The next morning, Rigel was in the Monitor Room reviewing as many files as she could. Starlight stood quietly behind her, observing.
“May I be of assistance in some manner?” he asked.
“Do you know anything about magic or the Death Queen?”
“Yes, the Death Queen is the code name used by the super-villainess Monica Black, a reputed necromancer with the ability to animate and control the dead. Most notably, she was involved in yesterday’s prison break when a guard suffered a heart attack in the vicinity of her cell. Before a medical response team could reach him, she is believed to have used magic to reanimate him. As for the nature of magic, I believe that it involves quantum and extra-dimensional events which remain inexplicable to your species. Quantum fluxes do cause issues with my systems however.”
“Not bad, Starlight. You already seem to be better than your predecessor. Death Queen made sure that a powerful villain known as Golem broke free, and then, she released Defiance. Once he was free, everything went crazy.”
“I am aware,” he said coldly, or rather flatly. There was no emotion in his voice. He was rather like some Hollywood robot.
“Well done, Starlight.”
“Thank you, Rigel. Would you prefer for me to call you Cori in the base?”
Cori looked over at him, seeing that strange mask and feeling strange inside. It was more than the featureless mask that bothered her. It was his thoughts. She couldn’t read them. He was something unknown, something that she couldn’t explain. He wasn’t human.
“Am I bothering you, Rigel?” he asked in his flat tones.
She wasn’t even sure how Starlight talked.
“How familiar are you with human behavior?” she asked.
“I require more data,” Starlight said.
“You might want to watch some television, and you probably should call me Rigel.“
“Excellent suggestion. Thank you, Rigel. How is your query proceeding?” he asked.
“I’m not finding anything significant on Psionicist.” She sighed. Dossiers on Psionicist showed on multiple screens. No family, no identity, no information on his powers except for media reports and nothing to help her. Even HeroNet had nothing of value, and they always had information on heroes.
“Nothing,” she repeated.
“That in itself may be a worthwhile observation. I will now watch some television.”
Cori paused and considered Starlight’s statement. She looked back over Psionicist’s information. There was nothing significant, but he was currently in a coma in a hospital in New York. He might not be conscious, but perhaps she could reach him.
She picked up her communicator, even as she looked over some information on the jailbreak. “Protector? Are you available for monitor duty?”
“Yes, Rigel, of course, but what are we doing about the tryouts?”
“Oh, they are delayed for a day or two. We need to track down some of these villains who escaped. Listen, I’d like you on monitor duty if you don’t mind. I trust you, and I think you’d be a good choice to watch and coordinate everything. I have some investigating to do.”
“You shouldn’t go alone.”
“True. I’ll take Nightstar with me,” she said.
Less than an hour later, she and Nightstar had flown from Megalopolis to New York via Freedom Flyer and were answering questions from hospital security.
Nightstar adjusted his mirrorshades as they exited the Freedom Flyer into a bright New York City morning. “So, let me get this straight one last time, you got flight authority into New York pushed through because you think that Psionicist can give us some insight into capturing Defiance.”
“That’s right,” she said, trying not to look amused.
Hospital security approached.
“Look, I think I know what you are going to do, Cori, and I’m not sure about it,” Nightstar whispered.
She looked at him, feeling strangely close to him, and noticing those shoulders of his beneath his black bodysuit. “Please trust me,” she whispered back.
He nodded and looked over at the hospital security personnel in their dark blue uniforms.
“G’day,” said Rigel, stepping forward and extending her gloved hand. “We’re from Freedom Squad.”
“Why do you wish to see Psionicist?” asked the man in front, who seemed to be the head of security.
“Defiance, the man who put him into this hospital, escaped yesterday,” said Rigel.
The man cleared his throat and looked over at Nightstar for validation.
“Yes,” said Nightstar shuffling with slight discomfort, “like Rigel, the team leader of Freedom Squad, the new one in Megalopolis, just said, it has to do with Defiance. The exact reasoning is classified.”
“Understood, Nightstar, sir,” the man said.
