Smoke rose from smouldering buildings into an orange sunset over Broken Hill.
“Shade,” Jason said quietly as he looked over at the EOA media team. “Please find an ordinary handgun and discreetly leave it nearby.”
Jason had spotted enough armed dead that it would not be a difficult task. He had seen the military personnel, mostly clustered around their post near the tent city. Many of them had been killed by firearms rather than monsters. Only a handful of the military had survived, isolated and armed with weapons that couldn’t harm the monsters. He got them out with the other survivors, although a few had insisted on trying to fight. Rather than let them learn the hard way, he had Shade knock them out and then shoved them on a bus with the others.
He had also seen some black-clad corpses other than the Network’s tactical section, which were likely part of the group responsible for the Broken Hill tragedy. Not all of them had managed to safely extract, whether due to monster attacks or the military and Network personnel not going down as easily as anticipated.
One of Shade’s bodies slipped away, unseen in the growing shadows of evening.
Penelope was the leader of the EOA’s media team.
“I don’t know that talking to him is a good idea,” she said.
“It’s all upsides,” said, Garret, the leader of the superhero team. “You said yourself that we were having trouble finding stand-out personalities in our hero ranks. If we can associate ourselves with Asano, that might change. He’s the face of magic right now.”
“I don’t think he’s going to be very accommodating,” Penelope said.
“That’s fine, too. If he accuses us of setting all this in motion, we use it to tar the Network. One way or the other, it’s a win for us.”
“We could make a point that he’s a better fit for the League of Heroes than the Network,” Penelope mused. “There’s no way he jumps ship, but we have been working to paint him as being one of us who only works for them. An actual interview might help push that along.”
“See?” Garret said. “We win every way.”
They were speaking quietly as the face of the media team, Davina, was giving a voice over for the live feed as the camera recorded Jason.
“As the sun truly sets on Broken Hill, we can only wonder if the historic town will ever see a new dawn after the catastrophe it has suffered. For all his valiant efforts, Jason Asano, the Starlight Rider, stands in the ruins of the Global Defense Network’s failure. Again, we apologise to viewers for the graphic images on display…”
As Davina continued to narrate, Penelope silently grabbed her attention, communicating her intentions with hand signals. Davina nodded.
“We’re going to approach Mr Asano with the head of the League of Heroes team, Garret Dunhurst, a.k.a. Skybolt. Skybolt, this will be your first time meeting with your fellow hero, is this correct?”
“It is, Davina, and I only wish it could be under better circumstances. Unfortunately, the crisis we all face means that every hero is facing terrible circumstances and the Starlight Rider is no exception.”
Davina, Garret and the camera operator approached Jason. They could only see the silver eyes under his hood, the light on the camera failing to penetrate it.
“Mr Asano, despite working side by side with your fellow heroes, the death toll is clearly in the thousands. Do you think that closer collaboration with your fellow heroes might reduce the impact should further GDN safe zones be compromised?”
Seconds ticking over in the dead air as they awaited Jason’s response.
“You think we’re heroes?” Jason asked in a voice of weariness-infused gravel. “Stepping forward is the absolute minimum to expect of people with our abilities. To do any less would make us nothing but worthless cowards. If you want to see heroes, look to the people who have no powers yet they step onto the same field as us. And why do they do that? For no more reason than there are people in need of help. They don’t have the strength to face what we can face, but here they are, making the ultimate sacrifice.”
He gestured at the ruined town around them.
“If you want to find heroes, go digging through the rubble. They’re piled high. You think we compare to them because we run around in costumes, fighting monsters?”
“We protect the people,” Garret said.
“We aren't the ones that will get the world through this calamity,” Jason said. “We can help some people, yes, but we're just a symbol. The people of the world will get through this disaster not by waiting for some fool in a costume like me to save them. They’ll get through this by coming together, the human race united. A network of people who are heroes not for the powers they possess but their willingness to raise one another out of the darkness.”
Garret could feel himself losing control of the narrative and tried to guide Jason towards making an accusation.
“Those people will need leadership and guidance. Heroes to show them the way. Surely you recognise that without us, the body count today would have been much greater, perhaps even total.”
“Leadership and guidance,” Jason repeated. “That’s the kind of language you hear from dictators. In the free world, we choose our leaders, they don’t choose us, but I can see why you would think that way, given where your powers come from. We may accept your League of Heroes because the monsters are here and we need everyone we can get. But I won’t forget who unleashed those monsters in the first place so that you could run around playing super friends. There will come a day when the monsters aren’t looming over us and the people hiding behind you will face a reckoning.”
