“I really don’t see why I need to be here is all I’m saying,” I groused.
“Ja, I agree,” Force, the super currently piling the unconscious bodies of terrorists in the middle of the room, muttered in his lightly accented English. “He’s just a PI after all. He doesn’t even have powers.”
Gale ignored him. “You know the rules, Bob,” Gale turned to face me, her “stealth” costume, a length of black fabric, coiled around her, a silver embroidered B flashing in the light as it passed, “to collect the reward from the Super State, you need to be instrumental in foiling the plot. Sure, bringing it to our attention is usually enough. But considering our former relationship, I didn’t want there to be any doubt.”
I wasn’t as grumpy as I sounded. I was mostly just tired; hadn’t been sleeping well for the last few months. But if I had known uncovering a terrorist plot would make Wendi, my ex-wife now known as the super “Gale”, insist on spending time with me, I’d have focused all my efforts in that area.
“And me being here erases that doubt?” I managed through a yawn. I nodded at the man on the ground who was writhing in soundless agony, “You gonna let him breathe any time soon?”
Gale glanced down at the man. He was wearing a camouflage flak jacket, matching cargo pants, gloves, and work boots. When we had arrived a few minutes ago, the group had camouflage ninja-style hoods as well, which showed only their eyes. Gale, whose super power was control over air, had pinned down the leader by blocking most of the oxygen from entering his lungs. He had pulled off his mask and now his eyes were bulging as he clawed at his throat, struggling to breathe.
“Oh,” Gale laughed lightly, her green eyes flashing behind her black, molded eye mask, microbursts of wind keeping the five yard long piece of fabric constantly on the move, “he’s being overly dramatic. He won’t die.” Her bronze skin was flawless on her five foot, eight inch frame, wavy brown hair flowing down her back and out behind her. I shook my head. Gale’s power always made it look like she was posing for a photo shoot.
“Still,” I responded, “it’s a bit disconcerting.”
Gale nodded toward the wall of mismatched TV screens the terrorists had planned on using to watch their handiwork. Behind her, Force and Whisper, two members of the premier superhero team known as The Bulwark, continued exporting the terrorists to their holding cells on their space station base. Whisper had the power to open up “gates” or teleportation portals. Shimmering around the edges, she would open a gate to a particular cell and Force would throw them through. They’d land in a heap and immediately start vomiting. Whisper’s gates had that effect. I knew from personal experience.
Over Force’s shoulder, I noticed one of the terrorists moving slightly. I thought about pointing it out, giving him a warning, but shrugged instead. Gale’s current fling shouldn’t need my help protecting himself. The hooded terrorist raised a weapon of some kind, probably the proverbial death ray, and aimed it at Force. A beam of light shot out of it, hitting the super squarely on the back. He actually grimaced, which I found to be extremely satisfying. The Bulwark was, without a doubt, the most famous super group on the planet and Force was one of the more popular members. I thought everyone knew that he was pretty much invulnerable. I supposed this terrorist missed the memo.
Force spun on the terrorist, his hands in fists by his waist. In moments, his muscle mass, which was already considerable, seemed to double. He was nearly seven feet to begin with and he seemed to grow with his rage. If ever someone fit the stereotype of the master race, it was Force. His milky-white face, complete with square jaw and pale blue eyes, turned a light shade of red. This only served to accentuate his yellow-blonde, crew cut hair. His costume was a tight-fitting, black, leather-like affair that started with his boots and covered him to his neck. It was styled and molded as to emphasize his considerable physique. There were silver letter Bs, like the ones on Gale’s costume, on his shoulder and chest, a hallmark of members of The Bulwark. He clasped his hands together in one huge fist over his head, preparing to bring it down on the terrorist. His back smoked where the beam had hit him.
“Come now, Rod,” I said quietly, “let’s not lose our temper.”
Force turned on me just as quickly, his eyes red with hate, “Don’t use my name!” he hissed through clenched teeth.
