The Wardens of Justice sat in the jet silently, staring across at each other. They had all sustained more injuries than they cared to mention in front of the others. The man they had pulled out of the labyrinth was sleeping, his malnourished form slumped in his chair. Locus was curled up in a corner, his head in his hands. Blueshift broke the silence.
“We can’t keep doing this.”
The others were silent, considering the implications.
“I can’t. We can’t. When we started I was the youngest member of the group.”
Blueshift looked at his watch. It was wrong, the date ahead by seventeen years.
“ I’ve lost seventeen years now. You’ve all been doing this for twenty-two years? I’ve been doing it for thirty-nine.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” asked Paragon.
“I couldn’t. I had to be part of the team, couldn’t bear your disappointment.”
It was sobering, for all of them. Their years together had been the best of any of their lives, doing good with good friends. They relapsed into silence. The jet engines shifted down as they reached cruising altitude.
“Atlas proposed to me,” said Bulwark, looking down.
“Congratulations,” said Dr. Mind.
“I wasn’t going to say yes. I thought hero work had to come first, but…”
“You deserve a family,” Paragon said gently.
They were silent once more, until Dr Mind spoke, looking thoughtful.
“I think… I could do so much more good, if I gave my work to the people instead of keeping it to myself to fight crime. The auto-doc, the communications gear, the clean power sources.”
Locus looked up from where he was curled up.
“Is this it? Are we breaking up the team?”
They looked at each other, getting a look at the people with whom they had worked for twenty-two or more years, and sighed collectively. Paragon spoke the final words sealing their fate.
“It looks like it is.”
* * *
Wren sat on the other side of me in Metahuman History and Theory the next day, followed by Sasha, who had evidently taken a liking to him.
“Hey Sasha, you break up with Liam or something?” I asked.
She pulled a face.
“Yeah, it wasn’t pretty. He accused me of outing him to a monitor.”
“Ouch. Sorry about that,” I replied.
“Nah, it’s cool. He’s a jerk, I’m over him.”
Wren was thoroughly confused by the exchange, but class started before he could ask for clarification.
Dr. Rayne got straight down to business.
“What are some of the theories you uncovered in your research?”
Someone in the third row raised their hand.
“World War Two. Before then, heroes were less powerful because there was little need for them. Then WWII happened, and so more powerful heroes were needed. After that, they dropped because it was peacetime, but have started to increase again because of the rise in supervillains.”
“Good, if a bit contrived. Another?”
This time it was a girl towards the back.
“The number of metahumans. During the spike around WWII, there were many fewer metahumans, but afterwards with the baby boomers the numbers went up and the power average level went down.”
“Good, but a bit America-centric. You’re talking about the Fingol slope, which states that the number of metahumans times the average power level is not a constant as was originally hypothesized, but slowly increasing value. We’ll be looking at that in detail later.”
The class continued in the same vein, many theories brought up, from the orbit of the earth to the global temperature, to the rather morbid idea that it’s tied to death rates. Eventually Dr. Rayne stopped asking for theories, having exhausted the logical ones.
“The first recorded metahuman was a man named Richter Davis.”
The projector showed an image of a middle aged man levitating a few inches above the ground.
“He could levitate a few inches above the ground, as you can see here. By modern standards, that’s a flier 1, at most. The most powerful metahuman ever recorded is this guy here. Atomic.”
On the screen was a picture of Atomic, the most powerful super ever. He didn’t have a costume, or even a superhero name- ‘Atomic’ is just what the media branded him.
“He can manipulate atomic forces. He’s rated at a matter manipulator with a power of twenty. This rating does not refer to actual power output or control, but the effect of his specific power relative to others. Notice that this number is much, much higher than normal. Usually the most powerful metahumans are rated with above-average numbers across several classifications, rather than one incredibly large number. For those of you who don’t know, Atomic could neutralize or magnify the forces between subatomic particles, and yes, that means he could hypothetically cause a nuclear explosion. It is probably for the best that he refuses to use his power for this purpose. In fact, he refuses to use his power at all, if he can help it.
