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Welcome to Utopia: Book One of the Utopian Dreams Series

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Dec 14, 2019.

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  1. Threadmarks: Welcome to Utopia
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    A little explanation is in order. I have written a novel; the aforementioned Welcome to Utopia.

    UPDATE: It has been published. Link to get it is here.

    [Or go on to Amazon and type in "Welcome to Utopia Alan Atkinson".]

    In the meantime, I've decided to give my loyal readers the chance to get a sneak peek at what it's about. I intend to post one chapter (or chapter-equivalent) per week, or four posts per month.

    What's it about, you ask? Well, first off, it's a superhero story. It's also a science-fiction story, a romance, a tragedy, and a good hard look at social issues such as racism, bigotry and intolerance. The main character is gay (and he's not the only non-binary character in the narrative) but while his preferences won't overshadow the plot, they will play a part. Also: in this story, being Batman is a superpower unto itself, and Reed Richards is not necessarily useless. (For clarity: neither Batman nor Reed Richards will be appearing in this story).

    I will request anyone who's actually read the book to refrain from revealing spoilers.

    [​IMG]

    Without further ado ...
     
    Last edited: Feb 2, 2020
  2. Threadmarks: Prologue One
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    [​IMG]


    Prologues

    Prologue One
    Discovery

    Manhattan Reclamation Project, Kansas
    Grid Reference FC/97A
    Tuesday, November 2, 1999
    8:32 AM Central Daylight Time



    As the Jeep rattled and jolted over the roughly graded road, Graham Bakersfield wondered how he’d ever become accustomed to the idea that a nuclear bomb had gone off in the very heartland of America, just six weeks previously. Every time he really dwelt on the idea, he got cold shivers. Worse, his duties as a foreman overseeing the rebuilding efforts covered a patch less than five miles from ground zero. Normally, this would’ve been far too close in both distance and time for his personal comfort. And yet, somehow, he no longer really thought about it anymore. It just was.

    On the other hand, he mused, it was all too easy to believe that some catastrophe had overcome the terrain through which he was driving. All was dirt and rock and dust. There were neither trees to sway in the breeze, nor birds to perch in them; no plants or animals of any sort, in fact. Apart from the Jeep, the only movement and sound came from the enormous remote-controlled and semi-autonomous vehicles that trundled over the blasted terrain all around, carrying out the basic landscaping that would be needed before the rebuilding could begin in earnest. In between them, here and there, were the personally controlled machines doing the detail work. The construction site was bigger than any he’d ever worked on before. In fact, as far as he knew, it was the most ambitious venture of its type, stretching at least twenty miles in every direction.

    All of this was overshadowed by the fact that he’d been tapped to escort a VIP into the interior of the Reclamation Project. He’d never heard of her before this day, and he wasn’t quite sure who she was or what she did, but Samantha Colburn was apparently as Very Important as VIPs got; short of hosting the President himself or an actual member of Force Majeure, of course. From what he could tell under the hairstyling and makeup, she wasn’t much over forty (as he himself was) but she wore it with considerably more aplomb. Even the hard-hat and high-visibility vest required by regulations looked more like fashion accessories on her than items of personal protection.

    The Jeep topped a rise and headed down toward the construction trailer that he was currently using as his mobile base of operations. A substantial antenna array on the roof allowed him to relay orders from company headquarters out to the semi-autonomous vehicles under his control. There was also a satellite dish, allowing him to maintain contact with the outside world, given that no cell signal would penetrate this deep into the disaster area.

    Beside the trailer was parked the bus that had transported his men to the site, surrounded by the dozens of sets of wheel tracks and tread marks made by the construction vehicles. Around the back, a large overhead tank supplied water to both an ablution block and to the trailer itself. On any other construction site, there would’ve also been a diesel bowser to keep the work vehicles running, but somehow the ones they’d been supplied didn’t need it. The water tank on the ablution block rarely needed refilling either, which meant there was a serious filtration system at work there. Force Majeure had supplied the equipment, so he figured it was a superhero thing.

    With a screech of dusty brakes, he pulled the Jeep to a halt outside the trailer. Shutting off the motor, he worked his jaw a couple of times to dispel the illusion that he’d suddenly gone deaf. “Okay,” he said, his voice oddly muffled in his own ears after the roar of the Jeep’s engine. “We’re here. Ninety-seven Alpha. What exactly did you need to see, again?”

    “Your work orders for the last twelve hours.” Her voice was crisp and no-nonsense. “Locator beacons place several of your earthmovers at a significant distance from their required locations, and certain tasks have not been carried out.” She pointed. “There should be a hill just over there. I need to find out why it has not yet been constructed.”

    “Hey, I entered those orders myself,” he said defensively. “If there’s problems, you need to talk to the person who drafted them.”

    She looked him in the eye. “I drafted them, via a directive from Relentless. He okayed them, and I sent them out.” She climbed out of the Jeep. “Which is why I need to see where the hiccup is.”

    “Wait, did you want a filter mask?” Graham reached into the back seat and retrieved one from the box he kept there. “The radiation ...”

    The Colburn woman gestured at the detector mounted on the center of the Jeep’s dashboard. Another one was attached to the side of the trailer. Each was linked to a siren that, coupled with a flashing light, would warn anyone within several hundred yards that there was a radiation hazard present. Every installation and piece of machinery on site had one of these attached. “Those haven’t gone off for two weeks, correct? The Technologist assured me that there was nothing more to be concerned about. I believe him.”

    “Yes, ma’am.” But as Graham got out of the Jeep, he hung the mask around his own neck. If Ms. Colburn was on speaking terms with the man whose scientific innovations had underpinned the entire decontamination and rebuilding effort to date, it meant she was definitely highly connected. But he was still a careful man. It had saved his life on more than one occasion.

    Ms. Colburn reached the trailer and took hold of the handle. A corner of Graham’s mouth lifted in a grin as he reached into his pocket for the key. She’d get nowhere fast, doing that. But to Graham’s surprise, the door opened easily for her. She turned to face him; one immaculate eyebrow raised. “You leave it unlocked?”

    “I most certainly do not,” he retorted, taking the key out. “And this is the only key on site. Let me have a look at that.”

    With a silent gesture—all yours—she stepped back out of the way. He leaned in close to examine the door, which indeed seemed to be unlocked. Inserting the key in the lock, he turned it, locking the door. Turning it the other way unlocked it once more.

    “Someone’s got a spare key,” he muttered, restraining his natural urge for profanity. “Stay out here. I need to see what’s missing.” It was clear to him now; whoever had unlocked the door was the one who’d messed with the work orders on the semi-autonomous earthmovers. There really were no other suspects. Where they’d gotten the key from, he had no idea. He could guarantee it hadn’t come from him, though.

    Ms. Colburn did not dispute his right to go in first. “Clearly, we’re going to have to upgrade the security on these trailers.”

    “Yeah, no crap.” He pulled the door open and peered in, ducking back quickly in case the intruder was still inside. Unlikely, given that his own men were already on site, but not impossible. However, as it turned out, the trailer was empty of people. There wasn’t even anyone hiding in the tiny bathroom, proven by the fact that the door into the cramped cubicle was wide open. He climbed up the two steps and entered, still wary.

    The place hadn’t been trashed, which was a source of both relief and confusion. In his experience, people protesting a construction site had a tendency toward spray-painting everything they could get their hands on and destroying paperwork to slow down the work. Everything was as he’d left it, and that included the electronic tablet he’d been issued when he first signed on as foreman of FC-97A. They hadn’t stolen it, or even smashed it. Almost smugly, it sat on his desk in pride of place. Staring at it, he pushed his hard-hat back and scratched his head. “Okay, I don’t get it.”

    “What is it that you do not get? Saboteurs are an uncomplicated bunch, Mr. Bakersfield.” Ms. Colburn climbed into the trailer behind him. “Destroying things and wrecking construction efforts are what they live for.” As she came up alongside him, her eyes widened at the sight of his desk. “My goodness, they certainly made a mess.”

    He grimaced, feeling insulted. “They didn’t touch a thing. This is how I work.”

    “Ah.” She shot him a sideways glance. As if to cover her gaffe, she took up the tablet, handling it with easy familiarity. “Hmm. It seems that the only work orders that were altered are the last ones you entered. They’re still on the screen. Just a few numbers were added. If this was sabotage, it’s the most ineffectual and ham-handed way it could’ve been done. We should be able to fix the damage in a matter of hours.” As she spoke, she tapped away at the tablet.

    “Yeah, that’s what I don’t get.” He shook his head. “It’s gonna take longer to change the lock on the trailer than to deal with the actual problems they caused. What was the point of all this?” As he spoke, he gestured at the trailer in general. “I mean, what were they doing? Leaving a message? ‘We can do a lot worse than this’?”

    That was when he saw the folded note pinned to the corkboard. More importantly, he saw the name written on it in clumsy block letters: RELENTLESS.

    “Hey, what’s this?”

    “What’s what?” Ms. Colburn looked up as he reached for the note. “Stop! Do not touch that!”

    Graham would forever after credit his innate caution for his immediate reaction. At her first word, he jerked his hand back as if the paper were electrified. Only after he’d completed his instinctive withdrawal did he turn his attention fully to her. “What? Why? What do you see?” Whatever she’d spotted, he was damned if he could see it, but there had to be something there to cause her violent response.

    “That note is addressed to Relentless,” she explained patiently, as if to a child. “All of this? Designed to bring the note to his attention. Whatever’s on it is meant for his eyes, and his eyes only. It’s more than your job is worth to read it before he gets his hands on it. More than my job is worth, for that matter.”

    “So, what do we do?” he asked, gesturing at the offending scrap of paper. “It’s not like we can lock up the trailer or shut down the sector for any length of time.”

    For an answer, she picked up the phone, an old push-button model that shared the desk with stacks of paper. An immaculately manicured nail stabbed out a phone number, too fast for him to keep track of the digits.

    “Hello, yes,” she said briskly. “Samantha Colburn here. Get me Relentless.” A pause ensued. “Yes, it’s important. Give the phone to him right now.” Graham got the strong impression she was trying to avoid rolling her eyes.

    A moment later, she began speaking again. “Yes, sir, it’s me. I’m doing that check at Ninety-Seven Alpha. It wasn’t operator error, as we initially thought. It was all a ploy to get our attention. There’s a note here, addressed to you. No, I haven’t looked at it. Yes, sir, we can wait.”

    She hung the phone up, then released a ladylike sigh. “Well, that’s that. Relentless will be here in a few minutes, and then it’ll be out of our hands.”

    Graham stared at her incredulously. “And you’re not in the least bit curious about who left the note and why, or what it says?”

    This time, she did roll her eyes. “Of course I’m curious, but unless you have a special insight as to who may have gotten into the trailer, our best clue is in that note. Which we are not going to read.”

    It was clear she wasn’t going to budge on the subject. With a shake of his head, he went outside and studied the ground. Unfortunately, the morning’s startup activity had thoroughly overlaid all evidence of anyone approaching the trailer. Before he and Samantha had turned up, of course.

    When he turned around, she was standing in the doorway to the trailer, effectively blocking him from going back in. He looked down the road, shading his eyes and wondering what Relentless would be driving, to get him there in just a few minutes.

    “Don’t bother,” she told him. “He won’t be coming by road. He’s actually a few miles away, but all he has to do is get in contact with Tourbillon. After that, they’ll be here in seconds.”

    Graham still couldn’t get over the way she was casually namedropping the members of a superhero team. “So, what’s it like?” he asked. “Being Force Majeure’s secretary, I mean.”
    “Please,” she said with genteel emphasis. “I am employed by Relentless as his personal assistant.”

    “What’s the difference?”

    “A ‘secretary’ is someone who takes dictation and types up documents,” she said. “I organize his schedule for the most effective and efficient use of his time. And when he has too many things to do at once, he delegates some of those tasks to me. Such as this one.” She seemed primly proud of that fact.

    Graham nodded slowly. “Gotcha. So, what’s it like, being a superhero’s personal assistant? ’Specially one like Relentless?” A boss with a temper was bad enough; one who could also crush a house brick in his bare hand would bring matters to a whole new level.

    To her credit, Ms. Colburn took a moment to think about her answer, rather than reciting a meaningless platitude. “Fulfilling,” she decided at last. “I’ve worked for many people who made empty promises they never intended to honor. When Relentless says he’ll do something, I know it’ll get done. Nobody stands in his way.”

    He snorted. “Because, you know, he’s Relentless.”

    She smiled slightly, though he suspected she’d probably heard variations on the same joke a thousand times already. “Precisely.”

    As if summoned by her word, a vertical circular swirl of darkness began to form, several yards away. It quickly grew until it was about eight feet across, then Relentless stepped out of it. Accompanying the leader of Force Majeure was a slim figure in a charcoal-hued hooded cloak; Graham recognized this one as the aforementioned Tourbillon. The black swirl vanished as quickly as it had appeared, almost seeming to soak into the teleporter’s garment.

    Relentless was huge. Graham Bakersfield was not a small man, but the superhero had to be at least six and a half feet tall, with enough muscle mass to make him look almost stocky. He wore a helmet, which doubled as a mask, in black and silver trim. His breastplate bore the same color scheme. Hanging from his hip was a heavy-looking sledgehammer with a decided technological theme to it; Graham fancied he could hear it humming with power.

    “Ms. Colburn.” The superhero’s voice possessed the same sort of deep, rumbling power as an earthmover downshifting to deal with a problematic obstacle. “I understand you’ve found something interesting.”

    Samantha Colburn nodded. “Sir. This is Graham Bakersfield. He found the note and called it to my attention.”

    Relentless nodded once, briefly. “Good. Where is it?”

    She pointed at the door of the trailer. “Still on the corkboard. We didn’t touch it.”

    Fully aware that she could have easily thrown him to the wolves by describing the sequence of events in even a slightly different way, Graham opted to stay quiet.

    “Excellent,” rumbled Relentless. “Stay here.” Opening the trailer door, he climbed inside, bending forward slightly to fit under the frame. Graham could hear the structure creaking, and it actually sagged a little on its suspension. Christ, how much does the man weigh?

    A moment later, Relentless exited the trailer with the note in his hand. It was unfolded, though Graham could not see whatever writing was on it. The big man glowered at Samantha and Graham for a few seconds, then glanced down at the note. “Neither one of you has read this?”

    “No, sir,” said Samantha promptly. Mutely, Graham shook his head in agreement.

    “And you don’t know who could have put it there?” This time, his eyes were fixed on Graham.

    “Uh, no, sir,” Graham stammered. “Whoever it is must have a duplicate key, but nobody’s supposed to have one of those.” He held up his own key. “This has never been out of my—”

    “Not a duplicate key.” The observation from Relentless was as sudden as it was definitive. He pointed at the door, which had swung shut behind him. “The lock was picked.” Then he turned and focused his attention on Graham. “The official story will be that the system suffered a glitch. You tell nobody about the note. Is that understood?”

    “A—absolutely.” It was all Graham could think to say.

    “Good. Ms. Colburn, we’re done here.”

    “Yes, sir.” As she moved to Relentless’ side, Samantha Colburn met Graham’s eyes briefly. He read a message in the glance. You’ve got a second chance. Don’t screw it up.
    Tourbillon raised a hand and the black swirl emerged from nowhere, spinning up to the right size. Relentless stepped through first, followed by Samantha. Last was the hooded figure, then the swirl vanished.

    Standing alone next to the trailer, Graham decided that he really didn’t want to know what was in the note that badly after all. Hero or not, getting that guy pissed at me is the last thing I want.


    - End of Prologue One -​
     
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2019
  3. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    I think it might need a little more spacing.


    Outside that, I'll wait. I can't quite judge it yet, there's not enough.
     
  4. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I am trying to give it spacing. It is not cooperating.

    And yes, it's the first prologue of a 500-page book.
     
  5. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    It does have that "Prologue" feel.


    Good luck with the formating. Hope you can beat it into submission.
     
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  6. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I brute-forced it. Went through and added the spaces manually.
     
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  7. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    Much better.
     
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  8. SamueLewis

    SamueLewis Not too sore, are you?

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    Looks pretty good, but why "crap"? it's so jarring to me, does anyone even say it like that?

     
  9. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    It's a little less impolite than "no shit".
     
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  10. SamueLewis

    SamueLewis Not too sore, are you?

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    I thought as much, but does anybody really say that?
     
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  11. samgrimes

    samgrimes Getting out there.

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    Yes.
     
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  12. SamueLewis

    SamueLewis Not too sore, are you?

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    Huh... Well, I stand corrected... Never mind then, I guess
     
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  13. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I know I do.
     
  14. Threadmarks: Prologue Two
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Prologue Two

    Runaway Superhero

    22nd District Police Station
    Chicago, Illinois
    Saturday, December 17, 2011
    9:28 PM Central Daylight Time



    Vanessa Power shifted her legs uncomfortably. While there should've been room to spare inside the power armor—it had recently been upgraded to take her next growth spurt into account—she was wearing heavy winter clothing under it instead of the usual light bodysuit. This was cramping her movements, making it hard to bend her arms and legs with any sort of ease. Fortunately for her synthetic proprioception, the neural-induction receptors placed throughout the suit needed little in the way of skin contact—her uncovered head and neck, within her helmet, were perfectly adequate for this—to function properly.

    She tried to focus on that, so she didn't have to think about anything else. About everything else. About the fact that her entire universe had just exploded around her, and nothing would ever be good or nice again.

    A mental impulse activated the suit's neuro-induction display for the dozenth time, projecting information on to her mind's eye.

    Primary Suit Systems: nominal.
    Secondary Suit Systems: nominal.
    Power Reserves: 97%
    Operational Duration in Standby Mode: 103 hours.


    She realized that the female police sergeant sitting with her (the woman's nametag read FOSTER) had said something. With an effort, she assumed a polite expression for the woman's sake. "I'm sorry, I missed that."

    Sergeant Foster had faded blonde hair and a careworn expression. She was clearly trying to be motherly, but her attempts were falling woefully short. It was quite apparent that even if she'd been taught how to handle distraught sixteen-year-old girls, the fact that Vanessa was wearing power armor potentially capable of leveling the building was a complication she hadn't been trained to deal with. Still, she was making the effort.

    "I said, would you like a cup of tea?" Foster spread her hands and gestured toward the kitchenette counter. "We have cookies. Or I could fetch you another soda from the machine."

    "What I want is to talk to someone in charge who can put me through to the Mayor's office so I can tell him exactly why he should have my father arrested," Vanessa said forcefully. "What's taking so much time?"

    "I'm not entirely certain but I'm sure they're working on it," Sergeant Foster said soothingly. "Now, these are very serious allegations you've made—"

    "They're not allegations!" snapped Vanessa. "I was there! It happened!" She clenched her fists. A message popped up in her NID.

    Haptic Trigger detected. Deploy Micro-Missiles? Y/N

    Hastily, she declined. Fortunately, the system was weighted toward not deploying, so if she got a cramp at the wrong moment, she wouldn't accidentally blow a hole in the wall. With elaborate care, she relaxed her hands.

    "Miss Power, I'm afraid they are allegations until independent proof is gathered." Sergeant Foster was blissfully unaware of the weapons going back into standby mode, encased in the metal surrounding Vanessa's forearms.

    Vanessa had had enough. She activated another system via the NID.

    Sensory Systems deployed.
    Directional Audio Gathering System: Active.
    Audio Filtering: Active.
    Speech to Text or Live Audio? S/L
    Display Pseudo-Sonar Imagery of Targets? Y/N


    Selections made, she settled down to see what she could find out. Green crosshairs overlaid themselves onto her vision. As she turned her head, doing her best to appear to be looking idly around the room, humanoid shapes moved back and forth in her field of view. She settled the targeting sights on one shape after another, bringing forth snatches of conversation.

    "—randa rights do not include the right to order a pizza—"

    "—uck's sake, did you just shit yoursel—"

    "—orry honey, we're balls to the wall here—"

    "—tuation with Vanessa Power? I've just had—"

    She stopped and put the crosshairs back on the person who had just been speaking.

    "—er mother, who pinned my ears back hard. She's told me that until she has her kid back in her care, she's holding everyone in the building personally responsible for her welfare."

    There was a mumble from the phone the guy was holding. Vanessa couldn't focus the audio gathering closely enough to decipher it.

    "Yeah," said the police officer. "She said she's coming right over and she'll clear this whole thing up. Team Power saved my life one time. Do I think the old man really molested his kid? Hell if I know. The sooner the Mayor's office takes this mess ov—"

    Vanessa had heard enough. She'd told them that she wanted to talk to the Mayor. But they'd contacted her parents instead. They're coming here. To take me home again. The fear that clenched in her gut then boiled into anger. I'm never going back.

    Abruptly, she stood up. A mental command flipped her visor down and locked it into place. Sergeant Foster rose as well, startled but clearly trying not to show it. "Miss Power, what's the matter?"

    "The matter," said Vanessa bitterly, "is that someone called my parents. I trusted you guys not to go behind my back."

    "Even if they come in, you don't have to go with them if you don't want to." Sergeant Foster spoke soothingly. "We can protect you."

    Vanessa laughed harshly in her face. "They are Adam and Tesseract Power. You couldn't stop them from doing shit if they weren't inclined to let you." Accessing the neuro-induction display, she gave the order for the micro-missile launcher to briefly deploy. Metal folded away and the sleek little projectiles emerged from hiding. "See that? That's nothing to what my father has on his suit."

    Letting the launcher stow itself again and ignoring the stunned look on Foster's face, she swung her head toward the front of the building. The quasi-sonar image showed blurry movements, and she centered the crosshairs on two images that were moving in her general direction.

    "—ere is she? I want to see her. I want to make sure she's okay."

    Vanessa froze. That was her mother's voice.

    She's here. In the building. If she wants to make me go back with her, there's nothing I can do, even in this suit, to stop her. The fact that she was in the middle of a fully staffed police station didn't even cross her mind as a factor, except as potential collateral damage.

    Her course of action was now clear. There was a fire evacuation map on the wall, showing the quickest way out of the building. She headed for the door to the break room and pulled it open. Behind her, Foster said something, but Vanessa had long since ceased paying attention to her.

    "Vanessa?"

    Slowly, she turned. Her mother stood there, at the other end of the corridor. Tesseract Power, like Vanessa, was a redhead; she displayed the Team Power uniform, composed of vibrant blues and golds, with pride. Under the uniform, Vanessa knew, her mother wore an advanced PowerTech exoskeleton.

    PowerTech Industries, her father's company, sold a lightweight mobility frame on the civilian market. These incorporated an extremely basic version of the neural induction system within her own suit, allowing many who would normally be dependent on wheelchairs or walkers to stand, walk, run and even play sport without hindrance. The one her mother wore was as far beyond those as the newest generation space shuttle (in which her father had also had a hand) was ahead of a World War One biplane. Even without it, sparring with her was an exercise in 'name that bruise'. With the speed and strength it gave her, any serious fight was over before it began.

    Vanessa straightened her arm toward her mother, palm forward. "Stay back, Mom," she warned. This activated a different haptic trigger, which she acknowledged; a rising whine filled the air between them as the under-mounted laser charged. Crosshairs flared in her NID, bright red and pulsing to warn her that she was going weapons-live. She had no illusions about her ability (or her resolve) to actually hit her mother, but the threat was there.

    "It's going to be all right, Vanessa." Tesseract had stopped, at least. "We can talk about what you believe happened—"

    "I know what happened!" shouted Vanessa. "He was on top of me! He tried to pull my clothes off! I don't even want to think about it! But it happened!"

    "I know you believe that something happened …" Tesseract took a step forward as she tried again.

    "Stay back!" Jerking her arm downward, Vanessa fired the laser at low power. The carpet just in front of her mother's foot blackened and smoked. Tesseract's forward movement stopped.

    "It's more than what I believe." Vanessa breathed deeply, trying to maintain control of both herself and the situation. "Look at the security footage. You're good at investigating. Investigate. The day I see in the news you've had him arrested and charged is the day I come back. And one more thing."

    "I'm listening." Tesseract Power's eyes were measuring the distance between them. Vanessa knew she was calculating the odds of closing the range fast enough to knock Vanessa's arm aside before the laser could fire again. She could probably do it, too.

    "Don't leave Buddy alone with him." Vanessa stared at her mother, willing the older woman to understand. "Don't let that monster hurt my brother." There was no way Vanessa could get back to the house and spirit Buddy away without her parents intervening—even if she could convince him to come along—so this was the only other option she could see to keep her nine-year-old brother safe.

    Tesseract's eyes went flinty. "Nobody is going to hurt your brother."

    That, at least, Vanessa could believe. Her mother did 'momma bear' better than anyone she knew. The trouble was, she had a massive blind spot where it came to her husband; Vanessa's father.

    Vanessa had heard the story a thousand times. Before her parents had married, before the Challenger Act was even finalized, Tesseract had been faced with one of the worst threats a superhero could encounter; an adversary who knew her secret identity and was willing to expose it. But then Adam Power had stepped up and neutralized the threat in one bold, unprecedented move. His sacrifice had led to the establishment of Team Power and was the reason why Tesseract Power would never believe such a thing of her husband. And before this day, Vanessa would never have believed it either.

    But she'd come out of the bathroom in her flannel pajamas after brushing her teeth, to see her father just turning away from the armor stored on its rack in the corner of her bedroom. Suspecting nothing, she had sat down on her bed and picked up her brush from the dresser to run through her shower-damp hair. She'd managed exactly one brush-stroke before he was on top of her, groping her through her pajamas and trying to kiss her.

    She'd fought him off and he'd fled her room. It had happened. She didn't care what her mother said. She wasn't safe in the same house as him.

    I'm never going back.

    Accessing her NID, she pulled up yet another menu.

    Flight Systems activated.
    Warning: Obstacles in close quarters.
    Activate Collision Avoidance Systems? Y/N


    Her suit thrusters flared to life, and she launched herself down the corridor away from her mother. An office door was directly ahead; she clenched her fist in her right gauntlet once, twice, three times. That was the signal for "I don't have time to mess around with menu commands". The launcher deployed itself again and a micro-missile scorched off the rails before she had time to second-guess herself.

    She'd put the crosshairs on the door handle; one-tenth of a second later, the missile blew it clean out of the door. Her suit hit the wooden barrier, smashing it half off its hinges, then she continued across the office and out through the window. Glass shattered, and then she was into the open air.

    It was cold out, she knew, but her suit could handle it. What it couldn't handle was the imposing suit of power armor standing on a rooftop across the way. She knew that suit almost as well as she knew her own. That's Dad's armor. Even thinking his name made the bile rise in her throat.

    She kicked her suit into high gear, pulling up and over the police station in a climbing turn. Behind her, she heard his thrusters roar into action. Her suit was lighter and more agile; she could keep ahead of him in the short term. But he could outlast her, or disable her suit with an EMP strike, or blow her out of the sky if he wanted to. She didn't think he'd shoot her down, but she hadn't thought he'd sexually assault her, either. If she was going to get away, she had to do something now.

