Matt Johnson sat in a tired old recliner and stared at a feature article about up and coming American Olympic athletes. His photo was in the middle of page. He was holding a medal in one hand and wearing his Penn State colors.
That all seemed to be gone now.
He kept wondering how it had happened. Was it the diet? The training? Had someone slipped something in his drink?
The speed was one thing, but he had broken his own weight lifting record without breaking a sweat. He felt indestructible. He also felt healthier than he ever had. It was as if some magical genie had given him everything he had ever wished for when he was training.
And that meant he would never be allowed to win an Olympic gold.
The doorbell buzzed. Angrily, he got up. The reporters were wearing him out. It was late enough that he could be asleep. He wished that the whole thing had never happened. Stupid other coaches started going crazy. Coach Hudson, his coach, hadn’t said anything. He just seemed sad.
The last look Coach Hudson had given him stung him. It was betrayal along with dashed dreams, mixed up in a confused whole.
The doorbell buzzed again. “I’m coming,” Matt said, doing his best to move slowly.
Swinging the door open without checking the peephole, he didn’t know what to do when he found himself face to face with Rigel and Nightstar of Freedom Squad.
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More writing… Chapter 13 continues
An alert blared. “Unauthorized personnel at front gate,” announced the computer.
Solaria could be seen standing at the front gate, flames swirling around her. She had her arms folded in front of the sun symbol that she wore on her red bodysuit. Snowfall was clearly recognizable standing behind her and to the left, despite the fact that he wore a black trenchcoat over his costume and a black hat on his head.
Telekinetically, Rigel activated the front intercom. “7… 8… 9…“ said Solaria while flames crackled in the background.
“Solaria, this is Rigel. What are you doing?”
“It’s about time. We need to talk, and don’t I get a ‘G’Day’?”
“Sorry, it hasn’t been a good day. I’ll let you both in and meet you at the front door, assuming you’ve passed all the scans,” said Rigel. “Oh, and stay on the sidewalk. The grounds have mines.”
Rigel clicked off the intercom.
“I can talk to Solaria, if you’d like,” offered Ion with a grin. “I don’t mind.”
“I’m sure you don’t. Fine, you can come.”
After Solaria and Snowfall passed retina scans and made it up the sidewalk, Rigel and Ion greeted them at the front door to the mansion. Solaria was no longer projecting flames, but she seemed irritated enough to do so.
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“Touchdown!” said Ion. “This is your captain speaking, the Freedom Flyer has landed. Please return your tables to their upright positions and deplane before the bad guys get here.”
Cori breathed a sigh of relief. The jolt was from the landing. The doors of the Freedom Flyer opened and the team quickly disembarked.
“We should hire a pilot,” suggested Ion.
Rigel was busy trying to watch the top of the Megalopolis Tower, seeing if she could spot Nightstar. There was a light flashing, which had to be his sword. The light suddenly faded as what appeared to be smoke billowed around the base of the restaurant.
Nightstar’s thoughts filled Cori’s mind. “Death Queen and lots of baddies… slicing out of here with Polt, hope he’s ready… oops… park’s a bit out of my range.”
Rigel saw Nightstar appear in the sky holding on to Daniel who was now in his gray and white Poltergeist armor. They were hundreds of feet up. Nightstar thought, “Need to adjust for altitude when I’m figuring out distances… Daniel!”
Poltergeist grabbed Nightstar by the arms and was carrying him through the air. A bright red and white comet streaked toward them.
“No!” she said and launched herself in the air, hoping she could get close enough to telekinetically stop Defiance before he hurt Nightstar and Daniel. Unlike Nightstar, she didn’t have any issue calculating speeds and distances, and she knew that she wasn’t going to be anywhere close when Defiance hit them. Mentally, she yelled to them, “Activate Daniel’s force field or teleport or something… Defiance is coming!”
Nightstar’s thoughts flew back. “Not enough power. He’s going to hold me and I’m going to try and swing. Maybe my sword can take him out.”
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Protector sat back and watched the monitors in Freedom Squad Headquarters, his shield leaning against the console. He tried to stay focused and keep a constant check on the graphs and displays that would alert him to the city’s emergencies. Currently, the city was quiet other than a few fender benders suffered by commuters. It disturbed him. Over a dozen super-villains had escaped Megalopolis Penitentiary, and yet, none of them had made an appearance.
The phone rang. It was the mayor’s office.
“Freedom Squad Headquarters,” said Protector.
“Protector,” said the mayor, “where is Rigel?”
