Posts Tagged ‘World Issues’

Marcus London woke with a start at the sound of a clatter. His hero’s instinct went into overdrive for a moment as he tried to figure out what made such an ungodly noise, but then it was followed by a series of mild curses. He smiled sleepily. His girlfriend never could bring herself to utter words that were truly profane. All was right with the world. He pulled the covers closer to his chin and snuggled deeper into the soft bed.

His eyes flew open. All was not right with the world.

He pushed himself out of bed and hastily pulled on his clothing that lay scattered on the floor. It took him a second to find his shirt wedged into the drywall where Lindsay had fired it with excited force. He tugged on it to no avail, so he left it embedded in the wall. Lindsay could pull it out herself later.

Shirtless, he wandered into the large room that function as a kitchen on one side and a living room on the other. Lindsay had her recording equipment set up in one corner—the one she kept spotless so that her podcast viewers couldn’t see the mess she usually lived in. She wasn’t recording yet, though. Her blue eyes were fixed on her laptop as she sat at the kitchen counter, delicate eyebrows drawn together. Her short hair fell over her face, and small fingers rubbed the stress from her neck.

“You got my shirt stuck in the wall,” Marcus teased, hoping to break the tension.

Lindsay looked up and smiled. “I’d apologize, but I’m pretty sure I more than made up for it last night.”

Marcus grinned. “I’d agree with you, but I know I gave as good as I got.”

“Maybe.”

“You liked it.”

She gave a shy smirk. “Yeah, that’s true.”

Marcus ducked behind the counter and wrapped his arms around Lindsay, the bar stool she sat on still only bringing the top of her head to his chin. He kissed her neck, willing himself not to look at the screen. He didn’t want to know what he would find there.

“Marcus.” He could feel his name vibrating beneath her skin. “They made the announcement.”

“Sh, that can wait.” He squeezed his shut eyes tighter still and teased her jaw with his lips. His hands slid down her hips, and he forced his mind to recall the night before, instead of focusing on the present concern.

“Marcus, I need to make a podcast of this. It’s too important. People need to know.”

He sighed. He couldn’t put it off anymore, so he opened his eyes and rested his chin on Lindsay’s shoulder. His hand folded over Lindsay’s and directed her to scroll back to the top of the page so he could see the title of the article.

Delta Division Disbanded by UN Committee Vote

“Marcus, this is a good thing. Maybe people will stop looking at us like a threat. If people aren’t scared of us, then we’ll be—you know—normal. We can live normal lives free to pursue hopes and dreams just like everybody else. Without the Delta Division to put us on a pedestal above your average citizen, we can be one of them.”

“Lindsay, how many collages rejected your application?”

Her gaze shifted away. “All of them.”

“It’s not your grades. They’re good. It’s not your community involvement, because lord knows you’ve saved more people in three years than most do in a lifetime. You’re a hero for crissakes.”

“Well. Except for that time when I was a bodyguard for a mafia princess.” She picked at her manicured nails.

“Okay, officially, that didn’t happen. Besides, we’re not talking Ivy League schools, here. Not to mention the first five apartments you applied to wouldn’t let you live in their building.” He took her hands. “Because you’re meta. The whole world knows it. They don’t care that we’re human beings with a complex set of motivations that have nothing to do with powers. All they care about is that we’re freaks.”

“Hey, you got into university.”

“Well, Eric’s money goes a long way.” He glanced to the side, embarrassed. It had taken some convincing to get him to allow that. He didn’t like the idea of taking advantage of his brother-in-law. “Besides, my identity is still retroactively protected, though God only knows how long that’ll last now that Delta’s over. There might have been some tabloid rumors, but that’s the only thing connecting me to the name of Spark Plug. You’ve always been open about your real name. Which is something you should be free to do without this kind of backlash. It should not be affecting you like this.” He let out an angry breath.

Lindsay smiled. “Aw, sweetie. You’re so cute when you get worked up like that.”

He wrapped his arms around her. “Loosing the Delta Division means we’ve lost the legitimacy for our community. Which means we’re just one more ‘protected’ class.” He pulled away to look at her. “And historically, society hasn’t done well with those.”

She laughed. “Since when do you have so little faith in humanity?”

Marcus sighed and rested his forehead against Lindsay’s. “Since I found out that the person who was supposed to save us all was willing to bet our lives in a bid for control.”

He kissed her quickly and walked backward toward his backpack with a lopsided grin forced onto his face. “Anyway, honey-lyn, if you wouldn’t mind retrieving my shirt, I shall be off and let you record in peace.”

She moved back toward him. “You’re not that interruptive. I don’t need to kick you out. You practically live here anyway.” She grabbed onto his belt loops. “You know we could make that official.” Her lips grazed his.

He pulled back, but not away. “I love you.” He kissed her. “But I think that’s a discussion for a time when our world didn’t just get turned upside down. One thing at a time, honey-lyn.”

* * * *

It took an hour for Lindsay to figure out what she wanted to say. She tried to muster some anger, but it was useless. She wasn’t angry.

She sat in front of her deskstop and turned on her equipment.

“The metahuman community, I’m sure, wants me to be outraged. How dare some faceless government take away our right to organization and purpose? But they haven’t. I’m not outraged. Just tired. Tired of being pigeon-holed, of being told I can only be this one thing, only be a hero. The Delta Division might be over, but heroism is not. Community heroes have existed since the dawn of time. You don’t need super strength to be a good person.”

She took a deep breath. “I spent most of my time in Delta trying to figure out what my purpose was. Why I was fighting. The truth is, I still don’t know. Perhaps…well, maybe that’s because we shouldn’t be fighting. We’re people, not soldiers. And today marks the day where we can no longer be asked to be soldiers just because we have powers.

“Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for those I’ve worked for—well, most of them. There are notable exceptions, obviously. But on that note, I think it’s important to point out that Samantha Clive hurt all of us—human and metahuman. There’s no us versus them there, so please don’t pretend that there is.

“But back to my original point—and I’m sure I’m going to lose viewers with this, but I’m tired of pretending this isn’t true. The very concept behind the Delta Division is fundamentally flawed. We don’t need organization because we don’t need to be a force. To date, Delta has been a farce, a magician’s trick, a-a distraction. Pay no attention to the man—or woman—behind the curtain, ladies and gentlemen, because she’s trying to take over the world.

“Well, you know what? I’m not going to be used anymore. And neither should you.”

No sooner had Lindsay put down their recording equipment than her cell phone buzzed on the desk. She frowned. Usually she turned it off while recording, but she must have forgotten. This news shook her more than she cared to admit.

The caller ID displayed Mitch’s name. Her head tilted in confusion. They’d kept in touch since Sam’s execution. Marcus thought he was an asshole, and Lindsay didn’t disagree, but she felt that he was the kind of person you didn’t mind being an asshole, because at least he was honest about it. They’d become friends who tagged each other in pictures on social media and messaged each other to see how their days were going, but this was way beyond that. Why would he be calling her?

Only one way to find out. She swiped the phone to answer.

“Lindsay!” The panic in his voice made her leap to her feet, and even hover a little. “There’s something…can—can you come over? To my house. There’s something wrong with the house.”

“What? Y-yeah, I’ll be right there, are you okay?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m going crazy.”

“All right, well just hang in there, okay? I’ll be right there.”

A selling feature of the apartment was the small balcony accessible by double doors. She shut them behind her and took off into the sky. She’d been by his place once or twice, mostly to trade borrowed DVDs, so she had little trouble finding it. She lit in front of his door. It opened before she could knock.

He grabbed her arm, and she went along, letting him drag her inside. “There’s too many rooms.”

