A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 28

“Are you shitting me? You’re joking right? Next you’re going to ask me to pull your finger…right?” Lorelei had her hands on her hips and fire in her eyes. Since she could shoot lasers out of those things, it wasn’t an exaggeration.

Surprisingly, news about Seth’s probation hadn’t spread throughout the sophomore class by the time they reached team training the next day. Seth was still nursing the tail-end of a hangover and was taken off guard by his teammate. He was surprised because he had to explain it. He only expected to have to defend himself.

“Nope.” It was better to get straight to the point. “I can’t use my abilities.”

“Great.” Ashley Bates was brooding a little ways away from the rest of the team.

“Guys…” Mason tried to come to his defense, but the girls cut him off.

“No, shut it, Jackson.” Lorelei stepped in front of the strongman with her hand outstretched.

There was literally nothing she could do to stop him, but Mason stopped just short of making contact. He had an unhappy look on his face, but after a moment he took a step back while Lorelei took a step forward and got right into Seth’s personal space.

“What is your deal, Abney? What are you even doing here?” Her hands weren’t on her hips this time. They were pointing accusingly at him. “You don’t give two shits about anything but yourself. You’re successfully dragging the team down every practice. You fucked up our first match after breaking your ankle five seconds into it. Now, you can’t even use your power. What good are you to us? What good are you to anyone? Stop screwing everyone else over and just go home.” She finished with a huff.

“Everyone just take a breath.” Mason stepped up when she stepped back. “Let’s be rational. We’ve got a workout to do before we even start working with our abilities. Come on, Seth, I’m going to need a spot.”

“No.” The word wasn’t heard by anyone but Seth at first. “No.” He repeated more forcefully.

“Bro, we’ve got to…”

“No,” Seth repeated a third time. “Lorelei’s right. You guys do your thing and I’ll see you later.”

“Hey, Seth, don’t…’

“Let him go.” Lorelei was still fuming and so was the rest of the team. Even Erin, who was normally off in her own world, had her face scrunched up in disappointment. “We’ll get more done without him.”

The only person who looked uncomfortably out of place was Rowan. The transfer student knew the rumors, but he didn’t know Seth that well. He just kind of stood there in the middle of the group and looked at the floor.

Seth didn’t stick around and wait for more shit from his teammates. He turned on his heel and headed for the door. He didn’t even bother to go to the pullup bar and do his required exercise before walking out of the gym.

“What the hell, guys! Do you think we’re going to be any better off down a person?!” Seth heard the start of Mason’s argument as the door shut behind him.

He headed straight for the locker room to get out of the suddenly oppressive and constrictive gray uniform. He tore the thing off and threw it in his locker before pulling on his clothes. They still reeked a bit like beer, which only made him want a drink, but he had something to do first. Instead of heading back up to the student center he took the long way.

Seth walked the corridors of the HCP in the opposite direction toward the lake. He was pretty sure the various large arenas they’d competed in were underneath the body of water. He reached out with his power and felt the softly lapping waves several stories above him. He found the lift nearest them and took that up to the surface. He emerged in one of the dorms that lined the lake. He looked at the footage to make sure the other side of the polymorphic mesh was clear. It was, so he pushed through it, walked past the vending machines, and took a left away from the door. He didn’t know if the DVA had people on every HCP exit waiting for him, or if they just sat on the ones he used frequently. He’d never used this one before, so if they didn’t it bought him some time before the alert went out.

It all depended on how long the supervising professor waited to tell them that Seth wasn’t in class.

He ducked out a side exit and shuffled around in his bag with his face turned away from the security camera he’d spotted. They’d make the connection sooner or later, but it would buy him time, and that was all he needed.

With college classes organized the way they were, no place was ever really empty, so to get real privacy he needed to get off of campus. Calling an Uber was simple enough, and he had it take him into Orlando. There, he could get lost in the crowd long enough to do what he needed to do.

He ended up in a mid-range restaurant in the middle of the city. It was between the lunch and dinner crowds so there was plenty of open space.

“Give me a private booth away from everyone else.” Seth said to the cute waitress who was probably attending UCF or one of the other schools in town.

She gave him a head-to-toe appraisal and a sniff. He could see from the scrunch of her nose that she was going to turn him down, so he went for the universal motivator. “Here’s a hundred bucks.” He pulled out a crisp Benjamin and it changed the whole equation.

She stuck the bill in her bra and seated him in a small alcove at the back of the restaurant. He had good lines of sight to everywhere, no one could sneak up behind him, and it didn’t look like anyone had followed him into the place.

<Now or never.> He thought as he rifled through his bag, took out the burner phone he’d been saving, and dialed the number he’d committed to memory.

Five rings later it went to voicemail. “Pick up your fucking phone and call me back,” he growled.

He placed the phone on the table in front of him and smoothed his facial features as the waiter came over. He ordered a beer, showed the guy his fake ID, and sat back to wait. He didn’t have to wait long. Less than three minutes later the phone began to vibrate.

The vibrations against the wooden table drew the eyes of the few patrons in the bar, but they drifted away the moment he picked it up.

“Hello.”

“Hey!” The excitement in Lilly’s voice was the exact opposite of what Seth was feeling. “I’m so glad you called me back.”

Seth would have made a few moments of idle chitchat, but everything that had been bubbling inside of him burst out like the universe finally popped his internal bubble.

“What the fuck, Liz! What the fucking fuck!” He didn’t care that he’d slipped into using her old name. All he cared about was not drawing too much attention to himself while he chewed her ass out.

“I made you promise me one thing, just a single, little, teeny-weeny thing; and you took that promise and took a massive diarrhea shit all over it. You didn’t even make it a day. Fuck, it wasn’t even six hours before you blew that guy’s brains out.

“Seth, I did it for…”

“Shut the fuck up!” He couldn’t help but raise his voice a little, and that got a few glances. A couple with a baby in a stroller looked over from where they were talking with a waitress. It looked like they were going to find another dining establishment.

“Seth…”

“No, Lilly, don’t make excuses. You didn’t do this for me, or for us. You did that for you. Admit it!” He was fuming. He could see the red tinge at the corner of his vision.

“I…I…”

He’d succeeded in making her speechless, which was a hell of an achievement.

“Seth…” she took a deep breath. “You’re right.”

That wasn’t quite what he was expecting.

“That son of a bitch hurt me when he did that to us last spring. He hurt me bad. I was already broken. I’d been beaten, stabbed, defeated, and that fucktard took the last good thing I had. So, yes, I admit it. I killed him for me, but I did it because of what he did to us. For fuck’s sake, Seth, just look at us now. We’re at each other’s throats, and that is just what they want. I love you, Seth, and I’d never do something intentionally to hurt you.”

Seth was silent for a moment. He hadn’t looked at it from her angle before. “You still shouldn’t have broken your promise.” His temper was still up, but it was simmering instead of boiling over. “I want to trust you, Lilly. I want to be able to figure everything out with you, but you aren’t giving me anything to work with. Your whole life is a lie. Most of what you’ve told me is a lie, and the one promise I made you make you broke inside of a day. What am I supposed to do with that?”

There were several moments of silence on the other end before she replied. “What can I do to make things right?”

“I…I don’t know.” He took a deep breath and put his forehead against at the cool tabletop. “But I do know that any more lies and deception between us is going to use up the last bit of faith I have.”

Of all the yelling and cursing they’d done over the last few minutes, it was the hardest thing to say, and it hit the deepest.

“I understand.”

Maybe it was him being hopeful, but it sounded like she was telling the truth. He still didn’t know how this was all going to work, and he didn’t have any idea what the hell he was doing, but his hope that everything would turn out ok was still hanging on by a thread. Deep down he knew it was stupid, selfish, and majorly self-destructive, but he couldn’t help himself. Despite all of the shit he still loved the memory of what they’d had. If she was truthful with him going forward, he might get to love the real her.

<Fuck,> he mentally exhaled while running his hand through his hair and taking a big gulp of the imported beer the waiter had brought him.

“Ok,” he exhaled. “Where do we go from here?”

“That clearly took her by surprise. “Well…um…we could…”

Seth never got to hear the answer. Two electric darts attached to coils of metal impaled his shoulder and sent fifty-thousand-volts of electricity coursing through his system. His whole body seized up, he pissed himself a little, and the phone went clattering onto the table.

“Target neutralized!” The woman from the couple pushing the baby carriage – that had been seated several tables to Seth’s right – had the taser leveled at Seth and was ready to send more voltage through his system.

“Seth…?”

He could hear Lilly on the other end, but his fingers were locked up and he was taking painful breaths.

“Seth!”

“Get the phone. She’s still on the line.” The man from the couple rushed over, grabbed the phone, and stuck something into the USB port.

“Seth! What’s going on?”

“L…” fifty-thousand more volts went shooting into his system, but it didn’t stop the gurgling scream from escaping his throat.

“Tracing…tracing…got her.” The woman was on her phone a second later relaying an address in Orlando. “Cuff and book him for aiding and abetting. We’ll see what else we can get to stick when we get him back to the station.”

“Should we call West Private?” the man asked.

“No.” The woman gave Seth a shake of the head. “All the connections in the world aren’t going to be able to save his ass now. We’ve got him red handed.”

A fresh wave of agony jolted through his system and that was more than he could handle. He couldn’t think about him and Lilly anymore as his world went black.

 

***

 

“Seth…Seth!” Lilly called through the line.

At first she thought the call was dropped, but a quick look at her screen showed it was still happening. Then she heard the shouting on the other end of the line, followed by a grunt of pain. Something was happening, and whatever it is it wasn’t good. She quickly hung up.

“Everyone we need to clear out!” She yelled to the rest of the Supers in the abandoned warehouse.

Stal was watching her soaps and didn’t even acknowledge her.  Morina and Nightingale were huddled together over a corpse the older woman was dissecting. The blood-manipulator and nullifier were drawn together the first moment they met in the way creepy people recognized other creepy people. Lilly didn’t care as long as they didn’t start getting into really weird shit, and dissecting an already dead corpse didn’t cross that line.

“Why?” Nightingale didn’t look up as she used a pair of forceps to pull something back and get a look under it while Morina watched with fascination.

“I just got a call,” Lilly hesitated to say who it was from or what it was about. “Let’s just say I’ve got a bad feeling Heroes are going to be kicking down these doors soon.

With a small puff of black her phone disappeared and reappeared in an active volcano across the world. The itch at the back of her skull that something wasn’t right persisted.

“You can do whatever the fuck you want,” she stated when no one moved. “I’m getting out of here for a little, and since I’m your only transportation you might want to take me up on that offer.

“Damascus…”

“Fuck that douchebag,” Lilly cut off Stal when she brought up the terrorist asshole. “You can call him for a ride if you want, but I doubt he’ll stick his neck out for you.”

Stal and Nightingale exchanged a quick look before nodding to each other.

“Good. We’re out of here in five.”

She figured that was enough time to get everyone out. If someone was onto them then they would have to mobilize. Having her confirmed at a location as enough to bring a team in on the mission, but knowing that she ran with at least two other Supers from the prison break was enough to give the Heroes pause…hopefully.

After five minutes everyone was gathered with anything important. Most of the warehouse’s items were being left behind with a little extra surprise for anyone that came in looking for them. As it turned out, Nightingale’s surgical skills were used for more than just torture and her little experiments. She was quite adept at making explosives. All that time working for the Republic of Krezic had taught her a particular set of skills.

“We need to make multiple jumps, and we’re going to need more surprises.” It was always better safe than sorry, and she was sure if her location had been identified then Hunter would be on the case. She’d almost caught him with the trick last time, so he’d be ready, but every second they slowed him down was a second they could put some distance between them.

Nightingale was more than happy to oblige. She had two more blocks of Semtex with detonators in her bag. Morina clapped at the sight.

“Here we go.” Lilly visualized her destination and willed the group to be there. Darkness exploded around them and a few seconds later they appeared in a cave by the ocean a world away.

“He’ll come through in the same place.” She explained to Nightingale so she could place the bomb and the triggering mechanism – an IR strobe that would sense the presence of a person and detonate.

Once the bomb was set and armed they teleported again. This time they appeared in the wilderness of northern Canada. Nightingale set up another bomb, and then they hoofed it. The best countermeasure other than setting explosives to kill whoever followed you through the rips in space-time was to put distance between teleportation points. It would be harder for Hunter to track them if he didn’t know where she teleported from.

They hiked for about a half-mile before Morina started complaining. She would bleed a man dry without a care in the world, but walking almost three thousand feet was a protest-worthy offense. Lilly found a good spot and teleported again. This time they arrived at their fallback position. Ironically, it wasn’t all that far from the original warehouse. When their surprise bit the Heroes in the ass they’d be able to see and hear it.

The place was already set up, so Stal plopped down on the couch to watch her soaps while Nightingale and Morina discussed what they would do next. That was fine with Lilly, she had other things to do.

“I’ll be back.” She didn’t wait for a response before teleporting away. She dropped into her loft across the pond before arriving on her Uncle’s secluded beach.

“Mika!” She yelled as she stormed into the underground fortress. “Get me a trace on the last call to my burner now! I need a location on Seth.”

The technopath was asleep on the job with his face plastered against the keyboard.

“MIKA!” She roared in his ear.

The boy jumped a foot in the air with a wild look in his eye. He had key-shaped impressions on his face from his slumber, and he was having some trouble realizing where he was.

“Get a location on Seth , NOW!”

“Yeah…ok…location…Seth…on it.” The boy’s scatterbrained mind was starting to settle.

“What the hell are you yelling about?” Armsman stepped into the computer nexus of their little operation.

“Finding Seth.” Mika answered before Lilly could come up with a good story.

The sour look on the legendary villain’s face showed her just what he thought of her ex but still kind of boyfriend. Facebook didn’t have a relationship status update for what they were.

“That stupid boy is going to get you killed,” was the only thing her Uncle said on the subject. “Go see you father. It’s been a long time since you visited.” He walked away without another word.

There was a reason Lilly hadn’t visited him in a while. For all intents and purposes, Hellgate was dead. He’d been in a vegetative state since last spring. The bitch Reaper had done everything but stop his heart. It was just one of the reasons she wanted to see the Hero rot in whatever Seif al-Din had in store for her. After that, Lilly would get her revenge, and then she’d finally be able to lay her father to rest.

“Hey, Dad.” She walked into the state-of-the-art medical clinic Armsman had in his home. “I’ve been up to a lot lately.” She explained it all to him.

It had a duel effect. It was therapeutic to the soul while ramping up her desire to find Seth. There were very few things in this world that she cared about, and the boy she loved was one of them. When she left the clinic she was focused and ready for action, like a professional athlete before a big game.

“I’ve got him…I think.” Mika’s fingers were flying across multiple keyboards when she stepped into computer mainframe. “Top screen.”

She followed where he pointed and saw a grainy surveillance video from what looked like a restaurant. There was a man hunched over a table talking on the phone. There was a few seconds of footage before something silver shot across the screen and the man went rigid. Two people rushed over, one grabbed the phone and stuck something into it while the other secured Seth.

“I followed him.” He played bits of surveillance footage that followed the two people half-dragging Seth out of the restaurant and to a waiting black SUV. “I ran facial recognition on the people that grabbed him.” He hesitated. “I’m pretty sure they’re DVA. I didn’t press for more info once I learned they were in government databases because it would trigger alerts.”

“Push it.” Lilly’s tone was cold as she assessed the situation. “I’ll take you somewhere so you can use another network to access the info and not lead anyone back here, but I want to know everything about those two people: family, friends, even their pet’s doggy daycare. Give me a complete profile on them Mika.”

“S…sure.”

Lilly wasn’t sure if it was breaking into government databases or the expression on her face that had the technopath stuttering.

“Ok. Hit me with the bad news. Where is he?”

“I followed the black SUV through the city’s traffic cameras until it went underground here.”

“Police HQ.” Lilly only had to see the outside of the building to know where it was.

The good news was that she had a teleportation point in the building already that she’d used to steal info. The bad news was things had changed. It was a police, DVA, and Hero hot spot now. If she went in there it would be surefire suicide. The cells themselves had anti-teleportation gadgets built into them, so she couldn’t just jump in and out.

<Fucking tech geniuses,> she grumbled.

It didn’t matter. She had her in. She replayed the video of the two people grabbing Seth, and felt sorry for them and the false sense of safety they felt right now.

<Time to bring in Morina.>

Previous                                        Next

Advertisements

A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 13

 

“Walk me through it one more time.” Mastermind gripped the two railings and took a tentative step forward.

Daisy groaned as she stood next to him. She was ready to catch him if he fell, even if the old Hero chewed her ass out for it. His statement was two-fold. First, he wanted to walk through the course his physical therapist set up again, and Daisy didn’t like how much the ninety-five-year-old was pushing himself after getting shot. Second, he wanted her to run him through the attack on her home for the twentieth time.

