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We interrupt this interruption from Unwanted Heroes for some very important news.  (It’ll be back soon, trust me.  (Trust me more this time than the last time.  I’ve got some plans for the book, and some grand ideas.  I’ve even enlisted top men to work with me.  Top men!))

Die and Let Live is officially finished and for sale!  What began as a fumetti style book has evolved into a fully illustrated comic thanks to the help of the wonderful and talented Lee Davis.  If James Brown was the hardest working man in show business (God rest his cape and hair curlers), then Lee is the hardest working man in the independent comic world.

 

You can check out Lee’s work here on his site:  http://leedavisbooksandart.weebly.com/

 

And buy it here:  http://www.amazon.com/Lee-Davis/e/B007J5CZ3O/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

 

Oh, and while we’re doing shameless plugs… “Shame? I don’t need no stinkin’ shame!”  Check out this awesome movie he made starring… Oh, who was that guy?  Ah! YOURS TRULY! MOI!

 

http://www.amazon.com/Mossy-Rock-Jerale-Clebourne/dp/B00VU4REHM/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1433298359&sr=1-1&keywords=mossy+rock

 

And, why yes! That is the equally awesome Micah Acord co-starring!

 

That’s right folks, Die and Let Live is alive!

Wait…  Is that right?  Anyway…

There’s the wind up.  And the pitch:

 

All Mason wants is to live a quiet life in the woods of northern Montana.  Away from people.  Away from anxieties.  Away from his past.  But first, he needs to rob the 8th St. Bank to make his dream a reality. 

Unfortunately, a zombie outbreak changes his plans, and his hostages become his charges. 

Now, Mason finds himself in the last place he ever wanted to be again, responsible for the lives of others. 

Can he protect the people in the bank from the horrors outside, or will the ghosts of his past consume him?  And, if he can protect them, for how long? 

 Die and Let Live.  A two issue story about survival and redemption. 

 

Issue 1 is currently available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle.

http://www.amazon.com/Die-Let-Live-Jerale-Clebourne/dp/1512339016/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1433296595&sr=1-2&keywords=die+and+let+live

 

I’ll also have copies for sale at the 2015 Heroes Con.  http://www.heroesonline.com/heroescon/

I’ll be sharing a table with Lee, and the aforementioned Micah Acord.  Micah is the creator and illustrator of Rednecks in Space, the wonderful short comic Mr. Creepy, and the upcoming comic Tario.

 

I hope you enjoy Die and Let Live issue 1 and look forward to issue 2, coming soon!

 

It’s good to be back!

 

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Chapter XXXIX

  

            Acrid smoke congested the city streets and blocked the sky.  Walter Morrison likened it to the theorized dark skies of a nuclear winter.  The end of the world.  As he observed the cries of horror amid the death and destruction that greeted him outside the front door of the news station, he couldn’t honestly say that it wasn’t. 

            Walter’s arm shot out instinctively, blocking Scarlett as she tried to walk around him.  Her mind was ticking away on everything but what was going on around her.  She wasn’t aware of the carnage at her feet until she bumped into his arm.  Her eyes blink several times, as if she were a computer switching programs.  

            Scarlett’s mouth open to say something crude and obnoxious, but the words caught in the back of her throat.  Most of them. 

            “What the !@#$ is going on?” Scarlett asked, panic started creeping into her voice. 

            “Isn’t it obvious?” Walter said, his voice flat and low.  “We’re at war.” 

            “At war? With whom?”  The realization hadn’t hit Scarlett yet.  She was still standing tall and looking around like a tourist staring at skyscrapers. 

            “Does it matter?’  Walter answered.  There was a deep heavy tone in his voice that he’d never used around Scarlett before.  He dropped down to his haunches, trying not to be seen. 

            He looked up and saw Scarlett still standing in curious wonder. 

            “Get down!” Walter grabbed her by her top, almost ripping it off of her, and pulled her down to the sidewalk. 

            “Gibby, dammit!” Scarlett cursed, being forced to the ground.  She paid too much for her clothes to have them man handled by a cameraman that didn’t know his own strength. 

            “Do you know how much – Oh my God!” The on air reporter was about to verbally rip into her partner about the price of her clothes and the designer that made them until she saw the dead body inches away from her. 

            “Gibby, what the hell is going on?  What the hell is going on?” 

            “I don’t know.” 

            The hulking cameraman stayed hunched down as he made his way to the news van, dragging the shocked reporter behind him. 

            “Just keep your head down and get over here behind the van.” 

            “What van?”  Fear made the young reporter exaggerate, but not by much. 

            The news van was beyond salvageable.  The side windows had been blown out, and the tiny fragments crackled under their feet as they moved. The large sheet of safety glass that used to be the front windshield hung from a thin piece of rubber seal like a modern art wind chime.  The roof had been split and was peeled back along the incision like parting waves. 

            Even from where they were it was evident that something large and heavy had struck the opposite side of the van.  Judging by the slight incline, Walter assume that whatever it was that had hit the van was embedded in it and propping it up on the street facing side.  Gibby prayed that the sliding door would open and that it wouldn’t cause the van to shift and roll over. 

            He grabbed the door handle slowly and gave it a mild tug.  When the van didn’t budge, he tugged harder.  The door jostled, but didn’t move.  Walter stood a little taller, lowered his shoulder, and rammed the side door.  The van shook but didn’t teeter.  Whatever was lodged on the other side must’ve been heavier and stuck tight. 

            The cameraman pulled on the door handle again, this time it moved.  He pulled the door out and slid it back along the outer wheel track.  He reached inside, standing on his toes, and tried to sift through the disheveled mess of broadcasting equipment.   

 

            “Gibby.  Gibby.”  Scarlett tugged on her protector’s sleeve.  Walter turned to her.  She was looking away from him and pointing at the ground two yards away.  Lying on the ground was what appeared to be part of an arm, but it wasn’t human.  There were three clawed fingers, and a clawed stump on the underside that could be considered a thumb.  The skin was a mucus green color and looked like beaten leather that was peppered with a scale like pattern that neither of them had ever seen. 

            “What the hell is that?” 

 

            Walter took a long look at the dismembered limb before turning back to the van’s contents. 

            “It’s another reason for us to get out there and find out what the hell is going on.”  He tried to focus on what was before him and not on what was awaiting them amid the chaos.  He had learned during his first combat reporting assignment that he couldn’t think about the danger that could be coming.  If he was going to survive, he had to focus on what was in front of him at that moment.  Being afraid of what could be coming would only compound his fear during a real crisis, and cause him to freeze at a crucial moment.  That moment would make all the difference between living and dying. 

 

            Scarlett couldn’t tear herself away.  It was too much for her to process.  Maybe if she had know what was going to greet her outside the station’s doors she could have mentally prepared herself, but being ambushed by carnage – she was on the verge of breaking down. 

            Walter grabbed her by the back of the shirt and pulled her down the street; yanking her up and down like a human spring to stay out of sight. 

            “Follow me, and do as I do.  You wanted a Pulitzer… Well, you’re about to get it.” 

 

******

 

            “Damn you, Hudson.” Diamond Dog cursed.  He moved his body between the creature that stood closest to him and Electric Blue. 

            The hulking creature approached the teens slowly, savoring the moment.  The menacing grin it wore would make the devil envious. 

 

            “C’mon!” DD screamed.  “If you’re going to kill us, then kill us!” 

            “Yes.” The beast garbled through its extended jaw mouth. 

            “Nope.”  Came another voice not belonging to either human.  DD and Blue looked up, as did the beast. 

            Hovering above the pair was a boy, roughly fourteen years of age, dressed in worn jeans, new sneakers, and a leather jacket over a stained t-shirt with the words “!@#$ Me I’m a Hero” across the front.  The young boy, beyond his manner of dress, was unimpressive in his appearance.  His face still carried the baby fat he should have lost years earlier.  His hair was disheveled to the point that it wasn’t a fashion statement.  It was clear he had just gotten out of bed half an hour earlier. 

 

            “I’m pretty sure I’d lose my superhero badge if I let you kill them.  Aw, who am I kidding?  Badges? I don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” The boy’s smile conveyed that he was oblivious to everything going on around him.  To him, this was fun and games, not life or death. 

            “Kid Prodigy?’ Diamond Dog blurted.  He knew of the teen hero, but had never seen him in the flesh. 

            “Just Prodigy now.  I’m not trying to end up like Kid Paladin.”  

            An energy beam extended from the tips of his fingers.

            He wielded his arm like it was a sword.  He swung his arm down at the creature, the energy sword slicing through it as easily as it had the air.  The monster was split cleanly in two.  Thick yellow blood oozed from the severed veins and arteries.    

            The other creature turned to run. 

            “Not so fast, round boy.”  The energy beam around Prodigy’s hand receded to a glow around his fist.  He made his fingers into a gun and pointed at the retreating monster. 

            “Pchow.” He said, shooting with his finger gun.  A ray of energy extended from Prodigy’s fingertip and stretched across the street.  The golden streak of light passed through the back of the creature’s head.  The monster stopped for a moment.  Its body shook, and then it fell to the ground dead. 

            Prodigy blew a stream of air over his fingertip.  He tipped his imaginary hat at the two older teens, like a television cowboy. 

            “There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name’s Kid Prodigy.” The boy said.  He suddenly caught his slip up and tried to correct it.  ‘I meant Prodigy.  Prodigy!  Dammit!” 

 

            Diamond Dog stared in amazement, looking at the younger teen.  He looked from the young hero to the dead creatures, and back again. 

            “Ki – Prodigy!  What the hell’s going on here?’ 

            “Oh nothing.”  Prodigy said in a cocky manner that was supposed to be nonchalant.  “Just saving lives and getting girl’s phone numbers.”  He looked over DD’s shoulder at Blue.  “How you doin’?” 

            “She’s taken!” DD snapped at his rescuer.  He moved his head into Prodigy’s line of sight. 

            “Ooh, touchy.” 

            Diamond Dog wondered what was worse – death or being saved by Kid Prodigy. 

            “Look, can you help us out here?”  DD turned and showed the teen the inhibitor cuffs. 

            “What the… Why are you guys wearing…”  Prodigy looked at the two older teens.  His jaw suddenly dropped as he realized who they were. 

            “I know you!” he exclaimed.  “You’re the Yesterday Town heroes!”  Prodigy landed beside them and held up his index finger.  He created a small flame like energy bulb on the tip of his finger and used it like a blowtorch.  “Now hold still.”

            Prodigy cut through the cuffs with greater ease than he made it seem. 

            “Hot damn!  Imagine meeting you guys here!  What the hell are you doing in cuffs?”  The impudent hero asked while cutting Blue free from her bonds. 

            Diamond Dog shot a deathly glance at detective Hudson, who was still cowering on the sidewalk.  “Let’s just say we were tried and convicted in the media court.” 

            “Ah!” Prodigy sighed.  “I’ve had my trouble with the public, too.  Opinions are like farts.  Everybody has one and they want to share them, no matter how much they stink.” 

            DD frowned at the less than creative analogy. 

            “Yeah, I guess.”    

            The older boy turned to Blue and put his hands on her shoulders.  “You okay?’ 

            “About as good as you.” She said.  Her head stayed high.  “It doesn’t end, does it?”

            “I don’t… It will.” 

 

            “Hey!” Prodigy called, breaking DD and Blue’s moment.  “What about him?” 

            The younger boy’s body started rising back into the air as he pointed down at detective Hudson. 

            “Leave him.” DD said.  He took Blue’s hand and started to walk away.  Broken glass and concrete crunched under his heel.  He stopped and looked at the devastation surrounding him.  The front of the hotel was blown open and offered little in the way of refuge.  Inside people were huddled together in groups, hoping that they’d be safe because they were together.  They looked out at the three powered teens, but were afraid to move. 

            DD grabbed detective Hudson by the collar and drug him into the hotel.  He slung his limp body at the closet group of people, who were hiding behind a sofa.  He looked at the eyes that stared at him over the tops of tables, chairs, and counters.  “Take him!“

 

            “All of you listen!  You need to move from this area!  Everyone move to the kitchen!  Try and stay in the middle of the building!  Watch your exits and keep them clear in case you need to escape quickly!” 

            Diamond Dog walked out of the hotel for a second time with his head held high. 

           

            “There’s your good dead for the day.  C’mon.  We can go to ’82 and have a drink.” Prodigy said.  He was already flying in that direction. 

            “What?!  There are people dying out here.  We need to stay and help them!”  Blue shouted. 

              “Ha!” the baby fat faced boy chuckled.  “It’s where all the heroes have gathered.  It’s where I was headed when I saw those things coming at you.  Dr. 253 has a plan.” 

 

            DD looked at the girl to his side, Blue, his unofficial girlfriend.  There was so much he wanted to say, questions he wanted to ask, but the time never seemed right for them.  Once this was all over – once things had settled down – he’d say the things he’d been wanting to say for weeks, and ask the question that had been on his mind for just as long.  For now, he settled on something more appropriate. 

            “You ready for this?” 

            Blue looked at him, his eyes sank deep into the pools of hers.  He expected a comforting smile.  Instead, he got a look that was hard and determined. 

            “Do we have a choice?” 

            “We’re about to do something stupid aren’t we?”  Diamond Dog asked.  The two had started sprinting after Prodigy. 

            “Yes.”

            “We’re heroes, aren’t we?” 

            Blue’s eyes softened a bit as she turned to look at her unofficial boyfriend.  Her eyes apologized for the answer she was about to give.  “Yes.” 

            “Damn!” 

 

*****

 

            Walter and Scarlett moved cautiously down the street staying low and out of sight.  They dashed from hidden area to hidden area.  Walter kept them moving, never staying in one spot of too long.  Scarlett did her best to keep up. 

            Her mind raced with thoughts of what was going on.  More importantly, she wondered if she was going to live through it all.  She had seen more dead bodies in the past two blocks then every horror movie she’d ever watched.  She barely had time to even think about it.  Walter kept them on the go.  It took all her focus just to keep up with him. 

            Walter pulled them quickly into an alley and behind a dumpster.  Scarlett’s eyes scanned around as she tried to catch her breath. 

            “Is it…”  she huffed.  “Is it just me, or are we moving towards the fighting?” 

            “That’s ‘cause we are.” Walter responded bluntly.  “We’re following the path of destruction.  This is where the heroes will be.  Believe it or not, this is also the safest area to be.” 

            “That seems highly unlikely.”  Scarlett said in her usual skeptic tone. 

            Walter grabbed her wrist and sprinted out of the alley.  “Time to move.” 

             The cameraman pulled her to a mangle of cars destructively formed into a makeshift barrier.  Blood dripped from the twisted metal.  Scarlett didn’t know where the person, or persons, were inside Picasso like wreck, but she was certain they were dead.   

            “If we go back the other way, we may run into stragglers or who knows what, and without the benefit of help.  Going into the fray, we know the heroes will be there.  Besides, that where the story is.” 

            “Yeah, I guess.” 

            The two moved again, taking shelter behind what remained of a stonewall. 

            “Ok, how about this?  People need to know what’s going on and what areas to stay away from.  You can’t do that from the safety of a hotel room in the next county.” 

            “This is what I asked for, I guess.”  Scarlett took a deep breath and blew it out slowly.  She sighed as she resolved herself to her present course of action.  ‘Ok.  Let’s do it.” 

            Walter smiled.  “Glad to have you on board.  Now, see those over turned cars on the next block?” 

            Scarlett looked.  The cars were about fifteen yards away with no large structures in between to hide behind. 

            “That’s our next point of cover.  We need to get there as quickly as possible.” 

            “First things first.”  Scarlett said.  “I’ve got to get rid of these heels, they’re killing me.  Do you see any place where I can get something better?” 

            “Yeah.  I think we passed a Louis Vuitton a few blocks back.  Take my credit card.  Make sure to tell them that Walter sent you.” 

            Scarlett cut her eyes at the large cameraman.  “Don’t be an ass.  I’m not gonna make that distance in these shoes, and I certainly can’t do it barefoot.” 

 

            Walter quickly looked around the corner of the brick wall. 

            “We can stay here much longer.” 

            He took another peek. 

            “I see something, but you’re not gonna like it.  Look to your right.  Three o’clock.” 

            Scarlett peered around the left side of the wall.  Diagonal from her was the body of a young woman; a pool of blood outlined her head. 

            “I don’t see – oh!” 

            The dead girl was dressed in a yoga pants, a tank top, and sneakers. 

            “She seems to be about a size seven.  It’ll be a tight fit, but it beat bare footing it for the next three or so blocks. 

            “Gibby, I don’t think I…” 

            “Come on!  We’ve already been here too long.  We gotta keep moving.”       

            Scarlett turned to face the wall and extended a leg out towards the girl.  She got her foot as close as she could, try to match the size.  They’d fit. 

 

            “Well?” Walter inquired. 

            Scarlett’s face soured.  “They’ll fit.” 

            “Good.  I’ll take the left one you get the right.  Ok?” 

            Scarlett gave Walter an unseen nod.  The lump in her throat threatened to release the contents of her stomach if she dared open her mouth. 

            “One.  Two.  Three!”

            The reporter and the cameraman darted from behind the wall and grabbed at the dead woman’s shows.  They snatched the shows from her feet and raced back behind the wall.  Scarlett saw a gym bag laying near the body and picked it up as she hid back behind the brick shelter. 

            She tossed the bag to Walter while she pushed her foot into the laced shoes. 

            “Find her purse!” 

            “What?!” 

            “Her purse!  If I’m going to steal the shoes off a dead woman, I’m going to at least know who she is.  Who knows, if we make it out of this, her family might like to know that she helped saved lives.” 

            Walter gave Scarlett an awkward look that couldn’t be explained. 

            “Or something.  I don’t know, just do it.”  

