Posts Tagged ‘Purpose’

Lindsay was the first to reach Sam. She lead with a roundhouse kick, then twisted into a follow-up knee to the face. Without Lindsay’s speed, Sam couldn’t dodge the attacks, but every time they almost connected, the air shimmered inches from the surface, making the effort looked like a badly choreographed action movie. Sam dug her feet into the ground, the marble cracking beneath her, giving her traction against Lindsay’s onslaught. She didn’t budge.

Allen slammed his fist into the ground right beside Sam. It quaked and split in all directions, causing Sam’s anchor to crumble. From his crouched position, he shot into the sky. His fist connected with Sam’s jaw, and the kinetic force drove her up and backward. She did an aerial twist and landed on her feet, unharmed.

Her arms thrust forward. She may have been unable to affect their minds due to the Elves’ spellcasting, but her telekinetic blast packed a force that matched the paragons’ strength. Lindsay lost control and spun into the air. Allen’s heels dug furrows in the marble, now dull without its iridescent light, before he tripped and fell prone.

Marcus took a deep breath as he focused his energy gathering abilities. He raised his hands and orbs of electricity shot from his palms like bullets from a gatling gun. They bounced off Sam, but she ignored him in favor of a bigger threat.

Eric had had enough. His suit was built to fight the super powered, to neutralize them and even kill them. Though the specific sound frequency that nullified Gifted powers had been purged from the system, he nonetheless remained a force to be reckoned with.

“Power rerouted to weapons systems, armed and online. Targeting. Psionic shield detected. Calculating frequency required to counter shield. Calculations complete.”

Eric fired. The sound rippled through the air, but shadows sprung forth and coalesced around him. Everything went dark.

“Warning. Interference detected. Sensors compromised.”

“I admit, Mr. Herrington, I was rather surprised when you took lead on the investigation,” Sam said smoothly. “It was a contingency I had not prepared for. I needn’t have been concerned. You lack the request intellect to challenge me.” Twin thumps sounded on her shield, still holding strong. Eric couldn’t see anything, but he presumed Lindsay and Allen were attempting to battle her again.

“And believe me,” Sam continued. “It is only intellect that could challenge me. Your physical prowess, even combined, means nothing without a mind behind it.”

Eric grit his teeth. He could hear Marcus firing at her, but that wouldn’t do any good either, not unless he had the time to gather the energy.

“However, even a mindless monkey with a weapon can be dangerous. I cannot allow you to live.”

Eric’s heart thumped as the sound of the threat hit his ears. Wait. Sound! “Vorg, visual targeting may be down, but audio sensors still work. Use echolocation to track Sam and translate that into a mind map so I can blow the ever loving shit out of her.”

“Excellent idea, Eric. Calculating. Calculations complete.”

A grainy image flickered before Eric’s eyes—no, in his mind. He couldn’t see well—it was like finding a shadowed outline in a black, empty void.

“Quickly, Eric! Zzzx—zouter defenses comprimizzxtz—”

He could feel the icy fingers of the Shadow Fae digging into his suit. It was a self-contained life-support system, and given the opportunity, could keep him alive in space, but the tiny, persistent assault of the Fae burrowed in like acid. He had to clear his mind and destroy Sam’s suit. There! He targeted what he was sure would be Sam. “Load in that shield-destroying frequency and give her hell!”

The sound blasted into his target, and it flung back, bouncing off a wall, and into a heap on the ground. He could only hope to God it really was Sam.

He only had a moment to think that before his vision went dark again. Fear struck his heart. “Vorg? Vorg!” There was no response from his suit.

Piercing light struck his eyes, and cool air tingled on his skin an instant before fiery pain lanced into his arms, legs, and stomach, followed by the spreading warmth of open wounds. He might have screamed, but he couldn’t hear his own voice past the sharp agony of every joint in his body dislocating at once. Darkness swallowed him once again, and he couldn’t breathe. White light flashed in his eyes, but he knew that, this time, it was just his brain shutting down. He no longer cared. He just wanted it all to stop.

* * * *

“Eric!” Charity scream shredded her throat as it closed up in fear. She was supposed to be targeting the Fae. You idiot! You let them past you. This is all your fault!

Reason didn’t even have time to tell her that the damned creatures could teleport before she bolted toward Eric—the man she loved. Her feet couldn’t carry her fast enough. Charity could barely see him through the horde of shadow creatures, but what she did see turned her stomach. Two grabbed each leg and twisted, while three others snapped an elbow. Three more twisted his other arm behind his back until a sickening, bloody snap broke a compound fracture through the skin. Shadows snaked all round him, slicing red ribbons through his loose t-shirt and dress pants.

I’ve got to stop them! She shot bolt after bolt at them, but where one fell, another Fae took its place.

Sam was down, for the moment, but struggling to her feet. Allen gave up on her in favor of lending Eric a hand. His mighty strength tore the creatures from the fallen businessman, but even he would soon be overwhelmed.

“Allen!” Lindsay screamed. “Leave him! We’ve got to get Sam!” She bolted into a running attack.

It was too late. Samantha Clive returned to her feet, and the air shimmered as her shield returned. Lindsay bounced off the shield, and Sam caught her in a telekinetic grasp, slamming her repeatedly into the ground. Lindsay clawed at the nothing that held her. It would take a while to strangle a paragon, but in time, even Sprite would succumb to such an assault.

“Shit!” Jayson shouted. “Meryl, back them—”

His command came too late. A single Fae popped out from nowhere and clobbered the girl on the head before she could mimic any invulnerability.

“They’re all over the place,” Charity sobbed to no one but herself. She scanned the battlefield. An army of unmatched strength ruled. The Elves defended their homeland well, but they were surprised and uncoordinated. The Fae fought with unparalleled valor, a single mind delivering a relentless onslaught. Mitch and Liam peppered them with fire blasts, and Marcus followed Allen’s lead in defending the fallen hero, but it wasn’t enough. He didn’t have enough power.

You can stop this. Something calm whispered from her center.

I can’t! I can’t! Another sob escaped her lips, tears blinding her to the carnage.

You can. And you will. Eric will die if you don’t. You remember Eric, don’t you?

She didn’t. She couldn’t. Try as she might, she couldn’t recall a single moment that happened outside of the last few weeks since she woke up.

You said you’d find a way back. You remember that? You promised. Why? Why, in your heart of hearts would you have promised to find a way back to him? Think, Charity! Your brain may not remember, but the heart doesn’t forget! Trust that feeling!

“I can’t.” This time she said it out loud, muttering to herself. “I don’t know how.”