Cori rolled her eyes. “Thank you for clarifying my statement, Nightstar.”
The hospital seemed like any other hospital, other than the extra security guards and a number of cameras. Rigel couldn’t help but notice the number of cameras. “This would be perfect for someone like an Ace of Spades.”
The smell of rubbing alcohol and cleaning supplies filled the air. Loudspeakers made announcements and nurses quietly discussed their charges. As Rigel and Nightstar walked through the halls behind the head of security, conversations stopped and everyone grew quiet.
“Hello, everyone,” said Nightstar, “Don’t mind us, we are just here to pay our respects to a fallen hero.”
Cori hoped that no one would ask Nightstar for his autograph.
The guards in front of Psionicist’s door checked their badges. Fingerprints and retina scans were checked before they were allowed to enter.
A thin pale man lay in a hospital bed hooked up to monitors with a feeding tube. There was a nurse in the room, a man who looked like a backup linebacker for the New York Giants. “Nightstar?” he said. “It’s an honor.”
The nurse came over, “I’m Gabe Lincoln. My kids won’t believe this.” He offered his hand, and Nightstar took it.
“Good to meet you,” said Nightstar. “How’s Psionicist?”
Gabe shrugged and looked over at the man in the bed. He went over and adjusted the sheet. “He doesn’t change. You know that they don’t even know who he is.”
Rigel swallowed. “I know.”
“Yeah,” said Gabe, “This has to do with Defiance escaping, doesn’t it? He did this to Psionicist.”
“Mr. Lincoln, could we have some time alone with Psionicist?”
“Sorry, I stay, short of getting an order from the President. It’s for medical reasons.”
Rigel nodded. “I’m going to try and help him.”
Gabe Lincoln raised his right eyebrow. “What? Are you some kind of mutant healer?”
“No,” answered Rigel, “I’m a telepath. I’m going to try and talk to him. He has mental powers, like me. I can’t imagine being like that. And if he can help me apprehend Defiance, then all the better.”
“Whoa,” said Gabe. “I’m not sure.”
Nightstar stepped over to the foot of the bed, with Rigel on one side and Gabe on the other. “Watch his monitors. This is the best hope he has. Trust me. She saved me with her telepathy one time.”
Gabe paused, but there was something about Nightstar that convinced him. “Ma’am?”
“Yes?” said Rigel.
She smiled. “You just make sure that I don’t hurt him.”
Rigel closed her eyes and reached out with her thoughts. She could “see” the room without her eyes, from the glowing mind of Gabe Lincoln, to the bright shining light of Nightstar shrouded by faint wisps of the darkness imprisoned inside him, to the faint glow of the man lying on the bed.
She felt as if she flew into Psionicist’s soul.
His mind was shattered. She envisioned it as a ruined city, dark and twisted beams of metal stretching for her, broken glass scattered over shattered pavement and everywhere, dark smoke rising into the air. She flew through the ruins, searching for light and truth, trying to find him.
“Psionicist, my name is Rigel. I’ve come to help you. Are you here?” she thought.
She heard a faint weeping sound. She willed herself to fly toward the sound, uncertain of what she might discover – a shattered and incomplete individual, a fragment of a dream, a subconscious remnant of his youth? Whatever it was, she hoped that she could help him.
She saw him, sitting at an intersection, huddled in a woven blanket. She landed in front of him.
“No,” the man cried, “no, no, no, no, never.”
He looked up at her with wide eyes. He was a thin man, Hispanic perhaps, in his early forties. Although she could understand his thoughts, she knew that they weren’t in English. He was angry and scared.
“Who are you?” she asked, not coming too close to him.
“Carlos Jorge Hernandez Ruiz.”
She knelt down within arm’s length of him. “What do you know about Psionicist?”
“He is a nightmare that I have, a nightmare that I can’t escape. He took over my life.” He reached out toward her with shaking hands. “Are you real? Can you take me home?”
She took his hand. “You’ve been hurt. Please tell me what you know about Psionicist.”
“I was trapped here. He controlled me. He spoke with my body. He saw with my eyes. He is there.”