“How about we take a seat and I’ll talk you through it?” She hoped he’d meet her halfway.

“No.” He stomped on the compromise. “I need to be able to run if I ever run into these people again, and to do that I need to be able to walk first. Let’s do this.”

Daisy was ready with a comment about him being a stubborn ass, but she swallowed it and resumed her watchful presence over the recovering legend.

“Topher and I were staking out the house after you got shot. You remember getting shot don’t you? It probably hurt a lot.”

“Smart ass.” Mastermind continued his exercises one step at a time. “And then…”

“The countermeasures go off in my house and when we go to check it out that bitch jumped right through my front wall.”

“Stal.” Mastermind corrected her.

After the first time she’d run through the story and given him the descriptions of the attackers he’d quickly identified the strongwoman as Stal, which was Russian for steel. According to Mastermind, she was a former KGB agent that they’d met and tangoed with in Afghanistan in ’86. Daisy’s task force had been working with the mujahedeen to stall the Russian invasion when Stal had dropped from a helicopter into a meeting of elders with the mission of assassinating them. She was basically the Russian female version of Rambo except more badass.

Mastermind had to go into her memories and bring out this one, and she almost wished he hadn’t. Stal was brutal and ruthless. She’d nearly killed Berserker in the fight and only retreated when Daisy started to fuck with her life-thread. Even then, it was like grabbing a steel wire and trying to pull it apart. It would have taken time, and her Spetsnaz backup didn’t give Daisy the time to get the job done. They saved the elders, which won them some goodwill from the people, but the fight was a draw.

After the fall of the Soviet Union a couple of years later, Stal went into business for herself. She was a highly paid, highly motivated mercenary that had jobs on her record from Hong Kong to Bogotá. Kevin could think of dozens of reasons why Stal would be ambushing Daisy in her home, but the simplest one was unfinished business. Stal and Daisy had fought to a draw before and now Stal wanted to put a W in her column.

It didn’t help that the woman was tougher than steel. She reminded Daisy a lot of Casey Williams in that way, if Casey was a psycho bitch. <Strong, but a lot tougher than she looks.> Daisy mentally sighed before continuing her explanation.

Surprisingly, the black blob girl – who the DVA was having trouble identifying– did not surprise Mastermind at all.

“Nightingale finally surfaced,” he’d said when Daisy told him about the nullifier.

“Nightingale?” Daisy was the only one confused until he unlocked those memories for her.

Daisy had thought Stal was hardcore but Nightingale – the codename for a former Krezic special operations officer – was a whole different brand of crazy.

“Her power has gotten more versatile.” Mastermind frowned when Daisy ran him through the interaction.

Daisy and Mastermind had met Nightingale while doing some regime destabilization in Krezic in the mid-eighties. Back then, the nullifier was an up and coming officer with a particular set of skills that made her the perfect choice for gathering up the island nation’s Supers and Powereds and handing them over to the regime.

She secreted the black goo-like substance from her pores. The goo had the actual nullification properties, and she’d been able to wear the goo like armor. Her control had gotten better in the last thirty years. Daisy’s memories of her were more of a gelatinous blob than someone in compression armor, and then there was the added surprise that she could put the armor on other people.

<That’s just awesome.> Daisy wanted to pound her head against the wall, and Mastermind hadn’t even gotten to the best part.

In addition to a non-power based affinity for tracking people down, Nightingale was also a master of enhanced interrogation. The island nation, even under new management, still remembered what Nightingale could do decades later.

The DVA had been more than a little interested to learn that Nightingale was on US soil. Their intelligence didn’t have much on her after the Republic fell. A lot of people thought she was dead, others thought she went to work for the new government, and some even believed she was working freelance like Stal. All of that made for a clusterfuck of opinions when Mastermind confirmed it was her.

Now the people in Washington were trying to puzzle out if this was a rogue organization or a state-sponsored attack by a foreign government. Daisy didn’t really care as long as they found and locked Nightingale up. A woman like that would make even the notorious Reaper lose sleep at night.

“They all grabbed the guy at the end and the world went all kaleidoscopey before they vanished.” Unlike the first two, Mastermind didn’t know who the third member of the bad-guy dream team was.

He had a few candidates that he was vetting through some of his sources. One was a former transporter for a Colombian drug cartel that decided to kill his employers and take over the business. The other was a central American revolutionary who didn’t like the US’s support of the government. Both were teleporters with distortion aftereffects of their abilities. Mastermind just needed to narrow it down to which one was the culprit.

“Hmmm.” He grunted as he finished walking the course the last time.

Daisy helped ease him down into the wheelchair. It wasn’t the first time she realized how fragile her old friend’s body was. Even all the healing in the world couldn’t fix old age – unless you were Hallow, and Daisy hated that asshole. It was a stark contrast to Daisy’s young and fit body despite being less than a decade younger than the almost-centenarian.

She’d known for a long time that she was going to get to a point in her life that all of her friends were going to die while she remained. This quasi-immortality was as much a curse as it was a blessing. She’d already lost a lot of those friends to other enemies: See-through, Dreadnaught, and most of her graduating class from Lander were gone. Her parents were long gone and she didn’t have any family left, aside was a few second cousins that didn’t even know who she was and couldn’t for security reasons.

<I was a moron.> She remembered when she thought the side-effects of her ability were a miracle. They were a curse, and the worst part about it was that if she didn’t accept that curse then innocent people would get hurt. Bad people would do bad things that she had the power to stop…at a price.

All of that flashed through her head as she helped Mastermind into his wheelchair. <That stubborn old son-of-a-bitch has at least another decade in him as long as he stops getting shot.> She convinced herself.

“Stop looking at me like some geriatric old fart.” The looks she gave him had been fleeting, but he’d been looking for the little things in people for a long time. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. We need to worry about the team.”

The other two members of their covert squad were still MIA. Mastermind had reached out to Berserker but hadn’t heard anything back. Night was a whole different story. He didn’t even know where to start with her, so he reverted to their old form of communication. He left newspaper ads in the help wanted section and whispered into the shadows whenever he got the chance. It made the old man look completely off his rocker unless someone knew the logic behind it. So far, nothing from their old spy sorta-friend.

“And your boyfriend?”

That last part caught Daisy off-guard.

“Topher?”

“Yeah, I heard he got banged up in the scuffle. He doing ok?”

Daisy smiled at the look on her old friend’s face. He looked genuinely happy for her.

“He’s fine. Aside from his parents being in town, he’s doing great.”

“Do they have extra protection at his place?”

Since Topher’s parents had been spotted with Daisy and Mastermind there was a good chance someone with Stal or Nightingale’s skill sets would find out who they were.

“They’ve got an unmarked car sitting outside the house and a member of the Protectorate inside. At night Topher and I take over, and the DVA added a few countermeasures to give everyone a heads up if we have unwanted guests. They’re about as secure as we can make them without locking them away in the HCP or some DVA safehouse, and with how they feel about Supers they would just love that.”

She didn’t go into it with him; he had bigger things to worry about than her boyfriend’s biased parents.

“Good. We don’t get a lot of opportunities to love in our line of work, and after all the shit you’ve gone through you deserve it.”

It was a touching moment that she just couldn’t pass up. “Are you getting soft on me old man?” She punched him lightly in the shoulder.

“You’re calling me soft. I saw how you went straight to the donuts when you got here.”

They laughed as she wheeled him back to the infirmary. HCP students parted around them as they ran to and from classes. They knew better than to jostle Professor Meyers and the old man who all the other professors showed a deep amount of respect to.

<Plus, I’m sure he could still take a few of the underclassman. Even with a fresh bullet wound.> Daisy was confident she still had time left on this Earth with her old friend.

 

***

 

Lilly sat back and sighed. Less than twenty-four hours ago she’d been in an underground prison cell unlikely to see the light of day for anything but her court appearances. Now, she was on a beach in the south pacific, soaking up vitamin D, and drinking something fruity and full of rum. There were only a few ways life could get better.

She rolled over on her beach chair – on the deserted beach – and undid her bikini top to avoid tan lines on her back. Good thing Mika was more of an indoor person or he might have had a stroke. She closed her eyes and let the sun’s rays beat down on her. She felt the sweat starting to cover her body, she felt the kiss of the light breeze, she felt everything.

<Never going back to prison,> she thought sleepily to herself as she dozed off.

After the breakout, it had been hard to get Lilly to come to her Uncle’s private island. She only wanted to do two things: get revenge and find Seth. Since she could do both of those things in Orlando it seemed like a done deal from her perspective.

Armsman had eventually talked her out of it. “You need to lay low for a bit, Kid. Everyone and their mother is looking for you in the states, so the best place to be is not there.”

There was sound logic in the old villain’s statement, but she was young, free, and pissed. The last thing she was looking to do was something logical. Love wasn’t logical.

Because she was sure more than ever that she loved Seth Abney.

Eventually they compromised.

Seth would have to wait. Armsman made the point of him already being in a lot of trouble over not seeing her as Wraith the first time. The DVA would be watching and questioning him after her escape. If she wanted to protect Seth, the best way was to stay away…for now. He did let her pick up a few things though.

After teleporting away from the Heroes she’d stopped off in a few places around the globe. The flat across the Atlantic was automatically paid monthly so no one knew she’d been in an American supermax prison. She was able to get in just fine and set up the countermeasures if anyone followed. From there she jumped three more times to barren and inhospitable locations before ending up on her uncle’s little slice of paradise.

Everything seemed perfect on the outside, but the inside wasn’t so great. After her tanning session, Lilly put her top back on and headed back in. The above ground house was small and in keeping with the isolated island theme, but the underground bunker lived up the Armsman’s reputation. It was lavish and full of expensive things, including trophies of his time as a villain, a computer system that had Mika drooling over himself, an assortment of drinks that had left Lilly sleeping next to the porcelain throne after her first night of celebrating, and a completely equipped medical room for emergencies.

Currently, the room held her father.

“Hey, Dad.” Lilly walked in and dropped her towel and suntan lotion on a nearby chair. “Caught a few waves this morning.” Lilly wasn’t a surfer, but she was able to stand up on a board. “Then I worked on my tan. You wouldn’t believe how pale you can get from being underground for months. Of course you wouldn’t, you and Uncle Curtis never got locked up. I never really thought about that before, but now I know you both deserve a standing ovation. From all the stories you’ve told me, you are two lucky sons-a-bitches.”

“It has nothing to do with luck.” Armsman appeared and gave Lilly and her father a surprisingly soft look.

“I know it’s all planning, rehearsing, and execution, but you guys had to have had luck on your side to get away with all the shit you pulled.”

“We were just that good.” Armsman smiled. “And it’s good you’re talking with him. They say he can still hear us.”

“I know.” Lilly didn’t let the sadness leak onto her face.

Her father, the infamous supervillain Hellgate, lay motionless on the bed. Monitors were attached to several parts of his body. A dialysis machine was running nearby to keep his blood clean, several IVs were keeping him hydrated and taking care of any infections. He looked peaceful, like he was taking a nap, but Lilly knew different. Her father was as good as dead, and it was all the blonde bimbo bitch’s fault.

<You’re going to die Reaper. I’m going to fucking rip out your heart and shit down your throat.> She didn’t know how she’d do it, or when, but she knew it was going to happen one way or another. Lilly could be very persistent in punishing people who’d royally pissed her off.

“Mind if I have a few words?” Armsman asked.

“He’s all yours.” Lilly collected her beach things and headed back to her room.

A nice shower to wash off the sand and sweat was what she needed. After that a few light layers that left only a few things to the imagination were what she needed for the next part of her day. She walked to the opposite side of the house and pushed open a heavy door. A blast of cold air hit her in the face as she entered Mika’s computer sanctuary.

Dozens of monitors showed everything from world news to computer code. A few showed avenues of approach around the island, but all of those were clear. It was dozens of miles to the nearest island, and aside from a routine supply run by a family of smugglers nothing ever came out to this island.

“Hey, Wraith.” Mika perked up at seeing her, and how the cold air in the room made other things noticeably perk up beneath her thin clothing.

“What’s going on today, Mika.” She tried to stay business-like. “What’s he up to?”

Mika’s smile faltered, but he recovered quickly. “He went in and out of his apartment complex on time for classes. I’ve caught a few sightings of him throughout the day, but I don’t want to go into the school’s systems too much. The DVA and Heroes are monitoring them, and I don’t want them to trace the signal back here.”

“I’m sure you’ve got it all under control, Nano,” she switched to his hacker villain name. “From what you’ve showed me so far you’re one of the best.” That comment made Mika blush, but she ignored it. Her eyes were on the screens.

A few frames of Seth walking around the West Private campus were on loop for her benefit. <Damn he’s a good-looking man.> She kept her libido in check and studied him closer.

Seth looked a little ragged around the edges, and there was a scowl on his face. Mika reported that the DVA was following him whenever he wasn’t on campus, and Lilly felt the need to find that tail and snap their necks. Her Seth wasn’t a science experiment to be watched and studied. They needed to be together doing whatever the hell they wanted.

<Like the Caymans.> Lilly had many interesting experiences in her life, but the Christmas trip to the Caymans with Seth was probably the most at peace she’d ever been. Drinking and screwing into pure bliss could have that effect on a person.

“Where are his financials?” She looked around for the folder that Mika usually had waiting. That was the first sign she registered that something was off.

“So, Wraith, I think we shouldn’t be digging so much into him you know? It’s kind of an invasion of his privacy.” Mika stuttered in a poor attempt to stall her.

“Mika.” Lilly didn’t even realize she’d crossed the room and was in the technopath’s face. “Give me his fucking financials now.” There was a dangerous undertone in her voice that had him scrambling to obey.

The manila folder appeared faster than she could say “Abra Kadabra”. It was pretty short. After paying for tuition and rent there hadn’t been much activity. There were some food purchases here, gas there, and it was all pretty normal until the last few lines.

Clothing store purchases were the last three items on the report. Usually, that wouldn’t be a big deal. Seth was a stylish guy and he upgrade his wardrobe a few times a year, but not at places like Forever 21. Lilly didn’t even feel the page rip as she turned it so fast to see the copies of the receipts.

<Dresses, halter tops, a pair of flipflops, and a few BRAS!> She couldn’t control her shaking as pure unadulterated rage poured into her. She didn’t even notice how the lights seemed dim as darkness radiated off of her.

“Wraith?” Mika’s eyes were wide as he witnessed the display of power.

“Who is she, Mika?” There was murder in her voice. “What is her social security number? Where does she live? What is her schedule? And where is the best place to kill her?”

“I…um…” Mika stumbled over his words.

“LILLY!” Her uncle’s voice cut through her and she felt the rage dissipate, along with the darkness. “What the hell is going on?”

“She saw the financials,” Mika said when she didn’t offer a reply.

“Oh that,” Armsman scoffed and waved it away like a bad smell.

“What!?” The rage and darkness returned.

“Calm down.” He stated firmly as he walked over and put his hand on her shoulder. The brightness in the room returned and Mika sighed in relief. “Don’t read too much into these things.”

“Don’t…” Lilly sputtered, unable to bring forward the rage when she was overcome by shock. “Some bitch is stealing my man.”

“More like he’s using her as a rebound.” Armsman kept his hand firmly on her shoulder. “It is reasonable when he felt betrayed by you and thought he wasn’t ever going to see you again. The real questions are going to get answered now that you’re free. Now we’ll watch him closely to see what happens next. That’ll tell you whether or not he’s worth it.”

“And if he’s not?” The pang of sadness that lanced through her heart was too similar to what she felt when she talked to her father’s barely surviving body.

“If he’s not worthy then we’ll kill him and his new play thing. That’s the least that you deserve.”

The love that was in her uncle’s statement brought a smile to her face. “I’m sure it won’t come to that. I’ve got faith in Seth.”

“Time will tell.” Armsman leaned back in one of the chairs. “Let’s get to work, Nano. Time to decide the fate of a promising young man.”

Previous                                                             Next

A Change of Pace – Chapter 99

Hellgate’s lifeline was hard to pin down. It didn’t have the duality of a shifter or the constant vibration of a speedster. It was unique. It was like trying to play whack-a-mole with a fundamental aspect of the universe.

The old supervillains thread was also hot. It wasn’t “stick your hand into a raging inferno” hot, but Daisy imagined it was what it felt like to hold your hand over a flame for just a half-second too long. She’d never done that before, or at least not that she could remember. She was too busy dodging actual explosions to be stupid enough to stick her hand over an open flame.

But that’s what it felt like as she grabbed the man by the metaphysical nuts. And damn it felt good.

She felt the energy of life pulsing through the thread. Calling it a thread really didn’t do the construct justice. It as a living embodiment of that person on some different plain of existence. There was love, sadness, joy, and hate coursing through the thread now and she could feel it all. Just like she’d feel it all when she cut his thread and absorbed the life force into herself.

<It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.> She smiled to herself as the villain vomited all over the ground and fell back to his knees.

