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.
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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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An afternoon of concentration had yielded nothing on Defiance. Cori sat in lotus position on the floor of her bedroom and continued to project her mind, attempting to sift through the thoughts of thousands of people at a time without disturbing any of them.
In many ways, the experience was similar to diving to the bottom of a pool and holding her breath. She would concentrate, telepathically send her thoughts out, shift through as many minds as she could, brushing against them ever so gently. When too many thoughts touched her mind, she’d have trouble sorting and discerning them. It would feel like she was drowning, so she’d come up for air and open her eyes.
A picture of Melbourne hung on her wall, or rather the Puffing Billy Steam Railroad, outside of Melbourne. Nightstar had once asked her why she didn’t have a picture of the Sydney Opera House on a wall or Uluru if she wanted something to remember Australia. She had finally purchased and framed a picture of the Sydney Opera House and put it on the opposite wall.
The truth was that though she had spent a lot of her life growing up in Australia, she was an American. Her father had gotten worried that one day his enemies might find out that he had a daughter, so he had spirited her off to Australia. She learned later that she had almost grown up in New Zealand instead, but apparently as a toddler had gotten very excited when she saw a kangaroo at the zoo.
Little Cori liked kangaroos, therefore, she had to grow up in Australia.
However, she had her US citizenship and had certainly spent a lot of her time in the States growing up at her dad’s house in San Francisco. She had always wanted to go to university at Stanford or Berkeley. Being a child genius, she had attended both by age 16. Now, all she had of Australia was a slight accent that she cultivated and the occasional “G’Day”.
She wondered if she sounded more like an American steakhouse commercial than an Aussie.
The picture of the railroad caught her eye again. It wasn’t really a picture of Melbourne or beautiful Victoria (because she would have chosen the beaches), but it was a picture about her father taking her to celebrate a day about a kid’s tank engine and riding on the train with his little girl. She loved her dad, and she missed him.
She was thinking about calling him and waking him in the middle of the night, when Starlight contacted her on the communicator.
“Rigel, I have received a strange message. Could you please come to the monitor room?”
“No worries, Starlight. On my way.”
She found herself wondering if Starlight was misinterpreting a news broadcast or possibly a mockumentary. She imagined that it would be hard to be an alien surrounded by modern American media sources.
Strangely, she decided that Starlight was growing on her.
When she reached the Monitor Room, she said, “So, Starlight, what is it?”
“That,” he said simply and robotically, pointing at a large monitor screen with the image of a playing card showing on it… the Ace of Spades.
“It appears to be a malfunction. I am unable to remove the image.”
Rigel felt her blood run cold.
A soft male voice spoke, “Hello, Rigel.”
“Fascinating,” stated Starlight. “The auditory message was timed with your arrival.”
“I don’t think it was timed, Starlight… G’Day? Is this the Ace of Spades?”
There was silence for a second.
“Such a poor question from such a brilliant mind. I suspect that you had quite the experience with our friend, Carlos,” said the voice.
Rigel tried to mentally contact Starlight, but she didn’t seem to be able to link with him. His alien thoughts were too strange for her. She wondered if he might be a robot of some sort or at least, some type of artificial being. She reached out to Nightstar.
“Nightstar,” she thought, “the Ace of Spades is talking to me in the Monitor Room. Make sure the team is ready.”
“Sure, JR was helping me with some engineering issues with the Night Cycle. We’ll contact Rockslide and Protector,” he thought back.
“Not Protector,” she responded. “Doctor’s orders for Alex.”
“I hope this will be the first of many talks for us, Rigel,” said the Ace of Spades. “But you need to leave soon.”
“What? Why do I need to leave?” she asked.
“Oh, I think you are going to want to visit your friend Daniel Hunter before Defiance gets to him. After all, maybe he’s me. Oh, but as Daniel says ‘The Ace of Spades doesn’t exist’, so I suppose you can ignore this warning if you’d like to… Cori. Goodbye.”
