Across the city a thousand screens blinked to life. Faces framed in red hoods carried them into the streets. Their message was not spoken with words, but violent images steaming from Midtown. On their monitors three twisted figures of humanity tore the world apart.
Like moths to a flame passersby collected around the feed. Every one of them had some sort of reaction, whether it be shock, alarm, disgust. Some expressed excitement.
A hooded evangelist proselytized from a street corner. “Step right up! Come one, come all, and witness history! Glimmer Girl versus our beloved Milestone City! See these superhuman wrecking balls destroy our way of life! Whoever wins, we lose!”
* * * *
Freddy was eight years old when his mother caught him ‘smoking’. There’s no use lying about it, she’d said; the kitchen floor was filthy with ash, and the smell of burning lingered. It wasn’t for another decade that she learned the truth of what he’d done.
For as long as he could remember Freddy was tuned in to the air around him more than his peers or even his family. With a subtle ‘nudge’ the wind current changed course, and even grew warmer. It wasn’t until late pre-pubescence that he dared to test this ability. He agitated the air until the first sparks glowed.
A lifetime of shame kept his secret confined to parking lots and empty buildings. The beautiful flames danced for his eyes alone. That was until the only one to ever understand chanced upon him. He was a figure much like himself, touched by the strange; a misunderstood ‘villain’ known as The Red Wraith.
How far he had come, from being a timid pyrokinetic huddled away to a bare chested flame artist. Swirling hot licks engulfed the city complex. Inside was a captive audience as dangerous as his craft. They huddled from the windows while staying as low as possible.
Beads of sweat evaporated from his chest as the wall of heat continued to mount. All the while he danced back and forth to the crackling beat. Freddy guided the unseen waves until they burst with energy. Only god understood such power during the first moments of the big bang. What a glorious time that must have been.
A voice broadcast into his ear – the voice of his ‘employer’, as so much more. “Are you having fun, Mr. Fahrenheit?”
“Yes,” he sang between steps. Oh, how he wished that the show would never end!
“It’s time for your curtain call,” The Red Wraith said. “Do you remember the escape plan?”
His heart sunk in time with the wall of fire until both were smoldering embers. Roaring orange gave way to blue sky and cooled in the breeze. The volume of crackling flames faded into the chorus of sirens in the distance. Thus it signaled the end of Mr. Fahrenheit’s greatest performance.
For an eerie minute the streets were barren. The mustachioed agent slipped into an alley and into a disguise. Walking with notorious purpose he followed the escape route set for him.
Mr. Fahrenheit couldn’t contain his smile. What a fantastic show it was!
* * * *
It was chaos all around, and the city paid for it. A once thriving metropolitan center was reduced to dust. It bore a closer resemblance to some far off war zone that it did a city hub.
‘Punching Judy’ laughed with maniacal glee. She cannon-balled through windows. The Carbon Man grinned under his concrete flesh. The musclebound jester reached under the side of a taxi and hoisted it onto her shoulder. She cackled, “boy, I hope the meter isn’t running!” And launched it into the air with no regard for its landing.
I swatted the vehicle down the a heavy blast. The cab crashed into the base of one of the new craters indented in the sidewalk. It’s debris became ammunition for the other adept wreaking havoc.
The Carbon Man paused. “Judy! Time to scram!”
I rocketed toward the ground. They weren’t getting away. Punching Judy brought both fists down. I avoided the strike, but only just. A timed kidney shot sent her stumbling down a stretch of upturned asphalt. Blast after blast rained from above. Supernatural force drove her into the ground. I was blind with desperation, shaking from adrenaline.
Shooting toward the remains of a mirrored office window I took a chance on my powers. My body reflected off its surface, and projected me into the side of a parked van. The impact rattled my head with force enough to turn the vehicle on its side. It rolled into the villain planted at the bottom with a crash.
When I finally looked up everything was quiet. The Carbon Man was gone. Sirens echoed in my ears. They rang with the memory of Captain Ortega, his threats of exposure, and worse.
I dropped to the ground. My lungs ached with every breath. The day was saved, right? And I stopped one of the bad guys. The destruction told a different story.
* * * *
The atmosphere inside Number One Police Plaza was stifling. No sooner had the wall of fire dropped than its inhabitants scurried for the exits. Officers failed to contain the rush – there were no cool heads in a human oven.
