Part 12 – Freedom Squad Nanowrimo (long one)
Okay, this is a long section and my personal favorite part of the book so far. Like everything else, it needs a solid rewrite and I’ll work on getting it polished for publication later. As always, I’d love any comments, thoughts, feedback, etc. I’d especially like to thank my old Champions groups with an extra shout to Wayland Smith, Mr. Gambino and Jeff Smith for some of the inspiration.
Protector had run all the way to the Monitor Room. When he sat down in the central chair, he felt strangely tired. His skin seemed warm, and he felt flushed. Maybe Dr. Lord had been right to keep him off duty.
He watched the Freedom Flyer take off on the roof camera. Despite how he felt physically, he wished that he could be with the others. It was what he was supposed to do.
He was the Protector.
With a heavy exhale, he tried to replay the battle in the park in his head. He considered how he might have been able to stop Defiance. Perhaps if he had maneuvered in front of a shattered statue of one of the heroes of the original Freedom Squad, it might have triggered something in Defiance’s mind. There was a hero still inside that angry caped man in red and white. He had ordered the villains not to kill Freedom Squad. He had tried to talk to Alex about the Protector, Defiance’s Protector.
Alex took his eyes off the monitors. He hadn’t even really known Walter Blythe, the last Protector, but he knew what the man had stood for. The memory of Walter dying on the ground still haunted him.
“I will be a light in the darkness, a hope for the helpless and I will bring justice to the unjust,” Alex said, knowing full well that he would never prove himself worthy of the legacy he had blundered into. “But I’ll die trying.”
When he raised his eyes back to the monitor screens, every single one had gone black.
“What’s going on?” he said, getting to his feet and readying the Shield of Justice.
A white dot appeared in the center of each screen. The dot whirled around, spinning as it grew larger, until a white spade, like the sort on a playing card became visible. It grew to fill each screen, making them go from black to white.
He tried his communicator. It was dead.
A dark shape formed in the center of the white screens and grew rapidly. Alex could make out a man in a black costume with a black hood and a white spade on his chest sitting in a white chair on a white background. The man stared directly at Alex, but there was something wrong with his eyes, something that gave Protector an itching feeling on the inside of his skull.
“Greetings, Protector. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m the Ace of Spades.” His voice was soft but confident.
He leaned his elbow on the arm of the white chair and the camera followed him. Alex reached for the Monitor Room controls, but they were dead. The lights turned off inside the base, with the exception of the monitors.
Protector straightened, and despite the itching, he met the Ace’s gaze. “What do you want?” Alex asked.
“I’m afraid that your team leader, Rigel, has begun to get a bit uppity. I’m afraid that she’s started to investigate things that she should leave alone. As long as she stays a good superhero and goes after the villains that I want her to send to prison, everything will be okay. Unfortunately, she’s a bit stubborn.”
Protector cautiously glanced around the room, trying to determine if there were any other threats.
“Alex, I’m the only threat you need to worry about,” said the Ace.
“I’m the Protector,” Alex stated.
“Yes, there’s that,” sighed the Ace. “To answer your earlier question, I’m interested in you.”
“Rigel’s a mentalist, Nightstar has his own psychic gifts, Starlight’s an alien, Rockslide can barely communicate and who knows how granite thinks, and Ion has a tremendously active nervous system. That leaves you. A man with no mutant powers, no psychic abilities, and no powers, just a magical shield and some martial arts training. You are the perfect member of this team to be my pawn. Now, without any other delays, let’s start.”
Protector raised his shield and covered his eyes.
“It doesn’t work like that,” whispered the Ace from inside his head.
Alex lowered the shield and stood stiffly. “I am ready to obey.”
The Ace of Spades laughed for an instant, then stopped abrupty. “It doesn’t work like that, Alex. You aren’t going to fool me. I’ll be able to tell.”
Alex felt his brain burning. He convulsed and fell to the floor.
“You belong to me, Alex,” whispered the Ace from inside his own thoughts.
“I’m the Protector,” he thought.
“No, you aren’t. You are an opportunist who took that shield from the Protector’s dead body.”
“I’m the Protector. I am the light in the darkness. I am hope for the helpless. I fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”
Alex’s spine now felt as if it were on fire as well as his brain.
“That pain has got to be excruciating. If you would stop resisting, it would go away,” said the Ace. “Alex, I’ve broken stronger men and women, much stronger ones.”
“I… am… the… Protector, and I will not fail. I cannot fail.”
“Seriously? You believe all of that. And yes, I see that you do. Alex, you realize that you are marginally on the insane side of rationality. Stop fighting and help me. Walter did. Take a look.”
Images flooded into Alex’s mind of Walter Blythe wearing the costume and carrying the shield. He had been Alex’s hero even from childhood. He saw Walter trying to finish a drink with dozens of empty bottles lying on a couch around him. Walter was holding a playing card… the Ace of Spades. The Protector spoke on a phone, “Of course, sir. I’ll deal with Defiance for you.”
