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Danny moved on to the buffet table after the conversation, feeling disappointed. Vish and Bheem had served as his heroes while he was growing up. Now, he didn’t know what to think of them. Vish had saved the planet half a dozen times and was loved by the public. At the same time, he’d stolen from Danny’s family and gotten all but one of them killed. Unless things had changed in the past couple of decades, Vish didn’t care about civilian lives and would likely cut down everyone in his path like he did Ravana and the people in the video.

Meanwhile, he’d idolised Bheem for his performance in the sporting world and how he spoke up for the Indian community. However, the meeting shattered the image he held so dear. Everything Pallav did was likely for his fame and public image. Pallav didn’t care to give back to the people that worshipped him.

After Danny spoke to Pallav, Sal’s grandchildren and several other young people approached him. After a cold response, most people walked away, looking as disheartened as Danny felt. The only people that got a better reception from him appeared to be part of the super-sport world.

A couple of people especially caught Danny’s eyes. They appeared important, but he didn’t recognise their faces from any of the super sports he followed. Their mostly metal limbs set them apart from the otherwise organic folk. Danny had heard of certain Fabricators—especially technopaths—replaced body parts with tech-packed prosthetics, but he’d never seen them before. He’d heard there were prototypes in the works for powerless for the more affluent families. Power sources and neural interfaces were apparently the biggest challenges, making the products inaccessible to the public. However, that didn’t stop Danny from dreaming of having metallic limbs as a younger man.

Several ethics groups protested the projects. Some used religious arguments—they didn’t stick well since literal immortals with godlike powers walked the Earth. Others believed it would hamper human evolution. Danny didn’t care. He watched amazed as one man pulled a neon-green wire out of his mostly metal forearm and used it to cut a sandwich in half. Danny opened his hand mouths out of curiosity and felt a deep hum emanating from them. He was sure it was a weapon, but had seen nothing of the sort before. When the man released the wire, it snapped back into his arm.

By the time Danny had made the rounds, he felt tired of dealing with people. He paused in front of Sal’s images and imagined the life the old man had lived before fame got the best of him. He was lost in thought when Jose found him.

“I was hoping to get a moment alone with you,” Jose said.

“What’s wrong?” Danny asked, feeling his shoulders tighten. The guilt from putting Jose’s information in the database had passed when he saw Dryad’s decapitated head. However, now that he saw the man up close, he wondered whether it’d been the morally correct decision. Jose’s scaled hide appeared dry and pallid.

“Stay away from the Power Merchant. The deals aren’t worth it mate. I think you’ll be happier living as a powerless than working with him.”

“Why?” Danny asked. “Is he being a dickhead to you? The League has programs for henchmen that want to turn a new leaf—”

“No. I’m not a snitch, Danny. I’d never do that. The job is not what I expected.” He glanced around the room before leading Danny into a far corner of the room. “He’s a good boss, but he’s got his own prison block. How crazy is that? He doesn’t trust me enough to see who he has imprisoned, but that can’t be good. Right? I wasn’t supposed to be fighting heroes and other villains, either. Some people are saying I decapitated Dryad. I don’t even know whether that’s true.”

“You don’t remember?”

Jose shook his head. “Something happened later that night. The base went dark and these flying squid monsters swarmed us. It was terrifying, Danny. I think there was someone else there, but I don’t remember. None of us remember anything about the day before the attack. It’s some fucked up shit, Danny. It really is. If I knew there’d be people fucking with my memories or mind in general, I wouldn’t take the job.”

“Why don’t you run? If you don’t want to go to the League, just get out of the country.”

“If it weren’t for the debt, I would. Power Merchant isn’t someone you want to default on. He’s got powerful friends, mate, and an extensive network. He’d get someone to hunt me down. Given how I look now, finding me won’t be too hard.”

