Valkyrie landed on the patio just before mid-day, tired but far from exhausted. At least physically, mental fatigue was an entirely different story. The sheer devastation which could be wrought. . . not to mention the deaths. She had told herself in the past that her reaction to it all was healthy, that if she ever started seeing human lives as numbers on a ledger rather than individual, sanctified life, it was time to re-evaluate her own and seek some sort of help.
Returning to the Guardians’ base—a warehouse located in the middle of a ring of warehouses in the western part of Queens—was just another step to reverting to normalcy. For Valkyrie to once more transform back into Jessica Tolbert. The first step had been to leave behind the rubble and blood of the explosion site, the next would be to grab a long, hot shower.
She had stayed at the disaster site longer than the rest of the Guardians. Well after the efforts had turned from rescue to recovery. There was little for most of the superpowered to do, not to mention a small backlash from even having them on scene. Things were becoming testy between heroes and governmental law enforcement agencies. That in itself was an issue for another day. Valkyrie was one of three Guardians with physical strength enough to move some of the larger, heavier chunks of rubble. Yes, she needed to recover her spear from the collapse, but Valkyrie had remained long after finding the spear.
As she walked down the hall, she ran into Hector Rodriguez, also known as Sludge. One of the stranger heroes of the day, Sludge possessed the ability to excrete a strange ooze from his pores. This ooze could be used in a number of different ways, including coating Sludge’s body for extra resiliency, being given caustic or adhesive properties and thrown at foes, or acting as a fair, if somewhat disgusting, lubricant. Perhaps far from being a powerhouse like Valkyrie, Lady Luck, or Ichabod, Sludge had proven to be a valuable and resourceful member of the Guardians.
Hector waved and waited for her in the hallway. “I’m glad I ran into you, I was just on my way home.”
As a team, the Guardians rotated shifts at the base, one or two members monitoring emergency broadcasts and prepared to rush where they were needed while the others lead ‘normal’ lives. When the explosions went off yesterday, Valkyrie and Pulse had been on-call. Shockwave almost never left the base anymore and had been on hand, as well.
“There’s a message for you in the Ready Room.” Hector laid a hand on Valkyrie’s shoulder. “You OK, lady? Lookin’ a little down, eh?”
A rueful smile came to her lips. “I’ll be fine, Hector. This one was. . . bigger than usual. Just need a long shower.”
“I hear that. Nasty one, this time. Wish there was more we could have done.” Hector kept her gaze a heartbeat longer, as if searching for something. He must have found it because soon enough he was beaming. “You go get yourself cleaned up. You need to talk, Hector’s around. Sí?”
Valkyrie patted Hector’s hand in response and continued down the hall.
“Oh,” Hector’s voice called at her back. “Carmen is bringin’ the babies up for a visit next weekend. You should come by. Felicia’s been askin’ after you, too.”
She had to smile. By the look of the man, few would guess that Hector had an adult child, let alone grandchildren. In her everyday life as Jessica, she had come to find Hector and Felicia Rodriguez to be fine company, if strangely old-fashioned in some ways. There was something very comforting about the homey quality their family projected.
“Sounds like a plan,” she replied and waved as Hector left the base.
She passed the kitchen, the last thing on her mind after helping sift through rubble for grisly pieces of humanity was filling her belly. Maybe once the images faded from memory she would get something to eat. Bad enough her sleeping patterns were going to be erratic for the foreseeable future.
First things first. She could almost feel the warmth of the water running over her skin already.
The news was playing on the television. As much as Isaac Texel detested the current media culture, there was still something to be said for relaxing in front of the boob-tube after a long few days of activity. If only his company was as keen for quiet relaxation. Sometimes transforming into the superhero Ichabod was a simpler existence than being plain old Isaac.
“Wow. You heard that, Ich? Monocle and Mustache did it, they caught the Basilisk.” Lounging on the sofa perpendicular to the one on which Isaac sat was Pulse. The younger man was stretched out, arms folded under his head and surrounded by empty Mylar bags. Chip crumbs littered his sweatshirt.
On the television, a thirty-something red-head, who was made up to look twenty-ish, was busy recounting the tale of the notorious supervillain, the Basilisk’s capture. Isaac listened with mild interest. On one hand, it was good to have another murderous psychopath off the streets, on the other hand, why did it have to be those two insufferable braggarts whom did the capturing? Mr. Monocle and the Marvelous Mustache were the epitome of bored rich guys with too much money and power.