 

            Walter fished a driver’s licence out of the purse and jammed it into his front pocket.  “Got it!  You ready?”

            Scarlett had both shoes on and was crouched down beside her partner ready to run. 

            “Yeah.” 

            “Let’s go!” 

 

            The two news people sprinted out from behind the broken wall.  Scarlett shivered as she took long strides in the dead woman’s shoes.  She didn’t have a good feeling about any of it.  An image of death appeared in her mind like something out of a Shakespeare play.  She tried to shake the feeling; dismissing it as an affect of the death that surrounded her.  But, the feeling was much more than the hundreds that had already died.  It was of a bigger more disparaging death. 

            The only comfort she could take was that the feeling wasn’t of her own death.  As she followed Gibby into the breach, there was no doubt in her mind that she would live through it all. 

            She wondered who was the image of death for, and why did it bother her so much?

 

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            Colonel Courageous flew to the highest structure he could find and hid himself in the shadow under the slope of the roof.  He looked out over the patchwork city and tried to make sense of its chaos.  There was no thought or true design put into the layout of their city, or their world.  If it worked, and they could use it, then they did.  Even if, as he learned, it meant embedding a small – in comparison, still quite large – spaceship into the ground. 

            He couldn’t image how they could live in a world without even a hint of order.  Structures had been stacked on top of one another, piled like heaps of garbage.  The expended and useless constructs, ships, what-have-you, were crushed beneath the newest and more useful devices.  How could the Cycksiks maneuver and get around in a place that had been built, and was constantly being rebuilt on a whim?  More so, how could creatures like that come up with an idea to take over the Earth like they did?  There had to be someone else helping them.  A higher intelligence that formulated and executed their plan. 

            Looking at the mishmash world made the Colonel wonder a lot of things about their society.  Nothing about them made any sense to him.  He always saw himself as a man who cared about all living things.  You don’t become the protector of Earth by not giving a damn.  But, the Cycksiks…  Scavengers. Intergalactic locusts.  They didn’t deserve to live. 

            Before their recent attack on Earth, had Dr. 253 or Major Tom approached him with the planet killer, he would have vehemently objected and found some reason why they deserved to live.  No longer.  The Colonel stood with his them now.  The Cycksiks were vermin, and should be exterminated as such. 

 

            Lost in thoughts of disgust, Colonel Courageous forgot his reason for leaving the refuge of the ship.  He quickly remembered and scanned the area, looking for anything that resembled a broadcast tower or beacon.  The technology might be alien, but they still needed a tall structure to transmit from.  There had to be some form of relay device for an orbital satellite. 

            His eyes narrowed as he focused on sections of the city a number of stories beneath him.  It was no use.  There were dozens of constructs in the surrounding area that fit the description.  The city was a massive junk pile; any one of them could be what he and Tom were looking for. 

            Even from his height, the Colonel could see cautious scampering down on the streets below.  The figures moved independently and in secret.  They dashed from one darkened area to another; always checking to see if they had been seen. 

            “Maybe one of them could be of help?” the Colonel thought.  From what Dr. 253 and Major Tom told him, they were near hive mind.  Any one of them could tell him what he needed to know. 

            “I need to get Tom first.”  he continued.  “He should be ready to go now.” 

 

*****

 

            Major Tom gave his systems a third check before being satisfied that everything was in working order.  His inertial deflecting forcefield hummed and bathed his body in a sun kissed glow.  He tested the raygun by using a focused beam setting and cutting a small hole into the exhaust port wall.  With the jetpack and raygun both fully powered and functioning, he was ready. 

            He glided above the floor, making his way to the entrance.  Colonel Courageous would be back soon, and together they could put an end to the Cycksiks for good. 

            Tom stopped a couple of yards from the large opening, staying out of sight for anyone passing by.  He touched the wall with his hand and his mind went back to that day decades ago when he broke free from the Cycksiks enslavement.  The years he had spent under their heel, the subject of countless horrors.  The suit he now wore – recognized on Earth as a hero’s costume – a slaves uniform permanently bonded to his body. The degradation and torture.  The experiments that were carried out on him and the others.  Many of them died, but he and a select few survived those prolonged days of agony.  And with each survival, the testing grew worse. 

            Tom didn’t regret not being able to help the others escape.  They were set free when the ship’s core went critical.  He’d done for them what he could.  What he thought was best. 

 

            He ran his hand along the smooth interior of the shaft and remembered treading along its near frictionless surface.  The ship’s core had been sabotaged; exhaust vents closed and the energy doubled back on itself.  He knew that it wouldn’t take long for one of the engineering slaves to discover what was done and open the vents.  Tom had to be out of the exhaust shaft before then. 

            The emergency venting would initialize the second part of his escape plan.  He had reversed the dampening couplers to trip once the plasma vents went over seventy five percent output.  The entire core and energy conversion system would lock causing the core controls to reboot.  The exhaust vents would stay wide open, venting radiation unchecked.  The dampening couplers would contain the core energy, while the system itself was locked at maximum output.  The ship’s core would go critical in a matter of minutes.  With the main systems in reboot it was all irreversible. 

            All Tom had to do was get out of the exhaust port before it vented.  Running on the smooth surface in zero gravity was akin to swimming in a pool filled with Styrofoam peanuts. 

            Floating a safe distance away from the ship was an emergency escape craft.  It was the only one that would leave the ship before it exploded.  All the others had been disabled and would remain trapped in the launch bays, filled beyond capacity with those desperate to escape their fate. 

 

            Once inside the escape shuttle, Tom set the ship’s controls to maximum thrust and never looked back.  Behind him, the interstellar cruiser erupted in a cascade of rebounding orange, red, and light blue energies.  The shockwaves buffeted against his small craft, threatening to knock his engines offline and leave him adrift in space.  There were more humane was to die than floating helpless in the great expanse.  A person would go mad long before they would starve to death. 

            Tom shut down his engines and let the force of the shockwaves carry him across the void.  He didn’t know where they would take him, but wherever it was, he’d be free. 

 

            The sounds of approaching footsteps snapped him back to present day.  Major Tom snatched the raygun from its holster and drew down on the being coming towards him.  Light from the planet’s sun backlit the intruder, casting their features in shadow.  It didn’t take him long to recognize Colonel Courageous’ silhouette. 

 

            “You ok, Tom?” the Colonel asked.  He slowed his gait, wanting to make sure Major Tom realized who he was and no longer perceived him as a threat.

            He feared that raygun of Tom’s more than he cared to admit.  He’d seen it take down too many threats to underestimate its power.  And Tom wielded it with the carefree abandon of a western gunslinger.  His shoot first, if-it’s-still-moving-shoot-again way of thinking concerned the Colonel every time his gun was drawn. 

            “I’m fine, Colonel.” Tom answered.  He kept his gun trained on the hero until his face came into full view.  “What did you find?” 

            “This place is a hellhole.  I couldn’t tell what was a relay antenna from just discarded junk.” 

            “Hmm.  Even with the homing device, we still might not find the transmitter.” 

            “The streets, if you can call them that are virtually empty.  I saw a few Cycksiks scampering about, hiding in the shadows.  You said they’re sorta hive mind in their thinking, right?  I figure we snatch one of them and see what they know.” 

            “Scampering in the shadows?’ Tom questioned. 

            “Yeah.  It wasn’t what I expected.  I thought they be crawling all over the place, like before.  It doesn’t seem like them.” 

            “It’s not.” Tom replied sharply.  The Colonel could hear the concern in his voice.  “Take me to where you saw them.” 

 

            The two heroes hovered in the air above the city.  Colonel Courageous pointed down to the refuse built city below.  He questioned why they were in the open, and not keeping their presence a secret.  His hands curled into fists, and he waited for the Cycksiks to attack. 

            “No,” Tom spoke aloud, almost mumbling under his breath.  “This isn’t right at all.”   He scanned the ground beneath them, enhancing the display on his visor.  He zoomed in on a portion of rubble that had once been a housing unit; now scrap.  He saw the tiny figure as it popped its head out of the safety of the shelter and quickly looked around.  When the figure dashed out into the street Major Tom pounced. 

            He flew head first towards the figure, his body a missile locked on to its target.  “There!”

            Tom gave the Colonel very little notice or instruction to follow behind him.  The hero was lost for a few seconds, looking in all directions to see what his ally was referring to.  He dove behind him, not heading for the lone figure – which he still hadn’t seen – but following the alien’s lead. 

            Like a bird snagging a fish from a pond, Tom swooped up at the last minute, snatching the figure off the ground and flying it high into to the air. 

            He passed the Colonel Courageous as he returned to the sky, forcing the human to change his trajectory to follow. 

            “Talk!” Tom demand of the being in his clutches.  “Where are they?”

            The Colonel was a second or two behind him; coming up to hover by his friend’s side.  His brow scrunched tight as he looked at the alien in Tom’s hands.  It wasn’t a Cycksisks, at least not as he had seen them.  This creature was a lot more human in its appearance; for the most part.  Its body was long and lanky, taller than the two of them by more than a foot.  Its skin was fuchsia with a slick, almost polished texture.  The alien’s eyes appeared human at first glance, but bigger.  It was only upon further inspection that the extra irises were noticeable; a brighter color than the inner iris, making them almost hypnotic. 

            “Speak, gres’nict, or I drop you!”  Tom spoke to the being in his language, knowing that it had full understanding. 

            The alien looked down at the street, stories below, and back at Tom.  Its hands tried franticly to grab a hold of his arms in the event he remained true to his threat.  

            “What is that?” the Colonel inquired. 

            “He’s a Rechlen.  That ship we were in – their race built it.  That one and many more like it.  I thought they’d all be dead by now.  It appears I was wrong.  Unfortunately, this explains everything.” 

            “Explains what?”

            “How the Cycksiks are still alive.  How a simplified hunter-gatherer-scavenger of a race could have come up with an idea of this magnitude.  They didn’t do this alone.  They had help.  The Cycksiks enslaved the Rechlens and they helped to transmit them off world.”   

            “Why?”

            “With the Cycksiks gone, they’d be free again.  Their masters would be on the other side of the galaxy with no means of returning.  It didn’t take much coercion to get them to assist with that.”

 

            Tom turned his attention back to the squiggling alien he held in his hands. 

            “Speak!” he demanded again in his alien tongue. 

            The alien started to talk.  Its words cut the air, attacking it with knives of sound and making it scream in pain. 

            Colonel Courageous grimaced as the being spoke.  Its language sounded like a cross between someone trying to speak under water, and an off-tune violin being played with a metal file.  The mouth that spoke the words was circular with an inner set of lips that moved, and a thin flat sliver of a tongue. 

 

            “What’s it saying?” the Colonel questioned.  He was the odd man out in this three-way conversation between aliens. 

            “Quiet.” Tom hushed him.  He listened carefully to the lanky alien’s words.  The Colonel could tell from the look on Tom’s face that he wasn’t happy with what he heard. 

            “How?  How were they doing this?  Take us there!” Tom demanded. 

            The alien flapped its arms and gestured to a large ruin of discarded technology.  The area it directed their attention to looked like a dilapidated building.  Its odd construction, a spiral made of right angles with bulbous protrusions along the sides, screamed alien.  Not alien as in outer space, but not of this world.  The more Colonel Courageous looked around, the more he began to notice how out of place everything looked.  The city, the entire planet for that matter, was compiled of technology stolen from other civilizations.  A patchwork alien world.  Nothing fit or displayed any sense of harmony or natural balance. 

            The more he looked at it, the less it seemed like a living junkyard, and more like a random collection of other races thrown together in a haphazard – almost reckless – manner.  He likened it to a world where Jackson Pollock was the city planner.  There was logic hidden in it somewhere, but he himself couldn’t see it. 

           

            Major Tom lowered himself and the alien closer to the ground.  He flew them over to the  building that the being had pointed to.  As they got closer, the Colonel could see it, and could have kicked himself for not seeing it before.  He had been looking for a signal array, an antenna or dish, positioned at the top of the building used to broadcast the signal. 

            No.  The entire building was both the terminal and antenna. 

 

            The trio entered via an opening at the top of the spire.  The Colonel looked around the spacious hallways and rooms.  As odd as it seemed, he was starting appreciate the strange architecture around him.  The inside of the spire was much different than everything he had experienced so far.  There was design and order.  It was crafted with intent and purpose, and not thrown together for mere functionality.  

            He followed behind Tom and the Rechlen as they walked to… he wasn’t quite sure where they were headed.  They journeyed down the interior of the spire.  The building wasn’t made of individual floors, but was more like a lighthouse.  A spiral building with a winding incline that went from bottom to pointed top.  Rooms with level floors lined the steady incline which was so gradual that the Colonel barely noticed the change of pressure in his feet and ankles.  The Colonel couldn’t help but be impressed. 

 

            The walls bore the same smooth texture design as the space ship Colonel Courageous and Major Tom had been in earlier.  The Colonel stopped for a moment and stared at the writing on the wall.  The words were written in two languages.  The top language was the same as he saw in the space ship, but the bottom was something else.  He guessed Cycksiks.  It was strange… he could almost make out what it said. 

            “Colonel.” Tom called. 

            Colonel Courageous realized that he had stopped and quickly caught up to the aliens.  The three continued walking for what seemed like forever.  Given the size of the spire, he presumed that they were reaching the middle.  He wondered if these being had ever heard of elevators, or if the Rechlen was wasting their time on purpose.  The Colonel was conscious of the time spent, knowing that they had a limited window to complete their mission before they would be yanked back to Earth. 

 

            The Rechlen stopped and pointed to a room on the left, speaking with his razor tongue and making the Colonel grimace.  Tom gestured for the alien to enter, and stepped in after him. 

            Above the door was more double alien writing, and a blue pulsing light bar.  The Colonel studied it before following behind his comrade. 

            “The light’s not red, so I guess it’s okay to enter.” he said. 

            “What did you say?” Major Tom questioned his friend. 

            “The writing above the door said, ‘do not enter when light is red’.  It was blue, so we’re safe.” 

            “How did you…” 

 

            Tom stared at his ally.  His eyes narrowed as he studied the human hero carefully.  Even as he turned away to examine the transference machine behind him, his eyes were the last thing to move. 

            The machine wasn’t as big as the Colonel expected, and looked like an enlarged CT scanner.  The transference chamber was transparent with three oscillating rings that revolved around it.  The thing that struck him as odd was that it didn’t look futuristic.  It didn’t look like he expected it to.  The Colonel was expecting something more elaborate and otherworldly.  Instead, it looked rather ordinary to him.  He even found the clear panel controls and the transparent crystal-like display screen unimpressive. 

 

            Major Tom immediately went to work on the machine.  His hands flew across the illuminated touch screen display, pulling up the system information.  The Colonel couldn’t read the alien language – not that it would have helped any way, he still wouldn’t have understood anything that it said – he could barely follow Tom’s actions.   

            The alien hero suddenly stopped, his eyes focusing on a particular area.  His fist slammed down on the controls, cracking the clear touch panel. 

            “H’recht!” Tom exclaimed.  The Colonel had no idea what he said, but he knew an expletive by its tone, no matter what language it was in. 

 

            “What is it?  What’s wrong?” Colonel Courageous was more than concerned.  Nothing about this felt right.  Where were the Cycksiks? 

            Major Tom grabbed the Rechlen by his shirt and yanked him over to the machine’s controls.  He screamed at him, pointing at the machine.  The Colonel could tell by the timid alien’s body language that he was sacred.  He tried to pull away, realizing the fury his words ignited in the former slave alien.  Disgusted, Tom flung him across the room.  The alien hit the wall, fell to the floor, and was still.

            The Colonel was momentarily stunned.  Tom was impulsive and quick to temper, but this wasn’t like him at all; at least not the Tomaskarian he knew.  He wanted to check on the Rechlen and make sure the alien wasn’t hurt, but wanted answers at the same time.  His mind couldn’t decide which was of more importance.  After several seconds, his concern for the Earth won out. 

 

            “Wait!  Where are the Cycksiks?”  Colonel Courageous asked confused.  This wasn’t at all how he expected things to happen. 

            “They’re gone, Colonel.” 

            “Gone?!” 

            “We’re too late.” Major Tom spat.  “They’re all gone.  He says the last one was sent out days ago.” 

            “Days?  We have to get back!  We need to get home now!” 

            “You forget, Colonel.  The Slingshot won’t extract us until the hour is up.  Even then, the trip will take nearly a week; though it would only have seemed like an hour to us.  By the time we get back, it may be too late.” 

 

            Colonel Courageous stumbled backwards.  His eyes blinked repeatedly as he tried to accept the truth of the situation.  There were hundreds of Cycksiks on Earth now.  Maybe thousands.  The entire race, taking over innocent humans.  Lying in wait for their time to strike.  To turn his planet into another used up husk of a world like they had done so many others.  Too many. 

            Worst of all, he was too late to late to save them.  Eleven days too late.  The Colonel didn’t want to think of the destruction they would cause on Earth before he could return.  The people they would kill.  His friends, loved ones, family.  His daughter – Celia. 

            No!  He would sacrifice himself before he’d let that happen.

            “Tom!  We have to…”  The Colonel’s command was cut short by a tingling sensation that suddenly washed over his entire body.  His skin started to itch furiously.  He looked down and saw himself bathed in an orange glow.  His form started to drift away, and he realized that the Slingshot was taking him back to Earth. 

            He watched as Major Tom input something on the transference device, before he too started to dissolve into a trail of energy. 

            Once again, his mind drifted as he was streamed halfway across the galaxy.  He thought to himself, the war has begun

Tags:

Chapter XXXVIII

Part One

 

 

            Twin beams of light trailed through the hazy drab green sky, grazing the midday horizon.  The faded beams could easily have been dismissed as a meteor shower; unimpressive or obtrusive.  Only the most observant eye, if there was one, would see them continue their streak across the sky and to the ground. 