“Wait!” Cori said, but the image on the screen fell backwards and began spinning, flipping and growing smaller until it became a point of light in the center of the monitor. A second later and Doppler radar scans from the Megalopolis airport appeared on the screen.
“Excellent,” said Starlight. “I was hoping that a flying villain, such as Defiance, might display on your Terran radar systems.”
Rigel was barely listening. She knew Daniel. She could reach him telepathically. “Daniel!” she shouted.
“What is it?” came the return thought.
“Defiance is coming. Get your suit on. Now! We are on our way.”
“I’m at the Top of the World restaurant on the Megalopolis Tower having a late lunch/early dinner.”
“And I know you have your suit in your briefcase. Go. You don’t have much time,” she thought.
Telekinetically, she hit the alarm. Setting her communicator on full broadcast, she announced, “This is Rigel. Protector to the Monitor Room. Everyone else to the Freedom Flyer. Hurry!”
As she ran to the Freedom Flyer, she contacted the Megalopolis police. “This is Rigel of Freedom Squad, please evacuate the Top of the World restaurant. We have reason to believe that a team of super-villains is about to attack.”
As the team got into the Freedom Flyer, a terrible thought struck her. What if they were being set up and the real attack was coming to Freedom Squad Headquarters?
“Here we go. Hang on!” shouted Ion and they launched.
They soared across the city. “Using the hovering engines so we don’t crash into any skyscrapers,” announced Ion.
Nightstar activated his psychic blade. “So, how do we know there’s an attack coming?”
“The Ace of Spades informed Rigel of the attack on Daniel Hunter,” stated Starlight.
“Who’s Daniel Hunter?” asked Ion, as he made a left turn past a bank.
“He’s Poltergeist,” said Rigel.
Nightstar stood up.
“Nightstar,” said Starlight, “I wish to advise you, old chum, that you should remain seated while the Freedom Flyer is in motion and wear your seatbelt. I understand that they may be inconvenient or uncomfortable but they are one of the greatest safety inventions in the modern era.”
“Thanks, Starlight,” said Nightstar nonchalantly. “I figured it was the conversation with the Ace of Spades. Cori, how do we know that we aren’t being manipulated?”
Rigel stood up to face Nightstar. “We don’t, but how can I take that chance, Nightstar?”
“Excuse me, Rigel, but as I advised Nightstar…”
“Not now, Starlight,” said Rigel and Nightstar in unison.
Nightstar adjusted his mirrorshades. “Okay, we are about to engage in battle on top of the highest building in the United States.”
“My apologies, Nightstar,” said Starlight, “but both the Willis Tower Building in Chicago and One World Trade Center in New York are considered higher…”
“Understood, Starlight. Nightstar, what are you thinking?” Rigel asked.
“If they are after Daniel, we need to get him out and let them know about it. You locate him mentally, project the location to me telepathically, and I’ll teleport in, grab him and get out. I’ll head to the roof so the bad guys can see me. It won’t do us any good if the villains think he’s inside the restaurant. In the meantime, Cori, since only you, Starlight and Ion… wait, Ion, do you fly?”
“Only Freedom Flyers,” he said. “I can’t fly.”
“Right,” said Nightstar. “Everyone else, land in the… park I guess. I want to avoid as much collateral damage as possible. I should be able to teleport that far, though it will be a strain. Cori, make sure Daniel knows I’m coming too.”
“Talk time is over,” said Ion. “I’m hovering outside the restaurant.” Ion waved through the front windshield.
“Ion, waving is illogical. The windshield is tinted,” said Starlight.
Rigel sent out her thoughts to Daniel, explaining the plan as quickly as she could. He was in the men’s room trying to get his costume on. She projected the location to Nightstar, who wasted no time cutting a hole in reality with his psychic blade. In a flash of yellow and red light, he vanished.
“Don’t say anything, Rigel. I’m heading to the park,” said Ion.
Rockslide made a rumbling noise that sounded distinctly like a groan.
