“Oh crap.” Mason exited the tube ten feet up and flailed his arms like a chicken as he fell.
<Why do they keep doing this to me?> He grumbled as he hit the asphalt.
He rolled with it so he didn’t break anything, because flimsy asphalt and earth were much more likely to crack than him. He got to his feet and brushed off his black uniform. He reached up and felt his full face-mask still firmly attached to his face. It would be a bummer to fail his first trial right off the bat because he couldn’t keep his identity hidden.
“Dispatch, give me a route to the objective.”
“You need to go six blocks north out of the city, follow route five, and then take a right onto Mountainbrook. You’d better hurry. The situation is growing more tense every second a Hero isn’t on the scene.” Coach Meyers’ slightly perturbed voice informed him.
<She said I could use dispatch to answer my questions? Was I not supposed to ask that?> Mason shook his head and took a deep breath. He needed to stop psyching himself out and get to work.
Kyoshi had come back from the trial grinning like she’d just won the lottery. She didn’t give him any information because she wasn’t supposed to, but she did tell him the trial involved real people and not robots or projections. Beyond that, the only thing she accidentally slipped was that the guy had been big.
Big was a relative term to Mason, so he assumed she meant average person big not Mason Jackson big.
The wheels in his head turned as he ran. Six blocks up took him out of the more metropolitan part of the city. It looked like the city from their first semester final, but some things had changed. It was smaller, with less skyscrapers, but a lot more industrial-looking buildings. He found route five and followed it farther out of the city. In less than two-tenths of a mile the landscape changed to suburban developments with a strip mall to meet their needs. He checked the street signs until he found Mountainbrook.
<Number thirty-two.> He remembered the briefing. <Mr. Little.>
Mason was at the far end of the street, but he still saw the flashing lights of the police cruiser at the other end. He also saw two uniformed officers trying to talk down a large man. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but if the arm waving meant anything things weren’t going well. Mason sprinted the rest of the rest of the way and came to a heavy-footed halt.
<Make your presence known.> Mason remembered what Angela had told them long ago during their training.
<Sometimes a person’s reputation is enough to stop a fight before it even starts.> Mason’s sheer size might be enough to do just that.
“Hello, gentlemen. What’s the problem?” His deep voice rumbled, but he made it sound like he’d just stumbled across them while taking a walk.
“I’ll tell you what the problem is.” Mr. Little ranted, pointing accusingly at the two officers. “It’s police harassment that’s the problem. I’m just minding my own business, on my property, and these two wannabes show up.”
Mason heard the slight slur in the other man’s voice. Confirming the unconfirmed report from Dispatch that he was intoxicated.
“These two men are just trying to do their job, Sir.” Mason gestured to the cops while nodding for them to start moving back.
“Yeah,” Mr. Little huffed. “If their job is to harass a black man who’s just minding his own business.”
The two officers took offense to that, especially since one of them was also black. Name calling and insults were flung back and forth as Mason tried to regain control of the situation. But it didn’t help. Mr. Little kept calling Mason a sell out and a slave to the man. The drunk even used air quotes around “the man”.
Nothing bad was happening. No one was getting hurt, and the situation was contained, but Mason was pretty sure that his final grade wasn’t going to look so good unless he resolved the situation.
“Sir, I’m going to need you to calm down.” Mason put more authority into his voice and took a step forward.
“Don’t you come on my property without a warrant!” Mr. Little roared. He didn’t back down.
“Sir, everyone just got called out here on a simple noise complaint, and you shouting at us is only making it worse.” Mason moved to the side to get between Mr. Little and the cops.
The officers got the gist and slowly started to back away without taking their eyes off the two large men.
“Fuck you, Hero man! I do what I want with what’s mine.”
“Dispatch,” Mason spoke into his communications device. “Looks like we’re going to need that…” He didn’t get to finish.
Mr. Little lunged with a surprising amount and speed and threw a haymaker at Mason’s head. Mason got his arm up to block, while simultaneously thinking how stupid was the guy to attack a Hero, but neither of that mattered when the punch landed and Mason was lifted off the ground propelled over the white picket fence that separated Mr. Little’s yard from his neighbors.
Mason landed roughly, but was able to roll with it and come up in a fighting stance. It was a good thing too, because Mr. Little had already charged through the fence toward him. Mason threw out a jab to slow the man down and create some separation, but Mr. Little just batted it aside. The other man went low, avoiding Mason’s weak attempt at a grapple, and pulled his legs out from under him.
<Should have sprawled.> Mason thought stupidly as he fell on his ass and Mr. Little crawled on top of him.