“H-how many—”

“Bedrooms. Three bedrooms. Why?”

“No, that makes sense, one for you, and—”

“I didn’t even notice—well, I did, but I didn’t—not ‘til those stupid government assholes said they were repossessing the house because it belonged to the Delta Division—and I swear to fucking God, I will fucking torch their fucking mansions with them inside. They can’t fuck with me like that.”

“Mitch, you’re not making any sense!” She grabbed him about the shoulders. She’d never felt someone so hot—temperature-wise, of course. “Please, just calm down.”

“I’m calm!” he screamed, then said it quieter. “I’m calm. There’s too many bedrooms.”

“No, three makes sense. One for you, one for your mom, and one for your sister.”

Terror, fury, and abject confusion raced through his green eyes as he looked at her. Tears filled his eyes. “I…I have a sister?”

Lindsay’s eyes widened. “Oh God, no…” She licked her lips. “Mitch, why did you call me?”

He shook his head and looked away. His whole body trembled. “I-I don’t know. I just thought—” He looked at her. “Was there a reason?”

“Do you remember what you told me? About the Shadow Fae?”

He looked at her now, eyes wide. Another shake of his head. Then something else crossed his eyes and he glanced at the ceiling. “Wait. I-I…a Fae…I told you…” His gaze focused on her again. “A Fae has my family.”

He sat down heavily, barely making it to the living room couch. Lindsay sat beside him. “I forgot. I had a mother, a sister…and I forgot.” He buried his face in large hands, and great sobs shook his shoulders.

Tears sprung to Lindsay’s eyes. This was the worst possible thing that could happen to him, and her short-tempered friend wasn’t even angry. Mitch looked utterly defeated. Sam had been brought down, the Fae scattered. The battle was won. Why were their still casualties? It wasn’t fair. “I’m sorry.” Unable to help herself, she embraced him, her small frame encircling him, desperate to comfort him. “I’m so sorry.”

“I have to find them, Lindsay. They’re my family.”

“I know. We’ll find them somehow.”

He took a breath and wiped at the tears that fell down his cheeks. “You can’t tell anyone about this.”

“I won’t I promise. It’ll just be you and me. We’ll find a way to beat this Fae, to find your family.” She grasped his hands. “We can do this, Mitch.” She smiled a little. “We’re super heroes, remember?”

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Jay hit the pause button on the video, and Eric let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. He had to bite his tongue to keep from losing his shit on poor Jayson, asking why he’d stopped, what earthly reason did he have for keeping this from them any longer. It was there—right there—and he’d just stopped. Meryl let out a gasp. Jay had retrieved her before playing the video, declaring that she deserved to hear this too. At that point, she seemed to be of the same opinion as Eric. Why the hell did he stop?

“Donald might be—might have been an asshole, but his info’s legit. Which means what he says is the God’s honest truth,” Jay said. “Knowing this will risk your lives. I won’t force you into that. Any of you. Walk away now, and there will be no hard feelings.”

Eric held his tongue. Of course Jay stopped the video. These were a bunch of teenagers. Children. And Charity—could she even make that decision for herself right now? Instinct almost made Eric raise his gaze to this twelve-year-old inhabiting the body of the woman he loved. He jerked his head away, because he knew that looking into her eyes would be his undoing. His whole body ached being this close to her but still facing such uncertainty in their future.

“Do it.” Allen spat the words out between clenched teeth. “This ends today. No more waiting, no more wondering. We need to know. And we need to finish it. We need to fight this. Donald he—” Allen stopped and ran his hand over his face. “He saved my life. And this person—no, this monster. They killed him. No more. No one else should die for this.”

Lindsay nodded. “Agreed.”

Mitch rolled his eyes. “Well, fuck. Whoever this is had better got some superpower that makes people agree, cause I’m actually with dumbass on this one.”

Marcus put his hand on Charity’s arm. “Maybe you shouldn’t be here—”

Charity jerked her arm away. “You guys keep telling me I’m an adult, so stop treating me like a kid. Even if I am one, sort of. Look, it doesn’t matter how old I am, I can see this world’s screwed up.” Tears filled her eyes and she wiped at them angrily. Eric’s heart broke. “Everything’s so messed up. Mom and Dad are gone, and…and I’m not even supposed to be sad about that anymore cause it happened a long time ago, but it still hurts.” She took a quick breath and continued. “But that’s not even the part that matters. The important thing is that this is part of the world we can fix. If there’s something I can do to help, then I will. I must do it. Because that guy’s right.” Her jaw clenched. “This needs to stop.”

Eric’s lips parted and tears filled his eyes. This was Charity. It didn’t matter what age or where she was in her life, Charity was a hero. She always would be no matter what. Despite himself, Eric smiled. His eyes grew determined. “Let’s end this.”

Jayson nodded and pressed play.

“If I am right,” the on-screen Donald continued, “the only way the person I am meeting will know that I know that…” He paused, confused. “You know what I mean. They need the ability to read my mind. This is something we haven’t considered. It is a missing piece of the puzzle that has plagued us for months. There is a certain person far more powerful than any of us have ever imagined. In fact, we’ve been deliberately kept from ever having imagined it.

“Years ago, I left Delta because I wasn’t about to be told what to do by a bunch of portentous, self-righteous, pompous pricks. Say that ten times fast. Portentous pompous pricks. Portentous pompous pricks. Porpempus—okay, enough of that.” He waved his hand dismissively.

“Anyway, separating myself from the likes of Delta never prevented me from knowing what was going on with them. I noted with little interest a pet project of the ever-lovable Dr. Derek Danesfield. He knew the little girl was a meta, but had no idea of the extent of her capabilities. However, he was convinced that all would be revealed after his repeated administrations. With such an effort, I was more than a little surprised to find out that this protégé had such limited capabilities. After all, post-cognition is so very limited, especially if you have to actually touch your subject.

“If you haven’t figured out who I’m talking about by now, you must be under a rock. The person behind it all must be powerful enough to impress the Shadow Fae, and clever enough to organize not only them, but several other groups to do his or her bidding—including, by the way, Delta Division. Yes, Drake is all of those things. He’s a perfect candidate for the blame, especially considering his past dealings with the Fae. What he lacks, however, is the motivation. Sure, it’s the ultimate ‘Daddy, look what I can do’ bit—the boy’s got daddy issues, what can I say—but he more or less got that out of his system when he beat the shit out of me. Fair and square, kid. You earned it.

“If we can understand Samantha Clive’s true power, I believe we can understand how she pulled it off. She reads buried memories—is it not too much of a stretch to imagine her planting them? Imagine the power one has when they control the mind.

“By the way, you’re probably right. This is no more proof than the Elves’ magic mojo that buzzes out your brain waves, but consider this. If I’m wrong, then there is no reason to kill me. But if I’m right, and Sam knows that I know, I’m dead. The proof is in the pudding, is it not?

“So, there. I’ve told you all I know. There’s only one thing that remains… what are you going to do about it?”

In the silence that followed, Eric considered dropping a box of pins just to see if he could count them by sound. He didn’t know what to think. His mind’s attempts to grapple with the revelation made him feel lightheaded, and he suddenly noticed he’d stopped breathing. His deep gasp broke the spell.

“Is he—is he telling the truth?” Lindsay whimpered. Eric was right there with her. His mind could not comprehend a betrayal of this magnitude, nor the level of manipulation it would take to engineer such a terrible, unnecessary tragedy.

“Only one way to find out.” There was a darkness to Jayson’s words. Anger seethed off him. Eric was sure that if he put his hand on Jay’s shoulder he would feel a heat that rivaled anything Mitch or Liam could produce. “I’m sure the lab’s got some nullifier. I’ll grab some of that and port it into Sam. Then bring her back here. If she’s truly as powerful as Donald suggests, then Meryl should be able to get the truth out of her with Sam’s own powers.”

