Posts Tagged ‘Super Heroes’

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.”

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Eric didn’t know what to do. Charity was busy grief counseling her friends, and he wished with all his heart he could help; but he was about as useful as an umbrella on a buffalo. He spent several minutes in the infirmary, determined to outlast the uncomfortable feeling of being useless. He wanted at least to be there for Charity. She was going through grief of her own. When she’d lost her business in the hallway, he’d wished with all his might he could ease her pain, but that was impossible. And now it was becoming increasingly obvious that he was just in the way.

He never felt more like an outsider. This was a crazy world he’d been thrust into, and he didn’t belong here. These weren’t his people, and he couldn’t understand their pain. Sure, he could intellectualize it, and God knew he’d felt the pain of losing a brother, but he could sense that this was different. This was so much more.

“We’ll figure this out,” he said lamely. Brilliant, Eric. Just friggin’ brilliant. “I’ll go to the crime scene, see what I can find out. I’ll let you know what happened as soon as I do.”

Charity cast him a grateful look, and he smiled. He wasn’t going to tell her that he offered just to get the hell out of here.

A little while later, he landed at the scene, clad in his suit. Drake was there in his vigilante uniform. The ‘Mister X’ disguise always seemed so absurd to him. A dark figure who stalked the streets and brought the pain to anyone who didn’t meet his code of justice? How original. Yet he couldn’t deny its effectiveness, and how damn good the man was.

“Shot came from hotel, two blocks that way.” In this disguise, X spoke with a voice modulator, and used short, curt sentences. “Checked the place. Clean. Professional hit.”

Eric absorbed the information and nodded. That was hardly a surprise. If you were going to send someone to kill the Paragon of Alliance City, you weren’t going to send a tripped-out street kid. His attention was far more focused on the sidewalk in front of him. It was roped off with crime scene tape, surrounded by a small crowd of civilian gawkers and reporters. Local police milled around, making sure the bystanders kept to their place.

The sidewalk was covered in blood. It spread in a puddle that seemed to go on forever, stained indelibly on the concrete. Like an eerie reflection, the puddle seemed mirrored against the shattered pane of glass in the coffee shop window. Dried blood drooled from a frothy spray down the little glass that was still intact. A splash pattern danced around the gray-bricked edges of the wall.

Eric pushed down a wave of nausea. “Find the bullet yet?”

To answer him, shattered pieces of metal floated in front of his eyes. “Broke up on impact. Possible forensic countermeasure. Or to do maximum damage possible.”

Eric couldn’t keep the image of the exploding bullet out of his head. The metal shattering into thousands of pieces, splattering blood, bone, and brain matter against the brick and mortar. The nausea hit him again.

“Vorg. Microscopic scan.”

Eric nodded. He maybe should have been annoyed that Drake was ordering him around, but he was far too stunned. With a few mental commands, his heads-up display focused on the floating metal and zoomed in. “Identifying,” the A.I.’s voice said. “Scan complete. Eric…it looks like me.”

Eric wasn’t entirely in the mood for his suit’s existential crisis. “Just because it’s small bits of metal—“

Eric, listen. It’s more than a bullet. It’s a bullet-sized machine. The composition of metals is different, but the machine’s purpose and programming is the same.”

The nausea returned, but for a different reason this time. “To kill the Gifted.”

Eric,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Eric shook his head. It wasn’t her fault. Her purpose for existence was a burden she bore all the time. With a perfect memory it wasn’t something she could forget. “Drake, I know how they did it. The bullet was more than a projectile; it was a programmed missile, with the capabilities of emitting the same frequencies as my suit used to be able to do. This bullet was meant for him.”

Drake’s cowled head nodded. “I thought as much.” He paced away, and Eric felt that useless feeling again. What could he do to help them? They were his friends, after a fashion. He needed to do something. But how could he? He wasn’t part of their group, not really. No matter how much Charity tried to pretend he was.

Suddenly, Drake spun on his heel and gripped Eric on the shoulder. He leaned in and dropped the voice modulator. “I need you to take point on this investigation. I’m too close. When we catch this bastard, I want to nail the sun of a bitch to the wall. I don’t want to see him get off scot-free because of some bullshit implication of conflict of interest. I’ll be around if you need my expertise, but it must be you that puts the cretin behind bars.”

Eric’s jaw dropped so hard it banged against the inside of his suit. “I—but…this is your focus, you’re the one who’s the most capable, I can’t—I’m not trained in this…”

“You nearly uncovered the existence of the Delta Division. While drunk. You are capable of this. I need you to do this.”

Eric could scarcely believe it. He knew damn well what the request cost Drake. The man was a control freak, perpetually convinced that he was the only one capable of the things he was good at. That he would ask him…well, Eric was flattered.

And terrified. What if he couldn’t do it? He was a businessman, not a detective. There was a huge difference between following a money trial and solving a crime.

We can do it.

Well, if my suit thinks I can, then what am I worried about? he thought sarcastically. Yet, the truth of the matter was, Drake thought he could do it. Drake wouldn’t ask him if he didn’t trust his capabilities. He trusted him.

He stuck out his hand. “Count on it.” He said it with a confidence he didn’t feel. “We’ll get your guy. You have my word.”

* * * *

Mitch took the ferry from Delta Headquarters to the mainland and melted into the city streets. A few people called after him—mostly obscene names that came from the anti-metahuman protesters lining the shores overlooking HQ. That would bother him, usually. Here his people were, trying to save their sorry asses, and they had the balls to denounce them as ‘dangerous’, ‘morally irresponsible’, and his personal favorite, ‘genetically deviant’.

They weren’t a loud minority, not really. No one took them seriously. They had about two or three hundred people that were dedicated enough to sit along the shores, and most of them were there for the excuse to smoke weed for a common cause. On days with bad weather, that number dwindled to about fifty people that actually hated metas enough to sit through driving rain and blustery winds. No one was there during the winter.

The websites were always active, however. Every now and then, some hack who thought he was the next revolutionary would get a hold of some bandwidth; like moths to a flame, unintelligent twits would gather with their thoughts and opinions, as if they really mattered. Mitch had read one of their scathing commentaries once. “This is not a popular opinion,” it began, “but a necessary one. In light of human history, those painted wrong by their own time are often the most wise.” It just got worse from there, saying something about how the presence of metas took away their right to free speech. The Internet exacerbated stupidity.

Mitch had showed it to Charity, and she’d gotten annoyed all right—at the use of ‘most wise’ instead of ‘wisest’.

It should bother him more tonight, he reflected, as he aimlessly put one foot ahead of the other along a filthy alleyway. One of the people they so adamantly protested was dead for no discernible reason. Was this a victory for them? Were they happy a man’s life was extinguished, just because he dared to call himself a hero? But tonight, he just didn’t care. If they were going to spiral into self-destruction, he wasn’t going to stop them.

And so he walked. He didn’t have a particular destination in mind. He just wanted to be alone for a moment, to let his brain sort out this knot of confusion. Why? His mind grappled with the question. Stryker was a good, kind man. He made Mitch believe good men existed, that maybe, he could be one someday. He was an icon to the people, a beacon of hope. What purpose could there possibly be in snuffing out that light?

Without noticing, Mitch arrived at the scene of the assassination. Vorg was already here, as well as Mister X. If either of them noticed him, they didn’t give a sign. He was fairly certain X knew, though. Nothing happened without that man knowing about it.

Mitch didn’t need to be here. His view wasn’t great. He was some distance away, on the other side of rubberneckers and curious onlookers. Stryker’s body was gone. There was no reason to stand around on ceremony, but Mitch stayed anyway, part of the crowd of people who didn’t want to look away, that stared as the CSIs combed the scene. He understood in a way. Leaving meant they had to figure out how they were going to get on with their lives.

“Hey, you’re from Delta,” someone said, a businessman in a long tan trench coat. “Inferno, right?”

“What was he like?” This was from a twenty-something poser with pretentious thick-rimmed glasses, a pretentious goatee, and pretentiously wavy hair. “Linus Macklby. I’ll be running this story on my blog tonight. How is the Delta Division handling the loss of the Paragon of Alliance City?” He stood ready to record Mitch’s comment on his phone.

For a moment, Mitch considered setting fire to the man’s phone and telling him to mind his own goddamn business, but he changed his mind. Blogs were often a more reliable source of news anyway. Professional newspapers and news channels were sponsored and slanted to one view or another. Independent bloggers were free of that—though that often meant free to be utterly and viciously wrong.

“I don’t think anyone’s free to make a statement to that yet,” Mitch responded. “Individually, I don’t think anyone knows how they’re handling it yet. Stryker was a good man. We will all be hurting from this loss for a very long time.”

He declined to answer anything else, and took his leave. There was nothing else for him here.

He wandered along Blink and Stryker’s usual patrol route. There was someone walking the beat, Mitch was sure of it, because Sam wouldn’t let the streets be abandoned just because a hero was shot to death. Who she found to replace the duo, he had no idea, and didn’t care. If he ran into them, he’d stay out of the way. He didn’t know why he felt the need to finish the route. Symbolic, maybe. A compulsive need to finish what the fallen hero had started, even if it was something as simple as a patrol route.

When one went looking for trouble, it wasn’t very far away. Mitch heard a man scream in the distance, and he jogged quickly toward the sound. By the time he got there, three thugs had the man pinned against a brick wall with a switchblade to his throat. One of them was going through the poor man’s wallet. “P-please! Just let me go! Th-that’s all I’ve got, please, I won’t tell anyone, just don’t kill me!”

The thugs didn’t notice Mitch’s approach. He snuck through the shadows until he was almost on top of them, and then whistled through his teeth to get their attention. They turned and stared, and Mitch grinned as flames spread from the tips of his fingers along the edges of his coat and encircled him like an aura.

“Shit! Capes!” They scattered, but not before the alley was surrounded by a wall of flame. Trapped, the three thugs huddled back together. One of them pointed a gun. “Back off, you freak, or I’ll fill you full of holes!”

Mitch just laughed. “You’ll try.” He flicked his fingers, and the gun exploded, covering the man’s hands and arms with shrapnel.

That got their attention. Another one tried the reasoning approach. “Look, man, we’ll cut you in, all right? We can make a deal.”

Mitch ignored the speaker and walked up to the one who held the wallet. He snatched it from the terrified thug’s grip, minding his fire so it didn’t touch the faux leather. “Money.” He waved his fingers expectantly until the thug handed it over. Neatly, and ever so slowly, he tucked the money back into the wallet and handed it to the victim. “Anything missing?”

“N-no, Sir.” Mitch’s lips twisted in a smile at that. The man was several years his senior, and no one ever called him ‘sir’ like that.

“Good. Tonight might be one of those nights where you follow your gut and take a cab. The streets aren’t safe.”

The man nodded and took off like a shot through the opening in the flame that Mitch provided for him.

Mitch turned to the three would-be assailants. “I knew we should have stuck to our regular turf.” The thought wasn’t his. It came from one of the muggers.

“You shitstains are a bit off your beaten path, aren’t you?”

The three exchanged a look at Mitch’s words. “H-he said we could—that we’d be safe!”

Mitch chuckled. “’Safe,’ huh? Ironic choice of words.”

“We were told whatshisface…Stryker was dead. That—”

The man screamed as Mitch grabbed his collar. Flames licked at the thug’s face. “So now that he’s no longer with us, you figure you can just start terrorizing the people he protected? You couldn’t take one night off, one miserable night out of respect for the dead? No, of course not. A king is dead, long live the king.” He tossed the man to the concrete. The guy didn’t get up, but writhed in pain from the second degree burns on his face and neck.