“Dispatch, what the hell!” Mason yelled back as the two fought for better positioning.
Mason had only started on learning a ground game to go with his boxing, and his lack of experience was showing.
“A search on Mr. Samson Little shows military records indicating a ten-year career with ForceOps. You should approach the situation cautiously.” Coach Meyer replied. Mason could hear the smile in her tone.
“A little too late for that.” Mason had successfully trapped Mr. Little’s leg and stopped him from getting a full mount, but judging by the man’s strength and supposed skill that wouldn’t last long.
Mr. Little was also grinding his elbow into Mason’s cheek and that was annoying as hell.
<Ok, let’s try this.> Mason tried to remember Coach McMillian’s lessons on how to get out from beneath someone in this situation.
Mason made sure he pulled Mr. Little close and trapped one of the smaller strongman’s arms between them. Then Mason reached down between the guy’s legs and grabbed his other hand, that was already down there, by the wrist. He forced Mr. Little up while he slid down. Mason also made sure to quickly tuck his head in closer to Mr. Little’s chest so the other man couldn’t push him back down and drive his elbow into his skull. From there he needed to move quickly.
Mason grabbed Mr. Little’s foot with his bottom hand and moved it into a position where he could get a good grip with his top hand. Then, with explosive force, Mason scissored his legs and got up on his knees. He grabbed Mr. Little’s knee, pulled, forced his head forward, and was now the one on top.
His excitement of having successfully escaped the compromising position was short lived. Mr. Little drove his knee up into Mason’s side knocking him loose and sending him tumbling across the lawn.
“I thought they taught you Heroes better than this.” Mr. Little jumped to his feet and started to circle Mason.
“I’m taking it easy on you, Sir. You hadn’t done anything wrong until then. Now you’re in trouble. Assaulting a Hero is a serious offense.” Mason lied about the first part, but solid it on the second. “Turn around, get on your knees and put your hands behind your head and this ends peacefully.”
Mr. Little didn’t even answer. He just charged.
Strongman versus strongman fights were some of the worst fights there could be. The rock-paper-scissors nature of superpowers wasn’t at play. It was simply a rock smashing into another rock until something gave, and the stuff around the two rocks was much more likely to crumble before the rocks themselves. As a Hero, Mason was the one at a disadvantage. He needed to protect himself, civilians, property, and the attacker if possible. Although, this time that didn’t look like it was going to happen.
Mason met Mr. Little’s charge head on and they collided with tectonic force. Both throw punches, kicks, elbows, knees, and anything else they could to weaken the other man. They gripped and grappled for the best position to hit their opponent.
That was another thing Mason hadn’t realized about really strong people fighting until he joined the HCP. It was all about positioning. Sure, Mason could throw a forceful punch, and hit Mr. Little in the face, but that wasn’t going to do as much good as people thought. Only a certain amount of force was going to get transferred from Mason’s fist to Mr. Little’s face. The rest would bleed off as the man went flying. To deliver a really good hit against another strongman, or woman, you needed to get them up against something sturdy enough that it would hold up while the target took the maximum force of the blow.
That was why half of the fight with Mr. Little was spent rolling around on the ground and trying to get into a mounted position. Strongmen fighting was ugly, dirty, and only made for good TV in the movies. Mason’s fight with Mr. Little was a perfect example.
It ended with Mason kicking the other man in the nuts. Mr. Little squeaked helplessly and collapsed.
“That’s enough, Jackson.” Coach Meyers stated over their Dispatch link as the two cops rushed forward. “You’re done for now. Keep your phone on you and ready for your next trial.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Despite winning, Mason knew he’d lost, and his tone conveyed that.
“Hit the showers and get out of here. If you’re lucky you’ll be back in time for breakfast.” The link went dead as a healer popped into existence with a suited DVA teleporter and went to work on Mr. Little.”
“Sorry about that.” Mason offered a weak apology to the barely coherent strongman before leaving.
The warm shower to wash away the sweat and dirt wasn’t as refreshing as Mason would have liked. He sat there under the scalding water thinking over the situation again and again.
<I could have kept my distance and not taken that step.> Mason concluded after thinking it over. <That seemed to be what set him off. But then what would I have done to calm him down?>
He got dressed still thinking about the issue and rode the lift back to the surface. Kyoshi agreed to meet him for breakfast and talk about it. His beautiful girlfriend looked tired when he arrived. She’d only gotten a few hours of sleep, and was already stressing about an upcoming conventional final.
“How’d things go with Mr. Little?” She asked with a smile that still made his heart skip.
