Figure 1 Apollo Arens, leader of the world's greatest super-team

HERO WORSHIP

 

ABSTRACT

The world has lived with Supers for several decades, but all sense of balance has been lost as opportunists jump on the hero bandwagon, and normal people start demanding a system of accountability. Codes will break and new alliances formed as Superheroes struggle to maintain their accustomed privileges, while others question if it’s even possible to reign in an emergent race of ruling demigods.

Rolf Hartmann

November 2016


Hero Worship

Preliminary notes:

  1. This story is meant as 80’s (or Cassette) futurism and thus all technology is based on those assumptions. Escape From New York, Aliens, Blade Runner, and Farcry 3: Blood Dragon are good representations, along with almost anything featuring Japanese corporations on the verge of global economic hegemony.
  2. Naturally this is set in the bleak and distant future of 1997.

Disclaimer: this is a work of satire, and I hope that anyone who reads it isn’t so stupid as to think I have anything less than profound gratitude to the makers of the superhero genre for the many hours of enjoyment they have given me and others.

Disclaimer number 2: the pictures I’m features I drew up in the game DC Universe Online, and while vivid limited my choices in terms of body types and styles. I include them to give a general idea for a few of the characters rather than as definitive icons.

Disclaimer number 3: disclaimer number 1 is plagiarized from C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet.

Disclaimer number 4: This isn’t a final draft and remains subject to editing and refinement.

Contents

As You Know Bob        3

Fringe Benefits        78

The Dark Conspiracy        127


 As You Know Bob[1]

“You know what your problem is? You think the world revolves around a set of rules. You had the privilege of growing up under the shield of a very fair system, and that’s cursed you with thinking everyone thinks the way you do—or at the very least that they want to.”

“What does cynicism have to do with anything? If you don’t think people can get along then why don’t they tear each other apart?”

“With how much better off people are in relatively just systems it’s a testament to our instincts that we reject them anyways. People feel comfortable with personal connections which override any rules. I’m surprised an experienced cop would be so naïve, for an assignment like this they should have gotten someone from a gang unit or maybe spent time doing business in some crappy country so he has a taste of how people really treat each other.”

“Just because you think the Praetorians don’t operate by a rule-book doesn’t mean we should send someone dirty. I’m shocked that anyone would even insinuate some kind of corruption from the most powerful and noble Super-team on the planet. Hell, very few cops ever fire their weapon in the line of duty in a whole career of applying the law. Society works because we trust each other, we have to and we want to.”

“Yeah but every one of those laws, every contract, every treaty, sooner or later comes back to the threat of force. The Christianity they had during the Roman Empire sounds like some hippy bull shit, but the people who survived understood what a bunch of Greek thinkers never could.”

The second man let the conversation lapse feigning interest as he looked back at a TV screen where the satellite news beamed out:

“The reconstruction of Queens continues on schedule thanks to a streamlined bidding process; this is the ninth major recovery project in New York and its boroughs in the last forty-four years, and each time the city has only been saved by the timely intervention of its resident superheroes!”

The female reporter with big-news-hair stared at the camera in front of a scene of rubble covering much of the background, but already construction crews using powered-exoskeletons right next to traditional equipment and hand-crews labored away, setting up the frames for replacement structures even as they cleared away debris.

The anchor took over: “This is of course only the second major Occurrence since the launching of the Goathaven Initiative, but some of the new rules have drawn controversy especially with Carolus Interstellar winning several important contracts. As you know…”

NYPD Lieutenant Ben Watson looked away and turned the volume way down, as he pushed the end of his previous conversation out of his thoughts. Nothing relevant, just some posturing by a guy who thinks he knows everything thanks to reading a couple books about antiquity. Next thing he’ll probably start quoting Nietzsche at me. In his late thirties and stoutly built, though constantly struggling with diets: or more accurately always struggling with his wife over diets. He had handsome features and light brown skin with tightly curled hair cut very short and a goatee of the same length.

The ride is smooth, everything is safe, so what if there’s no pilot. He worried to himself as he glanced around the aircraft, which for a few minutes he had forgotten he was inside. Helicopters and airplanes he could understand, but these next generation aircraft seemed like magic. Looking out a window he could see land, dotted by human development, giving way to the expanse of the sea.

He looked at his co-occupant in the back working out and asked: “Don’t you want to at least sit by the controls?”

Lee Langdon Lawford did a complex looking exercise using a kettlebell, as beads of sweat covered his skin, only a headband keeping them out of his eyes. He and Ben had a similar body size, but Lee’s was much leaner. His sun-streaked hair, worn in a shaggy style though somewhat shorter on top, matched his short beard and even his face had the muscles brought out by enough training. Several scars competed with tattoos for prominence on his skin. He smirked but kept at his set: “Dude there’s no point, and I’d rather get some work done on the way.”

Ben looked over his folder: “The department could have sent us out on a boat, on it we could have worked without drawn so much attention…”

Lee started into another exercise: “You’re not sure how they’ll take our arrival on Arens Island in this, but I do: they’ll take notice and maybe listen.”

Ben thought for a few seconds: “How do you own one of these anyways, the tech is highly restricted. Even Special Forces gets around on choppers ever since: as you know…” Suddenly the craft hit a slight spot of turbulence, causing Ben to look at the self-correcting controls to reassure himself.

Lee grimaced at the strain of steadying himself in the middle of a lift: “I’m a Super.”

Ben looked surprised: “You, really? You’re not scared of your identity getting out?”

Lee put down the kettlebell and stared into some chin-ups: “I’m surprised someone with your job gives that crap any credence. As for me, I believe in living outside the closet. You really sure you don’t want to get in some sets?” The last part sounded like a pick-up line as he looked Ben over.

Ben went back to thumbing through his paperwork pretending it was important. He then saw land again and knew it was their destination, even as he could feel their aircraft slow down. What do you even call this type vehicle? Still a couple miles away Lee put away his weights as they started to circle. Ben spotted a couple small buildings a road and what might have been the island’s small docks. Arens Island stretched across a couple dozen miles of gorgeous real estate covered mostly in a lush forest. Even from far above Ben could see several areas devastated into moonscapes. Having once served as an artillery officer in the Army he felt amazed at the destruction, the kind of result you could only get from a recent and very intense barrage. Flipping through his folder he found that while some of it came from attacks, much of it just happened from training and the always dominance exercises between Supers. All that continued to happen even though most of the island remained designated as a nature preserve.

Lee took a moment to look out the window and laughed: “Goddamn, this place gets more wrecked every month.”

The last thing we need is to make a bad impression and this contractor they sent me with remains covered in gym sweat and workout clothes. For fucks’ sake people expect professionalism.

Even as he thought about that he then looked back and saw that Lee had already largely cleaned himself up with a hugely oversized moist-towelette, and got into his clothes in what felt like seconds.

Okay that’s a little better, but sneakers, aviator sunglasses and a sleeveless shirt do not cut it for a meeting like this.

Ben could see the airstrip below and the main compound as they circled waiting for some kind of pre-landing challenge which only came after they had circled for a couple minutes. The craft came down quickly at forty-five-degree angle, but the landing proved soft. Unlike some of the other next generation craft, Ben had seen operating, Lawford’s could not make perfectly vertical take-offs and landings—although what it needed remained minimal.

Upon landing a couple people greeted them wearing the Praetorians light-blue and purple colors, but as expected their costumes had widely different patterns with personalized raised collars, cuffs, ridges, capes, epaulets and belts. Even wearing the colors the greeters themselves only piqued a slight feeling of familiarity—and Ben could recognize the variation as belonging to one or another of their various farm teams.

C-listers at best, but I guess they take care of the menial jobs.

Ben showed his credentials, and right away they seemed dismissive bordering on hostile. They immediately confiscated the bulky cellphone issued by the Department, in case it might have hidden electronic measures to undermine their security, and his service weapon—the latest Japanese 9mm handgun—declaring that the island so safe as to make weapons redundant.

With a shit-eating-grin Lee retorted: “Semi-monthly attacks by hostile Supers notwithstanding.”

The apparently senior member of the greeting party, a bestial girl, gave several loud sniffs at him even as she looked offended: “You’re packing all sorts of electronic gear, and wait… is that an energy weapon?!”

Lee put on a learned English accent: “You don’t need to confiscate my equipment, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

“We don’t need to… Wait you’re a psychic. Did you actually think that could work on me?” She bared her claws and her partner’s fists glowed with energy.

Lee chuckled: “Come on, those mind-tricks only work when people aren’t on alert. I just did it to let you know I’m in the club. I’m a reserve member of the Alliance.”

And once he gave a few more particulars they treated Lawford with respect as they led the two of them to a nearby land-speeder and drove them towards the main building. Lieutenant Watson felt a little humiliated at not being allowed to keep any of his gear even as his associate displayed equipment a hundred times more threatening. The airstrip and most of the buildings had an aggressively futuristic—yet ugly—look to them. Ben remembered older pictures of the compound centering on a huge mansion, the original base for the team, with a great façade of pillars and a dome somewhat reminiscent of many state capitol buildings—though on a much smaller scale. Ben looked around for that older structure.

Lee shook his head: “As you should know: Arens’ mansion fell-down went-boom way back in the day, they tried to rebuild, but using energy powers and TK to pick it all up and fuse it together created a monstrosity that got worse every time they tried to fix it. Beauty takes craftsmanship, attention to detail, time.” He diligently combed his hair as he spoke.

To Ben’s relief after the rude greeting, the leader of the Praetorians, Apollo Arens waited for them outside the main building which covered a comparable area to a stadium. Very tall and with jet-black hair fair skin and blue eyes, Apollo was the very image of physical perfection with his tights showing off the incredible definition of his bulging musculature which only added to his magnetic bearing. He gave them a friendly greeting once they stepped off the vehicle. The first two Supers had been impressively built, but Apollo put the statues of Greek gods to shame.

Trying to take the edge off his insecurity Ben joked hoping to break the ice: “I can see why Lee wanted to get in a workout before arriving. I mean you must spend a few hours a day in the gym.” Lee looks like a pudgy nerd next to this guy.

Apollo looked confused: “Gym?”

This guy looks like that and doesn’t even workout, why God didn’t you at least give me that super-power.

A few pointless words of greeting followed before Apollo led them inside. Both the front doors and the hallway were built on an intimidatingly large scale, and the passage took them about a minute just to reach an elevator which took them down to a massive meeting-hall a couple hundred feet across and about three stories high. Monitors covered two walls along with a holographic display in the middle of the room surrounded by tables making a u-shape, and the other part of the room had stadium seating which disappeared into the darkness. In layout it reminded Ben of some of the larger lecture halls in universities. A few prominent Supers sat around, most notably Mean Fist whose biker boots and jacket managed to make his tights look even more strange.

Last few years some have added leather and chains and spikes to their uniforms, gets harder every month to tell the good guys from the baddies.

Mean Fist was somewhat short, but had a thicker build than Apollo, though both had similar colorings, and Mean’s hair jetted out from his skull in a tangled helmet of immaculately messed up hair. Lee got a nice comfortable chair which he leaned well back on showing very little formality, while Ben got directed to a stool with uneven legs despite the room having plenty of large comfortable chairs unoccupied. Two more Praetorians sat at the main table although Ben could not quite remember their names and no one gave any introductions. More people mainly wearing business-casual attire sat around the theater seating higher up in the partially darkened parts of the room, and no one made any move towards introductions.

Entering the room just as Ben got seated came Incendra, another one of the best-known Praetorians. In contrast to Mean Fist or Lawford’s annoyingly casual bearing, or Apollo’s natural gravitas, Incendra carried herself imperiously. Widely hailed, especially in the press, as the most beautiful woman in the world—yet somehow a few of his more outspoken friends considered her ugly. He had always argued against them, and how could the whole world be wrong, although he did find her hard to look at for more than a few seconds at a time. Her costume, what little of it there was, looked like wisps of fire—its red and orange colors ignored the organization’s expected scheme—and lacked the functional constraints of normal clothing staying in place only through some science defying trickery. No one could mistake her for a normal person with her great height, enhanced by stiletto-heels, perfectly crimson hair, and deeply bronzed skin, along with impossible curves. She even had what looked like a permanent wind-effect in her hair. There was no way her waist was more than a size zero, but her hips and buttocks looked plump and her breasts enormous defying gravity by staying elevated with no support. Still images, particularly the promotions, always came out amazingly—yet on video sometimes he could understand the mistake people made; regardless everything was there from the pillowy-lips and pencil eyebrows to prominent cheekbones and a pert nose. Face to face the effect proved unnerving and the back of his mind swirled with a few particular comments people had made: like that her body really was impossible as she somehow seemed very slender from many angles but also thick and sometimes in the same places. And even as he rejected the naysayers he could not put some of their comments out of his head.

Apollo tilted his head back and puffed out his chest declaring: “I’ll get right to the point...” Before giving a meandering monologue that only started addressing their issue in an oblique manner after several minutes: “…As you know: they have never treated my kind well this world that hates and fears us, and as a Super my first priority must always be protecting my kind from fascist policies They seek to impose on us.” After more minutes of Apollo giving an emotional appeal about all the better things the government could do with its time Incendra interrupted him: “All this monitoring, the next step is force us into ghettos and we know where that leads… EXTERMINATION.”

Ben Watson felt wobbly from all of that, too much to take in without getting a word edgewise. He knew he was on the defensive on all this but this felt like starting a boxing match already on the ropes, and with a sprained ankle. He cleared his throat hoping for a sign he could give his interpretation for the proposal hoping the plan might set them at ease, but one of them gave him an offended look so he said nothing. Again and again an ill defined ‘they’ came up, and always with paranoia the way passionate political activists with little knowledge talked about any details or systems which might get in their way. It seemed hard to tell if the Praetorians meant a secret society, the government as a singular entity, or some multi faced boogeyman; although the considering the bizarre nature of some of their enemies the last case would have been the most reassuring to Ben.

Lee shook his head slightly: “Cut the melodrama, nothing here leads to any of that. This isn’t even from the Federal Government, just the NYPD. Sixteen officers killed last month running into a situation which could have easily been avoided, compare that with this latest Occurrence where warning came down and they stood clear assisting only with the evacuation while taking only a few injuries. The proposal calls for liaising so you guys can all work together and they can stay out of your way when needed.”

Apollo seemed unfazed: “Call it what you want, but embedding this Lieutenant Watson here constitutes a form of monitoring what the NYPD learns they can easily pass on, and need I remind you of how many lives my team has saved?!?” He spoke as if Ben were not in the room.

Lee countered: “Public perception counts for a lot in cases like this, the questions make the rounds and they won’t away ‘how can we minimize damage?’ ‘why don’t these teams coordinate with law enforcement?’ ‘How come the heroes had a hand in making most of the major threats?’. Trust has hit an all-time low: your merchandising lines, and all your other ancillary revenue streams, suffer for it.”

Making their own enemies?! That not true, it can’t be, except for all the cases where they did, but those don’t matter. Wait is it really most?

Mean shotgunned his fourth beer since the meeting’s start: “I don’t like being told to slow down or what I can and can’t do. This will only get in our way of doing what needs to be done.”

Incendra took deep offense at the negotiator: “Besides who do you think you’re fooling pretending you are even one of us. You don’t promote our interests. Hell only the most worthless teams even recruit P-6s. You’re barely even in the public-eye anymore. I’m top thirty for half a decade while you’ve never even hit number ninety.”

A few chuckles echoed from people sitting in the shadows.

Apollo raised his hand to indicate his compatriots should let him speak: “I care about doing good, not about how the sales of my posters and action figures and t-shirts. Have you really lost sight of what this is really all about?” He directed all his attention at the outsider.

Lee’s voice dripped sarcasm: “You don’t care about fame got it, I’ll remember that when your next album comes out… As you know: half the way teams get ranked, in the public eye, is by those streams.” He then focused on Incendra “And the operative term is you were in the top thirty: were.” He finished with a half-smile and someone in the meeting’s periphery snickered.

Incendra looked deeply hurt by the insinuation: “I’ve had some personal problems, it’s not very productive for you to go after my private life like that.”

Mean Fist growled: “We don’t tolerate that kind of sexism around here.” For some reason, he stared at Ben as he said it blaming him.

Lee sat straight for the first time: “If I’d have wanted to get personal I’d have mentioned how people are getting suspicious of your romance —es— with a couple of different mass-murders…”

Incendra looked like she might literally explode, but then she stormed out of the room muttering most incomprehensibly although the word misogynist came out loud and clear a couple times.

Apollo seemed almost as shocked as his teammate: “How does anyone buy that you’re a hero when you treat women so horribly.”

Lee smirked: “I’m not sure why we’re wasting the valuable time of your power-players when this seems more like something to talk out with cerebral types or administrators.” He gave a short glance to those gathered in the upper levels.

Ben finally saw a real opening: “Are you all really this obsessed with pissing contests?” A few seconds passed in silence before he finished: “Even when you’re not punching each other you argue over toy sales!?”

It was hard to gauge the looks on most of their faces, but Apollo smiled: “Well the normie[2] finally speaks, at long last. Now I can see you’re not just some mindless drone.”

Getting complimented by someone of Apollo Arens’s stature gave Ben pause, but Lee piped in: “Most of the people who live on this compound aren’t Supers anyways. Aside from the Caretakers, you’ve all invited friends, relatives, orphans, work-staff, lovers and business associates to live here, and once they start get a free lunch it’s hard for any of them to leave.” He gave a light-hearted grin at the end.

Ben added: “You have pilots and people with tactical skills as allies. I can help with monitoring and assessments, handling prisoners and background checks on anyone you let in. An organization this size must produce a lot of staff work.”

From there the conversation wore on for almost a half hour, although thankfully most of the other members of the Praetorians got bored and left the room. Once they left Ben grabbed a more comfortable chair and seeing that Apollo even gave him another smile of approval. Much of it just came down to logistics and looking at Ben Watson’s background. The initial feeling of intimidation partially faded, and before it ended Ben felt himself relax.

*

Later that day Ben finally got a workstation and placing his effects atop it, even as Lee hung around making the occasional sarcastic comment while showing him how some of the futuristic technology worked—though it mostly proved intuitive. The schoolboy rush he had once felt at seeing superheroes had largely diminished thanks largely to the territoriality coming from them; clearly they saw him as an interloper and word had gotten around instantaneously giving the rest of the compound a bad first impression of him. Everyone he had dealt with since the meeting let him know how they didn’t appreciate the attempt to intrude on their rights; although none of them specified what specific rights were violated, and all the harsh reactions felt almost like a weight around his neck.

A slight rush of air and Ben’s hair suddenly feeling on end announced the arrival of a new Super, and he looked up feeling relief to find another one looking him in the eye. He recognized Ryden Bolt right away. A popular electricity powered heroine her uniform was fairly standard Praetorian tights with a few cutout sections which showed off a fit and trim build even as a few bits of electricity crackled off her for an instant. Secretly he felt glad she was one of the ones his daughter idolized instead of some of the others, she came off as more grounded generally setting a good example—aside from the number of relationships with male Supers she had racked up in just a few years. Some of his friends thought she looked pale and flat, but that was only in comparison to those like Incendra. Nothing stood out about her looks, aside maybe for her great skin, but that had its own charm; indeed every feature seemed so well balanced with every other feature that it was easy to accidentally stare having thought nothing of it. Her eyes, with the whites tainted slightly blue, stood out as the only inhuman detail of her appearance. While meeting her instantly set his heart aflutter he felt a little disappointed to see her platinum blond hair cut short in an unbecoming boyish cut with ridges shaved into one side.

Ryden gave him an easygoing smile: “So I volunteered to help get you acclimated.”

The tension of the day melting away, Ben hid his excitement as best he could. After a stressful morning it seemed the plan might turn out better than he could have hoped: “You, guide me around. I’m flattered that Apollo thinks this highly of the initiative.”

Ryden looked a little embarrassed: “Well I still need to prove myself around here. I go to Wu Shu classes in the morning at seven and you might want to try them out, polish your skills give us a chance to assess you on our terms.”

Her gentle needling came as a relief after the condescension from most of the others: “Well I’m happy to learn more especially if it will help integrate me in around here.”

Lee stepped over: “You take Kung Fu classes?” He laughed “What the hell for? Last time I checked cosmic demi-gods aren’t too vulnerable to knife-hand strikes.” His vibes towards the girl were almost too complicated to read, even for an experienced observer, a friendly antagonism but maybe also regret.

Ryden rolled her eyes: “My powers lend themselves to close-combat as well as they do ranged.” While defiant she seemed uncomfortable and off-guard.

Lee laughed: “Then practice your actual abilities, don’t try out for the Peking Opera.”

Ben remembered something of their shared background, Ryden Bolt had started with Lawford on a second-tier Super-team called the Sacred Protectors.

“Our people know our needs a little better than you do. And how come you’re still here?” She started trading sass for sass.

Lee: “Oh I’m just helping him get settled in.”

She bit her lip slightly: “Your escorts should have never given a mercenary free access to this compound. And that you didn’t leave the minute you made the deal, doubtless securing your bonus, means you probably have some kind of agenda...”

They bantered back and forth for a couple minutes like that, even as Ryden along with Ben escorted Lee back to his aircraft. In particular he seemed amused that she got low level jobs when her long experience and high degree of raw power should have let her come in near the top of the pecking order. She treated his questioning of her new team’s methods with playful antagonism.

After he was away Ben reported: “He never left my sight for more than a minute.”

She gave him a smirk: “He only needs a minute.”

Afterwards she toured him all over the compound, primarily on one of the land-speeders, for over an hour as they talked—even though he felt increasingly jealous at the casual use of amazing technology. Ryden: “We do try to keep training facilities separate from living quarters, but sometimes we conduct drills on the grounds so don’t freak out at the noise.” Which a couple minutes later led him to asking: “Any facilities for families?” She glanced at his wedding-band replying: “The team doesn’t really have a need since we’re all pretty young.” A few minutes later after seeing the ruins of Arens Manor Ben asked: “So Apollo hasn’t worked on keeping the family line going, he should have a couple of kids by his age with all his money and fame.” She looked off-put as she replied: “His age? He’s only twenty-nine.” Ben didn’t push it, but did some math in his head and knew it had to be a lie, and the way she spoke it probably came from some official line. He’s been active for well over twenty years and was around twenty when he started, these Supers are as embarrassed about their age as movie stars. Beating around the bush about it he tried to get her age eventually getting the reply: “Well yeah the Front Line get called a teen group, but some of us are in our early twenties. The New Guardians on the other hand have some of the oldest people in the organization, but they never moved up and won’t give up the title of ‘teen group’.” She certainly looked young, and carried herself with the right sort of impetuous adolescent energy, but he knew the files so he responded: “You’ve played the ingénue for what eight years?” He winked and she gave him a flirty pout in response.

As day turned into evening he convinced her to extend the tour to the island as an informal excursion; thus before meeting back up he dressed down, and she changed into the sort of flamboyant and revealing clothing youths might wear to a night club. Out of her costume she felt like the first real person he’d met since coming to the island, and that included several unpowered friends of the team. Have I really only been here one day? It feels like a week. Despite the cold early evening air, he felt flushed as he took a few seconds to openly admire her and her bouncy walk as she approached him smiling friendlily. He felt his heart race faster as he looked, especially over those exquisite and legs—bared by a pair of short shorts—which seemed a crime to cover up even with colorful tights; however he also noticed that in civies she proved much less busty than in uniform, and remembered a couple months back when for some odd reason several news sources had tried to turn her cleavage padding into a scandal. Thinking back he remembered something about her pushing unrealistic expectations as hurting young girls, or some such, but the nontroversy had quickly fizzled out—and many had lauded the frank way she had admitted a physical flaw and used it to connect to her fans. It remained highly debatable as to what constituted a normal range for a female Super’s bust size, and even with her falsies Ryden remained on the sportier side of expectations; by contrast some heroines ran or flew with himalayic mountains on their chests which would have ground a normal woman’s vertebrae into dust inside of a year. Certainly if anyone inspired unobtainable ideas in girl’s heads, it was the ones who needed specially tailored street clothing to accommodate their massive busts.

A handful is all you need and she’s got plenty by normal standards. All those sources are normally pro-Super, so maybe she’s on someone’s shitlist and that would explain her getting assigned the lowly task of showing me around. Or maybe the whole thing was contrived for publicity from the get go. I wonder how their amazing appearances actually works, they seem to mostly fall into camps of near perfection or varying degrees of grotesque and plenty of the ‘ugly ones’ are actually still pretty good looking. Wait: how long have I been looking her over?

She gave his stare an amused look causing him to blush, and then she told him that she had already packed up some refreshments in case the drive went long, hot sandwiches and cold drinks—and once she did she changed labels in his head from the Super who’d humored him to the nice girl with the great legs... Remembering the cold air he instinctively offered his jacket, confusing her for a few seconds as to why, but then she just accepted his show of chivalry even though she apparently had not even noticed the dropping temperature.

Together they hopped into a sizable land-speeder which she indicated, and he felt a slight rush from her letting him take the driver’s seat. As he obeyed her instructions for the startup procedures his confidence grew, although he turned on the heater right away and responding to that she slid his jacket off her shoulders. In this setting, she reminded him of a few girls he knew during his younger days, and also quite a bit of the daughter of an Irish-American Assistant District Attorney with whom he worked closely. He remembered once giving that girl a ride home from the city, after she’d witnessed some trouble on a night out, he remembered the teen’s gratitude, and her low-cut dress, and his own temptation to take advantage of her shaken state. The realization made him feel like a dirty old man, as he had never gotten used to averting his eyes from all the pretty young eye-candy who crossed his path. Super or not, Ryden thus far seemed just casually friendly; however he paid close attention for signals of anything more.

