Lilly ran. She ran like her life depended on it – which it did. She’d found a grocery store only a few blocks from where she’d hung up with Armsman and Nano. She’d barely come to a stop when she threw open the door and charged through the front door. She nearly took out the cart boy and people at the checkout aisle screamed when she tore past them.
She was still wearing the white prisoners outfit. It might not be the florescent orange that people always thought prisoners wore, but it was close enough. The writing all over the fabric denoting she was a criminal didn’t help.
She knew the staff and customers were pulling out their cell phones and calling the cops, so she had to hurry, and that wasn’t even the most pressing reason. Any second now the feds could regain control of her collar and decide they wanted her dead rather than alive. All there would be was a little poof and pink mist would be all that remained of her head.
Since her head was absolutely gorgeous and held a first-class brain, she was doing everything she could to avoid that. Including cornering some dude with his face in his phone and oblivious to what was going on around him.
“ALUMINIUM?!” She yelled as she approached.
“Aisle twelve.” He didn’t even pick his head up.
<Kids these days.> She smiled as she rushed past him and down aisle twelve.
Since she wasn’t buying she grabbed the name brand stuff. She tore the box open and tugged an arm-length piece of the metal sheet. A quick rip and she started to wrap it around the device on her neck. Most of the collar was just a fabric that had gotten itchier and itchier the longer she wore it. The piece that mattered was a box-like thing just to the side of her throat.
She sucked it in so she could get the metal between her throat and the box to completely wrap it up. Once she had it entirely covered she squeezed and scrunched it down. It conformed to the box, and she was sure it wouldn’t move. Just to be safe she wasted valuable seconds tearing off two more sheets and tripling the effective layer that was the only thing separating her from literally losing her head.
<That was too close.> She took ten seconds and just breathed. This was the closest she’d been to true freedom in months. <Keep moving.>
If the cops weren’t there yet they would be soon.
She ran back down the aisle the way she’d come. The kid was still there on his phone, not a care in the world.
“Excuse me.” She purred.
The sound of her voice perked the male’s brain and he finally picked his head up to look at her. She punched him right between the eyes, broke his nose, and knocked his ass to the ground. His head bounced off the semi-polished linoleum and knocked him out cold.
She had a witty line about actually initiating human contact instead of cyber sexting someone, but it would fall on deaf ears. Either way, she still stole his phone and sprinted toward the back of the store. She got yelled at by the dude in charge of the loading dock, but she didn’t give a shit. She bought herself at least another few minutes of freedom.
She heard the sirens in the distance. She activated the map function on the iPhone she’d stolen and planned a route to the address she’d been given. She stuck to the back alleys as long as she could, until she got to her first waypoint. It was a small clothing shop with a cool logo that looked like it catered to the city’s younger crowd.
She repeated what she’d done earlier. She made ingress from the back, surprised the store owner who was doing inventory in the rear. She knocked her the fuck out and hid the body. She quickly brushed through the clothes on the racks which were thankfully arranged by size.
<There’s some super cute stuff here.> She needed to make a note of this place for the future.
She ended up keeping it simple. A pair of jeans, a blouse, and a light coat since it was a little colder at the higher elevations than in Florida. It also zipped all the way up and hid the aluminum without looking to conspicuous. She also grabbed a pair of sunglasses and a big floppy hat. She pulled her hair up and hid it. Since the cops always used hair color and what the subject was wearing in their description she’d eliminated two of the five criteria. She couldn’t change being a five-eight white woman, at least not with the time she had.
She exited back through the rear and went a few more blocks before emerging on the street. She rounded the corner like she belonged there and joined the crowd. People were a little jittery and looking around with all the police activity. Half had their faces buried in their phones watching what was unfolding in real-time. Sirens blared as a trio of cop cars streaked past them and stopped at the intersection they’d just passed. They used their vehicles as a blocking mechanism and stopped people trying to cross.
“What’s happening?” She slid closer to another woman walking away from the hastily established checkpoint.