“Probably not as good as you.” Mason showed her the bruise that was forming on the side of his face.
“Really?” Kyoshi’s brow furrowed in confusion. “He wasn’t that bad. We talked a bit, and when one of those cops made a stupid move I put him down pretty simply. He didn’t resist or anything.”
“Seriously,” Mason growled, surprising Kyoshi. “We had a knock-down drag-out brawl. We broke a fence, tore up the neighbor’s yard, and it would have been a lot worse if I hadn’t kicked him in the balls.”
“You what?” Her eyes went wide.
Then she started to giggle.
“What?” Mason’s shoulders sagged.
“Nothing,” Kyoshi quickly regained her composure and looked him in the eye. “A win is a win. Learn from your mistakes and don’t make them during the next challenge.”
And that was that, at least from Kyoshi’s perspective.
<Easy for you to say. I’m the one that might have just bombed my HCP final.>
<You know I can hear you, right?> She raised an eyebrow from across the table and Mason blushed.
<You accomplished the mission, Mason. Probably not in the way Coach Meyers wanted it done, and I’m sure you’ll lose some points, but you got the job done. I bet others won’t even get that far.>
<Yeah, you’re right. As usual.> Mason sighed, and Kyoshi smiled smugly.
“Now eat up. You’ll need your mental strength for your Math exam. It starts in a few hours, so you have a little time left to study.”
“Math.” Mason groaned, and set his forehead down on the cold tabletop.
It was a bad idea because it was sticky from something.
Kyoshi patted him on the shoulder and continued eating her cereal and fruit.
Lilly sat in her flat across the Atlantic admiring herself in the mirror. Everything was set, and she was ready to kick some ass. All she had to do was get over the lingering apprehension in her gut.
<You’ve got this.> She pumped herself up as she looked back over herself.
Her black grinning volto mask stared back at her through the mirror like it was mocking her. The last time she’d worn this full get-up she’d almost died. She was a hundred percent now, but that could have been different if Seraphim’s poison barb was just a couple inches to the left.
<Can’t live in a world of “ifs”.> She reminded herself.
She took a deep breath and adjusted the electromagnetic rifle hanging from her back. It was the only new piece of her outfit, and it didn’t quite fit right. But she needed it so she sucked it up.
She absentmindedly caressed the handles of her holstered Glocks and ran her hand around her belt. She felt the comforting circular bulge of the many grenades she’d brought. It was an odd thing to find comfort in, but she had stopped thinking things were weird long ago. If she hadn’t, she would have gone crazy from all the weirdness of the world, and her sex life wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable.
That made her think of Seth, which didn’t help things at all.
Everything was finally coming to a head. This was the endgame, the finale, the big shebang. She hadn’t had nearly enough time with the only man she’d ever loved, and she prayed to a God she didn’t believe in that she’d have more. But that was a big “if”. It was very likely that her cover would get blown in the next few days. She might keep it intact, but she couldn’t count on that. At the very least their small group of close-knit friends at Townhouse 117 was going to get torn apart. That was just the reality and she’d already accepted it. Seth might accept it in time, but there was no guarantee.
<People don’t usually react well to getting betrayed,> she sighed, turning away from the mirror and moving back to the large electrified cage in the center of the flat.
She gave the room one last look over for anything suspicious. Minus the large shark cage in the middle of the room it looked like any other flat in the building.
<It’s showtime.> She thought to herself as she closed the cage behind her.
She made sure she had the key in one of her body armor’s various pockets and then disappeared in a flash of darkness.
The flat vanished and she reappeared in the underground mansion she’d grown up in. Her spreading darkness told her that her room had been cleaned up recently, which was a solid indication that her father was restless. That was normal. A man as skilled and professional as him always got extremely detail-oriented in the final stages of an operation. Cleaning her room might have been a stress reliever for him.
<So me not picking up after myself was actually for his benefit. I should do it more often.> She deluded herself with a small laugh as the darkness faded.
“Dad, I’m back. Hurry up or we’re going to be late!” She yelled down the echoing hallway.
There was no response, but that was ok. He was probably off at his own personal armory getting things together. Lilly’s own table back in her underground bunker had extra ammunition piles up almost as high at the ceiling. There were more grenades, some strong enough to hurt a strongman, and the automated machineguns that Mika had finished for her. All she had to do was set those bad boys up and they could cover multiple avenues of approach. They could fire at anything that moved, anything with a human heat-signature, or she had a tablet secured in a backpack on the table that would allow her to control the guns remotely. She was still figuring out what she wanted to do.
