I woke abruptly but, a moment later, was glad I hadn’t jerked awake, and pretended to remain sleeping. My eyes still closed, I heard the sound of Sean rummaging around for something quietly then felt the draft as the door opened, then closed behind him. Once he was gone, I pulled my stiff body out of bed and retrieved my communicator from where it was pulsing, muffled by a drawerful of socks. On the screen, blinding to my dark-adjusted eyes, it said, ‘Shadow, get to Upright Man’s lair ASAP. Check on Cryoclasm/Pyroclasm. Report. Potential danger.’
I threw on my body armor and left the building, cloaking myself in shadow as I turned a corner off campus. In the darkness, I wasn’t likely to be spotted, but it didn’t hurt to be cautious. The night was quite cool, but I barely felt the chill as I broke into a run. An interesting aspect of my power was that I could shift my weight forward instantly, picking up speed as faster than some professional sprinters. In felt invigorated as my body drew oxygen directly out of the air as I passed through it without stirring the faintest breeze, eliminating the need to breathe. I had spent a great deal of time running through the city at night, finding my way by the wind coiling around the buildings, nigh invisible in the darkness. It has made me accustomed to telling my way by the dim glow of the streetlights and by the eddies of air currents through the streets.
I reached the house in good time, barely winded despite the long run. It was refreshing, actually, a return to my old routine, in one small way. I sent off a message to Jamisson, ‘here. No sign of danger, or police. Go in?’
He sent back, ‘yes. Be cautious. should be two officers there.’
I blew into the keyhole to get a feel for it’s workings and picked the lock again, as quietly as I could manage. Once the lock had been bypassed, I slipped into the house, careful not to touch any of the faux furniture. It was dark inside. With not a light lit inside, the only illumination coming from the streetlights outside the house. It was difficult to find my way around; the air in the building was more still than the air outside had been. There was no motion in the house at all, apart from mine. I opened the door into the basement and went down the wooden stairs carefully, ducked low and using my power to shift from one step to the next, avoiding much of the creaking. My power stayed on, so I assumed the Nullifier had turned off, which relieved me at first, but not after I remembered that Cryoclasm was supposed be down there until she came out of self-defense mode. There was a light on in the basement, which spilled up the stairs, making my trip down somewhat easier. When I reached the bottom, I saw that the nullifier was just gone from where it had been bolted to the concrete, along with Cryoclasm and Pyroclasm.
‘P&C, nullifier gone,’ I sent off, ‘no police.’
I walked further into the room to get a better view. In the center of the room was a piece of white paper. As I approached it, I smelled a faint whiff of peppermint, which struck me as quite odd, though in my sleep-deprived state I didn’t think much of it beyond that. The note said:
whatever shall you do next
On either side of the words was a small round stone, one black, one white.
“Dammit,” I muttered out loud, taking a picture and sending it to Jamisson. “I hate you chessmaster types.”
Careful to keep an eye out for what was behind me, wary of an ambush, I bent down and picked up the two stones. They were smooth and uniform, exactly the same apart from color. I slipped them into a pocket and left the basement, not bothering quite as much with stealth as I had the way down, more focusing on getting out of there. As I approached the door, I recieved a message from Jamisson, saying,
‘No match. Computer thinks it’s typed still. Meet GA at CCS HQ.’
As I exited the house and headed towards Guardian Angel’s location, it struck me abruptly how none of us had actually seen the Upright Man -except in the cell, but then he was in Shatterpoint’s costume- but when Shatterpoint had given them the location of the Upright Man’s lair, he’d said the house was where he’d first seen him. I fired off a message to that effect to Jamisson,
‘Shatterpoint has seen Upright Man?’
‘What do you mean?’ he sent back, then after a moment,
I picked up my pace a bit and in a short time reached the building where Guardian Angel’s location was marked on my communicator’s map. It was not too distant from where I was, on the edge of Downtown and Industrial: right in the border of our jurisdiction. The building looked like it had burned down, a husk of walls and a collapsed roof. Guardian Angel was talking with a person in a firefighter’s outfit, though I doubted he was a traditional firefighter given the lack of fire engine in the area, just a midsize SUV with a volunteer fire department sticker and a spinning light on top; nothing that could extinguish a fire large enough to consume the whole building. The two didn’t notice as I approached, so I spoke up,
They both jumped, looking around for the source of my voice.