“Uh… sir, she went to New York.”
“What is she doing in New York? I need her here in Megalopolis. Did she miss the fact that we had a prison break? I’ll have words with her later. Put Nightstar on.”
Protector cleared his throat. “Um… she took Nightstar with her, sir, to visit Psionicist in the hospital I believe. Ion’s here with me though. And we have Rockslide of course. Oh, and then there’s Starlight.”
“She took Nightstar to see Psionicist in the hospital,” restated the mayor, “Fantastic. There’s four of you. Well, if she’s not there, and Nightstar’s not there, who do you think I should speak with?” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
“I guess that would be me, sir.”
The mayor sighed. “Good job of guessing. Listen, Protector, I’m going to have a press conference with the police commissioner in half an hour at Freedom Park, in front of the statues of the original Freedom Squad, the World War II team.”
“Yes,sir,” said Protector, knowing full well where the statues were and that the original Freedom Squad had fought in World War II.
“I need you there to stand behind me and look impressive. Make sure the shield is shining. Understood?”
“Yes, sir. Do you want me to bring Ion or Rockslide?”
“No, someone’s got to watch the base, and I doubt Ion would cause any harm checking the monitors. In the future, you let Rigel know that I want to know if she’s leaving the city.”
The monitors suddenly flashed red. Protector felt the ground shake.
“What was that?” yelled the mayor. “An earthquake?”
The ground shook again.
“Sir, I need to go. We have a situation.” Without waiting for a response, Protector hung up the phone and grabbed his shield.
Ion was already beside him. “Hey, Alex, did you feel that? I think it was seismic.”
“Possibly,” Protector grabbed his communicator. “Rockslide, head to the Freedom Van.”
“The van?” asked Ion. “How about the Freedom Cycles?”
“Rockslide won’t fit on a cycle.”
Starlight walked in. “I have been monitoring the television as per Rigel’s request. There are super-villains smashing the statues in Freedom Park.” Starlight glanced up at the monitors. “It seems that the alerts in this room are validating those reports.”
The large monitor screen showed a man a white and red costume with a mask and a cape lifting the thirty foot high statue of American Eagle over his head and then throwing it hundreds of yards through the air into the park. A moment later, they thought they felt a faint tremor.
“We need to go now,” said Protector.
“I’ll have it running when you arrive,” said Ion, disappearing with a blur.
Protector activated his communicator. “Protector to Rigel…”
A modulated voice spoke back to him. “Communications software test started. All communicators will be offline for the next hour or until server reboot is completed.”
“What?” he said, staring incredulously at the communicator. Still, there was not time to worry about it. He ran as fast as he could to the underground garage, nearly vaulting the stairs. The van doors were open and he could see Rockslide in the back and Ion at the wheel.
Protector leapt into the passenger seat and heard the back door close.
“I am ready to assist,” said Starlight from the back. He had entered the back door as Protector had gotten in the front.
“Is he supposed to come?” asked Ion, looking to Protector for an answer.
Alex steeled himself. He was the Protector. He was in charge. “Yes. Starlight’s coming. Let’s go.”
Ion drove the van through the underground garage out to the rear exit outside of Freedom Squad Headquarters. “I’m activating the siren.”
The siren blared out as they pulled onto the road. Cars and buses moved to clear the way for the van.
“I could get used to this,” said Ion, as a taxi pulled out of his way.
The tires squealed as Ion made a hard right toward the park and then slammed on the brakes. “Oh…”
Protector held up his hand.
“Right,” said Ion, “We’re superheroes. No saying bad words. Still, troubling traffic, Protector, no one’s getting out of the way. Golly gee, now what?”
The traffic had completely stopped in front of them. Horns blared, but no one was moving. The man in the car in front of them got out and shrugged apologetically.
“I understand what Ion is saying,” said Starlight. “May I attempt to respond in the proper Terran vernacular?”
“Sure,” said Protector. Alex wasn’t sure what they should do. Get out and walk? He wished Rigel were here.
“Now, now, Ion, old chum, there’s no need to get vexed about the good citizens of Megalopolis having trouble with their commute, after all, they need to be able to get back and forth from their jobs so they can put food on the table,” said Starlight in his flat voice. “No, I have a plan for exactly this situation, and it doesn’t even require a utility belt.”
With that, Starlight opened the door of the van and stepped out, closing it behind him.
Protector looked over at Ion, who was laughing. “Where did that come from?”
“Oh,” said Ion, “Starlight told me he wanted to watch television. I put on some old Adam West and Burt Ward superhero shows. However, you know, a utility belt is a good idea.”
