The soft tick tock of the clock was getting on Angela’s last nerve. She’d been in sitting in this office for the last twenty minutes without saying a word. She’d willingly admit that this therapy session hadn’t gotten off to the best start, but weren’t therapists supposed to at least make an effort.
<People think I have problems. The real problem is whoever gave this guy his medical license.>
While Angela was sitting there fuming, Dr. Johnson was sitting behind his desk reading his tablet. She’d assumed he was reading her file, but then he started smiling, and a then a small chuckle escaped his lips. Angela craned her neck for a better view.
<Is he reading comics!> She could practically feel the steam pouring out of her ears.
“Are you kidding me!” She finally burst, jumping to her feet. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing something productive with this time? Sitting there reading X-Men isn’t doing anyone any good.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” Dr. Johnson calmly put down his tablet and picked up a notepad and pen. “But I can’t listen if you don’t talk.”
“This is stupid.”
“That’s the third time you’ve said it since we started,” he informed. “In fact the only three statements you’ve said since you arrived are: ‘I don’t want to be here’, ‘This is stupid’, and ‘I’m fine’.” His face turned serious for a moment. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, Angela, but you are not fine.”
Angela felt the anger build in her gut and start to boil over. She opened her mouth to scream at the doctor, but he beat her to it.
“It’s good not to be fine. If you were ok with everything that has happened then I’d have some serious concerns about you.” His statement made her snap her mouth shut.
“What do you mean?” The rage began to subside, but it was still bubbling just beneath the surface.
“Angela,” he leaned forward placing his arms on the paper-strewn desk. “You just suffered a terrible loss. You need to acknowledge it, own it, and start to heal from it. It’s just like any other injury. You can’t break your leg, ignore it, and keep trying to kick people. That’s not how the human body works. The mind is the same way. Pain and emotions are there for a reason.”
Angela sat down heavily on the chair. Suddenly she felt very tired. “I’m…I’m just tired.” She told him what she was feeling.
“You’ve been feeling a lot of conflicting emotions lately I bet.” He continued.
Angela nodded. She cried on the way over here. Being put on probation was not a good step towards becoming a Hero. Then she’d been willing to rip the tablet out of the doctor’s hand and smash it over his head.
“Swinging back and forth from sadness to anger.” It was like he was reading his mind.
It immediately put her on the defensive.
“Not a telepath, he held up his hands in front of him. I’m an empath, so I can get a pretty good sense of what you are feeling. Just twenty minutes with you has shown me you’ve got a lot of emotions battling inside of you.”
“Ok,” she still felt defensive. “So am I just supposed to sit here and cry in front of you. Do you have a stress ball I can squeeze?”
It was a joke, but Dr. Johnson pulled a ball from his drawer and tossed it to her. “You’d be surprised how much it helps.”
Angela caught it and squeezed it on reflex. It was stiffer than she thought, and didn’t give much. She squeezed harder trying to crush the ball. She didn’t even realize she was silent for half a minute and concentrating solely on the ball.
“I told you.” He waited patiently until she looked up. “I’ve got a whole storage room full of them. Just tell me what you want. I’ve got baseballs, tennis balls, even little Hero figurines. Titan’s merchandise sales might have dropped in the last decade, but this stress figurine is a hit in my opinion. He’s going right back to the top of the charts.”
Despite herself Angela couldn’t help but laugh. She traded the ball he’d originally given her for a miniature representation of the strongest man on earth. The stress-figure was in a classic hands on hips power pose, and surprisingly whatever material it was made out of was even stronger than the ball she’d been squeezing. It barely budged.
“I was the last person he spoke to.” The words slipped out as Angela’s knuckles turned white with the effort of squeezing the tiny Titan.
“What did he say?” Dr. Johnson’s tone was still light and encouraging.
“He said it was nice that we got to have dinner,” Angela ignored the tear trickling down her cheek, and concentrated on the stress-figurine.
“It’s always nice to get to spend time with our parents, especially once we’ve gone off to college and don’t see them as much.” Dr. Johnson scribbled a few things onto his notepad, and was surprised when Angela gave a harsh laugh.