            Had anyone being paying attention, the landing would’ve attracted more attention than their entrance.  The ground lit up in a blinding flash that illuminated the entire block.  From that light the bodies of Colonel Courageous and Major Tom were made flesh and bone again. 

 

            Colonel Courageous immediately fell to his knees and started to dry heave.  The Slingshot was not kind to him.  It had been years since he had experience it, yet he never forgot the feeling.  No one would.  His body was pulled apart one molecule at a time and shot across space at light speed, all while remaining conscious.  His mind continued to think while he felt nothing and everything all at once.  It felt like waking death. 

            The one time he tried to put the feeling into words the only things he could equate it to was that he felt like god, and he was dying. 

 

            “Colonel, we must move.” called the alien by his side.  Major Tom scanned the area with his eyes, looking to see if they had been spotted by any of the Cyksiks.  They didn’t expect their arrival to go unnoticed, but they weren’t expecting to be found out right away either.  Luckily, they were alone – for now.    

            Major Tom read the alien symbols – alien to the Colonel – on the wall and turned to his left.  He made no motion for the Colonel to follow him and only called back to him over his shoulder.  

            “This way.” 

            The Colonel pulled himself together as best he could and followed his friend.  He had no idea how Tom could endure a journey like that and be ready to act.  Well, almost. 

            Neither being had made it through the trip unaffected.  While Colonel Courageous was suffering from the space travel equivalent of carsickness, Major Tom was equally impaired.  The molecular disperesment and reintegration of his physical being wrecked havoc with the cosmic energy that powered his suit, raygun, and jetpack.  It would be fifteen minutes, if not more, before the energy would realign itself and give him the means to protect himself. 

 

            Colonel Courageous followed Major Tom down the alley and to the right.  There he saw a large tunnel made out of an iridescent metal he had never seen before.  He studied the walls as they ventured down into the belly of the oddly made cavern.  Symbols making up the alien language had been etched into the metal, yet it was smooth to the touch.  He tried to make out the words, and at times he thought he could almost understand it, but it was too foreign. 

            The Colonel had to remind himself he was on an alien world; and here, he was the alien.  On this world, everything around him would be something he had never seen before.  Everything except for the Cycksiks. 

            “What is this place?” he asked Tom. 

            Major Tom didn’t answer right away.  He continued moving forward, heading for a dull turquoise glow that emanated from deep within.  The light pulsated lazily as if it were straining to live.    

            “Tom?” the Colonel called. 

            “It’s the exhaust port of a reactor drive on an interstellar transport.  Nebula class, according to the design.” 

            Tom moved at a normal pace, while the Colonel was more cautious.  His stomach was still doing flips, and the thought of flying made him gag.  It would fade before long, but while it was there, he felt vulnerable. 

            For the Colonel, more than most heroes, his power and invulnerability meant he hardly ever suffered any serious injuries.  He was immune to most diseases, viruses, and bacteria.  He hadn’t caught a cold or had the flu since his abilities developed decades earlier.  The after effects of the Slingshot was the closest he would ever come to experiencing what most people went through during the cold and flu season.  Even then, it would only last for ten or fifteen minutes before passing, and he would be back to full strength. 

 

            “A reactor?” the Colonel questioned. 

            “Quiet!” Tom snapped in a hushed tone.  “We may not be alone.”   

            “What?” the Colonel said stunned, speaking louder than he had intended.  “But, we’re in a reactor shaft.” 

            The Colonel paused for a moment, and then stopped altogether. 

            “Hold on, why are we in a reactor shaft?  What about the radiation?” 

            “The drive is no longer active.” Major Tom responded with a note of aggravation in his voice.  He had very little patience and detested questions.  For some reason his arrogant nature was direct at Colonel Courageous more than anyone else. 

“The ship’s drive doesn’t have enough energy to power anything, but it still gives off heat… and low levels of radiation.  Not enough to hurt the Cycksiks.”  After a beat he tossed the last comment almost as an afterthought.  “Or, someone like you.” 

“That still doesn’t explain why we’re here.”

Major Tom stopped walking and turned to give the Colonel his full attention.  “The Cycksiks aren’t ectothermic in nature, but they crave heat.  They use it to energize themselves.” 

“Eco…”

           “Cold-blooded.  The exception is that their bodies absorb the heat and convert it into bio-electricity.  Some use it for – what’s your term – “recreational” purposes.” 

The Colonel’s brow furrowed.  “They use it to get high?’ 

“Some do.  Now, quiet.  If there are any down here, with my power unit rebooting, we’re in no position to fight them.  Unless you think your regurgitating on them might have some effect?” 

Tom turned with his last statement and continued down the tunnel.  The Colonel was going to return his quip, but thought it best to change the subject. 

 

            “How do you know so much about this ship?” 

            “Let’s just say I spent several years as a member of its crew.” Tom said.  It was clear by his tone that his memories of that time weren’t pleasant ones. 

            “This ship?”

            “No.” Tom’s voice perked up a bit.  “That ship was destroyed shortly after I left its service.”    

            “Fair enough.” The Colonel said, trying to keep the dialogue open.  “So, can you tell me why there’s a spaceship buried in the ground?” 

            Tom took another long exasperated breath before talking. 

            “The Cycksiks are scavengers, Colonel.  They don’t create, they conquer and consume everything they can find.  They used this ship as an energy source until it was exhausted and then moved on.  Just as they will to your world.”

   

            The two walked a few feet more until the smooth walls of the exhaust port changed into something that looked like the tumbler on a clothes dryer. 

 

            “We can stop here.” Tom said.  The Colonel looked around; taking notice of small circular ports that perforated the walls, floor and ceiling for several yards. 

            “What’s this?” he questioned his alien comrade. 

            “The closest thing I can liken them to are plasma exhaust surplus extractors.  Since the ship is powered by a radioactive core, any energy produced from it has the potential to emit high levels of radiation as well.  These ports siphon that from the energy exhausts and reprocess it into something less harmful.  Was that small enough for you, Colonel?” 

            “Radioactive waste recycling.  Got it.” 

            “I guess it was.”   

            “Ok, I’ve had enough of this!”  Colonel Courageous spat.  He was in Major Tom’s face in a snap.  The sudden rush of wind blew across the tops of the ports making them whistle. 

            “I don’t know what your problem is, Tomaskarian, but we’re going to settle this right now!”  The Colonel’s face was only a inch away from Tom’s.  He was still feeling a bit queasy, but it wasn’t enough hinder him in any way.  Major Tom, on the other hand, was still without the energy necessary to power his weapons, yet the alien stood in full defiance. 

            “I may not be the smartest man on Earth, but I’m far from the dumbest either.  Just because I solve most of my problems with brute strength doesn’t mean that’s all I use.  Even a fist fight requires some degree of strategy and tactics.  I’m no idiot, Tom, and I’m sick of you treating me like one.” 

            The two locked eyes and held them in complete silence for a moment so long that would make anyone watching uncomfortable.  Neither man moved nor spoke, they simply stared at each other, waiting for the other man to either speak or back down. 

            “Well?  What do you have to say?” 

            Major Tom remained silent. 

            “What is it about me that intimidates you so much?” 

            Silence. 

            Colonel Courageous backed away, gliding a hair’s width above the floor.  The left side of his mouth curled up into a delightful sneer. 

            “It was the comment I made back on Earth wasn’t it?  You’ve been even more hostile towards me since our talk.  You think treating me like dirt is going to change who you are?  It won’t.” 

            “You don’t know who I am.” Tom said, finally breaking his silence.  “I am no more a part of your world then you are of this one.  Living amongst humans isn’t going to make me one.” 

            “I didn’t call you human, I called you a hero.  You can deny it all you want, but that doesn’t change the truth.” 

            “That’s your problem, Gary.” Major Tom said the Colonel’s name with such animosity that he started to wonder if he really hated him.  “You think that one good deed can wipe away years of misdeeds.  How misguided are you to be the champion of your world.” 

            “No, that’s where you’re wrong.  I don’t think that it can erase everything, but that one good deed is a start.  You are the only person that can determine when your hands are clean.  I don’t know your past, Tom.  All I know is your present.  You don’t want to call yourself a hero, fine, I won’t either.  Let me remind you, though, that a man is defined by his actions, not what others call him.”

 

            Colonel Courageous turned and started walking back the way he came in. 

            “Now, if you’ll excuse me.  I’m feeling better.  I think I’ll do some reconnaissance, see how close we are to our objective and what the opposition looks like.  We only have forty seven minutes left.” 

 

            The Colonel shot out the exhaust port like a bullet leaving the barrel of a gun.  Once again Major Tom was left to study the words he had said. 

 

Tags:

Chapter XXXVII

 

 

            The light mounted in the top of the display case shone like a single spotlight on a stage.  Caught in the light’s radiance was the man who would be Paladin.  The faceless mannequin wore the suit with more pride and respect than Wally ever did.  Inside the glass case stood a hero. 

            Wally caught Julian’s reflection in the life size display.  He stood in the foyer at the  top of the  three short steps that went down into the living room. 

 

            “It’s over, isn’t it?” Wally questioned.  He took a sip from the bottle of whiskey he held in his hand. 

            “The book deal?  Yeah, it’s gone.  They’ve also halted the reprint of League.” 

            “Dammit!”  Wally spat.  He brought the bottle up to his lips and caught his reflection in the glass case.  He threw the open bottle across the room.  It smashed against the wall, knocking down the framed print that declared: “I’m in the League, Now a #1 Bestseller!” 

            “Did you know?  Did you know?!” 

            Julian shuffled a bit.  He stayed in the foyer, never stepping in the room.  “There were rumors.” 

            “Rumors?!” 

            “I had heard things.  Things that conflicted with your account.  I’d heard the 911 call.  Look, Walden… At the time, you weren’t ready to hear those things.  You weren’t in the right mindset.  I thought as time went on, you’d start to come to grips with the truth.  Instead, you retreated further into your fantasy world of that night.  I decided to let it ago.  I mean, after a decade, if no one’s brought it up then they’re probably not going to.” 

            “Well, you were wrong!  Someone did bring it up!  They humiliated me!”  Wally wheeled over to Julian.  “This is all your fault!” 

            “My fault?  My fault, for trying to protect you?  No, buddy boy, this is your fault.  You were the one who did all this.  This is your life.  You created this.  They didn’t humiliate you.  You humiliated yourself.” 

            Wally slunk back into his chair.  As he had done previously, he tried to blame someone else.  He wanted to wrap himself in the warm blanket of his fantasy and hide from the cold chill of the real world and all its truths. 

            “What now?”

            “You still don’t get it do you, kid?  There is no ‘what now’.  It’s over.  All of it.  I’ve been watching over you for over twenty years.  This incident… I can’t go down with you.  Not this time.” 

            Julian walked back into the dark that he had come from.  For a moment his silhouette could be seen standing in the frame of the open door. 

            “For what it’s worth…” 

            And he was gone. 

 

            Wally sat shrouded in the despair of darkness that beckoned to him like a siren’s song.  It call for him to retreat into its cold embrace and stay with it until death. 

            Wally wheeled over to the broken picture that fell from the wall.  He looked at the bestseller print in the broken frame.  He thought about ripping the lie from the busted frame and tearing it to shreds, but changed his mind.  He grabbed the bottom of the frame and lifted it from the ground.  Shattered glass, held only by the anti-glare coating, dangled like icicles looking for an excuse to fall and maim. 

            Wally hung the picture back on the wall as best he could.  Like the hero frozen in glass on the opposite side of the room, the picture would serve as a reminder.  It was the lie that he would now build his truth from.  It had taken him years to confront his fear, and now he had, he felt even more scared than before.  But, this fear was good.  It was a fear of the unknown, and it had been too long since he’d felt it. 

 

            “And the door closed.  End chapter one.” Wally said to darkness, declining its offer of isolation and emotionless oblivion. 

            “Chapter two, the search for Walden Patterson.” 

 

*****

 

 

            The room wasn’t exactly as the two had left it.  Diamond Dog expected to find the lights on and curtains open; housekeeping always did this, and turned off the TV if it was left on.  What he didn’t expect were the five SWAT officers positioned around the door, and a semi-automatic weapon inches away from his face.   The only one not brandishing a gun, outside of him and Blue was the detective that stood several feet behind the tactical officers. 

            “What the hell?’ Diamond Dog blurted.  His first instinct was to armor up his body, but the black hole of the gun barrel pointed at his head made him think twice.  His ability wasn’t faster than a fired bullet.  His second instinct was to protect Blue by directing her to get behind him; which he did. 

            The detective slowly moved forward, walking around the SWAT members, making sure he didn’t move in their line of sight.  He stopped a few feet away from the young man, gun still holstered, his badge clipped to the left breast pocket of his suit jacket. 

            “I’m Detective Hudson of the Argo City PD.” 

            “What are you doing in our room?  What do you want with us?”  DD demanded from clean cut but slightly overweight detective. 

            “From you, nothing.”  The detective nodded to the officer to DD’s left.  The man slung his weapon, grabbed the younger man by the arm and threw him against the wall.  Before he knew it, DD felt the cold clamp of steel around his wrists.  He felt a pinch as the right cuff clenched tight on his arm.  The officer held him there against the wall, his weapon back in his hands and once again aimed at the teen’s head. 

            His face smashed against the wall, Diamond Dog could see the panic in Blue’s eyes.  The police took full advantage of the confusion that came with their surprise appearance.  They secured Electric Blue and handcuffed her in less time than it taken for them to subdue DD. 

            He could see her strain and tried to use her abilities, but nothing happened.  DD presumed that they were using neutralizing cuffs.  It made sense, considering who they were.  The pinch he felt when the cuffs were snapped shut came from a tiny needle that took a DNA sample of the arrestee.  The sample was used to creature a modulating frequency that prevented the device from being jammed or overwhelmed by someone with the ability to talk to machines, or control electricity. 

            Having never expected to find himself wearing a pair—another thing he didn’t expect when he opened the room door—he silently cursed DR. 253 for ever making them. 

           

            “Hey!  What’s going on?  What do you want?  We haven’t done anything!”  Celia strained and wriggled in the officer’s grasp. 

            “Celia Cordalis.  You are under arrest for the murder of Stephen Mitchell, also known as Black Sunshine.”  

            “What?!” Celia cried out. 

            “You admitted in a taped confession that you murdered him after killing your friend.” The detective said flatly. 

            “He was trying to kill us!” DD exclaimed.  “He and the other Hell Spawns were going to kill us!  We had no choice!” 

            “Not for me to decide.  You’ll have a chance to prove your innocence in a court of law.”  The detective ignored any further protests from Diamond Dog and turned his attention to Celia. 

            “Celia Cordalis, you have the right to remain silent.  Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?” 

            “Yes.  No.” Celia responded. 

            “Ma’am, do you or do you not understand the rights as I have read them to you?” 

            “Yes, I understand, but I don’t know why you’re doing this.  Celia tried to plead with the officers in the room.  “We didn’t have a choice.  They tried to kill us, just like they tried to do to the people in Yesterday Town.  We stopped them.  I know you saw that!” 

            Tears of fear and confusion streamed from Celia’s eyes. 

            The detective looked away and pushed past her and out the door.  “Murder is still illegal in this country.  I don’t care who you are.” 

            Detective Hudson continued down the hall to the service elevator.  He called back to the tactical officers.  “Bring ‘em both.” 

 

*****

            Scarlett sat on the top step of the eighth floor stairwell.  Walter knew when he didn’t find her in her office that she’d be there.  It was her pouting spot.  Whenever things didn’t go her way, Scarlett came there to pout and wallow in her defeat.  It was much better than before.  Years earlier she would go to the top floor of the stairwell and scream obscenities at the top of her lungs.  The cringe worthy words and expressions would echo all the way down to the ground floor.  It took an executive complaint and a follow up reminder to get her to stop – the complaint only made her mad and sent her to her screaming spot, triggering the reminder. 

            Walter knew what had sent her there, and despite himself, he felt sorry for her.  Yes, she was a conniving over preened brat, but that didn’t stop him from liking her.  He could see in her the desire to affect change in what she did, but it was hidden behind layers of the material wants from the public, and the media’s demands to feed pop news to the piranha hungry short attention spans of the masses.  

            Scarlett wanted to make a difference.  She wanted to be like the reporters and journalists she grew up reading, watching – respecting.  Unfortunately, their time was gone.  Celebrity marriages, infidelities, and divorces won Pulitzers now.  No sex, no death, no story.  Real news didn’t pay the bills any more.  Fame and fortune didn’t come with telling the stories of real life. 

 

            “It’s gone, Gibby.  All gone.”  Scarlett said, finally acknowledging the cameraman’s presence.  “I had it all in my hands, and he… He stole it from me.” 

            Walter had given her fair warning before Van’s telecast.  Not that there was anything she could have done about it.  Van’s return was calculated and expertly executed.  Nothing could have stood in his way.  He unraveled the tapestry of what the world knew about heroes and adversaries.  It was no longer black and white.  The waters were now murky, and people started questioning who they could trust. 

            That was how it started, removing the blanket of trust that the people coward under.  The next step was questioning those we entrusted to protect us.  It wouldn’t be long before heroes were being treated like criminals. 

            Once things had escalated to that degree, it would take a great tragedy to force them to return to normal.  The kind of tragedy that scars everyone. 

 

            “What are you going to do?”  Walter asked.  He shut the door behind her and walked down a few steps so he could talk to her face to face. 

            “What am I gonna do?  What can I do?” Scarlett whined.  “Where do I go from here?  I was riding my star to the top.  Now… Now, I don’t know.  You can’t restart the ride when it stops halfway up.” 

            Scarlett dabbed a tissue around her eyes at tears she refused to let escape. 

            “You tried to warn me, Gibby.  You showed me that article.  I wouldn’t listen.”   