Meryl gave a curt nod. She was a gentle soul, and it made Eric sad to see her so broken she would willingly and enthusiastically agree to such a violent and invasive plan. What if they were wrong? What if Sam was innocent, and this was just a matter of one sociopath framing another?

“Are you—are you sure?” Eric stuttered.

“If we’re wrong, then we’re screwing with Sam on the same level as she let happen to Drake. If we’re right…” Jay trailed off and shook his head, leaving the rest unspoken.

“Be careful,” Meryl said as he kissed her on the head. He vanished before Eric could make any more protests.

* * * *

Geoff dashed around his desk without his customary grace, knocking over a stationary holder, scattering pens, pencils, and yellow and pink highlighters all over the floor. Samantha Clive turned to him with an amused smile. “Mr. Davis. Aren’t we excited today? Were you able to set up the meeting with Rio’kir?”

“Yes, yes. A delegation will receive the United Nations at noon.”

“Splendid. I—“

“I know who the mastermind is.”

Sam blinked. “Is that so?”

Geoff hesitated. “Well, I can. I could. That is to say, not entirely, but I’ve been told…”

“Mr. Davis, you’re not making any sense.”

“There’s a video. A file I received. It details who is behind the attacks.”

“I see. Did you watch this video?”

“Not the whole thing. Director, he said if I knew, the information would get me killed.”

“Who said?”

“That old man…Donald Kasuki.”

Something changed on Sam’s face. There was shock that she quickly disguised, and then aggravation. For a woman who let emotions play on her face only as a calculated move, that seemed out of character. Geoff was confused.

Geoff was perhaps not at a level of intellect that would pioneer a new future. He would never think enough outside the box to make a profound discovery, but he did process information faster than nearly anyone else alive. Instead of being happy that the biggest mystery currently plaguing Delta was solved, she was annoyed. The only reason she would feel that, and moreover feel it accidentally, was if it directly affected her. If she was the one behind it all. The poison attempt? A red herring to throw them off, never meant to work. Why? To make allies of the Elves. Geoff’s lips parted.

Sam shook her head. “Oh, Mr. Davis. It’s a pity, really. You were so useful. Utterly loyal and good.”

This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening. “Why?”

“Yes, I suppose you’d be wondering that, wouldn’t you? Mr. Davis, we are at war. Japan and China have allied to force Russia to give over the child and his discoveries. It’s unlikely they’ll win, but the resulting confrontation will fragment the communications industry. Russia will expect us to intervene. We’ll win, of course, but the world will be entirely convinced that metahumans are a threat. They’ll react accordingly, and I’m sure even you could imagine the disaster that would be. This world will crumble under a war between human and metahuman.”

“So, you add another enemy?”

“A common enemy. The Fae are a threat to everyone; human, metahuman, Elf. To combat their mortal enemy, the Elves can and will equip the human race with their technology and knowledge. Magic, Mr. Davis, just think about it!”

Geoff thought about it. “But…but what about all those people…Stryker… Oh, God, you had Stryker killed.”

“I had Stryker turned into a martyr. He was the perfect scapegoat—so simple and willing to be molded. I made him into the world’s perfect hero. I made him their cause. The world will fight together against a terrifying unseen force for that cause. I saved the world, Mr. Davis.”

Geoff sat down heavily. “Do you really think it will work?”

“I know it will, so long as the truth remains hidden. I can play the villain for the sake of the world, but this world must still see me as a hero.”

“And…if anyone knows, Stryker and everyone else died for nothing.”

“Yes.”

“I see. All right.”

“All right?”

“Yes. I won’t tell anyone.”

Sam smiled. She pulled a chair up next to him and sat down, covering his hands with hers. “You’ve been a wonderful assistant, Geoffrey. I mean that. We work well together, and I’ve always appreciated your services. I felt I owed you at least an explanation.”

I’m a dead man. The thought perhaps should have shocked him into action, should have made him run away. But he couldn’t move. Pain spiked behind his eyes. Something warm and sticky ran down his lip and over his open mouth. “Before you kill me.”

“Yes. I certainly believe that you believe you won’t tell anyone. But one of the best things about you is your impressionability. Someday someone will convince you to reveal all you know. And then all will be lost.”

The world faded to eerie gray outlined in white, then to pitch black, and he thought, this is it.

He became aware of warm hands that grasped about his shoulder. His life flashed before his eyes, though it was surprisingly short for what he could pack in a day, and looked an awful lot like the training room. Then he was in some kind of living room staring at gray, flower-patterned couches, pink carpet, and an entertainment center. For a wild moment, he wondered if this was heaven. If it was, it was a strange one. He never thought the afterlife would be so…domesticated.

He came to the conclusion that he was not dead at about the same moment his stomach violently protested having suffered through two fast teleports. He heaved, and the world shifted again, this time to the bathroom of the same homey domicile. That didn’t at all help his condition, but he couldn’t actually get any more nauseated. The entirety of his stomach contents ended up in the toilet, and then some.

“Are you all right, Geoff?” Jay Allison looked him in the eye, deep concern playing on his handsome face as he handed him a box of tissues.

Geoff shook his head, which made the world spin, and his stomach along with it. He dry heaved into his new porcelain friend.

Jay put a hand on his shoulder. “Take your time.”

He left, and a few minutes later, Geoff finally managed to pull himself together long enough to walk down the hallway, through the kitchen, and into the welcoming family room where everyone had gathered. Low whispers instantly stopped as he approached.

Geoff blinked. “Mr. Allison, I ah…what happened?”

“He just saved your damn life, that’s what happened,” Mitch said in a rather snarky fashion. “Seriously? You handed the video to Samantha Clive?”

“Well, she is the Director. She…she…” It dawned on him all at once, everything his brain was trying to tell him, everything he was refusing to believe. “She tried to kill me.”

“You’re a loose end,” Jayson said. “It seems she doesn’t like those.”

“You…how did you…”

“We also got the movie,” Meryl said gently. For some reason, Geoff felt a profound relief to know that she was all right. The woman was the most understanding person he’d ever met, and certainly the kindest. She didn’t deserve what happened to her.

“I was going to port a null formula into her so we could confront her like reasonable adults, but…” Jayson shrugged. “It seemed more important to get you out of there.

Geoff nodded dumbly, then looked around to see who was ‘we’. He noted Mitch Roberts with some distaste, as well as Allen Gray, Lindsay White, and Marcus London. Charity London clung to Marcus, while Eric Herrington sulked in a corner, unsure what to do with himself. The older redheaded man was a newcomer, but Geoff had also seen his picture in Delta’s rogue files. His gaze flickered to Mitch, who sullenly refused to look anywhere in the direction of his father.

None of that was important. “It…it was her, wasn’t it.”

Jay nodded. “You didn’t watch the rest of it, did you?”

Geoff shook his head. Jayson handed him a tablet, and despite the protest of every fiber of his being, Geoff played it.

Afterward, he sat down heavily on what appeared to be a bench of some sort. “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I—I should have known, but I didn’t.”

Meryl put a hand on his arm. “Geoff, we don’t blame you. Sam had us all fooled. It stands to reason that she would keep close to her someone who could never know the truth.”

“I should have seen it. And I didn’t. I’m so sorry.”

“So now what?” Eric spoke up.

Jayson took a deep breath. “Well, we’ve lost the element of surprise. So the question is, what’s Sam’s next move?”

