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“The thing people seem all too happy to forget is that where there be superheroes, there also be supervillans. It makes one wonder: If the heroes went away, would the villains follow?”
Lynda Kidder, “Origins, Part Five,” New Chicago Tribune, April 23, 2112
Heroes always need someone to play the villain. Iridium saw the truth in this when a hero tried to slip up and cold-cock her on the back of the head.
She spun around and blasted him with a strobe–nothing crippling, strictly visible spectrum, but the hero landed on his ass and started yelling. Probably “Ahhh, my eyes, my eyes!” That one was the most common.
“That was sloppy,” Iridium tsked. “Where’s your mentor? Did he go get a latte and leave you all alone?”
By her feet, a bank guard whimpered under his gag. “Shut it,” said Iridium. “It’s not like you won’t get a fat settlement in the lawsuit that you’re going to file against the bank for hazardous working conditions. Right?”
The guard considered this for a minute, shrugged as much as he could with Iridium’s disposable handcuffs around his wrist, and nodded.
Iridium turned her attention back to the vault, watching the hero stagger to his feet out of the corner of her eye. He was wearing a purple and black skinsuit–that alone pegged him as an amateur. No one in their right minds stuck with the skinsuits after they graduated from the Academy.
Well, except one, and her picture was splashed on every piece of extrahuman propaganda in Wreck City–or, if you had to get official and euphemistic about it, Reclaimed Borough 16, for the City of New Chicago–so the junior hero could be forgiven for thinking that skinsuits were the thing.
“Turn and face me! You’re under arrest,” the hero shouted.
Iridium continued her contemplation of the vault. A triple-retinal lock. A backup deadfall bolt system. Two and half inches of tilithium steel with iocore tumblers. “I’m just gonna have to melt it,” she said, more to herself than the hero.
He took out the silver baton he’d first tried to hit her with, and some kind of Energy power turned it blue and crackling with electricity. “Last chance, bitch!”
Iridium let one black eyebrow slide up. “ ‘Bitch’? Don’t you feel that’s uncalled for? All I did was strobe you in self-defense.”
“You almost burned my damned eyes out of my head!” He was edging up on her slowly, in some kind of textbook combat stance they must have started teaching after Iridium’s time at the Academy. It made the hero resemble a colorful, deranged crab. Aside from the skinskuit, his costume had a purple face-shield and black bulbous goggles that did a poor job of hiding big, scared eyes.
“Now, see, that’s the thing,” said Iridium. “In my day, they taught us not to swear.”
The hero struck with the baton and Iridium sidestepped, then put a foot into his side, just below his last rib. There was a crack like a twig being stepped on. Oops. So maybe not exactly below it.
“They also taught us to guard our offhand side,” said Iridium, standing over the groaning hero. “Who the hell trained you? They should have their mentor merit badge revoked.”
“Look, kid. What’s your name?”
“Blackwasp,” he managed.
“Ouch. Sue whoever stuck you with that one. My point is, Blackwasp, that to survive as a goody-goody, you need to learn when you’re outclassed.” She turned her gaze back to the safe, pushed with the part of her mind that saw in spectrums, and felt the light concentrate on the surface of the door, blossoming like a small sun. The tilithium began to hiss as it peeled slowly away from the tumblers.
“I’ll always be better than a rabid…freak…like you,” Blackwasp gritted. He was pale with pain, but he wasn’t fading. She had to give the kid credit–he had more balls than most Corp rentboys.
Iridium favored him with a close-lipped smile. “Maybe so, Blackwasp, but today, I’m the one walking out of here with e75,000 in digichips, and you’re the one who’s on the floor with a silly look on his face.”
Iridium strobed Blackwasp hard enough to knock him out, then stepped through the dripping hole in the vault and collected the cases of chips from their gleaming mount next to the long boxes of cash. As she left, she leaned down and gave Blackwasp a kiss on the cheek. “Better luck next time, kid.”
Her lips left a faint imprint, like a sunburn.
“Of course, the best thing about superheroes is that they’re real. We get to see them, hear them, cheer for them. If they were in a zoo, we could even pet them and feed them.”
Lynda Kidder, “Origins, Part Twelve,” New Chicago Tribune, June 11, 2112
If she had to smile for another minute, her cheeks would fall off.
Jet wouldn’t dream of complaining, though; she never questioned orders, and Ops had told her in no uncertain terms that Jet was to publicly accept the Humanitarian Award in all good cheer. No assigned Runner would take her place; no official Corp or Academy member would appear on her behalf. So Jet increased the wattage of her smile, dazzling the crowd with her pearly whites.
And told herself that she absolutely would not vomit. Light, she hated these public engagements.