“D-don’t kill me, please…” Begging seemed to be this guy’s style, permanently stuck in bargaining mode. The deal he’d tried to make left a bad taste in Mitch’s mouth.

Mitch laughed. “Funny. I think that’s exactly what your pal with the money said.” He took a step toward the man, who tripped and landed inches away from the fire wall. With a gasp, he rolled away onto his hands and knees. Mitch slammed his boot into the man’s nose and grinned at the soft crack. His target went flying into the fire. Mitch scooped him up by the belt and dragged him out. Flames licked at the hapless man’s clothing until Mitch put them out. He’d survive.

“I’m not going to kill you; in fact I want you alive. I want you to tell everyone that you deal with that these streets will never be ‘safe’ for your kind to terrorize. When one hero falls, another will rise to take his place. And you had better hope to whatever god you still believe in that that hero isn’t me.”

He dismissed the flames and left them there.

Blood trailed down the shattered windowpane, around bits of unidentified matter and coagulated on the sharp tip of a piece of glass. Jayson’s eyes followed it to the end, where the blood dripped into nothing. What must it feel like? He wondered. To reach the end of the glass and fall into an abyss?

The end.

This was the end.

His mind couldn’t comprehend the motion of the crowd around him, people running scared, the throng pressing against themselves away from the dead body that lay on the ground. He couldn’t understand so many lives that would just keep on going when the one before him had just been shattered.

Instinct kicked in, the only thing that could possibly carry him through this. His phone was by his ear before he knew why. He didn’t remember taking it out of his pocket or dialing the number to Sam’s office.

“John’s dead.” He could scarcely believe the word’s came so easily. With them came a horrifying reality. “Oh, dear god, John’s dead.”

“What happened, Mr. Allison?”

Her question was calming. The tone the words came in make him believe even for just a second that things were going to be okay.

They weren’t.

“Gun shot. How it happened, I have no idea. It just…oh, God…I j—I just—he’s…John, he’s…” He was blithering now, incapable of finishing a sentence.

“It’s okay, Mr Allison. We’ll talk about this later. Get to a safe place. I’m sending people over.”

She might have said more, but Jay dropped the phone. It clattered into a pool of blood. For a second, he imagined the communication device giving voice to the dead, a voice that was lost to the concrete as the blood soaked into the sidewalk.

Jayson tore the mask from his head, understanding in some vague sense that some low-life, bottom feeding paparazzi was going to take a picture of this moment of vulnerability, and his identity would likely be on some blog tomorrow.

He couldn’t give less of a shit right now. He wanted the damn thing off his face. It was covered in blood.

His hands were slick with it, the red sticky liquid from John’s body. Oh, dear god. He’s dead.

He couldn’t deny it. John lay half supported by the shattered glass window where he’d fallen. His arm looked incredibly uncomfortable, twisted underneath him like a rag doll. Jay resisted the urge to move it.

You should be used to this by now, a voice in his head taunted him.

No shit. This was not the first person he’d seen dead. Ceil, their Arlethaen friend, dead at the hands of the Old Order. The man he’d called Dad, killed by a purposeful strike from an angry god.

His mother had never recovered. To make matters worse, shortly after that Jay found out that the tactical call he’d made cost the lives of three people they were ill equipped to lose. He’d failed the team.

He’d failed John. They were partners. They were friends. He was supposed to protect him.

He couldn’t protect anything after it had half a head shattered all over the sidewalk.

The world shifted as his knees hit the ground, then kissed the palms of his hands. Jayson threw up.

Uniformed Delta Division officers showed up and spread out, pushing back the crowd and ascertaining any immediate danger. One began roping off the area while another snapped pictures.

“Sir?” A hand rested on his shoulder, and he turned to see the face of one of Delta’s investigators. Jayson couldn’t remember the man’s name, or anything about him, which was unfortunate because he was sure he’d interviewed the detective himself. He hoped to hell the guy was competent. If he was on the scene to do a preliminary investigation now, his notes had better be thorough and comprehensible for when Drake took over, or there would be hell to pay. And Drake would take over. He’d be by after the PSO mission to be sure. He wasn’t going to let something like this go to just anybody.

“I…I’m going to take him to the infirmary.” He shouldn’t be making that call, not yet, and not when his judgement was compromised. No one stopped him. Half a second later, they were in the infirmary.

Dr. Elizabeth Franks was there. She wasn’t supposed to be on duty tonight, but in a case like this, Sam had pulled in the best. Liz didn’t often work as a mortician, but she was more than capable. And she was personally invested. Tears pooled in her eyes, and her pale skin was nearly translucent. She was shaken. Jay hadn’t been kidding when he’s said the good doctor had more than a little bit of a crush on the paragon.

Of course, all that mattered exactly nothing now.

“He…hm…He—I think the cause of death is a gunshot wound to the head.”

It was an incredibly poor attempt at humor that wasn’t all that funny anyway.

Dr. Franks nodded and didn’t look at him.

Jay gripped his mask and ran his hands through his hair. “I…this isn’t supposed to happen. He’s supposed to be invincible. Invulnerable to anything people could throw at him.”

That was the story they told anyway. There was one thing John was vulnerable to. The machines in his world that stole powers. Maybe that had something to do with it.

It wasn’t doing any good to try to figure it out. Jay felt nauseous again.

“I’m sorry.” he didn’t even know why he was apologizing.

“Yeah. Um. I’ll be a bit, okay?”

“Okay. Hey, doc?”

“Yeah?”

“Where’s my wife?”

He didn’t really need to ask. He knew where she usually was—in her office, more often than not—and seeing that he’d given Sam sufficient time to do something, she probably knew something was up now, and was heading down here.

With that thought in mind, he ran outside of the morgue and caught her.

“Where is he?” Her voice was panicked. “Sam said something was wrong. What happened? You’re okay, thank God you’re okay. Joleon, is he…”

How in every hell that existed was he going to tell her?

“Merelise…” The use of her Alethaen given name interrupted her small rant.

“Oh, God, no…”

“Meryl…Joleon is dead.”

She caught her breath. Everything in her body just sank, and she collapsed to the floor with a sob. “No, no, no, God no, please, no!”

Jay caught her around the arms and held her to him. He just let her cry, because that’s all he wanted to do himself. The aching, sickening feeling in his stomach tightened, and he was pretty sure he’d never eat again.

He didn’t want to. He didn’t care anymore. There was nothing left.

Once, he’d stood toe to toe with Kronos and told the angry god that he had nothing left to lose, so bring it on. Idiot, idiot, idiot! Did he honestly think he was going to sneak around the god of time? Just because he was imprisoned, that didn’t mean the world was out of his reach.

Oh, dear God, please tell me John isn’t dead because of me.

Stop jumping to conclusions, another voice said, this one of reason. You don’t yet know the how our why or what happened. Blaming yourself will just blind you with guilt, and then you’ll never see the truth.

The suits from Arlethae was the only thing Jay could think of that would nullify a Gifted’s abilities, but he hadn’t seen one in the alleyway. What the hell was happening? Who would do something like this, and why? He just didn’t understand.

For a moment, he was angry. Not that this unspeakable thing happened, but that right now, he would have to be the strong one. Why me? Why is it my responsibility all the time to make sure everyone else is okay? When is it my turn to fall apart?

That lasted hardly for a moment. This was his wife. He would hold her up, and he would support her as much as she needed.

Even though right now, he didn’t have a dammed clue how.

* * * *

“Delta HQ to Thundra, abort mission.”

Charity exchanged a confused look with Drake. “Say again, HQ?”

“Abort mission. Return to base. Immediately.”

Drake shrugged. He’s gotten the data he needed, and besides, the computers were now destroyed. He’d go through the information later in his own lab.

“Okay, kids, back to the van, we’re taking off.” In the Maverick, she did a headcount. “Drake, let’s port back.” She’d saved the teleportation for an emergency, and there was an urgency in Sam’s voice that make her think this was the time for that.

They appeared back at HQ and piled into the hanger. Sam stood waiting for them, a dark, angry look on her face. Instantly Charity’s mind jumped to the conclusion that Sam was angry with them. Why, she had no idea, and it didn’t matter at all. It didn’t occur to her to ask. Her mind just raced to find a justification for every action she’d directed that night.

But that was unnecessary.

“Stryker is dead.”

For some reason Charity had the bizarre impression that Sam was talking about her favorite reality show character, which made no sense because that wasn’t the character’s name, and Sam didn’t watch television anyway, and even if she did, why would she be this upset about it?

Stryker is dead. This time it hit her like a slap to the face. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my God.”

“What happened?” she heard Eric ask.

“Details are still under investigation. What we do know at this time is that he was assassinated, shot at long range. Mr. Hachirobei, I assume you will be—”

Drake was gone. He didn’t even stick around to ask where it happened, but this was Drake. He’d find out. The streets were Mister X’s domain. Not a damn thing happened out there without him knowing about it. Except this.

“Miss London.” Charity’s head jerked up at Sam, pulling her out of her stunned stillness. “Mr. and Mrs. Allison are just outside the infirmary. I expect you’ll want to be there for them.”

“Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.”

She didn’t even remember covering the distance between the hanger and the door, but she was suddenly a few hallways down, on the floor sobbing. John was dead. He was gone. The one they all looked up to, the dependable one, the one they counted on to be there. He was gone.

Her senses dulled with grief, she hadn’t even realized that Eric was beside her, but then he wrapped his arms around her. She really lost it then, a small, internal voice expressing gratitude that she’d managed to put it off long enough not to cry in front of the younger kids.

“Gotta…gotta pull it together, she muttered finally. “Meryl and Jayson…they need me.”

Eric didn’t stop her, didn’t try to talk her out of it. Without a word, he helped her up, his arm around her waist. Her legs nearly gave out from underneath her, but he held her steadily. “I’m here,” he said, his voice gentle.

She nodded, and somehow the two of them made it to the infirmary doors. With a deep breath, she pulled away from Eric, and the two of them walked in.

The look on her friends’ faces was nearly her outdoing. Meryl was nearly prone, her whole body convulsing with uncontrollable sobs. This was her brother, her twin. Charity knew how terrified and angry she was when Marcus was threatened; she couldn’t possibly imagine how she’d feel to lose him. And that was only a fraction of the closeness that Arlathaen siblings felt. It was a trait of their race that every birth produced twins, a boy and a girl. They were meant to be together in everything, two halves of a whole.

Jayson held her. Thank God for him. The two of them were soulmates, and if anyone could pull Meryl through this, it would be Jay. But he was hurting too. He’d gone through too much. Charity could well remember the fear in his eyes when his mother nearly died a few years ago. She survived, but had never been the same. And then, just when Jayson was coming to terms with his adoption and deciding which of the two men in his life was his ‘real’ father, he’d lost them both.

If it wasn’t for that, he’d be running Delta, Charity was sure of it. She wished he was. Maybe then John wouldn’t have died. She never hated Sam more than she had at that moment. That makes no sense, she told herself. It’s not like Sam actually made this happen.

She pulled them both into her embrace. There were no words. The three of them just cried together. They would get through this, they had to.

If only she knew how.

* * * *

Allen followed Charity’s exit with his gaze until she made it through the doors; then his look of disbelief returned to Sam. “The four of you are dismissed. Please have your reports on the mission on my desk by morning. Thank you.”

Then she was gone.

Mitch spun on his heel and backed out through the hanger doors. “And, that’s my cue. Catch you jokers later, hm?”

Allen didn’t respond. He just stood there, his fingers clenched into a fist so hard that his knuckles were white and his fingernails dug into his skin. The sharp pain focused him. “What coward…what goddamn coward would do this? I’ll kill him. I swear to any god listening, I will kill him!”