Suddenly, the van rose in the air and went soaring over the stopped cars in the direction of the park.
“I think he’s carrying us,” said Protector.
“I think you’re right,” said Ion, nervously. “I’m turning off the siren and the light. We don’t need to be but so obvious. Any idea on how many villains we’re facing?”
Rockslide rumbled in the back.
“Defiance for certain,” said Protector.
“Right. He’s invulnerable, you know. I had a poster of him up in my room as a kid. He stopped a meteor once,” said Ion, “when he was a hero.”
“No, he didn’t,” said Protector. “Let’s not make this any worse than it has to be.”
“So,” said Ion as the green grassy park filled the windshield, marked with several discarded bronze statues. “I count 1… 2… 3… 4… 5… plus Defiance, and look at all those cops. Okay, what’s the plan?”
“I’m going to talk to Defiance,” said Protector.
“What?” said Ion. “Alex, I mean Protector, are you crazy?”
“He used to be a hero.”
“Okay, and he was defeated by the guy who used to be the Protector. I mean, what about the other villains? They weren’t heroes.” Ion gestured. “Oh and…” He rolled down his window. “Um, Starlight, old chum, I think you should put us down before the bad guys shoot us out of the sky.”
The van suddenly dropped before coming to a gentle rest on the grass. They were close enough that Protector could make out Death Queen in her barely-there black costume, displaying her pale white skin to the world, floating over the massive broken head of the Light of Liberty statue. Barrage was hovering over the scene in her bronze power armor, massive guns visible on the arms of her suit. He wondered how they all managed to get costumes so quickly after they escaped. Defiance seemed to be yelling at the police. He also recognized the massive magical creation called Golem, towering at 12 feet tall over the others, as if he were one of the fallen statues come to life. A few figures shambled near Death Queen, and Protector assumed that they had to be some of her zombies.
This was going to be tough.
“Hang on,” said Ion. “I’m calling backup.” He pulled his personal cell phone out of his belt.
“Who?” asked Protector, “Wildside, Inc.? I don’t think we can afford them. Rigel doesn’t have her cell on her when she’s in costume, just her communicator.”
Protector looked down. The communicator screen said “Software test in progress.”
“Hi,” said Ion with a big smile, “it’s Ion. Remember when I asked for your number in case of an emergency. Well, Solaria, Freedom Squad needs backup at the park. It’s going to be rough. Get here fast… oh, Snowfall? Sure, bring him too. See you soon.”
Protector was going to say something about the protocol of getting the personal number of someone who was trying out for the team, but this wasn’t the time. Defiance had seen them.
“Out of the van, now!” ordered Protector.
Ion and Rockslide didn’t question him, and Protector dove to the side, just as Defiance crashed into the van, knocking it across the park into a large tree. Defiance floated over them, his red cape billowing back behind him. “Freedom Squad,” he spat.
“Ion, Rockslide, go deal with the others. I’ll handle Defiance.” Protector raised his shield.
Electricity crackled around Ion’s fists. “Yeah, Protector, that’s a great idea. How about we stay here and take advantage of our local numbers instead?”
Rockslide slammed a granite fist into his hand in agreement with Ion.
“Fine,” said Protector.
Suddenly, Starlight floated down beside Defiance, his own black cape billowing in the breeze. “Excuse me, but do you have car insurance? If you do not, I will inform you that in fifteen minutes, your insurance could be compared…”
Defiance punched Starlight in the chest hard enough that Protector felt the shockwave. The alien flew backward dozens of yards until he finally crashed into the ground, spraying dirt into the air.
“Where is the mayor?” he demanded.
“Defiance,” said Protector, stepping forward. “I’m the Protector, and I’m asking you to surrender.”
Defiance landed in front of Protector. “I knew the Protector, and you are not worthy to hold that shield.”
With that, Defiance pulled back his fist and struck the Shield of Justice. A ringing noise filled the park, but Protector held his ground.
Ion unleashed a blast of electricity. Sparks flew over Defiance’s body, but they seemed to have no effect.
Rockslide made a scraping, grinding noise and threw himself into Defiance. The former hero fell backward, buried by the earth elemental. Rockslide reformed and smashed Defiance over and over. For a moment, Protector thought that Defiance might be defeated.
Then, Rockslide went flying straight up into the air.
Protector held his shield more tightly. “Ion, try to distract the other villains. Run around them. Make something up, but I’m going to try to convince Defiance to help us.”