As Ion banked the Freedom Flyer, Rigel nearly lost her balance for a second. She telekinetically caught herself and levitated off the floor.
“Again, I recommend seatbelts,” stated Starlight.
Rigel shook her head as she watched the green of the park fill the windshield. She telepathically projected. “Nightstar, you will let me know what’s going on and if you and Daniel get into the least bit of trouble.”
“Will do,” responded Nightstar. “I’ve got him. We are outside. He’s getting his power packs activated, and I’m waving this brightly colored psychic sword of mine around and making it flash rainbow colors. Defiance is bound to see us.”
Cori felt a sudden chill. Something bad was about to happen. Nightstar sensed it as well.
“Something bad is about to happen,” thought Nightstar.
Rigel felt a sudden jolt.
When Rigel arrived at Freedom Squad Headquarters, she quickly checked the Monitor Room. Starlight stood in the middle of the chamber, his featureless white facemask reflecting the colors of the different screens.
“Greetings, Rigel,” he said without turning toward her. “I have something that I would like to say to you.”
Starlight made a strange noise. It took Rigel a second, but it seemed that he was imitating someone clearing there throat. “Rigel, with all due respect for the noble efforts of yourself and the rest of Freedom Squad in protecting the good citizens of Megalopolis, I believe that the vile stench of evil has arisen in this fair city and I wish to assist in refreshing it with the clean scent of justice.”
“What?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” said Starlight. “I probably need to watch more television. The Protector has led me to believe that other television programs would help me assimilate Terran culture. Perhaps I should try another set of colloquialisms. Captain, despite my alien outlook and lack of emotions, I feel that it is only logical that I assist in the retrieval of super-villains from the planet.”
“Are you asking to join Freedom Squad, Starlight?”
Cori bit the inside of her cheek to avoid laughing. Starlight’s alieness somehow seemed much less threatening when he was trying to sound like a cartoon hero or a starship science officer. He had been the only one standing in the park after the fight, and the mayor had told her to augment the team.
“Starlight, welcome to the team.”
“Thank you, Cori,” he said flatly. “Live long and…” Starlight paused as he attempted to position his fingers.
“You are welcome, Starlight. Is Protector in the medlab?”
Starlight lowered his hand. “Yes, he is being treated along with Rockslide and Snowfall.”
She thanked Starlight and headed down to the medlab. She wished that she knew what to do. She wasn’t sure where Defiance could be. The team could go out on patrol, but she wondered if a team of villains would just attack Freedom Squad Headquarters.
“Nightstar,” she thought, “I’m back at the base. Any ideas on how to find Defiance?”
“Hi Cori,” he thought back. Nightstar had a natural affinity for telepathic communication even though he couldn’t initiate it. “I do have an idea.”
“Great! What is it?” she thought back with a touch of excitement. Nightstar did have the most experience of anyone on the team, she reminded herself.
“Orion, your father, was known as the greatest tracker of villains that ever lived. I’d have you reach out telepathically until you found him.”
Cori felt deflated. “Nightstar,” she thought, “I’m not as good as Dad. He had years of experience.”
“So,” thought Nightstar, “Hmmm… Death Queen would need bodies… oh, sorry, studying some crime files while I’m thinking with you. Anyway, you need to get years of experience yourself. It can’t hurt to try while we are waiting for something to happen.”
“You are right. Okay, I’ll try, but first, I’m checking on Alex, Rockslide, JR and Snowfall,” she thought.
“Who’s JR?” he asked.
“Ion. JR is his real name, remember?” she replied.
“Oh. I like Ion better.”
Cori shook her head as she ended her conversation with Nightstar as she walked into the medlab. Dr. Jake Lord, a middle-aged former superhero once known as Dr. Hurricane, was monitoring a console next to a clear tube filled with red liquid. Alex floated inside.
Although she knew about the healing tubes, it still surprised Cori to see one of her team members suspended inside one. Ion was sitting on a metal table, shirtless, with white medical tape wrapped around his torso. He was watching Alex’s tube, but also kept checking another one which was filled with stones. Cori realized it was Rockslide.
