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The biggest question my brother has about the extrahumans is whether they are heroes because they are told they are heroes or because they believe they are heroes. My only question is how to control them before they realize they don't have to be heroesat all. --From the journal of Martin Moore, entry #103
Jet was positive there was nothing in the Squadron Policies and Procedures Manual that covered how to take down rabid members of the Squadron itself. Even so, she'd looked. Twice.
In the past, she supposed as she fended off a blow from Slider, there might have been a subsection that covered such a topic. But once Corp-Co started brainwashing its elite extrahuman fighting force to be the good guys, there'd been no need for the manualto cover what to do when superheroes went insane. So Jet had to wing it.
Light, she hated improvising. But at least she'd caught a break in that Slider had lost it here in Grid 13, which was mostly deserted this early in the morning. Jet had been able to manipulate Slider into an alley. If the speedster had gone rabid in thedowntown district of New Chicago, the casualty rate and property damage would have been horrific. And with Jet's luck, the mainstream media would have been televising the fight like some pay-per-view event. Ever since nearly all of the Squadron had effectivelydeclared war against society two days ago, it seemed like the vids had been capturing every move she made, just in time for the evening news.
The world had gone mad, and the media was having an orgasm.
Slider spun around, her roundhouse kick in perfect form. But even at double speed, she'd telegraphed her move. Jet ducked beneath the woman's leather boot as it zoomed by.
"Come on, Slider," Jet said, letting two Shadow creepers fly. "You don't want to fight me."
The red-clad woman screeched as the black bands wrapped around her legs, pinning them together. "Want? Want? I want my life back, that's what I want!"
"And you can have it. Come on, this is me," Jet said, commanding the creepers to move up Slider's body and bind the woman's hands. "You can talk to me, Slider."
"You're one of them!" Slider snarled, her upper lip curling. "You're Corp's lapdog!"
"I was." The admission hurt, but Jet was honest. Her voice soft, she said, "But they can't tell us what to do anymore." "Liar!" Slider struggled to free herself, even beginning to vibrate. But she wouldn't be able to move fast enough to escape her bonds. Once the Shadow had you, it didn't let you go.
Jet knew that all too well.
"Babe?" That was Meteorite, whispering in Jet's ear thanks to her comlink. "You all right? Your heartbeat just galloped past 130." "I'm fine," Jet murmured.
"Just checking. And heads up: You've got a normal headed into your sector."
Terrific. The way things were going, it would probably be an Everyman looking to take down one of the extrahuman "freaks." Jet took a step toward the bound woman. "Listen to me . . ."
"Lucy," Meteorite supplied. "Lucy." Meteorite had always worked well as Operations, providing Jet with much-needed information. Thank the Light that Frostbite had jury-rigged a closed-network version of Ops for Jet and the others to use. The earpieces no longer broadcast subliminalmessages about serving Corp, but they did still work beautifully as communication devices.
Jet lifted her gauntleted hands into a soothing gesture, trying to calm Slider like she would a spooked horse. "It's going to be okay, Lucy. I know what you're going through. You can get past it."
"Liar!" Slider shrieked again, bucking. She overbalanced and crashed to the ground, then writhed on the broken pavement, slamming her head on the ground. Her cheerful red helmet cracked from the impact.
"Hey now," Jet said, kneeling. "Come on, Lucy. Don't hurt yourself." She reached over to comfort the fallen hero, then yanked her hand away as Slider tried to bite her.
Damn it to Darkness. Jet didn't want to blanket the woman in Shadow, not if she could help it. The last time she had done that, she'd nearly killed a man.
And the time before that, she had killed a woman. It had been an accident during a life-or-death situation. Even so, Jet's vision blurred as she saw Lynda Kidder's still form lying in the filth of the sewers, the reporter's body monstrously warped from a serum she'd been forced to take . . .
Pain wrenched her out of the grim memory. Cursing, Jet pulled her gloved fingers free from Slider's clenched teeth.
"Sorry, Lucy," Jet said. Then she released a ball of Shadow. It unfolded as it hit Slider's face, wrapping its ends around the red-clad woman's head. Slider slammed her head on the ground once, twice . . . and then was still.