“Well, if she kills us all, people will start noticing,” Eric said, not uncynically. “It’s more likely she’ll wipe our minds.”

“Knowledge is power,” Charity pipped up. “Can’t we just tell everyone? Make that video go viral.

Jay opened his mouth, then shut it again. “I feel like that’s a double-edge sword. Yes, they’ll know of a woman’s evil manipulations, but at the same time, all they’ll hear is that a meta screwed them over. No, I think we should sit on that until we can spin it our way.” He sighed. “Sadly, Sam’s our best spin doctor. But…you’re not wrong. Knowledge is power. And There’s one people that have been screwed over just as much as we have.” He held up the tablet. “The Elves deserve to know about this.”

Geoff stiffened. “That’s where she’ll go. I’m sure of it.”

A muscle twitched in Jayson’s jaw as it clenched. “Good.” He drew himself up to his full height. “Well, boys and girls, this is where it gets dicey. You wanted to fight your mastermind? Let’s go kick some ass.”

Samantha Clive looked up at her closed office door. The noise outside meant that Mr. Davis had just arrived to work. She glanced out the window behind her. The sun was rising. The dawn of a new day. A smile drifted across her lips. How poetic and utterly appropriate. Just last night, the Prime Minister of Montreal had signed the papers bringing her country under the banner of the Delta Division. It would take some work yet to set up a chapter in Quebec and assign someone to oversee the operations within the country in the Eastern part of America, but that was just details. The bulk of the work was finished.

Still, that was one battle. One more battle won in her war for peace.

She crossed the room to the large bay window and stood to the side that allowed her a view of the shore. The protesters were out in force today, berating her ‘hostile takeover’ of Montreal. Already social media was calling her out on the “gestapo-like force with which she strong-arms the metahuman race into submission.” But they were ignorant fools who missed the point. Metas needed to be heroes, because if the world didn’t see them as heroes, they would treat them as villains. When a race of the most powerful people on the planet become vilified, Sam knew that it was a matter of time before that fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The result would be a catastrophic loss of life that could potentially devastate the planet and leave their very existence teetering on the brink of destruction. This wasn’t about a hostile takeover of the planet. It was about protecting her people—those who had power and those who didn’t.

Newscasters, bloggers, and others not so embedded in the media were beginning to ask if she meant to reverse the secession of Montreal from Canada—and by extension the North American Amalgamated States. Truthfully, she had enough political power that she could make that happen, but that move would be shortsighted at best; at worst it would indulge ignorance. Her goal was unity, but it did not matter which flag brought them together unless it had triangles of different colors. Without autonomy granted by their individual countries, Delta’s influence would be nothing more than a dictatorship—and dictatorships always fell. Each country had something that made them unique, but it was their differences that made them strong. It would be unbearably myopic to take that away.

It would not be a flag that would unite Asia. Russia notoriously balked at outside political influence. Montreal, America’s redheaded stepchild, would not be coaxed into family dinners by parliamentary persuasion. But what each country across the world shared—what each person experienced—was being human.

And everyone, young and old, rich or poor, they all had one thing in common. They loved a hero. And they hated a villain.

The real challenge was the Elves. Their new neighbors to the north had so long kept themselves isolated from humanity, even in their own world, that they were inclined to remain secluded in their bottled city. Still, their knowledge and resources would be invaluable to the world peace that Samantha Clive sought. The Elves also hated a villain, but to them, the human race fell into that catagory. Betrayed by them once, the Elves were reluctant to believe that the ‘Earthborn’ were capable of anything but unmitigated ignorance. She and other world leaders had been in talks with the Elves, trying to convince them to trust them again. After all, they had a common enemy. The Shadow Fae threatened them both, and humanity was helpless against an organized onslaught of their reality-bending power. If there was a people the Elves hated more than humans it was Fae. Sam was confident that their mutual hatred would be enough.

Sam had just finished the speech she intended to present to the Elves later that afternoon. Her heart swelled as she read over it, filled with the sensation that she stood at the brink of a watershed moment. These words would win the Elves over. They would fight the threat of the Shadow Fae together, of that she was sure.

She saved the document she was working on and copied it to her personal device, then exited the room. “Good morning, Mr. Davis.”

“Good morning, Ma’am.” He didn’t ask what she’d been doing in the office so early, nor any other useless question, like if she’d slept at all. Of course she hadn’t.

Davis was at the kitchenette, not too far from his desk. Without asking, he fixed her a bag of loose-leaf Earl Grey tea, placed it in a large teacup and filled to a quarter of an inch from the top with water just below boiling, then steamed some milk and filled the rest of the cup, topping it up with just a hint of foam. Most of the time she preferred her tea black, but just on special occasions, she liked the tea latte. This was one of those, and Mr. Davis knew it. That was the way he was: he didn’t ask her needs, he anticipated them.

She savored the foam and the sweet milk. “Thank you, Mr. Davis. I don’t believe I’ve mentioned recently that I quite appreciate your excellence.”

Davis looked surprised. Sam didn’t lavish praise unnecessarily, and so the compliment was unexpected. “Thank you. I must say, I enjoy the job. Director, you seem to be quite in a good mood today.”

“Of course I am, Mr. Davis. Today, I save the world. Please contact Rio’kir of Atlantis. There is a matter of great importance we must speak of. Tell him it concerns the presence of the Shadow Fae and the threat it poses to Elf and Earthborn alike. Impress upon him the necessity that we speak today. I will meet him in Atlantis, or he is welcome to discuss things in my office, wherever he feels most comfortable.”

“As you wish, Miz Clive.”

“Now, I will be leaving for the morning. I have a short meeting with an old colleague, but it shan’t take long. Let me know when you receive word back from Rio’kir.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Will you be needing an escort?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

He nodded and returned to his desk to begin his morning work. He didn’t argue her decision to go alone, didn’t remind her that it had only been a short time ago that someone had tried to kill her under their very noses. Of course he didn’t. He knew quite well that she was too intelligent to let herself be caught in a compromising position.

Teleportation technology wasn’t widespread, but as the Director of the Delta Division, Sam allowed herself the occasional luxury, and instant transportation was one of them. Accessing the app on her personal device, she left the Delta HQ and teleported to Central Park in New York City. There sat an older gentleman of Asian descent behind a checkered stone table with a full set of chess pieces.

She gave the man an amused smile. “Playing chess in Central Park? Really, Mr. Kasuki? Isn’t that a little anachronistic?”

Donald returned the smile. “I felt it was appropriate. Through time and fantasy, past, present, and future, this location has seen the intersection of lives, stories, history.”

“So, which is this, then?”

“Why, Samantha, you are among the foremost thinkers of our generation.” He moved a pawn. “Surely you of all people can see there is no difference. I’m sure you are aware that in a few months, it will be exactly fifty years that the people of our nation sat glued to the television watching the aftershocks of a disaster that struck without warning so close to where your Delta Division headquarters are today. I wasn’t very old then but I do remember my mother telling me, ‘‘Watch, Donald. This is history in the making.’

“She was right you know. That’s when the Amalgamated States truly became one country. Oh, sure, the papers were all drawn and notarized a few years earlier, but that’s when its people stopped thinking of themselves as American or Canadian and just became people. But you already know all that, don’t you?”

“A child learns that lesson in high school, Mr. Kazuki. I hardly think we met to discuss our state public school curriculum. But I see your point. Our past influences the present which creates the future. To define these as different is to embrace the illusion of time.” She moved a knight out in front of the pawns.

“Yes. Well…we must all embrace an illusion for the sake of coexistence. Do you remember what it was like, Samantha? Living within that illusion? Oh, don’t look so surprised. I know you didn’t have your abilities when you were a young child. In fact, it wasn’t until the medical intervention of Dr. Derek Danesfield in your mid-teens that you began to exhibit them, am I correct?”