You’ve done this before. Marcus said I turned into this big ball of electricity, do that again!

But how? How do I do that?

Let go.

It seemed so simple. In all the stories Charity had ever read—and there were so many of them—the way to gain true power, true control, was to let go. She clenched and unclenched her fists, but her stomach tightened when Eric cried out again and lay still in the Fae’s stranglehold. Let go.

Electricity sparked at her fingertips and arched over her back. Her hair stood on end. Power welled up inside her. She imagined it like a big ball in her chest, and with a groan, she pushed it out. Agony pierced her, like someone had driven a javelin through her heart. She couldn’t breathe. Terror gripped her. Oh God! Oh God, it hurts! Every fiber of her being screamed at her to stop, that she was going to die, that this was the end. It felt like her head was sitting at the edge of an explosion.

You can make this stop. Just relax. Stop pushing. Get yourself under control. Who cares if they’re all going to die?

I care!

With a terrible scream, Charity pushed her power out further. Wave after wave of unimaginable torment gripped her, spasming through her body. She felt as if she was being torn apart, each atom separating from itself—and in a way, it was.

And it unleashed the storm within.

She understood it, suddenly. The biochemical process that had wormed her way through her brain, blocking off the memories that were so dear to her. A nefarious parasite. It gripped her mind—controlled her.

No more.

The energy being vaporized the foreign substance, atomized it, turned it into even more power. Then that being turned her attention on the battlefield.

She had a purpose, that much she knew. As she beheld the chaos dispassionately, she found herself curious as to what it was. To destroy…something. Everything. That must be it.

She must destroy everything.

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Meryl hadn’t known what to expect when she looked into the eyes of the one who killed her brother—the one who sentenced him to die. Even after Donald Kazuki’s video said it was Sam—even after Meryl knew the truth—she could not equate the evil of the mastermind’s conspiracy to the poise and grace of Samantha Clive.

Until now.

Arlethaens had legends of demons, creatures with twisted horns on their heads and spikes on their bodies meant to lacerate their prey. Some were large and grotesque; others possessed a terrible beauty. Regardless, they had one thing in common—evil radiated off them like the toxic fumes from a river of industrial waste.

Sam had neither horns nor spikes, and her beauty was that of a classic European; but how had Meryl missed the unrelenting evil that spilled from her eyes, the set of her jaw and body posture? From childhood, Meryl could recognize the evil of those who wished her and her family harm. It was a matter of survival as the Gifted hid from the Old Order. It translated to her talents both as an artist and a therapist.

How had she missed an evil so vile?

This woman had sat across from Meryl in countless sessions, both mandated by Delta policy, and voluntarily as Sam had insisted she wanted to maintain a mental competency to run the most powerful agency in the country. Meryl had judged her to be motivated, cerebral, and surprisingly balanced. She’d never once questioned the woman’s mental stability. Somehow, in some gross lack of judgment, Meryl had missed the glaring psychopathy.

In an effort to determine the mastermind’s identity, Meryl had crafted a psych profile: highly intelligent, adept in social situations, charismatic. Sam used public appearance as a strategy—and evidently reputation as a weapon. Meryl’s small hands shook at her sides, and her stomach flopped. Why had she not seen it?

Because she’d never wanted to. In retrospect, that was likely at least in part to Sam’s mental influence. Even now, Meryl tried to consider the idea of mimicking Sam’s powers, and then she’d know. She’d know for sure that Samantha Clive was as powerful as Donald said, powerful enough to attract the Fae. The Fae had mind powers. They were ideal partners in crime. Like drew toward like. Of course the Fae would follow Sam. She was one of them. Rage boiled in her. You’re such an idiot. How could anyone be so stupid? This is your fault, you know. Joleon is dead because of you, because you couldn’t lift your eyes and see the truth that stared you in the face.

And you’re still not mimicking her powers.

It was with shock that she realized her mind had wandered away from the concept.

“Sam,” Jayson said with a deadly calm. “We’d like to have some words with you.”

His arm shifted. In his hand was the vial of nullifier. With a snap it shattered. Jay cried out and shook his hand, blood dripping onto the iridescent mother-of-pearl floor. “Shit.” He held out his hand, the blue formula mingling with the scarlet blood on his skin.

“Certainly, Mr. Allison,” Sam replied with a small smile born of the knowledge that she’d just caused Jayson’s power play to backfire. Meryl’s heart pounded. Instead of taking out her powers, Sam had taken out his, removing from play their most powerful teleporter. If this went badly, they had no quick exit.

There was a shout, and a blinding light flashed all around them. Fae had invaded the Elves’ territory and they reacted accordingly. The fuzziness in Meryl’s mind vanished—the Elves’ magic, no doubt. Instantly, Meryl copied Sam’s powers. All of them.

It took her breath away. Never had she felt so much knowledge and power compacted into one pocket of consciousness. She understood in that moment that reality hinged on a shared perception of every living being in existence. It was a collection of mental power that was innate in every creature that could observe the world around them. In most, it was so latent that they were unaware, content with a mundane life of their own. Mankind’s very awareness held reality together, each mind a single molecule of water in a sea awash with power; but each thought they were alone, each so far away from the particles around them that they were unaware of the bonds that held them all together.

But for those who could recognize the metaphysics of that reality, who could seize control of that collective consciousness—the power that it granted! It was the power of a god.

Sam looked at her. “You understand, don’t you? Mankind is a collective, and that must be protected at any cost. The organism of humanity is a being that must survive—but we are cancerous to ourselves. That cancer must be destroyed.

“I truly am sorry for what you suffered. It is a tragedy that, with the bad, one must cut into the good. Power such as this must come with benevolence, with mercy, but also with purpose. Your brother believed that—believes it still, for mankind’s power extends beyond this mortal coil. Don’t let the greater purpose of his sacrifice go unfulfilled.”

Meryl took a step back. Her resolve faltered.

“Our world and yours are capitulating inevitably to entropy. Our world will end. My actions will not stay that forever. But perhaps it will buy a few years. There will be peace, and in that peace, who knows how many lives will be saved? A billion? A hundred billion?”

No more than a heartbeat of time had passed, but with their minds connected, Meryl felt she knew more about Samantha than what would come in a hundred hour-long conversations.

“Tell them, Merelise. They no longer trust me, and that’s fine. ‘Hero’ and ‘villain’, they’re just titles, a means to accomplish my goal. You are their counselor and friend. Tell them the truth.”