Lindsay stared at him. “H-how dare you?” Allen glanced up at her in surprise. “How dare you?” She fairly screamed it now. “You have no right to be upset by this! You’ve been here for, what, three months? He was my mentor for three years! What the hell is Stryker to you? What could he possibly mean to you?”

“Lindsay, that’s enough,” Marcus said in a low voice, and tried to pull her away. He might as well have been tugging on a marble statue.

Allen could feel hot tears burning in his eyes. “He was my hero. That’s what he meant to me. And yeah, maybe you’re right. I should have joined Delta earlier, and maybe known him a little longer, but you know what? It doesn’t change a damn thing. We lost someone, and come hell or high water, we are going to make sure that he is avenged. So, are you going to stand there bitching at me about it, or are we going to work together to find out who is responsible? Because I can guarantee you I will find out. And God help him when I do.”

Lindsay had no response for that. She leaped into the air so fast, it left shatter marks on the concrete floor, and then took off into the night sky through the open roof.

Marcus shrugged. “Sorry about that,” she said. “Lindsay gets a little…worked up over things. “

“I don’t really blame her.” Allen unclenched his fists. There was blood on them, collected under his fingernails. He laughed a little. “For all my big talk, there’s not a damn thing we can do right now, is there?”

Marcus sighed. “Come on. The training room’s open. Maybe there’s nothing we can really do, but I think we both need to blow off a little steam. How’s about we go dick around in there a bit.” He grinned. “Betcha I’ll kick your ass.”

Allen found himself with a half smile to return. The idea sounded like a good one. God only knew how much he needed something to hit right now. “Okay.” There. That was something he could do. He’d fight and he’d train, and when people a lot smarter than he was figured out what was going on, he’d kick this villain’s ass.

“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!”

Lindsay White was bored. They were supposed to be in a mission briefing, but it hadn’t started yet, and everyone was so very hush-hush about what the mission was about. Sam was going to come explain it at some point. That is, Director Samantha Clive, but everyone called her Sam. Which always seemed strange because she referred to everyone with their title and last name. Lindsay still didn’t like being ‘Miss White’ but whatever.

“I’m telling you, it won’t work.” Jayson and Drake were arguing. Again. Jay was being the negative Nelly, though where he got off telling Mister ‘I can fix anything’ Drake if something worked or not, Lindsay had no idea.

Drake was wearing a loud Hawaiian t-shirt over a black shirt with the name of a popular metal band and black cargo pants tucked into his combat boots. The look was so last decade, but Drake could at least wear it ironically. The same couldn’t be said for Jayson, whose long-sleeve v-neck hadn’t been in style for a century.

“I’m not saying the whole area’s going to be sucked into another dimension. It’s just going to be slightly off-kilter from the rest of time.” Drake was being patient.

“Time doesn’t work that way!” Jay was being exasperated.

“So explain it to me!”

“I can’t. Time is just one of those…things, you know? It’d be like you explaining to me how gravity works.”

Drake quirked an eyebrow. “I can explain to you how gravity works. But I see your point, if this comparison hinges on you understanding it.” He grinned. “Not my fault you’re too stupid to understand.”

Jay opened his mouth to say something, then closed it with a lopsided smile. “I…walked into that one, didn’t I?”

Drake responded by holding up his hand with his thumb and forefinger spaced an inch apart. “Little bit. Just a little.” He shrugged. “Come on now. When have I ever been wrong about this kind of thing? Charity, tell this plebeian pedestrian that I’m right.”

Charity was just walking in with her boyfriend Eric. At least they had the ability to dress properly. Charity wore black slacks and a midnight-blue blouse with mother-of-pearl earrings and matching necklace. Eric had a pressed collared shirt that was tailor-made for him and a pair of blue jeans with ironed creases. His watch alone would have kept her father’s business in the black for a year. The two of them were almost cute, for older people. Charity scared Lindsay a little, but not too much. She was just convinced the woman hated her. She just didn’t think she was good enough to be dating her brother. Whatever. She and Marcus were soulmates.

Charity shook her head. “Oh, hell no. I am not getting involved in your arguments. Also, that’s sort of redundant, which really doesn’t make the alliteration work. Both ‘plebeian’ and ‘pedestrian’ indicate mediocrity, though you could use ‘pedestrian’ as a noun, which really… What?”

Drake was grinning at her, which meant he’d fully intended on sending her into a pedantic rant. “Too easy.”

Charity pointedly ignored him, and instead introduced the boy that had come in with her. “Guys, this is Allen. He’ll go by Spirit on the field. He’s also a paragon type, like Lindsay.”

“Woohoo,” Lindsay said excitedly. She pumped a fist in the air. “Go team smash.”

“Right,” Charity drawled, and Lindsay could almost hear the roll of her eyes. “Anyway. Allen, you already know Eric, Jay, and of course John.” Lindsay could never quite get the hang of calling her mentor anything but Stryker, and if the adoration in the kid’s eyes was any indication, he wouldn’t either. “The others are Lindsay, Marcus, and Mitch. Spryte, Spark Plug, and Inferno, respectively.

Lindsay waved at him with a grin. Allen gave her a timid smile. He looked a little like he’d rather be hiding under the table. Awww, he’s shy. That’s adorable.

“Excellent. Fresh meat.” Mitch grinned. He leaned his chair on its back two legs and propped his booted feet on the table. He was dressed in his Delta hero costume, a black, worn leather bombers jacket with flame decals that danced around the wrists and from the bottom hem. Other than that, he wore blue jeans and a plain black t-shirt. He waved one hand indifferently to Allen. “Newbie goes for the coffee run. I take mine with no cream, plenty of sugar. Black as the devil, sweet as a stolen kiss.” He gave Lindsay a wink.

Mitch was a flirt. Marcus didn’t like him for that reason alone, no matter how many times Lindsay assured him that there was nothing he needed to worry about. He was that way with every girl. Of course, he was super cute. And he had a whole ‘bad boy’ air about him, plus there was just something so adorably angsty about him.

Marcus rolled his eyes. “Don’t listen to him, he’s an asshat,” he said to Allen. He stuck out his hand. “Welcome.” Allen returned the handshake.

“…Be sure to reschedule my brunch with Senator Cole.” Samantha Clive’s voice floated down the hallway in time to the clip-clop of her stilettos. At the door, she turned neatly on her heel. “And light a fire under the accounting department. I want those financial reports on my desk by morning.” Now there was a woman who knew how to dress. A knee-length lavender skirt encased long legs that somehow seemed comfortable in her choice of sensible-but-stylish footwear. She wore a cream-colored blouse and gold minimalist jewelry. Her black hair was twisted into a French knot at the base of her neck.

“Yes, Ma’am,” her poor bedraggled assistant told her. Poor man. He was a speedster, but even he had a hard time keeping up with the demands of the high-powered woman. He scuttled off to do what he was told, and Sam stepped into the room.

“Ah, good, you are all here.” She walked to the front of the room and passed her hand over the commanding end of the table. A display woke up beneath the clear Plexiglas, and she used it to turn on the holographic display in the center of the table. It showed a three-dimensional image of a young, blond boy. “This young gentleman has made a name for himself by drawing out a mathematical proof of a working perpetual motion machine—one that could theoretically supply the planet with an unlimited source of energy. Mathematicians from all over the world have studied it. The fact that it’s written in crayon doesn’t seem to detract at all from its validity.

“Obviously, knowledge of this caliber is going to attract a lot of attention. This could solve the global energy crisis. Of course, that’s going to put power firmly in the hands of whoever controls him. The boy needs to get to a safe place before other governments try to make a war out of him.

“I’ve been in diplomatic talks with the Russians. Since we’ve gone public, several other countries wish to join in the world-wide Delta Division. As you know, the United Kingdom, Australia, and others are already part of us. As a global initiative, this makes us a neutral party that will be able to protect young Trevor here. Furthermore, it demonstrates our skills to the Russians, which will go a long way in our political ties.

“Your primary task, however, is to see to it that Trevor is escorted safely from his home on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg to the safe house we have prepared. Much of your path will be through the city streets in a public demonstration of our guardianship of the boy. Keep in mind that this is much a diplomatic mission as a military one. Mr. Allison will be your mission leader. His tactical skills will be invaluable.”

Then Jay took over the briefing, and mostly went into detail about who was going to be where and such things. Lindsay was only sort of paying attention. Her mind wandered to last night with Marcus. They’d gone to a bar together. She couldn’t get drunk, of course. But he could.

Not that it went anywhere. That was the problem with being Delta’s star couple, every bartender and bouncer in the city knew who they were—and more importantly that they were underage.

They finally got done with the briefing, and everyone loaded into the Maverick, a high-tech airplane that Drake had built. It was super sleek and shiny, which she supposed lent an extra level of stealth. It was cool, that was the important thing. They got to Russia—oh em gee, I’m in freakin’ Russia! –and met the kid. He was super cute, of course, though he didn’t talk much. At all, really. They piled together in the caravan of vehicles that was supposed to take them through Saint Petersburg to the other location. They were all set for their first Real Mission.

* * * *

Eric was keenly aware that he was the only ‘new guy’ that wasn’t under eighteen. No one else said anything, but it was obvious in the way anyone else in his age category just comfortably took command. Jayson was point man, so his commanding presence was necessary, but it was Charity in her gentle manner that corralled the kids into position.

Stryker, Sprite, and Spirit took a tri-corner position around the kid’s vehicle. They did make a magnificent sight, Eric had to admit, in full costume. For his part, he floated some distance in the air to give him the best vantage point of the entire area. Drake, along with Jayson, was even higher, in the Maverick in full stealth mode. If he adjusted the suit’s vision, he could see the plane, but it was beyond human sight, and even most technologies.

This suit was a marvel that he was just beginning to explore.

“Threat avenues noted. Contingencies in place,” intoned the female voice of the suit’s AI. The heads-up display marked circles around rooftops and building windows. At a thought, the suit would give a recommended battle plan on how to deal with each possibility of attack.

He dismissed the notifications on the display. “Thanks, Vorg,” he sub-vocalized.

“No problem, Eric.”

Not for the first time, Eric felt a twinge of amusement at being on a first-name basis with the AI of an alien suit of armor. Once, half jokingly, half apologetically, Eric made the comment to Charity about being inside his female suit. Charity didn’t get the joke at first, and then later said it was because she’d seen stranger things. Eric believed it.

It didn’t even occur to Charity to consider the suit a rival; and besides, she wasn’t the one that was uncomfortable with him wearing it. John was another matter entirely. The suit’s origins began in John’s home dimension. Its original purpose was to be worn by soldiers of the Old Order. It’s purpose: to kill Gifted. Suits designed by the Old Order emitted a variety of sound frequencies, one of which disrupted the connection that Gifted had with their powers. Drake had reprogrammed the shit out of that when Eric started using the suit.

The Paragon of Alliance City was the quiet sort. A man of few words, he had a genuine intensity and an air of unironic heroism that made Eric feel kind of bad for making the man uncomfortable by his very presence. The two had never sparred, something which Eric felt was unfortunate. He was curious how the suit would hold up under that kind of strength. Perhaps this mission would break the ice between the two of them.

Thundra, Inferno, and Spark Plug—that poor kid, what an awful name—were inside the car, taking positions close to the kid. If anything happened inside the vehicle, they’d be the first to know.

The crowd was immense. It was festive, though, which was a pleasant surprise to Eric. He was half expecting somber faces, staring morosely at the parade as it passed by. But most of the crowd was children, talking excitedly, pushing and shoving each other, and getting a little too close to the edge of the sidewalk. A few started spilling over into the roadway. The vehicles were going slow, but it was still dangerous, and Eric debated if he should fly down and help the police corral the kids.