The woman gave her a look that screamed “you’re a clueless bimbo”, but sighed and answered. “Some prisoner escaped. They’re locking down the city which means traffic is going to be a bitch.”
The woman was looking right at Lilly and didn’t see the resemblance to picture the police had released to the public.
<If that’s not a round of applause for a good disguise then I don’t know what is.> She thought.
“Oh my god.” Lilly brought her hand to her mouth. “That’s horrible.”
That was where the conversation ended. The woman went one way and Lilly went another. She watched her go for a second to make sure she didn’t look back and call the cops, but the other woman was too engrossed with the pain in the ass that traveling out of the city would be to notice the person they were looking for had walked beside her for two blocks.
<God bless America and its technological addiction.> She smiled to herself as she kept walking.
She’d left the checkpoint far behind and from there it has a short walk to the address. The address in question was an upscale apartment building. Apartment number seven was the one listed on the first text she’d gotten, so she hit the button.
“Yeah?” Mika’s young voice was nervous.
“Guess who?” She smiled when the young villain squealed with delight.
There was a soft buzz and the door unlocked. She pushed it open and secured it behind herself before heading for the stairs. Apartment seven was on the second floor. She only had to knock once before it was thrown open and her uncle stood in the doorway.
“Took you long enough.” The words were harsh, but they were undercut by the grin on his face.
“I had to accessorize on my way over.” She stuck her nose in the air and returned the grin. “Thanks for coming back for me.”
“What else is family for? At a minimum, they’ve got to be ready to risk life in prison to save their own.”
They weren’t blood related, but they might as well be after all the shit they’d been through together. She showed that by stepping in and giving him a big hug. The move surprised him, but eventually he wrapped her up and gave her a few pats on the back.
“I know it sucks.” He awkwardly tried to soothe her.
He knew what she was thinking. Armsman had spent a few days in a holding cell once before. It had been Hellgate that rescued him, but he knew what was going through her head. Life in a small box wasn’t a life at all, and there was no way in heaven or hell she was ever going back. The next time the Heroes tried to take her in they better be ready to kill.
“Yeah, it blows donkey dick.” Lilly sniffed and wiped a tear from her cheek. She looked at it like it was an annoying bug before turning to Mika. “And where’s my other knight in shining armor.”
The armor looked more like a computer motherboard, but the teenager’s smile sure did shine when she addressed him.
“It’s nothing.” He blushed. “Plus, my job ain’t done yet. I’ve got to get that off of you.” He gestured for her to take a seat.
Mika went to work like a surgeon while Armsman stood guard by the door. They all knew this was the most vulnerable part of the operation. They were stationary, a target, and all it took was one Hero to come through the wall to ruin the whole plan. Of course, that Hero would have to face one of the most legendary villains of all time, but it was still something they’d rather avoid. In this city, Heroes tended to travel in teams.
The buzz of someone hitting the button made everyone jump. Mika nearly triggered the bomb and killed Lilly right then and there. He took a step back from her, hands shaking and sweat dripping from his brow, while Armsman answered the buzz.
“It’s me, open up…hurry!”
Surprisingly, her uncle hit the admittance button and a few minutes later there was a knock at the door. Mika nodded that it was all clear. She thought he probably had cameras watching the apartment from every angle.
The door opened and the guard who’d jumped Reggie stood in the hallway. He was bruised and bleeding, but he was alive.
“Thanks.” He looked around the room and saw Mika getting back to work on the collar. “Good, she made it.” He turned to Armsman, puffing up slightly with importance. “I delivered on my end. She’s here and she’s safe. I fucked my entire life over to do it, so where’s my money.”
“You didn’t have much of a life to fuck up, Mr. Kowalski.” Armsman looked the guard directly in the eye. “But a deal is a deal.” He walked into the apartment’s second bedroom and retrieved a large duffle bag full of cash.