“That’s a terrible plan,” Ion said, looking at Barrage, Death Queen, the zombies and the massive Golem, “although, only Barrage looks fast. I’ll do my best.”
Defiance pulled off his mask and wiped dirt from his face. He looked angry. “Do you know who you serve? Do you know who is pulling your strings? Did it ever occur to you that there is a reason that your team was assembled?”
“I know why my team was assembled. We are going to protect the citizens of Megalopolis.”
“No!” said Defiance, smashing the shield again. A feeling of déjà vu came over Protector. He wondered if Defiance might get tired like Uberdude had.
As the former hero continued to swing, Protector somehow found a way to block each blow with his shield. He wasn’t sure that Defiance would tire. The power behind each of the blows was staggering. The Shield of Justice dispersed such impacts, but Protector still felt the shock of each of these punches pass through him. Though the shield was obviously protecting him, it seemed to have reached its limit.
“You aren’t worthy to hold that shield,” shouted Defiance. “You were put up to this, weren’t you? It’s all part of his plans. You are a fraud.”
Alex tried not to listen and think about what he could do in between impacts. Defiance was a brawler with exceptional speed and power, but he wasn’t a martial artist.
Protector turned his shield as he was hammered with yet another blow, and he managed to throw his powerful foe off-balance. Protector risked a quick leg sweep, and Defiance fell even if only for a moment.
“We don’t have to do this,” said Protector. “Listen, I don’t know what you are talking about, but if we could discuss it perhaps I could help.”
Defiance responded by rising in the air and hurling himself at Protector, who somehow managed to dodge the attack. Defiance stopped in the air and turned back to his opponent.
“You can’t keep this up. You can’t win,” said Defiance.
Alex checked his grip on the shield. Defiance was right. Alex couldn’t keep this up, but he was going to try.
“I’m going to keep this up,” Alex said. “I have to. I’m the Protector.”
Defiance roared at him.
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.
Here’s a draft of the first section of my story in HeroNet Files. Enjoy!
Ten Years Ago
Trapped in an underground cavern, the hero Orion struggled to free himself from the arcane bonds pinning him against an obsidian monolith. He strained both his muscles and his mind, as his psychic powers tried to unravel the evil magic that held him captive. He didn’t have much time. His archenemy, Doctor Inferno, had already completed the first part of his unholy ritual.
The super-villain paused from his castings and floated over to regard his black-clad caped nemesis. When they had first met, Orion’s hair had been as dark as his uniform, but now, it was as white as the starry constellation pattern on his chest. Of course, Inferno had not changed, at least in appearance. He still wore his tattered purple robes and his skeletal features remained wreathed in hellfire. So many years they had fought, but now, it would come to an end. Despite himself, Doctor Inferno was determined to explain to Orion how he had finally won. He wanted to savor this victory.
“So, Orion,” Inferno rasped, “you can keep trying to find a way to use your mutant mental abilities to defeat my sorceries, but you will fail. Your old team is gone. They were smarter than you. They retired. There is no Citadel of Justice to stop me. No, my old enemy, there is only you, and you are trapped and bound.”
He paused to savor Orion’s glare. Rubbing his skeletal hands together, Inferno continued. “I’ve summoned the Eternal Darkness, a mystical energy source capable of unraveling your world. Think of it with your scientific mind as a black hole unleashed upon this precious planet – a black hole that I will command. It’s coming, and nothing you can do will stop it.”
Orion forced confidence into his voice. There was hope, but he needed time. Perhaps if he spoke long enough, the bonds would break. Maybe help would come. “We’ve done this before, Inferno. You’ve always failed, and I’ll find a way to beat you again.”
Doctor Inferno made a harsh sound that could have been a cough. “Don’t delude yourself. You know that even your science dictates that I should triumph. You call it the law of averages. You defeated me what, six times?”
Doctor Inferno clenched his fists. “Fifteen?” He hissed and coughed again. “Truly? Fifteen! Fine! So, you’ve defeated me fifteen times. Fine. But this time, we are buried in a lair underground, shielded by so many mystic protections that no one can find us.”
Orion smiled. “I found it.”
Inferno’s skull flames flared with his anger. “Yes, you did. You always find people. That’s why you call yourself Orion, because you hunt down injustice. I’m used to it. I knew you would be here, but I have trapped and defeated you. And when the Eternal Darkness comes to me, I shall make you its first victim.”
“You’ve lost, Inferno.”
“How can you say that? I could kill you now. I could win anytime I want. You are helpless. I’ve won.”