Ion looked over at Rigel, “Hey, Cori, isn’t this alien tech cool? Apparently Starlight’s predecessor gave it to us before he went loopy and got recalled. It’s like a bacta tank.”
“Yes, JR, it is.” She tried not to sound worried, but she didn’t like this. They didn’t fully understand how the healing tubes caused cellular regeneration. “How are they doing, Dr. Lord?”
“They should be fine, but I’m ending Protector’s session,” he pressed a button and the red liquid drained out of the tube. Cori could see that Alex was held in a harness and had a breathing mask over his nose and mouth. “Starlight said that he was concerned that a normal human might not be able to endure the process.”
“Why?” asked Cori.
“He couldn’t explain, but he told me that he would watch some medical shows on television to help him with the language. He kept quoting or paraphrasing DeForest Kelley while we were talking. It was amusing.”
Ion hopped off the examination table. “I’m going to have so much fun with him. Can you imagine him going up to a villain and saying ‘Make my day?’?”
“No, I can’t,” said Cori, trying not to even smile at the thought, “And we need to make sure that he doesn’t do that.”
“Okay,” said Ion sulkily.
“How are you doing?” she asked Ion.
“I’m fine. Doc Ex-Hurricane thinks I should find some time to rest. He says the ribs are bruised, but otherwise, I’m okay. I’m staying on duty.”
Cori smiled. “Thanks.”
“I’m staying on duty too,” gasped Protector as Dr. Lord helped him out of the tube.
“I don’t think so,” said Cori, walking over to him. “I saw you after that fight. You took on Defiance, and you have no powers, remember?” Her voice softened. Alex needed to be okay.
“But I’m the Protector,” he coughed.
Dr. Lord stood between Rigel and Alex. He guided Alex over to one of the examination tables. “I’m the team doctor, and I will decide who is cleared for duty and who isn’t. Ion is fine. Rockslide is fine as far as I can tell. Furthermore, he can stay in that regenerative fluid longer than a human.”
“Am I cleared? I need to help stop Defiance. The last Protector did,” said Alex.
Cori folded her arms across her chest and waited. Alex had been the first person that she had met when she had joined Freedom Squad. She guiltily remembered thinking that since he had no powers that he’d be a liability. Of course, that wasn’t exactly true, even if he believed it.”
Dr. Lord pressed a stethoscope against Alex’s chest and made him take several breaths. Cori watched Dr. Lord shine a light in Alex’s eyes. The pupils dilated.
“He’s not cleared. I want him to wait a few days.”
“I feel okay, Doc,” said Alex.
“His medical readings look fine,” offered Cori, who immediately regretted speaking up.
“He looks fine, but he’s only fine because of this technology which Starlight told me was risky for normal humans. I want to reassess him after a few days, Rigel. Protector, that means no crime fighting and light workouts only.”
“Alex, you should listen to the doc. I saw how you looked at the end of that battle. Those zombies the cops shot looked healthier. Please,” said Ion.
Alex shrugged. “I’ll obey doctor’s orders,” he said reluctantly.
“Good,” said Dr. Lord, “Now I only have one patient to worry about. You two can go.” Ion and Protector got up and left. Dr. Lord turned to face Cori.
“Me?” she asked, pointing at herself.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Rockslide. I want you to telepathically check on him to make sure that these readings showing me that he’s getting better are telling me the truth. Quite honestly, there was nothing in my anatomy class to prepare me for him, and I didn’t take geology.”
Cori concentrated. She could feel Rockslide’s thoughts. He seemed quite happy. “Are you doing well in there?”
“Oh, yeah. This is wonderful!” he thought.
Cori chuckled. “He’s fine, Dr. Lord.”
“Good. I’m going to let him out. Oh, and Rigel?”
“Call me Jake. I was a big fan of your dad in my hero days. That and Daniel Hunter always spoke highly of you.”