That was something the movies frequently got wrong. Giving someone a shit ton of money, especially note in small denominations, took up a lot of space. A million dollars in fives, tens, twenties, and some hundreds didn’t fit into a briefcase. So, ten million sure as hell didn’t.
“Feel free to count it, but I don’t think we’ll have the time.” Armsman sounded pleasant enough, but Lilly knew her uncle. There was a dangerous undercurrent in his voice that the guard was oblivious to.
She saw what happened next play out in slow motion about a second and a half before it actually did.
The guard took his eyes of Armsman to check the money. That was mistake number one of a criminal transaction of this magnitude. You never took your eyes off the other guy, especially when you were alone. Once the guard’s eyes were averted, Armsman sword slid out of its sheath with practiced, soundless precision. By the time the guard looked up again the blade was already halfway through his neck. The cut was clean and her uncle made it look effortless. The head even stayed in place for a few seconds before sliding off and landed with a wet thud.
That’s when things got messy and blood started to squirt everywhere, but by then Armsman had already yanked the bag of cash away and zipped it up.
“Moron.” Lilly didn’t even give the squirting body a second look.
“That should do it.” Mika announced triumphantly.
There was a popping sound and the collar disengaged from Lilly’s neck. Mika removed it carefully, ensured it was still wrapped in the aluminum, and took it into the bathroom. They’d leave it for whoever came to find them.
When Mika was out of the room Armsman looked at Lilly and then toward the bathroom. The question was clear. <Do we kill him now?>
Lilly shook her head. <Nope he gets to live. He’s useful. He’s pretty close to family now.>
She knew it wasn’t in the way Mika wanted. He’d become the little brother she never had, and only vaguely wanted to kill at times. He wanted romance and she wanted a technopath to get shit done. She was getting her way – again.
“It looks like we’re done here.”
“And not a moment too soon.” Mika reappeared from the bathroom with a panicked look on his face. “They traced us here.” He pointed at Lilly.
“Doesn’t matter.” She was a little pissed about being found so quickly, but that didn’t matter now. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”
“That sounds retarded.” Armsman gathered the bag of cash at his own pace and walked over to her. “Who wants to blow up a popsicle stand? Do they even have those anymore?”
“It’s a figure of speech.” Lilly rolled her eyes.
<You’re so old.> She thought as he placed a hand on her shoulder.
“You get it, don’t you Mika?” She batted her eyelashes at the technopath, and he immediately agreed.
<I’ve still got it.> She smiled to herself and reached for her power for the first time in months.
It was sitting there and waiting like an old friend. Shadow embraced the three of them, wrapped them in a cocoon of comfort, and started to take them away. But there was something different this time. The shadows had always submitted to her. She’d never had a problem with teleporting any distance…ever, but she sensed a subtly change. Now, the shadows seemed docile. Like a dog sitting patiently waiting for a command and the treat that would inevitably follow.
It was a little unsettling how the blackness reacted to her using her power again for the first time, but muscle memory took hold and she whisked the three of them away to a foreign location where the Heroes wouldn’t be able to follow.
It was a good thing too, because the last view of the apartment was of the wall exploding and no less than four Heroes busting through.
Despite what the DVA might want the public to think, it was nearly impossible to trap teleporters like her. You could do it with a collar like the one she’d been wearing, or you could build tech genius dampeners into buildings, but those cost an arm, a leg, and a head, and your firstborn child. But the idea that you could trap a teleporter in a location with some type of generator was pure science fiction.
All of that meant that all the Heroes got to see was blackness exploding out from the three villains while Lilly was giving them the finger before she was gone.
Armsman had it right. There was no way in heaven or hell she was ever going back.
Aiden watched the board closely to see who he was facing next. He’d gotten through the first round easy enough. His opponent had been overly cautious and a quick, brutal attack had knocked them out before they could even use their power on him.