“I suppose I shouldn’t be entirely shocked to find out you have that information. After all, you are the father of the Legendary Mister X. Allow me to express my condolences on his arrest.”

He glanced up and for a brief moment anger and hatred flickered across his face before his neutral, enigmatic half-smile slid back into place. “Estranged father, but yes. The similarities to my son are not limited to our power. Though I suppose you are familiar with the concept of distant parents, as I understand.”

Sam nodded. “My parents’ marriage was that of societal convenience. They bolstered each other’s proverbial coffers and political influence. My father’s financial support won my mother the state election and so forth. Emotionally, they were strangers living in the same house. Where passion existed, it was brief. I was the only child of that union. I tell you this, of course, not to garner sympathy, because I wish for none. I find it rather nauseating, actually.”

They were several moves into the game now, no pieces lost, and no clear winner. “You needn’t worry on that account, Miz Clive. I have to say, for one who has no capabilities for empathy, you’re quite adept at mimicking it.”

Sam didn’t take offense at that. In fact, she smiled. “That trait is what makes me such a good politician. There is no room for bleeding hearts in the field; though you’ll never get votes without them. Check.”

Donald moved a piece in front of the king. “Emotional vulnerability as a practicality. I can respect that. Which reminds me, I hear congratulations are in order for winning the hearts and minds of the powers that be in Montreal.”

A smile pulled at her thin lips. “It must have been thrilling indeed to witness my moment of triumph. The preceding fight was juvenile, though, wouldn’t you say? Though you can’t have been too offended. You and your fire-breathing dragon did nothing to stop the children.”

Donald’s black eyes were like ice, though he still smiled. “One might overtake a creature’s lair, but a dragon cannot be controlled, m’lady.”

It was a bit disconcerting that, after that night, Liam Roberts had vanished off the face of the earth, no doubt due to Donald Kazuki’s resourcefulness.

He continued his questions. Sam might have found them intolerable, but his interrogation was providing more information than the older man realized. “So, tell me of this medical intervention. Why was it so necessary?”

“I was brilliant, even as a child. By the time I was six years old, my parents were taking me to social functions so I could impress their small-minded colleagues with the precocious tongue of a baby expounding on the philosophies of Plato and John Milton. I always found it a dull affair. These men and women of society’s center stage had experience without wisdom, knowledge without intelligence. It was in my eleventh year that the headaches began. They were debilitating, rendering me incapable of leaving my bed for days at a time. My parents feared for my life, though I do believe that sentiment was born of a fear of losing their trophy child. You see, they were nothing extraordinary without me, and they knew it.

“In my early teens, they were approached by Dr. Danesfield, as you alluded to. He examined me and took several tests before he told my parents he could save my life and stop the headaches. Then he took me aside and told me there was a special power inside me waiting to be let out. It didn’t take him very long to find out he needn’t talk to me like a child, so he proceeded to tell me that I was a metahuman, and that the headaches were a symptom of a limited physiology trying to use an unlimited power. Then he described in detail the procedure that would rectify that.”

“Were you disappointed, my dear, to find your ‘unlimited’ power was only to know the past?”

“On the contrary. As you pointed out, the difference between the past and future is only an illusion. A chess game, for example, has limited moves. It’s been said that there are three hundred eighteen billion, nine hundred seventy-nine million, five hundred sixty-four thousand possible way to play the first four moves of chess. That is a large number to be sure, but not unlimited. That number grows the more moves that are played, but it still remains, ultimately, finite.

“Now imagine one chess game being played by billions of people worldwide throughout history, each move a rippling effect across time. This game ebbs and flows, its complexity staggering in its scope, incomprehensible to the ordinary mind. And yet, mankind’s moves are limited.”

“Even when new players join the board, Miz Clive? Check.”

Sam smiled. “Why, Mr. Kazuki, that’s just another move. But I think you knew that already.” She stood. “I’m sure you realize that I’ll checkmate you within three moves. There is no possible move you can make that will prevent that. Thank you for the game. And the chat.” She nodded politely and teleported back to HQ.

* * * *

Donald smiled. He rubbed his thumb on his upper lip as warm blood began to run from his nose. Only knowing the past, my clever behind. He had suspected—known—she had the power to kill him with her mind when he walked into this confrontation. “You’re wrong, Samantha,” he said to the empty air. Not about the chess game. That he’d lost. He reached out and knocked his king over. His vision blurred and blood oozed from his eyes, and he knew then that he’d won the game he’d truly been playing. “Heh. Checkmate.”

His lifeless body was found a couple of hours later by park officials.

* * * *

Deep within the heart of the prisons of Atlantis, Drake thought. That wouldn’t seem like a big deal to some—after all, billions of people thought every day; though some more than others. They thought about breakfast, whether to have scrambled eggs or a bagel or both; they thought about their daily work, whether to take their usual mail delivery route, or deliver to the pretty girl first; they thought about the cute boy in math class, and whether he would break up with his tramp of a girlfriend.

Drake’s mind didn’t work like everyone else’s. Drake thought about the past. We never should have been on that mission. Jayson’s words still bothered him, though he didn’t know why. Consciously, Drake didn’t see a connection, but he trusted that if his mind wouldn’t give up the thought, there was a reason. But damn it all, he couldn’t suss out what it was.

He tried to settle his breathing, in and out, making it the only sound in his mind. Except that hum. Good gods almighty, that hum was mind numbing.

That was the point, of course. Within the walls of the prison, there were hidden Darkness and Light Magic runes, their effects combining to dull his mind and make him unable to think, as well as nullifying any effects his powers might have. Chains bolted him to the wall, but that was irrelevant.

This cell was designed to hold people with astounding mental capabilities, to reduce them to nothing. He had been here for…well, he couldn’t tell how long. Days, weeks, months, it had all lost context and meaning. He’d started counting days from the time that the Elves brought food and water, but it soon became clear that they did that at irregular intervals, so he gave that up. With no anchor to hold on to, he knew he was going to go mad.

We never should have been on that mission.

Someone had sent them there. To die? No. If the powers that be wanted the four of them dead, there were much easier ways to do it.

They are heroes.

That was Sam’s words in her address to the public as she revealed the existence of the Delta Division.

Why are we heroes? What made us heroes?

That mission made them heroes. Not to the public, of course. That would come later. Drake played it back in his head. They teleported into a busy mall. A group of kids hung out at the electronic store. A teenage girl talked her best friend into buying an overpriced tee shirt. A child ran excitedly around Drake and his friends to meet his mother. Something wasn’t right. Something about this bothered Drake. It had bothered him even then. He was surprised that they just appeared out of nowhere and no one noticed.

People are so stupid.

Well, that was true. On the edge of madness, Drake let out a laugh. Man, he’d been an angsty kid then. Bitter and angry at the world—no, that wasn’t true, he was angry at his father. The father he’d kicked the crap out of a couple of times now.

For some reason, thinking of his father gave him pause. A bad feeling twisted in his gut, but he dismissed it as irrelevant. He’d analyze it later.

They didn’t notice us appearing out of nowhere. People are so stupid.

Why was he coming back to that?

As the Legendary Mister X, he’d trained himself to see from others’ eyes. To understand and calculate their range of perception, attention span, movements, and memory capacity. People were often actually that stupid, oblivious to a crime going on right under their noses. But sometimes, they surprised you. Those who went unnoticed, the homeless man begging on the street, the children playing hopscotch, the disgruntled businessman out for a smoke between drinks, these people noticed things, often without realizing it.