They went further out on the vast demesne with her instructing him on driving the speeder. Even with the privilege of operating it, he felt disappointed to find it was not a true air-car although the several feet above the ground it could hover gave a smooth ride and allowed it to ignore a great many obstacles. While generally it handled like a normal car it tended to drift around when he tried to turn causing a couple near collisions as he drove, until Ryden showed him how to use the stabilizers. Once he felt comfortable at the controls he started cutting loose and having fun with the off-roading while stealing the occasional look at his companion who smiled back while by turns cheered him on and giving more tips about the vehicle. Slowing down, they surveyed the countryside for a while with Ryden eventually admitting: “Plenty of people on the teams, and even their friends, constantly lobby for parcels of the island so they can set up their own houses or even compounds. If everyone had their way this place would look like the suburbs there’d be so many houses; it’s because they’re all scared to live further away since the decisions get made around here, and they all want a say.” And Ben replied: “Yeah Lawford thought it was a little weird that our meeting was with powerhouses and not planners.” Somewhere along the way she told him she had volunteered to orient him, but that the assignment had already proved much more enjoyable than expected. After she said that, he found a spot to park overlooking the main compound the neon lights glowed intensely bathing that whole area. Behind the vehicle rose a tall hill which covered much of one end of the island, and its upper reaches remained oddly covered in snow although the what snow had fallen over the New York area that year had melted weeks ago. The weather had started getting warmer, day by day, but it remained early enough in the year that even though 8pm had not yet arrived the sky was utterly dark and made the lights jump out at the two of them; furthermore the compound’s monumental scale made it seem much closer than it really was. Getting comfortable, they shared a few beers while he ate one of the sandwiches she had packed thanking her profusely for it, and complimenting everything she brought while giving her a suggestive look. She reclined back in her chair and stretched out her immaculate legs on the dashboard drawing his eyes for even longer.

He tried to impress her a bit with some talk about his career thus far, and how he had ended up in Internal Affairs. Normally the mention of any direct contact with Supers, the sort most New York cops could expect at least a couple times a year, impressed people—but making a big deal of that to the real thing especially a major Super would prove laughable; instead he focused on a couple of the more interesting cases he had worked, mainly things which showed him in a macho light. While she stayed polite he could tell her interest wanned, so he shifted gear and mentioned a few things about working for Internal Affairs. He had to admit it didn’t make anyone popular on the Force, but the work needed doing; unexpectedly it piqued her interest, and hesitantly she asked to hear more about such divided loyalties. He explained how loyalty to your fellows over ethics and law was an eternal problem for police departments across the country, and how a great many officers worked by a code of silence where even when an honest man saw something he didn’t say anything. People looked out for each other that way, but it could lead to escalating series of abuses and corruption. She asked a couple subtle questions about that, and had this conflicted look and shifting voice. He had seen it before from cops who’d seen or heard the wrong thing, and wanted to come clean but wouldn’t without the right push.

Maybe there’s something to look into, eventually, but I just got out of Internal Affairs and I don’t want to jump back in. Besides with a respectable girl like her in a place with such high standards she probably just feels guilty for something petty like maybe she took me out this ride without permission. Next time I’ll be more careful, I might have given the speeder a couple dings back there. On the other hand, if there is anything, getting close to her might just be the best way to find out more…

While staying on the same general topic, he pried for a little more information which might be directly useful in his position as a liaison—and once she relaxed into the new line of inquiry he asked about something which had haunted him for much of the day: “… .no what worried me was the hostility towards the Department.”

Ryden thought for a few seconds before responding: “Some of us have had misunderstandings with the law before, besides Mean Fist doesn’t like getting told what to do by anybody.”

Ben replied: “He got placated easily enough, but Incendra kept comparing me to a Gestapo officer.”

She gave a long sigh, but said nothing against Incendra—the sort of silence which spoke volumes.

*

Several days passed productively, although caught up with the time-sensitive work Ben had to call home to let his family know he could not come home for those first few days. With the restricted nature of the technology readily available around a few ‘friends’ had pilfered some devices, a practice he easily discovered since they hardly took precautions, and they claimed it was okay with their sponsors. The trouble came down to all but two of them had no definitive sponsors. They had loosely gotten to know a couple members of the team and come to the island to visit at some point, only to linger around while avoiding anyone’s scrutiny. Everyone had just assumed they belonged, and they had done their part when assigned chores around the grounds, so no one had complained or even really noticed their presence. Those people got kicked off the island but avoided further punishment, and a further dozen people made themselves scarce from the island thanks Ben arranging an utterly casual roll call wherein the hangers on had to merely report themselves and their sponsor. He accomplished all that without even needing to confirm the relationships, and he expected a proper check would find far more.

His discovery impressed the leadership enough to give him better access even than most of the Supers around the compound. The organization’s resident tech-genius Mileena Orwahl—aka Omni Mistress—in particular proved grateful for his diligence. She had not attended his first meeting since business interests, both her own and the team’s, tended to keep her away from the daily affairs; however she took Ben under her wing explaining to many at length about the dangers of too much of the wrong technologies getting out. In turn he gave due credit to Ryden’s assistance in his investigation, as he made sure to find ways to spend time with her. Far more than his credentials and even the appointed position to the organization, a patron gave Lieutenant Watson real status and a measure of respect; regardless of that so many people felt the need to explain recent history and basic concepts to him—always starting with an ‘as you know’—that he jokingly pondered just ending it all. He hoped the technology theft had been what made Ryden worried, but he continued picking up on flashes of the same nervousness, and he would have kept finding reasons to spend time with her regardless of a shift.

Annoyingly Ben found himself having to study the sales charts for the many Supers, and not merely the current standings but information going back years. For all the basic things people kept explaining to him things like this which confused him were often taken for granted that he would know and understand. He found a decent rule of thumb was: the more a Super claimed to not pay the rankings any mind the more they obsessed over them. Aside from raw position, people poured over—and speculated about—who would rise through momentum and who had staying power. Some even made a big deal about the demographics of who bought what from whom, but again he could not find any easy answer at to why.

Finally Ben got summoned to assist with his first real mission. The notorious corporation Carolus Interstellar sought to extend their off-planet outposts—for dangerous research well away from normal scrutiny and legal constraints—and make them more self-sufficient. Mileena Orwahl had closely monitored their operations for months and had finally found a real opening: six Panacea Suites transported to the still incomplete space station Fiddler’s Green. After a quick rundown Apollo announced to the assembled teams: “Emory Carolus has illegally profited off keeping important advances from humanity for far too long, and this opportunity is not something we can ignore in good conscience. Only a few construction crews currently man Fiddler’s Green, and none of the defenses are complete. He likes to brag about operating outside international agreements, so he can hardly complain if we relieve his company of some machinery. As you know these devices are capable of amazing medical feats, and would be a real asset to us.”

Ryden asked: “It’s not like them to drop their guard like this with Zaibatsu Inc. within striking distance.”

Incendra shot her an angry look: “They work hand in glove with each other.”

That’s strange: everything I’ve seen paints them as bitter rivals.

The others present joined in on the disapproving look, and a couple murmured criticisms, so Ben said nothing. Ryden blushed and sank to the back saying no more. Mileena Orwahl took the lead on the operation and she ran people through some rehearsals, and laid out those going; however limited space on their craft meant the crew would be small. Mean Fist punched through a wall, upon discovering his own exclusion, as he stormed off shouting to no one in particular about Omni Mistress being nothing without her armor and about himself being the best in the world at covert operations. Yeah right, an impulsive drunk with a short fuse is some master operator. Mileena mentioned Mean laughing even at the idea of reviewing the mission’s profile as what sealed her decision to leave him behind. There was clearly no love lost between those two.

*

Not long thereafter the Praetorian’s ship approached Fiddler’s Green the advanced craft having easily slipped through the atmosphere, and defeated the Earth’s gravity to reach upper-orbit. The vehicle had an aerodynamic yet somewhat bulbous shape like some sort of fish, but with short wings and two fins coming off the top and extending upwards from the end of each wing. The front bristled with weapons with quad-mounted blasters on small swivels to either side of the cockpit and a recess to the side of those hid launchers for some kind of missile. The back also had a small swivel with a dual-blaster providing security. The Argo drew the envy of almost every Super-team, but Ben’s amazement and confidence at even seeing the craft was undercut by a warning from Mileena Orwahl: every year Emory Carolus stretched tendrils to further his claims of hegemony over anything in the solar system above orbit. One craft, regardless of its strength, could hardly challenge an expanding fleet.

Seeking to avoid detection for as long as possible they drifted in with their engines cut, but they kept an active feed to their base where Ben along with several analysts kept an eye on the mission—and by extension any Carolus facilities which might have response forces as best they could. Even incomplete the station spread out over nearly three miles in total with several peripheral disks connected to a central one by long tunnels; moreover the huge central disk had a massive ring shaped dome, stretching around a central citadel, through which the inside would be visible from closer up. A few flashes of light beamed out into the abyss of space from construction still in progress, and on the far side a huge and vaguely spider like machine gripped one section which remained just few pieces of frame. Below it stretched the great expanse of the Earth, and through a few major cloud formations Ben could make out the western coast of Australia coming nearer. Adjusting their cameras, the observers zoomed well back from the station to look at the actual distance and saw it as merely a dot in the distance to their teammate’s craft. The huge distances and massive speeds involved in space travel left that mere spitting distance, and they picked up a power-surge as the shuttle made a minor correction and slowed down; furthermore in just the several seconds to review everything the distance had nearly halved and the different structures had once more started becoming visible. Without the correction the Argo would have flown right by it in maybe another fifteen seconds without even coming within a mile of the target, yet considering their last correction had come from halfway around the planet that seemed amazing accuracy.

I heard about the start of these off-world stations, but the reports never seemed quite real. I saw a tour of the UN station, but that was a few flimsy tubes rotating around to give a few dozen researchers and crew members some gravity and everyone cheered that as an achievement. This is a small city built on technology an epoch ahead of that, it even has fully artificial gravity, but no one’s talked about it except in vague and hostile terms.

Aboard the Argo the first two seats sat side by side, for the pilots, with two more stations just behind them. Apollo sat in the pilot’s chair and he rotated around to address his entire crew: “Bravo Team: take point and give us the heads up if we need suits or not. Charlie Team: I want recon on that dome and any weapons turrets.” The designated members moved into the airlock. Mileena operated with two others wearing vaguely similar powersuits, in this case bulked from their normally already intimidating size up for operations in a total vacuum, as Bravo Team. Charlie consisted of just Ryden Bolt who apparently didn’t need any gear to survive in space, but she still wore a face-piece for communications and monitoring. It seemed strange to see the girl with the suit-jockeys wearing just her costume unperturbed even as the four of them flew out the bottom of the transport. In the control room, the screens lit up like Christmas trees for a couple seconds from all that activity, everything showed from the small thermal reactions of the powersuits’ engines working to the radio waves of Apollo’s open but encrypted communications link.

Ben looked over the screens remarking: “Too quiet.”

“What do you mean, hmmmm?” The asker seemed to be the top guy when it came to the monitoring room. Ben was not aware of him having any powers, but his appearance was strange as he was a bit under four and a half feet tall with a mane of reddish hair. His skin seemed puffy and of a slightly unnatural consistency, and his features were as strange as his name Gryldor. He wore odd dark burgundy robes, but with an open Hawaiian shirt over them for some reason. Despite all that everyone treated his presence as normal, and requiring no explanation. He even sometimes worked as one of the team’s spokesmen.

Ben felt tempted to take the comment as an invitation to shut up, but instead he pointed to one of the screens: “The flashes from the station have stopped.”

Gryldor glanced over, and then spoke into his headset: “You’ve been spotted, and they are beginning to power up their defense screen. Seems like a futile gesture if they don’t have weapons. Rather rude if you ask me...” And he continued to make some more comments, but Ben started filtering them out while paying enough attention to hopefully catch anything important.

Apollo directed the Argo’s crew as he worked his own controls: “Reducing speed and magnetizing armor, let’s slip through, but watch your scopes.” The copilot, a middle-aged man with weathered skin, remarked: “Jamming their sensors, just in case.” The shuttle started shaking and the video feeds shook distorting the pictures with static. Just a hundred yards from the opening which marked a docking bay the transport’s progress slowed to a crawl and the shimmering from a force field became visible all around them yet it could not stop the craft.

Outside the smaller objects of Bravo and Charlie teams slipped right through with little interference. Mileena Orwahl called out: “Intel was right, looks like the turrets aren’t up yet, but let’s not take a chance.” Several missiles shot from pods attached to their shoulders and blew apart a small turret right beside the docking-port.

Ryden attached a camera unit to the outside of the station, and a new screen lit up giving the analysts a view inside the dome which looked equal parts indoor mall and greenhouse. Ben spoke into his microphone on a closed line: “Good view, now go for the main sensor relay.” They watched in the distance as electrical discharges from just over the surface of the station hit what looked like a large satellite dish. He then switched to the main frequency: “Movement in the main area, open top monorail carrying an armed team in your direction.”

Incendra laughed over the radio: “Good, I was hoping for a workout.”

Down below the transport had pushed past the energy shield, which was ill-suited to stopping small slow-moving objects, and docked with the station. Bravo Team flew to a small airlock near the dock, and made their way inside. Mileena’s communications came through staticky: “Atmosphere confirmed, but temperature is low.”

Even as the gate attached itself to the small ship Apollo stepped through with his team just behind him: “Stay alert, but we have to move quickly.” His speech created small puffs of visible breath from the cold. The interior looked a bit like most construction sites, with support beams and utility workings in place, but the area left open and naked of the conveniences and partitions which would make an area livable; furthermore materials sat around in neat piles in some cases near equipment. Through the darkened space a couple of warning lights flashed from a more complete area a couple levels below and a message repeated itself over and over: “Intruder alert, report to your emergency stations.” A cyborg on the team used one of his augmentations to tap into a nearby computer panel and a set of blast doors at the end of the first corridor opened, he then warned: “This system is compartmentalized, I’ll have to do the gates one at a time.” Flying down the hallway one of the suit-jockeys tapped into the next gate which let into a much larger passage leading to the main station. Even as he finished a power-surge knocked him across the corridor, and after taking a few seconds to recover he shot-up the panel just as the rest caught up.

The main passage looked far closer to completion, and was around twenty meters wide providing a direct route to the main station. It even had the end of the small rail system sitting empty of any cars suspended about twelve feet over the floor, and a small platform on the level above them provided a station for it.

One of the team members motioned to the side: “Why do they have bicycles up here?”

Apollo smirked as he looked over: “Probably helps getting around on a structure this size.” A couple of the others burst out laughing, far more than the joke even remotely warranted.

Just then energized rings of a strange distortion shot down the large passage. Apollo suddenly changed form into a large and extremely muscular gargoyle like creature even as the first shots hit him and dispersed only managing to knock him back a couple steps. He warned his people: “They’re using stunners, watch out.”

An electrical bolt struck one of the suit-jockeys as he flew high into the air for a better vantage. Catching himself on the elevated platform he returned fire with his own stunner which had a nearly identical effect as the enemies’ weapons. The cyborg ran to the front and opened fire with a huge blaster, covered in so many attachments that it looked almost the size of a motor-scooter, and he kept shooting as he walked forward. The incoming shots subsided for a few seconds, but the Praetorians could not properly see their enemies thanks to them using cover and the range of over three-hundred meters. Even without picking out individual targets, they could tell the hostile team was at the far end of the long bridge leading to the main station.

Apollo leaped forward and scampered on all fours along the wall before bounding behind some support beams with only a couple stun blasts and electrical bolts flying in vain in his direction. Looked down he saw their enemies wearing red coveralls and limited body armor. What worried him most was a heavy repeating-blaster they had set up, like a machinegun on their railcar, and having recovered from the hesitation of getting shot at that had started laying down a withering volume of stun-blasts driving the rest of his team back behind cover. Apollo shouted out: “They’re staying non-lethal so we return the favor.”

Even as he spoke gas flooded out from a vent near his team, but fortunately most of them had kept on their breathers; however the effect obscured their area preventing them from effectively returning fire even as the station’s security seemed unaffected by the obfuscation.

Mileena ordered her team: “Switch to thermals. Draw fire on the right side.”

Apollo smiled: “I’ll go left.”

Gryldor warned: “You don’t have time for a hold up like this, but stop shooting that cannon—we can’t afford a hull breach. That is, unless you want the ultimate blowout party hmmmm!?” He looked at the video feed from the cyborg with alarm.

A constant flurry of shots flew down the long corridor as the Praetorians advanced. Incendra came up from the rear flying straight past the gas and into an area slightly below the main walkway. Getting knocked down by a couple hits she let off jets of flame dozens of yards long, which at the extended range fell far short of the security but dispersed several of their shots as the attacks collided. The lights went out, but that hardly changed things as it seemed few on either side really needed it, and many of the attacks lit up the passage with flashes of what an observer might mistake for a harmless lights-show.

Gryldor studied his screens: “These guys are good. They didn’t even go lethal when they got shot at with live ordinance. Plus look at their accuracy.”

Ben looked at some other screens: “The range isn’t that far for those weapons, more just competent than good.”

Gryldor sipped on a glass bottle of coke: “It’s easy to teach people to shoot like that on a range, but they’re staying cool under fire from a superior force.”

Ben nodded: “I wish we could get some gear like that for the Department’s response units. Would probably save you guys from having to jump in all the time.” That’s an ideal shooting gallery in there, but even having a few guys with something to stop metahumans might give some of these minor villains pause.

At this Gryldor turned completely away from his control panel and towards Ben: “Distribute blasters around like that and in a year, they’ll be on the streets. What good would that do anybody? Have gangland shootouts knock down a building, hmmmmmmmm?!?” Gryldor was not intimidating in of himself, but he had the confidence of most of the top people in the organization; regardless of that the sheer annoyance of how he talked down to people tempted Ben to give him a beating.

Ben looked down: “No, I was just idly thinking. You’re right. The risk isn’t worth the reward.”

“Fucking right you are, how about you educate yourself next time before you open your mouth.”

On the station Apollo saw a couple of the guards finishing setting up another repeating blaster, this one bulkier than the first one and as they stepped away he realized it was automated as it started laying down a steady barrage of stun blasts. He scampered and swung closer, and then looked at Incendra and concentrating for a few seconds started smoldering the way she did but instead of shooting at the enemy he let off a concentrated shield of heat and flames in front of himself and then charged forward unaffected by the numerous shots directed at him. As he got closer he saw the nearest enemies retreating from their positions. Another set of blast-doors closed just as he got to them separating the combatants.

Gryldor: “Delaying tactics they know that door won’t hold up and that the bridge was their best chance.”

Apollo shifted out of the bestial form, but looked far bulkier than normal and very hairy resembling a certain teammate they had left behind. Imitating Mean Fist’s power, energy rippled off his now oversized hands as he faced the door: “Bravo Team back out and try to flank them through the airlocks.”

Without a word Mileena and her people flew off through the corridor as sparks spat out from damaged electrical works and past the gas.

An analyst asked: “Do you want Ryden to jump in and maybe give them a distraction and then jump back out again?”

Apollo: “Negative Charlie Team cover us from the outside. Alpha follow me, attack pattern Foxtrot.”

Maybe someday terms like that will mean something to me, but I have to wonder if it even means anything to them.

Then the leader punched the blast-door knocking it down and tumbling back far enough to crush the sentry-gun which fired a couple futile shots at the huge object before getting crushed. Other than that silence reigned on the inside, the security team and their conveyance having vanished in the delay. Alpha Team rushed in with Apollo and Incendra both flying high up while the rest spread out on the main level. This area looked basically finished with arcades on either side of the open area as it bent around the center. While eerily vacant and partly covered in long shadows it looked majestic and even inviting. Environmentally it felt much warmer and even the air tasted better.

The cyborg asked: “Which way to the hospital?”

“Straight through down the hallway, use your overlay. There’s activity in there but I can’t lock on.”

Ben could feel his heart pumping hard and fast: he wanted to speak up and be more a part of the action, to give feedback and directions—but his fear of making a mistake and looking bad fought that down. The best Super-team in the world and I’m helping out with the action, I couldn’t have prayed for a seat like this.

Just as they spoke a blur of movement came out from one of the upper levels, and suddenly crackling energy emanated from a long pole as a shape flew past Incendra hitting her squarely. Too late they saw a figure in power armor, but of a very different pattern than Orwahl Tech’s. Instead of glowing jets it used a hover disk attached to each foot for propulsion, and this one wielded a long staff, the pole they had seen, emanating twisting bands of energy around itself a bit like a Tesla-coil. Even though the size seemed similar to what their Bravo Team used, if you didn’t include the launchers mounted over their shoulders, the whole style looked different. At least the different sides were easy to separate as these suits had a metallic color scheme of dark blue generously trimmed in places with light blue. The enemy struck at Apollo as he flew past but the leader parried with his own fists knocking the staff aside, yet the attacker had flown past him and into the archways before he could counterpunch. He wanted to pursue, but the attacker had already disappeared. A few people seemed surprised by the lack of result from the counterpunch, since Mean Fist could smash nearly anything with those hits, but those who understood saw how the energy on the end of the staff coalesced at the point of contact protecting the structure by blocking the hit.

Just then from the other side another attacker in a powersuit lay down a barrage of shots from his forearm-cannons sending the main group running for cover and knocking one of them down.

A female analyst warned: “Watch out Powered Dragoons.” She looked over a couple other monitors: “Might have been nice to know Emory Carolus posted some of his best up there. Must be why they rushed to delay you, their guys needed time to suit up.”

Incendra rose back into the air and flew straight at the second Dragoon letting off jets at him as she flew. All those blasts fell short of flew wide, yet she reached him and with fists burning with heat she gave him a roundhouse axe punch knocking him sprawling and falling to the floor below. He recovered before the impact, and with Incendra in close pursuit he flew away around the long curve avoiding several of her blasts. Grabbing a metallic rod from his back it suddenly extended in staff several feet-long a several foot-long crackling with energy at the ends, identical to the weapon used by the first Dragoon. Just around the curve from the team he spun around and met Incendra’s charge striking and parrying with an almost frightening speed and skill. He used the weapon like a glaive swinging and thrusting with the shaft extended going high and low taking advantage both the reach and of how he could make small movements with his hands to make large changes to its direction. Incendra burned hotter with a glowing aura of flames blocking the strikes with her fists and legs, but then she flew back using jets of her flame to propel herself even as they apparently consuming her opponent in the flames.

Down below Ben felt a ting of confusion. He remembered during different crises Carolus Interstellar proving an ally to the Super-teams and to planetary security in general, and being showered with accolades. He must have done one hell of a face-heel-turn to deserve this kind of hostility, these days people compare him to Hitler without needing any explanation. Substitutions for the company have even become the go-to baddies for Hollywood. Looking back at his monitors he warned: “I can’t lock on but there’s movement all over that area.”

Apollo came back into the main area calling out: “Regroup and get moving.”

And just then all hell broke loose. Two Dragoons flew out at Incendra with their force-staves extended and they drove her back delivering blow after blow. The first one, smoldering from her attacks but apparently unharmed rejoined the mid-air melee. For all her great strength and martial arts skills, they clearly had the advantage—and the rest of the team remained unaware of her trouble. At the same moment from the arcades on different levels dozens of shooters revealed themselves in the dark by opening fire. The small train reappeared with the repeating-blaster now set on the front. The hallway in front of Alpha Team also opened up with a ferocious stream of shots. Aside from the shots some of the security used strobe lights making it difficult to make out their positions even as they illuminated the Praetorians’ locations.

The cyborg got knocked down and stunned by the first volley, but the other members of Alpha Team started responding in kind. A weather controller created a huge gust of wind which knocked several of the guards sprawling as it whipped around their cover, a couple even got thrown up into the air from the force of the attack. Another Praetorian, wearing a particularly gaudy outfit, let off what looked like firecrackers from her hands flying out in a broad spread of blinding lights and crackling booms. Unfortunately for her she got knocked unconscious by several shots, and she lay out on the floor.

Why does every major team seem to have some chick like that who can’t do any more than let off an impressive looking lights show, and insist on bringing them on important missions?

The winds continued to batter one side and a small tornado sucked several more guards out into the middle and up in the air and knocking them into each other and a few objects before suddenly dispersing and letting them fall. The attack left them battered but alive.

Apollo flew past his main group and to Incendra’s relief. A fourth Dragoon appeared to intercept him firing several stun blasts, but Apollo took them as he leaped in with a flying punch which knocked the Dragoon flying dozens of yards. Two of the others disengaged from Incendra and started attacking Apollo with their staves. Changing tactics, he dropped out of the air only to leap back up and then tackling one carrying him into a support arch with a crash. Apollo then bounded into the arcade with a bestial agility yelling to his teammates: “Regroup, push on to the hospital, I’ve got this.”

Okay that confirms it, all this attack pattern Foxtrot and pursuit pattern Delta stuff are just to sound impressive. They have to use real commands anytime something needs to happen, and their whole formation fell apart on first contact.

With Incendra obeying the command and flying away her opponent joined his fellows as they chased Apollo. Even with Apollo’s first target recovering and joining the fight the four of them had trouble handling the shape-changing mimic with his speed and power; furthermore the enclosed space negated their flight and his agility allowed him to maneuver around and through the construction site which served to constantly hamper their efforts.

Back at the main group the cyborg let off several electrified blasts knocking out a couple of sentry-guns greatly reducing the volume of incoming fire. Incendra then flew down the hallway shielding herself and punching a small turret suspended from the ceiling smashing it. The door shut just before she could reach it. The cyborg ran in just behind her and started trying to activate the panel beside the door remarking: “This one has security protocols installed, it might take a couple minutes to bypass.” Out in the mall the weather controller battered the largest group of guards with a concentrated hailstorm driving them back amid worried cries of “Those are the Praetorians”. The combatants could feel a shift in the energy of the conflict as the defenders repositioned themselves in the unequal battle and the intensity of the exchange greatly reduced.

The analysts in the monitoring room gave each other some high-fives, one glibly remarking: “Do not fuck with Hurri-Jane in an open area.”

Then coming over the com-link Ryden warned: “I’m intercepting two Dragoons on the outside heading for our ship. A heads up would have been nice.”