Something flashed in his display. “Unidentified target.” What the hell? He focused on the area. The ‘kid’ didn’t look like a kid. Oh, it was about the right height and weight, but a closer look revealed pointed ears, a dark tinge to the kid’s skin, and eyes that were all black. He blinked. There had to be something wrong with the display. The kid almost seemed part of the shadow, but that couldn’t be right.

He hesitated. “Um, I…I think there’s something wrong with my display. It’s showing something a little strange.” It sounded silly. “I—I think…it looks like there’s some kid in the crowd with a…The color must be really off on this thing. Their skin tone looks gray.”

Drake swore.

* * * *

Drake’s boots hit the floor of the plane so hard it would have made Jayson jump if he wasn’t made of sterner stuff. There didn’t seem to exist enough profanity in any language known on Earth—and Drake went through every one he knew before he switched to otherworldly languages. Jay’s heart stopped for a moment before it began to race again. “How many of them do you see?”

“What?” Eric sounded confused. “A bit of an overreaction for faulty alien tech, doncha think?”

“He asked how many, Harrison!” Drake snapped. Jay grimaced.

“Thirty, forty maybe. They’re…not kids, are they?”

“No, Eric, they’re not.” Jay’s voice held a calm he didn’t feel. “They’re Fae. They can manipulate and teleport through shadows. And they mess with your mind. That’s why none of us are seeing this. Drake, I’m going to get the kid out of here.”

“No,” Drake said flatly. “I’ll do it. They can get into your head. Find the safehouse. I can keep ‘em out long enough.”

Jay looked at him a moment. “Fine. But take Charity as backup.”

Drake cast him a hard look. “Fine.”

He disappeared from the plane. Jayson hit autopilot and teleported to the ground. “Vorg, I’m going to need your eyes, since you’re the only one who can see the buggers. Where are they now?”

“Mostly on the sidewalk among the crowd. Wait! In the car! Marcus! Beside you!”

Drake was in the car not a moment too soon. A flick of his wrist on his hand device, and he was gone with the kid, the boy’s caretaker, and Charity.

Marcus reacted quickly. He flung his hands out and took a guess. He got lucky. A shadow swirled beside him and was gone. “I-I got it?”

“You got it,” Eric assured him. “Wait, it looks like…yes, they’re gone.”

Jay looked around. The crowd had thinned considerably. Those who were left were more than a little confused. He ran his hands through his hair. Sam was going to have a helluva time trying to explain this one to the press. And that wasn’t even the worse of it.

What the hell was the Fae doing here?

* * * *

Eric watched Drake pace the floor. He’d never seen the man this tense. Frankly, he didn’t think he was capable of this level of anxiety. Drake prided himself on being in control. Even when something went wrong, he had a backup plan. This was not the walk of a man with a backup plan.

“You know, eventually someone’s going to have to calm down and explain things to us uninitiated,” Eric finally said.

Drake glared at him. “I swear to Hades, if you’re telling me to calm down…”

“Hey, didn’t say it had to be you.” Man, the guy was really tense if he was walking into that one.

“The Shadow Fae.” Jay made the statement, efficiently getting the explanation underway before Drake could fly off the handle. “They’re creatures made of shadow, or the Darkness Element from the plane of existence called Myrathelle. Basically, think every whacked out fairy creature from ancient lore, and you’ve more or less got it.”

Lindsay raised her hand like she was in school. “So, we talking, like, Elves and the Shoemaker fairies, or scary fairies?”

“Scary fairies. The Darkness Element deals with the mind. They can twist and contort reality and your perception of it.”

“They’ve existed on this world for…oh, millennia,” Charity chimed in. “Lore tends to be vague on purpose. They can really be anything they want. Now, fortunately they’re incredibly disorganized. They rarely attack in large numbers. You might find one nuisance Fae every now and then when they get bored. But never this organized.”

“They respect power,” Jay continued. “They will follow the commands of someone they deem worthy. It’s this mastermind who will be responsible for their actions. Last time we saw them in this kind of number, they were with Kronos.”

Mitch blinked at them. “Wait…Kronos. As in…”

“As in the god of time, yes,” Charity said. “We beat him a few years ago, locked him in a sub-dimension of a parallel universe.”

“Oh, well, that’s okay then.” Mitch still looked entirely uncomfortable.

“The important thing is Kronos is out of their reach. He can’t give orders.”

“Right. Well, let’s hope some other god doesn’t get that idea,” Eric said casually. He saw the look pass between the others. “Wait, I was kidding.”

Sam had been listening quietly, but she chose this time to speak. “Ptah-Setker-Osiris had been quite silent for some time. Perhaps we should look into that.”

Charity paled and sat down. Concerned, Eric put a hand on hers. “You okay?” he mouthed. She nodded.

“We have intel on a base of theirs in the Sahara,” Sam continued. “Perhaps we should look into that. Tomorrow. You’ve had a long day. Rest tonight.”

Jay gave a nod to John. “We’re on patrol tomorrow night.”

Sam nodded. “Yes. Miss London, you’ll take mission lead.”

Charity blinked. “I—what?”

Eric looked back and forth between Sam and Charity. He didn’t like this idea at all. Charity had history with PSO, it was true—bad history. One tends to develop strong feelings after being kidnapped and tortured by a group like that.

“You are the most qualified. Meet back here at eight o’clock tomorrow for a briefing. Dismissed.”

A sonic boom sounded in the skies over Alliance City. On his way to school, Allen Gray’s head jerked in the direction of the sound. His gaze followed the jet stream behind the man flying in the sky. Stryker. In the three years that the Paragon of Alliance City had been in the news, Allen had closely followed his career. The man was a hero. Moreover, he was the first hero.

That wasn’t true. Allen wasn’t quite naive enough to believe that, even if Samantha Clive hadn’t been forthcoming enough to say the Delta Division had been saving lives for decades in secret. Still, Stryker was the first one anyone knew about. For days after the press conference that announced their presence, no one really believed in heroes. Most thought it was some sort of publicity stunt at best; at worst, a practical joke.

Then a terrorist cell of political fanatics hijacked flight 783 from Boston to Montreal. The plane’s distress signal had barely rung before Stryker was deployed. Faster than the supersonic plane, he singlehandedly dealt with the threat. The homegrown terrorists were brought to justice and the lives of every man, woman, and child on that plane were saved.

Reluctantly, Allen brought his focus back to the sidewalk he traveled. If he didn’t hurry, he was going to be late. You could be one of them, a voice whispered in his head, and not for the first time. It was true. For a couple of years now, he’d known he was different. Once, when he was fifteen, he’d fallen from a tree at a height that should have broken at least one bone. It had scared the living daylights out of his best friend, Tracy. They’d attributed it to pure luck that he walked away without a scratch.

It wasn’t luck. Not long after, he found out he had powers similar to Stryker. Perhaps that’s why, even at a distance, he felt a kinship to the man.

But being a hero? The very idea terrified him. Not the inherent danger, but the…attention. He could barely talk to people at the best of times. He hadn’t spoken a word to anyone outside his family till grade school. And even then it was because Tracy Violet was determined to be his friend and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

As if contemplating their meeting summoned her out of thin air, Tracy walked beside him. “Hey.” He smiled.

“Hey yourself.” She gave him a brilliant smile. His heart did a quick skip before it settled back to its normal rhythm. He was falling in love with her, and he knew it. It scared him more than the thought of being in the spotlight, more than any danger he could face as a hero. She was his best friend, and he was falling in love with her. There was so many ways that would end horribly. He hadn’t even told her about his powers. How could he tell her he loved her?

They walked to school together in companionable silence. Tracy could hold up both ends of the conversation if need be, but neither of them were intimidated by the quiet either.

First period they had an English presentation, in which Tracy did all the talking, and Allen functioned as the assistant, flipping the holographic slides from the back of the classroom. Second period, Allen sat in History class, while Tracy went to Math. When the bell signaled his departure, he made his way to the cafeteria.

Billy Rivers had planted his behind on the table in front of Tracy. She stared at him with disgust.

“Don’t give me that, sweetcheeks. The dance this weekend. You and me. I’m not gonna take no for an answer.” His hand rested on hers.

Some girls might be swayed by his insistence and charm. Tracy wasn’t one of them. She yanked her hand away. “The answer’s no, Billy.”

“You just haven’t thought about it yet.”

Allen swallowed. He should say something. He walked up to the table. “L-leave her alone, Billy. She said no.” It didn’t come out nearly as intimidating as he’d have liked.

“Go away, Gray. No one asked you.”

In a remarkable feat of nerve, Allen didn’t go anywhere and looked him directly in the eye. “Leave her alone. Before I get upset.”

Billy laughed. “Oh, now I’m real scared. What you gonna do, Gray? Cry? Come on. Hit me? Go on.” He lifted his jaw and pointed. “Right here.”

Impulse simultaneously overcame his fear and good judgment. His fist was halfway to Billy’s face before he realized it. At the last second, he pulled his punch. He didn’t want to kill the guy. To his surprise, his wrist snapped inward, like he’d just punched a brick wall. Like he was a normal person who punched a brick wall. His super strength vanished. He was too shocked even to cry out. Tracy did it for him. “Guys, stop this really isn’t worth it—”

Billy wasn’t listening. He took a swing at Allen, which he ducked, but barely. As Allen took a step back, he noticed the weakness he felt in his body went away. He was no great intellect, but he could tell by pure instinct that something was happening. Billy was a metahuman, he was sure of it. Immediately on the heels of that conclusion, he realized that punching him in the face wasn’t going to do any good. The other boy drained his powers.

Time for a ranged attack. He took two steps backwards and reached behind him till his fingers closed around a lunch tray. He whipped it with only barely reserved strength.

It wasn’t a lunch tray.

The whole cafeteria table flew from his fingers and smashed into Billy’s arms, which he raised to block the hit just in time. The plastic and steel bent around the boy. His shock and bewilderment was only slightly less than the same on Tracy’s face, and no more than the look of horror on Allen’s.

“Fight, fight, fight,” a few kids chanted, then the rest of the students took up the cry.

Billy didn’t seem overly interested in continuing their battle. He shrugged out of the dismantled table easily, and took a stance with his fists protecting his face, but he wasn’t eager to take the initiative.

Then the principle stood between them. “Gentlemen,” he said. “My office. Two minutes ago.”

Allen swallowed.

* * * *

The silence was so heavy, its weight almost felt literal. Allen wasn’t entirely sure his difficulty breathing was psychosomatic. He and Billy avoided each other’s gaze. Tracy was there, but she wouldn’t look at him. She was angry.

You should have told her, you idiot! He chastised himself repeatedly. He should have trusted her, and he did, but of course she felt like he didn’t now. At least that’s what he hoped she was thinking. As awful as that was, it was better than the alternative. There was a small part in the back of his mind that was worried she would think him a freak. If she did…well, he didn’t know what he’d do.

“Boys.” The principle’s voice startled him, and he turned with a jerk. Allen’s jaw fell open.

He stood there. Stryker wore a gold-colored padded vest, something reminiscent of the plate armor of an ancient soldier. Thematically, that was carried through the helm he wore, open at the top, exposing his blond hair. It was a simple design and drew attention to his golden eyes that marked him as otherworldly. He was an alien from another plane of existence, evidently. Not that it really mattered. He was here, he was their hero, he was the Paragon of Alliance City.

Stryker gave them a lopsided, embarrassed grin at their adoration. He blushed a little, and Allen realized he wasn’t particularly fond of the spotlight either. “I am supposed to give you a talking speech about training and becoming good, better than yourselves, but…” He shrugged. “My English is not very good.” He spoke with a heavy accent unlike anything Allen had ever heard before. He smiled. “I believe you can be heroes. When you believe in something, you can fight for anything.”