“Sorry, I forget how hard I am to see at night. It’s Shadow.” I explained. “Jamisson sent me to meet with you. Pyroclasm and Cryoclasm are gone, with the nullifier, and evidently our man plays Go.” I trailed off absently, remembering the pair of stones in my pocket.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Guardian Angel, spotting me while I spoke. The person in the fire-suit a woman, I now realized, raised the visor on her cumbersome helmet and squinted into the darkness. She looked exhausted, and come to think of it so did Guardian Angel. Probably so did I, though it would have been impossible to tell through the darkness. We had been impossibly busy and being woken in the dead of night was not particularly helpful to this. “This is Pompier. Metahuman working with the fire department,” Guardian Angel said, introducing the firefighter-costumed woman.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, stepping forward and extending a hand. She finally spotted me as I stepped into the glow of her headlights, a silhouette of darkness cut out of the light. She was visibly startled, but contained it well, shaking my hand firmly, looking at where she thought my eyes were -not actually where they were though; my helmet made me look slightly taller than I was.
“Same,” she said. “It’s not often I run into heroes, for some reason. You’d think I would more often, in this line of work.”
“I’d figured out about Pyroclasm and Cryoclasm already,” commented Guardian Angel.
“Was this them?” I asked, gesturing towards the smouldering husk of a building.
“No, just Pyroclasm.”
“What?” I looked at Guardian Angel, uncomprehending. He nodded, saying,
“There wouldn’t be nearly as much structural damage if Cryoclasm was here.”
“Hmm.” Pyroclasm and Cryoclasm always worked together. I didn’t understand it.
I walked towards the ruined shell of a building. It seemed to be another warehouse type. That kind of building seemed to attract metahumans for some reason; I guess the large, closed space for practice was universally appealing. After bidding us a tired goodnight and leaving us to deal with the situation now that fire was extinguished, the sound of an engine sputtering to life outside reached us. An imprint had been melted into the concrete floor where Scrapyard laid, still glowing red-hot, pinging as he cooled. I could feel the heat coming off him from several paces away, and the air above him rippled with heat.
“Where are Bindle and Maeve?” I asked over my shoulder.
“Dunno,” said Guardian Angel, who had entered just behind me. “I’m half hoping they escaped though. I doubt they would have survived that.” He nodded toward Scrapyard and unholstered the spear Dame Danger had made him, pointing it at Scrapyard. “I was planning to ask him.”
“Fuuuuuuuck,” groaned Scrapyard in a voice like grinding gears.
“So, did Bindle and Maeve get away?” Guardian Angel gestured with the spear.
“Yeah. Grabbed her, jumped out window. You gonna arrest me?”
“As much as I’d like to, you trashed our last available van. The other’s still not back from the shop. Could still call someone in who could handle it, though. Did Pyroclasm say where he was going?”
“He was just here to get revenge.” Scrapyard didn’t seem completely coherent; I guessed the heat was distracting.
“We know that. Where was he going?” I said.
“Said something about… Doing a favor for an old friend? Maybe? Hard to hear over the fire.”
Upon hearing that, I sent a message to Jamisson.
‘Pyro ‘doing favor for old friend.’’
“Okay, I hate to use this, because they’re expensive, but I think it’s warranted. Someone will pick you up tomorrow.” There was a click as Guardian Angel pulled what appeared to be a grenade from his belt and lobbed it gently at Scrapyard.
“You fu-” he gasped as the device rapidly expanded into a ball of rubbery foam.
“Man, that stuff is awesome,” Guardian Angel said as we walked off, leaving Scrapyard buried under a mound of foam.
Once we exited the building, I broke off and ran back to the campus, pausing to pull the clothes I’d stashed back over my body armor. When I reached Planchett, I waved myself back into the building and crept up the stairs warily. I could hear faint conversation from a nearby room as I carefully slipped back into our room. I made it back before Sean did, so I changed out of my body armor and was just falling asleep when he arrived.
* * *
“Okay everyone, we have a new student today. Class, this is Adam. Adam, class.” Mrs. Curnow trailed off as she gestured to the diminutive boy from her swivel chair. “Now you may be wondering, ‘Adam what?'” She began, far louder than she had been a moment ago. Dame Danger had a theory that Mrs. Curnow had a broken volume control. “But there’s no last name here. It’s just Adam.” Adam was starting to look embarrassed as Mrs. Curnow gave no indication for him to take a seat, just continuing to ramble. “I think I knew someone who had two last names once, but never none.” The chair creaked as she stood up abruptly, then seemed to forget why she had done so and sat back down. “So Adam, why don’t you tell me why this is?”
“I haven’t picked one yet.” Adam’s voice was quiet, though easily audible.
“See, that’s strange. Most people, if I’m not mistaken get their last name from their parents. My father was named Gregson Curnow, so I am Esme Curnow.”
“I don’t know who my parents are. No memories back that far.”