In a crowded mall, bored children hanging onto their mother’s hand, a teenage boy looking to escape an awkward conversation, a shoplifter keeping an eye out for security…not one person saw them?

Man, I would kill for some strawberries right now. The thought of the cool, red juice distracted him for a moment. He could almost feel the sticky sweetness running down his tongue and out of the corners of his mouth, the tangy taste rippling over his taste buds, the scent catching in his nose and providing a pleasurable feedback between taste and smell.

Focus, dumbass. Remember their faces. Where were their eyes looking?

He brought himself back to the mall. Everyone laughing, talking all at once. He willed them to look in his direction, to see where their eyes were.

We shouldn’t have been on that mission. Jones like screwing with us, but not at the expense of protocol. Shouldn’t have been on that mission. Someone made Jones break protocol. Someone inside Delta made Jones break protocol.

Drake looked the mall walkers in the eyes again. And now, instead of countless faces, he saw one. One who manipulated them all. It was impossible. No, it was improbable. And with all possibilities eliminated, it had to be true.

Every man woman and child in that mall had been manipulated. Every man woman and child in Delta had been manipulated. For years.

Goddamn son of a bitch.

He’d figured it out.

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

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

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

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

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

A reason.

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how are you going to do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, there went her relaxed feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lindsay was stunned. “H-how did you—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lindsay shut her mouth.

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

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

Against her better judgment, she nodded.

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

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

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

Lindsay shrieked.

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

I can’t do this. I can’t do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

i can’t be a hero. im sorry.

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

* * * *

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

And they’d lost someone else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that would have gone well.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“How about you?”

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

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

“Uh uh. You?”

Marcus shrugged.

“You…have other things on your mind.”

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

“Understandable.”

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

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

“No one ever gets to know Drake.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

i can’t be a hero. im sorry.

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

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

Allen hadn’t slept since Stryker was assassinated. He paced back and forth from his quarters to the infirmary and back again at least a dozen times an hour. Even the training room hadn’t given him any relief, now that Marcus was otherwise occupied.

He could feel Tracy’s eyes on him, full of sympathy. Her presence was the only thing that was keeping him from completely falling apart. He kept playing the raid on PSO over and over in his head, kicking himself for what happened to Charity. “I should have protected her,” he muttered into a plateful of mashed potatoes.

“From flies? What were you going to do, talk them to death?”

Allen rolled his eyes at her, but she had a point. They were sitting in the common room, pretending to eat something. Or rather, Tracy had eaten plenty, but Allen was still pushing food around on his plate from an hour ago. “I don’t know. Something.” Unable to sit still, he shoved away from the table and stood in front of the large bay windows overlooking the lake. This side of the building showed an expansive landscape of the city spread across the skyline. From here he could see the Skyway, a bridge that connected one part of Alliance City to another across a large canal. It was the perfect setting for an epic villain attack, if movies were any indication. In real life, that was a terrible idea. It was in full view of Delta’s headquarters. Evil couldn’t twitch its fingers on that bridge without someone noticing.

Of course, they’d been terrible at seeing every other threat coming.

“Allen, listen. You’re obviously up against someone who’s thought of everything. The whole point of what attacked Charity was that you wouldn’t know it happened. Hell, the timing was even on purpose. You all came back in a panicked rush to find the whole place turned upside down. Of course they’re going to forget to check for something as inconsequential as bug bites.”

He didn’t answer, and she made a face at him. “Allen, sit down.” He sat. He knew better than to argue with that tone of voice. She put a hand on his. “This is not your fault. Now stop beating yourself up, because if you wear yourself out with guilt, you’re not going to have anything left to kick the crap out of whoever’s behind this.” Tears filled his eyes despite himself. She was right, of course. She smiled at him. “You’ve always been stronger than even you ever knew.” Her hand stroked his cheek. “I love you, Allen.”

It thrilled him still to hear that. After so long of hiding his feelings, terrified of screwing up their friendship, it felt like a dream to hear it reciprocated. Somehow their chairs had gotten really close, and the way she leaned into him brought them closer still. Her blue eyes were so full of that ineffable emotion that Allen needed right now, and her lips were inches away from his. He leaned forward, entranced as she too closed the distance between them. “I love you too, Tracy,” he whispered just before their lips met.

That’s when the glass around them imploded into the building with an agonizing sonic scream.

* * * *

“Allen? Hey Allen, buddy, wake up.”

It was Jayson’s voice, Allen was pretty sure, but it sounded like he was underwater. He rolled over with a groan onto a bed made of shards of glass. Tracy. He sat up straight and his head jerked around as he tried to find his girl. She was with a medic, wincing as the woman pulled a shard of glass from her arm. She said something that Allen didn’t catch. “Sorry?” He scrambled over to her.

“I’m okay, Allen, really.” She didn’t look okay. She was bleeding from a myriad of cuts all over her body; however, the medic appeared to be a healer, so before Allen could get too worked up, the cuts disappeared.

Brusquely, the medic stood and touched Allen, and everything all of the sudden stopped sounding like it was so muffled. She was gone before Allen could thank her.

“The hell was that?” he asked Jay. “Also, weren’t you…somewhere else?” He wasn’t quite sure how to define that. ‘Out of the country’ didn’t seem to qualify. ‘Out of this world’ was accurate, but just sounded weird.

Jay shrugged. “Got me. I’m about to hit communications, maybe some satellite imagery will help. And my wife and I just got back an hour ago.”

Allen trotted along behind him. “Did you…did you find out anything?” He wasn’t really sure this was his business, but he would be damned if he was going to be shut out. Jay didn’t really seem to mind. Either that, or his mind was still in a fog. The man had lost his best friend. If he’’d ever lost Tracy…well, he was surprised Jay was still standing, truth be told.

Jayson stopped and looked at him. He looked so tired. “Nothing.”

Drake was in the communications room, which wasn’t a huge surprise, all things considered. Some of the others were there too, most notably Sam. “Are rescue efforts deployed over the city?” she asked Jayson.

He nodded. “What do we know?” Jayson asked Drake.

“It’s global, that’s for sure. Reports are coming in from all over the world.”

A technician called out, “We’re getting reports of combined earthquakes and floods from New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina.”

Sam nodded. “Let’s get coordinated with our headquarters in England, Australia, Japan…”

The list went on, and Allen tuned it out, instead watching with fascination as Drake flipped through the holographic satellite images. Jayson was going through the roster of Delta heroes, his hands flickering through the intangible billboards, putting together teams to deploy all over the world. Allen waited for his name to be called.

“What the…hell?” Drake stared at the display, puzzled. With all the uncertainty that was already plaguing them, that worried Allen. Drake was never puzzled about anything. “Jayson, look at this.”

Jay stopped mid-sentence and looked at the display. By the shape of the land mass displayed, it looked like Antarctica. His face echoed Drake’s puzzlement. “What the hell is Atlantis doing here?”

Allen blinked. Tracy asked the question before he could. “Wait, Atlantis? As in, Lost City of?”

Sam’s eyes flickered over to Tracy. “What’s she doing here? This is not a good time for a visit. We are in the middle of multiple deployments and it seems we will be initiating a highly classified mission. I do not have time to be lenient on this.”

Allen opened his mouth to protest, but Tracy just squeezed his hand. “Good luck, Hero Boy, she whispered, and then she was gone out the door. Allen felt a great emptiness at his side.

Drake looked at Jayson. “Atlantis appears in the middle of a widespread Fae attack? That’s not an coincidence.” Jay nodded.