He spoke to both of them, but Billy was staring sullenly at his shoes, so Stryker’s eye contact fell mostly it Allen. He could have been speaking directly to him. It felt like he was.

Stryker believed he could be a hero. This was beyond the standard recruitment poster. It felt so much more sincere than a man in a top hat pointing his finger. The Paragon of Alliance City wanted him, Allen Gray, to be a hero. He believed he could be a hero.

And suddenly, Allen found himself believing it too.

* * * *

The sun was settling into that obnoxious angle where it shone directly into Tracy’s bedroom. She sat at her desk, tapping her pencil repeatedly on her chemistry textbook as if that would magically make her pay attention to the formulas scrawled across the pages. Everything swam together. Tracy wasn’t sure if it was from the angry tears in her eyes, or from this new angle at which she saw the world after hers was turned upside down.

Motion on the sidewalk caught her eye and she glanced out the window.

Allen.

He looked up and their eyes met. He had the most sorrowful, apologetic look she’d ever seen, and she was almost sorry for the anger she felt. Almost.

Allen vanished beneath the gables and a half-second later, the doorbell rang. Tracy gripped her pencil so hard, it nearly snapped. She was alone in the house, so she’d be the one to answer the door, but right now she wanted to be anywhere but at that door, facing her best friend who had lied to her for God only knew how long. She didn’t want to look at him right now.

He’d left with Stryker and that smug-ass bastard Billy just after their introduction to the Paragon of Alliance City. Even Tracy had to admit she was a little star-struck. In his own stumbling way, Allen had tried to ask if she could come with them to their trip to the Delta Division headquarters, but Tracy just couldn’t deal with it. “That’s your world,” she’d said in a clipped tone, and marched out of the principal’s office.

That might have been a little harsh.

A noise on the shingles outside her window startled her. Allen landed on the roof. From the ground. He can fly. Of course he can fly.

Her bay window was cracked to let in the breeze, and it carried Allen’s voice as he took a seat on the roof, his back against the wall. She could see his profile, silhouetted against the setting sun. When he glanced in her direction, she looked away.

“You’re angry.”

And water was wet.

“You have every right to be. I should have told you.”

“Damn right, you should have told me.” For some reason, she had to force the anger into her voice. It came out sounding more hurt than anything.

“I don’t—I don’t know if it’ll make up for it, but if you’ll let me, I’ll tell you. Everything. The truth.”

She studied the wood grain on her desk. An eternity passed before she nodded, unsure if Allen could even see her assent, but she was unable to look up.

“I—I figured it out, maybe three years ago. I was stronger, tougher than I should be. And I could—I can—I can fly.”

“I noticed.”

“Maybe I should have joined Delta then. Be one of…one of them. But I didn’t want to stand out. I just didn’t know if I could be a hero, and I didn’t want to be in the spotlight.” He laughed a little, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. “Somebody filmed the fight with Billy. The number of hits on that video practically double every hour. So, um, yeah.”

She glance up just as he twisted around to look at her. “Tracy, if I could go back and do it over again, I would. I’d tell you everything because you’re my best friend, and you’re the only person who could really understand. But I can’t. I can’t change what’s already happened. The only thing I can do now is ask you to forgive me.”

A glance in his soulful brown eyes was her undoing. He was scared and overwhelmed, but excited at the same time, and she could tell that he wanted more than anything to share this with her. And she just couldn’t say no.

“Fine. On one condition,” she continued before the relief in his eyes could get any more penetrating. “Promise me you’ll never keep something like that from me ever again.”

He hesitated just a fraction of a second, and no one else but Tracy would have noticed, but he hesitated. Oh my God, there is something? What could he possibly be hiding? Don’t tell me he’s an alien or something.

“Okay. I promise. And if I’m going to keep that promise, there’s something else I need to tell you.”

Tracy’s mouth went dry. What in God’s name could it possibly be? What could be bigger than what he’s just told me?

“I love you.”

Tracy rolled her eyes. “Is that all? Seriously, we’ve been best friends forever, of course we—”

“N-no, Tracy, just listen. It’s more than that.”

The snark vanished from Tracy’s face, and her lips parted as the enormity of what he meant finally sunk in.

“I-I don’t even know when it changed. How it happened, I don’t know. All I know is that when I’m around you, I can’t imagine ever being happier than I am in that moment. Except that I’m always wrong because I’m even more happy the next time I see you. I love you, Tracy.”

Tracy forgot how to breathe in the stunned seconds that followed, their eyes locked together. Allen was the first to break, his cheeks flaming as glanced away. “Th-that’s all I got. I promise. That’s the only secrets I have.”

Tracy’s heart pounded in her ears, reminding her that eventually her brain was going to need oxygen. Biologically speaking, that rush of endorphins that flooded her system was probably from the deep breath she finally took, but all she could feel was an emotion so strong she was baffled as to how she never noticed before. At that moment, she couldn’t imagine anything else but a lifetime with Allen.

“I’m glad that’s out,” she said breathlessly. That emotion that welled in her heart seemed to fill her whole being until the corners of her mouth buoyed into a smile. “I think it might be worth seeing where it goes.”

Inexplicable joy lit Allen’s face, and she suddenly knew what he was talking about, because she couldn’t imagine being happier than she was at that moment.

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.

Mitch Roberts shut the door behind him, exerting whatever willpower he had left not to slam it. If he could not wake his mother up, that would be wonderful. It was two in the morning; her shift at the diner started in four hours.

She sat in the living room chair. Their house was small, so the chair saw nearly every corner of the house, and most importantly, the front door. The television played in the background. It seemed she had been up and attempting to keep herself awake. “Where were you?”

“Out.”

“Don’t give me that, Mitchell.” When she used his given name, he was in trouble. “Where were—”

“I said I was out!” He snapped at her without even meaning to. His voice softened. “You should be in bed.”

“Gee, ya think?” She gave him that look. “I was waiting for my son to get home.” She paused. “Mostly to find out why he just got expelled.”

God-effing-dammitalltohell. He set his bag down with a clunk, and noticed an acrid smell that by now was all too familiar. He made a visible effort to calm down. “Look, it’s no big deal, all right?”

“No big deal? Mitch, this isn’t suspension this time! This is a ‘go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.’ You’ve been expelled. Do you not understand the gravity of what just happened?”

“No, you don’t understand!” he yelled.

“So, explain it to me!”

For a second, Mitch almost thought he could. He almost told her how he could control fire with his mind, how he could feel it burning with the anger that festered daily in his soul. That every time he beat the crap out of some bully, it was a minor victory that he controlled his temper long enough not to kill him. That every now and then he could hear what they thought.

Then she continued. “Explain to me how a kid as brilliant as you can make such a colossal wreck of his life.”

That was it. What every damn teacher ever would always think of him. “Brilliant but doesn’t apply himself.” “Excels at understanding the material, but needs to put in the work to make the grade.” Well, screw them all and their stupid rules. If his own damn mother wasn’t going to support him…

His fist shot out and went through the wall. He pulled it back, knuckles covered in blood and plaster. “Maybe because it’s my own damn life. Maybe because I’m sick of playing by someone else’s rules. I don’t give a shit what everyone thinks, and especially not you!”

She took a step backward, fear sparking in her eyes. Mitch instantly regretted losing his temper. His mind flashed back to a time where he watched his father lash out at his mother. “Shut up, woman, I don’t have to listen to you!” The memory and emotions were full of fear, terror, and love, and he knew he wasn’t just living it through his eyes.

Mitch made fists of his hands and held them to his temples, willing away the vision and memories, both his and his mother’s. He took deep, even breaths. Slowly, his temper began to subside. His mom was crying. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. He put his arms around her. She flinched. “I’m so sorry. I’m not Dad, okay? I’m not. I’ll never be like him. I promise.”

He finally got her into the kitchen and sat her down on the stool facing the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room. The screen’s glow cast strange colors on the cupboards. “You’re not going to sleep, are you?”

“Probably not.” She hadn’t really stopped crying.

“Call in sick tomorrow, then. Seriously. I’ll make some coffee.”

She wasn’t really paying attention. Her elbows rested on the counter and she stared at the television with her chin cradled in her hands. She was still terrified of him. He couldn’t blame her.

The television was replaying a broadcast from earlier that day. It seemed to be some major story. His mom was fixated on it. Some woman who’d been introduced as Samantha Clive stood at the podium.

“…Today marks a monumental occasion in history. Today we recognize a legacy of heroes who have worked tirelessly, unnamed and unsung for the people of this city and this world. This legacy reaches as far back as the nineteen eighties; their efforts were invaluable throughout the cold war, the war on terror, and countless disasters in the past few decades.

“Those heroes were part of something—a clandestine military organization, designated as the highly classified Delta Division. This organization was founded with one purpose: to train and deploy certain individuals with particular skills. Skills so particular in fact, that publicly they’ve been known only in fringe science and speculative fiction.

“To use the common vernacular, these people of Delta are…super heroes.”

Mitch stared at the screen, slack-jawed. He wasn’t particularly given to conspiracy theories, though in the light of his burgeoning powers, he’d begun to wonder if he shouldn’t shift his paradigm a little in that respect. If he was able to do something like this, it fell to reason that there was others who could do things like that too.

“We refer to people with these particular abilities as ‘metahumans’. Like everything else in human history, this is but one difference among many that will make us stronger as a people. Ultimately, I can tell each of you one thing: there is nothing to fear.” She said it convincingly; with sincerity and conviction.

“And to each of you young people out there, those of you who are struggling with the pressures of growing into adulthood—so hard and so basic to the human condition—and with the added bonus of suddenly discovering you’ve got abilities you’d never imagined. I leave you with a simple message.

“You are not alone.”

The scene shifted to a display of contact information. Mitch shook himself. His mother stared at the screen, stunned. She took a deep, shaky breath, and he noticed the tears that ran down her face. He watched her with growing unease.

“Mom…mom, are you…?”

“One of them?” She laughed a little, slightly hysterical. “No. but I…I think your father might have been.”

Mitch’s breath caught. “What do you mean?”

“I mean…I’d find his clothes like this.” She grabbed Mitch’s wrist and turned it up to the dim lighting. The cuff of his sweatshirt was charred and blackened. He jerked his hand away.

“I don’t suppose that has anything to do with why he left.”

She was silent for a moment. “I…I kicked him out.”

Learning that super heroes existed should have been the most worldview-altering thing that night. But this…this made him feel like he was punched in the stomach.

“He was a good man when I married him, he really was. I know that a lot of women say that about their men after they…well, you know what he was like. But I really mean it. He was the sweetest, kindest person I knew. He was a performer and a scientist. You know he used to put together the fireworks display for Alliance City every year?

“He’d have this area near the escarpment that he worked out of. He and I would work together to outdo his display from last year. But one time…” She paused and let out a laugh. “We had a little dog then. A little terrier he named Sport. Real original, I know. Well, there was this uncontrolled explosion, and the entire cavern threatened to cave in on us. The dog’s fault, you know. Well, we got out okay, but Sport ran back in, so of course Liam had to run after him.”

It was telling that she used his name. She never referred to his dad by his first name.

She shrugged. Tears pooled in her eyes. “The man I married never came back from there. He was buried under all that rock for three days. He shouldn’t have survived. But something did. Something that was just so…angry all the time. He left for a bit after that. Never said were he went, just that he got help. And everything was fine and fantastic…for a while. Then he started…”

She didn’t finish the sentence. “Well, you know. I put up with it for so much longer than I should have. But when you were born…I wasn’t going to let him hurt my baby.” She put a hand on his.