“Well I’m not going to press you for embarrassing details,” Mrs. Curnow seemed ignorant of the fact that she already had. “Just take a seat anywhere.”
Adam made his way around the backpacks littering the aisles and found a seat near Dame Danger. She tended to sit away from the others, the better to avoid conversation. She noticed now that occasionally, a small LED would blink yellow in the corner of his right eye. Every time it did, he would blink involuntarily, but not quite fast enough to hide it completely. Dame Danger tuned out Mrs. Curnow as she launched into a rant about how TV causes racism, and how come you never see black heroes on the telly -she evidently didn’t know that two of the most popular heroes, Zedd and Slam, were both black. Admittedly, the events shown on Slam’s TV show were mostly fictionalized by this point, but that didn’t deter his loyal following.
Dame Danger glanced over at Adam.
“You’re a robot.” She said, making it more a statement than a question. He glanced over at her, a strange look on his face, which made her realize that what she had said could have offended him and started to stammer out an apology.
“Only partially,” he said back to her quietly, cutting her off. “It’s okay, I get asked that a lot.”
“Oh, I’ve never met a cyborg before.”
“Yeah. They don’t make many of me,” he joked. The LED blinked again and Dame Danger noticed it had changed to a pale green.
* * *
The psychiatrist approached the nurse who was waiting idly at the door. The nurse was a strangely roguish looking man for the occupation, with a pointed nose and clever eyes glinting behind small round glasses. He was a sharp contrast to the rounded features of the psychiatrist
“Anything I should know before I go in that wasn’t in the brief?” She asked.
“Yeah, first thing he asked for was a pair of nail clippers,” said the nurse, and chuckled to himself. “We gave him one, and he refused and told us he meant he wanted two -you know, a pair. I thought it was weird, but he’s cleared for them, so he got them. Get this- he apparently wanted to keep the room symmetrical. He wanted a pair to put on either side of the room.”
“That fits. Okay, that pretty much confirms it, actually. I’m amazed he didn’t get off with an insanity plea.”
“Hey, he pleaded guilty. Lawyer didn’t have a chance -though honestly I doubt he would have tried very hard.”
“Yeah I know,” said the psychiatrist, mildly annoyed. “That was in his file.”
“Right, anyway, it’s your turn. He doesn’t like me; definitely insane.”
“I dunno, sounds pretty rational.”
“Hey! I take offense at that!” Said the nurse, his face contorted in an expression of mock-offence. The psychiatrist pushed past him into the room. “Bully,” he threw jokingly as she passed him.
“Masquerade, how are you feeling?” She asked, pulling out a clipboard.
The unnaturally tall, graceful man flinched visibly. His expression was concealed behind a thin mask he wore; he didn’t like people seeing his face. Despite the mask, he managed to convey a lot through his body language.
“Madame, please grant of me this one request;
Speak not in prose, or simply try your best.”
The psychiatrist considered this for a moment. She scribbled some note on her clipboard in her illegible handwriting, which she was glad Masquerade couldn’t see, and replied,
“You are quite hard to deal with, Masquerade.”
“Now do you understand my way of thought?” He replied, his posture changing abruptly, looking visibly less tense.
“One must put much more thought into each word.”
“‘tis truly just a cleaner way of speech.”
“I tell no lie, this will be quite a job.” She paused for a moment and took a deep breath, gathering courage.
“Now let’s see what you do when I break the pattern.”
The chair rocked back and rocketed into the floor as Masquerade stiffened and unfolded in an instant, jackknifing out of the chair. The psychiatrist leapt backwards as he slammed into the glass with frightening speed. Masquerade pressed against the glass, only touching it with the tips of his closely-clipped fingernails.
“You should know better than to tempt me miss,” said Masquerade, the calmness in his voice dissonant with the tension in his body. There was a faint crackling sound as the glass began to crack under the force of his strength and anger, tiny white veins like frost slowly spreading from where his nails came into contact with it. An alarm started to sound as the sensors in the glass picked up the disturbance and the pounding of asylum guards’ footsteps rapidly approached to remove the psychiatrist from the room. Before she was escorted out, she spotted one thing that she thought quite interesting: the cracks in the glass were forming a perfectly symmetrical pattern; a pair of pentagons between his fingers, cracks radiating out from the tips.
* * *
Upon arrival at Metahuman History and Theory, Sean, Sasha, and I, who had run into each other at breakfast shortly before, were joined by a guy named Paul whom Sean and Sasha had met at a party over the weekend. Dr. Rayne was pacing in front of the computer he ran the slideshow from, and when the chorus of zippers and people settling into their seats had faded, he began his lecture.