The terrorist punctuated Force’s statement by shooting him in the back again. Rod screamed in rage as I covered a chuckle behind my hand. This trip was turning out to be a lot more fun than I had anticipated. Again, Rod turned on the terrorist, grabbed him by the flak jacket and threw him through a recently opened gate.
“Hey!” Whisper called from the other side. “A little warning please?”
“Sorry, Samantha,” I answered. “Our German friend here is having trouble keeping up with these tippys.”
“Gale?” Whisper called back, “Keep that man of yours in line please. And tell him not to use my name.”
“He hasn’t been my man for quite some time,” Gale responded playfully. “You two,” she looked at me, “play nice. And Bob,” she cocked her head disapprovingly, “stop using their names.”
“Why?” I muttered. “You’re going to wipe these guys’ memories anyhow. I’m one of the few who know about your little space station.”
She knew just how to take the wind out of my sails. Not my man. I shook my head, warding away the images from my old life. I finally turned my attention to the TVs, unable to meet Gale’s gaze. Every channel that was broadcasting the games was displayed on the wall of mismatched TVs, some more than once. The TVs looked like a display at a garage sale or pawn shop, many models older than me and only able to produce a black and white picture. My source had told me about this plot, not out of some sense of right or wrong, but because his family had won tickets to the games. He couldn’t very well let his family die no matter how worthy his cause. He came to me because everyone knew I had connections. He could have gone to the cops, but they’d have ratted him out to the supers. With me, he could be sure that he could stay out of jail and alive.
Back when I was younger, we had the Olympic Games where the best athletes in the world met every four years to compete. When supers had started showing up in the late seventies, that had all changed. No one knew who was super and who wasn’t, so professional sports fell out of favor, replaced by nightly recaps of super-on-super battles in the streets. Or, if you had enough money, you could pay exorbitant ticket prices for live super battles held whenever the Super State wanted to replenish their coffers. This was the first time an official Olympics-style games had been held in nearly twenty years. Only supers could participate, and it was quite an undertaking. To compete, heroes and villains alike had put aside their differences, rivalries, and plans for world domination. Everyone was shocked when Siddeon turned in Mr. Torture a week ago. Gift-wrapped and everything, complete with a fifty page report on exactly how Mr. Torture was planning on using the games to kidnap most of the world’s leaders. With the lure of embarrassing your archenemy on global TV, even the villains had turned on each other to ensure the Tournament went forward.
The current terrorist plot had been engineered by a tippy group who planned to detonate an explosive during the opening ceremonies. The plan had merit: most everyone would be there, so their kill ratio would be high. But the games were held in a secret location and when we’d arrived, the terrorists were trying to suss out its coordinates based on the TV coverage. It never would have worked. On the way over, Gale and the others had been discussing the precautions. Fake backdrops, previously filmed footage, and carefully controlled camera angles pretty much guaranteed that the location would stay secret. Even if they figured it out, their plan was to launch a stolen ground-to-ground missile at the arena. Since a super with control over water had created a solid but mobile island of water in the middle of the Pacific, I didn’t see how that would’ve worked. The super could have just moved the island.
On the screens, a dozen or more angles were being displayed of supers, both heroic and villainous. Rockface, The Gothic, The Rumor Monger, Toil, The Way, TriForm all flashed across the screens. A sea of supers, many I’d never seen before, many looking to make a name for themselves, no doubt. Dozens of languages, if not more, created a cacophony, devolving into white noise. Supers on fire, covered in ice, flying, semi-solid, in costumes of all kinds, paraded around a large, grassy central area surrounded by stands. The spectators were dignitaries, family members, and tippys lucky or rich enough to get a ticket. I noticed a few supers as well, not competing for one reason or another.
For the better part of a year, this event had been all anyone could talk about, not that I’d been paying much attention. Gale and the other supers had been planning it for years. Tickets had been exorbitantly priced and still had sold out in seconds. Members of the borderless country known as the Super State had automatic free entry if they wanted, of course; but for the rest of us, the only chance most people had of getting tickets for any of the events was through one of the many ticket giveaway contests held around the world.
I nodded at the monitors, “Can we turn that down?”