Mitch could see it. The backhand across his mother’s face as she held onto him as a tiny baby in her arms. Her body went flying. She sprained an elbow to make sure it took the impact of the floor instead of his head. “Get out,” she told him. She stood tall against the monster the man had become. “Get out of my house and never come back.”

“But he came back, didn’t he?”

“A few years later, yes. Said he’d gotten things worked out. And yeah…it was really good, and I thought maybe you’d have a father again, but…”

“But it wasn’t so good after Michaela was born.”

She shook her head. “To be fair, I really do think he had sincere intents to change. He just…”

“I know.” He held her there for a moment. “Hey, look. I don’t know if these people can help, but…well, it’s worth a shot, right?”

She shrugged, crying too hard now to really respond.

“Look, I don’t know if I can be a hero. I certainly don’t think I’m cut out to be one. But at least I can try not to be…like him. I can at least do that much. I’ll protect you from him.”

I’ll protect you from me.

* * * *

“You’re going to make me a star.” Lindsay White had certainly dressed the part for her interview with Miz Samantha Clive, Director of the Delta Division. She was dressed in a short faux silk and black leggings with thigh-high boots. She wore a blouse from that cute new store in the mall, topped with a black vest. They were in this season again.

She had potential, and she knew it. Her speed was already twice as fast as anyone else’s—although, all that meant to her father was that she could clear tables faster. She’d told him once, that something strange was happening to her. His exact words were “That’s wonderful, luvie, now be a dear and clear Tania’s section. She has to go for a dress fitting.”

It wasn’t fair that her oldest sister’s wedding was entirely taking everyone’s attention. The groom wasn’t even cute.

“Well, that’s certainly possible, Miss White. Just be certain you realize the impact a public identity will have on you and your family.”

“You kidding me? My family won’t even notice. Except maybe that’ll bring more business to the diner.”

“All right, if you’re sure. That’s a whole lot of consequences that can’t be undone.”

That’s all grown-ups ever talk about, is consequences. “Hey, you have a public identity.”

“I’m Delta’s public representative. People wouldn’t trust me if I hid behind a mask.”

“See, there. I want people to trust me and stuff.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “Of course.” Lindsay could tell she didn’t buy it, but whatever. “I see you’ve listed flight and super speed as your powers.”

“Yup. And I could swear I’m getting, like, super strong too. And I picked up a hot pan the other day, and it totally didn’t even hurt.”

“Hm. That’s certainly something. Have you given some thought to a name?”

“Sprite. Like the fairy.”

“All right.” Sam made a note. “So, are you thinking something a little ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ for a costume?”

“Oh, nothing so on the nose. I’m thinking sexy thigh-high boots, not fishnets though, that’s so 2040. Full body suit, black with a purple gradient, and a cape. Definitely a cape, the same purple color, with gold trim. Oh, and long enough to make me look tall. I’m short enough as it is. The boots should be high heels too.”

Sam’s lips twitched with some amusement. Lindsay didn’t know why people should be so amused that she knew what she wanted. She was going to be a hero, a purposeful spectacle, so she might as well make it good.

“All right. I’ll send those specs to the costume department and register your name. You’ll be meeting with a designer later to solidify your concept.”

“I heard that you have Felina McKinley working for you in costuming. Omygod, she’s fantastic. Like, one of my idols, you know?”

“She’s most certainly talented. I’m glad this is something you’re pleased with. Now, you will have to go for a psyche evaluation with Mrs. Meryl Allison. Don’t be concerned, this is entirely routine. She will also place you with a mentor. Based on your power set, I’m going to assume it’ll be Stryker. He’s our best at training those with super strength.”

“’Kay. He’s super cute, so that works.”

Sam didn’t even flinch at that. Lindsay was half-expecting a comment about how the man was way too old, but she said nothing. She dismissed that with a mental shrug. “So, how do I get to the shrink’s office?”

Sam handed her a map that was surprisingly comprehensive. “That should be helpful.”

“Yep, got it, thanks!” Lindsay stood with a grin. “Thanks so much, see ya ‘round!”

Well, that was so much easier than she was expecting. She thought for sure the Big Boss was going to be a huge stick-in-the-mud that was going to make her tone down her concept. Instead, the woman embraced her, happy that she could help make Lindsay a hero. She skipped a little on the way out. This was going to be so much fun!

* * * *

“Because I said so, that’s why!” Charity stood with her arms crossed, a scowl on her face.

Marcus glowered at her. “I’m not going. You can’t make me.”

“Damn straight I can. Look, what’s wrong with the school here? You’ll like it. God, I would have killed to go to a school with other super powered kids when I was your age.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not you.”

“Tell me about it,” she muttered under her breath, so low, Marcus barely caught it. “Since when do you care about school anyway? I could never get you to go before.”

“And so now you want me to go to a school where you can keep an eye on me, of course,” Marcus said sarcastically. He didn’t even want to think about learning Shakespeare from his sister.

“That’s not the reason, and you know it.”

“Do I? Face it, Charity, you don’t trust me.”

“Well, give me one reason I should.”

Marcus jerked back as if slapped. “Really? Is that what you honestly think of me? Damn, and you wonder why I don’t want to be in your English class. Why I don’t want to be your sidekick.” He put as much venom into the word as possible.

Charity at least had the grace to look ashamed. “Look, Marcus I didn’t mean it like that. I think you’re perfectly capable—“

“If only I would apply myself, right?” He shook his head. Well, if she was going to bandy about words like weapons, two could play at that game. He fixed his hazel eyes on her. “You don’t have the right to give me that speech. Mom.”

It was Charity’s turn to look hurt and stunned. “That’s not funny, Marcus,” she said in a cold voice. Marcus did feel guilty. He didn’t really remember their parents. She did. To her credit, he had to admit Charity had been the best mother a girl could be to him.

“Look, I just don’t want to go, okay? I know people at the other school.”

Charity frowned. “Who could you possibly know?” Marcus rolled his eyes at her. “Oh, come on, don’t give me that look. I wasn’t exactly Miss Popular at my school either. Let’s face it, neither of us is any good at getting out of our shells. I’m asking honestly, do you actually have any friends there?”

Well, there’s this girl… He wanted to say, but didn’t. How freakin’ embarrassing. Unfortunately, his sister was too damn intuitive.

“Maybe there’s a girl,” she guessed. Marcus’ cheek colored, and Charity’s jaw dropped. “Oh my god, there is a girl.” Marcus just gave her a dirty look. “Or a guy, she amended. Hey, that’d be cool too. This isn’t exactly an area we’ve explored yet, so—“

“Just drop it, all right? Can’t it just be enough that I don’t want to go to your stupid school?”

“Marcus? Oh-em-gee, Marcus?”

He knew that voice. His blush deepened as he turned. A small part of him was appreciating the humor of the situation and the priceless look he was sure was on his face. Lindsay. Probably the cutest thing that had been placed on this planet. “Um, hey,” he muttered, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

“I’m so happy to see you! Omygod, someone I actually know, this is going to be great!” Lindsay threw her arms around him, and Marcus suddenly regretted that his hands were now intertwined in his slacks. By the time he gathered his coordination enough to pull them out, Lindsay had broken the hug. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, you know.” He gave a casual shrug. “The family business.”

Lindsay looked from him to Charity and back again. “Omygod you’re Thundra! That’s freakin’ cool!”

Charity laughed. “Well, we’re glad to have you. You signed up for classes yet?” Her gaze slid over to Marcus for a moment with a great deal of mirth in her eyes. Marcus suppressed a grimace. He was going to hear about this in a minute.

“Oh yeah, for sure. I’m so done with Central High. Boring! Besides, the smaller classes here are a good thing, right?” She gave Marcus’ arm a squeeze before she started walking backward down the hall. “So glad you’re here though. Catch you later!”

And with that, she was gone.

Charity smirked at him. “So…about those classes.”

“Shaddup.”

Two days later, and Charity was well into recovery. Drake could stop pretending he didn’t care, pretending he wasn’t white-knuckling it as he watched his friend recover from something that could have killed her.

He still loved her. No matter how many times he told himself to let it go, it just never worked. He knew damn well it was a weakness, but he couldn’t help it. When she broke up with Eric, a spark of hope lit in his heart, that just maybe… It was taking every ounce of willpower not to try to initiate a relationship now that she wasn’t dating Eric anymore. But he refused to be the rebound guy. If it was going to happen, it would happen.

Poor Marcus was entirely befuddled by his new situation. He’d signed the paperwork readily enough, and being a bit of a sullen loner was working for them. He didn’t have any close friends he’d have to keep this new secret from. The boy had apologized once and then deliberately avoided Drake after that, spending most of his time making sure his sister wasn’t going to die on him.

He didn’t really blame the kid. It wasn’t his fault that things had gone south so quickly. Well, it was, but it wasn’t. If Drake had actually managed to unscramble the communications, they could have found out who he was, and they would have been prepared. Because of his unstable powers, though, Marcus found snail mail to be a more reliable method of communication, and then later, paper notes dropped in a tree trunk. And that, even Drake couldn’t track electronically. He might as well have used a courier pigeon. It was very 1980s. Really, who did that anymore?

Well, now he was free to focus on the puzzle in front of him. Drew Herrington’s archeological dig had been more than a historical curiosity. It had been a battleground between an Ereakthc possessing a Dreydria, and an Ereurtc in a mechanical power suit. The implications of that was staggering. The Ereakthc were beings of pure energy from a world known as Arlethae, and were much like that reality’s ‘angels’. The Ereurtc were that dimension’s mortals. The power suit was also of Arlethaen origin and design. The Dreydria, on the other hand, was native to a dimension called Myrathelle. What the hell they were doing on Earth was anyone’s guess.

The suit was what interested Drake at the moment. At rest it didn’t look to be much more than a rectangular metal box, roughly four inches long, two inches wide, and an inch and a half or so in height. It was a little heavy for its size, weighing in at about five pounds. Its composition was unlike anything he’d seen on Earth. The material looked and felt like metal, but it didn’t behave like any metal he’d heard of. It had a magnetic field, like all matter, but it didn’t respond to his powers like a ferrous metal.

When activated, the box dissolved into countless microscopic particles that flowed like a liquid over the user’s body till it formed an almost chitinous armor plating. Drew had worn it in battle against the thing they’d fought. A lot of good it’d done him.

Drake’s observations were interrupted by a pounding on the door. The hell? He flicked at his computer display till it showed the image generated by the front door’s security camera. Eric? What the bloody hell is he doing here? Briefly, he considered testing out the security drones he’d programmed over his lunch break, but decided he’d let the man live for now. He could tell immediately by the way he swayed back and forth that Eric was drunk out of his mind. Against his better judgment, he made his way to the door.

The second he opened it, Eric grabbed Drake by his shirt collar and shoved him against the door. It was unsporting to take too much advantage of a man so incapacitated, so Drake let him.

“What the hell is going on?” Eric slurred his words. If Drake didn’t already know he was drunk, the other man’s breath would have been a strong indicator.

“Global Warming, the war in Asia, the presidential election? You’re going to have to be more specific.”

“Follow the money,” Eric said, letting go of Drake and wandering into the foyer. “That’s what my dad always said.”

“No no, by all means, come in.” Drake shut the door against the night air, since it seemed Eric wouldn’t be voluntarily going anywhere for a while. Besides, if he let him go in this condition, something was bound to happen to the man, and Drake wasn’t going to have that on his conscience. Worse, Charity would kill him.

“I knew something was up. We…we had a thing, you know? It was something special, more than you see in those movies. ‘N then bam, out of nowhere it was over. She loves me, I know she does, so why lie to me? So I checked her accounts.”