“What’s the plan, then? You can’t just grit your teeth through it. The best option would be going to the League. They’ll understand if you explain the employment and contract and how things took a turn. Be open about what information you can offer then. The League must be worried about if they set someone as big as Dryad on him.”

The crowd in the hall continued to grow, and Danny felt more uncomfortable. Having as many people around him without eyes to track movement disturbed him. He compensated by stuffing his hands in his pockets before opening the mouths.

Worried eavesdroppers with super hearing could listen in on the conversation, they moved to an outside balcony where traffic would drown out most of the conversation. Danny ensured Kaka had company first. He was surprised to spot him engaged in a cheerful conversation with a mourner. She looked barely older than Danny, and the conversation appeared flirtatious.

“Power Merchant is cutting deals with the gangs in Hackney and Islington,” Jose said. “He isn’t just using powers to lead them on, but after the attack, he’s turned a few into powered enforcers. They’re on the payroll and I’m afraid there’s something more at play.”

“That doesn’t sound good at all,” Danny replied. He held the balcony’s railing and felt Jose’s heartbeat through it. “If you continue with him, the league might consider you more than a henchman.”

“That’s what I’m worried about. I just wanted to be a bodyguard, Danny, but I’ve somehow become much more. Don’t know how I’m going to get away from this mess. It might be a trap.”

“Do you know what Power Merchant’s power set is?” Danny asked. “Is it his meta gene that lets him give people powers or awaken whatever dormant is in them?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry if I’m overstepping. I understand you might get in trouble talking about this—”

“That’s not it,” Jose said. “I genuinely don’t know. He uses these strange machines to do it. At first I thought he’s a Fabricator, but he doesn’t carry himself like one. He feels more like a manipulator to me. None of us have actually ever seen him do anything super. He has a staff that does all the procedures and takes care of clients in recovery.” Jose paused. “Although there might be something in containment he’s hiding.”

“Just approach Druid.”

“Apparently, I almost killed him. Why would he talk to me?” An animalistic growl rose from Jose’s throat.

"Speaking of which, if people think you beheaded Dryad, how are you walking around in the open?" Danny asked. "Kaka said you dropped off the invitation yesterday. Today, you're casually walking around the funeral."

"Power Merchant gave me a commanding position," Jose answered. "I've got people working under me and several of them are acting as my lookout. All communications in and out of here are being monitored and if any heroes openly approach this place I'll know. Then there is this." He pulled back his sleeve, revealing an ordinary watch. He turned the dial and a hologram flickered into place. The face reverted to what it looked like before Jose gained his powers and his skin appeared human once again. Jose still looked like a super but almost all signs of the lizard physiology had disappeared. "It doesn't cover my tail and I need to move slow while it's on, but it lets me move in the open without concern."

"That's amazing," Danny said. "Where did you get it?"

"Power Merchant has a couple of Fabricators working for him and I think he might have made a deal or two with Doctor Flux."

"Interesting." Danny made a mental note. Druid could benefit from the information. "Why don't have it on all the time? Someone could see you here and report to the League—"

"I'm not too worried mate," Jose said.

“Bit cavalier if you ask me," Danny replied. "Anyway. I’ve delivered food to Druid while he was on his patrols. I’ve spoken to him and he seems like a chill guy. What if I have a word with him next time?”

“You’d do that for me?” Jose asked, eyes widening.

“Of course. You’re the most tolerable of all my clients.” He nudged the bigger man. “If I ever return to personal training, it won’t bode well for me if Jose the Lizard is one of my clients.”

“I hate that name so much. This form makes me recognizable. Costumes aren’t even an option.” He sighed. “It would’ve been cool if the media called me something like Scale or Iberian.”

Danny laughed. “You can try to make the latter work. Next time you’re on camera, put on your best Spanish accent.”

Jose chuckled, and the pair returned indoors to have beers in Sal’s memory. Danny’s guilt returned even though he believed the likes of Druid deserved to know about the man threatening their safety.

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J Pal

  • London

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