“I never got to see my parents a lot. They were always busy. Off saving the world,” she wiped the tear from her cheek. “I think I was more of an inconvenience to them.”
“Your parents love you Angela,” the response was automatic from the doctor.
Angela looked up from the tiny Titan and rolled her eyes. “You’ve obviously never met my parents.”
“I’ve actually met both of them before.” Dr. Johnson countered, but stopped when Angela shook her head.
“No, you’ve met Hunter and Seraphim. You’ve met the world class Hero team. You haven’t met my parents.”
“Well, then why don’t you tell me about them.”
Angela surprised the doctor again by laughing. “Where do I start.”
Forty-five minutes later, already five minutes late for his next appointment, Dr. Johnson flexed his hand painfully. He’d been writing nonstop for nearly the entire time, and with each page he filled he felt more and more sorry for Angela Martin.
He tried to hide it, but Angela saw it on his face. The good doctor might be an empath, but Angela knew how to read people’s faces. Every crinkle of the brow, tightening of the lips, and narrowing of the eyes showed her that she’d hit a topic he’d want to talk about more in length at some point.
<Take your pick.> She finally sat back in her seat, mentally exhausted. <The missed birthdays, the constant coldness, the training…the endless never-ending training. Then there’s the loneliness and basically having to fend for myself. I’m sure we’ll never run out of things to talk about.>
The doctor must have sensed something because he put down his pen. “How do you feel now?”
“I’m still tired…and angry…and sad.” Angela didn’t bother sugar-coating it anymore. “And I still don’t like being here.”
“Surprising…” Dr. Johnson rubbed his chin.
“Surprising?” Angela repeated. It was the last thing she expected him to say.
“On one level I understand why you feel that way. Your harsh upbringing, the constant bombardment of a ‘feelings equals weakness’ culture. You’ve been forced to hide your emotions your whole life; so I get why you wouldn’t want to share them. But on the other hand you’ve been practically alone most of your life. You’ve told me multiple times that your parents weren’t there for you; which is why your father’s death is hitting you so hard. You were just starting to become worthy in your own eyes. But these sessions are a place I want you to feel comfortable doing anything you want. They’re confidential, no one will ever know what happens in them. This is your chance to say what you want, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. This is a safe space, so let it rip.” He ended his little speech with a smile.
On one level, Angela always knew that was the case. But on another it was a weight off her shoulders to hear to doctor say it. “Thanks, but I think I’ve unloaded on you enough for one day.” She pointed at the notepad.
“This old thing.” He waved off her excuse. “The only thing I have more of than stress balls is yellow legal pads.” He proved the point by pulling a fresh one out of his drawer. “But I understand your point.”
They both stood, and Dr. Johnson extended his hand. “Thank you for coming in today, Angela. Same time next week?”
It was the last thing Angela wanted to be doing on a Saturday night, but she knew she couldn’t swing it during the week. Between the HCP and her over-full class load it just wasn’t feasible.
“Sure,” she replied. “Have a good night Dr. Johnson.”
She left his office, passed the healer on duty and exited into the main portion of the HCP. Truthfully, it was the last place she wanted to be; so she found the first lift and made her way back up to the surface. She emerged on the far side of campus, so she spent her time walking back to the townhouse thinking about everything the therapist had said.
She passed house party after house party. A few guys from a balcony cat called her, which was both empowering and disgusting at the same time.
After the fifth party the kernel of an idea started to form in her mind. It solidified after another block and another party. At the start of the second block she pulled out her phone and dialed one of her few contacts.
“Hello.” The line on the other end was noisy, like Becca was in a crowded space.
“Hey, it’s Angela.”
“Hiya, Angela. How’re you doin’.” The concern in the speedster’s voice was noticeable.
“I’m fine.” It was only a half lie. “I was thinking about going out tonight. Do you want to come?”
It was the first time Angela had ever instigated an outing, and Becca’s pause made the already difficult request even more awkward.
“Um…yeah sure. A bunch of us are actually at dinner downtown right now. I think we’re going to a club or something after we finish. You want to meet us there?”