“Wait,” Meryl heard herself say. She looked around. Electricity arched over both Charity and Marcus London. Eric Herrington had fully suited up, and his sound blasters whined with their charge. Liam and Mitch Roberts were twin flames, ready to engulf Samantha Clive. Allen Gray’s fist was clenched, ready to fly with rage at the woman who’d murdered his mentor, and Lindsay White wasn’t far behind him. She stopped them all with that single word, and they looked to her for guidance. Sam was right. They would listen. They trusted her.

“Meryl.” Drake called her name. Her head swiveled in his direction.

Drake was the most closed off person she knew. He showed up—late—for his mandatory psychiatric evaluation, but spent the entire time talking about his pet goldfish, which she was almost certain never existed. He hated the Fae. In the last few years, he’d gone out of his way to make sure that nothing was able to get in his head, and she wasn’t sure that even the mind powers of Mythos—Sam—would have gotten through the mental barriers he’d trained in his mind. Yet, she slipped easily into his thoughts. He let her in.

“I see your hesitation. I understand. Sam’s good, she doesn’t need powers to persuade others to come around to her point of view. What’s she telling you—that if we beat her, your brother’s death has no purpose? But you can’t let her win. Meryl, we don’t do what’s right because it makes the world a better place, we do it because doing the right thing is what separates us from the evil we face every day. She killed your brother. It’s not on you to make that death mean something. It’s on you to avenge it.”

“Well, we gonna kick her ass or what?” Mitch snarled.

“I said ‘wait’, Mitchell,” Meryl snapped. “Get in line.”

She let Drake’s power wash over her. He may have been dampened past the point of using them, but she could still mimic them fully. Her long blonde hair twisted around her, and her body levitated into the humming air. Her fists clenched and her eyes flashed gold. She may have been using others’ powers, but she would beat this woman as an Arlethaen, as Gifted. She would not mimic another’s appearance. “Thanks, Drake. I needed that. This one’s for you.”

She thrust her hands forward and blasted a wave of magnetic energy at Sam. It whooshed past her, an invisible attack against Sam’s invisible defense. The woman took a step back, but otherwise remained unperturbed. The marble around Sam’s psionic shield cracked, leaving a shallow, crescent shaped crater in the floor. The wall behind her began to crumble.

Meryl clenched her fists. To her magnetic senses, she could feel lines of power begin to form. They’d be gone in no time once she released her power over the magnetism in the air, but she only needed a moment. She switched powers. Her whole being became engulfed in electric energy. “This is for screwing with my best friend!” With a loud crack, a powerful lightning bolt snapped at Sam. It wrapped around her shield, but under the electric assault, it began to shrink.

The energy faded to a deafening silence. Meryl didn’t let it ride for long. She dashed forward with blinding speed. Her hand punctured what was left of the psionic shield and grabbed Sam’s neck. With powerful, strengthened arms, she flew her captive into the air. In a loud voice, she screamed, “And this is for my brother!” She flung Sam down at the ground, obliterating the crescent crevasse, and decimating the marble wall.

As the dust settled, Samantha Clive stood to her feet. She brushed the powdered marble from her business suit and shook out the pieces of her broken hair clip, letting her brown hair fall in waves. “That was surprisingly aggressive, Mrs. Allison. I was hoping we’d resolve this peacefully. You’re no fighter, Meryl.”

Meryl smiled as she landed beside her husband and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s a good thing the rest of them are.”

Jayson smirked. “Mitch, Liam, Charity, back the Elves up and thin the Fae’s ranks. Drake, support Rio’kir in getting the city’s defenses back online. The rest of you…let’s all give her a piece of our mind.”

Marcus flashed a grin at his girlfriend, then at his best friend. All three smiled, but it was the smiles of pent-up aggression and rage. “This is what we’ve been waiting for. Let’s do it!”

Lindsay was starving. She had the constitution of a paragon, but she wasn’t immune to hunger. In fact, with an exceedingly high metabolism, she burned through calories faster than most. Right now, she regretted that.

She was currently halfway through her third truck stop breakfast special at a greasy diner between Alliance City and Montreal. After speeding across the border faster than most equipment could record, she’d stopped at a bus station. Swallowing the intense guilt, she’d pilfered a heavy gray sweatshirt with a deep hood, large sunglasses, and a watch to keep time. Pickpocketing was easy, though she made sure only to steal from people who looked like they could afford it. Then she bought a bus ticket. It would be faster if she flew—her speed topped out somewhere beyond the sound barrier, after all—but if she did that, Delta would be on her ass so fast.

She felt bad for what she’d done. Marcus was hurting, and she knew it, but she had to get out of there. She just couldn’t be around other heroes right now. Tears in her eyes blurred the eggs and bacon in front of her. What was she going to do now? She had no direction, no reason to keep being the hero. I’m not a hero. Not anymore.

What was she thinking? When she joined Delta, it was all she wanted to be. She wanted to be loved, she wanted people to pay attention to her. Where had that gotten her? For that matter, what difference did it make? Stryker always taught her to fight for something, to have a reason for every battle.

One time before Stryker’s assassination, she’d gotten bored and donned a disguise similar to what she wore now so she could wander through the group of anti-metahuman protesters that gathered around the lake on the mainland shore overlooking the Delta HQ. It was a memory that was hard to forget. The air was thick with cannabis and body odor as a throng of people pressed together singing tunelessly to a street rat with a guitar playing along with a group that gave a decent rendition of songs that were decades old. Some raised their hands, passionate in their passivity, taken in by the rush of euphoria provided either by being part of a crowd or heavy substance abuse. Probably both. After that, it became a common place for her to go when she wanted to get her hate on. They pissed her off so much. But the last time she was there, she’d realized that these people had something she didn’t.

A reason.

It was a stupid thing to envy them for. They were small, impotent people, screaming obscenities at anyone who was different. It was distilled stupidity, like reading the comments on an Internet forum.

And yet.

They had passion, a cause, a purpose for their voice. Granted, it was without credibility or anything that made them actually worth listening to, but in the end, did that matter? Stryker would have fought for them. He would have died for them, if someone hadn’t gotten the jump on him.

Delta was spinning its tires trying to find someone to blame, someone to hurt. Lindsay didn’t care anymore.

“Anything else, hon?” the waitress’ voice startled her. She didn’t look up at the woman, shielding her face behind the voluminous hood.

“No. No, that’s fine. Just the check, please.” It was kind of silly asking for it because she had no intention of paying. She could zip out faster than the security cameras could see, and certainly faster than anyone could catch.

What are you doing? From hero to common thief in a matter of days.