Gryldor sneered as he replied: “Those guys don’t have much of a signature to track, so how about you try doing your job.”

Hearing that Ben switched around between different sensors before he found something with a decent eye on that event, a satellite which they had repurposed to watch the station from a distance during the mission. Zooming in he saw Ryden handling herself against two opponents. They let off volleys of shots as they maneuvered around taking hits as she bounced in and out in a series of flashes striking them and redeploying with a speed with which they could not even compete. They recovered after each hit, but slowly retreated using the external structures of the station as cover so she could not fully press her advantage.

Ben warned: “Stay near the docking port.” Looking closer he could not help but admire how these Powered Dragoons did not need any augmentations to their suits to function in a vacuum.

Ryden replied: “If I let them go they can come from the inside of the station, or go after the rest of the team.” She rushed after them and then let off a huge bolt of electricity hitting one of them as they flew in the distance, and his fellow grabbed him in a rescue move, as they quickly disappeared below the core station. Ryden reported: “Disabled one, the other carries him away.”

Apollo called out over the link: “Stay in your position, and HQ keep an eye on your sensors. Don’t all of you get sucked into watching the pretty lights-show.”

Gryldor asked: “How’s that door coming? Maybe patch me in remotely and I can get you through.”

The cyborg angrily replied: “I can’t hack through this. I’ll try the manual bypass.”

Gryldor saw one of the Dragoons engaging Apollo toss away his broken staff and fly out into the main passage, he looked battered and scorched but still operational. An analyst warned: “Dragoon incoming!”

A few of them asked at once: “Where?”

Flying upside down through a covered gallery the Dragoon used the tops of the arches as cover, and then stopping near the main group opened up a barrage on Hurri-Jane. The stun blasts knocked her back and into one of the covered arcades, where even disoriented she still scrambled and took cover from the shots coming from multiple directions. Most of the guards remaining in the fight had positioned themselves on the higher levels and at a long range, they would take a couple shots at a time before moving to a different spot making picking them out difficult but reducing their own effectiveness. The military term Ben remembered was fire superiority, the Praetorians had gained it—by their power and by their reputation—and even this new shift had still not restored the confidence of those shooters, but that could change at any moment.

Ben hardly held the authority to issue an order but he knew someone had to, so he called: “Incendra you’re needed under the dome.”

Eager to get back into the action she flew back and found the Dragoon chasing Hurri-Jane around pillars and equipment while ignoring the withering storm buffeting the area. Recognizing her blast marks from earlier Incendra roared as she leaped in grappling the power-suit as her hand started glowing, and giving off waves of visible heat and she grabbed the Dragoon by the facemask. To keep her grip she wrapped her legs around her opponent while using her hands and arms to attack. The powersuit flew forward knocking Incendra into a pillar but then, her grip unshaken, she spun the two of them around and drove her enemy into the ceiling knocking the two of them straight through the panels and drawing sparks where they impacted with something electrical. For several seconds, they traded those impacts with the Dragoon taking the worst of it, but then he managed to swing her around in the middle of a flight straight at a wall and added his speed to hers for a greater impact which disentangled the two of them. The Dragoon’s face glowed from the heat as he flew away, but unsteadily and disoriented by the fight and the still dissipating heat flew into a closed door showing he was probably momentarily blind. Trying to correct himself he came back out into the middle only to be struck by lightning from Hurri-Jane and sent into a tailspin before Incendra blasted him repeatedly into a wall and he finally lay still.

Just after that one fell two of the other Dragoons, their suits severely battered and electric sparks flying off them from the damage almost like bleeding from wounds, fled out of the gallery where they had faced the Praetorians’ leader—leaving their third comrade a sunken hulk lying motionless at the base of an arch. As one of them flew back he lay down a suppressive barrage of stun shots while the other, his integral weapons smashed, picked up a repeating-blaster left by the infantry and together they continued to fight from a distance while slowly backing off. Feeling confident Incendra and Hurri-Jane both flew up into the air to gain a better view of the upper galleries, while pelting them with attacks, but found that the defenders had slipped away. As if responding to a cue the two remaining Dragoons suddenly withdrew leaving the whole area bereft of any defenders at all. While the main supports, including the ones which took direct beatings, had at worst cosmetic damage many of the weaker structures like partition walls and even floor panels were smashed and much of the plant life lay about uprooted by the gale force winds. Despite the damage an odd calm returned to the area which retained its odd beauty. Surreally a small herd of goats walked out into the open area and started grazing on the torn-up vegetation taking little, if any, notice of the intruders.

Gryldor called over the line: “The dome is secured. How are we coming on that door?” A bit of mockery came across his voice as the cyborg provided the control room with one of the best vantages, and he could easily see that their teammate remained stalemated by the system.

“I’ll blast my way through it.”

Suddenly Mileena’s voice came over the com-line: “Stand down, we’re coming to you from the inside. We have two MacGuffins[3] with us.”

Ben asked: “Don’t we have room for three?”

Mileena replied: “We could only find two lifters.”

The large doors finally opened revealing the Bravo Team with the devices which looked somewhat like iron lungs. On the floor lay several unconscious but apparently unharmed guards.

After moment of congratulations, and a reminder to the more impetuous members of the team to stay on guard for counterattacks but not to pursue the defenders, they brought the Panacea Suites down the long corridor. A couple small maintenance robots floated out into the area and seemed to start assessing the damage, again paying little heed to the Praetorians, but Incendra blasted them apart for target practice. The second one unsuccessfully tried to escape, and made an oddly pitiable cry just before the hit.

Gryldor warned: “I’ve got a hyper-speed spike. You’d better get moving fast.”

All the analysts scrambled on their sensors to locate the source of the sudden surge.

Apollo asked: “What is it and how long do we have?”

“Trying to lock on.” Gryldor made a couple of adjustments, and suddenly Ben could see a signature on one of the displays as plain as day: “It’s an attack ship. They jumped in closer than I expected… And they’re moving fast. You’ve got maybe fifteen minutes to be already gone.”

One of the others looked at Ben: “As you know anything that big can’t fly worth crap in an atmosphere, but till the Argo clears the red-zone they’re fish in a barrel.”

That has to be the first time any of them told me something I actually needed to know.

“Keep moving... Withdrawal pattern: Kilo.” Apollo reminded his people even as he stood weighing his options. “We don’t have time to get the third unit, but we can take those two Dragoons prisoner.” On that cue he grabbed one and the cyborg grabbed the other and they started jogging back down the passage. Even in the control room people broke into cold sweats, but of all of them only Ben and Gryldor seemed to stay focused tracking the incoming ship and giving updates. Amazingly Gryldor had finally stopped tying up the communications line with constant remarks. If not for those who would have been a truly ideal analyst, and with his efforts focused he seemed to do the work of several men. Seconds ticked by like minutes as people watched the signature draw closer to the station crossing what should have been an incredible distance in very little time. The panels did not have any definitive readout or pictures just a couple of blips scaled up on a screen which measured things in the tens of thousands of kilometers. One screen had a wireframe of the type of ship they thought might be coming in, and even with that lack of detail it certainly looked mean, and big enough that the Argo could have docked inside it. What became apparent after a couple of minutes, and got quickly passed along, was that fifteen minutes was far too generous an estimate and ten seemed more likely before it would be on top of them.

Finally Apollo reported: “Everyone’s aboard, and we’re disengaging from the docking rings.”

The transport became visible on the sensors and on the cameras as it pulled back and turned towards the great mass of the Earth far below and engaged its engines. On the screens it seemed to fly remarkably slow at first, when compared with the incoming ship, but it rapidly gained speed. While the rest of the room remained frozen Gryldor, having already calculated the variables needed for a successful escape, jumped out of his seat and cheered. And only after a couple seconds of hesitation did the others join him.

*

About twenty minutes later the transport started unloading and a celebratory mood swept the compound. They brought out the Panacea Suites as prized treasure, and Apollo directed people where to put the ‘MacGuffins’ somewhere safe. Once he said that slightly amusing remark everyone burst out laughing hysterically as if from him the mere utterance of anything funny made it the very height of comedy. While Ben thought people were overdoing it he played along just like the rest, although after a just slightly noticeable delay. A moment later, shambling out of the Argo came the two prisoners. Members of the secondary teams came forward to help escort them, and on the tarmac itself Mileena and her team assisted by a few maintenance robots went to work on removing the battered powersuits. Showing an odd courtesy, the Dragoons actually helped, and in little time enough was removed for them to exit their armor. Seeing a curious look on Ben’s face someone felt the need to explain: “As you know: among Super-teams exchanges are perfectly common.”

Yeah, yeah I know. Like the knights of old. You guys really like maintaining good reasons for even bad guys to not kill—not kill Supers anyways.

Even though most seemed comfortable with the situation Ben could see Incendra seething with rage. She had numerous bruises from the fighting and stayed just back from the knot gathered around the two prisoners speaking half heard platitudes about the enemy’s horrible nature. She particularly fixated on the one who had targeted her, marked by burns from her attacks, and the instant the armor opened up Incendra pushed past Mileena’s team and grabbed the jockey pulling and tossing the pilot onto some equipment and then raising her fist in a threat. Only in that moment everyone saw the prisoner was female, and at that Incendra loosened up slightly monologuing: “You targeted me and used deceptive tactics. I thought you were a misogynist for that, or maybe just a really big fan, but now I see it was just paring off for a girl-fight. Probably makes you actually worse.” Her fist stayed up but the Dragoon replied with only a slight wavering: “Lieutenant-commander Juliet Hansen serial number: zero-six-three-two-one-one-seven-nine. I understand you abide by normal rules of conflict.” She gave a fearful gulp, and then finished “I expect treatment for myself and my comrade in accordance with those.”

I sort of feel bad for suit-jockeys. In the right armor, they can trade blows with demi-gods, but take them out of it and they’re squishy just like the rest of us.

Incendra quivered with anger and she sneered: “You think shams[4] like you, after everything you’ve done, can just hide behind rules just because your master gave you a fancy weapon?”

Mileena moved to where she could intervene: “Easy now, they’re cooperating at least for now.”

Apollo did not so much approach as appear an arm’s length away from the altercation: “You know how things are done, with leverage like these two stormtroopers we could help a lot of people.”

Incendra struck downwards, missing the Dragoon’s head by inches, and shattering one side of the crate: “You’d better behave, for your own sake.” And on that thought she shot herself high into the air leaving behind a long trail of flame, while those around her point of liftoff were unharmed it did knock some of them a step back from the sudden blast of force.

They’re playing the old good cop, bad cop routine. Should soften the prisoners up a bit for questioning.

The Dragoons were quickly escorted to the compound’s detention center where the questioning could begin. outside their armor they moved lethargically from injuries sustained during the battle. Ben hated their employer, but still felt glad that the team would hold them in humane conditions. The female had pleasant features with a large mouth and attracted some notice. Under the armor she had worn a shimmering cobalt blue cat-suit which emphasized her curvaceous proportions, and Ben could just make out the lines from some kind of bodice she wore underneath. Most anywhere but the island she would have stood apart as a real beauty, but already Ben had started judging on a much less forgiving curve. Despite her status as a prisoner, she carried herself with a severe and purposeful bearing which many found disconcerting; furthermore she spoke in a direct manner casually utilizing technical jargon and eschewing most euphemisms, and that demeanor was what caused her to standout in a place where her attractiveness was easy to discount.

The man, a Lieutenant Curtis Bean, proved refreshingly conventional in his manners. His bodysuit was black, which took away most of the effect from wearing a garment which left so little to the imagination, and he gladly accepted normal fitting clothes without even complaining about them having an institutional style in a monochrome bright-green; conversely his compatriot seemed unselfconscious dismissing the offer of clothes with a hint of confusion. With his name and retinas loaded into a computer terminal Bean’s file came up quickly. The man was a former Green Beret—and he had the kind of strong build and confident bearing typical of special forces; however while the file had information about his family and residences over the years, among other assorted details, it simply ended with a note about his employment with Carolus Interstellar.

Ben ended up relegated to sitting back in an observation room while a few of the actual Supers took turns questioning the prisoners. Most it came out as tough guy acts to which the Dragoons gave up little more than their names ranks and serial numbers in keeping with the Geneva conventions. When it came to the files the woman proved an enigma, her numbers came from the company itself and the computer could only confirm a birthdate parentage and an actual United States Social Security Number, but when they mentioned that it barely rang a bell. It did not even list known addresses or schools attended. Gryldor described her as a homunculus, a servant created by a wizard out of nothing, and even though she remained in her mid-twenties calling her a girl seemed utterly out of place.

*

Bad news arrived just a few hours later. Mean Fist had taken a group of New Guardians into the city, and from there reports conflicted. Mean Fist talked about a sweet old woman living in a half-wrecked building, in the recently damaged area of Queens, which the construction crews threatened to rip down instead of fixing. He meandered on with this story without really getting anywhere other than assuring the team that he had stood up for a righteous cause, but obviously something had gone horribly wrong. Of the eight who accompanied him only two had returned, and one of them blurted out something more to the point even though they had to sort through bits and pieces into a workable chronology: “So Mean started smashing up their equipment yelling at the crews to tell their overlords that he’s looking for a fight.” Earlier he had said: “It wasn’t even a Carolus site, but after a couple hours I guess they cut a deal or something because Powered Dragoons showed up.” “They came out of nowhere. I’m not even sure how many. They had support too, from gunships and commandos.” More than twice came the remark: “We’re lucky any of us managed to fight our way clear.”

I really hate how casually people toss around the term commando to describe anything even resembling a tactical unit. Swat team: commandos, K-9 unit: commandos, paintballers: commandos, guy in a fisherman’s vest: obviously a commando.

And from that Apollo conferred with Gryldor and Mileena Orwahl who in turn invited Ben into the discussion. The four of them figured out a basic course of events which they fed into a timeline. At the ruins left by the latest Occurrence in New York: their team had stood up for a defenseless person threatened with a forced eviction, and maybe others, typical hero stuff; Mean Fist however, started causing serious damage instead of issuing a few simple demands and leaving with a threat to return. The real mistake seemed obvious, they chased off the night-crew and occupied the area for hours. Nothing had really happened till after the Praetorian’s mission to Fiddler’s Green, but after that someone from Carolus Interstellar took advantage of the situation accepting a mandate to roust the Supers—to allow work to continue—but really as payback for the recent incursion. Not anticipating a reaction Mean Fist’s group proved sitting ducks for a simultaneous envelopment, and it ended in seconds.

Among the many worries was whether any others had slipped away in all the confusion, so Apollo sent word to their contacts in the city to keep a lookout and he dispatched a few team members to see what they could find out. Several members of the organization already called for payback, but the Carolus elements in the city stayed in a heavily secured compound; furthermore since they could expect retaliation any attack on that would more than likely just give them more prisoners. Probably not understanding their own words, a couple members of the team actually suggested targeting some of the various subcontractors working for the corporation in New York—but Apollo corrected them as that would create a public relations problem. For his part Ben assumed Apollo just didn’t bother explaining the moral reasons for such restraint.

Adding a bit of information and more than a little drama came some newscasts which showed pieces of what happened, and the team had a chance to review recordings taken at the time. From a distance camera crews had been set up to watch and wait when trouble first broke out, and by far the best vantage came from a camera-drone which had hovered nearby providing an excellent aerial view. The New Guardians could be seen and even heard laughing among themselves and sharing several cases of beer. Included in the broadcast were Vegas odds makers laying out what would likely happen next: “That looks like Mean Fist down there, he’s an impressive brick, we’re giving three hundred to one against the US Military responding. The NYPD might send in a negotiator, and they are currently discouraging people from going anywhere nearby. We give a two to one in favor of that.”

A casino, the drone belongs to a fucking casino.

The host kept giving odds: “There are always Super-teams who might intercede which would almost certainly lead to a brawl. Four to one against that right now, but it becomes more likely the longer this occupation continues.” On the broadcast Mean Fist yelled about the mistreatment of innocent people, and then punched the road sending cracks down it for dozens of feet. Not long thereafter the feed became massively distorted, and the betting channel switched to another feed from much further away: “We’re getting some kind of interference, but don’t worry… Oh wait something’s happening down there!!” What they saw from there confirmed much of what they had already pieced together. Dozens of men on foot moving in precise tactical groups rushing in just behind five Powered Dragoons. Primarily they used a sort of large gauge gun which launched black balls which greatly expanded once they left the barrel and stuck to whatever they hit. The effect entangled a target with the balls and with themselves and whatever they touched incapacitating even the strongest with enough hits.

Mean Fist tried to fight and for a minute at least managed to stand his ground against the onslaught, even as the others were quickly overwhelmed, but then a couple of transports showed up mounting heavier launchers out of their backsides—thus the volume of shots greatly increased. He had managed to dodge most of the shots and struggle free of a few huge globules, but then seemed to notice himself as the last man standing and he finally fled. The betting channel continued with their commentary: “We can confirm these as I.S.F forces dragooning them right now!” I.S.F stood for Interstellar Security Forces and thus he gave a redundant F in addition to a too obvious pun. “Our odds were six to one against mercenaries, but multiple captures give a double payout. Stay tuned for if this presages a new round of hostilities.” It then went into a highlight reel of the assault, even as a picture in picture showed the rapid collection of prisoners and withdrawal of the military unit only a couple minutes after the firing of the last shots. While the casino talked about odds the normal networks started taking opinions, which all seemed pretty callous to the reasons for the events. A few people even seemed confused enough to think of the sudden intervention as a thrilling resolution to a dangerous standoff: “Fuck yeah! That’s how you take care of business. Go in stomp them and leave like you don’t even give a fuck.” Many complained more about the inconvenience to their lives: “I helped build Goathaven so the city wouldn’t shut down all the time.” It seemed almost like some people no longer bothered keeping track of who they were supposed to root for anymore. Others fortunately, the more reasonable people and the normal newscasts, all spoke in condemnation for the lawlessness of a mercenary army operating freely in America’s greatest city. A representative of Arkady Multinational even appeared on one of the major programs disavowing the incident, amidst a grilling from a female newscaster with fiery red hair and deeply bronzed skin, and guaranteeing that the half-dozen residents who had opposed being transferred had already agreed to an extraordinarily generous deal for new housing. He went on to say they had even extended offering for well paying jobs to a couple of those people.

Heroes always see to the needs of people who catch their attention, so the company is trying to placate the Praetorians by pampering a tiny handful of people.

Even as they sorted things out one of the junior analysts came in reporting a Mr. Burke as having called to open negotiations. Seeming more disappointed than mad Apollo led them to a smaller meeting room where he faced a monitor-wall and had them open a two way channel.

On the other end stood a thin young man with dark hair and fair skin, dressed to kill in an immaculately tailored sharkskin suit. Ben expected an arrogant reception, but instead the man looked worried and even apologetic.

Apollo spoke first: “I thought you were dead?”

Burke gave a slight smile: “No, no still in one piece. And I’m glad to see your team doing well for yourselves. I don’t know what started all this, but there’s really no reason for us to play Sharks vs Jets up and down the Beltway.”

Apollo looked annoyed: “Twice inside of twelve hours Emory’s forces have attacked my people, and this sort of belligerence shall not stand.”

Suddenly a crashing sound filled the room and the door flew inwards and off its tracks as Mean Fist strode into the room looking like he might punch-out anyone: “Burke, you son of a bitch. I know you’re holding those kids hostage, and I’m going to come after you and put my hand right through your skull.”

Kids, come on, the youngest of the prisoners is in her early thirties. Or about twenty-one in superhero years. Some of them are even starting to gray.

Apollo looked at him and whispered: “The door wasn’t locked, you didn’t have to smash it.”

Burke diplomatically waited a couple seconds before speaking again: “As you know: I’m not part of the company’s military division, so I’d rather negotiate a solution beneficial to both parties which avoids future conflict…” He paused and then muttered to himself unintentionally loud enough for the broadcast: “Why did I feel the need to explain that?”

Mean Fist paced around and half-shouted: “So you admit your people are looking for a fight!”

In a measured and calming tone the company-man explained: “I have nothing but regret for the conflict which has broken out. You say that we attacked you, but on the station your boarding was interpreted as a hostile act. In the city the site managers tried the NYPD, but they had no response, so we stepped in for a fee. It really is a problem with a lot of these new technologies, which allow for suppression and containment, that people start using them right away in situations where they might not even open fire if they only had live ordinance.”

The conversation wore on for several minutes with the Praetorian’s leader acting primarily interested in Burke accepting full responsibility for the recent troubles on behalf of his company, or as Mean Fist kept insisting taking personal responsibility for everything right down to bad weather. The company-man seemed empathetic about the situation, even suggesting a level of regret about the policies which had led to the situation; nevertheless he showed keen negotiation skill getting even Mean Fist to tacitly admit his company’s troops had shown admirable restraint, and that at least on the station any reasonable person would have acted similarly. They agreed to continue negotiations in a few hours, but Apollo failed to secure what he seemed to want most, a parley with Emory Carolus himself—so he relegated the talks to Mean Fist. He, in turn, only accepted the role since Carolus would appoint a prominent metahuman from their company as a secondary negotiator. They tried to negotiate that down to one of the five Powered Dragoons in New York, insisting they held the same status in the company, and the four shams among them seemed reputable with a couple even occasionally putting in hero work. However Mean Fist sneered at the idea of people who simply put on equipment provided by their boss as his equals; therefore the fifth possibility was appointed a former French Foreign Legionnaire and mercenary with a nasty reputation named Guile Marchal.

Having people like him in their employ is one of the best pieces of proof of I.S.F duplicity.

Just after that in a small gathering in the Orwahl Tech wing of the compound, which conveniently held the detention center not to mention the airstrip, Mileena had Ben reported to her in a small meeting room. Mileena relaxed in some semi-formal clothes, and Ben remembered a crush he had once had on her. While she started to show some signs of age they came on gracefully and on the island they only helped her stand out. Likewise her dark-brown hair, so common in the normal world seemed positively exotic after hanging around Supers constantly for nearly two weeks.

Ben had to wait a couple minutes while she finished clearing up some business with her company, but finally she addressed him: “Apollo figured it out earlier: you’re a metahuman.”

Ben blinked in shock: “No I’m not. I’ve been tested and gone through monitors many times. When I came here they even scanned me, and detected nothing.”

Mileena smiled reassuringly: “We know you didn’t try to pull one over on us. You’re something around a P-3, so low on the scale that few detectors would even register you. You seem to have a level of empathic sense and persuasion which you’ve honed without knowing about it. Must have come in handy in police work.”

Ben sighed with relief: “Well I have been considered a master interrogator. Do you think it might have to do with…”

“With how people keep talking to you around here. Seems more than likely. People guess that you’re out of the loop, they tend to assume anyone not associated with Supers doesn’t even know about the events the whole world watches—even as it hangs by a thread.”

After sharing a quick laugh about the situation before getting to business. With negotiations for an exchange happening Mileena believed they would only have the two Dragoons for days, so with time of the essence Ben would lead the interrogations. Fortunately thanks to the advanced equipment available on the compound they had already mostly physically recovered from the battle, so the questioning could go full steam ahead. Keeping the two prisoners separate he questioned them in turns, and made quick progress; regardless he had to reconcile what they said with what the Praetorians had already put together. Ben asked things like: “You claim the boarding was entirely a surprise, but I.S.F only has a handful of suit-jockeys. The Peers program and all that, I guess Emory fancies himself Charlemagne.” And a bit later: “How did they know to beef up security?” “Were you trying to pin people down to lure in a rescue mission?” “The Praetorians don’t take kindly to an ambush, even if you bit off more than you could chew.” To that they seemed eager to maintain their story, but that they generally agreed gave it credence. The woman insisted: “There aren’t enough Peers to guard every important facility nor would a large full time military presence have been cost effective on a station which barely maintains enough life-support for the construction crew, still many of the workers were tactically qualified. I can assure you any trouble we may have given was mere beginner’s luck; however I calculate our efforts delayed your team’s incursion by not more than five minutes.” She spoke having no idea of how much valuable information she gave up. Curtis proved a little more careful in his words, but suggested much the same idea. Their team worked on the external communications systems, and according to Juliet had joined the Dragoons program—with its long training and harsh standards—mostly for a generous stipend. The Praetorians seemed very worried about the prospect of Carolus expanding his powerarmor corps beyond his special team of bodyguards.

Ben found himself getting along well with Curtis, and it was easy to forget he worked for such an evil company—and that looking on it as just a job was no excuse; however he pissed off the people questioning him by suggesting that his company’s notoriously illegal security force had the same basic justification as most Super-teams and had an infinitely higher standard of accountability: “And if our people captured some of yours I’m not sure how it’s different from you holding us, other than you starting the aggression in both cases. None of us have a clear legal mandate.” At that one of the Supers watching on a monitor stormed in and braced him against the wall, shouting in outrage and setting back the rapport Ben had built by at least an hour, and coercing a retraction which meant nothing. More worryingly some of the Supers did not seem to understand the basic concepts of self-defense and aggression. From an ethical standpoint Curtis was correct that force used against an instigator was fully understandable, and legally acceptable, but the same instigator could not make a similar claim just because someone resisted. Of course he had also met a few cops and Federal Agents in his time who struggled with that relatively basic idea, but he expected much more from superheroes.

They go to this tough guy routine so quickly, but don’t really have anywhere to go from it especially against someone who knows it’s mostly bluster.

On a break Ben broke down some of his findings to some of the others: “The story is plausible, but it could have been set up beforehand.”

Gryldor always seemed ready to weigh in: “It’s a bunch of B.S. We’ve already decided that was an ambush set by their Fleet troops. Aside from the weapons, their skill and tactics were all way too advanced for some junior-varsity team.”

Ryden sighed slightly: “Once someone’s trained up they don’t always need constant drills. We didn’t see any H.R.T level precision, aside maybe from the suit-jockeys.”

