It’s time to choose.
You knew it was coming.
Why didn’t you stop?
Branches clawed at my clothes and scratched at my face as I scrambled blindly through the underbrush. A tree suddenly loomed from the fog, clipping my shoulder when I couldn’t move out of the way fast enough. I slid down a steep bank and my already soft footing gave away as I sloshed through a shallow creek and clambered up the wall of earth on the other side, my hands struggling to grip the loose soil.
You were selfish.
I could hear it getting closer, but I couldn’t see it. A roar of cracking branches and falling trees was chasing me; I had to get away. I couldn’t get away. Why couldn’t I escape? The forest thinned as I ran out into a clearing. There were people huddled on the ground with hoods covering their heads. Like prisoners waiting for the gallows.
All around me, a wall of darkness constricted until there was nothing but the clearing. Everything else was a dimensionless void.
“Took you long enough.”
No…Why was she here? The Anarchist stepped into the light and wordlessly made her way to the first kneeling figure. With a cheshire grin, she pulled off the hood. Janet? For the first time, I noticed my heartbeat. It wasn’t fast, it was deathly slow. Every beat shook my bones. The villainess went down the line pulling off more hoods. My parents, my sister, Erin, Whitney, Corey, Adam, and Ian. All of them were here; tied up.
I wanted to save them, but I was frozen, my legs unresponsive. The Anarchist walked over and slipped something cold and metallic into my hand. I looked down and swallowed hard. A gun.
Waking up brought pain back. Pain, and the realization it was all just a dream. Argus’ Wichita Field Office wasn’t much, just a converted basement floor of the Police Department.
Startled, I looked over to see Paladin pouring a mug of coffee. He looked so nonchalant about it, like he was a normal guy. Had I just been passed out? I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised, the doctors gave me some painkillers and wished me luck, and the Field Office didn’t really have a dedicated medical area, so I crashed on a couch in the staff room. Several agents had given me strange looks as they came and went, but at some point, I must have dozed off.
“Yeah, I guess it was,” I said, still awed by getting to meet my idol. Even when he wasn’t glowing like a miniature star, he was still imposing. The mug in his hands looked more like a ceramic thimble. This guy was a legend, my childhood hero, and he was sitting right in front of me! I was talking to him!
Paladin nodded thoughtfully, “Sadly, it isn’t uncommon among those in our line of work.”
I winced internally. Why did he have to say “our”? I wasn’t like him. He was so much more…heroic than I was. He was noble, and kind, and powerful while I…just wasn’t.
“So, how is it working with A.S.E.T.?”
Was he making small talk?
“Well, we don’t really do much with them. I think we’re supposed to be our own thing.”
“Oh, my mistake. I’ve never worked the ‘Special Enforcement Team’ myself. I guess a giant glowing knight isn’t exactly stealthy,” he said with a hearty chuckle.
It was so strange; he didn’t have the usual demeanor of a hero. Most tried to appear larger than life; boastful and belligerent. Paladin was just talking.
I smiled a bit and slowly sat up, wincing as my ribs flared up. At this point, I felt like I more of me was bruised than not.
“Is the pain bad?” Paladin asked, noting my grimace.
“Not as bad as it was.”
“I’m sorry I can’t heal you any more than I did, but I’m getting old and it takes longer for me to recover than it used to.”
“Well, thank you for doing what you did. I was about to blackout when you got there,” I said, finding what he said strange. “But what do you mean recover?”
“You don’t know? When I ‘heal’ people, I take the wound. It heals much, much faster, but I still feel all the hurt and limitations.”
“And you still healed me?” I asked, dumfounded. My mind raced back to times I’d seen Paladin healed heroes injured during a fight. Some had massive gashes and broken bones. Once he healed a civilian with a crushed leg. Did he still feel that?
“Of course. I had to make sure you would be alright.”
“I don’t think I said it enough, but thank you,” I said, blown away.
Paladin laughed, a deep reverberation that seemed to shake the room. “Believe me, you’ve said thanks enough, and you are welcome.”
“Is that what you did to Adam- err- Riot?”
“Your teammate with the mask? No, he didn’t need any healing.”
How was he fine? I was definitely going to find out how he kept doing that one way or another.
“Hey, where’s everybody at?” I asked, noticing the rest of my team was nowhere in sight.
“They’re talking to your Liaison to see what they should do next. Apparently, Argus has become concerned with your little villain friends,” Paladin said between sips of his coffee.
“Really? I mean, we wouldn’t have beaten them without your help, but are they really that dangerous?”
“Ah, be careful; you’re showing your inexperience. Think about what they were doing. Only a few of them were attacking until I arrived. From what I heard your team say, ‘The Goo’ was watching for the most part. He was observing you all. Not to mention, you had Norn dealing with a speedster that broke your ribs in a split second. And you had Boondock giving your team an edge.”
The pain in my side seemed to flare up slightly at the mention of what happened with the speedster, but I wasn’t sure what he meant when it came to Boondock’s involvement.