Sighing, Jet called the Shadow back into herself. It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Meteorite's voice: "Normal approaching in five, four, three . . ."
Jet pulled out a pair of stun-cuffs from her belt and slapped them onto Slider's wrists. Still kneeling, Jet turned her head to face the mouth of the alley. It took only a moment for her to blend into the shadows, making herself all but invisible.
A man lumbered into view, a black ski mask covering his face like a parody of the Shadow blanket Jet had just used on Slider. He sported a black bomber jacket over a slim frame, black jeans, and boots. And he toted an oversized, bulging sack in his glovedhands. He was too busy looking over his shoulder to notice that the alley was not deserted.
Behind her optiframes, Jet's eyes narrowed.
The man lurched to a stop and yanked off his cap, revealing sweat-plastered mousy hair and a very plain face. He grinned ecstatically as he opened the bag. "I sincerely hope those are presents for the local orphanage," Jet said.
The man squawked, jerking around to see who'd spoken. His gaze slid right over where Jet crouched and fastened on Slider's unconscious form. His eyes widened, and his mouth worked like a landed fish. He stepped back, nearly tripping over his bag.
"Citizen," Jet said, standing slowly, calling back her power so that she no longer was one with the shadows, "what do you have in the bag? Stolen goods?"
The man squeaked, "Take it, it's yours! Please don't hurt me!"
A breeze whispered down the alley, bringing with it a hint of ozone. Jet's black cloak swirled around her legs and boots. She allowed herself a small smile. "Hurt you? Now, why ever would I do that, citizen?"
The man whimpered, cowering behind the large, swollen sack.
Just as Jet was about to launch into her standard Crime Doesn't Pay speech, Meteorite hissed, "Incoming!"
A crackle like lightning, followed by a thunderous boom.
Jet created a Shadowshield reflexively, protecting her, the criminal, and Slider as one of the alley walls crashed over them. The man screamed and started praying in a screechy voice, which didn't help Jet's concentration at all. Sweat trickling beneathher cowl, she pushed her shield forward, forcing the debris away.
The broken wall warped the shape of the alley, turning its opening lip into a sneer. There, backlit by the morning sun, stood two Squadron soldiers. One of them, a man with shaggy brown hair, Jet knew all too well. The other, a woman wearing enough spanglesto blind a casual passerby, Jet knew mostly by reputation.
Were and White Hot. Former comrades in arms . . . and now, based on the glow of power around White Hot's gloves and the growl in Were's throat, rabids. Some days, Jet thought, it just doesn't pay to get out of bed.
Imagine a world without pain and suffering, a world without fear. Imagine your children growing up free of disease and the pain of age. Imagine your future. It could be so bright. --Article by Dr. Matthew Icarus, submitted to The New England Journal of Medicine (rejected)
Iridium almost let the kid get away with it.
The day had been too long already, tinged with smoke from the fires downtown and full of the wail of police sirens as their hovers crisscrossed Wreck City, searchlights cutting through the smoke and fog like the long fingers of a giant. So when Iridiumturned the corner and saw the metal security door of the check-cashing branch bent inward, as if by a fist, and heard the alarm whooping, she almost walked right on by.
With New Chicago in its death throes, it wasn't her problem if some guy was ripping off another, equally crooked guy. "Hey!"
The voice spun Iridium around. She was jumpy already from the rampant anarchy that had spilled out from the implosion of the Squadron, trickling down from extrahuman to criminal gang to street thug like a virus. "Yes?"
The owner of the voice lumbered forward--bald, tattooed, a ring through his nose and surgical horns atop his bald pate, all of which marked him as a Death's Head--and jabbed his finger at the check-cashing shop. "You gonna do something about that, Princess?"
Iridium narrowed her eyes. "How, exactly, is one of your friends lining his pockets my problem, Princess?"
The Death's Head turned and spat a wad of something noxious and bright green into the gutter. "Fucker ain't one of ours. He ain't local. Just some punk kid with powers who swooped in and said this was his street now."
"The Squadron doesn't leave their people with the best grip on reality," Iridium said, but she reconsidered that dented door. "He'll get over it."
"This is your fuckin' city, yeah?" the gangster demanded. "You run things, and you just let some dipshit with a cute costume stroll in?"