    Her supply of flares and chaff was limited but she needed to drop out of sight, so she blew through them all in seconds. Then she played her trump card.

    Activating Stealth Mode.
    Warning: Prolonged use of Stealth Mode will result in higher than normal drain on power reserves. Do you understand this warning? Y/N
    Do you wish to leave a frequency window open for radio use? Y/N
    Do you wish to leave a frequency window open for tracking beacon use? Y/N
    Operational Duration using Stealth Mode during flight: 12 hours 14 minutes.


    A skin-level force field mapped over every part of her armor, then flickered as it went into active camouflage mode. Her heat emissions were similarly disrupted; she wasn't invisible, but it was the closest she was going to get. At the same time, the sound of her thrusters went from a dull roar to a faint whisper. This had the downside of a somewhat higher power draw, but not even the best PowerTech sensory systems could pick her out from the background noise now. Or so she hoped.

    As she straightened into level flight, her father burst through the cloud of fluttering foil and burning magnesium, then came to a hover. "Vanessa?" he called out. "Vanessa? Come back, baby!"

    Gritting her teeth, she rounded a building, so she didn't have to hear his voice anymore. Then another, and another. Slowly, she made her way west. Out of the city.

    I'm never going back.

    Flying just fast enough to use the suit as a lifting body, she flew onward, following the maglev rail. Three times, she was nearly picked up on radar by PowerTech drones flying a search pattern. The third time, she realized what she was doing wrong; the gleaming rail made a nice bright landmark, for both searcher and refugee. Angling northward, she flew until it was out of sight, then turned west again.

    Extending the suit's stub-wings made for slower going, but it let her stretch the power reserves. Normally, she could've flown across the country and back more than once on a full charge, but she didn't dare drop out of stealth mode. As a result, the suit was chewing power like a frat party consumed beer and pizza. It didn't help that she kept feeling the impulse to turn south again and she couldn't understand why. It wasn't as though she'd be any safer from her father, and right now she needed to stay away from the maglev rail.

    As the darkened landscape rolled by beneath her, she couldn't help going back over what had happened in a vain attempt to make sense of events. She hadn't been asleep or dreaming; every detail was razor-sharp in her mind. There was no doubt that the man who had attempted to force himself on her was her father, Adam Power. Worse, her mother had not immediately jumped to her defense, but had instead questioned her version of events. Now, she had no idea who she could trust. I am never, ever going back.

    Two hours into the flight, her power reserves were still in the high seventies. Her original goal had been Seattle, but now she was reconsidering. If she started a gentle curve around to the south, at her current rate of power consumption she should be able to make Los Angeles easily.

    Her internal debate over the matter was rudely interrupted when every icon available to her neuro-induction display activated at once, flashing more danger signals within the virtual image-space than a five-alarm fire. Audible warning buzzers within the helmet blared in counterpoint to the urgent messages popping up in her NID.

    Warning: Stealth Mode offline.
    Warning: Fuel Cells venting. Power Reserves dropping.
    Warning: Secondary Suit Systems offline.


    What the hell? What's going on here? She triggered menus as fast as she could, trying to force a suit restart and get past whatever glitch the operating system had encountered.

    Warning: Suit Restart failed.
    Warning: Power Reserves at 59%.
    Warning: Primary Suit Systems failing.


    Around her, the suit jolted, the thrusters surging and then stuttering in and out. She flicked through the few remaining menus, cutting non-essential systems out of the loop and trying to reverse whatever the hell was causing her fuel cells to vent their contents to the night air. Fortunately, the suit also incorporated high-density batteries; while these didn't have anywhere near the storage capacity of the fuel cells, they couldn't be accidentally discharged either.

    Warning: Power Reserves at 37%.
    Warning: Flight Systems offline.


    Crap, crap, crap. Adrenaline flooded through her as the thrusters died for good. She pulled up a specific menu and activated the emergency auto-landing option, cursing herself for not doing this earlier. The auto-landing function was hard-wired into the suit's capabilities and involved air brakes, a landing chute, and the ability to draw on all power reserves, no matter how limited. This was where the batteries would come into their own.

    Warning: Power Reserves at 13%.
    Warning: Battery Pack ejected.
    Warning: Emergency Auto-Landing Sequence disabled.


    The air brakes, which had begun to extend, retracted again. With a bang of explosive bolts, the landing chute detached from its niche behind her shoulders without ever deploying properly. And with it went the battery pack, and her last chance for a simple, safe landing.

    What the hell? That shouldn't even be possible. None of this should be possible.

    Warning: Emergency Tracking Beacon disabled.
    Warning: Power Reser&*#@:;…


    As the power died, the warning buzzers cut out, along with the NID itself, leaving a profound sense of emptiness in her head. Gone was the running analysis on the suit's failing (now failed) systems. Also gone, the neuro-induced synthetic proprioception that had allowed her to operate the suit as an extension of her own body and experience the airflow over the suit's exterior. All that was left was her, the silent suit, and the whistling wind audible through the helmet's insulation.

    Of that, the only things keeping her airborne and alive right then were the suit's stub-wings. Had they been retracted, as they normally were, she would've had about ten seconds before the power armor smashed into the rock-hard midwinter soil at several hundred miles per hour. The suit's padding was augmented by her winter clothing, but no amount of cushioning was going to protect her from being pulped against the inside of the armor under that kind of impact.

    The stub-wings weren't so sophisticated as to contain dedicated control surfaces; their function was more to reduce energy expenditure by improving the overall aerodynamics of the suit. Fortunately, the suit had one last built-in fail-safe, in that the joints and articulation remained flexible in the event of power loss. This was actually a common precaution for anyone using 'fully invested' power armor, where the user's limbs extended into the suit's arms and legs. The alternative was to risk being locked into place like a store dummy in the event of a power failure.

    This meant that in a pinch it was possible to use the suit's posture to change the angle of the stub-wings and thus the direction of travel. As the suit's trajectory began to curve downward into a dive, she arched her body. This angled the stub-wings upward and pulled her descent back into level flight for the moment, with the inevitable trade-off that she lost airspeed. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it would keep her alive for another minute, so she took it.

    Up ahead, starlight shimmered off the frozen ground; stub-wings or no, she would die when she hit it. She was just traveling too damn fast, and the suit's air brakes were out of commission, so the inevitable crash-landing would require a miracle to survive. But then she saw the white-edged black ribbon and she knew she'd found her miracle. An ice-covered river running from north to south, it offered a single, sole chance of landing safely. It would take everything she had to pull it off, but she was all out of better options.

    Tilting downward, she put everything she had into flying the dead suit as precisely as she could. Pulling a deliberate descent raised the airspeed perilously high, but she couldn't help that. She stretched her arms wide, doing her best to replace the non-functioning air brakes. This was still going to hurt.

    The river loomed closer as she skimmed over the frozen terrain. She lost as much height as she dared, her heart in her mouth. With the suit systems down, the collision-avoidance radar was nothing but ballast; one power line in the wrong place and she would be toast, in more ways than one.

    In level flight with no thrusters, her arms held out with all her strength against the freezing slipstream, she felt herself losing airspeed. Up ahead, beyond the river, she saw headlights travelling from south to north. A remote, analytical part of her mind noted that the vehicle was traveling at a reasonable clip, which meant it was on a sealed road of some kind.

    The riverbank whipped beneath her and she put all extraneous thoughts aside, bringing the second stage of her plan into action. Twisting her body as hard as she could, she put everything she had into banking the suit hard left to line up roughly along the river. As wide as it was—maybe a thousand feet, at this point—it was still far too narrow for her needs if traveling across it. Along it, however …

    At this point, her lack of precise control bit her in the ass. As she dragged the right-hand stub-wing into the air, the suit stalled out and lost lift altogether. Out of control, she tumbled, flailing.

    On the knife-edge of panic, she stilled her mind and followed the procedure that had been drummed into her. Tucking into a ball, she snapped out of it with her body aligned along the direction of travel. Immediately, she felt the lift once more as air flowed over the stub-wings. She was gliding again, but the mishap had cost precious altitude, and she was halfway across the river already.

    More carefully, she angled around; by the time she was flying straight once more, there was less than five feet of air between herself and the dark ice beneath. And her airspeed was still higher than she was strictly comfortable with.

    She didn't want to hit the ice any faster than absolutely necessary. Punching through and into the freezing water beneath would be as much of a death sentence as impacting the ground on either side of the river. Even if she made it out of the water, hypothermia would kill her before she got half a mile. Which was why she was coming in at the shallowest angle she could manage.

    And then there was no more time. Even with the stub-wings, the suit's glide ratio was for crap. The suit hit the ice, leaving great cracks everywhere, and bounced. Inside the suit, Vanessa felt as though she'd just slammed into Mount Rushmore. She hit again, then skidded face-down across the ice. From the uneasy feeling, however, the ice wasn't all that thick. She could feel the crunching, crackling sensation of it subsiding as the heavy suit scored its path diagonally along the river.

    And then the cracks spread ahead of the suit, and she saw water spraying up around the faceplate, freezing onto it in the night air. By her internal calculations, she was getting close to the other side of the river. This was a good thing, because the suit's forward momentum was almost spent; it was about to break through the ice for good and sink to the bottom.

    There was a very specific posture that her father had trained her in, then told her never to assume unless she absolutely had to. Now, at the last moment, she assumed it; arms held so, legs held so, fists clenched, and index fingers making a trigger-squeezing motion. This activated the manual switches distributed throughout the suit, connecting internal storage batteries into a single circuit. Half a second later, explosive bolts blew the entire back of the suit off. Using a slightly different mechanism, the gloves and boots—and helmet—also came away from the suit. A giant punched her in the gut as an airbag inflated beneath her, blowing her clear of the sinking wreckage to spin crazily through the air.

    She'd been trained in gymnastics from almost before she could walk, allowing her to get her bearings before she landed. Twisting in mid-flight, she got her feet underneath her, but it was still a rough landing. There was no way she was going to keep her footing, so she let herself go down, absorbing as much of the impact as she could. Hitting the ground with bone-jarring force, she rolled over and over, curled into a ball to protect her vital organs. When she finally came to a stop, she sat up and looked around. She was bruised and battered, and the helmet faceplate was cracked all the way across, but she was safely on dry ground; for a given definition of 'safe'.

    Her heart still thundering in her chest, she scrambled to her feet and pulled her helmet off just in time to watch as the patch of dark water where her suit had vanished began to freeze over once more. That could've been me, if I hadn't hit the ice just right. Or if Dad had timed the sabotage a little earlier or later, I'd be wrapped around a hill or a tree right now. And nobody would ever know why. It was a sobering thought, in a night full of them.

    It was cold, but that was only part of the reason she was shivering as she removed the dead boots and gauntlets and pulled the hood up over her head. The adrenaline still in her system was another part of it; the stark realization that she'd just survived a determined attempt to murder her with her own suit was the third part. Moving automatically, she stashed the remnants of the suit in the hollow of a dead tree. The fewer traces she left of her passing, the better.

    Gotta keep moving. Shoving her hands deep into the pockets of her fleece-lined jacket, she turned and started trudging up the bank, her eventual destination the road she'd glimpsed earlier. The first order of business was to distance herself from where the suit had hit. The second, to be carried out at some later date, was to return with some method of salvaging her suit before anyone (including her father) found it.

    She still had trouble wrapping her head around the idea that her father had deliberately sabotaged her suit. Had it been his way of ensuring that she'd never tell of what he'd tried to do to her? She had no doubt it was his actions that had caused the suit to crash; after all, he'd been fiddling with it just before she came out of the bathroom. The most chilling realization, biting deeper than the wind swirling around her, was that he'd done it before he knew how she would react to his advances.

    He'd already decided that I needed to die, no matter what happened.

    I don't want to believe it. But it happened, so I have to believe it.

    I can't let this beat me. I can't let him win. I have to keep moving.


    Reaching the road was easier than she'd expected. The wind was still bitterly cold, but she found she could handle it. Her breath blew away in long streamers as she turned, getting her bearings. To the south, the lights of a small city or large town glowed in the distance. Setting her hood more firmly on her head, she started out with a determined stride. This felt like the right way to go. There would be a bus terminal. Farther south would be a bigger city. Places like that always held opportunities for someone who was strong, smart and determined.

    All her life, she'd been taught that she was someone special. That there was nothing she couldn't achieve, given the right tools. Which was a good thing because as of right then, she was on her own. There was absolutely nobody else in the world she could depend on.

    I'm Vanessa Power. I got this.

    - End of Prologue Two -​
     
  15. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    Worked up teen is teen-ish.

    Now with powerarmor!
     
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  16. Threadmarks: Prologues Three and Four
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Prologue Three
    Passport to Opportunity

    Monday, September 16, 2013

    [​IMG]

    - End of Prologue Three -


    Prologue Four
    Appeal From the Heart

    Sunday, October 6, 2013

    [​IMG]

    - End of Prologue Four -

     
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2019
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  17. Threadmarks: Chapter One: Jericho
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part One
    Maglev


    Capes? Cowls? Cogs? Who even thought of these names?
    - Jericho Hansen



    1
    Jericho

    Savannah, Georgia
    Sunday, October 6, 2013
    4:02 PM Eastern Daylight Time


    Jericho Hansen sat on the edge of the bed, holding the letter in one hand and an envelope in the other. He'd read and re-read the single page more than a dozen times since writing it, and he was sure of two things. The first was that he would never be able to express himself more clearly than he'd already done. The second; Stephen would still insist on not understanding. But I'm going to have to cross that bridge when I come to it.

    There was a creak from the living room, and he froze. After a few seconds without hearing any more sounds, he allowed himself to relax long enough to slide the letter into its envelope. Leaning over slightly, he folded back the pastel-pink comforter—Stephen's idea, not his, though he had to admit it kept them warm on cold winter nights—and placed the envelope on his boyfriend's pillow.

    When he'd first gotten powers and gone out as a costumed hero, Jericho had assumed he'd find social acceptance and maybe even companionship among his like-minded peers. That was, after all, the basic theme of every second superhero sitcom. As it turned out, Savannah held slim pickings for either one. The city's only other costumed protector was a brash, loud, crude redneck who went by the name of Pickup and piloted a highly modified 4×4 which could become a bipedal robot with the Confederate flag emblazoned across its chest (otherwise, the hood of the truck). He didn't like Jericho, and the feeling was mutual. Even though both were technically heroes, their political and social viewpoints made them polar opposites; they'd clashed on more than one occasion. Boyfriend material, he was not.

    But then there was Stephen; at thirty-one, he was eight years older than Jericho. Stephen was involved in the Enabled (that is to say, super-powered) scene as well, but from an entirely different angle to both Jericho and Pickup. Specifically, he was the owner, editor, photographer and sole employee of a moderately successful web-magazine called Gay!Power, which showcased 'alternately oriented' heroes. They'd met when he contacted Jericho's costumed identity of G-Man (the 'G' stood for 'gravity') via social media to set up an interview and a photo shoot. Jericho had accepted a subsequent offer of dinner, and things eventually progressed from there.

    While it hadn't been love at first sight, they'd eased into a relationship that managed to outlast the first clumsy attempts at intimacy and become something deeper and more meaningful. It hadn't been all smooth going; Stephen had had to ask Jericho to move in with him several times before he accepted. Only on their first anniversary, when Stephen posed the offer yet again, did Jericho's underlying trust issues finally allow him to say yes. And that was … Jeez, has it been six months already?

    Their one and only spat had come about a month after Jericho completed the move, when Stephen advanced the idea of a much more private photo shoot, one with less in the way of costume and more in the way of suggestive poses. Jericho had nothing against the concept of skin shots as such, but that wasn't the sort of exposure he wanted as a respected superhero; so to speak. Despite Stephen's assurances that the pictures would never reach the public eye, he'd turned the idea down flat. After sulking for a few days, his boyfriend had dropped the subject and it never came up again.

    On occasion, he'd heard of low-tier Enabled going the other direction; committing flashy but relatively harmless crimes, surrendering to the police for a reduced sentence, then using the notoriety as a springboard into the skin trade. Their bodies, their choice. It was his choice not to, and he'd never regretted it.

    That was the closest they'd come to having a serious disagreement … until now. Their happy streak had been broken when Jericho got the email confirmation for his tryout interview to join Force Majeure.

    He wasn't sure if Force Majeure was the most powerful superhero team in the world—the metric for determining this varied from observer to observer—but it was definitely up there in the top five. Counting only those within the continental United States, it rated as the most prominent by far. While the core membership was based in Utopia City, they had satellite teams of secondary members in cities all over the country. Jericho knew he had no chance of becoming a part of the inner circle, but even being accepted into one of the auxiliary teams would fulfill his long-held goal of becoming a professional superhero. Of course, to do that, he would first have to get to Utopia City.

    He'd originally asked Stephen to accompany him when he got the email. Stephen, after all, had been taking regular trips long before the maglev came to Savannah. Given how Enabled were spread all over the country, it followed that gay and lesbian heroes were extremely thin on the ground. It was almost always inconvenient for them to come to Savannah (not to mention the fact there wasn't much incentive for them to travel to one corner of America to be featured in a niche publication such as Gay!Power). So, when it came down to it, Stephen had to go to them rather than vice versa.

    It used to be that whenever he had a prospect, Stephen would fall out of bed at an ungodly hour and take the bus to wherever he needed to go. Now that it was possible to take the maglev directly from Savannah, he could rise at a much more civilized hour and still get where he was going in good time.

    Jericho had figured this travel experience would be invaluable for his first trip out of state, right up until he ran into the brick wall of Stephen's refusal. Which didn't make a great deal of sense, considering how Stephen himself traveled so regularly to gather material for the magazine. But there it was. No matter how much he loved Stephen and respected his views, Jericho wasn't about to let his own dreams die by the wayside. He was sorry, but Stephen was going to have to learn to accept that.

    However, there was one tiny snag with his resolve: the interview was tomorrow, and Stephen was still adamantly opposed to his going. They'd spent the last couple of weeks arguing the issue back and forth, and so it had come to this. Sneaking out behind the back of the man he loved. I hate myself.

    Straightening up, he caught his reflection in the dressing-table mirror. Hazel eyes stared back at him from features that might have been described as delicate but for his firm jawline. His build matched his face; tall and slender, wiry rather than bulky. Reaching up, he pushed his shoulder-length brown hair back from his face, bunching it at the nape of his neck. A hair-tie lay on the dressing-table; it was the work of a moment to secure his hair with it. The mundane act helped him to clear his thoughts and push past the illogical certainty that the guilt he felt was written all over his face.

    His overnight bag was already packed. Going to the bedroom window, he slid it up on its runners, moving with elaborate care so that it didn't make any noise. When it was open wide enough for him to climb out with ease, he picked up the bag from where it rested beside the bed. Leaning out the window, he grimaced at what he saw. While the window was set into a niche in the wall which would give him cover from potential witnesses, directly below him was a thick hedge. He was entirely capable of jumping farther out to avoid it—due to his powers, the two-story drop would be no obstacle at all—but that would take him out of the niche and make his exit a lot more public than he wanted. It would be a case of either fall into the hedge or risk endangering his superhero identity.

    In sitcoms, of course, this sort of dilemma cropped up all the time. But this wasn't a sitcom, where any problems would be solved before the credits rolled. Whatever mistakes he made now, he'd have to wear the consequences. There was nothing for it; he'd have to take the third option.

    Closing the bedroom window with as much care as he'd taken in opening it, Jericho slung the bag over his shoulder and moved to the bedroom door. It was Sunday afternoon and the latest issue of Gay!Power was due to be posted at midnight, so Stephen should be neck-deep in his editorial fugue. He claimed that he did his best work under pressure; Jericho personally believed he was a procrastinator of the highest order. However, whichever way it was, there was always the chance that Stephen would be paying enough attention to catch Jericho as he snuck out of the apartment. He grimaced, knowing that it was a risk he'd have to take.

    Easing the bedroom door open, he breathed a sigh of silent relief as he recognized Stephen's trademark staccato typing emanating from the spare room his boyfriend had sequestered for the production of the webzine. He didn't bother closing the bedroom door, not wanting to risk making any more noise than necessary. Holding the strap of the bag so tightly he could feel the weave of the strap impressing itself on to his palm, he went straight to the front door. At any second, he expected to hear the typing stop and for Stephen's querulous voice to ask him where he was going.

    Opening the apartment door as quietly as he had the bedroom door, he stepped outside then carefully closed it behind him. The tac-tac-tactac-tac of Stephen's typing was cut off as the heavy wooden door clicked shut. Letting out a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding, he stepped backward away from the door, then violently jumped as a car horn sounded on the street outside.

    "Shit," he muttered, realizing the cab he'd called had arrived while he was concentrating on getting out of the apartment without alerting Stephen. If he keeps honking, Stephen's gonna look to see what's going on. Screw that. The stairwell leading down to ground level was down the corridor, but he was still two floors up. Time, as the saying went, was of the essence.

    Breaking into a run, he got to the stairwell in seconds. With a quick glance over the railing (both up and down, because he wasn't an idiot) he took a deep breath … and vaulted into empty space. It was a fall of ten feet to the next landing, but his powers allowed him to reduce the effect of gravity on his body, letting him drift downward like a leaf on the breeze. Before his feet quite reached the surface of the landing below, he grabbed the rail and swung himself out over open air once more. Ten seconds after first jumping over the rail, he stood at the bottom of the stairs, not having touched a single step.

    The cab was waiting at the curb as Jericho jogged from the apartment building, holding the bag in his arms. He didn't want to draw attention to himself by running, but the longer he delayed, the greater the chance that Stephen would notice his absence. Opening the car door, he slung his bag inside, expecting every moment to hear Stephen call out from behind him. As he climbed into the back seat, the driver raised an eyebrow but didn't offer any comment. The man had probably seen this sort of thing a dozen times before. In the last week, even. "Where to, buddy?" he asked in a bored tone.

    "Train station," Jericho replied breathlessly. There was no way he'd normally be winded from such minor exercise, but the tension was squeezing his diaphragm hard.

    The driver pressed the button to start the meter, put the car in gear, then paused with his foot on the brake. "Regular or maglev?"

    It was a no-brainer; he wanted to get to Utopia City today, and there was no faster way to get across the country at short notice. And of course, none of the country's remaining domestic airlines serviced Utopia City. "Maglev." Even saying the word felt weird.

    "Utopia Maglev Lines, comin' right up." The cabbie angled the car to the left, then hit the indicator to merge with traffic. "We should be there in ten."

    "That'll be ideal," Jericho assured him. Pangs of guilt still assaulting him, he looked out the back window at the receding apartment block.

    Stephen, I hope you can forgive me for this.
     
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  18. Threadmarks: Chapter Two: Stephen
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    2

    Stephen



    Only three months had passed since the establishment of the maglev in Savannah, but already the polished cylindrical metal ‘rails’ were a feature of the skyline. Ten feet in diameter and supported sixty feet above the ground by impossibly slender pylons, they tracked into the city from the north, west and south. Following roadways for the most part, all three rails converged on the transit station, where a complicated cloverleaf arrangement allowed trains to arrive and depart on a regular basis while somehow not interfering with one another.

    Jericho had no idea how that was done; in all the time he’d been out and about, during night and day, he’d never actually seen the maglev in action. He’d heard the train was fast, but how fast he still had no idea.

    As the cab rolled up to the drop-off section of the stand outside the station, there was one such rail that ran directly overhead and vanished into the distance, while another descended in a wide looping arc that disappeared behind a security fence. Several taxis were already waiting to pick up; as Jericho watched, two people got into the cab at the head of the line. More were walking up to the row of taxis; he figured they’d gotten off the train.

    The driver pulled the cab to a halt and stopped the meter. “That’ll be twelve fifty, buddy.”

    “Uh, no problem.” Jericho dug his wallet out of his pocket and extracted one of his credit cards. “You take Amex, right?”

    “Sure thing.” The driver took the card and swiped it through the hand-held device before handing it back. Leaning forward between the seats, Jericho tapped his PIN into the machine.

    A few moments later, as the tiny printer was chattering out his receipt, there was a flash of movement from outside the windshield. Startled, Jericho looked up. “What was that?”

    “Train,” the cabbie responded laconically. “Want your receipt?”

    “No, thanks.” Jericho stared distractedly out through the windshield. The pristine rail gleamed in the afternoon sun. “I don’t see a train.”

    The driver chuckled. “That’s ’cause they go like a bat outta hell. It’s already outta sight. You have yourself a good trip.”

    “Right, thanks.” Bat out of hell. Okay, then. This should be a fun ride. Grabbing his bag, Jericho opened the door and climbed out of the cab. As soon as the door shut behind him, the cab moved forward to join the line of taxis which were even now picking up more passengers from the station.

    Shading his eyes against the afternoon sun, he squinted up at the transit station. It didn’t look like much from the outside. He’d heard somewhere that the building had originally housed a bus depot, back in the eighties. If true, the intervening years had not been kind to it. While the frontage had been repaired and repainted, the half-dozen steps that led up from street level were still cracked, chipped and a little slumped. In addition to that, a wheelchair ramp had been installed to bring the building up to spec. This had required the removal of one of the steel-and-brass handrails that flanked the stairs, making them look oddly lopsided.

    Still, he wasn’t there on account of the building’s aesthetic appeal. Taking a deep breath, he jogged up the steps. Despite his carefully held resolve, his nerve failed him as he got to the front doors. As he wavered on the threshold, the doors hissed open to let desiccated, chilly conditioned air wash out over him, flavored with air-freshener. The blue-white glare of the fluorescent lighting within simultaneously beckoned and repelled him. Do I want to do this? he asked himself, not for the first time. I mean, do I really want to do it?

    He could always go back to the apartment. When Stephen was working on the latest issue of the webzine, he tended to ignore everything around him. However, the chance of his noticing Jericho’s absence grew stronger with every passing minute. In any case, even if Jericho went straight home, Stephen would immediately recognize the overnight bag full of clothing—and other things—slung over his shoulder and realize exactly what he’d been about to do. There was no way he could ditch it, because included in the ‘other things’ was his costume. It wasn’t the best costume in the world, nor the slickest, but it was his costume. It was what separated him from every other superhero out there. Well, that and his powers.

    Walk in or walk away, he told himself. It should’ve been a simple choice, but his desire to make something more of himself was balanced by the certain knowledge that recriminations and teary phone calls would be coming his way once Stephen found out he’d gone. He hated himself for letting the mere thought of his boyfriend’s emotional reaction pull this sort of blackmail on him, but he couldn’t help being the way he was. For long seconds he wavered, unable to come to a decision.

    “Hey, dumbass. You gonna stand there all day?” The voice came from a woman pushing a stroller with one hand and dragging a wheeled suitcase with the other, waiting to enter the transit center. She squinted at him aggressively, or perhaps that was the effect of the sun in her eyes. Her blonde hair, he noted abstractly, had dark roots to it. The infant strapped into the stroller—the blue romper suit suggested that it was a boy—waved its arms and blew bubbles. He almost envied the child its carefree existence. Have your fun while you can, kid.