Being cautious was fine. In general, Aiden thought of himself as a pretty cautious guy, but when he stepped into those cells he knew what to do. He stopped overthinking things, got out of his own way, and took action. To him, that was what a Hero was: a person that took action when others needed it the most.
Aiden knew better than most about action and inaction. If you lacked the drive to do something in his family you didn’t eat. It wasn’t from lack of food or parental cruelty. It was sibling cruelty, you needed to move quick to get the food on your plate or it would be gone.
Aiden was the youngest of four, and at six-five he was the runt of the litter. His mother had played division one basketball in college before graduating, marrying his father, and becoming a florist. She was a Super, had vividly green hair, and her power revolved around nurturing nature. It wasn’t especially strong, but it was enough to make her business thrive in a place like suburban Utah.
Aiden’s father was the Hero in the family. He’d gone to Lander and done twelve years on the job before going into early retirement. They hadn’t had their first child until after he retired, and even now he didn’t talk about his time in costume too much. If Aiden was being honest with himself, part of the reason he was here was to see what his father had seen. The older Super wasn’t great at communication and Aiden wanted to know what had made him that way.
<Dad was a Hero?> He remembered the day he found out that the mild-mannered guy who worked in the back of the family flower shop had kicked ass back in the day. It just didn’t fit.
Now, Aiden was here to see what it was all about.
Of his four siblings, he was the only one to follow in his father’s footsteps. His oldest brother was a light absorber and environmental lawyer. The extent of his abilities was funneling the stored energy he had into a state of the art generator. On the bright side his family never had to pay for electricity. The second oldest was the closest to their mother in ability, but he’d gone the route of scientist. He studied plants, which Aiden thought had to be the most boring job in the world. It was even weirder because his second oldest brother looked like a lumberjack who could enter the world’s strongest man competition.
<And he spends all day bent over a microscope or out in a field studying weeds.> There was only one type of weed that Aiden thought was worth studying.
Aiden’s only sister was the one closest to him in age and she was a powered. In the grand scheme of things her illness was relatively mild, and she lived a pretty good life. The power she could control was the ability to spontaneously age organic material. If she was touching a cutting board and her power activated, it warped, became discolored, and crumbled if she touched it long enough. Thankfully, the problem was localized to her hands, and was easily fixed by a pair of gloves one of their father’s old friends developed just for her.
That was good, because Aiden’s big sister – she was six-six – was the one who’d always grabbed that extra piece of chicken for him when everyone mobbed the table at dinnertime. She was also the one who supported him the most. His mother was worried sick, his brothers thought he was crazy, and he didn’t know what his father thought. The former Hero had just nodded when Aiden got his acceptance letter and moved across the country to Florida for school.
<Forget about him. Focus.> Aiden shook his head and concentrated on the task in front of him. The board had updated for round two and he had a location. He got there was quickly as possible, and was joined there less than a minute later.
<Izzy Perko.> He’d assigned himself the task of knowing the name and power of everyone in his class before the first week was up. He knew her name but not her power.
Izzy was cute, but she was too small and doll-like for his tastes. He was also about to fight her. Aiden might be old-fashioned in thinking this but he didn’t like to hit a girl, and he liked even less the idea of being beaten up by one.
“This second round match is between Isla Perko and Aiden Murphy,” announced the anticipation-filled voice of Coach McMillian. “The match starts in thirty seconds, and is over when one of you chickens out or gets knocked out. The use of lethal force is not authorized. If you kill your opponent you’re screwed on just about every level. Not only will you be expelled from the HCP, but you’ll be facing a murder charge. Capiche? Good luck.” The voice cut out and the clock started counting down.
Aiden went over his options.
She didn’t look like a strongman or anyone with enhanced strength, so getting in close and fighting hand to hand was probably the best choice. He wasn’t trained in anything really, but he’d taken a few lessons over the summer once he realized he got in. He had a foot and a half and at least a hundred and fifteen pounds on Izzy, so that was the best way to end this quick.