The hacker sneered: “Are you trying to humiliate our team? It’s one thing for us to have fought through an attack by Emory’s shock-troops, quite another for us to have even had trouble against some heavily armed construction workers.”

Ryden’s eyes narrowed: “You’re the brainiac, but how am I the one who sees the obvious? They laid an ambush but their only external defense was the shield? Plus that ship which tried to intercept us may have been quick, but if it had laid in wait there are ten ways it could have stopped us before we even reached the station. We can learn from all this, about their capabilities, or we can ignore it.”

I’m honestly surprised by the lack of anything resembling an after action review around here. They might be talking about the mission, but this squabble is pure politics.

They argued fruitlessly back and forth for a couple minutes with Gryldor falling back on a suggestion that disagreeing with the team’s top members constituted insubordination, but Ryden insisting that she only disagreed with an assessment and not their authority. Ben had picked up that in the organization that distinction meant everything. Finally the discussion was mooted by Apollo entering the room with Lt-Commander Hansen in tow wearing a revealing one-piece swimsuit and a sarong. Earlier he had elected to show her around the island having apparently taken a liking to her insolent attitude. It must have come as a relief for him to meet a woman who didn’t automatically fall at his feet, or constantly brownnose. The two in the argument each tried to blurt out their side of things to their leader before the other could resulting in three false starts to Apollo entering the conversation.

With supreme confidence the leader laughed: “Overestimating your enemy can be as bad a mistake as underestimating them, and frankly I’ve worked with I.S.F and gone up against them enough times to know they’d have had something cleverer up their sleeves had they known of an incursion ahead of time. We should just be thankful that Emory is on our side when the chips are really down.”

Normally when they say his name or the name of his company they say it like a curse, but he’s dropped it for now.

The female Dragoon gave a slight shrug: “Home field advantage, but we got ahead of ourselves trying to stop you; although such a test can provide valuable experience for both sides. From my studies of Super’s interactions your introductions are accompanied by similar brawls with alarming frequency…”

A few people smirked uncomfortably at that observation, but then Apollo grinned: “It’s a bit more familiar than a handshake.” And at that most of the room broke out laughing.

Ben interjected: “I’m guessing the negotiations are progressing nicely?”

Apollo nodded with a smile: “Splendidly, I almost wish we had a diplomatic channel with Emory’s organization. As a goodwill gesture they will help run and maintain the Panacea Suites we acquired. A single clinic running them on charitable terms will hardly cut into their business fixing joint injuries on famous athletes plastic-surgery boo boos on the ultra-rich. This will be just the starting off point for real cooperation.”

Hansen gave a slight nod: “While I do not create policy, and our focus will doubtless remain on the extraterrestrial threats, many in the company see good relations with key actors on Earth as more effective and desirable than garrisons at all our facilities.”

At that Gryldor did not look pleased: “Your boss might want to come up with an excuse for exploiting people on Earth that doesn’t revolve around aliens, hardly any of your space assets are even military hmmmmmm?”

Oh god please stop doing that.

“That is one of your lines, but I have seen your other commentaries—all utterly interchangeable—complaining about our military buildup as belligerence and inviting future attacks with ‘no seriously peaceful expansion even on the drawing board’. So which is it? Surely both your propositions cannot be true simultaneously.”

Gryldor looked a little confused: “Well my real point was those resources should rightfully belong to all people through the U.N. Planetary Defense Council.” He spoke of that body with incredible reverence.

Juliet raised an eyebrow: “Oh you were serious, I thought your conclusion an intentional absurdity.” At that for the first time any of them had seen she lost composure and started laughing and it came out in a very disconcerting way. Even though Apollo gave no reaction several others snickered and most at least smirked.

Gryldor fought back obvious discomfort and replied: “Their main problem is people not taking them seriously and not being educated enough to understand their holistic approach making sure to solve the Earth’s problems so we don’t replicate them when people eventually do expand into space. Besides you claim to be the first line of defense, but all the alien attacks which reached our world were stopped by people working together.”

Hansen replied: “You narrow the criteria intentionally to exclude our successes which prevented any loss of life here. Ignoring anything minor: just last year you should remember the panic over an unprecedented invasion by the Zir utilizing ships the size of cities.”

The mention of that gave everyone pause, people had predicted the end of humanity for July 1996. Every Super-team on the planet buried the hatchet with their foes and came together to figure out a response, and then all of a sudden the ships had vanished and Carolus Interstellar took credit in a public relations sweep. It had all proven so anti-climactic that a couple days later it was replaced in the news by the latest Supers romantic breakup, and mostly the public had forgotten about the whole thing.

Gryldor smirked and shook his head: “We don’t even know what happened to those. And you think you can just unilaterally take credit for stopping an invasion which never happened hhmmmm!?” At the end he laughed, but it was utterly forced.

Hansen seemed curious and disappointed: “Surely you had enough sensors to detect the solar flares and even maybe the secondary explosions…”

Apollo seemed apologetic as he said: “You did tell us your conclusion they all jumped into the sun.” He then looked to his female companion: “You were involved in that, I can sense your feeling of satisfaction.”

She gave a slight nod while retaining her formal bearing: “We discovered their cyber-security was truly awful, if close enough, someone with a Macintosh laptop could have subverted their systems. How they ever astro-navigated on such computers is beyond me… In retrospect we probably should have used that advantage for a conventional assault, the salvage would have been infinitely better.”

One of the others seemed to act on a trigger: “Oh yes and everyone knows what your employer cares about more than anything is salvage.”

Gryldor added: “Paints himself a genius, but his tech is taken from alien wrecks and even then the cobbling together is done by other people.”

She again raised an inquisitive eyebrow: “And you somehow consider this different from Orwahl Tech’s model, or the Soviet’s efforts, or Zaibatsu, or any other player… Nearly all technological development in the last four decades has come from deciphering the tools of the invaders or created with scientific knowledge gleamed from the same.”

And there it was: Ben had heard some claims to that effect before, but no reputable news media would let it run without an immediate refutation. Here among the initiated no one even disputed it; regardless the atmosphere had turned confrontational, and a small throng had gathered. More than one spouted displeasure at the U.N being left out of her list of major players in research, several murmurs about the pretentious sham made their way through the din. With a wave of his hand Apollo stopped it informing everyone that a meaningful discussion had unfortunately devolved into an us vs them argument, although he failed to assign blame, and he had not even finished showing his guest around. He led the woman to a balcony and from there lifted off the ground in a graceful flight and carried her off towards his own section of the compound.

He’s probably taking her to the pool conveniently adjacent to his own quarters. Her demeanor hardly matters, he’s that rich and that good looking and took notice of her right away. His thoughts ran optimistically since he had bet three hundred dollars against Gryldor that those two would get intimate before she left.

Gryldor looked out the window as the speck in the distance which had been Apollo and his companion landed right where Ben expected. The gnome (or whatever he really was) gave a playful sneer: “Bet’s not won yet. Last normie girl who spent the night with him spent three days in the infirmary afterwards. I know him a lot better than you do, and I know he’s already getting tired of all that attitude.”

This guy is terrible to reading behavior, so terrible that he thinks people love his antagonism but hate it from anyone else.

He looked over the compound again and remembered not liking the place at first, but now he had come to appreciate it. Many hailed the original shapes to the odd angled structures, and that had set something of a trend; nevertheless the design suffered for its scale as everything was so large and far apart as to make commuting around inconvenient—for all those who didn’t benefit from some kind of enhanced speed anyways. Orwahl Tech’s wing represented the only exception to that rule and did an admirable job allowing for comfort and efficiency of people who had to merely walk around.

Just a little later Ben returned to continue questioning Curtis, fresh information gave him new approaches and a friendlier atmosphere might lower his guard. Either way Ben knew he had limited time to gleam what he could.

“Good news you’re being moved to the best section of the brig, Apollo wanted better treatment for your compatriot and she refused preferential quarters—so you both get the bump.”

“I’d like to talk with her if you can arrange it.”

“I’ll see what I can do, and while you’re at it you might want to give her some tips from your training on how to handle capture.” Ben smirked.

“Come again?”

“You’re playing it by the book. You’ve been inoffensive. That you’re just some sap who got caught up in events and ‘gosh sure would like to help out you nice folks if I could.’” He said imitating a cornpone accent “Your comrade on the other hand can be abrasive: some of the team have taken a real liking to her, but pissing off even a couple people in this situation is not a good idea.”

Curtis shrugged: “The one’s who’ve grown up in the company towns, especially the off-worlders like her, are like that. Most of them are fucking brilliant, but they’re all askew in the head. Not that I mind the girls running around in those onesies.”

Ben felt surprised for few seconds: “Off-worlders… People raise families out there… That’s why she doesn’t have a place of birth listed, or really any records. How many people live out there?!?”

At what point does the term corporation no longer apply? If this were a national program we’d have heard all about it, the first true colonists celebrated, but it’s not in any country’s interest to run a P.R campaign. If what he’s saying is true then most likely these problems are bad enough for the company to want to keep the whole thing quiet.

Curtis swallowed hard knowing his mistake: “I couldn’t even venture a guess: I’ve only worked for the company for a couple years, and this was my first off-world assignment.”

They went back and forth for a few minutes unproductively with Curtis claiming himself as caught in the last round of military cutbacks, and was recruited since they needed people with technical ability and a willingness to accept long periods of discomfort and privation. He finished off by saying how working for the company let him help protect his country and his planet: “When you really think about it: why don’t we get subsidized by the U.N.P.D.C, and any governments with a dime to spare.” Ben could recognize canned lines only slightly different from what the official spokesmen would spout, but there was almost a slight feeling of amusement from the Dragoon like the real answer was so obvious he wouldn’t need to say it. Reviewing the information shortly thereafter with Ryden she posited the theory, heavily backed up by research on the subject, that the effects of living in enclosed environments, and relative isolation, were proving a strain on their employees and contractors not easily compensated for. Those effects, even more so than their technical disadvantages had hamstrung all the attempts to complete with Carolus’s company in space—but people had assumed incorrectly that they had already overcome them. The theory explained why such a self-interested organization had gone out of its way to design a large station for aesthetics and comfort, and apparently to retrofit some of their existing facilities, to distract people from the endless void all around them. A little later came a setback where Gryldor prohibited him from sharing most of what he gathered with the NYPD, and even though he hoped to get around that it would still provide obstructions which his position was supposed to eliminate. None of it seemed immediately relevant to the city, but some of it might have proven useful.

*

The next day exciting news came through: Mean Fist had finished the negotiations and the exchange would happen right away. Gryldor officially announced over the intercoms, both audio and video, in the common areas how this was a fantastic deal already blessed by the core team. Ben hoped to talk a little more with the prisoners, one final round of questioning, but with little time he only managed to sit in with the two Dragoons over breakfast. They seemed cautiously upbeat not just about their own release, but about the possibility of improved relations in the future. From a few bits they mentioned Ben picked up that, while Gryldor acted like the deal was a major coup, they felt like the release came closer to an apology from the Praetorians for all the trouble. Hansen even blithely remarked about the incursion as costing the super-team, in terms of time and effort, far more than they would directly profit by it.

From there his policing instincts kicked in and he looked at the deal itself. The six New Guardians returned for the two Dragoons with their powered-suits seemed a lopsided exchange, but more importantly the company would subcontract a small medical staff to run a clinic in Goathaven to treat people charitably out of the Praetorian’s satellite base there; thereby entrusting protection to the team while giving them most of the credit. The clinic would use the recently acquired Panacea Suites with their ownership being returned to the company. The deal guaranteed a single year of operation with only the promise about making ‘best efforts’ to keep it open after that. They acted like a best efforts clause from a soulless corporation was worth the paper it was written on. Already word cycled through the news about the new joint venture between the Praetorians and Carolus Interstellar, and public personalities who just a couple days before had declared New York as under occupation by a hostile army sang the company’s praises; furthermore protests which had gathered outside of their New York compound quickly dispersed.

Ben quickly located Mileena and found her of a similar mind. She and her people had been unable to guarantee they could recreate the Panacea Suites through reverse engineering; moreover the far less effective regenerators her company could already produce were simply missing something which they had thus far failed to figure out. The close up look they already had might prove valuable, but nothing compared to the chance to really work with the machines. With a Carolus staff minding the devices a chance to take them apart and analyse them would likely never happen; furthermore the charitable clinic would only take people for a few hours a day four days a week, with the corporate staff expressly allowed to operate as they saw fit the rest of the time. Mileena went on to explain how the corporation had wanted to set up a clinic of their own in the region for years, but had been thwarted primarily through political means. Not enough was known about the technology to absolutely guarantee safety, and protecting their secrets they would not allow a closer review. The introduction of such advanced technology also promised to disrupt the medical system, so there was never a shortage of doctors warning about potential abuses. Only a few would deny the potential for fixing problems beyond the reach of current technology, but Carolus Interstellar favored whatever promised the largest returns while maintaining their own secrecy. The clinic, while for the moment very limited in size, gave them an opportunity—under Praetorian auspices no less—to circumvent the resistance and even most of the oversight. Given that most even of the very wealthy had eschewed the corporation, thanks both to the apparent risks and the public backlash against those caught going for the treatments only available from one source, the new clinic with its reassuringly nearby location, and endorsement from the right public figures, promised to pay a massive dividend. Somewhere in the back of Ben’s head he wondered how Carolus Interstellar’s secrecy and hoarding of technology was so different from what the superhero teams did, or even just normal business practices, but knowing any response would only hurt his position he said nothing.

Mileena explained why such a lopsided deal had been reached: “Internal politics: Mean Fist gets to fix his mistake and claim something looking like a victory. He didn’t think about the possibility he’s throwing away, or that we’re rubber stamping their wider operations by hosting this clinic.”

Ben felt just confident enough to vent in their relative privacy: “Negotiation skill didn’t even play into the decision did it. Mean wanted the job, and maybe he expected his fame and powers to dazzle the other side, but he sat across from a guy who negotiates million-dollar deals during racquetball practice.”

I really need time off with the wife and kids after something like this.

Something that had occurred to him which he only now brought up was the disposition of the enemy powered armors themselves; however while they had seemed very impressive to him Mileena considered the technology unremarkable. She admitted the designs rugged nature, but its real advantage was in a relative ease to build and maintain them in comparison to models made one by one by geniuses who never kept more than a few even in storage; moreover no self-respecting Super-team watered down their brand by including more than two or three suit-jockeys. Too many armors of too similar a type made them into faceless goons. While he accepted the reasoning given, he picked up that it was an idiom which she did not fully endorse.

*

The handover happened at the helipad for the Praetorian’s Goathaven tower. The building had an aggressively modernist style with giant P decorating the section which stretched up in a wedge above the airstrip. Like every superhero hangout in the city it also had a spectacular view of the replica Chrysler Building, indeed that masterwork of art deco seemed besieged by gaudy futuristic buildings emblazoned with the emblems—either of Super-teams or the offices of companies which people could safely assume were closely connected with one Super or another. The whole area closely mimicked a sizable section of lower Manhattan although it had far more reasonable traffic on the streets down below and to afford everyone the demanded view two extra, and out of place, Chrysler Building replicas. Further adding to the problem was that most of those headquarters were relatively squat structures, in keeping with some convention of superhero base building most did not understand, and some of the various replica buildings had to be built noticeably shorter to accommodate this and not drown them out. All this resulted in the place not really achieving the intended result of resembling Manhattan in anything but basic layout. The closer one got to the streets the less the resemblance held up, as even with less traffic the roads were a mess of wrecked spots creating diversions, and endless delays in repairs left navigating the area a challenge even when no super fights were happening. Ben was glad for the ride back to the mainland, and even though he suspected his presence was superfluous he felt like seeing the event through to its conclusion.

A few blocks away the headquarters of another Super-team smoldered from some recent trouble, but no one paid that any mind. An I.S.F transport came in diagonally with landing struts extended and landed smoothly in front of the greeting party who had everything ready to go. The craft was significantly larger than the hover-jets preferred by most teams and looked almost the size of the Argo; although with a far simpler exterior consisting almost entirely of just the fuselage. The closest it had to wings served just to mount a small automated turret on either side each holding a pair of weapons, far less firepower than those other transports carried although it could fire in any direction since they served primarily for defense. With the vehicle having come to rest the back opened up, showing the sparse yet open interior of a military transport, and out came five Dragoons hovering just above the pad, they formed a line abreast with one in front, and behind them filed a dozen armed soldiers wearing camouflage uniforms and body armor—with menacingly fully enclosed helmets— carrying rifles at the low ready who formed a second line behind the Dragoons. With some practice they could have made the drill look good, but they managed to at least make it respectful as they swung their rifles—and the Dragoons swung their force-staves—into a present-arms salute. In contrast the few Praetorians standing nearby stayed in a loose gaggle, but a couple of them gave their own sort of salutes displaying their powers as they did to match the display in front of them.

The one in front of the others then set down with the hover disks on his feet folding up around his armored boots, and he removed his helmet revealing Guile Marchal: “Well I see you’ve brought a welcoming committee, so let’s get this done shall we. You two okay?” He directed the final part of his address at the two prisoners who had their armors loaded onto handcarts. His accent seemed an odd mix, and he had come originally from Poland before adopting a French name when he joined the Legion. Stories of the conflicts the mercenary had been involved in came to the front of Ben’s mind. Democratically elected governments overthrown and endless brushfire campaigns; however while he never been indicted for any war crimes his units had often routed out enemy militias, and thus cleared the way for massacres. It seemed debatable whether his current employment constituted a new beginning, or merely the discovery of a permanent patron.

Even just being near this guy creeps me out.

Hansen gave an imperfect stand-to attention: “Nothing to complain about. The air on their island was actually quite nice.”

Apollo strode forward and they shook hands for an extended moment testing each other’s strength: “You brought quite a bit of firepower for a friendly exchange?”

Guile steadied himself, even with the bulk of his powered armor he seemed at a disadvantage: “We were in the neighborhood anyways.” And then finally two broke off, and on that cue everyone returned to normal stances. Following that the soldiers fanned out forming an outward facing perimeter at the edge of the landing pad with the Dragoons collapsing their staves and putting them away. Their tactical moves looked far more fluid and purposeful than their drill had been.

Here in Goathaven these guys have plenty of enemies.

The captured New Guardians emerged from the transport and a couple of the soldiers removed their complex restraints, and then came the promised medical team of a dozen people. As the prisoners passed each other, on the way to their respective destinations, Guile introduced the lead doctor to the people who ran Praetorian Tower—and those sets of people seemed positively friendly to each other. The initial tension faded and it started feeling cordial and even dignified with a sort of chivalric air. Apollo gave everyone gathered, and since the exchange was being fed to Arens’ Island much of the organization, a few words about this opening a new day for both groups and a renewed spirit of respectful amity. He hoped they could even hold some honest competitions to further test each other's capabilities and build up relations. Guile voiced a noncommittal openness to the ideas, but after just a few more minutes he replaced his helmet and his group all returned to their craft and departed. The rest of those gathered lingered around for a few minutes with longer introductions made for the staff of the new clinic, but despite the formality and the outward optimism the recent hostilities left behind palpable tension. Despite the groups assigned to the new Goathaven clinic being described as a pilot program, with provisions for a possible expansion laid out, most of the team seemed very much surprised and impressed with themselves when the Carolus staff mentioned the likely future arrival of more personnel.

With everyone trickling away Ryden Bolt landed beside Ben asking him: “What do you think?”

Ben shrugged: “As far as I could tell they’ll honor it, but people like that can’t be trusted once circumstances change and it’s so poorly drawn up that they’ll have no problems abusing it.”

Ryden’s mask showed a furrowing of her brow through the thin material: “I think you’re looking at this deal the wrong way. Omni Mistress doesn’t like it, but she wants to show everyone she could have cut a better bargain. That Carolus can expect to profit from the arrangement makes it stable, but they’re the ones with their hand on the chopping block not us. It really does have a lot of promise for both sides, just in different ways.”

Ben thought about her words for a few seconds: “You might have a point, but certainly a team of professional negotiators could have pulled off a fairer result.”

“Maybe, or it would have resulted in a really long negotiation with an only slightly different result.” Ryden replied.

Ben spoke: “I’ve seen this kind of stuff many times, where people lose perspective on criminals just because once they get to know them. It’s hard to look on anyone as thieves or conmen or even killers when you know them especially after you’ve become familiar with a charming personality. People get confused why it happens so quickly with Supers, but seeing this up close it was way faster than I’ve ever seen.”

The girl shrugged: “Well it comes with the territory, but I do remember the Protectors being a lot more consistent with our enemies...”

Ryden gave him a flirty smile: “I know you’re eager to head out, but there’s this big opening in Vegas in a few days that me and the rest of my team plan on taking advantage of for the full V.I.P treatment—and we’d be happy for you to come. Might be good to get to know each other away from all this.” She gave him a playful nudge and gave a brief shimmy.

He smiled at her: “That sounds like a lot of fun, but I’m not sure if I’ve really earned something like that.”

Wait what am I saying, she’s signaling me like crazy.

“Don’t feel down. This is a win and you were a bigger part of that than you realize; besides even just being a friend of the team does have its privileges.”

He thought about things for a few seconds and realized he would not be able to get home till very late, even if he left right away, but a group were expected to take one of the hover jets to the city in the morning, so an overnight delay would not affect things too much. “You know what, I’ve never really gotten to see much of this town so maybe you could show me some of the better spots tonight?” He softened his voice to show it was purely a social call.

She nodded: “I’ve heard there’s yet another garbage strike that’s gotten so bad even more streets than normal are blocked, but I know a few spots here on the south end still operating normally. How about we meet in lobby in an hour?”

He smiled broadly: “I’ll see you in a bit.” He felt excited at going out with the nice girl with the great legs, but something troubled him which he could not quite figure out. He didn’t think it was guilt over pursuing an affair, and even were she to find out his wife could hardly stay jealous of him trying his chances with a Super. If someone had put it into words he would have instantly recognized his misgivings, that if this enemy the Praetorians had faced had proven honorable enough to make deals with, then the raid which had provoked the hostilities was likely not justified—certainly they had given no cogent reason for it; moreover Ben Watson in theory could have explained how people tended to repress inconvenient thoughts, and often the emotions which buttressed that suppression often gave them a dangerous feelings of righteousness.

Taken from a program titled ‘The Supers War’ recorded many years later:

The heavyset narrator sat behind an old fashioned desk while wearing a tweed vest over a beige shirt, and he spoke energetically into the camera: “There were many places we could have started these events and we plan specials about some of the earlier incidents, but late March and April 1997 stand out as possibly the last point a war could have been avoided. The liaison programs were well intentioned, and by that point covered several organizations, but everyone embeded with the Super-teams ended up very quickly as simple advocates for those teams and not for their police departments—and not for the country as a whole. That by this point the only armed force fully prepared for and willed to take on first tier Super-teams was the vaunted I.S.F, was pointed out only by a few who were dismissed as paranoid extremists; retrospectively some even speculate the city of New York may have hired Carolus Interstellar hoping to co-opt their armed deterrent, but we know from their meetings and the stated views of the mayor among others that the armed presence was an undesirably unstable element likely to create clashes; and it should be noted that, unbeknownst to the Supers, by this point I.S.F only had sixty-two fully qualified Dragoons because they remained focused on extraterrestrial threats. For good reasons the public debates still centered on how best to keep the Supers happy regardless of the cost, and the idea of a direct large-scale confrontation remained unthinkable. So to recap the Justice Warriors ran into some trouble at their base but eventually overcame it, and fighting broke out between the Praetorians and Carolus Interstellar only to change to a temporary accomodation. Join us next week for the next installment of the Supers War.”

[5]

Fringe Benefits

“People forget this Supers stuff, the names the colorful costumes, the theatricality, it all goes back to gay culture.” If anyone knew about the origins of Supers it was the speaker Michael Guhwen, known as the Immortal, since he was likely the world’s oldest metahuman. He continued: “You see, certain clubs around New York back in the Twenties expected really flamboyant costumes from their clientele, and the masks and names maintained plausible deniability. We Supers already formed associations, and tried to stand up for our communities against criminal gangs and violent union busters, but then one of our guys started parading around in public in his costume and telling the public he was the ‘Over-man’. He didn’t even admit to himself what his clandestine activities meant, and started his displays which he only later figured out were a way of dealing with his repressed identity. I may have been the only one who understood what was going on at the time, but most people looked at him in his garish tights and underwear on the outside—to show his sexual availability—and concluded it must be an amazing way to pick up girls. Pretty soon half the active metas in the country started aping his act [6]. His name was originally the german word uber, and the press translated it the other way into super and started referring to all of us as that. I’m still confused how it became a scandal when the truth came to light. I mean, why do people think he dressed like that? Oh well it was a different time.”

Ben saw an opportunity so he made a point: “I’m not so sure things have really changed at all. People still look for any chance they can get to tear down Supers.”

Michael smirked and answered sarcastically : “Funny, I remember it being the whole getting blow-jobs from guys thing that weirded people out—but hey maybe you know better.”

Ben caught himself: “I’m not saying that, I’m just saying that now more than ever normal people have a repressed sort of hatred for anyone with powers, and that’s becoming a real problem.”

Michael shrugged: “Nowadays, boredom is the real problem right now. Too many champions, not enough blackguards.”

Ryden smirked: “Don’t tell me you still have a taste for all the destruction.”

“Nope, just that Supers got used to everything that went with it: the rush, the adoration, the sense of purpose, the unity. It used to be every couple years all the teams had to come together against an existential threat: alien invasions, an unprecedented alliance of evil Supers, a new rampage by Zombie-Hitler. Supers could deal with all that, but not with the normies expecting a public debate about how they should and shouldn’t behave.” Michael didn’t look like any current ethnic group, and most people assumed he was mixed race though quite possibly the opposite was true. He looked vaguely Polynesian with his size and some of his bone structure, but his eyes were all wrong both in their light-gray color and in their shape which looked almost Nordic. A line of tattoos was written across his forehead in something that looked like archaic Hebrew script. He reclined on a large couch his arm over the shoulders of an all-American brunette showing a slight baby bump: his wife Shelley Lawford-Guhwen, aka Bonnie Fortuna, and as they all talked she kept an eye on a pair of toddlers playing on the carpet of the luxurious suite with toys scattered all around them. The married couple exchanging frequent glances of affection.