Waylon Dervish burst through the side door. He sprinted across the parking lot from the spewing human sea. The fresh air renewed him after a brush with death. Would his brother have let it go that far? Given his history it was difficult to be certain.
When he checked his phone he found no attempt at returned contact from his brother. Even in a crisis Roland screened his calls. Waylon had enough on his plate without a brat brother waging war with the police department!
He wheezed. Things weren’t supposed to be this way. He’d been acquitted with mere scratches to his reputation! A man such as himself had no place in the world of heroes and villains. He considered himself a fool for ever indulging Roland, family or not.
Away from the paramedics he searched his contacts. Past his siblings name was another marked ‘Cafe Italiano.’ With pizza the furthest from his thoughts Waylon dialed the number, and waited. There was no answer, or a recorded message; only a beep.
“I’ve got a job for you,” he said. “Contact me as soon as you can.”
All around was pandemonium. Despite the minimal damage done to the building men and women continued to pour out in anguish. There would be questions, and important people hungry for answers. Such disaster couldn’t afford loose ends.
* * * *
The world continued to spin even after she hit the bed. Tanya pulled into a ball, making the world as tiny as she could and into something she could manage.
Rage sizzled in her veins. All she’d done was smash a tablet, but fury demanded more. Given half the chance she would have buried the stranger and his red hoodie. It meant risking expulsion.
On her way back to the dorm she spotted two others in the same outfit. They were also spurting anti-Glimmer Girl sentiment, like some kind of smear campaign. Only a few seemed interested, but the ideas were planted.
Tanya whined and kicked the comforter from the bed. “I hate this!”
There was a knock on the door. It was gentle, only intrusive enough to alert her of someone lingering. It didn’t sound like campus security. Tanya rolled to her feet and cracked the door a sliver. On the other side was the green haired server, still in uniform.
“Sorry for showing up like this,” Trix said. “I heard what happened, and I… guess I was worried about you?” Their tone lifted so it sounded like a question. Trix shrugged, and scratched the back of their head.
“Thanks,” Tanya said in absence of anything better.
She opened to the door and ushered them past the boxes, and before their first date. Kaira’s belongings sat like a fortress on the far side of the room. Tanya sorted through the stacks of tee-shirts, jeans, and books.
“Sorry it’s not much to look at,” she said.
Trix shrugged. “My place isn’t much better,” they said. “But are you okay? You kind of lost it on that guy.”
“I don’t like bullies.”
“Not everyone’s going to appreciate a hero,” Trix said, “and the campus comes with a lot of loud mouths. Some chant about worthwhile causes, but a lot of them talk out of their ass. I know it’s hard, but you’ve got to pick your battles.”
Tanya folded her arms. Maybe she was out of line; she always was a hothead.
“I’ve seen what damage talk can do,” she said, “but you’re right.”
Trix sat beside her and pulled Tanya under an arm. No sex, only comfort. It was more than Tanya expected of a relative stranger. She wondered whether to trust this new contact. In the end she laid her head on Trix’s shoulder. Her thoughts were kicked into chaos. Once upon a time she knew the right thing. Kaira’s old secret identity only made her the target of bigots, not villains.
“Say you have a friend with a secret,” Tanya said.
“Keep it, no matter what.”
“Even if that secret is dangerous?” She collapsed on the bed. The question haunted her longer than she’d realized.
Trix followed suit. “You’re worried about Kaira.”
“And you’ve told her you’re worried.”
“Is she hurting anyone?”
Silence. After too long she spoke. “Only herself,” she said, “but it’s for a good cause. What she’s doing is important.”
“Then she needs you in her corner,” Trix said. “She’s made her choice, and you have to trust her to know what the right thing is. As a friend your job is to be there to help pick up the pieces, and to be honest with her. That’s it.”
Tanya furrowed deeper, and pulled closer to her friend. Dating or not, she needed it.
“Somehow that doesn’t feel like enough.”
* * * *
It takes a lifetime to build a city. A single building requires years of dedication. It takes architects, surveyors, builders and more to come into realization. One person can bring it crashing down, whether they be human or adept.
I cut with pointed lasers through the remains of a collapsed storefront. With a thunk a wall of concrete opened a cavern. There were screams. More than a few huddled behind a food prep counter shielding their eyes.
“You’re safe,” I said. “They’re gone.”