She shook away the voice. She’d saved the world a time or two, right? Taking a little food wouldn’t hurt.

“You know, sweetcheeks, you’d do a lot better job of being invisible if you hung out at fast food places where tiny teenage girls actually hung out, instead of a restaurant mostly populated by trucker caps and flannel.”

Lindsay nearly hit the roof at the sudden presence of a strange man. Ignoring her discomfort, he slid into the booth across from her. “Oh, hi, by the way.”

Lindsay blinked. What the hell was she supposed to say to that? Who was this guy? If he was going to hurt her, he’d find his man parts crushed so fast he’d never come down from the girlish scream. “Who are you?”

“Your worst nightmare?” He voiced the statement as a question and winked, which made his words either a joke or the truest thing ever. “I’m Donald Kazuki. You might know me as ‘that rat bastard’ or ‘the old man’ or more likely by just plain nothing because my kid doesn’t ever talk to anyone about me. Unless he likes you, then he probably won’t ever shut up about the angst in his life. Have you heard the story about how he was a Fae host for a year?”

Well, that was something at least. “You’re Drake’s dad.”

“The one and only. At least I would presume so. Last I checked, he wasn’t conceived in a bizarre mating ritual that involved multiple men donating their genetic material.”

Lindsay made a face. “That’s…really gross.”

Donald grinned again. “Sweetie, flattery will get you everywhere.”

Lindsay didn’t say anything for a moment. “I’m not going back with you.”

Donald shook his head. “Lindsay, Lindsay, Lindsay, didn’t your mother every teach you not to make assumptions?”

“Well, I never knew my real mother, so I’m gonna go with no.”

“Condolences.” He didn’t sound very sympathetic. “Well, did your mother ever reach through time, space, and reality and teach you not to make assumptions?” Lindsay made a face and confused noises. “Don’t be surprised, that happens more than you might think.”

“You…don’t plan on taking me back, do you?”

“That depends.” His voice softened, and Lindsay could swear he lost the crazy eye. “Why did you run away?”

Lindsay gaped at him for a moment, then glanced away. “I…I don’t know. I just…there wasn’t anything left for me. I mean, when I started with Delta, I just wanted to be a hero, I wanted people to notice me. And they did, and they loved me, but he still died, and the only thing that’s left is this stupid little girl who—“ She started crying. Tears spilled over onto her cheeks. Then she glared at Donald. “And why am I telling you this anyway, it’s none of your damn business.”

He was playing the quiet old man now, so he didn’t say anything to that. He seemed entirely unperturbed by her tears. She continued babbling in spite of herself. “Stryker always had a reason to fight, something that always kept him going. He said that’s what made him strong. But I don’t think he ever knew that he was mine. I wanted to prove myself to him, wanted to show him I could be worthy of all the attention I got. But it doesn’t matter anymore. He’s dead.”

She sniffed and wiped her runny nose against her sleeve. “Maybe that’s why I ran away. To find something to fight for.”

“And finding the mastermind behind the assassination? That’s not it?”

“You know, I thought about it? I spent a whole night dreaming of tearing whoever it was apart. But the thing is, even if I could figure it out, even if I tracked down the evil son of a bitch and murdered him, it won’t bring him back. And in that hunt, more people are going to die, and more and more, and I’m just tired of it. I don’t want to kill people. I just want it all to stop.” She shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to be fighting for. To make the fighting stop.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“I don’t know, I don’t even know if that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Donald gave her an exasperated sigh. “Listen, dumpling, do you think your boy saved the world because of some freaky alien powers?” He put on a thinking face for a moment. “Actually, that’s exactly how he did it. But let me tell you something. You know that fight with Kronos that everyone’s so impressed about? I was there. You know what he did in that fight? Not a damn thing. Now don’t look so outraged,” he said, because that’s exactly what she looked like. “He didn’t need to do anything. He and his sister, and I daresay puppy dog Jayson willed Kronos to be beaten. Now, I don’t know if it was God, or metaphysical connection that the wonder twins had to mister high-and-mighty titan of time, but I do know this. Kronos is buried because they believed it to be so.

“You want the fighting to stop? Believe it. Will it. Because that will is all you’ll have left when your world starts crumbling before your eyes. It’s that will that your enemy is trying to break, to manipulate, to bend. So if you have to walk away for now, then so be it. Find your center, or Zen, or whatever you hippy kids are calling it these days.”

He rolled his eyes. “Look, you seem like a nice kid and all. A little, you know, teenage girl, but aren’t we all. When you’re in Montreal, look up a pal of mine. Name’s Liam. He got a little tired of Delta’s whole ‘work for us or else’ shtick. Think you can handle that?”

Lindsay nodded. She really wasn’t sure about this guy, but it wouldn’t hurt to look the man up, right?

The old man insisted on paying the bill, though the credit card he used had an obvious alias, so Lindsay wasn’t quite sure how that was different from outright stealing the food, but whatever.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. She took Donald’s advice and started getting her stolen food in places where no one would look at her twice. She never did look up Liam once her bus stopped in Montreal, determined to fend for herself. She didn’t need another adult telling her what to do.

Malls were her comfort zone anyway. She got good at finding cameras so she could avoid any direct visual contact, occasionally super-speed stealing a different set of clothing so she’d never be identified by her hoodie. Always from big corporations though, and she’d donate her discarded clothing to some charity for homeless people. She rotated food courts on a non-regular basis, moving all over the city. No one ever bothered her, and she got really good at people-watching.

She had her favorites, though. The one she stopped in an afternoon weeks after her arrival was one she frequented. It was huge, with three food courts, hundreds of clothing and novelty stores, and a shoe selection enough to make her dreams come true. She was sitting in the middle of the crowd at a lone table when the machine gun fire started. Glass shattered overhead and people screamed.

Her training kicked in. Identify the villain, disarm him. She darted toward the first gunman and grabbed his gun, making sure it was smashed. She felt bullets pelt her back, but ignored them in the split second it took to take that gun away too. Then engage to discover the nature of the threat.

“Boys, boys, boys, can’t we all just get along?”

They were the strong, silent type, and didn’t respond. But one of them glanced quickly up to the roof. What would he be looking there for? Lindsay followed his gaze. Positioned by the skylight was another armed gunman. He pulled the trigger, but not before Lindsay shot into the sky, leaving crumbled tile in her wake, and then got her hand on the end of the barrel. The gun backfired, exploding in his face.

Lindsay sighed. “Here, I thought I was doing so well staying under the radar.”