“Just to be clear,” Davina said, “Mr Asano, are you claiming that there is some kind of secret cabal behind the League of Heroes who brought the monsters down on us all? That is quite the accusation, for which I assume you have some amount of proof.”
The chuckle that came from inside Jason’s dark hood could have frozen water.
“I don’t need to prove anything or convince anyone. The day will come when the people hidden in the dark will die, alone and unknown. And no one will ever hear about it.”
“You were just talking about dictatorship,” Davina said. “Now you’re talking about extrajudicial murder?”
“Someone needs to hold the men behind the curtain to account, but if you don’t like it, who’s going to stop me?” Jason asked. “Your heroes, here?”
A pair of silver eyes fixed on Garret.
“Are you going to stand in my way, Spybolt?”
“I don’t care. I’ll be the villain to your hero, but you’d best stop me now. You’re as strong as you’re ever going to get, while my power grows with every passing day.”
He turned back on the reporter.
“What about you, Davina? You’re one of the league’s secret heroes. Are you going to stop me?”
“I don’t know where you got this idea about me having powers came from but you are completely wrong.”
“Is that so? Shade, if you would?”
A shadowy figure emerged from the camera operator’s shadow, taking the camera off his shoulder and focused on Davina. A shadow arm shot out from Jason and picked up a nearby pistol, which Jason then pointed at the reporter as Shades rose up behind her and Jason both. With silver-rank reflexes, Garret interposed himself between Jason and the reporter but Jason was already disappearing into his own Shade.
He emerged behind the reporter, shooting her in the back of the head without hesitation. Garret had the reflexes but not the awareness to stop it, taking just too long to realise where Jason appeared from. Davina staggered forward a few steps, groaning loudly as she held a hand over her head where she was shot.
“You’re a maniac!” she spat at Jason, turning around to face him. He pulled his hood back to reveal his face, his eyes were bloodshot, red and puffy from tears. In an instant, he went from faceless menace to a man shattered in grief at the tragedy around him.
“I’m sorry,” he said bitterly. “If that bullet to the head left you with a headache, maybe you don’t have powers. That’s why you hid instead of stepping out to help these people, right?”
“You can stop your play, Asano,” Penelope said. “The studio cut the broadcast.”
Jason didn't bother to say anything more, opening a portal and stepping through.
They arrived a short distance from the camp containing the Broken Hill survivors. Jason started walking in that direction over the yellow, shin-high grass.
“You did grab the memory drive from the camera, right?” Jason asked.
“Of course,” Shade said. “I am uncertain how it will help, though, given that the footage went out live.”
“Never underestimate the value of the unedited original,” Jason said. “There was probably a broadcast delay on the live feed, so there’s no telling how much they managed to edit our little play.”
“I cannot help but notice that with your ability to control your physiology, as grief-inducing as the day's events were, you should neither get bloodshot eyes nor produce tears.”
“The dead deserve tears,” Jason said. “Your father best take care of them or he and I are going to have words.”
“I don’t think you are ready to threaten the Reaper, Mr Asano.”
He tucked his hood back up over his head as they drew closer to the camp.
“This is a wagonload of horse manure,” Terrance said. “I have work to do.”
“Not if you get removed from your position, you don’t,” Anna told him as they walked the halls of the Network office in Sydney. “Make no mistake, if this workplace mediation doesn’t go well, you will be replaced.”
As a publicity man, Terrance was forced to admire Anna’s choice of tearing him down in the halls where anyone could and would overhear. It sent a message that the upper management was accountable, the general staff were respected and that family was not a shield against bad behaviour. That did not mean that he wouldn’t argue back.
“We have more important things to deal with than someone’s feelings getting hurt.”
“Terry, you threatened to have sex with the man’s dead father. I’ve worked with Aram a long time and he’s a good man whose father was incredibly important to him. You are going to apologise and you are going to god damn mean it or I will throw you out of the building myself.”
“You can’t force me to be sincere.”
“Terry, we all need to be at our very best. If people refuse to deal with you, people that you need to rely on, then things are going to get missed. If they have someone who has authority over them and is free to abuse them, that is going to detract from their performance. This isn’t you and me in the backyard. These are people that work hard, work well and are deserving of your respect. The problem here, Terry, is you, and I will excise that problem one way or another. If you can’t get your head around that and realise that you need to do better, then I do not want you here. Which, in case you’re not paying attention, means that you won’t be.”
“You're not the only member of the Steering Committee, Anna. Some of the others like the way I do things.”
“And they’ll interfere when I try to fire you,” Anna acknowledged. “But do they have the stones to interfere when I throw you off the roof?”
“Oh, come on, Anna.”
“You’ll survive,” she said. “You can go liquid form.”