“Watch,” said Orion.
At that moment, a twisting tunnel of light formed in the center of the ritual circle. Four figures in costume landed on the stone, ready for action.
“Who dares?” shouted Doctor Inferno. “What madness is this, Orion?”
“New Citadel, attack!” shouted one of the figures. He wore a black costume with yellow flame designs on his gloves and boots and a yellow exploding star symbol on his chest. He threw his cape back behind him with a flourish and ignited a brilliant golden energy blade which reflected off the mirror shades that he wore even in the darkened cavern.
“I was planning on it, Nightstar. Let’s see how Doctor Inferno handles his balance being disrupted,” said a young woman with a domino mask wearing a unitard covered in kaleidoscope of colors.
Nightstar didn’t pause to reply. “Clone, find a way to free Orion. Blazar, help Spira with the evil doctor. Let me know if nuclear energy can overwhelm hellfire.”
Without waiting for Blazar, Spira soared toward the roof of the cave and pointed her hands at Doctor Inferno. The air rippled around the super-villain.
“Foolish child, do you think that you can disturb the sense of balance of one who has traveled realms beyond your ability to comprehend?” said Doctor Inferno. He responded to her attack with a bolt of flame. A crackling field of electricity formed around her, diverting the fire.
Spira looked first at Orion, then around the cavern. She was as surprised as Doctor Inferno. “Where did that come from?” she whispered, even as she used her flight to dodge another flame blast.
While Dr. Inferno focused on Spira, the living nuclear android, Blazar, unleashed his fusion bolts with a roar. However, as they reached their target, a glowing mystical shield deflected them. Realizing the potential danger to his teammates, he activated his control rods to absorb the radioactive blasts into himself. He would be able to fire again in 52.17 seconds, but he calculated a 70% chance that he would be too late to determine the outcome of the battle.
Clone, the man able to be in two places at once, divided and sent his second self, Clone 2, over to Orion, using his genetically enhanced reflexes to leap across the pools of magma, while his first self, Clone 1, moved underneath Spira in hopes of catching her if she fell out of the air. Before Clone 2 could reach Orion, a rocky humanoid erupted out of the ground between him and the world’s most powerful psionic hero.
“My rock elementals should easily thwart any chance you have of saving Orion,” laughed Doctor Inferno.
With a deep rumble, two more rock elementals rose from the ground to join the first.
“Nightstar, we have a problem,” said Clone 2 as he prepared to dodge giant stone fists.
“Is this your plan, Orion? These young heroes? Are they the replacement for your Citadel of Justice? Perhaps one of them will survive to tell the story of your defeat… that is, if I leave anyone in the world for them to tell.” Doctor Inferno laughed maniacally. “What do you think? Should I leave someone to record my triumph?”
There was no answer. Orion was gone. Only the mystical bindings remained.
“No!” screamed Doctor Inferno. “That’s impossible! He can’t have escaped.”
Nightstar spun his sword and seemed to cut a hole in reality which he stepped through, only to step out where Orion had been a mere moment before. He stood defensively in front of the obsidian monolith.
Doctor Inferno now knew what was happening. Orion was invisible.
“You didn’t put this team together, did you, Orion? It was your old teammate, that gadgeteer lad, Poltergeist. I should have known from the girl’s electrical force field. Have you grown up now, kid hero? Gathered your own team of youths? Well, you think of me as a master of fire, but the flames of hell burn cold as well as hot. Ice of Nevermelt, freeze my enemies and bring an end to this.”
1.03 seconds to power, thought Blazar as his systems shut down. Frost covered his body. Ice encased Spira, and she fell toward Clone 1. Perhaps by reflex, Clone 2 summoned his other self, before Spira’s ice block smashed him. Nightstar became a frosted statue and the outlines of another figure in gray and black armor appeared beside him, with one hand touching Orion’s chest in an attempt to share an invisibility field.
Only Orion remained untouched, just as Inferno had wanted.
“Very clever. It was Poltergeist. He’s old enough now to mentor these young heroes. Trying to pass on a legacy, Orion? How did they find me?”
“I’m sure if you try to think about it, you can figure it out. I’ll let you try twenty questions if you’d like.” Orion furrowed his forehead, trying to find some last reserve of psychic power. He was still trying to stall. He looked at the frozen body of Poltergeist, and thought to himself, “Good try, Daniel. I knew that you might one day be the best of us.”
“It is over,” pronounced Doctor Inferno. “The Eternal Darkness is here. I can sense it. I now call it to me!” He raised his hands and more flames erupted from his skeletal fingertips.