“I agree,” Sam said. “I’ll be taking a delegation with me to speak to the Elves. Mr. Herrington, presuming you’re still taking point on the Stryker investigation, you may want to be there. Mr. Allison, please get a hold of your wife. We’ll need her language comprehension. Mr. Hachirobei, you too. Spark Plug, Inferno, Spirit, you’’ll form a bodyguard for the delegation. Suit up, everyone, we leave in ten.”

Allen lost no time in donning his custom-made leather jacket over a red t-shirt. He slipped on a pair of black fingerless gloves as an added touch. He had no mask. A secret identity was a little useless after a video of you throwing a lunchroom table gets a few hundred thousand hits. He met the others in the briefing room.

“I get why I’m going, cause I’m awesome,” Mitch was saying, ““But why did they want bring a geek like you?” He poked Marcus in the side.

“Lay off, dick.” Marcus shoved him back. He glanced at Drake. “But really, shouldn’t I stay here? I mean, what if Charity wakes up?”

Drake snapped shut a cover on his gear. “When Charity wakes up, she’ll want to know that you’re doing your job. Besides, she’ll kill you herself for missing a chance to see the Lost City of Atlantis.”

“Yeah, about that,” Mitch said, “I thought that was all bullcrap. I mean, isn’t Atlantis supposed to be a myth or something?”

“Allegory,” Marcus interjected. “Strictly speaking, any text referencing Atlantis was written as a sort of fable to illustrate the fallacy of mankind’s hubris—what?” Everyone was staring at him now.

“You really are missing your sister aren’t you?” Drake said with amusement.

“Shut up.”

Jay raised his eyebrow at Mitch. “You control fire. With your mind. And you draw the line at an advanced city?”

Mitch shrugged. “Valid point.”

“I’m pretty sure there’s an actual reason Sam chose you two,” Jay continued. “The Elves wield elemental magic based around Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Light, and Darkness. That makes Mitch an obvious choice. Fire magic basically controls energy, so Marcus’ abilities count too. Sam wants to come into this diplomatic meeting with a position of strength. Both sides will be doing all kinds of political posturing. Don’t make a move unless you’re ordered to, is that understood?

Allen chorused his “Yes, Sir,” along with the other boys.

* * * *

Drake didn’t like not knowing what was going on. First the Fae showed themselves to be more organized than they had any right to be. Then they become convincing suspects in arranging the assassination of a prominent Delta member—twice if one counted Sam’s poisoning attempt. And then, coincidentally, Charity gets infected with a…something that kept her in a coma. If they hadn’t caused either incident, they were doing a damn good job of making sure no one could find out who did. As far as Drake was concerned, that made them equally responsible.

He was next.

He couldn’t shake that feeling. Jayson made fun of him for being paranoid all the time, but hell, he was still alive, wasn’t he? He admitted to being a overly cautious, but in the time that he was infected by the Fae, he’d learned what people were truly capable of. If he hadn’t been paranoid before, that would have been enough to push him over the edge.

He was positive the Fae was behind everything. Biased? A little. Having one of the buggers so deep inside him he still saw it when he blinked would do that to a man. Racist? Maybe. But he understood their nature better than anyone else’s.

As usual, he used the application programmed into his phone to teleport with the group to Atlantis. Jay was there for transport, but he never teleported with Jay. It made him sick to his stomach every time. They had an unspoken gentleman’s agreement between the two of them: Jay didn’t teleport Drake, and Drake didn’t use his magnetic abilities to affect Jay’s metal prosthetic. Both knew damn well that the enemy wouldn’t go so easy on them, but in their sparring matches they followed that rule to the letter.

Atlantis was unquestionably beautiful. Even in his disgruntled state, Drake couldn’t suppress his inner engineer as his gaze traveled over the marble spires. The material that built the city was of a shifting mother-of-pear color, with pinks, greens, and blues intertwining among each other beneath the surface. Runic carvings covered every square inch of the place, written in every element. Their purpose was as intricate as they were diverse; everything from breathable air to irrigation to lighting. A soft glow lit every square inch of the place. Not a shadow was in sight.

A delegation of Elves approached them. They were tall, their average height at about six feet five inches. Their hair ranged in color from a deep raven black to ice white, and everything in between. In that matter, they were much like humans. But it was their eyes that were different. For one thing, they were spaced just far enough apart to appear alien and give anyone used to human proportions a double-take. The eyes themselves were often pastel colors, the same pink, purple, and green seen in their home’s architecture. Their clothing reflected that as well. They were dressed traditionally, in a manner that hadn’t changed in the last few centuries, let alone in the few years since they’d crossed paths. Their robes flowed over the shoulders, loosely covering their arms and falling nearly to the floor.

There was six of them, with jewelry and tattoos that marked them as mages with their respective elements. Drake recognized Chancellor Rio’kir, the Elvin political leader. He had black hair and slate gray eyes and nearly met seven feet tall. On each wrist he wore metal bracers, engraved with the image of a solemn dwarf with his arms crossed over his chest in salute. With those markings, Drake would have known him to be an Earth mage, if he didn’t know that already.

There were others, some who had risen to rank within the last few years. A woman with red hair in an elaborate updo wore earrings shaped like dragons. She was a Light mage. Elaborate designs on her clothing in six different colors marked her as the Archmage. To Elves, who worshiped a god of knowledge, that made her the spiritual leader as well as the most knowledgeable mage. It was likely that she knew more magic than the rest of them put together.

Wispy tendrils of blue crawled up the Water Mage’s exposed leg, resolving in an ethereal female figure—a Nymph. The Air Mage wore a pendant of a highly stylized Gryphon. The Fire Mage’s ears were adorned with ear cuffs that depicted a squid-like creature called a Fi’chiar.

It was the Darkness Mage that gave Drake the willies. His eyes were purple and his hair a nearly translucent white. He hardly showed signs of age, except maybe around the eyes and mouth. He wore wristbands made of a blackened metal with depictions of children laughing and playing. A closer look would show the ‘children’ to be Fae. Of the six of them, he was the only one that was smiling, which would have been creepy enough even if the smile didn’t seem to carry a hint of twisted malice. He didn’t take his eyes off Drake, or so it felt. Maybe he really was being paranoid.

They were surrounded by armed guards, shields brought to bear, and all manner of weapons pointed at the delegation from Delta. This neither disturbed nor shocked Drake. They had, after all, teleported into Atlantis without warning. He would have been surprised if they were met without suspicion. And now it was Sam’s job to make sure they got to the ‘ask questions’ part without being shot at. He didn’t envy her. No love was lost between him and the woman, but he had to admit, she was damn good at her job.

She spoke in Elvin. “Greetings to the keepers of the knowledge of the All. We come not to impart violence, but to exchange our knowledge with yours. I am Samantha Clive, Director of the Delta Division, and I speak on behalf of the Earthborn.”

Rio’kir approached. “Greetings to you in the name and the knowledge of the All, Samantha Clive. I am Rio’kir, Chancellor and keeper of the knowledge of all diplomacy. Your Delta Division is known to me. We fought side by side with your people against the forces of Kronos.”

“The Shadow Fae provided a formidable enemy in that time, Chancellor Rio’kir. We are grateful for your knowledge that drove them back.”

“And for your assistance.” His gaze traveled to Jay. “Jayson Allison. Maralise. Drake Hachirobei. It gratifies me to see you are well. The knowledge of you and your party was instrumental in binding Kronos.” His eyes flickered. “I note absence of others who stood against the god.”

Meryl translated quickly for Jayson. “Charity London is bound in a deep sleep. My brother…” She swallowed and wrestled for composure. “My brother is dead.””

The Elves were stiff and formal and had a large stick wedged up their collective ass, but they were not without sympathy. Rio’kir approached her and clasped the woman’s hands in his. “May he rest in the knowledge of a life well lived,”” he said gently.