She was already bottling things up. The villain’s energy couldn’t flow properly through his thread which led to metaphysical full-body constipation that she wouldn’t wish on her sixth worst enemy. She would totally wish it on the top five people on her shit list. Those assholes fucking deserved it.

She was Reaper again in these moments. Not necessarily the old one, but not quite the new one either. She didn’t want to take lives the way she used to, but she had to be real with herself in this case. If she let Hellgate go the guy would disappear for anther twenty years. No one would ever catch him, and the families of everyone he’d killed today wouldn’t get any closure.

For the thousandth time she struggled with her power, and that was a good thing. She was playing God at times like these. She had the power over life and death. She could conceivably live forever as long as she continued to kill.

She wondered if those ancient Greek myths about the three Fates was a prophecy about her. She didn’t spin the threads, or determine their length, but she was Atropis. She was the one who severed them.

<Shit or get off the pot, Daisy.> Only seconds had passed, but seconds mattered in her profession.

She took a firmer grip on the thread and Hellgate gave a gargled scream. She readied herself mentally and physically for the death of the man and the rush of his life force into her.

<Now or never.> It was the moment of truth, and she believed she made the right choice.

She started to saw away at the life thread. Hellgate gave a bone-chilling scream as his life started to slip from his body. Daisy shuddered as the tsunami of emotions started to flood her along with the trickle of his life force. She reached out for a shattered tree to steady herself and…

An explosion of blackness appeared around Hellgate.

<It’s too late.> Daisy instinctually thought, until she felt her connection with the supervillain vanish.

It was like someone turned off the light in her mind’s eye where Hellgate as standing. It wasn’t like Armsman where there was just a void of emptiness. This was like trying to stare through thick black fog with her sixth sense. If she was able to go in and get a hold of the man she knew she could finish the job, but without contact she was just staring at swirling black.

But that black was fading quickly. Until another explosion of darkness reinforced it. When it finally dissipated, Hellgate was gone.

<You have got to be shitting me!> Daisy took a few seconds to just stare at the empty space. She expanded her senses, but felt neither of those lifelines within her half-mile radius.

The rolling explosions of darkness could only mean on thing. Wraith had just rescued Hellgate from certain death.

<Rescue might be a bit premature.> Daisy thought, she had already been draining him after all. She had no idea what would happen to him now. No one had ever interrupted her mid-reaping before.

But even worse than the two villains escaping was the way her and Wraith’s powers interacted. Wraith was another villain she could add to the very short list of Supers whose power trumped hers. <This is just a hell of a shitty day.>

Daisy stumbled as the earth shook beneath her. The two titans were going at it over by the school and Iron Giant could use all the help he could get. She’d have to worry about Hellgate and Wraith later. Unless they just attacked her, which would be monumentally stupid, she had bigger fish to worry about.

She gathered the kinetic energy in the soles of her feet and launched herself into the air. She covered a few hundred yards before landing in the parking lot of the high school and seeing the utter chaos of the battle. Iron Giant, ForceOps, and the remaining Protectorate were throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Seif al-Din.

And then, just as she thought that, a ForceOps soldier emerged from a hole in the school with an industrial-sized stainless steel sink, which he proceeded to toss into Seif al-Din’s gut.

She barely stopped a giggle from escaping her lips. It was time for her to get in on this action.

 

***

 

“DAD!” Lilly blasted back into existence.

The darkness washed over everything around her, and told her she’d appeared only a few feet from Armsman.

“Dad, please wake up.” She was shaking him as the darkness receded.

A comforting hand came to rest on her shoulder, and the same tan, leathery skin got placed against Hellgate’s throat.

Lilly was at war with herself. All of a sudden, she was a little girl getting bounced on her father’s knee and squealing with delight. That foundation of happiness her father had given her was in conflict with her training. All she wanted to do was cry and shake her father until he woke up, but her training was screaming at her to do first aid, to get him to a healer, or for her to do anything but sit there and be a useless teenage girl.

“His pulse is faint.”

She couldn’t see her Uncle’s face, but she could hear the concern in his voice.

“We need to get out of here.” Lilly started to sort through her mental locations for a safe getaway.

<They’ll definitely bring in a tracker after this shit show, so I need to cover our tracks.> She settled on her loft across the Atlantic. The electrified cage and myriad of international regulations on Supers would bog down anyone who followed her.

“No.” Armsman’s single word wounded her like he’d slashed her with his katana.

“What the fuck do you mean, no?” she snarled back.

“I mean I’ll get him to safety while you finish the job.”

“Finish the job!” Lilly shrieked. “Fuck the job, fuck Seif al-Din. All I want is to make sure my dad’s ok.”

“If you really want to make sure your father is ok you won’t ruin his reputation. What happens when he gets better? What happens when that big ass terrorist escapes here and learns that you turned tail and ran like a little bitch? What is your father going to do then? You two are already on the run from the good guys. Don’t be forced to run from the bad guys too.”

<FUCK!>

Armsman making a good point wasn’t helping the internal struggle Lilly was feeling.

“Shit! I hate it when you’re right.” Lilly decompressed slightly.

“Get used to it, Wraith. With age comes wisdom.”

“And erectile dysfunction, so don’t get ahead of yourself old man.” She shot back.

Armsman laughed and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “I’ll take good care of your Dad. I’ve got a tight little Tai thing with a gift for making people feel better.”

“Ugh, gross. Please tell me she’s a healer.”

“Among other things.” He gave her shoulder one last pat. “Remember, I’m not going to be able to cover you. So get in and get out. Don’t fuck around. Reaper’s range is a half-mile so we’re probably not even safe here.”

There was a sound like someone was ripping the universe a new asshole, and they turned just in time to see Seif al-Din get smashed through the school. A blonde-haired woman could be seen jumping into the air away from the beast before it got back to its feet.

“Or maybe she’s a little busy and you’ll have a few extra seconds to do your job.” Armsman shrugged.

“This isn’t my first time, Armsman.” It felt like the tenth time she was telling the old villain that.

“It’s the first time you’re jumping back into a fight after having one of the most legendary Heroes of all time nearly put down your father.” He deadpanned back. “Don’t underestimate her or anyone else. You get in and you get out. Understood?”

“Yes.” For once, she didn’t have something witty to add.

“Good. Now get me and your dad to my place. I’ll take care of the rest.”

She knew the place in question pretty well. It was basically a deserted island in the Pacific. Technically, it was part of the Philippians, but he bribed the local officials to leave him alone. He lived there with a harem of Thai whores and generally did whatever the fuck he wanted.

Lilly and her dad ventured out there for a vacation every few years. Her dad didn’t like her hanging around with the whores, but with no one else on the island but the two old supervillains there wasn’t much else to do.

The location solidified in her mind: clear blue sky, white sandy beaches with colorful seashells, a small hut that just served as the surface entrance to the vast subterranean network of structures that was Armsman’s real home. As she saw it, she wished she was going to.

<I’ve got to finish the job. For dad.>

She sighed, and opened her eyes to give the two other villains a grin. “See you soon.”

In a flash of black the two old men disappeared and left her all alone to exfiltrate the worlds more dangerous terrorist from a battle with some of the most famous Heroes to ever live.

<No problem, piece of cake.> She teleported from her position in the open by the suburban house, to the middle of the wrecked woods.

She needed a good vantage point to find the right moment to jump in there. She didn’t want to teleport and get her head taken off by Reaper’s roundhouse kick. That would just be a horrible end to a semi-shitty day.

<Dad’s safe, Uncle Curtis will take care of him…ewww. But it’s all going to be fine.> Lilly didn’t want to think too much about the recovery process. She had talked with those whores before. They weren’t exactly a good influence. Seth could attest to that.

She snuck through a forest that looked like Bastogne during the Nazi siege of the 101st Airborne. Everything around her had been shattered by the explosion of the buried mines. It was a miracle that Reaper had survived it in the first place.

<That’s why we don’t underestimate Heroes.> She took a knee next to what wasn’t much more than a stump and reached out to her ready table back in her bunker.

High-priced binoculars appeared in her hand and she took a good look at the battle.

<Reaper, Iron Giant, flame girl, guys in camouflage everywhere. One dude is teleporting in and out dropping grenades all over Seif al-Din.> She watched that guy’s tactics for a minute and committed them to memory. <Now I just need them to break off for a second so I can get in there and finish this.>

“Re…p…r, come in,…Re…p…r.” She nearly missed the staticy voice as she shifted position, but the shift moved some of the dirt and uncovered the little white earpiece.

She picked it up, wiped off the dirt and grime and tuned in.

“Reaper, come in. Reaper, come in. I say again. The use of deadly force is authorized. Take down Seif al-Din. Take him down. We have rescued Anika Kemps. I say again, we have rescued Ms. Kemps. End this fight, Reaper, end it. Reaper, come in.” And the message repeated.

“What the fuck!?” Thankfully there was no one around to hear Lilly’s scream.

“Hello, hello, identify yourself.” The voice over the earpiece asked.

“Identify yourself.”

“No, identify yourself.”

“No, identify yourself.”

“This is a secure Hero communications device. Unauthorized use is prohibited by federal law.”

“This is a secure Hero communications device. Unauthorized use is prohibited by federal law.”

“Stop repeating me.”

“Stop repeating me.” This time Lilly couldn’t help but laugh.

<Heroes and their rules.> She would have pocketed the device to sell to Mika, but there had to be a GPS in it somewhere, so instead she stomped on it. <That should slow Reaper down for a few minutes.>

But more importantly, it gave Lilly a chance to figure out just what the hell was going on with Anika. <I call bullshit.> She threw one last glance at the raging battle and figured the big bad terrorist could hold his own for a second until she got back.

She left Orlando in an explosion of darkness to see what the fuck was going on.

 

***

 

Have you ever traded punches with God? Daisy could now honestly say she had.

She bided her time and waited for the right moment before throwing herself at the giant creature. Seif al-Din had Iron Giant pinned under one of his massive, ape-like feet, and was getting ready to rain down another hammer-fisted blow on the strongman. She put her shoulder right into the terrorist’s gut and let leash with just about all of the kinetic energy she had stored up.

The sound of the impact left her ears ringing, and she’d have a serious case of tinnitus if she didn’t get healed.

The creature bellowed, more in frustration than pain, as it folded in on itself, lost its balance and fell into the already smoking high school. The main building collapsed under his weight and he was momentarily buried underneath the rubble. Daisy jumped back to give herself some breathing room.

The painfully full sensation she’d been feeling was gone, now there was a void within her that she hadn’t felt in a long time. She’d put everything she had into that hit, and the beast was already getting back up.

<We need more heavy hitters.>

A chunk of concrete came rocketing out of the pile of rubble and was on a direct course for Daisy. <Time for a refill.> She crossed her arms in front of herself and ground in her heels.

The concrete smacked into her hard enough to turn a regular human’s bones to jelly, but she absorbed the energy and the slab cracked around her. She emerged on the other side of the small dust cloud feeling a little better and looking for more sources of energy. She couldn’t give Seif al-Din a hickey at her current power level.

The swipe from the beast’s taloned hand changed all of that. She didn’t see it coming with the dust around her, it caught her off-guard, and it sent her flying. She went from near empty to full in a heartbeat. The only other time she’d felt a hit like that was when she’d sparred with Iron Giant.

She soared through the air like a football thrown by a quarterback hyped up on steroids. She went up and over the school, over two blocks of suburban houses, and landed in the parking lot of a second school she didn’t even know was there. The asphalt cratered around her, and her head spun from the overdose of energy.

She tried to get up and get back to the fight. <Fucking fuck!> She hissed as the shoulder she’d landed on refused to obey her.

“That’s just great.” She rolled to her other side, had better luck, and did a one-armed pullup out of the six-foot crater. “No communication, I’m busted up, and John’s probably getting his ass whooped.”

She’d only had this type of injury once. On top of her shoulder being dislocated, she could feel the breaks in her bones. Tiny microcracks had broken along her collarbone and shoulder blade from her body trying to store more than it could handle.

Now she definitely needed healing.

“Lady, are you ok?” Out of nowhere ran a little girl, maybe six years old, wearing a sundress with a flower pattern.

She did that typical kid thing where she got too much up in Daisy’s business, and then her jaw dropped when she saw the large hole next to Daisy.

“Did you fall?”

Daisy couldn’t stop the snort from escaping her lips. “Yeah, I fell. Where is your mommy? It’s too dangerous to be out here now.” Daisy looked around for the girl’s mother.

“She’s at the coffee shop watching the TV.” The girl replied with a sense of childish wonder, as she continued to study the hole.

“Ok, let’s take you back over to her, kiddo.”

“Ok.” The girl hopped up and held out her hand for Daisy to take.

The moment she grabbed the little girl’s tiny hand a sense of peace washed over her. Even her shoulder didn’t feel that bad.

“You’re special?” She asked the girl as they walked hand-in-hand across the street toward a packed coffee shop.

“Mommy says I’m very special, but I can’t tell anyone. But I can tell you, you’re a Hero!” The girl squeaked out the last bit, and it brought a smile to Daisy’s still-masked face.

“Always listen to your mommy.” Daisy stopped the girl from running out into the street and reminded her to look both ways before crossing. “But as you get old don’t be afraid of what other people think, always remember that you’re special and you can do anything you put your mind to.”

“Even become a Hero?”

“Sure,” Daisy laughed as she pulled open the door to the coffee shop. “Even become a Hero.”

“Oh dear God, Annabeth!” Presumably the girl’s mother detached herself from the crowd huddled around the TV and ran toward them.

“Ma’am, your daughter was wandering around the school parking lot across the street. It’s probably not a good idea with a fight happening two blocks away.” As if on cue the ground rumbled and coffee cups fell off tables to splash their liquid glory all over the floor.

“Yes, I’m so sorry.” The mother profusely apologized. “Annabeth, you need to stay with me, do you understand?”

“Yes, mommy.” The little girl looked crestfallen as she closely examined her shoes.

“It’s ok, Annabeth, remember our little chat.” Daisy smiled at the little girl.

She released her to her mother and the peaceful sensation immediately faded. She was still battered and broken. The young girl’s immature healing hadn’t really fixed anything, but felt a little better. Good enough to get back into the fight.

A glass shattering, heart stopping screech filled the air, and Daisy’s hands immediately went to cover her now bleeding ears. It sounded like nails being dragged across a chalkboard, and the most annoying sound in the world all rolled into one superpowered sonic assault. The glass of the coffee shop shattered and people screamed, but Daisy was too deaf to hear them.

Her eyes were fixed on what was happening in front of her. Two blocks away, Seif al-Din rose up into the sky. One hundred foot wings splayed out to either side of him, and with each beat debris and mini-tornadoes sprang up and wreaked havoc on the surroundings. Slowly, the beast gained altitude and made a lazy turn to the East.

<When did this fucker get wings!> Daisy’s own jaw had dropped, as another few flaps had the terrorist soaring in her direction. <And where the fuck does he think he’s going?>

Iron Giant, the Protectorate, and ForceOps were nowhere to be seen. As far as she could tell, it was up to her to bring the big bad guy down.

<Ok. I’ve got this. I can do it.> She shook out her kinks and winced as her shoulder protested the very idea of what she was about to do.

She waited until the moment was right. <Three…two…one…>

She launched herself into the wild blue yonder.

 

***

 

A blast of darkness heralded Lilly’s arrival into the underground prison. It was dark and dank, just how she’d left it, but with one noticeable difference. She rushed over to the thick, tech genius plastic barrier, and rested her hands on it. The darkness made it hard to see, but even then, it was clear there was nobody in the cell.

“What the fuck?” Lilly debated teleporting into the chamber just to make sure this wasn’t some grand optical illusion. She knew Anika’s power set was always growing, and that might now include illusionary abilities.

<But it still doesn’t explain the radio call.>

She did a second search, just to make sure Anika wasn’t hiding in some dark corner, but it came back the same.

“Ugh. Fuck it. No way am I going to pick up that asshole after this.” She sighed as she rested her head against one of her upstretched arms.

Not only was her father on death’s door because of that Reaper bitch, apparently, Lilly had failed in her own mission as well. All of that meant her and her father’s reputation was in the shitter now. The best outcome she could hope for was that Seif al-Din got his ass handed to him by the Heroes and word of her fuck-up never get out.

<Fat chance of that.> A man with al-Din’s reputation didn’t go down easy.

“What do I do now?” Lilly just wanted to close her eyes and go to sleep for a year, preferably next to Seth.

She felt and smelled like someone had taking a steaming dump on her chest. Emotionally, she was all over the place, and all she wanted to do was go on vacation. <But that ain’t gonna happen now.>

With Anika gone that meant she’d tell everyone who Liz really was. Lilly’s cover would be blown, everyone she’d considered a friend would hate her, and just the look Seth would give her would break her heart.

<I can’t go back.> The thought settled into her gut like a lump of burning iron.