    Behind the woman was a scrawny guy wearing a threadbare coat over faded denim overalls, with an unshaven chin and a mustache which was doing its level best to droop down far enough to cover that feature. He glowered at Jericho as irritably as the woman had but added nothing to the conversation. Jericho didn’t know the guy by face or name, but he knew his type: good ol’ boy. Also known as ‘redneck’. There’d be no benefit in arguing with either person, especially considering he was currently blocking the door.

    “Sorry, folks,” he said automatically, and stepped aside. The woman entered first, clicking her tongue in a disapproving tch as she did so. Her male companion followed on, not even affording Jericho that much recognition. He watched as the doors closed again, feeling his motivation wither and fade along with the dying gust of conditioned air from within the building.

    Come on, he told himself. It can’t be that hard to walk in and buy a goddamn ticket. Millions of people do it every day. He wasn’t sure if he was being accurate there, but it sounded good inside his head. Unfortunately, it didn’t sound good enough. The entry to the transit station was unknown territory, while the taxicab stand was right there. Stephen was probably still working on the webzine, and he could—

    His phone rang, and he froze. Please let it be Cousin Luke, or even Mama. But deep down, he knew who it was. Grimacing in anticipation, he pulled it from his pocket and looked at the screen. His intuition was dead on the money; Stephen’s number stared back at him.

    When Jericho was a lot younger, his daddy had once told him that the best way to avoid losing an argument was to never get into one. That was all well and good, if it could be managed. Unfortunately, it looked like the argument had come to him. If he refused the call, Stephen would call back. Worse, if he turned the phone off now, the conversation they’d have once Stephen did contact him would make what was coming positively enjoyable by comparison. Swiping to answer the call, he put the phone to his ear. “Hello, Stephen.”

    “Is this how you’ve decided to leave me, Jericho?” Stephen had the ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ tone down pat, even though his voice was slightly tinny in Jericho’s ear. “Pack your bag and sneak out? Was I going to get a phone call in a day or so?”

    “What? No! I left you a letter! On your pillow, in the bedroom!” Taken aback, Jericho moved a few steps away from the transit center doors to give himself a modicum of privacy from anyone who came out. While he didn’t think that someone would deliberately eavesdrop on the conversation, there was no sense in taking chances.

    “Oh, that?” Stephen didn’t sound in the least bit mollified. “I already found it. Should I be impressed that you actually took the time to write a pen-and-paper ‘Dear John’ letter?”

    Jericho grimaced. He’d spent a long time trying to get Stephen to accept what he needed to do, then almost as long figuring out exactly how to word the letter so that Stephen wouldn’t freak out. Doesn’t help if he doesn’t read it. “It’s not a ‘Dear John’. You wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to explain, so I put it all in the letter. Read it. I’ll be back by Wednesday at the latest. Three days. Seventy-two hours. That’s it.”

    “Yes, that’s what they all say.” Stephen’s voice had a catch in it now; Jericho couldn’t tell if it was real or affected. “And then it’s another few days, then a week, then they never come back.”

    Still holding the phone to his ear, Jericho dropped the overnight bag at his feet and leaned in against the wall. “Stephen,” he pleaded as he pressed his forehead to the sun-warmed bricks. “Please don’t say that. I’m not leaving you. I never would leave you. I need to do this thing. I need to know if I can do it. This isn’t about you and me. Why can’t you understand that?”

    “Because I don’t understand,” Stephen insisted. “Why do you have to go away to be a superhero? Why can’t you be happy being one right here?” Though he didn’t say it, Jericho heard with me loud and clear.

    It was like Stephen wasn’t listening to a single word Jericho said. If he even read the letter, he didn’t pay attention to anything except what he wanted to see. Closing his eyes, Jericho barely managed to avoid heaving a sigh of exasperation. Stephen would recognize it in a heartbeat, which wouldn’t help the situation in the slightest. “It’s not about being a superhero somewhere else. It’s about joining Force Majeure. I applied for an interview back in August. You were there when I did it!”

    “I know,” Stephen said, his voice rising. “And I know I didn’t say anything then, because I never thought they’d answer you. You’re not meant to be a superhero out there. You’re meant to be here, in Savannah. With me.” And there we go. “You’re my hero. I’m your Vicki Vale, remember?”

    Jericho felt a catch in his throat at the corny line. The first time Stephen had used it, he’d thought it was the most romantic thing he’d ever heard. Even now, it was an integral part of their relationship. Merely hearing Stephen say it evoked so many fond memories that a pang of loneliness went through his chest.

    Which only made what he had to say all the harder. “I know. And you always will be. But if you had such a problem with it, you should’ve said something before they sent me the confirmation email.” He clenched his eyes shut. “I’m sorry if you don’t like it, but I’ve gotta do this. The interview’s tomorrow, so I’m going. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

    “So that’s it.” Normally, Stephen was a delight to be around, but when the older man got his bitch on, nothing and nobody was sacred. “You just want to go off to Utopia City and hang out with your fellow Masks. Maybe meet some cute guy in a tight costume and forget all about me.”

    Jericho did his best to refrain from gritting his teeth, but he doubted that he’d been totally successful. Now you’re deliberately pissing me off. The words almost came out of his mouth, but a last-second intuition warned him that this was exactly what Stephen wanted. If I start cussing him out, he’ll turn it right back on me. He’s always been able to guilt-trip me.

    Neither did he bother correcting Stephen about the ‘Mask’ label; his boyfriend knew all about the official terms. Given his work with Gay!Power, Stephen was actually quite savvy about Enabled culture. It was obvious in this situation that he was ignoring everything he knew so he could have yet another dig at Jericho.

    Eighteen months ago, Jericho had looked up to Stephen as a cosmopolitan man of the world. Now, he was starting to see the cracks in the pedestal he’d once placed his boyfriend on. Taking a deep breath, he pushed his mind back on track and lowered his voice from sheer habit. “I’m doing this because I want to turn professional. You know, get paid to be a superhero?”

    Not only would it be amazing to get a salary to do what he loved, but one thing every professional superhero had was an action figure. To the uninformed, such things might seem more of a vanity item than anything else, but popular figures were money in the bank.

    “I thought you did it because you liked to do it, not because you wanted to get money for it.” This was stage two of Stephen’s bitchy mode, where his voice started to get whiny and he used whatever means he had to guilt Jericho into changing his mind. Jericho loved Stephen dearly, but he hated that stage. He much preferred it when Stephen got firm with him; that approach had a far better chance of changing Jericho’s mind. The problem was, Stephen had trouble doing ‘firm’ in a convincing fashion.

    It occurred to Jericho that even though it was ultimately his decision and his alone to go to Utopia City, he probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to take this step if Stephen hadn’t spent the last year and a half telling him what a great hero he was. Jeez. If I told him that, his head would probably explode.

    “Hello? Are you even listening to me?” Stephen’s demand dragged Jericho’s attention back to the here and now.

    “I just got distracted for a second,” Jericho said hastily. “I’m listening to everything you say.”

    “I wish you wouldn’t go.” Stephen sniffled audibly, going straight to stage three. Oh, no, not the tears. Jericho loathed the tears. “I don’t feel safe without you around anymore.”

    As much as Jericho didn’t want to admit it, Stephen had a point. About five weeks previously, before the email from Force Majeure had come through, his boyfriend had been attacked while driving home from the store one night. He’d stopped at a red light, whereupon several men burst from the shadows and surrounded the car. One of them had shattered the driver’s side window with a tire iron, then Stephen was dragged from the car and thoroughly beaten. They’d taken his wallet and phone—and, oddly enough, the groceries—but left the car, probably because it was a dilapidated piece of shit. After they were gone, Stephen had managed to crawl back into the car and drive himself back home, as he couldn’t afford a stay in the hospital.

    To his everlasting guilt, Jericho had been out in costume as G-Man on that specific evening, on the other side of town. He’d only found out about the assault when Stephen rang him from home. Since then, the bruising had gone down and the cuts were healing, but Stephen’s face was still puffy in places and he was missing two teeth. Emotionally, he’d fallen apart, leaving Jericho—who was scarcely less shattered by the experience—to help him pull himself back together. Since then, he’d refused to go out alone at night, only venturing forth if Jericho was with him. For his part, Jericho had kept an eye out for the gang of muggers, but they seemed to have vanished back under whatever rock they came from.

    Jericho drew a deep breath. “Listen, Stephen, it’s only gonna be three days. Seventy-two hours. That’s it.” As he’d explained in the letter, it was one day for the interview and two more in case he had a call-back. Three at the most, until he found out if he was in Force Majeure or not.

    Stephen’s voice was petulant. “It doesn’t matter what I say, does it? You’re just going to go anyway. Why do I even bother talking, if you’re not going to listen?”

    Oh, jeez. Jericho searched his brain for the words to calm his boyfriend down, but he had no idea what to say. “Uh—”

    That was when the phone was plucked from his grasp. A voice said in his ear, “For fuck’s sake, J, stop bein’ such a chickenshit.”
     
    samgrimes, Simonbob and Twilight666 like this.
  19. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    He really is chickenshit.

    Stephan's a manipulative dick, though.


    Not sure I like either of them, really.


    Have to wait and see, I guess. There's certainly potential.
     
  20. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Stephen is a manipulative git. Jericho doesn't bend to his every whim, but Stephen does know how to guilt trip him.

    Jericho's too nice for his own good, really.
     
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  21. Threadmarks: Chapter Three: Luke
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    3
    Luke


    Turning fast, Jericho dropped into a combat stance as his adrenaline surged. He was shaping up for a palm strike before he recognized the grinning dark-skinned man who'd snuck up on him. "Luke, what the hell do you think you're doing, taking my phone?"

    "Gotcha, cuz," chuckled Luke. "Shoulda seen your face. Friggin' priceless."

    His pulse still pounding in his ears, Jericho shook his head. "Don't do that. I nearly cleaned your goddamn clock."

    Luke's grin turned into a smirk. "Oo, does 'oo think 'oo can fight?" Playfully, he raised his fists and feinted a punch at Jericho.

    It would've been easy to step in past the lazy blow and lock up Luke's arm, but his cousin didn't deserve that, so Jericho chose to roll his eyes instead. "Asshat," he said, but without heat. The adrenaline was still singing through his veins; he breathed deeply, willing himself to relax. "Did Stephen send you?"

    On second thought, this didn't seem even remotely plausible. As Jericho's cousin, Luke may have gotten along (mostly) with Stephen, but he and Jericho were kin. More to the point, they'd been best friends for years, and as such tended to side with each other. Thirdly, Jericho was at that moment on the phone with Stephen, and he'd said nothing at all about Luke.

    "Hell, no," Luke said cheerfully. He held the phone to his ear. "Steve? It's me. He'll call you back." Ignoring Stephen's tinny expostulations, he hit the icon to shut the call down. "He still fixin' ta stop you from goin'?"

    Jericho rolled his eyes. "You know it." Then he eyed his cousin suspiciously. "Wait a sec. How do you know? And what are you doing here?" It struck him as considerably more than a coincidence to have his cousin turn up at the exact right time to intercept him at the transit station.

    Luke chuckled again. "I ain't never been to Utopia City. When I heard you was fixin' ta go, I reckoned I'd tag along an' see the sights. An' whenever y'all is fightin', you scrunch up your shoulders like ya wanna be anywhere but there. Or to put it another way, I had me a hunch." From the amusement in his tone, he thought he was being hugely funny.

    Jericho tried not to wince at the pun. "Oh, ha ha. But seriously, how'd you know I was even gonna be here? Did you have someone watching the apartment? Or have you been staking this place out for the last few days?" He didn't like the idea of being surveilled at the best of times, even if it was Luke doing it.

    "Nope." Luke was clearly enjoying his cousin's confusion. "See, I knowed ya wouldn't let Steve stop you from goin', an' I knowed things was gettin' close, so I jes' kept an eye on my phone an' had Livy drive me over when I saw you start headin' for th' station." He pulled the cellphone from his pocket; while not the latest model, it was still pretty good. "Or did ya forget we got locator apps for each other's phones a while back?"

    To his embarrassment, Jericho had honestly forgotten that little detail. He stared at Luke, not sure whether to be impressed or even more irritated. "And how long have you been using my own damn phone as a goddamn tracking beacon?"

    Luke shrugged. "Long enough. Ain't gonna let my favorite cuz go off ta Utopia City all by hisself, am I? Ya might git yourself lost on th' way, an' then where'd we be?" His grin was wide and ingenuous; Jericho distrusted it immediately. Due to their great-grandfather's prejudices, Luke had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks, and still had more than a few friends in low places. He was up to something; Jericho was certain of it.

    He'd known Luke long enough that he trusted his cousin not to pull anything shady on him personally, but he could virtually guarantee that Luke had his own reasons for going to Utopia City. The fact that he'd basically bugged Jericho so he could 'coincidentally' show up at the same time just meant that he didn't care if Jericho knew he was going there as well.

    When it came down to it, all that Luke and Jericho really had in common were one set of shared grandparents—Papaw Joe, who'd been killed in Vietnam, and Mamaw Penny, who'd died in a car accident when Jericho was five—and the fact that they both topped six feet. Jericho was twenty-three, slim and wiry with straight hair and fair skin. Luke, five years his senior, was heavier set—all muscle—and about an inch shorter, with the tightly kinked hair and dark-coffee skin that denoted mixed ancestry. And of course, Jericho was gay while Luke was straight as a ruler.

    Despite their outward differences, they got along well; Luke had been the first person Jericho had come out to, once with his orientation and again with his powers. Jericho had no siblings, but Luke was a good substitute for an older brother. Luke's sister Serena, also older than Jericho (albeit by six months), was good company as well. Since Jericho had come out of the closet, he'd consulted them both on relationship tips more than once.

    As for the color issue, for Jericho it simply didn't exist. Or rather; he was aware of its existence, but he wanted no truck with it. If some asshat had a mind to cause problems with folk just because their skin was a different color, he was altogether ready to kick their asses for them.

    Some might've considered this to be an uncommon state of mind for a homegrown Georgia boy but again, it was all down to family. Specifically, his mother. A no-nonsense New Yorker, Dahlia Hansen not only came from money of her own but now also had her own law practice in Atlanta. She'd raised him with very different views from the local norm, aided and abetted by his father. He had vague memories of tirades delivered by a terrifying elderly man—Great-Granddaddy Frank—in his infancy, but the old man had died when he was four. It was no coincidence that he'd also known Luke since he was four. As far as he was concerned, having an aunt and cousins with much darker skin color was a fact of life, and he would take issue with anyone who felt differently. While he was aware that not everyone in Savannah (or even his own family) thought that way, his attitude could be summed up as: Screw 'em. Kin's kin, and nothing's gonna change that.

    He'd once asked his cousin why he insisted on maintaining the back-streets accent, when he was anything but poor or stupid. Luke's father Leroy had grown up in the same relatively affluent surroundings that Jericho himself had, but after he was kicked out of home and found himself surrounded by a lower stratum of society, he'd let his own speech patterns slip and merge so as to fit in. He could still converse in the upper-middle-class accents of his youth, but among family and friends he relaxed into a more laid-back turn of phrase.

    Luke, on the other hand, had been brought up almost on the streets, and spoke the argot as easily as he breathed. Leroy had made sure his education included a grounding in more affluent ways of speaking, but Luke preferred his way. Besides, as he put it, the 'buckra' hated nothing more than a smart black guy. If he talked like a 'know-nothin' jig', it was a lot easier to do business with them. When it was just the two of them, Luke tended to lapse into what he was used to, but whenever he felt the need to make a good impression, he could up his game.

    Jericho's diction, by contrast, was a little more precise than the norm. This was partly because he'd grown up with his mother's New York accent, and partly because he'd spent a couple of years attending the same college where his parents had met; the combination of which had blunted his Southern accent a mite.

    "Yeah, right," he scoffed, good humor overtaking his irritation. Even though he could tell Luke was trying to blatantly bullshit him (just because Luke wouldn't take Jericho's money didn't mean he wouldn't lie to his cousin's face), Jericho never could stay mad at Luke for long. "Gimme my phone." He held out his hand expectantly, and Luke dropped the handset into it. "You do know Stephen hates being called Steve, right?"

    "Well, duh. I wouldn't call him that, otherwise."

    That, Jericho could believe. His cousin was a natural at finding people's buttons and mashing them as hard as he could. Stephen's fussiness and inability to take a joke merely meant that Luke enjoyed messing with his head quite a bit more. It was telling to note that Luke had never bothered trying to make a good impression on Stephen, especially in the last few weeks.

    Just as Jericho was about to put the phone away, it rang in his hand. He didn't even have to look to know it was Stephen. Automatically, he went to answer it, but paused when he caught Luke's disapproving stare. "What?"

    Luke's answer was as flat and uncompromising as the tone of his voice. "Cuz, you answer that an' I'm gonna hafta take away your man card."

    The phone rang again, insistently.

    "My what?" Jericho wasn't sure he'd heard correctly. "You do know I'm gay, right?"

    Luke spread his hands. "An' that makes a lick o' difference how? Hang up the goddamn phone."

    Meekly accepting that Luke was right, Jericho swiped left to decline the call. "Okay, now what? You know he's just gonna keep calling back, yeah?"

    "Well, duh." Luke gestured at the phone. "So, turn the fuckin' thing off. Or put it on airplane mode. One of the two."

    There was nothing else for it. Feeling like a novice acrobat stepping out onto the highwire for the first time, Jericho flicked the screen to bring up the option for airplane mode. A few seconds later, it was done. Now, Stephen couldn't reach him even if Jericho wanted him to.

    "Good," Luke said approvingly. "So, you're still fixin' ta head to Utopia City, yeah?" When Jericho didn't answer immediately, he frowned. "Did ya wanna go or not? Simple question, cuz."

    Jericho grimaced, feeling the conflict sharply. Of course he wanted to go, but Stephen was going to be seriously pissed at him for not picking up when he rang back. It was going to take a month of chick-flick nights to get him out of the doghouse, and that would be if he went home straight away. "Yeah, but Stephen …"

    "Steve'll still be there when you git back," Luke said briskly. "That your bag there?"

    "Yeah, it's mine." Jericho watched as Luke leaned down and grabbed the overnight bag by one strap. Somewhere deep inside, he wondered why he was letting Luke get away with pushing him around like this.

    "Here." Luke shoved the bag into Jericho's arms. "Now let's git movin'. Them tickets ain't gonna buy themselves."

    Surrendering himself to the inevitable, Jericho allowed Luke to shove him in the direction of the sliding doors. They opened before him and he stepped inside. The chilly air washed over his face and raised goosebumps on his forearms, and the mid-afternoon sunlight was replaced by the sterile fluorescent glare.

    You know something? he told himself. I'm gonna do this, and screw the consequences. Stepping forward, he lost contact with Luke's hand, and heard his cousin's grunt of approval. As his eyes cleared from the outside glare, he found himself in a kind of anteroom with a waiting room beyond. No more pussyfooting around. The cat's out of the bag, so I might as well make the most of it. The accidental pun made him smile.

    Even if Stephen read the letter and took the time to think about it, Jericho knew his phone would basically explode with calls as soon as he turned it back on. It was the way his boyfriend operated; Stephen didn't believe in 'subtle'. That knowledge was enough to take the incipient grin off his face.

    Once he got to Utopia City, he decided, he'd turn his phone on and take whatever Stephen had to dish out. He'd be far enough away by then that he couldn't simply choose to turn around and come back, especially not with Luke at his side. The epiphany was as sudden as it was startling: I know why I didn't push back when Luke was telling me what to do. Because I know deep down that this is what I need to do. And maybe, with time to cool down, Stephen might come around. At least Jericho could hope so, anyway. Better to ask for forgiveness, et cetera …

    Putting aside his worries for the moment, Jericho looked around for a ticket window. To his initial confusion, there were none to be seen. Instead, people seemed to be using the upright electronic kiosks that were lined up on each side of the room. Approaching the first free one, he looked it over. It was tall and blocky, not unlike a seventies-era arcade game console. The large square touchscreen made the similarity almost painfully obvious, while an oval card-reader at the bottom right corner of the screen bore the interlocked letters UML. Stepping up alongside him, Luke began to look the adjacent kiosk over with every indication of interest.

    The UML logo popped up at the top of Jericho's screen as he studied the thing. Beneath the logo, the words 'PURCHASE TICKET' appeared as white text inside a deep green rectangle. Okay, that sounds about right. Reaching out, he tapped the rectangle. It vanished, making room for more text to scroll chattily across the screen.

    WELCOME TO UTOPIA MAGLEV LINES.

    WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO GO TODAY?

    "Hey, cuz, should I go with 'List' or 'Type In'?" asked Luke from the next one over, as the same two options popped up on Jericho's screen.

    "Dunno. Let's try 'Type In'." Jericho's choice was rewarded with a keyboard overlay on the screen, from which he selected 'U'. The keyboard disappeared, and a list of cities starting with that initial scrolled up from the bottom of the screen. Jericho wasn't overly surprised to see 'UTOPIA CITY' at the top of the list, superseding several other names that would normally have preceded it in the alphabet.

    He tapped it, and more text scrolled up to inform him of the travel time to Utopia City (two and a half hours) and how long before the train departed (twenty-eight minutes). There were five stops on the way there; or rather, five cities that the maglev passed through. The list began with Atlanta and ended with Kansas City. After Kansas City, of course, would be Utopia City. He tried to mentally calculate the distance but couldn't get any more precise than 'around a thousand miles'.

    "This cain't be right." That was Luke, beside him. Jericho glanced over, to see him staring at the displayed fare. "Eighty-eight bucks? That's way too cheap."

    It did seem a little light, but that was what the machine was saying. An addendum caught his eye. "If we want to use our phones, it's only ninety-nine."

    "No phones," Luke said firmly. "We'll pay the eighty-eight flat rate." He ran his hand up his face and back over his head. "Though I'm fucked if I know how they can afford to charge that low."

    Jericho shrugged. "Me too, but that's what they're doing." He tapped the appropriate icon.

    YOU HAVE SELECTED A NO-COVERAGE FARE OF $88.00.

    PLEASE SWIPE YOUR MAGCARD TO VERIFY, OR PRESS BACK TO RETRY.

    "Swipe my what again now?" muttered Jericho out loud, realizing that he'd very possibly skipped an important part of the preparation for this trip. If UML only accepted payment via a 'magcard', whatever that was, then he'd be stuck taking the bus or regular train. In fact, he had no idea how to acquire such a card, given that this was the first he'd heard of them. Shit. I'm gonna miss my interview, aren't I?

    "Uh, cuz, what's a 'magcard'?" asked Luke at the same time. "It's askin' me for one … wait, somethin's happenin'."

    "Me too." Jericho eyed the new line of text that had just appeared on the screen before him.

    DO YOU WISH TO PURCHASE A MAGCARD?

    He frowned. "Did yours just ask if you wanted to buy one?"

    "What the hell is this shit?" Luke didn't sound pleased. "Did this thing just understand what I was sayin'? 'Cause that's some next-level creepy shit, right there."

    "Uh, I think mine did too," Jericho said. Hesitantly, he reached out and tapped the 'YES' button on offer beneath the text. Another line of text appeared.

    PLEASE PLACE YOUR HANDS ON THE SCREEN.

    As he read the text, it scrolled up to make way for a pair of hand-shaped outlines on the touchscreen. "Okay, this is new."

    "Screw 'new'. This shit's gettin' weirder an' weirder," muttered Luke. He leaned over to watch what Jericho was doing. "You gonna do what it says?"

    "Looks like the only way to get a ticket, so yeah." Jericho didn't feel nearly as confident as he tried to sound. But despite his misgivings, he put his overnight bag on the floor between his feet and did as he was told, pressing his hands onto the outlines. The screen flashed twice, then the outlines disappeared.

    YOUR ACCOUNT HAS BEEN CREATED.

    PLEASE SWIPE THE DEBIT OR CREDIT CARD OF YOUR CHOICE ON THE READER TO DETERMINE YOUR SOURCE OF FUNDS.

    This was also news to Jericho. "It can do that?"

    "Fucked if I know, cuz." Luke dug in his pocket for his wallet. "But I'm about ta find out."

    Following his cousin's lead, Jericho pulled out his own wallet. Selecting his least-used debit card, he swiped it across the glowing sensor panel, expecting nothing to happen. After all, the card wasn't chipped, and he'd never heard of a sensor panel that could read non-chipped cards.

    THANK YOU, JERICHO HANSEN.

    PLEASE INPUT PIN FOR THIS CARD TO COMPLETE LINKUP.

    Below the text, a numeric keypad appeared.

    "Well, crap. Looks like it can read that. Damn." Taking a deep breath, Jericho tapped in the requisite PIN code. It was his emergency-money account, and he only ever kept about fifteen hundred in it. While losing that cash would sting a little (not that he expected Utopia Maglev Lines to rip him off) he could handle it, if it happened.

    "I'm still tryin' ta figure out how it can tell my name from my card," Luke said. "Is it time ta start worryin' yet?"

    "Dunno. I'll let you know." Jericho watched as more text scrolled upward onto the screen.

    CARD LINKUP COMPLETE.

    YOUR MAGCARD IS READY FOR USE.

    The keypad vanished and there was a grinding noise inside the kiosk, then a small panel in the front of the machine dropped open. Within lay a shiny new card bearing the UML logo, with the word 'MagCard' tastefully printed in the bottom-right corner. His interest piqued, he took it out and examined it. Turning it over revealed the same logo and card title on the other side.

    "Well, dang." Luke took an identical card from his own kiosk. "Looks like they forgot ta put our names on 'em. We better not lose 'em, or git 'em mixed up."

    "I think that's the general idea," Jericho agreed dryly, though he considered Luke's concern to be valid. The machine had known his name; what was stopping it from individualizing the cards? "Seems they can't do everything."

    The screen cleared of all text. When it filled again, the text was bright red and slightly larger than normal, surrounded by a flashing red and yellow border.

    MANDATORY WARNING:

    UTOPIA MAGLEV LINES DOES NOT PERMIT THE CARRIAGE OF FIREARMS, AMMUNITION, EXPLOSIVES OR ILLICIT DRUGS.

    ANY SUCH ITEMS MAY BE STORED IN LOCKERS PROVIDED WITHIN THE TRANSIT STATION, WITHOUT PENALTY.

    ATTEMPTING TO COMMIT AN ILLEGAL ACT VIA UTOPIA MAGLEV LINES WILL RESULT IN REVOCATION OF TICKET, FORFEITURE OF TICKET PRICE AND ARREST BY LOCAL AUTHORITIES.

    ATTEMPTING TO DAMAGE THIS TRANSIT STATION OR DISRUPT UML OPERATIONS BY WAY OF FIREARMS OR EXPLOSIVES WILL RESULT IN EXTREME REPERCUSSIONS FROM FORCE MAJEURE.

    DO YOU UNDERSTAND THIS WARNING?