“It’ll take me hours to pool myself back together after a fall like that. That’s assuming I don’t lose any of myself down a storm drain again.”
“Don’t worry,” Anna said. “I’ll have the stuff from your office boxed up and waiting for you.”
Jason quietly arrived at Asano Village in the washed-out light of predawn. He had spent the night in the survivor’s camp but not to sleep. He hadn’t been sure what solace he could offer the survivors but all he had left to give was his time. He then spent additional hours in debrief and even more time talking to the press.
Erika, Emi and Ken gathered around him, catching him in a supportive embrace. They moved to the lounge of the village’s main residence, Emi sitting on a couch between Jason and her mother, each of them holding one of her hands.
For all that Emi’s intelligence and maturity was beyond her age, the things she had seen that day had been a lot for a thirteen-year-old. Erika had told Emi she shouldn’t watch the news but hadn’t stopped her. They had all been glued to the television, catching every glimpse of Jason amongst the violence and the ruins and the death.
Jason and his family sat in awkward silence. Like much of the country and even the world, they had been watching him on the news all day. It began with the early scraps of action captured by the hiding EOA team, then the interviews with survivors. Footage from Kaito’s drones had been fed live to the press, showing Jason moving like a dark, flittering bug in his desperate striving to extricate survivors.
Many countries around the world had fought back against the EOA’s media control, including Australia. The Emergency Communications Act had passed with overwhelming support in Parliament, despite unprecedented pushback from the media on all fronts. Not only did the law enact massive emergency funds for the public broadcast network but required government information updates to air daily on all free-to-air networks and instituted an Office of Media Disinformation with fierce enforcement powers.
Privacy advocates pushed back against what they termed draconian measures against press freedom, which the media companies got entirely behind with complaints about editorial independence. The wake of tragedy, however, was always the easiest time to curtail civil liberties. Broken Hill was the largest of Australia’s disasters, but not the first.
“I'm not going to keep Shade’s bodies with you anymore,” Jason said finally. “I like being able to communicate and know that he’s there if something happens. It’s become clear to me, though, that I need to stop splitting my power.”
Shade had called his bodies back to Jason but it had taken time for them to get into range. They could only merge from forty kilometres away and had merged into an unmanned surveillance plane, moving at speed before travelling the last leg through the portal. In the time it took, there was one less bus picking up survivors than there could have been. Jason couldn’t help but think of the lives that he failed to save.
“We understand,” Erika said.
His mind kept going back to the waterfall village where he had fought the elemental tyrant as the villagers evacuated. He had saved everyone that day. Everyone. All it had cost him was a scar. He was so much more powerful, now, yet he had done so much worse. He was unmarked but thousands of people were dead. He knew that one monster was different from an entire proto-space worth, but that didn't offer him solace.
“I need to get stronger,” he murmured, head bowed.
“You’re already strong, son,” Ken said.
“No,” Jason said. “I’ve seen power so vast that my mind is too limited to comprehend the scope of it. I’m a grain of sand before that. A bug on a windshield.”
“What will you be if you get that kind of power?” Erika asked. “You’re talking about god-like power, right? Is that what you want for yourself? If you become that powerful, will we be the grains of sand to you?”
Jason looked up her with tremulous eyes.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Power isn’t everything, Jason,” Erika told him, nodding at Emi’s small hand in his. “Power can’t offer you that.”
He tilted his head as he sensed a familiar aura approaching.
“What is it?” Ken asked.
“Someone I know just arrived at the village gate.”
“As in the gate three kilometres away?” Erika asked. She and Ken both had aura senses, but theirs barely covered the room.
Jason's senses had grown to incredible proportions. They were based in his aura strength, although they reached further than his aura, like a radar sending out signals. He was still getting a handle on them, though.
In the familiar calm of Asano Village, they weren't onerous. In Broken Hill, the monsters and the chaos was overwhelming but he’d pushed himself to endure extending his senses to the limit. He had to know where the survivors needed him most.
Jason stood up.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” he said, opening a portal and stepping through, emerging outside the village gate. Most of the people camping there had long gone as food shortages became worse. They had been forced to the cities where the government was rationing out food supplies after seizing control of the supply chains. Only the most committed and unhinged people remained outside Asano village.
A car had stopped in front of the gate and the security guard on duty had emerged from the booth. It was some distant cousin Jason didn’t really know, looking at him nervously.
“It’s fine,” Jason said. “I’ll handle this.”
Dawn stepped out of the car, an expensive but ordinary European sedan.
“I’m sorry about what you went through today.”
“Save your sympathy for the families of the dead.”
“Very well. I was hoping you might put me up for a little while. A normal-rank avatar isn’t up to the rigours of an increasingly dangerous world, as you well know.”