The red hoodie collapsed into the chair with a scrawny boy still in it. Sat before a steel table in front of mirrored glass he shook. He’d never been in this kind of trouble. All he wanted was to make a quick buck.
What might have been an interrogation didn’t last long. The words ‘inciting panic’ connected to criminal charges, and the boy spilled everything. He told them about the masked stranger and the money. A simple task had become a nightmare.
“Next thing we know we’re broadcasting Glimmer Girl like it’s fight night on cable,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen! Nobody did! Please, I’ve got a boyfriend. I wanted to help pay for his transition-”
Behind the mirror Captain Salvador Ortega scowled. He never cared for small fish, not when there was an ocean of predators to catch.
* * * *
Before the infamous ‘InfiniTech incident’ Milestone City was a cultural hub. Progressive state laws and investment in new technologies yielded long term revenue. That in turn funneled back into infrastructure, education, and the arts. Coupled with a major shipping line there was ample opportunity for growth.
Then there was Dr. Vortex and dual assaults on Midtown and Police Plaza. A once idyllic city stood shaken. It had no time to recover before another explosion rocked the warehouse district. In the space of several weeks the quiet safety of one point two million citizens was at risk.
From the twisted wreckage of his former hideout The Red Wraith brushed the ash from his suit. His scarlet flesh remained unblemished. It was only by the quick reflexes of his underlings that he was standing. Mr. Fahrenheit redirected the blast, while the Carbon Man erected a concrete barrier. Though immune to conventional weapons a direct attack could have wounded him.
The other two managed to climb free before the villain issued orders. “Split up and keep your heads low. I’ll contact you with instructions after I’ve arranged a new locale.”
He turned against the smoldering twilight. His brother, the ingrate, had made an attempt on his life! Of all the nerve! For his own family to turn around and betray him in such a way! And while helping to rid his city of a ‘hero’ problem no less. It was inexcusable!
He didn’t hear footsteps crunch in the rubble, for there was no sound. What did alert him was the warmth of a body carried by the wind. It had the smell of a woman – no, nothing so specific – lavender body wash, rose shampoo, sweat, and spices on their breath. Without turning he knew the would be assassin.
“This is our first meeting… Mute.”
Swinging on his heel he locked gaze with his foe. They were shorter than him, about half his size. They wore cropped black hair and an array of assault weapons. At a first glance they appeared as a child soldier in a war they couldn’t understand. Their eyes told a different story.
“My brother paid you, didn’t he,” The Red Wraith said more than he asked. “I know you can’t hear me, but you can read my lips, can’t you?”
They mouthed words back at him, silent and without breath.
Roland Dervish squared his shoulders and unbuttoned his jacket. It had been a long time since dirtied his own hands, but far be it from him to shy from the task. One way or another this sibling rivalry would find resolution.
* * * *
It was the weirdest first date she’d ever been on. Not that Tanya had ever been on a first date. Still, wandering campus and unloading on her non-binary crush wasn’t exactly romantic. Together they veered off the footpaths and across the lawns. They watched the masked men in the red hoodies flee from security. All the while the pair let every thought they had spill from their mouths.
They even had coffee, though ordering from a vendor and not Trix’s work was some kind of sacrilege. The coffee wasn’t that great anyway. It was burnt and had too much milk froth. It only cost pocket change, so they got what they expected.
Their hands met and time stood still. How long it had been since Tanya had touched a stranger, or that a stranger wanted to touch her. She regressed from a young adult to the kind of shy schoolgirl she never was. In her mind she could have been if ‘queer’ existed in her childhood.
“It’s going to be okay,” Trix said.
“How do you know?”
The older queer shrugged. “It always is, even if it takes a long time. Work hard, and trust the future. If you don’t make it out alive, well, you’ll be too dead to notice anyhow.”
Tanya stifled a giggle. “Wow, that got dark fast.”
She pulled closer to her date. “Don’t be. I like dark sometimes. It’s more honest than pretending the world is sparkles and unicorn farts.”
As one thing lead to another both Tanya and Trix found their way back to the dorm. Neither had sex in mind, but lounged against each other on the bed. Even if all they did was stare at the walls they had each other, and that meant the world.
Dusk passed them completely. It was night when somebody rapt on the door. Tanya sat up in the dark, pulled the arm from around her waist and staggered to answer. It could have been Kaira, home at last, having lost her key.
She opened the door. In place of her best-friend-cum-roommate were Kaira’s parents. They were dressed down in their sweats and appeared frazzled. Tanya flew back as Liz pushed her head inside. She searched the dark.