Carlos pointed to a dark smoke-filled alley next to what appeared to be a burned church.
“He is there!”
Rigel put a hand on his shoulder. As reassuringly as she could, she said, “I’ll go over there. I’ll find him.”
“Are you an angel?”
“No,” she said, “I’m a superhero.”
She stood up and walked over to the alley. Something about it frightened her. Her stomach twisted, and she felt her pulse beat in her neck. She took a few yoga breaths to calm herself, breathing in through the nose and out through the nose. She reminded herself that nothing she saw was real, just telepathic images. While Carlos might be afraid, she had no need to worry.
She stepped into the alley. “I’m Rigel of Freedom Squad,” she said, placing her hands on her hips. “Come out.”
A strange sound echoed in the alley. It was a sound she didn’t recognize, a sound like a fan, but lighter and sharper, like pages in a book being turned slowly.
“I am Psionicist,” came a voice.
Rigel folded her arms across her chest and tapped her right foot. “No, I don’t think so. Prove it.” She reached out as best she could with her telepathy, trying to look beyond the scene that she found herself in, trying to look deeper.
“There’s a letter for you. Not for Carlos, but for you,” said the voice.
A sudden chill came over her, and she shuddered involuntarily. An envelope rested at her feet. She bent down to pick it up, and as she did, the sound became louder. She ripped it open and reached inside.
Everything around her had a dreamlike quality to it. She had entered a dark smoke-filled alley, but there was light and no smoke. She drew the contents of the envelope out with two fingers. It was a playing card.
The Ace of Spades.
“Now, we are going to find out how powerful of a telepath you really are,” said the voice, and this time, it came from inside her head.
“The Ace of Spades doesn’t exist,” she said.
“You don’t believe that,” the voice replied, “you know I exist. That’s why you are here.”
“Carlos isn’t Psionicist. You set him up. You set up Defiance.”
The entire world was spinning around her. Shapes were losing their form. It was as if she were caught in the eye of a tornado, complete with howling winds. She felt as if she were being swept away from Kansas, and somehow, she knew that what was happening was far worse than that.
She was being swept away from her own mind.
“It doesn’t matter,” replied the voice, the voice that she knew came from the Ace of Spades, “because you are staying here with Carlos. I left a little surprise for lesser minds that might meddle. This, I’m afraid, is a trap built for someone like you. You made a psychic connection, and those work both ways.”
Rigel felt her heart pounding. “There’s one mistake you’ve made, Ace or whatever little mental construct that the Ace left for me.”
“I’m part of a team,” she said. With every fiber of her being, she thought, “Nightstar!”
However, she didn’t know if Nightstar could hear her. There was someone closer. “Carlos!” she shouted. “Help me fight your enemy. I’ve found him. Carlos, if you can, he’s here.”
“No, he can’t be defeated,” replied Carlos.
“Yes, he can! Carlos, I need you to try,” shouted Rigel. “Nightstar! I need you!”
She hoped that Nightstar could strike her with his psychic blade, knowing that if he broke her telepathic connection to Carlos, she’d be safe. But, if Carlos could help her…
“I am here,” announced Carlos. The huddled scared man was standing tall beside her.
“Thank you,” she said. “Listen, this is your mind. I don’t care who or what the Ace of Spades is. This is your mind. I need you to drive him out.”
“But how, I don’t have the strength. He controlled me, made me pretend to be Psionicist.”
“I understand,” she said, “but I will give you strength. Take my hand and wish with all your heart, with every fiber of your being that the Ace of Spades is gone and that you want to wake up.”
“Carlos,” said Rigel, screaming to be heard over the maelstrom surrounding them, “I need you to do this. I need you to believe.”
“For you, my superhero, I will do my best.”
The howling of the whirlwind stopped, as did the other noise, which Cori now recognized as the sound of a flipping playing card just on a grand scale.
“You can’t win. Carlos cannot defeat me.”
Rigel squeezed Carlos’ hand. “Yes, he can,” she said, and with that, she focused her energies through him. “Drive him out Carlos. Take back your mind.”