Outside of New Chicago City Hall, thousands of spectators roared their approval, cheering loud and proud for their favorite heroine. Beneath her cowl, Jet stood tall and breathed heavily through her wide grin. Give her a villain or a terrorist over public speaking any day. Would it be too much for her to hope for an Everyman protest? Probably.
She smiled, big and false, and prayed the ordeal would be over soon.
Next to her on stage, the mayor beamed as the crowd applauded. He’d overdone it with the cologne, which he tended to do whenever he anticipated a crush of people. Jet had noticed that about Mayor Lee long ago, just like she’d noticed that these sorts of events happened only during an election year. She fought the urge to wave away the overly musky smell. Seduction, she thought ruefully. Lady Killer’s cologne. Jet wondered if the mayor had actually believed it when the charismatic hero had announced to the world at large that Every lady killer knows it’s all about the seduction. Stupid tag line, in Jet’s opinion, but the cologne sold like crazy. Superheroes and celebrities: the best assets when it came to selling products.
In her left ear, her comlink hummed. Meteorite’s low, husky voice said, “Babe, would it kill you to smile like you mean it?”
It just might, Jet thought, stretching her mouth impossibly wide.
Meteorite chuckled. “I said ‘smile,’ not ‘set your mouth in a rictus of horror.’ ”
Jet ground her teeth. Light knew, she depended on her comlink; the white noise it filtered into her ear was as necessary to her as breathing, and getting immediate feedback from Ops at the Academy was fabulous when she was on the hunt–there was nothing like having electronic eyes and ears to do her scouting for her and scan any opponents for weapons and tech. But at times like this, when the comlink was all about the PR–especially when someone as media-savvy as Meteorite was pulling a shift–Jet was tempted to yank the thing from her ear and stomp on it until it bled wires.
Keeping her lips frozen in a grin, Jet whispered, “I’m trying.”
“Try harder. You look like you’re constipated.”
Right, she thought. Smile for the vids, wave happily at all the civilians, act like you want to be on display at City Hall like some fashion model instead of out there, fighting crime. Making a difference.
Jet exhaled her frustration and smiled. The sponsor was always right–especially in her case, when the sponsor was the City of New Chicago. The mayor’s voice boomed as he extolled the virtues of the extrahumans in general and Jet in particular, and how proud he was to be the mayor of the city that housed the Squadron, UCSA Division. Even as the crowd before Jet proclaimed its undying love, behind her on the platform, the uniformed officers of the New Chicago Police Department radiated their hatred. The space between Jet’s shoulder blades itched, as if one of the officers were taking aim. As always, she tried not to dwell on how the police loathed her, pretended it didn’t sting.
Her comlink hummed. “Come on, babe. Think happy thoughts. They gave you flowers.”
“They were lovely,” Jet whispered, not moving her lips.
“Any phone numbers tucked between the petals this time?”
“Poor Jet.” Meteorite laughed. “Burdened by her adoring fans.”
It did sound foolish that way. But Meteorite didn’t understand; the former Weather power had been grounded in Ops for three years. She’d forgotten how maddening it was to be tied up at some so-called good will event when everyone knew it was just political maneuvering.
Not that Jet was complaining. Jet never complained. Duty first, always. And when her duty happened to be smiling for the cameras and making a public speech, then that’s what she did. Even when it was a monumental waste of her time. And made her sick to her stomach. The mayor pumped her hand and thanked her loudly as he grinned at the cameras.
“Lee’s in fine form today,” Meteorite said. “I figure he’ll run out of breath in about forty minutes, but Two-Tone here thinks he’s good for at least an hour. It’s an election year and all.”
Jet bit back a groan as the mayor prattled on and on about her good deeds while he himself managed to take the credit for cleaning up New Chicago. Fine by her. She’d be happy to shout out that all her successes were part of the mayor’s grand plan, if only she wouldn’t have to do any more of these ceremonies. Beneath her leather gauntlets, her palms began to sweat.
“Not to worry,” Meteorite said. “Even if he runs long, you’ll have plenty of time to make your three o’clock with Rabbi Cohn.”
Jet whispered, “On Third Street?”
“No, that’s Reverend Cohen, at the Templeton Church on Third. Jews for Jesus sect. I’m talking about Rabbi Cohn, of the Third Temple. He’s on Lakeside Drive.”
“Cohn’s a good spot. According to Two-Tone, today’s sermon will be all about how humans and extrahumans are all children of God. Or Gods, I suppose, depending on the affiliation.”
Good. Cohn wouldn’t be openly hostile. Most of the religious leaders were at least tolerant of extrahumans and the Squadron. Some were ardent fans. Others…were not.
“And at four thirty, you have that thing with Jake Goldwater.”
“Light,” Jet muttered. The only thing worse than public speaking was talk show appearances. “Can’t Steele take that one?”