“Yeah,” Angela’s enthusiasm clearly surprised Becca.
Angela could practically see her friend’s uncertainty transforming into a beaming smile. “Text me the address.” She paused for a moment as another thought occurred to her. “Is it ok if I bring a friend?”
Daisy was on her way to the police station again. Last time she’d been singing to the radio and salivating over some burgers. That was before she learned Hunter had been killed along with dozens of civilians, and a good chunk of real-estate had been turned into rubble. This time her journey to the police HQ was different, she could feel it in her bones.
The first obvious change was that someone had come and picked her up. She wasn’t in one of the HCP vehicles. A DVA agent, a different one than the man who’d taken her to her inquiry results, had met her down in the HCP.
“If you could come with me please, Ma’am.” He didn’t give her more information than that, and if she hadn’t felt her Spidey-senses tingling she would have told him to shove it where the sun don’t shine.
She tried to make a call to Topher on the drive, but the DVA agent politely asked her to put the phone away. They’d also supplied her with a mask, which meant that whatever was going down was something she needed to hide her identity for. It was a standard face-obscuring gray mask, and when she put it on she found herself yearning for her old Reaper costume.
But beggars couldn’t be choosers, and if she was going to get in on anything Hero-related with her current suspended status then she was certainly a beggar.
The driver didn’t stop in the front or even pull around back. He drove the car into the underground parking garage and descended into the secure area that had the elevator straight to the Protectorate’s HQ. It was exactly how Daisy remembered it; except for all the extra vehicles. Instead of the traditional SUVs and a few unmarked cars the garage was now filled with vans, a couple with business logos on them, and half a dozen armored vehicles.
The armored vehicles stood out against the rest of the DVA motor vehicles. These were new; new enough that Daisy hadn’t ridden in one before. She’d seen the previous generations though; in fact, she’d ridden in one before.
The memory pulled at her consciousness and she let it take her.
It was fucking HOT, and the AC was busted; which made her and the four man ForceOps team miserable. She had a pretty steady stream of sweat running from her shoulder blades down to her ass crack. They’d been driving for an hour in the middle of nowhere.
“Freedom, this is Rhino One, crossing phase-line Irish now.” The driver, a burly man in black body armor related back to the FOB’s Ops Center.”
“Roger that, Rhino One. SIGINT and HUMINT confirm target is on site. I say again, intelligence confirms the target is on site. Happy hunting.”
“Good copy, Freedom. You’re buying when we get back. Rhino One, out.” The driver cut the communication and held up his hand. “Five minutes boys and girls.”
Daisy picked up the assault rifle that she’d been issued. She didn’t usually use guns, but today’s mission was supposed to be covert. No powers could be used that would trace back to the US government. If so, their mole would be captured, tortured for information, and then most likely beheaded. They were operating in a place they weren’t supposed to be, and in a country that was supposed to be friendly. So Daisy would use the old soviet era weapon.
“Here,” the ForceOps soldier next to her handed over a thirty round magazine that vaguely resembled a banana. “You remember how to use that thing?”
Daisy slapped the magazine in, chambered a round, but kept the weapon on safe. “I think I’ve got it covered.” She smiled back, her face obscured by her black balaclava.
“Good,” the soldier smiled back. He had a nice smile. “Because this weapon is idiot proof. You can drop in it the water, mud, or even this godforsaken sand and it’ll still fire.”
As if on cue loud pings started to ricochet off the exterior hull of the armored transport.
“Party time!” The driver floored it, while flipping a switch.
Heavy metal music started to blast in and outside the vehicle. Daisy cringed at the music. All she could make out was incoherent yelling and chaotic guitaring. That didn’t seem to bother the driver, because he was singing right along to it. The music almost drowned out the sound of the automatic heavy machine gun on the roof hammering the enemy position and softening them up for the ForceOps team.
The vehicle swerved back and forth randomly, and Daisy finally figured out why when an explosion rocked the vehicle with a near miss. “Don’t worry!” The driver was laughing like a deranged lunatic. “They’ve just got a few bottle rockets. Nothing ol’ Bessy can’t handle.