“YES!” yelled Carlos.
The ruined city shattered in a burst of light. The playing card in Rigel’s hand caught fire. She caught her breath.
“You did it. I’ll see you when you wake up.”
With that, the world faded. Rigel glimpsed a hospital room as she lost her balance and nearly her consciousness. She waited for the impact on the floor, but instead, she felt Nightstar’s strong arms around her.
“I’ve got her,” Nightstar said.
“Superhero…” said a weak rasping voice from the hospital bed.
“He’s awake,” shouted Gabe. “She did it.”
“Rigel, are you okay?” asked Nightstar.
As she thought about the Ace of Spades, she shook her head no.
“What is it?” he asked, sounding concerned.
Her mouth felt dry. She heard Gabe open the door and shout for assistance. Carlos was mumbling on the bed.
“That man isn’t Psionicist. We need to get back to Freedom Squad before….”
She swallowed and telepathically answered Nightstar, not wanting to speak. “Before the Ace of Spades finds out what we’ve done.”
Daniel Hunter was awake when Cori’s call reached him. “Hello, Cori,” he said.
“Are you on an encrypted line?” she asked.
“Do superheroes have any unencrypted lines?” he replied with a chuckle.
“True. Okay, what do you know about Defiance?” she asked. Cori felt a twisting worry in her stomach. She paced around her room, walking back and forth at the end of her bed. As much as she tried to reassure herself that Daniel was a technical genius and a former superhero, all she could think was that he was over forty and a normal human. “You should probably be wearing one of your Poltergeist suits.”
“I’m fine, Cori, and I’m not worried. You should do some of your yoga. It’ll help relax you.”
“I’m ignoring the yoga suggestion for now. Seriously, Homeland Security warned me that Defiance might go after you.”
“If he does, I’ll let you know. Listen, Cori, I knew Bill, I mean Defiance. He was a good hero, a little hot-headed, but he was a good hero.”
Cori paused. Her father had always said that Daniel Hunter was an excellent judge of character. There was also something strange in Daniel’s tone, almost melancholy.
“Daniel, what happened to Defiance?”
It was Daniel’s turn to pause. Cori wished that she had the video-conferencing feature activated. She wanted to see Daniel’s expression.
“He made a terrible mistake. He attacked a group of cosplayers, and he couldn’t accept what had happened. I suspect Psionicist tried to use some type of mind control on him, and Bill didn’t take it well. In the end, he surrendered. He just knelt over Psionicist’s body mumbling the same thing over and over.”
“What was he saying?”
Daniel sighed. “He kept saying, ‘He was the Ace of Spades,” like it was a mantra. I think he was trying to convince himself. I had to do it.”
“Daniel, who is the Ace of Spades?”
Daniel cleared his throat and forced a sad chuckle. “Cori, there is no Ace of Spades. There’s no such thing. He’s a myth, a fairy tale, a story that criminals tell to scare each other. When things go wrong, crime lords blame the Ace of Spades. He’s solo operatives, like the hero Argent, or other criminal organizations who disrupt plans and cause issues that criminal organizations don’t anticipate. He’s a bogeyman that master criminals blame for their own failings.”
“Wait,” said Cori, “I thought he was a criminal, not a hero. Why would he be something that criminals would be concerned with? And what is the myth that criminals like to tell each other? Who do they believe he is?”
Cori kept thinking about Agent King. Stacy believed in the Ace of Spades. She had wanted Rigel to know that she believed in the Ace of Spades.
Cori reminded herself that she needed to get used to thinking of herself as Rigel and not mentally refer to herself in the third person.
“Slow down, Cori. First, if he existed, which he doesn’t, he is definitely supposed to be a criminal. Criminals fear competition more than they fear heroes. Most of us obey laws – villains don’t. As far as the myth, it can be convoluted, but generally, he’s supposed to be a genius, usually a hacker and/or engineer who either was arrested as a youth or forcibly recruited by a major criminal organization, something like Dr. Inferno’s cults. As the story goes, he learned everything he could from the criminals he associated with until he was ready to break out on his own. He then used his abilities to steal, scavenge, salvage and take over operations built by other criminals. He’s reputedly untraceable, a phantom, a nearly virtual entity with resources now on the scale of a major corporation or small country. Think of him as a ‘shadow government’ or other conspiracy theory organization in the form of a single individual.”