<I do want to have just a bit of fun. But I’ve got to see how things play out first.> She couldn’t forget the entire reason she was on this assignment in the first place.
“Dad! Come on!” She yelled again.
The man that stepped into her room wearing nothing but a bathrobe was not her father.
He was taller than Lilly, about 6’2”, with cold, dark brown eyes and a close-cropped patch of white hair. He was athletically skinny, with wiry muscles underneath taught skin. The skin looked like well-worn tan leather. The person clearly spent a lot of time working out in the sun.
Finding a partially naked, large man in your room would have freaked out most people, but not Lilly. First, because without anything to protect him she could easily put a knife in his heart. Her hand had automatically gone to one of her throwing knives. And second, because she knew him. She’d known him all her life.
“Uncle Curtis!” She shrieked with joy and threw herself at the older man.
“Geez, kiddo.” The man grunted as Lilly hit him like a shoulder-launched missile. “Take it easy.”
“What are you doing here?” She pulled away after a fierce hug and looked him over.
<No new scars, not getting fat and happy while living off the grid, everything looks good.> She did a quick mental survey.
“I wouldn’t miss all the fun.” He smiled.
The way the facial movement pulled his tight skin would have freaked out just about anyone else, but Lilly was immune to his dangerous, some would say evil, charms.
“You mean you wouldn’t miss the money.” She grinned back.
“You got me there.” The smiled grew wider, stretching the skin even tighter over his face; so tight it looked like it might rip. “Let me throw on my gear and we can shoot the shit before your dad gets back.”
Lilly nodded vigorously. It had been too long since she’d sat down with one of her mentors. She knew dozens of villains that would give their left nut to have just five minutes with the infamous Armsman.
Lilly, feeling a billion times better, skipped down to the kitchen and grabbed some juice. She’d need to keep her energy up. Ten minutes later Armsman stepped into the kitchen. He was wearing the olive fatigues that had been standard army issue back in Vietnam. They were undoubtedly updated to be mildly resistant to ballistic projectiles, but they looked the same as they had forty years ago. What was different now was his medieval breastplate.
Back in the seventies Armsman had worn a legit steel breastplate because that was the best protection from a Hero putting something through his heart. His power made any power-based attack disintegrate on contact, but a bullet was still a bullet, and a piece of building thrown by a strongman was still going to crush him. That was part of the reason he’d worked with Hellgate. A teleporter to move quickly and a nullifier to incapacitate; there was a reason they’d terrorized the country back in the day.
But that was then and this was now. Uncle Curtis was pushing seventy, and although he looked like he was in fantastic shape, probably thanks to regular high-priced healing sessions, age still took its toll. That, and technology changed.
The breastplate Armsman was wearing this time had the memorable metallic sheen to it, but Lilly knew that was spray painted on. Below the reflective layer was a ceramic composite that was much stronger than plain old steel.
<But some things never change.> The rest of Armsman was covered in various weapons. He was a master in all of them, thus the reason for his name.
“Let’s chat.” He leaned his six-foot spear up against the granite island, and removed his treasured katana form his back.
“Sure. Want any?” She pointed at the juice.
“No, I’m good.” He waved her off. “I just want to see how your holding up after offing that pretentious, ass-faced teleporter.”
His colorful identification of the late Hunter made her giggle.
“I’m fine, Uncle Curtis. It isn’t the first time I’ve offed someone.”
“It’s not that part. It’s the lifestyle change that I wanted to make sure you’re chill with.”
“Chill?” She mocked him. “You’ve been sitting on the beach smoking weed for too long.”
“Don’t change the subject,” he snapped seriously. “You went from a nobody to legendary status overnight, but you’ve got a kill order on your head, kid.” Armsman deadpanned. “I’m not saying what you did wasn’t a hell of a job,” he clarified when he saw the hurt look on her face. “I just want to make sure you’re ready to accept the responsibility that comes with it.”
“Geez,” Lilly glared at him as she got to her feet and started to pace. “Why does everyone always say that?”
“Because we’re people who live that life and know how much it can suck sometimes.” He replied flatly.
“Let me put it to rest for you then.” She stopped pacing and looked him dead in the eye. “I’m fine. Let it go.”
Armsman studied her for a second and then nodded. “Message received. But you know you’re always welcome on my island if you need a place to crash.”
“I know.” Her expression softened with her Uncle’s acceptance. “Is anything new on your tropical paradise. You still keep all those Thai whores around.”