    More than a little disconcerted by the forceful wording, he tapped the button that read 'YES'. He half-expected Luke to make some sort of smartass comment, but no such thing happened. Wonders will never cease.

    THANK YOU.

    PLEASE SWIPE MAGCARD TO CONFIRM TRANSACTION.

    "Oh, yeah," he muttered. "I need to do that." Carefully, he swiped his brand-new card across the glowing sensor panel, which beeped agreeably at him. More text scrolled over the screen, verifying that the MagCard link had been verified and the transaction confirmed. He'd also been charged five dollars for the card, and ten for the boarding fee. This would apparently be folded into the total fare when he got to the other end, once he used the MagCard to swipe his way off the train. By the time he had his wallet put away, the screen had gone blank once more.

    "Well, that was easier than I thought," he observed as he picked up his bag once more. As daunting as this had seemed when he first walked in, he figured a lot of that had been his ongoing distraction with Stephen. With the ticket bought, if not specifically in hand, all he had to do now was get on the train.

    "Uh, ya know they never give us no PIN numbers for these cards," Luke pointed out. "How are we s'posed ta keep 'em secure?"

    That was … a good point. "Not sure. Maybe it's all biometrically coded." Jericho snapped his fingers at the recollection. "When we put our hands on the screens? I bet they were gathering data then." He shook his head. "A built-in PIN. Now I really have seen everything."

    Luke blinked. "Sumbitch. That right there's some tricky shit. Though I dunno how they're gonna stop folks that are fixin' ta bring guns an' shit on board from actually doin' it."

    "Or drugs." For his part, Jericho wondered how they were going to prevent someone from just walking on board with a backpack full of weed, unless they went with the low-tech expedient of searching all luggage before boarding. While he had no proof, he was reasonably certain Luke had done just that on occasion with the regular train. But guns were a bigger problem. A small enough pistol could be concealed virtually anywhere under a bulky garment; detecting one with an eyeball search would be well-nigh impossible. As he understood things, Georgia's concealed-carry laws didn't necessarily forbid people from carrying firearms into areas where 'no weapons' signs had been posted, so they couldn't rely on being able to have transgressors arrested.

    While Jericho had never owned a gun himself, he didn't have a problem with those who did, or even with the concept of concealed carry. In his experience, most people were sensible about such matters. A gun, after all, was both a tool and a potentially dangerous object. It made sense to treat them with caution, and to accept legislated limitations on their ownership and use.

    This being the deep South, however, not everyone shared his views. There were those (Pickup, among others) who implicitly believed that the right to bear arms had been handed down from on high along with the Ten Commandments, and acted accordingly. Such people, when encountering a prohibition against carrying firearms into any given place, had been known to move heaven and earth to get that prohibition lifted.

    If I see something illegal happening, I'll do something about it. But otherwise it's UML's problem, not mine. Slinging his bag over his shoulder, he followed Luke through the automatic doors into the waiting room.
     
  22. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    Those who do not defend their rights, end up with none.

    As an Australian, I can tell you that first hand.
     
  23. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Also as an Australian, I dispute the implied definition of "defending their rights".
     
  24. Threadmarks: Chapter Four: Madness
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    4
    Madness

    Spacious and comfortable with vending machines off to one side, the waiting room had chairs, ceiling-mounted TV sets and digital signs apparently doing a countdown. It also held the answer to the question of how UML was going to stop people from simply walking onto the train with guns: instead of the more usual turnstile gates, entry to the platform was regulated by four separate installations that looked exactly like airlocks. Each one appeared to be about six feet wide by twelve deep and came complete with sliding glass doors blocking off each end, as well as a UML card-swipe beside the entry door.

    Above the entry doors was a sign that stretched across all four airlocks in six-inch-high lettering.

    WARNING: PER UML REGULATIONS, ACCESS TO PLATFORM REQUIRES SCANNING FOR CONTRABAND ITEMS. MAXIMUM OF FOUR PERSONS PER SCAN CYCLE.

    Below the main sign, a series of easily deciphered symbols reiterated what could not be transported on the train. As far as Jericho could tell, these translated out to ‘no guns, bullets, explosives or illicit drugs’.

    “Well,” he observed quietly to Luke. “I guess they can stop people from getting on with guns.” He was perfectly fine with that. While the maglev system was the overwhelming choice for mass public transport within the United States, it wasn’t popular with everyone, mainly because it was closely associated with Force Majeure. Some resented them for their powers, some for their prestige, and some because they had strong government affiliations. It would only take a few shooting incidents on the maglev to reduce its overall popularity; fortunately, this had not yet been managed.

    In any case, he didn’t have any ‘contraband items’ in his bag, and he didn’t feel like waiting out on the platform for a half an hour when he could relax in comfortable surroundings instead. And if Luke was carrying anything to worry about, Jericho was pretty sure his cousin would’ve made an excuse to go and discreetly dispose of it by now. While Luke wasn’t the most law-abiding person Jericho knew—or even in the top ten—he wasn’t stupid about it.

    An Amber Alert poster on the wall caught Jericho’s eye; it displayed the face of Vanessa Power, age sixteen. Vanessa, a strong-jawed redhead, was the daughter of the superheroes Adam and Tesseract Power, and as such a member of the public superhero group Team Power. However, she’d been missing since December of 2011.

    The disappearance had made the news in a big way at the time but was just a part of the background noise by now. With events closer to home taking up his attention, Jericho hadn’t been following the case, so he had no idea if there’d been any recent developments. The poster wasn’t much help, as it looked like an old one.

    He turned his attention to the rest of the room, where Luke was already heading toward a row of seats. The overhead TVs added their noise to the muted bustle in the room, while the three digital signs he’d noticed earlier displayed city names. The timers by the names were counting down.

    JACKSONVILLE 11:13
    ATLANTA 26:13
    COLUMBIA 41:13

    He knew that their route led through Atlanta, so they had a little time to wait. At the very least, putting his phone on airplane mode meant he wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with calls from Stephen until they got to Utopia City. He’d once asked Luke how straight guys dealt with this sort of drama from their other halves. Luke had laughed out loud at the notion that straight guys handled it any better than gay guys did. “Flowers, chocolate, an’ lotsa grovellin’,” had been his cousin’s advice; a little to his surprise, he found that it worked. To a point, anyway.

    Picking a seat beside Luke’s, he dropped into it and arranged the overnight bag in his lap. The chair was surprisingly comfortable; as Jericho was adjusting his posture for maximum relaxation, Luke pointed at the nearest screen. “Hey, check it,” his cousin said. “What are th’ odds they’d have an ad runnin’ for the place jes’ when we’re sittin’ down?”

    Leaning back in the chair, Jericho found that he had a good view of the TV in question, which (as Luke had noted) happened to be playing a commercial for Utopia City. “Not totally surprising,” he decided. “We are in a UML transit station, and I hear Force Majeure buys a lot of airtime.”

    “Yeah, good point.” Luke settled back to watch the ad.

    In a very real way, Utopia City had been the making of Force Majeure. And vice versa, of course.

    Over the course of the 1990s, several particularly vicious supervillains had risen (or fallen) to heretofore unprecedented levels of infamy. Some began their careers during 1988 and ’89, but it wasn’t until 1990 and later that the general public truly became aware of them. These were people who danced to their own tune, and that tune was mass murder. One and all, they fell away again before the decade was over, but while they were in the public eye, they rewrote the book when it came to the sadistic and twisted use of super-powers. As far as Jericho knew, only a few of them had associated with one another in any meaningful way—the body count would have been much higher, otherwise—but by the end of the decade they were being collectively referred to as the ‘terror villains of the nineties’.

    The inevitable backlash began in early 1997 but failed to gain much in the way of traction until mid-1998, when a newcomer superhero team called Force Majeure began to make the news. Specializing in brutal, no-mercy takedowns, they prioritized terror villains over the less extreme types of supervillain. Over the next thirteen months, they managed to far outperform the efforts of both mundane law enforcement and other heroes, hunting down and killing no fewer than seven of the out-of-control Enabled villains with no losses to their own side.

    On September the fifteenth of 1999, the apocalypse-themed terror villain Doc Iridium announced on national TV that he was going to ‘blow up Manhattan’ in one week if the federal government did not move to summarily declare Force Majeure outlaws, and issue a warrant for their immediate arrest and execution. Almost as an afterthought, he also demanded one billion dollars for his trouble.

    It wasn’t hard to understand his animus toward the team. With their extremely public (and fatal) takedown of Raider one month earlier, Force Majeure had all but completed a clean sweep of the nation’s terror villains. Understandably concerned that they were setting their sights on him next, he was going all-in on a pre-emptive strike.

    Five days in, something went wrong during a live televised repetition of his threats, and he went off the air in mid-rant. The superheroes and first responders who’d been combing the island of Manhattan brick by brick were all greatly relieved to find it was all a hoax. That is, until the news broke about the destruction of the other Manhattan; a sleepy little college city in the middle of Kansas.

    New York City was safe but ninety thousand people were dead, and more than a thousand square miles of farmland lay devastated and irradiated under a mushroom cloud. Given that Doc Iridium was the last of his unlamented breed, it somehow seemed fitting for him to be hoist with his own petard in such a dramatic fashion. The death toll, however, meant that nobody was celebrating. The phrase ‘nine-twenty’ would be forever burned into the American consciousness.

    Force Majeure, in the meantime, had voluntarily surrendered themselves to the nearest FBI office, who had no idea what to do with them. When the team was notified of the catastrophe, they offered to assist in undoing the devastation. With no better options available, the US government signed an open-ended contract for them to reclaim the city and the radioactive farmland surrounding it.

    Once the green light was given, it took less than a day for Force Majeure to deal with the raging wildfires and safely precipitate the fallout cloud. One week later, they’d expunged the radiation from the land and (somehow) decontaminated the water table while they were at it. Then they really went to work, applying their considerable technical expertise toward constructing a community of the future. Somehow, along the way, they never moved out.

    Fourteen years on, Utopia City was indisputably the most technologically advanced metropolis in the world, a proof of concept which had made Force Majeure into a household name. It also held the highest per-capita population of superheroes in the United States.

    The commercial made heavy use of panning shots that showed futuristic buildings—including the iconic Spire, the figurative and literal hub of the city—and distant flying objects. Jericho wasn’t sure if these were people or vehicles; he’d once heard something about Utopia City having flying cars, but details eluded him. In the background, a voice-over extolled the opportunities to be found by people who were willing to work hard to get ahead.

    “Dang,” muttered Luke. “Whoever they got doin’ the voice actin’ is good. If I didn’t already have me a ticket, I’d be about ready ta buy one anyways.”

    Jericho grinned but just as he was about to make a comment, the TV cut away to a breaking news announcement. Scrolling across the bottom of the screen, the banner informed everyone in the room that the news was coming in live from Tallahassee, Florida. The first shot was of the WCTV studio, where the news anchor was still straightening his tie. Noticing that he was on the air, he smoothly picked up a sheet of paper and began to address the camera.

    “Good afternoon. I’m Mike Weatherby, for WCTV News. We’ve just now received word that the Madness is attacking the State Capitol building. Tomahawk and Wavefront are en route but aren’t expected to get there for a few minutes yet. Fortunately, Relentless and Independence of Force Majeure were in town for an unrelated event and are reportedly on the way as well. We don’t have anyone on site, but there’s apparently someone live-streaming the event online. Viewer discretion is advised.”

    The picture cut to a blurry image of four people, the footage shot from between trees or bushes from what Jericho could tell. A man and a woman were standing in front of what appeared to be an ornamental fountain with dolphin sculptures in it. A second man, solid and blocky, stood in the fountain itself while the fourth person, a woman, hovered about ten feet above the other three. Behind them loomed a tall, imposing building, which Jericho assumed was the aforementioned capitol. As the image sharpened, it was easy to see that all four were ragged and disheveled; hair was tangled, and the faces of the men were unshaven. Jericho had never encountered the Madness personally, but these people definitely fit the profile.

    “Holy shit, dude, are you getting this?” As far as Jericho could tell without being able to see the speaker, the guy sounded male and in his teens. “This is fuckin’ insane!” To his horror, the words ended in a giggle.

    “Oh, shit,” muttered Luke, mirroring his own thoughts. “They’re high.”

    Jericho shook his head, but in horrified disbelief rather than disagreement. Teenagers, baked out of their minds, in the middle of a supervillain attack. There may have been a situation more likely to create casualties, but he wasn’t sure what it was.

    A sharp popping sound caused him to duck his head slightly in reflex. He’d only ever been shot at once, but the experience had left a lasting impression. Fortunately, nobody in the room seemed to notice or care. On the screen, the view swung crazily until the camera was focused on a police car parked at the foot of a set of stairs. Both officers were out of the car; one was firing his service weapon at the four superhumans. The other was yelling and gesticulating at whoever held the camera phone, clearly trying to get them to vacate the area. There was another stoned giggle, and a hand came into view, giving a friendly wave in return. Then the camera turned back toward the Enabled on the forecourt.

    Now that he was paying closer attention, Jericho could see that there were bodies strewn around the fountain, as well as a serious-looking scorch mark across the frontage of the capitol building. He wondered what had caused that, then winced as the flying woman jerked her arm back. Blood dripped from it, visible even on the shaky image as she raised her other hand. A blue glow built around it, discharging then a moment later. Luke visibly cringed and Jericho gritted his teeth as a sound like a thousand fingernails on just as many blackboards shrilled through the room. A brilliant violet-blue beam with an actinic white-hot core struck the car dead center, enveloping it in a tremendous ball of fire.

    Jericho went cold all over as he concluded that both officers were almost certainly dead. As the hood of the luckless car flipped skyward, Jericho heard another stoned giggle. “Holy shit, dude! That was brutal! I’m so tweeting this shit. Hashtag masks two, cops zero.” He wanted to reach through the screen, grab them each by the scruff of the neck, and bang their heads together. And you’re about to join them, you insensitive asshats!

    “Fuck you, assholes,” Luke muttered. “Those guys were righteous. You goddamn mouth-breathers.” The comment was very … Luke. His cousin had strong opinions on several issues, and one of them was that if a body got himself into a bad situation, he shouldn’t bitch about being in trouble. As far as Luke was concerned, standing there and pointing a camera at rampaging Enabled was not only a good way to get killed, it was also an ideal solution for cleaning the shit out of the shallow end of the gene pool. At the same time, his praise of the cops showed the strength of his feelings on the subject, given his usual distaste for law-enforcement personnel. Jericho silently agreed with both sentiments.

    “Joey, man, maybe we should move away a bit?” The new voice was a lot closer to the camera, if the occasional fuzziness was any indication. “They don’t look really friendly.”

    That was, by definition, an understatement. Even though the teenagers seemed to be about thirty or forty yards away from the Madness, they were still close enough to be in dire peril, and stoned enough to have no idea of the danger they were in. He grimaced, fully aware that he and Luke were about to witness a second double murder, and that they were unable to do a damn thing about it. On the screen—the idiot was still pointing the phone at the Madness—he saw the blue glow begin to build up around the woman’s hand, this time aimed directly at the camera.

    At the same time, in the background, there was a distinct metallic report as the blocky figure tore one of the ornamental dolphin sculptures free. With no apparent effort, the guy threw the sculpture at the two teens, its metallic form tumbling over and over in the air. Along with Luke, Jericho jolted backward in his seat as the ad hoc projectile loomed large on the screen. Barring a miracle, it was definitely going to hit the one with the camera. Right up until a silvery streak slashed out of nowhere and drove the oncoming metal mass sideways with a tremendous clang, making them both jump.

    “The hell?” Luke blurted out loud. “What happened?”

    “No idea,” Jericho said, leaning forward in his chair in an unconscious effort to get a better view of what was happening. What the hell was that? He searched the screen for a clue, but all he saw was a battered and bent dolphin statue lying at the bottom of the steps, next to the still-burning police car. Also, the flying woman’s hand was glowing ever brighter. Considering what the previous blast had done to the vehicle, a couple of reckless teenagers were going to pose no challenge at all for its destructive power. Whatever had knocked the dolphin sculpture aside wasn’t going to save them now.

    Abruptly, the image blurred into darkness, accompanied by a deep THOOM that made Jericho jump yet again. Again he heard the screech, but it cut out after just a moment. A few seconds after that, the darkness in front of the camera shifted and resolved into individual sections of armor plate; very distinctive armor plate, black with silver trim. Jericho caught his breath as he realized that he was looking at the broad, armored chest of none other than Relentless himself.

    As the leader of Force Majeure stepped away from the teenager, he came properly into view for the first time. Jericho watched as he raised one heavily gloved hand as if to wave at someone. With a clash of metal on metal, the haft of an ornately studded mace smashed into his palm. His fingers closed over it as if welcoming it home. Sonovabitch. He used his mace to knock the dolphin aside, then tanked the goddamn beam to save the kids.

    “Well, fuck me sideways,” Luke said softly, apparently having come to the same conclusion. “That there is major goddamn badass.”

    Jericho couldn’t help but agree. He’d read a lot about Relentless and knew that he stood between six and a half and seven feet tall, but the camera angle made the veteran hero look far taller and more imposing. More to the point, even though Relentless was wearing a helmet that covered his face from the cheekbones up, it was easy to tell that he was extremely irritated. With a glower that would’ve caused a charging rhino to rethink its priorities, the iconic hero pointed his free hand at the camera. “What do you think you’re doing, you idiots?” he boomed, the sub-bass registers in his voice almost overloading the TV speakers. “Are you trying to get yourselves killed?” Imperiously, he gestured down the street. “Get back out of the way. NOW!”

    Jericho smiled grimly to himself. Called it. From the looks of it, the teens didn’t even think to argue. They just hurried back, with any luck sobered by the close call. As the image swung about in a motion-sickness inducing fashion, Jericho caught a glimpse of the spot where Relentless had landed. The hero’s boot-prints were impressed half an inch into the sidewalk, with cracks radiating outward in all directions.

    “Holy shit, dude, Relentless is fuckin’ hardcore,” giggled the first teen. “I nearly pissed myself when he yelled at us.” As he spoke, he began to slow his pace.

    “Joey, you did piss yourself,” his friend said. “I think—” The unmistakable report of a rifle shot interrupted his words.

    Both teens stopped and turned around. Jericho gathered that they were standing in the middle of an intersection, but they were still far too close to the action.

    “What was that?” asked one of them. “Relentless didn’t have a gun.” The camera tilted upward, toward the top of the capitol building. “Hey, dude. Look up there. Someone on the roof.”

    “Lemme see.” There was the sound of a scuffle, and the image swung crazily. “Don’t be a douche! Lemme see!”

    “Fuck you. Let me zoom in.” The image centered on the capitol building once more and enlarged steadily. It was a good phone, Jericho had to admit. His own phone didn’t have a zoom capability like that. “Hey, is that Independence?”

    “Dunno, can you see her ass?”

    “Dude, she catches you looking at her ass, she’ll shoot your ass!”

    “Hey, that’s my future wife you’re talking about!”

    Jericho tuned the voices out as he leaned forward to study the image. The focus wasn’t perfect, but he could see the muted red and blue tones of the costume, the platinum-blonde ponytail flying in the breeze, the claymore hilt protruding up over her shoulder … and the assault rifle she was holding as she leaned over the edge of the roof. A flash from the muzzle coincided with another sharp crack.

    “Well, that’s definitely Independence,” Jericho said quietly. She was widely known to be a past master with the rifle and the sword, and probably any other weapon she chose to pick up. Between her and Relentless, this fight was going to be extremely brief and extremely brutal.

    “Good,” agreed Luke, then apparently addressed the idiots with the phone. “Now get the hell out of there afore y’all get anyone else killed, you stupid goddamn asswipes.”

    As if in answer to the comment, a roaring sound overrode the noise of the battle. The camera turned to show a suit of red and white power armor coming in for a landing. The suit looked as though it had been cobbled together from surplus military missiles, right down to the markings painted on the legs and arms. However, as the wearer stepped forward, it became obvious that this was more a theme than a reality; the movements were far more fluid than would be possible from such a patchwork effort.

    “What the hell are you two morons doing here?” Tomahawk—Jericho recognized the suit now—shook his helmeted head. “You’ve gotta be kidding me. C’mere.” A red and white articulated gauntlet loomed large on the screen, and suddenly the phone was tumbling to the ground. It landed face down, the camera pointing skyward. For the first time, Jericho got to see the people behind the voices. Even allowing for the foreshortening, he wasn’t particularly impressed. They were scrawny and unkempt. From the angle the camera was looking from, it was easy to see that one of them had indeed wet himself.

    “Hey!” yelled the guy who’d had bladder issues, trying to pull his arm free of Tomahawk’s implacable grip. “Lemme go! I got rights!”

    “My phone!” complained the other. “That’s a good phone!”

    “I don’t give two shits about your phone,” Tomahawk told him deliberately. “I’m getting you two to safety so I can help Relentless clean up the mess.” It was impossible to tell if the action was purposeful or not but with his next step, a large metallic boot descended on the phone. After a horrendous crunch, the signal was no more.
     
  25. Extras: Books2Read link
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Just as a side-note, this very novel has been published and is now out in the world. If anyone's interested in getting a copy, here is the link.

     
    samgrimes and Twilight666 like this.
  26. Threadmarks: Chapter Five: Platform
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    5
    Platform

    As the image switched back to the TV studio, Jericho got up and slung his bag over his shoulder. Luke looked up at him. “Where ya goin’, cuz?”

    “Out to the platform.” Jericho inclined his head toward the scanning airlocks. “We’re not gonna see any more of the fight, and it was just about over anyway. I dunno how good Tomahawk is, but Relentless and Independence are gonna wreck those murdering asshats’ whole day. All we’re gonna see now is folks who think they know what they’re talking about, doing a post-mortem on the fight. It’ll be boring and they’ll get most of the facts wrong, so I’m not gonna bother.” There was nothing more frustrating, he’d long since decided, than listening to a so-called ‘expert’ get the entire thing wrong when it was perfectly clear what had really happened.

    Luke’s eyebrows rose but to Jericho’s relief, he got to his feet without making any of the smartass comments that he was capable of. Slinging his backpack over his left shoulder, he followed Jericho toward the nearest ‘airlock’. The trouble was, it seemed that other people were looking to get on the train, so lines had already formed before each set of sliding doors. On the upside, each scan cycle only took a few seconds, so there was no danger of missing the train.

    As Jericho shuffled forward with the line, he came within earshot of a low-voiced argument between the woman with the stroller and the man who’d arrived with her. This was basically inevitable, given that the couple were standing right in front of two of the entry doors, currently blocking others from using them.

    “I can carry what I want when I want!” declared the man in a fierce whisper. “It’s my constitutional, God-given right!” He slapped the left side of his coat, then gestured at the sliding doors beside him. “And ain’t no machine’s gonna tell me different.”

    Crap. Jericho could tell the signs. The man with the overly bushy mustache had just been upgraded from ‘redneck’ to ‘redneck with a gun’. There’s always one. If this guy’s views on giving up his firearm (even to comply with a legal requirement) didn’t include the phrase ‘cold dead hands’, Jericho was willing to eat his entire costume. Without salt.

    “Don’t be a dumbass!” the woman snapped back, then glared over her shoulder to where Jericho was watching them. “What the hell are you looking at, asshole?”

    “Not a thing,” Jericho replied mildly. “But you think maybe you can take the argument elsewhere? You’re blocking the way there.” Behind him, he was aware of Luke standing silently by. No matter what happened, he knew his cousin would be there to back him up.

    “Fuck you!” The woman turned away from him and swiped her card angrily across the reader beside her. “Franklin, you go put that thing in a goddamn locker. I’ll be on the goddamn platform.” The doors swished open, and she towed the suitcase and stroller into the scanning airlock. Jericho watched as the doors hissed shut behind her. Even as they locked into place—he heard the click from where he was—the far doors were opening to let her onto the platform beyond.

    Muttering to himself, Franklin did the precise opposite of what the woman had told him. Specifically, he swiped his own MagCard across the reader of the next scan-lock over. The doors opened and he stepped inside. Immediately, he moved to the far end, no doubt anticipating a quick scan cycle.

    For a long moment, nothing at all happened. Then, as Jericho and Luke moved forward another space, the near doors opened wide and a red light started flashing within the scan-lock. Over the speakers came a voice that had to be computer-generated, from its utter lack of emotion. “Attention. Scanning has detected a loaded firearm. Firearms and ammunition are not permitted on Utopia Maglev Lines. Please remove them from the premises at once.”

    “What? No!” Franklin kicked one of the glass doors. It refused to budge. Then he tried to lever them open with his bare hands. This didn’t prove any more effective. “I got my rights, you stupid machine! Constitution says so!”

    The sliding doors apparently didn’t care about Franklin’s rights, constitutional or otherwise. Even when he threw his entire weight against the doors, they didn’t budge. From the dull thud and the hiss of pain that resulted, Jericho surmised that the door was made of something tougher than normal glass.

    “Attention. Attempting to damage this facility is a crime. Your actions have been recorded. The authorities are being notified.”

    This was rapidly developing into a situation. Tensing, Jericho activated one of his powers. Down by his left side, partially concealed in his cupped hand, he began to form a tightly packed gravitational anomaly about the size of a tennis ball. This was what he called a ‘G-tag’; more specifically, a glue-tag. If Franklin looked like pulling the gun out and using it, the ’tag would be ideal for jamming the mechanism, but he didn’t want anyone else to see him doing it.

    “Cover me,” he murmured to Luke; without looking, he felt his burly cousin step into place to block the view of everyone watching. God damn, it was nice to have good backup.

    In the next moment, Franklin came storming out of the scan-lock. “You don’t get it, do you?” he demanded of the crowd. “This is the first step! They’ll come for your guns! Then they’ll come for you!” Amid catcalls and requests that he shut the hell up, he began pushing his way toward the exit. “You’ll see! You’ll all see! They’re taking away our rights! They’re conspiring against America!” The automatic doors closed behind him, cutting off his voice. Along with several other people within earshot, Jericho let out a tiny sigh of relief.

    “Thank fuck for that,” muttered Luke. “For a second there, I figgered he was gonna try shootin’ the place up. That coulda gone real bad.”

    Jericho silently agreed as he relaxed his power and let the G-tag dissipate. With innocent civilians in the line of fire, there would’ve been a need to act decisively even after the gun was disabled. Whether or not his power use was noticed, this would get the attention of the news services, and he really didn’t want that sort of scrutiny. Especially not now.

    Fortunately, the crisis had been averted. In front of him, the scan-lock beeped to indicate its availability, so he swiped his MagCard and stepped inside as the doors swept open. Luke swiped as well, keeping the doors open, and stepped in after him.

    Sliding shut behind them, the doors locked with the same click he’d heard before. For a long moment, nothing happened, not even a wave of laser light passing over them. Maybe UML should put something like that in, just for show. Even as he started to wonder if Luke had packed something the scanners didn’t like by accident (or on purpose), the scan-lock beeped and the doors in front of him opened.