The boys below took advantage of Lindsay’s divided attention and made a running dash for a young redheaded girl. Lindsay wasn’t as distracted as she seemed to be, though. Before the man could reach his target, Lindsay dashed in front of him and grabbed his weapon from his hand, a long combat knife.

Security was starting to crowd the place. It was time to book. Lindsay took off into the sky. Damn, and I really liked that mall. She couldn’t go back, that was for sure.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. So much for laying low, and not fighting until she found something to fight for. What were you going to do? Let people die?

She landed on the roof of the abandoned building she was using as a shelter for the moment. In a fit of anger, she wound up and gave a soccer kick to an archaic stovepipe. It sailed into the sky, probably to startle some poor, unsuspecting sunbather in the next county. Lindsay didn’t care. How could she be so stupid?

Well, she was just going to have to really lay low now. No more of this hanging around people, not if she was going to get into the nasty habit of saving them. She’d have to work on grabbing food and running before she ate.

Calm down, she told herself. You’re overreacting. She took a breath. Her inner voice was probably right. She needed to relax. She ran through a few calisthenics to mend her shattered nerves. She was sitting in a calm, meditative position, when she heard a voice behind her.

“Hell of a view, huh? Nice rooftop, if you’re into the whole brooding thing.”

Well, there went her relaxed feeling.

Lindsay jumped to her feet to see someone standing behind her. She was a blonde girl, perhaps a few years older than Lindsay. She was petite and well-proportioned, and drop dead sexy. Lindsay had no interest in girls, but she suddenly understood why some chicks went through a collage experimental phase. She took a defensive posture. “Who the hell are you?”

She spoke with a thick accent which somehow made her hotter and didn’t impede understanding at all. “My name’s Lyndria. And I think I owe you a thank you.”

Lindsay blinked. “At the mall. Those people were after you. Wait, didn’t you have red hair?”

Lyndria shrugged. “There’s people that want me dead. And my bodyguards are clearly doing a stellar job of making sure that doesn’t happen.” She rolled her eyes. “Anyway. It would be kinda nice to have someone on the payroll who can take a bullet without flinching.”

It took a second for that to sink in. “Wait. You want to hire me? You don’t even know who I am, and you want to give me a position where I have to protect you?”

Lyndria looked at her. “Your name is Lindsay White. You’re one of three adopted children in your family, along with three other natural born to your parents. Of all your siblings, you’re the only one with powers. Three years ago, you signed up with the Delta Division under the name Spryte, and you’ve been making waves as a hero ever since.” She smiled. “I think it would be rather cool to have a hero at my back, actually.”

Lindsay was stunned. “H-how did you—“

“I have my sources. Why don’t you come down to my daddy’s place of business, and we’ll talk? I’m sure you’re going to want to know a thing or two about me if you’re going to be working for me, right?”

Lindsay nodded mutely. Then it occurred to her what she was agreeing to. “I, uh…I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Oh, come now. Is there anything we could do that could seriously hurt you? Tell you what, I’ll answer your other question that you seem to have forgotten you had.” Before Lindsay’s eyes, the other girl shifted. Her hair went from blond to the red color she’d seen earlier. Her body changed too, went from buxom and sexy to a hot, girl-next-door appeal.

“See, I’m a meta too. There are a few of us in Quebec. It’s where we can go to make sure Delta can’t tell us what to do. No one in America can tell us what to do.”

“Yeah, Delta’s got partners in a few different countries around the world, but Quebec wasn’t one of them. I figured I wouldn’t have been the only one smart enough to figure that I had a certain amount of autonomy here.”

“Yeah, my mom left there a long time ago. My brothers have some shapeshifting abilities too.”

Lindsay nodded. She was silent for a moment, and then she said, “Fine. I’ll come. But that’s not a yes, you still have to convince me.”

Lyndria smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The drive was beautiful. The long, black limousine went to parts of Montreal that Lindsay never knew existed. She tended to avoid the places with big corporate offices anyway. They were of no use to her. Finally, they pulled up to a large office building. Huge buildings didn’t normally impress Lindsay, considering the Delta Division HQ was bigger and more impressive than most other buildings. Still, this was something else.

Lyndria got out of the car and Lindsay slid out after her. She watched the other girl stride into the building as if she owned it. Which, in a way, she did.

“My father’s in the import and export business,” Lyndria said as she nodded to the security guards. She stopped short by one of them and slipped a card in his pocket before caressing his forearm. She gave him a smile. “Call me, hm? It’ll be a night you won’t forget.”

The guard looked flustered. “Is…is that an order, miss?”

“I can make it one if that’s your thing. I just want to see that ass of yours put to good use.” She winked. “Barring that, you can do me a favor and let Santoro and Braden know I’m here.” They continued into the elevator and up to the top floor.

“I’ve been slipping my guards since I could walk,” she told Lindsay, “so you’ll have to watch for that. Though, you I like. You seem like you might actually be some fun.”

“Wait, I’m confused,” Lindsay said. “You have people that want to kill you, but you give you bodyguards the slip? That makes no sense.”

“Well, if I can get past them, then a killer’s going to be able to as well, right?”

Lindsay couldn’t argue with that logic. “You never said why people want to kill you.”

“Well, see, it’s like this. A few weeks ago, I woke up and my father and brothers were gone. Dunno why, and police and private investigators are absolutely useless in finding anything out. Now, in the event of my father’s death, everything was supposed to fall into my big brother’s lap, so I was cool being the one that never took responsibility for nothin’. Except that my brothers disappeared too, and so everything’s gonna go to me—if they’re found dead. Until then everything’s basically in some sort of limbo. I can’t make my claim, and there’s people who want to keep it that way.”

She made her statement as if family suddenly disappearing was the most natural thing in the world. Lindsay gaped at her, overcome with sympathy.

“If you say you’re sorry for my loss, you’re fired.”

Lindsay shut her mouth.

“I’ll pay you plenty. Room and board, plus a good salary. You in?”

There was something she should be asking, Lindsay was pretty sure. There was something going on here that she didn’t see, but this actually sounded like something decent. Maybe she just shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Against her better judgment, she nodded.

It’s so…broken. That was the only thing Lindsay could think of when she touched down on the devastated shores of what was left of New Brunswick. There hadn’t been a shore there yesterday. Now the earth was cracked, washed away by a tidal wave, origin unknown. Lindsay was no scientist, but she was pretty sure a city as developed and cultured as Fredericton shouldn’t—couldn’t—be washed away like it was nothing for no reason. There has to be a reason. Tears welled in her eyes, and she almost screamed, why is this happening?