“And by bottle rockets he means RPGs!” The soldier next to Daisy had to yell what would have normally been a whispered remark.
Either way the driver didn’t hear. The vehicle’s roof-mounted machine gun continued to blast downrange in beat with the bass, and at one point Daisy could have sworn she saw the driver violently banging his head up and down.
“Here’s your stop!” The music suddenly cut out and the back ramp of the vehicle dropped. “Go!”
The vehicle rocked again as a RPG slammed into the ground less than ten meters away. Daisy felt the heat of the explosion through the back of the vehicle, but its walls still protected them from the shrapnel.
She let the four ForceOps guys go first, and then followed them into a blistering version of what hell must look like. She didn’t get more than a few seconds to look around but she saw contrails of more RPG rounds streaking their way along with the tracers of light machineguns. She picked out the enemy position less than fifty meters away, and noticed they had a lot more people than the small ForceOps team.
“Down!” She dove for cover behind a boulder just as an RPG smashed into the side of their ride.
Kinetic energy wasn’t a problem for her, but fire was. And an RPG explosion had a lot of fire in it.
The vehicle bucked violently, lifting up into the air and nearly rolling onto its side. It didn’t go high enough, so it fell back on its wheels with a loud crunch. Daisy was sure the guy inside had to be dead, but then the music started blaring again and the vehicle peeled out; spitting sand and rocks everywhere. As it drove away, leaving the team all alone, it strafed the enemy line with its machine gun. Daisy clearly saw a few people blown in half before the vehicle cleared the battlefield.
“Got you covered!”
Two of the ForceOps guys stood up under the hail of gunfire and started to run forward while the other two, and Daisy, covered them. Daisy hit the selector switch, aimed, and fired the weapon. She fired a short burst. The first two rounds struck her intended target in the groin area and the chest while the third went high.
That was one reason she didn’t like these weapons. They weren’t as reliable or accurate as Daisy was with her power.
“Got you covered!” Now it was Daisy’s team’s turn to run forward.
You weren’t supposed to run for more than three to five seconds. Any longer than that and the enemy would target and take you down. That was what the ForceOps guys did, but she didn’t have the same constraints. Bullets impacted her black armor and fell uselessly to the ground as she completed a fifty meter dash to the enemy lines.
They were using a small berm as cover, but that wasn’t going to save them from Reaper.
Daisy drifted back into the present, preferring not to remember how she tore through a platoon of terrorists, captured the HVT, and left nothing left alive.
“Ma’am?” The DVA agent was standing with the door open. “Follow me please.” The frown on his face told her that she’d probably been asked more than once.
“Lead the way.” she hopped out and followed him to the elevator, but he didn’t get on.
<Someone else will handle me once I get to the top.> she knew how this worked. The guy didn’t need to say anything.
She rode in silence and then emerged onto a crowded floor. The security from the garage elevator into the heart of DVA and Hero power in Orlando was still terrible. But there were a lot more guys with guns walking around than last time she’d been here. Including the man in tactical clothing and an MP5 slung across his chest on a friction strap.
“Ma’am, follow me.” He wasn’t as polite as the DVA driver, but Daisy didn’t really care. This guy was a shooter, not a babysitter.
He led her across the room, where she got more than a few confused glances, and into a conference room; or at least Daisy thought it was a conference room. It was too packed with people to see a table.
<I’m late.> A PowerPoint was up on the wall with the blueprints of a building, and a man with silver hair and the same tactical gear was gesturing at it.
“Team one will breech here, two here, and three here. Each team will be accompanied by a member of the Protectorate. I’ll leave it to each team member to figure out their own setup.” The man was undoubtedly the local SWAT commander because he made it sound like he’d done this thing a thousand times.
<Easy confidence.> Daisy had seen it a lot in her Hero days. Personally, she’d preferred cool intimidation; but that was the old her.
“When we finish here we’re going to our staging area. We’ve got a mockup of the building and we’re going to rehearse for the entry. After that we’re going to rehearse some more, and then when you’re all tired and bitchin’ to go home, were going to rehearse again. You will all be able to do this with your eyes closed.”