“Someone like that would be incredibly dangerous,” she said.
“That’s true, except for one thing,” said Daniel.
“What?” asked Cori.
“He doesn’t exist,” stated Daniel.
“Right. I know. I’m just trying to understand what Defiance might be thinking and what he might do,” she said. She didn’t like lying to Daniel, but if the Ace of Spades did exist, he might be able to monitor her communicator or Daniel’s line, even if it had been encrypted by Poltergeist.
She glanced around her room, noting the various security cameras and thinking about the number of security scanners that ran throughout Freedom Squad Headquarters. What if someone could use them to watch her?
“Daniel, could we get together for lunch sometime? I miss you. We could even meet somewhere as Poltergeist and Rigel.”
“Sure,” he said, “but no costumes. I’m retired. Send something to my scheduler.”
“Will do. Thanks, Daniel.”
“Cori, one last thing,” he said, “be careful.”
“No worries,” she said with a smile that she didn’t feel. “Bye, Daniel.’
She sat down on her bed, debating about whether to mentally command her costume to shift into something more relaxing. Her head still hurt.
“Off,” she said aloud, letting the costume flow off of her. She needed to sleep.
She climbed into bed, lay down on her pillow and closed her eyes. As she drifted off, she imagined that somewhere the Ace of Spades might be real and be watching. As she cautioned herself not to be paranoid, she slipped into a restless sleep.
Uberdude had been the last of the super-villains to put up a fight, but it seemed to Cori as if the aftermath of the battle lasted forever. At some point, Protector grabbed her arm to help steady her. Now that the rush of combat had worn off, she wanted a pillow.
Instead, she had to spend her time talking with officials and answering questions. Poor Rockslide had nearly been locked up as somcame Homeland Security agents had confused him for a super-villain. She wasn’t sure exactly when the team got back to Freedom Squad Headquarters.
“Home,” Rigel breathed as she stepped out of the Freedom Flyer.
“I’ll take Nightstar to the med lab,” said Protector.
“I can walk. I’m just a little dizzy,” replied Nightstar. “I think the guy who kicked me used to trade martial arts bouts with Tiger Iron of the Wardens and Argent.”
“Then count yourself lucky,” said Protector.
“I always do, Alex, every day,” replied Nightstar.
Cori rolled her eyes.
Rockslide labored as he clambered out of the ship. He had several cracks and chips in his stony exterior.
“Rockslide, do you need anything to help you recover?” thought Rigel telepathically to the massive hero.
“Sleep,” he thought back.
She smiled at him in agreement.
The team went their separate ways once they were inside the base. Rigel decided that she better check the Monitor Room before retiring for the night. The Monitor Room door opened to reveal Starlight and several governmental-looking agents.
“Greetings, Rigel,” said Starlight. “These are official Terran authorities who needed to meet with you.”
An athletic brunette walked up to Rigel and extended one hand while flashing a badge with the other. “Rigel, I’m Agent Stacey King. We spoke briefly at the prison.”
“G’day, Agent King,” said Cori, “sorry to be direct, but my head hurts. What are you doing in my base?”
“We are fully authorized to enter this base. Your mayor himself…”
“Yes,” interrupted Cori, “he sometimes has a tendency to try to impress people by letting them run around Freedom Squad Headquarters. But why are you here?”
“I wanted to talk to you about what happened tonight and who escaped.”
“We got a lot of them.”
“Please, Rigel, sit down. Let me explain why I’m concerned. It has to do specifically with one prisoner. Have you ever heard of the hero Defiance?” asked Agent King.
“Of course, everyone has. He went mad, and they had to arrest him. It started a whole round of Congressional hearings in this country of yours.”