            “Look, Red.  I’m not here to say I told you so.  And I’m not here to stroke your ego and tell you to get back on the horse or some other inspirational BS.  I’m here to tell you to do your job.” 

            “What job?  I’ll be lucky if Hersch doesn’t put me on the local eateries segment.”  Scarlett put on her best fake smile, the one she practiced every morning before work, and on bad blind dates.  Her eyes perked up and looked early morning bright.  Anyone who didn’t know her would think she was genuinely excited.    

            “Today we’re talking to Mr. Johnson the owner and head cook of Johnsons Fried and Tried, the best fried baloney sandwich shop in all of Future City.  Now, before we started rolling, you were telling me that not only are fried baloney sandwiches low in fat and high in nutrition, but they have a long history dating back to before the civil war.  Is that right Mr. Johnson?”    Scarlett turned to her left, pretending to look at the camera, and nodded like a bobble head doll. 

            “Cut the crap, Red!  This was a setback, nothing more.  You still have a job to do.  You know that Herschfeld isn’t going to move you.  Get over yourself.  You brought them the Yesterday Town story, and the secret love child of Colonel Courageous all in one week.  Your face and name are imprinted on the minds of people around the globe.” 

            Walter reached in his pocket, fished out a piece of paper, and handed it to Scarlett.  “Here.” 

            Scarlett took the slightly crumpled paper and examined it.  “What’s this?”   

            “My RSVP for your pity party.  Sorry, I can’t make it.  I’ve got work to do.” 

            Scarlett crumpled the piece of paper and dropped it over the edge of the stair rail. 

            “Ah!” Walter yelped, but it was too late.  He watched as the paper fell down the empty space between the rails. 

            The reporter’s eyebrows raised.  “Was that important?”   

            “Yeah.” Walter sighed.  The color seemed to drain from his face.  “Jasmine finally gave me her phone number.” 

            “The girl from the coffee place in the lobby?” 

            “Yeah.” 

            “Her real number this time?” 

            “Yeah.  I called it right there in front of her.”   

            “Sorry.” 

            “Oh well.  She probably wouldn’t have gone out with me even if I did call.”  Walter tore his eyes away from the square spiral of handrails and back to Scarlett.  “Ok, so now you owe me.” 

            “Say what?!” Scarlett blurted.  “How do I owe you?  You shouldn’t have given it to me in the first place.” 

            “You’re right, you don’t owe me.  You owe them.”  Walter’s voice was firm and blunt.  His words moved through the air as if they had legs of steel; driving deep into the mind that heard them. 

            “And before you say ‘who’, you know ‘who’.“ 

            “The kids?” Scarlett questioned.  “Come on, Gibby, they were just a story.  It’s not that I don’t care about them, but – I mean – I’m not Mother Theresa.” 

            “No, you’re not, and I would never confuse you with her.”  Walter’s words stung.  He wasn’t trying to insult her, just speak the truth – a venomous cobra that strikes with good intentions, but always leaves its victim hurt or dead.

            “I know that helping those kids wasn’t intentional.  It was a side effect of getting the story, but you did help them.  And despite what you say, you felt good about it.  Sure, you had to give them something to get the story, but you didn’t have to put them up in an expensive hotel.  You certainly didn’t have to keep the other kids a secret and help sneak them out of Abysmal’s place.  The story would’ve been even more sensational if you had revealed the full cast of characters, but you didn’t.  You helped them, and you liked it.” 

            “Is there a point to all this?” Scarlett looked away from Walter.  Her eyes dropped to her feet, and she studied the pattern on her heels.  She didn’t want to admit that he was right.  She didn’t want to stop chasing the bright lights of fame.  If she admitted that she cared, even to herself, then all of that would disappear.  She would stop chasing bombshells, and start sacrificing top stories for the greater good. 

            “Yeah, there’s a point.  The point is, those kids still need help, and you can help them.  And who knows, there might even be a story in it for you.” 

            “What do you mean ‘need me’?  They don’t need me.” 

            Walter pulled out his phone again, and Scarlett cursed under her breath.  That damn troublesome phone.  He pulled up the police scanner app and tuned in. 

 

            *Tact team fourteen to base.  We’re bringing the suspects down now.*

            *Roger, Tee Tee fourteen.  Are the suspects collared?*

            *Affirmative, base.  Under direction of lead.  Detective Hudson is in charge.* 

            *Roger, Tee Tee fourteen.  Remember to check in once secured in transpo.* 

 

            “What the hell is this?” said Scarlett, snatching the phone from Walter’s hand. 

            “It’s why I came looking for you.  Hudson is arresting Celia for murder.  It’s the ripple effect from Van’s telecast.  Those closest get it first and hardest.” 

            Scarlett was in shock.  Her hand squeezed the phone as if she could squeeze their freedom from it.  “This isn’t right.  They can’t do this!” 

            “They are.  But, what do you care?  You already got what you wanted from them.  They aren’t your problem anymore.” 

            “The hell with you, Gibby!” Scarlett drew her arm back, preparing to launch the phone into the stone wall with all her might. 

            “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Walter stopped her before she threw the opening pitch of the stairwell world series.  He carefully pried the phone from her boney manicured fingers. 

            “This is wrong.  We have to stop them.” 

            “I had Marlon get the van ready.  It’s waiting out front.” 

            “Damn you, Gibby.” Scarlett said as she opened the stairwell door and rushed to the elevator.    She hopped in the first set of open doors, and repeatedly mashed on the ground floor button as if she were typing Morse code. 

            Walter slid the phone in his pocket as he watched the elevator’s LED numbers countdown to “G”. 

 

            “Was that really Jasmine’s number?”  Scarlett asked. 

            “Nah.”  Walter answered with a sly smile. 

            “What was it?” 

            “A note from Herschfeld for you to do a report on Johnson’s Fried and Tried sandwich shop.  Did you know fried baloney sandwiches are both low in fat and high in nutrition?” 

            “I heard that somewhere.”  Scarlett smiled back. 

 

*****

 

            Detective Hudson paraded the teen heroes through the lobby of the hotel.  Their hands cuffed behind their backs, and officers with their weapons drawn flanking them.  Heads turned and chatter commenced as if on cue.  The people pointed and gasped in fake horror, as if they had disliked them all along. 

            Diamond Dog lifted his head high as they escorted him out the front door.  He refused to accept his guilt in Black Sunshine’s death.  Detective Hudson wanted to degrade him and make him feel ashamed.  He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. 

 

            “Hold ‘em here.” The detective said.  “Parker, bring the van around.” 

            BOOM!  

            The sound was deafening and close.  Too close.  The ground shook, making the teen heroes and the police stumble.  The hotel windows flexed and shattered, showering all those nearby with miniature reflective razors.  Detective Hudson’s head whipped around, desperately searching for the source of the explosion. 

 

            BOOM!

            BOOM! 

            The follow up explosions pinpointed the location of the noise to the group’s left.  Their hearts pounded in their chest, making it hard for any of them to draw a breath.  Cars soared through the air and in their direction. 

            Diamond Dog dove at Celia, tackling her to the ground.  The airborne car clipped the corbel on the corner of the third floor and careened into the street.  The unmistakable sound of crushed automobile metal filled the air.  The sound was accompanied by the squelch of rubber tires grinding against asphalt.  Panicked screams completed the symphony of terror. 

            DD struggled to get up on his knees, his hands cuffed behind him.  He arched his back, trying to shield Blue as the sidewalk became a stampede of Future City residents running for their lives from the unseen, but undoubtedly deadly threat. 

            “You okay?” DD asked the fallen girl.  Celia tried to sit up, having even more difficulty than Diamond Dog with the throngs of people bumping into her.  She looked down at what she could see of her right arm.  Tiny pieces of glass covered her exposed bicep and forearm, some of them breaking the skin and drawing blood. 

            DD followed her gaze.  “You trying to steal my act?”

            Blue forced a smirk. 

 

            BOOM!

            The respite was brief as sporadic gunfire changed the symphony’s song from terror to chaos. 

 

            “What is it?” Blue asked.  Her heart was pounding just as hard as those of the people around her. 

            DD had the advantage on her.  Being on his knees put him a foot taller than her, sitting on her butt. 

            “I can’t tell.  It’s big, whatever it is.”  Diamond Dog brought one knee up, planting his foot firmly on the ground.  With his arms behind his back, it looked like he was being knighted.  “Here.  Use me to try and stand.  Hurry!  We’ve got to get off this ground.”  

            Blue used DD’s body for support and scrambled to her feet.  The rushing crowd had subsided, but there were still enough people on the sidewalk knocking into them to take longer than either wanted.  Once she was on her feet, she extended the courtesy to DD.  The two looked around, searching desperately for the cause.   

            To their right, Detective Hudson sought cover behind a police car while belting our commands to the tactical team. 

            “Franklin! Peters!  We need to get the heavy weapons from the van!  I want you two to lay down cover fire for Moncrete and Witterstack!” 

            The men moved into position, firing into the dust and smoke at the unknown force that moved towards them.  The other two officers moved on cue, racing for the tactical van as soon as the gunfire started. 

            DD strained to see through the smoke at whatever was making its way to them.  It didn’t appear to be in any hurry or have any fear of the police assault rifles.  Destruction seemed to be its main focus.  Destruction and death. 

 

            It took awhile before Diamond Dog could discern the difference between the cries of sheer panic, and those of certain death.  With the explosions, gunfire, random screams, and car crashes rebounding off each other it was easy to lose that sound in the cacophony, but once he heard it, it cut through everything else each time.  The scream was shrill and desperate, with an undertone of dread that drilled into the soul of the listener, and always ended abruptly. 

 

            Electric Blue was watching the police officers while DD stared into the advancing wall of smoke and dust.  She was the one to witness the police officer, Franklin, as his head exploded.  The young girl jumped and stumbled backwards.  It was sudden and brutal.  A football size chuck of concrete came from behind the tactical officer, whose attention was focused in the opposite direction.  The broken blacktop plowed through the skin and bone as easily as the air it split it traveled to him. 

            Blue screamed as sprinkles of blood and grey matter decorated the side of her face.  She unconsciously moved backwards, stopping only after her back became flush with the outside wall of the hotel. 

            Diamond Dog heard her scream and realized she had moved away from his side.  His head snapped back to her, and then to the object of her frightened gaze.  Diagonal from his current position came a creature unlike anything he had ever seen or could imagine.  The initial sight of the monster made him gag, and he could taste the acrid bile building in the back of his throat. 

            Lumbering toward them was a mucus green monstrosity that was easily two feet taller than DD.  Thick ropy veins wrapped themselves around the outside of its arms.  Its shoulders were thick and hunched forward.  The duffel bag sized hunch on its back pulsated, seeming to grow larger with each step it took.  The creature’s lower jaw jutted out further than the upper mandible, with teeth that curved back to meet its upper cousins for a sinister grin. 

            It gave the inanimate objects in its path backhand swats, sending them flying behind it.  Compact cars spun like tops as they twirled away like glass and steel ballerinas. 

            Officer Moncrete tried to withdraw as he saw the creature moving at him.  The tactical van was a lost cause now, lying on its side half a block away.  Moncrete laid down fire on the monster as he quickly moved backwards to a more secure position.  The creature moved faster.  Its elongated arm snaked out with a speed that belied its size.  The creature’s hand, with claw tipped fingers, covered Moncrete’s head completely as it grabbed him and yanked him into the air.  The monster crumpled the police officer in his hands like an unwanted piece of paper.  Blood rained from his hands as the human was squeezed like a piece of fruit, and the tactical officer was reduced to the size of a medicine ball. 

 

            It was then that it dawned on Diamond Dog – there were two of them.  The one he had been watching was just beginning to emerge from the clouds of smoke at the end of the street.  The other one had come from behind them.  They converged on the two powered teens and the underwhelmed cops. 

            DD yelled at the detective.  “Get these cuffs off of us!” 

            Detective Hudson stared blankly at the young man.  His police training and combat sense washed away in a stream of fear.  His lips made inaudible sounds, barely parting as he begged and prayed to live. 

 

            “Dammit, Hudson!” DD roared.  “Get these cuffs off of us, now!”     

 

 

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Ok, it’s been a awhile.  First off, apologies to everyone that’s been following Unwanted Heroes and any of my other writing endeavors.  Saying things got in the way is an understatement, and no excuse.  I never intended for things to get drawn out this much or for this long.  My plan all along was to wrap up the first story arc by Christmas of 2011, take several months off to work on other things – Geez, there are so many that demand my attention – and then come back to Unwanted Heroes in the fall.  Well, needless to say, as I say it, that didn’t quite happen.  So I’m back now, and it’s back too…almost.  Chapter 37 is complete and chapter 38 will be following shortly.  With this, we get back to our bi-weekly schedule.  Expect chapter 37 to be posted on Friday, with 38 coming on Monday.  Again, sorry for the delay, but hey, at least it’s coming out faster than Image United #4. 

So, where does this leave us?  Not sure.  Well, there are bigger plans for Unwanted Heroes, and what’s been posted here is glossy rough draft.  Not polished, but not tarnished either.  I will be making some changes and doing some clean up to it all once it’s completed.  More on that as it develops. 

I’ll also talk a little more about Fairytale Knights, and another project called the Unturned; as those progress. 

As things are looking right now, I will not be making a trip to Charlotte this year.  This is a tentative decision which may change as my work develops, but as of now, if I do go it will be as a guest.  But, I digress…

 

Back to Unwanted Heroes, expect major changes as the first story arc draws to a close.  Hints, clues, and allegations of things to come have been sprinkled along like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs… Hansel?  Hansel?… throughout the entire book.  No one will be left unaffected by what is about to transpire.  Heroes will die, and truths will be revealed. 

The countdown to the end starts Friday. 

 

Hansel? 

 

JeraleC

Mindseyechronicles@comcast.net

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I’m just a simple writer.  I was frozen in some ice and thawed out by your scientists.  Your world scares and confuses me.

That’s kinda how I’ve felt lately.  A little like I’ve been frozen in ice for the past month and a half, and a little lost in the place where I currently find myself.  Unfortunately, where I currently find myself is weeks behind in Unwanted Heroes, with no time in sight showing when I’ll be able to get back to the story.  This “confusion” is quickly turning to anger.  “Anger rising! Rising!  fading.  Rising!”  It seems that life is getting in the way of me living again, and I feel a bit like a pack wolf pulling someone across the frozen tundra.  The words “mush, mush” driving steadily like a metronome with a beat that sounds like a Timberland reject from the Chris Cornell Scream album.

Please do not give up, and don’t despair.  The Heroes are still on their way, and we will continue shortly.  I know I’ve left things at a crucial moment, of sorts, and we are quite close to the end of this first story arc; with a mere 5 to 7 chapters left to go.

I apologize for being absent for so long without a word.  “Word!”

Seriously, time has become a premium that is more expensive than gas right now.  Justin Timberlake is lucky, at least he can see how he’s spending his time.  Just bear with me a little longer, and we’ll return to your regularly scheduled program, already in progress.

Stay tuned.

JeraleC

Mindseyechronicles@comcast.net

 

Oh, and to the people who keep sending me the Russian spam… thanks for not giving up on me.  I can feel your love like a chilled bowl of borscht.

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Chapter XXXVI

 

            Crash stared at his friends as they talked, hugged, and cried.  He wasn’t sure how he felt about everything that had happened, or what was happening now.  It had been two days since Caroline’s parents had met with them, and he was barely even aware that the time had passed.  In the days that followed he drifted like a ghost through the plush hotel room; nibbling on food, not really eating and daydreaming, not really sleeping.  Thoughts and memories tumbled in his mind like an avalanche.  He wanted them to slow down long enough to see them for what they were, but they wouldn’t; he wouldn’t let them. 

            Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew what the root of his troubles were, but was afraid to confront it.   

 

            Big Time, Headwires, and Renegade were leaving.  No, not Big Time, Headwires, and Renegade;  Taylor, Prudence, and Howard.  They were real people, with real names, and real lives. 

            Real names and real lives, just like him. 

            The more Crash watched them, the clearer things appeared.  He could see the glances the others tossed at him from across the room.  He could tell they were upset, wondering if he was mad at them for leaving.  They were doing what they thought was best for them, for their lives.  How could he be mad at that? 

            No, he wasn’t mad.  He was wondering… if he should join them. 

 

            The other teens from the Factory were gathered at the hotel room door.  Each had a small travel suitcase, clothes and amenities Scarlett had gotten for them, plus various items smuggled out of Guru’s house before it was seized by the state. 

            Taylor, Prudence, and Howard had decided it was time for them to go home.  They had learned how to control their abilities long ago.  There was no long any fear that they would lose control and endanger themselves or those they loved.  They had individually convinced themselves that they stayed to master their ability; to own their ability, not just know it.  But they came to recognize that as the lie that it was.  The truth was that they were afraid.  Afraid to try and assimilate back into the “normal” world. 

            They had decided, given the course of events, that it was time for them to leave.  It was time to be a part of the real world again.  Scarlett and the others had taken great care to keep their names and faces out of the media.  No one knew of the other kids at the Factory, and believed that they had gone home after the Hell Spawns attacked them. 

            Celia and Prudence talked and laughed while Diamond Dog said his goodbyes to Taylor and Howard.  The two boys, both thirteen, were already at the Factory when DD arrived; Taylor over a month, Howard a few weeks.  Oddly enough, it was Black Sunshine that had brought DD in.  When they met, Black Sunshine thought he was a member of the Hell Spawns.  Looking back on that day, everything that followed made much more sense. 

 

            “So,” DD started, unsure of what to say.  “Home, huh?” 

            “Yeah.” Howard said.  “I called home last night.  My parents were worried about me.  They had been calling the police here to see if they had seen me, and if I was a part of all this.  Dad thought I might have been a Hell Spawn.” 

