Authors: Michael Carroll
He ignored that. I screened out the pounding of his large feet on the sidewalk as he leaped, and heard him say, “How are the others holding up?”
“They're fine. Octavian is muttering a prayer to the war-god Mars under his breath. Hesperus is gearing up for battleâI can hear her tightening her grip on her ax.”
“His heart's racing. He's starting to sweat. I think he's actually more scared of Octavian dropping him than he is of going up against Torture.”
Hesperus asked, “Thunder? How much longer until we reach Torture?”
“Ten minutes tops,” I said. “Any particular reason?”
“No. JustÂ .Â .Â .” She paused, but even without that I knew there was something wrong. Her voice was strained, the words a little forced. Her question had been filled with tiny delaysâimperceptible to anyone without my abilities and experience. They told me her mind was on something else. Her question had been a mask for what she really wanted to ask.
I directed my voice so that only she could hear me. “What's wrong?”
And she told me.
I didn't know what to make of it. It seemed impossible, too crazy to even consider. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
See, this is something that we never talked about with anyone else. As near as I can tell, Hesperus died without even giving the slightest hint. I swore that I too would take the secret to my grave, but not now. Everything has changed.
When word first got out about this new generation of heroes I didn't believe it. I didn't
to believe it. It wasn't that I was ashamed of my time as a superhero, but that was in the past. The world had moved on and managed to survive without us.
Now we have these New Heroes and it looks very much like it's starting all over again. I've heard some stuff about the situation in Topekaâand about the destruction of Las Vegasâthat actually has me scared. Most people probably can't see the bigger picture, but you have to remember that I've been there. I've seen things you can't imagine. Because of the New Heroes this whole world is going to change, and probably not for the better.
The future doesn't belong to us. We shape it from the present, then pass it on to our children. They reshape it and pass it on to theirs, and so on.
Most of the time the shape is only marginally different from one generation to the next. But sometimes the changes are huge. And if there's one thing I've learned from my time with the Footsoldiersâand in particular from this mission that I'm telling you aboutâit's that no matter what you do, you can't ever change the shape back to the way you want it.
Pandora's toys will never all fit back in the box.
By the time we reached Torture, Hesperus' words were weighing so heavily on my mind that I wasn't paying close enough attention to what was happening on the ground. I'm not blaming Hesperus for that, I'm blaming myself. And Apex. Mostly Apex.
Or maybe I should be blaming Paranoia, because she's the one who sensed my anxieties and magnified them.
All the members of the Chaingang were waiting on the ground below. They had managed to mask themselves from my senses.
They had a prototype sound-muffling device. You may have heard about these things. They cancel out all noise within a specific radius. As I've already explained, this was one of my own tricks and I'm still annoyed with myself for allowing it to fool me.
bugged meâand still bugs me even nowâwas that a few months before that mission, I'd done some freelance work for one of Max Dalton's research foundations. No one talks about it, but sometimes we did that sort of thing, used our powers to earn some money. I know Thalamus did it quite a few times. Like I said before, we weren't all billionaires. A full-time superhero can't keep a full-time job going.
My abilities gave me an instinctive knowledge of everything to do with sound-generation. I thought I was helping Dalton's researchers create a new type of soundproofing that came in the form of a paper-thin membrane. But instead they were developing a device that could be used directly against me.
Torture was outside the device's sphere of influence, so he was the only one I could detect. If I'd been paying attention I would have spotted that there was a “hole” in the echo picture of the area.
He was walking along a narrow street on the north side of the town, and for the life of me I still don't know why I didn't see the word “trap” written all over the situation.
We approached in the usual pattern: Hesperus and Apex came at Torture from the side while I blasted him with disorientating sound waves. But I was a little off my game, because all I could really think about was what Hesperus had told me about Apex. That concern quickly became a worry, a fear, a kind of sick queasy dread that made me want to throw up.