“Today we will be talking about a few specific classifications of powers.” he began. “First, precognition. Despite it’s utility, it is almost always considered a minor power. This is for two reasons. Anyone care to tell me what they are? Yes?” He called on someone from the second row.
“Precogs tend to be either really vague or can’t see very far, or both.”
“Yes, that’s one. The other?”
“Heisenberg?” Said someone from one side.
“Raise your hand next time, please. Could you explain what this means for those who don’t know the physics?”
“Uh, the act of observing something changes it’s properties.”
“Professor Mauler would kill you for that -no pun intended.” Professor Mauler was evidently one of the physics professors. “You’re wrong, that’s the observer effect, not Heisenberg. That’s the idea of it, though- observing the future causes it to change. This principle is the basis for the ranking system of precogs. Level 1 precogs can see what is most likely to happen if they couldn’t see the future, rank 2 can see that and what is most likely now that they know. Three can see what is most likely now that they know what happens when they know what happens, and so on. The highest observed is a rather recent villain in China, whose name translates roughly to ‘Butterfly,’ a reference to the chaos butterfly, was observed reaching five levels of precognition. Powerful precogs are usually able to extrapolate from their visions and bypass numerous contingencies- this is what makes them dangerous to face and helpful as an ally. Generally the strategy for dealing with them is to have a number of plans at least one greater than their precog rank.”
Dr. Rayne continued to lecture on precognition, telling about the first precogs, some notable ones, like Seer. Seer had some ‘prophecies,’ that were still unfulfilled, but popular consensus was that most of them were fake after he became famous, and were generally self-fulfilled by his followers. After some time, he moved on to tinkers.
“For a long time, Tinkers weren’t considered to have powers, but modern thinking has changed this, as they often are granted knowledge far surpassing what they would ordinarily know. Tinkers generally have what we call a ‘specialization.’ This could be a certain field of science or a certain style or workflow. A notable example of this would be Dr. Mind. His specialization tends to shift wildly and randomly; for a week he will be a genius at making high-efficiency power sources, the next he will have no idea how power sources work but will make medical apparatus more advanced than any the world has seen. I use him as an example because he demonstrates a good example of how these specializations work. He has admitted that he has no idea how most of his creations work.”
I admit that after that I spaced out a bit. I hadn’t gotten as much sleep last night as I liked too, and it was taking it’s toll. Dr. Rayne continued to talk about tinkers for the rest of the class, detailing how their inventions had changed society.
When class ended, I grabbed some lunch during the break I had before my journalism class. Most of the non-metahumans in the metahuman Studies program would probably become journalists and cape-watchers.
* * *
Underhand took a deep breath, enjoying the cool air. He used to hate the cold, but now he found he had missed it. He exhaled sharply through teeth clenched in a grin. A small white stream of mist escaped into the air, giving him a devilish cast. In his large red overcoat he knew he was imposing, and his reputation had much the same effect.
His phone ringing pulled him out of his reverie. The thing seemed tiny in his hand as he pulled it out of a pocket left-handed. It was a cheap plastic thing- he didn’t want to bother replacing anything more expensive once the authorities caught on, being obliged to try to track him down and needing an excuse to say they can’t find him.
“Tell me the news,” he rumbled into the phone. There was a harsh buzz from the other end, followed by a crackle and a tinny voice saying,
“-it, sorry boss! I dropped the phone. You know how I g-“
“Shut the hell up and tell me what you wanted to say. My patience is not unlimited.”
“Right, sorry. Overwatch told me to tell you that Charity is in town, the Dubya-Oh-Tee’s put out a warrant on Pyroclasm and Cryoclasm, and there’s some high priority chatter about some ‘upright man,’ guy.”
“Okay, that it? Any targets for charity?”
“You’re on the list, all I know.”
“Any more details on this upright man?” Underhand glared at a pedestrian approaching on the sidewalk, and she quickly turned a corner and hurried away.
“Nope. The guys think it’s a codeword, like a secret-ident kinda thing. Like ‘operation Thunderpunch,’ remember that?” Underhand ignored the question. He knew better than to get distracted. He walked across the street, ignoring the lack of a walk signal. He put up a hand and the whole oncoming lane of traffic stopped for him. Some cars further down the line honked futilely, but those that could see Underhand were silent. He kept up his image for a reason.
“Anyway I thought it was talking about the ‘Honest Man’ thing.”
“Oh, well some unknown politician came out of the blue with this big speech about supers being too privileged and stuff. Anti-UMBRA type thing. Anyway, it went totally viral. Now there’s all kinds of controversy flying around in the senate, crap about equal protection and socialism and whatever. Standard stuff. Rumor has it the Supreme Court is gonna review UMBRA.”