Shattered rooftops and felled trees thickened the water as it spread out at her feet. The smell was awful. Sewage floated in the gaps between shingles, siding, and two-by-fours. The water was a murky brown not just from the dirt uprooted in the flood. Among the neutral whites, grays, and browns of the refuse, something blue floated, like a bit of the sky had broken too, and had fallen into the shit-stained river. Lindsay hovered into the air and floated closer, examining it.

It was a body of a little girl, her blue dress twisted around her, halfway covering her face, leaving blank eyes staring into death.

Lindsay shrieked.

“Spryte!” The mission supervisor picked his way toward her. Lindsay could not remember his name if she tried, only that he was cute with his wavy dark hair and adorkable hipster glasses. She couldn’t even look at that right now as she screamed indecipherable words with her finger pointing at the body of the girl. She must have flown away, because the world blanked out for a minute, and suddenly she was up against a broken church building with her lunch sprayed on the red brick. Half a statue of the Divine Mother stared up at her, eyes as cold as the dead. She screamed again.

I can’t do this. I can’t do this.

She must have run much farther than she’d intended, because her super speed had carried her farther inland than she’d anticipated. Far in the distance, she stared at the border crossing between New Brunswick and Quebec. Decades ago, Canada and the United States of American had merged to become the North American Amalgamated States—at least most of it. Quebec’s separatists had become loud and influential during that time, and as the majority of the country embraced the new union, the former Canadian province took steps to become its own dominion. Now under its own governance, the small French-speaking country was determined to separate itself from its parent country in any way possible. When they had been approached by the Delta Division with the offer of cooperation with the agency, Quebec had refused to have anything to do with it. They would take care of their own ‘super heroes’.

This had the unintended effect of making the country act like a refuge to any meta who didn’t want to be part of the Delta Division. Lindsay had heard about such deserters. The Delta Division had a government mandate that allowed them to pressure any meta into joining—for the sake of safety, of course. It was a bit Big Brother, but Lindsay hadn’t considered it a problem until right this second. After all, who didn’t want to be a hero? If people with super powers couldn’t handle the idea of working in an organized group, well that just made them villains. If they aren’t for us, they’re against us.

Suddenly, it didn’t seem so simple. She’d read about people who ran away to Montreal where Delta couldn’t legally touch them—at least not overtly. There was some big political deal about it, and Lindsay didn’t fully understand exactly what was involved in the escape to Quebec, but at that moment, there was nothing she wanted more.

Her gaze traveled back East, where the rest of the cleanup crew were surely still dredging the water for more dead bodies. You’re supposed to be a hero. A hero wouldn’t run away. What would Stryker do?

“Stryker is dead!” she screamed. The words hung out over the deserted highway. “Stryker is dead!” It was almost therapeutic. She filled her lungs again and let out a long, primal scream. “Stryker’s dead.” It came out like a whisper. Her legs crumbled beneath her, and she collapsed onto the grassy lawn. Sobs shook her small shoulders. What’s the point in being a hero now?

She pulled out her phone. You do this, there’s no turning back. You can’t undo this. She scrolled through her messages to find the conversation that went on between her and Marcus. It was mostly cutesy pictures of kisses and cartoon figures with hearts. Her thumb pressed on the text box to send a message.

i can’t be a hero. im sorry.

She dropped her phone in the grass and shot into the sky.

* * * *

Marcus was exhausted as he stumbled back into the medical ward. It should have been an exhilarating experience of the conversation with the Elves. He should have been awed, thrilled even, but all he could think of was how much Charity would have wanted to be there.

And they’d lost someone else.

It made him sick to his stomach. Drake was a close friend of Charity’s, a mentor, someone Marcus had trusted. Could he really have done all those things they said? Was he the one to hurt Charity? The one to kill Stryker?

No, Jayson was right. Drake wouldn’t—couldn’t do this. Charity, John, Jay, Meryl—they were all his friends. Drake was bat fucking shit nuts, but he was loyal.

Wasn’t he? “A few deaths mean nothing.” The chilling words played over and over in Marcus’ head. He’s in love with Charity…which is why she is still alive.

His head spun, and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rising as the air charged around him.

Charity was still deep in her coma, her chest rising and falling with each breath. He supposed he should be grateful she could do that on her own. He sat by her bed, alone. Almost always alone. As the days had passed, Eric had stopped in every now and then, but he always smelled of whiskey and wasn’t much for conversation. He couldn’t comfort Marcus, though he’d occasionally attempted a sort of fatherly pat on the shoulder. At least Marcus assumed it was a fatherly gesture. Charity had been mother and father to him for so long.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered to the empty room with humming machines. It sounded strange, a harsh break in the rhythm of the mechanical beeps and clicks. His voice implied a life that didn’t really exist within the boundaries of those four walls.

He wasn’t sure what he was sorry for. For not protecting her in Ptah-Setker-Osiris? That was ridiculous, and she’d be the first to say it. For being her burden for so many years? He had been kind of a dick. He always resented her, rebelling at the place she had in his life. He never truly valued her care for him. Oh, sure, a bit of teenage rebellion was natural; but if he was going to be so anal about how she wasn’t his mom, why did he treat her like an overprotective mother? She was still just a kid herself when she was raising him. She was his sister, for God’s sake. Why couldn’t they have been closer?

That’s what he was sorry for. Here he had a sister that cared so much for him, would do anything, even give up her own life for him, and he’d taken that for granted. He’d resented her, believed her to be nothing more than a chain around his neck. Then she’d gotten stabbed.

He should have told her. He got now why Charity had never told him about her abilities; technically it was the same reason she’d not told Eric—it was considered treason. Besides, that would have been a super awkward ‘The Talk’. “Sit down, young man, let me tell you of the changes you’ll experience with your body. Your voice is going to drop, you’ll grow hair in strange places, feel weird urges, and start absorbing large quantities of electricity.”

Yeah, that would have gone well.

He missed her. He was already starting to forget what it sounded like when she laughed. She always had a nice laugh. Whenever she did that, he felt safe, like everything was going to be all right. Despite himself, he started crying.

“Hey, bro, how’s it going?” Allen poked his head into the room. He probably noticed the tears, but he politely ignored it.

Allen had been an awesome friend. Somehow beating the crap out of each other had been a bonding experience; and besides, he got the feeling that the other boy was lonely. The girl he was always hanging around with was his only friend.

“Oh, you know.” He shrugged, and left the sentence hanging.

“Yeah.”

“How about you?”

Allen shrugged. “Just got back from filling out the paperwork for the…heh…the Atlantis mission.”