Yes, both men had legitimate abilities, yes they did good things, but put either of those playboy imitators in front of a camera and they went all ‘Gentlemen English’ for the viewers. That, in Isaac’s opinion, did very little to help out the flagging image of superheroes these days. Using their enormous wealth to fund countless societal reform and progression projects scored points with the public, but little to elevate them among their fellow heroes.
“Boy, what I wouldn’t give to have one of those lovely ladies hanging off me for a little while,” Pulse said, referencing the buxom pieces of eye-candy draped over the two heroes of the hour as they preened for reporters.
“Would you be saying that if Shy was here?” Isaac watched Pulse go from relaxed to upright in a second at the mention of Vector’s real name. The younger man’s head swiveled on his neck as Pulse made sure Vector wasn’t in the room. The sudden, sharp movement looked like it hurt.
It was almost enough in payment for Pulse always calling him Ich. Isaac stifled a mischievous grin.
Pulse gave the room one more glance before looking at Isaac. “Dude, not cool, man.”
Dude? Isaac shook his head. He didn’t hate the guy, but the lack of maturity and the ‘surfer lingo’ Pulse lapsed into at times were grating. “Yeah, whatever. Just remember to keep it in your pants while you’re here.”
“Aw, bro. What’s your problem?” Pulse’s brow creased.
Isaac wanted to laugh, but that would probably push Pulse’s confusion into outright belligerence. He remembered himself at that age, headstrong and looking to make his own mark on the world. The gold band on the third finger of his left hand was enough. More than enough. It reminded Isaac of where he should be right now—home, with Melissa.
Still, he couldn’t help getting one last jab in there. “Me? It’s Shockwave you need to worry about. If he even thought you had designs on our sweet Vector, he’ll feed you your own balls.”
The ashen color of Pulse’s face did make Isaac laugh.
“Oh,” he continued. “Then, if you survive Shockwave, I’m thinking Vector would give you a high-speed ass-kicking, too.” He shrugged, rising from the sofa. “Then again, who knows, right?”
Pulse slumped. “Man, you’re just evil.”
Isaac grinned as he left the room. He moved his left hand to the place where the amulet resided in his chest. The demon within the jewel purred at his touch. “Nope, but my other half used to be.”
Time to make that call.
She thought about changing back into her Valkyrie persona, but Ghost didn’t need to be impressed. Jessica Tolbert and Simon Todd went way back, only slightly longer than Valkyrie and Ghost.
Besides, it was just a phone call. There weren’t many people out there with their own fancy video-phone. Sure, the Guardians had one, but people generally relied on internet programs or their i-whatsits for video communications. The need for advanced security measures wasn’t one the general populace required; Jessica wondered if the Guardians even needed such technology themselves. But it had been supplied by their benefactor, so into the base it went.
She dialed. The line rang once. Twice. On the third ring a connection was established. A familiar voice came over the line, “Hello?”
Jessica took a breath. “Simon, it’s me. Got your message.”
“It’s good to hear from you, Jess.” There was a heavy dose of relief in his voice. “Thanks for responding.”
“It’s nothing. What’s going on?”
“There’s been some trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” Jessica let out a long sigh. “It’s been a long couple of days. I’d appreciate it if you got to the point.”
She could hear his smile on the other end. “Same old Jess. But okay, I take your meaning. And actually, it’s because of that nasty piece of business on your end that you probably haven’t heard what’s going down in my neck of the country. It’s not as in-your-face, but the body count is on par, I’d wager.”
“Spit it out.” Jessica could feel a tension headache coming on. She pinched the bridge of her nose. Behind her someone had entered the Ready Room.
Simon cleared his throat. “Well, there’s been an incident at one of the chain supermarket-slash-department stores in Port Orchard. A lot of blood, a lot of wreckage. But we’ve got no witnesses.”
“Sounds bad.” She turned to see who had entered. Shockwave acknowledged her with a nod, but kept moving, intent on his own business. “But why don’t you have any witnesses? If it’s as bad as all that, somebody had to have seen something.”
“That’s just it, no witnesses because there’s no bodies. There should have been a couple hundred people in there at that time of day, and there’s enough evidence to support that, but not a single corpse.”
She opened her mouth to say something, but he cut her off. “And this isn’t the first time this has happened.”
Something bad was about to happen. Shockwave could feel it. It was like one of those days, back before he was a Guardian, out patrolling the sands with a gun and his squad-mates. Some days felt like the calm before a storm, and those were usually the ones which turned out to be the scariest, the most violent. War had a knack for dropping hell on you without prior notice.