For the briefest of instants, Cori wondered if Dr. Lord could be the Ace of Spades. In the next instant, she decided that she was getting way too paranoid for her own good. And in the instant that followed, she had an idea.
“Sure, um, Jake, do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Rigel, you are the team leader of Freedom Squad. I’m the team doctor. You can ask me anything you want.”
“Did you know Defiance?”
“Sorry. I knew of him, but I never met him. Why?”
“Just hoping that I can learn more about him, possibly telepathically locate him.”
The healing tube containing Rockslide swung open, and the hulking member of Freedom Squad reassembled himself. He took a few steps and looked around the medlab. “Better,” he rumbled.
“Wonderful,” said Rigel. “Well, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I’m going to be concentrating on finding Defiance.”
Two hours after the battle, Rigel stood in the mayor’s office, doing her best not to look angry or upset as the mayor berated her.
“So, you take the Freedom Flyer, and your most experienced team member to visit Psionicist on a hunch, the day after a massive super-villain escape. The group that you left behind decided that they should respond to an emergency by bringing an alien who is still under observation and call two heroes who haven’t even passed their tryouts to fight some of the most powerful villains to menace this country. Do you know how lucky you are that I don’t have a dead superhero or six on my hands? Have you seen the footage of Protector with the ripped costume and the blood all over his face? And Rockslide, a shattered mess? How long is it going to take him to get back together? Should I call all the King’s Horses and all the King’s Men? And thankfully, Snowfall is alright, though the potential liability that your team risked could have cost the city millions if his family decided to sue. You also realize that it was the police who took care of the zombies.”
The mayor paused to clear his throat and picked up a bottle of water from his desk. He quietly unscrewed the cap and took a drink. He replaced the cap before putting the bottle down. He stared at Rigel.
“Sir,” said Rigel uncomfortably, “I’m sorry. I know you don’t approve, but Freedom Squad did drive off the villains. And…”
“Are you kidding me?” he said, waving his hands. “Those villains left. We don’t have a lead or any clues. Instead, I’ve got CNN flashing headlines like ‘Devastation in Megalopolis’ and showing images of a warzone that used to be a park. Meanwhile, I don’t know if you heard, but Defiance was looking for me.”
Rigel paused and looked down at her boots. Why couldn’t she be facing down a super-villain instead? She thought about being quiet, but a touch of annoyance won out. She folded her arms and asked in a slightly accusatory tone, “Why was he looking for you, sir?”
The mayor seemed to discount her tone, but she was sure he noticed it. “Probably because he knows that I assembled this team of ours. Maybe because he wants to hold me for ransom, I don’t know. Today was an unmitigated disaster. You need to get those tryouts done and recruit some more muscle for the team.”
“Yes, sir. But, we had a software test that turned off our communicators during the attack.”
“You should check your computer systems. After all, didn’t you hack the Freedom Squad servers and insert your own code? I’m assuming that you set up the software test and forgot to turn it off. I’d like some answers about that.”
Rigel fidgeted and nearly reached up and started twisting her hair. She forced her hand to remain at her side. The mayor was right. She had gone over all of the computer code. What if they had been hacked?
A strange feeling twisted inside her.
“What is it?” asked the mayor, “Something about the computers.”
“No, sir,” Rigel lied, “I was just wondering about Solaria. Does anyone know what happened to her? Ion called her and she said that she was on her way.”
“The police saw her blazing through the sky on the way to the park and told her to stop. They didn’t recognize her, and she didn’t have any Freedom Squad identification because…” he let his sentence hang and looked to her.
Rigel completed his statement, “… because she’s not a member of the team.”
“Very good,” said the mayor. “And with a massive super-villain breakout, they held her for questioning. Fortunately, she did everything that they asked. Maybe we should make her a member of the team. So, what did you accomplish with Psionicist? I’ve been told he woke from his coma.”
“Yes, sir, but…” Cori hesitated. Could she trust the mayor? What about the Ace of Spades? Was she being paranoid? If Defiance was looking for him, could the mayor secretly be the Ace? “Um… I’m not sure that Psionicist remembers anything. He seemed very lost. I had been hoping that he might be able to tell me something about Defiance.”