    Emerging from the scan-lock, he went a few yards out onto the platform. Luke followed along with his backpack still on his shoulder, craning his neck to look around. Jericho couldn’t blame him, because there was a lot to look at. Perhaps a hundred and fifty feet from end to end, the platform was so new that there was still a lingering trace of fresh paint smell. It featured white-tiled walls, an ornate digital clock overhead, a vast rendition of the UML logo worked into the concrete underfoot, and of course the train waiting at the platform’s edge.

    Magnetic levitation was a concept that had been around since the dawn of the twentieth century, but with the advent of Force Majeure and the engineering prowess of Transit and the Technologist, it had taken a quantum leap forward. The ‘train’ at this point consisted of a single passenger car, but what a passenger car. Twenty feet high and maybe a hundred feet long—though the exact length was hard to gauge due to the raked-back aerodynamic shape—the gleaming-white marvel of technology hovered on a cushion of magnetic force. If he hadn’t seen footage of this sort of thing on the news, it would’ve been all too easy to dismiss it as something out of science fiction. Beneath it was the broad cylindrical polished metallic rail that he’d seen before; here, it was half-buried in the rough gravel.

    “Before I forget, thanks for backing me up in there,” he said quietly. “Coulda gotten nasty.”

    “Eh, weren’t nothin’,” Luke said with a grin. “Always wanted ta be a sidekick, anyways.” He indicated the people streaming across the platform and boarding the passenger car. “Shouldn’t we be gittin’ on board with everyone else? Train’s right there.”

    Jericho shook his head. “Not our train. That one’s heading for Jacksonville.” He pointed at the overhead clock. One readout indicated that the current time was 4:42 PM, the next that the current train at the station was indeed due for Jacksonville, and the last one was showing ‘02:19’ and counting down.

    “Right.” Luke glanced at Jericho. “I heard tell Independence likes women. That right?”

    “I’m the last person to ask if it’s true or not, but I heard it too.” Jericho shrugged. “I also heard she and Relentless are a thing. Tabloids’ll tell whatever story’s gonna sell. Wouldn’t put too much stock in it.” The rumor mill had a habit of labeling powerful independent women as lesbians, no matter how true it was (or wasn’t). As far as he was concerned, how Independence conducted herself and who she conducted herself with was her concern and nobody else’s.

    The one other person on the platform who seemed to be waiting for the next train happened to be the woman with the stroller and the suitcase. She was standing off a little way, talking animatedly on her cellphone. Seeing Jericho and Luke looking in her direction, she shot them a hostile glare then ostentatiously moved off a little way. From what he could tell, she never stopped talking the whole way, expertly cradling her phone between shoulder and ear as she pushed the stroller with one hand and dragged the suitcase with the other.

    “Well, that was right neighborly,” Luke observed. “Wonder if it’s ’cause you asked ’em to move aside, or if she jes’ don’t like black folks?” His tone was light, but his gaze was serious. Jericho didn’t have to wonder why; like his cousin, he’d seen this shit happen far too often.

    “Not sure.” Though he could hazard a guess. While there were people out there who thought that overturning Roe v. Wade and repealing the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments would be a great way to start fresh with a brand-new United States, he seriously doubted that was the case here. At worst, she probably thought Luke was ‘the wrong sort of people’ to be around. Which was bad enough in its own way—racists and bigots made for uncomfortable neighbors—but unlikely to pose an immediate problem to Luke or himself. “I figure she’s a garden-variety redneck asshat, to be honest. But she could just be having a bad day.”

    “Yeah, well.” Luke snorted, then changed the subject. “So, them Madness assholes. Reckon G-Man coulda taken ’em?” It was a favorite tactic of his; to refer to Jericho’s costumed identity as if his superhero persona were a third party, so they could discuss the matter in public with nobody the wiser.

    “Hm.” Jericho rubbed his chin in thought. While the four Enabled whom Relentless and Independence had engaged were typical of the Madness, the villains in question weren’t a coherent group as far as anyone could tell. The Madness had been appearing for about the last five years, popping up in crowded areas and attacking indiscriminately with powers that were as varied as they were unexpected. There were only three to five perpetrators at a time, and nobody ever saw them arrive. Neither costumes nor tactics were employed, which made it a little easier to fight them. When captured or killed, they always turned out to be people who had gone missing for no known reason; one theory had it that the trauma of gaining powers had sent them insane.

    Which raised another puzzle: the Madness always lost their powers within twenty-four hours, making it all the more bizarre, as everyone else with powers got to keep them. Unfortunately, even after the powers were gone, the psychotic mindset endured, which made it hard to find out any information at all from them. As far as anyone knew, they didn’t even call themselves the Madness; that was a name given to them by an internet hoaxer who’d tried to claim credit for the attacks. However, after he was arrested and debunked, the name stuck.

    One of the more popular theories was that someone was experimenting with a way to grant powers and getting rid of the failures in a cruel and dramatic fashion. Despite intensive investigation by the FBI, NSA, Force Majeure and others, no evidence had emerged to narrow down the identity of the hypothetical villain or villains behind the Madness.

    “That’s a tough one,” Jericho decided at last. “He wouldn’t have been able to block that hit like Relentless did. But he could’ve at least helped, by getting bystanders out of the way, and by not getting in the way himself.” And afterward, maybe get Relentless’ autograph. Those two idiots were seriously lucky that him and Independence were in town.

    “That’s fair,” Luke allowed. He started wandering away from the scan-locks, but instead of moving toward the train, he headed along the platform. His movements might have appeared random to anyone else, but Jericho knew better.

    A moment later, Luke’s intent became clear. Although he was nowhere near the woman yet, she looked up from her phone call and shot him a poisonous glare. Then she stomped off toward the far end of the platform, dragging the stroller and still talking nineteen to the dozen on her phone. Well, that answers that question.

    “You do love triggering bigots, don’t you?” asked Jericho as he came up alongside Luke.

    Luke’s innocent expression needed a lot of work. “I got no idea what you’re talkin’ about, cuz. Jes’ takin’ a stroll while I’m waitin’ on th’ next train.”

    Jericho rolled his eyes. “Pfft, yeah, right. Do me a favor. Don’t sit next to her on the maglev. She’d probably call the cops on you for ‘riding the train while black’. That, or have a stroke from pure outrage.” He didn’t think Luke would go that far, but his cousin had surprised him before.

    Luke opened his mouth, probably to come out with a smartass comment, but he was interrupted by a musical tone coming from the public-address speakers. “Please stand away from the edge of the platform,” announced a synthesized female voice. “The train is now leaving. The next train is due to arrive in thirty seconds.”

    “Thirty seconds?” repeated Luke. “How the hell are they gonna git another train in here so … well, fuck me.” He paused with a look of astonishment on his face at the same time as Jericho heard a long growing whoosh from behind him. Wondering what the hell was going on now, Jericho turned an instant before the tail end of the passenger car vanished out of sight of the platform. He gaped, barely able to believe what he’d just seen. In just a few seconds, the entire thing had just … gone.

    It didn’t escape him that the frankly incredible level of acceleration achieved by the hundred-ton-plus bulk of the maglev car indicated a level of raw power which was utterly, hilariously, far in advance of anything made with by pre-Artificer engineering. The fact that it took place in near-complete silence merely underlined the fact that the maglev was the future of transport in America.

    “Please stand away from the edge of the platform. The next train is due to arrive in fifteen seconds.”

    Jericho was about to tell Luke about the cabbie’s ‘bat out of hell’ remark when he was interrupted by a startled curse from Luke. Dropping the backpack, his cousin took off like a sprinter from the starting blocks. Jericho spun around, seeking the reason for Luke’s action. When he saw it, his blood froze in his veins.

    At the far end of the platform, the woman waved her free hand as she spoke on her phone. Unfortunately, her attention was more on the phone than the stroller. She’d also failed to see that the slipstream from the departing maglev had caught the stroller, which was now rolling quietly toward the edge of the platform. Worse: if the announcements were to be believed, the next one was literally due at any second.

    It wouldn’t matter if he called out and alerted the lady. In the three to five seconds it would take her to realize what was going on and react accordingly, her child would be over the side. Luke had clearly figured that out and was doing his level best to avert a tragedy, but even the most optimistic view of the situation still made one thing blatantly obvious. Barring a miracle, the stroller was going to reach the edge and flip over, subjecting the baby to a six-foot face-first drop onto rough gravel, before Luke ever got close enough to stop it. The kid would be lucky to survive the experience, and that wasn’t factoring in the upcoming arrival of the new passenger car.

    Fortunately for the infant, Jericho didn’t have to depend on miracles. His control over gravity wasn’t limited to falling slowly, or making other things fall slowly. That specific ability was contact-only, but he did have ranged options to call on; specifically, his G-tags.

    Dropping his bag, he brought his right hand up and around in a throwing motion. With an effort of will—harsher than before because he had the merest razor-shaved margin of time to work with—he formed another tennis-ball-sized G-tag in his cupped palm. As part of the same motion, he flicked his wrist and sent the gravitational anomaly on its way. Outwardly identical to the glue-tag he’d made inside the station, this was the other type of G-tag he could create, called a push-tag. A second ’tag formed in his left hand, but he let it build power instead of throwing it immediately. The one he’d just thrown, visible only due to the refraction of flickering rainbow-light through it, crossed the intervening distance in far less time than the corresponding tennis ball would have.

    This was fortunate for all concerned, as the stroller was far too close to the edge of the platform when the G-tag whipped past Luke and struck it, dissolving into its structure and imparting a backward push. Lacking the power it would’ve possessed had he put more time into forming it, the ’tag didn’t manage to slow the stroller down by much. It was better than nothing, but this alone would not save the baby.

    The front wheels of the errant stroller went over the edge when Luke was still several yards away. Jericho knew that once the back wheels followed suit, it would be all over. Luke must have thought the same thing, because he kicked off and launched himself through the air, hands reaching for the stroller.

    Jericho made a split-second decision and switched targets for his second ’tag from the stroller to Luke himself; launching the gravitational anomaly, he hit Luke with it while he was still in midair. Because he’d held this one a little longer, the G-tag had more punch behind it. It hit Luke in the small of the back and dissolved, permeating his body with a proportionately stronger directional impulse than its predecessor had with the stroller. Not stronger overall, as Luke was several times heavier than the stroller and baby together, but enough to give him a solid shove forward. Without pausing, Jericho formed and flung two more ’tags on the heels of the first two.

    Luke landed heavily, his outstretched hands still four feet short of the runaway conveyance. Under normal circumstances, his rescue attempt would’ve ended there, but the extra momentum from the push-tag (and the fact that his body was now treating the platform as a slight downward slope) overcame the friction of his jacket against the cold concrete. He slid forward just far enough that his hand closed on the back wheel of the stroller as it went off the platform. Strong fingers locked tight around a worn, ragged plastic wheel. The stroller came to a halt, three wheels off the edge, suspended between salvation and disaster.

    For a long, frozen moment Luke strained, his free hand crossed over in front of his body, straining downward against the concrete platform. He wasn’t dropping the stroller, but he couldn’t pull it back up either … until Jericho’s last two ’tags arrived. The first hit the stroller, permeating it with the vague notion that ‘down’ was now a little bit up, thus lightening the load somewhat. The second ’tag hit Luke in the middle of the back, defining his ‘down’ as being to his left; giving him and the baby a weak but significant boost away from the imminent peril.

    It was all Luke needed; with a massive effort, he hauled the stroller up and over his body, rolling away from the edge. Just as the stroller cleared the danger zone—by so tight a margin that it was pushed aside by the inrush of wind—the new maglev car arrived and braked to an impossibly rapid halt. The stroller landed on the platform and fell over backward, while the baby (still safely strapped in) began to squall mightily. Luke let the wheel go and collapsed onto his back. For his part, Jericho let out a breath that he hadn’t been aware he was holding. That was far too close.

    Jericho dispelled the ongoing effects of his G-tags, as they were no longer needed. Then he leaned down and scooped up his bag with one hand and Luke’s backpack with the other. Trying to quell the reaction quivering in his stomach, he headed in his cousin’s direction.

    A few seconds later, the woman registered her baby’s crying and went to reach out to the stroller, then turned around when her groping hand found nothing. “Richie!” Her shriek echoed the length of the platform. Dropping her phone, she lunged toward the wayward stroller. Jericho watched as she fell to her knees beside her baby. It took her three tries to disconnect her child from the safety straps, then she snatched up the kid and hugged him like she was never going to let him go.

    “You okay there, Luke?” Jericho asked as he approached. “Hey, lady, you know my cousin just saved your kid’s life, right?” He knew he really shouldn’t rub it in, but it was rare that he was able to savor moments of true karma.

    Still holding Richie tightly to her, the woman stared blankly up at Jericho. As the meaning of his words sank in, her gaze traveled slowly down to where Luke still lay prone on the platform. Propping himself up on one elbow, Luke gave her a brief wave. Jericho figured he was too winded to speak yet.

    “Oh, uh … thank you,” she said roughly, then picked up the stroller. Still holding her child close (he suspected it would be more than a little while before she felt secure in letting the kid out of arm’s reach) she started to move away.

    “Hey.” Jericho was about to say more, but Luke sat up and shook his head.

    “Don’t bother, cuz,” he wheezed. “They’ll change or they won’t. Cain’t force it nohow.”

    This was Jericho’s experience too, but he held a more optimistic view of people than Luke did and thus was more easily disappointed when they failed to live up to normal human expectations. Dropping the backpack, he offered his hand to Luke. “You okay?” he asked again. “Looked like you hit the ground pretty hard there.”

    “I’ll live.” Luke took hold of the proffered hand; Jericho set his weight and heaved. Luke came to his feet without more than a minimum of effort. “Thanks for the helpin’ hand.”

    Jericho was reasonably sure that Luke was talking about more than being assisted to his feet, but he couldn’t say anything about it right then. “No problem,” he said, still feeling a little shaky.

    That had definitely been far too close.
     
  27. Threadmarks: Chapter Six: Challenger
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Challenger

    Fortunately, there’d been nobody else on the platform to see what Jericho had done. The only potential witness had manifestly failed to see a single thing. With any luck, the momentary distortion of the light through the G-tags wouldn’t even show up on the security cameras, and anyone viewing the footage anyway would presumably be more interested in the way Luke had rescued the kid than in what Jericho was doing, twenty yards away. G-tags didn’t leave fingerprints, after all.

    Luke picked up his pack and slung it over one shoulder once more, then indicated where the passengers from the newly arrived maglev were streaming across the platform and moving through the scan-locks. “Looks like we’re gonna git first dibs on any seats. Got any preferences?”

    Jericho shrugged, feeling growing excitement within his chest. Not only was he going to Utopia City, but Luke was coming with. Or rather, Luke was going to Utopia City and dragging Jericho along for his own good. He wasn’t quite sure why he’d never asked Luke to come along in Stephen’s stead. Maybe I was too traumatized by Stephen being a dick that I assumed nobody else would want to come along?

    However, he didn’t want to think about that right now. Slinging his overnight bag more securely over his shoulder, he followed Luke toward the open train doors. Even now, the sight of the technological artifact before him took his breath away. Part of his mind had trouble accepting that something so big could be supported on mere magnetic fields. But then, as he entered the doors, his ability to sense anomalies in the local G-field detected gravity generators augmenting the lifting force from below.

    He relaxed a little; he was comfortable with gravity. Although his G-sense came paired with what he called his G-shake—the ability to rapidly remodulate the local gravity field around him—he didn’t have any way to aim the latter. And even if he was powerful enough to pull it off (which he doubted) disrupting one of the forces maintaining the train’s stability while it was traveling at full speed would almost certainly end in catastrophe, so he ruled that to be a solid pass on even trying.

    The last few people stepped off, giving Luke and Jericho room to board. Looking around as he followed Luke onto the train, Jericho could see that the aesthetic was all about passenger comfort. There was a wide aisle, with two rows of seats down each side, each as luxurious as he imagined accommodations to be in the average super-first airliner. At one end, on either side of the doors that would presumably connect with the next passenger car along (once there was one) were the restrooms. The other end held vending machines for food and drink. Directly opposite the entry doors, almost recessed into the far wall, was a stylish spiral staircase that allowed access to the upper deck.

    The incoming passengers were only just starting to cross the platform; while there weren’t all that many, Jericho didn’t want to be stuck in the company of a lot of other people right then. “Let’s go up,” he suggested, nodding toward the staircase.

    “Sho’nuff.” Luke led the way up the stairs, with Jericho following. The passenger car had another set of entry doors on the upper level, but Savannah’s maglev station was still in the first stage of completion. This meant everyone had to come in through the lower doors, and not many were going to come up top when there were free seats downstairs. Or at least, Jericho hoped so.

    The upper level also had restrooms and vending machines, but the seating was arranged a little differently. Instead of having them all facing in the same direction, each pair of bench seats was set on either side of a small table, as per the ‘dining car’ setup in regular trains. Even more interestingly, there was a discreet switch built into each table. Jericho was pretty sure he knew what the switches did, but he decided to wait until he sat down to test one out.

    There were doors at each end of the upper level as well; Jericho guessed that just like the ones on the lower level, they would be securely locked. Over each set of doors was a digital sign with the word ‘DEPARTURE’ on it, with minutes and seconds counting down the time until the train left the station. This information was repeated on three similar signs set at intervals into the ceiling. As of that moment, they had about thirteen and a half minutes to change their minds and get off the train. Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

    Jericho was still feeling a little shaken over what had happened on the platform, over and above the fight he’d had with Stephen, so he moved toward what he assumed was the back end of the maglev car. Reaching up, he stuffed his overnight bag into the overhead luggage bin, then flopped into the seat and leaned up against the corner. Luke took off his backpack and put it in the bin as well before closing the lid, then sat down heavily beside him. “Well, holy shit. Is this the friggin’ lap of luxury, or what?”

    Luke wasn’t far wrong—the seats were redolent with the classic new-car smell—but Jericho didn’t care right at that moment. Leaning his head against the window, he did his best to ignore Luke while trying to think calming thoughts. Everything would be all right; by the time they got to Utopia City, Stephen would’ve calmed down. Jericho would call him, and everything would be good. Savannah didn’t even have a branch office for Force Majeure but maybe, if Jericho was accepted onto the team, he could get posted back here as the leader of a new satellite team. Yeah, that’s gonna hap-

    “So, how’d it feel to be th’ sidekick this time round?” asked Luke, keeping his voice low but sporting a wide grin. He jabbed Jericho in the ribs with his elbow. “I totally rocked out there.”

    Normally, Jericho would’ve disputed the ‘sidekick’ title, but Luke had definitely earned his kudos. “You sure as hell did. That kid absolutely owes you his life.” Not for the first time, he reflected that Luke would’ve made a far more effective hero than he’d ever be, if a lot darker and grittier. I’d pay money to see that.

    Luke jabbed him again, this time with his finger. “So tell me, cuz,” he said, his voice a lot more serious. “Why didn’t ya jes’ stick that thing to the platform soon as ya saw it movin’?”

    Luke, of course, knew about the glue-tags. When they struck a target, they created a gravitational field around the point of impact that made everything within a certain radius adhere to each other and pull in toward that point. However, this wasn’t the whole story.

    “Okay, for starters, the stickiness falls off pretty fast,” he said by way of explanation. “Secondly, it depends on surface area that’s touching. Stroller wheels have a total surface contact of about half a square inch. To make that work, I would’ve had to generate a pretty strong ’tag, which meant letting it get a lot closer to the edge, or nail one of the wheels directly to get as strong a field as possible sticking it to the concrete. I can hit a moving target that small—I’ve done it before—but I wasn’t gonna bet a kid’s life on it. And then there’s the other thing.”

    Luke’s expression showed enlightenment and curiosity by turns. “Other thing?” he asked. “What other thing?”

    Just as Jericho opened his mouth to reply, a couple of people came up the stairwell and looked around before picking a table some distance away from them. Still, Jericho didn’t want to risk the newcomers overhearing even a meaningless fragment of the conversation. Leaning forward, he flipped the switch on the table. A light came on beside the switch; immediately, all ambient noise cut right out. Huh, so it works both ways. Good to know.

    “And what the hell’s that?” Luke eyed the switch warily.

    “Privacy bubble,” Jericho explained, trying not to sound smug. “I read about it online. It raises a field around the table that stops sound coming in or out.” He leaned past Luke and stuck his hand outside the field, then snapped his fingers. No sound came back to them. “See?” According to the UML website, it was a Force Majeure patent, reportedly used by high-level businessmen and national leaders the world over.

    Experimentally, Luke flipped the switch back and forth a few times, like a kid playing with a new toy. The outside ambient noise popped on and off, as though someone were fiddling with a TV remote. “Huh,” he grunted finally, leaving it in the ‘on’ position. “Friggin’ modern technology.” He turned back to Jericho. “So, what’s that there ‘other thing’ you was talkin’ about?”

    Jericho snorted. “You. I didn’t have a clear shot because your big ass was in the goddamn way. And there’s no way in hell I was gonna throw a glue-tag that might just hit you and cause you to trip because your foot got stuck to the floor at the wrong moment.”

    “What, really?” For the first time, Luke looked taken aback. “Cuz, are you sayin’ I got in th’ way?”

    Jericho shook his head. “No. Well, yes and no. If you hadn’t been there, I could maybe have tried a Hail Mary glue-tag, or a series of push-tags, or one big ’tag of either type just before it went over the edge. I would’ve had to time it exactly goddamn right, and there’s no guarantee it would’ve worked. Or if I could get closer, a G-shake. But that’s not a certainty, either. And doing a G-shake with you there would’ve definitely put you on your ass.”

    “Yeah, no shit,” Luke said sourly. While the G-shake could be useful in stabilizing or destabilizing an area of several yards across, Jericho mainly utilized it to unsettle opponents by attacking their inner ear equilibrium. Luke had once asked Jericho to demonstrate it on him, then vowed never again, once he stopped throwing up. “So ya reckon you coulda saved th’ kid in time?”

    Jericho waggled his hand from side to side. “Fifty-fifty chance. Maybe forty-sixty. I would’ve tried, but there’s a good chance I would’ve failed, and probably done something to give myself away.”

    “Well, that ain’t good.” Luke didn’t look overly thrilled. “So what happens if someone got a picture of you throwin’ a G-tag an’ decided ta out ya?”

    “Well, they won’t.” Jericho wasn’t quite sure if Luke understood the implications of the question. “They’re legally not allowed to.”

    “Legally, my ass.” Luke snorted. “Folks wanna take a pic like that an’ sell it to th’ papers, they’ll do it. Money’s money.”

    “But the papers won’t print it,” Jericho tried to explain. At Luke’s skeptical expression, he paused for thought. Now, how do I explain this?

    As a delaying tactic to get his thoughts in order, he pulled the hair-tie out and ran his fingers through his hair. Slowly, he put the tie back in place. “The papers aren’t allowed to print anything that might out me, or any other publicly known hero for that matter. The Challenger Act says they can’t. Most everyone knows it’s a really bad idea to do it.” At least, he hoped that was true. There were asshats everywhere.

    Luke tilted his head. “Challenger Act? Ain’t that jes’ there so big-time government-type heroes can get reporters chucked in jail for diggin’ into their secret identities and stuff?” He gave Jericho a semi-apologetic look. “Sorry, cuz, but you ain’t exactly big-time. Or government.”

    Closing his eyes, Jericho rubbed his thumb and forefinger over the bridge of his nose. “Government-affiliated heroes aren’t the only ones it covers. I’m protected, too.” But when he opened his eyes again, Luke’s expression still held a distinctly skeptical air. “Well, I am.”

    “Okay, smartass,” Luke retorted. “How come you’re protected too?”

    “Fine. Let’s start from the top.” Jericho looked directly at his cousin. “What do you know about Challenger himself?”

    The question caused Luke to roll his eyes, which wasn’t surprising. This had been referenced in every TV quiz show since the early 1990s. “The space shuttle that blew up in the eighties, duh. Nobody knows who the guy was, but he got powers jes’ in time to save everyone on board. First superhero ever. Died about nine, ten years ago after bein’ in a coma for a few years. Did I miss anythin’?”

    Jericho shrugged. “Nothing much. Except, well, everything important. Such as the fact that as soon as word got out about his powers, every news outlet and foreign government started digging hard to find out who he really was. Or she, even. We still don’t know if it was a guy or a girl behind those force fields. There were two women on board, after all.” The force fields in question had been an opaque red and gold in color and could be shaped in a great many ways, including as a knightly suit of armor. What they were really good at was concealing Challenger’s identity.

    “So how come nobody figured it out straight away?” asked Luke. “I mean, if I was the bad guys, I’d’a counted the folks left behind in the crew an’ worked out who it was from that.”

    It was a smart question, but Jericho had never thought Luke to be an idiot. Smartass, yes; idiot, no. “The guy in charge on the day was on the ball. He told base security to get everyone involved into his office before anyone could start counting heads and was on the line to the FBI in another thirty seconds. All the spectators got kicked off site and Canaveral was locked down hard. It didn’t get unlocked until they had everyone up to and including the National Guard on watch outside the place. In the meantime, the feds were rounding up the families and putting them in protective custody.” Jericho wondered briefly what the families of the crew must have thought, given that the federal agents wouldn’t have had much time to explain matters—even if they knew what was going on. “By the time word did get out, it was too late for anyone on the outside to do anything about it. Of course, that was only a stopgap. Within the day, the newspapers were publicly offering serious money to anyone who could give up Challenger’s real identity. I mean, it was the scoop of the century. Nobody cracked, but I bet some of them were pretty tempted.”

    “An’ that’s when they come up with the Challenger Act, yeah?” Luke leaned back with a self-satisfied air. “Told the reporters to go git fucked.” His attitude suggested that he’d gladly do that all day long.

    “It wasn’t quite as simple as that.” Jericho had read up on it from sheer personal interest. “They had to hold an emergency sitting of Congress, but it helped that there were already laws in place that they could base it on. Title eighteen US Code, uh, section seven nine something or other. Basically, it’s the bit about keeping defense information out of the hands of foreign governments.”

    Luke frowned. “Okay, I git that you don’t want every asshole out there knowin’ who you are under the mask, but how’d they make it about national defense? Ain’t that a bit of a stretch?”

    “You’re forgetting one important fact.” Jericho held up a finger. “Challenger was the only Enabled on Earth right then. The whole idea was so new, they weren’t even using the term ‘Enabled’ until later. They didn’t know how it’d happened, and they didn’t know if it was going to happen again. So Challenger—let’s call him ‘him’ for the moment—was about the most important guy in America. They declared him a national asset whose function would be impaired if his identity was ever revealed. This made even trying to find out who he was, or trying to tell someone else if you already knew, into flat-out treason—which meant jail time, at the least. Even failing would put you in the shit. But if you succeeded, and if he died because of it, that was the death penalty, right there.” He grinned at Luke’s slightly stunned expression. “And yeah, that made the newspapers back right the hell off.”