“What exactly did Boondock do? It mostly seemed like he stood around to me.”
Paladin grinned, “Boondock doesn’t have flashy powers, but they can be very useful when they’re on their team. I’ve fought with him before, and you never quite get used to it. Things are clearer; you noticed things you might normally miss, it’s easier to focus. You might even have been able to control and use your powers better. At the same time, it’s the reverse for your opponents.”
“Is that what the goosebumps were?” I asked.
The hero nodded, “Exactly.”
“Feeling better, Nate?”
I looked up to see Erin and the other Argonauts coming into the staff room.
“Yeah, a little bit. I think the painkillers are kicking in.”
“Good,” Erin said, leaning against the wall while the rest of the team found places to sit. Whitney collapsed on the couch next to me while Ian and Adam joined Paladin at the table in the small kitchen area.
“Coffee?” Paladin offered, gesturing with his mug to where the fresh pot sat on the counter.
“We’re good,” Erin said, looking like she was thinking something over. “So, here’s the situation: Ian locked on to another location of the Goo, and Grey wants us to close in with a AID Squad and bring them in.”
“AID?” I asked.
“Argus Investigation and Detainment. They’re basically an Argus SWAT team with an unfortunate acronym,” Ian explained.
Erin nodded, “We think The Goo is building a team. First, it stole whatever Obyek 41was, then Shard broke out Cooke and Morales, next Thatcher was captured- probably to make sure we couldn’t find anything else out about it, and now he’s recruited a speedster serial killer. Paints a pretty clear picture from what we can tell.”
“So, you think they’re going to recruit someone else?” I asked.
Erin nodded, but it was Ian who spoke up, “I picked up a disturbance in New Orleans, could be any number of potential villains hiding there.”
“When do we head out?” I asked, not exactly looking forward to having to move. Everything felt like a whirlwind of disappointment lately.
“You aren’t going anywhere except back to headquarters,” Erin said.
I forced a grin, “Yeah, I guess I’m not in any condition to fight.” What were the Gold Diggers going to think about this? I wasn’t going to be with the team anymore, at least for the moment. What if they took it out on my family? I caught Ian’s gaze and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. He knew something. I didn’t have a choice, I had to play along.
“At least you and Corey can keep each other company,” Whitney said, patting me on the back.
“Ow,” I deadpanned.
Whitney winced, “Sorry, forgot.”
“We do need more backup, though, and we were wondering if you would be willing to come with us, Paladin.”
The hero broke into a smile, “Of course, It’s nice for an old man to feel useful again.”
“Well, you were the only one who saved our asses back there,” Adam said.
Paladin shrugged, “It’s my job.”
“It’s settled then,” Erin said before turning to me. “We need to get a move on. Argus will have a transport ready for you in a few hours.”
“Got any sixes?”
I scanned through the cards in my hand and picked out two sixes, putting them in Corey’s waiting hand.
“Go fish,” I said. I hated being on the sidelines knowing the team was going into a potentially dangerous situation. Here I was, playing Go Fish with Corey. His arm was still in the sling, so he was using one of his wings to hold his cards. The long feathers near the tip acted like fingers or long chopsticks. It wasn’t super effective, but it got the job done.
“Nate. Nate it’s your turn.”
Corey rousted me from my daze, and I realized I’d been staring at my cards with intent to kill. “Sorry, uh, got any twos?”
“Are you okay? You’ve seemed out of it since you got back.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I think it’s the pain meds, or something…”
“Well that’s a load of bull,” Corey said, putting down his cards and crossing his wing and free arm. “You’re worried about the team, aren’t you?”
I let out something that was a cross between a sign and a laugh, “Yeah, you’re right. We’re here twiddling our thumbs and they’re out there in danger.”
“They’ll be fine. You said they had Paladin and Boondock with them. If anyone can keep the team safe, it’s those two.”
“I guess, but if Shard and company are looking for new members for their team, what happens if they find one our team can’t handle?”
“What do you think the villains would be looking for?”
“Look, I don’t know,” I sighed, dropping my cards. I was tired of feeling anxious and not being able to do anything about it.
On top of it all, my bad mood seemed to be wearing off on Corey. Maybe I needed to get out of my own head. After all, Corey was right, Paladin and Boondock had years of experience; decades in Paladin’s case.
I looked across the table at my teammate. He was looking at me, worry clear on his face. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be a wet blanket.”
“You’re worried,” Corey said, forgiving my bad mood, “That’s understandable. At least we know you care.”
I gave a slight grin as Corey continued, “It’s more than we get from Adam. That guy gives Grey a run for his money in the stoicism department.”
My grin grew into a small smile, but Corey mentioning Adam reminded me of what I wanted to ask. “Not to change the subject, but what’s the deal with Adam? I see him hurt and beat up, but the next thing I know, he’s fine.”
Corey shrugged slightly and looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know exactly what it is, but from the little bit Erin told me and Whitney I know he has some kind of split personality that prevents him from using all his powers.”
“You mean like a Jekyll and Hyde situation?”