Gale stepped over to the console and, after a moment or two, pressed a few buttons. All non-English transmissions were suddenly muted. She glanced again at the wall of ancient TVs and pressed a few more buttons. All the pictures switched to a single feed.
She stepped back. I always appreciated how she chose to walk more often than not. She could have easily floated everywhere if she’d wished.
“These guys paid through the nose for exclusive access,” she nodded at the screens.
I watched her watching the coverage. She was just as lovely as she was six years ago when we divorced, and as she was thirteen years ago when we met. My ears popped as they had each time Whisper opened a gate. I didn’t have to turn around to know that she had just opened one behind me and Rod was tossing one of the terrorists through. The banging of bone and flak jacket against metal was all the evidence I needed. Rod was grunting audibly and, I daresay, unnecessarily. Aside from being nearly invulnerable, Rod was one of the strongest supers still in existence. The only one who even compared was Hero, a super from my childhood of legendary strength, speed and power. Of course, Hero could fly. Rod was always catching rides with Gale, a fact I took great pleasure in bringing up as often as possible.
“I think that was FiresStorm, wasn’t it? Yes! He’s sure to be a huge contender in this first Tournament of Supers. The opening ceremonies, especially this parade of supers, have been fantastic so far, wouldn’t you agree, Cindy?”
“Oh, absolutely, Tim. It’s been an impressive display.”
The two commentators bantered easily and inanely as the screen showed super after super. It seemed as if the ceremonies were coming to a crescendo as fireworks started blasting off in the background.
From behind me, a muffled voice, “You’ll never stop us! We have cells everywhere! You can’t steal all our best people. You’re monsters!”
I turned. Rod was picking up the last terrorist as he screamed. In front of him, a gate opened and Rod reared back to toss him through. The man continued yelling his rhetoric as I reached into my jacket and retrieved my flask. The cool liquid burned as I swallowed. I knew where these extremists were coming from, but wiping out half the world’s supers, a good portion of its leaders, and countless innocents was not the way.
Rod tossed the man through the portal just before it closed. “Huh, that was close,” he remarked, rubbing his hands together, “he almost lost a foot. She must’ve wanted to get to the games.”
“Can’t say I blame her,” Gale responded from behind me. “Are we about done here?”
“Ack…” Rod grumbled and grabbed his ear. I turned back to Gale to see her doing the same.
“You two okay?” I asked.
Gale rubbed her ear, “New earpieces. Some sort of feedback.”
I frowned at the thought of technology so advanced. Tippys still needed to find a pay phone. Supers were talking into their ears. I turned back to the monitors just in time to see a huge explosion of purple light on the screen.
“Man, that was a big one!” the commentators on the broadcast agreed. Shots of people oohing and ahhing and pointing at the sky peppered the screen.
“It seems we have a latecomer, folks.” Tim’s face filled the screen as he held one finger to the earphone covering his left ear, “Yes, yes, there’s been a sighting.”
Cindy interjected, her face in full frame, “Now folks, if you’ve just tuned in…where have you been? This sort of stuff has been happening all afternoon. If supers love one thing, it’s an entrance, right, Tim?”
“Right you are, Cindy,” Tim responded. “Do we have video? We do?” Tim said quietly. “Okay, folks,” Tim looked right into the camera, “looks like we have video. There’s a super flying in very quickly. They say he’s coming from overhead, from the midst of all the fireworks.”
The video cut to a glowing spot with multicolor explosions and sparkles in the background. Behind the spot was a yellow trail of light.
“Seems like it’s moving awful slow, Tim.”
“Yes, well, they’re telling me that’s the angle, Cindy. It’s coming from directly above the stadium.”
As if to prove Tim’s point, the glowing spot seemed to accelerate, fire streaking out from behind it. It reached the ground in mere seconds, hitting the center of the coliseum with enough force to ripple the ground. While I knew that was at least partially because the ground was actually made out of solidified water (not ice, I was assured), I was sure the spectators found it quite impressive. In the center of the ripple effect was a figure, bent over, with one knee and both hands on the ground. Light, bright enough to force me to squint, emanated from the figure. All around it, waves of heat distorted the landscape and figures behind.