“Sorry, babe. She’s in the Canadian States for the next few days, helping the Dudley Do-Rights. Besides, Goldwater wanted you specifically to go head-to-head with Ted Wurtham.”
Damn it to Darkness. “You didn’t tell me the chairman of the Everyman Society was going to be on the Goldwater show with me.”
“I just did. Play nice with the fanatic, Jetster. The vids will be recording. Just let Wurtham be all insane and bug-eyed and ranting about humans first. You be the demure superheroine who modestly saved New Chicago no less than two times this calendar year alone. Oh,” Meteorite added, “PR says no cowl for the show. Too intimidating. You’re to appear with your hood back, hair gleaming. Ponytail or braid; your choice. Light makeup–nothing sluttish. And no perfume, so be sure to catch a shower before you go.”
Jet hated election years.
“On to happier news,” Meteorite said, sounding perky enough to set Jet’s internal radar beeping. “You’ve got yourself a new Runner, effective immediately.”
“Yeah. Smile and nod; Lee’s talking about the reclaiming of New Chicago. Be all supportive.”
Jet nodded in response. The vids whirled; lights flashed. She whispered, “What happened to Cathy?”
“Her PTO kicked in this morning. Vacationing in the Adirondacks for a month. So it’s a new gopher for you, fresh out of the lottery.” A pause, then Meteorite purred, “And he’s a cutie, I must say. Even Two-Tone agrees, and he doesn’t play for that team.”
Straining to keep her lips from moving, Jet said, “You met him?”
“Two-Tone? I’ve done more than that with him.”
Through clenched teeth, Jet whispered, “No, the Runner. You met him?”
“Babe, I meet all of them.” Jet could practically hear the woman’s grin. “I think you’re going to like this one.”
“I liked Cathy.”
“Not this way, you didn’t.”
The mayor droned on, oblivious to her nearly silent conversation. In the audience, the civilians cheered on cue. It was a spectacle sure to make the headlines for the next two days; Lee must be almost fevered with the thought of deliriously happy constituents. Jet whispered, “Aren’t you supposed to be keeping me informed instead of setting me up?”
“Far as I’m concerned, Jetster, it’s the same thing. When’s the last time you got laid?”
Jet choked, which she quickly covered with a dainty cough into her gauntlet. Mouth hidden behind her hand, she hissed, “That’s none of your business!”
“Like I thought. Forever and a day. You need to loosen up, babe. Or get yourself someone to loosen you up. If not the new Runner, then I highly recommend Two-Tone. And I’m not just saying that because he’s right next to me.”
Terrific, Jet thought, checking herself from rolling her eyes. Between Meteorite, the mayor, and the carefully screened civilians in attendance, it was practically a Jet lovefest–which made someone who strongly preferred to blend with the shadows exceptionally uncomfortable. At least this time no one was showering her in chocolates or throwing men’s underwear. Or, Light help her, women’s underwear.
Mayor Lee boomed on, calling Jet New Chicago’s “Lady of Shadows.” Behind her, Jet distinctly heard one of the cops snort.
“My goodness,” Meteorite said brightly. “I think you just lost a member of your fan club.”
Just a little longer, Jet told herself as she smiled, smiled, smiled. Soon the mayor would finish, and Jet would gratefully accept his gift and murmur her thank yous, and make a very fast acceptance speech. Then onto the religious and television stops of her daily circuit. And then, finally, she could get out on the streets and actually do her job. Off camera.
“Hang on,” Meteorite said. “Data coming in.” The Ops voice clicked off, filling Jet’s ear with the white noise of a waterfall.
Jet smiled and waited, hoping that the data would be something big enough to pull her out before she had to launch into a speech that she really, really didn’t want to give. Maybe an armed robbery, or a fire…
The earpiece hummed, and Meteorite said, “New marching orders, babe. We spotted her.”
Jet’s heartbeat quickened. “Her? You’re sure?”
“Positive. It’s her energy signature. Whatever she’s been using to block it these past few months must’ve sprung a leak. You’ll have to ask her when you find her.”
Ops gave her the coordinates. “And Jet?” Meteorite said, all traces of playfulness gone. “Corp’ll be all over us if she pulls another vanishing act. Don’t let her get away again.”
“Oh, I won’t,” Jet said, her voice dark and full of promise. No, there was no way that she’d let her slip away. Again. After five years of cat and mouse, Jet was done playing.
“I’ll reschedule Cohn for tomorrow, but you have to make the Goldwater spot.”
“Now make with the apologies to the mayor, and get your ass in gear.”
Jet cleared her throat, then interrupted Mayor Lee. “Thank you, Mr. Mayor. It’s a real honor to be receiving this award today.”