            “I’m sorry.”   

            “It’s cool.  I don’t think he meant anything by it.  I guess when kids runaway their parents automatically think the worse.  Besides, it’s not like I was a perfect child.  I beat up four football players and the coach the day before I ran away.  I guess they thought I was trying to be a bad ass.” 

            “Yeah.” Diamond Dog replied.  “That’s where I was.” 

            “Now I get to spend the next few weeks say I’m sorry, and explaining to everyone what auto-adaptive reflexes are.” 

            There was tension in the teenager’s face.  He wasn’t sure about going home, but with Guru in prison, he certainly couldn’t stay there.  The protestors outside the hotel were gone, but the feelings that they felt for the young heroes remained. 

            “Just give it shot.  A real shot.  It’s not going to be easy, and it’ll take awhile, but it’ll be for the best.  I promise.  And if you ever want to talk, just…” 

            DD looked around.  He didn’t know how to finish his statement.  They wouldn’t be at the hotel forever, and once the TV station was through using them, it was back on the streets.  Square one. 

            “Uh.  I’ll figure something out.  Just… You know I’m always there.”  DD knew he was failing in his attempt to comfort the scared boy.  “Here.” 

            Diamond Dog cupped his right hand and pulled a quarter size crystal from his palm with his left.  The crystal was about an inch and a half long with eight faceted sides.  He handed it to the younger boy. 

            “It’s not much, but…  It’s me.  And I’ll find a way to keep in touch with you.  Both of you.” 

            Howard nodded.  It was a small gesture, but it meant more to him that DD knew. 

            “Thanks, DD.” 

            “Okay, so, you know what I’m going to ask.”  DD said to Taylor with a huge smile. 

            Taylor looked back at him with an equally big smile.  He pretended like he didn’t know what the older boy was going to say.  “What?” 

            “One last time.  Do the Everlong video for me.” 

            Taylor chuckled and made his right hand ten times its normal size.  He gently swung it at the young man he had looked up to like an older brother for nearly a year.  DD held up his arm and blocked the playful swats. 

            “I’m going to miss that.”    

            ‘Me too.”  Taylor returned his hand to normal size.  He looked at his hand instead of his friend.  “I’m sorry.” 

            “Sorry for what?  Going home?  I would if I could.  I don’t think I have a home to go back to.” 

            “I’m sorry I didn’t help you guys that night.  The only reason I can go home is because you and Blue and Crash protected us.  You wouldn’t have to do that if I had… if I had gone with you.” 

            Taylor kept his eyes on his hand, as if it were going to grow or shrink on its own. 

            “Hey.”  DD put a hand on Taylor’s shoulder and made him look up.  “You did the right thing.  The smart thing.  I was too mad to be scared.  Had I been thinking right, I never would’ve done that.  Crash, Blue, and I are lucky things turned out the way they did.  It could just as easily have gone the other way.  Killzone beat one of his own people to death just before we got there.  If he would do that to them, imagine what he was going to do to us.” 

            “Okay.” Taylor answered, his eyes glassy. 

            “Never be sorry about doing the right thing.”  DD turned to Howard.  “That goes for you, too.” 

            Howard nodded. 

            “Alright.”  Diamond Dog smiled, trying to lift the mood of the younger teens.  “Come here.” 

            The older boy wrapped his arms around them and hugged them tight. 

 

*****

 

            Next to Diamond Dog, Celia and Prudence talked, laughed, and squealed.  The two had spent very little time at the Factory together.  They talked briefly while eating, or in passing, but never took the time to enjoy each other’s company.  Now, when they should be saying farewell, they were saying hello. 

            “Prudence,” Celia began. 

            “Just call me Pru.  Not that it’s any better.” 

            “I know how you feel.  You wouldn’t see Celia lighting up the night sky in bright purple neon.” 

            “Geez.” Pru huffed.  “Don’t parent’s know any better?” 

            “Yeah.” Celia said.  Her mind wandered back to that day on the steps of city hall.  ‘I think mine is a family name.”  Her voice lowered to just above a whisper. 

            “Mine too.  Eight generations of women named Prudence.  With a name like this, is it any wonder I turned out like I did?  You don’t see a lot of models named Prudence.”   

            “I think I’ve figured it out.” Celia chuckled.  “Ugly names gives girls abilities.” 

            Prudence laughed.  “That must be it.  Parents be warned.  Giving your daughter an unattractive name will turn them into powered runaways.  They could do it like those educational films from the sixties.  I wonder if it’s on a scale, the uglier the name, the stronger the ability?” 

            “Oh my God!  You could name a girl Brunhilda and she’d be as strong as my dad.” 

            “I wonder what Astronima’s name is?  It’s probably Myrtle, or something like that.” 

            “Gertrude.” 

            The two continued to laugh till they were practically blue in the face.  Celia gripped her sides as they started to cramp.  Prudence was choking as she tried to draw a breath while still laughing.  After half a minute they started to calm down.  They continued to smile and giggle, but weren’t to the point of passing out anymore. 

            “I bet it works in reverse too.” Celia said between laughs.  “I went to school with a girl named Francesca.” 

            “That’s a pretty name.” Pru said.  “What was her ability?” 

            “Being a bitch.”  The two started up again.  It felt so good to laugh.  The jokes themselves weren’t funny; it was just an excuse to let all their troubles slip away for a minute. 

            Diamond Dog interrupted the two of them, trying to say his goodbyes. 

            “Enough, you two.  The last thing we need is for the two of you to go floating up to the ceiling.” 

            Pru and Celia gave each other confused looks.  “What?” They said in unison, and immediately burst into laughter again. 

            “Mary Poppins?  Don’t they show you kids the classics anymore?” 

            “Kids?” Pru said in mock offense at DD’s comment.  “I’m only seven months younger than you.” 

            “Yeah, I know.”  DD said.  “Come here.”

            The two hugged.  Prudence gave the slightly older boy a peck on the cheek as she pulled away. 

            “I know a guy with a crystal arm named Carson.”   

            “Oh yeah.” DD replied.  “What’s the name of his other arm?”   

            The laughter ceased, but the smiles remained.  The silence was soon overwhelming. 

            “We should probably go now.”  Prudence said.  The hesitation in her voice was heavier than she expected.  “The cab’s waiting, I’m sure.” 

            “Yeah.” Diamond Dog said softly. 

 

            “Hold up!” came a voice from behind them. 

            “Hey!” Diamond Dog was surprised when he saw Crash walking towards the door with his bag full of new belongings.  “What are you doing?” 

            Crash looked at his friend, the older brother he didn’t know he needed.  The raised eyebrows and look of shock was expected.  So was the hurt that followed. 

            “I think,” Crash began.  He found it hard to talk, and his throat felt as if it were closing up every time he tried. 

            “I think I should head home, too.”  Watching the older boy’s expression change was like taking a baseball bat to the stomach.  Crash felt sick.  He knew that DD felt abandoned, but there was nothing he could do about it. 

            Celia put a hand on Diamond Dog’s shoulder, offering moral support.  Crash didn’t expect her to feel the way DD did, but knew that she had to be feeling it in some way.  It was one thing for the others to leave; they had shared a lot together, but nothing like that night in Yesterday Town.  That night formed a special bond between them, and now DD felt as if that bond were being ripped apart.  Crash could see it all on the suddenly ashen face of his friend. 

            “I…”  It was all Diamond Dog could get out.  He looked over at Celia, his eyes searching, pleading, wondering.  Would she be next?  Before the day ended, would it just be him?  All alone with nowhere to go, and no friends to stand beside him? 

            “I need to do this, to try.”  Crash stared in the eyes of his adopted brother.  “I left home because I was afraid of what was happening to me, what I was doing.  I’m not scared anymore.  I wanna go home.  I don’t know if things will work out, but I have to try.” 

            “Crash…”

            “Not Crash.  Joseph.” The younger boy said; his voice squeaking.  “I don’t need to be here.  I’m not like you and Celia.  I’m not a hero.  I’m just a little boy named Joseph who misses his mom and dad.” 

 

            Slowly, the younger boy’s words calmed his friend, and he started to understand.  Unlike the others, DD didn’t believe that he had a home to go back to.  He made the Factory his home and the kids that lived there his family.  But, they had real homes and families out there waiting for them.  People that cared for them.  People that missed them and wondered if they were still alive.  He couldn’t hold them back, or keep them away from that. 

            DD looked deep into his friends eyes then nodded.  “You take care of yourself, Joseph.” 

            “You too, Carson.” 

            The two shook hands.  A hug said goodbye.  This wasn’t goodbye, this was see you later. 

 

*****

 

            “We’re back with our guest today Walden “Wally” Patterson.”  Van Tortelli announced as the show returned from commercial break.  They were filming the episode that was going to air later that night. 

            Wally lifted himself up on the arms of the wheelchair and tried to scoot back.  He hadn’t made a TV appearance since the public disappearance of The Holy Avenger.  The Holy Avenger was still out somewhere dispensing justice, but had avoided the press and media attention after Wally’s “accident.”  No one had heard from him since; not even Wally.  There was a media frenzy for several months as reporters followed up on every rumor.  They focused a lot on Wally during that period. 

            Both the Holy Avenger and Abysmal had vanished after that fateful night.  Many believed that he and Abysmal had killed each other. 

            When he resurfaced a year later it wasn’t a public appearance.  A lesser known villain, named Blazer, was found stripped of his gear and anchored to the side of a building five stories up.  He described a darker more aggressive version of the Holy Avenger, who now, according to Blazer, was going solely by Avenger.  He recalled his costume as being primarily black with crimson detail.  

            As time went by, blurred pictures from amateur photographers made front page headlines and national news.  People wondered if it was really him or someone new taking up the mantle that Wally had left open. 

            Now here Wally was, on TV once again, but this time it was all about him.  He looked at Van and smiled.  The prime time talk show host was as poised as ever. 

            Van had recently decided that his show needed to return to more hard-hitting journalistic pieces, shunning his usual celebrity faire.  He tried to get back to his true roots as a reporter and balance that with the pop culture overnight celebrities that kept the ratings high and him employed.  In light of recent events Wally seemed like the prime candidate for his valiant return to real news.  He had wanted to have a showdown between Jonni Reinhart and Wally, but changed his mind after in-depth research into the night Wally was crippled.  What he found was a much better story. 

 

            Van dressed with a little more style than his fellow talk show competitors and tried to carry himself as an equal to the stars he interviewed.  He was known for having a sharp wit and for being both risqué and off the cuff. 

            “Now, Wally.” Van started.  “You’ve lead quiet an interesting life.  Tell us about some of your adventures.”

            “Where to begin?” Wally smiled. 

 

 

            Van gave the camera his well rehearsed inviting smile before turning to Wally. 

            “Now Wally, you had a lot to say about some of the heroes in your book, in particular, your dislike of Sentinel.  Tell me, how did they react after the release of your book?” 

            “Well,” Wally began.  “I always felt that a lot of them were ungrateful for what I did and didn’t do.  To begin with, this wasn’t about them.  It was about me.  I went through great pains to make sure that I maintained their secrets.  It wasn’t easy, let me tell you.  I must have gone through four or five drafts before I could even pass it to a publisher.  Doing everything I could to make sure that I didn’t betray their secret identities, or their trust.” 

            Wally squared off his shoulders as he talked.  He had wanted to be asked questions like this ever since the book was released.  For the most part, the book had the opposite affect than he intended.  Instead of shining the spotlight on himself, it made the light on the other heroes even brighter.  During his original promotional circuit he found himself fielding questions about the Holy Avenger, Major Tom, and Colonel Courageous and very few, if any, about himself.  Being on Prime Time with Van was a welcome change. 

            “Even after I submitted it, the publisher still insisted on 2 rewrites.”  Wally had a drink of water.  “To answer your question—I had a lot of people I thought were my friends turn their backs on me.  Except Groundling.” Wally was enjoying his time to speak and it showed.  His confidence could have easily been mistaken for arrogance. 

            Van leaned in intently.  He clutched the note card in his hand tightly as if his life depended on it.  No, that was wrong.  It was more like a dead man’s switch.  That’s what it was.  When Van’s thumb came off the card what it revealed would be explosive.  

            Wally continued on, addressing the audience and future viewers.

            “I’m not sure if you remember Groundling.  He was a terra-former.   He was a young hero, but not a sidekick.  He would often be lumped into the Jr. League missions, but was his own hero.”  Wally’s eyes shifted from the audience and cameras and down to his sleeve.  He picked at a piece of lint on his jacket, and then at a small dog hair that had gotten woven into the fabric. 

            “When the book came out, which was before Groundling did,” Wally tried to joke.  His eyes darted up, then back down to his sleeve again.  “He came to me and asked if I had mentioned him in the book.  I told him I had.  I’ll never forget, he said to me: ‘Then I won’t read it.’ ”  Wally sat up straight.  He picked the glass of water off the desk and brought it to his lips.  He opened his mouth several times, as if to take a drink, but didn’t.  He lowered the glass and cradled it in his hands. 

            “He said,” Wally repeated. “’I won’t read it.  You’re my friend, and I want you to stay my friend.’” 

            Wally set the glass down on the desk and stared at the ripples in the water.  “We would get together from time to time for lunch, or just hang out.  That was before his untimely death.”  Wally’s voice cracked and he swallowed hard. 

            “Groundling was the victim of a hate crime in 1994.” Van filled in. 

            “That’s all I’m going to say about him.”  Wally whispered.

            Van switched to his practiced empathetic, remorseful face.  He reached for Wally’s hand as he had practiced so many times at home, and any given opportunity.  He reached, but stopped short.  A feigned attempt to reach again, before closing his hand and slowly withdrawing it. 

            Van turned to the cameras.  He never looked past them and at the actually audience.  There were only a hundred or so people in the studio, but millions in the home audience.  The live people didn’t matter to him. 

            “Wally Patterson, ladies and gentlemen.  We’ll be right back.” Van said in a solemn voice. 

 

            “And, we’re clear!” came the voice from the stage hand. 

            Van turned from Wally; leaving him in his moment.  He was having a moment of his own.  He had read I’m In the League, and had done all the research he could on Walden “Wally” Patterson.  He actually felt sorry for the former hero.  Sure, he acted out his emotions instead of letting them come naturally, but it didn’t mean that he didn’t feel for Wally. 

            Van looked at the trash can next to his desk, then over at the note cards in his hand.  He moved his hand to the trash can and held it over the receptacle.  All he had to do was let go.  Hadn’t the poor man suffered enough?  Hadn’t all of them?  Heroes. Sidekicks. Adversaries.  They were all disposable to the public at large.  They owed them more.  He owed them more.

            Van stared at his hand, almost in disbelief that he couldn’t will himself to let go. 

            “Thirty seconds!” came the voice from the shadows. 

            All he had to do was let go.  He could softball some questions at Wally to get him to ramble about pages from the book and close out the last 20 minutes of the show. 

            “Fifteen seconds, Van!” 

            Van retracted his hand and turned back to the cameras.  He centered himself behind the desk and put on his invitation face. 

            Van had made a plan and was going to stick with it.  This was real journalism once again, he told himself.  Wally needed to know what he knew.  He was doing Wally a favor, he justified.  It was time to talk about that night. 

            “…three, two…” 

 

            “Welcome back, everyone.” Van said with a smile.  “Now Wally, I’m sure everyone watching wants to know about that night.” 

            Wally puffed out his chest, making himself seem tough.  He wanted to show those watching that he was brave, he could recall that fateful night.  The night that put him in his rolling prison.  He could do it.  He wanted them to see that despite his current condition he was still a hero. 

            “Now, I know it’s all in your book, which I might add is going into a second hardback printing, am I right?”

            Wally beamed.  “That’s correct.  I’m in the process of adding an additional chapter which will lead into a second book that I’m doing about my life till now.  I might even close it with this interview.” 

            “Heh.  Well, I look forward to the new chapter and the new book.”  Van humored him.  “In preparing for this interview I read I’m in the League twice.  Now, of course, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I relied solely on your book and didn’t do any independent research of my own.” 

            “Of course.” 

            “I was able to get access to the police reports from the night you fought Abysmal—the night your back was broken—as well as the 911 recording.  Now, none of this is mentioned in your book.  Did you have an opportunity to look at this during the time you were writing I’m in the League?”

            “I was there, unfortunately, I didn’t have to rely on second hand information.”  Wally couldn’t help the arrogant tone that coated his answer.  In truth he expected more the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.  His cocky attitude was in part to combat against the host razor intellect.  He assumed that questioning overstuffed celebrities about their miniature dogs had made him soft. 

            “Of course, and I wouldn’t change places with you for a minute.”  Van said, tossing the verbal barb back at him.  “In reading the book, and relying on the second hand information, some things didn’t add up.  I was wondering if you could help me make sense of it?” 

            “That’s the problem with eyewitness accounts and testimony, you always end up with fifty different versions of the actual story.  Fire away.”  Wally knew he should turn down his obnoxious attitude, but found it nearly impossible.  He need the people to like him and feel for him, but being “grilled” by the man who a week before was asking an actor what kind of research he did to play the part of a Neanderthal seemed beneath him. 

            “Too true.  To start, I’d like to read a passage from your book.” 

            “By all means.” 

            “For a moment everything seemed so surreal.  Tears in my eyes made it impossible for me to see clearly.  The pounding of my heart trumpeted in my ears.  My legs refused to respond to my commands.  I was blind deaf, and crippled…” 

            Van recited a passage from the book detailing the infamous night.  He skipped ahead a few paragraphs.  

            “Time seemed irrelevant as I laid there.  Minutes were seconds as far as I knew.  I had no idea how long it took the Holy Avenger to find me, I was just glad that he did.  Despite everything I had said to him, he came looking for me.  The hangar light cast a halo around his head, and traced his form in white.  I could see the anger in his face.  But more than that, I saw the disappointment.  To this day, I don’t know if he was disappointed in me, or himself.  Maybe it was a little bit of both.” 