Has it really been so long since she and Michael got hitched? It feels like just weeks ago, but I guess a couple years have already passed by. Ryden Bolt thought to herself.

Ryden wore a v-shaped swimsuit in the shape of a pair of converging lightning bolts with a couple extra tabs to keep it in place. She had once planned on that as the main part of her costume, but that had been nixed twice: first when she and Shelley had formed a duo after their departure from the Sacred Protectors, and again when she joined the Praetorians. The two of them had elected for a somewhat constant theme to their outfits, and that had proven a big hit; in the Praetorians, however, a few of the team’s females—most energetically Incendra of all people—had objected to how much skin it displayed even with the accessories, and no number of adjustments had placated them. That the wide bands covered far more of the important areas than many of the other costumes on the team proved immaterial. She felt guilty just leaving a Moadelwear original to sit in her closet; besides sales of her figures wearing it outsold all the others. She relaxed on a loveseat next to Lieutenant Ben Espen; fortunately he had thus far mostly heeded her advice against asking Michael about various folk heroes and historical figures people had conjectured as metahumans—nor about some of his less reputable occupations over the centuries which only recently had ruined his once stellar reputation.

Regardless, traveling with Michael always had the irritation of people approaching him to know about particular historical events, and always assuming he would have first hand knowledge. He always explained that history was a big place, and trying to find one event which at the time seemed small, like say fewer than a hundred Spaniards sailing across the Atlantic in 1492, in the sense of being at them was more than just unlikely; moreover the centuries he hadn’t spend in isolated places he had often tutored scions of great dynasties but in his reckoning had developed a knack for looking right past those who became great rulers often thinking little of them but not overly liking them. He could recount a great deal about how people of different classes lived their day to day lives in different places over the ages, but not only were people rarely interested in such details he couldn’t even vouch for even approximate periods for much of what he remembered. One rule of thumb he could give for metahumans who claimed great age, close proximity to great events which involved limited numbers of people indicated tall-tales: like how nearly every Super who had been around during WWII had started claiming to have charged in with the very first wave at Omaha Beach, a battle in which no Supers had fought. Recently a hit movie had come out which followed that narrative showing the whole battle as won by Supers. Despite claims of it serving as a tribute to the fallen it depicted all the normies as stupid incompetent cowards, and all the officers as evil, thus it fit right in with the usual Hollywood cliches. Even with their often slowed aging process only a few Supers remained active from around when their numbers had started exploding during the Overman’s heyday. She felt a little surprised Ben hadn’t pressed Michael for why so many more people had started manifesting extraordinary abilities, or why those who predated it had started increasing in power. It wasn’t that people didn’t know, but that too many people knew and they all knew different and contradictory theories.

Ben replied in disbelief: “You think nothing’s happening while Queens is still being rebuilt from Occurrence number nine?”

Michael just kept smiling: “That such a minor incident now gets lumped in with large scale incursions and day long rampages by Bhaal-Fire only illustrates my point. Even these two,” he referred to the girls “are old enough to remember the bad-old-days when it took more than that to qualify an incident as more than a brawl.”

Ryden felt a little nervous about the situation, so she played it diplomatically: “Plenty of the Praetorians are fine with compromise. Omnimistress has even voiced her support for Massachusetts’ incoming Champion Detainment Law. People can better cooperate with a rational and predictable framework.”

Michael chuckled: “That’s a craven half-measure which privileges hearsay and ignores evidence and chains of custody so long as Supers—anyone calling themselves a Super—gets involved.”

Ben’s jaw dropped: “Wait… you’re against…”

Michael smiled grimly: “Yes I’m against holding people in prison for decades because someone in a cape told the police they were bad.”

“But you helped start the teams. How could you turn against them?! How can they take action when they need to if they have to worry about procedures, what’s next them getting told they can’t help people in need?” Ben’s voice brimmed with emotion.

“Those are all tired arguments I’ve seen them every time rulers wanted to preserve or expand their mandates. If these militias want cooperation they need to learn they’re not always right and accept accountability from somebody.” Michael answered.

“But that law could lead to prosecution of metahumans, and has already opened a Pandora’s Box of hatred.” Ben’s shot back.

“I already told you, that law goes nowhere near far enough; although it might prove a good first step.” Michael shrugged.

The two girls took the kids out onto a wide balcony overlooking Las Vegas while the men talked a little more in depth on the issue of the day. Ben seemed to mainly parrot lines they had heard repeated again and again, most of them anchored in emotion, while Michael talked about lessons and historical precedent with too great of a specificity and loquaciousness so that he came off as unfeeling and pretentious. Ryden and Shelley were already better versed on most of it than the conversation would even allow, but even still didn’t see anyway to break the stalemate.

Shelley smirked: “Won’t the hotel want you to show yourself around a little more?” Their handling the children made both of them seem even more youthful as they brought out a playful energy while they showed such affection. Other than their colorings the two women could have been sisters in terms of their features and manner, a mistake made easier by Shelley coming from a well known clan of metahumans.

“The pool-party doesn’t start for a while yet, besides I can be fashionably late and they’ll still be glad I showed up. They’re over the moon that you came.” Ryden gave her friend a playful smile.

Shelley laughed: “Everyone’s so mellow about it near the ranch that I didn’t realize I actually jumped in the rankings. Everyone’s freaking out around here.”

Ryden gave a mockingly jealous look: “You retired, you settled down, you left it all behind, and everyone loves you for it. Now you’re the young hot mom Super with all the Middle-America appeal. You must have had an inkling from all the interviews and magazine covers, not to mention your royalties going up.”

Shelley smirked: “I should probably double check with my accountant, make sure she’s not pocketing the difference.”

“Might be worth using it to promote the Alliance. Remind everyone they still exist.” Ryden mocked in good humor.

Shelley sighed: “I don’t want to cause anymore bad-blood. I know Incendra still grinds the old axe.” Her voice held a couple notes of confusion since she remained ignorant of the source and extent of the feud, a fact which was more likely than not to only make the situation worse.

Ryden took on a diplomatic tone: “I think heroes in general get more frustrated by your lack of effort than they would be if you did a little more with it. You’ve made it all look a little too easy.” She finished with a smirk and a playful wink which drew a chuckle. She looked at the mountains in the distance for a long moment, and even though she knew her friend’s ranch lay hundreds of miles away she chose to picture it as just a little past the ridgeline. She wanted to lay out her problems and ask for advice, but knew it might create tension between her friends and her team. She had proven herself tactically time and again, and currently ranked well above even most of the core Praetorians in the sales charts, but they always passed her over for advancement for one reason or another. She believed that with enough exposure both for herself and the organization her efforts would pay off, and she had adopted ‘I will work harder’ as something of an unofficial motto; paradoxically some of the higher ups had criticized those efforts as counterproductive, since they often took emphasis off established members of the team. Strangely she had even been told that the public liked her too much, as apparently the focus had to stay on the core team—or something to that effect.

I’ll admit I take the rankings more seriously than a truly selfless hero should, but people like Mean Fist get the run of things because of their appeal. I’m caught in a catch-22.

They hung around the rest of the day putting in a couple appearances, for the hotel, though no overt promotions since just having Supers like them show up would attract all kinds of positive attention. After Bonnie Fortuna retired for the night Ryden took in some of the nightlife along with Ben. The hotel had multiple bars—and a nightclub—catering to different tastes, and they went to one with an urbane jazz theme. On their first night in town Michael had made an ass of himself critiquing it endlessly, explaining about how the dim lighting lent itself to more of a dive-bar theme in which case it needed a lot more grit. He had also said a few things about the placements and appropriate roles for their coloreds to lend real authenticity. Like many people from past generations he casually said horribly inappropriate borderline racist things, yet people who knew his background cut him some slack—unfortunately such a charitable attitude towards him was becoming less and less common. It occurred to Ryden that much of what he said in blunt terms just reiterated conventions most places followed without admitting to them.

Tonight Ben and Ryden came in together and felt. She blended in wearing a lacy black dress, and him his best suit. He explained some things about jazz to her, and while she mentioned her own knowledge of the genre he continued to explain the particulars. There were a few things he said which she felt less than sure about, and some details he seemed to miss, but not wanting to come off as a know it all—and less than confident in her own information—she held her tongue. The band was supposed to be really good, but the slow contemporary style came off to her as stale. She preferred music complex and spontaneous: this came off as elevator music dressed up in dark toned suits.

It’s probably not the band’s fault, since I doubt the hotel would allow anything distracting. I can totally relate…

One of Ben’s unintentionally amusing qualities was the confidence in his own knowledge. He had been badgered with common knowledge upon the team accepting him to his post, but had tuned out too much and missed some things. That’s one of the problems with people explaining too many basic things all the time, it causes people to miss what needs going over. Even though Ryden had explained the role of the Caretakers he had been utterly surprised when Michael told him they were more than just some hangers on. They had existed, largely in secret, for centuries fostering training and assisting Supers and any families known to produce metahumans. She found it a little funny that as a detective he had never questioned why so many apparently randomly occurring Supers came from such elite families, to the point where a great many of them spoke in the same mid-Atlantic accent and hardly anyone else still did; likewise how many were defined by basically the same moral lessons learned under similar tragic circumstances. ‘Wait you didn’t really think all those loved ones died all by themselves, just after leaving a message about responsibility coming with power, did you?’ Michael had laughed. ‘Of course the real martyrs for the Caretakers aren’t the ones who get themselves killed, but really the ones who have to do the occasional killing when fate doesn’t cooperate. They have to live with it, and not to mention fear the wroth of a bunch of demigods.’ Despite Michael’s sardonic tone, after talking with the Caretakers who had accompanied the Front Line, Ben managed to reinterpret his comments as both an endorsement of the worst methods and paradoxically a condemnation of all the organization—or had it become a movement since the scandals had fractured their leadership? All the members insisted the abuses had nothing to do with them, while swearing their calling was merely to serve their charges, but even that seemed suspect since one and all they seemed extremely keen to take offense to anyone who so much as mentioned the subject. Intentional or not those reactions had served to largely bury knowledge of the group’s dark side.

After a while of enjoying the night club Ben started looking a little uncomfortable from some of the looks they drew: “I think I need better clothes, people can see we don’t match up. Like maybe you’re some celebutante flirting with your bodyguard.”

“Relax, they probably figure you’re a real player so they’re checking you out.” Ryden gave him a reassuring smirk while hoping he would stop not so subtly hinting she buy him stuff.

At that suggestion Ben looked at the stares and saw that his date was right, mostly younger women gave him lingering glances. When it neared 11 o'clock she stepped away as she had a bit of secondary business. To make their relationship semi-public one of the team’s publicists had set up an informal interview. While Ryden waited in a booth at the back she quickly reviewed her stock answers. Everything designed to not really commit to anything, yet to give coded affirmations, she had repeated the carbon copies of those responses about nearly every relationship she had started—‘Oh we’re just good friends and enjoy spending time together’ —but actually talking to someone would put it out there in the right way. More importantly it would give her a chance to talk about how well the liaison program was working out for the organization. She had also cleared it with Ben who only became comfortable with it under the assurances that there would be no public confirmation.

It surprised her, though in a good way, when the reporter arrived and she recognized him as an old friend. Cyrus Coburn looked as handsome as ever with his chiseled jaw raven hair and broad shoulders which did not need any help filling out his several-thousand dollar suit. The only noticeable flaw came from his rather large ears with a small backwards point similar to what some bats had. For some reason few ever brought up such a distinctive feature even as a compliment.

Focus girl, his amazing taste in cars doesn’t matter since I don’t need to drive. His place in the Hamptons is incredible, but I know other people with nice mansions.

Ryden stood up greeting him and then gave him a familiar hug and a kiss on the cheek which lingered a second longer than it should have. She smiled: “If I’d have known it was you I’d have ordered you a cranberry juice instead of a club soda.”

He kept standing close seeming happy but a little surprised at the familiarity of the greeting, as if a stranger had propositioned him out of nowhere.

Did that come-off too strong? I should have just shaken hands, but that would be too cold. His ski lodge in Switzerland isn’t even that big, it’s just a perfectly cozy getaway…

After they sat down Cyrus took a sip of his drink and then asked in a slight Welsh accent that most people for some odd reason mistook for Scottish: “There are those who find appearances like this distasteful especially with what often happens to those close to Supers. Do you really find such public exhibitions proper?” He finished with a confrontational tone.

Ryden coughed: “No butter up questions huh, and someone told me this would just be a fluff-piece.” She rolled her eyes. “Public events are always a little dangerous, but bad guys prefer soft-targets. You should already known the only accidents from public exhibitions came from some really ill-advised displays of power.”

“Maybe but public displays can make some people feel scared, and others suggest it cheapens the hero’s calling to live so publicly. Why with recent concerns many say that people would drop their worries about the conduct of Supers if those like you would not live so publicly.”

Ryden snickered: “You might want to separate your questions if you want direct responses.”

I forgot what a bad reporter he really is. If he’d just been gay he might have made for a serviceable friend.

He gave her a cross look: “I’d appreciate if you’d just answer the question.”

Ryden took a more serious tone: “No one’s really complaining about seeing Supers flashing their huge codpieces in public, and I don’t really see how you of all people can arbitrate the appropriate way to keep up a secret identity.”

He shifted uncomfortably: “Well I’m not arguing for any of this, but as a newsman I know many people appreciate the way other Supers go about their work living secret lives and asking for no special thanks. Their only reward that wrongs have been righted.”

She gave him an annoyed look: “Are you serious!? Coming at me like this and pretending you’re a disinterested party: mister billionaire orphaned heir to a publishing empire plugging away as a reporter.” She finished with an absurdist tone.

“I really don’t see what my biography has to do with any of this.” He cleaned his glasses.

Ryden gave him a long face: “But your initials match, you’re tall black haired and perfectly gorgeous, and you constantly get seen around the sites of Dark Raider’s exploits.”

“I just do my job as a journalist. So please answer the question.” As always his tone displayed an exalted view of his profession.

She sighed playfully: “You revealed your identity to me when we dated, like you do with all your relationships. Not that anyone with half a brain is ever surprised considering you actually have a tan line from your mask.” Any decent light showed the line of darker skin on his face where the cowl did not cover and she pointed to it tracing along the edge with her fingertip.

Now I remember why our relationship didn’t last, but how come I don’t remember how it ended?

He started speaking in a strangely gruff voice with an unnatural sort of vibration to it: “Not sure what you’re talking about, maybe something that got retconned.”

Her eyes narrowed: “Denying things publicly doesn’t change that they happened, and your incompetence at keeping your identity hidden: getting affectionate with your girlfriends in public both in and out of your costume.”

His voice grew even deeper and stranger: “You have some strange ideas, but it was decided that no one knows who Dark Raider really is or what inspires his amazing mission of justice or if his methods are really justified by the extraordinary circumstances.”

“You’re speaking in his voice right now.” She exclaimed.

Okay maybe it was mean for me to activate his implant, but the great detective should have noticed the change from the first syllable.

His eyes went wide and he stumbled over his words for a few seconds: “I… no… um… I was just trying to do an impersonation to show how silly your idea was since I sound nothing like him. Couldn’t even pull it off if I tried. Just comes off like a bad impression.” The implant came on and off several times as he spoke.

Sarcasm filled her voice: “Oh don’t beat yourself up over that, I think it was spot-on, and that’s coming from the slut who apparently now two-timed the both of you.”

His voice finally stayed normal: “I won’t take your disloyalty personally so long as you correct yourself from now on. We can’t have people abusing the legitimacy of their position for vendettas or personal gain.”

She gave a forced smile: “It might help if I were kept in the loop on these things when they get changed…”

I’d better not push this, at least he sideways admitted they monkeyed with things—even though he still acts like that doesn’t back up my point—but he’s still all self-righteous about it. That he expects me to go along instinctively suggests something more than just a push from all their news sources, but doesn’t rule it out. I wonder how they did it this time: global psychic programing, magic, maybe a favor from a cosmic being.

When the piece came out a couple days later it proved much broader ranging than expected touching on several Supers who lived in the open, but the parts about her proved a hit-job. It contained quotes she never said displaying a callousness about the personal tragedies which had befallen many Supers. It also insulted her virtue claiming she ruined the marriage of a certain NYPD lieutenant, who had recently started working as a liaison with the Praetorians, by starting a romantic relationship with him. She only held her temper because on her second read-through she realized it had only used her as one of a few examples.

She did not have much time to stew over that as she had a fashion shoot for much of the midday for an activewear line. They were quite pleased that she had stopped shaving the ridges into her hair on the one side, as it made her look more normal which remained a big part of her appeal: people could look on the adds without knowing or caring that a Super appeared in them while they still picked up the extra attention from fans. Frequently letters came in asking why one of their girls always work a mask around her eyes, and sometimes even complaining about everyone trying to ape the fashion of Supers without realizing the identity of the model. Keeping her mind on that work proved a pleasant distraction for few hours thanks in part to her already knowing a few members of the crew.

As it wound down there came the inevitable fan-service: meeting any kids the crew brought or who managed to score an invite. It was the usual greetings and a few pictures and signing autographs and merchandise. A few of them seemed surprised at her openness as few Supers would multiply the value of items with the signature, at least without demanding payment, let alone allowing for free pictures. Only a couple others stayed in the top thirty without gouging their brands, but aside from knowing that a bit of public generosity had a way of coming back around, she also saw those efforts as not really worth her time.

It’s really too bad endorsements don’t get counted towards your rank. Who the hell draws up these rules anyways?

As she friendlily chatted she answered a few simple questions, mainly the usual ones like about her name: “Well Ryden is just a Scandinavian girl’s name, I picked it up as a pun on the Japanese god of lightning. I wanted to use Electra, but that’s been used.” They laughed and one of the older kids answered: “I heard one of the Writers cursed that name, I hope no one else picks it up again.” Ryden nodded: “They keep promising to let it lie…”

It’s odd how plenty of people who don’t admit to believing in God still believe in the all-mighty hand of fate even when they chose to just call it ‘the Writers’.

A couple of the older teens in the group prominently displayed buttons reading “No Violence” and asked if she supported it. This led to a confused exchange as Ryden explained how she always tried to minimize violence, but that any active Supers had to use some. To that they started passionately repeating lines they seemed to only halfway understand, and might not have made any sense in the first place. The line seemed to form a slogan or title for a club, and while Ryden felt a tinge of curiosity she suspected it was better not to pry or involve herself in something beyond her ken—yet the genuinely hurt looks they gave her suggested she might want to look up more. It was always best to know the expected way to react to the latest trends to placate the right people, while avoiding alienating others if that was a risk, but you never knew what would come up in the public sphere.

With that done she met back up with Shelley and, wearing plain clothes, they took Shelley’s kids to an attraction while her former partner let Ryden know that Cyrus’s story was not isolated. Several other stories along strikingly similar lines had run in other major publications, and multiple TV networks had asked Shelley for interviews on the subject. Her publicist had turned them down at least for the moment, but the producers had accused him of paranoia when queried if it had anything to do with the newspaper stories from that morning. They all seemed to agree that a bunch of virtually interchangeable articles published on the same day was just some coincidence. Shelley’s soothsaying gave her a distinct advantage in seeing the motive, as many Supers allowing their dislike for those who lived openly to blame them for normalizing the phenomenon—and that somehow that had led to the growing distrust. Paradoxically the really prominent Supers, like Apollo, remained sacrosanct even if they lived openly. Shelley finished her explanation with a quip: “I just wish they actually could see their own motives.” Ryden put on an impeccable Dark Raider voice: “What there’s a problem, let’s do that thing I already wanted to do and assume that solves it.”

When Ryden met back up again with Ben she felt off-balance, and not sure how to proceed. She had let the relationship progress much faster with him than with her previous boyfriends, and while Shelley liked him Michael had not so subtly objected to Ryden and Ben sharing a room. Fortunately Ben confronted the matter head on assuring her that his separation was a big part of why he had taken the assignment on Arens Island. However a glimmer of doubt lingered in her mind since she seemed to remember him trying to arrange for family quarters, but trusting him she decided against nagging about every little detail.

Most of the rest of the Front Line, staying at the hotel on joint trip, also showed up to the club and they hung out together in their own VIP room. While they enjoyed the place and the music for a few hours the whole group felt sucked into catching up on the day’s news, and seeing how things would play out. She had hoped to put it out of her mind with some drinks but with others talking about it her tongue only got loosened up: “And so what if I barely have a life outside of the costume, whose business is it anyways?” She had generally ignored journalism, even though the sheer number of Supers who worked in it made it into one of the best clubs in their community, but this push directly affected her and many of her friends. The nominal team leader reassured her: “Ah, stuff like this comes up every couple years. If it were up to the old guard none of us would work anywhere but a newspaper. Even TV would be verboten.” With that topic thankfully lapsing one of the other girls on the team gave a not so subtle flirtation towards Ben, but from her it was par for the course.

Late that night, after Ben had fallen asleep, Ryden slipped on a large and comfortable bathrobe and walked into the suite’s common room and skimmed through a couple of the more major programs. She halfway wished the alcohol would have stayed in her system longer to distract her mind, so she could at least sleep, but her restlessness and generally reduced need for sleep prevented that. Thinking over her time at the club she realized how obnoxious she must have sounded pouring out her problems to people just trying to have a good time.

Good thing they all found Cyrus as annoying as I do, either that or they just humored me.

She started with a nightly talk show which Shelley had suggested she watch on that particular night. Hosted by the famous comedian Oswald Porter she had always been a fan and trusted his brand of equal opportunity mockery and wit. In appearance he came across as the opposite of Supers with his short stature and rotund build and skin which always shined too much despite the makeup, yet he exuded personality with his huge dimpled cheeks making for a magnificent smile. His weight and the balding crown of his head made him look older, but his energy and jovial demeanor gave the impression of an overgrown kid. He mostly talked about Massachusetts indicating with winks and nods that people were to find their proposed law beyond the pale of decency and even ridiculous. The audience, for their part, laughed and cheered along at every joke. He then delved into the suddenly relevant topic about Supers living openly inferring that the two subjects were inextricably linked, and only an idiot would need an explanation.

People laugh and holler like that’s obvious, please just tell me why!?

 It came as a relief when he had a guest who did not see eye to eye with him. She cursed herself for not knowing the other man’s name, but she did recognized him as an important congressman. They greeted each other with great warmth and familiarity along with a couple lines suggesting the politician as a very common quest a rare thing especially for a comedy show, even one which commented on politics. The two men could hardly have appeared more different as the tall and lean Congressman looked positively patrician though with ears that looked clipped off at the top and a jagged scar showing through his left eyebrow. Despite his well groomed appearance he wore a short beard of a lighter gray than his hair, beards looked out of place in politics and high society in general. The crowd also gave him a warm welcome though Ryden could not tell if that came from affection or them just responding to the right cues. Breaking normal protocol he carried a plastic cup of beer to introduce himself asking the audience to not let his wife know that he’d been drinking that night. Though he stayed smiling the comedian gave the cup an awkward look suggesting even he was not comfortable with it.

I wonder if he sees a dermatologist because his skin could pass for belonging to a young man.

Oswald Porter started: “We don’t have much time, so if you don’t mind we could skip straight to picking your brain about this Champion Detainment Law.”

The graybeard responded with a warm smile and purposeful eyes: “Okay, but just to frame it do I understand that you’re of the side which claims the thrust of it and the reason for its naming is to encourage the arrest of Supers?”

Oswald Porter leaned forward against his desk smiling: “I would hardly say I’m the one pushing the idea: most people really fear it, and many civil rights groups have condemned it. Supers say they won’t even be able to operate with that in place, many swear they’ll leave for Canada if it passes, and I’d rather avoid that.”

The graybeard did not warm to the friendly gestures: “I didn’t ask about how many people believe it, but if you supported that point of view. You already said we have limited time so it’ll be useful if you keep your answers short and on point.”

Cop talk, I’ve seen Ben do the same, forcing someone into a corner, only this guy’s better—much better.

Porter gave a slight nod: “Well it’s name is right there.”

The graybeard answered: “Most of the people watching us tonight don’t have time to sort through all the language: they rely on their leaders to make decisions on what’s actually in a law and not what the loudest angriest voices say is in it. The name doesn’t refer to ‘Champions’ being detained by law enforcement, which doesn’t happen enough for anyone to worry about, but to those detained by Supers. There are no provisions in the law as it’s proposed to arrest or even register metahumans.”

Oswald Porter gulped nervously: “Well I might have to look a little more into it, but could you talk about this a little more. I think this might be a good opportunity for my audience to find out more from a learned source.”

The graybeard gave disarming smile: “I’m surprised how much controversy Massachusetts has drawn since several other states already have something similar on the books, and in many cases for a long time. People don’t even know how to react to Supers other than to avoid getting on their bad side at any price. Florida recently dealt with a crime spree by a gang who as far as we can tell are just bodybuilders who put together some costumes. While they mostly targeted small time criminals they also robbed a bank. All they had to do was tell some cops they saw at a diner that the bank was run by the mob, and they walked in arrested the managers and walked right out with all the money saying they were taking it as evidence. It was three whole days before the city dared to release any of those staff just because some guys in spandex said so. No one wanted to step on the toes of an investigation being conducted by a Super-team. Copycats have done that to the staff of stadiums and even the governments of a couple small towns.”

He played it with a cautious smile and a bit of mirth for the absurdity of the situation and the audience, which had previously shown a hostility towards the curtailing of Supers, laughed along and clapped. Still, at the end notes of alarm had crept into his voice suggesting he saw the situation as more serious than a few crimes.