Drake thought about making a snarky comment on Eric’s choice to delve into the private finances of the woman he loved, but it would go right over Eric’s head at the moment. Better to keep that to himself if he ever needed to blackmail the billionaire.

“It took some digging. Layer after layer of shell companies are paying her something. And you know what I found?” He waved a finger in Drake’s direction. “You. You pay into those empty companies with meaningless names. There’s something going on. What is it, some kind of giant government conspiracy? What the hell is happening? Tell me!”

Drake looked at him for a moment. This was what broke Eric and Charity up. Charity’s secrets separated them. Eric was closer than he realized, and with a bit of encouragement, he’d unravel Delta’s secrets on his own. Not to mention the suit was technically his property anyway, given that it was discovered by his brother. It was the perfect excuse to bring him into the fold. But that would bring Eric and Charity back together. Drake would never have a chance with her after that.

After a moment’s contemplation, Drake made up his mind.

“No. Not till you’re sober. Take the couch, sleep it off. We’ll talk in the morning.” Eric looked like he was going to protest, so Drake continued. “Don’t make me knock you out.”

That seemed to convince him. He found the couch without being told again and passed out with the air of someone who was used to sleeping off a stupor in odd places.

* * * *

Eric rolled over and was nearly struck blind by the sun coming through the windows. He grabbed franticly for a pillow and nearly fell off the furniture before he realized it wasn’t his couch. The embarrassment of the night before came crashing down on him.

He pulled himself into a seated position, and heard the clunk of a mug of coffee set on the end table beside him. He peered through red, watery eyes at Drake. “Don’t suppose it’s going to do any good to apologize for last night.”

“Oh, hell no. I’m never going to let you live that down.”

“Thought not.” He picked up the mug and took a gulp of the hot, black liquid. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. Do you remember anything?”

“I remember figuring out that something was up with Charity and you had something to do with it.” He looked Drake dead in the eyes. “I know something is going on. And I will figure out what it is, one way or another.”

“I know.”

“She knows something about Drew that I don’t.”

“You’re not wrong.” Drake set a silver metallic box on the end table. “This was discovered by your brother. So, technically the answers within are yours as well.” He barked a command in a language Eric didn’t understand, and the box morphed into a holographic projector. “I’ll give you a minute.” He walked away.

Eric was dumbfounded. Could it be that easy? Was he really about to find out, not only Charity’s secret, but what happened to his brother as well? For a second he wasn’t sure he wanted the answers. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is, his dad always said. Of course, he was usually talking about business deals, but it still applied. Eric sensed he was on the threshold of a monumental discovery. It felt a little melodramatic to think that his life was never going to be the same, but that’s exactly what was going on here. Is this what Drew felt on the precipice of a new discovery? No wonder he wanted to be an archeologist.

Regardless, he didn’t know how to stop the device from playing. Short of walking away, there was nothing he could do to remain ignorant. He remained glued to his seat.

At first, all he could see was dust and rock. A voice said something in a foreign language unlike he’d ever heard before. Then the scenery was moving. It was a first-person point of view of…something. He saw Drake. So the man had been involved.

“W-wait! Let me help you!” The voice didn’t come from Drake. With a start, Eric realized he knew the voice. Drew? Why was the recording from Drew’s perspective? He didn’t understand.

“Stay out of this, Sir. We’ll handle it.”

“Wait! Please. This is my fault. That…thing. I released it. Please let me help.”

Then Charity appeared in the screen. Eric’s heart skipped a beat. She and Drake were wearing matching black army jackets with a symbol he hadn’t seen before. It looked like a pattern of triangles, each one a different color. “Sam’s deployed backup, but they’re too far out to do any good. Jay and John are deep undercover, out of radio contact. We’re on our own.”

“Look, people are going to die!” Drew said. “Please, just let me help!”

A loud crash sounded, accompanied by a wave of dust and debris, which somehow never touched the three standing beneath the rock outcropping. It cleared in time for the camera to catch a glimpse of what was causing the destruction. It was monstrous. Towering at least twenty feet tall, the creature had a wing span that easily matched his height. Great horns encircled his head. Glowing eyes burned an iridescent white.

Drew gasped involuntarily. “Oh, my God.” The camera rocked like he took a startled step backward.

Drake looked at the camera. “You know how to use that suit?”

“Uh…no. But I think the suit does.”

Another loud crash. Drake looked frustrated. “Okay. I’m not letting you do anything. But I’ve got far better things to do than to spend the time and energy it would take to stop you. Just don’t—“

The rest of what he said was lost in the roar of Drew’s takeoff. The scenery blurred, then resolved itself to a dirt hole surrounded by a grassy field. A gigantic claw swiped through the air toward a group of interns. In a flash, the camera was beneath it, an image of the terrible instrument of destruction so clear, that Eric could see the palm lines and corded muscles. “Run!” Drew screamed. The kids didn’t have to be told twice. The camera picked up the sounds of their feet moving faster that one would have thought possible.

Then the view swiveled around. It spun crazily, and Eric could tell Drew wasn’t doing this on purpose. It stabilized for a second, long enough to see the creature’s face. Its mouth was feral, and it let out a bellow of pain as it was struck with an invisible blow. Drake floated impossibly beside the monstrous head. There was a creaking sound, and Drew let out a matching scream.

The camera shook. It turned to find Charity perched on the thing’s arm. “If you’ve got any electricity protection, now’s the time to turn it on!” she yelled. Blue lightning arched over her body and gathered in her fingertips. She slammed her hands down on the monster’s huge arm.

There was a loud crack of thunder. For a second, Drew was free. The camera turned end over end until Eric couldn’t tell the difference between earth and sky. Then he was caught again. The claw closed in over the view, and then everything went black.

Eric realized he was holding his breath. He let it out with a gasp, breathing heavily.

“For the record, I told him not to do anything that would get him killed.” Eric jumped. Drake was standing behind him.

“Those kids…”

“Safe, thanks to your brother.” He pointed at the device. “That thing can morph into a suit. He wore it into battle against the Dreydria.”

“Oh, is that what that was,” Eric said, as if it made it all clear. It didn’t.

“The site your brother was investigating was once a battleground. The original user of that device was an extradimensional alien called an Ereurtc. They call their world Arlethae. Actually, you’ve met a couple of them. Remember those twins we hung out with in high school?”

“Yeah. Charity’s best friend. Her brother always wore those dark glasses.”

“Yeah, a common trait of the Ereurtc is their gold colored eyes. Meryl could change the color of her eyes because she’s a shapeshifter.”

“Naturally.” Eric shook his head. This was all so bewildering. “Wait, does that mean Charity’s…”

“Oh, she’s very much human. She just happens to have super powers.”

“Oh.”

Drake chuckled. “Put on the suit, Herrington. I’m about to blow your mind.”

* * * *

Charity viciously yanked off the Virtual Reality helmet. Marcus laughed at her in spite of himself. “I’m sorry,” he said, trying not to smile. “I shouldn’t have pressed my advantage there.”

Charity swore under her breath. “No, no. I left myself open. You won fair and square. I just can’t believe I let myself be distracted.” She felt like she was going to cry. She was tired, and her side was beginning to throb. The stab wound was healing nicely, but weaning herself off the pain medications was proving to be difficult. Anger spiked in her head, frustrated that she let herself feel this. On impulse, she flung the helmet into the side of the room. She ran her hand through her hair. Maybe she should grow it out again. Eric always liked it short.

“Charity?”

It was as if thinking about him summoned his voice. She turned on her heel, and he was there. She blinked, positive she was imagining things. Tears clouded her eyes. She blinked them back, and he didn’t disappear. “It’s really you,” she whispered.

He chuckled. “Yeah.”

She was in his embrace before she really knew how she got there. In that place she never thought she’d be again. Now she really did burst into tears.

“You have some ‘splaning to do, young lady,” he teased. His voice was choked, as if he was trying not to cry himself.

“’Explaining.’ So that’s what you kids are calling it these days,” Drake said, unhelpful as always.

Marcus gave an exasperated sigh. “Too much information,” he complained.

Charity decided to roll with it. “So. My place or yours?”

Sunlight drifted through the slits in the closed blinds over the picture window of Eric Herrington’s three-and-a-half storey house. Normally the window showed a mile-long stretch of beach that ended in the lake that stretched out for miles; but when one was on a bender, one didn’t care about those things so much as keeping the sun out.

The filtered rays danced over dozens of empty whiskey bottles and glasses that gathered with pizza boxes and Chinese food containers. Eric hadn’t left the house in days, and it showed.

The persistent ring of the telephone tugged Eric out of a passed-out drunken sleep. He decided to let it go to voicemail. It wasn’t worth the energy to fully pull himself from unconsciousness. He didn’t even move from his prone position on the couch, face half buried in the satin pillow.

The machine clicked and beeped, indicating the caller should leave a message. “Eric.” Charity. More than a month since they’d broken up, and her voice still made his heart beat faster. “Eric, I heard what happened to your brother. I just…. I wanted to say I’m sorry. For everything.”

Everything? The lies, the secrets, breaking his heart? He could still hear her words. You’re right…you need someone who can be honest with you. You deserve that much. And right now, that’s not me.

He wasn’t angry. He was too tired to be angry. Too tired from trying to figure it all out. She’d been different after her impromptu trip to Europe with her best friend Meryl last summer. A trip, which he later found out, she never actually took. She’d described an adorable cafe in Brussles, but Eric knew a friend of a friend who owned the place. He’d never seen her. That wouldn’t have been a big deal except that an art gallery she’d allegedly gone to had been closed for two years. And a small town she and Meryl had spent the night in was closed to tourism.

Not that she’d been anywhere in Alliance City. It was like she’d disappeared off the face of the Earth.

Since that summer, she’d been distant. The last few weeks of their relationship had been a painful game of telephone tag, and when they did finally manage some quality time, she was forever leaving their dates for a laundry list of poor excuses. When he finally cornered her and asked for a straight answer, that’s when she ended it.

Of course, it never rains, but it pours. He’d barely managed to pick himself off his drunk ass, and he received a call from Italy asking him to identify the body of his brother. The bile still rose in his throat when he thought of it. Drew’s body had been torn in two. An accident at his brother’s archeology site, Eric was told. A stone structure had collapsed on top of him, severing his torso. Looked more like something ripped it. He buried that thought. That was ridiculous. What would have the force to do that? He wasn’t a child to believe in monsters. Besides, he was no coroner.

More than ever, he wanted Charity there. She’d know what to say. Which would probably mean saying nothing. She’d just hold him and for a moment the world and its pain wouldn’t exist while they embraced.

But that was nothing more than a dream. They were over. He’d eventually pick himself up and go back to his white collar world. She’d hide in her books and relative obscurity, a handful of middleclass friends her only connection to the outside world. They’d traveled in different social circles before, and they would again. Her life would continue to be a mystery to him; the only consolation was that his would be just as hidden from her behind a wall of privilege.

His eyes opened. There was no way she could have heard about Drew’s death. His mother had gone to great lengths to keep it out of the media, and she certainly wouldn’t have told Charity. Elmira Herrington had entirely disapproved of Eric’s choice of partner.

How the hell did she know?

* * * *

Charity London fussed with the cuff of her Delta-issued flak jacket as her eyes darted back and forth from one screen to another. Drake Hachirobei watched her restlessness with typical quiet repose. They were in what appeared to be a derelict old van cinderblocked on the side of the road. On the outside, it was falling apart and pieces seemed to be missing as if the vehicle had been ravaged for parts. Inside, it was a technological marvel with several screens hooked up to hidden cameras showing different angles of the shady alleyway.