Orion focused on the evil mastermind. He had to make mental contact with Doctor Inferno. Despite the bonds, maybe he could fire a single psychic blast and still disrupt this terrible ritual…
Suddenly, Nightstar appeared in the air beside Doctor Inferno, no longer frozen. Before he fell, the young hero struck the super-villain with his blade.
The sword was psychic energy and though it did no physical damage, the thrust disrupted all of Doctor Inferno’s spells, including the one that sustained his physical form. Orion’s greatest enemy screamed, a terrible agonizing psychic scream that Orion felt in the deepest sections of his mind, echoing over and over. The mental feedback made him scream louder than his nemesis before falling to the floor, no longer held by his mystical bonds, unconscious.
Nightstar twisted in the air and landed in a crouch on his feet.
Doctor Inferno’s empty tattered robe landed beside him.
“Orion! Sir, are you okay?”
There was no response. Nightstar was beside him in an instant and put a hand over the man’s heart. He felt a beat. Orion was breathing, and his heart was beating. Nightstar ran a gloved hand through his hair.
“Nightstar, step back. I’ll check him,” said Poltergeist. Nightstar’s mentor, the former kid sidekick of the original Citadel was moving again. Poltergeist carefully checked Orion.
The freezing spell had broken.
“My uniform feels terrible,” shouted Spira.
“What happened?” said Clone.
Orion opened his eyes. He looked from Poltergeist to Nightstar. “Nightstar. Is that right?”
“Yes, sir, that’s me. Doctor Inferno is gone.”
Orion laughed softly. “Nightstar, you just saved the world. I’m not sure what went wrong with Inferno’s spell, but I won’t argue. Good teleporting too,” said Orion with a smile.
Behind that smile, the older hero had come to a realization.
Poltergeist spoke. “Nightstar’s the team leader. He’s the one that located you and his teleportation to bring us here, though I wish the young man had given me more warning.”
Nightstar adjusted his shades. “There was no time,” he said flatly.
“He’s right,” said Orion. “There was no time. He did well.”
Poltergeist nodded. “He’ll need more training. They all will. Just like you trained me, but I agree, old friend, they did well.”
Orion closed his eyes. He didn’t want to say anything. He worried that if Nightstar knew what had truly happened, the young hero might not forgive himself. Orion had made contact with Inferno at the moment of Nightstar’s psychic sword strike. The psychic backlash had quieted Orion’s mind. The thoughts of everyone around him were silent for the first time since his childhood. He wondered if his mind would stay this way. If so, his days as a hero were over. To his surprise, Orion felt a great sense of relief.
He sat up with Poltergeist’s help and regarded the young team staring at him in awe. They would protect the innocent from threats like Inferno.
It was time to hang up the cape.
“As for me,” said Orion, “get me back to your base, let me heal, and then, I have a special lady waiting for me.”
Three days later, Corey Dandridge parked his car in the driveway of his townhome in Sydney, Australia. He had wanted to live his normal life as far away from the United States as he could, where few super-villains bothered attacking. He had chosen Australia.
The media was abuzz with word of Orion’s retirement announcement two days ago in San Francisico at the headquarters of the Citadel of… well, actually, New Citadel, he reminded himself. It would subside soon enough. Maybe he would write a memoir one day.
As for now, there was someone he hadn’t seen in far too long. He unlocked the door and went inside.
“Li? You’re free! I’m home,” he shouted to his housekeeper.
“Dad!” came an excited yell. A blonde-haired twelve-year old girl raced into the room and threw her arms around him. She started crying.
“Corinne, are you okay?”
“I just missed you, so badly. I was worried, really worried, and I needed you. I needed you a lot.”
Li slipped through the room, taking her pocketbook and the roll of bills that Corey handed her.
“Goodbye, Cori, and Mr. Dandridge,” she said. She gave a smile and then left the father and daughter to their reunion.
After the door closed, Corinne released her father. She wiped her eyes.
“What is the matter with you, young lady?” he said softly. “You haven’t cried like this when I’ve been away on business since you were six.”
“That’s because I thought you were away on business, Dad, not fighting for your life against Doctor Inferno.”
Corey froze. “What?”
“Don’t try, Dad. If you are wondering how I know, well, something’s happened.”
With that, she raised her hands in the air. All of the furniture in the room lifted a foot off the floor. In his mind, Corey Dandridge heard his daughter’s voice.
“I need you to teach me how to control this.”