Meryl’s eyes filled with tears, but they didn’t fall. “Thank you.” It was all she could manage. Rio’kir stepped back.

“We believe that the Shadow Fae are involved in his death, if not directly, than in the attempt to cover it up,” Sam said. “Nor do we believe it a coincidence that our Charity London lies in a deep sleep at this point in time. There have also been numerous other incidents that indicate the Fae are amassing an army. Someone is again controlling them, just as Kronos once did.”

Rio’kir’s face darkened. “I may lend knowledge to your hypothesis, Samantha Clive. For it is the Fae that are responsible for our sudden and destructive appearance here in your world.”

The Darkness Mage stepped forward. “I recommend caution to add you to your knowledge, Chancellor. Let us not forget, these are Earthborn. Their motives remain unknown to us.”

Rio’kir turned to him. “These Earthborn are known to me. Their motives align with ours.”

The Darkness Mage fixed them all with that eerie stare. “The motives of Earthborn are complex and capable of deception like that of the Fae. For the sake of expounding our knowledge, let me examine their minds.”

“Oh, hell no.” Drake spoke for the first time. “I have no interest in anyone poking around in my head anymore.” He could have said it quite emphatically in Elvin, but he chose English. The thought of someone reading his mind made him feel ornery, so the more he could piss off any of them who didn’t speak English, the better.

The Elf raised his eyebrow. “I should think, Drake Hachirobei, someone with as much knowledge as you posses would wish all to know if it.” Still with that creepy smile.

“I got my reasons, jackass. Most of them have to do with a Fae using my head as a campground for a year.”

He chuckled this time, and Drake found himself really wishing he’d stop that. “All the more reason to examine the knowledge you poses.” He scanned the rest of the group. ““Our negotiations cannot continue until I have examined the knowledge of each one in the delegation.”

“Then I’m out.” Drake gave a casual two-fingered salute to Sam before he started thumbing through his phone for his teleportation application.

He never got that far. A whispered spell from the Darkness Mage brought forth black tentacles of shadow that wrapped around Drake’s arms. They knocked the phone out of his hand and pinned him to the ground. Jayson shouted in protest, Allen came damn close to punching an Elf in the face, and Marcus and Mitch flared with their energy.

“That’s enough.” Sam’s quiet command called them off. ““Mr. Hachirobei, this tantrum of yours is unnecessary.” She nodded at the Darkness mage. “If it would make you feel more secure, then by all means.”

Jayson made some useless protest, the words of which were lost in the sheer agony of the mind probe. It didn’t need to hurt this much, and Drake knew it, but the mage wasn’t going to go gentle now, not when he had Drake at his mercy.

Drake bit down on the pain. He wasn’t going to scream and give this dick the satisfaction. He could feel the oily fingers of the spell in his head, dredging up memories he was perfectly satisfied to keep hidden. The Mage went deep, right to his childhood. He watched his mother slip away from him over and over again, consumed by cancer. The Mage was doing it on purpose now.

When he finally got done with that memory, Drake relived the abandonment he felt when his dad was never around. By the time Delta got to him, he was already a bitter old man at sixteen. That only got worse when he found out that Delta only wanted him to hunt down his father. Well, joke was on them, he had no goddamn clue where the bastard was. But that whole thing ended up in a showdown or ten between him and his old man. More particularly the one where Drake was playing host to a Fae. It seemed like he lived another lifetime in that fight.

But more importantly, he understood their untapped power. He could rule the world. Stand at the top unchallenged. Oh, the world didn’t need to know he was in charge; after all, he worked better from the shadows. He worked better with the shadows.

A few deaths mean nothing,” he heard himself say to the Fae as he stood before them, their minds linked with his. “You have seen what I can do. Follow me, and together we will see both Earth and Myrathelle at our feet. We will stand above Earthborn and Elf alike.

Reality closed in on him. He was on his hands and knees, panting heavily, blood running from his nose. He probably shouldn’t have fought the inevitable, but he wasn’t just going to give in. It was the principle of the thing.

He saw their faces, a picture of disbelief. Drake said nothing. He found himself entirely unsurprised by the memories he’d just seen. There was a certain inevitability in them. He was a prominent member in Delta, the one person who could actually figure it all out. Of course this was going to happen. So that’’s how they’re going to do it.

Jayson looked at him, face inscrutable, a mask of nothing but pain. “John was my partner,” he said, his voice quiet. “He was my best friend, my brother. You have no idea how much I want—I need someone to blame for this.”

He paused, and in that moment, Drake knew he was a dead man. Jay would never believe in him, so blinded by grief. He didn’t blame him, Drake realized. Jayson had lost nearly everyone he cared about. Under the same circumstances, Drake would also believe that those left would betray him.

Jayson’s eyes were clouded with tears. He lifted a finger, and for a second Drake saw it as the hand of justice. He may not have done this, but there was plenty else he’d done that deserved death.

“But it’s not you. You are not responsible for this.”

It cost Jay to say that, Drake could tell. It meant that the search wasn’t over; that for a bit longer, John would go unavenged.

Sam broke in gently. “Mr. Allison, I know this is difficult, but the evidence suggests that—”

“Screw the evidence!” Jay yelled. “The evidence is wrong!”

“He had the means, Mr. Allison. For the past four years we’ve built an identity that would certainly impress the Fae’s bid for power. He uses fear as his weapon, the very same instrument wielded and admired by the Fae.”

Jay was shaking his head. “No. He wouldn’t hurt Charity, not in a million years. He’s in love with her, for God’s sake!”

“Which is why she is still alive.”

Jay opened his mouth to counter that, and found he couldn’t. Clever, Drake thought. It was an effective way to remove him as a piece from the board. And damn straight, he wouldn’t hurt Charity. His opponent—for he now thought of the mastermind as nothing but—had deftly figured out how to use that weakness as a strength in the case against him. Well, now it was personal.

Jay looked askance at the Elves. “Fine. Take him. On one condition. Keep him alive. Because you can be damned sure I will find out who is really involved, and trust me when I say this, you do not want to be responsible for the death of an innocent man, especially when he is one of us.””

Rio’kir raised an eyebrow. “We do not do well with threats, Jayson Allison.”

“Oh, this isn’t a threat. Except maybe when I point out the part that you’re stuck here with us.”

“In every way that matters, it has been proven that blame for our forced translocation rests on this man. You saw the evidence in his memories yourself.”

“What I saw was a mind trick, easily accomplished with the power of the Fae. Let’s not forget our enemy here.”

Rio’kir actually seemed to consider that for a moment, then continued. “Even if you did not offer him to us, we would insist he be remanded into our custody. We will deal with him as our law dictates. The penalty for this crime is death.”

“Well then, remember one thing: you owe us. All the might, all the knowledge of the Elves could not stand against Kronos. Even from his cage he wielded power. Earthborn died on your behalf, sacrificed their lives so we could fix your problem. Keep him locked up and powerless as you see fit, but do not end his life. I ask you, not as a threat, but as a favor in return for saving your world.”

Rio’kir regarded Jayson with a blank face for a moment. Drake could count his heartbeats as he waited.

“Very well. He will be kept in Atlantis with complete seclusion. But do not take forever to find more knowledge of this case. We are not in the habit of retaining prisoners indefinitely. And besides, the measures we must take to ensure he lacks his power will leave him but a shell of himself if you take too long.”

He waved his hand dismissively, and the rest of the Elves began to walk away. “Leave this place, Earthborn. You now possess our same knowledge of this unfortunate happenstance. Keep us informed, and we shall do you the same courtesy.”

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.”