Tears started to leak out of her eyes, and she had to pull up her mask to wipe them free.

<Stupid…stupid…stupid…how the FUCK did she get out!> She smashed her fist against the barrier. This side wasn’t electrified so it didn’t do anything.

The only way in or out of the place was teleportation, so that meant…<Wait.> She froze. <Anika adapts to powers. She’s been around me for months. But I’ve only done one or two small teleports of small objects around them. Just enough to prove I was a Super and get them to trust me.> Conflicting thoughts rampaged through her mind.

<But that’s still the only explanation. Anika had to teleport free of here, and the only way she could have done that was if she got my power. Is this all my fault?>

“Huh.” The revelation set in. “Well fuck me sideways.” The tears turned into a sad chuckle.

She never even saw the knife coming.

With her arms up and her head buried in them it was easy for the knife to find the opening in her tech genius armor just below the arm pit. It wasn’t a big knife, only a couple inches long, but knifes don’t work on the same scale as dicks.

Size does not matter when you get stabbed.

Lilly had been stabbed before, but she’d always been prepared. She’d always been in fight-mode and seen the attack coming. This one came out of thin air, from behind, and was delivered with surgical precision.

Her body involuntarily jerked as pain lanced through her chest and back. Her immediate reaction was to teleport, but as she reached for her power the whole room started to spin, a wave of uncontrollable nausea hit her, and her power slipped from her grasp.

She fell into the barrier and slid down into a sitting position. A trail of red followed her down the see-through wall.

“What…” She couldn’t finish as she turned her head and vomited what felt like everything she’d eaten in the last week.

“It took you long enough.”

All she saw were boots as her body refused to respond to her brain’s commands.

“Wha…” She tried again, but her tongue was going numb.

“Don’t worry, Wraith, it’s over.” A big strong hand grabbed her by the chin, pulled off her mask, and stared her in the eyes. “Or should I call you, Liz Aretino, or maybe Lilly. I don’t know your surname yet, but your mother’s last name was Noel, Amelie Noel. I figured you out, Wraith, like I always do. It was only a matter of time.”

Lilly’s vision was getting cloudy. It was starting to blur around the edges as the paralytic continued to devour her body. She couldn’t feel the blood leaking from her side anymore, and she couldn’t move her lips or feel her tongue. But for the moment her eyes worked just fine.

The man standing before her was wearing khaki gear, like you’d see in the Sahara, with an African mask. He was missing his giant rifle, but that really didn’t matter at the moment. His presence was the nail in the coffin of what was undoubtedly the worst day of her life.

<Hunter?> She got the one thought out before the blade’s poison consumed her and she faded away into unconscious darkness.

Previous                                                            Next

A Change of Pace – Chapter 98

Walking alone down the sci-fi-esque corridors didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right that this was an emergency and he was hiding below ground. It didn’t feel right that the only thing different between today and any other day was that the lights were dimmer.

If this was a movie then the earth would be shaking, and he’d be stumbling down the hallway grasping at anything to remain upright. The lighting would be a dim red and flashing, and people would be running everywhere trying to fix what was obviously going wrong.

Seth didn’t see any of that as he worked his way through the HCP. He hardly saw anyone except a white-uniformed senior who told him to head to the gym.

Seth barely had to think as he worked his way toward the giant space, which wasn’t exactly a good thing. <That guy had half his fucking head blown off.>

It wasn’t every day that you walked into your living room and found a dude lying on the floor with shattered bone, blood spray, and fragments of brain-matter spewing from a giant open head wound. It was even more unlikely to find one of your barely conscious roommates only a few feet away, and it bordered on impossibility that his girlfriend would then arrive crying about how they’d been attacked.

<All of that on top of a terrorist attack.> Seth stopped to take a breath.

He wasn’t tired, but he still felt like an elephant had taken a dump on his chest. <And Liz is still out there.> He knew why Coach Meyers wouldn’t allow her down into the HCP, but the logic was overridden by the fear of someone busting into that cafeteria and shooting everyone up like swiss cheese.

Honestly, Seth didn’t know what he would do if he lost her.

“Seth!” People immediately started to call his name as he rushed through the double doors and into the gym.

The giant space still dwarfed the amount of people present, but it looked like most of the HCP was present. Or at least the portion that was still at school.

The seniors were helping to corral the students into their classes, and were getting a headcount. The three remaining class sizes varied, but everyone was wearing their uniforms.

“Abney, get your uniform on.” Coach McMillian seemed to be orchestrating the chaos, while Professor Livingston stalked through the students probably reading their minds.

<Stop dawdling and get suited up.> As if to prove a point, the professor’s voice resonated in his head. <We need to be ready at a moment’s notice.>

<Ready for what?> He didn’t get an answer to that until after he was changed and back with his class.

“As you all might know by now, shit has hit the fan out there.” Coach McMillian’s joking attitude had vanished like someone snuffed it out with a fire extinguisher. “Right now, our job is to sit tight and await further instructions. If need be, we’ll be acting as first responders or search and rescue. I’m going to break you all up into teams. Each team will be led by one of the seniors. I want you to get together, familiarize yourselves with each other’s abilities, and make plans to deal with typical emergency situations. Hopefully, we won’t be needed, but we’ll be ready if we are.”

“Hey, where were you?” Mason and Kyoshi pushed through the gathered freshman. “You’re the last one here.”

“You won’t believe this.” Seth told them about what had happened, that Liz was freaking out, Becca was getting treated by medics, and Anika was gone.

Kyoshi nearly broke down when she heard Anika had been grabbed, but she held it together. Mason, the gentle-giant, looked like he wanted to rip someone’s head off. With him, that wasn’t an exaggeration.

“Hey, where’s Angela?” Seth looked around and spotted the angelic shifter pouting in a corner.

“Her mom is out there fighting these assholes, her dad was killed by one of those assholes, and she’s stuck in here with the faint possibility that we might be able to go out when this is all over and pick through rubble looking for survivors.” Kyoshi paraphrased.

“Yeah, I guess I’d be pretty pissed too.” Seth looked at it from the other girl’s perspective.

“Abney, you’re with me.” A stocky boy in a white uniform walked over toward him. “I need the members of my team to pay attention or someone could get hurt.”

“Sorry.” Seth’s apology didn’t come off very apologetic. “I’ll be right there.” He turned back to his friends, roommates, and people he’d sweated out the freshman year of the HCP with. “Be careful, please.”

Mason just nodded. The motion conveying all the emotions the big man was feeling. Kyoshi was a bit different. She could feel Seth’s fear, trepidation, excitement, and worry. Her eyes watered, and she opened her mouth to say something, but then snapped it shut after nothing came out. After a second she mirrored Mason’s nod.

That was good enough for Seth. He walked over to the senior, who was tapping his foot like an impatient grade-school teacher.

“Ok, let’s do this.”

 

***

 

Things were getting hot and heavy quick, and not in a good way. Wraith and Armsman had escaped from their short fight with Seraphim, but that didn’t mean they were out of the woods yet. Technically, they were adjacent to the woods right now. Their third fallback position was behind where her father and Seif al-Din were about to take on the Heroes, and they arrived just in time to see the whole fucking world explode.

Dirt, trees, and even a metal man when flying in every direction. Windows shattered as fire raced to engulf everything. The concussive blast felt like someone took a hammer to her, but Lilly shook it off.

<Boom goes the dynamite motherfuckers.> Her laugh got overridden by a cough as the dust and debris started to settle back down.

The third position didn’t have the vantage point of the second, or at least it didn’t a few seconds ago. Now, Lilly had a pretty clear shot at her father and the Heroes from the side yard of the house she was standing next to.

“Get ready.” Armsman dropped the large rifle he’d been using and pulled his katana out of its scabbard.

Lilly was about to ask what he meant when the enemy arrived, and she got her answer.

<If we can see them, then they sure as shit can see us.>

Four men in fatigues appeared out of nowhere in front of them and immediately went on the attack. One immediately disappeared, leaving just three, but that still left them outnumbered. Also, being flexcuffed at the ankle limited their tactical options.

One man’s hands crackled with electricity and he lunged at Armsman. The aged villain took it like a man. He rolled with the punch as it grazed his face. The soldier obviously thought it was going to put the old man on his ass. He didn’t expect for the electricity surging through him to zap out of existence the moment he punched him.

And he sure as shit didn’t expect Armsman to step into him and impale him with the sword.

“They never fucking learn.” Armsman unsheathed the sword from the surprised looking soldier’s chest with a loud sucking sound.

The soldier stood upright for a second before toppling over. That gave Lilly enough time to reach for her guns.

She brought them up, but couldn’t get a shot off before a blur of camouflage slapped the gun from her hand.

<Ugh…I fucking hate speedsters.>

The soldier in question skidded to a stop, his boots grinding up perfectly manicured grass.

<Well, at least he’s got limits.> The cool skidding move wasn’t for show. The guy literally couldn’t turn as his super speed, so he had to run quickly in straight lines, stop, reorient, and then attack again. Lilly could work with that.

But not attached to Armsman like they were a two-person chain gang.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Armsman hissed as Lilly whipped out a knife, kneeled, and cut through the flexcuff in one smooth motion.

“Sure, Reaper might suck the life out of me, but if I can’t move Speedy McSpeederton over there is going to whoop my ass anyway.” Lilly straightened just as the speedster looked ready to strike again.

The third soldier looked content to keep his distance and force the two villains to split their attention.

“Your funeral, kid.” Armsman kept his eyes on the threat. He might love Lilly like blood, but if it was his ass or hers, his won every time.

“Ready…move.” The speedster vanished, and so did Lilly, plunging the whole area into darkness.

She appeared behind the third soldier. Nobody could see, feel, or hear anything but her. The speedster had stopped when the lights had gone out. The third soldier remained rooted in place, and Armsman was running through a precise set of forms to ensure no one caught him off-guard.

<I can work with that.> Lilly planted her foot into the third soldier’s lower back.

The man, caught totally by surprise, stumbled forward into Armsman’s powerful swing. The darkness dissipating replaced the eerie calm with the screams of the man. The old supervillain’s sword was buried deep in the man’s thigh. He yanked it out, and with a simple flourish decapitated the soldier.

“I need back up, I’ve got two men down.” The speedster had sped away to get some distance while still keeping an eye on the two villains.

Lilly didn’t hear the reply, but she felt it. The round punched her in the back like the hand of fucking God. Her tech genius designed body armor saved her life, but that didn’t stop it from hurting like a motherfucker.

Her scream snapped Armsman’s head in her direction at about the same time Seraphim landed back in their midst. This time the demon woman didn’t wait, she whipped her tail around and launched her barbs. The target was Armsman as the perceived greater threat. Lilly would have taken more offense to being considered the less dangerous one, but she was too busy rolling on the ground in pain.

“Nice try.” The barbs turned to dust the moment they touched Armsman. They didn’t even pierce his clothing.

“Worth a shot.” Seraphim produced her own blade and started to circle Armsman. “I’ve always wanted to take you down. People talk about you like you’re the boogeyman. All I see is an old man trying to stay in the game long past his prime.”

Lilly chuckled painfully at Seraphim’s attempt to get into Armsman’s head. That place was already fucked up beyond anything the Hero could imagine, which explained why Armsman laughed off her goading like it was a polite joke at a dinner party.

“Hush, little girl. If you run off and let the big boys play, then I won’t chop you up into sushi.”

Seraphim bristled at the comment. She probably hadn’t been called a little girl in thirty years.

Lilly slowly started to regain her breath, but she stayed down. Either a sniper had taken a shot at her, or there was a ranged combat Super with the ForceOps crew. Either way she didn’t want to give the guy a second shot.

<Ok, so we need to kill Seraphim, then get Dad and Seif al-Din, and then get the fuck out of here.> That had been the plan. Draw in a lot of Heroes, ambush them, fuck’em up a little, do a fighting retreat, and then get out.

Lilly had already captured the objective, so there wasn’t much else to do other than rampage, rape, and pillage a little. And the other terrorist teams were likely taking care of those parts if they weren’t dead already.

“This is fun and all, but I’ve got better places to be.” Lilly rolled, pulled one of her Glock’s from it holster, and unloaded on Seraphim.

Since it wasn’t the electromagnetic rifle the shots barely budged the woman.

“What’s wrong, Wraith. You blow your whole load on that last shot.”

The shots might not have hurt, but they took the demon’s attention off Armsman for a split second. He sprung at her. Their swords met in a clash of steel, but that wasn’t the most impressive part. Seraphim was able to bat the old villain’s blade away with her superior strength, but it left her vulnerable. Armsman abandoned the blade in favor of a grapple, trapping the Hero’s extended arm between them so she couldn’t reverse her attack and bisect him. With a different opponent, she would have been able to do just that, but the second Armsman got a hold of her a ripple went through her body. One moment the old nullifier was grappling with a tall, strong, winged demon creature and the next a woman stood in her place.

Her face was still masked, but Lilly spotted vulnerability in her eyes as Armsman overpowered her and they both went crashing to the ground.

<Gotta kill that bitch.> Lilly tried to get a clean shot with her gun, but Seraphim and Armsman were too busy rolling around on the ground and fighting for position.

<Almost…>

The ground shuddered like another explosion had torn into the park, but this time there was no fire and debris. A second shudder a few seconds later, and a shadow passed over the three Supers.

Lilly couldn’t help herself. She peeked behind her to take a look just as the world exploded in an ear-splitting roar.

 

***

 

Daisy had him. She had Hellgate by the balls and they both knew it. It was a surreal experience that she’d been waiting decades to feel. She’d fought this asshole dozens of times. Sometimes it was small scuffles like the disaster at the Sprout coffee shop. Other times it was a presidential assassination attempt like the first Memorial Day parade. Until now, the man had always been too slippery, or had been hiding behind Armsman.

<Not this time, fucker.>

As sweet and savory as the emotions flooding through her were, she uncharacteristically hesitated. The old Reaper would have torn the experienced supervillain’s life thread to shreds and watched him die with no remorse. But that wasn’t Daisy anymore. That wasn’t what she had become, and she didn’t want to go back.

<Things are…better now.> She hesitantly described her life.

She thought of Topher, her fellow HCP professors, her friends, and even some of her more tolerable students. She didn’t want to throw all that away.

<Where the hell is Dispatch when you need her.> Daisy didn’t have a clue where her earpiece had been blasted to during the explosion, and she knew she couldn’t take her eyes off the villain to find it.

<Leeching it is.> She finally decided, and squeezed.

Hellgate immediately doubled over and made retching noises.

<Gross.> She’d puked in her mask before when a criminal messed with her inner ear.

The man reached up with trembling hands to lift his mask just enough for the chunks of food and bile to spill out. Whatever frightening effect his devil mask had on Daisy at one time vanished with that image. <I wish I had a camera.> She could have shattered the illusion of the legendary villain in one thirty second YouTube video.

Daisy was so busy thinking about what she should be doing with Hellgate that she forgot her own rule that she’d drilled into the freshman all year long.

Constant Vigilance.

Iron Giant had smashed into Seif al-Din like a humanoid missile, but then she’d lost track of them. Now that was going to come back and take a chunk out of her well-toned ass.

The sudden shudder or the ground made her move for cover at first. She thought someone was still launching RPG’s into the park. But then a second shudder made several nearby tree corpses shudder. And then an ear-splitting roar nearly knocked her off her feet.

She turned around as a shadow fell over her and almost pissed herself.

Seif al-Din had arrived. Not the handsome, charismatic middle aged terrorist leader with his expensive suits and talk of killing the Zionist imperialists. No, this was the Seif al-Din that nations feared. This was the creature that destroyed part of New York and took nearly an entire Hero team with him. This was the creature that Daisy was supposed to kill if given the go ahead.

Seif al-Din was a healer with adaptive shifting, which meant his shifted form healed into something stronger when it was injured. What resulted after a decade or two of fighting everything from Mosad assassins to the U.S. Army’s M1 Abrams tank was a nightmare.

The thing stood roughly fifty feet tall, but it was hard to tell with all the trees in the area cut down to size by the initial explosion. His legs were thicker than the three remaining tree trunks put together, but still looked humanoid, with the exception that his skin looked like a bad patchwork quilt. The majority of his flesh looked like a mix between gray stone and scales, but Daisy got the impression that it was strong. Other parts were the tan of his normal flesh, while others were charred black. She didn’t know what the difference was, and she didn’t have time to think.

One of his feet was descending toward her with the intent of squashing her like a bug. The foot was normal for a human, despite the size, except for the big toe. That toe curled into a giant claw that dug into the dirt where Daisy had been standing before jumping away.

The jump saved her life, and it also helped against the strain that her full kinetic battery was taking on her. She went from feeling like her soul was being stretched to the breaking point to extreme discomfort.