Sadly, Lilly never got an answer to the question because her father stepped into the room. He was wearing his form-fitting black costume and devil mask. Because of that she couldn’t tell if he was happy, sad, or excited.
“Good you’re both here.” He gave a nod to his oldest most trusted friend.
“When someone says they want to give me a million bucks then I tend to make myself available.” Armsman grinned.
“I’m giving you a chance to work for it. Nothing about this is freely given,” Hellgate corrected. “Either way we need to get moving to the rendezvous point. They’re probably waiting for us.”
“What do you want me to do?” Armsman asked. He wasn’t part of the jihadists plan.
“Lilly, take your Uncle here.” He pulled out a picture for her to hone in on. “That’s a solid overwatch position for him to keep an eye on us for the deployment stage.”
“So I’m sitting around with my thumb up my ass while you two play at whatever you’re doing?”
“And if everything goes right then you get that million dollars for doing nothing.” Hellgate shot back. Lilly could hear the irritation in his voice.”
“I thought I was going to at least get the chance to kill someone. It’s been months.” The legendary supervillain actually sounded sad about it.
“You might.” The was a small burst of flame and a weapon appeared on the granite countertop. The flame quickly dissipated leaving a big ass sniped rifle. “Fifty caliber.” Hellgate informed. “If one of the jihadists tries to stab us in the back you put a bullet through their head.”
“Deal.” Armsman’s eyes lit up at the proposition.
“We’ll know where you are at all times and you’ll know where we are at all times. We’re also going to have separate comms. If everything goes to shit, then you’re going to get a shot at Seif al-Din.”
“That little pig-fucker.” Armsman growled at the other supervillain’s name.
Armsman didn’t like this generation of villains, especially the religious fanatics. Lilly saw the same thing when she dealt with the mob and gangs around the country. The younger generation didn’t have any respect or follow the unwritten rules of supervillainy. Now, kids just wanted to kill and blow things up with no regard to who they hurt. It took the professionalism out of the job, and despite his cruel and ruthless reputation, Armsman was an old school professional.
Since he was one of the few people on the planet who could actually hurt the adaptive healer Armsman saw it as his duty to put the younger jihadist in his place.
“But only if shit goes sideways.” Hellgate reiterated, like he was reading his old friend’s thoughts.
“Fine.” Armsman swore, crossing his heart.
“Lilly, are you ready.” Hellgate turned his attention to his daughter and his body language softened.
“I was born for this shit dad.” She answered confidently. “I’ll get it done.”
“Good.” Hellgate looked around the room and nodded. “Grab your gear and let’s go.”
They all grabbed their various weapons. “Shall we?” Armsman held out his arm like a father about to escort his daughter down the aisle.
“Yes, we shall.” Lilly grinned underneath her mask, took his arm, and they disappeared in a puff of darkness that was momentarily illuminated by a blast of fire.
They appeared on a tall rooftop in the middle of downtown. They quickly began to set up a hide so he wouldn’t be seen. A few minutes later, the old villain was secure under the same camouflage netting that Lilly had used when watching the hotel in Daytona.
“I’ve got your back,” Armsman stated as he settled in behind the rifle.
Anyone that thought Armsman was only a master of bladed weapons would be making a fatal mistake.
“I know.” Lilly gave him a departing smile and disappeared.
Her shadow expanded as she plopped back into existence in the same hotel room she’d met Damascus in many times, but this time it was much more crowded. Dozens of men stood ready in the now crammed suite. They were all dressed in unassuming civilian clothes. The only thing uniform between them was their full beards.
“And our last addition has arrived.” The cultured English accent of their boss was unnerving.
The man she’d watched step off the boat through her scope smiled and nodded at her. He was at the center of the mass of men. He seemed to have a gravitational force to him. His soldiers were drawn to him. She could see it in their eyes. They admired him, they loved him, and they would willingly die for him.
Hellgate stood on the opposite side of the circle of men, staying a step away from them. Both his and Lilly’s body language said, “We’re here working for you but don’t think we’re with you.”
“Your intelligence on this city is greatly appreciated, Wraith. As is your handling of our enemy’s foremost teleporter. That will allow us to deal a crippling blow and retreat with our prize.”
Lilly just nodded.
Seif al-Din returned the nod and motioned to the paper maps strewn in front of him. “You all know what to do. Allahu Akbar.”
“Allahu Akbar.” The men chanted back.
“We shall pray and then we shall begin.”
Lilly didn’t know what to do as the dozens of men rolled out prayer rugs and faced away from her.
<Focus on the mission, and focus on Seth.> She knew there was a way they could get through this together. She just needed to figure it out.