“Now, this is what’s interesting. His real name is Landstrom Davis. That’s right, he is directly related to Richter Davis.”
I had never realized that. It made me wonder, though. My powers seemed much less powerful than those of the villainous side of my family. There must be something I’m missing, I thought. The rest of the lecture was nothing new, just providing possible explanations for the trend he had mentioned last class.
When class had ended, Wren elbowed me in the ribs and said,
“Hey, is he usually so long-winded?”
I clenched my teeth against the sudden pain.
“I didn’t think he was that bad,” I said, once I had collected myself.
“Yes, he is,” said Sean, as he got his stuff together.
“I thought it was interesting,” I protested.
“Hey, you OK?” asked Sasha as the we went our separate ways.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“ OK. See you later.”
We split off to go to our respective buildings, me to Planchett, her to Breccia.
* * *
Sean entered the Davis gymnasium suddenly realizing the appropriateness of the name. Coach Masters was standing in almost the exact same place as he had been the last class, with the students forming a loose semicircle in front of him. Behind him was a large pile of dumbbells of various sizes.
“Everybody see these dumbbells?” said Coach Masters, gesturing at the pile of weights.
“Pick a pair. I’ll know if you picked ones too light. Don’t drop them.”
The students meandered towards the weights, some picking them up and getting hit by pebbles flung by the Coach until they picked a heavier pair. Sean reached for a pair, then stopped, seeing the coach looking his way, and picked a pair five pounds heavier. This seemed to satisfy him.
“Later, we’re going to do some sparring, but we need to warm up first. This next part may seem familiar to all of you.”
Coach masters grinned.
* * *
“What do you mean you’re breaking up the team?”
Guardian Angel sounded almost panicked.
“ We’ve all decided to go our separate ways. Bulwark is getting married, Blueshift is retiring, Locus is… unfit for duty, and Dr. Mind is going to be spending more time in the lab.”
“And you?” asked Plateau.
“I’m going to be overseeing the Wardens of Tomorrow. The program is going national.”
“What?” asked Kismet, confused. “Oh, that’s-” she stopped herself to actually let him respond before she replied.
“Soon just about every city in the country will have a government-sponsored hero team. I’ve decided that waiting to go into the Hero program at one of the colleges that offers it is too long to go without support for young supers. Jamisson’s going to take care of most of the paperwork,”
“But I’m going to be doing the heavy lifting, so to speak.”
But what about Colswell City? We need you. We need the Wardens of Justice,” said Dame Danger.
“There are other heroes in the city. Pyroclasm and Cryoclasm are here, Savage, and others. The city has one of the largest branches of the Hero program, for god’s sake, it’s brimming with heroes.”
Guardian Angel had a good idea of how the inexperienced heroes at Colswell University would fare against the city’s metahuman criminals, though he didn’t say it.
“Speaking of which, Pyroclasm, Cryoclasm, is that Shatterpoint in the cell downstairs? How did you convince him to stay there? He could bust out with the snap of a finger,” said Paragon.
Jamisson ushered the conversation out the door away from the junior heroes. It was evidently still a confidential topic.
“It looks like we’re going to be picking up a lot of slack,” observed Legion, drawing out the word ‘lot’ bitterly.
Guardian Angel glanced his way and considered reprimanding him, but instead said,
“Let’s get to the training building. We’re going to need to step up our game.”
* * *
I entered into the warehouse we used for training.
“Shadow, I’m glad you could make it. You hear the news?” Said Guardian Angel.
“News?” My voice sounded different through the helmet I’d added to my ensemble.
He paused for a moment, trying to figure out how to say it.
“The Wardens of Justice are breaking up.”
“Damn. That’s… not good,” I replied, startled. The Wardens of Justice were one of the most well-known superteams in the country. This would have impact on a national level.
“Yeah.” Guardian Angel started speaking to everyone.