Underhand wasn’t particularly paying attention anymore. A more immediate threat had captured his focus. The ground didn’t crack beneath the feet of the approaching hero (roads were costly to cover, even with insurance) but she gave the distinct impression that she could make it do so easily if she wanted.
“Cool, cool. Hey, I’m going to need my lawyers, stat,” Underhand said into the phone.
“Yeah, sure. I’ll tell ‘em to get suited up.”
Underhand folded his phone and deposited it back into his pocket. He stopped in the street facing the superhero in the glowing costume. The traffic had all but disappeared, responding to the cape-fight alert some vigilant civilian had sent out. Within a few minutes, the media would respond, going against traffic and ignoring the barricades that deployed automatically to get to the action.
“Charity, how nice of you to stop by,” said Underhand, his gravely basso reverberating in the now-vacant street.
“Underhand, your reign of terror is over!” said Charity. Her voice was instantly recognizable as the quintessential female superhero voice, strong and bold, yet still distinctly feminine.
“Well, straight to the theatrics, I guess,” said Underhand calmly, smiling widely. Charity’s aura began to increase in brightness as she drew energy out of the air, charging up to strike. She was one of the few donation-based superheroes, eschewing corporate sponsorship and government subsidy in favor of crowdfunding, hence the name, Charity. It was a stable business model for heroes with enough followers, but made them very dependant on PR.
“That is not advisable,” said a voice to Underhand’s right. His lawyers had appeared on either side of him, stepping carefully through the portals which had appeared courtesy of one of Underhand’s employees, Protasis.
“You see,” said Underhand, as Charity faltered, “if you had done your research, which you clearly have not, you would have realized that I have not committed a single crime that you can prove in court. You could try to take me in, but I have these two excellent lawyers backing me up. You could probably afford the lawsuit, if your followers treat you well, but the ensuing media shitstorm?” Underhand shook his head patronizingly. “No way. When the world finds out you attacked an unpowered man?”
“But you have powers.” Charity was confused. She clearly was more used to the brute-force villains of the late 80’s or the cloak and dagger type of the 90’s and the 2000’s.
“Could you prove it in court? Think, there’s a reason why, in the city with one of the country’s most powerful superteams, nobody has tried to take me down. It’s not because they lack the power, because they can’t. It’s because they don’t want too. It would be bad for business.”
“But your henchmen-“
“The only people I employ are a pair of lawyers and a secretary and I have the paperwork to prove it. You’ve got no ground to stand on. Bitch, I dare you to touch me.”
He had always wanted to say that. He found it less satisfying than he had imagined -but only slightly. He was glad that it seemed she hadn’t found out what he was really up to. That would have been a disaster at this stage.
“Hey,” called a voice as it’s owner rounded a corner and approached the pair. “You two are obstructing traffic flow.”
* * *
“Shadow! It’s been ages,” said Underhand.
“Before you ask, no, I won’t work for you. I’ve got a better gig,” I said.
“I’ve noticed,” he responded wryly. Underhand glanced at Charity, who was getting ready to fight both of us, and broke into laughter. “Ha! Messing with out-of-towners is fun.”
“Charity, you really should do more research on your targets,” I said. “Underhand is only classified as a supervillain for legal reasons- because he employs villains. He’s really not a threat; he helps people with minor powers and would-be villains who don’t want to be heroes find jobs. Mostly legal.” Underhand seemed almost offended by this, in an exaggerated, comical way.
“You’re a hero?” Said Charity, confused, seeming to direct the question at both of us.
“Yeah, I get that a lot. Seriously, research. It works wonders,” Underhand said.
“He actually helps us out by hiring up potential villains, so please don’t go picking a fight. We don’t want to ruin his business.”
I approached Underhand.
“Anyway, I’m going to be keeping an eye on you,” I said as I flashed my arm out briefly and leaving a dot if black on the shoulder of his red coat.
“Are you assaulting me?” He tried to brush it off to no avail, lifting up his coat to see that the splotch of darkness passed through the cloth, still clinging to his skin.
“Nope. Standard procedure.” It wasn’t really standard procedure, but I wanted to see what sort of range or time limits there were on it. “And Charity, head to Wardens’ HQ. Jamisson wants to have a word with you. Your help is appreciated, but Underhand is not who we need help with. Not right now.”
Underhand raised his enormous hands, as if conceding a point. It made me realize again just how large a man he was. His shoulders were half again as broad as another man’s, and he stood at least a head taller than I.