“Is he here?”
“Mrs. Cade, please-”
Trix rolled out of their haze. “Whasgoingon…?”
The light flickered on. Tanya with her date continued to be the only people in the room. The rest comprised of boxes, piles of clothing, and upturned sheets hanging over the side of Kaira’s bed.
“Is he here? Do you know where he is?” Liz clasped onto Tanya’s arm. Her eyes were wild with panic, her breathing out of control. Kaira’s was appeared more restrained, if tense.
“She’s… out,” Tanya said. The truth pressed against her. Kaira hadn’t been home since the Midtown skirmish. Like Trix said, she had to trust her to be alright.
“She,” Liz hummed. “I meant ‘she’. Out where?” It had been weeks since she learned she had a daughter, and continued to struggle with it. Kaira pretended she didn’t mind, ‘because she’s trying’.
Trix cleared their throat. “She’s, er… at a support group with some friends of mine. ‘Rainbow Sisters’ or something like that.”
Liz’s jaw tightened. She studied the individual on the bed. Only then did she became aware of what she’d walked into. Her focus rested on Tanya. “Why wouldn’t she tell me? She was supposed to be home for dinner. She hasn’t been answering her texts!”
Kaira’s mom had the habit of messaging a million times a day, and was usually ignored. That was normal, and so was her daughter being late. Pointing that out seemed the logical thing, even if it was harsh. After Adrian and InfiniTech it was only natural for a mother to worry. Instead, Tanya shrugged.
“I’ll tell her to call the second she gets back.”
Liz frowned. “You make sure he calls,” she said. “She calls. Sorry!” She leaned to acknowledge Trix. “We’re sorry for interrupting you girls.”
Trix mouthed the words ‘not a girl’. Only Tanya noticed.
The woman was shaking, on the verge of tears, same as she did when Kaira was laid out in a hospital bed. “Is it alright if we stayed?” Liz asked. “At least until we hear something.”
Tanya looked to Trix and bounced back and forth in silent argument. What were they supposed to do? Finally, Trix relented.
“Sure,” Tanya said.
Of all the strange first dates in the world this had taken a turn. Tanya and her crush faced the opposite side of the room. Her roommate’s distraught parents were making themselves at home. She drew a calming breath as Liz started to poke inside the boxes.
‘Kaira, you owe me big time for this.’
* * * *
I tried to get some sleep; ‘tried’ being the operative word. The mattress in the cell was more lumpy than comfortable. The blanket thin and scratchy. Judy enjoyed her beer bottle song so much that she started from the top a third time.
Pushed to the brink of exhaustion I fought to keep it together. It was only a matter of time before resolve gave way to tears. I only sobbed in the dark where nobody could see, but Judy heard it all.
“First time, kid? Yeah, I remember my first time. You fall into this life, get on the wrong side of the pigs, and bam, you lose everything. It’s worse when you’re an adept on account of ‘special jurisdiction’ or whatever they call it. Everything around you burns.”
Gods, why wouldn’t she keep quiet? The last thing I needed was to think about my family or my friends. I should have listened to Ortega when I had the chance. I should have walked away, but now was too late. His voice echoed inside my skull, and all the things said in that interrogation room.
“You know I used to have a sitcom in the nineties,” Judy said. “It was called ‘House Rules.’ You heard of it? Used to have that kid, what’s his name, went on to star in cable action movies. They don’t play the reruns anymore because of what I did, but now it’s got a cult following on the internet! Isn’t that something?”
“So what made you into… this?”
Judy chuckled. “Drugs, as in the legal kind. Experimental. Next thing I know I’m an eight foot muscle-bound freak! Hard to find a job like this. But then The Red Wraith comes along, and gives this speech about freedom. And it’s like, real freedom, beyond power and wealth and all the BS people believe. We could be our own gods! I know it sounds crazy, and I know crazy, but a girl like me takes what hope she can get. Ha!”
Enough wallowing. I jumped to my feet. “We’ve got to get out of here,” I said.
Judy rolled her eyes loud enough to hear from the next cell. “Accept it, glow stick. You’re stuck. Game over, man! No way you get out of here on your lonesome. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“Then help me,” I said.
“Me, help you? Oh, kid. That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all night! Which says something, because I’m hilarious and laugh at my own jokes.”
“So you want to stay locked in here?”
“Course not,” she said, “but you and I got no reason to help each other. Opposite sides of the coin, remember? You got that whole goody-goody gum-drop, wave the American flag, wholesome girl next door apple pie thing going on, and me-”
“None of that matters now!”