“Okay here’s the situation. The Colswell City Specialists are claiming territory downtown, but for some reason, Limit Break is keeping them at bay. We think it’s because that might be where their hideout is, but not for sure.
“Pyroclasm and Cryoclasm have taken Shatterpoint into custody and put his family in the witness protection program. This is strictly confidential, so I’m trusting you to keep this secret, but he claims to have been working for someone called ‘the Upright Man.’ We don’t know who this is.
“And finally, Masquerade murdered a bunch of wealthy civilians at a party, then vanished. His pattern suggests he’s going to spend a few days in one place washing his hands and costume before coming out again, but Savage has been unable to find him. We don’t know where he is.”
“That seems like an awful lot we don’t know,” said Plateau.
“It does, which is why we need to be prepared for whatever happens. Our defeat by Limit Break only happened because we were prepared for Low-level CCS goons. We need to be able to handle unexpected situations like that. Okay, let’s get to work.”
The Wardens of Tomorrow and I started training. We trained harder than we had before, and with more focus, knowing that we had to do better.
“Hey Shockwave, I want to try something,” I called over to the blue-costumed speedster. “Come on, let’s go over here.”
We walked over to the far side of the warehouse, away from the others. I turned and stood, facing him.
“Come at me,” I said.
“Use your power. Run towards me, or however it works.”
“No! It’ll hurt you. I don’t want to-”
“It won’t hurt me. Here, let me show you something, if you don’t mind.”
I stepped towards him and put my hand over his mouth. He jerked back.
“No, seriously. This is pretty cool.”
He humored me and let me cover his mouth with my hand.
“Okay, breathe through your mouth, not your nose.”
He furrowed his brow in confusion for a moment, then shrugged and humored me. His eyebrows shot back up.
“Woah,” he said, through my hand. It felt strange- I could feel the vibrations. I pulled my hand away from his face. Kismet was looking our way, mildly bemused, then shrugged and went back to what she had been doing.
“Yeah. Air passes right through me. I noticed when I was fighting Spit that his explosive shots didn’t have nearly the effect they ought to have, so I wanted to test my theory that shockwaves and explosions go through me as well. I also wanted to see if I could figure out how your power works. Go ahead. Actually hold on a sec.”
I filled my ear canals with darkness. the world suddenly went silent to me as the air passed straight through my eardrums without passing on the sound.
“Ok, go,” I said. It was weird, not being able to hear my own voice.
Shockwave stood back, got into a sprinter’s pose, and ran towards me. About three meters from me, he suddenly froze in position for a split second and jerked forward, so fast he seemed to teleport almost. At that moment, I was very, very glad I had thought to cut off my hearing as a pressure wave of incredible force tore through the air between us, three meters of air compressed into a blast a centimeter thick. Had the floor of the warehouse been normal concrete, I have no doubt it would have torn up the floor, so I was lucky it was made of the dark metahuman-resistant concrete like that used in the metahuman jails.
It felt like slamming my body straight through a wall. Like being submerged deep underwater where the pressure becomes unbearable, but just for an instant, then back out again an instant later. My entire body felt like it had been flattened out and re-inflated.
It passed quickly, though, and I was back to normal as soon as the air settled down around us. I whistled, but it came out sounding strange, between my masking my voice with my power and the helmet. I made a mental note not to whistle when in costume. I noticed that the others had all turned at the loud noise.
“Wow,” I said, unblocking my ears. “That was something. Okay, I think I’ve figured out what your problem is.
“Really?” he sounded really hopeful.
“Yeah. You’re not going full-speed when you use your power, are you?”
“Of course not. I always go as slow as I can. If my lowest speed is that destructive, imagine what anything faster would be like.”
“You’re not going to believe me, but… you need to go faster.”
His face fell.
“No joke. From what I can tell, your ‘lowest speed,’ seems to be about exactly the speed of sound. The air doesn’t have time to move out of the way, so the shockwave just builds and builds the farther you go, making the mother of all sonic booms. Go faster and you’ll push straight through it. It’s still going to be loud, but not quite so earth-shattering. You’re displacing the same amount of air, but it’s going to be spread out in either direction”
He looked thoughtful.