    “No goddamn surprise, there.” Luke paused. “Still, there’s gotta be more to it than that.” He looked searchingly at Jericho. “’Cause that still don’t explain why you’re covered.”

    “True,” Jericho conceded. “That wasn’t the end of it. Turns out there were a lot of people with a vested interest in finding out who Challenger really was, so they went to the Supreme Court and tried to have the Act overturned.”

    “Wait, what the hell?” Luke sounded almost offended. This was almost amusing, given his nonchalant attitude toward the law. Especially where it came to minor things such as speed limits and the dealing of mild narcotics. “They can do that? I always thought once a law was set, you hadda follow it, no matter what.”

    “Not exactly.” Jericho shrugged. “I mean, you’ve gotta follow it, but you can always challenge it if you think it’s unconstitutional. The papers were basically claiming that the Act went against the First Amendment. But about the same time as they started getting into their stride, the news broke that there were other Enabled out there. Challenger wasn’t the only one anymore. More importantly, he was the only one currently covered by the Act, so the others were basically fair game. The news organizations that had been backing the court case pulled their money out, and it fizzled. There were some folks who wanted to keep it going but without the big guns backing them, they were shit out of luck.”

    “But that still leaves you out in the cold, right?” protested Luke. “You independent guys was right back where y’all started.”

    “That’s the way it was for a while, yeah,” agreed Jericho. “For the most part, it was okay. People really only had to make sure they didn’t drop any hints about their private lives to a reporter. But it turned out that some of the folks who were involved in the first case hadn’t given up. They didn’t give a shit about the First Amendment; they just didn’t like that there were people out there who were different from them that they couldn’t beat up or push around.”

    “Ah, right.” A look of enlightenment spread over Luke’s features. “That sorta people.”

    “Yup.” Jericho nodded. “That sort of people. And they really didn’t like it when the Enabled had powers and they didn’t, ’specially when the Enabled could hide who they were to protect themselves while they were off the clock. So, a whole bunch of people formed an activist group called Unmask, trying to pressure heroes into revealing their identities and to smear the names of the ones that didn’t play along. A few Enabled got mobbed and beaten up. Others were framed for crimes, or worse. Like what happened to Surgeon One.” He looked at Luke expectantly.

    Luke’s return expression wasn’t promising. “Sorry, cuz. Never heard of him. They kill him?”

    “Not … as such, no. And he was a she.” Jericho tried again. “You’ve heard of Mutilator and Devastator, right?” He was certain those names would get a hit. There’d only been two terror villains who had consistently teamed up with one another, after all.

    “Uh, yeah.” Now Luke’s tone said duh in all but actuality. “Did they kill her?”

    Jericho shook his head. “No. See, Surgeon One was a hero who did surgery on a level no other doctor could match. She was arrogant as hell, but she could pull off operations that were impossible by any normal standard, so they tolerated her. The story goes that she wanted to call herself ‘Surgeon General’ but the government pulled the plug on that, so she ended up going with ‘Surgeon One’. The trouble was, she got way too cocky. Her skills made her a millionaire before she turned twenty, but she couldn’t be bothered trying to conceal who she was to her friends. Probably because she thought her fame and money would get her out of anything.”

    From the look on his face, Luke could see where this was going. “I’m guessin’ it didn’t.”

    “Nope. Some fringe elements of Unmask got hold of her family and blackmailed her into committing atrocities with her skills. Nobody’s sure if she just decided she liked it, or if she snapped. Either way, she did what they told her, then added her own flourishes. Her family got out of it okay, but when the footage of her willingly rebuilding people into monstrosities got out into the public—because of course Unmask videotaped the whole thing—she ended up as a social pariah. She was investigated for the crimes she’d been ‘forced’ to commit, her accounts were frozen, and all her surgical work dried up. She lost everything. If she hadn’t snapped before, she did then. When she went villain and became Mutilator, Unmask was over the moon. She’d ‘proven’ their point in a big way.”

    “With a gun to her head,” Luke pointed out. “Surely they took that into account.”

    Jericho shrugged lightly. “The footage of her doing the surgery is … disturbing. It really looks like she’s enjoying herself way too much. Anyway, she ended up as a cautionary tale for everyone else. Unmask stopped being a joke, and everyone started taking them real serious. They started sharing tips on who was harassing them, who was likely to get pictures or try to follow them home, and things like that.”

    Luke shook his head. “Sumbitch. I thought Grandmama’s stories about the sixties were bad.”

    “They were bad,” Jericho corrected him. “You guys had it worse than we ever did. All we had were a few edge cases like that. And they were over and done before I ever got powers. It just got very … intense … for a while.” He paused, trying to remember where he was up to. “Anyway, after Mutilator stopped being news, Unmask must’ve figured they were losing ground, so they got their patsies to start another court case to try to force unaffiliated heroes to show their faces. It was supposed to be all about accountability and transparency. Of course, it was obvious to anyone with half a brain that what it was really about was control. Some people just don’t like not holding all the aces.”

    Luke snorted in derision. “Meanwhile, villains got to keep their masks, yeah? That’s goddamn fair.”

    Which only paralleled Jericho’s thoughts on the matter. “Yeah, but they didn’t want to push the issue with actual villains, who might push back with lethal force. Anyway, as far as they were concerned, everyone with a mask was a potential criminal. If it’d gone through, I’d be breaking the law every time I mask up.” Jericho shook his head. “In the end, the Supreme Court found in favor of maintaining secret identities. To make it harder for anyone to duplicate what happened with Surgeon One, they even amended the Challenger Act to include independent Enabled like me. You know, folks who were just trying to do the right thing without any government backing.” His expression soured. “Of course, that wasn’t the end of it either.”

    “It wasn’t?” Luke was starting to look a little shell-shocked. “How much more of this shit did y’all have to go through? And how come I never heard nothin’ about it afore now?”

    “This all happened back in the eighties and nineties, remember?” Jericho spread his hands. “We were kids. I only know about it because I went looking. I can recommend a couple of books on the subject, if you want. Anyway, the third court case wasn’t about the newspapers or the activists. This time it was big business, trying to walk back the amendment. They dressed it up in a lot of legalese, but they were basically trying to get privileged access to the secret identities of non-government heroes so they could cash in on us. Or so they said. Personally, I’m pretty sure it was worse than that.”

    Luke shook his head. “Every time I reckon you’re about done surprisin’ me, you say somethin’ like that. What the hell’s worse than that?

    Pensively, Jericho rolled his head on his neck. “I got no proof for any of this, but some of those businessmen were rumored to have a lot of money sunk into foreign interests. China, Russia, places like that. Or maybe the foreign interests had a lot of money sunk into them. Suppose these foreign interests were bankrolling the guys behind the court case?”

    It didn’t take Luke any time at all to get the gist of what Jericho was saying. “Holy shit, cuz,” he breathed. “You’re talkin’ about actual motherfuckin’ spies fixin’ ta git access to our superheroes’ secret identities.”

    If the matter hadn’t been so potentially serious, the injured national pride in Luke’s voice would’ve made Jericho smile. “Well, like I said, I got no proof, but it pretty well lines up with all the facts. Sometimes I wonder just what they had on these guys. Was it only money involved, or were there favors being done under the table? What does it take to convince someone to betray their superheroes—their country—like that?” He’d heard it said that every man had his price but to him, trust was sacred. If a body didn’t have that, he had nothing.

    “Cocksuckers,” growled Luke, his fists clenching on the table before him. “I hope they got their asses kicked for tryin’.” Unsurprisingly, he held a dim view of big business. Especially when it came to the bigger corporations where (as Jericho had once heard him put it) old white guys did their best to screw everyone else over for shits and giggles. Throwing foreign spies into the deal merely made it worse.

    “Pretty much.” Jericho didn’t feel the satisfaction he normally would have, because he knew what was coming next. “That case lasted through to ’ninety-seven, right up until all that shit came down, and the Minotaur destroyed Inspire.”
     
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  28. Threadmarks: Chapter Seven: Minotaur
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    7
    Minotaur

    He didn’t have to explain the reference. It had made international news, back in the day. Formed in 1988 by the heroes Arfogwyr and Challenger, Inspire had been the world’s first official superhero team, though they’d only really come into their own when they later recruited Castellan.

    The trio of artificer, dynamic and prodigy, working in concert, had been the first to demonstrate how the three powersets could become far more than the sum of their individual capabilities. From their example had come the term ‘Inspire team’, informing the creation of virtually every other superhero team in the world.

    The Minotaur … was something else altogether. Despite the villain being dead and gone for sixteen years and counting, that name still had the capacity to inspire revulsion. Even Doc Iridium, infamous in his own right, had only managed to eclipse his fellow terror villain’s reputation when he accidentally perpetrated the Manhattan catastrophe.

    Standing a good eight feet tall in the bronze-colored power armor built to resemble his namesake, the Minotaur had specialized in a particularly horrific method of serial killing. Kidnapping his victims almost at random, he would drop them into a pre-constructed maze replete with death-traps, then televise their gruesome deaths live to the world. These victims had ranged from children snatched off the street to celebrities and government officials. Friends and loved ones of the victims could phone in and pledge ransoms to save their lives. Sometimes the Minotaur accepted the ransoms, and sometimes he didn’t. Occasionally, he even spared a life. Most times, he just took the money. Anyone making it to the exit of the maze had to get past him. None ever had.

    His first truly high-profile target was the family of the US Attorney General, along with the families of several of the AG’s subordinates within the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice. The victims were taken in late 1990, in retaliation for the capture and ongoing trial of the terror villain known as Charnel. Even while all possible legal avenues were being explored to get them back, the inhuman Charnel was broken out of maximum-security holding by its fellow terror villains; in retrospect, it became clear that the hostage situation had never been anything more than a distraction. Once the breakout was accomplished, the Minotaur blew up the maze and killed all his hostages, simply because he could.

    No significant action was taken by the government in response to this, which Jericho considered to be an unconscionable betrayal of men and women who had merely been trying to do their jobs. Apparently, the families of career civil servants weren’t seen as all that important in the grand scheme of things. There was a rash of resignations and replacements, and life went on. But in a very real way, this episode had been a ranging shot, and the true attack was yet to come.

    The government’s hands-off attitude changed dramatically in January 1997. During the previous year, while on the campaign trail, the man who would become Vice-President had made comments about terror villains. The Minotaur attacked his motorcade on the twenty-fifth, not long after the inauguration. Jericho didn’t know how many Secret Service agents died trying to protect the VP from the terror villain, but it hadn’t been enough. Three days later, the Vice President showed up in the Minotaur’s latest murder maze.

    The response was immediate; ignoring an undercurrent of calls to ‘never negotiate with terrorists’, the White House pledged a staggering amount of money to have him returned safe and well. The money vanished, but the VP’s horrific death was broadcast live from coast to coast, mere hours later. This precipitated the instigation of meticulously laid-out action plans intended to deal with terror villains in general and the Minotaur in particular. The overall consensus was that it was about damn time.

    The ‘War on Terror Villains’ went into high gear when the terror villain Carnifex surfaced in Texas in late February. While there was no evidence that the feral mass-murderer shared any responsibility for the Vice President’s death, he still had a triple-digit body count and was thus deemed an acceptable target. The ensuing manhunt went on for ten days and covered half the state, culminating in a hail of gunfire in a Dallas shopping mall on March the seventh. Twenty-three bystanders and law enforcement officers died along with Carnifex, either caught in the crossfire or shredded by the terror villain’s final berserk rage. The nation mourned the death toll, but at the same time celebrated the event as a win for the forces of law and order.

    It was perhaps a case of hindsight being twenty-twenty, but Jericho wasn’t the least bit surprised that the terror villains had retaliated in kind. The Minotaur waited, as patiently as a cat at a mousehole, for precisely one week before he crashed a briefing of the President’s chiefs of staff being held in the White House Situation Room. Nobody knew how he got inside the secure building, and pursuit proved suicidally dangerous, but he left behind seven corpses; one of these was the President.

    The newly minted Vice President barely had time to realize he’d been promoted in the most brutal way possible before the surviving Secret Service agents activated their worst-case contingency plan and whisked him away. As the order went out to spool up the engines of Air Force One, he was sequestered in the ultra-secure Presidential bunker deep beneath the White House, surrounded by his personal security detail. As soon as the plane was ready for takeoff, Marine One plus four decoy choppers would make the flight from the White House roof to the airfield. This was to be treated as no less an emergency than an imminent nuclear attack. In the meantime, the next in line to be Vice President was flown to Camp David to be sworn in. While the brand-new President-to-be waited, he had himself sworn in by remote video link and dictated a statement to be aired immediately: “The United States does not bow to terrorism, foreign or domestic. We will stand firm.”

    But when the agents went to collect the President and his personal detail, they found one agent missing and everyone else shot to death from close range. A bloodstained note pinned to the President’s chest with a large knife read, ‘We can do this all day,’ and was signed ‘False Flag’. The shape-changing terror villain had clearly infiltrated the security detail days before, coordinating his actions with the Minotaur’s to engender the absolute maximum chaos from the situation.

    The Vice President (now President, via a last-minute amendment to the swearing-in ceremony) barely hesitated once he was briefed-in on the situation. Within twelve hours, at a hastily convened press conference, he rescinded the Executive Order implementing the War on Terror Villains. Some called him cowardly, but these were in the minority. Most decided that it was the only smart move. A tense twenty-four hours followed, but no more attacks took place over that time. The man who would’ve been next in line to become Vice President quietly resigned, while his deputy stepped up and took his place, and made history as the first woman to hold that office.

    The nation, its psyche bruised and battered by the hits, took a breath and tried to pretend that survival equaled victory in this case. This willful self-delusion lasted for another four months, until the destruction of Inspire gave them one hell of a wake-up call.

    “Yeah, I heard something about that,” Luke confirmed. “I’m guessin’ you know more details than me, though.”

    “It isn’t pretty,” Jericho warned him. “I dunno if the underworld decided that him killing two Presidents and a Vice President was going too far, or if Castellan had been developing his informant network all this time, but around then people started dropping hints about where his murder mazes could be found. Inspire kicked its efforts into high gear, crashing them and saving as many people as they could. When they hit the first one, they got half the people out; with the second one, they saved all but a few. For the third one, they disabled the booby-traps and rescued everyone with time to spare, and only missed capturing the Minotaur by a matter of minutes. Everyone thought they had him on the run, and I guess they did. But then he found out who Arfogwyr was.”

    “Wait, wait,” Luke protested. “Ar-vog-who?”

    “Arfogwyr,” Jericho repeated, carefully ignoring the fact that it had taken him a while to get the pronunciation right himself. “It’s apparently Welsh for ‘armor’. She was Inspire’s artificer. Anyway, the Minotaur found out her real identity—”

    “Artificer?” Luke frowned. “That’s like a ‘cog’, right? Them’s the ones that build the super high-tech shit? Force field belts and jetpacks?”

    “Will you goddamn quit interrupting?” Jericho shook his head. “I swear, you’re worse than Stephen. And yes, an artificer is exactly the same as a cog. Except ‘cog’ is a stupid shorthand name made up by the papers. ‘Artificer’ is the official term.”

    With a sinking feeling, Jericho watched a very familiar shit-eating grin spread across Luke’s face. “Well, it might be to you, cuz, but there’s a lot more of us than you, an’ we all call ’em cogs.”

    Jericho’s G-sense nudged him, but he didn’t let his expression change. “It doesn’t matter. I’m Enabled, and I say it’s ‘artificer’.”

    Luke snorted. “Yeah, like that gives you th’ right ta tell us what ta call things.”

    “Well, true.” Jericho shrugged elaborately, then leaned forward and glanced out the window to draw Luke’s attention in that direction. “Oh, and just by the way? We’re moving.” Payback in three, two, one …

    As Luke stared past Jericho at the scenery which was now blurring past the window, his face paled slightly. “Jesus shit, how fast are we goin’?

    His reaction was understandable. There’d been exactly zero sensation of acceleration, at least to normal human senses, though Jericho’s powers had filled him in the moment they started moving. He’d given the train car a few seconds to build up to a reasonable level of speed before alerting Luke to the fact, for the sheer satisfaction of seeing the look on his cousin’s face.

    In those few seconds, the car’s velocity had already passed a hundred miles per hour, with no sign of reduction in its rate of acceleration. As Jericho leaned back against the seat, there were still no G-forces to be felt. However, unlike Luke, he knew why, if not exactly how. “Right now, we’re pulling two gees. Increasing our speed by forty miles per hour, every second.”

    “An’ why the hell are we not squashed flat against these friggin’ seats?” Luke demanded, still looking slightly unsettled.

    Jericho made a careless gesture. “This thing’s got gravity generators that redirect felt acceleration. All the forces that should be throwing us around are adjusted so it’s just one gee, straight down.”

    “How do you know that?” Luke frowned at him suspiciously. “An’ how the hell does that even work?

    Jericho grinned back at him, enjoying the feeling of being out in front of his cousin for once. “Gravity powers, remember? The tech they’re using plays right into that. I’m not even going to try to interfere with it, but I can see what it’s doing. I can also feel our acceleration and our speed. As for the mechanics, damned if I know.”

    So smooth was the maglev ride, he doubted a cup of water would even show a ripple. Deeper within, he could feel the artificial gravity field affecting the train; or rather, fields. Two of them, separate but complementary. As he’d told Luke, he was unwilling to attempt influencing them in any way, but he could certainly sense them shifting and working to carry out their respective functions.

    The first was generated from within the train and seemed to be aimed at ensuring the comfort of the passengers, adjusting all outward forces to (as he’d put it) one gee, straight down. The other was apparently generated by the rail itself and augmented the magnetic lifting force to keep the train on track, as it were.

    Leaning back against the window, he looked out at the streets flashing by, twenty-something yards below the maglev car. Already, they were getting close to the city limits. “But I can tell you that right now we’re clocking about four hundred forty miles per hour.” The last of the buildings whipped by and they were in the clear. Deciding to yank Luke’s chain a little, Jericho casually pointed out the window. “And so’s the train we’re joining up with.”

    Luke’s head whipped around so fast that Jericho worried for his neck. “Fuck me sideways. That thing’s movin’ pretty damn fast too. Are we gonna hit it? It looks like we’re gonna hit it.”

    At first glance, he did have a certain amount of reason for concern. The three-car train Jericho had indicated was traveling toward them on a converging course along a broad cylindrical rail that shone in the sun, identical to the one their own passenger car was riding on. He took a moment to admire the design. As he’d already noted, the front end of each car was aerodynamically curved while the rear was concave, with the upper deck noticeably displaced backward. This, it now became clear, allowed the maglev cars to join together with a minimum of fuss to form a single interconnected entity. He couldn’t read the speed by eye, and his powers didn’t reach that far, so it was only an educated guess that it was matching them in speed.

    However, UML had an unprecedented safety record; since the company’s inception, not one of their trains had ever suffered an accident. There had been two cases of domestic terrorism where explosives were used to damage a section of rail, but in both situations the safety mechanisms had activated, preventing any casualties. Force Majeure had deployed in force, so to speak, on each occasion, bringing down the attempted saboteurs with extreme prejudice. Not much had been left for the cops to do, or even arrest.

    Jericho pointed at the other train. “See how the rail curves? I figure our rail’s gonna meet up with it. We’ll just get out in front and slot into place.”

    He felt comfortable in saying this; while a little light on detail, the UML webpage had provided quite a bit of information about how the maglev system operated. Each maglev car was semi-autonomous in operation, attaching to the front of a train when leaving a station and dropping off the back end when splitting off to join another train or stopping at their destination. ‘Train’, in this instance, simply meant ‘bunch of passenger cars all going in the same direction’. In a very real way, it was like an enormous, intricate, never-ending game of musical chairs being played out all over America, giving every passenger an express ride to his or her destination.

    Luke didn’t look overly comforted. “But what if—” A slight jolt, accompanied by a solid clunk, interrupted him. “What the shit?” Leaning over, he stared out the window. “What the hell was that?

    Looking up toward the nearest digital sign, Jericho saw that it now showed ‘ATLANTA’, with the timer reading ‘29:30’ and a large ‘1’ in a square box. As he watched, the seconds began counting down. He nodded toward the sign. “That was us connecting on to the front of the train, like I said.” He let a snarky note come into his voice. “Try to keep up, will you?”

    Almost on cue, the connecting doors next to Luke opened and half a dozen people wandered through, looking for places to sit. About the same number of people already in the passenger car got up and headed through the connecting door, toward the back of the train. They must be getting off in Atlanta.

    Wearing a rather dubious expression, Luke leaned into the aisle and looked between the connecting doors before they closed, as if to verify there really was a train back there. Not that there was anywhere else the people could have come from. “Right, now we got that settled,” he muttered as he sat down again, his face just a little pale. “Not exactly what I friggin’ expected.”

    “You didn’t really have to come along, you know,” Jericho told him, feeling somewhat amused. “Wait’ll I tell Livy how the great Luke Hansen is scared of a little speed.” It was made all the funnier by the fact that Luke had spent a great deal of his teenage years competing in illegal drag races.

    At the mention of his wife’s nickname, Luke gave Jericho an extremely filthy look; it seemed that he was recovering fast. “Low friggin’ blow, cuz. She won as many races as I did. She wouldn’t never let me forget it.”

    “Yeah, but it’d be funny as all hell,” Jericho countered. His grin widened as he envisaged the expression on Olivia’s face. She had a lively sense of humor, skin a couple shades darker than Luke’s, and long gorgeous hair. “Figure she’d let it go around Christmas. Year after next.”

    “Funny man.” Luke turned his head to watch as two more people entered their car and found places to sit. “So, I got me a question. Every stop we go by, we lose a car an’ gain a car, yeah?”

    Jericho slid around in his seat until his head was resting against the window, then hooked his left ankle over his right knee. “There’s a little more to it than that, but that’s basically the situation, yeah. Why?”

    Luke made a motion as if he were counting on his fingers. “So, happen ya git on the train in Miami, by the time ya git off in Seattle, there ain’t no cars left from the train that ya started with. Which means all the way through the trip, you’re movin’ from car to car jes’ so’s you can stay on the damn train. Any way a body could git around that?”

    Jericho shook his head, amused. “Nope. There’s this one comedian, Jerry or Gary someone, who does a routine about it. He calls it ‘Walking from New York to LA’. It’s pretty good.” He’d seen the guy’s show a few times, though he couldn’t remember his name. Now that he was actually on the maglev, the skit seemed even funnier. “It’s just the way the system works.”

    “Goddamn hilarious.” Luke’s tone was sour. “So what were we talkin’ about, anyway?”

    Jericho frowned, trying to remember. There’d been so many new experiences in the last ten minutes that he wasn’t quite sure anymore. “Okay, the train started off and freaked you out … okay, before that, we were talking about powers … oh, yeah. Artificers. Arfogwyr, in particular.”

    “I still say more of us call ’em cogs.” Luke’s smirk was back in full force.

    Jericho ground his teeth and let out an aggravated sigh. “Whatever floats your boat. Anyway, she built the base that Inspire used. I saw a picture of it, over in Seattle. It was like a castle, all in silver and white. They called it Caerwyn, which apparently means ‘white castle’ in Welsh or something. She also outfitted Castellan with his power armor and sword when he joined.” The armor hadn’t been anything special so far as that sort of thing went; all it did was afford Castellan a certain amount of protection and strength. But then, that was all the veteran hero had ever needed.

    “Castellan … that sword of his could cut through anythin’, right?” Luke squinted in recollection. “I ’member seein’ a TV spot on him, from back in the day. He cut clear through an I-beam with it. The edges were glowing, after. Scary shit, right there.” He scratched his head. “Did he even have powers?”

    “Well, yes.” Jericho wondered why he even had to explain this. Didn’t everyone know this sort of thing? “Castellan was a prodigy. That was his power.”

    “Prodigy?” Luke looked slightly lost for a second, then his face cleared. “Wait a minute. Is that what folks call—”

    “Being a prodigy tunes you up to the absolute peak of human capability and a little bit beyond,” Jericho interjected hurriedly. “You know, the Olympic-level, brooding-on-rooftops, hyper-competent, midnight avenger type? That’s what they call a prodigy.” He snorted derisively. “Took ’em ’til about ’ninety, ’ninety-one to figure out that it was a friggin’ powerset in its own right.” With any luck, Luke’ll leave the subject alone now. But even as the thought crossed his mind, he knew it wasn’t going to happen.

    “Yeah, I thought so,” Luke said triumphantly. “‘Prodigy’ is just a prettified name for what us normal folks call a ‘cowl’, right?” He glanced speculatively at Jericho. “You’ve got that, don’t ya? There was that one time you went a week straight on about four hours of sleep.”

    Startled, Jericho stared back at him. “Have you been stalking me?” He remembered the episode. He’d had more sleep than Luke seemed to think, and afterward he’d slept for a solid day, but staying awake had been easy for him. While his Prodigy rating wasn’t huge, it was useful as hell on stakeouts.

    “Keepin’ an eye on you, cuz. There’s a difference.” The grin on Luke’s face widened. “So, what’s that one we’uns call ‘capes’?” In an irritating tone that was pure Luke, he added, “You know, the ones who can fly an’ shoot lasers from their nostrils an’ stuff? Your name for it starts with ‘dy’ and ends in ‘namic’, yeah?”

    Jericho already had his mouth open to enlighten his cousin when the penny dropped. You sonovabitch. You’ve been playing me all along. “How much do you know about this stuff?”

    Luke gave him an elaborate shrug. “When my favorite cuz decided to become Enabled, I figgered it was my job ta find out as much as I could.”

    “So what the hell was this whole conversation about, if you already knew what I was talking about?” demanded Jericho, ignoring the reference to ‘deciding to become Enabled’. That bit was so wrong he didn’t even know where to begin. “Have you just been wasting my time on purpose?”

    “Well, sho’nuff.” Luke didn’t even try to deny it. “You’re still all twisted up inside about Steve, so I figgered ta distract ya. It worked, didn’t it?”

    “Yeah, well,” grumbled Jericho. “Even though some of us would still like to see those terms die in a fire.” He knew he was being a purist but dammit, the simplistic nicknames demeaned the entire rating system and made people think less of Enabled. Quite apart from being unnecessarily alliterative.

    “Yeah, yeah.” Luke was definitely having fun now. This was, as far as Jericho could tell, what he lived for. “I can see that. Why use a short word when a long one’ll make it sound a shitload classier?” Luke’s grin widened to the point where it was blatantly obvious he was doing his best to wind Jericho up. “So, do capes really wear capes? And what about spandex? Some of them costumes I seen on TV … well, they don’t leave much to the friggin’ imagination, is all I’m sayin’.”

    Jericho rolled his eyes, relieved to be on stable footing once more. “Spandex is for losers, posers and fetishists. And don’t get me started on capes. If you’re gonna wear a costume, wear something that’s not gonna get in the way in a fight.” Spandex and capes were both topics rife with the possibility of inciting flamewars on various online boards and had done exactly that many times over. He had no doubt that this trend would continue for as long as there were Enabled—and people who thought they knew more about Enabled than the Enabled did—on message boards.