Paranoia was a bit like Thalamus in that she rarely got involved in any direct fighting. Her power was a sort of reverse empathy. She could greatly magnify your fears and anxieties. One time Gladius went after her and she left him a quivering wreck. For weeks he was unable to do anything but panic over whether his costume made his butt look big.
Sounds stupid, I know, but when you're in the grip of an irrational fear, you can't tell that it's irrational.
I touched down directly in front of Torture, tried to hit him with a wall of sound powerful enough to knock him off his feet. Then suddenly I had the feeling that it wasn't going to work. I was convinced he'd become immune to my powers and he was going to kill me.
He charged. Torture was a big guy with powerful fists and a long reach, and all I could do was stand there.
Then Apex struck, leaping out of the darkness and slamming right into Torture's back. Took him down immediately.
Octavian and Thalamus landed then, followed by Hesperus. “Tie him up,” Apex told her. “Thunder, contact the local authorities, tell them where they can find him.”
I wasn't able to do it. I just knew that it was pointless. The police would come and they'd find us and assume that we were bad guys. That was something I'd always been a little concerned aboutâwe do operate outside the law, after allâbut now it was getting to be a full-blown panic attack.
Hesperus was the first to notice that there was something wrong. She walked up to me, frowning. “Thunder? What is it?”
“I can't. I can't do this anymore. Don't you see where it's all going to end? We'll be killed. Or worse. We'll be forced to kill others.”
Dropping his Roman emperor act for a moment, Octavian said, “What's got into him? Torture didn't get close enough to even touch him.”
Hesperus whirled around to him. “Octavian, get him out of hereânow! It's Paranoia! It's a trap!”
He barely had time to say, “What?” before Spite appeared out of the darkness, wrapped his arms around Octavian's neck, and dragged him to the ground.
Still in the grip of panic, I could only watch as Muscle and Vortex charged at Apex from opposite directions. He saw them coming, leaped into the air at the last secondâand was struck down by a fireball from Incendiary.
From the light of the fireball I could see Paranoia nearby, standing perfectly still as she concentrated on me. But even though I now knew what was happening, I couldn't do anything about it.
I'm not sure, but I think I might have been crying at that stage.
Spite hit Thalamus next, materializing inside his own shadow and tripping him up. He twisted around onto Thalamus' back, slammed his head face-first into the ground.
Octavian ran to help, but was hit by another of Incendiary's fireballs: it immediately set his toga ablaze and he was forced to rip its burning shreds from his body.
Then it was down to Hesperus, the smallest of us all.
Maybe they'd left her for last because they thoughtâlike so many others had in the pastâthat she was weak.
Muscle had Apex pinned to the ground, Torture was still tied up and Paranoia was busy with me. But that still left three of themâVortex, Incendiary, and Spiteâagainst Hesperus. Outnumbered three to one.
They didn't stand a chance.
Vortex struck first. She darted in at Hesperus so fast that I almost couldn't see her. Hesperus stood with her sword in one hand, ax in the other.
Vortex leaped into the air, spinning and twisting as she did so, aiming a flying kick straight for my teammate's head.
Hesperus pivoted, her arms a blur, and Vortex was suddenly on the ground, screaming, clutching at the stump where her right foot used to be.
Vortex didn't scream for long: Incendiary came next, twin columns of white-hot plasma erupting from his hands directly toward Hesperus. But the plasma streams didn't find their target. In one fluid movement Hesperus threw her ax at Spite, clipping his shoulder. She grabbed Vortex by the throat and used her as a shield against the fire.
Vortex's costume was lined with a fireproof insulation, but I don't know whether Hesperus knew that. I never asked. I didn't want to know. Vortex's exterior costume immediately became an inferno.
Hesperus threw Vortex's burning body at Spite. Trapped under the blaze, Spite was unable to escape into the shadows.
Two down. Only Incendiary to go. And Hesperus still had her sword.
Incendiary erupted in a pillar of flame so hot that the asphalt at his feet instantly became a boiling mass. Hesperus' sword would melt before it even got close.