Oswald Porter looked a little uncomfortable, but responded quickly: “Isolated cases like that trouble me, and I can see how some people pushing for this mean well, but this has become a lightning rod for all the crazies who think Supers are possessed by demons and crap like that. Besides that gang, if I remember correctly, were taken down by one of the Justice Warriors! We need more support for Supers not less!”

The graybeard thought for a couple seconds before responding: “Not really isolated when it keeps happening and people imitate each other, and it gets worse and worse. That gang may have been detained, but the FBI reports them back on the streets and even claiming themselves a cadet branch of the Justice Warriors and no one touches them. The real problem is very few, even in law enforcement, have the nerve anymore to look Supers in the eye and ask questions. The bad-seeds who hate Supers don’t feed on the calls for reform, but on the perception that Supers have set themselves as above the law. If you want to marginalize the crazies don’t let them be the only ones willing to ask certain reasonable questions. Holding the law over Supers alone will prove they’re not above it.”

The audience applauded wildly and many even gave him a standing ovation, and he raised his half-empty cup in a cheers to them. Oswald Porter gave a retort about needing to be careful to not lump superheroes in with villains, and that representing a terrible risk, but even he tacitly admitted the vast majority pushing for change did so in good faith while making a couple unmemorable points of his own. Things became relaxed enough that Oswald Porter even allowed himself to be coaxed by his guest into having a glass of beer on stage much to the audience’s delight. Thanks to the format, the conversation lasted only a few minutes—but Ryden felt ready to watch for much longer and ended up deeply regretting not picking up the politician’s name since they never repeated it.

She felt a tinge of apprehension when the next guest came out: the famous newswoman Valeria Sinclair. To call Incendra’s appearance a bad disguise was to pay it to far too high of a compliment, and knowing she considered it flawless felt darkly funny. It wasn’t just the vanity precluding significant facial coverings or the manifestly unnatural colorings—but her size. She already would have towered over either of the men on stage, but extreme stiletto heels added to it even as they helped give her a pleasing stride. Her blazer also had enormous Paris-shoulders which furthered the look of a giantess and she seemed to wear nothing under it as she nearly spilled out at the front. She looked great but might as well have hanged a sign around her neck saying ‘I am a Super.’

Wait a minute she wasn’t on the schedule.

Oswald Porter gave her a big welcome as another friend to the show, and while the graybeard stood up and gave her a proper greeting he seemed surprised to see her. Right from the start she barely hid her anger as her nostrils flared out and she stared daggers at the politician: “I want to know how you dare lump all metahumans in with supervillains. Most aren’t even Supers at all they just go about their DAILY LIVES, but if you push people they might just push back and that’s not anything any of us want.” The segment proved infuriating as the congressman spelled out his position in small details, and her talking about the fear people had of being hunted down by their own neighbors. Probably the only good point to slip through was how many Supers billed themselves as heroes despite histories which would have landed any normie (the congressman used the metahuman slang) in prison for long stretches. Even many villains profited greatly from merchandising lines which were rarely touched. The final claim seemed incredible yet when pressed the politician named sources anyone could use to look it up. Through the whole exchange Incendra kept speaking over the man even as he kept up his manners though his earlier sly humor had no chance of showing through.

For the final segment the graybeard had disappeared allowing Valeria Sinclair to address the audience unchallenged. Bizarrely she pivoted almost right away to complaining about Supers living openly, and like so many others she assumed everyone already knew the link. She tried to even connect it to what the politician had said about the merchandising lines, and stated again and again how Supers needed to hold themselves above petty selfishness even as she used a platform she clearly only had thanks to her exalted status.

But they all put in appearances, I just don’t take the time to keep up a secret—yet public—identity.

It was only thanks to Oswald Porter’s efforts that Valeria’s rant stayed connected at all to the issue as he mentioned Supers who lived openly while displaying a cavalier attitude. She even spent a minute or so questioning the morals of anyone who would spend their money supporting Supers who, by not having secret identities, showed their contempt for regular people. It was something of a relief that Ryden only got mentioned as one example, but it still burned.

She’s had it in for me since I joined the team… No before that, when we met she had already complained about her diminished rank as if my rise caused her decline. Join the Praetorians they said, you won’t have to worry about any Supers petty politics they said, nothing but fellowship and concern for normal people they said: yeah right.

What made the public humiliation far worse was that Incendra had helped goad her into returning Ben’s flirtations, even insisting the man was already separated, all to make the team seem less compartmentalized along racial lines. Naturally even though Incendra herself remained single, and constantly dating different people, she would have never lowered herself in such a way.

She’ll pretend like Valeria Sinclair is just some concerned citizen. They know I’m a lab-experiment without a real family, but that’s not supposed to be a problem. And they just keep pretending that building a secret identity is just a helpful suggestion.

As the show went way overtime Ryden drifted off to sleep, but the morning brought her no respite. Shelley woke her up early, a call from her agent had come in, half a dozen newspapers (all closely connected to Supers) had all run major stories about the Champion Detainment Law—and all of them angled similarly to Cyrus’s story like it was some official party-line. Ryden helped Shelley with the kids for a few minutes wowing and delighting them by zipping around the room with her great speed getting them setup for the morning while also reading through the relevant commentaries. One of them, in particular, stuck with her since it made some excellent points about Supers who had distanced themselves becoming prone to abuses which angered normal people. It was the first time any of them had made a real link between the two subjects.

Even if things are getting personal I need to at least show I’m making an effort to reduce any problems.

Shelley, once she had a minute, looked over those pieces and then waved her hands over them saying a chant—and then a rippling effect came over the air and over the pages. Sentences vanished and words reordered themselves and in a couple cases small snippets appeared. Ryden knew the power was not as vulgar as it seemed, Shelley could reveal the intended words that often even a writer or speaker did not know. The effect showed a great level of control over her powers and had been developed to decipher codes, but usually proved much more useful in sorting out meandering messages. Even decoded it wasn’t too bad but the big connection it made was only really relevant to villains who by their habits tended to avoid living normal lives. Such sorcerous effects could be very useful, but anyone who understood it found it disconcerting and not entirely reliable, and even though Ryden trusted Shelley it came as a relief after a couple minutes when the effect dissipated leaving behind nothing but the original words.

Ben got up just a few minutes later and while Ryden gave him a pleasant though curt good morning his presence served to remind her of all the ongoing problems. Changing into her V-shaped costume she decided to go out for a flight. The isolation and speed felt exhilarating as she flew high into the air, and looked down over the grid of the city from well over the noise and traffic. The wind blasted her but she barely felt it as she did a series of mid-air maneuvers going ever faster and heading generally east away from everything. When the city passed well out of sight, and she could hardly feel the hum of power lines, she reached out with her senses and found no aircraft anywhere nearby so she took some target practice at clouds. Again and again lightning arced from her hitting different spots, and then she flew up into those clouds and turned around and did some practice runs through some narrow gullies throwing off the occasional bolt at the ground staying careful to not hit anything living. She remembered running these drills in her early days, how long it had taken to really get them right, and the many spills she had taken while learning her capabilities. Every once in awhile the recent drama came back to her mind so she would just throw off a couple blasts into the sky and clear her head.

Finally she flew back to the city on a straight course covering the distance in mere minutes. Coming to the hotel, she made what looked like a twisted pole of lightning—with a small step just large enough for one foot—which she used to lower herself making a smooth landing on the suite’s spacious balcony. Aside from the exercise the outing had provided, she went over a few calibrations she wanted to make to the small mechanical attachments to her costume for focusing her power. The the adjustments were not really needed but would occupy her mind for a little longer on something constructive. Most Supers did not require any significant exersion to sustain flight, but when first learning about her powers she had heard about the possibility of becoming lazy from having such an easy method of travel, and remembered actually deciding that hers would need some level of physical input. The power having channeled through and from her nervous system and muscles had given her the equivalent of a strenuous aerobic exercise and she breathed hard as she landed, but the endorphin rush felt great. She felt better about herself till she saw Michael standing in the doorway with a sullen expression.

He asked: “How far did you fly?”

She gave a proud smile: “Maybe a couple hundred miles total, probably didn’t go much more than sixty away. What’s it to you?”

His eyes narrowed: “Several offices of Coburn Communications were just struck by lighting: San Fran, New York, Singapore, Geneva. Some of those out of nearly clear skies. Looks like the act of a… of a god.”

She coughed and felt a bit dizzy: “You don’t think I could have done all that!? Even I’m not that fast.” Worry overtook her. “Was anyone hurt?”

“No mentions of injuries, but their operations will probably stay shut down for a few hours minimum. Maybe a couple days. It’s already getting called an attack on the press as an institution.”

Ryden shook her head: “I didn’t do this… not intentionally.” The second part came out almost as a whisper.

He nodded: “I believe you, but I need to know how this happened.”

She gave him a full explanation of her activities including locations as near as she could figure, and she even recounted what she thought and felt as she did it all. While she accepted that she must have been the source of the event she finished with a reminder: “I’ve never seen anything like this before. I didn’t even know he had an office in Singapore.”

Michael kept up his mask of stoicism: “This seems more like a hex than how your powers normally manifest, so the good news is only a few people even might put two and two together.”

She breathed a sigh of relief: “I’ll be more careful in the future, but can we keep this under wraps? No harm no foul.” It’s a good thing Cyrus has smeared Michael so many times that he’s on my side.

He replied sternly: “Settling scores like this is not the way to do things. I can keep quiet—for now—but you need to do everything you can to keep this from happening again.”

She could see the conversation’s direction easily enough: “I’d rather not share this information with my creators, they’ll find a way to exploit it, and I can’t trust them to keep it confidential anyways.”

“If you have people other than your family who can look into this just as well then by all means use them, but if something like this happens again because you blew it off then you’ll bear responsibility.”

He might have his problems but he has a point.

She gave an obviously forced smile: “I’ll give them the full details, and even run tests if they see fit.”

She knew it was best to tell her team, at least about getting additional tests, and knew that even though they would accept her reasons some would still take the opportunity to stir up some drama giving her a passive-aggressive guilt trip. Fresh in her mind was a couple months back when Incendra had broken up with a well traveled man when it came up that he had not gone over his full romantic history with her, and for some odd reason people had poured out sympathies for Incendra over the incident; however the alternative of keeping the tests a secret would only open the door to much worse problems later on. She felt a tinge of relief when Shelley came out with an alarmed look on her face to inform them that a great threat had reared its head, and that they would have to get back to their teams right away.

*

NEWSFLASH!!

The famous anchorman Andrew Reinhardt sat behind the news desk and looked straight into the camera his massive shoulders and confidence providing an instantly reassuring presence. If he hadn’t worn glasses he might have looked a great deal like the famous Super the All American. He spoke with a measured voice: “Sorry for interrupting your regularly scheduled program, but moments ago every major TV station in the world’s satellite feed was pirated by Maliborne to issue this threat.”

The feed cut to a screen in screen with Reinhardt staying in the lower left-hand corner. The rest was taken up by the image of a great balcony built in an intentionally frightening rococo style. A haggard figure stood behind a podium, instantly recognizable as Maliborne the leader of the Relapsers—a society of metahumans with a decidedly mixed reputation, heroes and outlaws to many, unstable villains to others. He Wore his most recent costume a mix of dark purple robes worn under mainly rust colored armor which combined to give him a bulky appearance. His hair was gray verging on white, and deep lines covered his face and the combination of his large barbute helmet with his thin neck made his head seem grossly oversized. Even without his costume he would have stood out of a crowd thanks to his purple eyes and claw like fingernails.

His unnaturally colored eyes emanated deep sadness as the broadcast replayed a highlight of his speech: “… the Soviet Union remains locked in this ‘Special Period’, and all the Long Administration does is buys off the leaders with shipments of aid which the corrupt apparatchiks resell on the black market. Even though they hold up metahumans as symbols of equality and historical progress they breed them like cattle and wind up killing most of them in sadistic experiments. This is not new, but merely the news of the terrible extent is new while you do absolutely nothing.” The rebroadcast jumped ahead: “…and you think you can just sit by in your safety and comfort bearing no responsibility. You will learn the terrible consequences of your crimes even while you hide in your supposedly safe and prosperous society. I have held back for years hoping you could learn through reason, but Americans: now you leave those who will not stand by with no choice at all.”

Ominously the broadcast ended without any distinct demand or likely target for his wrath.

Apollo looked across the Praetorian’s gargantuan main briefing room, where twenty of their members waited.

Mileena Orwahl worked at a display: “Still no word about any attacks, but the Night Watch beat-out everyone declaring themselves ready to face the threat.”

Mean Fist looked across the table to the only section occupied by one person: “What did Maliborne say to you, is he going to hit Boston for their evil and insanity?”

The isolated figure wore strange clothing even by the standards of Supers: an amazingly tailored suit built out of a patchwork of different fabrics and patterns some fine and others coarse, a flat-cap covered his head and he wore small spectacles. Nothing about him looked quite symmetrical: one of his eyes was dark brown and the other a rich emerald green, his teeth sat at odd-angles, and one hand was muscular with grime worn into it and crisscrossed with old scars while the other was slim and manicured. Nyman Nottington sighed: “I don’t think he’s even heard of this silly little controversy around here. He’s angry and wants revenge.” His accent was hard to place, it sounded a little like how many very well educated Continental Europeans sounded: well educated British yet just slightly off.

“Is anyone else sick of these crazies deciding that every time an atrocity happens somewhere in the world that the U.S. must be punished instead of any actual perpetrators: because reasons… Plus if the US ever does try anything then they’re really the ones to blame. Fuckign crazies…” Mileena half-joked.

Mean Fist glowered: “Crazies?! Is it so crazy to stand against the inhumanity of this world. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty if you want to accomplish anything.”

“I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that.” Apollo raised one hand to get Mean’s attention. “We have to be ready for if we’re needed. The Night Watch may have called dibs but they’ve barely left that club of theirs, the River Styx, since it opened—so we have every reason to hope the situation will get out of hand enough that we’ll be needed.”

“Or you could try to head things off before they cause a bunch of collateral damage, but that’s not how things work now is it.” Nyman gave a sardonic laugh.

Incendra gave him a perplexed look: “That’s you’d even joke about that shows that you just don’t get it.”

Mean Fist had lit a cigar and gripped it in his teeth even as he talked: “Maybe we should contact the Night Watch, let them know we get priority. They barely even know the Relapsers.”

Apollo thought to himself: Oh god, I’m not starting some jurisdictional pissing contest.

One of the monitor-walls switched from a panoramic view of a city to a profile of the Night Watch, the self-proclaimed ‘edgiest’ Super-team in the world. Black color dominated the costumes which otherwise looked relatively punk. The largest image was for their leader Hellion who’s black costume with its white patterns left not an inch of skin visible. He wore a voluminous crimson cape which always flowed and moved almost like it were suspended in water with an ever changing current. Jagged chains looped around different parts of him, and even though he was known as one of the most powerful Supers he almost always carried an arsenal of machine guns—and some observers noted these were conventional guns and not blasters, most likely because slug throwers looked cooler. Notoriously his action figures came in two main varieties, one with those guns and one with an assortment of antiquated weapons, allowing him to sell two copies of the same basic figure to all his hardcore fans. Needless to say, a new slight variation—marketed as a collector’s item—was scheduled to come out for the holiday season and pre orders were already eating up the sales charts.

Gryldor looked at the images for a few seconds: “They use Japanese weapons, those are so hot right now.” Several voices from the upper chairs echoed the words ‘so hot’.

Apollo set things to order, they would all stay on the Island on-call for if the situation worsened. They would also reach out to their contacts—particularly those they knew in the Relapsers—to see if they could find out anything about the unfolding situation, and a few of them stayed in the room afterwards insisting on also reaching out to find out what they could about the Night Watch’s next merchandising strategy which had slowly taken over the discussion. In the group rankings that team had already trended to challenging the Praetorian’s top position, and a few of the loudest people seemed more concerned with that than with the impending danger.

They really need to learn it’s beneath their dignity to bicker and worry about those rankings so closely. Leave such petty concerns for the normies in the organization. That’s what I pay them for.

Shifting back to his office Apollo gave a few directives about his company which he could no longer put off giving, and hardly had time to recline before James and Olivia Sinclair came in with ‘urgent’ business. Making Incendra’s parents co-Vice Presidents for Promotion kept her placated, but especially since their most recent promotions other members of the teams had pushed for their own loved ones to get similarly prominent jobs in that wing of Apollo’s company—a solution which would factionalize his company creating vastly more problems.

Olivia started: “You might not guess it thanks to her amazing professionalism, but Val’s very upset and angry what with all the insubordination going on around here.”

James added in what seemed like a rehearsed script: “You’ve allowed a rogue element to hijack one of your cadet teams, and now she’s running around denouncing every news agency in the country thinking all these reports are about her.”

Apollo sighed: “Oh great Ryden again. I put her in the Front Line to keep her from distracting from Incendra, we all agreed on that course of action. Let her earn her place on a farm team before even considering lending her real prominence.”

Olivia retorted: “But now it’s become Ryden Bolt and the Front Line to the public. What were you even thinking bringing her along on a real Praetorian operation!?”

James added, with just a touch of hesitation: “Carolus is selling tapes of the Fiddler’s Green raid, and she got the second highlight reel.”

They sell tapes even of a loss just to boost their numbers, my god that’s brilliant. I can’t be too mad so long as I get top billing. Even if I can’t get royalties I might find a way to count those sales to my grand total.

Olivia continued without losing a beat: “Now she’s claiming all the popular backlash against belligerent Supers is just some smear campaign against her. Like there aren’t larger issues going on, and that she’s not making them all worse.”

Apollo activated the intercom to his assistant: “What public statements has Ryden Bolt made in the last few days?”

I have to be fair, but she will have to account for any misstep whatsoever.

A voice sounded from the other end of the line: “She denied any romantic relationship with Lieutenant Ben Espen in clear terms, and claimed that just like most Supers she maintains a hidden life away from the spotlight.”

Just as I guessed, nothing actually against the press.

Olivia’s eyes went wide with fury which she directed at her husband: “You idiot, she needed to confirm that BEFORE everyone started talking about it. Her goddamned publicist must have warned her off once the first criticisms came out.” She then looked at Apollo. “This was supposed to tarnish her a bit, make her stop getting in the way of this community. We know how she acts and what she thinks, and we need to get it out in public.”

This woman scares me more than a faceless horde of minions.

The meeting dragged on for nearly fifteen minutes while hardly touching on anything new. Apollo kept reminding them that any perceived rivalry was silly since, regardless of short-term trends, Incendra remained a much higher profile hero—and they were on a staff to promote the whole organization. Every time he did they wholeheartedly agreed with him and stressed the need to move on, and then they would continue with their tirade. Despite their indecorous approach, he agreed with them on the larger issues. Too many Supers in the organization had their public relations and merchandising managed independently, and he had allowed them in under with assurances that his vertical integration remained strictly optional. The teams ran themselves, and just worked with support from his company which managed most of their affairs.

The problem which Apollo did not need reminding of, came from those outside pressures. Simple situations kept becoming complicated thanks to all the meddling, and introduced chaotic elements when the team needed to show solidarity and coherence. The trend remained unmistakable, all those with outside management would frequently take on missions of their own—increasing their public profiles—and marginalizing the teams. On the business end if the organization ever slacked off promoting any of those members then their own people would fill the void. Thus limited resources always had to go to people who did not even really need them at the cost of other—more loyal—members. He could do little about Mean Fist, and that man’s mechanizing empire remained the team’s crown jewel, but while Apollo stayed above the fray his company always looked for ways to fully co opt the second tier heroes. Until recently the gripes always seemed minor, yet times had become lean for some reason and an organization of dozens of Supers had to deal with increasing complaints about who got what share of a pie that never seemed quite large enough. The SinClairs in particular had started insisting it was Valeria’s lack of billionaire status which hurt her overall standing and respect. Apollo disdained worrying about the particulars, and any self-respecting Super knew to publicly dismiss it all off-hand while remaining eyeballs deep in the business. Mostly, he left it up to employees, and the best solution thus far seemed to work with the Caretakers to keep people dazzled with impressive gifts: amazing cars and boats, upgraded quarters, and allowing for larger entourages. It all worked well and no one really questioned why nothing ‘given’ stopped legally belonging to the team. A couple of former members had publicly complained about being ‘robbed’ of their revenues, but Apollo harbored no sympathy for anyone who made their own bottom line such a priority—and his company tied up any lawsuits indefinitely. The Praetorians could live in high style, but only so long as they stayed useful to the community his family had built.

While all that caused problems, it did enable the teams to occasionally bond over the injustice of having members around who—while cooperating in the field—selfishly monopolized resources just for fame and money. Ryden was only the most popular of the current semi-independent players, aside from Mean Fist, and for the most part she fit in well; moreover, aside from having a great deal of raw power, she possessed a hard to quantify degree of goodwill from the public which transcended sales numbers. Olivia Sinclair griped about some minor mission the Front Line pulled during their supposed vacation in Las Vegas. Normally a team busting up a syndicate peddling a new designer drug barely made the news, but because Ryden was there several outlets had run with a profile on it. It hardly seemed a mission worthy of a whole team, only a couple weak metahumans were even involved in the ring—yet the public clamored for details. Pretending to speak for the whole organization, but mostly for their daughter, the Sinclairs chafed at this as just an attempt to steal the limelight from those entitled to it.

Calming them down, Apollo laughed that off as the kind peanuts suited to farm-teams. Real Supers did not hunt for problems, but merely responded after getting swept into them or when they became too large and obvious to ignore. For anyone in the big leagues such activity seemed like lawyers chasing ambulances. The major event brewing would sweep it from the news, and Ryden was useful in elevating the Front Line team such lulls in activity; furthermore, although some attributed this to other factors, when she joined the larger organization the Praetorian brand had gained a small but substantial boost. All that was threatened by the machinations of her agent who constantly caused problems with complaints about breach of her original contract, and kept distancing her from the organization by pushing her independent brand. Parasitically the man looked out only for his own good, since his earnings came from his client’s work independently he would always keep her identity semi-independent. Other teams complained about him—and how he handled his other clients—and men like him, but these agents often had a strange pull over the Supers they represented. More than a few times a member of the team lost their cool and suggested simply killing those people as a solution, a course of action Apollo could only forgive as part of a larger emotional breakdown.

Even directing people for only a few hours a week Apollo found dealing with contracts incredibly frustrating; furthermore he could not see how insubstantial pieces of paper with a couple signatures could substitute for integrity. Increasingly, Supers had come to rely on agents and lawyers, so much so that recruiting talented members for his teams had become difficult if he wanted to avoid adding any more such complications. One recent prospect even had the temerity to point out that the last couple members of the Praetorians who had dismissed their representation—trusting in the organization’s goodwill—had pretty quickly seen their sales bottom out and ended up dumped into the New Guardians suggesting the events were connected. Normies could never understand a Super’s calling or what sustained the unwritten Gentleman’s Agreement, and while Arens Multinational made sure people in the key positions could at least appreciate it, so many of these hangers on around other Supers seemed to regard the sector as related to sports and entertainment—just something to be ruthlessly merchandised exploited and tarnished through naked greed.

Apollo felt relieved when an alert came across his communications system, allowing him to dismiss the SinClairs and activate his screen-wall for Mileena Orwahl.

“Good news: we’re back at the top of the list.” She smirked and her eyes followed Olivia specifically as the two managers walked out, and just at the door Olivia shot her an ugly look.

Apollo smiled: “This quickly, did the Night Watch realize they’d bitten off more than they could chew?”

“In a manner of speaking. Someone must have anticipated they’d make a move because once they left their club one of the Relapsers planted a bomb in it and sent them a threat. They surrendered rather than lose it. After all, they had just finished a full redecoration…”

[7]

The Dark Conspiracy

The Praetorians bided their time in eager anticipation. Such short alerts were a good time to hang out while the Argo remained prepped and ready to go. A few played cards while others did some light practice and everyone stayed in the vicinity ready to go. Apollo had their second tier teams on a slightly longer leash with just instructions to stay on the island, and have their own jets checked over and fueled. The Front Line remained in route and it pleased some of the teams that their recent efforts for publicity might cause them to miss the next big mission. The Supers sat, they swapped stories, and all the while felt themselves the center of events.

After awhile Grydor appeared on one of their walls raising another alert, and as he did they all felt it marked the moment to load and spring into action, they hardly noticed that he looked downcast: “Something’s coming over the news. The National Security Advisor is starting a press conference about the threat.”

At that laughs echoed through the room and a couple people muttered about another botched military first-strike only building things up for a larger battle, and provoking a worse response. The screen flashed to a newsfeed where a stocky man with a thick black mustache mounted a podium, but the jubilant mood among the Praetorians started to damper since something seemed different. They all knew this man David Akkadian as a malicious incompetent fool forced on the popular President Torrance Long by the vagaries of politics, but the man seemed elated and confident. Hardly the manner of a man about to resign after a boondoggle.

David Akkadian spoke with a thoughtful tone in a crisp English accent: “Welcome everyone. I was not sure if I’d be able to come myself, but I just finished briefing the president about the situation and he suggested this warranted more than a normal talk. As you all know the brutal terrorist cell known as the Relapsers issued a threat against the Free World in general and the United States in particular, but even before they did, military intelligence has been tracking them and studying their activities and weaknesses.I’m elated to tell you that an hour ago a combined task force of FBI, CIA, CTU, and Omega Group apprehended the Relapsers leadership storming their base and freeing those Supers who challenged them: the Night Watch I believe they call themselves. While we have several men injured we have no fatalities on our side, and I credit this to excellent advance planning and cooperation… .”