    “Y’know, Relentless wears a cape.” Luke’s smirk was in full shit-stirring mode now. “So do Lady Quantum an’ the Technologist, an’ Tourbillon’s robes are prob’ly worse’n wearin’ a cape. Fact bein’, th’ only ones who don’t wear anythin’ like a cape are Independence, Silent Knight an’ Transit. Less than half th’ team. Ya gonna tell them that it ain’t a good idea while they’re interviewin’ you?”

    “Screw you,” Jericho retorted without heat. “They’re Force Majeure. If they want to wear capes, they’ve earned it. It’s the idiots who wear ’em to look cool that I’m talking about.”

    “Yeah, well.” Luke, mercifully, seemed willing to leave that subject alone. “Anyway, ya said somethin’ about how the Minotaur figgered out who Ar … Arvog … fuck it, who she really was. Their artificer,” he corrected himself, apparently just to be contrary.

    “Wait, you know about the other stuff, but you don’t know about this?” Jericho looked askance at his cousin. “I thought you’d been looking this sort of thing up?”

    “I looked up the stuff about what you’re goin’ through, cuz,” Luke corrected him. “Not about the rest of it. An’ I’m kinda curious. So what happened? He kill her?”

    Jericho sighed. “By all accounts, she put up a fight, but she was out of costume and he didn’t care about collateral damage. So yeah, he killed her, just like that.” Raising his hand, he snapped his fingers. “And when he left, he took her head and her hand.”

    “Why’d he … oh, right.” Luke winced. “To git past security, right?” The idea seemed to make him as queasy as Jericho himself felt about it. The most direct way of defeating a biometrically coded system was also the messiest. The card in his wallet didn’t seem quite so cool now.

    “Got it in one.” This story didn’t really have a happy ending, but Jericho forged on anyway. “He went straight to Caerwyn and used Arfogwyr’s hand and eye to get in. Challenger was there, but the Minotaur didn’t go after him immediately. He snuck around for a bit first, planting explosives.” Jericho paused, suddenly pensive. “You know, I can’t help wondering if he had some sort of knack for architecture. He built mazes and death-traps out of basically nothing and made them work, and he managed to bring down Caerwyn with only a few demolition charges.”

    “Well, it don’t matter now, ’cause the asshole’s dead,” Luke pointed out pragmatically. “What happened then?”

    “About what you’d expect,” Jericho said unhappily. “The Minotaur had the element of surprise on his side. He went on the attack and got in one good hit before Challenger managed to raise his force field. After that, he couldn’t hurt Challenger, but Challenger couldn’t score a good hit on him either. And Challenger would’ve been bleeding pretty badly, so all the Minotaur had to do was wait him out.”

    “Bleeding?” This got a frown from Luke. “What the hell’d Minotaur hit him with?”

    Jericho looked questioningly at him. “You ever hear about the Blood Rose? No?” He was less surprised than he should’ve been when Luke shook his head. It seemed most people were more interested in today’s heroes than yesterday’s villains.

    “Not so’s you’d notice,” Luke admitted. “I’m guessin’ it ain’t jes’ some kinda flower. Some kinda Artificer weapon, like Castellan’s sword?”

    “That’s pretty much exactly what it was,” Jericho confirmed. “From what I’ve read and the pictures I’ve seen, it was a stabbing spear with a short handle and a thick blade. The blade was made of some kind of deep red metal, but that wasn’t the scary thing. The scary thing was that what looked like the blade was in reality hundreds of smaller blades, all packed together in the shape of a larger blade. When he slashed someone with it, the blades opened up and delivered dozens of cuts, all as deep and nasty as the original one would’ve been. And when he stabbed someone, they flared out like flower petals and spun.”

    “Jesus wept,” Luke said after a moment of horrified silence. “That’s goddamn … who even makes somethin’ like that?”

    “Maybe the Minotaur, maybe someone else?” Jericho shrugged. “I have no idea. But he only slashed Challenger with it, which was a small mercy. If he’d stabbed him instead, Challenger would’ve died then and there. There’s rumors about people who survived being stabbed with the Blood Rose but if that’s true, I dunno who they are. Anyway, Challenger couldn’t bring the Minotaur down, but he did manage to send out a distress signal. I’m not totally sure about the timeline after that, but Castellan’s on record as having arrived on site just after the explosives went off. The Minotaur had already left, and Caerwyn was reduced to rubble, but Challenger was still barely alive. He had the slash from the Blood Rose and injuries from the roof falling in on him, so he was in a pretty bad way.”

    “Which is what put him in the coma in the first place,” guessed Luke, accurately. “He never woke up, did he?”

    “No, he did not.” Jericho took a deep breath. “There’s not much to it after that. Castellan got Challenger to the hospital, then headed out after the Minotaur. Now, Castellan’s a high-end prodigy, so he’s about the best there is when it comes to kicking ass one-on-one. The Minotaur no doubt knew this, so he went and hid in the middle of his latest goddamn murder maze. The place was lousy with death-traps, but Castellan carved his way through them like they were nothing.”

    “Okay, that’s a bit hard to believe,” Luke said. “I mean, I heard he’s good, but he’s jes’ one man, y’know? That sounds like somethin’ out of a movie. All it’d take is one wrong move an’ he’s dead, an’ there ain’t no retakes.”

    “That’s what separates prodigies from everyone else,” Jericho said patiently. “Every prodigy has a bone-deep certainty that they—we—should be doing things a certain way, aiming for a certain result. Our powersets and specialties are optimized to make life easier for us when we’re following that. This gives us what some people on the boards call ‘focus’ and others call the ‘sweet spot’. We might not always know we have it, but it’s there. If we’re doing what our focus makes us good at, if it hits the sweet spot of our powerset, we take a whole lot of stopping. If we try to go against it, we’re even worse off than an average guy without powers. And if someone else does something bad that goes directly against our focus, we take it really personally.”

    “Yeah?” Luke eyed him curiously. “What’s yours?”

    “Trust,” Jericho’s voice was blunt. “Trust and loyalty. Once my word’s given, I stick to it. My powers literally enforce it.”

    “Well, duh.” Luke shook his head. “You always been a straight arrow, cuz.” He grinned slyly. “So ta speak.”

    Jericho rolled his eyes at the terrible joke. “Asshat.”

    “Yeah, well.” Luke didn’t deny it. “What happens if folks you trust screw ya over? You lose your powers or somethin’?”

    “Nothing as drastic as that,” Jericho assured him. “It just hurts a lot. And when I say ‘a lot’, I mean a lot.” He thumped his fist against his chest. “In here.”

    “Shit.” Luke looked stricken. “So, all of them times I bullshitted about stuff to ya …”

    “Didn’t do a goddamn thing.” Jericho chuckled at the look on his cousin’s face. “You forget, I know you. You’ve been shading the truth since you were in short pants. I don’t care about you making shit up. I just trust you not to lie about anything that might hurt me.”

    Luke seemed to consider that. “Right. Fair’nuff. So, what-all happened with Castellan goin’ after th’ Minotaur?”

    Jericho nodded. “Well, like I said, he made it through the maze. I’m not saying he didn’t take a hit or three on the way, but he got through to the Minotaur more or less in one piece.”

    “An’ kicked his ass?” asked Luke, who’d apparently seen the way this was going.

    “Pretty much,” agreed Jericho. “One on one, fresh off the mark, he would’ve wiped the floor with the Minotaur any day of the week. This was why the asshat put all those death-traps between them. He was scared shitless of Castellan. Which, you know, just about anyone would be. Anyway, Castellan was injured and his armor was damaged, but he still put the hurt on the Minotaur.”

    Luke frowned. “You’re talkin’ like it wasn’t all cut and dry.”

    “Well, no. He handed the Minotaur a beating, but the Minotaur got a lucky shot on Castellan’s right arm with the Blood Rose. Castellan dropped his sword and the Minotaur stomped on it. Broke the hilt.”

    “Shit, what’d he do then?” Luke was leaning forward, waiting to hear what happened next.

    Jericho chuckled. “What he did then was stone-cold pure badass. He lured the Minotaur in, then—with his off hand, mind you—disarmed him. Took the Blood Rose away from him like taking a toy away from a kid. Then he went straight through the Minotaur’s guard and stabbed him with it. Gave him a taste of his own medicine.”

    “Ouch.” Luke winced in sympathy. “That musta hurt, in more ways than one.” A moment later, he frowned. “Wait a minute. How do ya know that’s exactly what Castellan done? I mean, the guy prob’ly told a good story an’ all, but how do we know that’s how it went down?”

    Jericho leaned back in his seat. “The Minotaur was the kind of asshat who always used to put cameras in his mazes, so folks would have to watch their loved ones die. He must’ve expected to beat Castellan, too. Didn’t quite turn out the way he expected. His suit had a full-coverage mask so you can’t see his face on the footage, but I bet his expression was priceless.”

    Luke snorted. “Sucked to be him, then. Asshole.”

    “Yup.” Jericho nodded. “The footage stops about then though, because the other thing the Minotaur always put in his mazes was demolition charges. Him getting stabbed must’ve tripped a failsafe, because the maze started to fall in. Castellan’s armor was in pieces, his sword was busted, and he was more dead than alive from the injuries he’d taken from the death-traps and the fight. But he got out of there, because prodigies just don’t goddamn give up. About five minutes after he got outside, the whole thing collapsed into the ocean. Castellan survived, but … well, Inspire was done. He retired a few weeks later, once he was healed up enough to check himself out of the hospital. Challenger went into long-term care, with everyone around him sworn to secrecy about who he really was. He died a few years later. There’s a gravestone in Arlington with his name on it, but I’m pretty sure nobody’s buried there. Who he actually was is still a national secret.”

    Luke shook his head in confusion. “Wait a sec. Ya jes’ said Castellan was more dead than alive, but a few weeks later he walked outta th’ hospital? Who does that?”

    “Prodigies,” Jericho explained succinctly. “We pick up skills fast, we can push ourselves way past normal human limits, and we pretty well get over anything that doesn’t kill us straight off the bat. It’s basically the opposite of flashy, but you don’t ever underestimate a prodigy.”

    “Right.” Luke’s expression was pensive. “So, they ever recover th’ Minotaur’s body?”

    “I know what you’re thinking,” Jericho told him. “If you don’t have a body, he’s not really dead, right?” He waited for Luke to nod, then went on. “Wrong. That’s Saturday morning cartoon thinking. Yeah, I know, a few heroes have come back from the dead, and so’ve a few villains. But they’re almost exclusively prodigies, or dynamics with powers that let them fake their deaths. Castellan was asked about that, and he said he’d be worried if it was just the Blood Rose and the fight, or just the maze collapsing into the ocean and the fight … well, yeah. Any two of those factors would’ve given the Minotaur some wiggle room. With the fight and the Blood Rose and the fall into the ocean with a million tons of rock on top of him, even Castellan figured it simply wasn’t survivable. And that’s if the Minotaur had a Prodigy rating. If he didn’t, not a hope in hell.” He shrugged. “He was the sort of media whore who craved public attention. If he hasn’t shown up in sixteen years, I’m guessing Castellan knew what he was talking about.”

    “Okay, gotcha.” Luke nodded. “So that ended the court case?”

    “Sure as hell,” confirmed Jericho. “If someone hadn’t sold Arfogwyr’s real identity to the Minotaur, the whole thing never would’ve happened. So, they nailed the whole thing down. Government-affiliated heroes, like Force Majeure, are protected like nuclear launch codes. The rest of us, if anyone tries to out us, it’s treated like domestic terrorism.”

    “An’ what happened to th’ guys pushin’ th’ case?” Luke had a certain glint in his eye. “Don’t tell me they jes’ got ta walk away.”

    Jericho shook his head. “Nope. Turned out the FBI had been investigating some of them for years over allegations of money-laundering and stuff for their foreign partners. When the Inspire thing happened and the case ended, they got pulled in for serious questioning. Some of them ended up doing time. There were even a couple of shady-ass property developers who had their assets seized under civil forfeiture and then did time.”

    He chuckled darkly and leaned back in his seat. “By the time the dust settled, the Challenger Act was bulletproof. Nobody wanted to poke that particular bear again.”
     
  29. Threadmarks: Chapter Eight: Origin
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Origin

    "Okay, so you’re covered.” Luke accepted the history lesson and conceded the point but didn’t give up the main thrust of his argument. “But supposin’ you was outed. What do ya think your folks’d say then?”

    Jericho shrugged. “Dunno. I mean, shit, I’m pretty sure they don’t even know.”

    Luke stared at him. “Any particular reason ya haven’t friggin’ told ’em? Hidin’ something that big from kinfolk ain’t good. Why the hell didn’t you tell ’em afore ya told me?” It wasn’t anger Jericho could hear in his voice; not quite, anyway. Still, he wasn’t happy. “Where the hell’s your head at?”

    Jericho took a deep breath. “I tried.” Luke’s expression showed disbelief. “I did. About a week after … yeah, after that.” After I got my powers. Closing his eyes for a second, Jericho was back in the moment. He could feel the terror again as the wall flashed past him, the pavement coming up fast. Above him, the faces peered over the edge of the roof, their expressions half-triumphant and half-terrified. Again, he could smell the alcohol and hear the harsh voices. Hey, fairy. Hey, can you fly? Fairies can fly, can’t they? The feeling of the hands as they grabbed him, the shocked look on Troy’s face as Jericho reached desperately out toward him. The momentary sensation of weightlessness, then the sure knowledge that he was falling. Falling to his death.

    But he hadn’t died. Instead, he was reborn. Halfway down, when his blood was thundering in his ears so hard he thought he was going to have a heart attack before he ever hit the ground, Jericho had … slowed. Drifting gently to the ground like a leaf. Not sure what was happening, terrified out of his wits, he twisted around to land on his feet, and ran. Ran and ran and ran.

    He’d been on summer break, after celebrating his twenty-first birthday at college in New York and trading his virginity off with that of a bi-curious roommate, both on the same night. Alcohol had been involved. Back in Savannah, still not having come out to his parents, he spent a week building up the courage to visit a local gay bar. His confidence deserted him just after he got in the door, and he dithered until a cute guy who’d been standing at the bar came over and introduced himself.

    Troy was smart, funny and interesting, and Jericho was immediately smitten. What he didn’t know was that there were people who went to places like that with the aim of picking up young hopefuls and luring them somewhere quiet. Once alone, the victim would be ambushed by a bunch of thugs who would then proceed to kick his ribs in or do even worse. Troy was one of the people who did the luring.

    From the look on Troy’s face, he hadn’t known of their plans to throw Jericho off the roof once Troy talked him into going up there. Either way, Jericho wanted nothing more to do with him. He just hoped that the other man had learned an important lesson. In any case, when Jericho next encountered the group (this time in the precursor to his eventual G-Man costume), Troy wasn’t with them, so maybe he had. Jericho could only hope so, anyway.

    After that fateful night, it had taken him two full days to get up the nerve to test his powers. To ensure privacy, he’d told his parents he wasn’t feeling well and locked himself in his room. After several hours of experimentation, he decided that he had some kind of control over gravity. While he couldn’t make himself fly—which he still considered to be unfair in the extreme—he’d ended up with some useful abilities from his Dynamic rating.

    His slow-falling ability was instinctive by nature and was on all the time unless he wanted it off. It could also be imparted to anything he touched, up to about a ton in weight. He could also make things heavier, but he had yet to find a good reason to apply this effect to himself.

    The next aspect of his power was expressed in the G-tags. These could be stacked to become stronger, but each subsequent ’tag (of either type) had a steadily reduced effect. To his irritation, push-tags didn’t work on anything that was also under the effect of his slow-fall ability, even himself.

    His G-shake could end a fight before it began or alter the stability of objects in an area, but he couldn’t concentrate the effect to determine the roll of a die. Objects already on a precarious balance could be made to fall or prevented from doing so. As a side effect, the G-shake also disoriented and nauseated everyone in his immediate vicinity; very useful in a fight against multiple opponents, less so for any allies.

    As a crude approximation of radar, his G-sense could be applied to detect dense objects in his immediate vicinity, the larger the better. More usefully; it gifted him with an absolute sense of balance, an awareness of exactly which way was up at any given time as well as his current speed and acceleration, and a precise understanding of the mass of anything he was holding.

    None of which took away from the remembered trauma of the moment. It definitely helped, especially after he took the step of dropping out of college. His intent right then had been to track down the people who’d nearly killed him before they could hurt anyone else; the decision to become a superhero was secondary. While his parents hadn’t understood, they’d accepted his decision and his father had given him a job at the company in the same week.

    He’d located and dealt with the people who’d thrown him off the roof, then spent a further two months refining his costume and starting on his martial-arts training before taking on the superhero identity of G-Man. Still, some wounds were too deep to easily heal. Every time he recalled the way Troy had turned on him after making him feel he was among friends, he felt a deep and abiding pain. What this said about his need to achieve membership with Force Majeure, he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to know.

    He opened his eyes, only to find himself face to face with Luke’s intense brown gaze. Suddenly he felt like a kid again, with his cousin cast in the role of a disapproving adult. “I went to them a week after,” he said again. “I tried to talk to them over breakfast. But I was so damn nervous that I totally screwed it up. Started and stopped a dozen times. Finally, Pa took pity on me and told me that they knew. So I left it at that.”

    “Okay, good, so they do know.” Although he sounded confident with that sentence, Luke gave him a questioning look. “Why’d ya say they didn’t?”

    Jericho shook his head. “No. I thought they knew. But as I was walking out, Mama said that they’d known for years, and they supported my choices.”

    Slowly, Luke’s head thumped back against the headrest. “They thought you was comin’ out to ’em as gay,” he realized. “Fuck. Did ya set ’em straight?” He glanced sideways at Jericho. “No pun intended.”

    Jericho sighed and shook his head again. “I just can’t do it. I can’t look them in the eye and tell them that I go out and fight crime at night.” He had no idea how they’d take it, and was scared to find out.

    “You’re gonna hafta tell ’em someday, ya know that, right?” Luke’s tone was serious. “Ain’t fair on ’em to hold out like this.” He tilted his head. “Wait a sec. What’d ya tell ’em you was goin’ ta Utopia City for?”

    “That I was applying for a job there. Lots of unpowered folk live and work there too.” Jericho was reasonably sure of that. The ratio of normals to Enabled, at last estimate, was about sixty-three thousand to one, which made the entire Enabled population of the United States equivalent to that of a small town. Utopia City, going by what he’d read, was anything but a small town.

    “But you already work for your daddy’s company,” Luke pointed out. “How’s your folks takin’ that?”

    Jericho snorted. “I’m basically a paid intern, entry level position. All it is, is make-work until I get another job somewhere or go back to college. It’s not like I’ve got any desire to run the company someday. They asked me and I said no.” He shrugged. “It’s just not my thing. Anyway, once Serena gets her business admin degree, they’ve got a position for her, and the top spot in another twenty years or so.” And God help anyone who tried to use her gender or skin color as an excuse to push back on her. Serena was as tough-minded as they came.

    Luke nodded. “Yeah, I heard somethin’ about that.” He sounded pleased for his little sister. “Okay, so if they think you’re goin’ there for work, what about you an’ Steve? They think he’s goin’ there too?”

    That caused Jericho to wince. “They … don’t know about me and Stephen.” He grimaced at Luke’s expression. “It’s not like that. Pa … I’m pretty sure he’s doing his best to tolerate the fact that I’m gay, but he doesn’t want to know any details. And I don’t think Mama would like me being in a relationship with an older man. So … I haven’t told them.” And then of course, there was Stephen’s stance on interracial relationships. He of course knew of Luke’s parentage, but had apparently chosen to either accept or ignore it. If he visited Jericho’s parents and saw one of the photos of Uncle Leroy with Aunt Ellie without knowing who they were, and made a comment about it, Jericho would never hear the end of it.

    Luke rolled his eyes. “For a superhero, you’re such a friggin’ pussy. An’ given that, what the hell makes ya think you—no, scratch that. What makes ya think G-Man can make it as a big-city superhero, you chickenshit?”

    Taken aback by the use of his Enabled codename, Jericho stared at his cousin. Normally, Luke was much more respectful about it. “What do you mean? I am making it as a superhero. I mean, I am a superhero.” He decided to stop talking before he confused himself.

    “You’re a superhero in Savannah,” Luke retorted, then blew a raspberry.That bar’s pretty friggin’ low. There’s what, three Masks for the whole damn city?”

    “Two,” Jericho muttered, not bothering to correct his use of the slang term. Lots of normals used it, along with not a few Enabled, but Jericho found it irritatingly non-specific. Anyone could wear a mask, after all. “Me and Pickup. Thinkster died last year. Overdose.” He’d never been quite sure about Thinkster’s credentials. The man had claimed to be able to read minds, but as he shunned company, his credibility was a little doubtful. Also, the drinking didn’t help. The drug use hadn’t been too much of a surprise, considering that the man had been a known alcoholic for years.

    “Goddamn exactly,” Luke said. “You sho’ you even up to it? It’s pretty friggin’ quiet in Savannah compared to, well, anyplace else.”

    Jericho rolled his eyes. “Yes, I’m up to it. I’ve stopped lots of crime.” He conveniently didn’t mention the long nights of patrols where he’d neither seen nor heard anything for hours.

    “You’ve stopped muggers,” Luke corrected him. “Oh, an’ ya dealt with them gay bar bashers. Big fat hairy deal. You ain’t never stopped no bank robberies or solved any murders. I bet the cops don’t even Gordon you.”

    The term was from popular culture, indicating the act of a police officer unofficially sharing information about an ongoing case with a superhero. Some police departments tacitly condoned the practice, while others comprehensively banned it.

    “Shows what you know, smart guy,” Jericho countered. “Detective Villanova’s asked for my opinion on several cases, thank you very goddamn much.” He hadn’t solved the cases, but he liked to think that he’d given the detective valuable input on them.

    “Villanova?” Luke snorted derisively. “Raul Villanova? He ain’t talkin’ to you on account of you bein’ a superhero. He’s doin’ it ’cause he saw the photo-shoot that Steve did of you. Probably fixin’ ta ask you on a date sometime.”

    Jericho stared at Luke. His cousin had a grin on his face, but it wasn’t the know-it-all smirk he wore when he was pulling a joke. “Villanova’s gay? Really?” It was something that Jericho had never considered. Though when he thought back over the cases he’d been called in on, especially the ones that had little to no bearing on his capabilities, he had to wonder if Luke wasn’t onto something there. Sonovabitch. Villanova was Trevoring me, not Gordoning. Unlike ‘Gordoning’, he wasn’t quite sure of the origins of ‘Trevoring’; he just knew it was shorthand for helping out a superhero in the hope of getting into their pants.

    Luke rolled his eyes. “Cuz, your gaydar’s for shit. ’Course he’s gay. I know the guy—not well, but I know him. Hides it well, but there’s tells. An’ no offense, but if he’s Gordoning you, it ain’t ’cause of your street rep. I mean, shit, ain’t nobody’s hardly ever heard of you. You ain’t even a celebrity in Savannah.” That hurt more than Jericho was ready to admit. “What makes ya think you can hit the big time an’ go pro?”

    “That’s it. I’m outta here.” Pissed off beyond all forbearance, Jericho stood up and went to scramble over the table. He didn’t care where he sat, but he was going somewhere else before he ended up punching Luke over this.

    Before he could get his foot up on the seat, Luke grabbed his arm and hauled him bodily back down again. “Siddown.”

    It was lucky that Jericho didn’t have eye-beam powers, or the glare he gave his cousin may just have caused serious bodily harm. “I’m not in the mood for your shit right now. I’m going to another car.” He went to stand up again, only to be forced into his seat for a second time.

    Luke gave him a determined stare. “I c’n do this all day long. You ain’t goin’ noplace ’til you answer the goddamn question.”

    Settling back into the seat and closing his eyes, Jericho breathed deeply for a few seconds, pushing the anger down and away. Luke’s not Stephen. He really does want to know. When he felt in control again, he opened his eyes and nodded. “Fine. You know my powers, right?”

    Luke nodded. “That thing with gravity. Weird blobby shit that makes light turn all rainbowy. An’ you can make things heavier or lighter, an’ shake shit up.”

    “Right. My G-tags and the other stuff.” Jericho took a deep breath. One step at a time. “That’s my Dynamic rating. But then there’s my Prodigy rating.”

    “Yeah, I already knew about that.” Luke raised his eyebrow slightly. “But doesn’t that jes’ help you stay awake?”

    Jericho grinned back at him, pleased that he could finally turn the tables on his irritating cousin. “I might’ve fudged over that a bit. It’s low, but it’s not that low.”

    Now he had Luke’s interest. “Fudged over by how much?” He eyed Jericho cautiously.

    Jericho shrugged. “Well, for one thing, I’m a black belt equivalent in Krav Maga.” He grinned at the look on Luke’s face. Graduate Level in Krav Maga wasn’t exactly the same as a black belt, but it was a comparison that his cousin would immediately grasp.

    “Krav Maga?” Luke’s tone was incredulous. “You have got to be shitting me. So you really can kick ass.” It wasn’t a question.

    Jericho’s grin widened. “So, you still think you can keep me in this corner?” He could think of four ways to get out of his seat, none of which Luke would enjoy.

    Luke carefully cleared his throat. “So, they, uh, git many people with, uh, two ratings?”

    So now we change the subject. Jericho decided to cut his cousin some slack. “Dual power ratings aren’t uncommon. It happens enough that folks shorten it to DPR, or ‘dipper’, which before you ask, doesn’t stand for ‘double dipper’. Anyway, you get about as many DPRs as you do straight ratings.”

    “Huh.” Luke seemed to think about that. “What about triple power ratings? They git many of those? And whadda folks call them ones? ‘Trippers’?”

    Jericho shrugged. “Well, I guess it’s technically possible to have a triple power rating, but I’ve never heard of one being reported. Figuring out ratings is hard enough at the best of times.”

    Luke nodded. A moment later, Jericho saw his face clear. “Wait jes’ a friggin’ second. That’s how they pulled off that acceleration bullshit.” With both hands, he gestured around at the train car. “Cogs made all this, didn’t they?”

    “Yeah, the whole maglev system’s Artificer-built,” Jericho agreed, choosing to ignore the word Luke had used, in the interests of not starting that shit up again. Cogs, my ass. “But it’s not standard Artificer tech, if there’s such a thing. You know Transit? She’s beyond super-genius when it comes to designing and building transport of any kind. And once any technology’s been built, the Technologist can take it and make it better. It’s one of his tricks. They worked together on this project. It’s a once-off. You’re not gonna see anything bigger or better than it anywhere in the world.”

    He didn’t have to explain any further; nearly everyone in America knew the names of the seven founding members of Force Majeure, as Luke had proven a few moments ago. “I’m pretty sure that the Technologist has a straight Artificer rating, but Transit’s almost certainly a DPR with some sort of Dynamic mechanokinesis power. I’ve seen footage of her redesigning and rebuilding an aircraft quite literally on the fly. It’s hella impressive.”