Lee stared at her, his mouth working as if it dearly wanted to keep speaking, his eyes betraying his irritation. The audience hushed, waited in rapt attention as their savior stood on the Mount.
She smiled at the people of New Chicago, and this time, it felt right on her face. “And thank you all. Your support means more than I could ever say.” Flicking her wrist, she summoned a floater of Shadow. “But now I must go.”
“But…” The mayor spluttered, caught between indignation and professional courtesy. “We haven’t even given you the award yet!”
“I’m sorry, sir, but duty calls. A villain is at large, and I must rein her in.” Stepping onto the smoky black circle, she commanded it to rise. Her cape billowed around her as she hovered over the crowd, giving them one last look. The vids clicked and whirred, and the spectators cheered as Jet waved.
“Enough posing,” Ops said. “Time to go kick some rabid ass.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jet said, and her smile pulled into something feral. “She’ll never know what hit her.”
Jet rocketed away.
“Other than the occasional deviation, the extrahumans are all sworn to serve and protect, far more diligently and thoroughly than the standard officer on a police force. ”
Stan Kane, Chairman of Corp-Co, to Corp-Co Shareholders at the 110th Annual Meeting of Corp-Co Investors, January 31, 2112
Down the numberless alleyways that crossed Wreck City like burst capillaries, Iridium stopped walking and turned around. “You can come out, you know. That Shadow-walking trick hasn’t fooled me since we were fourteen years old.”
Iridium waited, patiently. She was so goddamn paranoid. Probably expected a lasgrid cage, or a net with pointy sticks attached. “Any time now,” Iridium coaxed.
Still the bricks behind her, bars and brights of light and dark, stayed quiet, still and empty.
Iridium set down the metal case of digichips and rolled her eyes. “For Christo’s sake, Jet. Get your ass out here. I read Art of War in the same unit you did. This is not dampening my morale, or whatever it is you’re hoping to accomplish with the Big Scary Shadow Puppet routine.”
“You cheated in that unit,” Jet said, finally letting herself separate from the shadow of a computerized dumpster that bore the grinning face of Green Thumb, super-shill for Chicago Consolidated Hauling. The fact that a plant-controller was posing for a major polluter made Iridium smile.
“Honey, I cheated at a lot of things,” she told Jet. “Sun Tzu doesn’t actually have a problem with cheating.”
Jet flexed her hands so the night-colored leather gauntlets casing them creaked. “I do.”
“Jehovah,” Iridium muttered. “Is that some elective I missed out on? ‘How to Sound Like a Cheesy Action Vid’?”
“I didn’t come here to talk.”
Iridium felt a pang in the air, like a stray draft of cold wind had come off Lake Michigan. Just a moment before they wrapped around her ankles, she saw the shadows running off of Jet’s form, crawling towards her feet. Creepers, manifestations of Jet’s power. Alive.
“Imagine that,” said Iridium, creating a strobe that hung in the air above the pair, arcing and spitting. Jet hissed as her goggles irised from the sudden burst of light. With her cowl, skinsuit and leather belt and gauntlets, she looked more like a nightmare than anything Iridium saw when she shut her eyes.
Seeing the shadows crawl back to their mistress, Iridium pushed the strobe closer. “Any other day, I’d love to stay and continue our witty repartee, but right now I’ve got places to go and corporate slimewads to rob, so I’ll be jetting. No pun intended.”
“You stay where you are!” Jet shouted. “You can’t get past me, Iridium, no matter how much your ego likes to think so!”
“Christo, shut up!” Jet couldn’t just speak; it was always a Superman with her. A platitude, pat and rehearsed. She might as well have been one of the ’bots the Academy kept around to wax floors and wash dishes. She was wired into Corp, as much as all of their machines. “You make me sick, Jet,” Iridium said. “You can either get in my way and be burned by my strobe–careful,” she snapped when Jet tried to bat the ball of ever-brightening light away, “that’s over a thousand BTUs of heat! Or you can slither away into the dark. As usual.”
Jet held her ground.
Iridium took another step forward and felt a droplet of sweat slide down her spine underneath her unikilt. Just the light heat, she lied to herself. Don’t worry about it. “You forget that I know you, Jet.” She pushed at the strobe, making it fly at the cowled woman.
Jet woman dove to the side at the last second and landed in a heap of garbage, clawing at her face as her goggles overloaded from the brilliance.
Iridium went to Jet, leaned down and ripped off Jet’s earpiece, crushing the squawk of her operator’s voice beneath her boot heel. “You scare easy,” Iridium hissed into Jet’s ear. “You always have.”
She turned her back on Jet, got the digichip case and walked away at a measured pace, into the ruins of Wreck City, feeling only a slight prick of guilt for what she’d said.
From the Trade Paperback edition.