Apollo could no longer keep track of everything said as he felt his head swimming. They had built themselves up for this crisis too much to have it fizzle out in some anticlimax. What really twisted around his thoughts was how David Akkadian could be the one taking credit for it all: the man was a metahuman hating bigot, and bat-fuck crazy, yet this could make him into a hero; moreover it would allow him to peddle his evil to the whole country. Most people would not understand the real meaning of the words without trustworthy sources telling them what was really said. Already he had labeled the misunderstood anti-heroes of the Relapsers a bloodstained terrorist group, and had just admitted to having people actively studying the weaknesses of Supers, but that room just let him prattle on. Pretending to value cooperation Akkadian even talked about the Night Watch as taking part in the final securing of the enemy compound, and proving very useful in escorting the prisoners taken in the operation into custody. Feigning magnanimity he even thanked them for proactively standing up to the terrorists, and through it all he seemed so genuine even as he threw around horrible and dismissive insults like terrorist again and again.

One of Orwahl Tech’s suit jockeys actually seemed happy: “Well crisis averted. I guess someone found their base before they could strike.”

“You just don’t get it, this is not how things are done. They weren’t even in the middle of an attack, so these fascists had no right to arbitrarily attack them.” Incendra replied irritably.

“Maybe if they had operated with UN supervision we could give them the benefit of the doubt, but this is some crazy unilateral action.” Hurri-Jane added seeming depressed by the situation.

“Stopping someone mid attack is one thing, but if they’re researching the Relapsers you can bet they’re researching your team. If they get laurels from this then it’s just a matter of time before they set their sights on Arens Island itself.” Nyman added but his tone suggested a question.

Apollo then put out a short-term course of action, releasing most of this people, and suggesting to any who knew people in the news in order to avert a disaster they had to remind the public over what kind of a man was hijacking national policy before their very eyes. Even as he directed them the press conference continued as a couple Relapsers who had not been caught in the strike were identified, and their faces plastered over the screens, with an appeal for the public to report any sightings to the authorities. One of them was Mean Fists own son Raur. Apollo hardly needed to give the order to contact Raur and bring him to safety before anything could happen.

What ever Akkadian is trying to pull he’s shown his hand by moving too early. Without a big incident and lots of damage this’ll be out of the news in mere days, and the public won’t back his twisted agenda. Their plan is obvious, most of my team have friends and loved ones who at some point walked a villains path, and many of them ended up in the Relapsers, and this maniac will target one team after another using any excuse he can invent.

*

 

One of the Praetorian’s distinctive hover-jets landed smoothly on the roof of a high-rise hotel, with Mean Fist stepping out drinking straight from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in large swigs. The nighttime Chicago skyline stretched all around him, but he paid it little notice as he swaggered to the elevator. He felt glad Raur had reached out, but from how it sounded he had few places to turn. Even with the Relapsers hideout stormed they had safe houses, yet two other team members had already been captured in a raid on one of those that very day; thus Raur hid out in a hotel under an assumed identity.

Mean Fist could hear the pilot over his earpiece: “He’s too used to the highlife. A place like this has too many sets of eyes, and ears they want credit cards for incidentals, and money does not last when you blow a couple grand a night just on your room.”

Mean Fist growled: “Just count yourself lucky I’m even keeping the line open, so you can feel useful, but if you ever want to go on another mission you’d better keep it the fuck down.”

The air was freezing and the wind blasted him, but he hardly felt it as he stepped into the elevator and rode it down a couple of floors. Once he stepped out he knew something was wrong: the place stank of gun oil and nylon tactical gear. Nonchalantly he came around the corner of the hallway and spotted four out of place men. They wore civilian clothes, but they all looked extremely military: young guys with short haircuts and the same athletic builds from all being on the same regular workout routine. Where their jackets hung open he could see load bearing vests sporting weapons ammunition and the quasi law enforcement logo which the military’s Omega Group used to identify themselves. He surmised they had arrived incognito, in keeping with their deceitful tactics, but had opened those jackets once their mission went loud. Worry and anger welled up in him as he realized that without signs of an ongoing confrontation his son was likely already captured.

Once the soldiers saw Mean Fist coming around the corner they adopted low-ready stances while one of them barked out: “Stand where you are, come no closer or we will engage.”

Playing dumb Mean grumbled: “What’re you talking about I’m just getting some ice for my room. You seen the machine around?”

The leader raised his weapon slightly: “Get on the ground right now.” He then spoke into a microphone. “The target’s father is on the premises.” He swallowed hard and looked back at Mean who had already taken a few more steps. “We need to know why you’re here and if you helped harbor Raur. Take five steps back or we will engage.”

Mean Fist grinned: “You think you can order me around boy…” He then took another step, but suddenly he lost all balance as he heard a strange vibrating noise shooting through his ears straight into his skull. While more irritating than painful it left him incapacitated and slumped over on the ground.

The soldier continued to speak into his face-piece while the pilot’s voice came through Mean Fist’s ears: “You okay buddy, your vitals spiked for second but now they’re super low and your video’s going straight into the carpet.”

Mean Fist barely worded out: “I… can’t… move…”

Rusty the pilot answered: “Shit I’ve seen those sonic weapons before, just give me a second to get the frequency so I can send a dampening signal over your comlink.”

Mean Fist could feel control coming back over his limbs, but he stayed still as the fire-team came down the hallway. While the others trained their weapons on the Super one of the soldiers took out a large metallic collar which showed circuitry and a few flashes of electricity came off of it as he activated the device. Mean had seen variants of that many times, they could shut down a metahuman’s powers, and weaken anyone to make them easy to handle—oftentimes they came with options to knockout or even kill a target if a captor so deemed it. The presence of such inhumane devices only further angered the Super, so with them all around him he swung into action. He grabbed one and threw him into another knocking them both through a wall, the third gunman managed to get a few futile shots off before getting punched in the chest knocking him flying dozens of feet back down the hallway and through the door to Raur’s suite with a terrible crash. The last man dropped the collar and grabbed his weapon, but Mean caught it and hit him across the head with the heavy device using it like brass-knuckles. It was all over in a couple seconds and afterwards none of them so much as twitched. The shallow bullet wounds left behind on Mean Fist looked little worse than bee stings.

Mean spoke knowing Rusty the pilot would hear him, and finally starting to like having a Friend along on the mission: “Where do they have him? Scan the radio frequencies and give me a location.”

“Already done one better: tapped into the security grid for his whole area. They’re bringing him out through the service entrance out the back.”

And at that Mean Fist raced through the shattered door crashing through the glass door to the balcony and looked around to orient himself. After getting a quick direction from the pilot he jumped over the rail. He plummeted but as he did he saw the start of a convoy leaving out the back and he steered his own fall towards it. He landed on the roof of the first escort car, a black Crown Victoria,  in a classic superhero landing collapsing it in the middle. The fall barely even fazed him as he sprung to his feet and faced off with the armored car behind it. That vehicle turned to the side and gunned its engine, as he charged it and smashed through the front shattering the engine. The beast of a vehicle lurched forward on momentum alone coming to a stop against a nearby pillar.

Men leapt from several vehicles nearby, amid shouts over a loudspeaker mounted to a van to lay down and cease resisting or be met with force. At that Mean cracked his knuckles and smiled...

 

*

 

Apollo waited on Praetorian Tower’s landing pad as the distinctive Raider-Jet landed. The cockpit lowered out the bottom revealing Dark Raider in the front, and Mean Fist along with Raur crowded into the backseat. It was a good thing that Raur lacked his Father’s bulky build or else the two of them would probably not have fit together in the cramped space. A small detainment pod, further back on the jet, also opened letting out the pilot Apollo had sent to chauffeur his teammate. Thus far Mean had only deigned to communicate his method for getting back, which almost certainly meant that Arens Incorporated would have to build yet another replacement jet; because they considered the technology too dangerous to put at risk of dissemination he maintained no facilities for mass production. That had the advantage of easily customizing each one to particular needs, when Apollo deemed someone worthy, but drove up the per-unit cost astronomically.

Dark Raider spoke in his trademarked scratchy synthesized voice: “Your guys are damned lucky I was already on the case or else we’d have a couple more captured Supers on our hands.”

Raur pulled his irregularly styled hair just back from his right eye with a huff: “I had the situation under control before any of you even showed up. Those pigs were right where I wanted them.” His exaggerated bluster failed to hide his obvious embarrassment. It was hard to tell if his clothing was a Supers costume in an exaggerated punk style or if he just wore highly stylized clothing. Those more familiar with him knew it was a costume since his normal clothes were even more flamboyant.

Dark Raider smirked under his cowl: “Sure that’s why they had you in full restraints. In future you might want to dress down when you lay low.”

Raur pouted so hard it looked comical: “I’m not going to let people decide how I dress just because I’m hiding out. You don’t get to tell me how to live. Even my father can’t do that. I hate you, GET OUT OF MY LIFE.” He then stormed off.

Apollo looked at those remaining: “Please tell me you learned what you needed from him on the way here. I don’t want to have to coax anything out of him when he’s like this.”

Spinning around Raur shouted out: “That’s only because you don’t care about who I am. You’re not my father, you don’t own me.”

In the background a couple people exchanged money thanks to a bet that he would complain about people not being his father at least twice within a couple minutes of arrival.

I keep forgetting about his enhanced senses. Apollo thought to himself

Mean Fist grunted: “He’s just a little pissed off from getting attacked by those cock sucking cowards. I’ll find out what he knows once he’s had a few minutes to get settled.”

Just barely audibly Nyman muttered: “When is he not like this?”

Dark Raider watched the Relapser go and only spoke once he was in an elevator and the doors shut: “Chicago was bad. They had swarms of men and advanced weapons. Some of it looked like alien tech, other pieces were new and designed to counteract Supers.”

“They’ve already put out a report, their version of events, claiming all sorts of terrible things. That thirteen government agents were killed, that a hail of gunfire from you of all people killed three civilians, that Raur raped two members of that hotel’s staff.” Apollo sounded worried and shocked, but his words did not contain any hint of accusation.

Dark Raider’s eyes went wide: “That’s nonsense, I don’t even use guns.”

Mean Fist added: “And Raur don’t need to rape anybody. Not with his powers.”

 “Exactly why no reputable news agency will carry any of it.” Apollo couldn’t help but give an indignant smirk.

Mean Fist indicated over a dozen deep welts on his skin: “Their bullets didn’t hit that much harder than usual, but the wounds aren’t healing like they should. The situation’s worse than you think: Raur says he saw Black Legion agents there and some of that tech looks just like their work.”

The mention of that organization caught everyone’s full attention. While it had not been in the public eye in some time, it was still considered formidable thanks to a mix of power and ruthlessness. From what Apollo knew they went all the way back to the Crusades, and several times had been thwarted in their attempts to gain hegemony over the world.

Apollo looked at Dark Raider: “Did you see this?”

“Well I didn’t see any emblem myself, but I recognized their methods.” The black-clad hero answered.

Not wanting to look behind the curve Mean added: “Yeah I definitely saw those motherfuckers around. No one smells as bad as they do if you catch my drift.”

Apollo thought for a few seconds: “They have us at a disadvantage since we don’t know where they operate from.”

Dark Raider nodded: “Layers and layers of secrets can never be a good thing. I’ve tried to research this with my people ever since Akkadian was appointed, but so far I haven’t located any of their facilities.”

Apollo sighed slightly: “I don’t believe the President would just go along with this, not if he knew the truth, we have to talk with him. We also need to warn the other teams.”

They all made their way to a huge room which doubled as Apollo’s office in Goathaven while discussing the situation, and sending out orders. A few more team members waited for them and they shared the full rundown. Mileena suggested they could review the footage being shown on the Zaibatsu Satellite Network to get a better grasp on events: she had already seen a few clips and reported only seeing normal government vehicles, suggesting any special enhancements might prove a link to Black Legion technology, but neither Mean Fist nor Dark Raider seemed to want any such review going so far as to insist on it. Mean Fist even seemed hurt that his word would not be taken as cannon.

The Black Legion would be careful not to reveal their devices in footage they put out, so a review is pointless.

As they talked, suddenly a member of the team teleported into the middle of the room holding a befuddled looking President Torrance Long by the back of his collar. She smiled and teleported to a balcony overlooking the main room while the others looked at the helpless leader of the United States, and no one seemed to notice this as an odd or troubling turn of events. Without any kind of accompaniment President Long did not look like much: just a thin man wearing an somewhat flamboyant double-breasted suite which suggested a 70’s aesthetic, his tightly curled strawberry-blond hair worn much shorter than his old trademark cloud of foam, and many wrinkles showing the signs of middle-age and stress.

Once he looked around the room he seemed to collect himself: “Oh thank god. I thought this was another kidnapping. It isn’t, is it?”

Apollo gave him an angry look: “It damn well could be, and if we hadn’t have gotten to you other Supers might have taken the initiative.”

Torrance Long gulped hard: “We’re all friends here, come on I don’t do anything without thinking about your wellbeing.”

Dark Raider appeared in front of Long and picked him up by the collar of his blazer: “YOU APPOINTED A MONSTER TO HUNT US DOWN.” It came out half a shout and half a growl.

“Are you talking… about Chicago. I just sent some of my own people to figure out what the hell happened. As you know, I didn’t even want to appoint Akkadian. He understands metahumans better than anyone but he’s too confrontational. I know our only choice is to live together in peace.”

Mean Fist leaped in close to the two in the center of the room: “They hunted down my son for no reason. The threat had passed, and now they’re slaughtering innocent people just to create a coverup.”

Long looked confused and frightened: “They?!”

Apollo raised his hand: “Let him down: he’s a Friend of my team.” With the man back on his own feet Apollo gave him a couple seconds to collect himself before continuing. “The Black Legion. Our people recognized several of their agents in the fighting not to mention their tech.”

Long looked around: “Could I get a drink?” Seeing a decanter of whiskey and some glasses on an end table, but no one moving to get him any he poured himself a glass of the amber liquid and took a sip. “You had me rattled for a minute there, sorry. You don’t know the kind of battle I’ve fought on your behalf, but Akkadian has been taking control over our response networks.”

Mileena Orwahl asked: “What about General McAuphlin[8]?”

“Kicked to the curb, Akkadian said an unbroken record of failures was not something to build from. The hearings were all on CSPAN.”

Someone in the background muttered: “But why would losing every time make any difference?”

Mean Fist looked enraged: “He talks that way about a Medal of Honor winner?!”

“He said with the same mistakes made again and again experience wasn’t worth very much. Congressman Godfrey backed him up; moreover, he said McAuphlin has the mindset of an Ajax not an Odysseus or some Roman crap like that. A bunch of former agents and operators all testified that moral in the response units had broken because of all the casualties, and that a complete overhaul of tactics and gear was needed to get away from everyone getting killed or maimed all the time on Swat Team style busts.”

Mean spat: “Fucking bunch of cowards.”

At the mention of that name Apollo saw Incendra’s eyes go wide, and he could hardly blame her. They had all seen mere days before when the man had barged in on one of her interviews with Oswald Porter, and embarrassed himself not only with his hate but his drunken lechery and hardly comprehensible drawl. Metahumans were lucky to have someone like her who could show up to confront such a man with facts and logic not to mention empathy. A slight tinge of doubt came to him about a disconnect between the editorials about the exchange and what he had actually seen, but he pushed those aside to focus on the issue at hand.

Incendra shouted: “TAYLOR GODFREY IS INVOLVED IN THIS?” Flame crackled off her fists.

Torrance Long swallowed hard: “He’s on the Appropriations Committee. Son of a bitch has more power these days than I do.” He spoke as if Appropriations Committee held some meaning to his audience, as probably the most important body within the US Congress, but none of them even seemed to recognize the term so he continued. “Everything I try to do, they get in the way. It’s an unprecedented wave of political sabotage. What they’ve done to my agenda is practically terrorism. People pushed this as a way to help the Super-teams, or to pick up the slack when no one shows up.”

Apollo stepped forward and used his full size to dwarf the politician: “But I thought you understood how this was wrong. You were elected to end the secret programs, and now we have Black Legion agents openly using their weaponry against innocent metahumans on the streets and attacking us in our homes. Is this how you try to make peace? You know as well as we do that once the government has weapons they end up on every street corner inside of a year.”

“He reported hunting down a couple Black Legion cells a few months back, but that must have been a cover for something else. The weapons I can explain: most of the old programs were mothballed between that gear, and anything captured from hostiles, we have several armories lying around—and Akkadian got permission to use what we already had. It was all I could do to stop them from producing more weapons.”

Shocked, Apollo looked down with indignance and disappointment: “All that work taking those weapons out of circulation just for this. You knew all this was wrong, but what did you even do? You didn’t even let us know when these frightening ideas were put in place.”

Torrance Long hesitated for a few seconds: “All that was right in the open, it was broadcast in the hearings. Most of you work in the ne… Some of you know people who work in the news yo.. they must have noti… said something.”

Apollo had a moment of indecision, and even a trickle of doubt. Could someone have stopped this if they’d paid attention.

“Well authorization can be lost with a biiiig scandal and the whole thing blown wide open. That is if we’re confident our version of events will hold up, and if we can wait and let the system run its course.” Nyman said the last part sarcastically.

Incendra shot a gout of fire near Nyman blasting apart a section of the bar, and her face twisted into a mask of rage as she spoke: “Leaving our friends and loved ones to rot in an illegal military brig, at the mercy of the very worst of humanity, while we trust others to sort through some bureaucratic quagmire. Giving our enemies a chance to wait for our guard to drop before striking at their leisure. All because we’re too scared to do the right thing? Heroes don’t muddle around negotiating: heroes act no matter what the consequences.” She then turned to look at Apollo looking like she might bolt at any second.

For an extended moment the room descended into confused bickering with one or two Praetorians warning about the lack of information, they had on Omega Group, leaving no obvious targets; furthermore even while Incendra suggested any military target as a legitimate threat at least half the room worried about such escalation. Long practically begged them for a chance to find a political solution while apologizing for letting the situation develop in the first place.

Such arguments had happened before and Apollo knew they were not far from going to blows with each other; regardless of the circumstance he knew he needed a plan which would keep the team together, and looking at his people depending on him for a decision filled him with resolve as it reminded him of his importance as the leader. He shook his head thoughtfully: “An untargeted attack no matter how justified might just play into their hands.” He then looked directly at the president. “Are you going to keep making excuses all day or are you going to make this right? They’re violating the constitution by holding people we know without due process or oversight. And we’re going to get them back.”

Long blinked: “The Relapsers were planning a major attack. Someone… someone had to act before a strike happened.”

“Not by taking preemptive action, not by holding people illegally. You know if the villains force us to change then they’ve already won. We’re going to make this right, and you’re going to help us.”

 

*

 

The facility did not look like much from a distance as it sat nestled in hills of West Virginia. According to records it had housed several ICBMs, before their decommissioning, and a few years later the site was put to use by the Army storing vehicles and hosting training. Dark Raider examined it using the Argo’s scanners as they flew by more than ten thousand feet above the site. His Raidster supercar took up much of the cargo space on the Praetorian’s craft, but they would likely need it, and he didn’t mind riding with them on a team up mission.

“Well chosen site. Off the beaten path, but it’s got it’s own railhead and a full runway. They have a strong inner perimeter protected by a berm and concrete barriers. Security has been upgraded recently in a major way: you can see the glinting off all that new concertina-wire, and some of the existing structures have been reinforced. That’s just what I can tell from this distance.”

In several cases that reinforcement consisted of small L-shaped pathways, constructed out of multiple layers of sandbags, into some of the buildings. The design prevented a direct explosive impact against the doors, and thus greatly improving the protective qualities of what was normally a key weak spot; likewise most of the windows had been partly blocked by sandbags, and others were in the process of replacement by vastly thicker and heavier ones. Those modifications might have been effective, but they drew contempt from the observers as they looked cheap and improvised. A repurposed site instead of one built to spec like any proper secret base should be. They couldn’t even detect any gargantuan hangar cleverly disguised by an enormous trapdoor, and their sensors would have picked up something like that.

What a bunch of losers.

“Well then it looks like your idea of an infiltration is out. They’ve certainly already seen us.” Incendra spoke looking more than impatient.

“We can’t know for sure unless they start shooting at us, and a frontal attack could be risky without knowing what they have for weaponry.” Apollo cautioned.

Mileena wore her armor with the helmet removed and used another set of scanners: “I see a tractor-trailer moving up the road, looks like contractors delivering supplies. We might be able to use these deliveries to get a closer look, plant some bugs, and maybe even infiltrate someone.”

Raur shook his head: “You can’t know that. They could be moving the prisoners. You’ll look really stupid coming out here and wasting time watching a place that gets cleared out right under your stupid noses.”

“We can’t let that truck leave, but a frontal assault is too risky.” Apollo spoke looking over the screens

Dark Raider smirked under his cowl: “In that case I have an idea.”

Around twenty minutes later the front gate of the compound sat peacefully with a few soldiers, wearing camouflage uniforms, standing near it and a two man team with a search-dog nearby walking the outside of the barriers. The Raidster made its way up the road from a distance looking simply like an odd and oversized car. The men at the gate took up positions as it approached and as it got near enough to somewhat identify they got behind cover and raised their weapons. Suddenly the engine gunned spinning the rear tires, while the front ones remained locked, sending up dust and black smoke from burning rubber and asphalt.

A voice came over a loudspeaker: “Stop your vehicle and get out or we will fire.”

At that the vehicle raced forward, and a turret popped out of the roof revealing two barrels, one a normal machinegun and the other much wider. At almost the same time the guards and the car opened fire on each other with its rounds landing in the base of their cover sending the soldiers near the volley ducking under their protection. From a nearby guard tower came the concentrated and powerful shots from a medium machine gun impacting around and deflecting off the souped up car having little if any impact. One of the guards further away started launching grenades from an M203 mounted on him M16 in rapid succession, but managing only near misses which sent up a pair of dramatic explosions. The distance narrowed as the car picked up speed towards the tiny drop-arm, but as it closed to within feet of breaking through suddenly a huge metal barrier rose out of the ground on the opening for the road. While only about three feet high it completed the wall leaving nowhere for a vehicle to pass through, and it came up too late for the Raidster to break on time. The supercar slammed into the gate and deflected off while skidding to the side with much of the front end smashed despite its solid construction.

As that happened, one of the towers shook and suddenly its outside fell away like a shell revealing a long cannon which spun over and came to bear on the attacking vehicle even as the driver tried to regain control. It launched a three inch shell from its position a few hundred yards down the perimeter, sending out a large blast of flame and shock from its muzzle, and the shell flew just high detonating above the ground in a large explosion sending shrapnel over the whole area. The Raidster started reversing while swerving as more shots from small arms and grenade launchers flew all around it, and it’s turret came to bear on the tower but the smaller shells it fired flew well wide. With only a couple seconds pause the tower fired another round, and this one buried itself in the road where the Raidster had been a fraction of a second before and revealing itself as an armor piercing shell detonated only after impact. Alert sirens went off at the compound and more men raced around inside the perimeter; furthermore a military truck with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted at the top just behind the gate which started adding its fire to the storm. It needn’t have bothered as the tower next fired a burst of four shells, in just over a second, scoring two direct hits which went straight through the Raidster’s armor detonating inside.

The supercar came to a stop and only a few more rounds rang out before the bullets stopped. A couple men asked whether or not they should search the vehicle, only to have an officer warn them against going near it. Someone shouted: “Are we just going to leave it there?” and in answer the tower fired three shells into the vehicle triggering an internal explosion which blew it apart. Most eyes watched that side so that only a few saw a virtual wall of fog rolling out of the nearby woods, and those sentries spoke a warning into their radios which others acknowledged as they fanned out either taking up positions or moving about on patrol. The huge doors of a warehouse, the largest building on sight opened and soldiers pushed out a pair of attack helicopters as others moved around them getting them ready for takeoff. Even as the site buzzed with activity the search dogs barked and turned in confusion and anger.

A couple more towers had revealed themselves as automated cannons and they all swiveled as they scanned the surrounding countryside, but then lines of electricity appeared twisting and snaking over them in rapid succession sending them jerking around for a few seconds before going completely still and disabled. Many turned to look at those towers, far too many, when suddenly Incendra flew over the compound and started blasting at the helicopters just as they started getting their rotors spinning. Apollo appeared amidst a group of soldiers and threw them in all directions before disappearing. His display of power had the same effect as his teleporter who appeared herself holding an unscathed Dark Raider, on one of the guard towers, and he sprung into action as she vanished and then reappeared again and repeated the process in rapid succession sowing confusion. A few soldiers with more advanced weapons shot a series of what looked like electrified bolas, from their rifles, scoring a couple hits and suddenly looking a little surprised Apollo shimmered for a second as if about to teleport but failed and took a couple more hits. With great effort, he ripped the lines from himself as the men reloaded—and all around them the battle joined with arcs from different types of energy blasts and tracer rounds going back and forth as more Supers joined the fight against the garrison. A few direct hits from a stunner knocked knocked Apollo off his feet, but he managed to land in a crouch and then despite the pain he smiled at the men facing him, a look of impressment and of challenge, before lunging forward through their hail of shots.

 

*

 

Minutes later the raid’s leaders make their way into the main hardened structure as wrecked vehicles and buildings smoldered around them. A call over the loudspeakers told the defenders to lay down their weapons, but shots mainly from the stolen alien-tech weapons still rang out--on the far side of the the compound—as the Praetorians subdued the few remaining holdouts. As the Praetorians and their allies moved forward Apollo only slightly noticed teams of military medics seeing to the wounded, but then he filtered that out to focus on the mission at hand.

“Beta and Charlie Teams: secure the surface. Corral the prisoners and make sure to destroy any advanced weapons. Alpha Team with me.” Apollo directed his people and mostly they obeyed. The two outsiders, Raur and Dark Raider, didn’t listen and followed him anyways but he expected as much and said nothing.

Incendra laughed: “These chumps throw in the towel just as I was starting to have fun.”

The building seemed unimpressive, for so important of a base, recessed into a hillside it only had a few steps to walk up, and beside that a docking station for large trucks. The front was plain concrete with only a few narrow windows. Utterly functional it was even marred by a few large venting units sticking out which by their rusty condition had been there since the initial construction. It was just a large, though rugged, structure. A file of defenders moved out of the main door with their hands raised, mainly military but a couple of them wore suits and Apollo guessed they were from one of the intelligence agencies. As they moved Raur lost his temper when someone gave him a defiant look, but Apollo stopped him before anything serious could happen. The rest of the defenders clearly took note and hung their heads low, so as to not set off the situation.