Charity, by contrast, appeared a slight figure. I knew this to be deceptive, however. She was one of the heaviest hitters around. Between her durability and her other powers, she could pack quite a punch. She could absorb various types of energy from her immediate vicinity and release them into her body, making a normal punch hit like a train. She could also fly, but it was more a matter of absorbing kinetic energy (heat included) and using it to fling herself into the air.
“Go. Jamisson will brief you,” I finished, and started to walk away.
“Oh no you don’t,” said Charity. “I’ve got you figured out. You’re both villains helping eachother out. I’d bet you even work for Underhand.”
“Oh for-” I stopped and wheeled about. I pulled out my communicator and called up Jamisson. I tossed it to her, still connecting, and said, “here, talk to Jamisson. He can give you all the codewords. I can never remember them.”
She put it on speakerphone and held it at arm’s length, evidently expecting some sonic attack.
“Shadow? What do you need?”
“Agent Jamisson, this is Charity.”
“Oh, hello. How are you doing and why do you have Shadow’s comm?”
“I’m confused. I’ve got Underhand and Shadow here, and they both look like villains.”
“Yeah, I can see that. Don’t arrest them, they’re useful.”
Jamisson sounded distracted, which was unlike him.
“Now could you put Shadow back on? I need to talk to him.”
“So I followed up on your lead on the Upright Man. From what Shatterpoint and Emily saw I think I have an idea of who he is.”
Underhand coughed discreetly.
“Are you on speakerphone?”
“Yeah, Charity still has it.”
Jamisson made an impatient sound under his breath.
“Both of you come back to HQ. I’m not sure how secure this is anymore.”
* * *
“Since you pathetic excuses for heroes have had a taste of combat on friday, I’m sure you all already realize just how sad your skill level is, even with your fancy-ass crotchbeams, but there’s a little demonstration I like to give anyway.”
Coach Masters stood with his arms behind his back and his feet planted wide.
“You look strong. Do you think you could take me?” He gestured to a muscular student in the crowd.
Masters seemed mildly taken aback, before he continued,
“Very wise. And why is that?”
“Because you’re inviting me to try. You wouldn’t do that if you thought I could beat you, and given that you know more about me than I do about you, I’d tend to be cautious.”
“Well,” said Masters, his eyebrows raised. His voice turned sarcastically nostalgic. “I start to miss the monumental walls of muscle of when I first started. Every class, half the students at least would think they could beat me.” He sighed overdramatically. “For the sake of convenience, Jordan, let’s say that you thought you could take me down in one punch ’cause you think you’re the strongest sonofabitch this world has ever seen. Let’s see how that works out for you. I’ll give you permission to use your powers for this, to make it a bit more fair.”
Jordan approached Masters timidly.
“Now, let’s make this just a little more fair,” said Masters, stopping him. “I won’t use my powers, so it’ll be like you going against a normal. How about that?”
Jordan nodded and continued to approach Coach Masters. Jordan pulled back and punched at Masters from several paces back. Sean could tell he was telegraphing far more than he should. As his arm extended, his arm separated at the joints, the elbow, shoulder, and wrist connected by a number of thin, sinewy fibers. The coach didn’t even flinch, catching Jordan’s fist as it flew towards him and pulling it back, tucking it under his arm. This failed to unbalance Jordan as it would someone whose fist was still connected to the rest of their arm, but when Jordan tried to pull his arm back together, the strands pulling taut, he found himself unable to reel it in. He leaned back, pulling against Coach Masters’ grasp. This time when the coach yanked on the captured fist, Jordan was pulled foreward into the coach. Coach Masters grabbed him and brought him down slowly in an exaggeratedly careful takedown which Jordan was somehow still unable to escape.
“Now, what’s the lesson you’re supposed to learn from this? You should be able to figure it out.”
“Powers don’t matter if you’re a worse fighter than your opponent,” said Jordan, from the floor, his voice muffled by the awkward position.
“Very good. I usually like add a bit about how pathetic and overconfident you were, but that will do for now.”
This was the closest the coach had come to a complement to date.
“Now, I’m going to pair you off. Your job for today is to beat the shit out of each other. There will be no pussyfooting around and ‘holding back.'”
He gestured to the multitude of rings on the floor.
“First one to touch the floor outside the ring loses. Don’t kill each other, and no permanent damage. However, there is one change this year. Previously we disallowed breaking bones, but fortunately for us, and unfortunately for you, we have a new healer who can fix that.”
Coach Masters was almost gleeful. Sean barely stopped himself from groaning at loud. He made a mental note to yell at Shadow later for suggesting the job to Marrow.
“So go ahead and break some bones.”
* * *
The room went silent, shocked.