“Reaper.” Despite the grotesqueness of the creature trying to curb stomp her, it’s voice retained the culture, accented voice of the terrorist leader. “It has been quite a few years since I’ve looked down on you like this.”

Unlike last time, this time Daisy actually got to see his face. And she almost puked.

His head looked more insectoid than human or reptilian. A dozen eyes dotted a round, vaguely human shaded head. The adaptation gave him a full three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of his surroundings, so if he was paying attention there was no way to sneak up on him. It was a great tactical advantage, but she had to believe it must give him a headache.

“I made you a promise last time, and I’m here to make good on it.”

The creature’s maw opened and spoke, revealing razor sharp teeth perfect for tearing flesh from bone. His nostrils weren’t more than tiny slits above that, and it left Daisy wondering how the creature got enough oxygen to stay alive.

“Are you just going to sit there and blabber or are you going to fight you giant fucking Jurassic Park reject!” Daisy couldn’t help but taunt the beast.

“Very well.” The thing smiled and she could see its giant, bulging muscles coil and prepare to spring its death trap for her.

And that left her in another conundrum. Did she let Hellgate go to focus on the more dangerous threat, or did she eliminate him so he couldn’t stab her or the other Heroes in the back once he got his shit together?

She had to move before she made the decision because she didn’t want to be a pancake. Seif al-Din sprang at her and it felt like a mountain suddenly grew legs to stomp on the nearby villagers. Thankfully, Daisy wasn’t alone in this.

Seif al-Din saw it coming, but there wasn’t much he could do in midair. Iron Giant smacked into the creature’s ribs. The impact rocked the world like a thunderclap. The unstoppable thing meeting the unmovable object, but Seif al-Din didn’t scream out in pain. He gave a grunt and snapped at the metal man who’d practically imbedded himself the terrorist’s torso. Thunderclap after thunderclap rocked the clear sky of Orlando as the Hero unloaded his powerful punches on the beast.

John could have been screaming his defiance or years of built up rage as he hammered Seif al-Din back into the ground. Buildings shook and collapsed from the impact. Then he started to drive the creature back away from Daisy and the rest of the Heroes.

That gave her a second to think, but there wasn’t much she had to think about. The threat was clear and the danger was present. She couldn’t allow Hellgate to just walk away from this, or let him bring his teleportation back into the fight. It was too dangerous, and one misstep from Daisy or John could leave any number of Heroes, soldiers, or innocent civilians dead.

She knew what she had to do.

Hellgate was about a hundred yards away and struggling back to his feet. She’d been forced to stop leeching from him to concentrate on Seif al-Din, but John had bought her the time she needed.

She turned back toward Hellgate, found his life line standing lonely and alone in her mind’s eye, and grabbed it for a second time. But this time it would be the last.

 

***

 

<Fuck me.> Lilly couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer size of the beast rising up from the shattered remains of the park. <I do not one be on that thing’s bad side.> She made a mental note to apologize to the monster for some of the comments she’d made, but not all of them. Some of them, especially toward the misogynistic fucktard Damascus were warranted.

“Son of a bitch!” Armsman hollered from behind her.

The hand-to-hand combat expert had succeeded in getting Seraphim into a headlock, but the women had buried her teeth into his forearm and was busy trying to chew his arm off.

“Let me get a shot!” Lilly felt adrenaline pump into her as she aimed her Glock at the struggling pair. “Come on, Armsman, I got the husband, let me have the wife too.”

The old man looked a little annoyed at her childish exuberance, but he released the woman and dove to the side. Immediately, it looked like the woman started to melt.

“Gross!” Lilly yelled as she pulled the trigger and emptied the entire clip into a real-life example of the wicked witch of the west’s demise.

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” Armsman roared as the melting finished and a winged Seraphim launched herself back into the air.

It wasn’t a flawless leap. One wing looked like it was struggling to hold up her weight, she wasn’t flying straight, and quite a few large drops of blood fell back down to the ground as she struggled to gain altitude and escape.

“Yeah, you better run.” Lilly reloaded and fired off a few more rounds at the Hero’s retreating back, but it was beyond her pistol’s range and she didn’t hit shit.

Still, it felt good to kick Seraphim’s ass this time.

Armsman didn’t look so happy. “You let the bitch get away!”

“I fucking shot her full of holes!” Lilly held up the empty magazine. “It’s not my fault she can fucking melt like that. That’s creepy as fuck, but I bet she’s going to be out of the fight for a bit.”

Lilly looked around for more threats just as the sky seemed to crack open around them. She looked up, thinking some military jet was breaking the sound barrier on an attack run, but all she saw was the giant creature stumbling back as a gleaming metal figure a fraction of its size pounded away at its chest.

<That can’t be good.> They were heading in their direction.

“We need to go.” Lilly grabbed her uncle’s hand and they vanished out of the duo’s destructive path.

They reappeared close to their second fallback position, which had a much better view of the park now that most of the trees where shattered husks.

What she saw made her heart stop.

Her father was a few hundred yards from her, struggling to get to his feet. Less than a football field away from him was Reaper. The Hero’s head was moving back and forth between the beast being beaten backward by her ally and Lilly’s father. She couldn’t see the conflict on the Hero’s face, but her focus on Hellgate instead of Seif al-Din sent flashed crimson warning signs in Lilly’s mind.

Then, her father who was standing with his hands on his knees collapsed.

<NO!>

She didn’t even think. She teleported to her father’s side in a blast of expanding darkness. Before the darkness had dissipated, she had him in her arms, and a second blast took them back to where Armsman was waiting to put his protective hands on both of them.

Previous                           Next

A Change of Pace – Chapter 97

It sounded like someone cracked a whip and banged a gong nearly instantaneously. There was no mistaking the cracking of the whip for anything but a gunshot, and it only took a moment to figure out what had the deep gong reverberating through Daisy’s eardrums.

“SNIPER!” Everyone reacted instantly, but not in the same way.

Matchbox spun in the direction the shot had come from and her fiery shield flashed into existence. Mr. Morningstar sprinted behind her for cover. She enlarged the shield slightly to cover the both of the them. ForceOps soldiers started to either dive behind cover or move toward the sound of the gunshot. Daisy heard distance, direction, and descriptions being called out.

Seraphim sprang into the air like a shoulder-launched missile to gain the high ground. Bullets weren’t a big deal to her, but any element of surprise the Hero strike team had was now gone. Seraphim would get eyes on the sniper and the two villains in the park with her increased elevation.

Daisy and Iron Giant just kind of stood there assessing the situation. There was no need for them to jump behind cover, they were bulletproof, and there was little Iron Giant could do to get to the enemy before ForceOps teleporters like Colonel Ford.

But Daisy could do something.

She opened her sixth sense and extended her reach in the direction the soldiers had identified the shooter. Three lifelines popped into her mind’s eye as she focused in on the school rooftop.

“Colonel, do you have men on that roof!” She pointed toward the school in the background.

The colonel was busy shouting orders, so he didn’t hear her. In the time it took her to run from her position to the colonel’s one of the lifelines was snuffed out. She examined the two remaining lifelines. One was strong and firm, probably a strongman or someone else with enhanced durability. The other was slippery and elusive. It seemed to flicker in and out like a two-year-old flipping a light switch for the first time.

There was something oddly familiar about the slippery thread, but she didn’t have to think about it. The strongman’s thread disappeared from her mind’s eye and reappeared directly in front of her in an inky blast of shadow. The man was struggling with his belt like he had ants in his pants. There was also a big hole in his camouflage blouse. His face looked like he’d been stung by a bunch of bees, but that was nothing compared to the black and blue bruise she could see flowering across his chest.

“Get back! Grenade!” The strongman quickly got his vest off. He wasn’t going for his belt after all. He pulled a blinking canister from the small of his back, and dived away from Daisy and the soldiers; shielding them with his body.

Daisy did some of her own jumping to get out of the blast radius.

The explosion was louder and more forceful that she’d expected. She’d barely put any distance between her and the strongman, so she ended up riding the wave of explosive force as it blasted her back about ten feet. She stopped the shrapnel dead against her skin, but that didn’t do anything to dissipate the heat.

“Son of a bitch!” She roared, flailing her arms and shaking her body to dislodge the flaming bits of metal burning her skin.

“Medic!” someone called through the smoke that always followed an explosion.

“Squad leaders, accountability check.” Colonel Ford’s voice rose above them all.

“First squad sound off!”

“Second squad sound off!”

The two dozen ForceOps soldiers began to call out names and gather the information their commander required, but Daisy turned her attention back to her sixth sense. She reached again for the rooftop where only one life thread remained.

<Gotcha, Wraith.> There was no mistaking the darkness blast for anything but the notorious teleporter.

She reached for the life thread. It flickered as her fingers tried to grab it, so she drew back and tried again. Just as her fingertips brushed the edges of the slick thread it vanished.

<What the fuck!> Daisy spun around like it would help her find it, but it was gone. There was nothing but a void where Wraith used to be.

“Seraphim, report!” Daisy’s agitation leaked into her tone.

“I’m circling. Primary targets appear to be remaining in place within the park. They even are laughing and pointing over at the sound of the explosion.”

Daisy had to suppress a growl.

“Confirmed two secondary targets on the school rooftop.”

<Two?> Daisy reached out and still felt nothing occupying the space.

“One looks to be clad in black. Based on the darkness explosion we can confirm she’s Wraith.”

Daisy knew Seraphim had to be physically holding back to keep herself from diving onto that rooftop and ripping the villain’s head off.

“Second looks to be male, dressed in olive fatigues, equipped with a sniper rifle, and a sword that I can see. He looks like he’s the sniper.”

<Olive fatigues, sword, empty void where my powers can usually detect people.> It felt like a stone fell a couple of stories and into the pit of her stomach.

“All units be advised, Wraith and Armsman are on the building roof to our East.”

“Reaper, this is Dispatch. Could you please repeat that?”

It was the closest thing to surprise Daisy had ever heard from the mysterious Hero communicator.

“On the rooftop to our East we can positively confirm Wraith, and based on Seraphim’s observations, and my sense of that area, I’m telling you that Armsman crawled out of whatever hole he’s been hiding in to be here today.”

“And he’s working with Wraith…?” Iron Giant chimed in.

“Which means the guy in the park with Seif al-Din has to be Hellgate. Believe me now, guys!” The last was a blatant “I told you so” that fell somewhere between a triumphant yell and a melancholy comprehension.

“I am advising DVA headquarters of this development.” Dispatch spoke first. “Be advised the situation at Lander is still not contained. Backup will be delayed.”

“For fuck’s sake. What the hell is so important in California that we’re not going to get Titan or some other heavy hitter out here and help us take down on of the most dangerous terrorists in the world?”

It was a rhetorical question, and Dispatch understood that because she remained silent.

“That’s why we’re here, Reaper.” Colonel Ford answered instead. “I’m two men down, but we’re here to get the job done. We’ve been after this asshole for over a decade. This ends today.”

Daisy liked the enthusiasm, but there were problems to his motivational game plan. Namely, they were still facing off against Seif al-Din and they’d lost the element of surprise. The way the notorious terrorist was just sitting there and waiting for them to make the first move told her that he had a plan to deal with them.

“Wraith and Armsman are gone.” Seraphim reported in abruptly. “They just teleported away.”

“Ok.” Iron Giant stepped back into his role as team leader now that they’d thoroughly lost the first round of the exchange. “Seraphim coordinate with Colonel Ford on locating Wraith and Armsman. Colonel, get another strike team ready to teleport in and engage them.”

The Colonel nodded. If he was upset about not going after Seif al-Din he didn’t show it.

“Your people need to know not to fuck with these two.”

Daisy was surprised to hear that four-letter word come out of John’s mouth, but that just told her how far up shit’s creek this whole thing could go if they weren’t careful.

“Any power-based attack is going to be useless against Armsman. You need to concentrate on secondary effects and weapons. I don’t suggest getting into a hand to hand fight with him. He’s got to be sixty or seventy years old now, but he will gut you like a fish if you get close enough. You’re going to have to move fast. Any sign of trouble and Wraith is going to get them out of there.”

“This isn’t my first day, Iron Giant.” Ford snapped back, his emotions still raw from losing people. “I know how to assess a threat and determine an appropriate battleplan.

“If you can, separate Wraith from Armsman and I’ll take her down.” Daisy added her own two cents.

Ford just nodded, already calling out orders to a few of his soldiers to be ready to move on his word.

“And us?” Matchbox walked over. Her eyes still scanned the rooftops looking for threats.

“We check on Galavant and then we get to work. Same plan.” Iron Giant smashed his fist together. It sounded like some medieval battle-chant of metal against metal.

“Our youngest member is still alive.” Mr. Morningstar entered the conversation. The old Hero looked a little frazzled. He’d done a lot of good work over his career, but today was just out of his league. “He’s got a head injury, but the ForceOps medics are looking him over. I’m afraid he won’t be much use to us now though.”

Daisy was relieved the young hero was ok, but she didn’t let it distract her from what was about to happen.

<Now it’s our turn.> The four Heroes set off at a run for the park and the enemies waiting for them.

 

***

 

“Can you please just toss the meat-sack off the roof. I’m not some psycho bitch. I don’t want my uniform covered in blood.” Lilly prodded the dead wannabe journalist with her toe.

“You’ll have to help. We’re still within a half mile of Reaper. We need to stay together.” Armsman proved his point by pulling plastic flex-cuffs from the belt of his fatigues and zip-tying their hands together.

“What the fuck!” Lilly could count over a dozen reasons off the top of her head why this was a bad tactical decision.

“I’m keeping you alive. Your father and I had to do this all the time back when she was active.” His tone left no room for argument. “Reaper was a ruthless hero, Wraith.” He looked Lilly right in the eyes. There was a hint of concern from the old supervillain. “She will rip you apart from the inside out if you give her the chance.”

“Ok…ok,” Lilly held up her hand, the attached one, in surrender. “Let’s get this corpse out of here so we have a decent firing position.

Together they rolled the dead man off the roof of the one-story suburban house. The house was on the opposite side of the park from the high school, which put the maximum distance between their old and new position, while still giving them a line of sight to her father and the man paying them. They were standing under a wooden pavilion calmly talking and waiting for the Heroes to make their move.

Armsman got down into a prone firing position, which yanked Lilly down with him. They both quickly realized the flex-cuff wasn’t going to work with their hands strapped together, so they switched to their ankles.

With Armsman in the prone, staring down the barrel of his fifty-caliber sniper rifle, and Lilly up on one knee they were ready. All they had to do was wait.

They didn’t have to wait long.

Within a few minutes four Heroes came charging into the far side of the park.

<I guess Uncle Curtis put down the human can-opener.> She thought when she didn’t see the armored Hero with them. <One less person to worry about.>

As Armsman lined up his first shot, focusing on the fire girl, Lilly thought about her secret bunker and what she’d set aside on her ready table. With a thought, and a small puff of shadow, the RPG appeared in her waiting hands. She was locked, cocked, and ready to rock.

“On your mark,” she told Armsman.

The man didn’t say anything. He just concentrated on the group of Heroes and fired.

Lilly felt the shot just as much as she heard it, and she unleashed her own hell on the Heroes. There were a few hundred yards between her and them, so she fired where she thought they would be. Then she thought about ammunition. More RPG rounds appeared in a rolling wave of darkness, and she fired as many of them as possible. By the time her first round reached the vicinity of the Heroes three more were on the way.

They exploded in blinding, fascinating fireball, and she couldn’t stop from giggling at the sight.

Their job wasn’t to kill the Heroes, although that was always encouraged. Their primary mission was to distract them so they didn’t notice the true danger until it was too late.

“Fucking trees.” Armsman cursed from beside her. “I’m barely getting any shots, and even these heavy slugs won’t penetrate the fire woman’s shield.

“Oh well,” Lilly shrugged. “Worth a try.” That was about the time she noticed the shadow descending on them.

“Hold on.” She teleported herself and Armsman off the roof a few seconds before Seraphim’s armored bulk smashed into their position and through the roof.

They appeared on the lawn just beside the house whose roof Seraphim had just caved in.

<Wow she really likes to make an entrance and crush shit.> Lilly thought as she unslung her rifle and got ready to either shoot or run.

Adrenaline raged in her body as the fight or flight instinct kicked in. She mentally overrode the flight instinct she felt at the sight of the demon-woman.

“WRAAAAAAAITH!” Seraphim popped back up through the hole in the roof, and Lilly shot her right in the chest.

The electromagnetic round swatted Seraphim from the sky and into the neighboring house.

<Damn!> Lilly had dialed up the power settings on the rifle after it didn’t take down the first strongman. She’d just drained half the battery, but it was worth it to see the flying bitch literally get knocked off her high horse. <I don’t know why I was ever scared of her.> She smirked behind her mask, before grabbing Armsman by the shoulder and teleporting to another location.

 

***

 

<What the fuck was that?> Seraphim grunted as she flopped out of the ruins of suburban home that the DVA was going to have to pay to fix.