“Hm, not quite, but I think It’s something like that.”
“So, whenever he seemed confused or surprised to see me…?”
“He had just changed persons, right.”
“Well, that’s pretty cool, I guess. But…why was it such a secret?”
“I think it’s just a bit to explain, especially if you don’t know the whole story, and I think it’s a sore spot for Adam.”
I could understand that, hell, I wasn’t really that different. People didn’t want to see the dark side of powers. Didn’t want to know what they cost.
“Hey, I’m pretty bored with cards, do you, uh, wanna head to the cafeteria and get some food?”
Corey seemed a bit uncomfortable with how the conversation had gone, and I couldn’t blame him. He had something to hide too, I could tell. Was it something about his powers? Maybe it was the reason why he always wore a coat when we were on a mission? Whatever it was, he still seemed like a nice guy. He looked…hopeful?
“Yeah, sounds good,” I said, standing up slowly. Everything from the past week was catching up to me. My chest hurt as I rose to my full height, but I managed to grit my teeth through the discomfort.
“You alright?” Corey asked, coming around the table to offer support.
“I’m fine,” I said, waving him off. I could manage. Paladin’s healing did more than I thought at first. Lots of my bruises had begun to rapidly fade and now most of the ones from the fight with the Gold Diggers were gone. Kind of hard to believe that all happened less than a week ago.
My powers were getting stronger every time I used them, like they had been waiting my whole life for this. Maybe I could make a decent hero yet. Well, If I could ever get out from under the Anarchist’s thumb. Then there was Corey. His powers were useful, even if they weren’t quite as flashy as mine or Whitney’s. Flying would be cool, though.
The major difference between me and Corey when it came to our skills was Corey had training while I was just a guy off the street with powers. Sure, I could throw a car, but against Morales it was Corey who had actually fought him claw-to-wing.
We were both oddly silent as we made our way down the stairs to the cafeteria. Corey hadn’t ever been what I would call talkative in the time I’d known him, neither was I, but this was something else. Even here, among other metahumans, I made myself an outsider.
The Cafeteria had a pretty wide, yet standard, spread of food. It wasn’t anything amazing, but it beat anything I could make on my own. Once we grabbed our food, we made our way to one of the few empty tables not occupied by suited agents and gray uniformed soldiers.
“Hey, Corey?” I said, breaking the awkward silence when a thought finally crossed my mind, “You and Whitney both went to the Academy, right?”
“Yeah, why?” He asked, looking up with a mouthful of fruit.
“Did they ever teach you anything about controlling powers?”
Corey nodded, “Definitely. It was one of the biggest things they focused on. Well, next to teamwork anyway.”
He turned a select few feathers on his wings to their metal form to emphasize his point.
I figured as much. “Do you think you could maybe give me some tips?”
His eyebrows rose, and I quickly followed up my question, “You don’t have to, obviously, I was just thinking since you have proper training, you might be able to give me some tips, or something…”
“Uh, sure, I’d be happy to,” He said with a grin, his face flushing slightly. Then something caught his attention. “Hey, look at that.”
I turned to see a television turned to an international News channel. It was showing some busy crime scene, but the banner at the bottom of the screen was what gave me chills. “22 Villains Slain by Unknown Vigilante?” I read aloud.
“I wonder if it’s the same guy killing all the heroes.”
“What?” I asked, looking back at Corey.
“You haven’t heard? Argus is in some fit about a string of hero disappearances and homicides.”
“Oh yeah, Paul mentioned something about four Canadian heroes being found dead before I left.”
“Paul?” Corey asked.
“Uh, my father,” I explained.
“You call your dad by his first name?”
“Well, foster father,” I explained.
“Oh,” Corey said like he just made a faux pas. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be, you couldn’t know, and it’s not a sore spot.”
“Uh, okay,” Corey muttered, still uncomfortable with the subject. Then he lit up, “Hey, It’s James.” He lifted a hand to wave the Liaison over.
“Hope you two are recovering well,” James said in his usual chipper tone, choosing to remain standing next to our table.
“Any word on how the team’s doing?” Corey asked.
“They didn’t find anything but a dead end in New Orleans. They’re on their way back here as we speak.”
“That’s disappointing,” Corey said.
“At least they’re alright,” I said, feeling some measure of relief.
“True, but Ian is afraid the creator of the Goo has found a way to mask the signature he was tracking. This might have been our last chance,” James said.
“Does this mean A.S.E.T. is taking over?” I asked, knowing Erin wanted to avoid that.
“No, they’re busy with other matters.”
“Like the serial killer?” Corey asked.
James nodded. “It isn’t the first time we’ve seen someone target heroes or their families. It’s a terrible threat heroes face.”
“I thought he killed a bunch of villains too?” I questioned.
“If it turns out to be the same person, then it could be someone who has it out for metahumans,” James acquiesced.
“A meta killing metas?” I asked, finding it odd.
“What makes you think it’s another meta?” Corey asked.
“Who else could do something like that?” I asked, gesturing towards the scene on the television.