            Van looked up from the transcribed passages and over at Wally.  The former sidekick gave the audience his bravest face, letting the words bounce off his chest as if he were bulletproof.  Van continued. 

            “The Holy Avenger turned away.  His only words were: ‘I’ll make this right.  He’s had this coming’.  And he was gone.  Not just for the moment.  He was gone from my life forever.  My mentor, the man that trained me, walked away.  I knew then that it wasn’t a little bit of both.  It was all me.  I had let him down.  I never saw him again.” 

            Van put the papers down. 

            “That had to be tough.” 

            “It was.  It was.” Wally said, trying to come across both strong and dismayed at the same time.  “And when I look back on it, I must admit—it still is.” 

            “Looking back, huh?  It’s funny you should say that.  Because, when I looked back, relying on the secondhand reports, that’s where I found the inconsistencies.  You see, a few pages earlier, when describing the fight with Abysmal you said, and I quote: ‘From my peripheral I could see Abysmal looking down at me.  His face was shadowed by the light that hung overhead.’  But when the Holy Avenger arrives you say that he’s standing in about the same spot that Abysmal was, based on the afore mentioned light source.  You said that you could see the Holy Avenger’s face.  How is that?” 

            “Well—ah…”  Wally stuttered.  He hadn’t expected questions along this line, and wasn’t sure how to answer.  His recollection of that night was clear, and he told it just as he remembered.  “Well, you see… When I say that I could see the disappointment in his face, I was basing that off of what he said and knowing him for so long.  Sometimes you don’t have to see a person to see a person.” 

            Wally smiled at the cameras and tried to maintain his favor with them. 

            “Uh huh.”  Van acknowledged his answer, but didn’t give it credit.  Instead, he fired back with another questioned that shook his foundation of truth.  “What he said.  You mean what you could hear through the…”  Van flipped back through the transcribed papers.  “Pounding of my heart trumpeted in my ears” 

            “You saw his face, through blurry, teary eyes, and heard his voice over the pounding in your ears?  Sounds like you might have a super power after all.” 

            A chuckle came from the studio audience, but Van didn’t pay it any mind.  He wasn’t trying to make Wally look bad before the world; he was trying to bring out the truth.  He was trying to be a reporter. 

            “Let’s talk about the moments before that.  When Abysmal stood over you and gloated.  In your book, you say that it wasn’t like him to say something so ominous.  Go tell your gods what I have done.’  Again, you heard this through that pounding in your ears.” 

            Van pointed to his producer who stood just off stage. 

            “I’d like to play the 911 call from that night.  The call you said that the Holy Avenger made.  Based on what you said earlier, this will be your first time hearing this.” 

            The soundstage fell silent as the call projected through the overhead speakers. 

 

            “911 what is the nature of your emergency?” 

            “I-I need help.  Oh my God!  I need help!” 

            “Try and calm down sir.  Are you injured?  Can you tell me where you are?”

            “What have I done?” 

            “Sir, can you tell me where you are?”  

            “The airfield.  Galileo airfield, hangar eight.” 

            “Ok, sir.  Just stay on the line.  Paramedics are on their way.” 

            “What have I done?  My God, what have I done?”       

 

            Van started up again as soon as the message stopped playing.  “You’ve always said that the Holy Avenger made that call to 911.  That doesn’t sound like the Holy Avenger to me.” 

            “I-I.”  Wally stumbled.  He suddenly felt incredibly hot under the studio lights and began to sweat profusely.  “As you said, this is my first time hearing this.”         

            “And why would you need to.  You were there.”  Van hammered away at Wally’s defenses.  He had to break him to let the truth come out.  A truth that even Wally wasn’t aware of. 

            “That doesn’t sound like the Holy Avenger to me.  The person on that call sounds like someone who’s scared.  Someone that’s made a mistake and done something they regret.” 

            “Maybe to you, but I was there!”  Wally tried to fight back.  His verbal punches were as effective as a gnat against a freight train. 

            “Thank you again.  And to quote you from a few minutes ago—with eyewitness accounts you always get different version of the actual story.”    

            Van was relentless.  This wasn’t Rumble in the Jungle, it was a schoolyard fight, and Van was the bully. 

            “We had experts compare the voice on the recording to the one from the video of Abysmal at the Yesterday Town fight.  It’s a match.” 

            Wally shook his head defiantly.  He muttered under his breath.  “No. No.” 

            “The paramedics arrived six minutes after that call.  The Holy Avenger didn’t make that call.  In fact, he was never there that night.” 

            “You’re wrong.  He was there.  He told me he would make him pay.” 

            “Did he?” 

            “What do you want me to say?’ 

            “I want you to tell the truth!” 

            “That is the truth.” 

            “What did he say to you that night?” 

            “He said ‘Tell your gods what I have done.’  The other heroes.” 

            “Is it?” 

            Wally stopped.  He was shaking.  His eyes closed, and he went back to that night.  All these years, he had lied to everyone.  He had never gone back to that night.  He was afraid.  He couldn’t face the pain.  He couldn’t face the truth. 

            His eyes opened slowly.  Clear salty tears streamed from blood red eyes. 

            “He said…” Wally whispered softly.  He finally saw the events of that night as they unfolded, and not as he had fantasized them.  “He said—Oh my God, what have I done?” 

            Van was elated.  He’d done it.  His hands tingled and his hair felt as if it were standing on end.  He did it.  He was back. 

            “It wasn’t the Holy Avenger that stood over you, was it?”  Van had to complete the circle. 

            “No.”  Wally shook his head from side to side like a puppet hung by its strings. 

            “No.  It was Abysmal.  And what did he really say to you?” 

            Spit bubbles formed at Wally’s lips as he tried to talk; his eyes in his lap.  “You’ll be alright.  Help is coming.” 

            “Thank you.” Van said triumphantly.  “This is Prime Time with Van Tortelli.  Our guest today is Walden “Wally” Patterson.  Thank you everyone.  Goodnight.” 

 

            The light dimmed, but no one moved.  All eyes stayed fixed on Wally.  The former hero had been broken twice now.  Once physically, the other mentally.  For over a decade, he had been living a lie.  A lie of his own making.  In his mind, he had fantasized the “bad guy” as being the bad guy.  He did it to hide the truth from himself. 

            The truth.  The Holy Avenger never came to his defense.  He wasn’t there when he needed him.  He didn’t care.  His adopted father had abandoned him. 

            He was alone. 

           

            Wally wasn’t the hero martyr he had always believed himself to be.  What happened to him that night was an accident.  He and Abysmal had both made mistakes that night, and both of them were broken beyond repair. 

            A question lingered in his head.  If the Holy Avenger wasn’t there that night, then where was he, and where had he been? 

 

 

Tags:

Chapter XXXV

  

            The white noise hum of the computers had lulled Colonel Courageous into a deep sleep; like listening to waves of electricity crashing on a digital shore.  Physically, his entire body felt like jello that had spent hours in the sun; constantly on the verge of collapse.  As tired as his body was, his mind was in processing overload.  There was too much going on for him to make sense of it all, and the headache he had didn’t help matters. 

            The serene sound of working computers was greatly appreciated, and his eyes fluttered like bird wings before gently closing.  The Colonel needed to rest.  Not for too long, just a few hours; long enough to give his mind and body a break. 

            Alien invasions.  Killing innocent people.  A secret love child.  Was it any wonder why his head hurt and he needed a break? 

            Was it any wonder why the thoughts continued to plague him in his sleep? 

 

            In his mind, the Colonel raced through the air.  He pushed his ability to fly to its limits; streaking clouds in his wake like cotton balls in the hands of a child.  As fast as he was flying, it didn’t seem as if it were fast enough.  They needed him.  People were in danger.  Lives were in danger of being lost. 

            As the speeding missile that was his body approached Future City the crisis changed.  People were no longer in danger.  He was rushing to get to the hospital.  It was time.  Before he could decrease his speed and touch down on the building’s rooftop, he found himself inside its halls.  Still rushing, he shoved past the familiar strangers that greeted him and patted him on the back. 

            The strangers lived up to their names, even the one that he “knew” to be his best friend, but had never seen before, seemed unusual.  The familiar strangers had faces that were twisted like abstract portraits painted on shattered glass then pieced back together.  Somewhere, deep in the Colonel’s mind there was a tiny scream that told him things didn’t seem right, but the voice wasn’t loud enough, and he ignored it. 

            The familiar strangers greeted him with guttural grunts and howling chortles.  The sounds made no sense, but he recognized each congratulatory greeting.  His “best friend” escorted him into the hospital room, and stood watch at the door.  Jonni Cordalis lay on a bed in the center of the room, her feet in stirrups while twisted faced doctors and nurses tended to her.  Jonni looked at the Colonel, her face normal, like his—or what he presumed his face looked like—with sweat beads on her brow, and worry carved into her face.  Her arms were strapped to the side of the bed, and strained to break free. 

            “It’s coming!” Jonni cried.  “It’s coming!” 

            The Colonel stepped forward, and the twisted face doctors and nurses moved closer to block his view.  Through all the confusion and uneasy feelings, the Colonel smiled.  Jonni was giving birth, and he was there for it.    He tried to move closer, pushing through the crowd of doctors and nurses; remotely aware that there seemed to be more of them then there were before.  Finally he reached the head doctor who turned and handed him the bundled blessing. 

            A warm feeling poured through his body as he accepted the baby.  Colonel Courageous slowly pulled the blanket away from the baby’s head to see its beautiful face.  What he saw made him jump, and he almost dropped the child.  It wasn’t Celia, it was a baby Cycsiks. 

            Fear ran an anchor and chain through his spine and held him to the floor.  His head snapped around at the room full of twisted faces.  Not twisted faces—Cycsiks.  They were all Cycsiks. 

            The baby pounced from the Colonel’s shaking hands and onto his chest.  Its tiny claws ripped a hole in his chest and burrowed its way in.  He could feel the tiny creature moving around inside him.  He could feel it growing, getting bigger.  His body ballooned till the skin could no longer contain it, and it split like over ripened fruit.  Under the skin was the mucus green hide of a Cycsiks. 

            The Colonel saw all of this from outside himself, as he realized he had become an observer of this macabre transformation.  When it was all over, and the dead skin fell to the floor, he saw the new Colonel Courageous.  There, in fully glory, stood a Cycsiks version of him, complete with garish costume. 

            Suddenly, there was an explosion that shook the hospital, and the scene changed.  The Cycsiks onlookers were washed away in a beacon of light.  No, not washed away, burned away; incinerated by searing heat.  The out of body Colonel saw his perverted version laughing maniacally, bathed in the light of the mushroom cloud that rose behind him. 

 

            “Noooo!” the Colonel screamed into the darkness.  His scream beat its way through the walls of the underground base, rattling doors and busting the overhead lights.  His trembling body was yanked up from the small bed.  He stood, hunched over, his fingers curled, head lowered and shoulders raised.  His blazing red eyes were all that could be seen the dark room.  Among the heavy labored breathing another steady, more stable rhythm could be heard. 

            “Colonel?” came the voice in the darkness. 

            “Who’s there?!” huffed the Colonel. 

            There was a soft click that only the Colonel could hear, and the radiant form of Major Tom came into view.  His uniform glowed like the outer ring of the moon during an eclipse. 

            “Tom?” the Colonel asked unsure of whether to trust his eyes. 

            “Are you alright?” 

            The Colonel didn’t answer immediately.  He didn’t know.  Slowly, he started to regain his senses and remember where he was.  He straightened his posture and relaxed his hands. 

            “Yeah.” he said after nearly a minute had passed.  He brushed the broken glass from the overhead light off his suit and shook tiny shards from his hair. 

            “Yeah, just- just had a bad dream.” 

            “A bad dream?” Major Tom questioned.  “My people don’t believe in good or bad dreams.  We view dreams as truths you know about yourself but refuse to accept, or wish were better.” 

            “Interesting philosophy.”  The Colonel was about to say more, then realized that Major Tom had been there the entire time.  He didn’t arrive when he heard the scream, he was already there. 

            “Wait, why are you here?  Did you want something?” 

            “It’s time.” 

 

 

            “Sleep well, Gary?” Dr. 253 said while standing atop a ladder replacing the bulbs in the lights overhead. 

            “Heh.”  The Colonel gruffed.  “Since when did you develop a sense of humor?” 

            Dr. 253 looked down at his enlarged hands; the scars from where the pinkies had been surgically removed were still fresh.  “Since I cut my pinkies off.  I think they were holding me back.” 

            Colonel Courageous was still unnerved by the dream, but he found his old friends remarks equally disturbing.  Never before had Anthony laughed at a joke, much less told one.  He wondered what was going on inside of the unequalled genius.  For that matter, was he even still a genius? 

            “Sorry.” The Colonel apologized.  “I hope I didn’t damage too much stuff.” 

            The Doctor secured the last of the fluorescent bulbs into the ceiling housings and climbed down the ladder. 

            “Nothing critical.”  He turned to Major Tom.  “Tom, can you reset the emergency lighting?” 

            The alien turned and headed towards the building’s control center. 

            “Are you… okay?” the Colonel inquired. 

            “I should be asking that of you.” 

            “Me?  Yeah, I’m fine.  Just a bad dream.” he gave a less than convincing smile. 

            “That must have been some dream.” 

            The Colonel didn’t answer.  His eyes locked on the face of his friend, and stared through him. 

            “Gary?” 

            Colonel Courageous snapped out of his daze.  “I’m sorry, this—all this—it’s new to me.  I’m not used to hearing you speak with…” 

            “Concern?” 

              “Inflection.  You’ve always been so direct and…”

            “Nerdy?” 

            “Stop it!  Scientific.  Are you okay?” 

            “The Cycksiks are primal creatures, as you know.  When that one was inside of me… I don’t know… It opened up a part of myself that had been lost before in a quagmire of calculations and equations in my mind.  I used to look at everything in the world through the microscopic lens of science.  Everything could be explained as a molecular reaction, and therefore it wasn’t unique or unexpected.  If you know how objects react to one another—it’s all chemistry, and seems irrelevant.  Emotions have no bearing and are unnecessary.” 

            The Doctor took a seat on one of the ladder steps. 

            “At some point I forgot that I was still human.  I forgot what being human means.  Now, all the things I had dissected and stored away are coming back, and it’s like I’m experiencing them for the first time.  In essence, I am.  And that’s the problem.  There’s still the part of me that views all this as insignificant.  I’m having trouble merging the two halves of my psyche.” 

            “I’m sorry.  I can’t even begin to understand what something like that is like.” 

            “Thank you, but don’t concern yourself with it too much.  You have problems of your own.  Besides, I’ve got a solution in the works.  I just have to get the two parts of my mind to agree to use it.  Ah, what savage beast I am.”  Dr. 253 said the last part with a smile. 

            Watching and listening to him, Colonel Courageous could see the two parts of his mind fighting for control.  To say he seemed human seemed like an insult.  To the Colonel, his friend, no matter how relatable he now was, seemed broken.    

 

            “Gentlemen.” Major Tom interrupted.  He stepped between the two of them, making him himself the focus of their attention.  “We have work to do.” 

            The two heroes nodded in agreement and followed him into the next room. 

 

            In the work station the Slingshot sparked with life.  Its brilliance shined like a miniature sun, capable of illuminating the entire room without the lights having been replaced. 

            Dr. 253 and Major Tom instantly went to work, preparing for their exodus to space.  The two moved in perfect rhythm as if they had planned and practiced their moves.  Tom checked the power couplings on the Slingshot, making sure that the Doctor’s newly acquire power source was properly calibrated. 

            Colonel Courageous watched as the two men busied themselves with their tasks.  Not being able to assist, or even have an inkling of what it was they were doing, made him feel useless and in the way.  The Doctor looked up and saw his old friend looking perplexed and worthless.  He wanted to say something, but the analytical part of his psyche was running the show, and the thought was pushed aside to be considered later.  His attention immediately switched to Major Tom.     

            “I’ve aligned the relay satellite to the origin point of the last inbound signal.”  Doctor 253 said.  “You should arrive within twenty kilometers of the transmitter’s location.  The homing device will guide you from there.” 

            Major Tom nodded in agreement.  He ran one final test on the power core before walking over to the Slingshot’s control center.  He snatched the homing device off the console and walked back to the Slingshot. 

            The Doctor hurried across the room and settled behind the Slingshot’s controls.  “Are you ready?”  He entered the command functions, releasing the safeguards, and looked over the coordinates a final time. 

            The Colonel narrowed his eyes, clenched his fist, and nodded.  Crackling golden energy reached out from the center of the molecular transporter and enveloped him.  The energy was warm at first; heating his skin like the sun it pretended to be.  The feeling quickly faded and was replaced with a sensation of extreme cold.  His skin prickled, and he looked down to see his body drift apart like static on an old black and white TV.  His body felt like it was covered in ants, crawling and nibbling on every inch of his flesh.  The Colonel remembered this feeling from before, and remembered hating it. 

            As every molecule of his body was converted to energy and propelled into space at near the speed of light, he looked back on the lab and his friend.  A stray though entered his mind just before he vanished in a burst of blinding light. 

            Home. 

 *****

             Edgar and Judith were waiting patiently for Celia when she came out of the bedroom.  The couple held each other’s hand so tight that the tips of their fingers were starting to turn purple.  She looked at the two curiously, unsure of who they were, or what to make of them.  Their faces seemed distraught, but covered with a thin veil of calm pretending to be content. 

            Celia moved carefully around the chair DD sat in, across from the couch where they sat.  When Diamond Dog saw Celia he immediately stood and let her have the chair.  He sat on its arm and draped his arm along the top. 