She flexed her arms and legs. Everything seemed to be moving just fine. She also patted herself down for blood…nothing. The problem came when she tried to take a deep breath. Pain lanced through her stomach and chest so powerful she had the bite down on her tongue to stop from screaming.

She’d felt this injury before, but that didn’t mean she was used to it. People were very rarely able to hit the renowned Seraphim hard enough to break one of her ribs.

“Colonel, this is Seraphim. Wraith’s last known location was a rooftop on the far side of the part. Triangulate on my GPS if you need coordinates. But be advised, she’s packing some serious artillery. If you’ve got someone who can do a quick patchup on bones I might need to borrow him for a second.”

Just as she cut the comm line the ForceOps colonel popped into existence in the neighbor’s front lawn with two other Super soldiers. The three soldiers hurried over to her and made a small perimeter.

“Wraith did this?” The Colonel raised an eyebrow as he surveyed the damage to the two houses.

“Our brief fight did.” Seraphim winced as another soldier started to look at her ribs.

“I can numb the pain and get you back in the fight, but healing the bone will take me at least a half-hour.” The medic shook his head.

Seraphim couldn’t keep the look of irritation off her face. Part of it was struggling to breath without stabbing pain, but the rest was not working with the top caliber healers she was used to as a Hero.

<You do the best with what you can?> Henry had always said.

The thought opened up a different kind of wound and she shut down that line of thought before she did any more damage.

“Get me back in this.” She urged the medic to get to work.

The other soldier stood guard while the Colonel walked slowly around the two houses. He stopped at a spot on the opposite lawn. “Wraith was here.” He stomped his foot on a spot. “I can feel the tingle I get near another teleporter’s nexus.”

Seraphim knew all about the tear in reality teleports made when they moved from one place to another nearly instantaneously. Her former husband had been able to tap into those nexuses and follow his prey. Thus, the name Hunter.

Judging by the Colonel’s continued presence he didn’t seem to have the same gift or level of training.

“You’re good to go. That’s the best I can do.” The medic pulled away from Seraphim and she tested her body.

Deep breaths no longer hurt, but she still didn’t have full range of motion, and there was a persistent numbness around her injury that threw everything off.

<I’ve got to deal with it.> She thought as she bent her legs and shot into the air.

Her powerful leap took her a dozen feet high and her wings did the rest. When this was all over her shift back to human form would reset the injury like starting over in a video game. She’d be as good as new, but she didn’t dare take the chance doing that now. Too many people were getting shot at to risk it.

“Come out come out wherever you are.” She whispered to herself as she circled the battlefield when a sudden explosion shattered the momentary peace after the barrage of RPGs.

<I’m going to kill you, you stupid bitch.> It was the last time Seraphim was going to let Wraith make a fool out of her.

 

***

 

<What is this, fucking Apocalypse Now?!> Daisy ran through the trees as fire erupted all around her.

Her perception was dialed up to the max, so the RPGs seemed to be bearing down on Heroes in slow motion. All they needed was Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and the imagery would be complete.

Matchbox jerked as a rifle round smacked into her shield just as they heard the boom of the sniper. The younger Hero stumbled, and Mr. Morningstar fell back with her looking completely out of place and useless in his tuxedo.

Daisy strained to find the source of the RPG barrage, but all she felt was void in the direction they were coming from. <Come on, Tom. Do your fucking job!> She growled as she was showered with dirt, splinters, and flaming shrapnel, but she kept on going.

She didn’t have a mirror, but her clothes had to be in tatters, and she knew she was sporting several burns like some teenager with a bad case of acne. But none of that mattered. She could see the targets lounging under in a wooden pavilion acting like someone wasn’t lighting up the park with explosives. Their nonchalant expressions made her want to hurt them even more.

Then the explosions suddenly stopped. There was a muffled scream from far away and then silence. Daisy almost stopped to see what was happening, but that would only give their targets more time to react.

“Colonel, this is Seraphim. Wraith’s last known location was a rooftop on the far side of the park. Triangulate on my GPS if you need coordinates. But be advised, she’s packing some serious artillery. If you’ve got someone who can do a quick patch on bones I might need to borrow him for a second.” Seraphim’s strained voice came over the communications net. Whatever happened didn’t go the airborne Super’s way.

<Let them concentrate on Wraith and Armsman. You need to deal with the real bad guy.> If she’d told herself forty years ago, that she was going to refer to Armsman as “not the real bad guy” she would have kicked her own ass. But time and perspective changed everything.

“Matchbox, Mr. Morningstar, fall back. Let me and Iron Giant take the first crack at them. You step in if you’ve got a shot,” she ordered.

The order saved both of those Heroes’ lives.

Daisy and Iron Giant charged Seif al-Din and Hellgate’s position alone. Their feet thundered across the tree-filled park with Iron Giant’s massive metallic frame about twenty yards ahead of her. She was going to peel off and hit them on the flank while Iron Giant hit them head first, but they never got that far.

<It was all a diversion.> It was her last thought concerning the RPG attack before the world exploded around her.

Before they’d arrived the terrorist with his supervillain ally had planted a field of landmines around their position. Iron Giant must have stepped on one of them because she saw the big guy get blasted into the air. But it didn’t stop there.

The mines were daisy-chained together. If one went off they all went off. Daisy put all her effort into manipulating her kinetic absorption, channeling decades of skill, into surviving the earth itself giving a mighty heave.

Fire, pain, dirt, smoke, shrapnel; she was assaulted by them all as she was picked up and thrown into the air by the surprise attack.

For a split second, she wondered what would have happened on that Memorial Day back in seventy-two. If the parade had never been attacked, then her father never would have used the technique for surfing a shockwave that he’d been perfecting. If he’d never perfected it, he never would have taught it to his daughter. If Daisy had never learned it, and instead tried to absorb the full force of an explosion, she probably would have died a long time ago.

<It’s funny how shit seems to happen for a reason.> The idle thought passed through her mind as she soared through the air with her limbs flailing like one of those annoying inflatable balloon men car dealerships and tax centers seemed to have a hard-on for.

The technique wasn’t flawless though, and she couldn’t do anything about the fire. Next thing Daisy knew, she was waking up on the ground. She’d blacked out for a second. Everything hurt, and her kinetic absorption ability had a weird sensation to it that she’d only felt a few times in her life. She felt like a water balloon filled to the brim, and straining to hold together.

She was full, and likely hadn’t been able to absorb the full force of falling from whatever height she’d been at; which explained the aches and pains.

She looked around frantically, but Iron Giant was nowhere to be seen.

Instead, she saw two of the worst men in the world walking in her direction.

“Dispatch?” There was no reply.

Daisy moved her hand to her ear and felt the slickness of blood, but no earpiece. The men continued to get closer, so she struggled to get to her feet. Vertigo hit her immediately and she reached to the nearest tree for support.

<Fuck!> Her hand came down hard on giant splinters. The top seventy percent of the tree had been sheared off by the explosion, leaving nothing left but a jagged corpse to stab her with.

Her vision wavered like she was looking at a mirage despite her best efforts to focus.

The men stopped about thirty feet away from her, but she could still feel their smug smiles.

“You look like shit, Reaper.” Hellgate spoke with the same confidence he had decades ago. “But you’re still a lot prettier than I expected.”

Instinctually, Daisy reached up to touch her face. Pain traveled across her features as she felt burned skin and a decent amount of blood. She didn’t panic though, head wounds tended to bleed a lot even if they were minor. What did send her into full on panic mode was that the left half of her mask had been burned off. It had saved her eye from being a burned crisp, but it was giving the two evil men a decent side profile of her real face.

“Go stick your dick in a blender, Hellgate.” She spat back, literally spitting out a glob of blood in the process.

The laugh that came out of Seif al-Din’s throat was charming to the point Daisy would have sat down and had a drink with the man if she didn’t know he was one of the worst Super’s living on the planet Earth today.

“Our banter was short-lived, Reaper, but I’ve always heard you had an interesting sense of humor.” The terrorists voice was intriguing and cultured, nothing like the evil that was in his heart and soul.

“Hellgate, better yet, why don’t you just shove your dick down his throat. You’d get a kick out of it and it would shut him the hell up.” Daisy tried to stand without the assistance of the murdered tree, but it wasn’t happening.

“Ah, hahaha. Playing on the homophobia of my people. Clever, Reaper. Very clever.” Seif al-Din continued like she hadn’t even spoken. “However clever you seem to think you are it will not save you from certain death.” The sophistication of his slightly accented voice dropped an octave into the truly sinister. “I told you we would meet again. You decided to skip our fun in New York, and your team payed the penalty for it. Now it is just you and I. The famous, Reaper and infamous Seif al-Din. The only regret I have is that the world will not see you fall.” He sighed a bit dramatically.

“Today, the last obstacle to my power will be removed. My last true challenger will be vanquished.”

His smile made her want to puke.

“Any last words?” He started to advance toward her.

“Yeah,” she saw the glint of metal behind him. “Blow me, asshole.”

Iron Giant hit Seif al-Din with a flying tackle that careened both of them into the graveyard of fallen tree limbs. Hellgate’s head snapped toward the terrorist, who’d turned into a human bullet, with Iron Giant acting as the propellant, and Daisy took advantage of his lapse in focus.

She reached out with her power, fighting the wave of nausea and pain threatening to overwhelm her, and grabbed Hellgate’s life-thread.

Previous                               Next

A Change of Pace – Chapter 96

“It was horrible…so much blood,” Liz sobbed as her mind worked furiously for a solution to her problem.

<Cops, heroes, and Seth. This whole thing is going to turn into a shit-show if someone farts at the wrong moment.> Her stomach gurgled from the anxiety, and she used it to improve her performance.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

“You’ve gone through a traumatic experience, young lady. Everything is going to be ok. You are safe and no one if going to hurt you.” The cop taking her statement looked like he was a father, and the sympathy on his face was clear.

<Works for me.> Liz buried her face in Seth’s chest and was able to cut back on the waterworks.

His strong chest was strangely comforting even though she wasn’t upset in the slightest about what had happened inside townhouse 117. It just felt good to be this close to him.

Then an army guy showed up out of nowhere. He started talking with the Hero Liz was pretty sure was the blonde bombshell that had been having coffee with the cop back at Sprout, and had foiled her father’s attempt to grab Anika last year.

<Fucking ForceOps is in on this too. They’ve got a real hard-on for this bad guy.> And she wasn’t referring to herself.

“Abney when you get finished get back to the gym. We’re pulling in all the students.” The Hero spun back around midway through leaving with the army officer. “No, your girlfriend can’t come. Have her head over to the dining hall and shelter in place with everyone else.”

<Fine by me.> Despite wanting to stick with Seth, Liz needed to get out of there and back to the action. Her job wasn’t done yet.

Grabbing Anika was the biggest part of her job, but it was just phase one. Her next mission was to harass the enemy and distract them for long enough that Seif al-din could fuck a few people up and get away. Then he’d grab his daughter and go. After that, Liz could get back to her life. A life with Seth in it.

“I don’t want…”

“It’s ok.” Liz cut off Seth’s retort as she rubbed the last tears out of her puffy red eyes. “I know you need to do this. I’ll see you when it’s all over. Stay safe.” She planted a big kiss on his lips that promised much more later.

“You’re the best woman in the world.”

“I love you too.” Liz let a small smile creep onto her face.

The Hero and army guy vanished, Seth took off for the HCP’s hidden entrance in the dining hall, and she was left with the paternal cop who insisted he give her a ride to the student center.

“Thanks so much officer, but you don’t need to.” She politely refused him. “It’s right there. I’m sure there are other things you can be doing with everything that’s happening.”

He gave her an apprehensive look but then nodded. “Go right there and shelter in place,” were his departing words as he hopped back in his cruiser and sped off with his lights and siren blaring.

Liz walked in the direction of the student center until she was sure he was out of sight. Then she detoured into the alleyway and pulled out her phone.

“Nano.”

The teenage technopath picked up on the first ring.

“It’s me.” She made sure her voice conveyed the importance of the situation. “Are you ready?”

“Yep, I’m in. I just need the finalized location?” He replied.

“The dining hall.” She looked down at her watch to see how much time had passed. She didn’t want to be on the phone any longer than was absolutely necessary. The government had to be listening in on everything right about now.

“Gotcha, we’re good. And…” He stopped just short of saying her name. “We’re even now, right?”

He was referring to the loan she’d given him after the diamond heist. A loan she’d agreed to forgive for this business deal.

“We’re square, big guy. I’ll be gone for a bit, but I’ll talk to you when I can.” She didn’t say goodbye, she just hung up.

She’d come up with a plan to give her plausible deniability during the shit-storm that had descend on Orlando. Despite being a teleporter, she couldn’t be two places at once, and right now she had to be out kicking ass. What she needed to make everything work was to have something showing that while Wraith was out being a badass, Liz Aretino was where she was supposed to be.

Having a technopath in her back pocket really helped. Mika would hack into the school’s surveillance systems and create an electronic trail of Liz’s movements through the entirety of the city’s siege. Its brilliance was its simplicity. When all the dust settled, she could look and say, “Yeah, I was in the dining hall like I was supposed to be. Look at the video.”

She doubted they’d dig that far, because there was going to be so much cleaning up to do that one college girl’s whereabouts wasn’t going to be high on anyone’s list. Still, the hacked video would prove she wasn’t Wraith, and then she could run away with Seth for the summer. Hopefully, things would blow over a little in three months and then they could get back to the business of being together without the guillotine that was her mission looming over her head.

<That would be fucking awesome.> She thought with a smile as she stowed her phone and disappeared in a flash of shadow.

She reappeared across the country in her underground bunker.

“And the crowd goes wild with that stellar performance.” She made crowd noises and waved to the imaginary crowd who was applauding her Oscar-worthy rendition of the scared and frightened school girl.

“I’d like to thank God, because without him nothing is possible. Then there’s my dad for teaching me to be such a bad ass, Uncle Curtis I haven’t forgotten you, and of course Seth for his endless support and encouragement.” She gave an impromptu acceptance speech as she pulled on all of her Wraith gear. “But most importantly, I’d like to send a message to all the young girls out there. When life’s got you down, or you feel like the man is sticking it to you; just kick him in the balls and tell him to go fuck himself sideways.” She finished as she pulled on her grinning volto mask and gave one last wave to the imaginary crowd. “That’s all the time I’ve got. Now let’s go fuck shit up.”

She grabbed the electromagnetic rifle from the table and vanished in another blast of black.

The stillness of her underground lair was replaced by the shouts of people gathering and an endless wailing of sirens. She kept low as she stalked around looking for a position that provided decent cover and concealment. The place she found was already occupied.

“Shit, Wraith. I almost shot you.” Armsman clutched his heart like he was having a heart attack.

“You’re not that sloppy.” Liz grinned at her Uncle behind her mask and settled in next to him. “What’s the situation?”

“The cops, ForceOps, and Heroes have an assembly area a few hundred yards from here. Hellgate and Seif al-Din are luring them into Wadeview Park. Once they’ve got them where they want them they’ll engage and execute a fighting retreat to the East toward Dixie Bell. Damascus is still out there wreaking havoc, and the hope is that once it’s clear we’re falling back the Heroes will divert some of their strength to finding and stopping him.”

“So we shoot and move.” Liz knew their job was pretty straightforward.

“Yeah, and you’re the secondary teleporter if your father dies. You’ll grab al-Din and get him to safety and his daughter.”

The thought of her father dying today stopped Liz cold. She’d never even considered the possibility…ever. Her father had been a supervillain for decades. He was of the most wanted men in the country, and he’d convinced most of law enforcement he was dead. Those he hadn’t convinced, were in a political fight for resources against the people who did believe he was dead and buried. Him and Uncle Curtis had even gone up against Captain Starlight and got away. They’d nearly killed the President of the United States. He’d taught her everything she knew. There was no way her was going to bite the bullet on a mercenary job in Orlando, Florida. Even if they were getting a seven-figure payday out of it.

“Yeah, no chance in hell that’s happening.”

“Damn straight,” Armsman nodded his agreement. “Anything happens to your Dad we’re getting the hell out of here. We ain’t dying for their cause. They can take a dick for all I care.”

It wasn’t quite what she meant, but she appreciated the old supervillain’s fervent devotion to her and her father over the terrorists. In the days to come she doubted anyone else would make the distinction between them.

She resisted the urge to pop her head up and get a quick look of the assembly area. That would just give away their position. Instead, she accepted the binoculars that Armsman handed her. She pressed them to her eyes and got a pretty good view of the Heroes through the miniature cameras he’d seeded the area with before the Heroes arrived.

It had always been their plan to lure the good guys to this area. It was away from downtown, and away from the HCP, so she could do her part of the job, and the nice middleclass neighborhood in the surrounding areas would give them cover as they fell back to the next prepared position. Nothing was a bigger deterrent to Heroes than innocent civilians, and they’d capitalize on that.