“Phenomena is dead,” said Plateau. “I killed him, so I know better than most!” He jabbed a shaking finger at Jamisson. Jamisson sounded resigned when he responded.
“You’ve heard Shatterpoint’s description. It fits almost perfectly in every way that couldn’t be changed easily. His… lair was near where he lived as a kid. As much as I hate to say it, it fits.”
Plateau slumped back into one of the chairs around the conference room table, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Great. I just get over the guilt of fucking killing the guy and it turns out he’s not actually dead.”
“Nick-” started Kismet, but Plateau cut him off with a bitter laugh.
“And now he’s trying to fucking kill us or some shit. Hell, I don’t even know what he’s trying to do. Probably still fucking insane.”
“Nick, language,” said Guardian Angel absently.
The room contained all of the Wardens of Tomorrow and myself. Adam and Emily weren’t present; they evidently weren’t privy to such confidential information yet.
“I don’t believe it,” said Dame Danger. “He was a role model.”
“Until he went crazy and tried to kill me,” said Legion.
“Well, yeah, I guess.”
“Phenomena,” said Guardian Angel slowly and deliberately, “wasn’t he a precog?”
“That is correct,” said Jamisson, glancing down at the laptop he had connected to the console. “Precog 3, blaster 2, shaper 2 by our last evaluation. He could project himself invisibly out of his body for very short periods and influence the area around him both in time and space. He could shift the projection in time, but the farther he went temporally, the less influence he has physically. This would give him short bursts of precognition and telepathy with inverse strength and duration in relation to each other.”
“That is very specific information.”
“Dr. Mind likes to be thorough as a precaution against this type of situation. It’s standard for… high-risk individuals.”
“High risk individuals?” Said Jet incredulously. “You knew he might go bad? Why the hell was he our leader then?”
“What?” exclaimed Kismet.
“By the standards of the law, you’re all high-risk individuals.”
“There was a general chorus of exclamations from all but Plateau, who just nodded.
“Did you know that none of us completely passed the psychiatric evaluation?” He said. “I looked at the files; I wanted to see what my evaluation was. Dame Danger had the best condition, but she hasn’t been on the team as long as the rest of us.”
There was a pause, before Kismet spoke.
“In the last seven days we’ve had as many major cape-fights. I’d like to say that’s unusual, but that’s a normal week. And we only cover the downtown area. With the Wardens of Justice helping together we could handle it between us, but without them here, I’m not sure we can keep this up.”
“Well, that’s part of the reason I requested help from Charity.”
I snorted at the thought. Charity had been less than useful earlier today. The others glanced my direction.
“Right now she’s going after the remaining members of the CCS, so that’s one less thing on your plate,” said Jamisson. “For now. You are going to focus on finding the Upright Man.”
“Why don’t we have Savage do it?”
“Savage is busy dealing with the Tally. I don’t think the Justice street Team would like it very much if we pulled him off that. We’re moving to shifts in pairs again, and if you need backup, you can count on Charity to get there soon. This does mean you will be pulled out of school occasionally.” The last sentence was directed at the Wardens of Tomorrow. “Adam and Emily will be joining your patrols occasionally to get them some experience, but do not put them in harm’s way if you can help it. Kismet, Angel, you’re first. Everyone else, check your communicators for your schedule. Plateau, I need to talk to you after.”
* * *
Guardian Angel and Kismet set out on the route specified on their comms as we dispersed. The route included a number of Phenomena’s old haunts. The weather was colder than it had been yet this season, and it was expected to get colder tomorrow. The temperature was unusual for that time of year. While they walked, Guardian Angel looked up the files on Phenomena. There was a lot of data, but it didn’t all seem to fit. If it was Phenomena, why haven’t they seen any telepathy? He could understand the precognition angle, but Phenomena could never see more than maybe five minutes. Setting up fights like the Upright Man had been would have taken a lot more than that.
“Hey, what’s that?” Guardian Angel looked up. Kismet had stopped, and took off down a side street. Guardian Angel followed after, sending a message off to Jamisson at the console.
‘Potential crime in progress. Stepping in.’
‘Affirmative,’ he sent back.
He arrived to see Kismet taking down a mugger with brutal efficiency. She seemed surprised at how easily the would-be mugger went down, unused to fighting normals.
“Dammit. Of all people, I had to be saved by a supe,” said the victim, collecting his things from the dispatched mugger. “You people are barely better than the fucking villains. I’d rather he got my money.”
“What?” Guardian Angel was confused and offended. Kismet didn’t respond, sending a message to Jamisson and the police to pick up the mugger.