“See?” said the Ace. “Everything you believe… that whole mantra is just a lie. They all were exactly what you are, men who blundered into the shield. It’s all the Shield of Justice, the Aegis if you like. The men and women who’ve possessed it were just men and women. There has never been the sort of Protector that exists in your imagination… Alex.”
Anger welled up inside of Alex, a righteous unquenchable fury. “You are wrong.”
“Actually, Alex, everything I’ve shown you is the truth. Walter Blythe worked for me. Why do you think I wanted a Protector on this team?”
Blinding pain ripped through Alex. He didn’t care. “You are wrong.”
“What am I wrong about?”
Alex gritted his teeth and clenched his fingers around the strap of the Shield of Justice. In his mind’s eye, the shield shone with a bright gold light. He concentrated, finding strength in all of the mental discipline he had developed in a lifetime of martial arts training. Despite the pain and the unnatural sensation that he now had that something was reaching into his thoughts, into his memories, he forced himself back to his feet.
“You are wrong about the Protector.” Alex managed to say. He felt tears of raw emotion on his cheeks. “It doesn’t matter what you tell me about everyone who has ever had the honor of carrying this shield.”
“Since you are proving far more formidable than I anticipated, please tell me why. I enjoy challenges. I find them so rarely. You realize that I could knock you unconscious with a thought.” The Ace of Spades almost sounded pleased.
Alex thought about every story he had heard about the Protector. All the stories of the Protector saving soldiers during World War II, all the stories of the Protector that he had used to push himself in the dojo, the dreams that he had had of ancient Greek heroes, the voices of men and women which he could imagine shouting that someone needed a hero, that the innocent needed a hero, a Protector.
“You are wrong because…” Alex started, pausing to grit his teeth and will his legs not to buckle.
“Out with it, Alex,” said the Ace. “Unless you were planning to give up. That would be acceptable as well.”
“Because… I am the Protector.”
“How are you even coherent enough to form a sentence?” snarled the Ace, as he stood up from his chair. “How are you resisting me? Did Rigel do something to your mind?”
“I’m resisting because I have to. Because I’m…”
“I know. You’re the Protector. Fine, Alex, it appears that someone finally lived up to the myth of the Protector. But, you and I both know you have doubts. I’m sorry, but we are going to have to this the hard way. Goodnight, Alex.”
A tremendous shock went through Alex. He tried to repeat to himself, “I am the Protector. I cannot give up.”
Protector crashed to the floor, and his world went black.
Alex opened his eyes. He was in his apartment, wearing a t-shirt and jeans. His cell phone rang.
He grabbed it. The caller was identified as the Ace of Spades. Alex answered anyway.
“Hello,” he said.
“Welcome to your dreams, Alex, or rather your nightmares. We are going to take a tour of your subconscious until I find a way to break you. If you’d prefer to have this go more gently, just willingly surrender yourself to me.”
“I need to tell you something, Ace of Spades.”
“Every moment that you fail to overwhelm me brings my team closer to returning. And if there’s something that I believe in almost as much as my duty as the Protector, it’s Freedom Squad.”
Rigel materialized in the room. “G’day, Alex. Well done. Now, get your costume on.”
With a thought, Alex was wearing his Protector uniform and holding his shield.
“I’m not going to give up,” said Alex. “I can’t. I’m…”
“I know… you are the Protector. I’m not an idiot. Fine, I’m convinced. You are the Protector. So, let’s see what kind of weaknesses you have, Protector? Why don’t we start with the shapely young woman beside you in the skintight neospandex? Don’t tell me that you don’t want her. I’m in your subconscious. Hardly the sort of thoughts that an upstanding paragon of virtue should have. Galahad would be disappointed if he were here today.”
“Everyone has moments of weakness. It’s our actions that define us. I choose to do what is right,” said Protector.
“Fine,” said the Ace, sounding rather put out.
The door to the apartment flew open, revealing a darkened rain-slicked alley. The Ace of Spades stood over the body of a woman.
“This looks like a delightful scene. Let me guess, the tragedy that defined you.”
Protector walked out into the alley.
The Ace said, “Are you sure you want to do that? Rigel’s still on the couch in the apartment. She can’t help you here.”
“You are wrong. Rigel always helps me, even when she’s not here. She inspires me and gives me faith. As for this memory, you’re right. It was a tragedy. I was on patrol, and I didn’t find this woman in time. I’ve had to accept that I can’t stop every tragedy,” said Protector, “but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try.”
The Ace of Spades walked slowly around Protector. “Well, the only other tragedy that I’ve found is the death of your predecessor, and we both know that will only inspire you. So, how about a more practical question? Why haven’t you tried to hit me yet?”
“Because what I’m doing is working. I’m resisting you. If your mental powers could control me so easily, why are you asking so many questions? Why not just pull the answers out of my mind?”
“I’m starting to believe I miscalculated,” said the Ace.
A wave of nausea washed over Alex. “I am the Protector,” he repeated for his own benefit. Things were happening in the back corners of his mind as they talked, uncomfortable things.