He thought for a moment, then asked,
“Can I try again?”
“Uh, yeah. Sure. Let me turn off my ears again.” I paused to block my ears. ”Okay, go right ahead.”
This time, I could feel him cutting through the air, the pressure wave spreading out behind him instead of building up in front of him. When he stopped, it hit him, and he didn’t budge an inch. I chalked that down as some secondary power that stopped him from dying whenever he used it. Like a wave in the ocean, the shockwave broke, dispersing into tumbling convection. It wasn’t nearly so much like getting hit by a truck, but standing in front of a giant fan.The displaced air rushed past, the shockwave melted into nothing more than a strong wind.
Shockwave’s mouth moved as he said something and then grinned, but I couldn’t make out what he said.
“What?” I said after pulling the darkness back out of my ears.
“I said I should probably think about a new name.”
* * *
“Adam, the court’s reached a decision.”
Adam looked up. His expression was hopeful, but the small LED in the iris of his right eye glowed a steady orange, betraying his emotions. It still unnerved the lawer.
“You are a minor with powers, so the three-strike rule would apply to you… But it was deliberate. Rules that out.”
The LED sputtered briefly. Adam hid his head in his hands.
“However, there is a provision for ability-induced temporary insanity, for which you qualify.”
Adam looked back up at the lawyer. Adam appeared to have gotten his feelings more under control. The LED had faded down to a pale yellow.
“You got off with some therapy, and community service.” The lawyer smiled gently. “As a superhero.”
Adam frowned in disbelief, but then seeing the lawyer’s earnest expression a grin dawned on his face. The LED blinked green once, then winked out.
* * *
I swiped my ID and Wren and I entered Planchett. I had run into him at the dining hall and we were headed back into the dorm. As we entered the lobby, I felt a familiar figure shift behind me. I stopped in my tracks.
“Liam, I didn’t see you there,” I said, not turning around. He started advancing. Wren looked around, confused.
“And to think I’d thought you’d learn after the last time,” I commented and stepped back abruptly, crushing my heel into Liam’s foot. His only sound was a pained grunt, and he moved to try to hit me, but I was faster, ducking under his blow and driving my left elbow into his stomach. I felt him double over behind me, and I reached around behind me with my right hand. I grabbed the back of his head and brought it down, smashing his nose against my shoulder. It caused a twinge of pain in my rib, but the pain broke his concentration and his invisibility snapped off.
“Holy crap,” exclaimed Wren. “Are you in the Hero Program or something?”
“Nah, but this guy is.”
I released my grip and he stumbled back.
“Dunno what his problem with me is.”
“Screw you, Denizen,” he spat, and turned out the door, limping out into the dark.
“Uh, how did you see him? He was invisible,” asked Wren.
“One of my friends in high school could turn incorporeal,” I fibbed, “learned to pick up the clues.”
We reached the second floor.
“See ya later.”
We each headed into our rooms. I had some work to finish.
* * *
Sean pulled his black civilian gloves back on. He hated that they were necessary, but they were a part of the package. He clenched his fist involuntarily and gritted his teeth.
I can’t do this, he thought. I can’t. It’s just too much. How did my uncle handle it?
His thoughts turned to Paragon. He had faced the same thing. One team against countless villains. Villains who knew everything about them but who they knew nothing about. He took a deep breath and composed himself.
My uncle could do it. So can I.
* * *
Shatterpoint woke up abruptly. He was still in the abandoned factory where he had fought Pyroclasm and Cryoclasm. He had thought they would have taken away and locked him up. The last thing he remembered was being offered protection for his family, and then he had been knocked out from behind. He sat up. The black cloth that had been covering his torso slid off. A suit jacket. He was nearly naked underneath it, but he had been in-costume for the fight. He was confused for a moment before he recognized the suit. It belonged to someone he knew.
The Upright Man.