“Your only goal is taking down the villains, and don’t care what gets in your way. You know heroes cause more property damage than the villains do? And it’s all paid by insurance. You don’t have to pay a cent. You’re just another side in an endless gang war. We haven’t had a day go by without some kind of heavy combat in the city in three years. The Wardens and the other hero teams were supposed to exist to keep the Nightmares at bay, but all you do is have flashy fights with villains and bathe in the publicity. This ‘war on Villainy,’ is bullshit.” He started to walk away, his rant done.
“You really haven’t lived here long, have you?” Kismet said to Guardian Angel as she hogtied the downed mugger.
“What the hell was that?” Guardian Angel asked Kismet, then, after some thought, “and no, I haven’t. Now could you please explain what that was about?”
“Yeah, sure. That’s a pretty common opinion here in the city. Back when there was a lot more corporate sponsorship of superheroes, the heroes didn’t have the oversight we have now; they didn’t have Jamisson, and people like him. They really weren’t much better than the villains Well, the Wardens were always better, but some of the other teams in the city weren’t exactly angels. Especially when the gritty antihero image got popular.”
“But we stop people like Masquerade. We stop the Nightmares.”
“That’s the only reason most people tolerate us.” Kismet checked the street signs to get an idea of where they were. “We’re close. Follow me, I need to show you something.”
She turned down a different street and Guardian Angel followed curiously. She fired off a message to Jamisson explaining what she was doing.
“Why are we going toward the cathedral?” He asked.
“You’ll see,” she replied enigmatically, only just a beat before Guardian Angel finished.
They pushed past the tour group entering the grand building and walked through the massive room. Kismet ignored the spectacular architecture and stained glass, but Guardian Angel was entranced. They drew a lot of stares; an angel in a cathedral looked right at home. The building was old, all stone and stained glass, though the windows had been replaced many times since it’s creation. The back wall was composed of a massive wall of gold crosses and religious symbols. There was a small gate to one side behind the pulpit, which they went through to the area behind it.
“This place is a bit of a tourist destination, but they don’t tend to come down here,” Kismet said as she lead Guardian Angel through the twisting hallways to a flight of stairs set in a small doorway. They entered into the catacomb and Guardian Angel stopped, staring at the room’s contents.
“This room has been here since before the city was,” Kismet said. “Legends say it was here before Europeans arrived in the Americas. It was found by an explorer named Thomas Coll. Then, it was just this room. As it sank into the ground over many, many years, the Collswell Cathedral was built on top of it, and the city grew up around it. This is the city’s namesake: Coll’s Well.”
The room had a small platform at the bottom of the stairs on which they stood, lit by a single incandescent light. The area beyond was about half a foot lower and covered in a few inches of water. In the center of the still pool was a stone well, wreathed in shadow, it’s interior dropping out of sight in the inadequate lighting. Behind the well was a black stone statue, staring down at it’s cupped hands as if gazing at the reflection of it’s featureless face. Guardian Angel shivered at much at the room’s cold as at it’s unnerving contents.
“The well has become a symbol for the villains in the city,” said Kismet. “No, though that’s true. It’s because it was there first. The church? That came later.”
“It’s really creepy.”
There was a pause before Kismet said, “yeah. Phenomena always used to show new members this place and explain.”
Kismet turned and bounded back up the stairs. The priests cast the Guardian Angel an interesting look as they passed by, returning to their patrol.
* * *
Jet flipped through the designs on the tablet, looking for inspiration. There were logs of the costumes of all the previous heroes in the Wardens of Tomorrow.
“What’s this one?” He wondered out loud. It was similar to Pyroclasm and Cryoclasm’s costumes except in green and brown. Dr. Mind was passing by, grabbing tools for his latest project. He peered over Jet’s shoulder and laughed.
“Phenomena designed that as a joke, and called himself ‘Gyroclasm,’ or sometimes ‘Viroclasm.’ He really panicked a few villains.”
The door whooshed silently shut as Dr. Mind returned to his main lab. Jet flicked through a few more designs before settling on an idea. He swiped over to the design software and started putting it together. When he was satisfied, he waved the tablet at the costume fabber Dr. Mind had made years ago. An options menu came up on the display screen with a ding, showing possible materials and addons. Jet added ‘bulletproof,’ ‘fireproof,’ ‘watetproof,’ and ‘impact resistant,’ which were pretty much standard, and as an afterthought added ‘frictionless (active),’ and ‘insulated.’ It got pretty cold at high altitudes, and the reduced friction -though it wasn’t really entirely frictionless- would probably reduce the sonic boom.
Content with his design, he pressed the button to start fabrication, and the machine began it’s work.