The agents paused and exchanged glances.
“You are the daughter of an American citizen and have a US citizenship yourself, despite the time you spent in Australia,” said Agent King.
“Country of ours,” said Rigel, “I just try to distance myself from Congress when I can.”
Stacy King smirked. “Understandable. Please sit down. I want to go over everything, but I’ll try and make it brief.”
Cori sat. She really didn’t want to deal with whatever this was until after eight hours had passed under her covers. However, these homeland security agents were serious. Certainly, anything this important would keep her awake long enough to hear it.
“Defiance, also known as William or Bill Hudson, was a trained archaeologist who gained metahuman abilities through unknown circumstances. For his own reasons, he named himself Defiance and became well-known as a superhero. Largely impervious with super-strength in the upper measurable limits of our scales and the ability to fly, he began dispensing justice while having several run-ins with the law. Defiance often clashed with law enforcement as he didn’t always feel the need to build a case or collect evidence before taking action. As a result, several criminals that he brought in walked out of courtrooms only a few months later. Despite that, we feel that he tried to do the right thing.”
“Unfortunately, he chose to attack a cosplay group who had decided to attend a comic book or sci-fi convention dressed as the villain team, the Destroyers. He put three college kids into ICUs. In the aftermath, he was confronted by a hero team-up of convenience, including Psionicist, the former Protector and your old friend, Poltergeist. You might hear it referred to as the ‘P’ team. Psionicist remains in a coma to this day. It was the Protector who put an end to Defiance’s rampage.”
Cori thought back to her father’s crime files. She remembered all the coverage of Defiance’s trial. After some crazy rantings at the beginning, he had said nothing, just stared blankly into the cameras.
Rigel raised a silver glove, “Wait, didn’t he rant about being set up, claim that Psionicist was a super-villain who was mind controlling him?”
Agent King nodded. “Actually, he claimed that Psionicist was the crime lord known as the Ace of Spades, an individual rumored in certain circles to manipulate criminal activities across the country for his own purposes. There’s no evidence that an Ace of Spades exists or has ever existed, but there are plenty of people who believe in him.”
“What about you, Agent King?” asked Cori.
She said nothing, but she thought loudly enough for Cori to hear. “He absolutely exists, and one day, I will find him, Rigel.”
“My concern is with Defiance,” answered Agent King in her regular voice. “There’s a good chance that he may go after Poltergeist, and I understand that you and he are close. He’s your godfather, isn’t he?”
“He is,” said Cori. She felt a pain in her chest. Daniel Hunter, known to the world as Poltergeist, was like an uncle to her, or probably more like a big brother. He was the first person that she had told when she decided to take on the costumed identity of Rigel, even before her father. He was the one who had provided her with a psychically reactive neospandex costume which could change color, texture and shape at her mental command. Daniel relied on technology for his invisibility and magnetic powers, but without the suit, he was a normal human.
“We will be watching him, but you may want to reach out and make sure that he’s taking appropriate measures to stay safe. “
“The other likely targets for him are Psionicist and the current Protector.”
“But why would he go after them?” asked Cori.
“He believes that they all have connections in some way to the Ace of Spades.”
Cori didn’t think she was going to be able to get to sleep.
June was a good month for my day job, but I didn’t post a thing here. My apologies. Note to self, never title another post “Waiting.”
I’m still working on Mummy stuff as well as HeroNet Files. I promise to post a cool pic of the cover art for HeroNet Files #1, but you can see it on Blue Oranda here. It’s located in the center of the covers at the top of the page.
Krueger has some good news. First of all, Smashwords is celebrating July with some coupons, so if you go to Smashwords and search for Souls of the Everwood, you will find a coupon code that can be used to purchase the book in just about any e-format you’d like for free. This is only until the end of July.
On another front, Balefire and Brimstone (Krueger Chronicles # 2) has been e-published, but everyone may want to hold off as there are going to be some formatting updates going in to the e-copies. If you have already purchased it, you may want to download again to get the most up-to-date version.
I hope everyone had a good 4th of July!
All the best,