I wailed at the concrete. My feelings were all I had, and they were burning out of control. Adrenaline doused the pain of my shattering knuckles.
Judy waited for the fit to pass. She waited for a while.
“I want to go home and forget this whole ‘hero’ thing,” I sobbed. “It’s not worth it!” A part of me even believed it.
“Forget I said anything.” I had all the time in the world to sulk, and started then.
“It’s not like we could break out of here,” she said. “The place has a suppression foam system to fill the room if we try anything. To stop that you’d have to short out the emergency generator array, and they got backup after backup.”
“But if there was a way…”
The clown grimaced. “Eh, why not? Not like I’ve got anything to lose. Even if you betray me, knock me off my feet once we clear the gate, what are they gonna do? Give me another life sentence?”
“Are you saying that to shut me up?”
“Maybe,” Judy chuckled, “because you can’t take out the generators from where you’re sitting.”
Of all the things I thought I’d have to do in life breaking an unbalanced clown out of lockup did not make the list. It was also the only way to gain freedom. With a touch I could sense the thickness of the door. Even without the power, would Judy be strong enough to break the doors?
Gods above, what was I thinking?
* * * *
It had been a long day for Salvador Ortega, and on the cusp of midnight showed no sign of slowing. Allowing two minutes alone to mix instant coffee in the staff kitchen was his only reprieve. No one beneath him was game to disturb without unleashing an even greater force.
Brandon was a thin young man, barely more than a boy, whose soft demeanor was out of place in a police department. He didn’t understand ‘cop humor’. Nor did he grasp the games of one-upmanship shared by some of the more ‘macho’ officers (ladies included). In spite of that he was an efficient secretary, and kept a cool head in a crisis. That was why the office designated him sacrificial lamb whenever bad news landed.
“Mayor Bainbridge just entered the foyer,” he said. “She’ll be in your office in under a minute.”
Salvador tightened his fists. Sudden visits from the Mayor were never a good thing. It didn’t matter who sat in the chair. No matter how he handled a situation laying down for the ax was inevitable.
By the time the elevator opened the Captain was in his office. He sat on his desk with dirt coffee for comfort. He watched as the woman with straight silver hair marched toward him. She wore the kind of tight, wry smirk not born of amusement. Rather it was hatchet-like determination to deal with the business at hand.
“Good evening, Captain,” she said.
He acknowledged her as she sat. “You could have called.”
“I don’t trust phones for this. Too many bugs. Too many ears.” The Mayor reached into her pocket for a long silver tube and placed it to her lips. The device gurgled as she inhaled.
“You can’t smoke in here.”
“It’s water vapor, not smoke,” she said. “Totally different thing. What I want to know is why you have a potential minor in an enhanced security containment cell.”
“We don’t know Glimmer Girl is a minor,” he said. “Frankly, ma’am, we don’t know all that much about her.”
“You didn’t take off the mask?”
Salvador shook his head.
“Good. The public would have a field day. It’s only been a couple of months, but she’s sewn a lot of goodwill in this town. Last thing we want is to defy the will of the people by locking up their favorite hero adept.”
“She’s a liability,” the Captain said. “You saw the kind of damage she did in Midtown today. Glimmer Girl is a loose end who failed to keep a dangerous situation contained. Insurance alone is going to cost more than the city has.”
Mayor Bainbridge leaned in her chair, and tightened her expression further. “Then deputize her. Train her. Get her on the books. Clear it with the insurers. It’s within your purview, Sal, so you can stop being so precious about it!”
He folded his arms. “No.”
“Care you explain yourself, Captain?” She emphasized his title, as though it were the last time he may hear it.
“It’s as you said, Heather. Glimmer Girl may well be a minor. Even so, adept or not, it is irresponsible and immoral to place a civilian in the line of fire.”
“So you’ll process her instead.”
Captain Ortega drew a deep breath. “If it comes to that. For now we hold her, put a scare into her, and show the girl we mean business. One way or another she’s going to get the message that this is not a game.”
The Mayor leaned back in her chair and stifled a sound of disgust. “You saw the footage being broadcast today, of course. After a beat down like that I imagine she knows.”
“You mean the red hooded figures across town that tried to smear Glimmer Girl.”
“Not that they did a good,” she said. “They came off more like pantomime villains than anything, like it was some kind of PR stunt. My queendom for hype men like that in the next election cycle.”
Both sat fixed like stones and locked on one another to see who would blink first. It required a world of stubbornness to survive a battle of bureaucrats. Both became hardened during their respective political climbs. Confrontations such as these usually ended one of two ways. The first was compromise; the other an ultimatum.