    And she’s got a great ass,” Luke said pragmatically. When Jericho stared at him, he shrugged. “What? I watch the news too.”

    Jericho glared at him. “Transit is a widely renowned hero who helped transform the nation,” he said sternly. “Artificers across America, across the world, would give their eyeteeth to work alongside her. She is not a pin-up model. Her work’s an inspiration to us all.”

    “And so’s her ass,” Luke said reasonably. “Hey. I’m probably never gonna meet her. Her work ain’t never gonna inspire me to greatness. But I knows a world-class ass when I sees one. Jes’ sayin’.” He shot Jericho a sly glance. “Or are ya telling me you ain’t gonna be checkin’ out the Technologist or Silent Knight when ya meet ’em? Or … Relentless?” He gave the name full court press.

    Jericho wasn’t buying it. “Luke, be serious. I am never gonna meet those guys in a social setting. It’s just not gonna happen.” Belatedly, he added, “Besides, I’ve got Stephen.” Though now that the suggestion had been made, his mind could not help drifting to Relentless. The live footage he’d seen of Force Majeure’s leader was still stark in his mind. As Luke had pointed out, Relentless did wear a cape, which was unusual among non-flying Enabled; with his build, he carried it off well. Tall men with broad shoulders were a hot button for Jericho, as was a brusque and unapproachable attitude. He wasn’t certain what that said about him, but he was pretty sure that Relentless also had the latter in spades. Argh, no. Wrong line of thought. “Stop infecting my mind,” he said irritably.

    “Hey, all I did was say the names.” Luke smirked at him. “You’re the one who’s thinkin’ of a foursome right now.”

    “I am not thinking of a foursome!” But of course, once the idea was implanted, he was. Closing his eyes, he scrubbed at his temples with the heels of his hands. “No. Just … no. Don’t even insinuate something like that. The last thing I want is to start thinking about that sort of thing while I’m being interviewed by them. I’ve got a boyfriend, dammit!”

    Luke may have been a dick at times, but he was also Jericho’s friend. “Okay, sorry, cuz. Didn’t mean ta push.” He gave Jericho a few seconds to answer. When he didn’t, Luke forged on. “You okay there?”

    Opening his eyes, Jericho nodded. “Yeah. Just not feeling the greatest. Stephen kinda accused me of going off to Utopia City to hook up with cute guys, and then you said the same thing. I mean, does he really think I’m such a goddamn man-slut? Do you?” He hated the feeling of not being trusted. It hurt.

    “Not really, no.” To give him his due, Luke gave the question proper consideration. “I was jes’ yankin’ your chain. But ya gotta understand that Steve’s pretty friggin’ insecure where it comes to y’all. Shit, he thought I mighta been makin’ time with ya when ya first introduced us.”

    “What, really?” Jericho stared at him. “That’s stupid.”

    Luke nodded. “Yeah, but look at it from his side. I know what gets your motor runnin’. I seen ya lookin’ at folks.” He jabbed his thumb into his chest. “Ya like big guys like me. Steve knows that too. Might could be he thought I was a rival, I reckon? An’ ya know how he feels about black on white.”

    “But … you weren’t. You aren’t.” Jericho floundered, searching for words. “I’ve never even thought about you like that.”

    “Yeah, I know.” Luke chuckled. “Believe me, I know. I ain’t never caught ya checkin’ me out even once.”

    “Well, of course not,” Jericho protested. “You’re my cousin. And my best friend. I’ve known you since forever. I mean, eww.” Jericho shuddered theatrically, but he was serious. He’d known Luke since he was four and Luke was nine, and they’d done everything together. Luke had always been his cool older cousin; no matter what he was doing, he had time for Jericho. He was kin.

    Anyway, that wasn’t important right now. This was the first Jericho had heard about Stephen feeling insecure. He’d managed to hide it pretty well, though … “Ah, shit. So that’s why he was being a douche about the goddamn trip. All that passive-aggressive shit and the whining, without actually flat-out telling me not to go.” It all made sense now. For a weird definition of ‘sense’.

    “Yeah.” Luke nodded sagely. “He’s scared if he puts his foot down, you’d go anyways an’ not come back. An’ then there’s …” He paused, as if he’d lost his train of thought. “… I mean, you’re younger an’ better lookin’ than him, right? To him, it’d kinda make sense that you’d be able to find someone else. If you was interested. Which you ain’t. Right?”

    “Wait,” Jericho said. Something was bugging him about how Luke had just said that. “Back up a little. And then there’s what?”

    “What?” Now Luke looked a little uncomfortable. “Nothin’. I was thinkin’ about somethin’ else.”

    Jericho shook his head. For someone who could bullshit so fluently on the spur of the moment, Luke was sure as hell doing a crap job of it. “I lied better than that the time your mama caught me feeding the dog under the table. Whatever you were gonna say, spill it.”

    Luke grimaced. “Shitfire, cuz. I don’t wanna keep secrets from ya, but I dunno if it’d hurt ya more ta know or not know.” There was genuine pain in his eyes.

    A chill crept down Jericho’s spine. “You’re saying if I don’t find out, it’s gonna hurt me?”

    “Might hurt more if I tell ya right now.” Luke pinched the bridge of his nose. “Sumbitch, this is hard.”

    “I’ll take the hurt I know is coming.” Jericho’s eyes bored into Luke’s. “Stop screwing around and tell me already.”

    “Fine.” Luke sighed. A muscle in his jaw twitched. “Ya remember when Steve got beat up?”

    He didn’t need to say any more; Jericho recalled it vividly. “Jeez, yeah,” he said. “That was really scary.” Looking over at Luke, he frowned. “I know you aren’t gonna implicate yourself in anything, but you’ve got a few fingers in a few pies around the place. You know something about this you haven’t been telling me?” Because if you do, when I get back, I’m gonna be kicking some heads.

    Absently, Luke rubbed his knuckles. Jericho caught sight of pink scarring, vivid against the rich chocolate of Luke’s skin. Fresh scarring, where the skin had split and only healed recently. “Might could say that,” his cousin admitted warily. He tensed, glancing sideways at Jericho. “It was me an’ a couple of the guys that done it.”
     
  30. Threadmarks: Chapter Nine: Revelation
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Revelation

    The feeling of betrayal slammed into Jericho, turning his world upside down. For a long moment, his brain refused to make sense of Luke’s words. Luke was the one who beat on Stephen? “The … hell?” he choked out. “Luke … why? Why would you do such a thing?” And why hadn’t Stephen told him who’d done it? They’d had days of privacy as Stephen slowly mended, where nobody could possibly listen in on them. Why didn’t he tell me?

    Luke’s face was set in grim lines. “Me an’ the boys was jes’ outside o’ town. Li’l place on the bayou where we go for private business. Saw headlights comin’ in, thought it might be cops or whatever, so we got ready to haul ass. When I saw it was Steve’s car, I reckoned it was him an’ you, comin’ out for a bit of fun in the woods. So me bein’ me, I snuck up to scare the hell outta y’all. But when I shone the flashlight in the window, it wasn’t you with him. He was suckin’ face with some sumbitch I ain’t never seen before.”

    “Wait.” Jericho barely recognized his own voice. “Stephen … he’d just gotten back in town a couple days before. He’d gone to Augusta, to do an interview. He brought the guy back with him?” What was his name? Fly Guy? Something like that? Blood roared in his ears. He felt dizzy, blackness wavering at the edges of his sight.

    Luke shrugged awkwardly. “Looks like, yeah. So anyway, I—”

    “Shut up. I don’t want to hear it.” Everything was hitting Jericho with a rush. Even though they’d only been together eighteen months, Stephen had become one of the constants in his life. Sure, he checked out other guys from time to time—who didn’t?—but he’d never stepped out on his boyfriend. And after all that drama, Stephen had been cheating on him!

    Every time he went out of town to do an ‘interview’, was he sleeping around?
    Unpleasant truth shattered Jericho’s view of reality and rearranged it into a new picture, like a sinister jigsaw puzzle. Stephen’s out-of-town interviews had always taken three days, no matter where he went. It was a matter of record that the maglev could get someone anywhere in the United States in eight hours or less. Has he been cheating on me all this time? Is this why he was so sure I’d be cheating on him?

    The list of people Jericho trusted implicitly wasn’t all that long. There were his parents, of course, and Luke and Serena and Uncle Leroy and Aunt Ellie. Once he’d gotten to know Olivia, she’d made it onto the list. So, of course, had Stephen.

    But only one of them had betrayed him like this. Only one of them had taken his trust, had earned his trust, and then stabbed him in the back. The knowledge penetrated straight to the core of his focus, devastating him like nothing else could. Physical pain was something he could deal with; this level of emotional anguish was something else altogether. Nausea welled up in his throat and he only avoided tossing his cookies by the narrowest of margins.

    Clenching his eyes shut, he drew deep, shuddering breaths. In, out. In, out. The influx of oxygen into his lungs served to steady him, helping bring his heart rate down and alleviate the lightness in his head. Just as he felt himself coming back to some semblance of an even keel, a sudden twisting sensation in his gut threatened to overcome his hard-won equilibrium. The world felt as though it was falling away sideways, but in a totally different way to his previous physical distress.

    “What the hell?” He opened his eyes, to see that the windows were polarized to a dead black, lights illuminating the interior of the passenger car. A moment later, with another gut-wrenching jerk, the world returned to normal, leaving the taste of bile at the back of his throat. The windows cleared up once more, to show the countryside flashing by outside, unchanged. He found his both his stomach and his brain calming down again; presenting him with a problem based on his powers helped to center him in more ways than one.

    “Okay, that was friggin’ weird,” Luke observed. He eyed Jericho carefully, as if wanting to make sure that his cousin wasn’t about to break down altogether. “You got any idea what it was about? Why’d they darken th’ windows on us?” He seemed entirely unfazed by the sideways twist; a moment later, Jericho realized that Luke hadn’t even felt it. It had only been detectable with his powers.

    “I got a good idea.” Jericho figured he could’ve broken it more smoothly, but he decided he owed Luke a little bit of a hard time for holding out about Stephen. “We just passed another train.”

    Luke’s eyes went gratifyingly large. “The hell?” He gestured out the window, at the singular lack of another rail in view. “How …?”

    “We’re sitting on top of the rail, but it’s a big-ass cylinder,” Jericho said flatly. “You might’ve noticed that the cars don’t even wrap halfway around it. We swing around until we’re hanging off the side. The other train does the same thing, on the other side. We pass each other, then swing back on top. Simple.” The gravity within the car had stayed ‘down’ the whole time but he’d felt the twisting sensation, as well as the extra output from the gravity generators in the rail to keep the car from tumbling to the ground below.

    “Jesus wept …” Luke shook his head. “Cogs an’ their friggin’ technology.” He ran his hand over his face. “An’ the blackout was so’s we wouldn’t shit ourselves when everythin’ went ass-up an’ sideways?”

    “Got it in one,” Jericho said bluntly. He took a deep breath. “So tell me what happened.”

    Luke frowned. “Thought ya didn’t wanna hear about it.” Jericho could see the concern in his face.

    “Just shut up and tell me.” He didn’t care if he wasn’t making sense anymore. If Luke was talking, then Jericho didn’t have to.

    “Fine, option B it is.” Luke sat down again.

    Jericho stared at him. “What option B? I told you to shu—oh.” He closed his mouth again.

    Luke nodded. “Soon’s I knowed what the hell was goin’ on, I jes’ seen red. Busted the window with my flashlight an’ dragged Stevie-boy outta the friggin’ car. Told the guys they’d git a twenty percent discount if they gave the other asshole a proper workin’ over. Then I beat the ever-lovin’ hell outta your motherfuckin’ cheatin’-ass boyfriend.” He told the story as if he were recounting a night on the town. Yeah, we went and had drinks at the bar. It was a quiet night.

    “The other guy … did he live?” If Luke had blood on his hands … Jericho didn’t want to know. But he had to ask the question anyway.

    “Reckon he did. Told the boys to dump him someplace he’d be found.” Luke’s voice and expression both denoted his extreme lack of care factor. “You’re kinfolk. Nobody screws with kinfolk. If this guy was makin’ time with Steve, he was screwin’ with you. Steve was screwin’ with you too, but I reckon you woulda been pissed if I broke his friggin’ kneecaps an’ dumped him in the bayou for the ’gators, so I jes’ tuned him up a bit. Told him to straighten up an’ friggin’ fly right, or I’d git back to him. Then I drove him home myself.”

    So, Stephen even lied about that. Jericho could understand Luke beating up on Stephen for stepping out on him, but he couldn’t believe that Luke hadn’t told him until now. His jaw muscles began to ache from the way he was clenching his teeth together. “Luke … why didn’t you …?”

    “Tell you?” Luke shook his head. “It’s about bein’ fair. I catch the asshole cheatin’ on you, I can beat the livin’ hell outta him or I can tell ya. Cain’t do both. Reckoned I’d give him one chance ta make it right.”

    “Oh.” Jericho closed his eyes, feeling the hot tears in his eyes that he refused to shed, thinking about Stephen. Can I go back to him? Can I even look him in the face after this? His voice was hardly there when he spoke next. “So why are you telling me now?”

    Luke shrugged. “You asked. If you ask, I ain’t gonna lie. I don’t owe Steve shit.”

    Jericho turned away to the window, staring with tear-blurred eyes out at the passing scenery. With every second that went by, he was getting farther and farther away from his cheating boyfriend. Luke had beaten Stephen up to make sure he didn’t cheat any more, but that didn’t erase what he’d done. There’d be no trusting the man again. Every time his boyfriend met with someone, Jericho knew that he’d be wondering, will he do it again? He pulled out his handkerchief and used it to wipe his eyes and blow his nose.

    “Cuz …?” Luke’s voice was hesitant.

    “Shut up.” Jericho tried not to sound too harsh. It wasn’t Luke’s fault, no matter how much Jericho wanted to lash out at everyone around him. Luke was his friend. Luke had stood firm by him. “Gotta think. Work this out.”

    The flip-side to having focus was the need to maintain it. Popular culture made much of the tendency of prodigies to brood on rooftops. Brooding was quite a common way to center oneself, but it also depended on the type of focus. Other prodigies filled in war diaries, maintained their weapons or went into a meditative state. The technique didn’t really matter; the results did.

    Of course, it also required the prodigy to be alone for it to work properly. Being in company, even if Luke was being quiet and the rest of the passengers were on the outside of the privacy bubble, made it hard to reach the proper mental state where he could go over his issues in the quiet of his own mind. He needed a proper rooftop, and the train was going too fast to consider climbing on top, even if he could figure out a way to get outside.

    Just as he thought he was getting there anyway, yellow lights began to flash on and off in the compartment. Jericho didn’t turn his head, but he didn’t have to; they reflected off the inside of the window into his eyes. At the same time, the noise of the compartment burst in on them. There wasn’t much of it but after the silence of the privacy bubble, it was still a mild shock to the system. Foremost in this was the PA system as it began an announcement in the same emotionless voice that he’d heard back in the station.

    “Attention, all passengers. Attention, all passengers. This train will be passing through Atlanta in six minutes. All passengers stopping in Atlanta, please move to Cars Four through Five. All passengers for the Atlanta to Montgomery train, please move to Car Six. All passengers for the Atlanta to Charlotte train, please move to Car Seven. All passengers for the Atlanta to Chattanooga train, please remain in this car. Do not forget your luggage. Utopia Maglev Lines takes no responsibility for luggage left on the train or passengers failing to make their stop. We hope you have enjoyed your trip. This train will be passing through Atlanta in five minutes. All passengers stopping in Atlanta …”

    As the message began to repeat, he heard the connecting doors hiss open as people moved back toward the rear car. He couldn’t do much about the lights, but the recorded message was getting a little annoying. Flipping the switch for the privacy bubble did nothing. Must be shut off for the announcement.

    With a sigh, he looked out the window once more. Suburbia was giving way to the outskirts of Atlanta, with tall buildings in the distance; visible only because of the maglev’s height above ground. Turning his head, he glanced at the nearest digital sign. The display was now showing ‘CHATTANOOGA’, with nearly twenty minutes to go. He couldn’t bring himself to care. Pillowing his chin on his crossed arms, he stared morosely out the window.

    After what might have been five minutes, the flashing lights cut off, and blessed silence fell. “Rear cars musta gone,” Luke observed, in the tones of someone who considers themselves an expert on the situation.

    “Work that out for yourself, did you?” Jericho tried not to sound too sarcastic, but it was hard. Luke hadn’t deliberately set out to hurt him with the bombshell about Stephen, but he sure as hell hadn’t helped. Jericho found himself resenting Luke for telling him, while simultaneously being pissed at him for not spilling the beans earlier. He knew it wasn’t fair on his cousin, but unfortunately, knowing and caring were two different things at that moment. His irritation at the failed brooding attempt didn’t help either.

    As they blasted through the middle of Atlanta, the windows blacked out again. Once more, the gut-wrenching twist happened, then the train straightened out again. When the view cleared, the cityscape outside was still blurring by at … huh. That’s odd. The train had slowed by about thirty miles an hour, but he wasn’t sure why. At that moment, he couldn’t bring himself to care all that much.

    All too soon, the city gave way to suburbia once more, with barely a chance to see any landmarks. He watched the incoming cars swooping around to join with the front of the train; shortly after they went out of sight, there was a familiar-sounding clunk. Following that was the faint hiss as the connecting doors at the front of the car opened to let passengers through. Jericho ignored all of that; as far as he was concerned, the rest of the world could go take a long walk off a short pier.

    After a moment, he heard Luke get up. Good. He’s gone to sit somewhere else. He was perfectly happy to ride the rest of the way to Utopia City on his own. Reaching out without looking, he flipped the switch for the privacy bubble. The minor noises from elsewhere in the train car disappeared, allowing him to wallow in self-pity without any distractions. No, not self-pity, Jericho decided. What he felt was self-righteousness; while he’d done exactly nothing to hurt Stephen, the asshat had chosen to repay him like this. He couldn’t believe that he hadn’t seen it before. Some goddamn superhero I am. I didn’t even see this coming.

    “Cuz.” It was Luke’s voice, followed by sound of him settling into his seat. Jericho turned his head away, not even willing to acknowledge him. Then he heard paper being unwrapped. The smell of cookies came to his nose, followed by a faint crunch. “Hey, this is pretty good. Want one?” A faint sliding sound heralded a second cookie, still in its wrapper, as it came to rest against his hand.

    “No, I don’t want a goddamn cookie,” Jericho mumbled. “I don’t want anything. Just shut up and leave me alone.” Despite his words, he’d changed his mind. Now he hoped that Luke wouldn’t go away; as Jericho’s oldest friend, Luke was a comforting presence. Well, so long as he didn’t actually talk, anyway.

    “I dunno how to do this, cuz,” Luke said after about half a minute. So, of course he’s gotta run his goddamn mouth. “I dunno how to deal with this shit.” Jericho felt a hand rest on his shoulder for a moment; a squeeze, and then it was gone again. It provided more comfort than he was willing to admit.

    If Jericho didn’t look around, Luke was going to keep talking at him. The only way it could get more awkward was if Luke tried to hug him or something. As far as Jericho knew, Luke was okay with him hugging people, but Luke himself didn’t hug guys. It simply wasn’t his thing. Jericho didn’t want to inflict that horror on him, so he turned around. “What the hell are you trying to do?” he demanded. Irritably, he snatched up the cookie, ripped off the wrapper, and took a bite. It was quite good, but he refused to let himself enjoy it. He was hungry, that was all. The next bite was equally delicious.

    “Cheer you up,” Luke said simply. “Ya know, you’re a real asshole when you’re pissed off?”

    Jericho tried not to gape at him, while he gazed guilelessly back. “What the hell are you talking about?” Jericho asked disbelievingly. “I’m the one who got cheated on, here! You never told me, you just near on put his ass in the emergency room. And then you sprang it on me with zero goddamn warning. And you’re calling me the asshole here?” He finished off the cookie, not caring about the crumbs he scattered as he ranted.

    “Well, sorry for wanting to be on your friggin’ side!” Luke snapped back. “I’m not the one who cheated on you, remember? I’m the one that found out about it an’ kicked his ass for you so’s he wouldn’t do it again!” He glared at Jericho, then shook his head irritably. “Are you even gonna tell the fuckwit that ya know, or jes’ never talk to his sorry ass again?”

    Jericho’s lip curled. “You know, I hadn’t decided. You seem to be determined to interfere in every goddamn aspect of my life. Why don’t you choose for me?” Despite his monumental level of pissiness right then, he wondered if he’d gone too far. He’d argued with Luke before, but never quite on this level.

    “I beat hell out of him so’s he’d keep it in his pants!” Luke snapped back. He wasn’t quite yelling, but it was close. “I know how friggin’ happy y’all was together. Even if he did end up bein’ an enormous douche about you comin’ to Utopia City. Mistakes friggin’ happen. Jesus shit, this ain’t the end of the world.” The windows blacked out halfway through his speech but he never faltered; by the time he finished, they were transparent again.

    “Losing twenty bucks is a mistake,” Jericho countered. “Getting a speeding ticket is a mistake. Screwing the guys he’s interviewing for articles in the magazine is the act of a total goddamn shitheel. Getting caught is a catastrophic fuckup of the highest degree.” He paused; normally, he never used the ‘f’ word. It just wasn’t part of his vocabulary. But on this one occasion, it seemed to fit. Absolutely nothing that Stephen had done deserved forgiveness, in his eyes. Trust that had once been rock-solid was now washing away like a sandcastle at high tide.

    “I seem to recall that’s how y’all got together in the first place,” Luke said. “He was interviewin’ you, an’ he asked you to dinner, or somethin’?” He took a couple of deep breaths, apparently to help himself cool down.

    Jericho rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that and a photo shoot. But it was different with me. For one thing, he wasn’t already seeing someone else.” Which, in his view, changed everything. If Stephen had been with someone at the time, there was no way Jericho would’ve even considered going out with him.

    “That ya know of,” Luke pointed out bluntly.

    On the verge of protesting that he would’ve known if something like that was going on, Jericho paused. Shit. I really wouldn’t have. “Yeah,” he admitted. He hoped he hadn’t accidentally pushed someone else out from Stephen’s favor, but in the absence of a jilted lover contacting him, how would he even know?

    “Which reminds me. How come y’all’s goin’ out together anyways?” asked Luke. “I mean, I know your type, an’ he ain’t it. Now that guy, on th’ other hand …” He pointed surreptitiously across the aisle at a man in a business suit sitting at one of the tables.

    While no movie hunk, the guy was both tall and wide across the shoulders. He was seated at an otherwise unoccupied table diagonally across from where Jericho and Luke sat, with a laptop open on the table. From what Jericho could see, he was intent on his work, ignoring everything around him. As the man typed on the flat keyboard, Jericho could see he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. His heart rate sped up a little; tall, broad and standoffish. Just what the doctor—no! Exerting firm self-control, he brought that train of thought to a screeching halt. Even if Stephen’s cheating on me, it’s not over ’til it’s over.

    He pulled his attention away from the man across the aisle and focused once more on Luke, who was wearing an irritating half-grin. “Yeah, that’s more your style,” his cousin noted smugly. “So why ain’t you with someone like that?”

    “Because as much as it may surprise you to know, Savannah isn’t exactly a wide-open city where everyone can show off their preferences and get away with it,” Jericho snarked. “I kind of owe it to Stephen that I even took the chance of dating him. After that gay bar fiasco, I was really skittish for a while. Took me and Stephen quite a few dates before we slept together. And I might’ve let our relationship get serious because I was lonely, but I wasn’t about to walk out on him just because I’d met someone who appealed to me more. That’s a dick move, and I don’t play that game.”

    “Even if he cheats on you?” Luke spread his hands slightly. “Ya know, once Steve started steppin’ out on you, you didn’t owe him a goddamn thing.”

    Jericho shook his head. “That’s not the way it works. There’s a mutual trust thing going on, and until he looks me in the eye and says that he’s not willing to go the distance and fix the shit that he’s pulled on me, then I’m not gonna assume we’re done. I owe him that much, at least.” He gave Luke a dirty look. “Anyway, didn’t you beat the shit out of him so he would stay faithful to me?”

    “Sho’nuff I did, yeah,” Luke agreed. “But now you know, you git th’ chance ta decide whether or not you want his cheatin’ ass in your life or not.”

    This was all true. Jericho couldn’t dispute that. But he couldn’t simply walk away from Stephen without at least giving him the chance to defend himself. Even if that defense was a sincere apology and a promise never to do it again. At the very least, he’d maybe learn to trust Stephen again in about five or ten years.

    It wasn’t an ideal solution, but there were no ideal solutions. Jericho settled back in his seat to fume about the sheer unfairness of the world. An unfairness that was compounded a few minutes later, when the yellow lights began to flash again.

    “Attention, all passengers. Attention, all passengers. This train will be passing through Chattanooga in six minutes. All passengers stopping in Chattanooga, please remain in this car. All passengers for the Chattanooga to Huntsville train, please move to Car Six. All passengers for the Chattanooga to Knoxville train, please move to Car Seven. All passengers for the Chattanooga to Nashville train, please move to Cars One through Four …”

    The digital sign clearly stated that the passenger car was the fifth one in line. Sullenly, Jericho got up and collected his bag from the overhead bin. As they moved forward, Luke tried to make a joke about ‘walking from Savannah to Utopia’, but Jericho ignored him. The connecting doors opened before them, revealing a short passage through to the next car. On either side of the passage were the rubber-covered edges of the heavy exterior doors that would close off the nose and tail of each maglev car when they were separated. These were canted at a ridiculous degree to conform with the aerodynamic slope of the nose. The next set of connecting doors hissed open automatically, admitting them into the passenger car beyond. Several tables were empty, so Jericho took the nearest one, shoving the bag in the overhead bin once again.

    Luke sat down next to him and leaned back, looking more than a little smug, so Jericho turned back to the window. His upset emotions regarding Stephen were no less strong, but as Luke had noted, he was more angry than grieving. It all seemed so vastly wrong; how could a relationship of eighteen months, everything he’d put into it, just vanish like that? How could Stephen do what he’d done? How could Jericho have trusted him so completely?

    Unaccountably, the train sped up again as it blew through Chattanooga, topping out at a shade over four hundred fifty miles per hour. Neither of them commented on the five-second blackout in the middle of the city. Uncaring, Jericho watched the incoming car loop around on its track so it could attach itself to the front of the procession. The jolt of connection was almost unnoticeable, but that was probably because there were other cars in the way. He went back to watching the buildings blur by like a sped-up film, until they gave way to the suburbs again.

    In a way, traveling like this was kind of restful; with no stops, no rush of people getting on and off, he could be properly pissed-off at the world. He sat and stared out the window. While his eyes saw what passed before them, his brain totally failed to take it in.
     
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