you really were just a ninety pound tech dweeb then. But hey. We beat…what did you call him?”

“The Master of Mechanics, and I think that was your idea.”

“What? No… I’d never think of something that lame.” Drake rolled his eyes at him. “Okay, yeah I would. But I’m still pretty sure it was you.”

“Not a chance.”

“Yeah? Whatever.” Jayson fell silent, lost in thought for a moment. He remembered that mission well. You never forgot your first. That was when they’d really started bonding as a team, though God knew they certainly weren’t well-oiled for a while after that. But then again, they were just kids.

“Ya know,” Jayson said, “we shouldn’t have even been on that mission. Technically we were recon only. As soon as we found Clint Raison’s location and radioed it in, we should have been pulled. I studied some of Delta’s protocols when I was seriously considering taking position as Director. Delta never sends in an inexperienced team for capture and retrieval. We shouldn’t have been there, especially since the guy we were after was brother to Miriam, one of our team members. Conflict of interest, much?”

Drake shrugged. “I kind of assumed it was Jones just dicking with us. Um, no offence.”

“Hey, the dude pretty much refused to acknowledge me as his son for fifteen years. Granted it was to quote unquote ‘keep me safe,’ and yes, I’ve dealt with it, but I know damn well how he liked to make sure we learned a hard lesson or two. But not at the expense of protocol.”

Drake turned to him with a puzzled look. “Huh.”

Jayson shrugged and chuckled a little. “Maybe it was a Fae jerking him around.” Drake actually stopped a moment to think about it. “I’m kidding, dude, it was a joke. We know damn well the Fae were all in Myrathelle serving Kronos at the time. Unless Kronos had us pegged even then. He is the god of time, remember. Maybe he saw us coming and sent his Fae army to toy with us.”

Drake shook his head. “No, Kronos has been down the road enough times to know that he has to kill any threat to him, instead of making them grow up and be heroic enough to stand up to him.”

“Then who? You’d have to practically mind control Jones to get him to break protocol.”

“I don’t know,” Drake said in that voice that said he didn’t like knowing.

Jayson didn’t blame him. The thought of being screwed with didn’t sit well with him, and he didn’t take it nearly as personally as Drake did. He mentally shrugged. That was years ago. It didn’t matter now. There was no way it could.

Are you sure about that?

“Oh, hey, speaking of Miriam, Sam’s got me and Meryl heading to Olympus to see if she’s caught anything living among the gods that would be of any help.”

“Really? Well, I suppose if anyone could find that out, she’s as good as any.”

Jay laughed. “I’m sure she’ll appreciate your confidence.”

“Yeah, whatever. She was hardly the brains of our operation.”

“Well, now she has to survive among gods. I’d imagine having to exist among people so much powerful than you are, you’d have to find some way to keep up and stay alive.”

Drake just looked at him. “Yeah. Yeah, you do.”

“Right. And then we’re heading to Arlethae to see if we can dig up any Old Order activity that would suggest they put the hit out on Stryker.”

“The bullet tech may have been programmed in Arlethaen style, but was still made with Earth materials, and likely here on Earth, you know.”

“Oh, I know. My money’s still on it being connected to the Fae and everything else that’s happening, but leave no stone unturned, right? Besides, knowledge of that tech had to have come from somewhere.”

Drake grunted in agreement. “Hey, Jayson?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Be careful.”

Jay nodded. “Whoever’s behind this…they’re not done are they?”

Drake shook his head. “And until I figure out their end-game…not one of us is safe.”

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