“You have until dawn to release Glimmer Girl,” the Mayor said. “If this makes the morning news cycle and we can’t make a positive spin then it’s on you.”
It had been a long day for Salvador Ortega, and only seemed to grow longer. The hours that followed would determine his future within the department. Of that fact he felt every ounce.
* * * *
The world had long forgotten Mute’s ‘true’ name, if they ever had one. They gleaned little of their origins after earning a higher clearance level. The rest remained secret. Information included their parent’s home address and a list of augmentations. Such treatments had been regular since childhood.
The story as they knew it began with an infant who at eight months old failed to respond to audio stimulus. Pediatricians could find nothing atypical with their cochlea. Their ears functioned as they should. To their knowledge the child was deaf and required specialized care.
Things took a turn for the strange when the child became silent. How long they had been screaming in a dirty diaper without making a sound was not known. Their parents became distraught when they next thought to check on them. Not even the child breathing generated a noise. No doctor could determine a heartbeat during an exam.
Medical science was, for the lack of a better word, ‘stumped’. The classification of ‘adept’ remained wide and often nebulous. Experts remained reluctant to assign the label to children. That changed when a covert branch of Homeland Security became involved. They placed their new subject in a treatment facility.
It was the only life that Mute had ever known. They did not mourn the loss of family, for the idea of family was alien to them, along with love, bonding, and home. The closest they had to a father was their CO; the closest to a home their base of operations. With the resources offered them under strict supervision they were able to become stronger.
Of course that was a lifetime ago.
In the dust and debris of a former warehouse Mute stepped over the body of a man with scarlet flesh. His suit lay riddled with bullet holes, the majority of which had penetrated the mass of his chest. One sat on his brow and appeared meek next to the others.
Mute lifted their cell phone and snapped a picture of the corpse. News would spread, and there would be no question that The Red Wraith was no more.
The phone vibrated in their hand with a message from an unlisted number. It was their employer, Waylon Dervish. ‘Bring me the body. Rendezvous for completion of payment.’
Stationed to one side sat a large duffel bag. Mute removed another folded bag from it, one better suited for holding a body. Theirs was a gruesome task, and was only beginning.
* * * *
The cell itself was ten square feet of dense, reinforced cement. Facing the door in one corner was a single mattress, pillow, and a scratchy blanket. In the other sat a stainless steel toilet with a sink and cheap hand soap. Above was a vent that nobody, not even myself, could squeeze through. The only other exit was through the ten ton door with deadbolts locked to the foundation. The fluorescent lights buzzed overhead. On either side rested an array of hoses that, if Judy was right, sprayed suppression foam when needed.
In other words I had my work cut out for me. With the tears out of the way I could focus on the plan and snatch freedom.
“So all I’ve got to do is take out the back-up generators.”
Judy giggled through the vent. “You’ll never do it,” she sang.
“Just be ready,” I said. “Remember, you promised. We’re in this together.”
My powers were only new, only two months old. Weird, but I couldn’t remember a time without them. With each passing day I found a new use for them. Some uncovered found an array of abilities I never would have thought of on my own. One of them was to shift my holographic body up and down the light spectrum. With that I could to toy with electromagnetic fields.
The first time cost me a cell phone and a smart watch. The second attempt fried a pair of street lights. I’d yet to have made a third attempt, at least not until I stared down the barrel of life in prison.
Light flickered and waned off my holographic form while I ‘fine tuned’ the frequency. I knew the science, but not the way high frequency radiation felt. Was it safe? Not only for me, but for whatever poor jerk might burst in through the door.
Judy giggled. “You’ve gotta be doing something right! I’ve got a strobe going on over here!”
The nozzles on the ceiling burst with cream colored foam. They pointed at center mass. It coagulated on my chest and pulled me down, but still I fought, struggling to find my wave.
“Better do what you’re doing fast, glow stick! That foam’ll eat you whole!”
Judy had her doubts. How many times had she fought the system and lost? At a guess more than once; but I had to try. Even I didn’t know my limits. What would happen when I pushed beyond them?
Lightning jumped through the foam in brief flashes. Bolts shot for the ceiling. For all I had I squeezed. Every ounce of will pushed through my veins. I hoped against hope I struck the right chord. Then in a flash of blue the nozzles trickled to a halt and the room went dark. The circulating air went silent in the vent. All was still.
“Holy macaroni, glow stick girl! You did it!”
The power was down. There was no sign of the back up generators coming online. Stage one of the breakout was complete, but there was a lot more work to do. At least there was an end in sight; my final shot at freedom.
To be continued…