She focused in on the Heroes she recognized from her research. The blonde was there looking at the park with a mix of disdain and trepidation. A giant metal guy, Iron Giant, who’d busted in to Sprout and saved the day, was there too. She also recognized the tuxedo guy as Mr. Morningstar, the leader of the Protectorate. The guy in the armor was Galavant, and the girl with the fire shield was Matchbox.

<Five against two…well four.> She grinned.

There were a number of uniformed ForceOps soldiers present, so the numbers were solidly in the Heroes favor, but this was Seif al-Din. Liz knew they’d be seeing if all the rumors about him were true or not very soon.

“Targets?” She asked. To seniority went the ability to choose who you wanted to shoot first.

“Don’t bother with Iron Giant. Nothing we have will even tickle him. It might just be my old mind playing tricks on me, but the blonde might be Reaper.”

<Reaper!> Liz had heard the name mentioned in whispers. People were a lot more afraid of her than Seraphim. <And she put her hand on my shoulder and still didn’t figure me out.> Liz was never in need of an ego boost, but that thought sure as hell gave her one.

“Don’t bother with her either, but stay close to me.” Armsman moved over and touched his shoe to hers. “This way she won’t be able to kill you.”

“What about Dad?”

Armsman just shrugged, either not knowing the answer or not wanting to say anything.

“I’ll take fire girl and tuxedo man. That thing you’re packing looks like it’ll deliver more punch than mine, so you take the armored guys and…”

As if on cue, Seraphim dropped from the sky and landed heavily next to the other five Heroes. Their location kept them hidden from her overhead approach, but Liz still held her breath for a solid fifteen seconds to see if the flying demon would start charging in their direction.

“That bitch is mine.” There was no room for argument in her statement.

Armsman just shrugged before chuckling slightly to himself.

“What?”

“Did I ever tell you about the time me and your father did that currency transfer job back in the 90s.”

Liz settled in to wait for the action to start while getting juicy details of what her dad was like before she was born. It was a win-win.

 

***

 

“What’s the plan?” Seraphim didn’t waste any time in getting straight to the point.

That seriously annoyed Daisy, even if she was the same way.

There were a lot of chiefs and not a lot of Indians in the small strike team that had been assembled to take on the most wanted terrorist in the world. So just figuring out who would be in-charge took a minute. Supers might have superpowers, but they were still human…sort of, and they all had egos.

Daisy wanted to be in-charge. She’d faced Seif al-Din before, although no one but John and Colonel Ford knew it. She also had the best chance of taking him down for good, but even trying that was risky.

Seif al-Din was an adaptive healer not that dissimilar in most ways from Titan. But al-Din’s ability manifested in a shifted form. So when someone punched him and broke his bones, the terrorist healed those bones stronger than before. The same was true of his skin when he was cut, his muscles when they tore from overuse, and his brain when the Saudi government tried to kill him with an aneurism. An idea they got from the DVA. Everything that hurt the evil man just made him stronger.

So there was no capturing the man. There was only killing him, which was where Daisy came in. And there began the dilemma.

Healers had a natural resistance to her reaping ability. They could hold out longer and fight back more than anyone else. They’d eventually succumb, just like everyone else, but it wouldn’t happen quickly, and that was just with a normal healer. Seif al-Din, and his particular ability, put him in the top tier of the top tier of healers. As far as Daisy knew she was the only Super in the US, maybe even the world, who had a chance of taking down the terrorist.

<What if he gets away before I finish him off? What if my power doesn’t work? What if it does, but he gets away and adapts against it?> Those were the questions running through her head.

Ultimately, it wasn’t her call.

“Reaper, this is Dispatch. Are you prepared to receive your briefing on force usage?”

“As ready as I am every time you tell me the same information.” The tension in the air was hitting Daisy’s bitch-reflex.

Dispatch didn’t respond to her jab, the emotionless voice just started in on the very technical language of what the temporary Hero could and couldn’t do. The gist of it was simple, everything up to Daisy’s reaping was on the table, but she needed special authorization to kill. That was how it had always been, and she didn’t see any problem with that.

<So if this doesn’t work it’s not my fault.> The thought didn’t help, and it wouldn’t ease any guilt if innocent people died and she could have done something about it.

“The plan is to form a perimeter and keep Seif al-Din contained.” Iron giant started to explain.

As the strongest person present and the one least likely to get taken out, the big metal man made a good choice to be the tactical leader. His decades of experience, and current position as the HCP dean also gave him superiority in the minds of their DVA handlers, and they signed off on it. Mr. Morningstar wasn’t too happy since he was the local team leader, but everyone knew he would be largely useless in the fight to come.

“Galavant and Mr. Morningstar will hold the perimeter. I will go in for close combat against him along with Reaper.” John gestured at Daisy as she walked back into the group. “Seraphim attack from the air, but be careful. He’s far stronger than you. Matchbox, same goes for you. Hold the middle ground between Reaper, me, and the perimeter. If you see an opening, take it. Use your speed, but don’t take any risks. Even a glancing blow from him will kill you.”

“And the guy he’s with? It looks an awful lot like Hellgate if you ask me,” Daisy stated in an “I told you so” tone.

The DVA had put her report of Hellgate at Sprout on the backburner when everything went to shit in Orlando, and now it was coming back to bite them in the ass.

“That’s still unconfirmed,” John replied diplomatically. “But if the second subject does reveal themselves to be a teleporter with fire powers then Matchbox will shift her concentration to him with Galavant as assistance. Your gear is fireproof, right?”

“Fire resistant, but I’ll be fine.” Galavant replied, practically vibrating with rookie excitement.

“Don’t get barbequed, Galavant.” Daisy stepped in as the veteran. “Take it slow and easy. Back up Matchbox. Her speed and fire resistance are the best counter to Hellgate we have.”

The junior Hero nodded her appreciation, but she was in the zone and focused on the park.

“Any questions?” John sounded uncharacteristically nervous, and that didn’t sit well with Daisy.

<We’ve got ForceOps backup, but none of them are in the same weight class as any of us. Ford will move people around, but that still leaves us vulnerable. We’re not bringing enough people to this fight.> Daisy concluded, but it didn’t matter.

They had to do the job with what they had available, and whatever was happening at Lander meant they didn’t have much. What reinforcements they were able to get were hunting the RPG teams and other terrorist Supers rampaging around Orlando.

But this was all part of being a Hero. You did your best with what you had, you did the job, or you died trying. She’d seen a lot of people go out with a bang, and if today was her day then she’d go supernova on the jihadist’s ass.

“Ok, let’s go.”

The group didn’t put their hands in and do a last-minute cheer. They weren’t a high school football team. But they did give each other nods as they broke up and moved away.

And that’s when Galavant got shot in the head.

 

 

***

 

“Wait for them to make the first move,” Armsman whispered.

Liz rolled her eyes, taking her attention off the binoculars for a second. “This isn’t my first time.”

“And this is about my five-hundredth time.” Armsman snapped back, pulling his attention away from his scope. “So listen to me, kid.”

Liz didn’t like being called a kid, but she conceded the point. Armsman was a pro at this.

Seraphim had shown up a few minutes ago, and was talking with the other Heroes. Iron Giant was making tactical gestures with his hand, which gave her and Armsman an idea of what they were doing.

“Hellgate, this is Wraith.” All she heard was sizzling static.

“ForceOps is jamming all frequencies.” Armsman had settled back into his prone shooting stance. “We’ve only got line of sight to work with now.”

<That sucks.> Liz sighed, and went back to watching the binoculars.

Unlike her Uncle, she would have to pop up over the edge of the roof to fire at the Heroes. He’d secured the only firing position with a line of sight to the assembly area while still remaining concealed.

“Why don’t they have their own snipers in position? This is a pretty sweet spot,” she wondered out loud.

“They’re getting there.” Armsman replied. “But they’re focusing on fields of fire into the park, not their assembly area.” He directed her attention to some trees and other nearby buildings where she could make out barrels pointed toward the park.

<I can’t believe I missed that.>

“Still,” she felt far less secure on the school’s roof then before. “This is still a great spot.”

“I’m sure they’ll be here any minute.” He replied as his breathing slowed and he focused on his target.

“Then what the fuck are we still doing here?” She hissed back, reorienting her rifle toward the roof access door across about thirty feet from them.

“We’re here to initiate the ambush. If anyone comes through that door deal with them. Then we relocate to our secondary position.” He slid a picture across the gravel for her to look at.

She looked back through the binoculars and saw the Hero group begin to break up.

“Almost there.” Armsman spoke to no one in particular. “Almost there.”

Then, at the worst possible moment, Liz heard the click of the roof door being unlocked. <You’ve got to be shitting me!>

She dropped the binoculars and brought the rifle up to her shoulder just as the two ForceOps soldiers walked out onto the roof. Armsman’s rifle went off with a thundering BOOM. Fifty caliber rifles weren’t exactly quiet, and that caused the two soldiers’ heads to snap in their direction.

But it was already too late for them.

Liz fired a quick shot into the nearest one’s center of mass. The first soldier stumbled back as the electromagnetically propelled round hammered into his gut.

<A fucking strongman!> Liz screamed internally, as she fired a round into the second target.

That result was much more satisfying.

The soldier’s chest exploded in a jamboree of blood, bone, muscle, and pulverized internal organs. A cloud of pink mist wafted away from the man as he fell to the ground already dead.

But there wasn’t any time to celebrate. The strongman was recovering and he was pissed.

<I would be too if I just watched my buddy get turned into a donut.> she was already on her feet and charging the bent over man.

She dropped the rifle and drew her Glock. She fired rapidly, pulling the trigger, and tracking shots up his legs, all over his chest, and finally into his face. The smaller rounds didn’t pack half the punch of her rifle, but it was enough to annoy the shit out of the guy. He swatted at the cascade of bullets smacking into his face like an angry hive of bees.

While he was distracted, Liz grabbed a grenade with her other hand, and thanked god it had an electronic detonator and wasn’t one you had to pull the pin on. Any movie that showed a person pulling the pin out with their teeth was a load of horseshit. Those things were rammed in them like a motherfucker, and pulling them was a two-handed job. Two hands were something Liz didn’t have the luxury of at the moment.

She flipped up the protective barrier, so she didn’t blow herself up by accident, and hit the ominous red button. The grenade beeped its destructive acknowledgement, and she knew she had three seconds before things went boom boom.

<Sixteen.> She counted as the last bullet exited the barrel.

The soldier was still on his feet, and the look he gave her was pure murder, so it was a good thing the explosion of sense-depriving blackness robbed him of his sight. Liz appeared behind him before he even knew what was happening, shoved the grenade in the small of his back between him and the tactical vest he was wearing, and then she teleported him back down into the assembly area. Lastly, she teleported back over to Armsman, who hastily grabbed her hand.

“Don’t leave my side again, understand!” He had to yell over the ensuing explosion the rumbled through the building’s foundation.

The grenade she’d chosen was some military-grade shit that was designed to take down strongmen. So if the soldier wasn’t dead, he was going to need some intense healing if he ever wanted to take an unassisted piss again.

“Geez,” she shot back. Peeking over the roof a second before bullets started to chew away at the concrete.

They’d figured out their position and were doing their best to turn it to rubble. They’d start using more than guns in a second, but that wasn’t the worst thing.

“You missed!” She half-screamed, half-laughed in Armsman’s face as she remembered the quick peek she’d gotten of the assembly area.

“Hey!”

She couldn’t tell but she was sure the veteran was blushing.

“The flame girl stopped and turned just as I pulled the trigger. There was no way to compensate.”

“HAHA. You still missed.” She didn’t bother keeping it down as louder booms started to echo up from below and larger chunks of the roof began to fall away.

It sounded like ForceOps was bringing their own fifty-cal to the party. <Took them long enough.>

“I hit the armored guy in the head.” Armsman defended his marksmanship. “And if you haven’t noticed he hasn’t gotten back up yet.”

Galavant was still lying face down in the dirt, but that wasn’t the point. “A miss is still a miss.” She tightened her grip on the older man. “If you miss again you’re buying me beer for a year.”

This wasn’t the time for banter, but she just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bust the legendary villain’s balls.

“Fine, deal.” Armsman relented.

She couldn’t hear him exhale over the roar of returned fire, but that all died away as they teleported to their next sniper’s nest.

The unlucky cameraman who thought he was recording the fight from a safe distance became the leading actor in a live-streamed murder when Armsman shoved his Katana through the guy’s heart.

Liz picked up his camera, which was still streaming, and filmed herself gazing silently into it for several seconds.

Her grinning mask did all the talking.

Previous                                                                 Next

A Change of Pace – Chapter 93

Hellgate and a five-man assault team lay prone in the tall grass outside the power plant’s perimeter. It had not been an enjoyable last few hours. Winter was becoming spring so things were starting to bloom back to life, and that included the mosquito population. Even in his full-body costume, complete with his notorious devil mask the retched little insects still got through to bite him.

<It’s a good thing they’re paying me a small fortune. Son of a…!> He slapped the side of his neck forcefully. It caused more pain than the bite had, but he took a small amount of pleasure in pulling his hand away and seeing the smear of blood.

“How much longer?” The team leader asked.

Technically, the jihadist was leading the team, but Hellgate was in charge. He was the only Super in the mix, with the others being assigned to different teams hitting different targets throughout the city. Seif al-Din was confident Hellgate and five battle-hardened men could take a power plant that was still being rebuilt and re-staffed after its last attack.

“We wait for the signal,” Hellgate replied.

It was the correct answer, even if he felt like strangling his daughter for having him sit out here for hours.

The assault team and all the other men Seif al-Din and Damascus had brought with them were already angry that a woman was the initiator of their holy mission. All the waiting wasn’t helping.

The five jihadists were clad from head to toe in black jumpsuits. Over those were tan body armor stolen from American troops in the Middle East. They all carried AK47s with several more banana-looking magazines of ammunition, and a handful of grenades apiece. They looked ready to bring war to the infidels, but it was the satchels Hellgate was armed with that were the real weapon.

To pass the time, Hellgate pulled the pictures out of his pocket again. There was one picture for each location. Three in total. His mission was simple. He needed to teleport in, drop the charges in their assigned location, and get out. All the satchels were on a timed charge, so he only had a minute to get it all done; which was all the time in the world to someone of his skill level.

All of the bombs were being positioned at strategic locations. Their detonation would destroy the power plant…again. And it would fulfill his first task on his way to a seven digit payday.

“How’s it hangin’ down there?” A new voice whispered in his ear.

Hellgate kept his body language neutral as annoyance crept through him. “Everything is going as planned.” He subvocalized into the throat mike he was wearing underneath his costume.

“What?” asked the jihadist next to him.

“Nothing,” Hellgate whispered back, just clearing my throat.

Armsman laughed in his ear. The legendary supervillain was parked several hundred yards behind them in a nice, comfy building. The window was open so he had a clean line of sight, but sitting way back in the room he didn’t have to worry as much about the budding mosquito population in the area.

His job was simple. Make sure that no one stabbed Hellgate in the back. From his vantage point he had the whole team in his sights.

Hellgate felt something vibrate against his side. He reached into the hidden pocket and pulled out the burner cell. It had a new message. He opened it with a press of the button.

GO was written in bold letters.

“Time to cause trouble.” Hellgate stated for everyone’s benefit.

The jihadists gave a loud battle cry, got to their feet, and charged. The front gate, guarded by two armed men was their target. Sustained gunfire cracked through the air as the five-man assault team pumped a hundred rounds into the guard booth and the two men inside it. Immediately, alarms started to wail throughout the power plant, but Hellgate was already inside.

The first room he appeared in looked like some type of control room. There were three men in white collared shirts and ties sitting at control boards when a burst of flame announced the supervillain’s arrival. They all screamed and tried to outrun the growing flames, but none of them made it.

The fourth man, a security guard, ran toward the new threat. Hellgate grabbed his wrist and forced it upward as the guard tried to level his gun. Then the villain’s fist shot forward three times. A three inch knife extended between his middle and ring finger. The small knife plunged into the guard’s neck three times; each time retracting with a spurt of blood. The last stab hit an artery and the gushing didn’t stop. The guard reached for his throat to stop the bleeding, but he was already as good as dead.

Hellgate planted his foot into the guard’s sternum and kicked him away. Then he disappeared in another flash of fire, leaving the guard and technicians to burn.

The second location was empty, either because people were gone because they were following evacuation protocols, or because no one worked there. Hellgate didn’t even know what the large machinery was, but it looked brand new, so he leaned a satchel up against the biggest thing he could find and teleported to the third and final target.

The last target was outside, and easily recognizable. It was the section of the plant that people always thought about when they thought “power plant”. The transformers were connected to tons of wires that branched outward and away from the plant. Hellgate dropped the last and largest satchel next to a big metal box in the center of the space.