My incandescence cut through the dust and gloom and beckoned them from the corner. They scurried out, save for the few who had to carry their friend. I helped carry his legs. I watched as strangers wandered out of the debris, lost and confused. They didn’t know what to make of this new environment, or the shock that came with it.
I scaled the most recent crater to the bottom. A couple of blasts shifted the truck out of the way. Punching Judy lay face down, still breathing. Her fists balled inside her gloves ready for another round, even if her head wasn’t. She had more strength in her pinky finger than most had in their entire body. I’d felt it. She and her friend tore through the world like tissue paper, and they laughed about it.
I should have been glad I was there to stop them. It could have been so much worse. Glad was the last thing I felt. I was more relieved when the emergency vehicles arrived. Finally I could tag out, leave the professionals to their work, and rest.
Police decked out like soldiers appeared at the edge of the crater. They signaled for others to follow. I stepped aside and watched them restrain the unconscious clown. They applied shackles behind her back and a taser collar. All this happened before checking her vitals.
“She’s still breathing,” I said, but it was like I wasn’t there.
It was like a bad dream lost in the haze of dust. The pain of battle, the scratches and the bruises, seemed dull in these surroundings. Captain Ortega stormed through the barricade. Reality slapped me across the face. His brow boiled like volcanic mud. He marched in my direction.
“The other one got away,” I said, “but we’ll get him next time.”
Without a word he snatched my arm and twisted it behind my back. It was only shock that kept me from pulling away. He forced me to my knees. An entourage of lackeys appeared at either side to hold me as he snapped metal around my wrists.
“Hey! What the-! You can’t be serious!”
“I told you before what would happen if you butted your nose in where it doesn’t belong,” the captain said. His underlings wrenched me to my feet, and shoved me toward an open van. I didn’t resist.
“Was I supposed to keep flying? Do nothing?” My protests fell on deaf ears.
Ortega followed as the officers fed me into a steel box. “Glimmer Girl; you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney…”
This was not how it’s supposed to go.
* * * *
The orange hue of evening appeared muted by the thick clouds. Below a city whined for the loss of status. Robbed of a few gaudy storefronts its residents failed to appreciate the scare. Simple minds could not comprehend the beauty of destruction. It was the precursor to rebirth. Out with the old, in with the new! There was no time in the twenty first century to be sentimental.
It was this knowledge that had The Red Wraith sprawled across a love seat. With one leg slung over the arm he stared at the ceiling. Not much to look at save iron and beams as grim as Milestone itself.
This should have been a time of celebration! He and the Society of Sin had shaken a tiny world. After completing the first stage he should be dancing as Rome continued to burn. Instead he waited, idle for hours, with only a pyromaniac for company. Mr. Fahrenheit was a delightful companion, but one with little variety in imagination.
“This is ridiculous,” he muttered. “One simple job, a few screams, a few laughs, in and out…”
A flickering lick swirled around Mr. Fahrenheit’s movements. The combination of dance and the awkward mimicry of martial arts was curious at least. For a time it assuaged Roland’s impatient nature.
After what seemed an eternity the side door swung open. Through it entered a bald man wearing a sweatshirt and track pants. Leon Marco, as opposed to his crust-covered ‘Carbon Man’ alter ego appeared old before his time. Hard experience tightened his brow, and only grew tighter as he aged.
“You’re late,” The Red Wraith said, not bothering to rise from his seat.
Leon shook the sweat off his forehead. “Sorry, Red. Whole city’s on lock down. Had to duck a lot of checkpoints to get here.”
“That’s never slowed you in the past.”
He swallowed the turn in his gut. “This was different. Cops here are prepared. Reckon they’ve upped their game after what that Vortex guy did to ‘em. ‘Sides, that Glimmer Girl kid plays rougher than you think. Don’t know if it’s ‘cause she’s green or a brawler or what.”
Roland’s ruby smile curled to the corners of his mouth. “Well, that was rather the point. To show how careless a child she is.” He positioned himself across the arms of his chair. “Remind me to thank our message board acolytes, so willing to put themselves out there and…”
The villain considered his companions. They in turn considered him, and the sudden moves he was prone.
“Where’s Punching Judy?”
Leon inhaled. “You, er, didn’t hear the news?”
“Uh, Glimmer Girl happened,” he said. “Put her in a crater. Rolled a truck on her.” Leon’s jaw tightened. “I’m sure it, uh, made great footage. Made her look like a proper thug, you know?”