            “Celia.” DD began.  “This is Edgar and Judith.  They’re Caroline’s parents.” 

            Celia felt her stomach drop and her heart skipped a beat.  Her lungs refused to work and she found it impossible to breathe either in or out. 

            Edgar stood and his arm swung out like a broken swing, wobbly and slightly disjointed. 

            “Hi.  Thank you for seeing us today.” 

            Celia took his hand and gave it a weak clammy shake.  Judith nodded, but stayed seated.  

            Celia felt her lungs open, and a rush of air filled them, making her momentarily light headed. 

            “Carson was telling us that you were the one that found Caroline and took care of her.  He says you two were very close.” 

            “We all thought they were sisters.” Crash chimed in. 

            Edgar smiled.  That small comment somehow warmed him inside. 

            “We were hoping you’d tell us what happened.  Why she ran away.  How she…”  Edgar couldn’t finish his sentence.  Judith lowered her head and gripped his hand tighter.  She moved closer to him, as if she were afraid is she let go, even for a second, he would be gone, too. 

            “I-I don’t know where to start.” Celia said, her voice shaking. 

            “How did the two of you—uh—meet?”

            “Well,” Celia started to respond.  She felt a smile cross her face and she remembered back to that day.  “She was trying to steal my fries, believe it or not.” 

            “Huh?” Edgar looked at his wife who was equally as puzzled by the statement.  “She was taking your fries?”  

            “Yeah.”  Celia’s smile got even bigger.  “I had just arrived at the bus station, and used some of my money to get some food.  I only had a little money left, so after I ate my burger, I put the fries in my pack for later.  I look away, and when I look back, I see the fries floating away on their own.”  Celia chuckled, at the mental image in her head, and the feeling of surprise at seeing such a thing. 

            “If you can imagine, a bag of French fries just floating through the air.  I reached out to grab them, and grabbed her arm instead.  We were both surprised.  I accidentally shocked her and made her become visible.  Then she passed out.” 

            “So,” Judith spoke for the first time.  “She made it all the way to Future City on her own?” 

            “Yeah.”  Celia was still smiling.  It hadn’t occurred to her what a brave and strong girl Caroline was until just then.  She made it to Future City on her own.  “She had already been there for a while when we met.” 

            “Oh my God!” Judith spoke again.  He hand shot to her mouth, and she started to cry.  Edgar put and arm around her and pulled her tight. 

            “Look,” Celia started.  “I know this sounds odd, but your daughter was a pretty resourceful girl.  More than I was.  She knew how to take care of herself.  You could say that she took care of me.” 

            Celia shook her head. 

            “When I left home, I took seventy dollars with me, and had no plan other than run.  I don’t even know how I ended up here, and by the time I got here I was nearly broke.  I didn’t have a clue as to what I was going to do.  Caroline, she didn’t have a plan, I don’t think, but she knew how to keep herself safe.” 

            Celia knew the words coming from her were tough and hard to hear, but they had to hear them.  They had to know just who their daughter was.  To her, it was the only way they could understand what happened, and the only way they could be proud. 

            “Look, you need to understand a few things about Caroline, about all of us before we continue…” 

 

            A knock on the door interrupted Celia’s speech.  Everyone in the room turned to the door, some angered by the interruption, others with fear as to what was on the other side. 

            Scarlett smiled and hurried across the room.  She threw the door open and rushed Walter inside. 

            “You’re late!” Scarlett said quietly through gritted teeth covered in a phony smile.  She turned to the others in the room and tried to make her TV face more genuine and friendly. 

            “I wanted to get this all on video.  It’s important for the world to know this part of your story.” 

            Walter threw the camera up on his shoulder and started recording. 

 

            Celia gave Walter a second glance before giving Edgar and Judith her full attention once again. 

            “You see, Caroline, Carson, Joseph, and myself…  This thing that happened to us, we didn’t know how to control it, and we were scared.  When you’re scared you only know two things, run or fight.  When the thing you’re scared of is yourself, you don’t know how to fight, so you run.  You can run all day, but you can’t run from yourself.” 

            Celia pushed the hair out of her eyes and leaned forward.  “I think Caroline realized this a lot sooner than the rest of us.  Being invisible, and not having to see yourself helps.  She knew something else, too.  She knew how to look out for herself.  For the most part, when she was awake, she couldn’t be seen, and when she was asleep she could be.  So she spent most of her waking hours finding places to hide and sleep.  ” 

            “I don’t-I don’t understand.”  Edgar said.  “She ran away ‘cause she was scared?”   

            “When my abilities started to manifest I nearly blew up my school.  I didn’t trust myself.  I didn’t trust myself to be around others.  Suddenly, I wasn’t the same person people thought they knew.  I didn’t even feel like I knew myself.  I can only imagine what it must have been like for Caroline.  To suddenly find yourself invisible, walking through walls, and unable to talk.  It must have been like being removed from the world.  Not knowing what was happening to you, or if it was permanent.  That’s got to be a lot scarier for a girl her age than being worried that you might blow up your school.” 

            “My God, Eddie.”  Judith began.  Her body trembled as the words crept from her mouth.  “This is our fault.  She tried to tell us, but we didn’t listen.  All those times she would disappear and we didn’t believe her…”  The tears fell from her eyes like a monsoon washing over her cheeks. 

              “We did this!  This is our fault!”  Judith’s tears came harder as her husband crushed her chest against his and cradled her face in his neck. 

            “No!” Celia exclaimed.  “It’s not your fault.  How were you supposed to know?  She was just a little girl.  You didn’t know if she was just playing around, pretending, or if it was real.  I know you want something more, but it’s not your fault.  It’s just something that happened.  Remember, I ran away, too.  You know who I am, and who my parents are… all of them.  If anyone could have helped me understand what was happening to me, it was them.  But, I couldn’t… I couldn’t go to them.”  Celia’s eyes dropped to the floor.  “I don’t know why, I just couldn’t.” 

            Edgar lifted his wife off of him, and held her face in his hands.  He tried to be strong for her; for both of them.  His eyes were red, and the occasional tear escaped from the corner and ran down his face, but he did his best to hold it in. 

            “Judy.” He called to his wife.  “Judy!  This is what we came here for, remember?  We knew it was going to be tough, but we both agreed that we had to know.  Right?” 

            Edgar’s wife shook her head yes, and wiped her eyes.  The tears continued, but lessened as she did her best to regain her composure. 

            Edgar turned to Celia and forced a smile.  His smile was more of a strained grimace, but Celia took it for the gesture that it was. 

            “Please, continue.”  Edgar requested. 

            “Well…” Celia began.  “There’s not much else to tell.  Soon after we met up with DD—Carson—and the others at the Factory.  Of course, that’s when we met Guru.”  

            “Guru?” Edgar questioned. 

            “Uh-“ Celia stammered, unsure of how to respond.  The truth was confusing and painful to her.  She didn’t know how they would react.  “He ran the Factory and kept everyone there safe.  He was teaching us all how to control our abilities.  We didn’t know until that night with the Hell Spawns that he was Abysmal.” 

            “I don’t understand how all that worked.”  Edgar started.  Celia could see the anger forcing its way through his grief.  His brow wrinkled and his eyes drew tight.  “He trained them, and when they got out of control, he was training you fight them?” 

            “No!”  Diamond Dog blurted.  ‘It wasn’t like that.  All that stuff you heard—the crap Killzone said was a lie!  I don’t know why he was doing what he was doing, but it wasn’t to make us like them.  None of us wanted to be like them.” 

            “Except Sunshine.” Joseph mumbled. 

            “What?”  Edgar called.  “Who’s Sunshine?’ 

            Celia took a breath, and held a hand up to Carson and Joseph, telling them to butt out. 

            “Like Carson said, we don’t know why Guru took us all in, but it wasn’t what people are saying.  He would meet with us, one on one, and teach us how to control these abilities.  Not to use them, but how not to use.  There was never any mention of doing anything illegal, or fighting crime, or even group meetings on what our purpose was, or anything.  He was even teaching Caroline how to talk while invisible.” 

            Celia could feel her eyes starting to burn and knew that her own tears were on the way.  She was getting close to telling to the part of Caroline’s life that she dreaded.  Her death. 

            “Guru, explained that Caroline’s abilities were reactive.  Whenever she felt nervous or scared, she would turn invisible.  She wouldn’t become visible again until she felt safe.  She felt safe around me.  But, fear of her ability and being rejected made her want to stay invisible.  All she wanted, all any of us wanted, was to go back home.  We just wanted to be the people we were before any of this happened.” 

            “What…”  Edgar started.  Judith pulled on his arm, her head swinging slowly back and forth, silently saying no.  He turned to her.  “Honey, we have to know.” 

            Edgar turned his attention back to Celia and the others.  His eyes darted to each of theirs, and but settled on the teenage girl.  “How did it happen?” 

            “It was the Hell Spawns.” Carson jumped in again before Celia could answer.  It had only been a few weeks since the attack on the Factory, and the wound was far from healed. 

            “The Hell Spawns attacked the Factory one night.  They were going to kill all of us.”  Carson continued. 

            “Who or what is Sunshine?  Is he a Hell Spawn?” Edgar asked.  He noticed their attempt to talk around his previous inquiry instead of answering it. 

            “Sunshine… Black Sunshine, was another runaway living at the Factory.”  Celia picked up from where Carson left off.  “He fell in with the Hell Spawns.  Instead of wanting to control his abilities, he decided to use them to take what he wanted like they did.” 

            Celia gripped the leg of her jeans and bunched it up in her hand. 

            “We don’t know why they attacked us that night.” Celia lied.  It was hard enough trying to convince everyone that Guru wasn’t training them to be a group of young adversaries.  The truth would only blur the truth even more.  “All we know, is that they did, and we’d all be dead right now, if it wasn’t for Caroline.”   

            Celia couldn’t hold back her tears anymore.  The drops painted black lines along her face as they raced one another down her cheeks. 

            “She had been practicing with Guru that night, learning how to talk while invisible.  We were all asleep when they broke in.  Caroline… she screamed.  She screamed while invisible, and woke us up.  She was so brave and strong.”  Celia wiped her eyes, smearing wet eyeliner all over her face. 

            “We were trying to escape when Black Sunshine attacked.  She was holding my hand… She felt safe with me and would allow herself to be seen if I was there.  Even with all that was going on that night, as long as she was holding my hand, she stayed visible ‘cause she felt safe.  Black Sunshine’s blast hit her and pulled…”  Celia’s tears came much harder now, and she found it hard to speak, to even breathe.  She looked up at Edgar and Judith, and noticed that neither one of them were crying.  There was sadness in their eyes, but they weren’t crying.  Just her.        

            “The blast pulled her hand out of mine.  I-I saw her fall, and I knew… I knew…” 

            Celia looked at Caroline’s parents through blurred teary eyes.  She held up her hand, holding it out across the coffee table that separated them.  Tiny arcs of blue light jumped along her fingers like threads performing a ballet dance in zero gravity. 

            “I killed him.  I pulled all the electricity I could feel and hit him with it.  I could feel his heart race until it couldn’t take any more.  It was like I was actually touching him with my hands.  I hit him with everything.  Black Sunshine killed Caroline, and I killed him.”  

 

            Edgar and Judith were silent.  They neither cried, nor smiled.  The two sat across from Celia, huddled together, and stared at the teen.     

            Carson put his arms around Celia and held her.  He wanted her to know how he felt.  He wanted her to know that he was hurting the same way she was.  He wanted her to know he loved her. 

            Celia’s arms wrapped around his waist and squeezed.  He didn’t know if she understood, but told himself that her squeeze meant she loved him, too. 

            Crash had walked over to the window and looked down at the protestors below.  His gaze wasn’t fixed on anything, and he stared blankly at the world outside his window.  None of the people below could see him.  None of them could see him cry. 

 

            Walter turned off the camera and lowered it.  He turned and looked at Scarlett.  His eyes fixed on the reporter’s face. He forced his eyes to stay open, afraid that if he closed them, even for a millisecond, that a tear might show.  Scarlett tried to hide her smile, but Walter could see it in her face and body movements.  This was exactly what she wanted. 

            Scarlett wet her lips, smoothed down the front of her blouse and cleared her throat.  She bent down, over the back of the sofa, and put a hand on Edgar and Judith’s shoulders. 

            “Edgar.  Judith.  I can only imagine how painful that must have been for you.”  Scarlet’s voice carried the right amount of empathy to seem genuine.  “Is there anything I can get for you?”  

            Edgar shook his head.  A squeak of a voice escaped his lips.  He cleared his throat and tried again.  His voice cracked as the words came out, but they were words this time.

            “No.  No thank you.” 

            “How about you, Celia?”  Scarlett asked, moving around the couch.  She knelt in front of the teen and held her hand. 

            Celia shook her head. 

            “That was a very brave thing you just did.  I want you to know that.  You’d been keeping that all bottled up inside you for so long.  You needed to get it out.  And Caroline’s parents needed to hear it.” 

            The reporter slid a hand under Celia’s chin and turned her head till they were face to face. 

            “You may not think of yourself as a hero, but every day you show me just how much of a hero you are.  You’re a hero to me.  And, you were a hero to Caroline, too.” 

 

            Scarlett stood and beckoned to Walter. 

            “Gibby and I are going to step out into the hall for a minute and let you all have some time to yourselves.” 

            The others in the room acknowledge her statement with subtle head nods and shoulder hunches.  The reporter and her camera man slipped out, leaving the grieving parties to themselves. 

 

            In her excitement, Scarlett slipped on the smooth worn carpet outside the hotel room and nearly fell on her butt.  She fell back against the wall and gave Walter a huge smile. 

            “The ratings for this show are going to be phenomenal!” Scarlett beamed.  “Do you know what this means, Gibby?  Exclusive access to the new heroes—it’s journalistic gold!” 

            Walter was less than enthusiastic.  Scarlett had a gift, and he wouldn’t deny that.  She also had the drive and cunning to get what she wanted.  But, he’d been behind the camera long enough, and had worked with enough people to know that there was no such thing as a sure thing. 

            “I could become the hero correspondent!  You know how Joshua Kirk will only let that skank Barbara interview him?  That could be me!” 

            “Hold on now, Red.” Walter tried to inject some reality in Scarlet’s bubble before she completely floated away.   “Let’s just take things one step at a time.  I like you, girl, but you need to stay grounded.” 

            “Come on, Gibby!  This thing landed right in our laps.  We’ve got the whole thing sewn up.  Nobody can get an angle on them.  And now, knowing that Celia is Colonel Courageous’ daughter, the doors to the League are going to open up.” 

            “We don’t have all the angles.”  Walter said with concern. 

            “What do you mean?” 

            “You haven’t heard?”  Walter set the camera down and pulled out his phone.  He scrolled through the screen menu and pulled up the news headlines.  “Variety magazine.  Read the main article.” 

            Scarlett took the phone and began reading the article aloud. 

            “Van goes Cannes.  Van Tortelli, celebrity journalist, announced at Cannes that his show is being retooled to get back to his hard hitting journalistic roots.  Blah blah blah.  Blah blah blah.  During the press conference he revealed that his first guest would be Walden “Wally” Patterson, onetime hero sidekick known as Kid Paladin, and author of the book I’m in the League.” 

            Scarlett handed Walter back the phone.  “Ok, so?  Two washed up has-beens are going to be on a show together.  Big deal.” 

            Walter shook his head.  “You don’t know the old Van.  He was a shark.  Five guys could have the same inside scoop, and he would find some hidden fact that none of them knew about and blow their stories out the water.  If he’s interviewing Wally Patterson, then he’s got a good reason—a trick up his sleeve.” 

            Scarlett gave her cameraman a snotty look that said she was less than concerned. 

            “Look, all I’m saying is watch out.” 

 *****

             A break began to form in the heavy clouds that darkened the hotel room.  Judith and Edgar stared into each other’s eyes, hushed sentences passed between them. 

            Celia could only make out the inflected words as they shot her way.  She was afraid that they would blame her for Caroline’s death.  The guilt she bore was like a vice around her heart.  It made everything she did seem like an impossible task.  The grief stricken teen hoped—prayed—that they wouldn’t blame her.  Then maybe she could forgive herself.  

            The couple whispered and nodded several more times before turning to look at Celia. 

            “Thank you.”  Judith said.  Her voice was strong and unwavering.  Her eyes were brighter now then they had been, and Celia could see a little life returning to them. 

            “For what?’ Celia questioned. 

            “For what you did.” Edgar replied.  “All of it.” 

Tags:

Chapter XXXIV

 

            Colonel Courageous’ heavy steps echoed in the empty lab.  He expected to find Dr. 253 and Major Tom sweating away before the computer working on their invasion tactic; instead he was greeted by the hum of running computers and the muffled whir of cooling fans.  The motion activated lights sprang to life as he entered the lifeless lab.  The lab was relatively neat, with only a few things out of place.  It was clear that they had been working around the clock to prepare for their counter invasion. 

            The Colonel caught a glimpse of himself in the reflective surface of an upright examination table as he walked through.  For the first time he actually stopped and looked at himself; the outlandish skintight costume with its decorative belt and ridiculous boots.  Why did people take him seriously dressed like that?  It was very surreal to look at himself, not as a hero, but as a man.  No, this was not the place to raise a family. 

            The weakened hero looked around for signs of where the others had gone.  All he could see were remnants of unfinished projects waiting to be fully realized.  A few feet away, a large monitor flashed images on the screen of “corrupted” DNA sequences.  The double helix was separated by their nucleic acids and was then taken apart by the base DNA and RNA.  The “corrupted” sequences were removed creating a cascading failure of the entire structure. 

            He watched the screen as the computer ran five more simulations, trying varying approaches to solving the problem, each one progressing from the prior failure.  Each one resulted in a cascading failure of the base structure. 