For the first time, one of the Chaingang spoke. It was Muscle, his arms still pinning Apex to the ground. “Drop your weapon!” he yelled at her. “Right now. Or I will break his neck!”
Even through my artificially induced fear I could see what Muscle was thinking. It was a standoff. He knew that he couldn't beat Hesperus, and he was sure that she wouldn't let anything happen to Apex.
He was wrong about that.
“Go ahead,” she called back. “It'll save me the trouble later.”
But Incendiary didn't do anything. He had seen his own flames possibly kill both Vortex and Spite.
Muscle tried another approach. “Paranoiaâincrease your hold on Thunder. Tear his mind apart!”
“No!” Hesperus shouted. Hesitating, she held her sword out at her side, at arm's length. “I'm putting down my sword.”
“Don't trust her,” Incendiary said. “Throw it out of reach!”
“All right,” Hesperus said. She slowly looked around, and then turned back to Muscle. “I'm throwing it aside.”
Almost casually, Hesperus flicked her wrist and the sword arced behind her into the night sky.
There was a scream, and suddenly I no longer felt afraid.
I whirled around to see Paranoia sitting on the ground, Hesperus' sword protruding from her thigh.
Then I moved into action.
The Chaingang had been wise to take me out first.
The first thing I did was deaden all the sound in the area, then I hit Incendiary with a shock wave that lifted him off his feet and smashed himâstill burningâinto the side of a building.
I directed a narrow blast at Muscle's head. The blow knocked him aside and Apex immediately jumped to his feet, balled his fists, and began pummeling.
I turned to Paranoia, still silently screaming from the pain in her leg. I shattered her eardrums, ripped into her vocal cords.
A wide-band shock wave separated Spite and Vortex, dousing the flames at the same time.
Incredibly, they were both still alive. Spite instantly melted into the shadows, but in his wounded state he wasn't able to go far. He rematerialized partly underneath a parked car. He began to crawl away, but four quick pinpoint bursts of sound and the car had four flat tires, pinning Spite to the ground. Unable to move completely into shadow, he was trapped, his power useless.
The car's alarm went off, but silencing that was child's play for me.
I turned back to the others and saw that Apex hadâonce againâtaken charge. “Thunder, Incendiary's fire is getting out of control. We need rain. Octavian, HesperusÂ .Â .Â . Get Vortex and Spite to the nearest hospital. I will not have their deaths on my conscience.”
“Right. But they were trying to kill
,” Hesperus said.
Apex ignored her and turned to me. “Thunder, where's that rain?”
“It's coming.” The first drops were already beginning to fall.
I picked up Vortex's severed foot and tossed it to Octavian, who caught it automatically, then yelped and dropped it when he realized what it was.
Within seconds the street was drenched, Incendiary's fire doused. I concentrated again on the clouds, dispersed them with a subsonic blast.
The rain had already stopped when I reached Paranoia. She was lying flat on the ground, unconscious, Hesperus' sword still protruding from her leg, the pool of blood now diluted by the rainwater.
Apex said, “Throwing your sword was a reckless move, Hesperus. You could have pierced her heart.”
“You think I need to see what I'm doing in order to hit my target?” She turned away in disgust. “You never had any faith in my abilities.”
“Apex, they knew we were coming,” I said. “They were waiting for us.”
“That is not possible.”
I wanted to ask Thalamusâhe was good at this sort of analysisâbut he was still unconscious.
I quickly searched through Paranoia's damp costume and found the sound-muffling device. I didn't immediately know what it was, or the part it had played in the ambush, but I took it anyway in case it might be a weapon. “Hesperus? Want your sword back?”
“Leave it,” Apex said. “The paramedics will remove it. Hesperus, OctavianÂ .Â .Â . Vortex and Spite require immediate medical attention. Go. Now.”
“No need. There are four teams of paramedics on the way,” I said. I could hear their sirens, the tires hissing over the wet ground. “A couple of miles away, but coming fast.”