The figure stood, slowly, wisps of smoke trailing off his broad shoulders. Initially, I thought he was crispy-fried. His spandex outfit covered every inch of his body and was completely black. There were no markings, no eyeholes, nothing. It was as if he was a shadow – his costume was that featureless. Compared to the other supers in attendance, the man was as stark a contrast as you could imagine. Most supers looked for any and every opportunity to show off their bodies, draw attention to themselves with bright colors, and accessorize with capes, belts, and body paint. The lack of detail was jarring, disconcerting.
Something was wrong. Very wrong.
“Cindy, have you ever seen this particular costume before?” Tim asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Cindy responded. “You?”
“Nope,” Tim replied cheerfully. “Either someone has a new costume, or we are witnessing the birth of a new hero.”
“Now that would be exciting,” the sides of Cindy’s mouth curled up, but her eyes didn’t change.
Next to me, Gale put her hand up to her ear, “Mind, do you have a make on that super?” A moment, “Mind?” She turned to Rod, “I’m not getting a signal, you?”
Mind was the supercomputer that managed all of The Bulwark’s files, programs and defenses. It was supposedly a super who had melded into a machine, but many, including me, suspected it was some sort of highly advanced and therefore highly illegal Artificial Intelligence. I looked back at the screens.
“Nein, nothing here either,” Rod responded, stepping up between Gale and me.
Glancing up at the big man, I took a step away. I’d need more than distance to even out our heights, but every little bit helped.
“Is he…? Yes, I think he’s moving,” Cindy’s voice drew my attention back to the screens.
Sure enough, the man’s arms were rising slowly, finally stretching straight out from his shoulders. He spun, slowly, his head moving slightly up and down, apparently examining the assembled supers and the crowd. The camera panned around. Supers looked like they were preparing for the worst. Many had changed into their alternate forms like living fire or ice, some had erected force fields or barriers, and still others had donned their armor or raised their shields.
The figure stopped once he completed a full rotation. All movement in the coliseum halted, all eyes resting on the figure in the middle. The camera zoomed in on his face and even the commentators hushed as it seemed the world held its breath. He looked to the left, the right, his face unreadable behind the all black mask.
The voice was as dark as the suit the man wore. I felt the need to run, to hide, to get as far away as possible even though I knew, intellectually, that the venue was probably thousands if not tens of thousands of miles away. The picture on the TVs flashed white and then changed to static. A stock “Technical Difficulties” message quickly took its place with a high-pitched tone playing simultaneously.
“Well, that’s not good,” I couldn’t help saying.
Next to me, Gale and Rod were frantically trying to reach their Bulwark friends. After a few moments, the tone coming from the monitors subsided and my two companions stopped their communication attempts and turned back to the screens.
An empty news desk appeared on the screen, quickly followed by a man trying to sit, adjust his jacket, and fix his hair, simultaneously. He was middle-aged with thick, salt and pepper hair parted on the side. His clean-shaven appearance was marred only by the lack of makeup to even out his complexion for TV broadcast. He ran a hand through his hair one last time and looked directly into the camera.
“Dan Anderson here. We seem to have lost contact with the games broadcast and we don’t at this time know…”
A female wearing a large headset, the curled cord trailing off-camera, came into the frame and whispered something into Dan’s ear. The blood drained from his face. He turned back to the woman, his expression grim. She nodded.
“Folks, I’m not sure if what I’m hearing is true, but there’s been some sort of attack on the venue. I’m told we have video?” He looked off to the side for confirmation, which he apparently got. “Please, if there are children present you’ll want to have them leave the room. I’m told the images are from a plane that was en route to the Tournament and has since been diverted. Again, these images are shocking.”
The picture changed and for a moment I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It just didn’t make sense. In the middle of an endless vista of water, with nothing else around it, was a huge mushroom cloud.
“What?” I stammered, “Where’s the stadium?”
As if in response, Dan’s voice came through the monitors, “It looks as if the venue, and all those in attendance, has been destroyed. God help us all.”
# # #