The inside felt cramped, with entryway and halls wide but not particularly tall like the whole thing had been built on a limited budget without room for style. One of the team members could not help but humorously remark on it being a dump. Apollo had one of the men in suits lead them through, and he took them to the main elevators. Located in the loading zone at least those had a good enough size to impress, yet it felt like just some light industrial work area with forklifts and stacks of pallets holding supplies and a clear pathway to the large cargo elevator. The team took the elevator down deep into the earth, at least a couple hundred feet as far as they could tell.

As they descended they passed through an odd shimmering in the air, and Incendra shot the agent an outraged look and burning came off of one of her hands: “What was that!?”

“Just a…”

Apollo finished for him: “A dampening field. Shields the area from attacks and from telepathy and other possible threats. I’m surprised you didn’t cover the entire compound with it.”

“We… We wanted to, but only had a few…”

The next area looked new and finally betrayed the high technology expected of a prison for Supers. A wide hallway enclosed by armored glass on the sides and ontop, and beyond it walkways were visible and at the end they came into a large open area. Close to twenty more soldiers waited in there with their hands on their heads, a few mounted weapons sat on raised platforms but no one stood anywhere near them.

Apollo looked at them: “You men will assist in freeing your prisoners.”

An stocky older man wearing a lieutenant-colonel’s rank looked surprised: “All of them? You don’t understand we’ve been operational for over a year and we have dozens of extreme risk prisoners.”

Apollo’s eyes narrowed: “So think you can violate the Constitution by holding people without trial just because they’re Supers.”

“Most of them aren’t Supers, we hold them here because of their activities in terror networks. I can’t just let them all go.” He looked scared, yet determined.

“Stand down Colonel Osborne. I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.” On a balcony to the side stood David Akkadian addressing his subordinate.

Raur spat: “You monster, what have you done with my friends?”

“If I were a monster I would have ordered all the prisoners liquidated at the first sign of trouble, and then would have sacrificed all my troops as a distraction while I slipped out through some secret tunnel.” Akkadian mused.

Suddenly Dark Raider appeared behind Akkadian and grabbing him carried them both over the side landing safely, though roughly, right in front of the Praetorians. “You won’t get a chance to slip away this time.” Dark Raider growled.

Akkadian seemed fazed only for a few seconds: “This time? I’ve never done anything even remotely like that. I’m afraid there aren’t any hidden ways out. A secret way in and out would have created an unacceptable hole in security; indeed one of my only problems with this site are the relatively nearby mines. The trick with your car, was it remote controlled?”

“Of course it was.” Dark Raider smirked. “So you gave up because you were trapped.”

“Not really what I said. Look if you have a problem with people being held then there are channels. Of course Long is so scared of being blamed for anything a releasee might do that he has his people dragging their feet about setting up the panels to review individual cases.”

Nyman stepped close to Apollo and spoke somewhat quietly: “This is a trick. A vainglorious attempt to change the game to one where he has the advantage instead of facing you like equals...”

“So that’s why you had your people stand down: you thought you could distract us with politics.” Apollo spat.

“NO.” Akkadian lost his cool for an instant before collecting himself. “I did it to keep you from crossing the damn Rubicon.”[9]

Apollo, the reference being lost on him, looked at the colonel in charge: “Go with my people and begin releasing the prisoners.” He then nodded to a couple members of his team.

The man looked questioningly to Akkadian who nodded his assent, and so he led the jailers further in under the close supervision of a couple Supers.

Akkadian gave a somewhat stressed snigger: “Oh I’m sorry, it’s just this whole situation is absurd. The National Security Advisor is supposed to rub elbows in Washington and advise not to personally oversee operations. The expectation I even should spend my time at these things is absurd. Nowadays you have the Army Chief of Staff personally riding the first tank into an incident when Grant figured out in the Eighteen Sixties the value of long range communications. It’s like everything’s been dumbed down to where a slower eight-year old can grasp it intuitively.”

“I guess some people don’t think it’s their place to get their hands dirty.” Nyman replied.

David Akkadian sighed: “I don’t disparage people who kick in doors, it’s just not my area of expertise. My actual job now gets done by clueless brown nosing White House staffers. Some of the cuter interns have more pull up there than I do on day to day stuff.” Even though his voice stayed steady he sweated nervously.

The Praetorians in the room started shifting around. They had come expecting an epic showdown with a man spouting evil platitudes, not a capitulation followed by what even in their extremely ungenerous assessment seemed like at least reasonable complaints.

Apollo was the first to get himself back on track: “You can’t talk your way out of this. You run this place holding innocent Supers prisoner, and you have Black Legion working for you. We spotted them in Chicago, and we’re going to blow this whole thing wide open. Let’s see you talk your way out of that.”

Akkadian gave a slight grimace: “Actually, if you’re so worried about Black Legion then I really must caution against letting everyone out. We hold their last operational cells in this facility. That’s why their activities have dropped to zero despite their obsession with theatrical violence. I can assure you this taskforce is vetted to the highest standard, and surely any double agents would have acted to save what was left of their organization.”

Dark Raider suddenly grabbed the man and pushed him against a railing over a deep pit on one side of the room: “I know what I saw with my own eyes. I know what this is: it’s infighting. You’re shutting down the other cells so you can take over everything. And then you’ll try to take over the world.”

Suddenly an uneven voice rang out: “Put him down.” And then they saw a man in a suit holding a blaster pistol in unsteady hands on one of the balconies. “All of you back up.” It was not just fear weakening him, he looked completely unused to firearms, and he had the soft skinny build of a bookworm.

Akkadian lost his composure: “Put it down now, or they’ll kill you. We lost this one that’s all, but no one else has to die today.”

“They’ll kill us anyways.” Tears welled up in the staffer’s eyes.

Akkadian closed his eyes: “You’ll only get yourself hurt or worse.”

Apollo motioned: “No one’ll be harmed if you lay it down and join the others.”

Nervously the man put down the gun and got ushered off roughly by one of the Supers.

“Thank you... Now where were we?” Akkadian addressed Apollo.

“How did some chumps like you ever take down the Relapsers?” Mean Fist grumbled.

“Once we located their base we managed to get control of their computer system, patched a harmless sleeping agent into its air supply and isolated the few not disabled by that. After that it was easy. Raw numbers have never proven effective at taking down Supers, but a well formed plan and the element of surprise can be decisive.”

“But… But that’s now how it works. That’s not honorable. They’re supposed to get a bunch of their own guys killed and then sit back and watch us take care of business.” Mean Fist looked confused and as angry as always.

“If they could take them down so easily they could do the same to us.” Incendra muttered.

“An operation like that seems well beyond the US Government’s capabilities: more along the lines of a Black Legion attack. And taking everyone intact doesn’t change the fact that they have no right to hold our kind.” Nyman spoke to Apollo as if he were the only one in the room.

Apollo nodded: “He’s right, you crossed the line when you attacked innocent Supers and held them in this… this Gulag. Our kind are our responsibility. And your ends don’t justify working with pure evil.”

“Look, everyone in this program has been vetted to the highest standard, and our security barriers are so tight that we ferreted a mole out of the FBI just because he tried to get close too many times. You want to blow this whole thing wide open, then I welcome the scrutiny of a full and transparent investigation.” Akkadian offered.

“So you’ll release all your files to the public and admit what you’ve done?”

“We can hold hearings on Capitol Hill, have everything put out in the open. I’m sure you have people you trust who already have clearance: all records can be opened to them and the duly elected representatives on the panel. In the meantime someone can hold onto the Black Legion agents for a thorough cross-examination. I would have to be a complete incompetent if active enemy cells are operating from the groups I helped set up. Even if I couldn’t get identities I’d at least be able to figure out there was a leak. I would have to be just such a complete idiot to have a Nazi-offshoot techno-murder-cult operating under my nose without noticing it. The kind of one eyed moron who mistakes a fetish leather trench coat for appropriate business attire.” He looked at the fourth wall and rolled his eyes.

Someone, probably Nyman, choked out the word fury—but no one picked up on why.

“With hearings we can resolve all this so as to avoid further mistakes.”

Incendra shouted with tinges of panic although she had listened to very little: “He’s just trying to cover this up.”

“No, I’m suggesting the best way to make sure nothing gets missed.” Akkadian countered.

“You’re trying to save your career, and to continue this crusade of yours against Supers anyway you can. Trying to use my sense of honor against me.” Apollo gave an indignant sneer.

“I knew my job was toast when they pulled the bodies of two kids out of the wreckage of their family’s car in Chicago. Doesn’t seem to matter who did it, I okayed the operation, and my men have already been blamed. I just want to make sure no one else gets hurt in the fall out from all this, so that the objective truth came come out, no matter what it is.”

Nyman continued speaking to Apollo: “Well it seems like a surrender, and we should be able to live with it, so long as we really can trust our people’s version of events: that their actions would seem above reproach to a... neutral audience. The pity is, if anyone believes even part of their story it could be… problematic.” He gave a mirthless grin.

And the conundrum rushed across the unprepared Apollo. Any version of events put out that did not match up with his team’s would stir up controversies which would not die; furthermore it would directly imperil his whole organization along with all its members, and even his family’s company. The very act of submitting to arbitration and review could permanently damage their prestige. Akkadian made it seem like that was the right thing, but Apollo knew the right thing could never be something which permanently damaged himself and everyone who relied on him.

If he really is Black Legion then I’m not obligated to play fair. His entire team looked at him for a decision which filled him with resolve.

“This really is a trick, and you are with the Black Legion. You’re coming with us.” Apollo barely restrained his anger. “Your choice of words betrays you. ‘Objective Truth’ if you were properly educated you’d know that’s just something used to oppress the powerless.” He said powerless with zero sense of irony. “There’s no truth but what we make of it. Words from people like you always lead to violence, and I will not let you harm anymore of my people.” He recited the lines as if from a script. “My people know what happened and I trust them completely, and I won’t allow any false versions to get out.” He shook his head with emphatic glee.

“Then what will you do, imprison me? You’ve largely justified this attack on the idea holding people extra-judicially being reprehensible.” Akkadian raised his eyebrows.

“Well, I’ve learned to ignore questions like that and they don’t even bother me anymore.” The indignant sneer returned to Apollo’s face. Despite his confident facade he felt disgusted and flustered. On a purely logical basis his feeling made no sense, but they were a the most common human reaction to ideas which ran against an established worldview. It took a quality education to make someone assess different ideas on a purely rational basis, but Apollo like most of his kind fell more into the category of heavily educated which only exaggerated his reactions by helping him to rationalize decisions he made before thinking about them.

Akkadian answered: “A hero shouldn’t ever be comfortable with those kinds of contradictions.”

Apollo paused for a few seconds: “This isn’t a clean finish this way. Even if things go well from here. Could you make this easy and just accidentally kill yourself?”

“What, why the hell would I want to commit suicide!?” Akkadian seemed shocked.

“No not suicide, just accidentally kill yourself. Like it usually happens in situations kind of like this.” Apollo answered.

Akkadian looked surprised: “You really mean that, and here I assumed that was just your kind’s way of covering up some of your worst mistakes.”

Incendra having lost all track of the conversation piped up again: “I know what’s going on. He’s stalling: and he’s got a robot or powered armor powering up somewhere, or he’s already injected himself with a retrodemon-virus that’ll turn him into some giant gray hulk, for the final showdown.”

Nyman smirked: “All their plots do tend to end like that.”

Akkadian looked puzzled but scared: “If anything jumped out you’d have an easy shot at me.”

Apollo shrugged: “That’s never helped us before.”

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t run a risk like that. Look at my eyes, if I’d been dosed up you’d see a sign of it by now.” Akkadian held his eyes wide open using his hands.

Apollo shook his head: “You’re really not doing very well at this. You need to give us a dramatic finish if you want to redeem yourself in my eyes. This is really just irritating, but do something big and you’ll be remembered. Maybe in a few months pop back up as some badass mastermind. You could go far, join up with a villains organization maybe eventually even the Relapsers, and I mean that.” Something that was almost reassurance came from his voice at the end.

Akkadian hung his head low and shook it slightly: “I’m not sure why anyone would be so obsessed with what you think of them, but I’m just an administrator. Sorry for the anti-climax but you’ll just have to take me in and sort it out from there. Of course if you do keep releasing supervillains you shouldn’t lack for big dramatic finishes for very long. Of course I’ve always thought a moral choice to have far higher stakes and tension than a faceless threat ever does, and you could set a real example by making the right one here and now.”

Apollo looked over to Nyman who smiled and nodded his head suggesting a fair point might have been made.

Suddenly Incendra flew high into the air shouting: “HE’S GOT A GUN.”

Apollo looked back at her and then at David Akkadian who stepped back with one hand low, and reaching under his blazer. And then a huge burst of flame struck the man in the upper chest knocking him back, like a ragdoll, nearly twenty feet and leaving a huge smoldering hole in his torso. A few convulsions rippled across the body for an extended moment before the man completely died.

Apollo felt stunned, as the turn took him by surprise, but thinking about it he remembered the movement: all the talk had distracted him giving Akkadian a chance to make a move and the image of the pistol came to Apollo’s mind’s eye; although he still didn’t feel completely sure about how it had all happened, since Incendra had been directly behind him when she said it.

Incendra shook her head: “He was too dangerous. His words, his hate. I had to do it.”

Apollo nodded: “No need to apologize at all. You saved my life and who knows how many more.” He paused for a few seconds. “Probably for the best that it ended this way. Without an active cover-up we can expose all their dark secrets.”

Mean Fist snorted: “I kinda wonder why people like that keep going out like that. Taking one last desperate try at hurting others even when they know it’ll get them killed, but they keep doing it...”

Apollo spoke: “It’s probably for the best that we don’t understand such monsters.”

The team moved on to finish their job leaving behind the corpse, and were anyone to have inspected the room they would have failed to find the gun in question as the man had not carried one—nor would a small handgun like he could have carried under his jacket been any real threat.

*

Within a couple hours the underground facility cleared out leaving behind the corpse and hours became days, and days flowed into weeks. Inside the bunker very few signs showed of the passage of time aside from the body slowly decomposing in the cool sterile air. Finally the lift opened again and a husky man entered wearing gray coveralls emblazoned with a large patch on the right side of the chest and a pictured ID tag.

Upon first entering the room he seemed nervous as he checked around carefully before making his way to a control console. He checking over systems while shooting the occasional uncomfortable glance at the body by the pit. After close to two hours he sat down and pulled a thermos of coffee and an egg salad sandwich out of a small bag. Sitting back he tried to relax while sipping at the drink and nibbling on the sandwich, but quickly the mix of ominous surroundings and nearby corpse got to him. So, putting aside his snack he decided to do something about the situation. First he double checked the security protocols and then seeing the facility had an incinerator he used the console to start it up. Retrieved a rolling stretcher he brought it beside the cadaver, and then crossed himself in a quick prayer before glancing around with a guilty look and unsentimentally checking the pockets and keeping several small items like the wallet. Finally he took the remains down an adjacent hallway and disposed of them, but when he came back to the main room he had company.

A raven haired male Super wearing little more than a black unitard in a romper cut, with a couple dark red patterns on it which displayed every ripple of his amazing muscles, grabbed the workman by the scruff of his collar and growled: “What the hell are you doing down here? Are you an industrial spy? Are you Black Legion?”

Someone highly familiar with Supers would have recognized him as Rehvan a former sidekick of Dark Raider’s who had split off several years before and then kicked around a couple middling teams ever since. As for the pronunciation of his name it sounded basically like raven, but sometimes and only sometimes with a barely noticeable huh between the syllables. His main continued notoriety came from placing at or near the top most lists for which male hero had the nicest ass, though in that area his popularity had slipped since rumors emerged his posterior was actually a prosthetic which anyone could purchase for only five easy payments of $19.95. Most however would have simply given the general identification of a Super and not been able to give the name let alone been able to spell or pronounce his title. Across the room, but clearly with Rehvan, stood a middle aged man by the console the workman had used earlier.

The workman spoke with thick nasally Baltimore accent: “Whoa, easy does it guy. Look at my patch I work for Mister Cyrus Coburn.”

Rehvan ripped off the ID and tossed it to his helper saying: “Run this through the database.” As if it really needed saying.

The workman protested: “You tore my uniform, that’ll come out of my paycheck.”

Rehvan shook him from left to right showing far greater than human strength: “Shut up till I’ve decided what to do with you.”

“But I’m on the disposal crew, we’ve destroying all this dangerous high-tech garbage, didn’t you tie in with my foreman up top?”

The assistant ran the information into the computer doing the work Supers rarely had the patience for. He complained: “This place is so cut-off I have to use the government network, but on that at least he seems to check out.”

Rehvan didn’t let up as he lifted the man to within a couple inches of his face: “What the hell are you doing down here alone then?”

“Canary in the Coalmine Protocol. They didn’t want to risk more than one guy tripping any security measures down here till we’re sure they’re all offline. Insurance company insists on it for jobs like this.”

Rehvan yelled sending a veritable typhoon of spittle into the man’s face: “NO!! I DIDN’T COME ALL THE WAY TO WEST VIRGINIA FOR SOME FALSE ALARM. WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?!” He then gave the man an open handed strike across the face with left a huge red handprint.

The workman sobbed: “I work for Cyrus Coburn, the same as you. Please man I don’t like West Virginia anymore than you do, and I’m going to have to be here for weeks on this job around bodies and machines which could kill me at any minute. Come on, I’m only doing this job because I’m behind on my mortgage. The last guy they had on this position got turned into some kind of robo-zombie because he pressed one wrong button.”

“SO… that’s how They got to you. I can smell the greed all over you and it sickens me. And how else could you know about my association with the Coburn Group hmmm?” Rehvan sneered utterly confident of his conclusion despite a glaring lack of evidence. The response team had opposite reactions to everything about the intruder. His explanations managed to feed into the paranoia of the hero while his subordinate checked them out, and his working class accent and apparent weakness only brought out a predator’s instinct for the Super. Despite all that the older man only gave slight hints of discomfort as the interrogation continued.

“You may not realize this but I know Cyrus Coburn, that’s right, and he’s never said anything about you. Checkmate spy!!”

“But, but he must have thousands of employees, and I’m new. I swear I’ve only met him like once when he checked out the team. Just ask my foreman, he’ll tell you what you need to know.” He gave a couple muted sobs as he looked down like a dog anticipating more blows.

“You’re not helping yourself, friend. Tell me who your handler is and where your drop-off point is or I’ll see if you can fly.” And then Rehvan pushed the man against the wall near one of the pits.

“We shouldn’t do anything rash till we can confirm something’s out of place.” The Caretaker cautioned.

“Are you kidding me? This Satanic fuck is our ticket into a crossover with the big plot going on right now. I’m so sick of all the small-time crap my head could explode. Besides, don’t you know the first rule of investigation: find someone who rubs you the wrong way, grab him, and then yell at him, hit him, and drop him off of precipes till he tells you what you want to hear!”

“I’m just saying we have a whole crew sticking their noses where they don’t belong, and you can work over all of them to find out what we want to know.” The Caretaker chuckled but then paused and his eyes looked at the panel. “Wait, the scan from when he came down here. His eyes are top of the line cybernetics.” Had he looked closer he would have also seen that the extra flab was just padding under the man’s clothes.

The fear vanished from the intruder’s face: “You know this grabbing people by the collar thing you guys love, it’s not tactically sound.” The words flowed with no discernible accent.

Someone with strong survival instincts would have instantly gone on guard from the reveal, but overwhelmingly Supers exhibited a contemptuous disregard for danger; therefore Rehvan instinctively thought up a cool retort about about how it he learned it from the greatest master of hand-to-hand combat in the world. It was such a great reply that his lips curled up in a smirk, but unfortunately it figuratively proved the last thing to go through his mind. Literally the last thing to go through his mind was a six inch long knife which the intruder stabbed through the front of his neck at an oblique angle striking the medulla at the bottom of Rehvan’s brain. Even though the hero’s body went limp: the comment, which had distracted him in his final moment, was clever enough that the look of smug satisfaction at his never delivered comeback stayed frozen on his face.

To see a Super cut down so mercilessly shattered how the Caretaker expected the world to behave, it precluded both a hostage scenario or one of a deathtrap over which a villain could monologue and gloat. The treatment of a renowned hero like some third rate goon, or faceless combat robot, went against everything he knew about honor. Even if he had the presence of mind to react quickly he couldn’t have done anything, as the attacker twisted free clearing the room and yanked the Caretaker over a railing he stood behind. The crash to the floor knocked the wind out of the man’s body, and before he settled into position the assassin had already painfully twisted his arms down and forced his wrists into flex-cuffs. As he did it the killer pushed his victim down applying his own weight through a knee, then he dragged the man over and secured his bonds to one of the railings while sitting him up.

Only after a moment did he get enough breath back to speak: “You have no right to attack us.” He halfway expected to wake up from a nightmare: there were rules, the unwritten codes, even just appeals to style, and none of them were even humored. They had not exchanged a ballet of blows, equal parts Kung Fu and gymnastics, just surprise and shock exploited to maximum effect. It suggested the cowardice of a man who could not face a master of close combat like Rehvan, yet it had worked. Had the assassin transformed revealing a robotic claw arm, crackling with dark energy, and then subdued them it would have fit. The same went for comically impractical firearms mounted to his ankles or maybe groin, but even seeing the knife closer—as it was wiped off and put away—it wasn’t even particularly fancy. Just a gently tapered edge leading to a point, and maybe an inscription but the Caretaker couldn't quite see. Nothing about it suggested anything beyond steel, yet it had struck home where a normal blade delivered by normal hands should have at worst left a minor cut in a non-vital place. Rehvan wasn’t truly bulletproof, but had come through scores of battles with rarely anything more than a superficial gash to his left shoulder.

Even with the horror of the attack he managed to renew some hope by reminding himself of how Metahumans could survive so much more than normies could, and usually recover without even a scar. He looked over and saw no signs of bleeding as Rehvan lay still so the Caretaker spoke up: “Listen to me, he’s valuable as a prisoner. You’ll get a much larger bonus from your bosses for him than for some third rate government salvage.”

“He’s dead.” He made it sound obvious and showed no remorse.

“That… That’s murder. How dare you treat a Super in such a way.” Tears welled up in the Caretaker’s eyes.

“Your people destroy our ability to hold prisoners. For decades you’ve made springing your kind, no matter how bad, out of detainment into a sport. But you still think that leaves mercy as an option. I find that interesting...”

By the assassin’s manner, and that he hadn’t already killed him, the Caretaker knew his final moments would consist of torture—but even as the killer looked him over for some reason he pulled out a couple bottles of soda from a bag. The Caretaker didn’t want to guess why.

Excerpt from the Supers War:

“It’s somewhat odd that only Super to have died at the Hicksburg Armory, although a few were injured in the battle, was of course Rehvan—sorry if I’m pronouncing it wrong—some weeks later; however the men stationed there were trained and equipped primarily for containment. The Coburn Hazard Containment and Disposal crew working the site, when the secondary incident occurred, refused to go into the underground bunker after one of their own and even a superhero vanished into it apparently without a trace. A few days would pass before anyone would mount a rescue, and they found a lot of the remaining equipment taken along with the pair of bodies which despite certain later reports showed no sign of torture. No one ever took credit, but when the rescue team entered they heard an infamous piece of music played on the intercoms in a loop as a grim calling card.”

[10]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

National Security Advisor David Akkadian.

Anti-hero team: The Relapsers

Has been Praetorian sub-team: The New Guardians

Praetorian teen group: The Front Line

Commander Freedom: Andrew Reinhardt

Incedra: Valeria Sinclair. Parents James and Oliva.

Bonnie Fortuna: Shelley Lawford-Guhwen

The Immortal: Michael Guhwen

Zembala: Wildly corrupt African nation ruled by a dynasty of metahumans.

Bhaal Fire: Notorious fire powered anti-hero

Dark Raider: Cyrus Coburn, billionaire owner of the Coburn Group media company and their flagship Daily Truth newspaper

General Foil ‘Strong Arm’ McAuphlin: stereotypical general who can reliably give dumb orders so the heroes can seem both brilliant and rebellious

Quick note about the use of slang terms. I wanted to give this a somewhat lived in feel and every in-group always develops at least mildly derogatory terms for out-groups. Thus not only have Supers developed normie for the populace at large they have also developed various subheadings for themselves.


[1] As you know Bob, a common trope in fiction wherein sizable blocks of exposition of common knowledge is recited between characters who already know it (or damn well should know it) for the audience’s benefit. Introductory chapters are often thick with this.

[2] Normie: a slang term used by supers to refer to normal people, or as an insult to each other.

[3] MacGuffin, a slang term for objects which represent a mission objective. Often said sarcastically.

[4] Sham: slang for Supers who rely on an external source for their powers, be it mystical amulet or technological exoskeletons

[5] I.S.F Powered Dragoon

[6] This is largely based on Rob Halford (the lead singer of Judas Priest) and his popularizing of biker wear among Heavy Metal bands.

[7] Ryden Bolt’s V-shaped costume.

[8] General Foil ‘Strong Arm’ McAuphlin had become arguably the world’s most famous general thanks to his personally leading most US military responses to massive threats, particularly when Supers were involved. While possessed of an extremely abrasive personality, most Supers could appreciate the way he mindlessly yelled at everyone—including those not under his command—about doing things by the book. He could also be completely relied on to get lots of his soldiers killed making even minor incidents seem dramatic, and the heroes that much more brilliant.

[9] Crossing the Rubicon, a classical if pretentious reference to a point of no return made popular by a particular general who talked about textile making as he started a civil war. For more you can look up ‘the dye is cast’ but probably shouldn’t right now since I’m already wasting enough of your time on these footnotes.

[10] Mean Fist in one of his many leather jackets.