Marcus quirked a smile. “You totally can’t even believe we went to the Lost City of Atlantis, can you?”

“Uh uh. You?”

Marcus shrugged.

“You…have other things on your mind.”

He nodded. “I’m having a little trouble embracing the whole ‘wonder’ thing right now.”

“Understandable.”

The silence stretched. Marcus finally broke it. “So…Drake. Do…do you think—”

“Not in a million years. Look, I get that I haven’t been around as much as some of the others, but I’ve talked with Drake. Gotten to know him a little.”

“No one ever gets to know Drake.”

“I know enough. I feel like he wouldn’t do this.”

A brick clip clop of fashionable heels sounded on the linoleum outside, a herald to the sharp rap on the hospital room door that interrupted their conversation. Samantha Clive opened the door. “Mr. London? Might I have a moment?”

Marcus stood, confused. “W-wha? Sure. I-I know I’m not done the paperwork yet, but—”

“There is an unrelated issue I wish to discuss with you. My office, please.”

Marcus glanced at Allen, then back at the doorway. It was empty now, the director having left for her office. Dread settled into Marcus’ chest to go along with all the other uncertain feelings that already resided there. “Guess it’s hard to say no to that tone.”

He followed the woman, feeling a little like he was walking into his own execution.

He didn’t catch sight of Sam again until he got to the office and Geoffry Davis ushered him into the stately room. He slumped his shoulders and stuck his hands into his pockets, but then thought better of it and stood up straight. Sam sat at her desk as if she had always been there. “Have a seat, Mr. London.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He sat down in one of the plush chairs on the other side of her desk, a little harder than he intended. Again, he resisted the urge to slump. It occurred to ask what this was all about, but he sat there, tongue-tied.

“Mr. London, when was the last time you spoke to Lindsay White?”

“Huh? My girlfriend? Uh…this afternoon, I guess. Just before some of us got pulled to go to Atlantis. I assumed she’d been assigned to disaster relief.”

“She was. Her supervisor tells me she never reported back. Has Miss White talked to you at all since then?”

“Wha—uh…I don’t know. Let me check.” He pulled out his phone. He’d gotten used to being without the device, since his powers had been in the habit of frying them since he was fourteen. Even after he joined Delta and got access to surge protection technology, he forgot he had the damn thing half the time. He never checked it unless notified, and he’d been smart enough to turn off the ringer while they’d conversed with the Elves. A single message was waiting for him.

i can’t be a hero. im sorry.

He stared at the words as if his gaze would make the message make sense. “What?”

“We pinged her phone just outside the American and Quebec border. That location and your message leads me to believe Miss White no longer wishes to be part of us. Mr. London…Lindsay White has run away from the Delta Division.”

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.”

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.”

“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!”

John Smith lived alone in a smallish room nestled inside the Delta Division headquarters overlooking Lake Ontario. It was a nice enough room, filled with comic books and music. None of it reminded him of home.

He missed home often. When he closed his eyes, he could still see his mother’s smile. She’d been exceptionally kind. He saw her every day in his sister. Mata could see into a person’s mind; Meraliese could see into a person’s heart.

He often hoped he was like his father. The man had quiet, observant; always ready with a smile and a piece of wisdom when asked, but forthcoming with neither. He always felt the need to show his knowledge instead of telling it.

He missed the man more every day. He’d gained a good friend from the tragic events that had taken his parents, but sometimes he wondered if that was enough…

He could still see it. The warm day—unseasonably so for the time of year. It was getting on to a warmer season, but for the time of year, one could not expect the air to be as beautiful as it was that day. Mata was preparing dinner in the kitchen—one of her favorite fowl recipes, if he remembered correctly. If he closed his eyes, he could still see droplets of scarlet blood splattered across the browned, spiced breast meat.

She always made the seasoning herself. She was singing. He could still hear the song in his head, a song he often strummed on the guitar, or hummed when he was feeling lonely. He did that right now, remembering.

Fater was in the stable. He loved the animals. Mata often teased him that he ran an inn, not for the people, but for the animals they traveled in on. He never denied it.

That evening, Jay had been out for a run, and John was in the family room with his kittle, a stringed instrument he’d loved playing since he was four years old. Meryl’s fingers danced over her own musical instrument, and together they pieced together a melody to a song Jay had written. His sister was smitten with the strange boy that had so suddenly come into their lives.

That’s when a metallic figure walked into the room. It didn’t even glance at the twins. John had been too stunned by the absurdity to do anything about it, so the machine walked right by into the kitchen as they stared, stupefied.

Mata could never hurt a fly, but she knew what this was. It was something horrible, and it was going to hurt her kids. She focused on it and did the one thing with her Gift she’d sworn never to do. She searched out his mind, the mind of the man inside, and made it turn in on itself. John still remembered the auto-tuned agonizing scream of the man as he collapsed, the thousands of tiny robots that made the suit collapsing with him. Then Mata started running to her children to make sure they were all right.

She never saw the other one behind her. Never saw her death coming. The machine raised its hand and the air vibrated with a beam of terrifying sound that dissolved everything in its path…including Mata’s insides.

Too little, too late, John sprang into action. He dashed toward the machine and punched inside it. Even now, years later, he could still clench his fist and feel the warm flesh of the man inside the suit. He felt the sticky blood and he felt his fingers close around the man’s spine.

And then he tore it out. He tore the man apart the way his machine had torn apart his mother. He might have screamed, he still wasn’t sure. Screamed with the agony that can only be felt when watching the woman who gave you life die at your feet.

Then the sound came from the barn. “Joleon!” His sister screamed his name, and they ran. Together they ran to the barn as fast as his Gift could take them. Even with his incredible speed, he was too late. The machine had gotten the jump on Fater. His blood was scattered all over the wooden doors. This time it was Meryl who screamed.

Ceil had been with Fater. The boy was a little bit older than the twins, and much like a brother. Fater and Mata considered him a son. Ceil could regenerate, and in this, John took some comfort. It didn’t matter what they did to him, they wouldn’t kill him. They couldn’t.

The machine grabbed Ceil by the neck and together they flew into the air. John and Meryl joined them in the skies. The suit let out a strange sonic vibration, which made John feel nauseated, even at this distance. At such a close range, Ciel had it much worse. He let out a strangled cry, and looking back, John wondered if he saw death itself coming for him. For somehow his Gift was gone.