            “Hmm.” the Colonel said aloud.  “The alien can’t be removed without killing the host organism.  Once they’ve been implanted, the host has to die, or live as one of them.” 

            From the corner of his eye he saw images displayed on another monitor of a Cycsiks hybrid on the examination table.  Areas of the alien bonded human, partially dissected, were enlarged and examined on a microscopic level.  The data was fed into the DNA simulation. 

            The Colonel studied the images of the body, soon realizing that it wasn’t one of the people he had seen before.  This was someone new.  They had taken over another human. 

            He gritted his teeth in anger.  Colonel Courageous needed answers, and he needed them now.  He hoped that Dr. 253 and Major Tom had some good news for him. 

 

            “Hello?” the Colonel called.  “Doc?  Tom?”

            No answer. 

            “Doc?  I got your call!” 

            Silence. 

            Colonel Courageous put his thumb to his lips and blew a steady stream of air across the nail.  A sharp whistle sounded from his lips and cut through the lab and into the other rooms of the hidden base.  It didn’t take long for the two men to emerge from their seclusion. 

 

            “Gary, do you mind?” Dr. 253 fussed at his friend.  The Colonel stopped the high frequency whistle as soon as he saw them come through the doors.  “Some of this equipment is highly susceptible to high pitch noises.  That whistle of yours could shatter the pryoclastic glass conductors.” 

            “Sorry, Anthony.  I wasn’t sure where you guys were.”  He tossed a thumb at the monitor to his right.  “More possessions?” 

            “Yes, Colonel.” Major Tom answered.  “The Doctor and I contacted Clockworx in your absence.  He’s been rounding them up as they’ve manifested.” 

            “I trust you have a plan ready?”  the Colonel asked. 

            “For what it’s worth, yes.”  Came the cold monotone alien response. 

            “What is it?” 

            “Well, that’s the good news.” The Doctor added.  “We’ve got a plan.  The bad news is, it’s the same as it was when we last saw you.” 

            The Doctor moved between the two men and took a seat at the simulation computer.  The video was minimized while he brought up the plan he and Major Tom had created.  He transferred the visuals to the holographic imager behind the champion hero. 

            Hundreds of thread thick rays of colored light beamed from the top and bottom plates of the imager, reflecting off mirror based prisms and generating a rendered image of the Earth.  The Doctor swiveled in his chair and directed the Colonel to look behind himself. 

            “This is what we’re looking at.”  He pointed to the three dimensional video of the Earth. 

            The video reminded the Colonel of the fifteen year old science films he used to watch in school.  He held back a snicker and tried to focus. 

            The Doctor continued, unaware of the Colonel’s mental distraction.  “The Cycsiks are using this weapon of theirs to transmit themselves via sub-sonic high frequency radio transmissions.” 

            “Hold on, Doc.  I don’t claim to be as smart as you, but I thought outer space was a vacuum, and sound can’t travel through a vacuum.” 

            “Very good, Gary.” Dr. 253 said in a way that was more condescending than commending; like encouraging a child.  “But, ‘outer space’ isn’t a true vacuum, it’s a partial vacuum.  Even still, sound is a manipulation of vibration.  Space is filled with planets, asteroids, and other cosmic debris, with each having its own atmosphere that extends beyond its physical boundaries.  Vibrations, or sound, can exist within that atmosphere.  For the sound to travel through space, it only needs to piggyback off these objects, or bounce from one atmospheric property to another.  In the case of the Cycsiks’ device, the vibration isn’t the carrier, it’s the conductor.” 

            The lost and puzzled expression on the Colonel’s face told the Doctor that he hadn’t dumbed it down enough. 

            “The energy transference device that they’re using is much like a teleporter without a return flight.  The human host serves as the destination point, and the vibration guides it to the target.  Since the human and the carrier signal are on the same wavelength, it merges them into one.  Energy is energy, it doesn’t differentiate.  Once the two are merged, the dominate presence will supersede.  Unfortunately for us, that presence will be the Cycsiks.” 

            Dr. 253 sighed.  He looked over the faces of his friends and saw them waiting for him to answer the original question.  “What?” 

            “Our plan, good doctor.” The alien spoke up. 

            “Huh?  Oh, right!”  The Doctor had become so lost in his explanation that he hadn’t realized that he’d neglected to answer the question.  “Well, knowing all this, regrettably, doesn’t help me to prevent it.”

            He rose from his chair and walked over to the hologram of the Earth.  “I had hoped we could arrange some kind of sub-space particle filter, or isolate the carrier wave; maybe redirect it.  Since it’s keyed to individual harmonic frequencies, we don’t have to worry about it hitting someone or something else.  I’m sorry to admit, it’s just not possible.” 

            “Ok, but what does this have to do with the plan?”  The Colonel questioned.  For all his strength and indomitable will, he was a simple man.  A “point and shoot” hero.  He needed the answer to be simple and direct. 

            “Everything.  If we can’t stop the signal, then that means more people will become… infected, by the Cycsiks.  That poses two problems.  The first, anybody that becomes infected must be eliminated.  There’s no way to separate the two beings once they’ve been merged.  The second, we don’t know how many Cycksiks are already in transport.” 

            “What?” 

            “By our best calculations, the frequency takes about ten days to reach the Earth.  The first couple of inhabitants we’ve determined were test transmissions.  M e included.  Those were spaced out by two or three days each; according to the level of gestation of those subjects.  The most recent ones have been within a couple of hours.” 

            “We’ve deduced that the machine must need time to recharge, or that it takes longer for the transmitee to be converted to energy.” Major Tom included. 

            “Wait!” Colonel Courageous spat.  “You said ‘recent ones’.  How many are we talking?”  

            Major Tom and Dr. 253 looked at each other.  Even the alien’s eyes seemed saddened at the knowledge. 

            “In the past week…  A hundred and forty eight.”  The Doctor said quietly. 

            “A hundred and forty eight?  In six days?” 

            “The Cycsiks homeworld has only fifteen hours in a day, compared to your planet’s twenty four.”  Tom answered.  His cold alien voice masked his concern.  “By our estimates, there could be enough of them on Earth to take over the planet in a month’s time.” 

            “A hundred and forty eight.”  The Colonel repeated.  He covered his face with his hands in disbelief. 

            “We’ve been lucky so far,” Major Tom went on.  “And have been able to identify them shortly after implantation.  While this tactic is effective now, we will lose the advantage soon.”  

            “And,” Dr. 253 picked up, hoping to make Tom’s words easier to take.  “This is just the new ones.  We estimate there could be as many as twenty others that are under the radar – lying in wait and bidding their time.”   

            “Dammit!  This can’t be happening!” Colonel Courageous exclaimed. 

            “Gary…” the Doctor put a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “I need to know that you’re clear on what’s been going on.  Once a person has been infected, there is no cure.  If the Cycsiks is allowed to fully gestate inside the host…”  The Doctor didn’t finish his sentence.  He couldn’t. 

            “And we have to keep this a secret.  The public can’t know about this.  Any of this.”  He paused.  “Do you understand what I’m saying?” 

            The pain in the Colonel’s heart could be seen in his bloodshot eyes.  “Yes.  The people – the people that have been infected are being killed… by us.” 

            “Clockworx.”  Tom interjected.  “But you are correct.  We cannot allow them to reach full growth.”   

            “I have to stop this.  I have to stop this.”  The Colonel said, as if reciting a mantra.  “I’m supposed to help the people, not kill them.  The fate of the world…  It’s all up to me.” 

            “Seriously, Colonel.” Major Tom snipped.  “Don’t start believing your own press.” 

            “As it is, I’m the world’s only hope.  I take that pretty seriously.” 

            “There you go again.” Major Tom retorted.  “The great Earth savior.” 

            “You may not be human, Tomaskarian, but that doesn’t mean they can’t beam someone into you like they have everyone else.  If I’m not mistaken, you spent several years in their company.  There’s a chance that they still have your DNA stored somewhere.” 

            The alien’s eyes shifted as he considered the champions words.  After running the idea through his head over and again, he realized that the Colonel said was true. 

            “You are correct, Colonel.  I am just as susceptible as everyone.” 

            “Look, Tom.  I’m not so foolish that I think I can do this alone, and frankly I don’t want to.” The Colonel said in a frank tone.  Neither the Doctor nor Tom had ever heard him express modesty in any form.  The two were shocked, and a bit scared.  The one thing they could always count on was Colonel Courageous to be a wall of strength and arrogance. 

            As annoying as it was at times, there was a sense of comfort that came from his cockiness.  Very few people had the strength or power to put him down, and none had the power to keep him down.  He had lost only a handful of battles, and won every war.  To hear him admit that he didn’t feel that he was strong enough to fight this threat alone scared them. 

            “Doc,” the Colonel called to his longtime friend.  “You can hook him up like you did me, right?” 

            “I respectfully decline, if it’s all the same to you.  I have served my time as a lab rat.  It is not an experience I wish to repeat.  Besides, I have no need of becoming another one of the Doctor’s manufactured heroes.”  Major Tom refused the Colonel’s offer in the most polite way possible, for him. 

            “That wasn’t what I meant.”  Colonel Courageous hadn’t meant to offend the alien protector.  “I mean, I’m not…” 

            Tom scrunched up his face as he thought about his next set of words, choosing them very carefully. 

            “Thank you, but no.” the alien answered after nearly half a minute. 

            “Understood.” replied the Colonel. 

 

            The three sat in silence, each gaining new respect and a new understanding for the other.  It was Dr. 253 who finally broke the silence. 

            “If people only knew what it takes to save the world, huh?” 

            “True.” 

            “Agreed.” 

            “Well than,” the Doctor continued.  “Let’s talk about how we’re going to kick the hell out of the Cycsiks.”   He turned from the holographic viewer and headed for the base’s workshop. 

            “This way, gentlemen.”   

 

            Inside the enormous underground room were several large machines powered by a semi-spherical vibrating orb, with flaring spikes of energy.  The orb hovered inside a reverse gravitational field and pulsed with perpetual energy.   The orb changed colors with each pulse and flare. 

            The Colonel recognized one of the machines that were being powered by the pulsating ball of color.  It was smaller and more polished in its appearance than it was years earlier, but the glowing “door” of crackling energy was unmistakable.  The Slingshot, the trans-dimensional jump gate.  Just looking at the rebounding streams of force made his stomach do flips.  He had never forgotten the feeling of being transported halfway across the galaxy at the speed of light.  Ever since then, he always related any feeling of nausea to fighting the Cycsiks. 

           

            “What’s that?”  The Colonel said, inexplicably drawn to the beauty of the glowing power source. 

            “Careful.” Dr. 253 said, grabbing him by his arm and pulling him back.  “The simplest way to explain it is folded antimatter forged inside a black hole.”   

            “Is it dangerous?” 

            The Doctor started laughing so hard that it got stuck in his throat and he choked.  “Extremely.” 

            “Doc, how do you come up with this stuff?” 

            “He didn’t.” interjected Major Tom.” 

            “I borrowed the idea from Tom actually.  It’s what powers his equipment.  The jetpack, raygun, all of it.  This is a synthesized version.  The power core that he uses is about one hundredth this size.  This was my first attempt.  I should be able to get it smaller with future incarnations. 

            “Geez, Doc.  You’re a dangerous man.  I don’t know what we would do if your genius ever fell into the wrong hands, or if you switched sides.” 

            Doctor 253 looked down at his “new hands”, flipping them over to see both the backs and the palms.

            “We almost found out.” 

            He wasn’t used to the new him yet, and did his best to avoid confronting it.  It was also one of the reasons he started putting distance between him and Astronima again.  Being around her forced him to deal with what he had become.  He wasn’t ready for that yet. 

            “Anthony… I’m sorry.  I forgot.” the Colonel said quietly. 

            “It’s okay.  At least now I have a better appreciation for Robert Louis Stevenson.” the Doctor forced a chuckle. 

            “So,”  the Colonel said, changing the subject.  “We’re using the Slingshot again, eh?” 

            “Yes.” the Doctor smiled, given an excuse to avoid dealing with his personal problems.  “Unless there’s a receiver at the destination point, teleportation is impossible.  The Slingshot is all we have to get you there, and back.” 

            “This time, though,” Major Tom butted in.  “We’re setting the return for one hour.” 

            “Thank God.” Colonel Courageous said with relief.  “Last time, those two hours seemed like an eternity.  I was afraid you’d end up yanking back two dead bodies.”    

            “Yes.  We won’t have to worry about trying to stay alive like we did last time.  The only drawback is we will only have an hour to find the energy transference device and destroy it before be pulled back to Earth.” 

            Major Tom turned away from Colonel Courageous and looked at Dr. 253.  “Doctor?” 

            “There’s one more thing.” The Doctor said, picking up from Tom’s cue.  “I’m not sure if you remember, but the trip is going to take about two hours, both ways.  Due to time dilation, a week will have passed here on Earth during those two hours.” 

            “So, you’re saying on Earth, we’ll be gone for a total of two weeks?”  

            “Fourteen days, five hours.” 

            The Colonel let out a deep sigh.  He turned to the machine next to the Slingshot and studied it.  The other machine was unknown to him.  It was impressive, as all of the Doctor’s inventions were, but to need the amount of power that the sphere put out meant that it was equally as powerful.  The Colonel didn’t understand what any of the buttons, knobs, or switches did, but he recognized function monitors and regulators when he saw them.  Whatever the machine did, it had four system regulators, each with its own redundancy backup. 

 

            “Tell me, what’s this other thing?” 

            “I call it a harmonic nullifier.  It generates planetary gravitational wells that realign affected star systems to one another without a shift in the universal harmony.” 

            “What does that mean?” questioned the Colonel.  Any explanation that took so many big words was never a good thing. 

            “What the Doctor means to say, is that it’s a planet killer.  The weapon will cause the planet to implode, but maintain the orbital balance of the remaining planets and stars to keep the neighboring planets from being destroyed.” Tom explained bluntly. 

            “You said ‘the planet’.  You’re planning on using this on the Cycsiks homeworld?”    

            “Only as a last resort.” the Doctor added.  “If your attack fails, we’ll have no choice but to use it.” 

            “This is getting pretty intense.”  Colonel Courageous looked around the workstation for a place to sit.  He saw a chair against the wall and walked over to it.    He fell back into the chair, bending the lightweight metal frame with his weight.  Suddenly, his face became hot and his hands started to tingle. 

            “You look flush.” His friend said, focusing a small red light into his eyes.  “You feeling ok?” 

            “Huh?  I’m fine, all things considered.  It’s been a helluva day.” 

            “Hey, this was your idea, remember?  Take ‘em out by any means necessary.” 

            “Not just that, all of it.” 

            “All of what?” 

            “You don’t know?”  The Colonel had to laugh at the two men, living under both a proverbial and literal rock.  “I just found out I fathered a child with Jonni Cordalis sixteen years ago.  And about three hours ago she tried to kill me.” 

            The mixture of expressions on Dr. 253’s face made him look like a living Picasso.  He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  He chose the former, and erupted in a torturous fit of laughter. 

            “You find this funny?”  the Colonel asked.  Even Major Tom had the start of a smirk cross his face. 

            “More like karma?”  laughed the Doctor. 

            “Bastards.”

            “Enough of this frivolity!  We need to discuss our strategy for attack, or have you forgotten that we have a planet to save?” 

            “You’re right.” answered the Colonel.  He found the strength to lift from the chair and steadied himself on his feet.  “I’m ready.” 

            “It’s simple enough.” Tom began.  “Once we arrive on the Cycsiks’ homeworld, we’ll make our way to the device, destroying everything in sight.” 

            “How will we find the energy whatsits?” the Colonel questioned. 

            “The Doctor is putting the finishing touches on an energy tracer to pinpoint the location of the energy transference device.  That’s where he’ll send us.” 

            “And with that said, I need to get back to work.” said the Doctor.  “If you’ll excuse me.” 

 

            Dr. 253 went back to work, leaving the other two men to alone. 

            The Colonel looked at the alien and gave him a polite nod.  He extended his hand and wait for the alien to accept.            

            “Thank you for your help.  We may have our differences, but that never stops you from being there when I need you.” 

            Major Tom stared at the hero.  He kept his hands to his side, refusing to acknowledge the courteous gesture.

            “I’m not human, Colonel.  Why do you insist on treating me like I am?” 

            “I don’t.  I treat you like a man.  Regardless of what you may think of yourself, the people of this world see you as a hero.  From where I stand, I see no reason to disagree.” 

            Colonel Courageous clapped a hand down on Major Tom’s shoulder as he walked around him.  He moved slow, as if every muscle screamed fire and death. 

            “You’re a good man, Tomaskarian.  Now if you’ll excuse me.  I need to lay down for a bit.” 

            The alien didn’t move.  His body stood still, as if cast in plaster, but his mind raced.  His thoughts raged like rogue comets, careening out of control and crashing into one another.  A hero?  A good man?  The Colonel certainly thought so, but was he really?  Major Tom thought about the champion hero’s words. 

            No.  No, he wasn’t a hero, or a good man.  He was a murderer on a mission of vengeance.  He had helped others in his quest for revenge, but that was based on a mutual need to achieve the same goal.  There was nothing selfless in his actions.  Everything was based on his own needs.  His arrival on Earth and the agreement he made with the United States government and their military was based solely on his wants. 

            The alien wondered:  Had he done some good things during that time?  Had he in some way redeemed himself for his past indiscretions?  Colonel Courageous thought so, but didn’t know the truth about who he was; Tomaskarian, wanted murder.  All he knew was Tomaskarian tortured prisoner turned extraterrestrial guinea pig, turned escaped slave.  Maybe there was a part of him that was a good man.  A part of him that could be a hero. 

            Maybe.

            Maybe.    

 

 

 

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