It was a good “get your ass in gear” speech, but judging by how she’d been pulled from her HCP office she guessed there was a time limit they were operating under. And since it was already late they couldn’t be stepping off more than a few hours from now.
“Thank you, Commander Jenkins.” A familiar voice took charge, and a familiar face stepped up to take the SWAT officer’s place. “Lastly, if everything goes to shit I’ve called in a specialist.” Debora Phillips pointed to the back of the room, and every eye turned to Daisy. “Codename Broke Arrow, she will step in if we feel the mission is failing.” A few people nodded, but Daisy could tell a lot of them who wondering who the hell she was.
“People, we’ve got a lot of work to do and not a lot of time. Get to it.”
The meeting broke up and people started to stream out of the room. Daisy stepped to the side to let them pass, but it wasn’t necessary. Like most of her life, new people were giving her a wide berth. Even though she’d been working on her interpersonal skills; a six foot three blonde bombshell with demon eyes and a clearly Hero physique tended to instinctually drive normal people away.
“Over here.” The room was cleared enough that Daisy saw Debora pointing at her, so the older Hero walked over to her. “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”
“I didn’t really think I had a choice.” Daisy responded, keeping her face neutral. “But if something interesting is going down then I’d prefer to be here than reading about it in the paper tomorrow.”
“Good,” Debora grinned. “So here’s the situation.”
Daisy hadn’t known that the Protectorate had captured one of the Fist’s high level lieutenants, and after a few weeks Mr. Morningstar had gotten his hooks in deep enough to get actionable intel.
“Here’s the target.” Debora pointed at a building in the middle of downtown Orlando. “It’s a legit club on paper.” She explained. “But our source has confirmed it’s a front for the Fist, and a frequent hangout. They run drugs, guns, and women through the place nightly. So even if it’s slow we should have enough charges to bring whoever we catch down for good.”
“Sounds air-tight, but everything does at first.” Daisy looked at the details and saw it was in fact a tactical nightmare with the biggest point being there would be hundreds of innocent civilians in the club tonight.
“I know, and that why I have you.” Debora pointed at Daisy. “If we determine shit is going sideways then I need you to step in and drop everyone.”
“Why don’t I just drop everyone to start and your guys can sweep in and pick up the pieces?” It was a much more rational plan.
“Two reasons,” Debora held up two fingers. “First, you’re not an active Hero. The liability issues are enough to rule that out from the DVA’s point of view. We can authorize your use in the event of an emergency, so we’re going with that. Second, I’ve gotten a few calls from some important ForceOps officers who have told me it’s better to not advertise your abilities and location. They didn’t explain anymore, classified and all that shit, but I can take a hint.”
<So politics and insurance are keeping them from making the logical tactical decision…typical.> If Daisy hadn’t been a Hero for a half-century this would have upset her, but she knew the business and was desensitized to all the bullshit.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to use you sooner rather than later. I’m not going to let a bunch of college students get mowed down because some ForceOps brass has a stick up their ass.”
<I now officially love the Phillips family.> Daisy couldn’t help but smile at cooler heads prevailing, but there was one question she still had.
“Why not use Seraphim?”
“Ahhh.” Debora pushed a few stray hairs out of her eyes. “She’s too emotionally close to the case. This Op could net us more details on the Fist, who we have confirmation are being hired by Wraith to do unknown taskings. If we get high enough up their chain of command then we might be able to flush Wraith out. We don’t want Seraphim in the mix quite yet. She’s already kicking over anthills all over town and upsetting everyone and their mother.”
“Understood,” Daisy could see where things could go even more wrong if Seraphim was involved. “She’s going to want to be involved in the final takedown though.”
“Typical Hero. You want the DVA to do all the legwork while you sweep in at the end and grab all the glory.” The statement would have been insulting if Debora hadn’t said it with a smile.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” Daisy smiled back. “I won’t suck face with your baby bro right in front of you.”
“Ugh,” Debora’s face contorted in disgust. “Deal.”
They shook on it.
“Good.” With that handled Daisy turned her attention back to the maps of Orlando. “So where do you want me?”