“So… are we gonna-”
“She’s fine for now,” he hummed. “Judy’s a big girl. Besides, they’ve got food in prison, beds as well, and know she can entertain herself.” The Red Wraith smirked, imagining what quips the clown would throw at him had she known her fate.
Flashes of a cold cell rattled between Leon’s bones. The lonely hours would never leave him, nor the frigid humanity produced inside a cage. Despite their differences, both he and Freddy failed to see the humor.
The awkwardness eased some with the ringing of a cell phone. The Red Wraith placed the call on speaker.
Waylon growled through the receiver. “Finally, you answer!”
“I’m a busy man. How can I help you, brother of mine?”
“By shoving off and out of my city,” he said. “First you say you’re going to fix a problem, but then you escalate things by attacking the police! Worse, you nearly kill me by sending that-that damn firebug of yours!”
The Red Wraith signaled to Freddy that things were alright.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, brother, but believe me, I have your best interests at heart. It’s true that I’ve made some ballsy moves, but that’s because I have them. It’s how problems get solved.”
Waylon seethed. “You son of a-”
“Careful what you call our mother,” Roland said. “You and I are a lot of things, and so was our father, but she was a saint.”
The elder sibling continued to rage. “You were always the favorite. ‘Take it easy on little Ronnie. He doesn’t know any better.’ I can see that hasn’t changed, you goddamn psychopath!”
“Sticks and stones, Waylon.”
He heard muttering on the other end. That caught the villain’s attention, though he couldn’t make out the words. The Red Wraith sat up from the sofa and pulled the receiver close. A few moments later his brother spoke.
“Goodbye, Roland. Forever this time.” The call clicked to an end. There was finality in his tone.
The Red Wraith was aware of being an annoyance in Waylon’s life, but little more than that. Besides, Mr. Fahrenheit, being the man of control he was never risked lives in that inferno. How unreasonable it was for Waylon to become so incensed over something so trivial.
He stopped, and snapped to his feet. The Red Wraith bellowed at the top of his lungs. “Leon! Freddy! Fire in the-”
By then it was too late. The air split, cinders flew in countless directions. The force of an explosion twisted the foundations of their hideout. All within a hundred yards was laid flat by an incendiary device. It was the punctuation in Waylon Dervish’s farewell to family.
* * * *
The moment we arrived at the plaza it was out of one set of cuffs and into another. They replaced the metal with ceramic. ‘Heat resistant,’ they said, ‘able to withstand up to three thousand degrees celsius’. Meaning laser power was next to useless.
Next was the elevator ride surrounded by six figures in body armor. It scaled down, down, down, further than I could sense. The only measure was my own churning dread. On the other side were reinforced concrete walls and security checkpoints. At the end sat a series of doors three inches thick at least.
It was the containment unit for rogue adepts, removed from the prying eyes of the world. We were both more than human and less, giving those without powers ‘just cause’ to act with prejudice.
I don’t know how long I sat in the interrogation chair. I don’t know how much time passed between between grillings. Captain Ortega came and went, more often fuming than asking questions. He growled about my being a kid, and about my throwing my life away. He said when all was said and done I was no better than the clown.
There was no sign of Punching Judy. She could have been in another cell, or a hospital bed.
They threatened to take my mask, but nobody did. My secret was safe for the moment. It didn’t change anything. Once they finished talking I remained trapped, unable to know if it was day or night.
Gods, I had plans to go back to my parents house. I was supposed to sort old ‘boy’ clothes for charity. Dad was cooking, and would stay the night. There would be hell to pay after standing them up. I had no excuse. Then there was Tanya. Knowing my secret was more of a burden than I hoped.
Hours dragged. Nervous energy wound down to exhaustion. Biding my time was torture. Every thought became an enemy. Inch by inch my sanity slipped.
There was a voice. “You got them lasers, right?”
I stopped and absorbed my surroundings. There was only a vent above, too small to enter and rigged with sensors.
“You got lasers,” said the voice. “Pew pew!” I knew her giggle. It was Punching Judy without the murderous enthusiasm.
“Yeah,” I said, “but the walls are too thick.” Not that I was thinking about it.
“But you can use them to draw on the walls,” Judy said. “Drawing helps. Trust me. Give yourself something to look at. It keeps the bad thoughts away.”
“Is that how you remain a model of mental health?”
Judy laughed until the sound chilled my bones. Of all the would-be friends to share a sentence with she was on the bottom of the list.
To be continued…