“Hmm…” said the mayor, “Walt Blythe, the last Protector, is dead. I’m assuming that Alex doesn’t know much about Defiance. What about Poltergeist? Have you tried to contact him?”
“Yes, I have, but I’m not sure how much he can help.”
The mayor paused and tapped his chin. “How about your telepathy? Didn’t you just scan the city for Nightstar’s mind and locate him before? Can’t you do the same thing with Defiance?”
Rigel sighed. “I’m sorry, Mr. Mayor, but I don’t know Defiance. I’m not even sure if he prefers to be called Bill or William or really anything about him. I need to have a strong mental impression to discern someone’s thoughts in a city of minds.”
He paused in his pacing. She didn’t need her telepathy to tell that he was considering the fact that Rigel hadn’t met Nightstar when she first scanned the city for him. She hoped he didn’t ask. She didn’t want to explain that she had temporarily imprinted herself with the memories of one of Nightstar’s close friends in order to find him.
The mayor went over to his chair and sat down. He had apparently decided not to ask. His expression went from angry to relaxed and confident in a heartbeat. There was a reason that he was widely talked about for statewide and even national office. It wasn’t hard for her to imagine a time in the future where she might be having this conversation in the Oval Office.
“Rigel, find Defiance and get him back behind bars. Use whatever legal means you need to. He’s the highest profile of the villains and the most dangerous. Finish your tryouts and augment your team. If you can’t apprehend Defiance, get as many of the other escapees back behind bars as possible. Those are your marching orders.”
“And Rigel, I’ve had offers from the Wardens, New Citadel and Vanguard to come in her e and clean up this mess. They aren’t here, because I still believe in you and that team. By the way, despite the poor timing, good job getting Psionicist revived,” he said, without looking up. “Also, don’t worry about the press, just focus on Defiance. See to your team, and I’ll look forward to your call about Defiance’s arrest. Unless you have anything else to discuss, we are done here. You should leave by the roof unless you want to face a horde of reporters who want to know why you weren’t with your team earlier.”
“G’day, Mr. Mayor,” said Rigel.
There were a number of questions that she wanted to ask, suspicions that she wanted to voice. She also felt angry and embarrassed, but she simply left, taking the stairs to the roof instead of the elevator. The exercise did her some good. Of course, she thought it would be easy to explain to reporters what had happened. She was trying to find information on Defiance and thought she might be able to save Psionicist.
Despite her frustration with the mayor, she felt a twinge of guilt. She had left him with the impression that Carlos was Psionicist, when she knew that he wasn’t and never had been. The world would figure it out soon enough. In the meantime, she didn’t want the Ace of Spades to know any more than he needed to.
She felt a chill, a sense of danger, but it faded almost immediately. “I’m getting paranoid,” she thought to herself. “Jumping at shadows and afraid of a criminal’s fairy tale.”
She responded to herself, “You aren’t paranoid. He’s real. He was in Carlos’ mind… and how do you know that he didn’t order the attack on your team?”
She pondered the Ace of Spades and mentally cross-referenced everything she knew about Psionicist and Defiance wondering if there was a connection. She needed to talk to Alex.
More importantly, she needed to check on Rockslide, Protector, Ion and Snowfall. She had seen them at the park, and while all of them claimed to be okay, even Snowfall who needed to be woken up, she needed to find out what the doctors had said.
“They are my team, my teammates, my responsibility,” she said to herself as she reached the roof.
She stood for a moment beside the mayor’s helipad and scanned the skyline of Megalopolis. This was her city. She was responsible for defending it, and it wasn’t just that it was her job. She had the power to fight against villains. It was what she was supposed to do, the right thing to do.
With a burst of telekinesis, she lifted herself into the air and flew toward Freedom Squad Headquarters.
“No one messes with Megalopolis without answering to me. Not even the Ace of Spades,” she said.
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.
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.