He wanted to scratch the patches of stubble growing on his chin, but he wouldn’t take the mask off yet. Yes, the other Guardians knew of his deformity, but Shockwave never liked to show it off. He never considered himself a vain man, yet since he adopted the affectation to cover his scars, he’d often wondered.
Jessica’s body language as she took her phone call was more than enough to cause the hairs on the nape of Shockwave’s neck to stand on end. He’d only caught bits and pieces while he was in the Ready Room—Shockwave wasn’t much of an eavesdropper—and if she was talking to who he thought she was. . .
“Derek,” Isaac called from down the hallway. “I’m heading out. You still need me to cover the next couple of nights?”
Shockwave pushed the thoughts of gloom and doom from his mind. Instead of returning to his private room like he intended, Shockwave went to join Isaac. “Yeah, if it’s not too much trouble. Morrigan still wants me to drop by, Gina is supposed to be heading off to Vegas in the morning, and Shy’s got some mid-terms or something coming up. I’ll be back as soon as I can, though.”
Isaac held out a hand which Shockwave gripped and shook. “No worries, Derek. Hector will be on-call until I get back. If he needs me, I can get back in minutes.”
“Give Melissa my best,” Shockwave said.
“You got it,” Isaac said with a nod. “Regards to our generous benefactor. And have a safe trip, yourself.”
The two men parted. Isaac back to his home in Hauppauge and an understanding wife, Shockwave to Guardian business. The dossier in hand was waiting for his attention.
He was just about to pass the Ready Room when Jessica stepped out of the doorway. One glance at her face and Shockwave felt that heavy pit of concern settle into his gut once more. He set his jaw.
She met his eyes and said, “We need to talk.”
Jessica shut the Ready Room Door. She explained everything Ghost had told her over the phone.
“This is bad timing,” Shockwave crossed his arms. “Bad enough Gina is running off to shake her booty for the cameras for a few weeks. But now you want to hare off. Two of the Guardians’ heavy hitters, same time.”
Jessica knew what Shockwave was getting at. The Guardians’ leader had a streak of paranoia, though generally a healthy one. If someone was orchestrating a way to separate the Guardians, get them on their own to pick them off one by one, what better way than to pull off two of the strongest individuals in the group first.
They all knew Lady Luck, Gina Joyce, preferred to teeter over the line between bone-fide superhero and superpowered celebrity. But she had been a model before gaining her powers, and the other Guardians could only fault Lady Luck so much for utilizing all her skills, new and old, to enhance her career. Whether having a minor celebrity superhero in the Guardians was a good or bad thing was open to debate. Currently she was the only member whose identity was common knowledge. As yet, the cameras only cared about the ‘Gold Godiva’, keeping far enough from the Guardians as a team that it had yet to become an issue.
The Guardians had known for weeks that Lady Luck would be taking time off for her modeling career. Then a piece of Queens explodes in the middle of the day. The very next day, an old friend requests the aid of another member, a friend all the way across the country in Washington state. Down two members, the Guardians tired from a recent disaster. . . it was a recipe few of the at-large villains possessed the resources to achieve. But those with the resources and mental acumen to pull it off were some of the worst threats out there.
“I know the timing looks bad, Derek. But Ghost said this isn’t the first incident. If anything, it sounds like he may be dealing with something closer to the situation you’re worried about than we would be. And we both know Ghost and his crew aren’t set up to handle anything like that.”
Shockwave scoffed at the use of ‘crew’ to describe the pale imitation of a superhero group the former Guardian was attempting to set up across the states. He kept his arms folded tight across his chest, but said nothing.
Jessica took this as a good sign and continued. “If something starts going bad over here, I can be back in a few hours. But if Ghost doesn’t get help there’s no telling what could happen next.” She waited a beat, then murmured, “He’s still a friend, Derek, and innocent people are getting hurt.”
The tightness around Shockwave’s eyes increased for a moment. When Jessica saw it lessen once more into the man’s usual scowl, she knew she’d gotten through.
“All right,” he said, uncrossing his arms. “Go help the poor bastard out. Keep me posted.” Shockwave turned to leave the Ready Room. At the doorway he hesitated.
“But you tell him that if he tries to poison you against this team again, I’ll walk to Seattle and beat his sorry ass myself. Again. And that this time, one of us may regret it.”
Jessica cringed. The wounds were more than three years old, but they were still fresh in many ways. “I made my choice, Derek.”
Shockwave considered her for a beat. With a sharp nod he said, “That you did,” and stepped out of the room.