"Easy, Damien." Iridium held up a hand, feeling the light heat gather against her skin like a caress. The gangster backed up a step. He didn't get her joke--Damien, the devil child from the old flatfilm The Omen. No one in New Chicago could take a jokethese days. Iridium frowned. "I run a tight ship. You know that."
"I don't want them here," Damien said, rubbing his forefinger against his thumb like the junkfreak he was. "I don't like the superfreaks. No offense."
Iridium was already halfway across the street. "None taken."
She felt the weight of fatigue press on her shoulders as she shoved the broken door aside, along with all of the various aches and pains. She could catalog the bruises--the set on her rib cage from Howler's sonic boom tossing her into a wall the day beforelast, the cut on her cheekbone from where she'd let Arachnia get too close with her stinger darts. She'd dreamed about taking them on, everyone in the Squadron and the little voice inside their heads. The reality was proving a lot more painful and dirty and tiring than the dream.
The lights of the check-cashing shop flickered uselessly, and Iridium set a strobe to float in the air above and behind her head, creating an arch of light. "Here, little superbrat," she lilted. "It's not polite to put your hands on things that aren'tyours."
The kid was squat and stocky, clear optiframes strapped to his head and a shock of faded purple hair falling into his eyes. He looked like the type who should be sitting in front of a VR rig somewhere, playing an elf or an errant knight.
"Holy crap!" he exclaimed. "I mean, it's really you! Iridium!" He grabbed another handful of digichips and shoved them into a duffel bag from the New Chicago Hobby Emporium. "I'm Blockbuster," he said, puffing out his chest. "I have superstrength."
"Be still my heart." Iridium pointed at the bag. "Set it down and get on home to your mummy, child. I don't have time for you." "But we're doing it!" Blockbuster cried. "We're taking the city apart, just like you wanted."
Iridium looked back out the doorway, at the skyline. It was painted with flame, like a crown marching across the horizon. "Who said this was what I wanted?"
"But . . ." Blockbuster's face crumpled. "But I don't have anybody! I'm a felon now. I can't go back to the way things were . . . Corp is still out there and they'll throw my ass in jail!"
Iridium sighed. "Look, kid, I don't have answers for every sad superbrat in this town. I suggest you go home and move on." Blockbuster flushed, his jowly little face quivering. "I don't have a home!" he bellowed, grabbing more of the E's. "I'm an orphan, just like you!"
"Take it easy," Iridium warned. "You're not in the bush league anymore. Wreck City is mine. I can't have you tearing around like a chubby little tornado."
Blockbuster let out a snarl. It would have been comical, except he reached out and pushed her. Iridium felt herself lift and go back, crashing through the front counter and skidding to a stop in the lobby.
"Fine," she told the ceiling. "I tried."
Blockbuster leapt the broken counter, drawing back a pudgy fist as he landed on top of her. Iridium strobed him, hard, in the face. Blockbuster repeated her flight, in the opposite direction.
"You know what your problem is?" Iridium stood up and dusted herself off. "You kids today have no sense of history." She picked up the duffel bag and emptied it back into the safe, pocketing a few thousand E's for her trouble.
On the floor, Blockbuster let out a groan. He flopped a little, but a strobe in the face was a lot like a baseball bat. It made you reconsider turning to crime--or getting up again.
"Hey, you chose to play the villain," Iridium told him. "If you want to roll in the big leagues, this isn't anything. Wait until you meet a real hero."
"I thought you understood," Blockbuster whined. "I thought you were like me."
Iridium kicked the door aside and looked back at his hunched, miserable figure. "I'm not a villain, and I'm not a hero. You want to worship somebody, go to church." She shoved the packet of E's into her belt and pointed at Blockbuster. "Come to Wreck Cityagain, and you'll be wearing my name across your forehead. As a third-degree burn."
As she left, Iridium threw a salute to Damien and his horned pals skulking in the shadows. Alone, she walked on toward her warehouse. As she approached, she let out a sigh. Iridium, once Public Enemy Number 1, now reduced to a superpower hall monitor forthe scum of New Chicago.
Yeah. The reality definitely sucked.
From the Trade Paperback edition.