<Ten seconds.> He checked his watch and took a deep breath before teleporting away for this final time.

Ten seconds later the mostly reconstructed power plant exploded; plunging the city of Orlando into darkness yet again.

 

***

 

Seif al-Din sat in the back of a heavily tinted van in a parking lot just outside the local airport. It wasn’t a large airport, and the glory of destroying it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying as hitting O’Hare outside Chicago or Jackson-Hartfield in Atlanta. But the longtime freedom fighter knew when he needed to manage his expectations. The security and the Hero teams in those cities were formidable and would mitigate any damage.

Orlando was a different story. It was a smaller town with a single team, a school run by retired fighters, and a target rich environment. This was the type of location he should have thought about hitting long ago. He still wished he could get a team or a bomb into Disney World, but the corporate security force would be on high alert once things started.

<My beautiful Fadeelah. I am coming for you.> The man took a deep breath to control himself.

He was nearly overcome by rage every time he thought of his oldest daughter growing up in the west. He wanted to tear, shred, and kill when he thought of the blasphemies they placed in her head. How they taught her to forsake Allah, to forsake her family, and now to be in a school and training to serve within Great Satan itself. It made him sick to his stomach.

<But today that all changes.> He prayed fervently for this day, and now it was here.

His phone chimed softly, a single text with two letters telling him that it was time for his prayers to be answered.

“Allahu Akbar.” He breathed deep and clasped hands with all of the men in the van with him.

They had undergone the proper ceremonies before departing on their mission. They were all prepared to die today.

Seif al-Din kept his eyes on the airport as he stepped out of the van and around to the back. He helped pull several large crates out. He flipped the clasps and pulled the top off to reveal several RPGs and a handful of Stinger missiles. Then he stood back and watched as his men went to work.

Each man from the van grabbed one of the shoulder launched weapons, lined up, and spaced themselves out to give them the best shot at their targets while avoiding any back-blast from the weapons. People in the parking lot were running and screaming away from the righteous men carrying out the divine will. They kept yelling about calling the cops like it would do any good.

They only had to wait for a few seconds before the lights in the airport flickered and died. Planes on the runways ground to a halt as they lost communication with air-traffic control, and the holy warriors took advantage of that. The man on the far right fired first. The Stinger missile shot out and traveled quickly across the airport. One plane had been in the middle of takeoff when the power went out, but it was already in the air, so it kept going…right up until the missile hit it dead center and shattered it like an egg.

The plane broke apart as its momentum pushed it higher into the air for a few more seconds, and then it came tumbling back down in a dozen different large sections. It hit the ground in a residential neighborhood not far from the airport, and the remaining jet fuel exploded leveling several houses.

Seif didn’t watch any of the following violence. He was more concerned with his other soldiers. An RPG round rocketed across the airfield to strike the first plane in the lineup near the cockpit. This plane didn’t explode and break apart like the last one, but its landing gear did fail and it tipped forward to scrape and twist across the runway until it came to a stop blocking anyone from taking off.

Seif turned his attention to the third man who was aiming at the terminal while the second one reloaded. The second one would work his way through the planes on the runways and at the gates until he was out of ammunition. The third and fourth man would do the same to the terminal, with the express intent of kill as many people as possible. They targeted the areas containing the check-in counters first and then worked out toward the busiest gates. They’d done their research, and figured out the gates with flights that departed soon, which would be filled right before boarding.

The fifth man kept an eye on their surroundings. It was his job to give them as much time as possible to complete their mission. So when the first police cruiser came tearing around the corner with lights and sirens blazing it ate a RPG right in its grill. It exploded, killing the officers instantly, and ended up on its side in a burning pile of steel, rubber, and fuel until the gas tank caught fire and it rocked the area with a second explosion.

Seif al-Din barely noticed the second smaller explosion of fire that announced his ride throughout the chaos.

“Boss.” Hellgate walked up next to him and surveyed the damage.

With the devil mask on the terrorist leader couldn’t see the mercenary’s expression, but his body language revealed the man couldn’t care less.

“We need to move to the staging area.” Seif al-Din stated, but turned away from the Super to look at his men.

They stopped their firing for a second to acknowledge their leader. He gave them all a deep bow and clasped his hands in front of him in the universal sign of prayer.

<You will all feast with virgins tonight my brothers.> He felt the mercenary’s hand on his shoulder and they both vanished in a flash of fire. <Now for stage two.>

 

***

 

Damascus stood in the middle of an open field. A major highway was a hundred yards to his right. The minivan he’d rented was sitting on the shoulder as cars blurred by it at seventy miles an hour. But he didn’t pay attention to any of it.

<It’s so hot.> Unlike the rest of his brothers in arms, he was wearing a golf shirt and silver slacks that matched his hair. <It feels like I’m drowning in hot soup.>

Damascus and his men were used to dry desert heat. Humidity was something entirely new and hated by them. <It is always smoldering in the belly of the beast.> He thought as a Florida Highway Patrol car pulled up behind his van and two officers got out.

One went to look at the van while the other headed over towards Damascus. He noticed how the officer rested his hand on the holster of his pistol. A police officer in his homeland would have already had his weapon out and ready to use.

“Good afternoon, Sir. Can I help you?”

Damascus smiled and adopted an American accent. “Just havin’ some car trouble, Officer. Your help would be much appreciated.”

The officer smiled back and took his hand off his weapon.

“I do need to let you know that I’m going to have to give you a ticket for the windows though.”

Damascus face fell in a well-rehearsed manner.

“Sorry.” The officer shrugged. “We allow tinted windows, but those are blacked out. You can’t see inside at all.”

“Ok,” Damascus sighed theatrically. “You’ve got to do your job, I understand that.”

In his pocket his phone chimed loudly. The officer looked at him, and Damascus held up his hands. “Can I grab that?” He asked.

“Sure.” The officer kept a close eye on the silver-haired super as he pulled the slim phone from his pocket.

GO

“Do you have someone you can call to come and pick you up?” The officer asked as he pulled out his ticket pad. “I’m also going to need to see your license, registration, and proof of insurance.”

“No need officer.” Damascus smiled.

The officer looked confused as Damascus hit the send button on a preprogramed number.

The sound of an explosion and cracking concrete sent the officer spinning toward the highway. The highway for about a few hundred yards in front and behind the van looked like someone had popped a giant bubble. The ground had ballooned out as the buried artillery shells exploded: throwing cars, shrapnel, and concrete into the air.

Brakes shrieked as cars came to a halt up and down the highway.

“What the fuck!” The cop yelled already moving back toward the explosions. “Central, I need everything you’ve got to the eastbound rest area north of State Road 434 now. I need EMS, Fire, more units, we need the fucking National Guard. Fucking bombs just blew up the road!”

Damascus saw the differences between American first responders and American soldiers in the first thirty seconds after the bombs went off. First responders zeroed in on the destruction and went to help in any way they could. American soldiers would have focused on eliminating the threat first. It didn’t even cross the police officer’s mind that Damascus was the one who detonated the bombs.

“Sir, stay here!” The cop yelled over his shoulder at Damascus as he sprinted back towards his patrol car.

“Sure thing, Officer.” He hit a second pre-programed number and his minivan exploded.

The cops never stood a chance, and neither did the cars that had been stopped by the earlier explosions. The first explosions had been to destroy infrastructure. The second had been meant to take lives and create a barrier of dead that would have to be crossed by whoever came down the road. It was a psychological warfare strategy as much as a tactical one.

<And there we go.> He heard more explosions in the distance.

He turned to the south and saw a flaming ball of fire falling out of the air. He couldn’t see it but he knew the power was out across the city, but that wouldn’t be noticeable until dark.

<Now for phase two.> He took a deep breath and pulled.

The fire within him was already there so he drew on it while keeping it bottled up. He was like a rocket ready to explode and lift off. He pulled and pulled and pulled until he felt like he was going to burst. Then he exhaled and exploded.

Silver fire washed over everything. It rolled over the highway, burning cars and cooking off the gas in their tanks. It stampeded over the rest area on the opposite side of the road, causing more chain reactions of explosions. People caught in the open were turned to ash, and those in vehicles were roasted alive. The silver flames kept going beyond that and into the residential neighborhoods to the east and west.  It’s initial explosion tapered off after about half a mile, but by then the fire had taken on a life of its own. It continued its rampage through the neighborhoods.

The goal was for it eat away at the area all the way east until it hit Lake Jesup. But it would eat the Spring Hammock Preserve before then and burn down hundreds of homes. To the west, it would get to rampage free after eating homes and breaking into the Wekiva River Buffer Conservation Area. It would grow in intensity and would take a powerful hydrokinetic or a combined interstate force of firefighters to stop it. All of that would drain resources away from the real target.

As Damascus watched it all burn another flare of flame erupted not far away. Seif al-Din and Hellgate appeared. Hellgate’s fire reared up like an angry snake and attacked the silver flames around it. The silver flames replied in-kind and Damascus got to watch a real-life example of fighting fire with fire.

“Good work.” His leader surveyed the destruction with a serene expression. “The other teams report similar success. The city is descending into chaos. And now we must prepare for the counterattack.” He beckoned Damascus closer so Hellgate could grab them both and teleport them to their next location.

 

***

 

All hell was breaking loose back at the Protectorate HQ. Not just in the section occupied by the Hero team and the DVA, but the cops as well.

“We’ve got another call coming in.” An analyst stated. His middle-aged face seemed to have aged five years in the last five minutes.

“Answer it, categorize it, and throw it on the board.” Mr. Morningstar stood like an unflappable pillar in the middle of the storm.

The people in the room drew inspiration from the calm and collected team leader, and that was far more important than any super power right now.

A giant holographic map of Orlando was projected into the center of the room and then color-coded to identify emergency areas. As always, the majority of the map was green, which meant nothing was wrong. A few spots along highways leading in and out of town were amber and red. Amber meaning these were places that needed help, and red meaning everyone’s ass needed to be at that location now.

The problem anyone with a brain was seeing was that there were far too many red zones than there were people to cover them. The small Hero team and the police were trying their best.

“The reports are saying that a group of armed men just stormed the local NBC affiliate and took them over.” The analysts threw another red zone up on the board.

“Get SWAT over there.” Mr. Morningstar was starting to feel the stress even if he didn’t want to admit it and would never show it.

“Sir, they’re fully engaged at the airport. SWAT is pinned down in the parking lot and the gunmen are using human shields. It’s a tactical nightmare. We already have casualties.”

Mr. Morningstar bit down his retort and rethought the plan. “Try and retask a few people when they get freed up. Until then, redirect Galavant some of these interstate hotspots. He can deal with those. Seraphim can take the guys at the airport.”

Currently, the density manipulator was helping move damaged vehicles off the highways, and that seemed to be the best use of him for the moment. It was the first step in getting those roads back open. Step two was getting someone in to fix the huge holes and put out the fires. Seraphim was gathering aerial intelligence, and could be at the airport in minutes.

“Galavant acknowledges. Seraphim’s ETA is three minutes.”

The rookie Hero was literally pulling his weight today.

“Broadcasting was just interrupted at 101.1.” Another analyst said from across the room. Her face scrunched in confusion as she listened to the radio.

“Let me guess,” Special Agent Debora Phillips strode into the office. “The usual death to America bullshit.”

The other woman nodded as Debora walked up to the Hero leader.

“Looks like it’s time to call it in.” The DVA agent took a classic hands on hips pose. “This isn’t some gang retaliation or big bank robbery, this is now officially a terrorist attack.” Her eyes bored into the Heroes. “And if our intel over the last six months is true, then we have a good idea who it is and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Mr. Morningstar took a deep breath and nodded. From the look on the parts of his face not covered by a mask it seemed like the old Hero had been trying to convince himself that Orlando wasn’t up shit’s creek already. That all slipped away now that Agent Phillips had confronted him, and the man seemed to deflate as a result.

“Make your calls, Agent, and I’ll make mine.”

“You heard him people!” Debora yelled into the room. “We are now at threat condition alpha. This is not a drill. Follow your procedures and get ready for a long day. We’re about to get a lot of visitors and they’re going to be eager to help. You get them where they need to go and we’ll all get through this.” She turned back to the room and saw Mr. Morningstar was on the phone getting all the help he could directed to the city immediately.

Now she turned her attention to the board. While she’d been talking two more roads had gone from green to red. It was like Orlando had an angry red ringworm around it. There was no way in and out of the city.

“Local TV is playing the same message as the radio now.” The analyst covering the media announced.

Debora switched on the TV to find a man dressed in black, armed for war, and holding a giant sword speaking in accented English about America’s crimes. She didn’t pay it more than a few seconds of attention. Nothing longer than what it took to confirm that the man fit the profile of Seif al-Din, and that meant he was likely in the city.

“Make sure you call the HCP.” She turned to Mr. Morningstar and pointed at the TV screen.

“Dean.” Mr. Morningstar nodded at her comment and raised his voice to let her know he was on with the HCP right now.

Debora refocused on the board and saw a blue flashing light arrive at one of the red areas. “That KaBoom?” She asked an analyst.

She was familiar with the color-coded identifiers the Protectorate used, but couldn’t remember who was who at the moment.

“Yes, Ma’am. We’ve got audio and video if you want me throw in on the screen.”

“Please.” Debora leaned forward as the scene came to life.

“KaBoom entering the premises.” The Hero’s voice was steady despite the front door being shot up and the unarmed security guards lying in growing pools of their own blood.

“Dispatch, have him move to the control room and stop the propaganda show. They’ll probably be there guarding it to stop us doing exactly that.” Debora asked the mysterious mistress of the Heroes communications network

KaBoom cocked his head slightly as the orders were relayed and directions given. “Acknowledged.” He started to run toward the room, but was careful to check his corners. His kinetic abosobtion would protect him, but he wasn’t invulnerable.

That was quickly put to the test. He stuck his head around a corner and nearly got it shot off with machine gun fire.

“Shit.” He pulled back as tracer rounds lit up the wall bright enough for them to see back at the headquarters. “They’ve set up a strong point at the end of the hall before the control room. I need to find another way.”

The other way turned out to be him getting to a parallel location and going through two walls to ambush them from their supposedly secure side. Terrorists crumbled as he hit them with fists packing the punch of a car going twenty miles per hour. But they got a few shots in. The Hero absorbed the energy and kept moving.

Until he fought his way into the control room. Then the screen went white and they lost all audio.

“Get it back.” Debora ordered futilely.

“We’ve lost all connectivity.”

“The broadcast has ceased and we’re receiving the technical difficulties statement with that annoying whining sound.”

“Dispatch has also lost communications.” That wasn’t good.

“Get EMS there now. And let’s hope the building is still there.” The last sentence was a whisper that only Debora was meant to hear.

They couldn’t lose one of their Heroes so early in the fight. This was just the opening act.

“Ok, shrug it off people. We’ve got bad reception everywhere so don’t let it get to you. Let’s find the next fire and put it out.”

But the truth was they needed more firemen.

 

***

 

John was sitting in his office and enjoying a turkey club with extra crispy bacon when the lights flickered, died for a second, and then emergency lights came on.

<That can’t be good.> The old Hero was on his feet before he consciously knew what he was doing.

“Dispatch?”

“The power plant was just attacked.” The emotionless voice in his ear replied. “Damage is city wide.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

“DVA, police, and Protectorate assets are moving to ascertain information. I will keep you posted.”

“Thank you.” John went back to eating his turkey club, while checking the integrity of the HCP systems and watching the news.

The moment the local broadcast cut out he knew something was wrong, and that was quickly confirmed when a familiar voice started speaking.

“You have sinned, America. You have sinned against Allah, you have sinned against your fellow man, and worst of all you have sinned against me.”

John unconsciously shifted into his Iron Giant form. His chair groaned under the increased weight, and the table protested as his fingertips dug into it instinctively.

The last time John had heard that voice he’d been half dead in New York City after losing his entire team and thousands of civilian lives. The phone on his desk started to ring and he hit the speakerphone button.

“Dean.” It was Mr. Morningstar. “We’ve got a problem.”

“I know,” John took a few deep breaths to get himself under control. “I’ll get my people ready, secure the students, and get our VIP to safety.”

“Thank you, John.” Mr. Morningstar’s voice was clipped with stress.

“You’re welcome.” The line was cut and John opened up a new line. “All HCP professors please report to the Dean’s office immediately.”

Robin and Marshall had taken the participating seniors to Intermurals at Lander, so it was only him, Daisy, Craig, Maria, Grace, and Miles. Blake was probably already out there as the city’s on-call healer and Dr. Johnson wouldn’t be much help until after the bloodshed.

He knew his remaining staff would all hear the tone of his voice and know it was go time.

<Now we just need to get a message to Anika.> They needed the ForceOps teleporter to pick her up now and get her to safety.

Removing Seif al-Din’s objective from the playing field was the best way to get him to leave quickly. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to be quiet about it.

Previous                                                        Next