“I shouldn’t have called him.” For the umpteenth time that night, Charity was second-guessing herself. Drake said nothing. He’d given the obligatory platitudes already, including flat-out telling her that she needed to get over it. She hadn’t punched him in the face, but that was because he was right.

“I know what he’s feeling right now. His world’s upside down, and he doesn’t even know the real reason why. The last thing he wants is to hear from the girl who dumped him. I mean, who the hell falls for this kind of thing anyway?”

The abrupt change of subject mid-rant would have caught anyone else off guard, but Drake and Charity had been working together for so long that it would have taken a lot more than that to shake him.

“Apparently…” Drake flicked at the screen on his tablet. “Veto_Boi738.”

“Did we ever confirm that he is, indeed, a boy?”

“That’s about the only thing. The messages between him and the Solstice catfish were so garbled we don’t even know the kid’s powers.”

“Well, we do know Solstice wants to kill him, and that’s the important thing. I mean, growing up a freak is bad enough, but a bunch of people wanting to kill you because your DNA is a bit scrambled? I think Eric would understand, though. You know, if I told him.” She was on that again.

Drake just gave her a quirked eyebrow look.

“I know, I know. It would be treason and all that yadda yadda. Sam should have approved the relationship. That’s what pisses me off the most, that my love life is somehow my boss’s business.”

Drake could have told her that of course it was Samantha Clive’s business. The Delta Division’s very existence was classified, and in order to maintain that secrecy, Director Clive needed to be very careful about who they read in on protocol. But honestly, he didn’t really believe that, and most of the time he was of the opinion that protocol could go fuck itself.

“Oh, look, a drug deal.” Charity thrust her chin forward to point out two kids not-so-discretely exchanging money and a small package.

“Lucky for them, that’s not our department.”

“Nope, but that is.” She pointed at two men and a woman standing together outside the doorway of a seedy cafe. Their stances revealed them clearly to be combat trained, for someone who knew how to look. “I guess if a kid’s stupid enough to fall for the ‘we have candy, get in the van’ trick, there’s no need to be subtle.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, we’re the ones with the creepy van.”

“You know what I mean.”

A teenage boy in a hooded sweatshirt rounded the corner and took a quick look around, a little lost. Drake wiggled his eyebrows at Charity. “Show time.”

The three combatants, unaware of Charity and Drake’s presence, surrounded the boy and brandished weapons that looked like guns. “Nope,” Drake muttered. The guns crumbled in their hands and they looked up in surprise. Their shock wasn’t nearly as profound as the boy’s. He stood, stunned, too afraid to run or even move.

One of the men and the women took a combat stance flanking Drake. The other man and Charity squared off.

“Charity?”

* * * *

The boy’s voice was familiar. Charity glanced over her shoulder and peered under the hood. Her jaw dropped. “Marcus?” The reality thudded into Charity. Her brother, her kid brother was the one they were supposed to be protecting.

Which meant he’d developed powers.

Why hadn’t she seen it? What the hell was wrong with her? She been so damn preoccupied with her boyfriend drama, she’d missed a very real threat to her brother. She was supposed to be taking care of him.

Her focus shifted, her opponent took his chance. He struck out with a swift jab. Charity glanced back at the last minute to deflect the blow, but her hesitation cost her the chance to react to the assailant’s follow-through. A ceramic blade. Drake’s gonna be pissed that he didn’t see it coming, though that’s a smart move on Solstice’s part. Why her brain chose to focus on that detail in the half-second before it ran threw her, she had no idea. Hot and cold blended together as the knife sank into her stomach.

Her heartbeat became the only sound she was aware of on a conscious level. Marcus was screaming, something wordless. Poor kid. He was probably so confused. Drake had a look on his face that was  as close to panic as he was capable of making. Her knees hit the ground.

The air tingled with electricity, which made no sense because she wasn’t discharging her power, at least not on purpose. And she’d gone well past the point where she was accidentally filling the environment with energy.

Marcus hadn’t. He was losing control. She wanted to tell him to calm down, that it was going to be okay, but she couldn’t say anything. Breathing hurt. The knife must have hit a lung.

“Get down!” Drake yelled, which made no sense because she was already on the ground. She was suddenly aware of the asphalt burrowing into her cheekbones. Put pressure on the wound she reminded herself. Now if only she could move to do so.

Everything went dark, and for a second she thought she’d passed out, but then she realized that the lights had gone out everywhere. Then Marcus was kneeling beside her. As she rolled over, she saw Drake out cold on the ground. “Pocket. Phone,” she managed. “Call Jay.” At least she hoped she said that. If he was going to go with the reasonable thing to do and call 911 they were all going to be in a bit of trouble.

The phone slipped from her pocket, so at least he got that part. “Jay? Who, what? Why?” She wished he’d shut up with his questions and do it already.

“Trust…me.” Her breath caught, and she coughed. She could taste the blood coating her mouth. Now the world really did go black.

* * * *

Marcus’ hands shook. He opened the phone. He was surprised it still worked. Every piece of electronic equipment for miles was knocked out. Why did this phone still work?

That didn’t matter. He paged through the contacts and found Jayson. That must be it. He dialed. The phone rang twice, and a male voice answered on the other end. “Jayson? Charity. She’s… She’s in trouble.”

And then there was someone there in the alley. “Damn good thing you had the sense to call me first,” Jayson said. Marcus gaped at him. “I teleport. You’ve got powers of some kind, so others with them shouldn’t surprise you.” He knelt calmly beside Charity.

A loud groan emanated from Drake. “Anyone get the number of that bus?” Marcus turned his stunned look at him, then at the others who’d attacked him. The three enemies were dead. More than that, they were barely charred remains. Marcus tasted bile in his mouth. I killed them.

He looked back at Drake. “How are you…Why aren’t you…”

“Dead? I affect magnetic fields. You caught me off guard, though. You get one shot at me, kid, and that was it. Don’t think it’ll happen again.”

Marcus didn’t know how to respond to that. No Sir? Bring it on, Sir? He had to have the ‘Sir’ in there, that’s for sure.

“Teleporting to the infirmary,” Jay said. He looked at Marcus. “Marcus, right? This is going to be a bit disorienting.”

He wasn’t kidding. The dark alleyway swirled into a mess of shadows in front of his eyes and resolved itself into blinding light. It took a second for his eyes to adjust, and longer for his stomach. Somehow he found a wastepaper basket before he lost his dinner.

There were nurses and doctors waiting, and Charity was loaded onto a gurney. She grabbed Jay’s hand. “You gotta tell him…if I don’t…”

“Don’t be silly, Charity, it’s not fatal, you’ll be fine.”

“Humor me.”

“You just get better and tell him yourself.” Jay waved his hand and the professionals wheeled her away.

Jay’s brow was furrowed with worry, but it cleared into a forced smile when he looked at Marcus. “So, uh…some welcome, hey, kid?” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Jayson.”

“Yeah, got that.” Marcus shook his hand anyway. Tell who what? What was Charity talking about?

Jayson grabbed some paper towel and handed them to Marcus, who accepted them and wiped the upchucked leftovers from his mouth.

Questions and confusion swirled together in Marcus’ mind. He tried desperately to pull them into something that resembled order, but all that came out was an inarticulate expression of exasperation. “What the f—“

“Careful kid, don’t let your sister hear that kind of language, she’ll kill you herself.”

Marcus shrugged. He wasn’t kidding.

“So, let’s start from the beginning.” He indicated a set of chairs and waited for Marcus to take a seat. It wasn’t until he sat that Marcus realized how much he was shaking. He tried to clench and unclench his fists to release the tension in his body. It didn’t work very well. “How long have you known you could do things no one else could?” Jayson asked.

“A few months, I guess. At first it was things like my cell phone dying one minute, then at full power the next. You know, normal weird stuff.”

“Hm. Yeah. And then?”

“Then I found out I could do it on purpose. Turn my cell on and off just by thinking about it. Other things too. The TV. The microwave. It was cool at first, but then I realized it made me some kind of freak.”

“And so you researched it online.”

Marcus nodded. “I-I thought I’d found others. You know, people with real powers.”

“So you came to the brilliant conclusion that you needed to meet them in a dark alley in a bad neighborhood.” Drake rolled off the gurney he’d been resting on. He stretched out his muscles before the shock stiffened them completely. He gave Marcus a disapproving look.

Marcus blushed. “It wasn’t like that, okay? One of the…one of the girls I was talking to said she was in trouble. She wanted to meet. I thought…” He trailed off. No matter how he put it, it did sound colossally stupid. “They were going to kill me, weren’t they?”

“Yup.”

Dude doesn’t believe in sugarcoating things, does he? Marcus mused.

Jay cast Drake a disapproving look. “Hey, cut the kid some slack, eh?

“Kid tried to fry me. I ain’t cutting nobody nothin’.”

Jay rolled his eyes. “Don’t mind him. He’s grumpy with everyone. It’s when he starts giving you an evil grin that you gotta be worried.”

Drake gave him an evil grin.

“See, like that.”

It did make Marcus a little uncomfortable to see the man looking at him much like a predator would look at his prey. But he had other concerns. “So…who were those guys anyway?”

“Agents of Solstice,” Jay answered. “They’re a purist group that believe in the cleansing of the human race. To them, we’re an abomination.”

“Don’t feel too bad,” Drake said. “This is a common tactic of theirs.”

Jay nodded. “It’s been…disturbingly effective. We’ve been fairly aggressive to try to stop it, but…”

“But people can be stupid on the internet.”

Don’t remind me. Marcus was becoming increasingly aware that his sister was suffering a life-threatening injury, and it was all his fault. “So…you’re just a bunch of people with super powers trying to keep each other safe?”

Jay laughed. “Oh, we’re a lot more organized than that. We’re part of something called the Delta Division. It used to be a military organization before the last leadership made it a bit more of an informal agency. It’s a total secret though. Seriously, we’ve got some paperwork to do.”

Drake groaned again and stood. “Anyway. Welcome to the madhouse. Jayson’ll give you the grand tour. I’m going to go find a bed and sleep off the effects of being used as a lightning rod.” He looked at Jay and his face turned serious. “You’ll…”

Jay nodded. “I’ll let you know if anything changes with her.”

Marcus followed Drake’s retreating back with his gaze. This was a grave situation, but that didn’t for a second disrupt the…poise of these people. They had an air of elite comrades, people who’d worked together for years under circumstances that would break a person. And one of them is my sister. He could scarcely believe it. I feel like I’m dreaming.

“So…my sister’s a super hero.”

Jay chuckled. “Damn straight. One of the best.”

“I kinda feel like half my childhood started to suddenly make sense. The other half is garbled nonsense. Like I mysteriously switched places with some unlucky jackass in a super powered spy movie.”

Jay threw back his head and laughed. “That is possibly the most accurate description of learning about all of this that I have ever heard. That’s awesome.”

Marcus crossed his arms and leaned against the back of the chair, a sullen gaze directed somewhere in the distance. “What can I say, humor is a defense mechanism.” He felt unbelievably tired all of the sudden. The adrenalin was wearing off, and all he wanted to do was curl into a ball, buried under a mountain of mindless television and Internet cat videos. Anything to drown out the day. He shut his eyes, fatigue and a bitter taste of something he couldn’t describe forcing him into an almost disassociated state. I killed three people tonight.

A heavy pressure on his shoulder brought him back to reality–or what passed for reality in this particular moment. “It’s a lot to process,” Jayson said. “Take your time. If you need to talk, I’m here. Your sister will be happy to answer any questions as well, once she’s up and running. We’ve got people here trained to handle your transition. Marcus, look at me.”

And for some reason, Marcus let his hazel eyes meet Jayson’s green ones.

“Marcus…you’re not alone.”