With a crunch of his hand, the machine broke Ceil’s neck. He tossed him to the ground. John couldn’t even scream. Then the machine turned his face to John and Meryl and positioned its hand to point at them. Every instinct John had screamed for him to run, but he could not. He couldn’t move. He willed himself to move, and nothing happened. The wail of the machine echoed in his ears, and all of the sudden, he felt himself falling. The ground rushed to meet him, and he knew he was going to die. That meant he’d be with Mata and Fater, but somehow he still fought against it. He needed to protect his sister, who was falling with him. At least they would be together in death.

But their God had other plans. John felt an arm around his waist and his sister’s sobbing breath against his ear, even as he knew it was Jayson who was with them. And then everything in their world changed. Everything.

That was how they came to be here. That was the day that killed the two people who had given him life and taught him how to live it. From that day, he’d had to figure out how to live it on his own.

Now, they were all super heroes. Samantha Clive had taken the unprecedented step of declassifying the clandestine organization. Now, the public knew that beings of extraordinary power watched over them, for better or for worse. Men and women of all ages looked to the sky to see him streak across the horizon on his way to save the world.

To John, this felt especially strange. In his world, they could not use their abilities for fear of persecution. The attack on his family was not an isolated incident. The Old Order feared the Gifted, and used whatever measures they could possibly find to make sure they were wiped out. Sometimes John feared they would succeed. He spent a great deal of time wondering if he should go back to Arlethae. How many more Gifted had died to the relentless oppression by the Old Order since they had left?

Yet something made him stay. God only knew what.

This world was strange to John. Never mind its fast cars, young sun, and baffling language; the people of this world were so unpredictable. Especially now that they knew of the existence of the ‘super heroes’. The humans viewed him as almost god like, and he suddenly understood what it was like for the First Created.

Legend had it that Creator had first formed the Ereakthc and granted them great power and immortality. But they lacked structure, ideas, mortality. Then the Creator formed the Ereurtc, the Second Created. To them he gave a short life, and from that sprang ambition and creativity. It was said that, as the Ereurtc told stories of the First Created, those stories became true. And so the gods and legends were born.

Over time, the wickedness of some of the gods could not be reconciled. They were cast out, some of them coming to rest on Earth for a time. There, they were worshiped, and they came to view life differently because they had people who looked up to them with such adoration. It was mesmerizing. And that’s how the people of Earth looked at the Delta heroes today.

John didn’t like it. He wanted to blend into the background and be left alone, but his heart ached with desire to help people. When he was granted his powers—his Gifts—he asked to be given the power to protect. More than anything, he wanted to keep others from harm.

“It’s not just your powers that protect people, Mr. Smith,” Samantha had said once. “The very name of Stryker will bring hope to this city, and it is that hope that will inspire people to look inside themselves for their own inner hero. An inspired people is a stronger people. Your name will help them protect themselves.”

At the end of the day, maybe that’s what kept him on Earth. He couldn’t protect his own world, not when his people viewed him and those of his faith with fear and superstition. But maybe he could protect this one.

His phone beeped with an appointment reminder. He set down his guitar and strolled at a leisurely pace to his sister’s office. Meryl had done well for herself here. His gentle sister had tried field work once, years ago, and it had gone badly enough that she wanted only to work from behind the scenes. Over the past few years, she’d blown through the schooling to acquire degrees in psychology and sociology, and she now worked as Delta’s resident therapist. She screened each hero, building a profile of both their personality and powers. It was her job to assign each new recruit a mentor.

When John walked through the door, he was greeted with Meryl’s patient smile and a teenager’s squeal of excitement from a girl perched on the edge of Meryl’s desk. The girl had short hair and a petite frame, and a grin that was nearly bigger than her face was. It made John smile. He loved to see the enthusiasm of the new recruits. Sam was right. These days, everyone wanted to be a hero, to save the City. Your strength inspired that enthusiasm. It was humbling.

“Hi!” The girl giggled, and somehow smiled even wider. “I’m Lindsay.”

John held out his hand. “John. It is nice to see, meet you.” He grinned, hoping the girl didn’t notice his slip of the tongue. He knew that wasn’t the right way to phrase that.

It was difficult sometimes for him to grasp English. He remembered making fun of Jayson for not learning Arlethaen right away. Now, he got it. English was such an idiomatic language, full of colorful imagery and references to the past, the future, popular culture, and all kinds of things John felt he would never understand.

Jayson said once that Arletheaen was really wordy. In his effort to translate, John often used multiple words to say the same thing, all jammed into one sentence. He never quite knew which one was the right one to use, so he used them all. It sounded right to his ear, after all.

But the girl didn’t seem to mind. She hopped off the desk and shook his hand. “So I guess you’re training me and stuff.”

He nodded. “Yes. You are done with your interview?” He glanced at his sister.

Meryl nodded. “Yes. I think you’ll find her quite entertaining.” The corner of his mouth tipped. John wondered what in the world she was getting him in to. He smiled back. This was his sister, after all, and he would do anything for her.

He nodded to Lindsay and gestured her toward the door. “We should start by measuring your abilities. If you will come with me to the training room we can get begin started.”

“Kay.” She nodded excitedly, and they walked over to the gym.

Later, Drake would program Lindsay’s abilities into the virtual reality training room, but they began in a real-life environment that provided weights and adjustable gravity to see how fast she could fly under what conditions. They went at it for a few hours. He tested her strength, flight, and speed under normal, less, and increased gravity.

The girl threw herself into her training. “You want to be a hero badly,” he said, teasing her a little.

“Yeah. Cause I’m awesome, and everybody should know that.” She flashed a smile.

He said nothing to that, then corrected her stance. “Feet apart, about the width of your shoulder. You are strong, but that does not mean you should strike without purpose. Let every blow you make be one that will mean something. When you overwhelm your opponent with strength, he will find a way to fight strength. When you fight with purpose, he must match your purpose or be struck down.” He set a dummy for target practice. “Strike.”

She did so in a pattern he’d previously instructed. Her blows landed weakly. He caught the dummy as it swung back before it could hit her in the face and then put a hand on hers. “Lindsay.” His voice was gentle. “What is your purpose?”

For the first time since they met, her cheery demeanor slipped. “I-I don’t know. Honestly? I just don’t know.”

John smiled and put his hand on her shoulder. “Admitting you lack something is the first step to finding it.”

He stepped away and gestured again at the dummy. “Again.”

No great city was built overnight, and the girl would need training before she could be a true fighter, but the more he drilled her, the more his confidence grew: this was what was meant to be. Everything he’d been through, everything he’d seen and done, this was the reason. He’d protect this city, this world, this girl that had been entrusted to his care. This was his purpose. His strength.