The Ace of Spades kept talking. “You do have a bit of madness or perhaps an obsessive disorder about being heroic. Right now, I’m sorting through your memories. Think of me going through your childhood home and opening the doors to every single room, talking with your mother and father. Looks like you spent some time in army bases. Military family… actually, I knew that. And your parents are alive and happily married. That’s disappointing. So tell me, what happened to you? I give up. I can’t find it.”
“I became the Protector.”
“Not that! I’m talking about the horrific tragedy that shaped you, the childhood abuse, the bullying, the great tragedy, the crime committed against your friends or family that drove you to be this way. Where is it hidden? Have you blocked it out?”
Voices whispered to Alex, calling him unworthy, begging him to surrender, suggesting that he could become a cripple or die. All he had to do was to give in.
“I can’t give up. I have a responsibility,” Protector said.
“Yes, but why do you accept that responsibility? You’ve always wanted to be a superhero,” the Ace gestured down the alley and a young Alex ran through his house with a towel stuffed into the back of his shirt. “I’m curious. I want to know how you keep resisting. ”
Protector grabbed the Ace of Spades by his shirt. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Let me guess,” said the Ace, “because you’re the Protector?”
“No,” said Alex, “because I have to. Because somewhere a child is crying because she’s afraid of the thunder or of her parents arguing outside of her bedroom. Because right now, there is a woman walking home nervously looking around hoping that she hasn’t been followed. Because there is a fire or a flood and people need to be rescued. Because there are evil men and women with powers and without and someone needs to stand up to them.”
“You can’t save all of those people or stop all the evil in the world. You admitted it yourself.”
“I give them hope.”
“Walter entrusted me with this shield, because he said that I understood the difference between right and wrong and he knew that I would do what was right. That’s why I am the Protector. And maybe I can’t win against the evil of the world, but even if I save just one person, I will make a difference.”
The whispers stopped. The Ace of Spades stared silently at Protector.
“So let’s see where all this knowledge came from…” said the Ace.
The alley was suddenly filled with a rain of brightly-colored covers featuring heroes and villains while windows formed in the walls of the alley displaying digital images of comic panels.
“Comic books?” said the Ace. “That’s what little Alex used to make himself grow up into a superhero? No tragedy, no terrible dark desire for vengeance, but comic books?”
“My parents bought them for me, and what else would you study if you wanted to be a superhero?”
Seeing all of the titles that he had read over the years, back issues, graphic novels, coupled with digital comics, cartoons, movies and video games gave Alex an idea. This was his mind, this was his dream world.
And he knew that his imagination was filled with superheroes.
Suddenly, Alex and the Ace of Spades were transported to the front lawn of Freedom Squad Headquarters, but it was decorated with the symbols of all the hero teams that he had ever admired in his youth, the real ones and the fictional ones. They were there all around him, wearing their symbols proudly, capes blowing in the wind, every type of energy imaginable glowing from their hands and eyes.
And Alex stood at the forefront of them.
“Thank you for reminding me exactly where I came from,” he said to the Ace of Spades.
The Ace backed away.
“You win,” said the Ace of Spades, sounding troubled as if the images of so many heroes bothered him. “I’m terribly sorry, Alex. You are a far better man than I. Probably a far better man than anyone I’ve met. You’ve convinced me that I can’t break your resolve. We could do this for a hundred years and I doubt you’d give up.”
“So you surrender?” asked Protector.
“No,” said the Ace in a soft and deadly voice. The skies above turned dark and the heroes began to vanish. “I’m going to have to kill you. You are only human in the end.”
The world became an inferno. The Protector was falling through flames, and everything around him was ablaze. He clung to his shield and tried to call forth the images of the heroes he had known.
But he couldn’t remember them. The Ace of Spades was destroying his mind.
“I am the Protector,” he said, trying to imagine that his shield could block whatever the Ace was doing.
He remembered the night that he had defeated Promethea. He remembered pulling a child out of a burning building. He remembered defending Rigel from Pyroclast during one of his first real battles.
Walter spoke to him. “You are hope for the helpless.”
It was Rigel’s voice.
He needed to open his eyes.
He tried, but he couldn’t. He was falling, helpless.
“But I am the hope for the helpless. I am the Protector,” he thought.
A brilliant light wiped away the flames.
“It has to be a side effect of those alien tubes I used on him. I should have been watching him.”
Alex thought he could taste blood.
“Alex, wake up, right now. That’s an order! Alex, we need you. Alex, people are in danger and they need the Protector.”
The voice sounded like Rigel, and he thought that she might be crying.
People were in danger.
“I am the Protector,” he thought.
He couldn’t let them down.
Alex opened his eyes. He saw Rigel and Nightstar leaning over him. Someone shouted behind them.
“He’s awake,” said Nightstar.
“Ace of Spades,” Protector gasped before closing his eyes again.
Posted on November 20, 2013, in Freedom Squad, HeroNet Files, NaNoWriMo and tagged Freedom Squad, Harry Heckel, HeroNet, HeroNet Files, Nanowrimo, Nanowrimo Novel, Protector, Rigel, superhero, Superhero Nanowrimo, Superhero team. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.