<But just in case…> He thought when he considered she might have some surprise up her sleeves. <A distraction.>
With ten seconds left Aiden closed his eyes and activated his power. He felt energy coarse through him. His skin tingled as his power took hold, and he felt his forearms become slippery. Around both of them were coiled snake tattoos. They had cobra shaped heads that both ended just above his wrist and showed fangs much larger than real-life snakes.
Aiden watched Izzy’s reaction as his tattoos came to life. The snakes shuddered like they were waking from a long sleep and slowly began to uncoil. They slid headfirst down his hands and onto the ground growing thicker as he poured more energy into them. By the time he was done he was a little lightheaded, but he was flanked by two six-foot-long cobras with ridiculously long fangs dripping venom and scales that looked closer to armor than natural snake skin.
He took a few deep breaths and studied Izzy. What worried him was that she didn’t look nervous at all.
“Cool.” Was her response as she looked at the two creatures that looked more myth than real.
“Thanks.” Aiden played it cool. “This is Al and Cleo.” He introduced the snakes. Al bowed his head while Cleo hissed.
Venom flew a third of the way across the room, but Izzy didn’t budge. She just smiled.
With five seconds left on the countdown clock a translucent pinkish blue light spread over Izzy’s body and it all made sense.
<She’s got a fucking shield.> He changed plans.
“Al.” He snapped his finger and the giant snake slithered back toward him. It placed its head on his hand and started to shrink while winding itself back onto his arm.
The clock hit zero.
“Cleo, get her!” The second snake, who was by far the more vicious of the two sprang at Izzy, venom shooting from her mouth.
His opponent wasn’t nearly as fast as one of nature’s greatest predators, and she put an arm up defensively. The venom splashed harmlessly against her as fangs sank into her arm…or at least that’s what should have happened. Instead the fangs stopped abruptly just above her skin. Izzy used the snake’s momentum against it and shrugged it off. Cleo didn’t have a grip so she went rolling away, hissing in anger while she tried to recover.
Izzy took the moment to charge him, but he was ready. Al had already reintegrated back into his skin, and despite his size Aiden could move when he wanted to. He dodged a flying tackle and brought his right hand around his back to his left shoulder blade. He felt the handle already protruding from his back.
<This is going to suck.> He hated when he had to do something before it was ready.
He took a deep breath and pulled.
There was a sucking sound that he felt in his bones. It felt like he was pulling out his spine, minus any pain. Worst of all it was distracting, but thankfully him pulling a flaming sword from his back thoroughly distracted Izzy as well. she skidded to a halt and Cleo caught her from behind. The snake failed again to sink her fangs into the smaller Super, but this time she made sure to wrap her armored body around Izzy’s torso.
Cobras really weren’t known for their squeeze, but they could still pull one off, and as she did Cleo continued to try and bite through Izzy’s shield. That gave Aiden time to recover and charge.
As a fourteen-year-old, new to his power, and supremely confident in his ability to choose what was best for himself, Aiden had gotten the tattoo. It ran diagonally across the entirety of his back, and looked more like something out of a video game than anything religious. Still, a flaming sword was a freaking flaming sword, and he saw Izzy’s eyes bulge as he charged her.
<One good hit should do it.> He brought the sword down toward her shoulder.
At the last second, she twisted and put her back to him. It would have been a much more efficient blow if not for Cleo being in the way. The blade cut halfway into Cleo before he felt it. It was like someone had taken a sledgehammer and smashed it into his gut and then again into his head.
He’d never had one of his tattoos destroyed before, and certainly not by another one. His concentration faltered and the sword dissolved in his hand to reappear back on his back. Cleo did the same, but he didn’t have time to notice. A tiny fist came flying toward his stomach.
That fist hit like a freight train. Aiden felt just about all of his ribs crack as he was picked up off the ground and tossed across the room. He didn’t get knocked out, but he wasn’t able to feel the match being called in Izzy’s favor over the pain.
Soon golden mist swarmed over his vision. That was about the time he passed out.